The Patterner waited and watched, but months passed and the dragon did not return to the forest. He called to her with all the names he knew, but she did not come; perhaps she did not hear. And as the seasons turned, the leaves forgot her name. He took to leaving his trees and standing on the Knoll, staring, staring out to sea. If the dragon would not come to the mage, could the mage come to the dragon?
'I know of no lore-book that teaches how a living man might fly on the other wind,' said the Namer.
'The Rune Makers' work was destroyed,' said the Summoner. 'There is no way.'
'If one sailed into the uttermost west,' said the Windkey. 'The Open Sea cannot go on for ever, and only fools believe you might sail off the edge.'
'That door is closed,' said the Summoner.
'What you need is a boat,' said the Doorkeeper, when the arguments had worn round and round. 'With the right boat beneath your feet, who knows where you might sail.'
So the Patterner returned to his Grove and listened to the trees. Each plank of the boat he began to build was of a different wood – oak for strength, yew for endurance, holly for protection, hazel for wisdom, apple for sweetness, even the flowering may for hope.
'A boat made from dozens of different timbers,' said the Windkey. 'I've never heard of such a thing. It'll leak, you'll see.'
But the Patterner only smiled, and kept on planing the bit of rowan the woods had given him that morning. He laboured all summer, and when the leaves began to fall the boat was almost done. It lacked just one plank, and a branch had fallen from an arhada so ancient that its roots mingled with all the other woodlands of the world. It brought knowledge, and it bound the other trees as one.
Then one day when his prentice came to find him, the Patterner slept in his boat, finished at last. A coverlet of red and gold leaves like the scales of a dragon's belly warmed his body, and a little spider had spun her silvery web between the tattered red feathers in his hair. The trees of the Grove whispered a name to all those with ears to hear.
They carried the boat to the Thwilburn, and the Thwilburn carried it to the sea. The Summoner made to set it alight, for so he thought the Patterner's people honoured their warrior dead, but the Doorkeeper stayed his hand. 'Nay, lad,' he said. 'There'll be fire enough where he's headed.'
So they planted his long willow staff for a mast, and let the little boat choose its own path. But as it headed out of harbour, the Windkey's warning proved true: water not fire, it seemed, was to be the Patterner's end.
A thousand miles and more as the seagull flies from Thwil Bay, an old woman who appears in no tales walks in the woods. So used is she to seeing things that cannot be, though she speaks to none of her curse, that she scarce breaks stride when the chestnut leaves beneath her feet give way to waves, and a young man in red plumes stands before her, tall and proud in a conker case of a boat. His face is painted as a mother paints a bridegroom's, his hair streams and sparks behind him silver bright in the sun, and he is laughing, laughing in the wind. And as she watches, a dragon stoops from the skies, red and gold like the old Godking's mail, and she thinks the boat leaps from the waves as if to meet it.
But whether the old witch's dream be true or no, none but the dragons can say, and they speak no more with our kind.
Author's note: Thanks to Pene for a prompt that I didn't quite address; to Miss M for encouragement, beta-reading & suggesting the title; and to Ursula Le Guin, not only, as ever, for inventing this wonderful universe, but also for the words 'roots of the trees … were mingled with the roots of all the forests that were or might yet be' ('Dragonfly').
5 February 2011