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Chapter sixteen: Valonna

Megrith and Tezonth

‘Megrith and Tezonth’ by Emily Holland (find her on Tumblr)

History will judge me harshly, and it should. I should have been stronger. I should have stood up to P’raima more determinedly. I should have persuaded Grizbath against Tezonth.

It’s too late for me to change any of that. But perhaps the Weyrwomen of Pern who follow me will learn from my mistakes. Tezonth sired Grizbath. He has exerted influence over her since she was a hatchling. I should never have allowed him to become her mate and consolidate his hold over her. No bronze should wield that much power. No Weyrleader should go unchallenged for thirty Turns.

I told myself that if Southern truly wanted another Weyrleader, a different bronze – a younger bronze – would have flown Grizbath. I told myself that Tezonth dominates by the Weyr’s consent as well as through his own superiority. In that last part, at least, I was not wrong. He is superior, despite his Turns. As strongly as he stamps his offspring, none of them have ever quite matched his size or strength, or the formidable power of his mind.

But for the rest, I know I have been deceiving myself.

And now that I know how little time remains to me, I fear for Karika. I will be gone long before she is ready, and when I am, who will be left to protect her?

– Excerpt from the personal diaries of Weyrwoman Margone

100.03.01 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
MADELLON AND SOUTHERN WEYRS

Valonna (Micah Johnson)The stars were coming out over Madellon, bright points pricking through the deepening indigo of the evening sky, but the moons were in hiding. Belior was shrouded in darkness and a narrow slice of the waxing Timor had almost set in the western sky. H’ned and Izath had returned from their reconnaissance to report that the skies were equally clear over Southern. Conditions were as good as could be expected, but Valonna still wished there’d been some cloud cover.

“Aye, would’ve been nice,” Sh’zon had agreed, when she’d said as much to him, “but if wishes were dragons we’d have a problem feeding ’em all. Don’t be fretting over the things we can’t control, Valonna. We’ve enough on our plates with what we can.”

It would be early in the morning watch at Southern, a few hours before dawn, but Madellon’s riders were only just sitting down to their evening meal, and secrecy was almost as critical here as it would be there. They couldn’t afford to let any whisper of what they were doing filter down to the Weyr at large. A rumour could cross the continent in minutes if passed between the right dragons, and if Southern’s Weyrleader heard about Madellon’s plot, the game would be up before it had even begun.

And it was a plot, for all that Sh’zon spoke of it as a rescue, or an evacuation, or a liberation. It was a plot that struck at the very sovereignty of the rightful leader of the oldest Weyr in the south. It was a plot whose execution could have consequences that made Valonna’s stomach twist into knots of dread.

But Margone had been so desperate.

All the adult bronzes were in on it: eighteen of them, excluding only Sejanth who lacked either the will or interest to question what was going on. Berzunth and her three bronze clutchmates were still too innocent of the Weyr’s communal consciousness to warrant inclusion. L’stev and C’mine were the only riders of dragons more junior than bronze who were in on the scheme. No one had questioned Vanzanth’s ability to keep his thoughts private, and L’stev had vouched personally for Darshanth. But no other dragon in Madellon could be permitted to know what the senior riders had planned.

H’ned had manipulated the rota to put a bronze on evening watch – Fr’ton, who could be trusted to obey and stay silent, if not to understand – but that had still left the issue of how to absent nine bronzes from Madellon at once without inviting remark from the Weyr at large. Most of them were Wingleaders, and Wingleaders were always visible. They’d be conspicuous by their absence at dinner, and if anyone noticed that their dragons were gone, too, that could be ruinous.

The three retired bronze riders, though, enjoyed a lower profile. Of them, R’hren had become increasingly frail over the last Turn, but Y’kat and A’krig were vigorous yet. Of the younger riders, T’rello, S’herdo, and B’mon were only Wingseconds, and would be less missed than their superiors. H’ned and Sh’zon, having agreed that one of them should remain at Madellon while the operation took place, had bickered over which of them would stay and which would go. Eventually they’d tossed a mark: Sh’zon had won. That left them just three to find from amongst the Wingleaders, and after a long discussion, E’dor, T’gat, and R’yeno had completed the roster.

