Excerpt from Robin Hobb's DRAGON KEEPER

Robin Hobb's Dragon Keeper will soon be released in the UK, and the author was kind enough to provide this excerpt to whet your appetite for the novel! For more information about this title: (Canada, USA, Europe).

In addition, follow this link to two versions of the Dragon Keeper video book trailer.


The River Man

It was supposed to be spring. Damn cold for spring. Damn cold to be sleeping out on the deck instead of inside the deck house. Last night, with the rum in him and a belt of distant stars twinkling through an opening in the rain forest canopy, it had seemed like a fine idea. The night hadn’t seemed so chilly, and the insects had been chirring in the tree tops and the night birds calling to one another while the bats squeaked and darted out in the open air over the river. It had seemed a fine night to lie back on the deck of his barge and look up at the wide world all around him and savor the river and the Rain Wilds and his proper place in the world. Tarman had rocked him gently and all had been right.

In the iron gray dawn, with dew settled on his skin and clothes and every joint in his body stiff, it seemed a damn-fool prank more suited to a boy of twelve than a river man of close to thirty years. He sat up slowly and blew out a long breath that steamed in the chill dawn air. He followed it with a heart-felt belch of last night’s rum. Then, grumbling under his breath, he lurched to his feet and looked around. Morning. Yes. He walked to the railing and made water over the side as he considered the day. Far above his head, in the tree tops of the forest canopy, day birds were awake and calling to one another. But under the trees at the edge of the river, dawn and daylight were tenuous things. Light seeped down, filtered by thousands of new leaves and divested of its warmth before it reached him. As the sun traveled higher, it would shine down on the open river and send fingers under the trees and through the canopy. But not yet. Not for hours.

Leftrin stretched, rolling his shoulders. His shirt was damp and it clung to his skin unpleasantly. Well, he deserved to be uncomfortable. If any of his crew had been so stupid as to fall asleep out on the deck, that’s what he would have told them. But they hadn’t been. They were snug in their overly-cozy bunks in the deck house. All eleven of his men slumbered on, in the narrow tiered bunks that lined the aft wall of the deck house. His own more spacious bunk had gone empty. Stupid.

It was too early to be awake. The fire in the galley stove was still banked; no hot water simmered for tea, no flat cakes bubbled on the grill. And yet here he was, wide awake, and of a mind to take a walk back under the trees. It was a strange impulse, one he had no conscious rationale for, and yet he recognized it for the kind of itch it was. It came, he knew, from the unremembered dreams of the night before. He reached for them, but the tattered shreds became threads of cobweb in his mind’s grasp, and then were gone. Still, he’d follow their lingering inspiration. He’d never lost out by paying attention to those impulses, and almost inevitably regretted it the few times he’d ignored them.

He went into the deck house, past his sleeping crew and through the little galley and forward to his cabin. He exchanged his deck shoes for his shore boots. The knee boots of greased bull-hide were nearly worn through; the acidic waters of the Rain Wild River were not kind to footwear, clothing, wood or skin. But his boots would survive another trip or two ashore, and as a result, his skin would, too. He caught up his jacket from its hook and slung it about his shoulders as he walked aft to the men’s bunks. He kicked the foot of the tillerman’s bunk. Swarge’s head jolted up; the man stared at him blearily.

"I’m going ashore, going to stretch my legs. Probably be back by breakfast."

"Aye," Swarge said, the only acceptable reply and close to the full extent of Swarge’s conversational skills. Leftrin grunted an affirmation and left the deckhouse.

The evening before, they had nosed the barge up onto a marshy bank and tied it off to a big leaning tree there. Leftrin swung down from the blunt-nosed bow of the barge onto mud-coated reeds. The barge’s painted eyes stared off into the dimness under the trees. Ten days ago, a warm wind and massive rainstorms had swelled the Rain Wild River, sending the waters rushing up above their normal banks and over the low shores. In the last two days, the waters had receded, but the plant life along the river was still recovering from being underwater for several days of silt-laden flooding. The reeds were coated with muck and most of the grasses were flattened beneath their burdens of mud. Isolated pockets of water dotted the low bank. As Leftrin strode along, his feet sank and water seeped up to fill in his tracks.

