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The mad ship, p.90
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       The Mad Ship, p.90

         Part #2 of Liveship Traders series by Robin Hobb

  “She's going to fall and crush us,” Selden wailed. He clutched at Reyn and instinctively tried to climb on top of him. Reyn stiff-armed the boy away. “Lay wide on the top, and pray!” he shouted.

  More of the dome was coming down. Debris was mixed with the earth. Small trees and some coarse ferns and grasses crashed down. “She's going to make it,” Reyn roared as she hitched her rib cage up over the edge. He heard her triumphant trumpet. The soar of joy in his heart surprised him. There was a final shower of earth and debris. Then sunlight flooded the ruined chamber. Her long tail lashed its way up and vanished. He heard her roar again, and felt the wind of her frantically beating wings. He did not see her rise with his eyes, but he felt it in his heart. Stillness flowed back with her passing. She was gone.

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  Tears streamed down his face. He stared up at the small window of blue summer sky. She might be the last of her kind, but at least she would fly before she died.

  “Reyn. Reyn!” There was annoyance in Selden's voice. He turned his face toward the sound and then blinked his eyes to adjust them. The boy had pulled himself out onto a large chunk of grassy earth that had landed upright on the muck. He stood up and pointed at a dangling network of roots that hung down from the ceiling. “I think we can pile up enough stuff for me to grab hold of those roots. I could climb out and go for help. ” His eyes darted around the room hopefully. In addition to more hunks of crystal, there were pieces of old timber and parts of trees now atop the muck.

  Careless of mud and water, Reyn rolled over on his back and considered it. The roots were not thick, but the boy didn't weigh much. “I think you're right,” he conceded. “Maybe we'll come out of this alive after all. ” He rolled back to his belly and began to flounder his way over to the boy.

  As he grasped at the coarse grass and hauled himself out of the mud and onto solid ground, Selden asked him, “Do you think maybe Malta got out, too?”

  “She might have,” Reyn said. He thought he lied, but as he spoke, a sudden lift in his heart told him he not only hoped, he believed it possible. With the flight of the dragon, all things seemed possible. As if in echo of his thought, he heard the faraway echoing of the dragon's trumpeting cry. He glimpsed a flash of a brighter blue against the sky.

  “If my mother or brother sees or hears her, they'll know where she came from. They'll search and send help to us. We're going to live. ”

  Selden met the older man's eyes. “Until then, let's try to get ourselves out,” he proposed. “After all we've been through, I don't want to be rescued by someone else. I want to do it myself. ”

  Reyn grinned and nodded.

  TINTAGLIA BANKED OVER THE WIDE RAIN WILD RIVER VALLEY. SHE TASTED the summer air, rich with all the smells of life. She was free, free. She beat her wings strongly, flapping them harder than she must, for the simple joy of experiencing her own strength. She rose through the blue summer day, soaring up to where the air was thin and chill. The river became a sparkling silver thread in the green tapestry below her. She had in her memory the experiences of all her forebears to draw upon, but she savored for the first time her own flight. She was free now, free to create her own memory and life. She circled lazily down, considering all that lay before her.

  She had a task before her, the task that she alone remained to perform. She must find the young ones, and protect and guide them in their migration up the river. She hoped that some remained alive to be guided. If not, she would truly be the last of her kind.

  She tried to dismiss the humans from her mind. They were not Elderlings, who knew the ways of her kind and accorded dragons proper respect. They were humans. One could not owe anything to such beings. They were creatures of a few breaths, frantic to eat and breed before their brief span of days was done. What could one of her kind owe to something that died and rotted swifter than a tree did? Could one be in debt to a butterfly or a blade of grass?

  She touched them briefly with her mind, a final time. They had not long to live. The female struggled like a beetle in a puddle, floating and flailing against moving water. Reyn Khuprus was where she had left him, mired in mud and squirming like a worm. He struggled in the self-same chamber where she had languished for so many years.

  The brevity of their lives suddenly touched her. In the momentary twinkling of their existence, each of them had tried to aid her. Each had taken time from their mate quest to try to free her. Poor little bugs. It was a small cost to her, these few moments out of the vast store of years to come. She turned a lazy loop in the sweet summer air. Then with strong, steady beats of her wings, she drove herself back toward the buried city.

  “I'm coming!” she called to them both. “Don't fear. I'll save you. ”


  CHAPTER FORTY - The Memory of Wings

  WE KNOW WHERE WE ARE GOING, AND WHY. WHY MUST WE PUSH OURselves so hard, swimming so swiftly and for so much of the day?" The slender green minstrel was limp in the grasp of the tangle. He lacked even the strength to return the grip of the other serpents. He trusted them to hold him as he swayed in the moving current like seaweed. Shreever pitied him. She lapped another coil of her length around his frail body and held him more securely.