They had not been without opposition. L’mis, who’d once been Weyrleader, had expressed concerns at both method and motive, and voted against the plan when they took a show of hands. V’stan had accepted the necessity of intervention but questioned its nature, opining that Madellon had no business taking such unilateral action. A’keret had asked H’ned and Sh’zon gravely if they weren’t overstepping the bounds of the authority they’d assumed in T’kamen’s absence. It had made H’ned waver. He’d been the less enthusiastic of the two deputies about granting Margone’s request since the beginning. The whole thing could have collapsed. And then Valonna had spoken up, surprising even herself, to claim complete ownership of the action – not as an act of aggression, but as one of preservation, pledged between two Weyrwomen of Pern.

That seemed to have stiffened all their spines, and the motion had passed with a majority, if not an emphatic one – but at a direct cost to Valonna. Having taken responsibility for the plan, she would be accountable for its outcome. The size of the gamble she’d taken made her feel physically nauseous.

But she’d promised Margone, one queen rider to another.

The bronzes had started leaving Madellon an hour ago, one at a time, so a mass exodus wouldn’t be obvious. Of course, they’d all return together, but by then it wouldn’t matter. Sh’zon had been the last to slip out – Valonna had watched Kawanth blink soundlessly between over the Weyr from her weyr ledge.

And that just left her.

She’d already rigged Shimpath with the special double-weight catching strap that they were all using. Shimpath hadn’t worn it since weyrlinghood, when she’d dutifully learned how to catch a dragon mid-air, and the leather was a bit less supple, the buckles more stiff, than the rest of her harness. If all went to plan they wouldn’t need it, but Shimpath wore it anyway. Just in case.

Valonna climbed astride the golden neck and strapped herself in, checking and re-checking the buckles and finishing with a good tug on the safety line. Then she sat for a moment, aware that she was trembling.

Would T’kamen have sanctioned this? She’d asked herself the question so many times in the last four days that she could no longer distinguish what she thought to be true from what she wanted to believe.

Shimpath was as tired of hearing the agonising as Valonna was of doing it. T’kamen is not here, she said, brutally matter-of-fact. We have sanctioned this. You and I. And if he returns and is displeased, he should not have left in the first place.

There were times when Valonna envied the simplicity of a dragon’s thinking. Shimpath wasn’t overly concerned by Epherineth’s absence. There was no evidence that anything untoward had happened to her mate, so she saw no need to worry. She had no eggs on the sands to be defended, and the constant attendance of one or both of H’ned and Sh’zon’s dragons seemed to satisfy her need for security. Valonna wondered if all queens were so aloof from their bronzes. Shimpath had never formed a strong attachment to Pierdeth, either.

But while Shimpath, and Madellon’s dragons in general, might not miss Epherineth, T’kamen’s absence was causing plenty of concern among the Weyr’s human inhabitants – and not only the riders. Sarenya had come to Valonna’s weyr in the pre-dawn gloom of the previous morning, apologetic but resolute, to ask after T’kamen’s whereabouts. Somehow, having no answers for her had been even more wretched for Valonna than having none for Madellon’s riders. Sarenya had covered her anguish well, but not completely. She and T’kamen had not been lovers for some time, so far as Valonna knew, but that scarcely mattered. Two people who’d shared such a tempestuous love affair would never be indifferent to each other’s fate. It made Valonna wistful and grateful in almost equal measure.

You are delaying, Shimpath said. Are you ready or not?

Valonna tucked her fingers tight under the fore-strap, guilty that she’d let herself procrastinate. I’m ready.

Shimpath sprang from her ledge. Peteorth, we go, Valonna heard her tell the watchdragon, and then, We come, sent to Kawanth, who would coordinate the other bronzes to converge on Southern Weyr.

Valonna summoned up the visual Izath had provided of their destination, just west of Southern. She felt Shimpath inspect her image, compare it to her own, and accept its veracity. They went between.

When they emerged, Valonna was suddenly grateful for the star-filled sky. Southern Weyr slept in darkness beneath them, its buildings and clearings and landing strips hidden by the lush forest, glowlight shielded by leaves and branches. The strange, alien Weyr could have been deserted entirely, but for the unmistakeable shape of a large dragon on watch atop the tallest building, facing east. And Valonna knew that if that dragon were alerted to their presence, then a hundred more would come boiling up out of the jungle to challenge them.

