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Chapter fifteen: C’mine

C'mine's Run by Micah Johnson

‘C’mine’s Run’ by Micah Johnson

A young man who Impresses a green dragon faces some of the most difficult tests of any dragonrider of Pern, for no other rider must bridge the gap between his own gender and his dragon’s.

The records show us that young male-ridden greens are almost twice as likely to go between during mating flights than their female-ridden sisters. Theories abound as to the reason for this, but I posit that the physical demands of a mating flight are more likely to interfere with flight-merge when a man is obliged to assume the female’s role.

Preparation, therefore, is key to ensuring a safe and comfortable mating for all participants, regardless of gender or colour, and is the explicit responsibility of a Weyrlingmaster to ensure that each male green rider of his charge makes peace with the physical, emotional, and practical ramifications of riding a female dragon.

– Weyrlingmaster D’hor, Weyrling Training Manual, volume two

100.02.28 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
MADELLON WEYR

C'mine (Micah Johnson)This, then, was torture.

His leg muscles shrieked in agony; his head thumped as though struck by a rock-hammer; the capacity of his chest felt so unequal to the heaving volume of his lungs it was as if a dragon had placed a foot on his torso and was bearing implacably down on it.

I’m going to die, he groaned.

You’re not going to die, Darshanth told him, from where he led the pack of dragonets in their hitching gallop wide of the weyrlings’ running track. You’ve just got fat and slow.

I mean it, Darshanth. I think I might die if I don’t stop.

You’re not going to die.

A man should be able to rely on his dragon for sympathy, C’mine accused.

A man should be able to run five laps of the lake without dying, Darshanth replied gaily. Then he looked over his shoulder at the dragonets. Last one home’s a watch-wher!

The dragonets squealed in outrage and redoubled their efforts to chase down the blue dragon loping easily ahead of them.

By all rights, C’mine thought, Darshanth should have been finding this equally gruelling. It had been a long time since he’d done any extended groundwork. But the blue was clearly enjoying himself, lolloping along like an overgrown puppy, eyes spinning like pinwheels, full of boisterous cheer. Though the weyrlings had been flying for some time now, none of the young dragonets had developed the controlled power of the vertical leap that they’d need to get airborne cleanly, and exercises on the ground was still the best way for them to build the strength in their hind legs. The dragonets were too disproportionate, too leggy and awkward, to make best use of themselves, so even those who were already bigger than Darshanth were struggling to keep up with his bounding adult pace.

C’mine hadn’t been at the head of his own pack since very early in the run. By the first quarter marker, three of the lads had overtaken him, and two more had drawn alongside, perhaps too polite to make as great a spectacle of their new Weyrlingmaster’s unfitness as it deserved. He’d still had enough breath then to tell them not to hold back on his account. H’nar and M’rany had stretched their legs, passing him easily, and gaining determined ground on K’ralthe, M’touf, and K’dam, running out ahead. By the end of the first circuit, all the boys bar two, and three of the girls, had moved ahead of him on the running track, and he’d been surrounded by most of the rest of the class, all elbows and long legs. His own puffing and blowing had been somewhat drowned by the rhythmical crunch of feet pounding packed gravel. Now, though, the chasing pack had long left him behind, and he battled on alone, trying, through the ringing in his ears and the nausea in his stomach, to think of a way to bow out without losing all face.

He didn’t know how L’stev still did this twice a sevenday. The Weyrlingmaster had nearly thirty Turns on C’mine, and to look at him, all big shoulders and short neck, you’d never imagine him a runner. Yet C’mine had seen him out with this very same group of weyrlings, matching the pace of kids one-fifth his age, and enough in control of his breath to bellow at the stragglers. “Lead them on their run this morning,” he’d said. “It’ll be good for you.” And L’stev had given him the briefest, most vicious, most knowing of little grins before turning responsibility of the Wildfires over into C’mine’s hands and leaving to resume his ongoing talks with Valonna and the deputy Weyrleaders.

Loath though C’mine was to admit it, Darshanth was right. He had got fat and slow. Wing drill kept a dragon sharp, and long flights gave him stamina, but a rider didn’t keep fit sitting strapped between neck-ridges and throwing the odd sack of firestone around. C’mine hadn’t lifted a finger in deliberate exercise in Turns, and his diet in recent months hadn’t done him many favours, either. That might have been the worst part of all: the sweat, breaking ceaselessly from every inch of his skin. It was as if every skin of bad wine, every glass of cheap whisky, every jar of sour beer he’d tipped down his throat in the last month had been waiting for just this opportunity to burst out from his pores. In an instant of black self-awareness he wondered what unforeseen consequences his other indulgences would turn out to have.

He struggled grimly on, barely more than jogging, each stride sending spikes of pain shooting up his legs. It wasn’t even the kind of torment that could distract him from his other troubles. The physical misery would have been worthwhile had it only provided a respite from the mess of preoccupations tumbling endlessly around his mind.

C’mine supposed that they, in their turn, served a useful purpose. Since T’kamen, L’stev, and Leah had bullied him into working with the weyrlings, the simple pulse of his grief for C’los had been swiftly overtaken by other concerns. Kinnescath’s death and its effect on the already-distressed weyrlings. The revelation that Madellon’s dragonets were not alone in their inability to travel between. The disappearance of the Weyrleader.

