Chapter seven: T’kamen
Dreams form where the waking and sleeping minds meet: the strandline where the flotsam and jetsam of a day’s preoccupations wash up on the shore of the subconscious. There are those who would poke through that jumble of detritus in search of deeper meaning. A ridiculous pursuit. One may as well expect to find significance in the dregs of one’s morning klah.
– Master Healer Nezzine, Insomnia And Its Cures
Between them, they retrieved the records of every weyrling class since Madellon’s founding: less than a century’s worth of fading ink on progressively more cracked and brittle vellum. The evidence that the Archives still weren’t fit for purpose irritated T’kamen. It was a good thing that Madellon was so relatively young: anything older than a few decades would have been completely illegible.
They plunged into the pile of records regardless, working backwards from the present day. T’kamen skimmed over L’stev’s clutches, pausing at the class that had followed his own, which had lost three members in a single grim sevenday in 88. Those weyrlings had been experienced, though. Two had collided and the third had misjudged a blink jump, and aside from one other early death, the class as a whole had taken their between training well enough.
L’stev’s predecessor, D’hor, had quit his post as Weyrlingmaster shortly before T’kamen had been Searched to Madellon, and died not long after that. His handwriting was appalling, and T’kamen had to pull a glow-basket close to make out some of the words. “Listen to this,” he said, reading an account from 62. Valonna looked up as he read aloud from the hide. “‘All weyrlings now successful in going between with exception of LENIA (gr KIRGHATH) who persists in her refusal. Defronth has addressed the green, whose initial willingness has quite eroded in the face of her rider’s continued dread and who insists that she must (quote) keep her rider safe.’” T’kamen tapped the page for emphasis. “That’s almost exactly what R’von’s bronze said to him when he refused to go between with the others.”
“What happened to that green?” asked Valonna.
T’kamen leaned back over the record. “‘Jubilation! Kirghath has gone between, and though now much in want of a bath appears satisfied with her achievement.’”
“In want of…” Valonna began quizzically, and then stopped. “Oh.”
T’kamen turned the pages of the record carefully – even hides barely forty Turns old were showing signs of damage. “They…died, a month later, going between on a routine trip to Kellad.” He closed the wherhide-covered folder in a puff of dust. “Just a kid who never got over her fear of going between.”
He pulled the next record towards him, and when that one yielded nothing, the next, and the next, each hide more fragile than the last, and more dusty. By the time he started reading the records from Weyrlingmaster S’gal’s tenure seventy-odd Turns ago, he and Valonna were both sneezing, and neither of them had turned up anything useful.
“Thread blight it!” T’kamen burst out, when he reached the end of another chronicle so badly faded that in places it was totally unreadable. He shoved his chair back from the table and got up to pace around, rubbing his watering, itchy eyes.
“Perhaps we should stop,” Valonna ventured. “Start again in the morning after some sleep.”
“I’m not going to be doing any sleeping tonight, Valonna,” T’kamen said. He planted his hands on the record table and bent his head, staring at the useless, tattered records, feeling the muscles of his shoulders and neck tautening like steel cables. “The one good thing I thought we’d done, siring that clutch, and we’re three dragonets down already and Faranth knows how many more to come!”
He bit off the rest of what he wanted to say, already regretting saying it in front of Valonna. To her credit, she didn’t shrink away from him as she might have done a Turn ago. Instead, she lifted her chin and met his glare with eyes red and runny from dust. “If there’s one thing we’ve found in the records, Weyrleader, it’s that weyrlings die.” Her lip almost wobbled as she spoke, but she kept the tremor from her voice. “There were four in my class. Three in Shimpath’s first clutch. And every weyrling group we’ve read about in here has lost one in five, sometimes one in four dragonpairs.”
“Not like this,” said T’kamen. “Not three at once, all on first between day. Not with three others refusing to even try. There’s never been anything like this. And how can L’stev ask any of the weyrlings to go between now when three of their classmates are dead?”