She felt, rather than saw, Shimpath sweep her head from one side to the other, and realised that the bronzes of Madellon had appeared to flank them, each with his inner eyelids closed to mute the telltale gleam. They were completely noiseless, gliding just above the canopy so they wouldn’t make obvious silhouettes against the sky, keeping their wingbeats to an absolute minimum. And the hush extended to communication, too: they had agreed there would be none from dragon to dragon, nor even from dragon to rider, on the chance that Southern had one of those rare sensitive riders who could hear everything. They must accomplish their goal in silence.

A dragon suddenly reared up out of the trees. For an instant Valonna went stiff with fear. Then, by the size, she identified her. Grizbath. Shimpath flipped her muzzle in silent greeting and the Southern queen flipped hers back, the agreed acknowledgement, before dipping below the treeline again.

That meant Margone was in position: so far, so good. They veered north, and suddenly Southern’s training grounds opened up below them, the pale sands reflecting starlight. A sliver of greenish glowlight marked the big entrance to the weyrling barracks, its doors ajar. Long moments passed, and Valonna strained her eyes to detect any movement. According to the plan, Margone would be moving from couch to couch, waking the weyrlings, getting them to harness their dragons as quickly and quietly as they could. She would have woken Karika, the queen weyrling, first, enlisting the help of the juvenile queen Megrith to calm and encourage her clutchmates. That had been Sh’zon’s idea. The queen weyrling’s the key, he’d said, and Margone had agreed. In a weyrling group’s insulated society, every dragonet looked to their golden sister.

Then light burst from the entrance to the weyrling barracks as its doors were flung wide open. The first dragonet appeared, blotting out the light as he loped through the door with his rider beside him. The weyrling scrambled aboard, and moments later the young blue leapt aloft, so quickly that Valonna feared his rider wasn’t strapped in properly. Two bronzes – Kidbeth and Zintyrath – moved in on the dragonet, and he checked his ascent in fright. Valonna saw the two bronze riders gesticulating animatedly at each other. Then Zintyrath broke away, and Kidbeth slipped below the panicky blue. The dragonet paddled frantically with all four feet as the Madellon dragon came up beneath him. His hind paws raked Kidbeth’s back, but the bronze drove up relentlessly, disrupting the Southern blue’s wingbeats. At last, the dragonet grabbed for the catching strap at the base of Kidbeth’s neck. Valonna saw E’dor turn and gesture to the Southern weyrling, and a moment later both dragons vanished.

Two more dragonets had emerged from the barracks and, as Valonna turned her attention back to the ground, a third joined them. They were bigger than Madellon’s weyrlings. At almost twelve months of age they would be nearing their adult length, if not yet their weight. The first two, a green and another blue, snagged onto the Madellon dragons who made for them. But the third was a brown, and a big one. Valonna saw Santinoth – Madellon’s biggest bronze – come about beneath the burly dragonet, matching his vector. But what the Southern brown had in size he lacked in agility. He folded his wings abruptly, half a beat too early, missed Santinoth’s broad back, and tumbled like a stone with a squeal that sliced through the night-time silence.

Shimpath! Valonna cried, but her queen was already moving. She lunged for the falling weyrling as he struggled to open his wings against his plunge, seizing his wing-shoulders in her powerful forepaws with an impact that rattled Valonna’s teeth. The brown hung helplessly in her grasp, unable to spread his wings or support his own weight. Shimpath beat her wings furiously to counteract the dragonet’s bulk, and Valonna felt her scrambling with her hind legs to get purchase on the brown’s back end, but Shimpath had never caught a dragon from above before, and the weight was dragging her down.

Then Santinoth powered upwards from beneath the dangling brown, taking the dragonet’s weight on his back. As Shimpath released the young dragon, he flung both forearms around Santinoth’s neck, barely missing T’rello. Instants later, Santinoth took them between. Valonna sagged with relief as Shimpath beat her wings, regaining height. The whole manoeuvre seemed to have taken forever, though only moments had actually passed.

