Saberhagen, Fred – Lost Swords 04 – Farslayer’s Story

She was determined to tell her secrets to someone, and it certainly would not be those slave dealers on the north side of the river. Nor would it, could it, be Zoltan. Never that.

Months ago, Cosmo, lying with Black Pearl in the secret grotto upon a bed of moss and furs, with his own gift of her true woman’s legs clasped round him, had murmured into her ear again and again that the secrecy was part of the spell. That if she revealed the magical power of changing to another living soul, that power might be taken from her, beyond even his wizard’s power to restore it.

At that time Black Pearl had assured her lover fiercely that she would never tell. And until now she had kept the secret safe, though several times she had come close to telling Soft Ripple everything.

But today she intended to tell someone. Her confidant would not be her only real friend, Soft Ripple. Because Soft Ripple could be of no help to her, and Black Pearl desperately needed help. The secret had developed a monstrous complication.

In the intervals when Black Pearl could use her tail and swim, her progress upstream was swift. But now already she was entering yet another stretch of the stream where the water grew too shallow for swimming. A few moments later Black Pearl was on her magically restored feet again and walking. This time, while the change to normalcy still held, she took a moment to look down at herself, studying fearfully the near-flatness of her woman’s belly, pale and goose-bumped now with cold.

So far the enlargement was minimal, almost undetectable. But she was more firmly convinced than ever before that she was pregnant.

Cosmo the magician, who had made this desperate upstream journey possible for Black Pearl, was or had been also Cosmo the man, who had made the journey necessary. The Malolo magician had been her lover for several months before the night of many killings, the night he had disappeared. Black Pearl was going to have to assume now that he was dead.

Far less than any ordinary woman did Black Pearl have any means of knowing with any certainty what went on inside her own belly, down there on the borderline of magic, the region of her body where five years ago the ancestral curse had imposed itself. Down there, where a true woman would have a womb, what did a fishgirl have? For that matter, what organs did a real fish possess? Daughter of fisherfolk as she was, she could recall no clear image. Her mind refused to think about it.

One fact was obvious. Mermaid bodies were not equipped, any more than the bodies of real fish were, for anything like human pregnancy or human birth. What was going to happen to her as her pregnancy advanced, if she did not get some effective help from somewhere, Black Pearl did not know, could only guess. But each imagined possibility that suggested itself to her was more horrible than the last. She could only be certain that the outcome was going to be monstrous, unnatural, and fatal to herself and to the unborn as well.

And one more thing was very clear to her. Never before in the history of any village, Black Pearl was quite sure, had any mermaid ever become pregnant.

For more than a month now she had been experiencing dull aching pains in her abdomen, pains that could be relieved only by her assuming the fully human form, and which returned the instant she again became half fish. She had been on the verge of telling Cosmo about her difficulty, though she feared his reaction. And then, about a month ago, on the night when manor folk had slaughtered one another across the river, he had disappeared. Terrible as it was, the only assumption she dared make was that her magician lover was dead.

Within hours of the great slaughter, the news had spread rapidly, first in its essentials and then in its details, among the peasants and fisherfolk along both shores. From some of these legged people the story had diffused quickly to the mermaids. Black Pearl was soon aware that there was no one left in the Malolo clan who might provide effective medical help. Black Pearl didn’t think there were any very capable people left in the Senones clan either, and anyway she wouldn’t expect anything better from them than being sold into slavery.

So far Black Pearl had not hinted to anyone, not even Soft Ripple and most certainly not Zoltan of her fear that she was pregnant. Such a claim would have made no sense to either of them anyway. Neither of them had any idea that even a temporary reversal of a mermaid’s condition was now possible.

Oh, if only it could be possible that Cosmo was not dead! Word passed along from the Malolo household servants had said that his body was not among those arrayed in the underground vault, where all the other dead were said to be gathered, still magically preserved. For several hours, for a few days even, that reported absence had given Black Pearl hope, and the hope had been confirmed by Zoltan. But now she realized that Cosmo’s absence really proved nothing. If her lover was not dead, where was he? If he had fled the valley permanently, he might as well be dead as far as she was concerned.

With each day that passed without word from her magician lover, Black Pearl became more and more fearfully certain that she was never going to see him again. There were still occasional moments when she nursed hopes that he was alive, but those hopes were growing more and more desperate.

In the midst of her growing despair, her thoughts had fastened on the hermit Gelimer. Black Pearl’s only real hope at this point was that the hermit might be able and willing to do something to help her with her pregnancy. She wanted desperately to save the unborn child, which was Cosmo’s child too, if that were at all possible. And if she could be granted some assurance that the child was not monstrous. But failing that, she still wanted at least to have a chance of saving her own life. She knew now that at least a temporary cure of her condition was attainable; and now also Zoltan had come to seek her out and had said he loved her. She had begun to forget Zoltan more than a year ago, and he had passed out of her thoughts completely for a time. Now Zoltan offered hope. But if he ever learned that she was pregnant. ..

Black Pearl had never seen the hermit Gelimer, but now she had nowhere else to turn. For all of her young life she had heard that he was a good man, one who often went out of his way to help people. The stories told in the villages said that Gelimer had more than once saved folk who were dying of cold and exposure in the mountains. In Black Pearl’s mind this was good evidence that the hermit must possess some medical skills.

Now, compelled yet again to use her amulet and the weary, fading counterspell, she changed her form once more. At a place where only human hands and feet could climb, she briefly bypassed the water altogether, walking on dry land. Again the sun was warm but the breeze numbingly chill against the wet and suddenly vulnerable nakedness of her human skin.

Without warning, moments earlier than she had anticipated it, the spontaneous reversion overtook her. Abruptly deprived of feet and legs, Black Pearl fell, rolling fortunately toward the stream and landing in a small pool that was deep enough to cushion the impact of her body before it struck sharp rocks. Now suddenly the water felt comfortably warm again, on fish skin and woman skin alike.

The hazards of her journey were increasing. There was no way to exercise the least degree of control over the spontaneous relapse, no way to guess from one breath to the next exactly when it was going to strike her.

Once more the water was deep enough. She swam upstream, only to find almost immediately that her way was blocked again by a stretch of shallow water. It seemed hardly possible that any fish bigger than a minnow could swim upstream through this obstacle. She was going to have to wait here, all but helpless, letting the change power of the amulet rest again until it had recharged itself sufficiently to let her bring her human legs back into existence. Then she would be able to rise and walk on them once more.

And, if she was pregnant, as she was sure she was, and if by some miracle she could carry the child to full term, and by some greater miracle give birth-then what kind of monster would she produce, gripped by this evil magic as she was? Perhaps the question was meaningless. But Black Pearl had had dreams of late, dreams coming to her below the surface of the river as she slept, nightmares in which she felt and saw herself giving birth to clouds of fish eggs, or to a swarm of lively tadpoles.

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