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Chapter thirty-eight: T’kamen

There Are No Dragons Here by Emily Holland

‘There Are No Dragons Here’ by Emily Holland (find her on Tumblr)

In the early days of the Seventh Interval, when the inhabitants of southern Pern expanded voraciously west in the aftermath of fifty Turns of Threadfall, the dragonriders of the time agreed to found two new Weyrs to protect the fledgling settlements when the Red Star next passed near Pern again.

There was no debate over the site of the second southern Weyr. A giant coastal crater, almost precisely due south of Tillek, had long been spoken of as a Weyr location. It took its name not only from the massive peninsula that jabbed north-west into the great southern ocean, but from the smaller promontory on whose tip it perched, and before long it became home to some of the brightest young dragonriders from the overpopulated northern Weyrs, keen to make their mark on a Thread-free Pern.

The establishment of the third southern Weyr proved less straightforward. The mountain chain that dominated the western portion of the continent was home to a great number of volcanic craters – extinct, dormant, and active – and surveyors suggested three potential locations, each with advantages and disadvantages, advocates and opponents.

The first was centrally placed within the proposed territory, but the caldera was too small to have housed more than two hundred and fifty dragons. The second, somewhat north and east, was nearly as large as the Peninsula, but lacked either ground access or sufficient lower cavern space. The last, and most westerly, remained the leading contender throughout the selection process, at least until all three members of the survey team that had been exploring the site more thoroughly were found dead in their bedrolls. Watch-whers, brought in later, confirmed that the otherwise attractive crater was riddled with fissures venting invisible noxious fumes, and that had put a definitive end to that site as the home for the new Western Weyr.

The second location was confirmed instead, along with an expensive deal with the Minecraft to supply sufficient black powder and skilled labour to blast out the tunnels and caverns the Weyr needed to function as intended.

– Masterharper Gaffry, Chronicle of the Seventh Interval

26.06.02 (26TH TURN, EIGHTH PASS)
LITTLE MADELLON CALDERA

T'kamen (Micah Johnson)Little Madellon was one of the first places weyrlings visited when they were building up their endurance. It was one of the first visuals they learned when going between. It was a place of respite, of leisure and liberty, where weyrlings and adult riders alike went for a break from training and routine, away from the permanent bustle of the Weyr. The weather was better, the hunting abundant, and the lake crystal clear.

Every memory T’kamen had of Madellon’s sister crater was one he treasured. The first time L’stev had allowed his weyrling class, the Highflyers, a two-day furlough at Little Madellon, he and C’mine and C’los had stayed up late into the early hours, sitting around a campfire, getting drunk on stolen beer and making grandiose plans for the future. Another time, late in their training, when C’los and C’mine had been very much involved with each other, T’kamen had managed to persuade their classmate Ishane to sleep with him. She’d ended up more enthusiastic about it than him, but he recalled the encounter – and Ishane’s subsequent, if short-lived, hankering for him – with a wry amusement for his younger self. And T’kamen had taken Sarenya there once, in the brief and blissful period of her candidacy; they’d bathed in the hot springs, made love in the soft grass, and slept in the protective curl of Epherineth’s forearm. He’d always meant to take her back there, but the demands of the Weyrleadership had prevented it. The very name Little Madellon was flavoured with regret, with poignancy, with nostalgia: each memory bitter-sweet, precious, priceless.

And now Little Madellon was a tomb.

The puzzle pieces of life in this post-between Pern had fallen into place with frustrating unpredictability since T’kamen’s arrival in the Pass. It wasn’t all his fault. Between the initial suspicions levelled at him, the lack of information on the period between his native time and the middle of the Eighth Pass, and the low regard accorded a bronze rider in the polarised hierarchy of the Weyr, putting together a clear picture of what had changed and why had not been easy. He’d had to overcome, or at least reassess, virtually every assumption he possessed about dragons and dragonriders. Under the circumstances – and his argument with C’rastro notwithstanding – he thought he’d done well to grasp as much as he had about this radically different Pern and adapt his behaviour accordingly.

Yet this horrible truth had still eluded him.

It was yet another privilege that only an Interval dragonrider could enjoy: the benefit of not having to think about death too hard or too often. An Interval dragonpair that made it through weyrling training could anticipate living to a good age together, with lifespans into the sixties, seventies, and even eighties not uncommon. Deaths through accident or illness still happened, but at no higher a rate than holders or crafters could expect, and often lower, given the dragonrider’s relative isolation from the close quarters of Hold residence and the hazards of labour in fields or mines or mills. Interval riders were even insulated from the distress of their older fellows’ passing: most riders who retired from the Wings moved to the quiet, respectfully-tended community at South on the Peninsula-Southern border, there to live out their days in the sun and pass peacefully from the world without causing undue anguish to the younger generation.

Such luxury was no longer feasible. More dragonriders had lost their lives in the scant six sevendays that T’kamen had been in the Pass than had died in his last three Turns in the Interval, and none of them kindly or easily, none of them through the rigours of age or even illness. Madellon’s fighting dragonpairs died hard and suddenly and bloody, and most of them died young. No one – not M’ric, nor even Ch’fil – had ever explicitly mentioned the average life expectancy for a fighting dragon in Madellon’s Wings, but they didn’t need to. If the testimony of T’kamen’s own eyes weren’t enough – he’d seen for himself how riders in their late teens and early twenties made up the bulk of the Wings – then the evidence on the Hatching sands made it explicit. A single moderately-productive queen could still lay thirty or forty eggs across two clutches per Turn; each additional laying dragon would tend to push the clutch sizes of all a Weyr’s queens downwards, but Madellon’s present understrength roster of two were probably still clutching fifty new dragonets per Turn. The modest contributions of the seven fertile green dragons, also clutching twice Turnly, might add another fifty or so hatchlings to the pool. A hundred new dragons per Turn: even if one in five failed to make it through weyrlinghood, that meant around eighty new riders were entering the Wings each Turn. Madellon’s headcount was roughly seven hundred; if it was steady, then basic mathematics suggested that the entire population would be renewed in eight or nine Turns. Factoring in the longer-lived browns and bronzes, and the fighting pairs who had demonstrably survived into their thirties and beyond, the attrition rate for young dragonriders became even more brutal.

Perhaps that was why T’kamen hadn’t followed the logic through to its conclusion. Most of the dragonpairs that had died in the Threadfalls he and Epherineth had flown had been typical of the fighting Wings: young, inexperienced, and grossly unlucky. Four of them had been less than a Turn out from weyrlinghood. But Sprilth, the green who’d been eaten alive in that first harrowing Fall, had been an outlier: an experienced dragon who had trumped the odds by surviving to her eleventh Turn of life. She was the exception to the rule. And yet, she, too, was evidence that beating the odds for ten or fifteen Turns didn’t grant immunity. The physical and mental stresses of fighting Thread, and the loss of the crisp vigour of youth, would eventually, inevitably combine to even the luckiest dragon’s detriment. And while the young dragons that dominated Madellon could escape to a clean death between, those who survived past the age at which even the capacity to jump withered away could enjoy no such boon. T’kamen had witnessed Sprilth’s horrible end, her mercy killing under the swift strike of Recranth’s talons, and he still hadn’t grasped the ultimate implication. A dying dragon too old to go between didn’t just have to be euthanised. It had to be disposed of.

