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Chapter thirty-four: T’kamen

We honour the courage of those who choose to stay, and we honour the memory of those who choose to go.

– Inscription on The Wall

26.05.15 (26TH TURN, EIGHTH PASS)
MADELLON SOUTH WEYRSTATION

T'kamen (Micah Johnson)M’ric crossed the courtyard by a roundabout route to avoid the worst puddles, hunched over to protect the klah he was carrying from the torrential rain, and made the shelter of the waxed canvas awning with a sound of disgust. “If it keeps coming down like this they won’t need firestone!”

T’kamen relieved him of one of the klah mugs and took the wrapped parcel of meatrolls M’ric passed him from the inside pocket of his streaming foul-weather cape. “How long until we muster?”

M’ric craned his neck to look up at the big time-dial that hung on the outside of the Weyrstation. “Maybe half an hour,” he said, taking off his cape and hanging it with the others near the brazier to dry. “This clock’s slow.”

T’kamen had only become aware of Pass Pern’s preoccupation with keeping accurate time in the last couple of days, and he hadn’t yet picked up the knack of reading the hour and minute off the circular clock-faces that had become common across Madellon territory. The Smithcrafthall had been the only place where such a timepiece could be found in the Interval; everywhere else used sand and sun and water clocks to approximate the time of day. Time for one more wherry, he said to Epherineth.

Epherineth responded to the suggestion with phlegmatic agreement rather than enthusiasm. He was hungry all the time now – R’lony had been quite right about the effects of flying straight on a dragon’s appetite – but the novelty of eating whenever and wherever he liked had already begun to pall. Food was fuel, and Epherineth needed a lot of fuel.

So did T’kamen. The flight from the Weyr to Madellon South had taken a good six hours; they’d set out before first light and arrived well before noon, by which time riders and dragons alike were all hungry. Thread was expected to fall early-afternoon, so there’d been time for everyone to rest and eat. But a major Fall like this one, six full hours wholly over Madellon territory, necessitated a major deployment. Fourteen fighting Wings, supported by a Wingful of tailmen and more than half of the Seventh Flight, meant more than five hundred dragons and the same numbers of riders to feed. There was no shelter to be had for the dragons, who stoically endured the weather as only they could, but the big mess hall of the Weyrstation couldn’t accommodate so many people. Riders were crammed in shoulder-to-shoulder in a dismal miasma of dripping capes and disgruntled remarks about the ability of Strategic division to stage a big Fall adequately. L’gran, the ageing brown rider who ran Madellon South, was explaining wearily to anyone who complained that he’d asked for the resources to extend the Weyrstation and been refused. R’lony had pointed out, just as wearily, that it was unusual for so many dragons to be deployed for one Fall. And T’kamen, like most of the Seventh’s riders, had volunteered to cede the minimal comforts of the damp, crowded mess to Tactical. It was wetter and colder outside, but cold and wet were easier to endure than the barbs of blue and green rider looking to pick a fight.

Ch’fil stirred from where he’d been dozing. “G’less said Elsterth’s certain this’ll stop before Fall starts.” He uncurled a finger from around his klah mug to point at the eastern sky. “See, it’s lightening up. Don’t you worry, T’kamen, there’ll be live Thread for your first Fall.”

“Thanks for the reassurance,” said T’kamen. “I’m sure that’ll be a great comfort if we get a faceful of it.”

“Not likely unless you break formation, and the big fella would be rash to do that unstoked.”

Epherineth was forbidden to chew any stone for this, his first participation in an actual Threadfall. He’d been assigned to R’ganff’s Bunker section, charged with carrying dozens of sacks of firestone with which to resupply the fighting dragons. Ch’fil had told T’kamen it was the usual entry point for a bronze dragon flying in the Seventh for the first time. Stoking Epherineth for flame would be a waste of stone. T’kamen understood, on an intellectual level, that it was also a safety measure, intended to suppress Epherineth’s desire to burn Thread. Instinctively, though, he chafed against the restriction as much as his dragon did. The sound of almost five hundred dragons crushing firestone to powder in their massive jaws wasn’t exactly musical, but Epherineth’s exclusion from the ritual was making him morose. “I’ll make sure he doesn’t.”

Ch’fil slurped the last klah from his mug, then spat into the mud by his boots. “Get me some more of this, Ricky-boy,” he told M’ric, holding out his cup.

H’juke, Ch’fil’s tailman, was back at the Weyr, grounded temporarily with the ankle he’d twisted trying to dismount from his Bularth too quickly. It was a long way down even from a Pass bronze. T’kamen in no way begrudged Ch’fil the use of his own tail, even if it meant sending M’ric out in the rain again. M’ric just rolled his eyes and dragged his wet oilskin back on.

T’kamen watched him squish across the churned courtyard, past the row of Seventh riders who were squatting, hunched and miserable, under the canvas awning, boots caked with mud, wet-weather gear hanging all around in the forlorn hope that it might dry out slightly before they had to put it back on. It made sense that the comfort of the fighting riders should take priority. Of course it did. But this marginalisation of the Seventh still sat ill with him. No dragonrider deserved to be treated with contempt.

Although, he reflected, most of the riders of Strategic division didn’t help themselves. R’ganff and Br’lom, Aidleader and Bunkerleader respectively, made an especially unpleasant double act. They were Madellon’s eldest serving bronze riders, and T’kamen seldom saw them out of each other’s company – probably because no one else wanted anything to do with them. R’ganff had the citron-sucking face of a man who’d been a Wingleader when bronze riders could still aspire to such prestige, and whose bitterness at being stripped of the rank had flourished rather than faded in the Turns since. He delighted in complaining, repetitively, about everything, and while he didn’t seem to care if anyone was listening or not, he would latch onto the merest hint of interest like a terrier with a tunnelsnake. Being polite to the old guffer only led to long spit-flecked lectures on everything that was wrong with the world, and T’kamen was losing interest in being polite. If R’ganff disliked him for that any more than he’d already disliked him, a bronze rider hailing from an era even more halcyon for riders of their colour as his own, it was hard to tell.

Br’lom had also been a Wingleader, but he didn’t talk about that half as often as he bragged of how his Shadith had once sired a clutch at Southern Weyr. This singular event, T’kamen gathered, had occurred some forty-five Turns previously, although to hear Br’lom talk about it there’d never been a queen flight to match it, before or since. That in itself didn’t make him loathsome – only tedious. The loathsomeness was thanks to Br’lom’s repulsive habit of speculating, loudly and salaciously, about how any given female rider, no matter how inappropriately young, would compare to the Southern queen rider he’d once bedded. Being the scion of a Southern bloodline, Shadith was one of the bigger bronzes, and T’kamen had been obliged to log some training hours with Br’lom, learning the best way to keep Epherineth’s firestone load balanced during an extended Threadfall. Enduring the constant stream of dirty stories was one thing, but Br’lom had taken far too prurient an interest in T’kamen’s own queen-winning experience. Valonna and Shimpath might be long dead in this time, but T’kamen still wouldn’t tolerate any insult to their memory, and his refusal to join in with Br’lom’s nasty banter had soon soured the old bronze rider to him.

