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Chapter twenty-nine: T’kamen

Assuming a standard fighting regime, the average blue dragon needs to eat approximately one-and-a-half times more than the average green dragon.

The average brown will consume more than twice as much as a green; a bronze dragon almost four times as much.

What would you rather have in your Wing: one bronze dragon, or four extra greens?

– Excerpt from a speech by Wingsecond S’leondes

26.05.10 (26th TURN, EIGHTH PASS)
MADELLON WEYR AND KELLAD HOLD

T'kamen (Micah Johnson)Epherineth was in a foul mood.

He shifted and grumbled, paying little attention to requests – polite or otherwise – for cooperation as T’kamen moved around him, trying to rig him with the new cargo harness. He lashed his tail at a crucial moment, loosening the crupper that hadn’t yet been buckled up. And he swatted with such contemptuous disgust at the cargo netting that T’kamen had laid out that he ripped a hole in the mesh that would take an hour to mend.

T’kamen’s mood wasn’t much better than his dragon’s, and that last offence – literally – tore it. He struck Epherineth a blow with his fist, right between the nostrils. “That’s enough!”

The blow probably hurt his knuckles more than it could a dragon’s bony nose, but Epherineth actually bared his teeth at him. Get off me!

“You’re having this harness on whether you like it or not,” T’kamen told him. “And if it makes you uncomfortable on the way to Kellad because you won’t let me adjust it, you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.”

I’m not going to Kellad.

“Yes you are. And stop staring at Donauth. The sooner you accept that you’re not chasing her, the happier we’ll both be.”

Epherineth swung his head bad-temperedly away from him with an angry grunt.

“The big fella giving you lip?” asked Ch’fil, stepping around his own dragon’s tail.

“Yes,” T’kamen said shortly.

“My lad’s all of a whinge himself. Give ’em an hour’s clear air out of the Weyr and they’ll sort themselves out.” Ch’fil slapped T’kamen’s shoulder companionably. “Always the same when there’s gold tail to chase.”

T’kamen reacted to the blow with a flinch and something that was nearly a snarl. “You –”

“Thought so,” said Ch’fil. “Got a lot of dragon in you, don’t you?”

“Sorry.” T’kamen bit it out.

“Aye, I know. Let’s get gone before that queen wakes up.”

“The cargo net –”

“Take it as it is,” said Ch’fil. “They’ll fix it for you at Kellad.”

T’kamen strapped the bundle of netting to one of the heavy cargo rings on Epherineth’s aft neck-strap. Then, grimly, he went around tightening all the buckles. Epherineth didn’t resist, but he did stare balefully at him.

Finally, T’kamen climbed up onto his dragon’s neck. At least he could climb, now, although he still moved with caution, and he wasn’t very graceful. He was glad M’ric was on the ground on the other side of Trebruth and not watching. The weyrling couldn’t ever resist a smart remark about Epherineth’s height or T’kamen’s limp, and he was apt to lose an arm if he irritated either of them.

Trebruth didn’t seem perturbed by Donauth’s heat at all – or by the fact that, as a weyrling, he wasn’t allowed to chase her, either. Browns just didn’t have the biological compulsion to chase that was making Epherineth so angry. Only Madellon’s adult bronzes were required to leave the Weyr in plenty of time before a queen’s flight. Stratomath could have stayed, but Ch’fil preferred to take his disqualified brown away, too. “Less hassle that way,” he’d explained to T’kamen. “He only goes and gets himself self-righteous otherwise.”

T’kamen might have mistaken Ch’fil’s dragon for a bronze had he not known otherwise. Stratomath was an impressive brown, sleek and proportionate rather than compact and rugged like R’lony’s Geninth, with a faint green-gold dappling on his flanks and shoulders. His two bronze sons, the weyrlings Bularth and Stenseth, exhibited the same coloration more overtly, emphasising their parentage, and T’kamen could see Stratomath’s stamp on several of the other dragonets of their age.