T’kamen had only once seen a dragon’s corpse. Gommeshath, a clutchmate of Epherineth’s, had collided with the wall of the Bowl in a badly-misjudged training manoeuvre. The impact had broken his back, paralysing him behind the wings; the other weyrlings of his trio had arrested his fall, got him to the ground, and lifted his rider down from his neck, but Gommeshath had died there on the floor of the Bowl a few minutes later, too shocked and traumatised even to go between. T’kamen remembered in vivid detail how that luckless blue dragon had looked in death. The colour had leached instantly from his hide, as if the vital energy that had inhabited his body had, in fleeing his form, stolen it away. He’d seemed suddenly smaller, as though the loss of breath and life had diminished his physical form, and his wings had fallen open like bolts of cloth, unsupported by muscles left slack and powerless by death. His eyes had gone colourless and motionless, staring blindly, like empty windows in a building. The grim scene had been short-lived. Cherganth and Staamath had taken Gommeshath’s body between before half an hour had passed, sparing the other weyrlings the sight of the blue dragonet’s broken and lifeless form for any length of time.

Now, T’kamen had been steeling himself for a much worse scene all the way south from Madellon proper.

It was an incongruously pleasant morning for a flight. On almost any other occasion T’kamen would have enjoyed being aboard his dragon on such a clear and sunny autumn day. The sky was full of other dragons out on their own errands, some of them only distant specks against the pale blue heavens, some of them much closer. They passed a group of riderless dragons travelling back towards Madellon, a brown and two blues; the three of them bumping and jostling each other playfully. Shortly after that, they came across the green the trio had evidently been chasing, entwined with the blue who had won her atop a flat mountain peak.

But before long, the distinctive shape of Little Madellon loomed ahead, rising as majestically as any inhabited Weyr. Habit made T’kamen compare the view to his memorised visualisation, looking for any obvious changes. The crater was highest to the south, but its rim dipped gradually in both directions until, in the north-western quadrant, it fell away entirely to blend with the sloping alpine meadows of the range. The unusual open shape of the Bowl let in a remarkable amount of light, particularly in the afternoons, when the entire crater would flood with sunshine. T’kamen had often regretted the drive of Madellon’s founders to find a place large enough to compete with the Peninsula’s population. Little Madellon was nearly the size of Ista in the north, and under different circumstances it would have made an ideal Weyr. Madellon proper’s more towering crater wall made much of the Bowl dark all day, especially in the winter. From this angle, with the highest part of Little Madellon’s curtain wall blocking their view down into the caldera, nothing seemed to have changed. But as the relentless stroke of Epherineth’s wings carried them closer and closer to the shell of the ancient volcano, T’kamen noticed the dark shapes of wherries, wheeling lazily above the crater.

Tell Trebruth we’ll land down there in the meadow to the west, he told Epherineth. Well out of sight.

M’ric raised his arm in acknowledgement. Trebruth banked right, leading the way, and Epherineth followed him down, catching air in his wings to arrest his speed as he descended towards the high plateau that stretched away from the base of the old volcano.

Epherineth touched down gingerly, backwinging hard to maintain his position as he raked the ground below with his hind paws to test for stability. When he was satisfied that the unfamiliar surface was sound, he settled down, the disturbance of his wings stirring up little whirlwinds of the grass and dust scraped up by his claws.

Trebruth had landed with the careless confidence of youth – although, given that Epherineth was three times his weight, he could probably afford to be less cautious. “Jump down, M’ric.”

M’ric looked at him, implacable behind his goggles until he pushed them up. “Why? Alanne’s only got a grudge against bronzes, not browns.”

“It’s not for Alanne’s sake,” said T’kamen. “There are some things a dragon shouldn’t have to see. Trebruth stays here with Epherineth.”

“You mean you want to walk the rest of the way?”

“Is there something wrong with your legs?”

M’ric sighed. “Fine.”

They both dismounted into the grass of the meadow, somewhat flattened where the two dragons had landed, but almost waist-high beyond the landing zone. T’kamen loosened the buckles of Epherineth’s harness, then untied his waterskin, and the short-shafted wherry spear Ch’fil had insisted he take along, from where he’d lashed them to the aft neck-strap.

Epherineth had noticed the wherries, too. He was watching them with clear green eyes, his position alert, and the end of his tail flicking restlessly back and forth. You ate yesterday, T’kamen told him as he stowed his helmet and jacket in the carry-sack on his dragon’s near side. Three bullocks, remember?

That was yesterday.

T’kamen glanced down Epherineth’s side. Flying straight everywhere and carrying heavy loads of firestone had already begun to change his conformation, bulking out his frame with muscle mass he hadn’t had before coming to the Pass. Epherineth had never been a dragon to complain of physical discomfort, but T’kamen was concerned about the damage that the rapid muscle growth was doing to his hide. The evidence of insufficient skin care on many other dragons – hide striations, stretch marks, harness sores – angered him. Perhaps hide integrity wasn’t so important to dragons who would never go between, but it was still the mark of sloppy husbandry. Trebruth bore no such signs of neglect. M’ric had his faults, but T’kamen wouldn’t have allowed him to work on Epherineth if there’d been any indication that he couldn’t keep his own dragon in perfect condition. Take a couple if you must once we’re gone, he said at last. But only a couple.

“Is Epherineth eyeing up those wherries, too?” asked M’ric, ducking under Trebruth’s chin and shifting his own waterskin where he’d slung its loop over his shoulder.

“I don’t know that I’ll ever get used to him eating so often,” said T’kamen. “Or having to tell him to hold back on wherries.” At M’ric’s quizzical look, he explained, “Wild wherries are free. Two or three of those, and that’s a tithed herdbeast he hasn’t had to take from the Weyr’s paddocks. We used to let our dragons hunt their fill if we came across a unclipped flock. Now, I’m concerned he’ll burst out of his skin if he eats too many.”

“At least it’ll keep them occupied.”

T’kamen couldn’t deny that. “Come on. Let’s get this done. I’d rather not be away from Madellon long enough for C’rastro to think I’m avoiding him.”

“What did you actually say to him?” M’ric asked. “Is that why you wanted to talk to Ch’fil? Did you get in trouble?”

“Probably,” T’kamen said. He didn’t want to elaborate; neither C’rastro’s remarks about M’ric’s chances of ever flying in the fighting Wings, nor Ch’fil’s, would do his mood any good. “I may not get another tail. The Weyrlingmaster mentioned a couple of names, but he doesn’t care for how I’m mentoring you.”

