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Chapter fifty-two: Valonna

When a dragonrider is found guilty of crimes too heinous to allow him to remain within Weyr society, there are but two possible sentences: Exile and Separation.

Fewer than twenty dragonriders have been Exiled to Westisle in the last fifty Turns, and fewer still have lived long lives there. Their names are struck from the records of their home Weyrs, spoken only by the Weyrwomen whose queens must periodically reinforce the absolute prohibition on leaving that applies to any dragonpair exiled to that barren rock.

But as bleak a prospect as Exile may seem, it pales in comparison to the most severe punishment a dragonrider can face. Only two riders have ever been sentenced to Separation, both for capital crimes of such appalling magnitude that even the society of Westisle’s criminals will not accept them. It falls to the most senior Weyrwomen on Pern to impose the total isolation of dragon and rider from the world and from each other that comprises Separation: not only because such a sundering requires the full strength of a powerful queen, but because only the strongest and most resolute of Weyrwoman can bring themselves to live with being the instrument of such a dreadful punishment.

– Excerpt from A Weyrwoman’s Duty by Weyrwoman Nelaya

100.03.28 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
PENINSULA WEYR

Valonna (Micah Johnson)The sun was almost at its zenith in the sky when they assembled there along the lip of the internal plateau of the Peninsula Weyr. The crater seemed almost to hang over the sea at the end of the headland for which it had been named, the line of the curtain wall that hugged two-thirds of its diameter falling dramatically away on the northerly, seaward side of the caldera to bathe the interior with light. And with wind, too – the powerful northerly blows that could lash the coastline pummelled the inner face of the Peninsula mercilessly in winter – but while the waves foamed and surged hungrily around the rock stacks at the foot of the Weyr, only the strongest storms could swirl sea-spray the twenty dragonlengths from the base of the cliffs to the lowest point of the Weyr’s perimeter.

No such tempest raged today. Valonna stood beside Shimpath with one hand on her queen’s cheek, shading her eyes with the other. As they both looked out across the gently heaving swell, over the small sunlight-tipped waves that rippled all the way to the horizon, she could almost believe that, in their mutual contemplation of the rolling ocean, they were still of one mind.

Shimpath’s slight shift alerted her to H’ned’s approach. Valonna started from her thoughts. “Is it time?”

H’ned shook his head. “R’maro’s been detained by a succession of his own riders, all after a piece of his time. Megrith reports he’s grown quite irritable with it already.” The smile that tweaked his mouth was wry. “The weight of a Weyrleader’s responsibilities on shoulders so ill-prepared must be very heavy.” He motioned with his head. “There’s food and klah.”

“I don’t think I could,” Valonna said, but H’ned shook his head.

“I know you barely ate last night, Weyrwoman.” He looked at her with a solicitousness Valonna was too weary to object to. “Come and eat something; for your strength’s sake, if not your appetite’s.”

Valonna let him guide her away, though she maintained her touch on Shimpath’s face as long as she could, and when finally she broke it, she felt the small wrench in her breast that was becoming mournfully familiar.

The other riders of the dragons waiting along the apron of the Peninsula had gathered about a small table, set with cups and plates, steaming pitchers of klah, and platters of food. There was bread and soft cheese to spread on it; meatrolls stacked in a neat pyramid; a bowl of the fat purple marsh-berries common to the Peninsula; spice-cake cut into slabs. Hand-food that could be consumed in a bite or two or, as Britt and T’rello were demonstrating, crammed into a jacket pocket without taking much harm.

Rallai looked about as rested as Valonna felt, the face unmarred with age lined instead with fatigue, the heartsickness of division from her dragon, and the grey tension of the nagging craving for felah they shared. Still, even dressed in practical wherhides, and with her guests standing around like herdsmen snatching a mid-morning snack, Rallai was every inch the gracious hostess. “Let me pour the klah for you, Valonna,” she insisted, and pressed into her fingers a moment later a steaming cup.

They didn’t speak. All the talking had been done, and now only the waiting remained. Valonna sipped her klah and let her gaze drift around the knot of riders. H’pold’s shoes had been filled by K’ken, the tall, rumpled, but very experienced older rider Valonna knew only slightly as H’pold’s former deputy. He did not, Valonna noted, wear the Weyrleader’s knot that Sh’zon had given back to Rallai, but he and his ragged-winged bronze Essienth would nonetheless be escorting Rallai and Ipith between while they remained unable to communicate with each other. H’ned and Izath were to serve the same role for Valonna and Shimpath. Sh’zon had chosen T’rello as his guide. That had surprised Valonna. She had expected he would call on his Wingsecond, M’ric, to serve. When questioned, Sh’zon had said that he wished only to have another sizeable bronze on hand, but while Valonna couldn’t fault his choice – Santinoth was indeed Madellon’s largest male dragon – she suspected from Sh’zon’s brittle tone that something was amiss. Valonna couldn’t devote any time to unravelling it; still, the undercurrent of discord tugged distractingly at her.

Sirtis and L’dro were not there – a fact for which Valonna was wearily grateful – having their own role to play in the work ahead. But Britt, the weyrling rider of Peninsula’s nearly-grown queen Tynerith, had joined them. Tynerith, with her exceptionally keen and long-range senses, could pick out best of all the queens the tiny secret thread of Megrith’s thought, arrowed out covertly enough to avoid any detection by Southern’s bronzes. Stealth was essential. Queen though she was, Megrith was still a juvenile, and the concerted will of a Weyrful of bronzes starved of a queen’s presence for so long could easily overpower hers.