The rapid sequence of events had completely disrupted L’stev’s plans for the weyrlings. The memorial service for N’jen, Ivaryo, and Jenafa had been hard on them – and on C’mine, for whom it had been yet another piercing reminder of his own loss – but it had also drawn a line beneath the tragedy. Darshanth, sniffing around in his inimitably unthreatening way, had expressed concern about one of the young blues, Goldevath, whose rider seemed to have taken the tragedy particularly hard, and C’mine had passed the bit of intelligence on to L’stev. By the following day they’d seemed a shade brighter, a fraction less wobbly. And then the day after that, Kinnescath’s suicide had sent them all back to where they’d started.

“Insult added to shaffing injury,” L’stev had raged to C’mine in the aftermath of the brown dragonet’s death. “Even if G’dra ever wakes up, he’ll be in no state to tell us how he and Kinnescath made it through when none of the others did!”

C’mine was just grateful that he hadn’t been at the Weyr to hear the dragons keen for Kinnescath. He and Darshanth had been helping Jenavally get settled into her new temporary post as the watchrider at Teller Hold. Vanzanth had called Darshanth back shortly afterwards, but by then the worst had passed.

Darshanth, at his own suggestion, had slept on a spare couch in the weyrling barracks that night, the better to keep an eye on the dragonets. In fact, he’d barely slept at all, and even padded noisily through to the girls’ barracks part-way through the night to see if they were all right. C’mine had found him in the morning surrounded by eight greens, one only slightly disapproving queen, and half the girls using his tail as a footrest.

And then events had moved on again. L’stev, having been summoned to the Weyrwoman’s quarters more than once since the arrival of the Southern queen Grizbath, came back to the barracks not long before breakfast, sporting the bloodshot and rumpled look of a man who’d been up all night. That was when he’d told C’mine about the Southern weyrlings. And appalled though C’mine had been to find that Southern had covered up the loss of fully half a class of weyrlings in the name of vanity, the news had come as a strange, guilty relief. Whatever was wrong with between, neither Madellon’s breeding nor its training was responsible. Southern’s Weyrleader P’raima, in failing to warn the other Weyrs of what had happened to his dragonets, had become the target for all the blame and anger that losing three and then four weyrlings had engendered in the riders of Madellon.

It hadn’t even occurred to C’mine that L’stev had been the focus of at least some of that fury until he’d witnessed D’sion, one of the most senior Wingleaders of Madellon, ask the Weyrlingmaster to forgive him for casting aspersions on his competence to teach young dragonriders. And D’sion had only been the most high-ranking of the riders who’d made a point of apologising to L’stev. That C’mine had been so oblivious to the allegation, however false, that the Weyrlingmaster had been culpable spoke uncomfortably of how disconnected he’d become from the society of the Weyr.

L’stev didn’t seem unburdened by his personal exoneration. “Well, it’s a pity it wasn’t my fault, isn’t it?” he’d retorted, when C’mine had commented as much. “An incompetent Weyrlingmaster would be easy to solve. And there’s something else.” He’d paused a long time before elaborating. “T’kamen’s missing.”

That was the concern that kept rising to the top of C’mine’s thoughts, pushing aside all the others. T’kamen’s missing. Such a simple statement, and so absurd. A dragonrider couldn’t just go missing; or at least, his dragon couldn’t. There was nowhere on Pern remote enough to shield Epherineth from Shimpath’s call, nowhere for a bronze dragon to hide where his queen couldn’t find him. And yet the fact was undeniable: Shimpath couldn’t find Epherineth. Neither could Darshanth, when C’mine asked him to try – not that a blue could reach as far as a queen. The senior dragonpair of Madellon was nowhere to be found. And while C’mine and L’stev spoke the official line to the weyrlings – it’s only been a couple of days, he’ll turn up – neither of them took any comfort in it. Something had happened to the Weyrleader, something inexplicable, and Madellon was like a ship adrift without a captain at the helm.

Or, worse, with two would-be captains, fighting for control of the wheel, C’mine thought. H’ned was a solid enough Wingleader, but he’d been a little too friendly with L’dro for C’mine’s liking. Sh’zon, meanwhile, had a bluff, direct manner that C’mine found both intimidating and false. Sh’zon had used him – used Darshanth’s Search sensitivity – to exploit a loophole in the ruling that forbade him from removing anyone from the island where his family had been exiled. It had resulted in Tarshe’s Impression of Berzunth, and C’mine didn’t blame her for her family’s crimes, but he hadn’t forgiven Sh’zon for lying about it – or manipulating him. He didn’t trust either Deputy Weyrleader, and while T’kamen was shrewd enough to make use of both men while keeping them at arm’s length from Madellon’s real power, C’mine feared that in the Weyrleader’s absence, Valonna was not.

But it wasn’t even the prospect of Sh’zon or H’ned assuming the powers of Weyrleader, or leaning too strongly on the Weyrwoman, that worried C’mine the most. T’kamen was missing: T’kamen, not just the Weyrleader, but C’mine’s friend, the man he’d considered a brother for most of his life. The dragons would have known if Epherineth was…no, he couldn’t even think the word. He couldn’t give the notion that much credence. Life without C’los was unbearable enough. To envisage it without T’kamen was a step too far into the darkness.

C’mine rounded the turn back towards the start marker of the track for the fourth time. Just one more circuit to go. He glanced back and saw the leaders not far behind him, almost sprinting now to race each other to the finish. They’d probably snigger at him, the unfit little blue rider who couldn’t even run an easy five times round the lake without almost collapsing, but he’d rather they laughed at him for being slow than for giving up. He set his jaw as he passed the start point for the final time.

You can do it, Darshanth told him helpfully, from where he and the dragonets were galumphing on the other side of the lake.

