The dragon understood him. I will care for her. Have no fear. They will not disturb her rest.
Haplo nodded again, wearily, and shifted his gaze to his goal, his submersible. And there was Grundle, standing in the sand, apparently rooted to the spot.
They lurched across the beach. The slender elf, finding reserves of strength he never knew he had, guided the injured Patryn’s faltering steps, held him up when he would have fallen. Haplo lost sight of the dragon, forgot about it, forgot the snakes, concentrated on fighting the pain, fighting to remain conscious.
They came level with Grundle, who still had not moved. She was staring at them with wide eyes. She made no sound, only a garbled rattle.
“I can walk . . . from here!” Haplo gasped.
He staggered forward, caught himself on the submersible’s wood prow. Propping himself up, he pointed back at the stammering dwarf. “Go . . . get her.”
“What’s the matter with her, do you think?” Devon asked, worried. “I’ve never seen her like that.”
“Scared silly, maybe.” Haplo groaned. He had to climb on board, quick. “Just grab her . . . bring her along.”
Hand over hand, he pulled himself along the rail of the ship’s upper deck, heading for the hatch.
“What about him?” He heard Grundle cry shrilly.
Haplo glanced back, saw a huddled figure lying in the sand. Alfred.
“It figures,” Haplo muttered bitterly.
He was about to say, “Leave him,” but, of course, the dog had raced over to sniff at, paw over, and lick the unconscious Sartan. Well, after all, Haplo remembered grudgingly, I do owe him.
“Bring him along, if you must.”
“He turned into the dragon,” Grundle said, voice quivering in awe. Haplo laughed, shook his head.
“He did!” the dwarf averred solemnly. “I saw him. He . . . turned himself into a dragon!”
The Patryn looked from the dwarf to Alfred, who had regained his senses—what senses were his to regain.
He was making feeble, flapping motions with his hands, trying to temper the dog’s wet, enthusiastic welcome.
Haplo turned away, too weak to care or argue.
Finally persuading the dog to let him alone, Alfred reassembled himself and tottered to his feet. He stared blankly around at everything and everyone. His gaze wandered to the cave, and he remembered. He cringed.
“Are they gone?”
“You should know!” Grundle yelled. “You chased them away!” Alfred smiled wanly, deprecatingly. He shook his head, glanced down at the impression his body had left in the sand.
“I’m afraid you’re mistaken, child. I wasn’t much help to anyone, not even myself.”
“But I saw you!” the dwarf continued stubbornly.
“Hurry up, Sartan, if you’re coming,” Haplo called out. Only a few more steps . . .
“He’s coming, Patryn. We will see to that. You will have company in your prison.”
Haplo stopped, leaned against the rail. He had barely strength enough to lift his head.
Samah stood before him.
Haplo came back to consciousness slowly, reluctantly, knowing he must wake to pain within and without, knowing he must wake to the knowledge that his carefully ordered life had been consumed in flames, scattered like ashes on the seawater.
He lay for long moments without opening his eyes, not from wariness or caution, as he might have done under similar circumstances, but from sheer weariness. Living, from now on, was going to be a constant struggle for him. When he’d started this journey, long ago, on Arianus, he’d had all the answers. Now, at the finish, he was left with nothing but questions. He was no longer confident, no longer sure. He doubted. And the doubt frightened him. He heard a whine; a shaggy tail brushed against the floor. A wet tongue licked his hand. Haplo, eyes still closed, rubbed the dog’s head, ruffled the ears. His lord would not be pleased to see the animal return. But then, there was a lot his lord wasn’t going to be pleased to see.
Haplo sighed and, when it became apparent he couldn’t go back to sleep, groaned and opened his eyes. And, of course, the first face he would see on awakening belonged to Alfred.
The Sartan hovered over him, peered down at him anxiously.
“Are you in pain? Where does it hurt?”
Haplo was strongly tempted to shut his eyes again. Instead, he sat up, looked around. He was in a room in what must be a private house, a Sartan house—he knew it by instinct. But now it was no longer a house, it was a Sartan prison. The windows sparkled with warding runes. Powerful sigla, burning with a vivid red light, enhanced the closed and barred door. Haplo glanced down ruefully at his arms and body. His clothes were wet, his skin bare.
“They’ve been bathing you in seawater—Samah’s orders,” said Alfred. “I’m sorry.”
“What are you apologizing for?” Haplo grunted, glowering at the Sartan in irritation. “It’s not your fault. Why do you insist on apologizing for things that aren’t your fault?”
Alfred flushed. “I don’t know. I guess I’ve always felt that they were my fault, in a way. Because of who and what I am.”
“Well, it isn’t, so quit sniveling about it,” Haplo snapped. He had to lash out at something and Alfred was the closest thing available. “You didn’t send my people to the Labyrinth. You didn’t cause the Sundering.”
“No,” said Alfred sadly, “but I didn’t do much to set right what I found wrong. I always . . . fainted.”
“Always?” Haplo glanced at the Sartan sharply, reminded suddenly of Grundle’s wild tale. “How about back there on Draknor. Did you faint then?”
“I’m afraid so,” said Alfred, hanging his head in fortification. “I’m not sure, of course. I don’t seem to be able to remember much of anything that went on. Oh, by the way.” He cast Haplo an uneasy, sidelong glance. “I’m afraid I ... er ... did what I could for your injuries. I hope you won’t be too angry, but you were in terrible pain—”
Haplo looked down again at his bare skin. No, he wouldn’t have been able to heal himself. He tried to be angry, it would have felt good to be angry, but he couldn’t muster the energy to feel much of anything now.
“You’re apologizing again,” he said, and lay back down.
“I know. I’m sorry,” said Alfred.
Haplo glared at him.
Alfred turned around and headed back across the small room to another bed.
“Thank you,” Haplo said quietly.
Alfred, astonished, looked to see if he’d heard correctly. “Did you say something?”
Haplo damn well wasn’t going to repeat himself. “Where are we?” he asked, though he already knew. “What happened after we left Draknor? How long have I been out?”
“A day and night and half another day. You were badly hurt. I tried to convince Samah to allow your magic to return, to let you use it to heal yourself, but he refused. He’s frightened. Very frightened. I know how he feels. I understand such fear.”
Alfred fell silent, stared long at nothing. Haplo shifted restlessly. “I asked you—”
The Sartan blinked and came out of his reverie.
“I’m sorry. Oh! There I go, apologizing again. No, no. I won’t do it anymore. I promise. Where was I? The seawater. They have been bathing you in it twice a day.” Alfred glanced at the dog and smiled. “Your friend there put up quite a fight whenever anyone came near you. He nearly bit Samah. The dog will listen to me now. I think the animal’s beginning to trust me.” Haplo snorted, didn’t see the need to pursue that subject further. “What about the mensch? They get home safely?”
“As a matter of fact, no. That is, they’re safe enough,” Alfred amended hastily, seeing Haplo frown, “but they didn’t go home. Samah offered to take them. He’s been quite good to them, in fact, in his own way. It’s just that he doesn’t understand them. But the mensch—the dwarf maid and the elven lad—refused to leave you. The dwarf was extremely stubborn about it. She gave Samah a piece of her mind.”