R’lony, mercifully, hadn’t reassigned T’kamen to either bronze rider. “You get on well enough with Ch’fil; you may as well keep reporting to him,” the Marshal had said the previous day, when he’d cleared T’kamen and Epherineth to fly in their first Fall. “And I sense you don’t think much of your colour-mates.”

He was right, but T’kamen hadn’t mentioned that he didn’t think a whole lot of most of the Seventh’s other riders, either. There were exceptions among the brown riders – Ch’fil; El’yan; a few of the younger ones who had yet to develop the ennui of their older fellows – but most were older than T’kamen, many much older, and their apathy with the world was painfully obvious. The small cohort of blue riders who flew in the Seventh were so insular and standoffish that T’kamen had been unable to engage with any of them. The overwhelming impression T’kamen got from his Flightmates was that they were just dully, sullenly resigned to their lowly status as second-class riders of dragons too big to be anything but burden-beasts.

And that, T’kamen had come to realise, wasn’t just how they were perceived – it was what they were. Seventh dragons were seldom out of cargo harness. They fetched and carried everywhere they went: passengers, tithe, firestone. Flying bunker in Threadfall was exactly as unexciting as it sounded. Each dragon was simply a mobile firestone bunker, flying parallel to the fighting Wings at a safe distance from the Thread corridor. T’kamen understood the importance of the role – without between, there was no other way to get more stone to the Wings – but he also understood, now, why bunker was such a thankless detail. A bunker dragon was a flying wagon, a caravan with wings. There was little skill or finesse to the role, no glory or excitement to be had. And it was worst for the bronzes, who couldn’t even stoke their pride by chasing a queen. A boy who Impressed a bronze dragon in this Pass must despair at the thought of his future. It was so brutally the opposite of the prestige associated with bronze-riding in T’kamen’s time that he could still hardly grasp that this, now, was his lot, too.

M’ric came splashing back across the courtyard with Ch’fil’s klah. His black eye had subsided to a lurid purplish yellow. T’kamen had braced himself for a reprimand over his treatment of his tailman, and the Weyrlingmaster had asked to see him the morning after they’d returned from Kellad. But C’rastro had seemed more concerned with whatever offence M’ric had committed to deserve a blow than with T’kamen’s heavy-handed discipline. T’kamen had insisted the matter was closed and that M’ric didn’t need any more chastisement. But the whole incident left him with the troubling impression that the Weyrlingmaster wasn’t as quick to defend his weyrlings’ rights as he ought to be. L’stev would never have accepted the physical mistreatment of one of his kids with such indifference.

Ch’fil was right about the weather. By the time the word came down the line that they were to muster to their dragons, the rain had petered out. The fighting riders who came streaming out of the mess were muttering about that. The clouds still bore down from above, thick and ashen and oppressive, but clouds alone weren’t enough to drown Thread.

“All right, have a good one,” Ch’fil said, thumping T’kamen hard on the shoulder. “We’ll not likely see you unless one of my lads over-stokes. Just keep Epherineth together, and don’t be too proud to call in to Br’lom if either of you gets tired. We still have half a Pass to go, and overflying your first Fall won’t do anyone any good.”

“Good flaming, Crewleader,” T’kamen replied. Then, as Ch’fil started calling together his detail, and the other Seventh riders began to pull on their oilskins and form up, T’kamen jerked his head at M’ric. “Let’s go.”

Then he had to check his stride – they all did – as the Commander emerged from the mess hall. S’leondes was flanked by his Wingseconds, and Fraza trotted loyally behind him, but his attention was on the rider at his side. The young man’s face was earnest as he spoke in a low voice, looking up at S’leondes often, as if seeking his approval. Which he probably was, T’kamen thought sourly, since seeking S’leondes’ approval was all any fighting rider of Madellon ever seemed to do. S’leondes gave every indication that he was listening closely; at last, he said something that made the younger rider’s head lift and his eyes shine. The Commander laid his arm bracingly across the other rider’s shoulders, and they continued so towards their dragons.

“What was that about?” T’kamen asked.

He caught the look on M’ric’s face an instant before the boy composed himself. Envy. “No idea.”

“Who was the other rider?” T’kamen asked. “Lover, son; what?”

“Not that it’s any of your business, but neither,” said M’ric. “Skerith’s not even in the Commander’s Flight. D’lev’s probably just sucking up.”

T’kamen kept the obvious retort to that to himself.

It was a long walk to where the Seventh Flight dragons waited: past the long phosphine-reeking lines of blues and greens and their riders, checking harness and buckling on their own kit. T’kamen hadn’t seen fighting riders up close since he’d arrived in the Pass; now, he found it hard not to stare. There’d clearly been advances in fighting garb in the twenty-six Turns of Threadfall Pern had faced without between. No one wore shoulder-knots or insignia, which made it hard to identify riders, but the headgear was the most startling change. The plain leather helmet and separate goggles that had been standard wear for dragonriders as long as T’kamen could remember had been replaced by a metal-plated helmet with a glass visor that covered most of the face. The whole face-plate hinged at the top, and most of the riders preparing their dragons for flight were doing so with their visors flipped up. Some riders wore varying amounts of metal plating on their wherhides – shoulders, gloves, thighs – and moved more clumsily around their dragons than their unarmoured wingmates. “Won’t that restrict his movement?” T’kamen asked M’ric as they passed a green rider shouldering awkwardly into his armoured jacket.

“That’s why some riders don’t wear any extra plating,” said M’ric. “The ones who do swear it doesn’t make much difference in the air, but…”

“But?”

He shrugged. “The chance of Thread hitting me without hitting Trebruth too is almost non-existent. What’s the point of me being protected if he isn’t?”

“They haven’t figured out how to put armour on a dragon yet, then,” T’kamen said, mostly in jest.

M’ric gave him a look.

“You don’t object to those full-face helmets, though?”

They make sense,” M’ric said. “You don’t want to get a faceful of hot ash. Riders used to come back with the lower parts of their faces all pocked with burns. And supposedly a green rider at Starfall once breathed in some ash. She retires from the Fall with a coughing fit. She gets back to the Weyr and then starts coughing up blood. She died right there in the infirmary.” He paused for macabre effect. “Next thing the Healers know, Thread starts erupting from her chest. They think she must have inhaled some tiny bits of live Thread along with the ash. It ate her alive. From the inside. Slowly.

It was the sort of lurid tale M’ric loved to tell, and T’kamen wasn’t sure he entirely believed it – but he had to admit it was a chilling notion. “Seventh riders are fair game to breathe in Thread and get eaten alive, though?” he asked lightly.

“You won’t be close enough,” said M’ric. “Anyway, all that metal’s expensive.” He motioned, with a tiny movement of his head, towards a rider whose left shoulder-plate was weeping redly in the rain. “She’s going to catch it if her Wingsecond notices she’s let her armour go rusty.”