He crossed the little bridge that spanned the narrowest stretch of water, close to where streams fed the lake from part way down the crater wall. His footfalls thumped dully on the stone blocks for a few strides before he hit the gravel again on the other side. He forced himself on, keeping his head down and trying not to be alarmed by the wheezing of his own breath.

The sound of someone else running over the stone bridge made him lift his head. C’mine looked back again. M’touf, who’d passed him what seemed like hours ago, was catching him steadily.

“You’ve done – your five – laps,” he panted, when the green weyrling pulled level with him for the second time. “You can – stop. Hit the – baths.”

“Yeah, I know,” said M’touf. He spoke without any breathlessness at all, even after five laps at a proper pace. “Just wanted to keep going for a bit.”

“If – you – like.”

C’mine expected him to pull away again, but M’touf seemed content to run at his much slower pace. Side by side, they jogged past the quarter marker. It was easier with company. “Don’t have to – wait – for me.”

“Kind of out of shape, aren’t you?” M’touf observed.

“Bit.”

M’touf studied him as they ran on. “You should breathe deeper,” he recommended. “Instead of panting like that. Get more air in your lungs. And look up. If you tip your head forward like that it just drags you down.”

C’mine wasn’t too proud to scorn advice. He raised his head a bit more, trying to ignore the protest of his neck muscles, and concentrated on sucking in more air with each breath.

“I just wanted to…” M’touf began, then hesitated. After a few more strides, he continued. “I wanted to talk to you.”

C’mine tried to speak again, but his mouth was drier than the gravel beneath his feet. He made a motion with his hand instead, encouraging the weyrling to go on.

“It’s just that… I never meant to do it, not really, but it just happened, and…”

C’mine found enough saliva to moisten his lips. “Do – what?”

M’touf stared straight ahead. “It’s just, I’m a green rider, all right? D’you know what it’s like being shit on by all your mates because they’re going to be Wingseconds and Wingleaders one day and I’m just going to be mooching around with one stripe for the rest of my life?”

C’mine decided that it wouldn’t have reassured the young rider to point out that he himself had worn no more than a single stripe for his entire riding career until a few days ago. Instead, he said, “Not all – bronzes – browns – make rank.”

“Yeah, but greens never do. It’s not fair.”

“Rather not – Impress – at all?”

“No!” M’touf said quickly. “No, of course not. Atath’s my whole world.” His voice rang with emotion as he said it. “But it’s hard, y’know, when Djeth’s massive and even Narwath’s going to be big. And Atath’s not. I mean, even for a green, she’s so tiny. People see her and go ‘look at the pretty little green, isn’t she darling’.” Bitterness had crept into his voice, displacing the love. “And then they look at me, and even if they don’t say anything, I can see it in their eyes. ‘Tall strapping lad, how come you only got a green? Not good enough for a proper man’s dragon?’”

C’mine just kept jogging doggedly. He glanced over to meet M’touf’s eyes briefly, to show he was still listening, but he didn’t want to interrupt the boy’s outburst. There was something more to this than simple resentment of the colour of his dragon. He could feel Darshanth shadowing him, quietly connecting with M’touf’s Atath, his touch whisper-light.

“And it’s just, y’know, greens are good too! I mean, they’re the fastest, aren’t they? There’s no dragon ever going to be quicker than a green! It’s just they can’t sprint forever, and then they get caught. They always get caught. They don’t have a choice in it. And K’ralthe and K’dam, they know it. K’dam said, ‘better start practising getting away, better work on her stamina, or when she gets older you’ll be waking up with some nasty old blue rider on top of you because you never had time to choose who you wanted to win’.” M’touf had angled his face away, but C’mine could see how shame had flushed his cheeks in a way that the exertion of running hadn’t. “And I never meant to overfly her. I swear I didn’t. But she’d do anything for me. She’s such a good girl. She’s my best girl. I just wanted to stay ahead of Narwath and Djeth, that was all. Just to show them we could, y’know? And she never told me it hurt, not till it really hurt. Not till something went in her chest.”

Through the headache still throbbing in his temples, C’mine tried to place the incident. L’stev had told him to read all twenty-odd of the weyrlings’ records, and he’d made a start, but he’d only just got all the names down. “She – strained the – upstroke – muscle?” He touched his own chest in the corresponding place.

M’touf nodded miserably. “And she’s fine now,” he said. “She’s totally fine. A sevenday in the infirmary, hardly nothing, and you’d never know she did it, not a mark on her.”

C’mine could hear the but coming. He waited. They passed the halfway marker at the western end of the lake, and the small part of his brain that was still more concerned with his physical agony than with M’touf’s story groaned at the prospect of another whole half circuit before he could stop.

“But she wasn’t fine when it happened,” M’touf continued at last. His voice was choked with remembered fear. “And we’d gone so far. We were meant to be doing sprints, that’s what Jenavally told us to do, but we’d gone so far. In between the high peaks to the east, y’know? And Atath’s quick. I mean, really quick. Djeth and Narwath were nowhere. We’d lost them behind a crag. But her chest hurt so much, like something tore. She couldn’t beat her wings. We started falling, just like a rock. Just like you’d drop a chunk of firestone, and you know that when it hits the ground…it’s going to shatter into bits. Into a hundred bits.”

M’touf broke off. His breathing had gone ragged, and it wasn’t from the exercise. C’mine quickly averted his eyes so the lad wouldn’t know that he’d seen the tears streaking his cheeks.

“And I said to her, I said, Atty, you’ve got to fly, we’re falling, we’re falling, you have to fly. And she said she couldn’t fly, it hurt too much and she was sorry but it hurt too much. And there was a lake, about half a mile away, and I said, just get us as far as that lake. Just get us to that water. It’ll be cool on your chest, it won’t hurt so much if you can just get us that far. And she said…she said ‘I can’t fly, it hurts too much, but I’ll get us there’.” M’touf made a snuffling noise, like the sound of a hand being dragged across a snotty nose. “And then. And then.”