Valonna swallowed hard; clearly, she hadn’t thought of that. Still she persevered. “But Madellon’s a young Weyr. It’s never even seen a Pass. It might never have happened here, but…there are eight other Weyrs on Pern.”
T’kamen knew she was right, even as the thought of seeking help from the arrogant Peninsula Weyr, and insular Southern, made him balk. “I didn’t really think we’d find the answer in here.” He lowered himself back into a chair. “At least it’s three fewer dragons to feed.”
It was a horrible thing to say, as much for its blunt truth as for its callousness. Valonna looked down at her hands, biting her lip, but she didn’t look surprised. “It’s really so bad?”
“The primary tithe…”
“The Holds won’t come up with everything we need. Why should they? What are we doing for them? What are we ever going to do for them?”
“What will we do?” Valonna asked quietly.
T’kamen raised his shoulders. “Eat less meat and fresh fruit, and more oats and barley and roots. Drink less wine and more watered-down klah. Do less drilling with firestone. Do less drilling in general, to save on harness hide. Cut the Weyr Crafters’ staff. Cut the stipend and find more paying work for dragonriders to do. Cut anything we can do without and then cut some things we can’t.”
“That…won’t be popular.”
“Then they can replace me in two or three Turns’ time when Shimpath rises again. That worked well enough the last time Madellon wanted a new Weyrleader.” She flinched at that; again, T’kamen regretted inflicting his bitterness on her. “We’re an Interval Weyr, Valonna. We have no leverage to make the Holds fall in line. A Weyr’s influence ebbs and flows with the Red Star, and right now the tide is so far out we can’t even see it. We’re never going to wield any power on Pern, Valonna, not in our lifetimes. We’re just…caretakers, marking time until the next Pass. If we’re remembered for anything, it’ll be for losing three of our weyrlings in one morning.”
“It wasn’t your fault, T’kamen.”
He shook his head. “I wish I could be so sure.”
For thoroughness’ sake they finished skimming through the weyrling files, right back to Madellon’s very first clutch. It was beginning to get light by the time they replaced the records on their shelf, leaving the table smeared with dust and scattered with fragments of vellum that had flaked off the ageing hides, and T’kamen sent Valonna off to seek her bed.
Tired though he was, he couldn’t imagine being able to sleep. He went to the dining hall for klah, stepping softly to leave the duty kitchen girl undisturbed where she slept with her head down on a table. There was a fresh stain on the floor, and the wreckage of several chairs in the firewood bin by the small hearth, silent evidence of the fight that had kicked off after the evening meal. It wasn’t unusual for riders to get drunk and angry when a dragonpair died, and the two blue riders hadn’t done each other any serious damage, but T’kamen wished they hadn’t broken the furniture. Furniture had to be replaced. Furniture was expensive.
Epherineth appeared to be asleep on his ledge, but T’kamen knew he wasn’t. As he wearily climbed the steps to their weyr, the bronze lifted his head. Then he stretched out his right forearm in mute invitation.
“I don’t think I could sleep, Epherineth.”
Then don’t sleep. Just come and be with me.
“Just for a minute.” He stretched himself out on his dragon’s arm, propping his head on Epherineth’s bicep and extending his legs towards his wrist, as he so often had once, as he so seldom had since becoming Weyrleader. Epherineth carefully laid his head down alongside him. T’kamen watched as the whirling facets of his dragon’s eye, a duller blue than usual, slowed imperceptibly, slowed with his breathing, until the translucent first eyelid slid down and dulled the hue still further, and the rise and fall of his chest, transmitted through his muscles to where T’kamen lay, became deep and measured and rhythmical.
“End of the line,” said C’los.
T’kamen glanced sideways at him. “Speak for yourself.”
“I’m speaking for you.”
They jogged on, side by side on the soft moss of the runner traces. There were fire-lizards in the branches above. They peered down with eyes like burning coals, and their tails twined around the trunks of the trees, impossibly long.
T’kamen hurdled a stream that cut across their path. C’los ignored it, splashing through. “Keep up, Los.”