He wasn’t sure where he was going or why. He let his whim guide him as he ventured away from the river bank and back into the deeper shade beneath the vine-draped trees. There, the signs of the recent flooding were even more apparent. Driftwood snags were wedged among the tree trunks. Tangles of muddy foliage and torn webs of vines were festooned about the trunks of the lesser trees and bushes. The fresh deposits of river-silt covered the deep moss and low growing plants. The gigantic trunks of the enormous trees that held up the roof of the Rain Wilds were impervious to most floods, but the brush and lesser foliage that rioted in their shade were not. In some places, the current had carved a mucky path through the underbrush; on others the slime and sludge of the flood burdened the foliage so heavily that the brush bent in muddied hummocks.

Where he could, Leftrin slogged in the paths that the river current had gouged through the brush. When the mud became too soft, he pushed through the grimy underbrush. He was soon wet and filthy. A branch he pushed aside sprang back, slapping him across the brow and spattering his face with mud. He hastily wiped the stinging stuff from his skin. Like many a river man, his arms and face had been toughened by exposure to the acidic waters of the Rain Wild River. It gave the skin of his face a leathery, weathered look, a startling contrast to his gray eyes. He privately believed that this was why he had so few of the growths and less of the scaliness that afflicted most of his Rain Wild brethren. Not that he considered himself a thing of beauty or even a handsome man. The wandering thought made him grin ruefully. He pushed it from his mind and a dangling branch away from his face and forced his way deeper into the underbrush.

There came a moment when he stopped suddenly. Some sensory clue he could not pin down, some scent on the air or some glimpse he had not consciously registered told him he was near. He stood very still and slowly scanned the area all around him. His eyes went past it and then the hair on the back of his neck stood up as he swiveled his gaze suddenly back. There. Mud laden underbrush draped it, and the river’s raging flood had coated it in muck, but a single streak of gray showed through. He pushed his way heedlessly through the brush until he stood beside it. A wizardwood log.

It was not a huge one, not as big as he had heard that they could be. Its diameter was perhaps two-thirds of his height, and he was not a tall man. But it was big enough, he thought. Big enough to make him very wealthy. He glanced back over his shoulder, but the underbrush that blocked his view of the river and his moored barge would also shield him from spying eyes. He doubted that any of his crew would be curious enough to follow him. They’d been asleep when he left, and no doubt were still abed. The secret trove was his alone.

He pushed his way through the brush until he could touch the log. It was dead. He had known that even before he had touched it. When he was a boy, he’d been down to the Crowned Rooster chamber. He’d seen Tintaglia’s log before she had hatched from it, and had known the crawly sensation it had wakened in him. The dragon in this log had died and would never hatch. It didn’t much matter to him if it had died while the log still rested on the banks of the cocooning beach, or if the tumbling it had taken in the flood had killed it. The dragon inside it was dead, the wizard wood was salvageable, and he was the only one who knew where it was. And by his great good fortune, he was one of the few who knew how best to use it.

Back in the days when the Khuprus family had made part of its vast fortune from working wizardwood, back before anyone had ever known or admitted what the ‘wood’ really was, his mother’s brothers had been wizardwood workers. He’d been just a lad, wandering in and out of the low building where his uncles’ saws bit slowly through the iron-hard stuff. He’d been nine when his father had decided he was old enough to come and work on the barge with him. He’d taken up his rightful trade as bargeman, and learned his trade from the deck up. And then, when he had just turned twenty-two, his father had died and the barge had come to him. He’d been a riverman for most of his life. But from his mother’s side, he had the tools of the wizardwood trade, and the knowledge of how to use them.

He made a circuit of the log. It was heavy going. The flood waters had wedged it between two trees. One end of it had been jammed deep into muck while the other pointed up at an angle and was wreathed in forest flood debris. He thought of tearing the stuff clear so he could have a good look at it and then decided to leave it camouflaged. He made a quick trip back to the barge, moving stealthily as he took a coil of line from the locker, and then returned hastily to secure his find. It was mucky work but when he was finished, he was satisfied that even if the river rose again, his treasure would stay put.

