Down at the far end of the room one of the two bachelor youths snored, loudly and abruptly. Zoltan glanced in that direction, but as far as he could tell both of the young men were really still fast asleep.
In the stillness of the night Black Pearl’s shadowy mermaid companion murmured something that Zoltan could not quite make out. Black Pearl understood what had been said, though, and ceased trying to pull free. Instead she took Zoltan’s wrist in her own grip.
“We’ve come to bring a warning to the village. Men from the other side of the river, where the Senones live, are coming across in two boats tonight. They must be intending some hostile action.”
“Men from the other side? What should I-”
“As soon as we two are gone, raise the alarm. But you must not say that my friend and I were here and told you. Otherwise the elders might ignore your warning. So please, forget we were here!”
“Very well. This place is dangerous for you, then?”
The mermaid shook her head, as if to say there was no time to explain now. “Meet me Zoltan, meet me tomorrow night at midnight, at the edge of the lake near the mouth of the creek that flows past the Malolo stronghold. Come out in a boat if you can. If not, then watch for me from shore. Will you do that?”
“I will, I swear I will!”
Black Pearl flashed Zoltan a last look, a look that held a kind of desperation. Then in the next moments she and her silent companion were gone, as softly and swiftly as diving otters, disappearing at once through an aperture in the floor. It was the same entrance commonly used by people who arrived at the dormitory in boats. But there was no boat below the entrance now.
Only a small stain of water upon an empty sleeping mat remained to show that the visitors had not been a dream after all.
Rising silently from his blanket, Zoltan moved quickly to one of the windows on the lake side of the house and looked out. Out on the misty lake at least two large floating objects were dimly visible, holding place against the current. They had to be boats, moving silently in the moonlight, creeping in toward the village docks.
Zoltan drew in breath and shouted, as loudly as he could.
The two youths at the far end of the dormitory sprang up instantly, as if they had been prodded with sharp spears. Zoltan pointed through the window toward the boats, and shouted some more. His two roommates looked where he was pointing, and a moment later added their voices to his at full volume.
Next, drawing his short sword, Zoltan rushed outside, onto a deck built above the water. Already the uproar he had started was spreading to the other houses. Within a matter of a few moments more, it seemed that everyone in the village was awake, and all the men had sprung to arms; the small docks were swarming with defenders.
Three large boats, full of would-be attackers, could now be seen quite close to shore. The craft of this flotilla turned briefly broadside to the bank, from which position their shadowy crews launched a light volley of missiles, stones and arrows. Then the intruders dropped their weapons and plied their paddles vigorously, heading out into the concealing mists again. They were pursued by a scattered response in the form of arrows and slung stones. In the space of half a dozen breaths the skirmish, if it could even be called that, was over. No one on shore appeared to have been injured, and there was no damage done.
Within a few minutes after the attackers had disappeared, the village leaders, gathering in torchlight among their armed and assembled people, wanted to know who had first raised the alarm. Zoltan raised his hand. He explained that he had just happened to be wakeful, and had seen the enemy approaching.
The people of the village accepted this explanation, and were quick to praise the stranger for his alertness. But Yambu, listening, looked at Zoltan strangely. Her gaze said that later, when the two of them were again alone, she would insist on being told the truth.
IN the hours following the departure from the hermitage of the pilgrim pair, Gelimer, feeling himself unable to make headway on profound problems, decided to concentrate for the time being on simple ones. He began to take an interest in his garden, to see how the various herbs had passed through the winter, and to make somewhat belated preparations for the busy season of spring. It was a peaceful interlude. There were moments when he could almost have been convinced that the man who had brought the Sword, as well as his two most recent visitors, and all their problems including the Sword itself, were nothing but creations of his imagination.
The hermit’s respite from the problem of Farslayer was brief. About noon on the day after the two pilgrims’ visit, his fourth visitor of this extraordinary spring showed up.
This latest arrival was a man in his mid-thirties, dark-skinned and lean, and with a fierce, competitive eye. He had come a long way, and he had seen hard traveling, as could be told by the state of his mount and his equipment. Still he was well dressed, his riding-beast was a noble animal, and the way he wore his weapons at his belt suggested that they had most likely seen hard use at some time or other.
With an unconscious groan Gelimer straightened his back from garden chores, and calmly made this latest traveler welcome. Last night what must finally have been the last storm of the season had dusted three or four more centimeters of snow over his garden and everything else in sight, including the new grave in the grove, and the fast disappearing carcass of the last riding-beast to have carried its master along these trails. Here in the sun the snow had already melted, but in the woods its white veil would still endure.
Since the day after the death of its last owner, the Sword itself had been hidden as well as the hermit knew how to hide anything. Gelimer doubted very much that anyone was going to find it, barring interference by some major wizard.
“Thank you for the invitation to dismount, good hermit… ahh!” And the formidable-looking rider, in turn, groaned with relief as he swung himself down from his saddle.
The visitor introduced himself as Chilperic. No second name. And Gelimer still did not allow his suspicions to be aroused, when, almost as soon as he had settled himself upon a chair inside the house, this newest visitor inquired: “I suppose that a fair number of travelers are fortunate enough to enjoy your hospitality, good hermit? You occupy a somewhat strategic situation here.”
“This site where I live?” Gelimer looked around him, as if he could see out through his wooden walls. “It is important only in potential. Ah, ‘twould be strategic indeed if there were any measurable amount of traffic up and down the river here, but the water’s almost always too rough for that. Or if armies were often marching through this pass .. . but for twenty years at least that hasn’t happened, either. The war-makers both upstream and down all have enough to do in their own territories without tackling more. So this is only a lonely mountainside, left to me. Often months go by without a soul appearing at my door.”
“I see. Interesting. And has this past month been entirely devoid of visitors?”
Now, Gelimer was unable to accept this innocent-sounding question at face value. Indeed, he was almost convinced already that the serious search for the Sword, which he had been more than half expecting for many days, had finally arrived. For some reason it surprised the hermit at first that the searcher, if such he was, did not appear to be a local man at all. But on second thought, that was really no surprise.
Gelimer answered: “On the contrary, sir, the past month has been comparatively busy. There have actually been three other travelers before yourself.” Here the hermit paused to sip his mead. Then he went on, trying to give the impression of a man who did not need to be prodded to talk to one random visitor about another, who in fact was even eager to talk on the subject, because he had something mildly unusual to tell.
“The first one who stopped here gave me the impression of a man fleeing something, or someone.” And here the hermit, who had been granted time to think what he should do, went on to give a rough description of the man who had died with the Sword run through him, and of the strangely shaped bundle that man had been carrying. It was Gelimer’s idea, right or wrong, that an honest owner looking for his lost treasure would come out honestly and say what he was trying to find.