“He doesn’t like me, so he’s not going to like you,” said M’ric. “But he has to give you a tail. R’lony still has that much say. What were the names?”

T’kamen had to think about it. “I’rill,” he said, after a moment, “and J’reo.”

“Oh, Faranth. J’reo still wets the bed!”

“What about the other one?”

“I’rill? Complete deadglow.” M’ric shook his head. “You need to hold out for better than either of them, T’kamen.”

“You almost sound appalled on my behalf, M’ric.”

“I am appalled. I suppose he’s only going to offer you brown riders, but he could at least give you D’kestry.” M’ric looked thoughtful. “Unless R’lony’s already lined him up to replace B’nam when he and Yaigath graduate. But you’d be better off without a tail than with either of J’reo or I’rill.”

“You’ll certainly be a difficult act to follow,” T’kamen said dryly. “Speaking of which, why don’t you lead on?”

M’ric sighed. “I really have to?”

“You’re the one who suggested Little Madellon in the first place, M’ric. We could have been on a beach in Blue Shale by now if not for that.”

They started up the incline that sloped to the base of Little Madellon’s crater. The meadow they were tramping through now would have been laid to road long ago had this become Madellon Weyr, but there wasn’t so much as a track through the thigh-high grass. T’kamen placed his feet carefully, scanning the ground for potholes and false patches as much as for any basking snakes that might be lurking in the camouflage of the grasses. M’ric seemed even less at ease, frequently kicking at particularly thick tufts, and swearing under his breath.

“Something the matter?” T’kamen asked at last.

“It’s just all this sharding greenery,” M’ric said. “It makes me nervous.” He ground his toe into an offending alpine weed. “It doesn’t bother you, does it?”

“The walking?”

“The grass.”

T’kamen thought about it. “Not really.”

“Well, it wouldn’t, would it? Where you’re from, it doesn’t matter if there’s grass or not.”

“You’re right. Most of Madellon’s Bowl is pasture in the Interval. You’ll hate it.”

M’ric shuddered. “That’s what comes of only having the idea of Thread to worry about and not the reality.”

T’kamen paused, looking around. “You say that,” he said slowly, “but I don’t see a single burned-out Thread burrow up here.” When M’ric didn’t respond, he turned to look at him. “Why is that?”

M’ric still looked reluctant to talk about the reality of what awaited them within the bowl of Little Madellon, but eventually he said, “They take special care, flying Fall over here. They double up the Wings to make sure nothing gets through, so Thread can’t get at the…remains.”

“They’re out in the open?”

“They’d filled all the caves long before the end of the Interval,” M’ric said. “They tried building cairns for a while, but they didn’t last long enough to make the effort worthwhile. The scavengers just pull them apart.”

“Couldn’t they have buried them? Or burned them?”

“Burial takes too long, and burning too much fuel.”

“But why here?”

“Because they have to put them somewhere, and it’s better than just leaving them lying around the territory, isn’t it?”

“Then that’s why Salionth and Recranth didn’t come back to Madellon with the rest of us after my first Fall,” T’kamen said. “They were bringing Sprilth here.”

M’ric made a face. “Can we talk about something else? This is depressing enough already.”

“All right,” T’kamen said. He started after the boy again, thinking of another subject. “Why don’t you tell me about the missing queen?”

That made M’ric pause and look back. “The missing queen?”

“The one that Geninth sired on Donauth a few Turns back.”

“Oh. Chrelith.” M’ric looked surprised. “R’lony told you about her?”

“Barely.”

M’ric halted to let T’kamen catch back up to him. “I’m amazed he mentioned her at all.”

“We were talking about queens,” T’kamen said. “Or the lack of them, given how afraid every rider seems to be of his dragon siring anything bigger than a brown. What happened to Chrelith?”

“What do you think?” M’ric kicked away a stone lying in his path. “She defected.”

“To the north?”

“And not alone. A lot of bronze and brown riders went too. It was pretty humiliating for R’lony. That’s why I’m surprised he told you about Chrelith.”

“I suppose having Geninth’s ability to sire queens questioned was worse than the alternative.” T’kamen thought about it. “So that was the beginning of the rift between the continents?”

“Not the beginning,” said M’ric. “Things had been unfriendly for Turns. The north’s never been as forward-thinking as the south.”

“Forward-thinking?”

“They were still letting bronzes catch their queens right up until the beginning of the Pass. I think they still choose their Weyrleaders that way, too, and they don’t promote green or blue riders.”

“How backwards of them.”

“It is backwards. Their Wings are led by bronze and brown riders with dragons so big they can’t even fight properly. They fly in the safe bottom levels and direct Fall from there. They’d be better off sitting at home and letting the proper fighting dragons do the work.” M’ric jerked a thumb back over his shoulder towards Epherineth. “Why do you think everyone assumed you were a northerner when you showed up on him?”

T’kamen looked back at his dragon. Epherineth hadn’t yet gone after a wherry; he and Trebruth were sitting up, watching them hike to Little Madellon. Every rider considered his own dragon to be the perfect specimen, but exposure to the much smaller Pass dragons had forced T’kamen to re-examine the parameters against which he judged draconic conformation. Epherineth was still a handsome fellow, though. “If northern dragons are more Epherineth’s size than Trebruth’s, how are they fighting Thread at all?”

“Badly, I would think,” said M’ric. “That’s why they wanted Chrelith and the dragons that went with her, to breed smaller stock.”

“Why didn’t they just ask one of the southern Weyrs to trade dragons with them?”

“Because no northern brown or bronze rider would want to come south,” said M’ric. “And what would we do with a load of their oversized dragons, anyway?”

“Madellon’s hardly well-off for queens,” said T’kamen. “R’lony can protest as much as he likes, but you’re halfway through the Pass, and Donauth and Levierth between them have only produced one gold egg. If anything happens to either of them, you’re going to have a problem before the next Interval comes around.”

“Technically, I’m not.”

“Now who’s not being forward-thinking?”

For once, M’ric didn’t have a retort. “Well, what would you do?”

“Open flights back up to bronzes,” T’kamen replied. “The smaller ones at least,” he amended, when M’ric gave him a sceptical look. He allowed himself a humourless smile. “Although Epherineth does have a perfect record of throwing gold eggs.”

He knew he deserved M’ric’s snort of disdain. “I wouldn’t want to be in your boots if you ever let Epherineth go after Donauth.”

“Careful, M’ric. That sounded dangerously like a vote of confidence in R’lony’s ability to take me in a fight.”

“It’s not R’lony I’d be worried about,” said M’ric. “I’ve heard things about what Dalka does to the riders whose dragons beat Geninth.”

T’kamen contemplated the prospect in the light of his encounter with Dalka in her workroom. “You might have a point.”