“Go on,” C’mine urged him. The sensation of compression in his chest was no longer merely a result of his physical unfitness.

“Well, she did it, didn’t she? She took us there. Between. She took us between. And I think I… I’ve never been so scared of nothing in my life. Hanging there. Everything black and freezing. Everything just gone. It was like we were there for a Turn. And then we came out, right above that lake, and she just went smack! Right into it! I thought we were going to drown, and then three seconds later Vanzanth was there, and oh, shards, did we catch it from him…but she did it, C’mine.” M’touf sounded torn between disbelief and pride. “She did it. She went between. We could have died, we could have not come out like Saperth and Nedrith and Danementh didn’t, we could have come out with me all half dead like G’dra, but we didn’t. My girl took us between and saved us and we didn’t die.”

“Stop,” C’mine wheezed, grabbing feebly for M’touf’s arm as he stumbled, at last, to a halt. To his dismay, he found that stopping was nearly as bad as carrying on. His head spun, and he thought he might actually fall over. He bent double, gasping, gripping his knees with his sweaty hands, trying to get some air into his tortured lungs. Then, painfully, he straightened up. “Atath took you between?”

M’touf looked upset, as if C’mine were questioning his honesty. “That’s what I told you, isn’t it?”

“And when was this?”

“I guess it was about three sevendays ago.”

“Before you started between training?”

“Well, we’ve been doing visualisation stuff for ages, haven’t we? I mean, before the Wingseconds started mentoring us. So I knew, y’know, the theory. But Atath just did it. I never asked her to.”

C’mine put his hands on his aching lower back. “You didn’t tell the Weyrlingmaster.” He didn’t inflect it as a question.

M’touf shook his head. His eyes had gone evasive. “Already in enough trouble.”

“Did you tell anyone else? K’ralthe or K’dam?”

“Don’t think they’d believe me,” M’touf said. Then he added resentfully, “Wish they’d seen it.”

C’mine closed his eyes. The blood was pulsing red behind his eyelids in time with his thumping heart. Is he telling the truth?

Oh, yes.

“I just,” M’touf said, “just wanted to know how come we could do it, and the others couldn’t. ’Cause we could have died, couldn’t we? Shouldn’t we have? If half the Southern ones did and half of ours that tried? How come we could do it, and browns like Kinnescath and Danementh couldn’t, and Oaxuth didn’t even try?”

He was so transparent, so clearly hoping that C’mine would tell him it was because his green was special and unusual and better than all his friends’ dragons. C’mine was almost grateful it wasn’t so clear-cut. M’touf’s tangled feelings about Atath’s colour would plainly require more unpicking than that. “I don’t have an answer for you,” he said. “Not yet, anyway. You understand I have to take this to L’stev?”

M’touf looked unhappy, but he bobbed his head. “I know. He’s going to kill me.”

“He won’t,” C’mine assured him, although he wasn’t convinced of that himself. L’stev could build up a fearful temper where the safety of his weyrlings was concerned, and even M’touf’s assertion that he’d never meant for his dragonet to go between might not be enough to save him from a serious bollocking.

“Do you think he’ll still let me go to Little Madellon next sevenday?” M’touf asked anxiously. “Will you talk to him?”

Banning weyrlings from joining the much-anticipated excursions to Madellon’s sister crater had always been one of L’stev’s favourite threats. “I’ll talk to him,” C’mine promised. “But I do think you’ve done a really brave thing, telling me about Atath.”

“Yeah?” M’touf asked, half sceptical, half hopeful.

“Yeah,” said C’mine. “You didn’t have to say anything. But now you have, it could help us find out what’s really happening with between. Your experience could be the missing piece that helps us solve it.”

“Yeah,” said M’touf, brightening at the idea of being the saviour of his fellows. “And K’dam could stick that in his teeth and chew it, couldn’t he?”

“Yes he could,” C’mine agreed gravely.

M’touf snickered. Then he sobered a bit. “Thanks,” he said. “For not shouting at me. You’re all right. For a Weyrlingmaster.” Then, looking briefly horrified at his own chumminess, the lad started jogging on the spot. “C’mon, only a quarter lap to go. I’ll give you a length head start and race you back to the barracks!”

C’mine groaned and summoned up the last of his stamina. But even though, head start or not, M’touf sprinted past him before he’d gone fifty yards, he ran that final quarter circuit with more lightness than he could have believed possible. You’re all right. For a Weyrlingmaster. He hadn’t imagined that a weyrling’s approval could affect him so profoundly.

Even the sarcastic burst of applause that greeted his limping completion of the run couldn’t completely dampen his improved spirits. “Just a bit out of practice,” he gasped, sitting down hard on the sand.

After a moment, Leah came over with a mug. “Have some water, Mine,” she told him, pushing it into his hands. “You look like you’re going to die.”

C’mine drank gratefully, draining most of the cool liquid in three ragged gulps, then tipping the dregs over his head. He sighed in relief. “Thanks, Leah. I’d forgotten how hard those runs are.”

“Carleah,” she corrected him, as she did every time he used the familiar form of her name. “And they’re not that hard. What were you and M’touf talking about?”

He wiped sweat and water from his brow. “That’s between me and M’touf.” Then, anticipating Leah’s indignant reaction, he said, “Don’t give me that look. I’m your Weyrlingmaster now, not your informant.”

