Chapter fifty-three: T’kamen
Just as no two Threads ever fall the same, no two Thread-burrows are ever the same. When a tangle hits the ground it usually leaves plentiful evidence of itself, spreading quickly over the surrounding area in search of food. It will soon perish for want of sustenance if it chances to fall on barren ground, often leaving a stinking black shell before dragon or ground-crew can even reach it, but a clump that strikes fertile soil can multiply at a tremendous rate, expanding outwards in every viable direction until arrested by water, stone, or fire.
The worst ground-strikes are generally caused by Thread-bombs, a hallmark of Falls occurring in gusty conditions: many Threads, snarled with each other in dense clots. Being more resistant to the wind, they fall harder and faster than single filaments, and while fire might set a ball of Thread alight, it cannot always sear through to the strands in the centre. Worse still – as if a heavy, fast-falling mass of flaming Thread isn’t bad enough – they usually burst on impact. Thread-bombs hitting the ground and exploding into dozens of filaments have been responsible for some of the worst incursions, the ones that have forced dragons to cleanse entire fields with fire. Their only virtue is that they are easy for the fire-crews to find.
But other types of burrow can be just as dangerous, if not so catastrophically destructive. A dense ribbon of Thread dropping nearly perpendicular to the ground can bore a narrow shaft right through the top layers of vegetation and earth, deep into the subsoil beneath. Such burrows, creating relatively little surface disturbance, are hard to detect by aerial or ground surveillance in the short term. The Thread they harbour often expires for lack of air anyway, especially if the entry path collapses and suffocates them, or if the ground is sufficiently damp or nutrient-poor to inhibit its spread. Occasionally, though, the ground conditions foster a particularly insidious infestation. The right combination of aridity, aerated soil, and limited organic matter can allow a small strand of Thread to survive unseen for an extended period of time, growing slowly but steadily underground, consuming roots and rhizomes. One of two things will eventually happen: the Thread will either run out of food and die, or its patient spread will lead it to a richer source of nourishment. In the latter case, Thread can erupt from a trapdoor burrow without any warning hours or even days after a Fall, far from its original point of impact or – even more nightmarishly – the ground its slow infiltration has undercut might collapse under the weight of anything walking above, dropping man or beast into a writhing pit of Thread.
– Excerpt from Madellon Weyr’s fire-crew training manual by Crewleader Ch’fil
The deep snows of midwinter at Madellon had always been something to be endured in the Interval, but T’kamen soon learned that a sharp drop in temperature, a horizontal blizzard, and a thick coat of snow on the ground, were boons welcomed with relief and celebration in a Pass-time Weyr.
On the morning after the first serious snowfall of the winter – the first to yield more than a sprinkling of white and a thin rime of ice at the margins of the lakes and waterways – he made his halting way out onto the weyr ledge to find Epherineth watching the weyrlings, riders and dragonets alike, romping on the training grounds like the children they all were. Young riders shrieked as they hurled handfuls of snow at one another; dragonets who had never seen the white stuff before snorted plumes of sparkling powder at their siblings; even the Weyrlingmaster’s assistants accepted tolerantly the occasional glancing blow of a wayward snowball flung by a weyrling with either terrible aim or a thorough disregard for authority. T’kamen stood watching with Epherineth for several minutes, leaning against his forearm as much for the companionship as to take the weight off his knee, remembering a first snow of winter not unlike this one, and dragonets not much older than those gambolling on the snowy drilling grounds, and weyrlings with even fewer cares in all the world than the boys and girls laughing and screaming below.
No Fall today, Epherineth said, twitching his wings to dislodge the thin covering of snowflakes that had collected upon them. Kellad is snowbound.
It wasn’t the last time a Threadfall was rendered harmless by the weather that long winter. Falls striking the more temperate northern half of Madellon territory still required the Weyr’s attention, but the punishing schedule of two and sometimes three Falls a sevenday was much reduced by the cold that froze Thread to harmless dust. On warmer days, the Wings still rose to meet Fall, but even then the fighting dragons often found the rain of Thread weakened by the chill: clumps less unpredictable, tangles more resistant to wind-shear, and even some strikes made survivable with Thread left sluggish and brittle by the cold. Some sevendays, no new names at all were chiselled into the Wall.
The winter breather energised Madellon. Riders seemed to walk taller and laugh louder. Dragons made stringy by constant flying and fighting put on a layer of fat. The crushing toll, physical and mental, exacted by Thread’s relentless assault was so greatly reduced that Madellon seemed a different place entirely to the besieged Eighth Pass Weyr in which T’kamen had found himself not three months past.
Yet even as Madellon woke, day after day, to the welcome icy mantle of winter, T’kamen found the attitude of its folk thawing, slowly, towards him. He didn’t know if it was the respite from Thread’s full force, or Ch’fil’s unobtrusive efforts, or some combination of the two, that chipped away at the undesirability of his company, but as the sevendays of his disciplinary sentence slipped away, and his and Epherineth’s injuries grew so familiar as to be unremarkable, T’kamen realised that he was no longer the subject of universal derision. Weyrlings who had previously made jokes at his expense or aped his halting gait hailed him instead with cheerful greetings when he came to muck out the barracks, even bragging of their dragonets’ precocity on mornings when the night-soil bunkers were low. Audette, and eventually K’lem and R’nie, would speak to him, not as a rider in ignominy, but as a man bowing his head to a fair punishment with appropriate humility, though S’hayn, C’rastro’s most devoted acolyte, still treated T’kamen like the dragonet dung he shovelled each day. The other riders of the Seventh no longer snubbed him in the dining hall, and while T’kamen took pains not to foist himself on anyone, neither did he rebuff any offer of friendship extended to him. So it was that, once his confinement to quarters had been lifted, he started playing poker again; and found himself matched against all manner of players in the chess league old El’yan oversaw; and even, through the machinations of the Weyr Singer Tawgert, picked up a gitar in earnest for the first time in far too long. The fingertip blisters and hand cramps that had resulted from that first late-night session with Madellon’s Harper, trading chords that his brain knew but his fingers hadn’t stretched to reach at speed in over a Turn, seemed a small price to pay for Tawgert’s candid praise, much less the grudging respect that his rusty musicianship won him from a wider audience when the Harper coaxed him to play a set one evening in the dining hall. The battered gitar that hung on T’kamen’s wall was a small but agreeable symbol of his gradual integration into Pass Madellon.
Yet in spite of the positive progress T’kamen made with his Flightmates, and with the weyrlings too young to have fully absorbed the cultural biases of their elders, some prejudices remained resolutely unassailable. The segregation between fighting and support riders was as stark as ever, and perhaps more so. Thread or not, brown and bronze riders still went out daily: flying sweeps, hauling tithes, delivering post and passengers about the territory. Seventh riders required to fly long uncomfortable journeys in frigid conditions came back complaining of frostbitten extremities and chilblains, of harness leather perishing in the cold and frozen buckles leaving painful sores on their dragons’ hides. The sight of idle fighting riders, lounging around the warm hearths in the dining hall, playing dice and drinking, caused more grumbling among returning Seventh riders than T’kamen had ever heard.