Britt was a freckle-faced girl of about sixteen with clever, flashing eyes. Valonna caught herself thinking that it would be good for her and Tarshe and Karika to spend some time together, not only to reinforce the ties between the southern Weyrs that had worn so thin, but to bind them in the small and exclusive sorority of Pern’s queen dragons. Had there been more of a sisterhood between Margone and Rallai and Valonna herself, perhaps none of them would be where they were now.

The only other rider missing was G’kalte. Valonna had not realised how sorry she would be not to see him, and for an instant she’d been nearly grateful that Shimpath could not hear her thoughts. Her queen would have been fiercely interested in the development, and that would have forced Valonna to examine the source of her disappointment more closely than she wanted to. Still, she’d found herself asking Rallai, when she and Sh’zon and H’ned had first arrived, how G’kalte was faring. Rallai explained that he was at the Healerhall, serving as a pincushion for needlethorns; G’kalte having taken a smaller amount of felah, the herbalists there were most interested in studying how the lesser dose of the drug had only partially clouded his link to Archidath. If Rallai suspected any agenda behind Valonna’s inquiry, she was too courteous to show it. Still, Valonna was herself uncomfortable enough with her unasked-for preoccupation to want to put it out of her mind.

She took a piece of bread from the board, more to show gratitude for Rallai’s hospitality than to sate the appetite she didn’t have. The Peninsula was huge and beautiful, half again Madellon’s size. It was the largest Weyr on Pern, and surely one of the grandest. Valonna had seen its immense Hatching Cavern during each of the Impression ceremonies she had attended as Madellon’s Weyrwoman, but little of its magnificent exterior. More than four hundred dragons called it their home, three of them queens, almost fifty bronzes. A heavily-laden two-master was wallowing along the coast to the east, flying the tithe ensign from its jackstaff; it would tie up at the sea-caves that undercut the ocean side of the Weyr and unload there, sending its cargo up the sheer cliffs in great hoists raised with ropes and pulleys. The necessary business of Peninsula Weyr went inexorably on, just as it did back at Madellon, in spite of all that had befallen the Weyrleaders of both Weyrs over the past days. It would go on at both Weyrs – and at Southern – as it always had and as it always would, regardless of the outcome of their endeavours today, just as the sun would wheel through the sky, uncaring of what transpired in the light and shadows it cast. Just as the Red Star, eventually, inescapably, would follow its celestial circuit back to the skies of Pern, bringing with it Thread’s malevolent rain. The thought gave Valonna a preternatural chill despite the heat of the morning.

Then she heard Britt say, “Weyrwoman…” in an odd, distracted tone. Valonna put every other thought out of her mind, and turned, as they all did, to the young queen rider.

“Britt?” Rallai asked.

Britt’s eyes had gone to Tynerith, who herself had adopted an expression of extreme concentration. Then, “I have a visual!” she exclaimed.

“Where?” Sh’zon demanded.

Britt shook her head once, curtly. “No idea. Don’t recognise it.” Then she added, “I can’t hold this for long. Tynerith intercepted the communication between Maibauth and Tezonth and it was only a glimpse. The details are fraying already.”

“Have Tynerith pass it about,” K’ken commanded her. “Everyone mount up!”

The crackle of martial command in his voice was probably unnecessary. They were all already spreading out to their dragons, throwing aside – or stuffing into their mouths – whatever food they had been holding. “Down, Shimpath!” Valonna called out loud to her dragon as she rushed to her, and Shimpath obediently flattened herself to the ground. Valonna ran up her queen’s arm as though it were a ramp and flung herself up the handholds of the aft neck-strap. Her hands were shaking as she buckled in, and it took her two tries to fasten the safety. Then, as Shimpath watched her from one rapidly spinning eye, Valonna cried, “Up!”

Shimpath pushed off hard, unfurling her wings to carry them up and up. Around them, the other dragons were rising, and for a giddy instant Valonna wondered if such a Wing had even taken flight together: three queens and four bronzes from two different Weyrs, united in their quest to thwart the Weyrleader of a third.

Aloft, they peeled off into their pairs: Ipith and Essienth, Kawanth and Santinoth, Shimpath and Izath. Tynerith, their guide, flew above and ahead of them all, but Valonna fixed her attention on H’ned and Izath, holding station to Shimpath’s right. H’ned cupped his hands around his mouth; even so, Valonna was surprised at the volume of his shout, clearly audible even at a winglength’s distance. “Signal if you’re ready!

Valonna had not often had reason to employ the formal arm signals of the fighting Wings, but L’stev’s old lessons had sunk into her muscles as well as her mind. She raised her right arm in the motion for affirmative.

Above, Tynerith vanished, and Essienth and Ipith a heartbeat after her. Shimpath gave the funny little quiver that was her way of warning Valonna that she was about to jump before she took them into the darkness of between.

And out again. The burst of brightness hurt Valonna’s eyes even behind her goggles. The sun had moved higher in the sky and glared down from an uninterrupted expanse of blue. Below, a sere plain unfolded to the horizons, almost as featureless as the sky, arid grasses punctuated only by dwarf shrubs, rocky outcrops, and parched wending streambeds.

And two bronze dragons.

Tezonth hulked there, massive, grey-bronze. Maibauth was less grey, but still massive. Their riders stood between them. In the moment before men and dragons looked up, they seemed to be arguing.