  “I think,” she bugled softly, “that Maulkin drives us so hard because he fears that our memories may fade again. We must reach our goal before we lose our purpose. Before we forget where we go, and why we go there. ”

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  “There is more to it than that,” Sessurea added. He, too, sounded weary. But there was a lilt of pleasure in his voice. There was such comfort in knowing the answer. “The seasons are turning. We are nearer the end of summer than the beginning. We should have been there by now. ”

  “We should even now be wrapped in silt and memories, letting the sun bake our memories into us while we make our change,” Kelaro added.

  “Our cases must be hard and strong before the rains come and the chill of winter. Otherwise, we may perish before we have completed our metamorphosis,” scarlet Sylic reminded them all.

  The other serpents in the tangle added their voices, speaking low to one another. “The water must still be warm for the threads to form best. ”

  “Sunlight and warmth are needed for the shell to be hard. ”

  “It must bake through, solid and firm, before the change can begin. ”

  Maulkin opened his great eyes. His false eyes shimmered gold with pleasure. “Sleep and rest, little ones,” he told them blandly, ignoring the fact that several of the serpents were far larger than he was, and many were his equal. “Dream well and take comfort in all we know. Speak of it to one another. Sharing the memories Draquius gave us will help us to preserve them. ”

  They trumpeted their agreements softly as they wrapped and secured one another. The tangle had grown. In the wake of Draquius' sacrifice, many of the feral serpents had shown signs of returning memory. Some still did not speak. Nevertheless, from time to time intelligence flashed briefly in their eyes, and they behaved as if they were a true part of the tangle, even to joining the others at rest. There was comfort in greater numbers. When they met other serpents now, the outsiders either avoided Maulkin's tangle or followed and gradually became a part of them. Maulkin had confided to them the hope that when they reached the river and migrated up to the cocooning grounds, even the most bestial might feel the stir of memories.

  Shreever lidded her eyes and sank down to dream. That was another recovered pleasure. In her dreams, she flew again, as she recalled her forebears had done. In her dreams, she had already changed to a fine dragon, with the freedom of the three realms.

  “But do not become overly confident in these memories,” Maulkin abruptly added. He did not proclaim it loudly. Only she, Sessurea and a few others closest to him opened their eyes to his voice.

  “What do you mean?” Shreever asked him in dread. Had not they suffered enough? Now they rem
embered. What was to stop them from reaching their goal?

  “Nothing is quite right,” Maulkin said quietly. “Nothing is as it was, nothing is exactly as it should be. We must swim fast and well, to allow ourselves time to overcome obstacles along the way. Be assured, there will be obstacles. ”

  “What do you mean?” Sessurea asked plaintively, but Shreever thought she already knew. She kept silent and listened to the prophet's reply.

  “Look around you,” he bade them. “What do you see?”

  Sessurea spoke for them all. “I see the Plenty. I see the remains of old structures tumbled on the seafloor. I see the Arch of Rythos in the distance. . . . ”

  “And is not the Arch of Rythos, in all your memories, a pleasant place to perch after an afternoon of flying about the Lack? Did not it stand tall and proud at the entrance to Rythos Harbor? Why is it scattered and broken and swallowed by the Plenty?”

  No one replied. All waited for his answer.

  “I do not know either,” Maulkin rumbled softly when the silence had grown long. “However, I suspect that these things are what have long confused us. They are why things were almost familiar, why we could nearly recall the way, and yet could not. ”

  “Is the fault ours alone?” Tellur demanded. Shreever had thought the slender green minstrel was asleep. His tired voice had an indignant ring to it. “The memories that Draquius bequeathed to us tell us that we should look for serpents who remember, ones in whom the memories have remained clean and strong. Not only those ones, but also guides are supposed to assist us. Where are the grown dragons that should have stood guard at the river mouths, to protect us as we swarm? Why have we seen nothing of the generation that went before us?”

  Maulkin's voice went soft with pity. “Have not you grasped it, Tellur? Draquius told us what became of them. Some perished in the rain of smoke and ash. Those few who had a chance at survival were slain and their memories stolen. They are the silver ones we have encountered from time to time. They smell to us like Ones Who Remember, because at one time they were. All that is left is their stolen memories. ”

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  For a moment, all was silence. Slowly the sick realization settled into Shreever. This tangle was all that was left. They had to survive, on their own, if their species was to continue. They must puzzle out for themselves which river led to the cocooning grounds. They must defy predators to swarm up the river. Somehow, they must create their own cases, without the loving aid of grown dragons. And once encased and helpless, they would have to trust to luck to survive the winter. There would be no dragons standing watch over them. Her gaze traveled from serpent to serpent. How many of those tangled here would spread their dragon wings next spring? Would there be enough survivors to select suitable mates when the time came? How many would survive to guard the nests until the eggs hatched? When the young serpents wriggled from the beach to the sea, to begin their first cycle of migrating and feeding in the sea, there would be no grown serpents to teach them the ways of the sea. The odds against the survival of her kind suddenly seemed insurmountable. If she survived to become a dragon, she faced a long, long life of watching dragons and sea serpents vanish from the three realms. How could it be endured?

