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Chapter nine: Sarenya

'Darshanth the nursemaid' by Emily Holland

‘Darshanth the nursemaid’ by Emily Holland (find her on Tumblr)

The introduction of leaping take-offs to a dragonet’s routine in the second half of the first Turn leads to many common complaints, including muscle strains, dislocation of the unfused minor wing joints, and abdominal hernias. Herniation typically occurs around the belly whorl, a somewhat weak point in the young dragon’s abdomen, which corresponds both to the mammalian umbilicus – being the point at which the unborn dragonet is connected to its yolk sac while in the egg – and to the human fingerprint, as the loops and spirals of each dragon’s belly whorl are unique to that individual alone.

– Excerpt from Ailments of the Juvenile Dragon, Apprentice Edition

100.02.24 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
MADELLON WEYR

Sarenya (Micah Johnson)“Come on, Sejanth,” Sarenya said, wiggling the wherry carcass invitingly under the bronze’s nose, “try a bite. Just a wing. I chose it especially for you. Look. Young and tender.”

She said that last part with her fingers crossed, hoping that Sejanth wouldn’t pick up on the lie. Judging by the amount the wherry had kicked and struggled on the end of the rope when she’d lassoed it to break its neck, it wasn’t likely to be anything less than chewy. But she was willing to try anything to get some sustenance into Sejanth. His appetite was poor at the best of times, but in the days since the weyrling disaster, he’d lost all interest in food.

Sarenya hadn’t been in the infirmary, or even the Weyr, when the weyrlings had died. She’d been down the passes on runnerback, on her way to do the headcount for the next drive. Sleek had let out a terrible moan, and Sarenya – knowing that the first weyrlings were due to go between that morning – had suspected that one of them must have failed in the attempt, but it had been hours before they’d returned to the Weyr and discovered what had happened.

Sejanth had taken it badly. “I’ve never heard such a dreadful sound, and I’ve heard my share,” Vhion had told Sarenya. “I think it’s because they were dragonets. It’s not done his condition any good. I’m afraid he’s taken a turn for the worse.”

It was a sobering assessment from a man who was usually so relentlessly upbeat, and there wasn’t much room for argument. Sejanth had been deteriorating for a long time, but Sarenya feared that the shock of losing the weyrlings would be the incident that triggered his final decline.

Still, she was surprised at how quickly the majority of Madellon’s adult dragons had regained their colour. A Weyr in mourning was a gloomy place, and she’d steeled herself for another day of subdued dragons and silent watch-changes, but by the time the sun had broken over the Rim that morning, the dragons seemed to be back to their usual vocal selves.

“It’s not in their nature to dwell on things,” M’ric had said, when she’d asked him. He’d brought Trebruth down to take his pick of the herdbeasts from the latest drive, although this herd wasn’t any better than the last. “They feel the here and now harder than we do, but once the moment’s passed, they move on.”

Sarenya envied them that. “It’s a pity people can’t do the same.”

“In an ideal world, we would. In an ideal world those two riders who pushed in each other’s noses the other night would have patched it up by now.” M’ric had shrugged. “But dragons are dragons, and people, even riders, are still people.”

Vhion came bustling out of his office, light on his feet as ever despite his size. “Still no luck getting him to eat?”

“He’s just not interested.” Sarenya put her hand on the bronze dragon’s drooping muzzle. “Come on, Sejanth. D’feng’s going to be upset when he hears you’ve been turning down wherries. You have to stay strong for him, like he’s staying strong for you.”

But Sejanth just turned his head away, his eyes dull and almost immobile. Sarenya let the cooling wherry carcass flop to the floor. “I’m going to leave it here for you,” she said. “You can eat it when you’re ready.”

She saw Vhion pull a face – somewhere between compassion and frustration – and braced herself for an argument. Bad as Sejanth was, she wouldn’t give up on him. But Vhion shook his head, as if to dispel her fears. “If you’ve finished with him for the moment, would you be so kind as to nip over to the barracks and collect samples from the dragonets who didn’t produce yesterday?”