Then one of the shadows of the seven dragons aloft crossed Tezonth. The old bronze flung up his head. He did not even bugle. Before Shimpath, before any queen, could shrill out a command to him, he closed his talons around the small form of his rider. Without so much as leaving the ground, Tezonth went between.

It had all happened so quickly. Queens and bronzes screamed in frustration as their quarry slipped away. Male voices were roaring in snatches, carried off by the wind. On the ground, Maibauth and R’maro remained. Man and dragon seemed frozen in shock.

Ipith’s shriek of fury pierced them like speared wherries. Shimpath joined her voice to it, cheated of another target for her anger. Maibauth writhed miserably beneath the queens’ displeasure, and R’maro fell to his knees, wrapping his arms around his own head. Ipith and Essienth landed thunderously either side of the wretched Southern pair, their wings stirring up billows of dust that obscured all three of them.

Despair struck Valonna like a fist. Without P’raima and the antidote only he possessed, they were all ruined. She heard a woman’s voice shouting, and then she realised it was her own. “Tezonth! We have to get after Tezonth!”

A bronze veered across her line of sight. Kawanth. From his neck, Sh’zon was shouting something and gesticulating frantically. Kawanth and Shimpath barked at each other. Above, Tynerith called out, and both dragons jerked their heads upwards to the juvenile queen.

Shimpath’s shudder was the only notice Valonna had of her queen’s intention. They plunged between, and never had that dark void been so black or so cold. Without her queen to hear her, without Izath to guide them, with no connection, no control, Valonna felt her fear expand into a clawing apparition, silent and invisible, but no less terrifying for its formlessness.

They tore through oblivion into light. The sun had moved again, nearer to the horizon, blood-coloured in the death throes of the day. Below, the bare dead sands of an unfamiliar desert heaved in crescent-shaped hills. And Tezonth. The exit impact of his perilous jump between had been cushioned by impact with the yielding sand. He rose again from the crater of his own making. He still grasped P’raima tight to his chest in his immense forepaws. He turned scarlet eyes upon the slender form of the young queen hovering above him, and Tynerith’s defiant trumpeting turned sharp and shrill. A juvenile queen was no match for a bronze of Tezonth’s age and force. Valonna and Shimpath were too far away to intervene as the fearsome old dragon bulled up past Britt’s young queen, the impact of his titanic shoulder sending Tynerith spinning away.

Izath erupted into the sky, Kawanth half a wingbeat behind him, both males roaring. They were too late. Tezonth had hurled himself between. H’ned and Sh’zon’s bellows were drowned by their dragons’ voices, but Valonna wouldn’t have heeded them anyway. Tynerith was righting herself, but Tezonth’s contemptuous brushing aside had visibly shaken her. Shimpath snarled out a command to her bronzes.

Before they went between again, before Valonna even felt the pre-emptive shiver through her dragon’s skin that heralded a leap, she grasped her queen’s intent. And thrilled to it, with a heat in her blood she had never before felt. Separated though they were in mind, their hearts were still one, and Valonna’s soared to recognise it. She leaned hard forward, planting both hands on her queen’s neck, heedless of what was wise, heedless of what was safe. “Follow him!”

Shimpath thrust them between. This time the darkness did not fill Valonna with fear; only frustration, that even as they hung there Tezonth could be getting away. They must chase him, must tail him, tight and close, lest he jump again before they caught up to his new destination and shake them off entirely. Shimpath had not Tynerith’s singular talent. She could not stretch out from afar and pluck unerringly a single narrow line of thought from one distant dragon to another. But the presence that made Tezonth so formidable was also his weakness. Shimpath could reach after Tezonth now she had his trail, like a hunting hound put on a powerful scent. And she did.

They burst from between into a howl of snow, over white-blanketed fields and frozen lakes. Again Tezonth fled between, and again Shimpath followed. Blackness and cold, re-freezing the sleet that had spattered them. Out over a forest of green-black conifers and the smoke rising from woodcutters’ huts. Between. A lonely piece of sea-coast, fringed with floating ice. The rust-red desert basin of Igen. A grey-stone Hold whose flag Valonna had no time to see. Plains heaving with wild herdbeast. Between, between, between. From place to place Tezonth skipped, and from place to place Shimpath chased him, never lingering longer than the heartbeats it took for their riders to heave breath into their lungs. Valonna’s hands were frozen where she pressed them still to her dragon’s neck and her face throbbed with the chapped chill of between. Almost, she envied P’raima, clutched warm in his dragon’s grasp.

Shimpath no longer called out to Tezonth when she harried him out of between. All her strength, all her will, all her being was bent on chasing him down by sheer physical prowess. And if the gap between jumps between widened with each journey, if Tezonth’s physical stamina, and P’raima’s mental energy, were fading with every exhausting new location, then Shimpath’s strength was waning, too. She was a queen, unaccustomed to such exertions; the nagging frailties of Tezonth’s age were offset by Shimpath’s lack of fighting fitness. Had Valonna been able to speak to her dragon she would have begged her to summon their Weyrmates to her side to continue the pursuit, but though she cried the suggestion out to her queen, Shimpath either couldn’t hear it or would not surrender her pursuit. Valonna poured all her strength instead into the contact of her hands on her dragon’s hide, hoping Shimpath could derive encouragement from it. And as they pursued Tezonth across Pern, north and south, east and west, the distracted thought came to Valonna that it was both like and unlike a queen’s mating flight; like it, for the single-mindedness of the hunt, and for the riders taken along with it; unlike it, for the inversion of the natural order, that a bronze should be chased by a queen, and in the cause of justice, not joining.

