With the edge of her despair at least somewhat blunted by the hermit’s kindly attention to her troubles, and his conditional promise, Black Pearl pulled herself together as best she could, and started on her way back to the mouth of the stream. The passage downhill, with the swift current’s help, was physically much easier than the ascent, and she progressed quickly.
Deep in her own thoughts, she had by now ceased to pay much attention to her surroundings, and she was within thirty meters of the two mercenaries before she saw them.
Calling to her to stop and wait for them, calling to each other to run her down, howling their lust and wonder and delight on finding her almost helpless before them, the two armed and shabby men moved on quick legs to cut her off from the broad river and freedom.
Black Pearl had not seen such men in the valley before, and the strangeness of their appearance only added to her terror. They were dressed unlike any of the native men on either side of the river, wearing scraps of alien looking armor and green scarves round their throats, and both were well armed.
The men were trying to make their voices soft when they called to her, but the look of their faces belied the softness. In complete panic, her worries about tomorrow swallowed up in immediate terror, Black Pearl turned around and threw her tired body again into the struggle to ascend the stream. One hope, though a feeble one, lay in reaching one of the deeper pools above, where she might possibly lie concealed underwater until the men gave up their efforts and went away. Her only other hope, also a faint one, was that the hermit or the watchbeast might hear the sound of the chase and come to her aid.
At first the two men, being forced to climb or wade among sharp rocks in rushing water, fell behind a little. But then the banks of the stream opened up again, and her pursuers could run, and they gained on her rapidly.
Almost at once a fortunate curve in the stream took her temporarily out of their sight.
Black Pearl plunged into the best available pool, and lay as still as she could on the bottom, suspending her breath in mermaid fashion. She would have no problem remaining so for hours if necessary.
She thought that this was probably the deepest pool she had encountered in her struggle to ascend the stream. Still, the surface of the water was less than a meter above her head. Above her was a small greenish circle of sky; swift fluctuations in the current prevented her seeing more. Distantly she could hear her pursuers, climbing about somewhere on the bank nearby. The water was so clear that she knew she would not be invisible to them if they were to look carefully in the right place; but she would do the best she could. Quietly she turned over, lying face down now, giving them the back of her head to look at, streaming dark hair instead of a pale face.
Hardly had Black Pearl turned over before the faint gleam of something artificial on the stream’s bottom caught her eye. Something in the straight and steely look of the thing caught at her memory immediately. Once before, in water vastly deeper and colder than this stream, she had made this same discovery …
Moving her fingers with great care in the vicinity of those suggested edges she had had experience of their unnatural sharpness Black Pearl brushed away the bottom sand until an ebony handle came into view.
Obviously the Sword had not been dropped here carelessly. Rather it had been buried deliberately, sunk carefully into the bottom under layers of head-sized rocks. And not only buried, but wedged firmly into place in a niche between fixed edges of stone, so that no current in the stream would ever wash it away. But fish, or some other creatures of the stream, must have been nibbling at what had once been a sheath of dark leather, which being only mundane material was almost completely gone by now. The removal of that dark covering allowed a gleam of steel to shine through.
The metal of the Sword itself was just as she remembered it, anything but mundane. There was the white target-symbol on the hilt. The mermaid had a good look at the weapon as she drew it from the hiding place. As she had expected, it showed not the slightest trace of rust or corrosion.
Now feet came stamping nearby, on the bank above her. Black Pearl could hear the voices of the two men almost clearly, and then their shouted triumph at the moment they discovered her in her inadequate hiding place.
“I’ll stir her out!” And a man’s hands tossed in a rock that struck the scaly armor of her lower belly, just as she turned face up again; the water cushioned some of the missile’s impact.
Black Pearl’s head and shoulders came up out of the water, her mouth screaming, the Sword’s hilt clutched in both her hands. This was not the first time she had held Farslayer in her hands. But now, for the first time, she could feel the Sword’s power come suddenly to life.
The two men were standing on opposite sides of the watercourse, both of them downstream from Black Pearl, one about five meters from her, the other twice as far. When she sat up both mercenaries froze, transfixed momentarily by the impressive sight of the unexpected weapon. Then the hand of the nearer man moved to his waist, and in a moment he had drawn his own short sword.
Black Pearl screamed at him, and willed his death. The black hilt seemed to tear itself free from her clutched fingers, the weapon lunging outward of its own volition. A snarling howl of magic, louder than her own scream, resounded in the little canyon, accompanied by a brief rainbow slash of light that brushed aside the drawn blade in the man’s hand. That weapon’s owner, his face reflecting surprise, staggered with the Sword of Vengeance stuck clean through him. Then he toppled forward, dead before he splashed into the water.
Yelling in mortal terror, the dead man’s companion turned away from the mermaid and took to his heels, bounding in panic down the mountainside.
Black Pearl was already going after the Sword again, struggling to drag her body through the shallows. Despite the thrust of current that now worked in her favor, moving those few meters seemed to take forever. Then, when she had gripped the ebony hilt again, another eternity elapsed in the course of her effort to twist and wrench Farslayer free from the lifeless body of her enemy. The victim’s will seemed still alive, embodied in those dead eyes that stared alternately at her and past her with the movement of his head caused by her tugging on the steel between his ribs.
By now the mermaid was sobbing with exertion, hate, and rage. As soon as she had Farslayer free, she threw it forth again, blindly and with all her strength.
“You you tried to kill me!” she shrieked. The surviving mercenary was probably out of range of her voice; he was already long out of sight, and at the last moment Black Pearl was sure that the effort she was making was hopeless. A reprisal against those who had threatened her was not her only goal. She felt, more strongly than any craving for revenge, the need to keep the power of this Sword for herself, to bargain with.
But the thoughts of that last moment came too late to stop the Sword. For a second time the rainbow blur of power left her hands, again she heard the weapon briefly howling in the air. In the blinking of her eyes it was gone, this time somewhere out of her sight. Though that flight had been hard to follow, she thought the weapon’s path had carried it straight downstream.
And again Black Pearl hurled herself splashing and floundering after it, through water too shallow for real swimming. The Sword, as a treasure she might bargain with, represented her only hope. She would go after Farslayer and recover it yet again.
Heedless of minor injuries inflicted by rocks in the shallow current, Black Pearl hurled herself downstream. Luck was with her. The easiest way for a man on foot, running down the slope, was the faint path that almost inevitably followed such a watercourse. In this case the man in his terror-stricken flight had not deviated from the path by more than a stride or two. The mermaid found him lying facedown, Farslayer’s hilt and half its blade protruding from his armored back. The Sword had overtaken him from behind. When she turned him over, she looked at his face clearly for the first time, and saw, only now, that he was still a beardless youth.