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Chapter eleven: Valonna

The Weyrwoman is the pivotal piece on a chessboard. She must be protected at all costs, for once she is mated, the game is over. Yet the Weyrwoman, for all her importance, is gravely constrained. She may move in any direction, but only one space at a time, and never into jeopardy. Her power is limited, and she cannot be risked in any kind of offensive stratagem, except in the most desperate of end-games.

The Weyrleader, meanwhile, is the most powerful piece on the board. He may move an unlimited number of spaces in any direction and, played boldly, he will spearhead many offensive gambits.

Should the Weyrleader be captured, the game is not over, but the player lacking a Weyrleader will find himself at a grave disadvantage. However, should a Wingrider, against all odds, traverse the width of the chessboard and survive to reach the other side, he may be promoted to any higher-value piece (Wingsecond, Wingleader, Star Stone, or Weyrleader). In this way, a player who has lost his Weyrleader may replace his fallen asset; on rare occasions, promotion can result in one player having two Weyrleaders on the board at the same time.

The Rules of Dragon Chess, third edition

100.02.25 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
MADELLON WEYR

Valonna (Micah Johnson)The mourning keen of Madellon’s dragons rent the air of the Weyr, echoed from the walls of the Bowl, and reverberated far down into the deep quiet of the lower caverns where Valonna was working with the Headwoman.

She raced to Shimpath’s side where she had been keeping her vigil on the training grounds. “He’s gone?” she cried, heartbroken.

Shimpath lowered her head in sorrow, her chest heaving from the effort of her keen. I’m so sorry. I couldn’t stop him. He wouldn’t stay.

Valonna leaned her head against her dragon’s muzzle, fighting back the tears that had sprung into her eyes. “Oh, Shimpath. What happened?”

He said his rider was gone. He said he had to find him. He fought free of me. I could not hold him. He said his rider had gone between. He went to get him. Shimpath’s anguish seemed without limits. He is gone.

“It’s not your fault,” Valonna told her. “It couldn’t be your fault. At least…at least you were with him at the end. Oh! Your chest!”

The golden hide of Shimpath’s breast was bleeding, greenish ichor seeping from a dozen shallow slices. I could not hold him, she repeated mournfully.

One of the weyrlings, red-eyed and shaking, fetched Master Vhion from the infirmary. The Dragon Healer examined Shimpath’s wounds, the silent evidence of that final struggle, and pronounced them minor. He was treating them with redwort and numbweed when one of Master Isnan’s apprentices came to summon Valonna to the Weyr Healer’s domain bearing the most tragic tidings of all.

Kinnescath’s rider was still alive.

Valonna stood helplessly by as Isnan examined the unconscious G’dra: peeling back his eyelids, checking his pulse, testing his reflexes. The lad’s breathing had an odd rhythm to it, becoming progressively deeper and faster, then weaker and softer, until finally it stopped entirely for a moment before starting again. “Does he know?” she asked unhappily, watching the grey-faced youth’s chest rise sharply as he began to breathe again after one such pause.

“No, Weyrwoman,” said Isnan. “See his eyes, here.” He pushed up G’dra’s left eyelid, then his right, revealing the wide black pools of his pupils. “Both pupils are dilated and unreactive to light.” He pulled a glow-basket close to G’dra’s slack face to demonstrate. “When I observed him yesterday only the left was unresponsive. He’s fallen into a more profound state of coma, Weyrwoman, sunk so deeply into unconsciousness that Kinnescath could no longer find him.”

“But his breathing –”

“Only a sign of the damage to the part of his brain that controls respiration.”

“Then he couldn’t be – crying out inside? Knowing that Kinnescath is gone?”

Master Isnan shook his head. “He is too deeply insensate to know anything, Valonna. If any part of him were close to the surface, I’m certain Kinnescath would have recognised it.”

Valonna caught herself twisting her hands together and made herself stop. “Will he ever wake up?”

Isnan straightened, tucking his hands into the pockets of his smock. “Perhaps,” he answered at last, without inflection. “The Hall has records of patients rousing from comas after many days, even sevendays, with proper care. G’dra is still swallowing, so we can feed him, and even if that ceases we could introduce fluids intravenously – using needlethorn. But it’s more likely that he’ll simply sink deeper and deeper and gradually slip away. I know you’ll probably feel that would be the best thing for him, as a dragonrider.”

