Chapter twenty-five: T’kamen
We had hoped that the hatching of Trebruth from the third clutch of Ceduth and Nonrith would mark the beginning of a new phase in Madellon’s dragon breeding programme. However, at the time of writing, and in spite of repeated re-matings of the same pair, he remains the only brown of his ilk at Madellon and, indeed, on Pern.
– Excerpt from A Report on Madellon’s Breeding Potential, author unknown
M’ric was sitting on the end of B’nam’s desk when T’kamen came out of the Marshal’s office. “No joy eavesdropping through this door, either?” T’kamen asked.
“It’s not possible,” said B’nam, not looking up from the document he was reading.
“What he said,” said M’ric. He hopped off the desk, looking at the new rank knot on T’kamen’s shoulder. “R’lony’s made you join the Seventh?”
“We accepted his invitation,” said T’kamen.
“Like you really had a choice. Who’s he assigned you to?”
“Oh, that’s not so bad,” said M’ric. “Smiler’s all right. I thought he’d stick you under R’ganff.”
“He won’t be fire-crew, though,” B’nam asked, lifting his eyes from his work. “With a dragon that size? He’ll bunker or catch, surely.”
“Once he’s been trained,” said M’ric. He looked back at T’kamen. “Ch’fil’s training officer for the Seventh as well as Crewleader. You’ll probably be reassigned once he’s done with you.”
“Can you take me to him?” T’kamen asked. “I’d like to introduce myself as soon as possible.”
“He and Stratomath left for Little Madellon a while ago,” said B’nam. “They’re leading the Seventh for this afternoon’s Fall. He won’t be back until late.”
“In that case, M’ric,” said T’kamen, “can we find the Headwoman?”
“I’ll take you to the caverns,” said M’ric. He cocked his head. “Did R’lony say anything about making me your tail?”
“Tail?” T’kamen asked, and then, recalling what R’lony had said about M’ric, went on, “He did say something about you tailing me –”
“Yes!” M’ric unbuttoned the shoulder-strap that held his rank cords in place and shook the weyrling braid down his arm. “This won’t take a minute. See, B’nam, I told you I’d get to tail!”
B’nam didn’t look impressed. B’nam, T’kamen thought, wasn’t the excitable type. “Good for you.”
“This is one of those things you’re going to have to explain, M’ric,” said T’kamen. “What’s a tail?”
M’ric looked up from the new knot he was tying into the trailing end of his braid. “A tail. Tailman. You didn’t have tailmen in the Interval?” When T’kamen shook his head, he continued, “Aides to the senior officers. Usually second-Turn weyrlings and junior riders too young to join the Wings, but, you know, promising ones, who’ll learn from being around rank.”
“So it’s a kind of mentorship arrangement?” T’kamen asked.
“It goes both ways,” said B’nam. “We serve our officers in different ways – running errands, cleaning kit, getting their dragons ready for Fall. I help the Marshal with his work –”
“B’nam tails for R’lony,” M’ric interjected, unnecessarily.
“– and in return I get to learn about how the Strategic division operates,” B’nam continued. “When I graduate, I’ll have a better chance of making rank.”
“There’s prestige to being a tail, then,” said T’kamen
M’ric nodded. “And privileges. I won’t have to do weyrling chores any more, and if I want to leave the Weyr for something, I only have to get your permission, not the Weyrlingmaster’s. But there’s prestige to having a tail, too. Usually only officers get them.” He put his shoulder knots back on. “All right, let’s go. See you later, B’nam.”
As M’ric led the way back to the lobby of Command, T’kamen wondered how his own lack of rank would affect M’ric’s new status. “R’lony seems a decent sort.”
M’ric snorted. “You don’t know him very well.”
“If his brown’s been flying Donauth for more than twenty Turns, he can’t be completely incompetent.”
“Hardly,” said M’ric. “I mean, sure, Geninth’s a good enough sire, for an old dragon, but that’s got nothing to do with R’lony’s competence. Except in Dalka’s furs, anyway.”
“Be civil,” T’kamen told him, as they emerged back out into the Bowl.
“I’m just saying,” said M’ric. “And it’s not even as if he gets a unanimous vote the way the Commander does.”
That took a moment to sink in. “You mean the Marshal is elected the same way as the Commander is?”
“Not the same way,” M’ric said. “You only get a vote in the Commander’s ballot if you’re a Tactical rider. Same applies for the Marshal. If you’re not in Strategic division, you don’t have a say. But there are only about a hundred dragonpairs in Strategic, and R’lony barely scraped a majority at the last Marshal ballot. It’s not exactly a mandate, is it?”
“Voting for leaders…” T’kamen shook his head, bemused.