Tezonth led them out into an evening sky, studded with stars like faintly twinkling jewels. Valonna had stopped trying to guess their location jumps and jumps ago, but even as she drew breath into her lungs in preparation for their next frigid lurch between, the landscape beneath them snagged her eyes. It was a Weyr. Or could have been a Weyr, had its incomplete walls been illuminated with glows, its caves and ledges occupied by dragons. But they were dark and empty, and no Weyr on Pern had a second, smaller crater rearing up from within the centre of the first. She dragged her eyes from it and back to Tezonth, his great form silhouetted against the fading light in the western sky. She knew Shimpath would follow Tezonth as soon as he leapt; the twitch of hide that had alerted Valonna to the first few jumps between had been subsumed by the stronger trembling of exhaustion. She waited for that moment, drawing air into her lungs, treasuring the extra instants until their next lurch into nothingness.

But Tezonth didn’t go between. He beat his wings, maintaining the couple of dragonlengths’ distance that separated them, but the action seemed to be faltering. With each wingstroke he lost some altitude, not in the gentle downward arc of a controlled descent, but in a series of jerky parabolas. Valonna felt Shimpath grasp the significance the same instant she did, and wild hope suddenly lifted the frozen exhaustion of her wings. Shimpath bugled a command, querulous with her own fatigue, and Tezonth shuddered with the force of it. His wings went suddenly slack, trailing edges fluttering pointlessly, no longer generating the lift he needed to defy gravity’s sucking draw.

“No!” Valonna cried, seeing suddenly the fatal consequence of Tezonth’s surrender. He would dash apart on the sharp-edged lip of the secondary crater, the vast weight of his own body hitting merciless rock smashing him to pieces, like a melon dropped on the ground, and P’raima, seized still in his talons, crushed beneath him. “Shimpath, you have to catch him! Command him!”

But Shimpath was too far away to catch him. Even had she mastered her weariness and blinked between to Tezonth’s side, it would not have been soon enough. And Tezonth could not have averted his stall now had he wished it, too deeply committed to his tumble from the sky.

Then the airspace around the falling bronze filled with dragons. Izath, Santinoth, Kawanth. They bore down upon him from above with claws outstretched. Tezonth roared as three sets of talons snagged onto him, though in pain or defiance or some mixture of both, Valonna couldn’t tell. Even the efforts of three big bronzes were scarcely enough to arrest Tezonth’s fall, but arrest it they did and, each dragon beating his wings awkwardly to avoid fouling with the others, brought him to a jolting but safe landing atop the central crater.

Valonna felt the desperate tension go out of Shimpath’s body. She had not realised how strung-tight her queen had been until the urgency had gone. “Well flown, Shimpath,” she whispered, stroking the fore neck-ridge. “Well flown, my darling.”

Shimpath glided tiredly down towards the crater top where Tezonth drooped at the centre of his three captors, the mighty bronze of Southern brought to bay at last. The smaller crater at the centre of the large caldera rose in a steep cone with a dished crown, lushly verdant. The smell of bruised vegetation where the dragons had flattened the undergrowth rose green and fragrant on air already tinged sulphurous by the steam venting from irregular cracks in the ground.

Valonna released her safety-strap and slid down from Shimpath. Her legs almost crumpled as she landed, the joints stiffened by the continual cold of between. H’ned was hurrying over to her, and in the starlight his face was pale. “Faranth’s sharding teeth, Valonna!” he swore, clutching her forearms. “We thought we’d lost you between! What were you thinking?”

She fended him off. “Shimpath knew what she was doing.” She was pleased to find her voice stayed strong and steady. “And we have him.” That fact, rather than any thought of the risk she and Shimpath had taken, nearly made her knees buckle again. “We have him,” she repeated.

“Almost,” H’ned said.

She followed his gaze. The three bronzes had Tezonth penned, and the old Southern dragon was spent: his sides heaving, his eyes and hide dulled to ochre by the exertions of the chase. But the clasp of his claws still caged P’raima, and the stoop of his head over his precious prize dared anyone to approach.

A queen’s cry announced Ipith’s arrival, and with her Essienth, Tynerith – and Maibauth. The younger Southern dragon looked near as depleted a shade as his sire, and when he landed, Valonna saw that he lacked his rider. R’maro rode instead with K’ken on Essienth’s broad neck, his hands tied before him.

It was with relief that Valonna ceded seniority to Rallai, but the Peninsula Weyrwoman caught her in a fierce embrace, gazing at her with a kind of wonder. “Valonna. Shimpath. What queens you are!”

Valonna had no answer to that. “Tezonth won’t release P’raima,” she said instead.

“Tezonth will do as he’s told,” said Rallai. “No,” she said, when Valonna glanced towards Shimpath. “She has spent more in the service of our cause than any dragon, queen or not, ought need to. This is for Ipith to accomplish.” She beckoned to Britt, who’d dismounted from her own queen. “Have Tynerith watch and listen,” she told her. “When she is grown and mated, this too will be hers.”

