He was not very good at it. Other than telling her she was pretty, he had no idea of what compliments would please a dragon. After he had spoken, he waited for a response from her. She turned her head, looked at the trees and kept paddling. They were not headed straight for the shore, but at least now, at some point, they’d connect with it.
“You are so wise, lovely copper one. So pretty and beautiful and shining and copper. Swim toward the trees, clever, pretty dragon.”
He sensed again that warm touch and felt oddly moved by it. The aches in his body seemed to lessen as well. It didn’t seem to matter that his words were simple and ungraceful. He fed her praise, and she responded by turning more sharply toward the river’s edge and swimming more strongly. For an instant, he felt what that extra effort cost her. He felt almost shamed that he asked it of her. “But if I do not, neither of us will survive,” he muttered, and felt a shadow of agreement from her.
As they got closer to the trees, his heart sank. The river had expanded its flow; there was no shore under the eaves of the forest, not even a muddy one. There was only the impenetrable line of trees, their trunks like the bars of a cage that would hold Relpda out in the river. In the shadow of the canopy, the pale water was a quiet lake without shores that spread off into the darkness.
Only one section of shore offered him hope. In an alcove of the surrounding trees, limbs and logs and branches had been packed together by a back current. All sorts of broken tree limbs and bits of driftwood and even substantial timbers had piled up there in a floating logjam. It didn’t look promising. But once he was there, he could climb out of the water and perhaps dry off before nightfall.
That was as much as he could offer himself. No hot food and comforting drink, no dry, clean change of clothing, not even a rude pallet on which to lie down; nothing awaited him there but the bare edge of survival.
And even less for the dragon, he suspected. Whereas the wedged logs and matted driftwood might offer him a place to stand, she had no such hope. She swam with all her energy now, but it would avail her nothing. No hope for her and very little for him.
Not save me?
“We’ll try. I don’t know how, but we’ll try.”
For an extended moment, he felt her absence from his mind. He became aware of how his skin stung, how her teeth dug into him. His aching muscles shrieked at him, and cold both numbed and burned him. Then she came back, bringing her warmth and pushing his misery aside.
Can save you, she announced.
Affection he could feel enfolded him. Why? he wondered. Why did she care about him?
Less lonely. You make sense of world. Talk to me. Her warmth wrapped him.
Sedric drew breath. All his life, he’d been aware that people loved him. His parents loved him. Hest had loved him, he thought. Alise did. He’d known of love and accepted that it existed for him. But never before had he actually felt love as a physical sensation that emanated from another creature and warmed and comforted him. It was incredible. A slow thought came to him.
Can you feel it when I care about you?
Sometimes. Her reply was guarded. I know it’s not real, sometimes. But kind words, pretty words, feel good even if not real. Like remembering food when hungry.
Sudden shame flooded him. He took a slow breath and opened his gratitude to her. He let his thanks flow out of him, that she forgave him for taking her blood, that she had saved him, that she would continue to struggle on his behalf when he could not offer her definite hope of sanctuary.
As if he had poured oil on a fire, her warmth and regard for him grew. He actually felt his body physically warm, and suddenly her dogged one-two, one-two paddling grew stronger. Together they just might survive. Both of them.
For the first time in many years, he closed his eyes and breathed a heartfelt prayer to Sa.
“TAKE YOUR FOOD and get up there. Keep looking,” Leftrin told Davvie. “I want you up on top of the deckhouse, scanning in all directions. Look on the water, look for anyone clinging to debris, look at the trees and up in the trees. Keep looking. And keep blowing that horn. Three long blasts and then stop and listen. Then three long blasts again.”
“Yessir,” Davvie said faintly.
“You can do it,” Carson said behind him. He gave the exhausted boy a pat on the shoulder that was half a push. The boy snatched up two rounds of ship’s bread and his mug of tea and left the deckhouse.
“He’s a good lad. I know he’s tired,” Leftrin said. It was half apology for treating the boy so gruffly and half thanks for being able to use him.
“He wants to find them as much as anyone else here. He’ll keep going as long as he can.” Carson hesitated, then plunged on with, “What about Tarman? Can he help us with the search?”