When he had finally found her—or, more accurately, when she found him, Orchid had looked so sick and miserable, he could barely credit that she could still fly. Windborns were always slender; now she was past gaunt to skeletal, her boniness softened only by her fur.
He’d wanted to get her to somewhere that he could feed her; take care of her if she collapsed. It was only after they were on the other island that he thought to worry—if she collapsed, and Skimmer showed up, could he protect her? He was trying to figure out a plan for that when she started seeing the clams—not their air holes, but the clams themselves, right through the sand.
It was spooky.
It was very spooky.
For the first time, Dragon understood why people were afraid of fireborns. But he found he couldn’t be afraid of Orchid, any more than he could think of her as a little kid, despite her height. She was cute—or had been. He had to admit, she didn’t look cute right now, she looked starved and sick and filthy. “Um, don’t take this wrong, but you look like you could use a bath.”
She grimaced. “I was afraid that if I got wet all over, I’d end up shivering and even sicker than before.”
She ate another clam. “I think I could, now. And the lake water is warmer than the pool I found up on that other island. But I wish I had some soap!”
Dragon brightened. “I saw some soapweed at the end of the beach. It’s not as good as real soap, but should help wash the sick smell out of your fur.”
She picked up another clam, then put it down again. “I probably should be careful how much I eat all at once. You said the soapweed is over there?” She gestured.
“No, the other end of the beach.”
She leapt into the air and flew in that direction, staying low. He reached for another clam.
Her tone of voice had him on his feet and heading her way before he thought about it. “What?”
“Somebody’s out there, in the water.” Her voice shook, and he wondered what Skimmer had done to her, besides drugging her.
Dragon scanned the waves, but couldn’t see anyone. But then, if she could find clams through sand, it would be no wonder if she could see a swimmer under water. “Get back, into the trees.”
Dragon walked back and forth in the sand, covering her footprints with his own, then sat down to eat more clams. After a few minutes, he saw a small, makeshift raft on the waves. Skimmer. And Orchid had somehow spotted him, from how far away?
Absently, he reached for a plum. It was too early in the season for him to have picked plums himself, and he was really enjoying them. But with that thought, he realized they could give Orchid away. He buried the rest of the whole ones in sand, piling the clam shells on top of that, and tossed the remaining pits deep into the fire, adding some more driftwood over them.
As he finished the last clam, Skimmer popped his head up out of the water. “You’ll never believe—Walnut?” Skimmer never gave Dragon the respect of using his adult name.
“You were expecting someone else?”
“Um, not exactly. But what are you doing out here?” Skimmer came walking out of the water, dragging the raft behind him on a rope. When he got to a rock, he dropped the loop of the rope over the rock to keep the raft from drifting away.
“I noticed Lotus was short on some cooking herbs. I thought I’d help out.”
“Still Gramma’s little boy, huh?” Skimmer sneered. He didn’t like Lotus; she wasn’t afraid of the Sheriff, and was willing to call him on bad behavior when she saw it.
Dragon was used to Skimmer’s scorn. “So, what are you doing out here? Skipping out on chores, as usual?”
“No such thing. Mayor Eel asked me to get nofiera, and I did.” He stood tall and dug his toes into the sand in unconscious imitation of Eel.
“Nofiera? You’re still worrying about so-called fireborns?” Dragon laughed, trying to look as disbelieving and carefree as before. It wasn’t as easy to laugh the whole thing off, knowing a scared fireborn was watching them from the trees.
“You shouldn’t laugh. I found one!”
“Found one what?”
“Fireborn! That healer’s little girl is fireborn!”
It was so hard not to jump up and come to Orchid’s defense. “That scrawny kid? What, did she turn you into a weasel or something—oh wait, that can’t be it. You’ve always been a weasel.”
“Sneer all you like. I gave her nofiera tea and she got really sick.”
“That healer says everybody gets sick, not only fireborns.”
“Yeah, but I had her tied up right sound, and she got away. Burned my raft and supplies too. Now, how’d she do that, sick and tied up, if she wasn’t fireborn?”
“The whole point of giving a fireborn nofiera is so they can’t do magic! I think you just didn’t tie her very securely. Look at that raft—I don’t think I’ve seen as sloppy an excuse for a raft since we were babies.”
“I was in a hurry!”
“So you took time out from your hurry to chat with me?”
“No, I stopped to warn—people—that there’s a dangerous fireborn flying around here somewhere.”
“Am I supposed to thank you?”
“You could offer me some clams.”
Dragon picked up an empty shell, letting it dangle from one fingertip. “I just finished them.”
“Figures.” Skimmer walked back and forth along the beach, looking at the sand. “What were you doing here, dancing? I’ll never find clams on this beach now.”
“Gee, what a pity.” Dragon grinned. He felt an irrational urge to tell Skimmer that a fireborn could find enough clams to stuff three people sick, if she wanted to, and never mind the footprints.
“You’d think you’d want to help out your town!” Skimmer balled his hands into fists.
“What, by feeding you?” Skimmer’s stomach growled loudly and Dragon grinned even more cheerfully. “Gee, last week you told Lily you wouldn’t eat a fish I’d caught if you were starving to death!”
“I’ll tell Mayor Eel just how helpful you were, Walnut.” Skimmer sneered, “I bet you’re hiding that fireborn girl too. You want to eat some nofiera right now, to prove your loyalty?”
“Now, why would I want to risk making myself sick out here all alone, with all the grudges you’ve held against me over the years? You think I’m stupid, Skimmer?”
“Gee, Skimmer, what happened to your tattoo, there?”
“Why you!” Skimmer swung a fist at Dragon’s face.
Dragon danced backward, and sideways toward the water, avoiding it neatly. “Want to fight? Really? I bet I can rip that tattoo open even wider, before you smash my face in.”
Skimmer leapt forward, swinging, and Dragon dodged back and sideways again, managing to trip on the rope and land on the raft. The loosely-tied vine came loose and rough-cut logs went flying. The nofiera was soaked and scattered on the waves.
Dragon stood up, holding his arm. “Now look what you’ve done! I’m bleeding!”
“What I did? You broke my raft! And the nofiera!” Skimmer waded into the waves and started trying to gather the herbs.
Dragon bent over and splashed his wounded arm in the water, working vigorously to clean it, and scattering the herb even farther.
“Stop cleaning my arm?”
“Stop messing around and help me gather the nofiera, before I lose so much I have to go back and gather more!”
Dragon walked around in the water, picking up soggy wilted leaves and deliberately crushing them in his hand, letting his blood run into the mass and squeezing again. Skimmer headed further out in the water, then came back when he’d gathered as much as he could find there. “Give that to me.”
Wordlessly, Dragon handed over the slimy mess in his hand.
Skimmer looked at it, then tossed it away. “You ruined it!” He swiped at the water with both hands, scattering the few leaves he’d gathered. “You’ll regret this! Mayor Eel will hear all about this.”
Dragon forced a smile, “You tell the Mayor whatever you want, everybody knows you’re a liar.” But, though he knew Lotus wouldn’t believe Skimmer’s word over his own, he was nowhere near stupid enough to believe the same of Eel. And Eel could make things very hard for his family, which was part of why he hadn’t just set out on his own to get his tattoo.
He watched Skimmer swim back the way he’d come, then went to pick some soapweed and scrub his hands very, very carefully. He and Orchid would have to find a different island before her bath. He didn’t know how little of the nofiera would make her sick again, so he had to assume this beach wasn’t safe for her anymore.
He settled down by the fire to pretend he was relaxing, until Orchid decided it was safe to return from the trees.
Fireborn continues with Whispers, Worries, and Woes.
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