While the adult dragons had overcome – or forgotten – their grief at the loss of the weyrlings, the remaining dragonets were still very subdued. Word had come from L’stev that the Weyrleader wanted all of them checked over, and Sarenya had spent her last couple of shifts helping Vhion to complete twenty-two physical exams.

The nose-to-tail was a comprehensive inspection of the ground-bound dragon, and after months of treating Sejanth, Sarenya found it refreshing to be working with healthy patients for a change. Examining a dragonet was like examining a very large runnerbeast, except that a dragon could follow instructions and answer questions. They tested each dragonet’s sight and hearing, examined their teeth and tongue, smelled their breath. They checked hide for tone, elasticity, and harness lesions – although they found none of the latter; L’stev would never have allowed any chafing from fighting straps to develop into full-blown sores. They observed walking gait and the extension of all six limbs, looked and felt for any deviation in the correctness of the neck, spine, and tail. They listened to the sounds made by the hearts and lungs and the major ichor vessels of the body. They checked the tail for healthy digestive sounds, and the lower abdomen for any early signs of herniation. A brief survey of the genital region completed the exam, although there wasn’t much to see, as dragons kept their bits and pieces stowed away when they weren’t in use, and in juvenile males the generative organs didn’t descend fully until eleven or twelve months of age anyway.

Sarenya found the whole procedure fascinating, especially because the dragonets were such endearing characters. One of the blues she examined was extremely ticklish and twitched furiously every time she felt for his pulses. A little green seemed unaccountably shy, and kept trying to hide her head behind her rider. And one bronze subject found his examination so blissfully relaxing that he’d fallen over onto his side when she was feeling his belly hide for dry patches and stretchmarks.

There were several conditions that could be detected through the study of a dragon’s excreta and bodily fluids. Sarenya could take ichor samples, drawn from one of the big veins on the forearm, but the bloodwork was a journeyman-level discipline among the Dragon Healers. There was nothing stopping her from examining the dragonets’ dung, though. Young dragons could be fussy with their food, and any aversion to eating the hard-but-nutritious parts – bones, beaks, and horns – could be picked up through an inspection of their stool.

But not even the most helpful dragonet could always produce dung on command. “How many are we missing?”

“Just four.” Vhion handed her a slate. “These are the ones we need.”

Gawath, Atath, Djeth, Moth. “This shouldn’t take long, Master.” Sarenya took off her bloody and salve-smeared smock and threw it into the laundry bin. There were sample jars in Vhion’s office; she hooked her fingers into the necks of four of them. She was halfway outside when she realised she’d forgotten to take a grease pencil. Muttering to herself, she went back for one. As she left the infirmary for the second time, the pencil in her pocket, the slate tucked under one arm and two jars swinging from each hand, she overheard Vhion talking quietly to Sejanth.

“…would make Sarenya really happy if some of that wherry was gone when she gets back…”

All the bad parts of being a dragonrider and none of the good, she thought, then reproached herself for the sourness. I’m sorry, Sejanth, if you’re listening. That wasn’t kind.

On the training grounds, Darshanth turned his head at her approach. He was sitting with one wing spread over Kinnescath, and two green dragonets lay curled against his other side. The sight made Sarenya pause, unexpected emotion making her throat prickle. She smothered the reaction before Darshanth could pick up on it. “Hello, Darshanth. Would you tell your rider I’m here?”

I will, Sarenya.

Darshanth was the one dragon in the Weyr Sarenya could reliably expect to answer when she spoke to him. Most dragons weren’t interested in talking to anyone but their own riders, and many riders didn’t like people addressing their dragons directly, except in greeting or thanks. Protocol in the dragon infirmary was that a Dragon Healer should always make requests of a dragon through his rider, at least until told otherwise. Sarenya sometimes found that frustrating. The ability to calm a runner or steer or hound with touch and tone of voice was vital in the Beastcraft. It took a conscious effort for Sarenya to overcome the habit, but an unhappy rider made an unhappy dragon, and thirty-plus feet of unhappy dragon made for a difficult patient, so Sarenya had learned to respect a dragonpair’s boundaries.