But the brown dragonet’s cry had not gone unnoticed, and the watchdragon had turned in their direction. He tilted his head in a clear pose of confusion, and then froze, stock-still.

Grizbath has him, Shimpath said curtly.

The rest of the weyrlings were out of the barracks now. Some were still on the ground and others were snagging onto Madellon dragons with varying degrees of deftness. Another bronze went silently between, and another.

And then a shout – a human shout – went up from near the centre of the Weyr, and the jungle erupted with dragons.

Get the weyrlings away! Shimpath cried.

Dragons of every colour lifted their heads above the canopy. Queries rang out, progressing from sleepy to alarmed to angry in the span of moments. One of the dragonets squalled. A Madellon bronze swooped low, grabbed it off the ground, and vanished between.

And then a Southern bronze exploded out of the jungle towards them: huge, incandescent, thunderous. Tezonth. The remaining dragonet cowered. Kawanth, the last Madellon bronze, flinched. Even Shimpath recoiled from the violence implicit in that furious scream.

Kawanth veered sharply to intercept the Southern bronze, spreading his wings to their fullest extent, trying to match Tezonth’s size. He couldn’t. Tezonth was bigger than him and older than him, and he had his whole Weyr at his back. Bronze barrelled towards bronze, vast and enraged. He wasn’t going to stop. He wasn’t going to stop. Valonna’s stomach lurched. Shimpath!

Grizbath burst from the undergrowth, screaming, lunging at Tezonth.

Tezonth broke off from Kawanth with a clatter of wings. He spun, snarling, to face his queen mid-air. Grizbath kept up her cry, but she back-winged in the face of Tezonth’s rage.

She cannot sustain this, Shimpath said sharply. We must get the dragonet queen and go.

As if he’d heard her words, Tezonth suddenly hesitated in his assault on Grizbath. His head swivelled towards Shimpath. His nostrils flared. And then he plunged towards the barracks. Towards the weyrling queen.

She looked so small and so young as Tezonth landed in front of her, snarling, darting his head towards her with jaws agape, his wings spread above her, a terrifying sight.

Megrith screamed.

She reared onto her hind legs to meet him, beating her wings, flailing with her foreclaws, all but lashing him with her tail and the meaning of her wordless screech was vividly clear. How dare you!

Surprise took Tezonth off balance. He dropped back to all fours with a crash, and Megrith shrieked rebellion right into his face. Tezonth took one step backwards, then another, visibly startled. He turned his head towards Grizbath, but his bark of command lacked conviction. Grizbath hissed at him, and Tezonth recoiled in obvious shock. Shimpath added her cry to the chorus, and P’raima’s mighty bronze was suddenly paralysed.

Get her, Shimpath told Kawanth, and then, as Sh’zon’s bronze lunged for Megrith, she said, We must go too.

We can’t leave Grizbath, Valonna objected. Margone’s queen was quivering, the strain of subduing her Weyr and defying her mate taking a visible toll. Tell her to come with us to Madellon.

No. She will not leave Southern queenless. But she cannot hold her dragons forever.

Megrith leapt awkwardly towards Kawanth. For a moment it seemed as if the two dragons would foul each other mid-air, but then Kawanth caught the young queen neatly by her shoulders, wrapped his tail around hers, and heaved them both between.

A low moan rose from Tezonth’s chest, as though the magnitude of what had happened had suddenly dawned on him, and despite everything, Valonna’s stomach clenched in sympathy with the proud Southern bronze.

Enough, Shimpath told her. We return to Madellon.

They went between, leaving Southern behind in the night. After the chaos they’d left, the silence seemed deafening. Valonna felt weak with release from it.

Then Shimpath emerged into the darkening evening sky over Madellon, and to the sound of a different commotion.

H’ned was meant to have briefed Madellon’s riders once Shimpath had left for Southern, but dragons were still bellowing queries back and forth, squealing and barking in a state of high excitement. Half the roster crowded the Rim in a jagged crown, every hide dark against the deepening gloom, but each pair of gem-bright eyes, spinning in shades of yellow and orange alarm, fixed on the scene in the Bowl. Below, Kawanth and the other bronzes were disembarking their passengers on the training grounds under Vanzanth’s stern-eyed supervision. The Southern dragons seemed too shocked to do more than follow orders, but all around them the younger Madellon dragonets sat bolt upright, staring at the newcomers in their midst.

