The Dragon Keeper
Prologue Serpents’ End
They had come so far, yet now that she was here, the years of journeying were already fading in her mind, giving way to the desperate needs of the present. Sisarqua opened her jaws and bent her neck. It was hard for the sea serpent to focus her thoughts. It had been years since she had been completely out of the water. She had not felt dry land under her body since she had hatched on Others’ Island. She was far from Others’ Island’s hot dry sand and balmy waters now. Winter was closing in on this densely forested land beside the chill river. The mudbank under her coiled length was hard and abrasive. The air was too cold, and her gills were drying out too quickly. There was nothing she could do about that except to work more swiftly. She scooped her jaws into the immense trough and came up with a mouthful of silver-streaked clay and river water. She threw her great head back and gulped it down. It was gritty and cold and strangely delicious. Another mouthful, another swallow. And again.
She had lost count of how many gulps of the grainy soup she had ingested when finally she felt the ancient reflex trigger. Working the muscles in her throat, she felt her poison sacs swell. Her fleshy mane stood out all around her throat in a toxic, quivering ruff. Shuddering down her full length, she opened her jaws wide, strained, gagged, and then met with success. She clamped and locked her jaws to contain the liquid, releasing it only as a thin, powerful stream of clay, bile, and saliva tinged with venom. With difficulty, she turned her head and then coiled her tail closer to her body. The extrusion was like a silvery thread, thick and heavy. Her head wove as she layered the wet winding over herself.
She felt a heavy tread nearby, and then the shadow of the walking dragon passed over her. Tintaglia paused and spoke to her. “Good. Good, that’s right. A nice even layer to begin with, one with no gaps. That’s right.”
Sisarqua could not spare a glance for the blue-and-silver queen who praised her. Creating the case that would shelter her during the remaining months of winter took all her attention. She focused on it with a desperation born of weariness. She needed sleep. She longed to sleep; but she knew that if she slept now, she would never wake again in any form. Finish it, she thought. Finish it, and then I can rest.
All around her on the riverbank other serpents labored at the same task, with varying degrees of success. Between and among them, humans toiled. Some carried buckets of water from the river. Others mined chunks of silvery clay from a nearby bank and loaded them into barrows. Youngsters trundled the barrows to a hastily constructed log enclosure. Water and clay were dumped into the immense trough; other workers used shovels and paddles to break up the lumps of clay and render the water and clay into a loose porridge. It was this slurry that Sisarqua had consumed as the major ingredients for manufacturing her case. The lesser ingredients were just as essential. Her body added the toxins that would plunge her into a sleep half a breath above death. Her saliva contributed her memories to the keeping of her case. Not just her own memories of her time as a serpent, but all the memories of those of her bloodline spooled around her as she wove her case.
Missing were the memories she should have received from watchful dragons tending the serpents as they made their cases. She had enough memories to recall that there should have been at least a score of dragons present, encouraging them, chewing the memory sand and clay and contributing their own regurgitated saliva and history to the process. But there weren’t, and she was too tired to wonder how that lack might affect her.
A great weariness washed over her as she reached the neck of her case. It had to be constructed in a way that would eventually allow her to draw her head in and then seal it behind her. It came to her, slowly, that in previous generations, the dragons who had tended the serpents had sometimes helped them seal their cases. But Sisarqua knew better than to hope for that help. Only 129 serpents had massed at the mouth of the Serpent River to begin the desperate upriver migration to the traditional cocooning grounds. Maulkin, their leader, had been gravely concerned that so few of them were female: less than a third. In any cocooning year, there should have been hundreds of serpents, and at least as many females as males. They had waited so long in the sea, and then come so far in the hope of restoring their species. It was hard to hear that they might be too few and too late.
The difficulties of the river journey had reduced the number still further. Sisarqua was not certain how many had reached the cocooning beach. About ninety, she thought, but the graver news was that fewer than twenty of the survivors were female. And all around her, exhausted serpents continued to die. Even as she thought of it, she heard Tintaglia speak to a human worker. “He is dead. Bring your hammers and break up his case. Work it back into the troughs of memory clay. Let the others keep alive the memories of his ancestors.” She could not see, but she heard the sounds of Tintaglia dragging the dead serpent from his unfinished cocoon. She smelled his flesh and blood as the dragon devoured his carcass. Hunger and weariness cramped her. She wished she could share Tintaglia’s meal but knew that it was too late for eating now. The clay was in her gut and must be processed.