“It beats letting a horny queen decide,” said M’ric. “Especially when half the time she’s only choosing based on who her rider wants in her weyr. Which is beyond stupid. And even if it were still decided that way, and there was a direct correlation between a dragon’s ability to catch a queen and his rider’s ability to lead, what if the best rider’s dragon’s injured on the day the queen rises, or he’s off fighting and can’t get back to the Weyr in time, or he’s had a big meal that morning and can’t compete because he has a full belly?”
“R’lony must manage, if Geninth’s been catching Donauth all these Turns,” said T’kamen.
“He doesn’t always get her. Nearly always, because Dalka knows when Donauth’s getting close and R’lony makes sure he’s around to chase. But the first time Donauth rose after I Impressed Trebruth, Geninth didn’t make it back from Madellon North in time, and Stratomath flew her. And no one was happy about that, least of all Ch’fil, because Donauth laid two bronzes, and that’s automatic grounding for Stratomath.”
“For siring bronzes?”
“There’s not a lot of call for bronzes,” M’ric said, with an apologetic shrug.
That had to be why there were so few of them at Madellon. If browns sired all the clutches, and those who threw bronzes were banned, it was no wonder that Madellon only had eleven bronze dragons. “Doesn’t Geninth sire bronzes?”
“Not often. He’s too clever. I think there are only two other bronzes younger than ten, apart from the weyrlings. Vralsanth and Monbeth. And Monbeth was out of Levierth, so nothing to do with Geninth.”
“Every time I think I’m starting to get a feel for this place,” T’kamen said. “I have a lot of catching up to do.”
M’ric looked sideways at him. “But you’re not planning on staying, are you?”
“I don’t know how long it’s going to take to fix whatever’s wrong with Epherineth’s ability to go between,” said T’kamen. “It could be sevendays or months; it could be Turns, for all I know. As long as we’re here, I need to fit in and toe the line.”
“Is that what R’lony told you?”
“He was a lot more shaffing civil to me than S’leondes was, M’ric.”
M’ric snorted. “I suppose you have to kiss his arse now you’re a Seventh rider.”
“What is your problem with R’lony?” T’kamen asked, annoyed.
“I wouldn’t have a problem with R’lony if he didn’t have a problem with me,” M’ric said. “Or, rather, with my dragon.”
“What’s wrong with your dragon? I thought being small was desirable.”
“It is,” said M’ric. “For Tactical. R’lony thinks I’m a traitor to my colour because I don’t see the point in sucking up to Strategic when Trebruth’s small enough to fight.”
T’kamen thought of what R’lony had said about M’ric. S’leondes wouldn’t accept a brown dragon into his precious fighting Wings if it was the size of a green and twice as fast. “You might not be still here by the time you graduate,” he said, deciding to sidestep the issue.
“We’re not going anywhere until we’ve fought Thread,” M’ric said. He shrugged. “Sorry.”
T’kamen supposed he would have felt the same in his position. “I think Epherineth would like a chance to try his flame against Thread, himself.”
“I suppose he might get one if you have to go in for a catch,” said M’ric. “Sometimes the Seventh’s dragons have to burn a path through. You might not, though. Epherineth’s just so big.”
“Then I’ll consider myself lucky to have had a chance to see dragons fighting Thread at all,” said T’kamen.
“Seeing them fight isn’t the same as doing the fighting.”
“It’s still more than I ever expected I’d get to do,” T’kamen said. M’ric’s zeal on the subject was wearing on him, and he sought a new subject. They were approaching the entrance to the lower caverns, flanked now by a widely-spaced pair of curving walls. “Those are new.”
“The Wall,” said M’ric. His tone was reverent enough to imbue the word with significance. T’kamen looked at him, and M’ric went on, “Every dragonpair that dies in service goes on the Wall.”
T’kamen stopped to look at the right-hand wall. It was covered with names and dates, each one carved into the smooth surface of the pale grey stone blocks. He ran his fingers over the last few names, still recent enough that the dust of their creation came away on his fingertips. Wingrider K’lint and blue Miyath, Fourth Flight, P8/26.05.19. Wingrider Isaga and green Nenath, Third Flight, P8/28.06.19. Wingsecond F’vera and green Trilasiath, Third Flight, P8/26.05.19. Wingrider O’paken and green Marieth, Third Flight, P8/26.05.19. “Four on the same day?”
“And these last three all from Third Flight?”
“The Third takes a lot of casualties,” said M’ric. “The riders assigned there are probably the bravest in Madellon.”
T’kamen wondered if that was the truth, or if the Third was just where Madellon’s least capable riders were posted. “Isn’t it a little macabre to be walking past the reminder that all these riders have died every time you go into the caverns?”