As Shimpath descended, she snapped a command to every Madellon dragon. Be calm and quiet. We have brought Grizbath’s weyrlings here to shelter them. Tezonth’s rider cannot be trusted with them.

The cacophony of draconic yelps and bugles subsided immediately, but Valonna sensed the ripple of excitement that travelled around the Bowl as Madellon’s dragons discussed their queen’s pronouncement. Didn’t H’ned speak to them?

Izath said he could not easily make himself heard, Shimpath replied. She landed beside Kawanth, who had just set Megrith lightly down on the gravel.

“Report, Sh’zon!” Valonna called across to the Wingleader, cupping her hands around her mouth.

“All here and accounted for, Weyrwoman!” Sh’zon yelled back. He sounded exhilarated. Clearly, losing a direct battle of wills with Tezonth hadn’t harmed his opinion of himself. He swung his leg forward over Kawanth’s neck in the flashy move that Valonna had always been taught not to do when dismounting, sliding to the ground with a flourish.

Valonna dismounted more cautiously from Shimpath. The Southern weyrlings crouched uncertainly at the centre of a ring of Madellon dragons. Some of them were shaking. But Megrith mantled in their midst, her eyes still blazing orange, her chest still expanded with pride and anger.

Valonna crossed quickly to the queen’s rider. “Weyrling Karika?”

The girl turned from her dragonet. She was rubbing her bare arms: few of the weyrlings had had time to put on wherhides. “W-weyrwoman V-valonna,” she said, through chattering teeth.

“You must be frozen!” Valonna exclaimed. She glanced around for L’stev or C’mine, but there were dragons everywhere she looked. Where’s the Weyrlingmaster? They need blankets!

He is coming.

Sh’zon swept up, dragging off his long Peninsula-style coat. “Here, missy,” he said, placing it around the young queen rider’s shoulders. “Faranth, but your queen! The way she stood up to Tezonth!”

“Th-thank you,” Karika replied, darting a look up at him. She was tiny, with black hair braided tightly back and flashing black eyes. “Margone explained everything. She said it was our j-job to make sure all the others got away.”

For all Karika’s apparent poise, Valonna sensed that it was a front. No amount of warning or preparation could have prepared her for what she’d faced in the last few minutes, and Karika was young – very young. “I’m so sorry, Karika, but we don’t have much… Oh – L’stev!”

The Weyrlingmaster was coming around Megrith’s hind end. He had a heavy woollen blanket over one arm. “You can give that coat back to the Wingleader, weyrling,” he said gruffly. “Here.”

Karika shrugged off Sh’zon’s coat and accepted the blanket around her shoulders in its place. “This is our Weyrlingmaster, L’stev,” Valonna told her. “He’ll be looking after you while you’re staying with us.”

“Yes, Weyrwoman,” Karika replied.

“Gather your classmates together, weyrling,” L’stev said. “We don’t have a lot of time.”

“Of course, Weyrlingmaster,” Karika said. “Megrith…”

As she spoke, her queen sat taller, and each of the Southern dragonets turned their heads to look at her. Simultaneously the weyrling riders began to move towards Karika. Some of them wore jackets over nightclothes, some of them only nightclothes. Most had blankets, but all of them looked bewildered, and all of them were very young.

Valonna took a deep breath as the last of the nine weyrlings gathered around Karika. “Weyrlings,” she began, and found her voice had diminished to a squeak. “Weyrlings,” she tried again. “I know you’ve all had a shock, but you’re safe now.”

“Where are we?” one of the boys asked. He sounded pitifully disoriented, and he clutched at the blanket hanging half off his shoulder as if it were a favourite toy.

“You’re at Madellon Weyr,” Sh’zon said, stepping forward, when Valonna couldn’t find the words. “You’re safe, all of you. There’s hot food waiting, and warm beds for you and your dragons.”

“But what are we doing here?” asked one of the older boys.

“Weyrwoman Margone asked us to bring you here,” said Valonna, finding her voice again. “It’s just for a short while until things are sorted out back at Southern.”