“He won’t want to live without Kinnescath,” Valonna said, quietly certain.

“I’ve been a Weyr Healer too long to argue that with you,” Isnan replied. “But I also feel that he’s a young man, and the young are sometimes more resilient than we realise. He’s only been a rider for a few months –”

Valonna shook her head. “He won’t want to live without Kinnescath.” She clutched at Shimpath as she repeated it, and felt her queen’s love wrap around her.

“As you say, Weyrwoman.” Isnan sounded resigned, but not surprised. “We’ll continue to care for him here. If Madellon cannot afford the resources to support him, I’ll send to the Hall to see if he might be transferred there.”

“I’m sure that won’t be necessary,” Valonna insisted, although, treacherously, she’d already began to add up in her mind the cost of all the care G’dra would need, and how the resources and man-power might be more productively used elsewhere. “I’ll speak to the Weyrleader.” Shimpath, is Epherineth back yet?

He is not.

She wondered if T’kamen knew that Kinnescath was gone, if news of the dragonet’s death had reached Epherineth at Southern or Peninsula, wherever they were. She suspected not, or he would have returned by now. Dragons always reacted in the presence of a death, and to the loss of a queen anywhere on Pern, but they didn’t usually keen for dragons who died farther away than they could reach. The thought of having to present T’kamen with the news that they’d lost a fourth weyrling made Valonna fretful.

It wasn’t T’kamen’s fault – it couldn’t be – and yet she knew that the Weyrleader would find a way to take personal responsibility for Kinnescath’s death. Valonna didn’t think there was anyone more completely or passionately committed to the welfare of Madellon’s riders and dragons than T’kamen, but she feared how this latest tragedy would weigh on him. It wasn’t fair that so many catastrophes had befallen the Weyr in his short term as leader. E’rom’s death and C’los’ murder; the ongoing struggle to keep the Weyr supplied; the loss of the first three weyrlings, and now a fourth, in circumstances no one could explain.

“Faranth, this is a bad business,” L’stev said, when Valonna returned to the barracks to apprise him of G’dra’s condition. “Better the poor lad had died between with his dragonet in the first place.” He stared bleakly at nothing. He looked like he’d aged ten Turns in the last five days. The sudden realisation that the Weyrlingmaster was mortal – and getting no younger – distressed Valonna. They relied so completely on L’stev. “I’ll write to his Master in the Seacraft.”

“Shouldn’t I do it?” Valonna asked. “I’ve oversight of all non-rider deaths.”

The words came out before she thought them all the way through, and she cringed. Non-rider. Gidra, now, not G’dra. “No,” said L’stev. “He came to grief as a rider. that makes him my responsibility. I’m blighted if I’ll have you or T’kamen taking the lumps in my place.”

He meant it literally. L’stev was sporting a black eye from an altercation with the father of one of the other lost weyrlings, who’d turned up at the Weyr the previous evening in search of someone to blame for his daughter’s death. They’d thrown him, weeping, into Madellon’s seldom-used gaol cell to cool off. Valonna had assigned someone to watch him, just in case.

“How are they taking it?” she asked, watching the weyrlings work.

L’stev shrugged. “About as well as you’d expect. If there’s any good to be taken from this situation, maybe it’ll make the survivors think twice before doing anything stupid to risk themselves. But this problem with between… It makes no sense. They did everything right. And until I figure out what went wrong, we’re flying a holding stack. The next three months of training should all be about between. How can I teach them close-quarters flying if they can’t blink themselves out of a tight spot? How can I let them flame?”

Valonna didn’t know what to suggest. She didn’t suppose L’stev expected her to think of anything, but she hated feeling so useless. She’d felt, or been made to feel, inadequate for as long as she could remember, but especially since she’d Impressed Shimpath. As a queen rider, she should have had more control over her own life than almost anyone else on Pern, yet Fianine and L’dro and Adrissa had penned her in a cage of her own pointlessness, knowing she’d been too afraid to seek freedom.