The fighting Wings still drilled on the boon days when they should have been flying Thread, but there was a marked difference between a two-hour drill, with dragons and riders active and flaming, and an eight or ten-hour round trip to an outlying Hold: cold, bored, and burdened by half a dragonweight of firestone on the return leg. T’kamen and Epherineth escaped the first sevendays of such assignments, still confined by their injuries, but as soon as their respective physicians pronounced them both fit to resume active duty they were rostered in with the rest. R’lony, for all his coolness towards T’kamen, nonetheless eased them back into their work with the pragmatic care of a logistician interested in preserving his resources above all else. Even a relatively short flight stiffened T’kamen’s game knee into almost complete rigidity, and a longer one would make the entire leg numb. He made regular visits to the infirmary for warming salves, but took care never to complain openly of his discomfort to his Flightmates.
Fetch, too, remained a point of contention. The instinctive revulsion towards fire-lizards as carrion-eaters and grave-desecrators was too strong in Weyrbred dragonriders, at the least, to be easily overcome, even by Fetch’s naturally friendly nature. T’kamen had taught his fire-lizard to be respectful – wary, even – of other people, to avoid busy places and common rooms, and to keep close to him or Epherineth when they were about the Weyr. He was quietly surprised by how trainable the little brown was proving to be. Fetch came when he was called, stayed put when he was told, and heeded everything T’kamen said with an earnest attention that reminded him of a young Epherineth. T’kamen wondered if the fire-lizard had taken on some of his dragon’s characteristics through the Impression bond, or if simple proximity to a bronze of Epherineth’s temperament had shaped Fetch’s disposition. Either way, T’kamen was pleased with their small companion’s behaviour, though Fetch still divided the greater part of his time between eating, sleeping, and growing.
M’ric was having a much harder time managing his fire-lizard queen. He’d remarked once, with a touch of rancour, that they should have swapped eggs; Fetch’s dark shape made an unobtrusive addition to T’kamen’s shoulder, while Agusta’s bright golden hide invariably drew the eye whether she perched on M’ric’s shoulder or, as she’d come to prefer, on top of Trebruth’s head. T’kamen had suggested, mostly in jest, that M’ric should paint his queen a less striking hue if he didn’t want her to be noticed. But Agusta’s colour wasn’t the only problem. She was far more wilful than Fetch, far less obedient, and while at least his equal in intelligence, she had an anarchic streak that T’kamen’s brown lacked. M’ric had tried all the same training techniques on her that T’kamen had used to teach Fetch – rewarding her with food or praise, reprimanding her with a sharp word or the withholding of attention. All had failed. Agusta accepted rewards as though they were merely her due, showed no contrition when rebuked, and reacted with icy indifference to being ignored. She would learn a trick readily enough, retrieving an item or consenting to perch where directed, but her comprehension of what was asked had no bearing on her willingness to comply a second time. Sometimes she would merely stare at M’ric with a mutinous expression when he asked her to perform some task; more often, she would pick up what item he’d bade her fetch, and then fly off with it, chattering triumphantly to herself. On such occasions, if she ever brought the thing back at all, it would be chewed or broken; more often, having stashed the prize somewhere inaccessible, Agusta would fix M’ric with an unblinking look of purest insolence when he angrily told her to return it.
T’kamen would have found the whole business amusing, had all that he’d hoped and promised not rested solely upon the trustworthiness of the two fire-lizards. Fetch had started going between in his third sevenday. T’kamen, working on a piece of harness in the bright cold sunshine on Epherineth’s ledge, had asked his brown to get the edging knife he’d left inside the weyr, visualising the tool where he’d seen it amongst the rest of his leatherworking kit on his work table. With neither prompting nor fanfare, Fetch had vanished. Even Epherineth had made a funny little noise of surprise, and T’kamen had stared, blinking, at the space where Fetch had been until he returned the same way he’d left, the edging knife clasped tightly in his forepaws, and the tell-tale wash of between-cooled air surrounding him. T’kamen had made a special trip down to the kitchens to get a suitable reward for the achievement, returning with a slice of raisin-nut bread; to Epherineth’s tolerant disgust, Fetch’s enthusiasm for sweets hadn’t diminished at all.
Agusta was somewhat less precocious than her clutchmate – T’kamen suspected she was inhibited to some degree by Trebruth’s ingrained aversion to between – though M’ric burst into T’kamen’s weyr one night a month or so after the lizards had hatched, shouting that she’d done it, and demanding that T’kamen immediately teach him and Trebruth how to follow suit. Given Agusta’s defiant nature, T’kamen suggested they would be wise to wait for her to grow up and settle down a little before putting such pressure on her to behave herself. He had, though, begun to scour his memory for the lessons that had prepared his own mind for the mental effort of going between, and taught M’ric that first night the most basic exercises in detail recall and visualisation that L’stev had, long ago, taught him.
But for the snows, M’ric’s impatience to learn would have struck T’kamen as curious. His elevation to fighting rank – and to S’leondes’ own Wing – had commanded his attention away from any and every other diversion, T’kamen included. It would have been churlish for T’kamen to take offence; on the contrary, he was glad that M’ric had won what he had worked so hard to earn. He took pride in seeing him so correct in his behaviour, so immaculate in his turn-out, and so attentive in his manner, although, having no right to claim any responsibility for M’ric’s conduct, T’kamen mentioned this only to Epherineth. They had still been on the invalid list on the day when, a fortnight after their assignment to the Commander’s Wing, M’ric and Trebruth had fought Thread for the first time. T’kamen had asked Epherineth so often to enquire after their progress that at last even his own dragon had told him to stop being such a mother-queen. M’ric had returned, of course – queasy and exultant in roughly equal measure – and while he had sought T’kamen’s acknowledgement briefly across the dining hall, the young man had quickly been swallowed by the camaraderie of his own wingmates.
Then the cold had descended, slowing the momentum of M’ric’s fighting career to a crawl. The lighter Threadfalls required the attendance of fewer Wings, and in the sevendays since winter’s grip had tightened around Madellon the Commander’s Wing had flown only two partial Falls. The young riders most recently assigned to the Wings were the only fighting dragonriders in the Weyr resentful of the weather, but T’kamen understood, even if the older riders mocked their youthful keenness. So, too, he understood M’ric’s desire to occupy himself with something else perilous in the disappointing absence of Thread.
Still, understanding M’ric’s newfound attraction to danger didn’t mean he shared it. M’ric might crave excitement, but T’kamen had no intention of providing it before time. Between training had always been the subject of both eager anticipation and intense dread within a class of weyrlings. The knowledge haunting every weyrling that one in five of their number wouldn’t make it to the end of the sevenday had been offset by the promise of the liberty to travel Pern that came with success. But going between wasn’t an adventure, like flying your own dragonet for the first time. It wasn’t exciting, like feeling firestone gas ripple down his throat beneath you an instant before it rushed from his jaws in a bright burst of flame. It was cold between, colder than anyone who had never experienced it could imagine; it was black and empty, and it had to be faced alone. Even emerging intact into the light of day was less a pleasure than a relief, an exhausting, draining relief soon replaced by the dread of knowing that the ordeal must be endured again. And by the time going between became so familiar as to be unremarkable, the novelty of the freedom of Pern had long since decayed into banality.