A gust of wind swirled around them as they climbed the ramp of massive rocks and boulders that led up to the breach in the Little Madellon crater, debris blown out by the last eruption of the volcanic peak. The wind carried with it a powerful stench of decay, much stronger than T’kamen would normally have associated with mere wherry dens. He noticed M’ric turning his head against the smell. “Put your scarf up,” he said, pulling his own up to cover the lower half of his face. “It’s only going to get worse.” He paused. “Do you know how to keep your thoughts private from Trebruth?”

“Yes,” said M’ric, as he wrapped his scarf around his face, “of course I do.”

“Then I suggest you do it.”

M’ric shrugged. “All right. Are you going to block Epherineth?”

“No,” said T’kamen.

“You’re not very good at it, are you?”

T’kamen ignored the accusation. “He’s older than Trebruth. He’ll cope.”

In truth, he knew of no way to keep Epherineth out of his thoughts. There were exercises a rider could use to minimise the bleed-through of thoughts and emotions, but T’kamen had never really grasped them. L’stev had used all kinds of analogies to describe the process of excluding a dragon from the conscious mind – drawing a curtain, building a wall, closing a door – but T’kamen had found that those concepts presupposed a certain division of self that he and Epherineth lacked. Perhaps some dragon-rider bonds did form that way, with their boundaries explicitly drawn, each consciousness confined in some fashion with a single point of connection. Theirs wasn’t. There was no one place where Epherineth’s thoughts joined with T’kamen’s, no demarcation between draconic awareness and human, no seam where dragon ended and rider began. Their minds were intertwined like the roots of two trees grown so close and so long together that there was no differentiating one from the other. They overlapped, like a tide on the shore, with no way to define which was sea and which sand. T’kamen had only ever been able to rely on his thoughts being his and his alone when Epherineth was asleep or distracted.

Instead, he asked, Can you make yourself small and quiet?

Quiet, yes. Small, never.

You know what I mean.

I always do.

T’kamen smiled behind his scarf as Epherineth’s love and understanding flared brighter for a moment, and then the immediacy of his presence waned. He was still there, still present, still conscious of everything T’kamen did and saw and felt, but at a slight remove, a lesser degree of intensity.

“T’kamen?”

M’ric’s voice wavered slightly, making him sound even more like the boy he still was. T’kamen considered, and immediately discarded, the idea of telling him to stay behind. “Come on, brown rider,” he said, “let’s get this done.”

Together, they climbed the last few yards of the rock-strewn ramp into Little Madellon.

And looked down into a graveyard.

If any effort had been made to preserve the dignity of the dragons that had been interred at Little Madellon, it had been defeated by the elements, and the scavengers, and the ruthless process of decomposition. The mortal remains of hundreds of dragons dotted the bowl of the caldera as far as T’kamen could see, each its own silent monument to the living creature it had once been. Some were little more than piles of gnawed bones, scattered out of any natural configuration. Those must be the oldest of all: sixty or seventy Turns dead, the first Madellon dragons interred here, after the last dragons who could still go between had themselves died out. Other skeletons were nearly intact for all their nakedness, only the small bones absent from the whole. Some still bore scraps of hide fluttering forlornly from empty chest-cages and bleached white wingspars. Ridged backbones snaked like immense sinuous tree trunks, the fused segments still whole, other vertebrae missing or displaced. The enormous skulls stared blindly from the gaping hollows of their eye sockets, yellowed fangs jutting from their upper jaws, the lowers long since fallen away, but the skulls themselves too heavy for even the largest predators to carry off.

But sad and grim and shocking though the sight of a long-dead dragon stripped down to its bones was, it couldn’t compare to the horror of a newer carcass.

They hulked there, hillocks of bloated and stinking corruption, the flesh putrefying on the bones, the hide sloughing off as decomposition took hold. The ravages of Fall were still visible in the grotesquely deformed limbs partially eaten by Thread, and the blackened evidence of the dragonfire that had posthumously cleansed the infestation. Some of the bodies were fresh enough for the original hue to be identifiable beneath the discoloured bloom of death and the writhing colonies of maggots. None were fresh enough to still have eyes, or tongues, or untouched bellies.

Wherries crouched atop all but the most badly decayed, tearing loose gobbets of grey-green flesh with beaks and claws. One carcass, close to the ramp where T’kamen and M’ric stood, was almost hidden beneath a shifting blanket of scavengers. Another’s underside was a seething nest of snakes, nearly indistinguishable from the thick loops of exposed intestines they’d ripped out to feast upon. Flies swarmed and buzzed from body to body in foul black clouds. The stench was indescribable; the sound of wherries cawing harshly at each other even as they gobbled down the carrion appalling.

It was so harrowing a scene, so breathtakingly repellent in its every detail, that T’kamen knew he would never wipe it from his mind, and yet the sheer magnitude of it made him feel oddly removed from the horror. This shouldn’t be, Epherineth. Dragons were never meant to end this way.

But there are no dragons here, said Epherineth. He sounded puzzled, as though he couldn’t wholly grasp the reason for T’kamen’s reaction. The dragons are gone.

Their bodies aren’t.

A body is not a dragon, T’kamen.

Then it doesn’t offend you that they’re being torn apart by wherries and snakes?

They no longer need the flesh that they wore. The wherries and snakes are welcome to it.

T’kamen wondered if all dragons were as untroubled by the desecration of the dead, or if Epherineth’s lack of concern was unique to him. His composure in the face of the gruesome evidence of dragon mortality was beyond T’kamen’s capacity to understand. “How are you doing, M’ric?”

“I knew it would be bad, but…” M’ric sounded physically nauseated.

“Let Trebruth back in,” T’kamen said. “Epherineth’s quite calm. I don’t think dragons have the same issues with death as we do.”

After a moment, M’ric nodded, though he still looked pale behind his scarf. “Faranth, T’kamen,” he said. “Now I understand why weyrlings aren’t meant to come here.”

T’kamen looked at the wherries crawling over the cadavers, then unslung the spear from his shoulder. “It wouldn’t be my first choice for a pleasant day out, either.”

“Do you think they’ll attack us?” M’ric asked.

“I doubt it. They have enough to keep them occupied. But it doesn’t hurt to be prepared.”

M’ric drew the long-bladed hunting knife from his belt. “Where now?” He sounded a bit less shaky.

T’kamen looked across the bowl, trying not to let himself be distracted by the corpses. “Ch’fil said that Alanne’s supplies are delivered to the cavern in the south-west. That seems like a good place to start.”

“We’re going to have to walk through them to get there,” said M’ric. “Through the bodies.”

“Just don’t look too closely,” said T’kamen, resettling the scarf around his face. He kept his tone matter-of-fact. “And watch out for snakes.”