She’d found her escape in the unlikeliest place. Madellon’s lower caverns had been enemy territory under Adrissa’s rule as Headwoman, but since Valonna had appointed Crauva in her place, the astonishing complex of passages and storerooms had opened to her. Together, she and Crauva had explored caves and niches that hadn’t been touched in decades, some of them abandoned early in the Interval when the Holders of Madellon’s territory had still been grateful for the establishment of their own Weyr. The vast storerooms closest to the living caverns of the Weyr had been insufficient to house the bountiful harvests of those post-Pass Turns, and Madellon’s population too small to consume all that was tithed. So a network of smaller passages and caves had been opened up, the surplus crammed in haphazardly, without record or inventory, and over time, as the main storerooms accumulated the clutter of nine decades of Weyrfolk, the smaller nooks and crannies, and their stored bounty, were gradually forgotten.

Much of it had spoiled long ago. They found disintegrating sacks filled with the desiccated remains of century-old wheat and barley, some of them almost untouched by the tunnel snakes that plagued the main stores, but inedible nonetheless. Heaps and rolls of hides – cow, sheep, and wherry – had become brittle and useless. Yet bolts of fabric came out of their storage chests undimmed by the passage of time. Ingots of iron and tin and copper stacked waist high to a man had gathered dust but no corrosion in the deep, dry caverns. They discovered dozens of wineskins, their contents long since evaporated and the skins themselves stiff and purple, and dozens more bottles of wine intact and perfect – although not every vintage had improved for the long Turns of neglect.

Finding everything had taken them sevendays of hard, exhausting, grimy work that had left Valonna with more barked shins, scraped knuckles, and torn fingernails than became a Senior Weyrwoman. But gradually, guiltily, she’d realised that her work amidst the detritus of a hundred Turns of Madellon dragonriders was the most fulfilling thing she’d done since Impressing Shimpath. The thrill of uncovering some hidden gem amidst the dross; the satisfaction of bringing useful order out of chaos; the companionship of a snatched klah break surrounded by dusty bales and boxes and accompanied by a dose of Crauva’s earthy common sense – these were things Valonna had come to enjoy.

Some of the things they found were too precious to be left unguarded, and those they locked in the stout cupboard in Crauva’s office – a gold necklace with a broken catch; a keepsake box filled with a jumble of uncut gemstones; a chess set carved in jade and jasper. Crauva had the master key, and Valonna a copy, cut while they watched by the Weyr Smith, hanging on the ring she wore on her belt. And some of the treasures were too beautiful to shut away. A garnet-encrusted silver filigree bracelet had come out of a box of lesser ornamentations black with tarnish, but splendidly adorned her own wrist now: her one secretive, guilty prize.

The business of lifting boxes and jockeying crates was almost complete now, but there were still lists to be written, tallies to be made, registers to be checked off. Adrissa had left almost no records of any use, and Crauva had begun her own. Each evening they sorted, fleshed out and copied the day’s findings – jotted piecemeal on slates – into one of the immense bound volumes of hide that were slowly filling the shelves in Crauva’s office. Valonna’s own handwriting had come to dominate those carefully-inscribed records in neat columns of figures, checked, re-checked, and totted up, an account of everything they’d discovered. She’d found herself to be more adept at figuring than she’d imagined she could be. Her passing education in numbers and sums had ended when she’d been Searched to Madellon not long after her fourteenth birthday. But Crauva had shown her how to make numbers obey her commands, how to make them agree with each other, how to set them out to yield an accounting. Fractions and percentages had come easily to her, as though they had only been waiting for her to discover them, like a dragon still in the egg.

Valonna knew she hadn’t served Madellon very well as its Weyrwoman in the Turns of her seniority. Fianine had died before Shimpath was even a Turn old, and Valonna had become Senior by default. By the time she had graduated from weyrlinghood, the bronze riders of Madellon’s Council had been doing most of the Weyrwoman’s work for so long that the idea of handing the serious business of running Madellon back to a sixteen-Turn-old queen rider must have seemed absurd to them. Valonna had kept Madellon’s chronicles as best she could, recording births and deaths and Hatchings into the Weyr Book, and she’d taken care of Shimpath to the exacting standards that L’stev’s training demanded. And, until T’kamen became her Weyrleader, that was all she’d done.