T’kamen had told M’ric all this without any real hope that he would grasp it. To him, going between and living to tell the tale was the stuff of legend. It was T’kamen’s responsibility to stall him, to let the freshness of the notion go stale, even as it was his responsibility to wait for their fire-lizards to mature, and to withhold any insight that might prompt M’ric to try going between by himself. But now, with both their fire-lizards flitting between all the time, and M’ric showing no sign that he intended to take premature action, T’kamen was running out of reasons to delay; or, at least, reasons that he was willing to confess. As callous as it seemed when he admitted it to Epherineth, M’ric’s safety wasn’t his first concern. T’kamen was far more worried about himself.
Epherineth had forgotten the terror of the journey between that had brought them to the Pass. A dragon’s memory rejected fear as easily as it rejected pain and grief, disappointment and rancour. It was a trick T’kamen had often wished he could emulate, that ability to simply let go of the dark preoccupations that had always gnawed at him. It could not be. Without a rider to hold onto the past, to consider the future, a dragon would be lost. Just as T’kamen must trust Epherineth’s skill to bear him safely when they flew together, so Epherineth must rely on T’kamen’s experience to guide him. And while Epherineth had shed the fear of between that their nightmarish sojourn had instilled in them, T’kamen had not.
He had tried to tell himself that his fear was misplaced. Their last trip between had taken them more than a century through the Turns. They hadn’t been prepared for such a long journey. Here, now, they would be jumping only in the present timeframe. It was nothing they hadn’t done together twenty thousand times before. Yet the truth weighed hard on that tenuous thread of self-deception. Between was not, now, as it had been. Something had gone awry with the nebulous place that dragonriders had used without understanding for so many centuries. Dragons could no longer navigate between. And T’kamen’s reasoning that a fire-lizard could show them the way was a hypothesis whose testing might lead him and his dragon to their deaths.
So fear, and contempt for that fear, and wariness that his stung pride would overrule his caution, warred within him during those cold snowy sevendays, wrenching his resolve from one extreme to another.
One morning, T’kamen woke to the tinkling sound of breaking ice, and Epherineth’s surprised rumble. Wrapped in the thick fur mantle that he’d requisitioned from stores, he went outside to investigate. The icicles, Epherineth said, as T’kamen surveyed the debris of shattered ice. They fell off.
T’kamen craned his neck up. The fringe of icicles that had grown from the bottom of the ledge above Epherineth’s was lacking half its complement, like a dragon’s fang-lined upper jaw with half its teeth missing. Even as T’kamen looked, another shaft of ice detached and fell to smash into bits not two feet from Epherineth’s elbow. “You’d best break off the rest, before one of them falls on you.”
Epherineth rose up on his hind legs to comply, sweeping his forepaw along the uneven row of icicles to dislodge them, and T’kamen looked out over the Weyr. The ice had receded from around the edges of the closest stream. The snow that had blanketed the slates of every building in the Bowl was sliding in great sheets down the pitched roofs. And the parade of figures that the weyrlings had made on the training grounds had softened, losing the features that distinguished a snow-rider from a snow-dragonet, becoming no more than a row of formless melting hillocks.
The thaw didn’t wipe away the snow completely. The bitter cold snap that had descended so rapidly was less quick to relinquish its hold on Madellon territory. Yet the evidence that spring was marching closer prompted a renewed urgency in a Weyr made complacent by a month’s light duties. The Weyr Smith’s anvils rang with the sound of new harness rings and buckles being hammered out by sweating apprentices. Weyrfolk hurried to finish the winter projects of embroidery and knotwork and whittling that had occupied them in the long idle evenings. And riders lined up to have their hair trimmed by a journeyman Tailor with a flair for barbering, ready for the Wing inspections that everyone knew were coming.
T’kamen submitted himself to journeyman Wista’s ministrations along with the rest. The Seventh Flight was as subject to inspection as any of the fighting Wings, and his hair had grown shaggy and overlong. He had Wista neaten, too, the facial hair he had allowed to grow to avoid aggravating the scrapes on his face with a razor, and then kept to fend off the bitter winds at cruising altitude. The grey strands that threaded through his new beard and moustache did at least match the thicker streaks of white that now grew in his hair, the permanent mementos of his visit to Little Madellon. Ch’fil commented approvingly on the distinguished look T’kamen’s new facial adornments gave him, stroking his own for emphasis, and Dalka once stopped in passing to look speculatively at him before moving on without saying a word.
M’ric was less complimentary. “You’re keeping it, then?”
Epherineth commented that the buckle of his crupper was still pinching. “Keeping what?” T’kamen asked.
The brown rider gestured at his own clean-shaven chin. “The face fur.”
“You don’t like it?”
“Makes you look old.” M’ric’s grin flashed white for a moment. “Older.”
T’kamen let that one pass.
“Ch’fil said you’re rostered out to Redyen.”
T’kamen put his hand to his cane where he’d leaned it against Epherineth’s forearm. “The rest of the mutton we should have had a month ago, before the weather closed the passes. Though now it’s frozen solid in kegs instead of on the hoof.”
“Stay there, I’ll get it,” M’ric said, moving quickly towards Epherineth’s tail end. “The crupper, right?”
T’kamen leaned on his cane as M’ric loosened the offending buckle. “You’re not my tail any more, you know.”
“I know,” M’ric said, though his hand moved to touch the wingrider’s knot on his shoulder, as if to reassure himself that it was still there. “We’re headed that way ourselves.”
He let the statement hang there. T’kamen put his hand on Epherineth’s elbow. “So did you want me to ask you to fly with us, or are you inviting yourself?”
He regretted his tone as soon as the words were out. M’ric looked at him with an expression made half of reproach, half of contrition. “I didn’t mean – I wasn’t saying –” He stopped. “I just thought we might keep you in company, is all. I wasn’t trying to pull rank.”
“I was teasing.” T’kamen clouted his shoulder. “You’re welcome to come if you have liberty.”
“Oh. I do. Have liberty, that is, so long as I’m back in good time for Fall tomorrow. And Fiver Hold’s only an hour on from Redyen, as the dragon flies.”
T’kamen reckoned the distance in his head. “About that.” He frowned. “Visiting your family again? You were only there a sevenday ago, weren’t you?”
M’ric shrugged, looking embarrassed. “My mum’s always happy to see me. And now the weather’s broken I don’t know when I’ll next have time.” He paused. “I’ll put Trebruth’s cargo harness on –”
“No, you won’t,” said T’kamen. “You’re flying Fall tomorrow. He doesn’t need to be worn out. Light rig, and we’ll take it easy.”
As M’ric went to harness his dragon, T’kamen considered how grateful the boy seemed to fall back into the habit of following his orders. He supposed it was only natural. He’d struggled himself, as a young man, with giving commands to riders twice his age simply because he outranked them. And perhaps it was natural for a brown rider to look to a bronze for instruction. T’kamen kept that anachronistic thought to himself. Still, he needed neither rank nor seniority to recognise that M’ric had contrived to match his plans to his and Epherineth’s assignment. It wasn’t as if M’ric had been short of spare time to spend in T’kamen’s company over the last couple of sevendays, so he must have an alternate agenda. And when the boy returned on Trebruth, Agusta riding on his shoulder, T’kamen discerned what it was.