The other dragonets were sitting or lying on the training grounds, some asleep, others looking towards the bunker where their riders were at work. Sarenya stopped beside Darshanth, unwilling to get too close. The weyrlings were sorting firestone, and even unburned, the stuff smelled terrible. She wondered how dragons could bear to eat it.

It doesn’t taste so bad.

Darshanth’s remark gave Sarenya a start. She looked sharply at him, and he returned her look innocently. “I didn’t know you were listening.”

One of the greens by his side lifted her head to look at Sarenya, rustling her wings nervously. She wondered if the dragonet remembered her from her examination the previous day. Many of the young dragons had been apprehensive about being handled by anyone but their own riders, and a nose-to-tail could be an intrusive experience for them.

The weyrlings at the bunker wore gloves, goggles, facemasks, and a coating of fine grey powder. Some of them were wielding sledgehammers to break the raw stone – each chunk about the size of a man’s head – into usable pieces. As Sarenya recalled from her own spell as a candidate, firestone was a brittle rock, and the real skill was to avoid smashing it too fine. Other weyrlings shovelled the pieces into barrows, then dumped them down chutes that fed onto long tables with gently slanted surfaces. The rest of the weyrlings worked along those tables, grading chunks into the carts behind them, occasionally using a hammer to split an overlarge piece in half. From time to time, one of them would carefully sweep the smallest pieces of rubble off the table into a separate bin.

C’mine was talking to a couple of weyrlings at the end of one table. He was almost indistinguishable from them in his grimy protective gear, but he seemed to be explaining some subtle difference in the weight or quality of the pieces of firestone he had in each hand. At last, he set down his two pieces of stone and came over to where Sarenya was waiting with Darshanth. “Saren,” he greeted her, taking off a glove and pulling the mask and goggles off his face.

He was sweaty and pale – the former not surprising given the heat of the day and his layer of protective clothing, the latter quite a feat for a naturally dark-complexioned man. “You look exhausted,” she said. “L’stev can’t have run you ragged on your first day.”

“Not L’stev.” C’mine managed a very wan smile. “Although now I know why he’s so bad-tempered all the time.”

“You’ll soon get into the rhythm of it, C’mine.”

“It’s only temporary, anyway,” he said. “Just for a few sevendays until Jenavally gets back on her feet.”

Sarenya winced. She’d got to know Jenavally quite well in the months she’d been working with the weyrlings. “Do you think she will?”

C’mine gave her a haunted look. It made Sarenya guiltily aware of how little she’d seen of him recently; how little she knew of how he’d been dealing with his own grief. “I don’t know,” he said. “But I’ll do what I can for as long as I’m needed.”

“I think it’s the best thing you’ve done in months,” Sarenya told him, and meant it. “I know we haven’t seen much of each other outside Valonna’s meetings, but I have been worried about you. I’ve just been so busy.”

“You’re still looking after Sejanth?”

“Yes. I’m not sure how much good I’m doing, though. He’s not a well dragon. Not at all.”

“He was the one who brought you back to Madellon, you know,” he said. “D’feng, that is. You were meant to distract T’kamen from Shimpath.”

Sarenya felt herself tense. “T’kamen doesn’t distract that easily.”

C’mine looked at her. “You know he still –”

“I know.” Sarenya cut him off. “I know.”

They stood in silence for a moment.

“I still had two Turns on my contract at Blue Shale,” Sarenya said, to move the conversation on from T’kamen. “Two more Turns there, and then the plan was I’d go back to the Hall, pick my specialisation, and begin studying for my Mastery.”

“Your specialisation,” said C’mine. “You wanted to concentrate on race-runners, didn’t you?”

He said it slowly, as if unearthing the knowledge from the dusty recesses of his memory. Sarenya nodded. “I wanted to. But I’ve fallen so behind on my runner knowledge since I’ve been at Madellon, I don’t think any of the runner Masters would sponsor me. My best chance would be if I focused on fire-lizards instead.”