“I’m already way ahead of you,” C’los said, from behind.
T’kamen stopped, turned around, jogging on the spot to let him catch up, but C’los was dropping back through the trees. “It’s all right,” he shouted. “You carry on. It’s a relay, not a sprint.”
There was something crashing through the conifers, parallel to the traces. T’kamen caught a glimpse of it through the closely-packed trees. It seemed to be gold.
“Don’t mind her!” C’los called. “She’ll find her own way. You have to keep running. Pern won’t stop just because you have!”
“I don’t want to leave you behind,” T’kamen insisted. He began to push back through the trees, forcing his way through trunks that had closed in behind him. The bark was smooth and warm against his palms. “Los? C’los?”
The impenetrable trees wouldn’t let him pass. He seized a trunk with both hands to tear it aside.
Katel gurgled up at him, his face slack as T’kamen’s hands squeezed around his throat.
“No!” he shouted, and leapt back.
“Don’t you want to finish the job properly this time?” Katel rasped, blood foaming on his mouth.
There was blood on T’kamen’s hands. “No. No. I didn’t do this.” He wiped his palms frantically, smearing gore. “This isn’t how it –”
He opened his eyes. Epherineth’s nose was poised lightly over his chest, his head blocking out most of the daylight.
Then T’kamen started fully awake, almost sliding off his dragon’s forearm in his disorientation. “Faranth! What watch is it?”
The forenoon watchdragon has just come on duty.
“Sharding…!” He scrambled to his feet, passing a hand over his face, trying to collect himself. His intended five-minute rest had turned into three hours. “What’s the status of the weyrlings? Has Kinnescath’s rider woken up yet?”
Shimpath says no. The weyrlings aren’t awake yet. It’s still early, T’kamen.
“Not on the rest of Pern it isn’t.” Madellon was the most westerly of all the Weyrs. It would be almost noon at the Peninsula, late afternoon at Southern, and he’d have to look at a table to find out the time difference at the northern Weyrs. A reference chart, too; it had been a very long time since he’d had any reason to go north.
But Madellon’s immediate needs still took priority. He hadn’t cleared down his desk the previous night, and the Attention pile was teetering. He started to go through the heap of slates and hides, then gave up. He wished he could just divide the stack between Sh’zon and H’ned and see how they coped with it, but he couldn’t. Instead, he sat looking at a slate on which he’d written Assistant Weyrlingmaster.
Jenavally’s youngest son was among the dead, and Jenavally herself was distraught, grief-stricken, heartbroken. She was in no state to continue as L’stev’s assistant, but T’kamen didn’t want to leave the weyrlings unsupported. L’stev kept his deep concern for his weyrlings hidden under a thick carapace of grumpiness, and it had always fallen to his assistant to be the approachable one. T’kamen recalled H’ben, the good-natured blue rider who had been assistant Weyrlingmaster to his own class, with great fondness. If he’d still been alive he would have asked him to step in, at least until Jenavally felt ready to come back. But H’ben had passed away Turns ago, and T’kamen was at a loss to know who among Madellon’s current serving riders could step into the role. L’stev was fussy about his assistants, and any suggestion would be his to veto, but T’kamen doubted if the Weyrlingmaster had had time to think about replacing Jenavally yet.
Half an hour later, he finally wrote a single name under the heading. Then he picked up the slate and left for the barracks.
Some of the youngsters were up and about now, washing their dragonets by the lake, wiping them down with oily rags. A blue lay on the grass of the weyrling paddock with a freshly-killed wherry before him. He worried at it in a half-hearted manner until one of his sisters approached hopefully, prompting him to bite the dead bird’s head off with a snap and tug the rest of the carcass possessively between his forearms. The adolescent behaviour almost made T’kamen smile, but the dragonets were still subdued, quieter than young dragons should be, and dull of hide when the bright sunlight should have made them shine.
Shimpath was nowhere to be seen, but Vanzanth, watching the dragonets from where he hunched on his ledge, turned to look at T’kamen as he approached. “He’s in?” he asked.