T’kamen wondered how M’ric knew that the green rider was female. Women made up about a quarter of the fighting Wings, he’d learned, but the extra bulk added by the armour plating made it hard to pick them out with their visors shading their faces.  Still, T’kamen thought cheerlessly, they probably weren’t the ones lining up for a final pre-Threadfall piss into the latrine ditch behind their dragons.

The fighting dragonriders of Madellon, he remarked to Epherineth. Not the heroic sight the Ballads would have us believe.

It won’t be so bad once we’re in the air, Epherineth offered. It’s very muddy here.

Dragons shouldn’t get muddy, T’kamen said, with a sudden rush of revulsion for the scene, and the realisation, a moment later, that that was what had been bothering him ever since they’d reached Madellon South. It wasn’t the segregation of colours, or the marginalisation of the bronzes and browns, or the fact that the Seventh’s riders had been obliged to wait outside in the cold. It was the mud. Dragons were creatures of the air. They should be flying freely over the sodden earth, not wallowing miserably in it. T’kamen’s boots were encrusted with filth. He knew he’d leave dirty footprints on Epherineth’s shoulder when he mounted, however carefully he tried to wipe his boots clean. Some of the Seventh dragons he passed were still tracked with mud from an earlier rest stop – mud that their riders hadn’t bothered to wipe away, because what was the point, when they’d only get more dirty later anyway? A brown or bronze hide might not show the dirt as clearly as a jewel-bright blue or green, but the lack of pride many Seventh riders showed in keeping their dragons properly clean disgusted T’kamen. This careless soiling of men and dragons was a befouling that went beyond the merely physical. It offended him to the core of his Interval bronze rider’s soul.

The dragons on bunker duty were waiting near the top of the ridge just west of the Weyrstation, but it was just as muddy up there as anywhere down below. T’kamen walked down Epherineth’s side with a rag, wiping away some of the worst smears on his flanks. There was nothing he could do about the dirt that had caked his feet or splashed up onto his belly. Epherineth had, at least, held his tail clear of the ground.

M’ric trailed silently behind him. He, and most of the other tailmen, would be flying straight to Stanten Hold, close to the predicted end of the Threadfall’s footprint, to prepare to receive the Wings when Fall was over. He’d been unusually subdued all day. “Everything all right?” T’kamen asked, running his hand under the strap that looped Epherineth’s near hind leg.

M’ric shot him a glance, the flash of dark eyes that T’kamen had come to recognise as the precursor to an outburst. But it didn’t come. The boy just shrugged his shoulders under his sodden cloak. “Everything’s fine.”

“You’re not put out that I’m going up there and you’re not?”

“Like I’d be jealous of a bunker assignment. I have flown during Fall, you know. With the other weyrlings. Not like I haven’t ever seen it before.”

There was something more than just insolence in M’ric’s tone. T’kamen gave him a sharp look. “Then what’s got you so sulky today?”

M’ric stubbed the toe of his boot in the mud for a moment. Then he said, “There was a letter from the Harperhall this morning.”

T’kamen checked the release knot on a pair of Epherineth’s firestone sacks. The bags were soaking wet; not that it would matter, by the time a dragon had chewed the stone to paste. “Oh?”

“To the Weyrlingmaster,” M’ric went on. “From Master Jondren.”

“That’s your girlfriend’s Master, isn’t it?”

M’ric scowled. “Her name’s Kheleina.”

“Kheleina’s Master, then.”

“Yes.” M’ric went broodingly silent for a moment, and then carried on, “He’s said I’m not to go and see her any more.”

T’kamen leaned against Epherineth’s side. “Why would he say that?”

“Well, I don’t know, do I?”

“Did you get her in trouble?”

“I didn’t do any –” M’ric began, and then stopped, grasping what T’kamen meant. “You mean – did I – is she –”

“Well, did you?” T’kamen asked reasonably.

M’ric stared at him, clearly torn between outrage and embarrassment, a flush creeping up his cheeks and making a vivid contrast to his yellowing bruises. “No!” Then, with complete indignation, he asked, “What sort of man do you think I am?”

“A young one,” T’kamen replied, “and a dragonrider, and dragonspawn yourself, and that’s never been the most chaste combination.”

“That was different,” M’ric said. “My mother wasn’t apprenticed to the Harperhall. I’m not stupid.”

“All right,” said T’kamen. “So what’s made Jondren take against you? Or is this coming from Kheleina?”

“It’s not coming from her,” M’ric insisted. “She was fine the other day. We were fine.”

T’kamen detected a hint of doubt. “You’re sure she hasn’t…I don’t know, met someone else? How often do you even get a chance to go to Kellad, anyway?”

“Not often enough,” M’ric said. “And it’ll be even less once we graduate, but…” He looked at T’kamen, a picture of youthful agony. “You really think she’s met someone else?”

T’kamen laughed. “Don’t ask me, M’ric. I don’t know the girl, and anyway, I’m just about the last person you’d want to come to for relationship advice.”

M’ric looked even less happy than he had to begin with. “Trebruth’s almost two.”

It didn’t seem to follow on from his previous complaint, but T’kamen knew more about dragons than he did about women. “So you buy him a wherry and make a big fuss. Dragons are easy to please.”

M’ric glared at him. “What I mean is that we won’t be weyrlings anymore.”

“That’s usually something to celebrate.”

“Unless it isn’t.”

T’kamen waited.

“They posted the date for our final assessments on the noticeboard last night. The twenty-second of next month. Five sevendays.”

“So you get your chance to show what Trebruth can do,” said T’kamen.

“Yes, but…” M’ric sighed. “My classmate B’neven said he’s had three Wingleaders take him aside after practice. He reckons he’ll have the pick of which Wing he goes to.”

“That’s just bragging, M’ric,” said T’kamen. “Weyrlings have never had a say over where they get tapped. That’s up to the Weyrleader and his Wingleaders. Or the Commander, now.”

“But he’s not the only one. Fraza’s the Commander’s tail, so she’s guaranteed a place in First. L’argo’s been talking about how he’s going to be assigned to his dad’s Wing ever since he Impressed. Even F’sta’s been talking to one of the Wingseconds from Third Flight, and Tetketh is literally the slowest dragon in the class!”

It did sound like Madellon’s Wingleaders were putting down markers on the weyrlings they wanted. T’kamen had been on both ends of that process himself. “And none of the Wingleaders have singled you out?”

M’ric shook his head.

“What about the other brown riders in your class?”

“They all washed out of formation training months ago, when they got too big to turn. They know they’re going to the Seventh. They don’t care. They never expected anything else.”

“But Trebruth’s still training with the fighting colours?”

“They can’t wash him out when he’s beating most of the blues and some of the greens in speed manoeuvres,” M’ric said, with defiant pride. “He’s not like a normal brown. He’s a special case.” Then he deflated again. “And it’s not going to sharding matter, is it?”