“Is that why you’re still working with Master Vhion?”

“Well, I mean…” Sarenya glanced sideways at Darshanth, and teased, “…dragons are just overgrown fire-lizards, aren’t they?”

Darshanth snorted in outrage.

C’mine touched his dragon’s neck. “Will you go back to the Hall when your contract here is up?”

“My contract is up,” Sarenya said. She let C’mine look at her with consternation for a moment. “Arrense keeps extending it. It’s a bad time to be a crafter at Madellon, but I don’t think he’ll terminate me.”

“Valonna wouldn’t want you leaving,” said C’mine. He looked like he was about to add, And nor would T’kamen, but he didn’t.

“She has enough on her plate without needing to worry about me,” said Sarenya. “Which brings me to the weyrlings.” She pointed with one of her sample jars at the bin of dust and rubble. “Those bits don’t even look big enough for fire-lizards.”

C’mine followed her gaze. “Were you planning on stoking Sleek for flame?”

Sarenya laughed. “Sleek’s enough of a danger to himself already. No, I was just curious about what happens to the rubble.”

C’mine took off his other glove and tucked it and the first one into his belt. “L’stev has them throw out anything smaller than about half the size of your fist. It’s too easy for small pieces to go into the wrong stomach. The little bits get turned into cake.”

“Cake?”

“Training cake. It’s ground to powder, mixed with water, and left to dry out. It’s even softer than raw stone, so it’s useful for teaching young dragons to chew, and we can control the grade by mixing in other types of rock, so they can’t over-stoke.”

“You sound like a Weyrlingmaster already,” Sarenya told him. “You’ll make L’stev anxious.”

“Not for the reason you’re suggesting, Saren,” said C’mine. “Did Master Vhion send you?”

She brandished her specimen jars. “We still need dung samples from the dragonets who didn’t produce any yesterday. The names are on the slate.”

C’mine took the slate from under her arm and looked at the names on it. “I’ll get these weyrlings for you. Darshanth –” He turned to his dragon for a moment. “This won’t take a minute.”

“He seems to be settling into his new role well,” Sarenya observed, nodding at the blue.

“He likes the attention,” said C’mine. “The main thing these dragonets need for now is comfort and routine, especially Kinnescath.”

The brown dragonet tucked under Darshanth’s wing did look pitiful. Sarenya knew Vhion was very worried about him. “And a nice relaxing job for the weyrlings, sorting firestone?”

“L’stev wants to keep their hands busy and their minds clear to think. He’s hoping they might be able to piece together what actually went wrong.”

“Is anyone any closer to having an explanation?”

C’mine shook his head slowly. “No explanation. Only theories.”

“There’ve been a few of those flying around the Beastcraft cot,” Sarenya said. “My Master came down on the apprentices like a dragonweight of bricks for speculating last night.”

“I doubt they’ve come up with anything we haven’t,” said C’mine. “What have they been saying?”

“I don’t even like to repeat it,” Sarenya said, but she did anyway. “There was a lot of loose talk about it being a defect because Madellon’s breeding population isn’t diverse enough.”

“Your apprentices aren’t the only ones who’ve suggested that,” said C’mine.

“It’s not their place to be guessing,” said Sarenya. She looked at C’mine apologetically. “But they do sort of have a point. Aren’t Epherineth and Shimpath half-siblings?”

“Full siblings, from different clutches,” said C’mine. “And their parents were full siblings, too.”

Sarenya made a face. “Faranth, that is bad,” she said, then added quickly, “Sorry, C’mine. You know I don’t mean that as a criticism of Darshanth.”

C’mine put his hand up to Darshanth’s muzzle, leaving a dusty smudge on the silvery-blue hide. “I know.”

Sarenya turned it over in her mind. “It doesn’t follow that it’s an inbreeding problem, anyway. I mean, there are certain breeds of hound that have been line-bred far too much for my liking. You might get a few defective pups in a litter, but I’ve never heard of the same fault appearing spontaneously in every member of a litter without any hint of it in earlier generations of the family.”

