Disclaimer: Pern and its dragonriders belong to Anne McCaffrey. Original characters are mine. Please do not use them without my permission.
Apologies for the long delay in updates. I've been extremely busy with work and also writing my third original novel and starting my fourth. I've got other fanfics bubbling away in my head so I need to get these out of my system.
Pest saw the sails first and set up a mad chittering that had Miss Snippy flashing about. Within a heartbeat, both fire-lizards sent him the visuals of the triangular sails of a southern cog. Vendra had been busy collecting fibres on the lower slopes near the abandoned cottage and was quite a way from the beacon he'd been building.
He rushed to the heights where he'd piled the brushwood but by the time he'd reached the lower of the peaks, out of breath and scraped from a dozen falls, the sails were so distant that lighting a signal fire would be an unutterable waste, even if he could get his flint to strike a spark at the first attempt.
"It's no use, my pretties," he muttered.
Miss Snippy landed on his arm, her little claws digging into his skin and she let out a miserable cheep. He stroked her soft hide and sighed, sitting down to lean against the mountain of brush and driftwood. It had taken him the better part of a sevenday to drag the fuel up here, time that could have been better spent foraging for food. If it weren't for his two pets bringing him food, he'd have starved.
What Vendra needed was for a ship to put in, at the cove where the island's only stream brought fresh water to meet the salt water when it ran into a modest lagoon. A kind of redfruit tree grew in dense stands along the watercourse and perhaps other sailors knew of this food source. And maybe watchwhers would fly to my rescue.
There was no helping his situation but patience. Down by the crescent beach he'd seen signs of old lean-tos, so perhaps this nameless lump of rock did play safe haven to someone from time to time other than errant Smallheart clan members hiding ill-gotten gains. Vendra thought back to some of his kinsmen's tales, some of whom had ended up living for up to a Turn marooned on an island.
I could do with a shave. He rubbed at his stubble that threatened to grow into a bristling beard.
"C'mon, girls, let's go down to the beach. Tide will be out soon. Who knows what we'll find for the taking."
He got up and took the well-worn path down to the cove, wincing at his protesting limbs. That run had taken more of his energy than he'd hoped. Men had starved from a diet of protein alone and he fancied that his muscles had already started wasting away. On top of that, he'd torn his tunic at the shoulder and did not have thread or needle for the repairs.
There's that old romance of Cedrin the Mad who lived alone on a small island for almost twelve turns. When they found him, he'd fashioned clothes out of the flightless wherry-like creature that lived on the island and his beard was down to his navel. His shoes were fashioned from woven fibres and he could hardly speak. He'd learnt to enjoy baking tunnel snakes and even ate crawler grubs.
Vendra shuddered. If – no, when – he got back to civilisation, he'd make his brother pay in blood for this ordeal. The worst part of being out here was being alone. Yes, the island was pretty enough but what use was enjoying the azure water that broke beyond the reef and the white sands when you had no one to talk to? There was only so much that he could say to his two pets, who'd found a wild fair of their own to socialise with. His black moods had them off with their brethren more often than not.
He paused to drink some water from the stream then walked down on the verge of the small lagoon, noting where spineclaws had made new burrows. If his greedy fire-lizards didn't scoff these down, he could persuade them to tease a few of the critters out for him. The meat would be succulent if he steamed it. To think that Lords Holder pay good marks for this delicacy that is within easy reach for me so that I soon tire of eating it.
This thought failed to bring a smile to his face. Here he was for yet another day, with escape so close, yet so far. Vendra walked to the point where the breakers passed the reef to smash against the black volcanic rocks in the wider bay next to the cove. I suppose it's a good thing that I'm not here during some sort of eruption, the sort this island chain is known for.
Vendra grimaced, his eyes creating jagged geometric patterns that shifted on the horizon. Whenever he stared too long at a flat surface his eyes would always paint in detail that wasn't there. And, he'd have plenty of staring to do when he wasn't looking for food. Aivas forbid that he still sat on this rock by the time the summer storms arrived. He would have to seek shelter and lay in stores – a thought that troubled him for the storm season was but a month away and the worst of the tempest could last for a sevenday or more, leaving him little time to forage.
After a while, the rocks began to hurt his behind, so he shifted his posture, rubbing absently at his rump. He returned his attention to the swell, noting how big the wave action was against the shore. That was when his eye caught the limp form of a person caught in the curve of a wave, who struggled against breakers. The person's strokes were weak and he got knocked under in a crash of foam.
There's been a ship that sailed past without stopping. Now there's a person – a young boy by the looks of it – fighting to reach shore.
It didn't take Vendra a vast stretch of his imagination to figure out that the lad must have been cast overboard for some crime. The seas are far too calm for someone to be washed into the drink. I can count the number of my kinsman shoved overboard for crimes, real or imagined, on both hands. Sharding merchants!