T’kamen expected more of her, and for all that Valonna was still tense around her driven, unsmiling Weyrleader, she was grateful to him. He could have drowned her in responsibilities, but he didn’t. He seemed to understand just how much she could manage. And he seemed, in his understated way, to approve of the work Valonna was doing in the lower caverns. She had thought he might want to take it over once the inventory had begun to yield useful resources, but T’kamen had never questioned Valonna’s ownership of the project.

Even so, Valonna felt a pang of shame when she returned to her work in Crauva’s cosy, orderly domain. Madellon’s historical stores and records and accounts had become her refuge: a calm, logical, non-judgmental sanctuary where the answers were either correct or not. And, she thought guiltily, as she bent her attention to the trunk full of children’s clothes she had been itemising, much easier than dealing with the upsetting reality of the poor traumatised weyrlings.


She was still there much later when H’ned came looking for her.

“Weyrwoman,” he said, “have you seen T’kamen?”

Valonna set down her pen, stretching cramped, inky fingers. “Not since last night. He’s not back from the other Weyrs?”

“No.” Something about the way H’ned said it made Valonna pay closer attention. He looked anxious. “Look – Weyrwoman – would you ask Shimpath to contact Epherineth?”

“Of course,” she said. “What would you like her to say?”

“Anything,” said H’ned. “Where are they, when they’ll be back.”

Would you find Epherineth and ask him where he is? “Perhaps the other Weyrlingmasters at Peninsula or Southern have been more helpful than he thought.”

“I doubt he’s had any luck at Southern,” said H’ned, relaxing slightly and leaning on a packing crate. “You know what they’re like.”

“Have they always been so unfriendly?” Valonna asked.

H’ned shrugged. “Ever since I’ve been riding, at least. They keep themselves to themselves. P’raima’s been Weyrleader there for about five hundred Turns.”

“Five hundred?” Valonna exclaimed, laughing.

“Well, maybe thirty. He’s on his second Weyrwoman. I don’t think it’s healthy for things to stay the same for so long.” He paused. “Any luck with Epherineth?”

Shimpath?

There was a long pause. I’m trying to find him.

Trying to find him?

Yes.

Shimpath didn’t sound concerned, but Valonna’s face must have betrayed her own confusion, because H’ned suddenly looked worried again. “Anything?”

“She says she’s looking for him,” Valonna told him, but she was baffled.

“Izath says the same,” H’ned said. “He can’t find Epherineth anywhere.”

Shimpath, Valonna said, trying not to let her sudden concern show, nothing’s…happened…to Epherineth, hasn’t it?

I can’t find him, Shimpath said matter-of-factly. He is not here.

“She can’t find him either?” asked H’ned.

Valonna shook her head. “Could he be asleep?”

Not asleep, Shimpath insisted. Not here.

“No dragon alive can sleep through a queen calling,” said H’ned. Then he winced at his own choice of words. “It’s not as if anything serious could have happened to him, but…”

“But he’s missing,” said Valonna.

They looked at each other.

“Right,” H’ned said, after that instant of silence. “Izath –” He hesitated, relaying instructions, then went on almost in the same breath. “Sh’zon’s going to meet us on Izath’s ledge. We’ll call in today’s watchriders and find out what they know.”

Valonna looked back at the ledger open on the table, its figures yet unbalanced, then put it out of her mind.

Kawanth was already on H’ned’s weyr ledge when they got there. H’ned’s own bronze didn’t seem to object to the visitor; the two dragons were sitting up either side of the entrance, like a pair of sentinels. Sh’zon came striding out of H’ned’s weyr looking stormy, and boomed, “What’s the story, H’ned?”

“We’ve lost the Weyrleader,” H’ned replied.

“Lost him? Where’d you last put him?”

“Funny,” said H’ned. “We think he went to either the Peninsula or Southern this morning, but Shimpath and Izath can’t find him.”

Sh’zon’s brows contracted over his beaky nose. “What do you mean, can’t?”

“It’s as H’ned says, Sh’zon,” Valonna said. “Shimpath says that Epherineth isn’t here.”

Sh’zon spun to point at his dragon and barked, “Kawanth!” Then he frowned even harder. “You’re pulling my leg.” He looked at H’ned, then Valonna, looking puzzled. “Well, where’s the man put himself?”