“Fine,” she said, sounding hurt. “You can get your own water next time.”

C’mine rubbed his eyes briefly with the heels of his hands as she stomped off in a fourteen-Turn-old’s high dudgeon. She was so like her father had been at that age, melodrama and all. How she’d managed it he couldn’t imagine; Robyn, her mother, was one of the most calm and serene women C’mine had ever known. He supposed her blood told. The thought made him proud and sad in equal measure.

He levered himself uncomfortably back to his feet, brushing sand off his backside. “All right,” he said, raising his voice to carry to all the weyrlings spread out on the training grounds. “Get your dragons and yourselves washed down, then off to your chores. Section leaders today are B’joro, S’terlion, H’nar, and Jardesse. I’ll see you back here at the end of forenoon.”

As the weyrlings dispersed to their dragonets, C’mine walked stiffly over to Darshanth. His blue was sporting an odd two-tone look, having worked up a fair sweat with his exertions and then collected a coating of sand from the training grounds. But C’mine patted the gritty shoulder anyway. “You looked good out there.”

Darshanth dropped his jaw in a grin. You didn’t.

“I won’t be so bad next time.”

I hope not. Then he added, conversationally, You smell terrible.

“Thanks.” C’mine leaned against Darshanth’s elbow. “Would you please ask Vanzanth if L’stev can extricate himself from his meeting?”

Darshanth turned his head in the direction of Shimpath’s weyr, across the Bowl, where Vanzanth, Izath, and Kawanth had been conspicuous by their presence all day. He says only if it’s life-or-death. They’re at a critical moment, but he’ll be out in a bit.

“Tell him it can wait, then. Do you want to go and throw yourself in the lake while I get changed?”

Darshanth got up from his sprawl and shook himself, showering C’mine with a fine spray of sand. Thought you’d never ask. Then, with his signature economy, he pushed himself a winglength aloft, glided out over the lake, and dived in past the floating buoys that marked the start of the deepest water.

C’mine trudged up the steps to the Weyrlingmaster’s weyr over the barracks. L’stev had told him to use the facilities as necessary. Although L’stev had been Madellon’s Weyrlingmaster for as long as C’mine had been a dragonrider, he kept his own quarters elsewhere in the Bowl, and used the weyr above the barracks only when he had a class in training. It accounted for the absence of personal touches to the Weyrlingmaster’s weyr. Everything was meticulously ordered and spotless, although L’stev grumbled on a daily basis that the woman who came in each day to clean and tidy wasn’t as good as the last one. As ‘the last one’ had been Crauva, who was now Headwoman, C’mine doubted that L’stev would ever be satisfied with a replacement.

It still seemed strange to clean up in someone else’s bathing room, although the water was better and hotter than what bubbled up through the pool in C’mine’s own weyr. It soothed the pain in his muscles, but he knew he’d still be feeling the effects of that nightmarish run tomorrow. He looked down at his belly as he dried off. Definitely a bit of a paunch, he thought ruefully.

Nothing a few more runs won’t solve, Darshanth commented.

The thought was too horrible to look at squarely. Instead, C’mine got dressed – remembering to put on his newly-braided Assistant Weyrlingmaster knots – and sat down in L’stev’s office. He used his key on the locked cabinet of records and ran a finger along the spines of the folders inside until he found the one labelled M’touf, green Atath.

L’stev’s report on the green dragonet’s injury was almost illegible. The mass of tightly-packed, abbreviation-heavy script in the Weyrlingmaster’s distinctive cramped hand defeated C’mine’s attempts to read it. He set it aside and found a more readable record, a copy of Master Vhion’s notes penned in the clear, fine writing that C’mine recognised as Sarenya’s.

Patient was admitted agitated and upset. Inspection found evidence of grade two tears in the upstroke muscle, and palpation revealed acute tenderness in this region. Superior extension of the wings aggravated the discomfort. Topical treatment with numbweed reduced the patient’s distress and regular applications of such, along with rest, were recommended.

There was no other mention of Atath’s mental state, or of M’touf’s. C’mine looked for the admission date. 100.02.06. Two sevendays before the ill-fated jumps between that had resulted in the deaths of four dragonets.

C’mine, said Darshanth, interrupting his thoughts. Cassath on watch has a visitor for us.

For us? C’mine asked.

Darshanth hesitated a moment, evidently querying the report. Not for us. For the Weyrleader, but the Weyrleader is not here. It is the Weyrlingmaster from High Reaches. Vanzanth says his rider will come soon, but will we please receive Milth’s rider on Madellon’s behalf.

The High Reaches Weyrlingmaster? Faranth, Darshanth, have they lost weyrlings too?

I don’t know. Cassath asks if she can send them to us.

C’mine pushed the records back into M’touf’s folder and returned it to its place in L’stev’s cabinet. Yes, of course. Are you respectable?

I’m always respectable, said Darshanth. Milth comes. Her rider is B’reko.

Darshanth was descending towards Vanzanth’s ledge when C’mine emerged from L’stev’s weyr. He stepped back to let his dragon land, noting with approval that he was clean, if still damp from his dip in the lake. Stay off the sand until you’re dry, won’t you?

His blue didn’t dignify that with a response. Instead, he swivelled his muzzle slightly to watch as an unfamiliar green dragon came gliding down from the direction of the Star Stones.

The rider who dismounted from the rather stocky green seemed to be wrapped in a disproportionate number of extra furs. It was winter in the High Reaches, C’mine reasoned – but then, as the northern rider came waddling around his dragon’s head, he blinked and looked closer. There were no extra furs. B’reko was just huge, tall as well as…bulky. This is definitely the Weyrlingmaster?