  “They belonged to us,” Tellur declared bluntly.

  “What does?” Shreever asked distantly. The future, she thought to herself. The tomorrows belonged to us. No longer.

  “The memories. The memories stored in the silver ones. They are ours, and having them makes us stronger. ” He suddenly broke free of the tangle with a lash of his tail. “We should take them back!”

  “Tellur. ” Maulkin gently untangled himself from the others. He moved to flank the smaller serpent without challenging him. “We do not have time to take vengeance. ”

  “Not vengeance! I am talking of taking what is rightfully ours, what is greater sustenance to us than the food we eat. The memories were shared amongst us. What one should have possessed was divided amongst many; nevertheless, we became wiser, and each has shared what was learned. How much more would we benefit from a greater portion of those memories? We should seek them out and take back what is ours. ”

  Swifter than a school of herring changes direction, Maulkin wrapped him. He had glided up to the small minstrel so easily and calmly that Tellur had never seen it coming. Maulkin's golden eyes twined about Tellur's green coat, and his great head wound up face-to-face with Tellur's small one. Maulkin opened wide his jaws, and breathed a fine mist of toxin at the minstrel. Dominated, the smaller serpent became quiescent in his coils. Tellur's eyes spun in lazy dreams.

  “We have no time for that,” Maulkin asserted quietly to all of them as he towed his lax companion back to the tangle. “If the opportunity to take another silver presents itself, we shall have it. That I promise you. But we cannot delay our migration to seek them. Rest well, Maulkin's tangle, for tomorrow we press on. ”

  Tomorrow, Shreever thought to herself as the tangle writhed, coiled and re-anchored itself. There is yet another tomorrow that is ours. She lidded her eyes against silt and let herself dream of wings.

  SHE WAS CRIPPLED. SHE WOULD NEVER SWIM AS EASILY AS A DRAGON RIDING an updraft. She had been kept too long in confinement and fed too restricted a diet. She could not straighten her body to its full length, stunted though that was. She was heavy and thick where she should have been sleek and muscular. Perhaps it was permanent, perhaps it was hopeless.

  But without doubt she was free.

  And without doubt or regret, she had slain the Abominations who had imprisoned her. Never would they torment another young serpent as they had tormented her. She wished she could kill them over and over again, endlessly, and forever take satisfaction in the act. Even as she desired it, she recognized it as yet another of the deformities they had inflicted on her. She tried to cast it out of herself.

  She had seen the little two-legs taken up in a rowboat, and then followed it protectively until it was taken up by a greater vessel. The scent of the ship troubled her. It smelled like a serpent, and yet it was not. Moreover, it smelled like One Who Remembered, and yet it was a tongueless thing that answered her not. She did not want to consider how that could be. The answers could be hidden in the boy's knowledge that she had shared so briefly. She considered taking the time to follow the ship and puzzle these things out.

  But a greater urgency beckoned her. After all the seasons of imprisonment, fate had freed her. She was destined to be a guide to her own kind, yet here she was, still close to the beach where she had hatched. She had not migrated with them; she had not fed with them and grown in bulk, as she should have. Yet as twisted and stunted as she might be, she still held that which was most essential to them. In her glands and toxins resided the ancient knowledge of her race. It was to be shared with them, before they swarmed up the river to begin their change. As she humped and writhed through the water, she doubted that she herself could make the arduous journey up the river. Yet she would seek out the others and share with them the stored memories.

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  She came briefly up into the Lack, tasting the free salt wind. On the deck of the silver vessel, men cried out at the sight of her. She dove swiftly again and made her decision. The silver ship was bound back toward the islands. Beyond the islands was the mainland, and in the mainland was the mouth of the river that led to the cocooning grounds. That was her destination. She would stay alongside the silver vessel as long as their paths lay in the same direction. There was something, perhaps, to be learned here. Besides, she was intrigued with the small thinking animals on the ship. She would study them. When at last she rejoined whatever remained of her own kind, she would have memories of her own to share as well. Let her confined life offer at least that much to her kind. She Who Remembered dove deep and tried to stretch her crippled muscles. As she returned almost to the surface, she found that position where the wake of the ship helped draw her al
ong after it. She settled into it, and continued toward her destiny.

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