“Is this because our dragonets can’t go between?” the second boy asked. He looked like he was probably the oldest, with a wispy fuzz of moustache on his top lip, but Valonna doubted if he was even sixteen Turns old. “Are we being punished?”

“No one’s being punished,” said Sh’zon. “You’re not in any trouble.”

“But Tezonth was so angry,” said one of the girls. Tears had tracked shining paths down her face.

“I want to go home,” the first boy added miserably.

“You’ll stay right here, P’lau!” Karika snapped, rounding on the boy. “And you can pull yourself together too, Sia! Have you forgotten who you are? You’re Southern dragonriders!”

To Valonna’s astonishment, both young weyrlings immediately swallowed their distress and stood stiffly at attention. She would have been impressed had the sight not been so sad: two children, clearly terrified out of their wits by the circumstances, falling back on the rigid discipline that Southern had taught them.

“I apologise on behalf of my fellow weyrlings, Weyrwoman Valonna,” Karika went on, turning to her. The presence of her peers seemed to have wiped away her hesitation. “We’re very grateful for Madellon’s hospitality.”

“But Karika –” the oldest boy started.

“Shut up, V’ranu,” Karika commanded, and the big lad closed his mouth with a snap.

“Don’t want you here any longer,” said L’stev, glancing at Valonna. “If you’ll take your dragonets into the barracks, there – girls on the left, boys on the right – Weyrlingmaster C’mine will help you get them settled.”

“What about our things?” asked another lad, in a high, unbroken voice. “Our clothes and everything?”

“We’ll sort that out in the morning,” said L’stev. “There are nightclothes for you all in the barracks. Inside, now.” His last order crackled with authority.

“Of course, Weyrlingmaster,” Karika answered promptly. She glanced around at her classmates. “Come on.”

“Well,” said Sh’zon, as the Southern youngsters stumbled after their queen rider, “she’s a hunk of firestone and no mistaking it.”

“They’re all so young,” Valonna said. “Karika can’t be more than twelve Turns old!”

“That’s Southern for you,” Sh’zon said. “Anything from Grizbath yet?”

Valonna shook her head. “I wish she’d come too. I’m worried for Margone and Grizbath. Grizbath was so brave, but Margone’s not well…I don’t know if she can stand up to P’raima.”

“I don’t know anyone could,” Sh’zon said, with a grimness that Valonna had never heard in his voice before. “But you can’t ask a queen to abandon her Weyr. And there’s only the one way to be rid of a Weyrleader.”

If he realised the crassness of his own remark, he was saved from having to apologise for it by the arrival of H’ned from the direction of the lower caverns. He looked harried. “Sh’zon. Weyrwoman. It all went off as planned?”

“More or less,” Sh’zon said. “Dragonet nearly took T’rello’s head clean off of his neck, but he seems to be in one piece. How’d it go back here?”

“Noisily,” said H’ned. “I’ve no clue how much anyone took in once the shouting started. I think the reaction was supportive. I’m glad we had more than one copy of that document Margone signed, though. I’m not sure the one I read out in the caverns is still in one piece.”

“And everyone’s ready?” Sh’zon asked.

H’ned began to respond, but then, Tezonth is coming! Shimpath snapped, and by Sh’zon and H’ned’s fractionally delayed responses, their dragons had relayed the same warning to them.

“Get those dragonets inside!” Sh’zon shouted at L’stev. Then he looked at H’ned. “Guess we’re about to find out.”

Valonna and Sh’zon ran for their dragons even as Izath touched down with a thump, spraying gravel everywhere. Shimpath barely waited for Valonna to strap in before leaping skyward.

Then the air above Madellon was abruptly full of angry bronzes, a whole Wing of them, scarlet-eyed and bellowing with rage. Tezonth led them, howling, his talons curled as if to strike: a fearful sight despite his age. Shimpath bugled a pure high note of reprimand, and either side of her Izath and Kawanth added their deep voices to her rebuke. The answering roar from the massed dragons of Madellon echoed from one wall of the Bowl to the other, even as every adult bronze from Staamath to Santinoth launched to meet the Southern intruders mid-air.

You have stolen my children! Tezonth’s scream targeted Valonna as well as Shimpath. It felt like claws raking through her mind. You have stolen my daughter! Hand her back or feel Southern’s wrath!

