Chilperic brushed aside the problems associated with the regular mermaid trade. “You keep harping on the idea that they’ll be unreliable as searchers.”
“I’m afraid they will.” Hissarlik hesitated. “And then suppose they do find this Sword.”
“Well then, suppose one of them found it and instead of turning it in decided to try to use it.”
“Is that what’s bothering you? Consider that if Farslayer does lie at the bottom of the river, one of the fishgirls is likely to discover it there anyway.”
“Oh.” It was obvious from the Tyrant’s sudden change of expression that he hadn’t thought of that.
Chilperic pressed his new advantage. “So, it should help if I offer a reward to the fishgirl who brings it to us. And if at the same time I threaten punishment of any who try to conceal the Sword or dispose of it in any other way.”
Hissarlik looked reluctantly ready to agree.
“They are at least moderately intelligent, are they not?”
“The mermaids, man, the mermaids.” There were limits to Chilperic’s patience.
“Oh yes. As intelligent as any other peasant. Very well, then, let’s go.” And Hissarlik got to his feet.
Within an hour a small party, consisting of Hissarlik, Chilperic, and an escort of militia, had formed and had moved on to the riverbank, where several boats were being made available for the short jaunt to Mermaids’ Island.
“Hissarlik, my friend?”
“Is there any real advantage in our going out to the island? Can we not lure the creatures, and speak to them, just as successfully from here on shore?”
“Well, it might take a trifle longer that way but yes, I suppose we can.”
“Then let us do so.” A handful of soldiers from the Senones Home Guard were standing by, ready to offer armed protection during the boat trip to the island, just in case some of the Malolo forces should be encountered on the island or on the water. But Chilperic, sniffing the air and eyeing suspiciously the fishing boats already on the river, had decided that he would rather not trust in the protective abilities of the Home Guard. He could of course call up the demon for protection, but his reluctance to depend entirely upon that power continued.
“I suppose we can do it just as well from shore. And perhaps we ought to wait for Megara anyway,” said Hissarlik vaguely, turning away from the boat he had been about to enter.
Anselm had joined them, and was now serving as stand-in magician. He began to cast a spell. Within a quarter of an hour three or four of the underwater creatures had appeared in the water near shore, where they paddled about looking surprised, as if wondering why they had come here. Within an hour there were about a dozen, and these were all the mermaids that were likely to attend, according to Hissarlik.
A couple of the creatures sat on the muddy shoreline, while the others swam about. By now they all looked sullenly unwilling to be here.
Chilperic had to admit they were all lithe and attractive young women from the waist up. When he was assured that no more were likely to arrive, he stood up on the bank and spoke to them, describing the missing Sword, and promising to heal all of them of their affliction if one of them could bring him such a weapon. Their reaction was subdued; he could not tell to what extent his promise was believed.
So he took care, before dismissing them, and while the food from the hampers was being thrown to them, to threaten them with his demon if none of them did bring him the Sword he sought. He let them see the demon to convince them that it was no empty threat and this time he got the reaction that he sought.
THE mermaid named Black Pearl had attended the gathering on the northern shore, more out of curiosity than from any compulsion by the feeble magic of Anselm Senones. She had listened to the arrogant strange man who spoke from the bank after Anselm, but she had not been much impressed by either his promises or his threats. At least not until the demon appeared to give a brief demonstration of its powers. Naturally the people on the north bank wanted the Sword, but they, or their late parents, were the same people who had sold Black Pearl into slavery, and she was not inclined to help them get anything they wanted now. Besides, if she had known where the Sword was, she would have taken it to Zoltan.
When the demonmaster had finished his threats and the feeble magic of Anselm had relaxed its grip, Black Pearl had slipped away from the other mermaids, into the swift flowing depths of the Tungri. And now she was on the south shore. Swimming and scrambling, she was struggling with great difficulty to make headway against a roaring and shallow rush of water. With hands and fins and tail she labored to ascend the rocky bed of a small stream.
This particular stream, much faster than the creek
Zoltan had followed on his way to meet her, came gushing down the mountain through a narrow little canyon in the south side of the river gorge. The mouth of this brook, where it poured into the Tungri, was less than a kilometer from the hermit’s house high on the irregular slope above. That house was still invisible from the place where the young mermaid squirmed and struggled.
On this spring day the little stream had been augmented by melting snow in the high country, yet still there were stretches in which its depth was insufficient to keep afloat a swimming creature of the mermaid’s size. Black Pearl, in the form to which she had been condemned by enchantment, was only a little smaller than she would have been as a young woman with two legs.
Even this close to the stream’s mouth she had already encountered an especially difficult spot. Here, where the water spread out into a mere corrugated sheet stretched over a rocky bed, it was impossible for any creature of her size to swim. Pausing in her efforts, lying on her side in the rushing shallows, she reached for the amulet that hung from a thin chain about her neck, and muttered a few soft words.
Almost unwillingly Black Pearl had memorized the words of the spell, after hearing Cosmo recite it countless times in the secret grotto. Perhaps he would be surprised, she thought now, to see that his magic worked for her alone almost as well as it had ever worked for him. Perhaps he would be surprised to know that it worked away from the grotto as well.
Immediately the spell had its effect. In a puff of watery mist her mermaid tail was gone, replaced by pale but very human looking hips and legs. Shakily Black Pearl stood up, nakedly vulnerable now to the cold water and completely human. A young woman’s body, perfectly normal in appearance, poised now upon two bare and very human feet.
Stepping carefully and with difficulty, yet trying to make the best speed she could, she walked forward over the rough rocks, muttering prayers to all the gods that she had ever heard of.
Barely had Black Pearl reached the next deep pool upstream before the strength of the spell she had just recited collapsed under the burden of the greater magic it labored to counteract. The forces that had for the space of a few breaths maintained her body in a normal human form abruptly dissipated. In an instant, metamorphosis reversed itself. Feet and legs were returned in the twinkling of an eye into the fishtail that she had worn for the past five years, since the age of twelve. She fell with a great splash.
But still she was able to make progress. Here, and upstream for some distance she had yet to discover, there ran a channel deep enough to support her finned body as she swam. Once more she could fight the current with her fins and tail until she reached the next stretch where the channel disappeared.
Several times during the next few minutes of the mermaid’s upstream struggle she was forced to use the secret counterspell and amulet. The trouble was that the effect of the counterspell faded rapidly with frequent repetition. The time Black Pearl was able to spend in fully human form was limited to a few minutes at most with each use of the amulet, and the power had to be carefully husbanded. Only rarely and infrequently could she escape the deforming impact of accursed Senones magic, and regain for a heartbreakingly small time the shape that would have been hers in normal life. And each interval of relief cost her more and more in psychic effort to achieve. It would be necessary to let the power in the amulet lie fallow for days, weeks, or even months before the maximum, comparatively long periods of full humanity could be attained once more. She had husbanded the power for many days before attempting this ascent, where she expected that it would be needed in its fullest form.