“Look, M’ric,” said T’kamen. “You just said it yourself: you’re a special case. It’s harder for them to decide how to place you and Trebruth compared to just another blue or green. They’d need to build the entire Wing around him.”

M’ric looked at him sceptically.

“Don’t give me that look,” T’kamen said. “I might not have led Wings against actual Thread, but we didn’t spend the Interval sitting around doing nothing. When I became Weyrleader, the Wings were a mess. Too many of them, with too few dragons in each. I reorganised them completely, but it took months. You can’t just divide up your colours evenly and call it a job done. Every dragon’s an individual. Every dragon has strengths and weaknesses, and you have to judge them against the strengths and weaknesses of every other dragon you want to put in that Wing. You don’t want a Wing just made up of veterans or just of youngsters, but there’s no point putting older dragons who’ve slowed down in a Wing where they need to be fast. If you have anything out of the ordinary – a small, fast bronze, or a green with more flame-range than average – you might even have to build an entire strategy around that dragon’s skills. And even dragons who fall within expected parameters for their colour can’t just be swapped around interchangeably. A green who works perfectly in tight manoeuvres at the centre of a formation would probably be lost if you stuck her out on the flank to fly mop-up. And then you have to think about temperament and personality fit and colour dynamics. Maybe that green would be intimidated by having a bronze flying too close – or maybe she’d benefit from the reassurance of a big dragon in range. Maybe she won’t concentrate if there’s a male in the Wing who’s flown her; maybe she’ll fly better for it. Maybe having one of her own clutchmates deployed nearby will make her feel comfortable and maybe it’ll distract her. No two dragons are the same, not even dragons of the same colour. And given that your fighting Wings have been made up of greens and blues for – what, most of the Pass? – it’s hardly surprising that no one knows what to do with a brown. Trebruth’s not just a blue with a coat of paint. He’s unique, and that makes him very difficult to place. Until your Commander really figures out how to use him, it would be crazy to just shove him in a Wing and hope for the best.”

M’ric’s expression had been a picture as T’kamen spoke, changing gradually from incredulity to curiosity to intense interest. Now, his face might almost – almost – have worn a look of respect. “Do you think that’s what it is?”

The naked hope in his voice nearly made T’kamen wince. He didn’t want to raise the boy’s expectations too high. Everything he’d seen of the schism between the colours in Pass Madellon matched what R’lony had said about M’ric’s chances of joining Tactical. “I just think there’s probably more going on under the surface than you think,” he said. “Maybe you will be shut out because of Trebruth’s colour. Maybe you won’t. Bellyaching about it isn’t going to help. If they’re going to discriminate against you, there’s not much you can do about it. All you can do is make sure that you and Trebruth do everything in your power to show the Commander you deserve a place in the fighting Wings. At least then you’ll know that, whatever happens, you did your best.”

M’ric nodded, and for an instant T’kamen saw again the confident and capable rider he would grow up to be. But then the boy’s shoulders dipped, and he looked at Toonbith, the brown dragon along the line from Epherineth. “And if our best isn’t enough…”

Then you’ll be joining Epherineth and me in the Seventh, T’kamen thought, at least until you figure out how to get between back to the Interval.

But he didn’t say it. The lightest Seventh dragons – the blues and smallest browns – most flew in G’bral’s Watch section: flying reconnaissance, scouting the Thread-corridor for deviations in its pattern, relaying intelligence about the terrain that lay ahead. T’kamen suspected that this was the role that awaited M’ric and Trebruth if they didn’t make the cut for the fighting Wings. And yet, once again, while he understood the reasoning behind the division of labour in this Madellon, he was disgusted by whatever it was – the dogmatism, the prejudice, the bloody-mindedness – that would probably relegate a young brown rider with a sharp and clever brain and a dragon at least as quick and agile as a fighting blue to the fringes of Threadfall and the margins of Madellon’s society.

He didn’t know what he was going to say to console M’ric when it happened. He didn’t know what he could say now. Since their visit to the Harperhall he’d been struggling to manage his own black moods. But despite himself, he was consoled by one thing. M’ric wasn’t yet resigned to his fate. He hadn’t given up. He still believed in a destiny for himself that exceeded what was expected of him. Under different circumstances S’leondes and R’lony would have had reason to fear this proud and promising young man, rather than dismiss him.

He gripped M’ric’s forearm, hard enough that the boy flinched. “One thing at a time, M’ric. Deal with the assessment as it comes, and your assignment, whatever it is, when it happens. That’s all you can do.”

M’ric sighed, as if it were far too much to ask. “What about Kheleina?”

T’kamen laughed, trying and failing to hide the degree of satisfaction he took in the curtailment of M’ric’s love-life. “Stay away from crafters,” he said. “Crafters are trouble. Especially Beastcrafters. They’ll break your heart.”

“Beastcrafters?”

T’kamen shook his head. “I’m wasting my breath. That’s one piece of advice I know you’re not going to listen to.”

M’ric looked mystified for a moment, and then, with characteristic swiftness, he put it together. “Your girlfriend was a Beastcrafter? I thought she was a dragonrider!”

“She should have been,” T’kamen said. “It didn’t work out that way.”

“What’s her name?”

“Sarenya.”

“Sarenya,” M’ric repeated, as if trying the name out to see how he liked it.

It stung to hear her name from this uncouth boy’s lips. “I don’t even know why I’m telling you this,” T’kamen said irritably.

“Me neither,” said M’ric. “I mean, this could be twenty Turns away for me. Are you telling me to be celibate for twenty Turns?”

“No,” said T’kamen. “You do what you want.”

“What do you want me to do?” M’ric asked. “Not take up with your girlfriend?”

“It’s going to happen anyway,” said T’kamen. “Whatever I tell you.”

M’ric’s expression clouded. “I don’t like the idea of that much. I mean, she could be ugly or anything.”

T’kamen threw a look at him that, satisfyingly, made him recoil a bit.

“All right, not ugly, then,” M’ric said, in a mollifying tone of voice. “Just, you know, not my type.”

“I don’t think there’s much chance of that.”

“Is she pretty, then?” M’ric asked, brightening. “Does she have –”

Mercifully, he was cut short by the shout that went up from far down the line, calling for all riders to mount. T’kamen spared a moment to glower at M’ric, then flung his muddy rag at him. He turned to walk back down towards Epherineth’s head, not waiting for the boy to follow. He swung up to his place on the bronze’s neck, recognising only the faintest twinge in his weak hip.

He’d left boot-prints on Epherineth’s glossy wet hide. T’kamen leaned down to wipe them away with his glove, and then M’ric was there with the rag. He mopped the dirty marks off, all attentive competence. Then he placed a hand on Epherineth’s arm. Riders didn’t often touch one another’s dragons deliberately, and T’kamen felt M’ric’s hand as if it were touching his own shoulder.