Shimpath beat her wings, rising effortlessly to draw level with Tezonth, and her bronzes rose with her, nine of them on either side. Madellon was outnumbered, Valonna realised suddenly, with a lurch of dread. She counted nearly thirty snarling Southern bronzes above her Weyr. But as intimidating a sight as the unbroken line of male aggression made, it was missing the one element that would have made it truly terrifying. P’raima had no queen.

You will halt! Shimpath cried, and the force of her command struck the line of Southern bronzes like a physical blow, checking their descent towards Madellon.

Only Tezonth seemed able to resist, partially, the power of Shimpath’s cry. Petty queen, he bellowed, with all the weight of three decades’ seniority. You dare command me?

At Madellon I command all! You will take your dragons and leave!

I’m not leaving without my weyrlings!

They are not your weyrlings! There was contempt in Shimpath’s voice that Valonna had never heard there before. They are Grizbath’s sons and daughters and she has entrusted them to me!

Grizbath is weak! Tezonth snarled. She would have them be weak and useless too! They are my children, and my children will never be weak!

That you would sacrifice them in the name of your pride is crime enough, Shimpath cried. But your pride condemned my hatchlings to die!

What use is a dragon who cannot go between? No better than a watch-wher!

What use is a bronze who will not protect his weyrlings? Shimpath’s retort dripped scorn. No better than a tunnel-snake!

Tezonth screamed, and for a hideous instant Valonna thought the old Southern bronze was going to lash out, but Shimpath showed no fear. She lunged closer to him, as if daring him to try. Get out of my Weyr, Southern! Or we will force you out!

On Shimpath’s left, Izath let a tongue of flame lick out from his mouth, and in response to the signal the bronzes of Madellon opened their jaws and poured fiery breath into the night sky.

Tezonth recoiled from the display, and the Southern dragons pulled back, dismayed and alarmed. Below, the browns and greens and blues of Madellon joined their voices in a deafening roar, and even the Wildfire dragonets rose to their feet to shriek defiance at the interlopers, Berzunth’s brassy young voice unmistakeable among the yelps and squeals.

It was too much. As Madellon’s dragons filled the air with flame and fume and fury, the Southern line broke. The formation disintegrated into a rout, and even Tezonth back-winged in the face of Madellon’s united strength. This is not over, Madellon, he roared. This I will not forget! He barked at his disarrayed bronzes, left and then right, and an instant later, he disappeared between.

As the sky emptied of foreign wings, Madellon’s dragons went wild with victory. Valonna realised she’d been holding her breath. She let it go with a long groan of relief. Her head still rang painfully with the force of Tezonth’s voice. Shimpath. You were magnificent.

Yes, Shimpath said matter-of-factly. She turned her head from one side to the other, dismissing her flanking bronzes. Her eyes, Valonna noticed, were still orange. Kawanth, Santinoth, and the others who had brought the weyrlings from Southern banked away; those who still had flame to discharge angled higher to breathe it off. I should like this harness off, she added, rolling her shoulders. Kawanth says his rider and Izath’s will come to our weyr to debrief. Calproth, Redmyth, and Vidrilleth will stay on watch with Peteorth in case Tezonth comes back.

Do you think he will? Valonna asked, as they descended towards their ledge.

If he does, we will turn him away again. Grizbath’s dragonets are under my protection now.

But something Tezonth had said stayed with Valonna. What use is a dragon who cannot go between? Wasn’t there some truth in that? L’stev hadn’t had an answer when H’ned had asked him what he meant to do with Madellon’s dragonets. Now the Weyrlingmaster had nine more weyrlings with the same problem. Valonna had promised Margone that no harm would come to them while they were in Madellon’s custody. She was seized by sudden doubt. Had they really done the right thing? How could she possibly keep her promise when they still had no idea how to cure whatever was afflicting Pern’s dragonets? What if the other Weyrs took P’raima’s side?

We have done the right thing, Shimpath assured her. Grizbath’s dragonets will be safe with us. We have not stolen them.

“Except we have,” Valonna said fretfully, as Shimpath touched down on their weyr ledge. “It’s exactly what we’ve done.”

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