As she spoke, Ipith rose to her hind legs. With graceful economy, she lifted herself above their heads in a single wingstroke to settle softly before Tezonth. There, she lowered her head to look him in the eye. Tezonth avoided the contact at first, turning his head this way and that, but once Ipith had his gaze, he could not break it. Peninsula queen and Southern bronze locked silent stares. What passed between them Valonna did not know. The other dragons watched, intent but motionless, as though themselves afraid to interfere in the battle of wills between two of the most formidable leaders of their kind. Even Shimpath watched, her head angled in a pose of the profoundest respect. Rallai stood behind her queen, tall and straight as a spear, her eyes at once focused and very distant. A sound broke the hush: a whistling whine, like the thin creel of a dragonet stumbling riderless on the Sands. It was coming from Tezonth. Beneath Ipith’s relentless, imperious stare, and the devastating force of her personality, the Southern bronze who had dominated two queens and sought to subjugate a third first sagged, then slumped, and then, at last, broke.

Tezonth moaned, a low, guttural sound of despair, and opened the protective clasp of his talons. P’raima staggered from that clutch looking as ghastly as his dragon, his gait stiff and halting, spittle and worse crusted to his face from the desperate dashes in and out of between in his dragon’s grasp, but when Tezonth wobbled on his feet and then collapsed sideways his rider did not so much as startle. Instead, P’raima spread his arms wide, his eyes shining with a wild, careless gleam. “Come, then,” he croaked. “You have me at last. What do you think you can do to me?”

“H’ned, Sh’zon!” Valonna said urgently.

They strode quickly to either side of P’raima. H’ned seized the former Weyrleader’s arms, twisting them behind his back. P’raima did not struggle. But as Sh’zon rapidly patted him down, P’raima laughed. “You’ve won, haven’t you?” There seemed no capitulation in his voice. “And it only took three queens and four bronzes for you to bring me down.”

“Shut your mouth,” Sh’zon snapped. He yanked the beltknife from its sheath on P’raima’s hip and tossed it into the bushes. Then he felt inside his jacket. Valonna saw his eyes widen as he drew a handful of small glass vials from an inside pocket. “Is this it?” he demanded. “Blight you between, is this the antidote?”

“Maybe it is.” P’raima mocked. “Maybe it’s poison. Drink one down. I’d love to watch your dragon go between to die.”

Sh’zon backhanded him across the face. It was a mark of how far they had come that no one objected. “Ipith,” Rallai said softly.

Ipith cocked her head, and on the ground, Tezonth flinched. K’ken stepped up beside Rallai. “Essienth says Tezonth doesn’t know anything.”

“It’s the antidote.” The voice belonged to R’maro. The young Southern rider approached, his tied hands held awkwardly before him. K’ken moved quickly to restrain him, and R’maro resisted the older rider’s grip on his shoulders with a petulant shrug. “Unless he meant to double-cross me with it.”

“I should have,” P’raima said. His teeth were rimmed scarlet, and he spat a bloody mouthful. His eyes smouldered with loathing. “Better yet if I’d never trusted you in the first place. I was a fool to ever think you were intelligent enough to be circumspect. I’ve never been able to trust you not to botch even the simplest task.”

“I did everything you told me to do!” R’maro cried. He had to lift both of his bound hands to point a single accusing finger at P’raima. “He wanted me to kill that green weyrling, but I’d never have done it, I swear!”

“Idiot. You condemn yourself with every breath you draw.” The contempt in P’raima’s voice was a living thing. He spat another gobbet of bloody saliva. “Take the counter-agent. Use it. Bid your dragons farewell. It’ll be the last time you’ll ever hear them, or they you.” He bared his teeth in a ghastly grin. “One dose won’t undo what the felah did. And one dose is all you’ll ever get.”

Valonna heard herself speak: not angrily, not stridently, not with any projection of her fear or outrage behind it. “Give us the formula, P’raima.”

He transferred his bloodshot stare to her. It was like being the subject of a corpse’s regard, so hollow were his eyes, and so empty the soul that resided behind them. “You,” he said. “Your queen. I underestimated you.” There was a queer tinge of respect in his voice. Valonna wasn’t certain she liked being the object of P’raima’s approval, but then his tone hardened again. “You began this when you took my weyrlings.”

It seemed such a long time ago, that black night, when they’d transported the weyrlings from Southern. “What is it you’ve seen in Pern’s future, P’raima?” Valonna asked, ignoring his accusation. “What’s made you so afraid of letting go? Is it the loss of between?”

Something did change in P’raima’s eyes, then, and then he dropped them from hers. He struggled briefly in H’ned’s restraining grip as Valonna approached, then fell still, his chin sunk to his chest. “Pern will change, Valonna,” he said, and while the others had gathered closer, his words were pitched for her ears alone. There was an undertone of horror in his voice, the fear of something both nameless and formless. “All that we know and cherish will be torn apart and flung aside and trampled underfoot, like a beautiful toy too exquisite for the child who scorns it. And that same child will seize up a stick, and a rock, and smash them together, and say, this is the toy I choose, this is what’s needed. Crude function, blunt and brutal. And the intricate tooling of what they cast aside as irrelevant, discarded and broken in the dust.”

His words were gibberish, but Valonna did not confront them. Instead she brushed through them, as if through tangling jungle. “How can you hope to preserve the future’s beauty when you defile it in the present?” she asked him. “Your weyrlings were dying –”

“Sacrifices,” P’raima whispered. “The sacrifices we make today for the sake of tomorrow.” He lifted his eyes. “I gave up my dragon for Pern. For Pern.” His voice threatened to break on the words, as though some remaining fragment of the man he’d once been still disbelieved them, yet he did not so much as turn to glance at his wheezing, beaten dragon. “So Southern could be the last bastion of rightness. The last bastion of hope. Sacrifices had to be made.”

