The flooding was subsiding slowly. The high waterline on the nearby tree trunks was now shoulder-high on her. Next to her, Alise slept deeply, curled in a ball. Tats was just beyond her, breathing huskily. Jerd, she noted, slept tucked into the curve of Greft’s body. For a moment, she envied them the warmth they shared and then dismissed the thought. That wasn’t for her. Boxter and Nortel were perched on the edge of the platform, staring out at the flooded forest and talking softly. The dragons were hunched on their log perches. They looked uncomfortable and precarious, but they were sleeping heavily. The chill of the water and the deep shade of the trees had plunged them into deep lethargy. They probably wouldn’t stir until midmorning, or later.
Thymara nudged Sylve and whispered, “I’m going to see if I can find us some food,” and then picked her way through her sleeping comrades. Log by log, she clambered over the pack of floating debris to the closest major tree trunk. It had no branches within reach, but her claws served her well as she scaled it. It was strange how good it felt to be back in the trees again. Safer. She might still be hungry, thirsty, and insect bitten, but the trees had always befriended and sheltered her.
She had not gone far when the forest rewarded her for her efforts. She found a trumpet vine and drank the nectary water from the blossoms with only a small twinge of guilt. She had no way to carry the meager mouthful that each flower offered her. She’d drink now, renew her own strength, and hope she’d find something she could transport back to her friends. There was not really enough liquid to quench her thirst, but at least her tongue no longer felt like leather. When she had emptied every flower, she climbed on.
The exertion required a different use of her arms and shoulders than she had become accustomed to, and soon the injury on her back began to leak fluid again. It did not hurt as much as it had, though she could feel the skin pull every time she reached for a new handhold. The tickle of liquid down her spine was distracting and annoying, but there was nothing she could do about it. Twice she saw birds that would have been easy prey for her if she’d had a bow, and once she hastily dropped down to a lower limb and changed trees when she came across a large constrictor snake who lifted his head and eyed her with interest. At that moment, she decided that her decision to sleep on the raft instead of in the trees had been a good one.
She was looking for a good horizontal branch to allow her to cross to another tree when she encountered Nortel. He was sitting on the branch that was her chosen path, and from the way he greeted her, she suspected he’d seen her and watched her progress down the trunk.
“Find anything to eat?” he asked her.
“Not yet. I got some water from a trumpet vine, but I haven’t found any fruit or nuts yet.”
He nodded slowly, then asked her, “Are you alone?”
She shrugged and wondered why his question made her uncomfortable. “Yes. Everyone else was asleep.”
“Well, you were talking to Boxter. And I like to hunt and forage alone. I always have.” She took another step toward him, but he made no sign of moving to allow her to pass him on the branch. It was wide enough that he could easily have moved to one side. Instead, he remained perched where he was, looking up at her. She didn’t know Nortel well; she’d never realized his eyes were green. He was not as scaled as most of the other boys, and what he did have, around his eyes, was very fine. When he blinked, his lashes caught the light and sparked silver at her.
After a long moment, he said, “I’m sorry about Rapskal. I know you two were close.”
She looked away from him. She was trying not to think of Rapskal and Heeby and whether they had died quickly or struggled for a long time in the water. “I’ll miss him,” she said. Her voice went thick and tight on the words. “But today is today, and I need to see what food I can find. May I get past you, please?”
“Oh. Of course.” Instead of just sliding to one side, he stood up. He was taller than she was. He turned sideways on the branch and motioned that she should edge past him. She hesitated. Was there a challenge in how he stood there or was she imagining it?
She decided she was being silly. She edged past him, sliding her feet and facing him as she did so. She was halfway past him when he shifted slightly. She dug her toenails into the bark of the branch and hissed in alarm. He immediately caught her by the arms and held her facing him. His grip on her arms was firm, and she was closer to him than she wanted to be. “I wouldn’t let you fall,” he promised her, his face solemn. His green eyes bored down into hers.