Ch’fil himself lacked his dragon’s refinement, at least on the outside. He had the burly frame and big shoulders that seemed the standard amongst riders of the Seventh Flight – ‘firestone shoulders’, as M’ric described them – but where each of the other Seventh officers prided themselves on immaculate turn-out, Ch’fil was perpetually scruffy. His leathers were scuffed, his greying hair was lank, his beard unkempt. Even the braid of his rank – Crewleader, roughly equivalent to a fighting Wingleader – was unravelling on his shoulder. He spoke with the strong accent of the eastern Peninsula, and even still wore the grey-and-ochre badge of his native Weyr on his jacket sleeve below the newer indigo diamond of Madellon.

And then there were the scars, a matched pair of them curving out from either side of his mouth, and clearly the origin of the brown rider’s nickname: Smiler. Ch’fil hadn’t explained, and T’kamen hadn’t asked, but M’ric, never one to keep a lurid piece of intelligence to himself, had seen fit to enlighten him. “It happened at a Gather when he was a weyrling. He called out some shady wagerman who was trying to cheat him. Made a big scene, got the crook thrown out. After dark, a couple of thugs jumped him. Sliced his face up, said he needed to smile more.” M’ric had paused, then added, with macabre relish, “Stratomath went mad. He flew in, pulled one man’s head right off his shoulders, and bit the other in half. And that was the last time a dragonrider ever got hurt at a Gather.”

The story, presumably, had grown in the telling, but whatever the truth, the disfiguring facial scars gave Ch’fil a forbidding appearance. It didn’t match his personality. Ch’fil seemed philosophical about the strictures of ranks and rules that bound Pass Madellon so tightly. He accepted with apparent equanimity that his dragon had been grounded for siring bronzes – and that R’lony hadn’t yet forgiven him for flying Donauth at all. And he was either oblivious to or disinterested in the fact that, according to M’ric, he’d almost outpolled R’lony in the last Marshal ballot.

T’kamen wasn’t sure if Ch’fil’s indifference to that spoke to a lack of ambition or merely an aversion to the thought of taking the top Strategic job, but he liked him. So many of the Seventh riders he’d met over the last couple of sevendays were sullen, jaded, lethargic old whers, the bronze riders especially. Ch’fil was refreshingly good-humoured, and even Epherineth didn’t mind taking instruction from Stratomath.

H’juke, Ch’fil’s slender young tailman, came jogging over from the direction of the lower caverns carrying a bulky satchel embossed with Madellon’s badge. “The post, sir.”

“About time too, Jukey,” said Ch’fil said, taking it off him without ceremony. “Donauth’s like to wake up any time now. Get your ass on Bularth.”

Most of the other bronzes had already gone, dispatched in twos and threes to wherever their size and strength might most productively be put to use. T’kamen had been pleased to find that he and Epherineth had been assigned to pick up tithe at Kellad Hold. It was a three-hour flight from the Weyr, which was farther than they’d flown straight together in a great many Turns, but Ch’fil had been building up their endurance over the last couple of sevendays, and it would be a good test of their fitness.

More importantly, the trip to Kellad would at last give T’kamen opportunity to visit the Harperhall. Dalka had let him into Madellon’s Archives, but as M’ric had warned him, very little remained from the first three-quarters of the Interval except a few charred and sooty scraps of vellum. The Harperhall’s records would surely be of more use. The Weyrwoman had given him a letter of introduction to Marlaw, the current Masterharper; it was tucked into the breast of his jacket now.

Ch’fil finished lashing the satchel of correspondence bound for Kellad to Stratomath’s harness, then swung up to his place between the neck-ridges. “All set?”

“All set,” T’kamen said, and from their own dragons, M’ric and H’juke did the same.

Ch’fil jerked his thumb skyward. Stratomath leapt aloft. Trebruth and Bularth followed a moment later, but Epherineth hesitated beneath T’kamen. Donauth’s allure was growing stronger by the moment. T’kamen set his jaw against both Epherineth’s truculence and the indirect pull of the queen that bled through their connection. Don’t disobey me. You will not chase her.