L’stev’s brown flipped his head towards the entrance to the Weyrlingmaster’s weyr and office. T’kamen took that as a yes, even as he heard L’stev shout, “Come in, Weyrleader,” from within.
“I sent Shimpath to eat something,” he said, without preamble, when T’kamen entered the office. L’stev never looked cheerful – his face didn’t bend that way – but his demeanour was gloomier than usual. He waved at a chair. “She was up all night keeping Kinnescath calm. Berzunth’s taken over, but we can’t rely on her for long. It’s hard on any dragon, and she’s scarcely more than a hatchling herself.”
“Calmer than he was, but G’dra…” L’stev sighed. “Isnan’s people say his lips were blue when they got him down. Hy-pox-ia,” he enunciated the word carefully, “they call it, when the body’s short of air.”
“How long were they between?”
L’stev shrugged. “Three minutes, perhaps.”
“Three minutes? What in Faranth’s name were they doing for three minutes?”
“Whatever the others were.” There was a dullness to L’stev’s voice. “Maybe G’dra was just lucky and hung on long enough for Kinnescath to find a way through.”
T’kamen sat down in one of the chairs opposite L’stev’s desk, baffled and disturbed. He’d never been between for half a minute, let alone three. The thought of those weyrlings finding themselves trapped there, in that cold, dark emptiness, unable to breathe, unable to get out, made him shudder. He made himself consider the situation logically. “Then they went between well enough, but couldn’t get out?”
“Seems that way,” L’stev agreed. “But that still leaves the three who wouldn’t jump at all.”
“Wouldn’t or couldn’t?”
L’stev shrugged again. “I don’t know, T’kamen. R’von’s bronze insists it wasn’t safe to jump. The blue and the green might have been taking their lead from him. But I don’t know if Oaxuth knew that the three already between were in trouble, or if he had his own sense that something was wrong.” He spread his hands. “We just don’t know enough about between, not really. All we contribute to our dragons is a good picture of where we want to go. They do the rest, and you try getting anything useful out of Epherineth to explain the how and why of it.”
Epherineth? Can you tell me what happens when you go between?
I jump. We are between. Epherineth sounded troubled. We come out where you want to go.
“He’s telling you that he goes between in one place and appears somewhere else, isn’t he?” L’stev asked. “That’s as much as Vanzanth could manage, too. Useless old wherry. Fact is, even if we did understand, it wouldn’t help. A Healer could tell you how your heart pumps blood around your body. Doesn’t mean he could tell you how to make it start again if it stopped.” He brooded. “Valonna said you went through the weyrling records. Could have told you there was nothing in there.”
“We had to start somewhere,” said T’kamen. “I’m going to call on the other Weyrs, ask to study their records. This must have happened before somewhere.”
“North as well as south?” L’stev asked, and when T’kamen nodded, he shook his head. “Just as well. You’ll get nothing from Southern. Waste of time you even going there. S’gert’s a foul-tempered old tail-fork even for a Southerner.”
“It won’t be my first stop,” T’kamen said. “What about the Weyrlingmaster at the Peninsula?”
“F’dalger,” said L’stev. “He won’t be much use either. A bronze rider never makes a good Weyrlingmaster.”
“I seem to remember you telling me that a couple of Turns ago,” said T’kamen.
“I didn’t turn you down as my assistant because you were a bronze rider,” said L’stev. “I turned you down because you would have been shit. No. F’dalger’s too privileged to care enough about the junior colours. The Peninsula’s all about its bronzes and browns.”
“There has to be another Weyrlingmaster somewhere on Pern who can help me,” said T’kamen.
L’stev thought about it. “Fort would have the oldest records, but K’lay won’t be much help: he’s well past his best Turns. New fellow just started at Benden with their last clutch; don’t know him, but could be young enough to be amenable.” He frowned. “Go to B’reko at High Reaches. And don’t judge him because he’s a green rider or…well, for any of his other unconventionalities. He’s been in the job longer than I have, and he’s seen it all. Take him some orangefruit. It’s still winter in the High Reaches and it’ll put the old bugger in an amenable mood.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” said T’kamen. He paused. “The leave-taking for the three we’ve lost…”
L’stev screwed up his face. “I’ll take care of it.” He lifted a stack of flattened hides and pushed them across the desk. “Put your mark on these.”