“Kamen.” It was the first time M’ric had used the familiar version of T’kamen’s name. “I’m sorry about your girlfriend. I’m sorry you don’t get to go back to the Interval.” He looked up at him. “But I still need your help if I’m going to.”

“No you don’t,” T’kamen said shortly. “It’s going to happen anyway. It makes no difference if I’m involved or not.”

“It makes a difference to me,” said M’ric.

T’kamen looked away, pretending to check his safety-strap, unable to quite meet that fierce black stare.

He was done. He’d decided to take no further part in the tangle of cause and effect that had stranded him here. In the aftermath of the revelation that he’d never made it back to the Interval, he’d worked through every shade in the spectrum of anger: from fury to outrage, from outrage to resentment, from resentment to bitterness. The bitterness had shaped his decision. T’kamen had never held with the idea of predestination. He’d always believed that a man made his own future, that he and he alone was responsible for the path of his life. The gradual realisation that everything he’d ever done had simply moved him closer to his inevitable exile in the Eighth Pass had made a mockery of that treasured self-determination. Fate – mindless, arbitrary fate – had chewed him up and puked him out, and the only fist he could shake in its face was a point-blank refusal to play along any more. It was ridiculous, but it was all he had. And while M’ric – or at least, this young version of him – had the balance of a life that would be spent dancing to destiny’s tune still ahead of him, T’kamen didn’t see why he should collude in the subjugation of another man’s free will.

“We’ve been over this,” he said at last. “You’ll find a way to go between, with my help or without it. You don’t need me.”

M’ric looked exasperated. “And what if it’s Turns and Turns before I figure it out?”

“What if it is? The past isn’t going anywhere.”

“But it could be my secret weapon,” M’ric said. “It could be the key.”

“The key to what?”

M’ric caught his breath, then let it out. “To an assignment in Tactical. If Trebruth could go between, there’s no way the Commander could refuse us. But how are we supposed to learn how without you and Epherineth to teach us? You’re the only dragonpair on Pern who’s ever done it!”

“Faranth,” T’kamen said, incredulous, “you just don’t give up, do you?”

“No,” M’ric answered defiantly. “I don’t. And I won’t. Even if you have.” He removed his hand from Epherineth’s arm. “Good luck with the Fall. Not that you’ll need it.”

You deserved that, Epherineth commented, as M’ric walked stiffly away.

He was right, but T’kamen was blighted if he’d admit it. We have to focus on what we can change, he insisted. Not what we can’t. M’ric’s destiny is out of my hands now.

How do you know that? Even if the destination is fixed, T’kamen, is the journey there not just as important?

T’kamen didn’t have an answer for that.

He was saved from having to find one by Shadith’s peremptory bugle. Epherineth turned his head towards Br’lom’s bronze. We are ready, T’kamen heard him say, and down the line the other browns and bronzes on bunker detail rose to their feet, ponderous with their firestone payloads. One at a time, each dragon spread his wings, took a short run-up, and then launched off the ridge. T’kamen clenched his teeth as Epherineth began his ungainly lope towards the edge, mindful of Ch’fil’s cautionary tale about riders biting through their tongues. Epherineth pushed off horizontally – even he couldn’t launch vertically with such a heavy load – and for a fraction of an instant they dropped like a stone. Then Epherineth caught the air beneath his wings. He regained height with short, laborious wingstrokes, and then found the same air current that each of the dragons before him had ridden to altitude. T’kamen relaxed as Epherineth’s flight smoothed out. He turned in his place to look back, between downstrokes, along his dragon’s bulging sides. Everything lying all right?

All fine, said Epherineth.

Let me know if the harness starts to rub anywhere.

I will.

Despite the wet, despite the drear, despite M’ric’s gloominess and his own bleak mood, T’kamen felt his spirits rise with his dragon. How often had he lamented his misfortune to be born in an Interval and denied the chance to ever face Thread? As removed as they might be from the real action, at least he and Epherineth would at last take some part in the defence of Pern. Here, today, in however small a fashion, they would make their difference.

Ahead and around and behind, the other dragons of Madellon Weyr beat north-east towards Thread’s predicted insertion zone, a short twenty minutes’ flight away. Four full Flights – First, Third, Fifth and Sixth – flew in loose formation, dozens upon dozens of blue and green shapes studding the grey sky like gems. The reserve Wings, both from Second, would fly lateral to the corridor for the first part of the Fall, before rotating in to give individual Wings a breather.

The brown dragons of Ch’fil Crew section flew lower, already fanning out into the sparse pattern that would allow them to comb the ground for missed Threads. Aid and Bunker dragons flew together, easily distinguishable from each other by their different harness. The blues and smaller browns of the Watch section would already have taken up their high-altitude positions around the perimeter of Thread’s expected first footprint, ready to guide in the Wings to meet it. Depending on the weather and time of Turn, it could vary by several miles in any direction, and the sooner G’bral’s Watch dragons confirmed visual contact, the sooner the fighting Wings could intercept.

R’lony sat Geninth a level above Epherineth, alone. Had the sun been in the sky, Geninth would have cast a black shadow on the men and dragons below, but in the dismal light he was visible only when T’kamen looked up. The rain had stopped, but the clouds hung low and threatening, and already the Wings assigned the highest level were disappearing into the oppressive gloom, ascending through layers of suspended water droplets to the clear thin air beyond.

The course correction, issued by an unseen dragon high above, passed through the massed Wings in a ripple. Every dragon adjusted his heading slightly north. The fighting Wings began to form up. Small tongues of fire escaped a few dragons too excited to hold them back.

A shudder passed through Epherineth. He turned his head to the east, and T’kamen saw his spinning eye transition from green to yellow to amber in the space of three quick heartbeats. Thread! The sullen sky bloomed dully orange as the unseen dragons above the clouds began to flame. And then silver veins laced the undersides of those brooding charcoal masses, veins that thickened to streaks, and Thread came streaming through to rain death upon Pern.

The world turned red. His lips skinned back from his teeth. He gathered himself to thrust forward with powerful strokes of his wings, and fury rumbled in his chest. This was his enemy. This was what he’d been born to do. This…

T’kamen struggled to tear himself free of Epherineth. He took a short, sucking breath into lungs frozen with anger. We’re not here to fight!

Thread is falling!

Epherineth’s howl was incandescent with rage. His body trembled with it. There could be no reasoning with him. He couldn’t be reminded of how they’d trained. He wouldn’t be stopped by the fact that he had no flame. Epherineth would have attacked Thread with fangs and claws. For the second time in a sevenday, T’kamen bent his will in direct opposition to his dragon’s. Epherineth. No.

He’d thought that stopping Epherineth from chasing Donauth had been difficult. He’d thought that the need to pursue a rising queen was the most driving imperative a bronze possessed. He’d thought that resisting Epherineth’s mating instincts was the most ferocious battle of wills he’d ever have with his dragon.

On all counts, he’d been wrong.

Epherineth had wanted Donauth, craved her, coveted her. His anger at being refused had been founded in desire, and T’kamen had never let desire cloud his thinking. He’d never done something he’d regretted out of lust.