For moments that seemed to stretch into infinity, Epherineth resisted, and more than resisted: he leaned with all the strength of a bronze dragon on T’kamen’s mind, trying to force him to submit to his desire. I will!

It battered against T’kamen like a storm battering a skybroom tree, all primal fury and wild power. It hurt. But T’kamen’s resolve was rooted deep. He summoned all his strength – the strength that was his alone, not founded in his dragon. He didn’t take Epherineth on. He didn’t try to overpower him. He just stood firm, letting his dragon’s anger break against him like waves upon the shore. No. Epherineth. You will not.

And Epherineth, slowly, subsided.

T’kamen let out his breath. He pressed his hands against Epherineth’s neck. For a moment they remained there, recovering themselves.

Then Stratomath bugled from his position aloft. Epherineth lifted his head. Kellad, then?

Kellad, T’kamen agreed.

Epherineth leapt skywards, and within a couple of wingbeats he’d matched Stratomath’s altitude. Ch’fil looked across from the brown’s neck. Stratomath’s rider asks us to take point.

T’kamen was grateful that Ch’fil hadn’t commented on their battle. He looked down at the map strapped to his thigh, and then at the compass clipped to Epherineth’s fore strap. Come about, Epherineth; thirty degrees to your left.

As Epherineth wheeled – not quite on the spot – to face north-northeast, T’kamen watched the compass needle swing. Then he glanced to his right to see if Ch’fil or Stratomath, flying off Epherineth’s flank, would correct their heading. It was the first time T’kamen had had to navigate with map and compass, and he didn’t want to take them off course. Ch’fil made a brief arm signal, Vector’s good, and T’kamen acknowledged it. Strike on, Epherineth. Cruising speed. He looked over his other shoulder. Bularth, H’juke’s young bronze, had their other flank, and M’ric on Trebruth brought up the rear. And don’t forget that Trebruth is a lot smaller than you.

How could I? Epherineth asked.

The evidence that Epherineth’s mood was improving was a relief. T’kamen patted his neck again. You know Shimpath would chew your tail off if she thought you had designs on another queen.

Shimpath isn’t here, Epherineth said sulkily.

I’m working on that, T’kamen told him. If you’re really antsy we’ll find you a green to chase.

I’d turn one of these greens inside out.

It was a nasty enough remark that T’kamen decided to let Epherineth stew to himself a bit longer. A bronze dragon wasn’t good company when he was annoyed.

He tugged his long flying coat a little closer as Epherineth beat steadily into the wind. Madellon territory was heading towards winter, with temperatures dropping noticeably each day. He’d already found himself longing for the fierce but fleeting cold of between over the lesser but sustained chill of the wind during long straight flights. Small wonder that so many of Pass Madellon’s riders wore beards. It was just one more minor adjustment to the Pern T’kamen had known.

With each day he spent in the Pass, he grasped more fully how the loss of between had changed things. Everything was so far away. Dragon wings were still the fastest way to get anywhere, but even a swift dragon could only fly so fast and carry so much – and he had to rest and eat to regain his strength. Epherineth had begun to eat dramatically more than he ever had in the Interval, made ravenous by the physical demands of training with Ch’fil and Stratomath. And any long journey must be rigorously planned to make efficient use of dragonpower. The need for Madellon’s bronzes to leave the Weyr during Donauth’s heat was no exception to that rule. Epherineth, Stratomath, and Bularth were all rigged for cargo, and would be bringing full loads home from Kellad. Even Trebruth would be expected to carry a small load. Some of the other bronzes had gone to collect tithe from other Holds. Others were escorting Search dragons, ready to bring new candidates back to the Weyr. And still more were at the Weyrstations, resupplying them with food and fuel and firestone ahead of the next Falls. The Weyrmarshal, T’kamen thought, was well named. The administration of Madellon’s complex supply lines was a formidable task, and R’lony managed it adeptly.