It was a fine day to fly. The sunshine that bore part of the responsibility for the thaw was cool but bright, limning the edges of everything it touched in pale gilt, and throwing deep black shadows where it could not reach. Snow still persisted in those dark places, trapped in crevices that never saw the light, and in gullies that would not know a sunbeam until Rukbat climbed higher into a summer sky. Meltwater flowed freely over the rocky inclines of the Madellon range in streams that would last only as long as the thaw, yet were no less sparkling and merry for their transience. Epherineth flew with easy efficiency, each steady wingbeat measured for maximum effect and minimum exertion, the consistent conditions at altitude allowing him to eschew the tiring trim of sail and spar in favour of effortless cruising. For all Trebruth’s sprinting speed and manoeuvrability, Epherineth could have outpaced him in minutes with the slightest increase in his rhythm.
T’kamen knew that his own discomfort was the one sour note spoiling Epherineth’s enjoyment of the day. He could no more conceal from his dragon how his bad leg first ached, then twinged, then throbbed with the cold than he could block out the pleasure Epherineth took in his mastery of the air. They had always occupied each other’s experiences, each other’s thoughts, too fully for that, the fabric of their common awareness woven as tightly as the warp and weft on a loom. Only when T’kamen’s thoughts were too exclusively human, Epherineth’s too wholly dragonish, could the natural comprehension of their bond stutter. This was not such a case. Epherineth understood T’kamen’s physical misery all too well. We could stop at Hardstand Hold, he offered, but T’kamen refused the proposition. Strategic dragons were not as universally welcome as fighting pairs at the smaller Holds. He would give the folk of Hardstand no cause to grumble at a bronze rider presuming unannounced on their hospitality.
Instead, they came in to Fiver Hold not much after the lunch hour, local time. The line of stone columns that had given the Hold its changing name was one short of the complement T’kamen recalled. He’d visited there perhaps twice in his day, when the place had still been called Sixer Hold, and fallen under the protection of the Peninsula, but the rock spires rising from the arid ridge that marked the settlement provided a distinctive reference that every weyrling learned. He was not oblivious to that significance as Epherineth landed beside Trebruth on the sandstone-flagged forecourt of the Hold.
The dragon banner flew beside the grey-edged green flag of Fiver, requesting assistance. T’kamen wondered how long it had been up there. Fiver looked to West Gully Hold – another former Peninsula outpost – but he doubted the elderly watchdragon stationed there would make it out to Fiver often. At least the folk who came out from the three-storey sandstone holding to meet them didn’t look disappointed to be visited only by a bronze and a brown. T’kamen put on a more stoic show of dismounting than he might have otherwise, but he was grateful not to have to move far on his crippled leg to greet Terihf, Fiver’s weather-beaten Holder, and Alisker, M’ric’s mother.
Alisker was a handsome woman: tall, lean, and sandy-haired like most of the other Fiver folk; M’ric’s dark hair and eyes, she confided to T’kamen as they ate a simple meal of flatbread and spiced goat skewers, had been bequeathed him by his dragonrider father. She apologised on behalf of her spouse, Jeffran, who was out working in one of the far quarries. M’ric didn’t remark on his stepfather’s absence, but he didn’t have to. T’kamen could see the relief in the boy’s eyes when he realised he wouldn’t have to see his mother’s husband.
For himself, T’kamen was pleasantly surprised to be treated with every courtesy, despite Epherineth’s colour and the lowly insignia of the Seventh Flight he wore. The folk of some of the holdings he’d visited were almost openly scornful of a Strategic rider, even as they fawned and scraped over anyone with a green or blue shoulder-knot. It was not hard to account for Fiver’s acceptance of his humble rank. By all indications, M’ric was the only dragonrider in recent memory to have been Searched from Fiver. Having Impressed only a brown, he would have been assumed to have a future in the Seventh Flight. His promotion to the fighting Wings must have come as an elevation beyond the wildest hopes of his Holdmates, but the residual expectation of a more modest assignment still showed in the way Fiver’s people treated T’kamen, an actual Strategic rider. No one remarked on Epherineth’s unusual size, accentuated though it was by proximity to Trebruth. No one asked how T’kamen had come to injure his leg, or Epherineth his face. And no one voiced any disapproval of Agusta or Fetch, or queried M’ric’s request for a plate for them, or even looked askance at the pair of fire-lizards when they set to squabbling over the platter of scraps that was put before them. Though the overt civility never quite tipped over into obsequiousness, T’kamen nonetheless found it disconcerting. He’d grown accustomed to being treated just barely better than a spit-canine in the Eighth Pass. The scrupulous politeness of Fiver’s residents made him ever-so-slightly uncomfortable.
Holder Terihf offered a wether-goat apiece for their dragons, a courtesy M’ric swiftly declined. T’kamen took his lead from the boy. “We’re bound for Redyen to collect tithe,” he explained, as Terihf refilled his cup with water and wine from the two common flagons. “They’ll have provisions prepared for our dragons.”
Terihf looked relieved at the refusal. His face was as lined and weathered as the arid country outside his Hold, every angle rounded off by the elements. “Forgive me, bronze rider. I’d hoped to presume on your kindness on a small matter.” When T’kamen gestured for him to continue, Terihf went on. “One of the burrows from Fall of four days ago has been giving my ground crews some concern.”
“Four days ago?” T’kamen asked. He hadn’t flown that Fall; G’bral had led a modest Seventh complement in support of a single fighting Flight. The snow hadn’t reached this far east, but the Threadfall had been a short one, falling harmlessly off into the barren badlands for most of its duration.
“It struck close to the bank of a creek on our northern border,” said Terihf. “It was burned out by dragons, of course, and attended by our crew when trailing edge had passed. All seemed as it should. But there has been a disturbance along that bank in the days since. The bushes along the creek dying off, withering and blackened, as though their roots were being attacked…”
“Which creek?” asked M’ric, from across the table.
“Drawdip, near the bend where the ironstone boulder overhangs the water,” said Terihf.
M’ric nodded. “I know it.” He looked at T’kamen. “We should take a look.” He transferred his gaze back to Terihf. “The firestone bunker’s still stocked?”
“Of course, wingrider,” said Terihf. He sounded relieved. “Untouched these last five Turns, but stocked, as it should be. If you could investigate – if it’s not too great an imposition on your time, that is…”
“It’s not,” M’ric assured him quickly.
“I don’t like to take advantage…”
M’ric looked even more uncomfortable. “You’re not, Terihf, truly. It’s no problem. Please. It’s our pleasure.”
T’kamen said nothing at all as M’ric led the way to Fiver’s firestone bunker with Terihf trailing them at a respectful distance. The emergency supply within was dusty but acceptable; they took half a sack each, and a few of the iron tools the ground crews used to probe deep burrows, all the while under Terihf’s polite scrutiny, and the intensely interested gaze of the people at every window of Fiver’s three storeys.
“I know,” M’ric said, as they walked back to their dragons. He glanced sideways at T’kamen. “I know.”
“I didn’t say anything.”
“You didn’t have to.”
T’kamen was glad that his beard hid the crook of his mouth that would have betrayed his amusement. “I thought you lived for the fame and adulation of being a Tactical rider.”
“It’s different when it’s coming from people you’ve known your whole life,” said M’ric. “It’s weird.”