“Somewhere even a queen can’t find him, and that’s what worries me,” said H’ned.

“Who saw him last?”

H’ned frowned. “C’tan says Epherineth came and went a bit during morning watch,” he said after a minute’s consultation with Izath.

“Well then,” said Sh’zon. “Let’s get C’tan up here and see what he knows.”

C’tan was blowing a bit when he presented himself to them a few minutes later. “M’pologies, sirs and Weyrwoman,” he puffed. “Came straight up from the dining hall when Raborth got the shout. Thought we were off duty for the day.”

“It’s fine, blue rider,” said Sh’zon, at the same time as H’ned asked, “You took the morning watch?”

“We did, sir, we did,” C’tan said, drawing himself up to attention. “Right through till forenoon, sir.”

“Did…”

“And…”

H’ned and Sh’zon looked at each other. “You go on, Sh’zon,” H’ned offered.

“Aye, I will. Tell me, blue rider, did the Weyrleader leave the Weyr at any point during your watch?”

“Yes, sir. The Weyrleader did indeed depart Madellon. Epherineth told Raborth they were bound for Southern Weyr. And then –” C’tan paused dramatically. They all leaned in. “Then he returned, he and Epherineth, and not more than a fourth of an hour gone since they left.”

“He returned?” H’ned echoed.

“Then where the shell…”

“Ah!” C’tan cried, clearly enjoying the strange interrogation. “But he left again shortly after his return.”

“And where did he go that time?” asked Sh’zon. He was starting to sound annoyed, with H’ned as much as with the obtuse blue rider.

C’tan blinked. “Sir, Epherineth didn’t inform Raborth of his destination on the second occasion. He is the Weyrleader, sir. We should never presume to ask if he did not volunteer.”

“Sh’zon, if I might,” H’ned said crisply, then turned back to C’tan. “So, to be clear, T’kamen went to Southern Weyr, came back a quarter-hour later, and then left Madellon again without telling you where he was going?”

“Yes, sir,” said C’tan, “that is precisely the sequence of events.”

“Where –” Sh’zon began.

And,” H’ned persisted, ignoring the other bronze rider, “there was nothing else unusual about the Weyrleader’s second departure?”

“Unusual, sir? No, sir. He and Epherineth cleared their ledge, ascended to altitude, and then went between.

“And there was no other notable activity during your watch?”

“Only the departure of the Ops Wing, sir.”

“M’ric’s Wing?” asked H’ned, glancing sharply at Sh’zon, then back at C’tan.

“Just as you say, sir,” said C’tan. “Trebruth informed Raborth specifically that he was taking his Wing out on night manoeuvres. I recall that he and his riders left a short while before the Weyrleader departed for the first time.”

“And were there any other movements in or out of the Weyr during your watch, after T’kamen left for the second time?” asked H’ned.

“No, sir,” C’tan replied. “Apart from the Ops Wing and Epherineth, it was a quiet watch.”

“And the Ops Wing didn’t come back?”

“Not during morning watch,” said C’tan. “When green rider Jayena relieved me for forenoon watch, neither the Weyrleader nor the Ops Wing had yet returned.” He looked expectantly from H’ned to Sh’zon and back.

If he was hoping for an explanation, though, he didn’t get one. “You can go, wingrider,” H’ned told him. “Thank you for your help.”

“My duty to you, Wingleaders,” C’tan said. He inclined his head towards Valonna. “Weyrwoman.”

“That was like getting sense out of a green,” said H’ned, when C’tan was out of earshot.

“You’re the one who rostered him,” said Sh’zon.

H’ned ignored that. “Well, it sounds as if M’ric was about during morning watch. Ask him if he saw T’kamen.”

Sh’zon’s eyes went unfocused as he spoke to Kawanth. “He says the Weyrleader was meant to attend the Ops Wing’s manoeuvres at Rift Valley,” he said after a moment. “T’kamen didn’t turn up.”

“Does M’ric say why?”

“He says Epherineth told Trebruth that his rider wanted to go to Southern and the Peninsula before it got too late,” said Sh’zon. He shrugged. “M’ric says that’s the last he heard.”

“Did he see T’kamen?”

“He says he didn’t.” Sh’zon’s eyes refocused. “You want me to get him down here and ask him this yourself?”

