“There might be a way for me to have two legs again,” she said. “I say there might be. If we can find it. Often I dream I am a little girl again, with legs.”
“Then when you were a little girl you were not a mermaid?”
“Oh no.” Black Pearl shook her head decisively. “That happened to me later. It is a result of evil magic.”
“So I have heard. Then I say there must be good magic to counteract it. Tell me what happened. Tell me how this curse ever came to fall upon your people.”
Briefly the mermaid did as Zoltan asked. The feud, and the curse it brought, had fallen upon Black Pearl’s people long before she was born. She could only tell Zoltan something of the early years of the feud, as she, when a small girl with two legs, had heard the story from the elders of her people. And tonight she also gave her lover an idea of what life was like for someone upon whom the curse had fallen.
All girls born in the two or three afflicted villages lived seemingly normal lives up until puberty. Then, at about the time of commencement of the menses, perhaps one out of ten of the young women underwent what could only be described as a magical seizure. There was no telling ahead of time which girls would be afflicted.
“Sometimes the change will strike by day, sometimes by night. Always it is very sudden. No one knows who will be taken and who will be spared. Except that if a girl has already been a woman for three cycles of the moon, or if she becomes pregnant, she is certain to be spared.”
“Why don’t the people of these villages pack up and go somewhere else when they have daughters? Just to get away from this?”
“The villages are their homes. Anyway, people say that in my grandmother’s time some people tried that. The only effect was that when the change struck their daughters they were far from home, in some cases far from any river, among people who did not understand, and who wanted to burn the helpless girls as witches.”
Black Pearl looked sharply at Zoltan. “You must come in a boat next time. The water will freeze you, my poor Zoltan, your teeth are starting to chatter already.”
“I’ll be all right. But what about you? The water is so cold-”
Black Pearl laughed; it was a cheerful and wholly human sound. “My poor man, I live in this water all winter; it would have to turn to ice before its coldness bothered me. Next time, tomorrow night, let us meet out there.” And Black Pearl, pointing out over the dark water, indicated to her lover what she called the Isle of Mermaids, and said that it was easily reachable by boat. “There are two islands. The small one is the Isle of Magicians, and we had better avoid that.”
“Are there magicians on it?”
Black Pearl hesitated. “Sometimes there are. And there are other things, which can be unpleasant. The Isle of Mermaids is much nicer. Any of the maids you find there ought to be willing to pass a message on to me, if for some reason I’m not there.”
“What would happen if I did go to Magicians’ Island?”
Again she seemed uncertain. “Probably nothing bad. But sometimes, when people go there, there is unpleasantness.”
He decided to let that subject drop for the time being. “Wouldn’t it be easier for us to meet by day?”
“Yes.” The mermaid’s evident uneasiness remained. “But if the lords of the Malolo manor find out that you are meeting me, they will want to charge you a price for my company. You are not a wealthy man, are you?”
“No, I am not. But in any case I would not be inclined to pay them a price for that. You’re not their slave, are you?” The mere thought made him angry.
“I’m no one’s slave. But it will be better if you can avoid dealing with those people altogether.”
“Can’t do that very well,” he announced cheerfully. “I’m living in their house now.”
Black Pearl’s confusion only increased. “If you refuse to pay them, Zoltan, then you will have to fight with them. They do consider mermaids slaves if someone else wants one of them. I have already been sold once, as you know.”
“My poor girl, there aren’t enough Malolo manor-lords left to fight very successfully with anyone. The Sword called Farslayer has taken care of that.”
Black Pearl considered this in silence, running fingers through her long dark hair, tossing her head. She said: “Even mermaids have heard about the fight.” After a pause she asked: “Which ones are dead?”
“Quite a number. I didn’t get any list of their names. Why?”
“Nothing. Is there is there a man named Cosmo among them?”
“No. Not among those still living at the manor or among their dead. He’s missing. Why?”
“Why? I don’t know. I don’t suppose it matters.”
Zoltan hesitated for a moment, trying to understand. Then he asked: “I don’t suppose you can tell me anything about the Sword that killed them all? I would like very much to get my hands on it.”
Black Pearl splashed water with her hands, nervously. It was a gesture that an ordinary girl might have made in swimming. “Whom do you want to kill?”
“I? No one, at the moment. No, it’s a matter of seeing that certain people don’t come into possession of Farslayer.”
“Well, I know something, perhaps. But I am not sure that I should tell you.”
“Why not? Yes, absolutely you should tell me. Where’s Farslayer now? Can you tell me that?”
“No, I can’t. Not right now.”
He took a step toward the mermaid, but she slid effortlessly out of his reach in the water. “Black Pearl?”
“Zoltan, at our next meeting I will tell you something, I promise. Maybe that meeting will have to take place at night again.”
There was a gentle disturbance in the surface of the water nearby. Another mermaid surfaced; this one had lighter hair, but in the darkness Zoltan could not otherwise distinguish her.
“It’s only Soft Ripple,” said Black Pearl. “You remember, she’s my best friend, who came to the bachelors’ hut with me.”
“I remember,” said Zoltan and nodded politely in the direction of the newcomer. Then he resumed his conversation with Black Pearl. “I’ll seek you out again by night if need be. But if I come out here looking for you by day, I hope you don’t intend to hide.”
“I will not hide, by day or night. Zoltan, you have really come all this way downriver seeking me.” Black Pearl’s voice was gently marveling.
“Of course I have. What did you expect?”
But Black Pearl would not tell him what she had expected. Again, with Soft Ripple looking on, the lovers embraced, and this time exchanged passionate kisses. Zoltan thought he had been ready for the coldness of her mouth, but still his own nerves felt it as a shock. And another shock though it was hardly a surprise came when his hand, sliding down Pearl’s bare back in the moment before they separated, encountered the border where smooth skin abruptly changed to scales. It felt as if her lower body were completely encased in some flexible kind of armor.
Hastily they arranged another meeting. Then, his body feeling shriveled and numb with cold from the waist down, Zoltan slowly and unhappily waded back to shore. Then he turned his steps uphill in the direction of the Malolo manor house.
Ascending the rough path that followed beside the little stream, he crossed a small clearing in bright moonlight. Looking back from the uphill end of the open space, Zoltan realized abruptly that he was being watched and shadowed. At least it looked that way. First there was one, and then, he thought, there were two dark and nimble figures just visible at the edge of moonlight at the lower end.
Zoltan wasted no time. He turned, ducked into the shadow of the trees again, and ran. The people who might be trying to follow him were not going to get any closer if he could help it. The path was very dark in stretches, but it was basically familiar to him after his trip down, and if the two figures were trying to catch up they were having no success. Now and then, looking downhill behind him, he caught a glimpse of one or another of them in moonlight, and was satisfied that they were gaining little if any distance on him.
Zoltan did not slacken his pace. Running softly, dodging among trees like a shadow, he soon drew near the cleared area around the manor. Here, to his surprise, he came close to running into several more mysterious figures. These were keeping watch on the house from the shadowed edge of the forest.