“The Weyr doesn’t Search many candidates out of here, does it?”
“The dragon-blood doesn’t flow in Fiver veins.” M’ric said it with the cadence of an old saw, often quoted. “I favour my father. In lots of ways.”
“Did you ever meet him?”
M’ric gave a short shake of his head. “No. Well. Once, when I was too small to remember. Not much call for a Starfall rider to come all the way out here.”
He said it defensively, as though he felt the need to shield his long-dead father from any accusation of disinterest in the son he’d sired. T’kamen found himself endeared by it. Dragonriders as a breed had always been guilty of insouciance regarding the children they so casually fathered, and that in an era when between had made visiting a Holdbred son or daughter a facile errand. But M’ric’s dragon-bred differences, stamped on him so plainly, must always have set him apart from his Holdmates, like a dragonet among wherries. It wasn’t hard to see how the proud, clever, insecure young man T’kamen had come to know had been shaped by his background even before Impression.
“They’re just proud of you,” he said.
“Proud.” M’ric made a disparaging sound. “Thank you for turning down the goat.”
“It wouldn’t have been fair. They weren’t expecting us.”
M’ric pulled a knot taut as he strapped a pick-axe to Trebruth’s harness. “I can never let them know I’m coming.” When T’kamen didn’t react immediately, the boy threw him a glare over his shoulder. “What do you think a dusty hole like Fiver produces?”
“You tell me.”
“Stone and goats. And you can’t eat stone.”
T’kamen let his eyes rove briefly over the Hold. The handsome sandstone façade, built against the bluff that protected Fiver’s back from Thread and weather, had given him a false first impression. The lean and weathered look of its people owed as much to thin rations as to the arid and dusty location. Stone and goats. “Fiver’s not a rich Hold.”
M’ric snorted. “It’s poor. And proud. Terihf would empty the storerooms in a dragonrider’s honour given half a chance. Which makes it fortunate that dragons don’t visit too often. And that Trebruth’s never hungry when we do.”
It gave T’kamen something to think about as he climbed back up to Epherineth’s neck. Fiver wasn’t the only poor Hold he’d visited in the Eighth Pass. The necessity of supporting the Weyr – and satisfying the vast appetites of dragons required to fly straight all over the territory – was taking a punishing toll on Pern’s population. Wealthy Holds like Kellad and Jessaf showed the strain less obviously, but he’d seen enough thin and ragged folk at Madellon’s lesser holdings to understand the price that the Pass was exacting upon the people of Pern.
The phenomenon Terihf had described was even more plain from above than it would have been to a ground crew. Epherineth and Trebruth circled to survey it from the air, both studying the riverbank as critically as T’kamen and M’ric were. Dragonflame had burned off a swathe of the scrubby bushes that grew along the waterway, leaving a long singe mark, but beyond the burned area the line of brushy shrubs looked shrivelled and sickly, and from above, the ground beneath them was visibly sunken.
Trapdoor burrow, Epherineth concluded, with a dragon’s keen sense for anything Thread-related, the peaceable green of his eyes betraying the occasional flash of scarlet. We must root it out and burn it.
The dragons landed well clear of the sunken ground that betrayed Thread’s underground presence. “We’re digging it out?” M’ric asked, dismounting Trebruth.
“If it hasn’t gone too deep.” T’kamen unlashed from Epherineth’s harness the bundle of iron stakes he’d taken from Fiver’s fire-bunker, and passed two of them to M’ric. “Take these, and be careful. If I lose you in a pit of Thread S’leondes will skin me for fighting straps.”
“I know how to probe a burrow, T’kamen,” said M’ric. “And you’re not responsible for me, anyway. If I fall into a pit of Thread it’s my own look-out.”
“All the same,” said T’kamen, “I’d sooner not need to have that conversation.”
They began to explore the probable boundaries of the burrow, sinking the metal rods into the earth and feeling for the tell-tale sponginess of Thread-saturation. The dragons were still too far back to help, but Fetch, rigid on T’kamen’s shoulder, took an active interest in the process. He leaned far over to scrutinise the ground, clinging to T’kamen’s collar with one forepaw for balance, his nostrils flaring. He became more agitated the closer T’kamen ventured to the edge of the collapse, whistling unhappily, until at last, when T’kamen drove in his stake and felt the resistance of dry earth give way to a soggy, yielding substance, Fetch hissed and seized his ear, attempting to pull him back out of the danger zone.
“All right, Fetch, stop that,” T’kamen told him, shaking his head to dislodge the tiny claws. “I get it.” He drew a line in the dust with his foot to delineate the margin of the burrow.
Agusta had shaken off her normal attitude in the presence of Thread, too. When T’kamen paused to rest his leg, leaning on a stake, he watched as M’ric marked the far edge of the burrow, talking good-naturedly to his queen as she chattered imperious instructions.
Then they both stood back to survey what they’d marked. The burrow was twenty feet long and three wide at its broadest point, following closely the line of scrub that grew along the bank of the creek, and sank perhaps five feet deep. One good blast of Epherineth’s flame would flood the area, but not before they’d stripped off the soil and exposed the infestation.
They’d brought picks and shovels from Fiver, but an excavation on this sort of scale was more than a two-man job. Epherineth and Trebruth conferred briefly between themselves, and Trebruth went off to find a good digging rock. Firestone, Epherineth requested, in a tone that brooked no argument.
“I never imagined Epherineth would destroy his first Thread like this,” T’kamen remarked to M’ric as the two dragons prepared to dig out the burrow.
“Suppose you must have thought he never would at all,” M’ric replied, watching as Epherineth, with much noisy slobbering, crunched stone. “R’lony’s never going to let you fly with a fire-crew, is he?”
T’kamen shrugged. “He has to marshal his forces as he thinks best. Epherineth’s always going to be more effective as a carrier than a burner.”
M’ric was silent for a moment. “G’reyan says a dragonrider isn’t a real dragonrider until he’s burned Thread out of the sky.”
It wasn’t an accusation, nor an apology, so T’kamen took it as neither. Instead, he said, “By that reckoning, you’re a real dragonrider, M’ric. What do you think?”
“I think,” M’ric said, and then stopped. His eyes flicked from Epherineth to Trebruth and back again. “I think G’reyan still doesn’t believe Trebruth is a proper fighting dragon.”
“Because he’s brown?”
“What other reason could there be?”
“You’re a new recruit, M’ric,” T’kamen pointed out. “You can’t expect trust and respect to come before you’ve flown more than a handful of Falls.”
“Respect, maybe,” M’ric said. “I have to win that. I know I do. But…” He took a breath. “But they don’t trust me. My wingmates. And that’s not because I’m new. Fraza’s just as new as me, and she’s friends with everyone. I don’t begrudge her it, but… They stop talking, sometimes, when I come into the ready-room. They still look at my shoulder-knot, as if they have to remind themselves I’m not an imposter. But it only reminds them of why they don’t trust me in the first place. Because Trebruth’s a brown dragon, and I’m a brown rider.”
T’kamen could have told M’ric he was being too sensitive to his wingmates’ wariness, or too impatient for an acceptance that could only grow slowly. He could have pointed out how he wore his conflicting pride and doubt like a badge, like a shining banner. He could have told him to be grateful for the stroke of luck, the special dispensation, the favourable whim that had seen his fervent wish for a place in the fighting Wings granted. T’kamen could have said all of those things and more. He said none of them. Instead, he said, “And what about S’leondes?”