Yes. Milth is very pretty, isn’t she?

C’mine experienced a frozen instant of horror before he realised that his dragon was teasing him. Don’t be unkind.

Better keep at those runs.

Ignoring him, C’mine started down the steps. “Weyrlingmaster B’reko,” he greeted the enormous green rider. “Welcome to Madellon Weyr. I’m sorry the Weyrleader and the Weyrlingmaster aren’t here to meet you.”

“No. No. Quite understand…” B’reko glanced once at C’mine’s shoulder-knots, “…Weyrlingmaster. Realise I’ve come unannounced. Don’t expect you to drop everything.”

C’mine extended his forearm and found his wrist enveloped by B’reko’s massive hand. “C’mine and Darshanth at your service, sir. Will you come up?”

“I will. Hope it’s cool.” B’reko was tugging at the collar of his jacket as he spoke. “Don’t get on with this southern sun.”

“We’ve been having a hot summer,” C’mine agreed. A couple of the weyrlings from the section assigned to barracks cleaning were loitering near the bridge. Darshanth, tell Brancepath and Irdanth to send their riders to the kitchens for something cold to drink.

Certainly.

C’mine was gratified to see C’seon and Kessirke glance in his direction and then head briskly in the direction of the lower caverns. “Please come in,” he invited B’reko. “Darshanth will show your dragon to a shady place.”

“She’d rather the heat,” said B’reko. He didn’t sound out of breath, despite the climb. “Snow at the Reaches. Snow all winter. Snow all Turn! Suits me fine. Not her. Loves to bake. Let her roast.”

C’mine took B’reko’s jacket and helmet and hung them with L’stev’s on the end of Vanzanth’s harness rack. “L’stev’s on his way,” he told High Reaches’ Weyrlingmaster. “He’s been meeting with the Weyrwoman most of the morning.”

“Hm. And this business with your Weyrleader?”

Clearly the news of T’kamen’s disappearance had crossed the Southern Ocean at top speed. “Still no word,” said C’mine.

“Hm. Hm. Odd. Liked the man. Honest sort. Responsible. Still. Happens.” B’reko shrugged his big shoulders. “Found something for him. Wanted to bring it directly.” He set a leather record cylinder down on L’stev’s desk with an air of gravity.

“Good news, I hope,” C’mine ventured.

The very fact that B’reko didn’t reply immediately made it clear that it wasn’t. “Little enough of that anywhere,” he said at last.

A dragon landed on the ledge outside, and Darshanth reported, Vanzanth. A moment later L’stev steamed in.

B’reko rose laboriously to his feet. “L’stev,” he boomed.

“B’reko,” L’stev replied, with clear pleasure. The two Weyrlingmasters met with an embrace and much noisy slapping of backs. C’mine was disconcerted to see L’stev, who always cut a substantial figure, dwarfed by the Reaches green rider.

“Looking old, L’stev,” B’reko said.

“Looking fat, B’reko,” L’stev replied. “Even by your standards. Faranth, man, half the north must be going hungry to keep your gut in shape.”

“Only half the Reaches,” B’reko replied. He nodded at C’mine. “Got a polite one here. Not a hint of what he must have been thinking.”

“B’reko’s a fat tub of lard and doesn’t care who knows it,” L’stev told C’mine, with a malicious chuckle.

“I actually hadn’t noticed,” said C’mine.

“Ha!” B’reko pointed a finger at him. “I like this one too.”

L’stev made a noncommittal sound. “He’s working out almost useful. Now sit your flabby arse down, and if you break my chair, you can pay for a new one. You too, C’mine; sit down. You have drinks coming?”

“On their way.”

“Good. Wouldn’t want the Weyrlingmaster to think Madellon isn’t hospitable to its guests.” Then the growly bluster faded from L’stev’s manner. He leaned forwards, resting his elbows on his desk. “What do you have, old friend? It must be important to stir you out of your snow-drift.”

“Maybe nothing,” B’reko replied, but his tone made it plain that he doubted that. “Your Weyrleader came by. Asking about weyrlings.”

“Who do you think sent him to you?” L’stev asked. “Haven’t seen him since, have you?”

“No. Sorry. Couldn’t help him either. Still not sure I can. But sent my kids into the Archives. Your T’kamen wanted precedent. Sent them looking for it.” B’reko uttered a short laugh. “Looking in the wrong place for that. Should have sent them to Southern.”

“I don’t think that’s the sort of precedent T’kamen was hoping for,” L’stev said grimly. “And I wouldn’t recommend anyone send their weyrlings to Southern.”

“True. True. Terrible thing P’raima did.” B’reko shook his head. “Terrible.”

L’stev pointed at the document case. “But they found something?”

“Maybe. Yes. Maybe.” B’reko worked free the stopper from one end of the tube. “Have a sharp lad. Harper-trained. Blue rider.”

“A sharp weyrling? You’ll make me jealous. Most of mine are about as sharp as soup spoons.”

“This one, very sharp,” said B’reko. “Puts things together. Notices oddities. Good mind on him. Thought we’d lost him to a snake. Sent in a search party. Found him buried in hides.”

“Literally?” C’mine asked, despite himself.

“Not literally,” said B’reko. “Went deep though. Might’ve lost him forever. Worth it for what he found though.” He shook several rolls of hide out of the record cylinder. “Here. See the date.”

L’stev flattened the hide out and squinted over it. Then he frowned. “You’re pulling my leg, B’reko. This can’t be four hundred Turns old. That would date it to –” he paused as he made the calculation, “– somewhere in the back end of the Fifth Interval.”