“Is that a problem?” asked H’ned.

“Why would it be a problem?”

“I never said it was, Sh’zon, I was just asking.”

“Wingleaders,” Valonna ventured, when Sh’zon looked likely to fire off a retort, “might I make a suggestion?”

“Well of course, Weyrwoman,” H’ned said, turning to her smoothly.

“It seems that the last place we know T’kamen went was Southern Weyr, and we know the Peninsula was next on his itinerary. Perhaps we should enquire of them both? Maybe he’s still there.”

We should go,” said Sh’zon. He poked a finger at H’ned’s chest, then his own. “You and me. One Weyr each. Do some first-hand investigation.”

“And leave the Weyrwoman without a Weyrleader or either of us?” H’ned asked.

“I think Sh’zon’s right,” said Valonna. “You should go. Wouldn’t Southern be offended if we sent a more junior rider?”

“Yes,” H’ned admitted. “But that still leaves our queens…” He hesitated. “Unguarded.”

“Unguarded?” Valonna asked. “There are twenty other bronzes at Madellon!”

“Thirteen,” H’ned corrected her. “Weyrlings, retirees, and Sejanth don’t count. But there’s no onward chain of command with T’kamen missing and both of us out-Weyr.”

“There must be,” said Sh’zon. “Who’s the most senior Wingleader?”

“Whoever’s still standing after F’yan and P’keo have had their annual slapping match over the honour,” said H’ned.

“Our priority should be finding the Weyrleader,” Valonna insisted, feeling colour rising in her cheeks.

H’ned sighed. “You’ll want to do the Peninsula, I suppose, Sh’zon?”

“If my Weyrwoman commands,” Sh’zon said, turning to Valonna with a half bow.

Valonna didn’t think the two bronze riders were really interested in what she thought, but she nodded anyway. “Yes. H’ned, you should go to Southern.”

“Yes, Weyrwoman,” he replied. He squinted up at the sun – only a few degrees higher than the western rim of the Bowl. “They won’t be pleased to see me. It’s the middle of the night there.”

“They won’t be pleased to see you whatever time it is,” said Sh’zon. “No sense in putting it off. We’ll head to the Peninsula directly. Weyrwoman.” He snapped his fingers at Kawanth, and the bronze obediently dropped onto his forearms.

“You will report in if you find anything,” she called after Sh’zon, but he just waved dismissively.

“We’ll keep Shimpath informed,” H’ned assured her. “Don’t let it worry you.”

Valonna just stood there on Izath’s weyr ledge, feeling totally redundant, and watched the two bronzes take off, gain height, and disappear.

They didn’t keep her waiting long. Valonna had barely completed the walk back to Shimpath and her own weyr when Kawanth reappeared above the Bowl, bearing a grimacing Sh’zon. “No sign of T’kamen,” he reported as he leapt down from his dragon’s neck. “Said he never was there, and that from a Peninsula rider I trust.”

He was probing his jaw gingerly with his fingertips as he spoke, and Valonna peered at him. “Are you all right, Sh’zon?”

“Just as right as rain,” he said, snatching his hand away, and revealing as he did a spreading discoloration under his blondish rake of stubble.

“Did someone punch you?” Valonna asked, startled.

“No,” he said, unconvincingly.

Valonna blinked. “What exactly did you find out?”

Sh’zon resumed rubbing his bruised face. “T’kamen never made it to the Peninsula. The watchrider said there’d not been a foreign rider all day. Not counting me of course. He didn’t have the cheek to call me foreign.”

“And –” Valonna glanced at his swollen face, “– whatever that was?”

“Went to see an old friend,” Sh’zon said guilelessly.

“An old friend hit you?”

“No, course not,” said Sh’zon. “But H’pold’s not my greatest admirer.”

“You got in a fight with the Weyrleader?”

“Never touched him,” said Sh’zon. “He came at me! Said I had a nerve showing my face at all!”

His cheerfulness baffled Valonna. “What did you say?”

“The truth! I was there on your orders, Weyrwoman. I’ll go wherever you sharding well tell me to, and H’pold be Threaded if he thinks I’d disobey a direct command from my Weyrwoman!”