“Dragons aren’t hounds,” C’mine pointed out.

“No, but they’re not so far from fire-lizards, and fire-lizard populations can lock in defects when there’s not enough potential to out-cross. Have you ever heard of the Bay fire-lizard?” When C’mine shook his head, Sarenya continued. “It was a Peninsula subspecies, native to the region around Long Bay Hold. Quite a bit different to the other strains of fire-lizard. Smaller, and it only had three toes on the hind feet, and a kind of pincer arrangement instead of forepaws on the front.” She pinched together her thumb and first two fingers to demonstrate.

“I’ve never seen a fire-lizard with pincers,” said C’mine.

“You wouldn’t have. The Bay subspecies went extinct in the wild about sixty-five Turns ago. They weren’t as intelligent as the Settler or Northern types, so they weren’t as good as hiding their clutches. When Long Bay was first settled the holders took too many eggs, and the Bay population couldn’t sustain itself.

“The Beastcraft tried to resurrect it with a handful of Impressed Bay lizards that they managed to turn feral – two queens and half a dozen bronzes. But domestic lizards don’t ever clutch that productively, even when they’ve reverted to the wild, and I don’t think they managed to eke out the experiment for more than a few Turns. Fire-lizards are a lot more vulnerable than you’d think, and it wouldn’t have taken a very major birth defect in such a limited breeding pool to disadvantage them enough to finish them off. So maybe –”

She broke off as two weyrlings came trotting up, their facemasks pulled down, buckets and shovels in hand. “Thank you, Cebria and…J’kovu,” said C’mine, hesitating only momentarily over the lad’s name.

The dung in Cebria’s bucket was still steaming. “Nice and fresh,” said Sarenya, handing each weyrling a sample jar.

The two weyrlings scooped dragon dung into the glass bottles. It was foetid, reeking stuff, rank as only carnivore scat could be. Sarenya was used to it from mucking out Sejanth every day, but it did make her grateful that most of the manure she shovelled as a Beastcrafter came from grass-eaters.

“What are you going to do with it?” J’kovu asked, handing his jar back and watching as Sarenya screwed the lid onto it.

“We’ll just be testing it for a few things,” Sarenya told him, writing Moth on the outside of the jar with the grease pencil. “We can tell a lot about your dragon’s health from his droppings.”

J’kovu stared at the bottle of dung. “Will it tell you if he’ll be able to go between?”

“I don’t think there’s a test for that, J’kovu,” C’mine told him.

J’kovu wiped his face with the back of his hand. “K’dam said we’ll all be shovelling sh – shovelling dung forever if our dragons can’t go between to…go between.

“Dragons don’t really do that,” C’mine said. There was no trace of mirth in his voice. “K’dam was teasing you. Once you’re old enough to fly out of the Weyr on your own, there are several places they can go.”

Sarenya was sure J’kovu probably looked relieved, but she kept her face turned away until the weyrling had gone. “How did you manage to keep your face straight through that, Mine?”

“They don’t deserve to be laughed at,” he told her. “Especially the youngest ones.”

Sarenya sighed. “They’re just kids, aren’t they?”

“That’s what scares me.”

“It shouldn’t. You’ve always been good with kids.”

“I don’t know. L’stev’s not convinced.”

“You wouldn’t be here if he didn’t trust you. And anyway, they’ll help you as much as you’ll help them. You’ve been too isolated since – well. Since.”

C’mine looked off into nowhere, his face unreadable. Darshanth turned his head slowly to regard him with one sparkling eye. “I wasn’t looking for help.”

“Sometimes it comes looking for you, Mine.”

He smiled, but the expression didn’t get as far as his eyes. “Maybe I should have run faster.”

“You wouldn’t really have run. There are too many people here who still need you.” Sarenya started to count them off on her fingers. “T’kamen. Valonna. Carleah. Me.”

“None of you need me.”

“Not true, or you wouldn’t be here now.” Sarenya paused. “Did you tell T’kamen that you went to see Igen?”

C’mine looked chagrined. “No.”

