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

Today’s boats were larger than yesterday’s, and rowed by four men each. These were all armed, so that in all thirteen armed men were taking to the river today, a force everyone agreed was probably substantial enough to face any that the Senones were likely to put in the field.

The sun was still low above the eastern stretch of river, and dew still glittered on the vegetation of Mermaids’ Island, when the two boats landed there.

Exploring this scrap of land was the work of a very few minutes. None of the mermaids were to be seen, though their shore living facilities, fireplaces and simple shelters lining one of the convoluted inlets, were available for inspection. The shelters were tiny caves very close to water level, all of them now empty. The inlet was lined with steplike terraces where a mermaid could sit comfortably just in or just out of the water, and have access to the fireplaces on the next level up. Coals glowed brightly in one or two of the small, sheltered fireplaces, and someone had recently been cleaning fish. Near the fireplaces, driftwood had been piled up to dry.

Bonar and Zoltan called, but none of the fishgirls, who had presumably taken to the water nearby, responded. Bonar told his companions that the mermaids who might have been on the island moments ago had doubtless taken alarm at the size and unusual character of this invading force. They would probably be watching from somewhere in the river nearby.

Stubbornly Zoltan roamed the perimeter of the island, calling Black Pearl’s name repeatedly, and waving his arms, hoping to draw the attention of underwater watchers. But he drew no response.

It was also possible to see, on the island, the places of barter where food and other necessities were sometimes left by people coming out from the mainland, in exchange for pearls and other occasional items of value left by the mermaids. Zoltan could see no reason why a direct face-to-face trade could not be conducted perhaps, he thought, in the early years of the curse mermaids had been considered taboo, or dangerous, and this indirect method had developed.

Whatever had caused the usual inhabitants of Mermaids’ Island to absent themselves today, they remained absent, which struck Zoltan as somehow ominous. After pacing from one end of the island to the other, and fruitlessly calling Black Pearl’s name a dozen times more, he agreed with the prince his uncle that they had better move on and try to reach the hermit on the south shore. If fishgirls were not to be found, Gelimer seemed to represent the next most likely source of information about the Sword.

Just as they were about to embark again, Mark paused, squinting across the water. “What about Magicians’ Island?”

Bonar protested that it was unsafe to visit that place, that mermaids never went there, no one ever did. Gesner, consulted for his professional opinion, admitted that wizards, himself included, visited Magicians’ Island from time to time, and that the real danger to anyone had to be considered minimal.

“Then I think we ought to take a look.”

The prince as usual had his way. Magicians’ Island was not much more than a hundred meters from the shore base of the mermaids. But before the rowers had moved the two boats halfway there, the attention of the entire party was distracted by the sight of someone or something swimming on an interception course toward them, straight from the south.

It was a mermaid, it could be nothing else. A mermaid, just below the surface, coming toward them faster than the boats were moving, approaching at a speed that only a true fish could have matched.

She burst to the surface almost within reach of Zoltan as he crouched in the prow of one of the boats.

“Soft Ripple!” He thought he had recognized the tawny hair even before the mermaid surfaced.

Clinging to the boat, breathless with the speed of her race and with some underlying excitement, Soft Ripple babbled out an incoherent story about Black Pearl’s being dead. She added something to the effect that the treacherous Cosmo was to blame.

Gesner and Bonar sat up straight in their boat at the mention of that last name.

But Zoltan had frozen in horror at what he heard.

With the clarity of dazed detachment, he saw that Soft Ripple was holding up something she now wore on a fine chain about her neck. And he could recognize the amulet that Black Pearl had been wearing the last time he saw her.

The mermaid quieted a little when she saw the unfamiliar face of Prince Mark looking over the prow at her.

Lady Yambu, coming up into the prow of the other boat, was sharply soothing, and helped the girl to get herself under control.

“Are you certain Black Pearl is dead? Have you seen her body?” It was Yambu who asked the questions.

“I am certain, lady. I have seen.”

“Then show us.”

Presently Soft Ripple was swimming again, more slowly this time, leading both boats in the direction of a marshy area along the south bank of the river. This marsh was not far from the outlet of the stream that Black Pearl had ascended, with such difficulty, to visit the hermit.

Before long both boats were sliding and crunching in among the tall green reeds, their rowers swearing at the difficulty, and Bonar muttering his fears of ambush to anyone who would pay attention. No one was paying attention to him for very long.

The mermaid, slithering rapidly through the reedy shallows, and calling back frequently for the boats to follow, remained always a little ahead.

Soon Zoltan saw something floating in the almost stagnant backwater ahead. With a choked cry he leaped from the boat into the waist-deep water, and went thrashing after the pale-skinned, dark-haired floating thing.

When Zoltan came within reach of the body, he felt a rush of relief, intense but brief. This body had two legs, it could not be that of a mermaid. Nor could it be Black Pearl, he thought, perhaps not even a real corpse, though the thing was floating facedown. Whatever had happened to cause death could not have left her looking so shrunken, almost waxlike and inhuman.

“This is no mermaid!”

Soft Ripple looked at him with rage and pity in her face. “It is, it is. We all of us get our legs back when we die. Did you not know that?”

He looked at her, shaking his head. He had never had any suspicion of such a thing.

Ben of Purkinje, leaning from his boat as it drifted nearer, took hold of the body with a huge hand and turned it over gently.

At the first human touch, a little swarm of almost invisible powers, like half-material insects, deserted the corpse and went whining and buzzing their way up into the empyrean.

Ben rumbled: “Aye, this is demon-death if ever I’ve seen it. Hard to tell how long she’s been here, though.”

“No!” Zoltan screamed the word. Now he had seen the face. It seemed a modeled parody of Black Pearl’s.

Mark put a hand on his nephew’s shoulder. Lady Yambu asked Soft Ripple sharply: “Is it really true that your kind always reverts to having legs at death?”

“It is true of all our kind in this river. I have seen it often enough; I ought to know.” The bitter hatred in her glared suddenly at Prince Mark, as if he had been Black Pearl’s killer. “We are allowed only a few years of life at best.”

“I am sorry.” Yambu’s voice was kind and soft. “How did you come to find the body?”

Coaxed by Lady Yambu, Soft Ripple explained how she had come to make the discovery.

“I have been worried about Pearl for some time, and yesterday I followed her to see where she was going. I saw her start to struggle up the shallow creek here, and I wondered what her goal could possibly be. She was swimming and floundering her way upstream toward the place where the hermit is said to live. I became very worried, and thought of following her even there, but then I gave up that idea, because I thought it was really crazy for a mermaid to try to ascend such a stream.

“So I waited in the river nearby for her to come down again. After a long time, hours, a demon came roaring through the air, and I was terrified. I heard a screaming inhuman sound, and I saw a mysterious and ugly shadow hurtling across the sky. I could see it even from under the water, and I could feel the sickness that the creature brought with it. I wanted to hide, because I thought that the treacherous magician might have called a demon up to kill me but it wasn’t me that the thing was after.”

“What treacherous magician?”

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