And yet the Marshal and his division commanded no respect from the fighting riders. M’ric’s dismissive attitude towards R’lony was clearly a reflection of how most of the Tactical branch felt about the Seventh Flight in general. Madellon was divided starkly down colour lines. With few exceptions, Strategic and Tactical riders didn’t mix – and the bronze and brown riders, vastly outnumbered as they were, got the worse end of it. T’kamen had seen a handful of actual clashes between riders, each time over some petty issue at the lake or in the dining hall. Most points of contention ended with the Strategic rider ceding to the Tactical. But, overwhelmingly, the riders of the two divisions just seemed to ignore each other.

The segregation baffled T’kamen. Wingleaders, it was true, tended to hold themselves apart from the riders serving beneath them, and most Interval bronze riders ended up as Wingleaders – but almost every bronze rider he knew had had a green rider for a girlfriend, if not a weyrmate. His own friendship with C’mine and C’los pre-dated their Search, but Impressing bronze and blue and green hadn’t changed anything. And the vast majority of the riders T’kamen knew in the Interval had friends of every colour. They were, in the end, all riders, all endowed with the same responsibilities and privileges of being bonded to dragons of Pern. They had more in common with each other than they would ever share with anyone who wasn’t a dragonrider.

The dragons, though, seemed curiously unaffected by how their riders had disassociated themselves – at least when they were left to their own devices. T’kamen often saw greens make space for browns and bronzes in the best basking spots on the Rim. And Epherineth, who’d always had admirers, attracted a fair amount of attention among Madellon’s green dragons. It was almost comical to see how the little Pass greens would sidle up to him. T’kamen didn’t have to tell his bronze to behave himself. Epherineth wasn’t particularly interested in greens. But a few riders had approached him nonetheless – some commenting, through the filter of their own dragons’ heat, presumably – that Epherineth was very handsome, and others telling T’kamen in no uncertain terms to keep his brute away from their greens.

How’s the harness feeling? he asked Epherineth as they flew over the sparsely-populated highlands north of Madellon.

Epherineth extended his right arm and rotated his shoulder gingerly. Stiff. He tucked the arm back under his chest into flight profile. And it chafes in my armpit.

Do you want to stop and adjust it?

It’s not that bad.

The effects of Donauth’s heat were definitely fading. T’kamen wondered how far they’d need to go before they were out of range completely. He’d never needed to remove Epherineth from the vicinity of a flight before. There’d been a bronze rider visiting Madellon from the Peninsula back when Cherganth had risen in her final flight back in 91 – the flight that had resulted in Shimpath. Cherganth had been the type of queen to rise without much warning, and the Peninsula rider hadn’t got away in time. His dragon hadn’t won, but T’kamen remembered talking to C’los, Turns later, about what would have happened if a foreigner had outflown all of Madellon’s bronzes. “The Weyrleadership would have defaulted back to L’mis,” C’los had said. “Senior flights are closed, so if a foreigner did get caught up and win, he’d have no right to the leadership. More interesting is what would have happened if Cherganth hadn’t clutched that gold egg. She only lasted another Turn. We’d have had to lure some junior weyrwoman from another Weyr to come in and take over.” He’d shrugged. “Still might’ve been better than what we’ve got now.”

Epherineth flew on. T’kamen leaned back, stretching one leg, then the other, before snagging his feet back in the toe-loops. He checked their heading on the compass and looked at the map again. They were almost halfway. The next landmark would be Hogener – one of the Holds that had apparently flourished in the Pass, owing to its proximity to the Weyr. In the Interval it had been only a minor holding, raising hill-stock known for their tough meat and coarse wool on the limited grazing of Madellon’s bleak highlands, but it had grown in size in the intervening Turns.

The charred evidence of burned-out Thread burrows was everywhere. Some of the blackened expanses were fresh and others much older, with new growth breaking through the destruction of the old where Thread had been exterminated before it could strip the nutrients from the ground. That, T’kamen had been surprised to learn, was largely the work of dragons, too. He and Epherineth had been learning how to flame Thread burrows from above, without touching down, in their training with Ch’fil and Stratomath.