“Sh’zon!” Valonna protested. “I didn’t tell you to get in an argument with the Peninsula’s Weyrleader!”

“I didn’t! I only –”

Shimpath interrupted with a very uncharacteristic rumble, and Sh’zon broke off. “Begging your pardon,” he said, but Shimpath paid him no attention, rising to her feet and raising her wings, her head lifted towards the sky. Kawanth tilted his muzzle curiously, then took two deliberate steps closer to the queen, suddenly tense.

“Shimpath?” Valonna asked.

A queen burst into the sky above Madellon, bigger than Shimpath, though not so bright. She craned her neck around to look down at the Bowl, beating her wings in a holding position, and even the brown dragon on watch made no sound, as if afraid to question her.

Shimpath gave throat to a long bugle of challenge, a shattering sound at such close range. The strange queen replied in a tone that Valonna could only read as conciliatory, dipping her wings in an gesture of appeasement. Shimpath barked out a question, and the other dragon responded with a softer cry. For an instant the space between the two queens seemed alive with the intensity of their communication. And then Shimpath subsided all at once, folding her wings calmly to her back and resettling herself in comfort on her ledge. I have told her she may land, she informed Valonna with a serenity that bordered on disinterest.

As Sh’zon blew out an explosive lungful of air, Valonna, looked at her dragon, bewildered. “What on Pern was that about, Shimpath? Who is she?”

Grizbath of Southern, Shimpath replied.

“That’s Margone,” said Sh’zon, almost at the same moment. “Southern’s Weyrwoman. And Izath’s right behind her, not that anyone’d notice after that entrance.” He gestured up at H’ned’s bronze. “I’m guessing H’ned’s found out more than we did.”

Grizbath had landed in the suddenly empty space in front of the lower caverns, not far from Shimpath’s ledge, and while Shimpath seemed relaxed now, Valonna could see her watching the Southern queen from the corner of one unblinking eye. “Do you have any enemies at Southern?” she asked Sh’zon.

“Not as I know of.”

“Then we must go and welcome Margone.” She felt completely inadequate to the task of greeting a Weyrwoman she’d met only a handful of times and never without her Weyrleader beside her, but there was nothing else for it. “Perhaps she has news of T’kamen.”

As they went to meet the strange queen, they passed several youngsters from the lower caverns who’d stopped to stare at the visitor. “Put your eyes back in your heads,” Sh’zon snapped at them. “You’ve never seen a queen before?”

“Wait!” Valonna said, as the children made to scatter. She saw a familiar face, the son of one of Crauva’s supervisors. “Segradon, isn’t it? Run to the kitchens and tell them to bring wine and fruit juice to my weyr.”

“Yes, Weyrwoman,” the boy said breathlessly, and bolted.

Izath had made a breakneck landing behind Grizbath, and H’ned was now at the Southern queen’s elbow, helping her rider down.

Margone was almost thrice Valonna’s age, and while she allowed H’ned to take her arm she didn’t even look at him. Instead she gazed at Valonna with piercing green eyes, incongruously bright in her tired, sallow face. “Thank you for receiving us, Weyrwoman.”

“Please be welcome to Madellon Weyr,” Valonna said hesitantly. “If I’d known you were coming…”

“Not your fault,” said Margone. “And we cannot stay long. The watchdragon at Southern will not remain silent once Tezonth realises we are gone.” She smiled, but the expression couldn’t banish the clear marks of strain – and illness – on her face.

“You must come to our weyr and rest a moment,” Valonna urged the older Weyrwoman, feeling an increasing sense of alarm.

“You’re very kind, Valonna, but time is short, and cannot be wasted on rest.”

Valonna caught her breath. “Then you know what’s become of T’kamen?”

“My dear.” Margone grasped her arm with a grip as light and frail as a child’s. “I’m sorry. I don’t know where your Weyrleader is now, though he did visit Southern today, and left it as a watch-wher might leave a nest of tunnel-snakes, if you’ll forgive my metaphor. I fear to say that I have come not to help you, but to seek your help.”

Over Margone’s shoulder, H’ned made a face, but Valonna ignored it. “Of course Madellon will help in any way it can, Weyrwoman.”

“First I must know this,” said Margone, “from your own lips, for what I gleaned today I heard only third-hand. Your Weyrleader came speaking of weyrlings lost between. Tell me, Valonna, is this so?”