As he slogged back to his barge, he felt the heavy felt sock inside his boot go slowly damp. His foot began to sting. He increased his pace, cursing to himself. He’d have to buy new boots at the next stop. Parroton was one of the smallest and newest settlements on the Rain Wild River. Everything there was expensive, and bull hide boots imported from Chalced would be difficult to find. He’d be at the mercy of whoever had a pair to sell. A moment later, a sour smile twisted his mouth. Here he had discovered a log worth more than ten years of barge-work, and he was quibbling with himself over how much he was going to have to pay for a new pair of boots. Once the log was sawn into lengths and discreetly sold off, he’d never have to worry about money again.

He picked up his pace as his foot began to sting more insistently. His mind was busy with logistics. Sooner or later, he’d have to decide who he would trust to share his secret. He’d need someone else on the other end of the crosscut saw, and men to help carry the heavy planks from the log to the barge. His cousins? Most likely. Blood was thicker than water, even the silty water of the Rain Wild River.

Could they be that discreet? He thought so. They’d have to be careful. There was no mistaking fresh-cut wizard wood; it had a silvery sheen to it, and an unmistakable scent. When the Rain Wild Traders had first discovered it, they had valued it solely for its ability to resist the acid water of the river. His own vessel, the Tarman, had been one of the first wizardwood ships built. The hull of his barge was sheathed with wizardwood planks. Little had the Rain Wild builders suspected the magical properties the wood possessed. They had merely been using what seemed to be a trove of well aged timber from the buried city they had discovered.

It was only when they had built large and elaborate ships, ships that could ply not just the river but the salt waters of the coast, that they had discovered the full powers of the stuff. The figureheads of those ships had startled everyone when, generations after the ships had been built, they had begun to come to life. The speaking and moving figureheads were a wonder to all. There were not many liveships, and they were jealously guarded possessions. None of them were ever sold outside the Traders’ alliance. Only a Bingtown Trader could buy a liveship, and only liveships could travel safely up the Rain Wild River. The hulls of ordinary ships gave way quickly to the acid waters of the river. What better way could exist to protect the secret cities of the Rain Wild and their inhabitants?

Then had come the far more recent discovery of exactly what wizardwood was. The immense logs in the Crowned Rooster chamber had not been wood; rather they had been the protective cocoons of dragons, dragged into the shelter of the city to preserve them during an ancient volcanic eruption. No one liked to speak of what that truth fully meant. Tintaglia the dragon had emerged alive from her cocoon. Of those other ‘logs’ that had been sawed into lumber for ships, how many had contained viable dragons? No one spoke of that. Not even the liveships willingly discussed the dragons that they might have been. On that topic, even the dragon Tintaglia had been silent. Nonetheless, Leftrin suspected that if anyone learned of the log he had found, it would be confiscated. So, he would do all that he could to keep the discovery private.

It galled him that a treasure that he once could have auctioned to the highest bidder must now be disposed of quietly and privately. He didn’t want it to become common knowledge in Trehaug or Bingtown, and Sa save him if the dragon herself heard of it. Nonetheless, there were markets for it. Good markets. In a place as competitive as Bingtown, there were always traders who were willing to buy goods quietly without being too curious as to the source. Certainly he could find a Bingtown buyer for it, if he wished to be content to sell it to a go-between. There would be some aspiring Trader willing to barter in illegal goods for the chance to win favor with the Satrap of Jamaillia.