The white hide was the best quality they had, and even before T’kamen set eyes on the first sentence, he knew what they were. Part of him didn’t want to read them, but he made himself anyway.
…A caring girl who took all her responsibilities very seriously. Her many friends will miss her greatly…
L’stev had already made his mark beneath his name at the bottom of each notice. T’kamen borrowed pen and ink from his desk to sign his own name and Epherineth’s on each of the three. L’stev took them back, blowing carefully on the ink before letting the scrolls roll themselves up. “I’ll ask Valonna to sign these, and then I’ll need a senior bronze rider to deliver them.” He raised a finger. “Not you. Someone they’d think twice about thumping.”
“Thanks,” T’kamen said caustically. His eyes strayed to the hide bearing tidings of N’jen’s death. “Who will that one go to?”
“His father,” said L’stev. “Jenavally fostered him off to Jessaf when he was a babe. Not that it makes this any easier on her.”
“Her weyrmate’s looking after her.” L’stev made an odd shape with his mouth. “Could’ve been worse for you. Could’ve been me.”
“The bronze is your son, isn’t he?” T’kamen asked. “R’von.”
“Not as he’d like to admit it. Always been more Crauva’s than mine.”
“He looks like you,” T’kamen said.
“That’s probably why he hates me so much. You don’t have any children, do you?”
“Not that I know of.”
“Well, take a piece of advice from a father of seven. Don’t have sons. You’ll disappoint them, and they’ll resent you.”
L’stev’s black mood put even T’kamen’s to shame. “He blames you?” T’kamen asked.
“Why not?” L’stev asked. “I just got three of his friends killed.”
“You didn’t get anyone killed,” said T’kamen. “It wasn’t –”
“My fault? Huh. If I had a mark for every time someone’s told me that.”
“And you think the riders of this Weyr wouldn’t want you hung out for Thread if they believed differently?” T’kamen asked. “You think I wouldn’t? I’ve talked to the Wingseconds who mentored the ones who died. They’re all blaming themselves, too. But they were certain those kids were ready. They were certain they knew what they were doing. You and Vanzanth weren’t the only ones who checked their visuals, L’stev. The fault isn’t with your training.” He studied L’stev’s face, looking for any twitch of those graphic features that would indicate he’d got through to him. “If you could go back to before yesterday, is there anything you would have done differently?”
“Don’t even suggest that,” said L’stev, with a giant nostril-flare of alarm. “No,” he admitted, after a moment. “I did everything exactly as I always have.”
“Then stop taking it on yourself. I don’t need you dragging around guilt that doesn’t belong to you.”
“You’re right,” said L’stev, after a pause. “But it’s not yours, either.” He stabbed a stubby finger towards T’kamen. “If I’m not at fault, you sure as shards aren’t either.”
T’kamen had to look aside from L’stev’s glare. “I want you to have the Dragon-healer look at the dragonets,” he said. “Full exams. If there’s anything different about them – anything wrong…”
“There’s nothing wrong with those dragonets, T’kamen,” L’stev told him.
“Then why couldn’t they go between?” It burst from him like a tongue of flame. “What’s the matter with them? Half of them wouldn’t even try!” His mouth went dry. The fear he hadn’t spoken aloud to anyone was caught in his throat. He didn’t want to spit it out, but he didn’t know if he could swallow it back.
Say it, said Epherineth.
I’m not going to do that to you, Epherineth.
If what you fear is true, not speaking it won’t make it any less true. Say it, T’kamen. Even if it hurts.
It did hurt. It hurt them both. “If the dragonets are wrong,” he said, “then they’re wrong because of Epherineth.”
