The Dragon Keeper
And Tintaglia needed the food. She was the sole dragon left alive to shepherd all of them through this process. Sisarqua did not know where Tintaglia got her strength. The dragon had been flying without rest for days to shepherd them up the river, so unfamiliar to them after decades of change. She could not have many reserves left. Tintaglia could offer them little more than encouragement. What could one dragon do when faced with the needs of so many sea serpents?
Like the gossamer recollection of a dream, an ancestral memory wafted briefly through her mind. Not right, she thought. None of this is right; none of it is as it should be. This was the river, but where were the broad meadows and the oak forests that had once edged it? The lands that bounded the river now were swamp and boggy forest, with scarcely a bit of firm ground to be seen. If the humans had not labored to reinforce the bank of this beach with stone before the serpents arrived, they would have churned it to mud. Her ancestral serpent memories told her of broad, sunny meadows and a rich bank of clay near an Elderling city. Dragons should have been clawing chunks of clay free and churning the clay and water to slurry, dragons should have been putting the final seals on the serpents’ cases. And all of this should have been happening under a bright summer sun in the heat of the day.
She gave a shudder of weariness, and the memory faded beyond her recall. She was only a single serpent, struggling to weave the case that would protect her from winter’s cold while her body underwent its transformation. A single serpent, cold and weary, finally come home after an eternity of roaming. Her mind drifted back over the last few months.
The final leg of her journey had seemed an endless battle against the river current and the rocky shallows. She was a newcomer to Maulkin’s tangle and astonished by it. Usually a tangle numbered twenty to forty serpents. But Maulkin had gathered every serpent he could find and led them north. It had made foraging for food along the way far more difficult, but he had deemed it necessary. Never had she seen so many serpents traveling together as a single tangle. Some, it was true, had degenerated to little more than animals, and others were more than half mad with confusion and fear. Forgetfulness shrouded the minds of too many. Yet as they had followed the prophet-serpent with the gleaming gold false-eyes in a long row down his flanks, she had almost recalled the ancient migration route. All around her, both spirits and intelligence had rallied in the embattled serpents. This arduous journey had felt right, more right than anything had for a very long time.
Yet even so, she had known moments of doubt. Her ancestral memories of the river told her that the waterway they sought flowed steady and deep, and it teemed with fish. Her ancient dreams told her of rolling hills and meadows edged with open forests abounding with game for hungry dragons. This river had a deep channel that a ship could follow, but it threaded a wandering way inland through towering forest thick with creepers and brush. It could not be the way to their ancient cocooning grounds. Yet Maulkin had doggedly insisted that it was.
Her doubt had been so strong that she had nearly turned back. She had almost fled the icy river of milky water and retreated to the warmer waters of the oceans to the south. But when she lagged or started to turn aside from the path, others of the serpents came after her and drove her back into the tangle. She had had to follow.
But though she might doubt Maulkin’s visions, Tintaglia’s authority she had never questioned. The blue-and-silver dragon had recognized Maulkin as their leader and assisted the strange vessel that guided his tangle. The dragon had flown above them, trumpeting her encouragement, as she shepherded the tangle of serpents north, and then up this river. The swimming had been good as far as the two-legs city of Trehaug. Wearily but without excessive difficulty, they had followed the ship that led the way.
But past that city, the river had changed. The guiding ship had halted there, unable to traverse the shallows beyond. Past Trehaug, the river spread and widened and splintered into tributaries. Wide belts of gravel and sand invaded it, and dangling vines and reaching roots choked its edges. The river they followed became shallow and meandering, toothed with rocks in some places and then choked with reeds in the next stretch. Again Sisarqua had wanted to turn back, but like the other serpents, she had allowed herself to be bullied and driven by the dragon. Up the river they had gone. With more than one hundred of her kind, she had flopped and floundered through the inadequate ladder of log corrals that the humans had built in an attempt to provide deeper water for their progress through the final, killing shallows.
Many had died on that part of their journey. Small injuries that would have healed quickly in the caressing salt water of the sea became festering ulcers in the river’s harsh flow. After their long banishment at sea, many of the great serpents were feeble both in mind and spirit. So many things were wrong. Too many years had passed since they had hatched. They should have made this journey decades ago, as healthy young serpents, and they should have migrated up the river in the warmth of summer, when their bodies were sleek with fat. Instead they came in the rains and misery of winter, thin and battered and speckled with barnacles, but mostly old, far older than any serpents had ever been before.