But the real money, the best offers would come from Chalcedean traders. The uneasy peace between Bingtown and Chalced was still very young. Small treaties had been signed, but major decisions regarding boundaries and trades and tariffs and rights of passage were still being negotiated. The ruler of Chalced, it was rumored, was failing in his health. Chalcedean emissaries had already attempted to book passage up the Rain Wild River. They had been turned back, but all knew what their mission had been. They wished to buy dragon parts; dragon blood for elixirs, dragon flesh for rejuvenation, dragon teeth for daggers, dragon scales for light and flexible armor, dragon’s pizzle for virility. Every old wife’s tale about the medicinal and magical powers of dragon parts seemed to have reached the ears of the Chalcedean nobility. And each noble seemed more eager than the last to win his duke’s favor by supplying him with an antidote to whatever debilitating disease was slowly whittling the old Duke away. They had no way of knowing that Tintaglia had hatched from the last wizardwood log the Rain Wilders possessed; there were no embryonic dragons to be slaughtered and shipped off to Chalced. Just as well. Personally, Leftrin shared the opinion of most Traders: that the sooner the Duke of Chalced was in his grave, the better for trade and humanity. But he also shared the pragmatic view that, until then, one might as well make a profit off the diseased old war-monger.

If he chose that path, he need do no more than find a way to get the ponderously heavy log intact to Chalced. Surely the remains of the half-formed dragon inside it would fetch an amazing price there. Just get the cocoon to Chalced. If he said it quickly, it almost sounded simple, as if it would not involve hoists and pulleys just to move it from where it was wedged and load it on his barge. To say nothing of keeping such a cargo secret, and also arranging secret transport from the mouth of the Rain Wild River north to Chalced. His river barge could never make such a trip. But if he could arrange it, and if he was neither robbed nor murdered on the trip north or on his way home, then he could emerge from his adventure as a very wealthy man.

He limped faster. The stinging inside his boot has become a burning. A few blisters he could live with; an open wound would quickly ulcerate and hobble him for weeks.

As he emerged from the underbrush and into the relatively open space alongside the river, he smelled the smoke of the galley stove, and heard the voices of his crew. He could smell flatcakes cooking and coffee brewing. Time to be aboard and away before any of them wondered what their captain had been up to on his morning stroll. Some thoughtful soul had tossed a rope ladder down the bow for him. Probably Swarge. The tillerman always was two thoughts ahead of the rest of the crew. On the bow, silent, hulking Eider was perched on the railing, smoking his morning pipe. He nodded to his captain and blew a smoke ring by way of greeting. If he was curious as to where Leftrin had been or why, he gave no sign.

Leftrin was still pondering the best way to convert the wizardwood log into wealth as he set his mucky foot on the first rung of the ladder. The painted gaze of the Tarman’s gleaming black eyes met his own, and he froze, one foot on the ladder. A radical new thought was born in his mind. Keep it. Keep it, and use it for myself and my ship. For several long moments, as he paused on the ladder; the possibilities unfolding in his mind like flowers opening to the early dawn light.

He patted the side of his barge. "I might, old man. I just might." Then he climbed the rest of the way up to his deck, pulled off his leaking boot and flung it back into the river for it to devour.

8 commentaires:

Blodeuedd said...

Oh no, that land, I enjoyed the ships books the least, and this one is in the same area. But perhaps

Albertosaurus Rex said...

I have already read over half of this book and I can say that's it's another excellent book from Hobb. I loved the Liveship Traders so I'm happy to return to the Rain Wilds.

Jacob Da Jew said...

New to the blog...loved all her books and will be looking forward to this one as well.

Maery said...

Wow! Wow! What a great excerpt!
I can't wait to read it. *salivating*

This looks like another great book from Hobbs. :D

It looks like she's back into fine form. Her Liveship Traders books were always my favorite. ^^

Pat, you don't need to review it. Review Dust of Dreams instead. ;)

Mervi said...

Thanks Pat! :) I've posted a link to this at theplenty.net

Gaby317 said...

Oh! This is great - can't wait to read the book. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Though the Navare books were a bit politcal for me,Robin Hobb is an imaginative and well versed writer. Robin has amazed me with the way she ties her books together. There hasn’t been a more talented author since J.R.R. Tolkien, and I hope there are plenty more books by this author to come.

Steven Till said...

Do you know when the U.S. release will be? I've heard Jan 2010. I love the US Cover for this one. Oftentimes, I think the UK gets better covers, but for this one, I think the US cover is better.