“And it would be better to pretend they never existed?” M’ric asked. “All these riders died protecting Pern. Having the Wall here reminds us of what they sacrificed. We should remember them. They’re all heroes.”
It still struck T’kamen as morbid, but he let it drop.
He’d braced himself to find the Weyr’s dining hall dramatically transformed from his time, but for once he was pleasantly surprised. There were more tables and benches, packed in tighter to accommodate the greater population of Pass Madellon, but apart from that, very little seemed to have changed. The big hearths and the small ones hadn’t moved, the serving tables were where T’kamen expected them to be, and there were instrument stands and racks of music in the corner where the Weyr Singer had always played. For a moment, as they paused there just inside the big cavern, T’kamen half expected Crauva to come walking purposefully from the kitchens with Valonna close beside her.
There were riders sitting at various tables, singly and in small groups, with food and klah, cards and dice. “You can sit where you like most of the time, so long as a Tactical rider doesn’t tell you to move,” said M’ric, “but mostly riders sit with their wingmates. The two tables that side are the Seventh’s, and this one here, where El’yan and O’sten are.”
The two riders he named were playing dragon chess. Judging by the number of white pieces on the table beside them, the older man was winning handily. He looked up from the game as M’ric and T’kamen passed. “Going to introduce us to our new wingmate, boy?”
“Sure,” said M’ric. T’kamen noticed how he turned his shoulder deliberately towards the older rider, to show off his new tailman’s knot. “This is T’kamen, bronze Epherineth’s rider. T’kamen, this is El’yan, brown Ayarth’s rider, and O’sten, bronze Monbeth’s.”
O’sten, a dark-haired, dark-skinned rider in his early twenties, nodded politely before resuming his intent study of the chessboard before him. El’yan, though, regarded T’kamen with watery eyes. He was the oldest rider T’kamen had yet seen in the Pass. He was white-bearded and almost bald. His bare scalp was mottled with age spots, and his lower eyelids drooped like a hound’s. “Weyrleader T’kamen,” he said, extending his hand slowly towards him. His voice was rough and gravelly.
T’kamen clasped the proffered wrist, and was surprised at the firmness of the old rider’s grip. “The title isn’t necessary,” he said. “It’s just…” Then he realised he wasn’t sure what his Pass title was. He looked at M’ric. “What am I now, a wingrider?”
“‘Bronze rider’,” M’ric supplied.
T’kamen shrugged. “Bronze rider, then.”
“You get to my age and you think you’ve seen it all,” said El’yan. He glanced at the chessboard, moved a black Star Stone, then looked gloomily back at T’kamen. “You must have some tales to tell.”
“I doubt I have as many as you,” said T’kamen.
“My grandpa was born not much more than half through the Interval,” said El’yan. “He used to tell me about the days when most of the dragons of Pern could still go between. K’yan, Contith’s rider.”
The name wasn’t familiar. “I don’t think I knew him,” said T’kamen.
“He never mentioned you, either,” said El’yan. The least flicker of amusement betrayed his doleful expression. T’kamen caught it with his eyes, and El’yan chuckled rustily. “You’re all right, bronze rider.”
“Stay here a minute, T’kamen, I just saw Kanessa go by,” M’ric said suddenly. “I’ll go and get her.”
“He tailing for you?” El’yan asked, as M’ric jogged off towards the kitchens.
T’kamen nodded. “The Marshal was kind enough to assign him to me. I have a lot to learn. And I’m not too fast on my feet yet.”
“You dislocated your hip?”
T’kamen wondered how much of his private business was now public knowledge. “Yes.” He lifted his cane. “I’ll be glad to be rid of this. I’m so slow getting from place to place.”
El’yan smiled. He turned slightly where he sat, and T’kamen had to school himself not to recoil. The old brown rider’s right leg stopped at the knee. The missing lower limb had been replaced with a peg, carved from wood and strapped to the stump of the upper leg with a cradle of leather straps. “I can sympathise.”
“I’m sorry,” said T’kamen, horrified at his own crassness. “I didn’t know –”
“Of course you didn’t,” said El’yan. “I can get around almost as quick on this as I ever did when I had two whole legs.” He studied T’kamen with his weary, droopy eyes. “Yes. Lost it to Thread in the very first Turn of the Pass. And blighted lucky we were that half a leg and a chunk of Ayarth’s neck was all we lost.”
“I’m sorry,” T’kamen said again.
“Don’t be. I’m not.” El’yan casually moved another piece on the chessboard he seemed barely to be watching. “Checkmate, O’sten. I told you to keep an eye on my Wingsecond.”
“Thread take it!” O’sten complained, though he shook his head with rueful respect.
“You play chess?” El’yan asked T’kamen.
