Once they encountered a place where no proximate body of water large enough to accommodate the dolphins and their passengers loomed near. Simna was convinced they would have to waste time backtracking and then searching to east or west, but at the last moment Ehomba did something with the reins of his mounts. It was very subtle, and the swordsman was not entirely convinced he had seen anything at all, but it left him with something to ponder while he fought to balance himself on the back of his own steeds as they soared over the liquidless gap. They did just make it to the next, seemingly too-distant hovering body of water, their tails slapping down on the rim of the thin, transparent wall, their squeals of triumph and delight echoing in his ears.
Ehomba had urged them forward with words, Simna decided. Words, or a suggestion, or orders to alter their angle of approach. Or—something more.
There had been no flash of lightning, no burst of alchemic effulgence. Just a barely perceptible flutter of long-fingered hands. The hands of a musician, Simna had mused on more than one occasion. Or hands that could cast spells.
Without preparation, or magic powder, or wand or crystal orb? All Ehomba had was a spear and two swords, and while they rode the backs of the dolphins, those devices rode high and secure against the southerner’s back. Simna shook water from his eyes. Was his tall, soft-voiced friend sorcerer or no? More often than not, he found himself absolutely confused on the matter.
He could not spare the time to cogitate too deeply the conundrum that was Etjole Ehomba. At the moment he was too busy toiling to keep from falling off.
MANY DAYS PASSED BEFORE THE FLOATING, AIRBORNE PONDS and lakes began to grow dangerously infrequent. The dolphins had to work harder to clear longer and longer gaps between the drifting bodies of water. After a while it became impossible to maintain a reasonable northerly heading. Too much energy was being expended on leaping from side to side instead of forward, like a sailing ship forced to tack into a steadily decreasing wind.
There finally came a day and an hour when Merlescu and Ehomba agreed that the time had come to call a halt and make an end to the joyous and fruitful relationship they had established. Neither wished to risk pressing on until one of the hardworking dolphins fell short of its goal and had to be raised bodily by the travelers back into the nearest, lowest body of deep water. That Ahlitah by himself could accomplish this no one doubted, but any dolphin missing a jump who fell to the ground would not find its fall adequately cushioned by the six inches of water there. Neither the travelers nor Merlescu desired to see that happen.
For their final farewells they chose a pond large enough to aspire to be a lake. Its rippling, curved underside hovered no more than a foot or so above the surface of the endless shallow swamp that covered the ground. The school clustered close along the water’s edge, looking on and offering encouragement as the travelers clambered over the side and, one by one, dropped to the pale, tepid shallows below.
Terse but heartfelt good-byes given, the dolphins turned and, as one, began their return journey southward, heading for the heart of the land of suspended lakes. The travelers watched them go until the last pink, curving back had arched out of sight.
Simna gestured at the dripping length of thin, tough vine Ehomba had been utilizing as a rein for days. It was wrapped in coils around the southerner’s shoulder. “What do you plan to do with that? Rope us a couple of frogs to ride the rest of the way?”
“No. But I have a feeling we may eventually have to use it to rope something.” With that he started off, heading due north. Simna marveled at the herdsman’s ability to tell direction from an empty sky the way a thief senses a heavy purse concealed within many folds of garment. He followed without question while Ahlitah splashed primly alongside, occupying himself with scanning the languid shallows for edible mollusks and crustaceans.
By the morning of the next day they had reached a place where the vast, shallow river bay that underlay the hovering ponds had been reduced to streaks of fading dampness in the sand. Behind them, glittering and glistening like pearls hung on invisible cords, the floating ponds and lakes stretched south to the main body of the river and the veldt beyond.
Ahead lay gravel plains dotted with low scrub and clusters of bizarrely shaped succulents. Half a day’s march later found them confronting a desert. The first dunes lifted smooth-sided yellow-brown flanks toward the deep blue sky.
“More fine country!” Simna spat and watched as the dry grains rapidly soaked up his spit. “I long for the green fields and leafy forests of home.” The disgruntled swordsman looked up at Ehomba. “At least you’ll be comfortable.”
“What, in this?” The herdsman indicated the desiccated terrain that lay before them.
“Hoy, haven’t you told me that you come from a desert land?”
“No, I have not. Dry, yes. Desert—well, to some I suppose it is. But where I come from there are mountains crowned with trees, and valleys that fill with grass and clover and flowers, and springs that nourish small lakes and give rise to flowing streams.” He nodded northward. “I see none of that here. Right now, the only thing about this place that reminds me of home is the temperature.” He looked to his right.
“Are you suffering, my four-legged friend?”
“Not at all. Not yet, anyway.” Ahlitah was panting, the splotched dark pink of the heavy, thick tongue shockingly bright against his black lips. “I know that when the sun is up I get hotter than my kin because of my color, but I have grown used to it.”
“We’re going to need plenty of water.” Grim-faced, Simna surveyed the ground ahead. “No telling what we’ll find out there.”
“That is what I kept this for.”
Turning, Ehomba retraced their steps until he halted before a very small pond. Floating a yard or so above the ground, it contained no central island, no visible soil of any kind. Reflecting its diminutive size, only minnows darted in its depths.
Unlimbering the coil of vine from his shoulder, he turned to his companions. “Come and help me secure this.”
“Secure it?” Simna started toward the other man. “Secure it to what? And why? You’re not thinking of somehow bringing it with us?”
“And why not?” Ehomba challenged him as he began to measure out the length of vine around the circumference of the pond. “Can you think of a more reliable source of water, or a better container?”
“I know it’s small compared to many we’ve seen.” The swordsman bent to help with the vine. “But it’s still a lot bulkier and heavier than a couple of gourds slung over the shoulder. What makes you think we can move it, anyway?”
“It will move,” Ehomba assured him. “Now when I tell you, pick up that side of the vine and press it tight against the water wall.”
It took work and a while—the vine kept slipping against the smooth exterior of the pond—but eventually they had it snugged tight. The green rope dug slightly into the sides of the drifting pond but did not break through. Strange to think of water having skin, Simna mused. With his knife they split the free end of the vine in half. He took one end and Ehomba the other, and together they put their weight into it and pulled.
The pond did not budge until Ahlitah, with a snort of disdain, grabbed the vine in his teeth and tugged. Once set in motion, the pond moved easily, traveling as if on an invisible greased pad. As soon as it had acquired some momentum, one man could drag it behind him. It glided through the air more freely than they had any right to expect.
“We will drink our fill until it is half empty,” Ehomba declared, “and that will make it even easier to pull. Meanwhile we will be able to sip more lavishly than any desert would normally allow.”
Putting out a hand, Simna pushed against the side of the pond. He was careful not to poke it with a finger. The cool, transparent epidermis dimpled at his touch before springing back to its original shape. It took several seconds to complete the process and return to normal, the marvelous container reacting not unlike an old man’s skin.
“Drink our fill? By Ghothua, we can have a bath!”
Ehomba regarded him with distaste. “You would swim in your drinking water?”
The swordsman blinked ingenuously. “Sure, why not?”
“Why not indeed,” added Ahlitah supportively. It was the first time he had agreed with Simna on anything.