“No. I didn’t.” By an effort, he didn’t look away. “I didn’t have the courage.”
Carson took in a deep breath through his nose and slowly let it out. He gathered the little bottles into his hands and held them out to Sedric. Sedric received them in his cupped hands. Carson settled himself on the rowing bench, untied the rope that had bound the two boats together, and then took up a paddle. “You can’t really begin something new until you’ve finished with the old, Sedric.”
He dug the paddle into the water and moved his boat clear of Sedric’s. Spit, sensing they were returning to the barge, made a futile charge at the gallators. They retreated into the sunken roots of the brush where the dragon could not get at them. He gave a roar of frustration and then gave it up to follow Carson’s boat. Sedric watched them go. Neither one looked back at him.
Sedric dropped the little bottles into the bottom of the boat. They floated in the water that he had not bailed out. With his feet, he pushed them aside. Then he settled himself on the seat, took up a paddle, and followed Carson. Rain began to fall.
Day the 27th of the Gold Moon
Year the 6th of the Independent Alliance of Traders
From Erek, Keeper of the Birds, Bingtown
To Detozi, Keeper of the Birds, Trehaug
From the Bingtown Traders’ Council to the Rain Wild Traders’ Councils at Trehaug and Cassarick, being a formal request, at the behest of the Meldar and Kincarron families, to inquire into the fate of the Tarman expedition, especially as to the well-being of Sedric Meldar and Alise Kincarron.
I am delighted with your family’s invitation and will speedily make arrangements for my duties to be taken on temporarily by one of the other keepers for the length of my visit. I am sure that you know your family assured me I was welcome to call “on any date, for so long as I wished to stay,” but I thought to ask your advice in this matter. The weather here has been unseasonably warm and fair, but we all know that cannot last forever! I know that the rainy season will soon be upon all of us. Am I too forward in suggesting that I would like to visit while our fine weather holds? What would your preference be for the timing of my visit?
MUD AND WINGS
Toward midmorning, Tarman wedged and could go no farther. Leftrin was not surprised. He’d been expecting it to happen for some time. All of yesterday, Tarman’s feet had been firmly planted on the bed of the slough. A few of the keepers had become seasick from the rocking motion that Tarman’s walk contributed to his movement. As the day had progressed and the water grew ever shallower, Leftrin’s concern had increased. He’d sounded the horn to call all of the small boats back to the barge, and then sent them out again in varying directions, in search of deeper water.
When they’d returned that evening, no one had good tidings to report. No detectible current, and the water seemed uniformly shallow in all directions. A straw dropped into the open water beside the boat did float away, but almost immediately got lost in the beds of standing reeds that had encroached ever closer, even as the bluish foothills remained ever distant against a gray backdrop of thick clouds.
The barge stopped of his own accord. For a time, Leftrin sensed the ship standing and thinking. Tarman groped toward him, perhaps seeking an idea that Leftrin didn’t have. Then, with a very small lurch, Tarman folded his legs and settled in the mud. The barge he had carried on his back floated slightly now. A wave of sadness and resignation flowed up Leftrin’s chest and settled around his heart. They’d come to their stopping place. It wasn’t Kelsingra.
“Cap?” This from Swarge at the tiller. It had been weeks since anyone had kept up the illusion that Tarman needed to be poled through the water. Tarman usually appreciated the humans’ efforts to speed him along, but in water this shallow, the poling only threw him off stride.
“Take a break, Swarge,” Leftrin confirmed. He made a sound like a low growl in the back of his throat and gripped the bow rail tighter. He more felt than saw Alise coming down the deck to join him. When she reached his side, she halted and put her hands alongside his on the railing. Her eyes swept the scene before them.
There was no channel. Reeds, rushes, and those plants that loved swamps surrounded them. The dragons were bright-scaled giants who moved through the wrong landscape. Even yesterday, the dragons had still ostensibly led the way. For most of this morning, they had moved more slowly and uncertainly. No one was comfortable about venturing deeper into this borderless wet land. Yet there was no where else to go. Except…