He couldn’t say the same for hate.

Epherineth’s hatred for Thread was a seething mass within him, an ugliness of red and black, wrath and revulsion, vengeance and outrage. Only destruction would satisfy it. Only murder would satisfy it.

He’d put his hands around Katel’s throat, and looked into his eyes, and known an instant of certainty that squeezing the breath and the life from C’los’ killer would be the sweetest fulfilment of all the rage and pain he’d ever felt.

So nearly he’d toppled into that abyss.

So narrowly Epherineth, who had never known rage, had pulled him back from its edge.

And now Epherineth teetered on the brink, and the darkness in T’kamen that had once almost choked a man to death stirred and boiled and unfolded, and wished to plunge down into the depths alongside him. Why resist when it was what they both wanted?

Epherineth flinched. His anger suddenly cooled as though quenched with water. And T’kamen was abruptly in control of himself again. Sweat had burst from his skin, drenching him beneath his wherhides. His head ached and his eyes burned, but Epherineth’s need to destroy was gone, and so was his.

T’kamen pulled down his goggles to let the cold damp air hit his face. He felt shaken – scorched, even, as though he’d reached for a hot stove and barely drawn back from it in time.

Shadith asks if all is well.

T’kamen sought and found Br’lom’s bronze, flying slightly higher than the other bunker dragons. Br’lom was looking back over his shoulder at them. T’kamen raised his arm to signal an affirmative. Tell him yes.

Only then did he steel himself to look again at the Fall.

Every weyrling learned about Thread. Every dragonrider dreamed about it. In his ignorant Interval vanity, T’kamen had even presumed to strategise against it. But all the Falls he’d imagined, all the records he’d read, couldn’t have prepared him for the reality. Thread didn’t just fall. It sliced down from the sky in waves, a thousand silvery knives glinting in the dim light. It rippled as it raced towards the ground, undulating like an unimaginable hail of tunnelsnakes. It unravelled in ribbons, its filaments spooling out, lengthening, spreading a lethal net. It capered in the wind and the weather, blowing into tangles, into snarls; individual strands wrapped around each other, clumped, fell faster, harder, more erratically, less predictably. Much had been written of the mindlessness of Thread. Now, at last, T’kamen saw for himself what that meant.

And there was so much of it. In the Interval they trained with ropes dropped from above, but those drills in no way simulated the sheer volume of Thread descending on the lower Wings, or the expanse it covered. Even that only represented the part of the Fall that had got past the upper Flights, still out of sight above the clouds. It was merciless. It was endless. It seemed like any attempt to stop it would be hopeless.

But it wasn’t.

The fighting dragons of Madellon Weyr rose to meet it; they rose, they met it, and they destroyed it. The breakneck flying, the reckless dives and rolls and loops T’kamen had watched the small dragons practising over the Weyr, suddenly all made sense. Wings climbed and turned together, flaming, then broke off, scattering, pursuing individual strands, before forming up again to take on the next wave. Blue dragons held the pattern, the hubs around which each formation turned; greens filled the gaps, weaving in and out, climbing to sear Threads from below, diving to catch ribbons from above. Some dragons worked in pairs, some in trios, some alone, but each sub-formation made part of the larger pattern, anchored to its parent Wing. And all the time the Wings pushed forwards, chasing the Fall from north-east to south-west, pursuing it relentlessly, destroying it ruthlessly.

It took T’kamen’s breath away. The grace, the power, the split-second timing. The agility and daring. It was every bit as inspiring as every Harper ballad ever written about Threadfall made it out to be. And, finally, T’kamen grasped why the browns and bronzes of Madellon couldn’t fight Thread. Epherineth could never have manoeuvred fast enough; he’d have been hit a dozen times already, too big to slip sideways through narrow gaps in the Fall, too big to turn on a wingtip and slide away in another direction, too big to reposition to where he was needed without being scored. Between would have let him evade, would have frozen off a Threadstrike, would have been an escape route and a shortcut. Without it, Epherineth would be nothing more than the biggest target in the sky.

Overwhelmed by that realisation, T’kamen tore his eyes away, making himself focus on the bunker dragon in front of them. It was a moment before he realised that the lenses of his goggles were speckled black. He glanced down and realised that Epherineth was stippled with the same residue. He wiped the back of his glove across his face and ash smeared greasily brown-black across the glass. It was Thread. Burned Thread, dead Thread, but Thread all the same. M’ric’s weyrling horror story suddenly seemed less fanciful. T’kamen tugged his scarf up around the lower part of his face. Try not to breathe too much of that stuff in, Epherineth.

I’ll try.

Below the fighting dragons, Ch’fil’s low-flying flame crews were hard at work already, finding and burning the Thread that had eluded both stacks of Wings. Epherineth angled his shoulder slightly to give T’kamen a clearer view back along their flightpath. Small fires spotted the landscape as far as he could see, sending up oily plumes of smoke. The greens and blues weren’t getting everything; not by a long way.

And it was clear, maddeningly clear, why. T’kamen watched a green chase down a tangle almost to the lowest level before breaking off and letting it fall. In the time it took her to regain the altitude she’d lost, the gap she’d left in her formation had let through several more strands. T’kamen watched, almost cringing, as the green dragon picked off two, then barely evaded the last. If she could only have gone between she could have blinked to intercept the stray, then blinked back into formation before her absence compromised the line.

Two blues went for the same piece, both spotting it and reacting before they could warn the other off. They barely avoiding colliding with each other. Only the sharp reactions of the smaller dragon saved them – he turned an impossibly tight reverse loop at the last instant – but it cost him. He dropped out of formation, listing badly, and three browns from the Aid section veered beneath the Wings to assist in his withdrawal. Wrenched wing, Epherineth confirmed tersely. T’kamen tried to see how the blue’s Wing would recover from the loss of a member, but it was hard to identify specific formations in the mass of green and blue bodies. He’d known every dragon of his own Madellon on sight, but he wasn’t familiar enough with the Pass Weyr’s complement yet.

And the tactics the small dragons employed bore little resemblance to those T’kamen knew. Their formations were much more fluid, much less stable. The anchoring blues didn’t have the flame range or sustain to contain the edges of a Fall in the way a traditional brown or bronze would have, and they frequently had to abandon their positions, diving or rolling out of the path of more Thread than they could burn, and then scrambling to resume their places. Epherineth couldn’t have dodged so nimbly or so often, but at least a dragon with a decent flame range could have cut more of a swathe where Thread was falling thickest. And the need for dragons to preserve their own hides at all costs contributed to the heavy toll taken on the land below, in burrowed Thread and cleansing flame.

It was as frustrating to watch as it was fascinating, and while T’kamen was riveted by the terrible spectacle, he was grateful when the first riders started breaking formation for firestone. At least they’d have something to do.

Ready? he asked Epherineth.

Ready.