M’ric’s eyes lit with the instinctive hero-worship that he felt for the Commander, but only for a moment. “I…never talk to him. I report to G’reyan. The Commander hasn’t spoken to me since he tapped me.” Then he added, in a flurry, “But why would he? I’m only a wingrider, one of thirty, and it’s like you said; I’m the newest recruit. The Commander has better things to do than talk to me. He has a Weyr to run.”
T’kamen considered pointing out that S’leondes ran only Tactical, not the entirety of the Weyr, but he decided against it. Nor did he think that criticising the Commander’s leadership style would have been constructive. “But you wish your service were better rewarded.”
M’ric looked at him with such palpable misery in his eyes that T’kamen almost couldn’t hold his gaze. Mercifully, the brown rider looked away first. “I thought we could make a difference. But nothing’s changed. How it is at Fiver isn’t how it is everywhere else. People don’t look at me hard enough to see I’m a fighting rider. They just see Trebruth’s hide, or the colour in my shoulder-knot. And even when we’re fighting, Trebruth’s flying anchor. Anchor, T’kamen! Like he’s some slow old blue who can’t turn!” M’ric pulled himself up, perhaps recognising the whingeing tone in his own voice. Then he went on, determinedly even, “And it’s like you said. Trebruth isn’t just a blue with a coat of paint. He fights differently to every other dragon in the Wings. He can fly like a blue, but it chafes him when he could be doing so much more. And if our wingmates don’t trust us – if we can’t be more useful to the Wings as a brown pair, not a brown pair pretending to be something else – then what’s the point of us even being there at all? We’ll never fit in as if Trebruth were blue, but how can we ever distinguish ourselves when no one’s interested in what makes us unique? Not in the fighting Wings, and certainly not in the Seventh!”
“Maybe you can’t,” said T’kamen. “Maybe you’ll always be caught between the two worlds.”
He realised the portentousness of his words even as he spoke them, and met M’ric’s eyes even as the boy sought his. “My dad was a hero, T’kamen. Ask Ch’fil; ask anyone. M’gral was one of Starfall’s first blue Wingleaders. No one’s ever going to forget him. But who’s ever going to remember me?”
M’ric’s voice broke on the last word, and this time T’kamen couldn’t look him in the eye at all, too painfully reminded of his own ignoble place in history. He hauled the young rider into a bruising hug instead, putting his hand to the back of M’ric’s neck to keep him there, so he could stare without seeing over his shoulder. They stood like that for a long span of moments, neither speaking. Even Epherineth was silent, though he looked in their direction with softly glowing blue eyes; the notion of legacy was one of those human conceits a dragon could never wholly grasp.
T’kamen gave M’ric a stout thump on the back, and released him. M’ric turned away, avoiding T’kamen’s gaze, embarrassed by the rough display of affection as only a teenage boy could be. Trebruth, the flat and sharp-edged piece of rock he’d found neglected in one forepaw, extended his head towards his rider in solidarity, and M’ric put his hand to the dark muzzle. Then M’ric visibly took command of himself, straightening his shoulders. “Come on, Trebruth. Let’s dig out this burrow.”
All stoked? T’kamen asked Epherineth, walking stiffly to his dragon to give M’ric a moment’s space.
Epherineth turned his head downwind and coughed. The brief flicker of flame that escaped his mouth was tinged with streaks of green, evidence of impurities in the firestone, but it set light quite satisfactorily to a thorny patch of scrub. Epherineth watched it burn for a moment, then crushed the blaze out with a forepaw. Yes.
“Should she be doing that?” M’ric asked from behind them.
T’kamen turned. Agusta had flown down to the remains of Epherineth’s firestone heap and was snatching up bits of leftover stone. As they watched, she chewed and then swallowed several small pieces. “Have you let her at Trebruth’s firestone before?” T’kamen asked.
“No, and I leave her behind when we fight Thread. I haven’t taught her this, I swear.”
“Instinct’s a powerful thing,” T’kamen murmured. He looked at Fetch, staring intently at Agusta’s behaviour from his perch on his shoulder. “Go on, if you want to,” he told him.
Fetch needed no further prompting. He launched himself towards the cache and began gulping down bits of firestone with gusto. “They’re proper little dragons, aren’t they?” M’ric asked, sounding grudgingly impressed.
“So it would seem.”
M’ric studied his queen. “Won’t the stone make her infertile?”
T’kamen hadn’t thought of that. After a moment, he shook his head. “I think that only applies to dragons. Fire-lizard queens have been chewing firestone against Thread for thousands of Turns. If it stopped them breeding they’d all have died out long ago.”
With Epherineth – and both fire-lizards – acceptably stoked for flame, Trebruth approached the area they’d marked out as infested. He gripped the flat piece of stone in both forepaws and pushed it along the surface, uprooting the moribund shrubs. He scraped off the upper layers of earth and stone, working carefully away from himself, and going deeper with each pass. Epherineth, waiting at the far end of the trench, watched intently as Trebruth’s efforts gradually uncovered the burrow. But it was the fire-lizards, both of them dripping half-controlled flames from their mouths with every eager breath, who reacted first when Trebruth’s digging finally exposed Thread to the light.
Heaving silver-grey filaments oozed up out of the earth like a grotesque mass of snakes. Eyeless, headless, tailless, they roiled over one another as if in eagerness to reach a new source of sustenance. “Get back!” M’ric shouted at his dragon, but before Trebruth could even move to give Epherineth space to unleash his flame, Agusta and Fetch had darted in, their jaws wide open. Plumes of fire erupted from their tiny mouths, and the tendrils of Thread squirming up out of the ground caught fire. Reeking smoke ribboned up from the burning Thread, and the filaments thrashed about in a grim facsimile of death throes. Fetch and Agusta shrieked in triumph, and Fetch nearly singed his own wing when a leftover gout of fire issued from his mouth along with his victory cry.
Then Epherineth made a rumble of warning deep in his chest. Trebruth shifted back out of his way, and both fire-lizards spiralled away from the burrow. Their efforts had scorched off the first few strings of Thread, but more was boiling up from underneath along the entire length of the trench Trebruth had dug, an oily silver-coloured pit of seething foulness. T’kamen took hold of M’ric’s arm, pulling him back, as Epherineth reared up over the burrow with red eyes.
Fire spilled from his mouth, almost too bright to behold: a searing lance of flames half a dragonlength long. The Thread that had writhed in silent senseless agonies beneath fire-lizard breath simply crisped and vanished under the onslaught of Epherineth’s fearsome exhalation. The intense waves of heat rolling off the burning burrow drove M’ric still farther back, but T’kamen couldn’t move: too wrapped up in the satisfaction of destroying, at last, their ancient enemy; too transfixed by the sight of the flames leaping from the burrow; too enmeshed in the fierce pleasure Epherineth took in destruction on its purest and most primal level.