“Where there’s one burrow, there’s usually more,” Ch’fil had told T’kamen in one of their early sessions, sketching a diagram on the chalkboard in their training room. “You don’t want to be landing on ground that could be riddled with trapdoor burrows. That’s how you get yourself eaten. So you stay in the air, survey the strike and the conditions and the weather, and flame along the path of it.”

T’kamen studied Ch’fil’s diagram until he understood the lines and arrows. “How do you know if you’ve got it all?”

“You don’t,” said Ch’fil. “But you’ll usually see if you’ve got into a bad patch. Set light to one end of a piece of Thread and the rest goes up like tarred rope. Now, when it’s gone underground, it’s not so simple, because there’s no air for the flame to breathe. You have to feed it. That’s where getting your angle of attack comes in. Line up right and your wingbeats will force air into the burrow along with the fire. A big fella like Epherineth isn’t going to be precise. Wingspan like that, he can’t get close enough to the ground to target his flame. But if we had a big infestation over a wide area, calling him in for a strafing run might be just what we need.”

Most of the dragons of the Seventh had to be versatile, capable of flying different roles as the circumstances demanded. The smallest generally flew in G’bral’s Watch section, scouting and monitoring the conditions of a Fall, and ferrying Healers and Dragon Healers as required. Ch’fil led a diverse range of dragonpairs to deal with ground infestations in his fire crews. Br’lom, the Bunkerleader, coordinated most of the heavier bronzes and browns in resupplying the fighting dragons with firestone. And the Aid section, led by R’ganff, was responsible for rescuing dragons in distress.

T’kamen was finding that element of their training the most interesting of all, not least because it gave Epherineth the chance to show off his flaming. Under ideal conditions, a rescue involved three Seventh dragons: the catcher, the holder, and the spotter. “The catcher gets below the dragon you’re rescuing,” Ch’fil had explained. “He needs to be able to sustain a controlled glide, because once he has a dragon on his back, he can’t be beating his wings. The holder comes in from above to steady. He has to match speed and course with the catcher, and be ready to grab the one they’re catching if something goes wrong. So it’s the spotter’s job to keep the air above and around them clear. He’s the only one who can move around. He might have a lot of Thread to deal with or none at all, but he has to stay focused, not go chasing off after every stray bit.”

They joined some of the older weyrlings in a training exercise out over the mesa field to put theory into practice. A green, Muenth, acted the role of the stricken dragon, with Stenseth catching, Bularth holding, and Epherineth spotting. Ch’fil placed four or five weyrlings in stacks on either side to simulate the presence of other dragons in the sky, and the remaining weyrlings were assigned to drop dummy Threads from above.

Muenth had a fine sense of theatricality. She let out a blood-curdling scream and folded her left wing almost completely to feign a serious injury. As she tumbled from altitude, Epherineth and the two weyrling bronzes sprinted from their lateral positions to intercept her, and the weyrlings above began to throw dyed rope through the gap in the formation.

The young blues and greens had been issued with firestone, and the air around Epherineth was hot and acrid. He flew in slightly ahead of Stenseth and Bularth, calling to the dragons either side of Muenth’s trajectory to hold their fire. Some of them did and others didn’t. That, too, was a simulation of the real conditions they might face during a Fall. A dragon flaming for his life couldn’t always stop when asked.

It wasn’t a windy day, but the air currents, and the downdraft of many pairs of wings, still blew the mock Threads about. While they were still among fighting dragons, Epherineth couldn’t use his full flame range. He had to target individual ropes and tangles instead, spitting short, focused bursts of flame at them, one after another. He shrugged off without flinching the still-burning tail of one piece, then curved his head beneath his wing to destroy it as it fell past him.

Below, Stenseth had caught Muenth, and Bularth had the green secure from above. The two bronzes, alike in size, angled below the level of the lowest fighting dragonpairs with the little green secure between them, then turned in an almost perfectly synchronised manoeuvre. Epherineth shadowed them, and now that they were clear of the other dragons he could wield his flame with impunity to protect them as they escaped the Thread corridor. He turned his head in sweeping arcs, incinerating everything that came within a dragonlength of his jaws, until Ch’fil and Stratomath, observing the exercise, signalled that they were out of danger.