“And what right had you to sacrifice your weyrlings?” Valonna asked, and for the first time she heard her queen’s power ripple balefully through her voice.

“Dragons without between.” P’raima’s crusted red eyes pleaded with her. “Don’t you see? Don’t you see? A Pern without between. No place for beauty. No place for the way it should be. Only a stick, and a rock. And dragons ground to powder between them.”

Valonna tried to fit the ideas together. She couldn’t. “I don’t understand, P’raima.”

“If you had seen,” he rasped. “The Pern that will be. The future that awaits us. The Pass.” He paused, breathing loudly through his mouth, his eyes lost, and Valonna realised suddenly she had been wrong about the source of his fear. He didn’t dread the unknown; his fear had a shape and a name. Thread. Thread, and a Pern unequipped to fight it. “To stand to a clutch,” P’raima went on abruptly. “To accept the Impression bond. To partner a dragon. Such a privilege comes at a price. A dragonrider’s life does not belong to him. Nor to his dragon. It is merely loaned to him. It belongs to his Weyr. It belongs to Pern. And if his Weyr, and his world, demands that loan be repaid, he must honour it, in his blood, and his dragon’s. And we are not exempt, Valonna, for the fact that we were born to the Interval! We are no less the servants of Pern than dragonriders who are born and live and die beneath the Red Star! And when our debts are called in, we pay them not for the good of today, but for the sake of Pern’s tomorrow!” His face was twisted in a rictus of impassioned sincerity, and the spittle flecked on his lips, and the shine of near-madness in his eyes, made Valonna want to recoil from him…and yet she grasped how earnestly he meant his words. He genuinely believed himself to be the guardian of Pern’s future, and every terrible thing had had done justified in its name. “The darkness I have seen…the death…the destruction…everything I have suffered, everything you will sacrifice, is nothing beside the ghastly toll it will exact upon Pern!”

He hung there in H’ned’s grasp, his eyes staring with the horror of the future he beheld, his chest heaving for breath, and for a long moment Valonna did not know what to say. Then, at last, she did. “You say you have seen this future, P’raima.”

“I’ve been made to see it,” he said, and in his eyes, suddenly, shone a hope that she understood, that she had recognised the right in what he had done. “It is real. It is coming. It will devour us. Unless we stop it! Unless I stop it!”

“If you’re so sure of it,” said Valonna, “if it is set in stone, as you say, then how can anything you do now stop it? How do you know that what you’re doing now won’t cause it?”

The light died in P’raima’s eyes. “You don’t understand,” he said softly, and then, harder, “You don’t have the wit. You don’t have the vision. You can’t see anything beyond your own feeble, insignificant little troubles, your pathetic Interval problems, the luxury and indulgence that you take for granted! You stupid, blind, cosseted child! You don’t deserve your queen! You don’t deserve your queen!”

Valonna did recoil then, shaken by the venom of P’raima’s outburst; convinced now, if she hadn’t been before, that he was quite as mad as a dragonrider could be. “H’ned,” she said sharply, and he hoisted P’raima up from his mulish sag so he was at eye level with Valonna. “The antidote,” she said. “Give us the formula.”

P’raima shook his head, his eyes smouldering with sullen hatred.

“Shimpath,” Valonna said, and then to Rallai close by, “Weyrwoman, would you…?”

The two queens shifted closer. Tezonth, still panting on the ground, lifted his head. Then he dropped it again with a strangled bark. He lay there, flattened amongst the vegetation, looking as crushed as though an immense hand had pinned him hard to the earth, emitting a keening whine that cut through Valonna like the cruellest of knives. She couldn’t look at him; she could barely stop herself from putting her hands to her ears to muffle out the sound of his torment. H’ned’s face was twisted in an expression between pity and revulsion.

And P’raima was unmoved. No flicker of sympathy lit his eyes, no remorse moved his features, no hint of any kind that he cared at all about his dragon’s distress showed in his face. “Enough,” Valonna said at last, sickened, and Tezonth relaxed fractionally from his splay, his cry petering off into a whimper. She hadn’t expected him to yield to their pressure on Tezonth; still, the graphic evidence of how little P’raima cared for his dragon’s misery made her stomach turn.

“What will you try next, woman?” he asked Valonna, in a low rasp. “You’ve brutalised my dragon. Is it my turn now?” He raised his chin defiantly, looking at Sh’zon, as though expecting – hoping, even – that he would strike him, a perverse spark of glee in his eyes. Even in abject defeat, his carefully-wrought plans for the offspring of his dragon in tatters, his legacy irrevocably tainted, P’raima was bloody-minded enough to take pleasure in denying the riders who’d thwarted him their dragons; and perhaps, too, in provoking them to the same base and self-serving behaviour, in anger and frustration, that he himself had come to embody.

If he sought to incite Sh’zon to more violence, he was disappointed. Valonna saw Sh’zon’s chest and arms bunch with the anger he’d been battling since the felah poisoning that had robbed him of his dragon’s gentling influence. And she saw Rallai step up beside him, placing one hand softly on his arm, the other more softly still on his face. With that firm and gentle touch, she turned his head towards her. She didn’t have to tell him no. Sh’zon blazing blue glare softened in contact with her calm gaze. Valonna looked away from them, wrenched beyond her ability to know why, and caught a glimpse of K’ken. His lined and lived-in face betrayed neither surprise nor dismay; merely a kind of resigned acceptance.

