The food Dragon had cooked for her stayed down, but while Orchid was hiding in the trees, she started shivering again. Her sense of up and down seemed unreliable, so she curled into as small a ball as she could, dug her toe-claws into a branch, and wrapped her wings around herself. She would have to hope Skimmer would leave without searching the island.
Curled up like that, she could barely hear Dragon and Skimmer talking on the beach, and she fell asleep, to endless nightmares of Skimmer tying her up, Skimmer beating her, and Skimmer attacking Dragon. In her dreams, when she managed to fly away, Skimmer shifted forms, and flew after her. How could Skimmer be a shifter?
But then, how could she herself be a fireborn?
The nightmares changed; now she was experiencing every fireborn-gone-wrong story she’d ever heard, but with herself as the fireborn, watching, helpless and bewildered, as her magic did terrible things. And Skimmer was still after her, but her magic couldn’t touch him.
Then Skimmer caught her in mid-air and tied her up, and she started to plummet toward the ground. He’d gagged her so she couldn’t use her fireborn magic—it was a standard part of many stories, though it didn’t seem quite right to her—and she whimpered as she fell.
It seemed to take forever.
“Orchid?” Dragon was practically whispering. “Are you all right?”
How could Dragon be up here, in the sky? Orchid’s eyes flew open, and she saw she was in a tree, on a dark night. Dragon was below her.
“D—Dragon?” Her voice came out weak and shaking.
“You were whimpering! Are you all right?”
She took stock. Most of the injuries she remembered—from her dreams?—were gone. She seemed mostly whole, and up and down seemed stable, at least for the moment. But she was shivering. “C—cold.”
“Can you see—can you tell if Skimmer, or anybody, is waiting out in the water?”
She looked. She could see shadows of fish, but nothing even close to large enough to be a human. “He’s gone.” A wave of relief washed over her, like a warm thermal.
“Well, come on down, let’s get you by the fire.”
Slowly, aching, Orchid climbed down out of the tree, unwilling to let go of its stability.
“Did you—“ Dragon paused, reaching to steady her. His hands felt cold, but lakeborns always felt cold to windborns. “ah—keep the food down?”
“Yeah.” At the thought of food, Orchid’s stomach growled. “I’m hungry,” she said, astonished. “Very hungry.”
“There’s still some plums, and I could catch some fish, or maybe some clams.”
She nodded. “Yes. Anything.” And then, as an afterthought. “Please.” Orchid settled eagerly by the fire, stretching out her wings, bent at the elbow, as close as she could bear to it. The warmth felt wonderful, better than the sun on her back in the winter.
She watched as Dragon dug in the sand under a pile of clam shells, and pulled up a few plums. He brushed them off. “Be careful of the lakewater; Skimmer dumped some nofiera in it.”
“Oh.” Orchid reached eagerly for the plums, and ignoring the bits of sand that still clung to them, bit into one. It tasted wonderful. Orchid forced herself to eat slowly, but she licked every drop from her fingers. “Nofiera in the lake? But why--?”
“I kind-of helped.” Skimmer grinned. “I overheard your mother telling Lily that relatives of fireborns nearly always get sick from nofiera. I figured you’d rather none of that stuff got back to the Mayor.”
“Back to—you mean my mother would get sick from this stuff too?” Orchid leapt to her feet only to have the world wobble around her. She tried to stand tall. “We have to warn her.”
“Somehow all the stuff Skimmer gathered was spoiled. And you can’t fly anywhere the way you’re feeling, though I really wanted to get you off this island.”
She sat again, and started on the third plum. “This might be mostly hunger. Windborns have to eat, or we get sick.”
“Oh. You—you can’t see anyone in the water right now, can you?”
She looked out over the lake. “No. Just some fish. And there’s a couple of clams right by your foot. No—to the other side.”
He dug out the clams and set them to cook. “I’ll be right back.” He dove into the water.
She finished the last plum and tracked his progress under the water. Whatever she was seeing gave her something similar to a blurry silhouette to follow, but no details. Or maybe different details, but she didn’t know how to interpret them. There were colors that stayed the same, and colors that shifted. She looked at the forest—everything there had extra colors too, though somehow it was easier to see them through the water or the sand, with the normal colors her eyes saw obscured. Or maybe it was just easier to notice them that way, just as it was easier to notice a green leaf on the sand than it was in some grass.
But she quickly turned her attention back to the water. She didn’t want to lose track of Dragon and risk being found by Skimmer again. Dragon had moved a little while she was looking at the forest, but not enough to worry her. And there were still no other human-sized shimmers of color anywhere she could see. She breathed a sigh of relief.
Dragon now had some odd-shaped shimmers and some long wavy shimmers in one hand, and she watched while he swam past one of those odd vertical lines and grabbed something else up off the lakebed. She wondered if the wavy things he was carrying might be plants; they looked—she had to think about how to describe it, and settled on calmer, somehow, than the clams or Dragon or the other things he was carrying.
Then her nose informed her the clams were cooked, and she picked up a stick to drag them way from the fire to cool. She looked up to see Dragon coming up out of the water with a huge handful of crabs wrapped tightly in seaweed. He had more seaweed in his other hand, which he gave to her. “It’s not exciting, but it’s nutritious, and you don’t have to wait for it to cook.”