Should he intervene? Drowning men were known to drag would-be rescuers down with them. Good sense warred with his instinct and memories of occasions where he, too, had narrowly escaped near-drowning, albeit in less ill-considered situations. No one had ever accused Vendra Smallheart of being a petty thief on board a vessel.
"Shard it!" Vendra swore, sending out a mental call for his two fire-lizards. The least they could do was keep an eye out for him. He shrugged out of his tunic and kicked off his shoes, wincing as he stepped on sharp rocks.
Hang on in there, lad, he willed the boy. His stomach lurched when he saw the boy struggle again in the curve of another swell, his head barely reaching out of the water. You know all too well how tired you get, don't you?
Vendra leapt from rock to rock until he could safely wade into the surf. The lad should be lucky he hadn't been caught in a current that would drive him against the reef, although given ill fortune he would soon meet with the jagged teeth that guarded this stretch of coast. At least the water's warm and there shouldn't be any treacherous currents to drag us both out to sea.
Years of body-surfing the waves of assorted Eastern Ring islands had made Vendra as comfortable on land as he was in the water. Where were the dolphins today when he needed them? They would have guided the lad to shore without his having to take a risk.
He dived beneath a wave, coming up for air to take stock of his surroundings. Above him, Miss Snippy and Pest popped out from between and he sent them a visual of the lad's feeble struggles. Find him, hurry!
For a moment the pair hovered then moved to Vendra's left. He plunged beneath another breaker with practiced ease, flexing his body so that he made himself as streamlined as possible. Returning with a dead weight would not be fun.
Pest greeted him when he broke the surface, her eyes whirling red-orange. He followed the fire-lizard, ducking beneath two more waves before he saw the boy, who lashed toward him even as they made eye contact. Vendra took a deep breath and lurched forward, grabbing the youngster firmly in the crook of his arm so that the boy couldn't catch him in the stranglehold that would send them both to the bottom.
"Don't struggle! Let me do the work!" Vendra managed to shout as a wave crashed down upon them.
For a moment he thought he'd lose his grip as the boy thrashed and he wasn't certain which way was up or down until his feet touched the sand and he pushed them both up.
Don't ever panic, his father's voice reminded him and Vendra held onto his lessons, flowing with the rush of water until he broke to the surface. Despite the boy's weight, he swam with powerful strokes, keeping his left arm free to help him maintain an even keel. The fire-lizards creeled above, encouraging him with visuals. Only half a dragonlength to go…
When the next swell reached them, the wave had only started cresting, so Vendra tightened his body so that he could ride it, silently praising the seemingly endless drills he and his cousins had endured with the Dolphineers.
No Smallheart drowns in my fleet, his father had said.
There was one bad turn when another wave dumped them and the world exploded into a static of stirred-up sand and a tumult of water. Then his knees grazed the sand and Vendra was able to right himself in chest-deep water, dragged toward the next wave as water ran out. The lad had stopped struggling, his eyes closed and form limp.
Shards! I hope he hasn't breathed in too much water!
Vendra counted his mercy mission in waves, bracing himself for every deluge until, his limbs suddenly heavy, he staggered onto the beach proper and could drag the boy to the high tide mark.
Only then did he allow himself to collapse, heaving for air next to the boy's still body. Pest and Miss Snippy hovered, their eyes whirling in shades of alarm. For once, the hot sun felt good on his skin. I'm a man, not a fish!
"I'm safe!" Vendra gasped. "Thank you, my pretties." He filled his thoughts with gratitude and Miss Snippy chirruped before landing on a piece of driftwood. Pest alighted on the sand, tilting her fine, wedge-shaped head as she queried. Concern for the youngster was evident but both of his fire-lizards were calming down, with more green showing in their eyes than yellow.
Vendra pushed a limp strand of hair over his shoulder. The boy curled over onto his side, coughing up great gouts of water.
"Hai! Are you okay?" Vendra asked. Of course he's not okay, don't be daft!
He thumped the boy's back, hoping that he expelled as much water as possible. "You're on dry land, you'll be okay."
The youngster pushed himself into a crouching position. Had he been injured before being thrown overboard? His shirt had been torn during their struggles and he had bandages wound tight around his chest. Vendra didn't see any blood but imagined that breathing could not be asy.
"Here, you can't breathe properly with those on," Vendra said, feeling for his belt knife in order to cut through the fabric. He lifted the remains of the youngster's shirt despite his protestations and slipped the point of the blade beneath the linen.
A fresh bout of coughing seized the boy and he crouched over. Then he sat up and Vendra was struck by the profound realisation that he'd not rescued a boy. Small, we-rounded breasts pressed against tattered fabric that the youngster pressed against her chest, the areoles dark against the sodden material, her eyes wide with horror.