Br’lom had already marshalled a dozen pick-ups before he assigned one to T’kamen and Epherineth. Jastath on my far side, Epherineth reported, as a green dragon flew fast towards them.

Epherineth steadied, locking his wings into a glide as the green came up beneath him and to the right. When they were in position, Jastath’s soot-streaked rider stood up in his straps, bracing his knees against his dragon’s neck, and pulled on the first long rope dangling from Epherineth’s row of firestone sacks. The quick-release knot disengaged and a pair of bags dropped from Epherineth’s side to land neatly across Jastath’s neck, just behind her rider. Firestone away, Epherineth said, sounding relieved, and beating his wings again to regain the altitude he’d lost in gliding. Jastath’s rider signalled thanks as the green veered sharply away, already tearing open the neck of the first sack to feed her more firestone.

Good job, Epherineth, T’kamen told him, patting the ashy neck.

After that, the flow of transfers increased as dragons exhausted their flame and ducked out to resupply. Epherineth’s confidence increased with each successful collection, and before long Br’lom was giving them double pick-ups as well as singles, allowing dragons to approach Epherineth from both sides simultaneously to collect their firestone.

They flew on. Geninth, flying a circuit around the moving front, checked in to see how they were feeling. T’kamen’s hip ached but it was tolerable, and Epherineth was still flying strongly. He’d settled into his rhythm and seemed to have conquered his violent reaction to Threadfall. T’kamen had him relay back to Geninth that they were fine.

There weren’t many casualties in the first part of the Fall. Two greens clipped wingtips, sending the smaller of the pair spinning off out of formation. She checked her descent, but retired soon after. Epherineth remarked that one of her safety-straps had snapped in the collision. Another green made an unlucky turn into a mass of burning Thread. It didn’t adhere, but the impact left her scorched and shaken. An Aid bronze assisted her withdrawal from the Wings. Men pulled muscles and broke bones in flight drill even in the Interval, so it came as no surprise to T’kamen when several retired from the Fall with dislocated shoulders and broken collarbones. The fast blues of the Watch section ferried Healers and Dragon Healers back and forth to attend to the injured.

After the first couple of hours, the Second Flight reserves began to rotate in to relieve individual Wings. Tired greens and blues flew out into the clear air beyond the bunker line, limiting their wingbeats to conserve energy, but still just about keeping pace with the Fall. T’kamen watched their Wingleaders flying up and down the line, checking dragons and riders. A few pairs – singed or scorched, or just shaken – were pulled out and dismissed, and they flew away from the Thread corridor with drooping heads: whether ashamed or exhausted, T’kamen couldn’t tell.

But as the third hour ticked over into the fourth, and Thread still poured out of the sky in tireless waves, the gallant greens and blues began to flag. Their acrobatics became less crisp, their turns less precise. Their formations grew sloppy, ragged, the gaps between dragons yawning wider. Even more Thread got through and was left to fall. The fire crews were stretched thin, trying to hunt down every strand that evaded flame aloft. Only the bunker dragons had it easier the longer Fall went on. Epherineth’s load lightened with every dragon that came in for firestone, and he flew on without wearying.

Sprilth on my near side, he announced to T’kamen.

All of the fighting dragons were covered in ash, but the green who came upsides Epherineth looked even greyer than most. She wobbled a bit as she matched speed with them. “Is she all right?” T’kamen shouted down to her rider.

Sprilth’s rider looked up sharply, missing her grab at the release rope. The visor of her helmet didn’t quite conceal her face. “She’s…we’re…fine!”

They didn’t look fine to T’kamen: dragon or rider. “You look like shit!” he shouted back. “Have you taken a break?”

“Not our turn yet,” the green rider shouted back. She made another grab for the rope, and missed again as Sprilth bumped Epherineth’s side. “Shard it!”

The knock didn’t faze Epherineth, but T’kamen didn’t like the way Sprilth was moving. “Who’s your Wingleader?”

“I just need to get our stone and get back to the Wing!” Sprilth’s rider made a third attempt at the quick-release, and the pair of firestone sacks fell squarely over the green dragon’s neck. She sighed with relief. “Thanks!”

T’kamen watched as Sprilth broke away from Epherineth’s side, beating her wings determinedly. Can you find out who her Wingleader is? That dragon looks fit to drop.

Geninth says it’s not our place to interfere, said Epherineth. Idarth on my off side.

They were kept busy over the next span of minutes as dragon after dragon came alongside for firestone. Another green had just banked away from her pick-up when Epherineth groaned, a low, desperate sound. Oridelth is no more.

T’kamen didn’t recognise the name, but the deep jolt of Epherineth’s sorrow hit him in the stomach. What happened?

She was hit. She went between.

The fighting dragons didn’t keen. They couldn’t afford that luxury in the midst of Fall. But they did mourn, and their sadness, amplified through Epherineth, weighed on T’kamen. Was it a bad hit?

I don’t know. She is gone.

A few minutes later, Epherineth groaned again. Teewith.

Another one?

They are getting tired.

Can’t someone relieve them? T’kamen looked at the fighting dragons snatching a respite outboard of the bunker line. There should be more reserves!

Epherineth didn’t have an answer for that. The next time a dragon came alongside, T’kamen shouted down to his rider, “What’s happening out there?”

The blue rider ignored him, pulling down his firestone sacks and then directing his dragon away again without replying.

T’kamen saw the next one vanish out of the corner of his eye: a green, there one moment and gone the next. What the shaff is happening? Epherineth, ask Geninth if this is normal.

Geninth says it is Threadfall and what do we expect, Epherineth replied grimly.

The skill and precision of the early hours of the Fall was crumbling. T’kamen almost couldn’t watch any more as dragons barely escaped Threadstrike, or narrowly missed colliding with each other, or gave up on strands that earlier they would have caught. Thread fell as implacably as ever, making no concessions to the tiring, toiling Wings below.

And then a dragon on the fringe of one of the middle Flights suddenly began to thrash her left wing. T’kamen’s eyes weren’t good enough to see what was happening, but Epherineth’s were. He shared his dragon’s sight, and horror clenched, fist-like in his stomach.

It was Sprilth. A tendril of Thread had glanced the edge of her wingsail, slapped up against the underside of her wing, stuck there.

As T’kamen and Epherineth watched, it began to spread.

Epherineth couldn’t look away, and T’kamen wouldn’t let him watch alone.

A lattice of silver raced across Sprilth’s wing with appalling speed, dissolving translucent sail as it went. All her frantic flailing couldn’t dislodge it. As Thread consumed the wing, Sprilth began to fall. And to scream.

Why doesn’t she go between? T’kamen cried.

Because she can’t!

Sprilth fell, screaming.

T’kamen had heard dragons screaming before. He heard them shrieking with anger and lust and even with pain. He’d heard the heart-breaking cry of a riderless dragon hurling itself into oblivion. And none of those experiences could begin to compare to the sound of a dragon’s screams of terror and agony as Thread ate her alive. Those screams slashed through every dragonpair in the sky, even as dragons swerved in all directions to avoid their plummeting sister. Thread streamed unchecked past the Wings, and still Sprilth fell and screamed and was consumed.

