A white-haired lady, whose age at a second look was hard to guess, was standing confronting him on the north side of his little yard, as if she had perhaps just climbed up from the river. Her erect body, clad like Zoltan’s in pilgrim gray, might have belonged to a vigorous woman of forty, but her lined face looked twenty years older than that. The pilgrim gray she wore confirmed some connection with the youth, who now had followed Gelimer out of the house into the bright day of sunlight melting the last spring snow.
Zoltan quickly performed introductions.
“Lady, this is the hermit Gelimer, who has kindly offered us food and shelter should we be in need of either. Gelimer, this is the Lady Yambu, whom I serve.”
“Say rather, with whom you travel.” The lady’s voice, like her bearing, had something regal in it. She smiled at Gelimer and stepped forward to grip him heartily by the hand.
When Zoltan had earlier informed him that his companion was a lady somewhat older than himself, several possibilities had suggested themselves to Gelimer. This lady did not appear to fit any of them very neatly.
“Yambu,” repeated Gelimer aloud, and frowned in thought. “Some years ago there reigned, far to the east of here, a queen who was called the Silver Queen, and that was her name, too.”
“That queen is no more,” the lady said. “Or she might as well be no more. Only a pilgrim stands before you.”
Smiling slightly, she shifted the direction of her gaze to Zoltan. “The captain has informed me that the Maid of Lakes and Rivers has now been permanently disabled,” she reported. “Therefore, from here we must proceed for a time on foot. There is no need for us to return to the boat, as I have brought along all that was essential of our baggage.” So saying, the lady slipped a pack of moderate size from her back and dropped it on the ground in front of Zoltan; it would be his to carry now.
Gelimer took a moment to reflect that the lady must be far from decrepit with age, to have made the steep climb up out of the gorge while carrying the pack. Then he courteously invited both of his visitors back into his humble house.
Half an hour later, the hermit was serving both the travelers some hot tea and simple food, meanwhile pausing frequently in his own mind to wonder what further questions he ought to ask them. They represented his first contact with the outside world since the Sword had come into his possession, and he thought that his next such contact might be months away.
But it would not do to stick too doggedly to the subject of Swords. When Gelimer asked the Lady Yambu politely about the object of her pilgrimage, she smiled at him lightly and told him that she was seeking truth.
“And Truth, then, is to be found somewhere downriver?”
She sipped her tea regally from its earthen cup. “I have had certain intimations that it might be.”
“It might not be easy to find another boat to carry you on from here. The fishermen have boats, of course, but as a rule they don’t want to go far.”
The lady was unperturbed. “Then we shall walk.”
Gelimer switched his attention to his other guest. “And you, young man? Do you seek Truth as well?”
“Yes,” said Zoltan, and paused. “But not only that. Tell me, good hermit, do you know anything of a race of merpeople living in or near these waters? I have seen several of their kind far upstream, but no one there seems to know where they come from.”
Gelimer looked at him, and thought carefully again. “Aye,” he said at last. “There are mermaids in these waters. Hardly a race of them. But there have been a few such folk, whose homes are not all that far from where we sit. All maids, fish from the waist down. Their fate is a result of magic directed at certain fishing villages, by enemies.”
Zoltan’s eyes lit up at the discovery.
“Whose magic, and why?” Yambu asked at once. Suddenly she seemed almost as interested as the young man.
Gelimer heaved a sigh. “It is a long story,” he said at last. “But if you are interested I suppose you should hear the main points of it anyway, if you are going on downstream from here by foot the journey, you must realize, will not be without its dangers.”
“Few journeys are,” said Yambu calmly. “At least among those which are worthwhile.”
“When you have finished eating and enjoying your tea,” said the hermit, “you must come outside, and we will climb up on a rock. From there we will be able to look downstream for many kilometers, and see the land on either side of the river, and there I will tell you something of the situation.”
Presently, when their modest meal had been consumed, they were outside again. Gelimer took them to a promontory a little above his house, a place from which they could look to the south and west and see where the Tungri eventually lost itself among distant hills.
Gelimer waved his right hand to the north. “The land on the right bank is, for as far as you can see from here, under the domination of a clan called the Senones. The land on the left bank, whereon we are standing, is ruled by the Malolo clan. The two clans are bitter enemies, and have been so for many generations. The mermaids you have seen upstream were girls from one of a handful of small villages on the Malolo side, down there beyond the place where the river widens you can barely see it from here.
“Their strange, unnatural form is a result of Senones magic, a bitter and destructive curse that was inflicted upon people in the Malolo territory several generations ago. Sometimes the girls deformed by the curse are sold into slavery as curiosities. I have heard that traveling shows and the like buy them. An evil business.”
“Yes. I see,” said young Zoltan. He was shading his eyes, and staring very intently and thoughtfully at the village barely visible in the distance. “And has no one ever found a cure for this particular curse?”
“It would seem that the Malolo at least have never been able to find any.”
Zoltan was silent, gazing off toward the horizon. It was left to the Lady Yambu to ask their host some practical questions about the trails.
Shortly after he had imparted that information, Gelimer was again left without human companionship. His guests were on their way long hours of sunny daylight still remained, and both pilgrims, the young man and the older woman, were eager to be gone.
The hermit, looking after them when they had vanished down the trail, still could not quite decide what was the relationship between them. The young man seemed more true companion than servant. And if that woman had really at one time been the Silver Queen … having talked to her now, Gelimer found he could believe she had.
Eventually the hermit, frowning, turned back to his hermitage. Hiding the Sword had really done nothing to relieve him of its burden. He still had matters of very great importance to decide.
The sun had nearly disappeared from sight behind the tall trees of the valley’s forest before the two pilgrims again came in sight of the small fishing village they had glimpsed from the crag above the hermit’s house. Now they were walking close beside the river, and were almost on the point of entering the settlement.
At the point where the trail they had been following emerged from the forest, on the south bank, Zoltan paused and turned to look over his shoulder to the northeast. He thought that he could see that crag again, still clearly visible in the light of the lowering sun. Now, of course, those heights were much too far away for him to be able to make out whether the hermit or anyone else was standing there.
He faced forward again, and with the Lady Yambu at his side approached the village. The pair of them advanced slowly, wanting to give the inhabitants plenty of time to become aware of their arrival. Three or four of the fisherfolk were visible, garbed in heavy trousers and jackets. The place seemed quite ordinary for a settlement beside a river. It consisted of twelve or fifteen bark-roofed houses, some of them raised on stilts along the shoreline, and actually extending over the water.
Thin columns of smoke from several fires ascended into the air. Just behind the village the forest rose up dense and tall, beginning to be clothed in the new growth of spring. One or two of the trees loomed impressively, being of the same gigantic species as the one that had formed the hermit’s house.