Even while she waited to continue her climb toward Gelimer’s house, her mind sought feverishly for someone besides the hermit to whom she might turn for help. But she could think of no one. She could imagine
Zoltan’s reaction to the news of her pregnancy, and it would not be good. The remnants of her own leg walking family in her home village had practically disowned her on the day, five years ago, when the evil change came upon her. It was a not uncommon reaction among mermaids’ families. And even if her relatives had been willing to help her now, what could they do? They were as lacking in magical powers as they were in mundane wealth.
If only Cosmo were not dead . .. once more Black Pearl reminded herself sternly that such wishes were hopeless, useless.
But suppose that the holy hermit, when she reached him she could not admit to herself that she might fail today to reach his house suppose he were to refuse her help? She might be able to pay him with a pearl from a riverbottom clam, or perhaps a gemstone or even a lump of gold obtained at the same source supposing she could work a minor miracle and find one. Such treasures failing, there was still her body that she might offer him, half-human as it was, and the few doubtful minutes for which she might be fully human. Black Pearl did not know what attitude the hermit, who had evidently chosen to live without women, might take toward an offering like that.
There was only one way to find out. Black Pearl swam and climbed, and fell and climbed again. Her capacity to change was once more almost totally exhausted. Eventually she reached a point from which she could see, still dishearteningly high and distant, what she took to be the hermit’s dwelling. It was, at least, a fallen great tree with a stump that looked as if it had a shuttered window in one side, and so she had heard Gelimer’s house described.
But the distance still remaining to the house was crushing. On starting upstream from the Tungri the mermaid had had no idea that the hermit’s dwelling was so far up the mountainside, or she might never have attempted to reach it. But no, she’d probably have made the effort anyway. Because she had no other choice.
Now once more on the verge of despair, Black Pearl heard a whining and howling, an almost doglike yapping. Looking up in alarm, she beheld a watchbeast shuffling bearlike along a small ridge that paralleled the stream.
She recognized the breed of animal at once. Two or three times before in her short life Black Pearl had seen watchbeasts. Years ago, when she’d had legs and could walk uphill anytime she felt like it, the folk at Malolo manor had had a pair of such beasts to guard their house.
Now the beast had sighted her, or heard or scented her, which came to the same thing. Running for a little distance beside the stream, the animal howled at the unprecedented sight and at the noise of a mermaid’s renewed struggling here. Then the watchbeast turned away and ran off, disappearing almost at once among the rocks and scattered vegetation of the uphill slope.
Black Pearl, still unable for the time being to use her amulet effectively, could do nothing but wait for what might happen next. Her hopes rose slightly when the watchbeast reappeared in the distance, still climbing away from her. Obviously the animal was going to the high tree-stump house, and the mermaid could hope that it was going to bring its master to her aid.
When Gelimer heard Geelong’s clamor just outside his door he was considerably surprised. That particular sound had always meant a traveler was in distress, an unlikely situation in such fine weather as this.
Relatively unlikely, but of course not impossible. Hastening to follow the anxious beast, the hermit left his house and garden and soon reached the side of the pool in which Black Pearl was now resting.
The sight of a mermaid was so remote from anything the hermit had expected that for several moments he stood on the bank gazing, at her stupidly, as if paralyzed. Adding something to Gelimer’s difficulty was the fact that he had never spoken with a mermaid before. But her face looked not only intelligent but frightened, and he could only assume that she was much like other people. At last he spoke.
“Young woman are you in need of help?”
She gazed up at him boldly though fearfully. “I am,” she said, with the water sloshing spasmodically around her silver tail. “My need is very great. And I have come to you, come up all the way from the river, to try to get the help I need.”
“You’ve come to me?” Gelimer, still somewhat bewildered by this unheard of presence so far up the side of the mountain, ran a hand over his bald head. He felt himself to be at a total loss. “I will do what I can. But what can I do?”
The mermaid sat up straighter in the water, with her tail now in front, propping her torso erect on both hands extended behind her. “Sir, if you will only wait a few moments, it will be easier for you to understand my difficulty. I will demonstrate as well as explain. Wait while I rest, and then watch carefully. And I will show you a great wonder.”
“Then I will wait,” Gelimer said simply, and seated himself upon a handy rock.
A quarter of an hour later, Gelimer had witnessed the coming and going of the change in the young woman’s body. Having seen what he would not otherwise have believed, he tended to believe the rest of the amazing story she had told him.
He had changed his position by the time the story was finished, and was seated upon a different rock, handier to the stream, with Geelong crouching contentedly near his side. Frowning in deep thought, the hermit asked: “Will you describe to me this Cosmo Malolo you say has disappeared? I seldom have any contact with the leaders of the clans, and I have never met any of the younger ones.”
When he had heard the mermaid’s description of her magician lover, Gelimer’s frown deepened, because now he was sure. The traveler who had called himself Chilperic had given a false name for the man that he was seeking. That man, Gelimer’s tragic early visitor, was certainly the same man that this mermaid sought, no doubt with better reason.
Gelimer knew a little more of the truth now, and he knew it was his duty to tell Black Pearl that her lover was certainly dead. But as far as he could see, that truth would be of no benefit to her; it would only deprive her of hope. And if he, Gelimer, were to reveal that he knew where Cosmo lay buried, the mermaid along with other folk would justly suspect that he knew where the Sword was hidden also.
But if he dared not tell the truth to this girl who had appealed to him for help, then what could he do for her?
“I am no magician,” he confessed at last. “No real healer, either. If there were any solid help that I could give you, child, I would be glad to do so. But I fear there is nothing.”
For several minutes after she heard these words Black Pearl simply sat in the water, staring up at the man she had been thinking of as her last hope. Her very human cheeks had dried in the breeze since she emerged from the water, and they stayed dry; the destruction of hope had been too sudden and complete to result in tears.
The silence stretched on, until at last Gelimer could bear her empty gaze no longer. “I will try,” he promised, “to find magical assistance for you somehow.”
“Oh sir. Thank you, sir.” The words sounded almost devoid of emotion; it was hard for Gelimer to tell if she were only being polite to him in turn, or not. “What can I give you in return?”
Gelimer thought, and sighed. “At the moment, I can think of nothing for you to give me. It may be that I will be able to give you nothing, either. I fear that it very well may be so. And yet I do pledge that I will try.”
They exchanged a few more words, and the hermit promised that he would meet the mermaid, at a certain time, at a certain place at the river’s edge. Years had passed since he had gone that far down into the gorge, but it was a place he could remember well enough.
Then, after bestowing Ardneh’s blessing as best he could, he turned and began climbing wearily back to his house, his watchbeast moving subdued at his side.