“Not well,” he said. “Poker, a little.”
“You’ll find plenty of Madellon riders happy to take your marks off you at the poker table,” said El’yan.
“I don’t have a great many marks.”
“Then you’re welcome to improve your chess game with me.”
It was the most honest offer he’d had for sevendays. “Thank you, El’yan. I may take you up on that.”
M’ric returned then, wearing an expression between annoyance and grudging admiration. “Kanessa says you’ve already been assigned F’vera’s weyr.”
It took T’kamen a moment to place the name. “One of the dead green riders from the Wall?”
“Well you couldn’t very well have his weyr if he was still alive, could you?” M’ric asked. He shook his head. “I can’t believe Dalka’s giving you a Wingsecond’s weyr. Is she insane?”
“Be civil,” T’kamen told him, realising as he did that it wasn’t the first time he’d reproved the weyrling for being rude about the Weyrwoman.
M’ric very nearly rolled his eyes. “You’re going to have a hard enough time without Dalka and R’lony burying you in privileges like nice weyrs and tailmen.”
He was probably right, T’kamen thought, if S’leondes’ reaction to him was any indication of how Madellon’s Tactical riders were going to treat him – but he wasn’t about to offend R’lony or Dalka by refusing their kindness. “I’ll burn that Thread when it falls on me.”
M’ric gave him a look. “It’s your hide.”
Beyond them, El’yan chuckled. “You’ll need to keep that one on a short leash, T’kamen.”
“So I’m discovering,” T’kamen replied.
“I’m your tail, not your pet,” M’ric said indignantly.
For some reason, that made T’kamen hesitate a moment, but he couldn’t put a finger on why. “Tail, pet; it’s all the same to me. Show me this weyr we’ve been assigned. I’d like to get Epherineth settled in.”
F’vera’s weyr – T’kamen’s, now – was one of the new ones in the south-eastern quadrant of the Bowl, overlooking the lake. The ledge would get the sun in the afternoon, though Epherineth remarked that it would be rather cool and shadowy in the mornings. Inside, the dragon couch was an adequate size – just – while the rider quarters comprised a decent-sized living area with a hearth, a smaller curtained-off sleeping chamber, and a bathing room with a cold water supply as well as a sunken hot pool.
M’ric took him down to the storerooms, where the chit R’lony had supplied got T’kamen access to a vast trove of clothes and tools and other sundries, the second-hand but often hardly used possessions of deceased riders. If T’kamen found the idea of inheriting dead men’s clothes vaguely ghoulish, his ingrained aversion to extravagance approved of the thrift. He found enough shirts and trousers and jackets in his size to meet his modest needs, and loaded Epherineth with several crates of linens, bedfurs, glowbaskets and the like.
He spent a quiet afternoon arranging his new possessions to his satisfaction. M’ric had gone off to his own drills and classes around noon, and a sizable number of Tactical dragons – about two hundred – left not long after that, presumably to fly the afternoon’s Fall. The ledges to either side of Epherineth’s were empty, and no one came to see how they were doing or to introduce themselves. T’kamen found the lack of interest curious, but not unwelcome. His encounters with S’leondes and R’lony had given him a lot to think about.
S’leondes was an arrogant bastard. Just the thought of the objectionable blue rider made T’kamen’s hackles rise. It was one thing to be the subject of a bronze rider’s contempt, or even a senior brown’s, but T’kamen couldn’t remember ever being so mortally insulted by a rider of one of the junior colours. Clearly, he would need to make some mental adjustments. The junior colours were junior no longer when bronzes and browns must step aside for them. It went against every instinct T’kamen had for the natural order of things. But for all S’leondes’ incivility towards him, the blue rider clearly commanded the respect of his officers – and M’ric’s regard for the Commander obviously went far beyond respect. T’kamen had come to trust the weyrling’s opinion on most matters, but M’ric’s reverence for S’leondes baffled him.
So did his disdain for the Marshal. T’kamen had much more time for R’lony, dour and unpretentious though he was, than he did for S’leondes. R’lony was probably better placed to understand T’kamen’s predicament than anyone else in Pass Pern: a former Weyrleader, unjustly stripped of his status, yet still committed to Madellon’s greater good. The story of how Madellon had come to be divided into Tactical and Strategic, with all its traditions overturned in the process, was one T’kamen knew he’d need to hear.
It was nearly dark by the time the Wings returned, streaming in with blue and green hides smudgy with ash and eyes dull with exhaustion. Later still, the dragons of the Seventh Flight came back, distinguishable only as black shapes against the darker sky. Three of them bore smaller dragons on their backs, casualties of the Fall, but aside from a few riders with their arms in slings, T’kamen saw no other sign of injuries.