“It’s a copy, L’stev,” B’reko said dismissively. “Probably a copy of a copy. Winters are cold in the Reaches. Keeps our weyrlings busy. Now. Read it.” He stabbed a place on the hide with a thick finger. “There.”

“Scribing could be clearer,” L’stev complained. “C’mine, bring me that glow-basket.”

C’mine fetched down the glow-basket from the shelf, giving it a shake to bring the freshest spores to the top before opening the aperture. He set it down at L’stev’s elbow.

“‘…never was a Weyrlingmaster with so many charges who should fail in the counting of their own feet were they not looking at them…’” L’stev read aloud. “Huh. Clearly some things never change. ‘Blindfold, I had them mark the proper count for a trip between and to raise hands when they judged the seconds had elapsed. Jubrynth couldn’t have sneezed in the time before the first boys stuck their arms in the air, as though being first would have them win some prize. Others I saw hold out their fingers, one after the other, and even then lose track before the moments had passed! And most judged it far too late, still sitting silent and motionless long after the nine-second count had gone by…’” The Weyrlingmaster frowned. “Nine seconds? For a jump between?”

“I always count ten,” said C’mine, and quashed the guilty little voice that piped up, except when we’re going between times.

“Ten’s what I teach,” L’stev said. “What I was taught, forty Turns ago when Vanzanth was a dragonet. Ten seconds: often more, never less.”

“Ten,” B’reko agreed, ominously. “The High Reaches too. Been ten since I was a skinny boy. Long time.”

“And you’re going to tell me that this count of nine, four hundred Turns ago, isn’t an anomaly or a mis-transcription?” L’stev asked.

B’reko pressed his chins to his chest. “Here too. Nine seconds,” he said, pushing another hide in front of L’stev. “Nine. Nine.” Two more hides. Then he lifted the last one. It looked the oldest of all, though C’mine guessed it too was several generations removed from its original. “This one. Seven hundred Turns old. Fourth Interval.” The High Reaches Weyrlingmaster laid it down gravely. “Eight seconds.”

“Faranth’s tail-fork,” said L’stev.

They sat there, the three of them, looking at the ancient northern records B’reko had brought with him from the High Reaches.

“Just to be clear,” C’mine said hesitantly, “because I’m not certain I am. Does this mean it’s taking dragons longer to travel between now than it was four hundred Turns ago, and four hundred Turns ago it took longer than it did three hundred Turns before that?”

“Yes,” both Weyrlingmasters said together.

C’mine looked at L’stev. Then he looked at B’reko. The two riders wore almost identical expressions of dismay. He didn’t know B’reko to judge, but L’stev looked sick.

“It shouldn’t matter,” L’stev said suddenly, striking the desk with the side of his hand for emphasis. “We’ve all been between longer than the minimum. Even if this generation of dragonets is taking longer again, it took seven centuries to go from eight seconds to ten. On that timescale, it should be thousands of Turns before the lag builds to the point where a jump isn’t survivable.”

“Yes,” B’reko said, holding up a finger. “But. Trend not the problem. Time taken, not the problem. Delay is a side-effect. Symptomatic of a root cause.”

“Then you’re saying something’s been amiss for a long time,” L’stev said. “It’s been building since the Fifth Interval, slowing dragons down. Not stopping them getting between, but delaying them getting out again.”

“Like stepping into a dark room,” said C’mine, suddenly inspired. “You know there’s a way out on the other side, but when the door closes behind you, you can’t find it.”

“Yes,” said B’reko, snapping his fingers at C’mine. “Yes. Good. Glows have been going out. Darker each generation. Harder for dragons to navigate. Taking them longer.”

“And now it’s reached a tipping point,” said L’stev. “A cut-off point. Any dragon who goes into that pitch black room without already knowing a way through it isn’t going to find a way. Ours can because they already know it. The weyrlings don’t. So –”

Vanzanth grumbled from outside, and then the knock at the door cut his rider off. L’stev glanced from C’mine to B’reko, then called, “Come!”

Kessirke and C’seon came in hesitantly, both weyrlings carrying pitchers that clinked with ice. C’seon goggled openly at B’reko, and Kessirke was left to speak for them. “The Headwoman said to send us back if you wanted more.”

“This is fine,” C’mine told her, relieving her of her burden. “Thank you both. You can go back to your sections.”

L’stev got up to find glasses as the two young riders made a hasty retreat. He plunked down three heavy tumblers and inspected the contents of the two pitchers. “Orange and red,” he pronounced. “What’s your preference, Weyrlingmaster?”

“Orange,” said B’reko.

“Red, please,” C’mine said, when L’stev looked at him.

L’stev poured iced juice into the three tumblers, picked up his own, took a sip, and then shook his head. “This won’t do.” He opened the bottom drawer of his desk and pulled out a flask. He unscrewed the cap and poured a healthy measure of whisky into his redfruit juice, then shook the flask questioningly at B’reko and C’mine.

B’reko shrugged. “Past midday at home.” He shoved his glass towards L’stev, and the brown rider topped it up.

“Not for me,” C’mine said softly, when L’stev raised an eyebrow to him.

L’stev gave a tiny nod of assent, then put the flask away. “Well,” he said, after a long, fortifying gulp of his drink, “where in the Void do we go from here?”

“There’s something else,” said C’mine. B’reko’s unexpected visit had made his earlier conversation with M’touf slip his mind, but the two weyrlings had reminded him. “L’stev, Atath injured herself overflying a couple of sevendays ago, didn’t she?”

“Atath?” asked B’reko.