It was a strange, sad journey, crossing the bowl of Little Madellon. T’kamen took a careful course, giving each dragon’s corpse as wide a berth as possible as much out of respect as to forestall any possibility of disturbing the scavengers feeding on the bodies, yet even so the occasional small bone crunched beneath his boots, a knuckle or toe, long separated from its rightful place. They passed one body fresh enough that most of the sail remained, causing the tattered wings to flutter in the intermittent breeze. It had been a bronze, and despite Epherineth’s calm, T’kamen’s own stomach turned over anew at the thought of his dragon ending up here.

Even as he thought it, M’ric said, “T’kamen, look.”

“What is it?”

He pointed. “There.”

M’ric had exceptionally sharp eyes. T’kamen wouldn’t have picked out the shapes of the fire-lizards perching above the entrance to the cavern that was their destination. They were better camouflaged than he’d thought they would be: browns of a hue with the stone, blues blending into the mottled shadows, greens like mossy rocks.

Then, as he watched, the bright form of a queen came darting out of the cave, and the whole fair took off. The mob of fire-lizards pinwheeled across Little Madellon in a ragged honour guard around its queen, protecting her even as she directed their course, until the entire flock descended rapidly towards the hulk of a corpse. The solitary cock-wherry that had been pecking at the dragon’s tail raised its wings, shrieking, but one wherry was no match for a whole fair. Individual lizards dived at the bird, slashing with their talons before veering sharply off to evade retaliation. The onslaught drove the wherry back, and at last it surrendered to the fire-lizard horde, beating its wings hard to take flight in search of a different meal. As it did, it made one defiant lunge at its assailants. Most of the fire-lizards simply tumbled out of the way, but a pair of blues squarely in the wherry’s path squalled with fright – and vanished between.

Moments later, the two blues reappeared. T’kamen felt a surge of excitement. “So they can still use between!”

“Yeah,” said M’ric. He was watching with revulsion as the fire-lizard fair fell upon the carcass. “They can.”

The sight of the creatures tearing at the half-rotten flesh of a dead dragon wasn’t the most appealing, but then T’kamen had never had any affection for fire-lizards in the first place. He’d always found their resemblance to dragons distasteful rather than endearing; an indiscriminate, foolish distortion of draconic dignity and splendour; a piece of dragonkind that any Holder with enough marks could flaunt, like gaudy jewellery. They were barely a step up from the grotesquery of watch-whers, which at least could be employed usefully in mines or as night-time guards. And perhaps that was why, despite the shock of seeing the dragons’ graveyard and its scavengers, T’kamen could detach himself from his revulsion when it came to fire-lizards. If they could be turned to a practical purpose, he didn’t care if their reputation as expensive pets had been blackened by their new-found penchant for carrion. And if even dragons didn’t regard the bodies of their fellows as anything more than discarded meat, he supposed that fire-lizards could hardly be expected to accord them any greater reverence.

A space had been left in front of the cave mouth; a broad semi-circular clearing, edged with the bleached bone piles of decades-dead dragons. As T’kamen and M’ric approached, a brown fire-lizard appeared from between. It held its position in front of the cave mouth, looking down at them with brightly-gleaming eyes. An instant later, half a dozen more winked in, blue and green. T’kamen realised that he hadn’t seen a single bronze. The fire-lizards chattered excitedly amongst themselves, and then, as one, they all vanished again.

T’kamen looked at M’ric. His brows were drawn above the scarf covering his face. “What do you think?”

“I think Alanne knows we’re coming.”

T’kamen re-shouldered his spear. “Then we’d better not keep her waiting.”

After the brightness of the day, he expected the cave to be blindingly dark. But the handful of glows he fumbled out of his belt pouch proved unnecessary as they stepped inside the cavern. The floor was mostly sandy, warm underfoot, with steam rising gently from the hottest places. Shafts of sunshine stabbed down from openings high above, punctuating the darkness with puddles of light. With a larger entrance it would have made an admirable Hatching cavern.

But in the centre of one of those pools of illumination lay a single huge skeleton, the remains of a dragon bigger than any of those they had seen outside. It lay curled there almost as if in life, the bones clean of any remnants of flesh or hide, but virtually intact, with no evidence that scavengers had dragged them out of their natural configuration. The skull, its jaws easily large enough to swallow a man, grinned toothily where it was turned back on the neck. The entire skeleton must have been staged – posed, even – to emulate life. T’kamen wondered who’d done it. But no amount of arrangement could have corrected the unnatural bend in the spine where vertebrae had been crushed and twisted; no sympathetic placement could have repaired the fractured keel or the staved-in plates of the ribcage; and only clever work with wire and mortar held together the massive limb-bones that had been shattered by a terrible impact.

A woman was squatting in the sand beside the immense skull, huddled over something, her back to them. T’kamen thought at first she was a hunchback, and then he realised that fire-lizards crowded her shoulders, five or six of them clinging to her. Her hair was yellow – discoloured white rather than blonde – and seemed to have been hacked off with a knife. Beneath the shifting mob of fire-lizards, she wore a shapeless brown robe, stained and tattered. Her feet were bare, the ankles protruding from the ragged hem of the sack-like robe as gaunt and thin as sticks.

Behind T’kamen, M’ric muttered, “Faranth.”

“That’s not Faranth,” T’kamen replied softly. He darted a thought to Epherineth, Stay small, and then, clearing his throat to broadcast his presence, approached the crouching woman, pulling the scarf down from his face. “Weyrwoman,” he said, for want of another title to call her by. “Weyrwoman Alanne.”

“Early,” she said. “Didn’t I tell you they were early? Isn’t that what I said?” She batted a hand over her shoulder in T’kamen’s direction, dislodging a couple of fire-lizards. “Early! Go away! Come back tomorrow!” Then she cocked her head to one side, and added, “Did you bring sweetener? Is there sweetener?”

“I’m not the supply rider, Weyrwoman,” T’kamen said. “I’m –”

No sweetener!” Alanne raged. She reared to her feet, lifting her arms, scattering screeching fire-lizards every which way. “Nothing sweet, nothing sweet, nothing sweet, do you hear me?”

An external force struck T’kamen suddenly, a push not at his body, but at his mind. He shook his head: dazed, unprepared. Epherineth had occasionally given him a mental shove, but he’d never felt one come from somewhere else. “Weyrwoman,” he said thickly, “I…”

As Alanne turned to face him, the words dried in T’kamen’s throat, and he heard M’ric breathe, “Sweet mother of dragons!”

Her face was striped with livid scars, jagged lines that ran from hairline to chin. Where they crossed her eyes the lids were sunken, shrunken; empty. If her face had ever been beautiful it was impossible to tell beneath the awful evidence of her self-mutilation. But sightless, eyeless though she was, she still moved her head as though she could see him as clearly as he could see her, and when she spoke again her voice was suddenly perfectly calm. “What’s this to-do, hmm?” she asked, in a reasonable tone. “You’ll forgive an old woman her routine. I wasn’t expecting anyone today, you see, or I’d have made more of an effort.” Her thin hand drifted out to touch the enormous skull, caressing the bony eye-ridge tenderly. “Ryth would have that I’m a vision no matter what, but dragons will flatter, won’t they?”