“Where are all the other wounded?” he asked M’ric when the brown rider came up to attend him, as he’d promised he would, after the weyrlings’ evening muster.
M’ric had a wineskin and a bleak expression. “We don’t get many wounded,” he said. “Just a few wrenched shoulders and scorched wings.” He offered T’kamen the skin. “Here.”
“I don’t have any cups,” said T’kamen. “Does the Weyrlingmaster know you have that?”
“He doesn’t care so long as he has his own.” M’ric tipped his head back to take a long drink straight from the neck. Then he gave the skin to T’kamen and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “The young ones go between, you see,” he said. “When they get hit.”
T’kamen tried the wine. It wasn’t bad. “And they don’t come out.”
“It’s better than the alternative.”
“That green,” T’kamen said, thinking of the wretched dragon in the invalid weyr above theirs. “The one with half her wing missing.”
“Was she hit by Thread?”
M’ric nodded. “A few days before you turned up.” He took the wine back and gulped down another mouthful. “The only reason she’s still around is that they were flying over a river at the time. If you’re close enough to water, you can drown Thread before it kills you.” He stared out over the Weyr. “Complete fluke luck, though.”
As he started to take another drink, T’kamen reached over and took the wineskin off him. “What happened today?”
“Only two dead.” M’ric said it matter-of-factly, as if numb to the pain. “But one of the Fifth’s Wingleaders took a direct hit.”
“And went between?”
“Runiath was nearly twenty. And there wasn’t a river handy.”
After a moment, T’kamen gave him back the wineskin. “Do you still want to fly in the fighting Wings?”
M’ric raised his eyes. “Trebruth’s young. He’d go between before he let us get eaten to death.”
“Dead’s still dead.”
“I’m a dragonrider, T’kamen. I knew what the risks were when I accepted Search. You don’t stand at a Hatching and expect to die peacefully in your sleep.”
So that was why M’ric had reacted so strongly to the idea of living into his late thirties. They assume they’ll die young. The thought made T’kamen briefly nauseous. “But you Impressed a brown.”
“I didn’t expect to,” M’ric said, in a low voice. “I didn’t mean to…” He trailed off. “I wouldn’t swap Trebruth for any other dragon on Pern,” he continued, more vigorously. “Faranth, what rider ever would? But I wanted a blue. I wanted a good strong blue like my dad’s Ricquenth, like the Commander’s Karzith. Everyone wants a blue, don’t they?”
“In my time everyone wanted a bronze,” T’kamen said. “I know I did. And I was lucky that Epherineth wanted me back, but you can’t argue with a dragon’s choice once he’s made it.”
“You can put them off, though,” said M’ric. “Can’t you? Think unwelcoming thoughts at them, so they’ll look elsewhere? I mean, what colour dragon would you least have wanted?”
“Green,” T’kamen said. “But I wouldn’t have tried to discourage one coming my way. We don’t get many clutches in the Interval, M’ric. I was older than you are now when I was Searched, and if I hadn’t Impressed from that Hatching I wouldn’t have had another chance.”
“I didn’t have that excuse,” M’ric said. “There’s always another Hatching a few months away. I could have held out. I didn’t have to accept Trebruth.” He paused, then added gloomily, “At least not with so much enthusiasm.”
“No one keeps their composure when they Impress,” T’kamen told him. “I imagined I’d take it in my stride. Thought I’d be stoic about it. When it came to it, I was a wreck. You’ve never seen so much teenage pride brought low in tears and snot.”
M’ric sighed. “You don’t get it, T’kamen. There’s a…a stigma to Impressing a brown. To accepting a dragon who no one thinks will ever fight Thread. It’s like admitting you’re a coward. That you want all the privileges of being a dragonrider without any of the sacrifice.”
“Someone has to Impress the browns,” T’kamen said. “And when you stand to a clutch you have to be prepared for any dragonet to choose you, whatever preconceptions you might have about what colour would suit you. You can’t hold out, you can’t hedge your bets, you can’t try to hang on and wait for a better dragonet to break shell.”
“But it’s not always like that now,” said M’ric. “If the clutch had been Donauth’s or Levierth’s, of course I’d have been prepared for a brown. Even the slim possibility of a bronze. But there shouldn’t have been any chance at all of a brown hatching from one of Ceduth’s eggs.”
“Ceduth?” T’kamen asked, taking the wine back again. “There’s another queen?”
“No, Ceduth’s green. That’s just it. They didn’t think a brown could even hatch from a green-laid egg. Trebruth’s the only one who ever has.”
T’kamen froze with the wineskin half raised. Slowly, he lowered it. “Green-laid?”