“You should have. It might make him appreciate you a bit more.”

“You won’t say anything, will you?”

Sarenya wondered guiltily if he knew she’d told T’kamen she was worried about him. “I won’t.”

“Thank you.”

“You wouldn’t have liked all that sand, anyway,” Sarenya told him. The other weyrlings were heading over with their buckets. She took the lids off her last two sample jars in readiness. “It gets into everything. And how’s Djeth today, K’ralthe?”

Djeth was the bronze who’d gone floppy during his exam. K’ralthe shot Sarenya an annoyed look. “He’s fine.” He dropped his bucket with a thump. “There’s his dung.”

“It’s not much good to me in there,” Sarenya said. “In the bottle, please. You too, M’touf.”

She noticed M’touf glance sideways at K’ralthe for guidance, and then his body language became confrontational. The unspoken retort was clear: you don’t even have a dragon; why should we do what you say? Most of the Wildfire weyrlings were respectful of Sarenya’s knots, but this wasn’t the first time she’d encountered the entitled conceit of a young rider. She could have pointed out – as L’stev had several sevendays ago, in a similar situation with a different weyrling – that her craft rank gave her the same status as a junior-grade Wingsecond. Instead, she looked at C’mine. “Weyrlingmaster?”

C’mine almost gave a start when she called him by the title. It was the correct address for an assistant Weyrlingmaster, but Sarenya wondered if anyone had used it on him yet. “Do as the journeyman tells you, please, K’ralthe.”

K’ralthe seemed like he might answer back, but then Darshanth looked at him. Sighing as if unreasonably put upon, K’ralthe crammed some of his dragon’s droppings into a bottle, and shoved it at Sarenya. “Is that all?”

“Actually,” Sarenya said, turning back to C’mine, “I wonder if you could spare one of these lads to help me take these samples back to the infirmary. I’ve run out of hands.”

“Of course, Sarenya,” C’mine said. He hesitated, looking at the two weyrlings. Sarenya hoped he’d assign K’ralthe to the job, just to put the haughty little snot in his place, but then C’mine nodded at M’touf. “Would you help Sarenya, please?”

“I’ll send him directly back to you, Weyrlingmaster,” Sarenya promised. She wouldn’t normally have walked away from C’mine without at least squeezing his arm, but she didn’t want to undermine his authority in front of the weyrlings. She did think hard in Darshanth’s direction as she said, “This way, M’touf.” Tell him to keep his chin up and not to let them walk all over him.

Darshanth’s voice echoed back. He’s trying.

“Why d’you call him Weyrlingmaster?” M’touf asked, as he followed Sarenya back across the Bowl towards the infirmary with two of the sample jars. “He’s only Low-Brow’s assistant.”

“That still makes him a Weyrlingmaster,” Sarenya told him. She ignored M’touf’s deliberate use of L’stev’s nickname. They’d been calling the Weyrlingmaster ‘Low-Brow’ since Sarenya was a candidate. “You were much better company when Atath was injured, M’touf.”

“Well, she’s fine now,” M’touf said huffily, though he did at least look a shade contrite.

Sarenya had got to know M’touf quite well while his Atath had been in the infirmary. He’d even helped her with Sejanth a few times. He wasn’t a bad lad: he was just too worried about what his friends thought of him. “I’m glad she is. But don’t take advantage of C’mine’s good nature. He’s given more to this Weyr than most riders ever will. And he’s been the Weyrleader’s right-hand man for more Turns than you’ve been alive, so you and your pals might want to think about what reports get back to him.

M’touf didn’t reply for a moment. Then he blurted, “Not going to matter if there’s something wrong with their dragons, is it?”

“Look, M’touf, I’m not a dragonrider, or an expert. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with your dragons…”

“Never said there was anything wrong with mine.”

“… and whatever happened the other day, I’m certain L’stev’s going to get to the bottom of it.

“Why couldn’t he get it right the first time?” M’touf asked. “I mean, N’jen and Ivaryo, and Jenafa, they’re gone. They were fine, and now they’re just…y’know…gone. How could he let that happen? What if it had been us? Me and Atath could be dead right now. That could have been my mam crying her eyes out at the leave-taking last night.”