T’kamen forced enough saliva back into his mouth to reply. It was one of the hardest things he’d ever done. “You both look…well,” he managed.

Alanne beamed a sudden smile, a horror of broken and blackened teeth in her ruined face. “Yes, yes, Ryth wouldn’t lie, would you, my dear girl?” The expression drained away as quickly as it had appeared. “Well, who are you? What do you want? Where are your dragons?”

The jabbing came again: not a shove, but subtler, probing, seeking. T’kamen had no idea how to resist it without Epherineth’s help. Instead, he tried to screen off his dragon’s small, listening presence in his own mind. “I’m T’kamen, and this is my tailman M’ric.”

“Yes,” Alanne said, turning her ravaged face from one to the other. “Yes, he favours you, this son of yours.”

“Your pardon, Weyrwoman,” T’kamen said. “M’ric isn’t my son.”

“Don’t contradict me,” Alanne said, with another of those painful mental thrusts, and the fire-lizards on both her shoulders mantled their wings in reaction. T’kamen realised that she was using their eyes to see. “Ryth doesn’t like it when you contradict me.” Then the faint smile that played on her lips as she spoke to the skeleton of her dragon faded. “Forgive me,” she said fretfully. “It’s so hard to know what’s real and what isn’t these days. Are you another phantom?” She reached out towards him with frail hands. “Please, I must know if you’re real or not.”

T’kamen braced himself, then extended his hand. “I’m no phantom,” he said.

Alanne’s fingers closed on his, first lightly, and then with a sudden steely grip. “You lie,” she cried, and thrust his hand away from her. “You are a phantom! You’re dead! You shouldn’t be here! Go away, go away, go away!”

More fire-lizards materialised from between in the air around the dragonless woman, at least a dozen of them, their piping voices full of sympathy. Alanne, sobbing, stretched out her emaciated arms, and the fair swarmed over her, clinging wherever they could find purchase, winding their tails about her limbs, pressing their little bodies against hers. Startling though the sight was, it seemed to soothe Alanne’s manic distress. She gave herself a shake, and most of the fair took off, though they didn’t go far. Instead, the mob of fire-lizards found new perches along the bony spinal ridges of Ryth’s skeletal form, and lined up there, like macabre ornaments, watching their mistress with avid, adoring eyes.

That was when T’kamen saw their clutch. It was almost hidden, covered completely over with sand, but the tell-tale domed rises of hidden shells in a circular pattern gave it away. It lay in the curve of Ryth’s skeletal form, as if even if death the queen could protect it. But when he took an involuntary step towards it, Alanne stepped back, and the one remaining fire-lizard on her shoulder, a brown, shrieked a clear warning for him to keep his distance.

“Not you,” she said. She pointed at M’ric. “You. Come here.”

M’ric shot T’kamen a look of purest supplication. T’kamen couldn’t blame him. Alanne’s volatility, bouncing as she did from calm to agitated, lucid to raving, would have been unnerving in a woman without her appearance – or the terrifying mental strength which even losing her queen seemingly hadn’t stripped from her. But with the fire-lizard eggs almost close enough to touch, T’kamen couldn’t afford M’ric the luxury of staying uninvolved. “Go on,” he said, motioning towards Alanne with his head.

Reluctantly, dragging his feet, M’ric approached the dragonless queen rider.

“Oh, stop dithering, Daliddal!” Alanne cried. “Why that blasted foster-mother of yours hasn’t thrashed this sloth out of you by now I’ll never know! Now come here and be smart about it!”

Stung – by the sharpness of the words rather than any accompanying push, T’kamen thought – M’ric lengthened his stride. “Yes, Weyrwoman,” he said, having the sense to humour her.

“That’s more like it,” said Alanne. She gripped him by the shoulders – M’ric almost flinched, but controlled himself in time to suppress the reaction – then patted briskly at his hair. “This will stick up, won’t it,” she said, half to herself. She licked her palm and flattened down the offending locks. M’ric did well not to cringe away. “This is your fault, D’midder,” she said, wagging her finger in T’kamen’s direction. “I always said he favoured you. Well, we’ll see soon enough, won’t we, when the eggs hatch?” She turned with another horrifying smile. “I know you want to touch them. Why else would you be here?”

“Uh,” M’ric said, flicking a look down at the clutch, “yes…yes, that’s why I’m here. You, ah, know me too well…ah…mother?”

“Mother, mother,” Alanne chortled. “Oh, you’ll do anything to butter me up, won’t you?” She gave him a little nudge with her elbow. “Well, you make sure you make your bows to Ryth, and maybe she’ll let you closer.”

It made the oddest scene: the immense skeleton, the tiny clutch, the watching gallery of fire-lizards, and M’ric, obliged to play along with the whole harper’s farce. Or harper’s tragedy. Alanne’s grip on sanity was clearly tenuous, yet there was a tenderness in the expression on her ruined face that T’kamen found heartbreaking. He didn’t know if the wretched dragonless rider truly believed that M’ric was her son, or if so how long the delusion would last, but if it gave her some measure of comfort to play out the pretence then he wouldn’t have begrudged her it.

Moving stiffly – no doubt conscious, with a teenager’s fragile pride, of how ridiculous he looked – M’ric turned to face Ryth’s inanimate form. He executed a short bow, muttering, “My duty to you, Ryth.”

“Go on, go on, ask her if you can come closer,” Alanne prompted him.

M’ric cleared his throat. “May I see your eggs?”

The single queen fire-lizard of Alanne’s fair mantled her wings from her perch atop a bony knob of Ryth’s spine, emitting a shriek of protest. “Now, don’t be that way,” Alanne told her. “You know he won’t hurt them. Let him see.”

M’ric stepped up to the clutch, then sank down to a crouch to examine it. “Can I touch them?”

Alanne squatted beside him. “Here,” she said, brushing away sand to uncover the shells.

Whatever process that sometimes distinguished dragon eggs with vivid markings didn’t seem to occur with fire-lizard clutches. They were much more uniform, a sandy-beige in colour – the better to blend in with their surroundings. T’kamen had never handled a queen egg to know if they looked much different, but one of the eggs M’ric was looking at right now contained the fire-lizard queen that would become his companion and – if T’kamen’s hunch was correct – the means of enabling Trebruth to travel between to the Interval.

“They’re hard,” M’ric said to Alanne. “Will they hatch soon?”

