The Dragon Keeper
Leftrin stretched, rolling his shoulders. His shirt clung to his skin unpleasantly. Well, he deserved to be uncomfortable. If any of his crew had been so stupid as to fall asleep out on the deck, that’s what he would have told them. But they hadn’t been. All eleven of his men slumbered on in the narrow, tiered bunks that lined the aft wall of the deckhouse. His own more spacious bunk had gone empty. Stupid.
It was too early to be awake. The fire in the galley stove was still banked; no hot water simmered for tea, no flatcakes bubbled on the grill. And yet here he was, wide awake, and of a mind to take a walk back under the trees. It was a strange impulse, one he had no conscious rationale for, and yet he recognized it for the kind of itch it was. It came, he knew, from the unremembered dreams of the night before. He reached for them, but the tattered shreds became threads of cobweb in his mind’s grasp, and then were gone. Still, he’d follow their lingering inspiration. He’d never lost out by paying attention to those impulses, and almost inevitably regretted it the few times he’d ignored them.
He went into the deckhouse, past his sleeping crew and through the little galley and forward to his cabin. He exchanged his deck shoes for his shore boots. The knee boots of greased bullhide were nearly worn through; the acidic waters of the Rain Wild River were not kind to footwear, clothing, wood, or skin. But his boots would survive another trip or two ashore, and as a result, his skin would, too. He caught up his jacket from its hook and slung it about his shoulders and walked aft past the crew. He kicked the foot of the tillerman’s bunk. Swarge’s head jolted up and the man stared at him blearily.
“I’m going ashore, going to stretch my legs. Probably be back by breakfast.”
“Aye,” Swarge said, the only acceptable reply and close to the full extent of Swarge’s conversational skills. Leftrin grunted an affirmation and left the deckhouse.
The evening before, they had nosed the barge up onto a marshy bank and tied it off to a big leaning tree there. Leftrin swung down from the blunt-nosed bow of the barge onto mud-coated reeds. The barge’s painted eyes stared off into the dimness under the trees. Ten days ago, a warm wind and massive rainstorms had swelled the Rain Wild River, sending the waters rushing up above their normal banks and over the low shores. In the last two days, the waters had receded, but the plant life along the river was still recovering from being underwater for several days of silt-laden flooding. The reeds were coated with filth, and most of the grasses were flattened beneath their burdens of mud. Isolated pockets of water dotted the low bank. As Leftrin strode along, his feet sank and water seeped up to fill in his tracks.
He wasn’t sure where he was going or why. He let his whim guide him as he ventured away from the riverbank into the deeper shade beneath the vine-draped trees. There, the signs of the recent flooding were even more apparent. Driftwood snags were wedged among the tree trunks. Tangles of muddy foliage and torn webs of vines were festooned about the trees and bushes. Fresh deposits of river silt covered the deep moss and low-growing plants. The gigantic trunks of the enormous trees that held up the roof of the Rain Wilds were impervious to most floods, but the undergrowth that rioted in their shade was not. In some places, the current had carved a path through the underbrush; in others, the slime and sludge of the flood burdened the foliage so heavily that the brush bent in muddied hummocks.
Where he could, Leftrin slogged in the paths that the river current had gouged through the brush. When the mud became too soft, he pushed through the grimy undergrowth. He was soon wet and filthy. A branch he pushed aside sprang back, slapping him across the brow and spattering his face with mud. He hastily wiped the stinging stuff from his skin. Like many a riverman, his arms and face had been toughened by exposure to the acidic waters of the Rain Wild River. It gave his face a leathery, weathered look, a startling contrast to his gray eyes. He privately believed that this was why he had so few of the growths and less of the scaliness that afflicted most of his Rain Wild brethren. Not that he considered himself a thing of beauty or even a handsome man. The wandering thought made him grin ruefully. He pushed it from his mind and a dangling branch away from his face and forced his way deeper.
There came a moment when he stopped suddenly. Some sensory clue he could not pin down, some scent on the air or some glimpse he had not consciously registered told him he was near. He stood very still and slowly scanned the area all around him. His eyes went past it, and then the hair on the back of his neck stood up as he swiveled his gaze back suddenly. There. Mud-laden vegetation draped over it, and the river’s raging flood had coated it in muck, but a single streak of gray showed through. A wizardwood log.