Nothing could have prepared T’kamen for the hideous sight of that doomed, dying green dragon. No weyrling horror story could have captured the obscenity of seeing a dragon overwhelmed by Thread, hide and flesh transformed into seething, bloated Thread infestation. For Faranth’s sake can’t someone help her? Where the shaff are the Aid dragons?

And then the Aid dragons were there.

Salionth and Recranth pulled in either side of the stricken green, a formation somehow horribly reminiscent of a mating flight pursuit. T’kamen couldn’t think how they planned to help her. If they tried to catch her, the Thread would spread to them. There was no water nearby to drown it. Sprilth was already lost.

And then he understood, and his stomach turned queasily over.

He’d watched his own dragon take down a thousand herdbeasts in their Turns together. He’d observed and admired Epherineth’s lethal economy as he singled out his prey, tracked it, matched speed with it, and then plunged down upon it with implacable finality. A twist, a shake, a broken neck, and it was over. He was as good a judge of killing technique as anyone.

And he couldn’t fault Recranth’s technique, or his economy. He couldn’t fault the quality of Recranth’s mercy, even as he dipped sharply over Sprilth with claws outstretched to perform his ghastly duty. Sprilth’s dreadful screams cut off abruptly, shockingly. She tumbled away from Recranth, plummeting end over end towards the ground. Her rider had pitched bonelessly forward on her grotesquely flopping neck, and the relentless silver filaments of Thread still swarmed and roiled over them.

T’kamen didn’t see Sprilth’s ruined body hit the ground, but he heard it.

He caught the briefest glimpse of Salionth and Recranth descending below the trailing Wings, belching fire, and then he clawed the scarf away from his mouth barely in time to vomit in helpless convulsions down Epherineth’s shoulder.

Shadith asks if we want to retire.

Epherineth’s voice was numb. T’kamen wiped his mouth, then lifted the waterskin that hung behind his leg. He gulped, washing away the acid tang of half-digested meatrolls. He spat. He poured water down Epherineth’s shoulder, sluicing away puke and ash.

No, he said. We fly on.

Epherineth seemed to shake himself. Then he said, Nankinth, near side.

Thread claimed no more lives. Sprilth’s grisly death seemed to make every fighting dragon more cautious. Dragons from the fire crews bunkered to resupply, and browns and blues from Watch descended from their high positions to help them burn out dozens of extra burrows. And, gradually, the Fall began to thin out. It didn’t just stop; it petered out, dribbling anticlimactically off. The fighting patterns that had become so ragged re-formed as the number of strands getting through the cloud cover diminished, and the blues and greens finally gave up their acrobatics. The constant background roar of fire-breathing faded away, punctuated by only the occasional cough as a dragon charred a last stray filament or two, and then even those died out.

Is that it? T’kamen asked. Is it over?

He felt Epherineth suck in a deep breath beneath him, and then the bronze exhaled it again in a keen. Every dragon in the sky lifted his head to add his voice to the mourning cry. It pierced through T’kamen’s soul as much as his ears. When it finally died away, he asked, For all the ones who died? Sprilth and Oridelth and Teewith?

No, said Epherineth. That was for Skerith.

What?

He went between.

But Fall’s over!

He went between.

As Epherineth spoke, the upper Wings burst through the cloud, a mass of colour against the murk. The blue dragon flying at the very apex of the pyramid of Flights flung his wings wide, clawing at the sky and lashing his tail as he roared with triumph and defiance. And if T’kamen found the sight of Karzith, bellowing as if he’d just flown himself a queen, almost offensively inappropriate, he was alone in his reaction. The thunderous chorus of bugles that erupted from the fighting dragons in response to Karzith’s cry was deafening. Some of them turned loops, or flipped through barrel rolls, or even barged their own wingmates in a frenzy of celebration. T’kamen watched, lost. What the shaff are they doing, Epherineth?

I don’t know. I’m too tired to think, T’kamen.

T’kamen rubbed the fore neck-ridge. Just a little longer.

He was tired, too: tired enough that they had already turned north-west towards Stanten Hold before comprehension dawned on him. The fighting dragons were drunk, drunk on the knowledge that they’d flown in the face of death and survived. The mania would get them home, or at least to Stanten, fuelling minds and muscles that had been pushed to the limits of endurance and beyond. The realities of grief and exhaustion and remembered horror had to be staved off until riders and dragons could bury them with enough sleep or wine or sex to keep them functioning until the next Threadfall.

But for the dragons of the Seventh Flight there was no survivor’s euphoria, no elation in glorious victory. Epherineth’s fatigue didn’t come merely from his inexperience: it was rooted in the physical toll of carrying a heavy burden, the mental effort of suppressing his instinct to fight, the emotional cost of watching impotently as dragons died in front of him. Even the satisfaction of knowing they had performed their duties without error seemed a thin and paltry thing. The other riders of Bunker section were hunching, weary and miserable, over their soot-stained dragons’ necks. Ch’fil’s fire-crews were still at work, dealing with the hundreds of Thread-strikes that had eluded the Wings. Recranth and Salionth were nowhere to be seen.

The contrast couldn’t have been starker between the exultant young Tactical pairs and the dull, tired support dragons: the former burning bright and hot and fleetingly; the latter barely glowing at all, like the last sullenly-smouldering embers of a dying fire. The contrast between a jewel-hued green or blue and a drab brown or bronze only reinforced the distinction. But the obvious disparities between the two groups of dragonriders masked a deeper commonality than T’kamen thought any of them could see from either side of their rigid division. The same force formed the bedrock of every rider’s soul. They were all, every one of them, devoid of hope, devoid of optimism, devoid of any faith whatsoever that anything could change for the better. They were men and women with no reason to believe that the next twenty-five Turns would bring anything but toil and grief. Tactical riders flung themselves into short, glorious lives and early deaths. Strategic riders resigned themselves to long careers in obscurity or ignominy. Neither dared hope that anything could change.

And well did T’kamen understand the allure of a surrender to despair.

Maybe this is why I’m here. I’m the only one in this time who knows how quickly things can change. That things can change at all.

A lightness came over T’kamen. It was the most perverse feeling. He was exhausted and filthy. He couldn’t remember a more continuously harrowing six hours of his life. He’d seen things, heard things, that he knew would revisit him in his nightmares until the end of his days. The sick ache of desolation and loneliness that had become his constant companion hadn’t left him.

But neither, he realised, had hope.

Even if the destination is fixed, T’kamen, is the journey there not just as important?

Epherineth’s question, posed with all the paradoxical simplicity and complexity that only a dragon could combine, had the right of it.

Tell Trebruth we’re on our way to Stanten, T’kamen told him And ask him to tell M’ric that he’s wrong. He pulled down his goggles, letting the cold damp air hit his face. I haven’t given up. Not yet.

END OF ACT TWO

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