“In days,” she said. “Not sevendays. Some of them are singing to me already.” She stroked a shell lightly with her dirty fingers. “This one will be brown. This one’s green. And this one…”

Alanne faltered as she touched another egg. M’ric looked questioningly at her, and T’kamen wondered if the old woman’s state of mind was going to shift again. She dug under the shell, excavating it from its sandy hollow. “This one,” said Alanne, holding the egg up to her face. It was on the large side, perhaps half the size of a wherry egg. Her eyeless sockets flickered and she inhaled sharply. “This one’s no good at all.”

“Don’t!” M’ric exclaimed, sensing her intent even as T’kamen did.

But it was too late. Alanne tightened her fist around the shell. There was a wet popping sound, and then she tossed the crushed remains aside with a negligent flick of her fingers.

“Faranth, what did you have to do that for?” cried M’ric.

Alanne wiped egg fluid and fragments of shell on the front of her filthy smock. “It was bronze,” she said, with chilling callousness. “I have no use for bronzes.”

M’ric seemed almost paralysed by shock. T’kamen, sickened, stepped over to the discarded clot of shell and the small body it had contained. Beneath the sand and fluid and greenish ichor, the unhatched fire-lizard clearly was a bronze. It was the length of T’kamen’s hand, and almost fully-formed, though its wings were hopelessly mangled, its limbs twisted by the violent compression of Alanne’s fist. But the broken thing was still alive. It quivered there where it had been discarded, the tiny head twitching blindly, the mouth open in a scream it had no breath to project, the soft claws clenching and releasing futilely.

T’kamen went to his knees beside the tiny body. He scooped it up with both hands, letting sand fall away between his fingers. It made a pitifully scant handful. “Epherineth,” he said aloud, and his dragon surged back into his consciousness in full force. “Is there anything we can do?”

He is dying, Epherineth replied. His voice reflected his instinctive revulsion at the sight, the brutality, the murder of this helpless scrap of life.

As the fire-lizard shivered in his hands, T’kamen readied himself to end its suffering. It was so tiny; just a pinch of his fingers would have done it. But before he could act, the broken lizard gave a final choking, convulsive shudder and lay still.

He’s gone, Epherineth said softly.

T’kamen looked at the little body, as sad in its own way as the terrible sight of the dragon corpses outside. He set it down carefully, brushing sand from his hands. Only then did he trust himself to look at Alanne. She had turned her eyeless head in his direction, and the brown fire-lizard on her shoulder was staring at him. The fact that neither it, nor any of the other fire-lizards lined up along Ryth’s backbone, had objected to Alanne’s destruction of the offending egg was frightening. If she could control an entire fair of fire-lizards even half mad and dragonless, it was no wonder she’d been so feared and despised as Madellon’s Weyrwoman. He rose, preparing himself.

“You stink of bronze,” she said, with loathing. “I see him.”

The push that T’kamen felt was harder and sharper than any of her earlier probes, a vicious stab with baleful intent behind it, but he and Epherineth were ready for it. They resisted, and Alanne’s attack glanced only bruisingly off their united will.

Alanne’s cry of surprise was almost lost in the outraged shrieks of a score of fire-lizards. She seemed almost dumbstruck that anyone would dare repel a push, and for an instant T’kamen thought they might escape without further incident, but then she jabbed a finger wordlessly at him, and the fair attacked.

He heard M’ric shout his name, and Epherineth’s distant roar. He had a split second to shrug the wherry spear off his shoulder into his hands, and then Alanne’s lizards were upon him.

T’kamen caught a glimpse of talons aimed directly at his eyes, and threw himself sideways. They snagged his hair instead, ripping out clumps. More lizards descended, diving on him as they had the cock-wherry outside, and their claws slashed at his head, his shoulders, his arms, slicing through wherhide and skin with equal ease.

Swearing, T’kamen swung the shaft of the wherry spear two-handed over his head. One lizard alone would have evaded the crude strike easily, but while half the attacking creatures vanished abruptly between, there were so many that he couldn’t help but get a few. The screams of anger turned to squalls of pain. One little body hit the ground with a sickening thud, and several more tumbled away with damaged wings. T’kamen lashed out again, trying to clear himself some space, and this time the whole mob of fire-lizards eddied back out of reach, their survival instincts overriding even Alanne’s formidable will. He rolled away, trying to get his feet back under him. Epherineth!

We come!

M’ric was suddenly there, helping him scramble upright. He was holding himself strangely, one arm folded across his stomach. “We have to get out of here, T’kamen!”

“You don’t shaffing say!” T’kamen snapped. Blood from a freely-streaming scalp wound ran into his mouth as he spoke. He begrudged even the moment it took to spit it out. Behind them, Alanne was laughing or crying, or maybe both; he glimpsed her cradling the body of the fire-lizard he’d struck fatally in her arms. He could no longer care. “Move, now!”

They made for the exit of the cavern at a dash, crossing through intermittent patches of brightness as they ran. T’kamen kept the wherry spear handy, but no fire-lizards pursued them. The strengthening reek of rotting flesh as they neared daylight couldn’t have been more incongruously welcome.

And then a pair of whers slouched out of the shadows near the entrance. Both were a drab olive colour that could have been green or brown. Their malformed eyes were squeezed tightly shut against the light, but the ugly heads turned unerringly on the thick muscular necks, guided as surely as blind Alanne herself by their mutual connection to the fire-lizards. They lurched towards T’kamen and M’ric on bowed limbs, their misshapen wings waving obscenely, heavy tails swinging for counter-balance, jaws dripping with slaver as they lumbered to engage the interlopers on their territory.

“Shaffing Faranth!” M’ric shouted.

T’kamen gripped the wherry spear two-handed, but he knew with bleak certainty that it was no defence against one angry watch-wher, let alone two. “M’ric, circle around to the left,” he said, not taking his eyes off the creatures.

“But –”

“You’re younger and faster than me. If you can make it outside I don’t think they’ll follow.”

“I’m not leaving you here, T’kamen!”

T’kamen took one hand off the spear to cuff the boy savagely on the back of the head. “For once in your life, do as you’re sharding well told! You’re the one who has to get out of this alive! Move it! Now!”

After another instant’s indecision, M’ric obeyed. As the boy sprinted wide of the whers, the closer of the pair tracked him. “Hey!” T’kamen shouted. “Over here! It’s me your crazy mistress wants!”

The brutish head swung back towards him. T’kamen took one step backwards, then another, keeping the spear braced in front of him. The pair of whers continued their advance; clumsy, ungraceful, but inexorable. They knew, or Alanne did, that he had nowhere else to go. “That’s it, you ugly bastards,” he said softly. He didn’t dare take his eyes off them to see if M’ric had got away. “Come on. Come and get me.”

Then something locked onto his right calf, and T’kamen cried out as a fire-lizard’s fangs sank viciously into the back of his knee. The leg crumpled beneath him, and he dropped the spear, groping down with both hands at the lizard savaging his leg. He got hold of it for an instant before, with a final scissoring twist of its jaws that made something in his knee give way with an agonising, audible pop, the fire-lizard escaped between.