“Good for a first one,” Ch’fil told him afterwards, “but you made two mistakes. You let yourself get hit by a half-burned Thread, which could have killed you, and then you wasted time burning it when it had gone past you. It wasn’t a danger to your catch. You need to focus more on the task at hand.”

T’kamen took the criticism on the chin. He didn’t protest that the habits of fifteen Turns of rope drills were difficult to overcome, or that Epherineth hated the idea of letting Thread get past him.

They repeated the exercise several times, changing roles, and Epherineth was equally capable of holding and catching as spotting. But it was his firepower that T’kamen overheard being discussed by the weyrlings afterwards.

“…ever seen range like that…”

“…punch a hole in leading edge…”

“…stupid…wouldn’t last ten minutes…”

“…he’s bronze…can’t turn for shards…”

“…shame though…”

Epherineth nudged T’kamen out of his thoughts. Hogener Hold coming up.

He sat up straighter. The pitched roofs of the Hold zigzagged unfamiliarly against the horizon like a row of teeth. Ask the others if they need to stop for anything.

No. I think Stratomath’s rider is asleep.

T’kamen turned in the straps to see. Ch’fil had braced one knee against Stratomath’s fore-ridge, propped his chin on his chest, and folded his arms. I’d better check the map.

Stratomath says that he’ll put us right if you get lost.

If I get lost? T’kamen asked.

He wouldn’t dare suggest that I might.

T’kamen didn’t blame Ch’fil for snatching the opportunity for a nap. On a Thread-free day, with clear air, and three other dragonpairs in formation, there was very little for a rider to do in transit. He took a piece of travel-cake out of the pack strapped to Epherineth’s fore-ridge, reflecting as he did that it was strange to be eating on dragonback.

As he ate, he glanced back at the other dragons in the formation. Stratomath and Trebruth, for all that they were nominally the same colour, couldn’t have been more different. Stratomath was long in the leading edges and wide in the chest – he could have been a scaled-down bronze. Trebruth was closer to the classic stocky brown, but even he didn’t really conform. His wings were more than proportionately shorter, the wingtips more curved, and the sail broader, with the trailing edges freer and more flexible for optimal manoeuvrability. His dam, Ceduth, wasn’t allowed to fight Thread, but it was plain that Trebruth took after her. He had her wing shape, combined with the close-coupled and deep-chested build of a brown, presumably from his sire. T’kamen had watched Trebruth flying with the other weyrlings of his age, and while he wasn’t as agile as the very nimblest greens, he outstripped many of the blues, and his extra lung capacity gave him stamina that the junior colours couldn’t match. The thought of such a small dragon chasing – much less catching – a queen was nearly comical, but T’kamen wondered what sort of offspring such a combination would produce.

The thought reminded him of the flight they’d left Madellon to avoid. Any word from the Weyr on Donauth yet?

Epherineth hesitated, and T’kamen felt him reaching out. Then he recoiled smartly, as if stung. She’s in flight, he reported, momentarily mulish again.

However brief the contact, T’kamen got an instant’s impression of the scene: Donauth’s shining golden form surrounded by a swarm of valiantly-chasing browns. He even felt a whisper of the lustful urgency of queen and suitors. That part I could do without, he said, pushing the sensation away before it could start to affect him.

Epherineth grumbled. I could outfly that crowd with one wing missing.

T’kamen winced at the image: it was too close a reminder of the mutilated dragons in the infirmary weyrs. You’d outlast them, but I’ll bet Geninth has a few tricks up his sleeve.

Geninth doesn’t have sleeves. And he’s only a brown.

Only a brown who’s probably flown Donauth thirty times or more. You only have a one-in-four strike rate with queens, Epherineth.

Are you complaining?

