“Row! Get us over there!” the prince commanded. Oars clashed and labored. But boats were slow and clumsy, and they were not going to catch a mermaid in the water.
In fact it appeared that they were not going to catch Soft Ripple, even though she was content to remain out of the water for the time being.
The mermaid was swinging the heavy Sword slowly, tentatively, awkwardly around her head; the thin muscles of her arms and shoulders stood out with the effort.
Zoltan on hearing that last order from his prince had reached mechanically for his bow, and someone else was reaching for a sling. But both people stayed their hands. If the Sword were to fall into the water from where the mermaid held it now, it would plunge once more into the channel’s hopeless depths.
Mark was cursing at the rowers: “Get us over there, quick!”
As fast as the rowers could propel them, the two fishing boats were now approaching Magicians’ Island from the south. And still the mermaid, sitting safely out of everyone’s reach, twirled the Sword, and still she seemed not quite able to bring herself to let it go. Perhaps for some reason she could not feel Farslayer’s power or perhaps-
Mark issued orders in a low voice: “Ben! Take your boat, land on the far side of the island. I’ll take this one to where we can get close enough to argue with her from the water.”
It seemed to Zoltan a very long time before the prow of the boat now carrying Ben and himself grated ashore at the nearest feasible landing spot that was just out of sight of Mark’s boat, and of the mermaid on her rock.
Ben and Zoltan leaped from their boat and hit the beach running. As they did so, a small horde of minor powers took to the air around them, just as had happened when Black Pearl’s body was first disturbed in the water. Zoltan had seen their like on occasion in the past, and more experienced observers than he had never been able to determine whether powerful wizards somehow created such swarming entities, or were only capable of calling them from some other plane of existence. However that might be, Zoltan knew that in a disorganized swarm like this one the miniature entities, for the most part indifferent to human beings, were hardly more dangerous than so many mosquitoes would have been.
Not that danger would have mattered to him just now. He ran forward, hoping to get into position to hurl himself at the mermaid before she threw the Sword, and drag Farslayer somehow from her grip. Still the little powers, doubtless sent here long ago to guard the island from nonmagicians, swarmed about. They were only semisentient at best. One could hear them buzzing faintly in the air, and see them like small ripples of atmospheric heat. Any human with even a minimal sensitivity to the things of magic could feel them in the air as well.
Zoltan had left ponderous Ben some strides behind. Now, approaching the hummock that concealed him from the mermaid, Zoltan slowed and raised his head cautiously over the obstacle. He could see his uncle Mark, standing in the boat, still trying to argue Soft Ripple out of throwing the Sword.
Now he could see the mermaid, too.
Zoltan eased forward, hoping to get close before she saw him. Mark continued his argument. Ben came up silently behind Zoltan, and a little to one side.
But they were all too late, or ineffective.
“If he is still alive, I kill him. If dead, let my hate follow him to hell!”
With a last hideous, obscene malediction against Cosmo Malolo, the mermaid let the bright blade fly.
GELIMER had just finished the painful task of burying his faithful Geelong in the cemetery grove, when the Sword of Vengeance entered his life again.
It had taken the hermit a long struggle to get the beast’s mangled body down from the thorntrees, and Geelong had died well before the process could be completed; had died for which Gelimer was thankful even before the hermit could get into position to administer the mercy stroke himself.
After that it had been a struggle for the hermit, himself wracked by physical as well as mental pain, to get the animal’s body uphill to his house. His arms and legs were bruised and every muscle in his body ached, making it a slow and painful process for him to do anything. All through the following night Gelimer, lying beside his pet’s blanket wrapped body, had tried to rest, tried to recover from the injuries caused by the demon’s manhandling.
And in the morning, for the first time, he thought he knew what it felt like to be old. Moving as in a dream of pain and suffering, he had lifted the rude bundle containing his companion’s mangled body, placed it on a kind of travois, and had urged his own battered body to pull the contrivance in the direction of the cemetery.
He could not have said how much time was taken by the work of pulling, selecting a gravesite, and digging. He had just finished his prayers to Ardneh over the refilled grave, had turned and started for home, when the Sword came.
Gelimer first saw the rainbow streak moving across the distant sky, coming from the north and angling to the west. Then the bright track curved, until it appeared to be coming directly at him. And now he heard and felt the all-too-familiar onrush of its approaching magic.
For just a brief moment Gelimer believed that Farslayer was coming for him, and he stood motionless and unalarmed while something in him responded with eagerness to the thought of death. But the Sword rushed by overhead. The truth was that nobody hated him, no one was his enemy, no one any longer even knew him well enough to want to waste a Sword-blow on him.
The Sword of Vengeance had not been sent to strike the hermit’s heart. The rainbow streak of the Sword, swifter than any arrow Gelimer had ever seen in flight, arced close over his head, coming down directly into the cemetery grove he had just left. There, somewhere under those tall trees, it struck home with an earthen impact, dull and loud as a blow from a god’s hammer.
Gelimer dropped the handle of the empty travois he had been dragging, and with his shovel still clutched in one hand hurried back under the trees. The spot of impact was impossible to miss. Something had cratered the black dirt and the spring flowers, sending earthy debris far and wide. The flying Sword had landed directly on the site of the last grave but one that he had dug.
The hermit ran forward. Regardless of the slippery mud, regardless of the protests of his own painful body, he plunged his shovel into the cratered ground and began to dig again.
Presently the smell of old death, as if at some opening of hell, came surging up to meet him. He choked on it, but persisted.
In a few moments he was sure of what had happened. He could see now that the body of Cosmo Malolo, which had been decomposing for the past month inside its crude blanket-shroud, had for a second time been pierced through the heart by the Sword of the Gods.
Gelimer threw down his shovel. His muddy fingers, trembling, closed upon that black, mud-spattered hilt. With that contact his fingers ceased to tremble. Muttering half-finished prayers of gratitude to Ardneh, and perhaps to other, darker gods as well, the hermit carried the Sword up out of the shallow, blasted pit.
Exactly who had thrown the Sword this time, and why vengeance had been wasted upon a victim already dead, were questions that did not now even cross his mind.
The grove around him was as silent and tranquil as ever. Though the day was bright, here under the trees it was almost dim with their heavy shading. Standing erect, Gelimer saluted the grave of Geelong with the Sword. Then, gripping the knurled hilt in both hands, the hermit began a ponderous, spinning dance-
His dance was carrying him, step by step, out of the grove and into the open air, where you could see for kilometers in all directions except that of the mountain whose shoulder he was standing on. He had not whirled thrice beyond the trees before there appeared to him, standing only forty or fifty meters away in sunlight, the image of the demon Rabisu. The demon came in the guise of an armored man, tall as a house, half transparent but immense, who ran forward threateningly, raising some blurred weapon-
Gelimer saw the approaching shape, and uttered a hoarse cry. In the next instant he felt the Sword fly free, tearing itself by its own power out of his grip, an instant before he would have let it go.