She took the seaweed and tasted it. He was right. It was stringy and slightly bitter, just enough to make it more interesting than bland.
“It’s better stewed,” he said apologetically, as he set to scooping a hollow in the sand near the fire with his foot.”
“Hey—don’t burn yourself!”
“I’m fine. Eat.” He laid the dripping mess of crabs and seaweed in the hollow and laid more driftwood over it, then took a stick to rearrange the fire.
She ate some of the seaweed, and quickly realized that the taste would be pretty dreadful if she wasn’t so hungry. Once they cooled enough, she alternated bites of seaweed and clam, which was an improvement. Finally, she started to feel steadier, and less dizzy.
When the seaweed and clams were gone, she laid back in the sand to wait for the crabs to cook. One of those odd vertical lines was right there by her head, and idly she reached for it with her fingers—and touched it! It moved, and she saw more vertical lines somehow behind it, and felt a wave of tiredness. And her stomach growled again. Quickly she moved her hand away from it, whatever it was. Touching it had used energy she really couldn’t afford to spend.
Was just looking at things, now that she was seeing so much more, taking up more energy than she was used to? Orchid had no way to know, and no one to ask. Her mother might know, but Mist wasn’t here. Deliberately, Orchid closed her eyes and waited for the food to cook.
The sun was lower when Dragon shook her awake, and held out a leaf full of shelled crab meat. “Wha—?”
Orchid sat up, and reached for the food. She was still terribly hungry, but felt less wobbly.
Dragon kept shelling crabs, dumping the contents on another leaf. “I don’t want to stay here tonight. Skimmer could come back.”
Orchid found herself breathing faster, and she stared out at the water, searching for any sign of Skimmer, but the waves were peaceful, the light-shadows under them no bigger than small fish. “I don’t see any sign of him.” Remembering her dream, she looked at the sky too, but didn’t see so much as a bird there.
Dragon shook his head, but said, “That’s good. I’ve been thinking. I could build a raft and tow you—”
“But, what if you fall?”
“I’ll fly low enough that you can rescue me if I fall. But I won’t. I didn’t getting from the island Skimmer was on to here, and I was sicker then.” There was no need to mention how dreadful the experience had been. Orchid wasn’t willing to wait around for Skimmer to come back.
When the crabs were done, Orchid ate until she felt stuffed, Dragon nibbling on crispy burnt bits of seaweed until she was finished, and only then eating the half-crab that she hadn’t been able to eat. Then Orchid drew a map in the sand, the area between the flower islands and the cove where Sturgeon School was encamped. She had to draw more, to the East, before Dragon could show her were they were. Apparently, flying away from the too-bright sun had driven her significantly off course.
They discussed several islands before deciding on a destination. “I’m feeling a lot steadier now,” she told Dragon. “I’m going to fly really high to start, so if I get tired, I can just coast for a while.”
“Are you sure?”
She nodded. “Also, windborns have really good distance vision, like birds of prey. If I’m high enough, I should be able to see if Skimmer is still back at that other island, and also whether there’s anyone else around.
He looked at her doubtfully. “You were so sick you were dizzy just an hour ago.”
She stood and twirled about on the sand, spreading her wings casually for stability. “I’m fine now. Though I’ll probably want to eat again once we get there.” She looked down at her flat stomach. “I feel stuffed right now, but that wasn’t really a big meal.”
He started to laugh, but then stopped. “You mean that, don’t you?”
“Yes.” She looked away from him, and scanned the water again. No sign of another swimmer. “Let’s get going. I’d rather not be flying tired right now.”
He nodded. “Be careful.”
Orchid didn’t waste time replying. She leapt straight into the air, and worked to gain height as fast as she could. She really didn’t want to risk being spotted by Skimmer. It wasn’t until she had gotten high enough that Dragon probably couldn’t see her that it occurred to her that Skimmer might have decided to go herb-hunting on a different island rather than go back to the one he’d been on. What if he was headed in the direction they’d chosen?
She looked around; there was a thin trail of smoke from a campfire, back where she’d escaped from Skimmer. She didn’t see any person there, but it was probably him. Far to the east, she saw a raft in the middle of the water, with a trader’s flag. To her relief, nearby, there was no one but Dragon, who was under the water again, swimming quickly. He was already dragging several shimmery things behind him, probably in one of the net bags his people always seemed to carry.
Breathing easier, she relaxed into a glide. It really wasn’t far to the island they’d chosen; she was still high enough to circle and make sure no one was on the island or in the water around it before spiraling down to land, yawning, on the beach. She gathered driftwood and deadfall for a fire, setting it down in a pile before climbing into a tree to wait for Dragon.
When he arrived, he had several huge old shells and a net full of fish, crabs, and more seaweed. She couldn’t help making a face, and he smiled. “If you’ll dig some clams, I’ll get the fire started, and we can make stew. After dinner we’ll figure out the best way to warn your mother about what’s going on.”
She climbed down and started digging, though she could barely keep her eyes open. She fell asleep in the sand after she’d given him the clams; he woke her, briefly, to eat diner.
He was right—the seaweed was much better cooked into stew. And afterward, he surprised her with a smaller shell full of berries. But she fell asleep before she could eat her half.
Continued in Black Berries and Butterfish
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