T’kamen thought about their first two queen chases – in pursuit of Cherganth – and shuddered at the thought of waking up to Fianine. Perhaps not.

Epherineth turned slightly east as they passed Hogener Hold, and they flew on without stopping, only acknowledging the ageing blue on the watch-tower as they went by. The Hold was far behind them when Epherineth noted, Geninth caught Donauth.

It began to rain, not heavily, but enough to prompt T’kamen to untie his foul-weather cape, carefully, from Epherineth’s rig. He didn’t want it to blow away. He looked back to see H’juke following his example, and M’ric already hooded, but Ch’fil had simply hunched his shoulders a bit more against the weather. T’kamen wondered if the Crewleader would wake up before they reached Kellad.

As they moved down out of the foothills, the great plains of north-eastern Madellon opened up. Minor holds and cotholds became more regular features, dotting the landscape wherever a natural feature invited their construction: at the base of a rocky outcrop, in the angle between two cliffs, or where a fast-flowing river powered a waterwheel. Beasts and people crawled across the landscape, and they even saw a trader caravan that could have been the one T’kamen had grown up in all those chronological decades ago. No one on the ground reacted to the four dragons overhead. They were too high, T’kamen thought, for even Epherineth’s size to cause a stir on what must be a well-travelled flightpath for Madellon dragons heading east.

Wings in the sky would be a much more common sight now than they had ever been in the past. The southern continent’s entire population of dragons hadn’t exceeded eight hundred in the Interval. Now, Madellon’s complement alone wasn’t far off that number, and if the other Weyrs were at similar strength, there must be something like three thousand dragons in the skies of southern Pern alone. It was an extraordinary thought.

He wondered what Starfall looked like. He wondered what Southern looked like. Grubs or not, they surely couldn’t still be living in amongst the jungle. Even if Epherineth had been able to go between, they couldn’t have risked it on their old Interval visual. How would they get there now? He looked down at the map again, connecting the dots of Holds and Halls and Weyrstations. Rain was beading on the treated surface of the hide, and on the glass of his goggles. He wiped it off with his sleeve, but it just smeared. He pulled his hood down a bit more. There wasn’t much to see anyway, now the weather had turned. There were bits of sleet mixed with the rain. Madellon didn’t usually get snow until after midwinter, but it was definitely getting colder. Maybe he’d let his beard grow. Everyone else seemed to. At least it would keep his face warm. He wasn’t too cold, though. Epherineth was warm underneath him, and the flying coat was lined with fur, and at least his feet were warm. Pass winter boots were really warm. They knew how to keep the cold out, Pass riders.

T’kamen. We’re here.

What? T’kamen raised his head with a jerk. Already? His goggles were steamed up. He pulled them down. Did I doze off?

Yes.

 We were supposed to change course at Minony Beasthold!

We did. Stratomath gave me the heading.

Epherineth sounded quite pleased with himself. T’kamen sat up from where he’d slumped in his harness and looked down, expecting to see Kellad Hold’s distinctive fire-heights rising out of the dark ocean of trees that blanketed Madellon’s second-largest Hold.

Instead, he saw only paddocks, crammed with grazing animals. We’ve come to the wrong place, Epherineth! This isn’t Kellad!

Epherineth turned his head in Stratomath’s direction. Stratomath says it is. He tilted slightly on a wing, bringing them around. There is the Hold.

And he was right. The two round towers were there, soot-stained and more weathered than T’kamen remembered, and the green-and-brown quartered banner of Kellad fluttered against the dismal sky.

But the bountiful woodlands that had distinguished Kellad, the forest Hold, the home of the Pernese Woodcraft, were gone. The vast timber lots that had supplied wood to most of southern Pern had been reduced to a few isolated copses dotted here and there across the naked undulations of a landscape stripped almost totally bare of its defining features. Where once the bright green of new saplings had marked the boundaries between old stands and new, now only the dull grey lines of stone walls delineated one immense pasture from the next: windswept, dusty, and ravaged in swathes by the pestilential black blight of old, burned-out Threadscore.

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