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The Dragon Keeper

Robin Hobb

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  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. Page 2


  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.

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  The single dragon who watched over them was less than a year’s turning out of her own cocoon. Tintaglia flew overhead, glinting silver whenever the winter sunlight broke through the clouds to touch her. “Not far!” she kept calling down to them. “Beyond the ladder the waters deepen again and you can once more swim freely. Keep moving. ”

  Some were simply too battered, too weary, too thin for such a journey. One big orange serpent died draped across the log wall of the penned water, unable to drag himself any farther. Sisarqua was close to him when his great wedge-shaped head dropped suddenly beneath the water. Impatiently, she waited for him to move on. Then his spiky mane of tendrils suddenly spasmed and released a final rush of toxins. They were faint and feeble, the last reflexive defenses of his body, yet they clearly signaled to any serpents within range that he was dead. The smell and taste of them in the water summoned her to the feast.

  Sisarqua had not hesitated. She had been the first to tear into his body, filling her mouth with his flesh, gulping it down and tearing another chunk free before the rest of the tangle even realized the opportunity. The sudden nourishment dizzied her almost as much as the rush of his memories. This was the way of her kind, not to waste the bodies of the dead but to take from them both nourishment and knowledge. Just as every dragon carried within him the memories of his entire line, so every serpent retained the memories of those who had gone before. Or was supposed to. Sisarqua and every other serpent wallowing dismally alongside her had remained in serpent form too long. Memories had faded and with them, intelligence. Even some of those who now strove to complete the migration and become dragons were reduced to brutish shadows of what they should have been. What sort of dragons would they become?

  Her head had darted in, mane abristle, to seize another sizable chunk of the orange serpent’s flesh. Her brain whirled with memories of rich fishing and of nights spent singing with his tangle under the jewel-bright skies. That memory was very old. She suspected it had been scores of years since any tangle had risen from the Plenty to the Lack to lift their voices in praise of the starspeckled sky above them.

  Others had crowded her then, hissing and lifting their manes in threat to one another as they strove to share the feast. She tore a final piece of flesh free and then wallowed over the log that had stopped the orange. She had tossed the hunk of warm meat down whole and felt it distend her gullet pleasantly. The sky, she thought, and in response felt a brief stir of the orange serpent’s dim dragon memories. The sky, open and wide as the sea. Soon she would sail it again. Not much farther, Tintaglia had promised.

  But distance is measured one way by a dragon a-wing and quite another way by a battered serpent wallowing up a shallow river. They did not see the clay banks that afternoon. Night fell upon them, sudden as a blow, the short day spent almost before it had begun. For yet another night, Sisarqua endured the cold of the air that the shallow river did not allow her to escape. The water that flowed past was barely sufficient to keep her gills wet; the skin on her back felt as if it would crack from the dry cold that scoured her. And in the late morning, the sun that found its way down onto the wide river between the jungled banks revealed more serpents who would never complete the migration. Again, she was fortunate enough to feed from one of the corpses before the rest of the horde drove her away from it. Again, Tintaglia circled overhead, calling down the promise that it was not far to Cassarick and rest, the long peaceful rest of the transformation.

  The day had been chill, and the skin of her back was dried by a long night spent above water. She could feel the skin cracking beneath her scales, and when the river deepened enough to allow her to submerge and soak her gills, the milky river water stung her split skin. She felt the acidic water eat at her. If she did not reach the cocooning beach soon, she would not make it.

  The afternoon was both horribly short and painfully long. In the deeper stretches where she could swim, the water stung her breached skin. But that was preferable to the places where she crawled on her belly like a snake, fighting for purchase on the slimy rocks at the bottom of the riverbed. All around her, other immense sea serpents squirmed and coiled and flexed, trying to make their way upriver.

  When she arrived, she did not know it. The sun was already westering behind the tall banks of trees that fronted the river. Creatures that were not Elderlings had kindled torches and stuck them in a great circle on a muddy riverbank. She peered at them. Humans. Ordinary two-legs, little more than prey. They scampered about, apparently in ser vice to Tintaglia, serving her as once Elderlings would have done. It was oddly humiliating; was this how low dragons had fallen, to be reduced to consorting with humans?

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  Sisarqua lifted her maned head high, tasting the night air. It was not right. It was not right at all. She could find no certainty in her hearts that this was the cocooning place. Yet on the shore she could see some of the serpents who had preceded her. A few were already encapsulated in cases spun from the silver-streaked clay and their own saliva. Others still struggled, wearily, to complete the task.

  Complete the task. Yes. Her mind jolted back to the present. There was no more time for these memories. With a final heave, she brought up the last of the clay and bile that remained to her and completed the thick lip of her case’s neck. But she was empty now; she had misjudged. She had nothing left to seal her case. If she tr
ied to reach the slurry, she would break the coiled cocoon she had made, and she knew with painful certainty that she would not have the strength to weave it again. So close she had come, so close, and yet here she would die, never to rise.

  A wave of panic and fury washed through her. In one instant of conflict, she decided to wrest herself free of the cocoon, and to remain absolutely still. The stillness won, bolstered by a flood of memories. That was the virtue of having the memories of one’s ancestors; sometimes the wisdom of old prevailed over the terrors of the present. In the stillness, her mind cleared. She had memories to draw on, memories of serpents who had survived such an error, and dying memories of ones who had not. The corpses of the failed serpents had been devoured by those who survived. Thus even the memories of fatal errors lived on to serve the needs of survivors.

  She clearly saw three paths. Stay within her case and call for a dragon to help her finish sealing her case. Well, that was of no use to her. Tintaglia was already overwhelmed. Break free of her case and demand that the dragon bring her food, so that she might eat and regain her strength to spin a new case. Another impossible solution. Panic threatened again. This time it was an act of her own will that pushed it aside. She was not going to die here. She had come too far and struggled through too many dangers to let death claim her now. No. She was going to live, she was going to emerge in spring as a dragon and take back her mastery of the skies. She would fly again. Somehow.


  She would live to rise as a queen. Demand that which was owed to a queen dragon now. The right of first survival in hard times. She drew what breath she could and trumpeted out a name. “Tintaglia!”

  Her gills were too dry, her throat nearly destroyed from the spinning of the coarse clay into thread. Her cry for aid, her demand, was barely a whisper. And even her strength to break free of her case was gone, fading beyond recall. She was going to die.

  “Are you in trouble, beautiful one? I feel your distress. Can I help you?”

  Inside the restrictive casing she could not turn her head. But she could roll her eyes and see the one who addressed her. An Elderling. He was very small and very young, but in the touch of his mind against hers, there was no mistaking him. This was no mere human, even if his shape still resembled one.