Alanne’s hooting gales of laughter made an awful counterpoint to the eager slobbering of the advancing watch-whers. She pushed him, not to control, but to hurt. “Filthy bronze rider,” she said. Another painful shove. She was taunting him, playing with him, like a feline toying with a captive snake. “You won’t have Ryth. You won’t.

Blood welled out from between T’kamen’s fingers where he clutched his mauled, screaming, suddenly unresponsive leg. He turned his head away from the stalking whers to look at their deranged mistress. “Ryth’s dead, Alanne,” he ground out through teeth gritted against the pain. “You can play make-believe with your fire-lizards and your whers until the next Interval, but it won’t change that. Your queen is dead, and you killed her.”

“No,” said Alanne. “No. You’re lying.” She pushed him yet again, so hard this time that it sent him sprawling onto his back. T’kamen struggled to get himself upright, leaving bloody handprints in the sand. “You’re lying. You plotted and you lied and you schemed and you killed my queen!” she howled. “You and Ligarth! He would have raped my Ryth! You would have raped me! I had to stop you, L’vorn! I’ll stop you again!” She raised her hands to her face, as if to repeat the tearing with her nails that had scarred her so hideously, and then she pointed at the two watch-whers. “Kill him, kill him, kill him!”

The whers leapt obediently forwards, drooling maws agape and baying, their foetid reek washing over T’kamen, and he braced himself, flinging a final desperate thought to Epherineth. I’m sorry. I love you.

NO!

The light from outside was blotted abruptly out by Epherineth’s head and shoulders, filling the too-small cavern entrance. The closest wher, on the verge of springing at T’kamen, jerked spasmodically backwards, its tail snagged in Epherineth’s forepaw. Epherineth, his eyes scarlet with fury, smashed it once, twice, three times on the ground before hurling it almost casually against the wall of the cavern. The wher struck the rock face with a horrible crack, and when it hit the ground, it didn’t move again.

The second wher howled, enraged, and leapt at Epherineth. It latched onto the side of his neck, flailing and biting. Epherineth roared with pain, clawed it frantically loose, then snatched the thrashing wher up in his mouth. Even then the creature wouldn’t surrender, slashing viciously at Epherineth’s face. He flipped it upwards, then caught it again, squarely in his jaws, its head writhing one side and its tail lashing frantically on the other. He crunched down with his teeth, pulverising bone and rending flesh, until the screams stopped, and then he spat out the bloody remains in a ragged heap.

Then Epherineth, his face streaming green ichor, his bared teeth snaggled with bits of watch-wher hide and splinters of bone and shreds of flesh, turned his murderous crimson gaze on Alanne.

All the fire-lizards had fled, and Alanne was completely alone. She was crawling on her hands and knees in the sand, totally blind with no creature to see for her, and though she had no eyes to weep, she was sobbing broken-heartedly as she fumbled pathetically around. “Ryth…Ryth…I’m sorry…forgive me…”

No, T’kamen told him, grasping Epherineth’s intent. He reached for the wherry spear and drove its butt into the sand, using it to pull himself upright. His knee buckled, and he had to lean hard on the spear shaft. The pain was so bad he thought he might faint. Leave her!

She tried to kill you!

She didn’t succeed. Leave her! T’kamen took a halting step, but his knee wouldn’t bend, and the leg collapsed under him. He lay gasping in the sand, struggling to stay conscious. Just get us out of here.

Epherineth flattened himself nearly to the ground, eeling deeper into the cavern on his belly, until he could reach T’kamen with his forepaws. Carefully, with a gentleness that belied his brutal attack on the two watch-whers, he clasped his claws around T’kamen. He lifted him easily in that taloned, ichor-stained grip and then wriggled backwards like an immense tunnel-snake.

As they emerged into the sunlight, M’ric rushed to Epherineth’s side. Trebruth was behind him. “Faranth, T’kamen, you’re all right!”

Epherineth set T’kamen down, though he kept his forepaw close, ready to catch him again if he staggered. “Are you hurt?” T’kamen asked M’ric dazedly.

“No,” said M’ric, “not a scratch. You’re bleeding all over, and Epherineth…”

T’kamen looked up, and nausea gripped him. “Oh, Faranth, Epherineth!” The marks of the wher’s terrible claws tracked deep and ragged all the way down Epherineth’s muzzle, bisecting his upper lip and laying hide and flesh open all the way to the bone. Epherineth had screwed the lids of his right eye tightly shut, and green ichor was welling up around it. “Your eye!”

Painfully, Epherineth opened his eye just a slit. The facets behind it were still bright red with anger, but they whirled intact and undamaged. I can see. I can see! But it hurts, T’kamen!

T’kamen had numbweed in his belt pouch, but not much, and nothing to clean Epherineth’s wounds, nothing to stitch them. His own injuries were sucking the strength from him. His leg felt awash with fire, and bending it even slightly made sickening waves of pain ripple through his entire body. “I can’t treat you here. We have to get home before Alanne pulls herself together and sends her lizards after us again.” And then it struck him: fire-lizards. “Blight it all between! The shaffing clutch is still in there with her.”

You’re not going back!

“T’kamen –”

“I have to!”

She tried to kill you!

“But T’kamen –”

“Those shaffing eggs are the whole reason we came to this blighted place!”

T’kamen!

“M’ric, would you just…” T’kamen began, and then he blinked and looked at the hands the boy had thrust towards him.

Two fire-lizard eggs lay in his cupped palms.

“I just swiped the two from the top,” M’ric said. “Did we need more?”


Author’s note

I don’t write many of these, as a rule, but this chapter is a bit of a special one.

When I first conceived of the notion of a betweenless Pern, and began to think through the consequences of taking away a draconic ability that we take so much for granted, one of the first things I realised was that they’d need to do something with all the bodies. And the dragon graveyard scene sprang into existence fully formed in my mind.

The exact details – Little Madellon, T’kamen and M’ric, and even Alanne (aka Batshit Betty) all came much later, but I’ve carried the image of dead, decaying, and skeletal Pernese dragons with me for about ten years now.

I hope you all enjoy it as much as I have.

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2 responses to “Chapter thirty-eight: T’kamen”

  1. Warren says:

    I am enjoying this story so much I don’t think I can adequately put it into words. The interweaving characters and plots and the unexpected directions you are taking something that is so beloved and familiar to me is utterly, utterly fantastic. Wednesday is the highlight of my week because a new chapter is released.
    Keep up the excellent work!

  2. Wodokeka says:

    I find myself waking up in the morning wondering what will happen to the various characters. You always surprise me (pleasantly). At first I didn’t want to read an AU since I enjoyed the originals so much. But I’m glad I did as the story is so detailed and the character building is well done. I enjoy the finer details of weyr life Anne didn’t give us. Thank you for your story. W

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