L’stev didn’t scoff at him. T’kamen wished he had. The Weyrlingmaster just looked at him, measuring him with his eyes. “All right,” he said. “Walk me through that thinking.”
T’kamen couldn’t bear to be sitting down any longer. He stood up, pacing around L’stev’s office. “The dragons from Shimpath’s first clutch are normal. So the problem hasn’t come from her side. It’s only the sire who’s different.” He found he was clenching his teeth. He made himself stop. “If there’s a flaw, it’s come from their father.”
“Their father, the last time I checked, could go between just fine,” L’stev pointed out. “And Epherineth and Pierdeth were clutchmates. Brothers. As similar to each other as two bronzes could be.”
“You know that isn’t true,” said T’kamen. “You know they were never anything like each other.” He stared at the rolled vellum of the death notices on L’stev’s desk. “He sired a queen, L’stev,” he said, softly. “A queen. If we’ve bred a queen who can’t go between…”
“You don’t know that,” said L’stev. “Berzunth hasn’t even been tried.”
But something in his tone told T’kamen that the Weyrlingmaster had already considered the possibility that Epherineth’s queen daughter was as flawed as her clutchmates. “I don’t have any children. I don’t know that I ever will. But that doesn’t mean I don’t care about…” He searched for the right words. “About what I leave behind. About the legacy I leave to Madellon. To Pern. I thought that Berzunth would be our legacy. Our immortality. Epherineth’s, and mine. The lasting difference we’d make.” He felt his mouth twist in a smile that mocked, bitterly, his own grandiosity. “And maybe she still is our legacy. If she can’t go between, and if she passes that on to her offspring…”
“That’s enough of that, T’kamen.” L’stev’s voice sliced through his agonising, and for a moment, T’kamen wasn’t the Weyrleader; he was a weyrling, being told to stop wallowing in self-pity. “You’re seeing burrows before the Thread has even fallen. Let’s deal with what’s in front of us right now before we worry about what might be in the future.”
He was right. T’kamen dragged his mind out of the sucking bog of despair, and cast about for something else to occupy his thoughts. Then he remembered the slate he’d brought from his own office. “Have you given any thought to someone to stand in for Jenavally?”
“Not much,” L’stev admitted. “Not many I like enough to consider. Why, did you have someone in mind?”
T’kamen pushed his slate, with its single name, over to him.
L’stev looked at it. He frowned, deeply at first, and then less intensely. “Really?”
“I was trying to think of a green rider who’d suit,” T’kamen said, “but Jenavally is a difficult act to follow. And I was thinking of H’ben…”
“Faranth, H’ben,” said L’stev. “I miss him still.” He squinted at the slate as if staring harder at the name would give him extra insight. “All being equal, do you think he’s up to it?”
“I think if any job in this Weyr has a chance of restoring the rider he used to be, it’s this one.”
“The rumours about him are true, then?” L’stev asked.
“What have you heard?”
L’stev gave him a knowing look. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
“He’s just lost his way,” said T’kamen. “He needs someone to put a boot up his backside, and Faranth knows I don’t have the heart to do it.”
“Boots and backsides,” said L’stev. He almost cracked a grin. “My specialities.” Then he went serious again. “You want to put responsibility for my weyrlings in the hands of a drunk and a letch?”
“He’s not either, L’stev.”
“No,” L’stev conceded. “He’s not.” He rubbed his chin. “Have you asked him?”
“Not yet. I wanted to run it past you first.”
L’stev didn’t look convinced, but at last he nodded. “Ask him. If he’s interested, send him to see me. No promises.”
T’kamen got up to leave. “Will the rest of them be all right?” he asked, inclining his head in the direction of the door.
“The dragonets will forget, same as our fellows will,” said L’stev. “The riders…well, we’ve all lost friends. Part of a dragonrider’s lot.”
“And their between training? How will you go about getting them to try again?”
L’stev smiled. It was a mirthless expression. “On that, T’kamen,” he said, “I haven’t the faintest idea.”
Continue to Chapter eight: C’mine
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