“M’touf.” Sarenya stopped and put her hand on his shoulder. “I’m not who you should be talking to about this.”

He flicked a look at her from underneath dark lashes. “Can’t talk to Low-Brow, can I?”

“Not if you don’t want to,” Sarenya said. “But you can talk to C’mine. Far more senior riders than you have been taking his advice for Turns.”

But he’s just a blue rider,” M’touf objected.

“There’s no ‘just’ about it. He’s the Weyrleader’s closest friend and one of the Weyrwoman’s most valued advisers. If he’s good enough for them, he’s sure as shards good enough for you.” She took her hand away. “Talk to C’mine. He’s the best listener in the Weyr. Trust me.”

M’touf followed her the rest of the way to the infirmary in pensive silence.

Vhion was nowhere in sight, but Sarenya put her two bottles down on his desk, and directed M’touf to do the same with his. “Go on back,” she told him. “That firestone’s not going to get broken up by itself.”

“I guess so,” M’touf said gloomily.

“And thank you,” Sarenya added. “For the help.”

“Sure.”

Sarenya checked the labelling on the bottles, then wiped the slate clean of its list of names and put it back on the pile of blanks. Then she sat down in Vhion’s chair, closing her eyes.

Had she done the right thing, sending M’touf off to C’mine? Time was, she wouldn’t have questioned the wisdom of it. C’mine had been everyone’s friend and confidante for as long as she’d known him. But he was so distracted and distant; so twitchy. She hated to admit it, even to herself, but he wasn’t the man he’d once been.

Are any of us?

The thought crawled unbidden from the same dark place where her nightmares dwelt. She tried to refuse it, but it hung there malevolently, taunting her.

Perhaps we’re not.

There’d been a time, before Hatching day, when things had seemed to be going right. There’d been a sense of buoyancy, of positivity, of hope for the future. T’kamen had become Weyrleader and, for a brief, tumultuous, glorious period, he and Sarenya had picked up where they’d left off all those Turns ago. C’los and C’mine had seemed unshakeable. Even Valonna had shown signs of emerging from her prison of self-doubt.

Then Katel had come to Madellon Weyr, and his murderous vendetta against those he believed had corrupted his brother had ruined them all. Katel had crushed Madellon’s newfound optimism, driven a wedge between C’mine and C’los, thrown the competence of T’kamen’s leadership into doubt. Katel had damaged T’kamen’s confidence in himself, leading him to lash out at Sarenya and frighten off Valonna. Katel had robbed C’mine of his weyrmate and Sarenya of her courage. Katel had forced them, all of them, apart.

There’d been a connection between them all, a series of links, some new and fragile, some old and seemingly unbreakable. Now some of those ties were gone completely, others trailed limp and broken, and those that remained were frayed and tattered and tenuous. Where once they’d shared a mutual purpose and direction and momentum, now they each inhabited their own private shells, orbiting each other at a careful distance, not daring to intersect. All that love, lost. All that trust, broken. All that hope, dashed. All because Katel had decided to impose his twisted, hateful perceptions of right and wrong upon people who didn’t share it.

Sarenya was almost certain that one of the phantoms she saw outside the dragon infirmary each day was his. She’d never looked closely enough to tell for sure. She didn’t dare, because she was certain that if she ever looked straight into the indistinct face of the shade of C’los’ murderer, she’d run at it, screaming and raging, and everyone would think she’d lost her mind.

With an effort, Sarenya pulled out of her bleak contemplation. Vhion’s chair was uncomfortably hard – his backside might provide all the padding he needed, but hers was considerably less ample. She got up gingerly and went to check on Sejanth.

He was asleep, his laboured breathing a painful rasp in the confines of the infirmary cavern. And he hadn’t touched his wherry. It lay wring-necked and abandoned just outside his wallow, and in the heat of the day, it was beginning to give off the faint but unmistakeable odour of decay.

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