“That’s the other reason R’lony doesn’t like Trebruth,” M’ric said, ignoring T’kamen’s confusion. “He thinks any dragon that hasn’t been clutched by a queen is inferior.”
Every time T’kamen thought he’d reached the farthest limits of his incredulity, Pass Madellon managed to confound him afresh. “Green dragons are clutching?” he asked. “How in Faranth’s name? Greens can’t clutch! They’re barren! They always have been!”
“Not all of them,” M’ric said. “Most of them are, and once they’ve had firestone, definitely. That’s why weyrling greens aren’t allowed to chew firestone until they’ve mated twice without producing a clutch. It’s rare, but there are seven fertile greens at Madellon now.”
T’kamen took a long swig of wine. He needed the fortification. Greens laying eggs? “How are you not overrun?” he asked lamely.
“Greens don’t lay big clutches. Never more than six eggs, and clutching reduces their mating cycle to something more like a queen’s anyway, twice a Turn or so. And there’s usually nothing bigger than a blue.”
As outlandish as the notion seemed, T’kamen had to admit that it did explain a few things: Trebruth’s size, M’ric’s isolation, and how Madellon was so populous with only two queens. “Faranth,” he said. “You’re going to tell me that watch-whers can fly, fire-lizards fight Thread, and tunnel-snakes make good eating, next.”
“Now you’re just being ridiculous.”
“Clutching greens,” T’kamen said, half to himself. “How does that work with your training? You must have tiny classes.”
“Trebruth’s clutch Hatched about two sevendays before one of Levierth’s,” said M’ric. “Once they broke shell, they just joined up with us.”
“So you’re not the only brown rider in your class?”
He shook his head. “There are three browns of Levierth’s. But they’re about twice Trebruth’s size. What R’lony calls proper browns.” M’ric’s expression betrayed both chagrin and scorn. “Well, he’s welcome to them. As if they’d even want to go anywhere but the lousy Seventh when we graduate.”
“Is that such a bad thing?” T’kamen asked.
M’ric stared at him. “It’s the worst thing in the world. You can’t understand, T’kamen. The difference between a Tactical rider and a Strategic rider…” He stopped, shaking his head, as if even he couldn’t find strong enough words to express himself. “Fighting riders are heroes. They risk their lives to protect Pern from Thread. They literally put themselves and their dragons in harm’s way, knowing what price they’ll likely have to pay, knowing they could die horribly, knowing they’ll lose their friends and their wingmates. Knowing that if they don’t, all of Pern will disappear under a sea of Thread. Any fighting rider can walk into any Hold or Hall on the planet and there’s nothing he can’t ask for, nothing the people won’t do for him.
“But Strategic riders…” M’ric lifted his hands, then let them drop. “They sit on their arses, way out from under the Fall, in no danger whatsoever. Lugging firestone sacks. Burning out burrows if they’re lucky. And when you think what the fighting dragons go through for the rest of us, the thought of sitting there, like some fat blue too scared or too slow to do a real dragon’s work… Faranth!” He bit the oath off savagely. “We won’t do it, T’kamen. Trebruth’s just as capable of serving under the Commander as any blue or green. His colour shouldn’t matter. It shouldn’t.”
“Have a drink, for Faranth’s sake,” T’kamen said, thumping the wineskin against M’ric’s chest. The boy was shaking with fervour, with righteous anger…and, T’kamen thought, with fear. Not unreasonably, given R’lony’s remarks. “But you think it will matter.”
M’ric set his jaw, looking stormy. Then he nodded. “But what would we do in the Seventh, T’kamen? Trebruth’s not big enough to be useful there. Shards, the Seventh is the one place where being big is useful. R’lony keeps saying that he doesn’t know what he’d do with me!”
“It’s not a given, then, that you’ll be posted direct to the Seventh when you graduate?”
“No one gets posted direct,” M’ric said. “Not even you. The Commander has first refusal on every new dragonpair, and R’lony gets what’s left.”
“The browns and bronzes,” T’kamen said.
“And the blues that wash out,” said M’ric. “No dragonpair’s guaranteed a place in the Wings. If they can’t pass their final assessments, the Commander won’t take them. And the tests are set just above the level of the slowest blues on an average day, so most of them – if they push really hard – should squeak through.”
“So if Trebruth’s at least as fast as a slow blue, he’ll pass.”
“He’s faster than a slow blue,” M’ric said with unshakeable conviction. “He’s faster than a fast blue.” Then his shoulders drooped. “I just don’t know if that’ll be enough to make them overlook the colour of his hide.”
“Because browns don’t fight Thread,” T’kamen said. He met M’ric’s eyes when the boy looked at him reproachfully, and said, “Just like greens don’t lay eggs.”
“Easy for you to say, now you know better.”