“One of our weyrling greens,” said L’stev. “Yes, C’mine. Why?”

“Did anyone see what actually happened?”

L’stev grimaced uncertainly. “Jenavally was supervising sprints. The dragonets got competitive, as they’re like to do at this age.”

“Oh yes,” B’reko agreed dryly.

“By all accounts Atath was trying to outfly Djeth,” L’stev went on. “She got carried away. Left him behind. When she got into trouble she bailed out in a lake. Could have been unpleasant but for that. Vanzanth had to give her a lift back.”

“M’touf came to speak to me during the run this morning,” said C’mine. “He said Atath went between.”

“She did what?”

C’mine sketched in the story M’touf had related to him. “He was keen to stress that he didn’t ask her to do it,” he finished, observing L’stev’s ominous expression.

She did nothing wrong, except let her idiot rider goad her into overflying,” L’stev said darkly. “But I’ll have M’touf’s hide for harness for not telling me about it.”

“You start your weyrlings on absolutes?” asked B’reko.

“Of course.”

B’reko nodded. “Sounds like your Atath blinked.”

L’stev looked at him sharply. “You think the problem might only be with absolute jumps?”

“Can’t know,” B’reko replied. “Won’t until you replicate her experience. See if she can blink again. Then if she can jump on a visual.” He shrugged. “Only way to know.”

“Ah, Faranth, because a young male green rider like M’touf is going to be such a terrific test subject,” L’stev muttered. “But if Atath can still go between, and her classmates still can’t, we’re still no further towards a solution.”

“But we will be closer to knowing when something changed, won’t we?” asked C’mine. “When it tipped over.”

“So,” said B’reko. “Question to be asked. When did it tip? Southern’s dragonets perished first, yes?”

L’stev nodded. “About a sevenday before ours. The eleventh of the month.” He turned to the shelf behind his desk and pulled down the leather-bound training book. He flipped it open and leafed back through the pages. “That was the day Atath was released from the infirmary. That’s right. And half the others were grumpy that morning because…”

He trailed off, his brows knitting.

“Because?” B’reko prompted.

“Because something had woken them up during middle watch,” L’stev said. “Something that woke every dragon and rider in Madellon.” He looked at C’mine as he spoke.

“I remember,” C’mine said slowly. He’d been sleeping off too much drink that night, but Darshanth’s exclamation at the disturbance had penetrated his soddenly sleeping mind.

“What sort of something?” B’reko asked sharply.

“The sound of something…” L’stev’s face contorted. “Breaking.”

“Tits,” said B’reko. His round face had gone pale. “On the eleventh. Heard that at the Reaches. Dragons kicked off, no good reason for it. Thought nothing of it. Tits.”

L’stev looked nearly as pasty. “I’d wager Vanzanth’s tail that the times match,” he said. “That disturbance, and Southern’s weyrlings dying between.”

“But there wasn’t anything like that when our weyrlings tried to go between,” said C’mine.

“Wouldn’t be,” said B’reko. “Already broken. Southern did the breaking.” He flicked his fingers agitatedly. “Something P’raima did. Got to be.”

“We have to assume it’s Pern-wide, if you heard it at the Reaches,” said L’stev. “Shaffit. How old are your weyrlings, B’reko?”

“Old enough. All going between fine. Have been for months. Who else has weyrlings?”

“The Peninsula’s junior queen clutched over a Turn ago, so those dragonets are long past first between,” said L’stev. “You know more about the north’s clutches than me, B’reko. Who else has dragonets close to between age?”

“Hm. Hm. Not Ista. Nor Igen. Benden has a clutch on the sands. Telgar, perhaps.” Then B’reko nodded more definitely. “Telgar. Nine months old.”

“G’dorar’s still Weyrlingmaster at Telgar?” asked L’stev.

“He is. Rational man. You know he is. Won’t take chances with his weyrlings.”

“That’s fine,” said L’stev, “but if he doesn’t have them attempt between, how will he know if what’s happening to our dragonets holds true for his own?”

“Even if he does make them try,” said C’mine, “those weyrlings will know what happened to ours and Southern’s. They’ll be terrified.”

“Dragonets won’t risk them,” said B’reko, with finality. “Not stupid.”

L’stev looked incredulous. “Then what? No weyrling ever attempts to go between ever again?” He shook his head. “We can’t afford that. Pern can’t afford that. Faranth’s toenails.”

They lapsed again into horrified silence. Then B’reko drained his orangefruit juice, and heaved himself to his feet. “Going to Telgar.”

L’stev got up. “You’ll speak with G’dorar?”

B’reko jerked his chins in assent. “Him first. Then the others. Going to be everyone’s problem if we’re right.”

“Faranth help us, I hope we’re not,” said L’stev. “We have to figure out a way around this.”

“Have to spread the word first,” said B’reko.

L’stev walked his fellow Weyrlingmaster out to his dragon. C’mine remained where he was, thinking. When the brown rider returned, he lifted his gaze to L’stev’s. “What could P’raima possibly have done?”

“No idea,” L’stev replied shortly. He sat heavily in his chair, rubbing his temples with his hands. “Between’s bust,” he said. “T’kamen’s disappeared. And Southern…” He shook his head.

“What are we going to do?” C’mine asked.

L’stev stared at nothing for a moment. Then he leaned forward. “That’s what I’ve been discussing with the Weyrleaders,” he said. “Listen carefully, C’mine. We have a lot of preparations to make.”

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One response to “Chapter fifteen: C’mine”

  1. Charis Hayward says:

    AHA. I KNEW that was what the sound was! I love guessing plot twists correctly. Great story, I can’t wait to read more.

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