Yet while they could, at least, refrain from doing the physical harm to P’raima that he dared them to commit, he still forced them to emulate his methods in one final grim manner. Valonna took a breath. Then she met K’ken’s eyes. He nodded once, in clear acknowledgement of what she asked. His gaze went distant.

“Well?” P’raima demanded. There was manic glee in his voice. “No stomach for torturing a man, then?”

“No,” Valonna said. “You’ve done more harm to yourself than we ever could.” Impulsively, she stepped past P’raima and H’ned, approaching Tezonth. She heard the warning that hissed from between Sh’zon’s teeth but ignored it. Tezonth was quiescent under Shimpath and Ipith’s wrath, if no long crushed bonelessly beneath it. The highest point of Tezonth’s head still overtopped Valonna’s entire height, but his eye was of a level with hers. She looked into the dully whirling facets, yellow-grey flecked with white, and then she stretched out a hand and placed it on his eye-ridge. He twitched but did not flinch away. “Poor dragon,” she said, half to herself. “You didn’t ask for any of this.”

“You think you can win him away from me?” P’raima’s question was half incredulity, half mockery.

Tezonth’s hide felt smooth and soft beneath Valonna’s hand, greying though it was. “Would you care if I did?” she asked. “You haven’t been his rider for a long time.”

“He is my dragon,” said P’raima. “A soft touch and a kind word will never change that.”

“You say that as if he is a runnerbeast,” Valonna said, and then at last she grasped what she had been groping to understand. “You began to hate him long before the felah, didn’t you?”

P’raima looked at her. “A man cannot hate his own dragon, any more than he can hate the air he breathes or the food he eats.” He paused, and then spoke with complete coldness. “But he can despise the weakness that forces him to crave its sustenance, and the circumstances that made him so dependent, and the threat hanging over him should it ever be taken away.”

For an instant, Valonna felt a sharp pang of pity for P’raima – for the boy he had once been, for the man he had become, for all that had happened in between – and for what he must face now.

Then Pierdeth and Ranquiath burst out of between overhead. P’raima’s gaze tracked and then dismissed them. “Do you think another queen can do what your two couldn’t?”

The evidence that neither P’raima nor Tezonth possessed sight keen enough to discern that Pierdeth bore two riders, not one, upon his burly neck gave Valonna another pang. Despite P’raima’s white and thinning hair and Tezonth’s grizzled hide, they were such a formidable pair that the signs of age had seemed merely superficial.

Pierdeth landed behind the other dragons. Their bodies shielded him from P’raima’s sight. Valonna glanced quickly to H’ned and saw him redouble his grip on P’raima’s arms. Sh’zon and Rallai moved closer; R’maro, who had gone silent and sullen in K’ken’s custody, lifted his head, looking curiously from face to face.

“You’ve made it clear that Tezonth’s plight can’t move you,” Valonna said quietly. She knew the regret she felt at what they were about to do sounded in her voice. She knew, too, that P’raima could hear it; his brows furrowed as he tried to discern this new tactic. And as she and Sh’zon stepped aside to let L’dro into their circle, she finished softly, “But perhaps hers can.”

P’raima’s mouth dropped open in an expression of dumb disbelief. For an instant, his red-rimmed eyes went glassy with pain. “No,” he whispered, the word choked to near incomprehensibility. “You haven’t.”

The woman L’dro chivvied, not gently, into their company was beautiful. Her mother must have contributed the fine features: the small straight nose, the high cheekbones. The dark blonde of her hair, twined in two plaits on either side of her head, might have come from either parent. Only the deep set eyes were clearly her father’s, startlingly like his in their glazed unfocus. She was sucking her thumb. Valonna guessed her age at early-to-mid-twenties.

L’dro had the woman-child by her upper arm; he used the grip to push her roughly forwards. “You’ll give us the formula, P’raima,” he said. He didn’t need to add a threat, but he lacked the subtlety to refrain. “Or she’ll suffer for it.”

“Bernainne,” P’raima said, in a pleading voice. He struggled briefly against H’ned, but the strength seemed to have gone out of him. “Bernainne. I’m so sorry.”

The word sounded alien coming from his mouth, but Valonna hardened herself to it, as she hardened herself against the grimness of the hand she must play. “The formula, P’raima.”

“Daddy?” Bernainne removed her thumb from her mouth to speak, but while her voice had an adult’s timbre, her words did not. “Why did the dragon bring me, Daddy?” She pulled feebly against L’dro’s grasp. “I want to go home. Please, Daddy, I want to go home.”

“You’re not going anywhere until your daddy does as we say,” L’dro told her brusquely. He gave her a shake. “You tell him to give us the formula!”

“You leave her alone!” P’raima roared. “She’s just a little girl! She doesn’t understand!”

Bernainne began to cry. She sobbed like the infant her mind had convinced her she was in the aftermath of her dragon’s death, made more wrenching by the adult’s body that her broken soul inhabited. She stood there, a child in an unfamiliar place, surrounded by unfamiliar dragons, and by riders with hostile intent towards the man she called her daddy, and wept in great choking gulps. “I – want – to – go – home!”

It was more than Valonna could bear. She stepped alongside the weeping woman, taking her other arm in a gentle grasp. “It’ll be all right,” she told her. “You’ll be able to go home soon.”

Horribly, P’raima choked out something between a laugh and a sneer. “You can’t threaten me with her, Valonna! You don’t have the stomach to harm an innocent girl!”

It was true. She knew it, he knew it; they all knew it. Neither Valonna nor Rallai would have considered the life of a witless, dragonless, blameless child a price worth paying even for the restoration of their own dragons. The threat was worthless.