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned recently, M’ric, it’s that things change. What’s accepted as the truth in my time has been turned over in yours.”
“That’s not much use to Trebruth and me right now, though,” said M’ric. “Especially as you want me to go back, not forwards.”
“What I want has nothing to do with it, M’ric. You’re going back because you have gone back. That’s how this works.”
“And you’re such an authority on how it works, aren’t you? You said you’d never gone between times deliberately before!”
“Exactly,” said T’kamen. “Deliberately.” He held his hand out absently for the wine. M’ric put it in his grip. “Doesn’t mean I never did it by accident. It’s not unusual to find yourself slipping a couple of hours when you’re new to going between. Half the discipline is learning to provide a visualisation that’s specific enough for your dragon to find the where, but not so specific that he feels he also needs to find the when. Epherineth and I slipped about four hours once when we were weyrlings. We were jumping home from Birndes Hold in Peninsula territory in the middle of summer; it was blazing bright, and I let the position of the sun bleed into my visual. It would have been noonish, Madellon-time, but I put the sun in the mid-afternoon sky the same as it was at Birndes, and arrived home four hours later than expected.”
The tale seemed, mercifully, to have distracted M’ric from his agonising. “Did you get in trouble?”
“Faranth, yes. L’stev, my Weyrlingmaster, ripped me a new one in front of all the other weyrlings. He sent me up in front of the Weyrleader to explain myself – which wouldn’t have been so bad except the Weyrwoman happened to be there too.” T’kamen grimaced at the memory of that ignoble day. “We weren’t allowed to jump solo for a sevenday – we had to route all our visuals via L’stev’s dragon for approval first – and we had to stay in the barracks two extra sevendays by ourselves when all the rest of the class had moved out to their own weyrs. And that on top of latrine duties and cold watches.”
“Bet you never did it again,” said M’ric.
“You’re sharding right we didn’t.” T’kamen laughed mirthlessly. “Not until we ended up here, anyway.”
That wasn’t a mistake, Epherineth said, with an offended snort.
In response to M’ric’s raised eyebrow, T’kamen repeated his dragon’s comment. “And he’s right,” he said. “You gave us a visual. The ridge at Rift Valley in the rising light before dawn; the beacon fire; a Wing of dragons in the sky.”
M’ric looked at him intently. “I gave you that reference? Older-me? I wasn’t there! How would I know to tell you where to go?”
“I’ll telling you now.” Epherineth, can you share that visual with Trebruth?
No, Epherineth said sharply, and by M’ric’s little flinch, his brown had issued a similar denial.
“What was that about?” M’ric asked.
There was a scraping sound from Epherineth’s chamber, and then the bronze poked his great head through the archway into T’kamen’s inner weyr. His eyes were spinning amber. We may not do that.
“Why not?” T’kamen asked.
Because the visual must come from where it came.
“It has,” T’kamen protested. “M’ric’s older self gave it to me, and I’m giving it to him now so when he’s older he knows where to send us.”
No. The visual came from a dragon who was there.
“How do you know that, Epherineth?”
Epherineth retreated noisily back into his chamber. I just know.
When his bronze wouldn’t be drawn further, T’kamen related the exchange to M’ric. “Who would have been there to see that scene?”
“I don’t know,” said M’ric. “Someone who was at Madellon West when you arrived. It could have been anyone if they’d staged out of the Weyrstation the night before.” He frowned. “But that would mean that someone was there to see you come out of between.”
He was right, T’kamen realised. “If someone did see us arrive, why wouldn’t they say so?”
“I have no idea,” said M’ric. “With most riders it would have been all over the south before you even hit the ground.”
T’kamen winced at the reminder of their crash, nightmarishly distorted in his memory. “I’ve had too much wine to puzzle this out,” he said. “Is there any left?”
M’ric shook the depleted skin. “Just a slosh.”
“Give it here.”
M’ric handed it back, and T’kamen finished the last of the wine, ignoring the slightly gritty lees in the final swallow. “I’m probably going to regret this tomorrow.”
“You won’t be the only one,” said M’ric. “Do you want me to come by and make sure you’re awake in the morning?”
“You probably should, but I’m miserable company when I’m hungover.”
“Oh,” M’ric said, and then inquired, politely, “What’s your excuse the rest of the time?”
“Get out of my weyr, you smart-mouthed little shit,” T’kamen growled.
M’ric saluted him with a crispness that belied the half skin of wine he’d had. “Sir, yes sir!”
It wasn’t until the boy had gone, and T’kamen had limped out to Epherineth’s couch, that he appreciated how strong a vintage the wine must have been. You should sit down before you fall down, Epherineth remarked, observing T’kamen’s unsteady progress from his one open eye.