Valonna swallowed hard, then nodded. “Yes. Three weyrlings lost to between all at once.” She closed her eyes for an instant. “Four lost. The last we lost only today.”

“Only four?” Margone asked. She placed her hand to her chest, as though in relief. “Four out of all your last clutch?”

“Yes, Weyrwoman,” Valonna assured her, but she was perplexed. Weren’t even four too many?

“Just four,” Margone whispered to herself. “And the others, they all went between successfully?”

“Well, no,” Valonna replied, even more confused. “Of the seven who tried, three couldn’t go between at all, and all the others – we lost all the others.”

Margone’s look was stricken. She staggered suddenly, putting out an arm to steady herself. H’ned moved quickly to support her. “Oh my sweet Grizbath,” she murmured. “What have we done?”

“Weyrwoman, you must come in and rest,” Valonna urged her. “You are unwell.”

“I am unwell,” Margone agreed faintly. She visibly gathered herself, though she still leaned on H’ned’s arm. “Your T’kamen came looking for our help, for Southern’s help?”

“Yes,” Valonna told her. “He hoped to find precedent in your Archives, to understand what happened. Madellon’s records go back only to the Pass.”

“Precedent,” Margone said, and then she cried, “Blight you, P’raima! Blight your pride, blight your arrogance, blight your dragon to the Thread-blighted Void!”

“Please, Weyrwoman, I don’t understand,” Valonna begged.

Margone clutched both of her hands. “Your poor, poor weyrlings. I’m so sorry. I’m so very sorry. But at least…at least Madellon only lost four.”

The horror dawned on Valonna at the very instant that she saw H’ned go rigid with fury, and Sh’zon mouth, “Faranth between!”

“Yours, too?” Valonna whispered.

“Yes,” Margone said. Tears stood brightly in her eyes. “Grizbath’s last clutch Hatched twenty-one dragonets. One of Tezonth’s best showings, and a queen at last. Blight him. Blight him.”

“The queen –” Valonna began.

“Survived,” said Margone, “thank Faranth for that smallest of mercies. But now her clutchmates number only eight. At Southern, when our weyrlings go between for the first time, they go as a Wing. And so…those who tried… died as a Wing.”

The arithmetic was horribly simple. “You lost twelve?”

“We believed the fault was Southern’s,” Margone said despairingly. “No. I feared the fault was Southern’s. P’raima would entertain no such thing. P’raima blamed S’gert. Poor, faithful S’gert, who trained so many of our weyrlings. But I feared our dragonets, Southern’s dragonets, were faulty, that breeding father to daughter for all these Turns had finally taken its toll. Even so…I couldn’t bear…we tried…to stop them…”

Margone broke off. Her startling eyes sought and found no point of focus.

“But it can’t be your fault,” said Valonna. “Because it’s happening to us, too, exactly the same way. Half lost, half who wouldn’t try. Weyrwoman, you can’t blame yourself, or the breeding of your dragonets.” The realisation that T’kamen was wrong – that it wasn’t a flaw in Epherineth’s bloodline – gave Valonna a sudden staggering instant of relief. “Southern and Madellon face the same predicament, Margone. We can confront it together!”

“Dear Valonna,” said Margone. “To be as young and as hopeful as you.” She clutched Valonna’s hand in both of hers. “Don’t you see? A defective bloodline would be a tragedy to Southern, a calamity to all P’raima has built these thirty Turns. But a faulty queen, even a faulty Weyr, wouldn’t mean the ruin of all.” She took a deep, shuddering breath. “But if this is not confined to Southern – if Madellon’s dragonets are equally afflicted – and if the pattern holds true for all the Weyrs of Pern… If dragons cannot go between safely and come out the other side, if they can’t jump, if they can’t dodge…then it won’t be just twelve lost, or sixteen.”

Margone choked off her words, covering her mouth with her hand, but her vivid green eyes met Valonna’s, and they were tortured with the enormity what she had left unsaid.

But Valonna completed it in her own mind, as she knew Sh’zon would, and H’ned.

If dragons can no longer go between, then when the Pass comes, and Thread falls, they’ll all be lost.

And Pern with them.

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