And then L’dro spoke. “She might not.” He drew his long-bladed belt-knife from its sheath and set it almost casually to Bernainne’s defenceless throat. “But I do.”

With that, L’dro pressed his blade into the skin beneath the dragonless woman’s chin. A thin mouth of scarlet gaped suddenly there. Blood ran in a swift stream. Valonna felt Bernainne’s arm tense spasmodically in her grip. She felt her draw breath to scream. And then P’raima’s frantic shriek deafened them all. “NO, don’t hurt her, I’ll tell you, I’ll tell you, please don’t hurt her!

Rallai barked for L’dro to release the girl, but it seemed a long moment before he complied. Bernainne stumbled away from him, wailing, and into P’raima’s arms; H’ned, horrified and relieved as any of them, had let go his grip on his wrists.

“Blight you, L’dro, you were never meant to cut her!” K’ken roared.

L’dro stood there with blood still dripping from his knife, looking flushed but triumphant. “If I hadn’t, none of the rest of you would have had the balls to do what had to be done!”

They all looked away from him at that. The probable truth of it was something each of them would have to live with. L’dro’s extreme act had broken P’raima where threats to his dragon hadn’t. The old bronze rider rocked his weeping daughter in his arms, his fingers pressed tight over the narrow wound L’dro’s knife had bitten in her throat

Rallai separated them. “Come, Bernainne,” she told the shaking woman, “let’s dry these tears. See, the bleeding’s stop already. It was just a little scratch.” It was more than that, as the dried rivulet of blood that had soaked the collar of Bernainne’s simple dress attested, but the dragonless woman let Rallai draw her gently away from P’raima’s embrace. “Make yourself scarce,” she told L’dro, in an ominous tone, and K’ken stepped up instead to wrap a kerchief around Bernainne’s wound.

H’ned and Sh’zon between them dragged P’raima back to his feet. He stared after his daughter with hopelessness in his eyes. “How did you find her?”

“You made the wrong decision when you framed D’pantha as your accomplice,” said Sh’zon. “Betray a man who’s been that loyal that long, and he’ll turn on you soon enough. Well, then? The formula?”

“It’s not in my head, and I don’t have it on me,” P’raima said tiredly, and then went on, “I know. Bernainne will be a hostage to my cooperation.”

“She’ll be a hostage to your antidote working,” Sh’zon said, with renewed heat.

“It works.” He raised bloodshot eyes to Valonna’s. “And then what, for me?”

“You’ll be tried,” Valonna replied. She was suddenly incredibly tired.

“For all your many crimes,” Sh’zon added more severely.

“My many crimes.” P’raima barely sounded interested any longer. “And what would you have me bow my head to?”

“Kidnap, imprisonment, poisoning,” Sh’zon said. “Attempted murder of a weyrling. Actual murder of a dragonrider. Aye, and that one twice over, come to think of it, if we can get you for Margone as well. You’d best be grateful we’re in the Interval. We don’t have any Thread to stake you out for.”

“Everything I did, I did for Pern,” P’raima insisted. There was a dignity in his conviction, as if he still furled about him the tatters of the cloak of righteousness that he had once worn so proudly. The faintest spark of defiance still burned there. “Creating felah. Pushing my weyrlings as I did. Killing Margone. I’ll go to my grave knowing I did what I had to do. For Pern.”

His eyes slid sideways as he spoke. Too late, Valonna heard the sharp intake of breath behind her; too late, she remembered who had been left standing there; too late she turned desperately to forestall disaster.

But R’maro was already moving, his teeth bared in a snarl. His hands were not so tightly bound that he couldn’t use them to snatch the knife from K’ken’s belt. “You killed my mother!” he screamed. “You killed her, you snake bastard! Go between and die!”

It took hours for him to cross the space that separated him from P’raima. It took instants, and he could not be stopped. Valonna heard herself cry out; she saw H’ned and Sh’zon react, too slowly, to try to twist P’raima aside from R’maro’s thrust.

But P’raima was smiling as the belt-knife pierced the hollow at the base of his throat. He was smiling, his eyes stretched open, his arms spread wide as if to welcome the instrument of his death. R’maro’s momentum flung him backwards on top of his captors, toppling all four bronze riders in a thrashing heap.

In silence, Tezonth reared up behind the melee. In silence, the great patriarch of Southern shook his head, as though confused. In silence, he thrust his head down to the flailing knot of riders, blinking his eyes in baffled incomprehension.

Sound returned in a cacophony. Screaming. Shouting. The bubbling wheeze of a perforated windpipe. The spatter of hot blood spurting at pressure. Someone was bawling, “The formula, the formula!” Bronze riders struggled to rise from the fracas. H’ned. Sh’zon. They dragged R’maro with them. Blood everywhere. And P’raima, supine, staring up at his dragon, or at the sky, or into oblivion. P’raima, still alive, the smile on his lips painted crimson. P’raima, convulsing in a spasm that hacked a final gout of bright blood from his mouth.

And then P’raima went still and lifeless.

Tezonth screamed once, hideously, and was gone.

Valonna went to her knees on the ground, tasting fragrant crushed vegetation and metallic-rank blood in her mouth, and all around her, dragons and dragonriders howled.

END OF ACT THREE

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One response to “Chapter fifty-two: Valonna”

  1. Multi-Facets says:

    [long, stunned silence]

    [rubs face, puts it in hands]

    I’m not sure if I can keep reading after this. The constant defeats are too much.

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