Epherineth poured out his entire gutful of flame in that single massive breath, and then stood over the blazing trench, his wings half open, surveying the devastation he’d wrought. The choking stink of burnt Thread was sweet in his nostrils; the acrid smoke stung agreeably in his eyes; and the snarl on his lips made his scarred face symmetrical again. In the air or on the ground, he had met Thread and destroyed it, and in the instant of exultant victory he felt more a dragon than at any time before.
With an effort, T’kamen reasserted his identity in the storm of Epherineth’s emotion. He was sweating from his proximity to the burning burrow, and his eyes were dry and sore. He limped back several paces and found a rock to sit on. A moment later, Fetch came fluttering down to land excitedly on his shoulder. He stank of firestone, but it didn’t seem to matter.
That was good, said Epherineth. That was very good.
Yes, T’kamen agreed. Any more than that seemed unnecessary.
M’ric brought him a waterskin. As T’kamen drank, and then poured a stream of water over his sweaty face, the boy regarded him with an odd half-smile. “You feel it, don’t you?” he asked. “The rightness of a dragon doing what dragons are meant to do.”
It seemed even more redundant to reply to him than it had to Epherineth. T’kamen smiled instead.
The fire in the trench went out soon enough, leaving a steaming mass of blackened Thread residue. They poked at it with their stakes, turning the odorous substance over in search of any surviving filaments, but Epherineth’s flame had done its work. “Why don’t you go back to the Hold and tell Terihf we’ve dealt with the burrow?” T’kamen suggested to M’ric.
“You’re not coming?” M’ric asked.
“In a bit. Epherineth has his ash to bring up. I’d sooner he didn’t do that in the middle of the courtyard.” T’kamen paused. “You should stay here with your family for a while. We’ll go and get the tithe from Redyen and pick you up on our way back.”
“Are you sure?”
T’kamen nodded. “Leave Agusta with me. She’ll need to sick up, too.”
Once Trebruth was almost out of sight on his way back to Fiver, T’kamen sat looking at Epherineth. He was wearing the uncomfortable expression of a dragon who knew his firestone ash was going to come up soon, but not exactly when. Agusta and Fetch had both done their puking – Agusta especially looked outraged at the indignity – and were scrubbing themselves furiously in the sand to get rid of the stink. “Will you do it?” he asked aloud.
That seemed fair enough. T’kamen held out his arm. “Here, Fetch,” he said softly, and the young fire-lizard obediently quit his dust bath to heed the recall. T’kamen scratched him under his chin, and Fetch made a happy little sound of contentment.
Then T’kamen began to construct a visual. He chose Harper’s Rock, imagining the distinctive shape of the mesa, its reddish hue differentiating it from the more yellow Fiver sandstone. He took care, as he’d always been taught, not to place any temporal references in the image. The shape of the rock was all that mattered, viewed from the angle that made it look so like a half-harp. “Fetch,” he said, when he had the visual firm in his mind. “I want you to go somewhere for me and bring me back a red stone. Do you understand?”
Fetch cocked his head onto one side.
“This is the where,” T’kamen told him. “See it in my mind. Do you see the big red rock?”
Fetch echoed the image back to him. He had never been to Harper’s Rock himself, so the visual was all T’kamen’s. He inspected it for integrity, and found it the same as the image he’d provided. “How is it, Epherineth? Would you go between on this?”
The visual is sound. But I cannot take you there. It isn’t safe.
He made the familiar conclusion without fear or concern in his voice; merely pragmatism about the feasibility of the jump. “It’s all right. I just want to be sure Fetch has a good visual to find.” T’kamen smoothed down the fire-lizard’s wings. “Fetch. I want you to go there and pick up a red stone from the ground, then bring it back to me here. Go there for me now.”
T’kamen launched Fetch off his forearm with a flick of his wrist. Fetch beat his wings a couple of times to get some altitude, and then he disappeared.
It wasn’t the first time T’kamen had sent him off to somewhere he’d never been before. Still, he felt a nagging anxiety for his safety. Fetch wasn’t even fully grown yet, not much longer from nose to tail than T’kamen’s forearm; still not much more than a hatchling. The memory of the tiny unborn bronze that Alanne had crushed in her hand still haunted T’kamen. He had never liked fire-lizards, but Fetch was a faithful and willing friend, and the notion of using him as a tool didn’t sit as comfortably with T’kamen as it once had.
“Epherineth, is he –” he began, and was interrupted by the sound of his dragon finally vomiting up his ash. There wasn’t much, but Epherineth hacked and spat in a most undignified way to get it all out of his mouth, before loping over to the creek to suck up water and wash the taste away.
Nothing – not dragonet dung, not burned dead Thread, not even boiling numbweed – smelled quite as bad as firestone puke. T’kamen limped over to kick sand over the eye-wateringly foetid heap. “Better?”
Epherineth spat out a mouthful of water and shook himself all over, from nose to tail-fork. Much.
And then Fetch reappeared, chattering happily to himself. He swooped down towards T’kamen, spreading his wings to arrest his descent. T’kamen barely got his arm up in time for him to land, and then caught, reflexively, the red stone Fetch dropped into his hand. He turned it over, seeing the trace of frost still on it. “Good boy, Fetch, this is exactly right,” he said, relieved and heartened in equal measure. “Very well done.” He felt in his belt pouch for some jerky to reward him. “Show me where you went.”
Fetch’s visual was different to the one T’kamen had provided, including as it did the position of the sun in the sky, and the shadows it cast, and the pockets of snow that still survived in the most sheltered parts, but the shape of Harper’s Rock was unmistakeable. Carefully, T’kamen stripped away the specifics, returning the image to its generic state. “Epherineth,” he said. “What would you say if I asked you to go between to Harper’s Rock?”
It’s not safe, Epherineth replied immediately.
I cannot see the way through. I might not find the way out to where you want to go.
T’kamen grappled with the notion. “Every time you go between, you know the…the route you’re going to take, before you even jump?”
Yes. I see it. Then I go between. If I cannot see it, I will not go between.
“Then you can…see into between from outside?”
It is not that simple, Epherineth replied, apologetically.
T’kamen tossed the red pebble from one hand to the other, trying to think of another approach. “In the Interval, the dragonets couldn’t navigate between, but you and all the other adults still could.”
We already knew our way between. They did not.
“But you can’t find your way between now.”
Between is different now. Now, I am like a dragonet who has never gone between. My old way is not there. I cannot see a new way.
“What about Fetch?” T’kamen put his hand on the fire-lizard’s back. “He can find his way between.”
He is a fire-lizard. I am a dragon.
“Does that matter?”
I’m bigger than him.
T’kamen almost answered that with a dry remark of his own, but Epherineth’s tone carried no hint of sarcasm. “That matters?” he asked, handling the new idea carefully. “In terms of you going between?”
Yes. No. Epherineth sounded apologetic again. It is difficult to explain. He hesitated, and T’kamen could feel him striving to communicate his understanding in a way that a mere human could comprehend. If we were in a forest, you would see paths through the trees that I would not, because you’re smaller than me.
“All right,” said T’kamen. “But a path big enough for me would be too small for you.”
T’kamen considered it, with a sinking feeling. “So what you’re saying is that Fetch is using small paths to traverse between that a dragon would be too big to fit through.”
No, said Epherineth, shaking his head agitatedly. No. A dragon is not big between. A dragon is no bigger than a fire-lizard between.