“I didn’t ask for your opinion,” T’kamen said, but he sat down anyway. His leg was tired, but it hardly hurt at all, and he felt agreeably light-headed. It had been a long time since he’d allowed himself to blunt the edges of a day with so much wine. He wondered if he should have let M’ric match him, although the weyrling hadn’t seemed too badly affected by it. The resilience of the young, T’kamen thought. It was several minutes before a more likely explanation sprang into his tired mind. Only two dead, M’ric had said. Only. With even two queens clutching twice a Turn – not to mention the fertile greens, whose very existence T’kamen still found incredible – the attrition rate must be punishingly high to make room for all the new dragons. It didn’t make the thought any less grim or any less sad. No wonder the wine hadn’t affected M’ric. Even the strongest painkillers lost their potency with regular use.
Epherineth nudged him softly with the side of his head. Go to bed, T’kamen.
All right. He cuffed his dragon’s jaw. I’m going.
He should have gone off in a flash, but sleep proved oddly elusive once he’d sought his bed. He lay awake for a long time, distracted by the faintly damp smell of his new bedfurs, the irregular firmness of the mattress, and then the slightly odd resonance to the sound of Epherineth’s slow breaths in the chamber beyond. After a while he even got up to investigate, padding barefoot in the dark to see what was wrong, but it was only the unfamiliar acoustics of the new weyr, distorting and amplifying the sound of Epherineth’s breathing.
He went back to bed, and because he was a bit drunk, and because he was a long way from home, and because he had no reason not to, he gave in to the self-pity he’d normally despise in himself. He was so tired of being alone. If Epherineth had been awake, he would have reminded T’kamen that he wasn’t, but the bronze dragon had drifted readily into peaceful slumber, untroubled by thoughts of past or future. He was the centre of T’kamen’s world, the brightest and finest part of the whole they made together, but he was a dragon, and just as there were parts of Epherineth’s life that T’kamen would never touch, never grasp, never comprehend, so there were things, human things, that Epherineth could never truly share with him. Dragons needed the company of their own kind, and though pride might preclude them from admitting it, dragonriders were no less dependent on the companionship of other human beings. T’kamen had never been gregarious, conditioned to self-reliance from his formative Turns on the road with his family’s trade train, but neither was he a recluse. The month of almost complete isolation from any meaningful society had made him acutely aware of that. But it wasn’t just company he craved, nor even fellowship. He missed intimacy. He missed passion. He missed Sarenya. Faranth, but he missed her.
She’s not yours to miss any more, he told himself savagely, irritated with himself, in spite of the wine, for having succumbed to the admission. But it was like some absurd Harper farce. Here he was, displaced decades from his own era by his former lover’s new boyfriend, and required in this time to mentor that same man’s younger self. I ought to shove him off the Rim.
Yet just as he struggled to reconcile the brash, conflicted weyrling M’ric with the insufferably calm and steady Wingsecond he’d known in the Interval, so T’kamen wrestled with the notion that Sarenya had been taken from him. No. He, T’kamen, had driven her away. He’d learned nothing from their first tempestuous love affair, when his selfish tactlessness in the aftermath of Shimpath’s choice had sent Saren bolting back to her Craft. The disintegration of their relationship the second time around might have been modelled on the first: preoccupation, thoughtlessness, insensitivity combining in an irresistibly volatile combination that had gone up in flames in that final blazing row.
But he could have made it right. He could have swallowed his pride and won her back. Instead, oppressed beneath the burden of his responsibilities, T’kamen had let her go, and all he had left was the thin, pale scar beneath his eye, hardly visible at all now, where her fire-lizard had scratched him in her defence.
This is why you shouldn’t drink. It always had made him sentimental. He was glad his dragon wasn’t awake to overhear him pining after the woman he’d twice managed to lose. Epherineth would have had some soppy profundity to convey about Sarenya’s place in their collective life, some mawkish remark about wanting T’kamen to be happy. As if it would have made a spit of difference, trapped here as they were.
And then it hit him with a shock that punched through the muddling effects of the alcohol: a thought that had been tickling at him all day, finally given form.
I’m your tail, not your pet, M’ric had said.
“His pet,” T’kamen said aloud. “His pet.” Suddenly he remembered in perfect clarity those last moments in the Interval before the adult M’ric had sent him to this time. He sat bolt upright in bed, the musty furs falling away. “Where in the Void is his fire-lizard?”
Continue to Chapter twenty-six: Sarenya
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- The end is nigh posted 8 February 2017
- Happy (nearly) birthday, Dragonchoice 3! posted 5 October 2016
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- Don’t let me Rosebud; or, why your feedback matters posted 17 February 2016
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