“Then what’s the difference?”
Epherineth was as frustrated as him. It is a matter of perspective. Here, I am large, and Fetch is small. Between, everything is the same. Fetch jumps. He is between. He arrives. He knows the beginning and the end of his journey. I cannot see my way. I can see the beginning but not the end. If I went between I might discover a way. I might not. We would remain between forever. We would not arrive. It’s not safe.
It made T’kamen’s head hurt. He pressed the heels of his hands into his eye sockets. Then something occurred to him. “Do all dragons plot their way before they go between, like you?”
Not all. Some dragons jump first and find their way once they are between. Then he added, rather stiffly, I would not like to do it that way.
“The dragonets,” T’kamen said slowly. “Our dragonets. The ones who didn’t go between at all were like you. They tried to see their way through and couldn’t, so they refused to try. The ones who did go between and didn’t come out…”
They jumped without first seeing their path, said Epherineth. They could not find a way out in time. Their riders ran out of breath.
The bald way he said it made T’kamen shudder. “L’stev should –” he began, and then broke the sentence off. “It was all so much simpler in the Interval when between just worked.”
T’kamen rubbed Fetch’s neck distractedly. “If I sent him between to Harper’s Rock again, would you be able to see the route he took?”
A pause. I don’t know.
“Well, let’s try it. Fetch.” T’kamen looked hard at the fire-lizard, offering him the generic visual of Harper’s Rock. “I want you to go between to here again, but this time I want you to show Epherineth the way you go.”
Fetch put his head on one side. He chirped quizzically, rustling his wings.
He doesn’t understand.
T’kamen sighed. “I’m not sure any of us do,” he said. “Do it anyway, Fetch. Epherineth, see if you can track him.”
When Fetch disappeared between, Epherineth moved his head to look intently at the place where he had been. The expression of concentration on his face was nearly comical. “Well?” T’kamen asked.
Epherineth heaved a great breath, still faintly rank with firestone. I cannot trace him.
T’kamen echoed his dragon’s sigh. “All right.” Slowly, he got to his feet, picking up his cane. “I guess we tried –”
I would have to jump with him and follow him from within between.
I cannot follow him from outside between. Only from inside.
It wasn’t the nature of Epherineth’s statement that threw T’kamen so much as the matter-of-fact way he made it. “You mean go between blind, and then follow Fetch out?”
“But what if Fetch can’t find a way out?”
He is a fire-lizard. He wouldn’t go between if he couldn’t find his way out.
“Then fire-lizards are always see their way through before they jump, like you?”
No. They don’t need to see their way through. They are fire-lizards. They are… Epherineth struggled to fit words to concepts. He tried again. Between is theirs. Between was theirs long and long before dragons. Dragons are not fire-lizards. Fetch understands between as much more than I do as I understand it more than you do.
“Are you really saying that you would go between reliant entirely on Fetch to get you out?”
You rely on me.
“You’re my dragon, Epherineth. He’s a fire-lizard.”
He is our fire-lizard.
T’kamen looked at his dragon. He looked at the intricate cargo harness that criss-crossed his body, caging him in his role as a beast of burden. He looked at the muscular bulk that bearing weight long distances had added to the formerly lithe frame. He looked at the facial disfigurement that more prompt treatment might have prevented.
He thought about the dragonpairs who died and died and died in Threadfall, whose bodies lay rotting and desecrated at Little Madellon, whose names were carved into the Wall. He thought about the riders of Madellon, locked into their rigid colour-divisions, the complementary roles of bronze and brown and blue and green sundered into rivalry. He thought about the northern Weyrs, bitterly divided from their southern counterparts; the forests of Kellad, razed for want of protection from above. He thought about the poor, proud, hungry folk of Fiver.
“And all for the want of between,” he said aloud.
T’kamen found himself moving; slowly, as he moved everywhere now, but with determination. His mind, he realised, was made up, though seemingly without his conscious permission. It was, perhaps, the only way he could have overcome his frozen terror at what he had resolved to do.
He shoved his cane through its loop on Epherineth’s harness and swung up to his place on the bronze’s neck. Fetch had returned and was perching on Epherineth’s fore-ridge. “Fetch,” T’kamen said. His own voice sounded oddly remote as though coming from far away. “You’re going to show Epherineth the way to Harper’s Rock.”
No. Let me.
As Epherineth heaved himself aloft, T’kamen felt him take the visual of Harper’s Rock from his mind and share it with Fetch. The sensation of his dragon and his fire-lizard communicating directly with each other was a peculiar one; they did not exclude him – they communicated through him – but their conference was completely abstract to his understanding. Instead of trying to comprehend, T’kamen looked around, fixing the location in his mind: the line of the creek, snaking around the outcrops of harder rock; the apparently precarious ironstone boulder balancing over the bend in the waterway; the distant landmark of Fiver’s rock spires, stabbing up into the sky on the horizon.
We are ready, Epherineth reported abruptly. You should take a deep breath.
T’kamen did. He put one hand on Epherineth’s neck. The red pebble was still in his other. If this doesn’t work…
I love you, too, said Epherineth.
He took them between.
And the bitter deep cold was a shock: as much a shock as it had been sixteen, and a hundred and forty, Turns ago when the youth who would become T’kamen had gone between for the first time on another man’s dragon. Then, he’d been required to place his trust entirely in another’s hands. Now, though, he invested that trust in a juvenile fire-lizard. Had he been able to breathe, he wouldn’t have dared. He couldn’t risk distracting Epherineth or Fetch, couldn’t divert them from their purpose, couldn’t seek their reassurance. And between was so very dark and so very cold. The mere bone-chill of winter seemed balmy by comparison; the frozen, lonely nothingness of between sank into the soul.
Yet it seemed no different to how it ever had to T’kamen’s limited human senses: impenetrably, homogenously hostile in every direction, if direction could even be said to exist in a place so far outside the world he lived in. However Fetch, or even Epherineth, perceived between was beyond T’kamen’s capacity to comprehend, and perhaps so strange, so confounding in its nature, that the blank blackness was simply the human mind’s way of protecting itself from the overwhelming alienness of between’s true form. There they hung, to T’kamen’s mind, though he knew they were not still and passive, that dragon and fire-lizard between them were navigating the unknowable waters of the void. Were there currents between? Were there reefs and rocks to steer through? Would they be flung up upon the shore of their destination, or dragged deep, deep and down, into the inky depths of oblivion? And as the moments passed – moments that might have been seconds, or hours, or lifetimes – T’kamen realised that he was no longer afraid, no longer fearful of all he had to lose, because what he stood to gain – what Pern stood to gain – so far exceeded it.
And then the wind rushed in his ears and peppered his cheeks with hard spits of snow. The stone was a hard, sharp lump in the clench of his left hand. Epherineth’s neck was warm and smooth beneath his right.
T’kamen opened his eyes.
Continue to Chapter fifty-four: Valonna
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Dragonchoice 3 news
- Dragonchoice re-read and commentary at AO3 posted 22 December 2017
- The end is nigh posted 8 February 2017
- Happy (nearly) birthday, Dragonchoice 3! posted 5 October 2016
- Venn diagram posted 25 February 2016
- Don’t let me Rosebud; or, why your feedback matters posted 17 February 2016