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Chapter sixty-four: Sarenya

'Chase' by Micah Johnson

‘Chase’ by Micah Johnson

Those candidates who stand again and again until they outgrow the age of candidacy often leave the Weyr entirely. This is almost always for the best. It is cruel, monstrously cruel, to expect someone who has spent his entire youth yearning for a dragon to spend the rest of his life in service to those more fortunate than himself, and no good can come of it – for the individual, or for the Weyr.

– Weyrlingmaster D’hor, Thoughts On Candidacy

100.04.28 (100TH TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL)
MADELLON WEYR

Sarenya (Micah Johnson)Sejanth was dying.

If there’d been any doubt before, there was none now. He had begun to refuse food, consenting only intermittently to swallow joints of wherry that were forcibly pushed into his mouth. No amount of coercion could persuade him to move from his wallow so they could clean him or it. And while he had not yet stopped drinking, Sarenya dreaded the day, seemingly inevitable now, when she came into the dragon infirmary to find that even the water trough had ceased to hold any temptation for him. No animal had long to go once it reached that stage.

She was scrubbing her hands, getting the last traces of salve out from under her fingernails, when Vhion asked quietly, “What would you do if he were a runnerbeast?”

It wasn’t the first time he had asked her that question. The first part of Sarenya’s answer was always the same. “A dragon isn’t a runnerbeast.” Then she added, “Take a knife to his throat and call it a kindness.”

She was lying, and Vhion knew it as well as she did. Most Beastcrafters faced with an animal as sick as Sejanth would have put it down without hesitation rather than waste time and resources on prolonging its end. Sarenya had always been more tender-hearted than that, nearly to a fault. More than one Master had criticised her reluctance to let a beast go, and more often than not they’d been right. Only once had her stubborn perseverance with a runnerbeast yielded a happy result – a massive cart-mare at Blue Shale with a badly abscessed foot – and that more because of the foal she had been carrying than because she was particularly valuable herself. Still, Sarenya didn’t lightly give up on any creature in her care, and Sejanth was more precious than any runnerbeast she had ever nursed back from sickness or injury.

“When he goes,” Vhion said, “I don’t know that I’ll have enough for you to do here.”

Sarenya studied her fingernails without seeing them. “You and Arrense, again.”

“Would you sooner neither he nor I cared enough about your prospects to discuss them?”

She wanted to say, yes, I wish you two would stop making decisions about what’s best for me without consulting me first, but she didn’t. “Tebis is going to be laid up for sevendays with his broken leg,” she said instead. “With everything that’ll need doing while he’s out of action I don’t know that my Master will be able to spare me for much longer anyway.”

“Tebis won’t be in the infirmary forever,” said Vhion. “And in a month or six sevendays, Master Benallen’s offer may not still be open to you. Look to your own future, Saren. Not your Master’s, not mine. Not even his.” He jerked his head in the direction of Sejanth. “And don’t allow your disinclination to let things go stop you from making the right decisions.”

Sleek swooped down as Sarenya left the infirmary. He never accompanied her inside, although she had never decided if it was Sejanth’s presence, or simply the infirmary itself, that deterred him. A combination of both, probably: the fresh air was a relief after the stink of sick dragon that surrounded Sejanth.

“What do you think, fella?” she asked as Sleek landed on her outstretched arm. “Do you want to start somewhere new again?”

Sleek hummed at her non-comprehendingly, which was about what Sarenya had expected. She shook him off her wrist and onto her shoulder as she crossed the Bowl towards the Beastcrafters’ cot. Simple-minded or not, Sleek had been her only confidant since Long Bay. Her predicament might be trivial compared with all that had befallen the Weyrleaders of all three southern Weyrs during and since the Gather, but she wished she could have talked it through with someone.

A lifetime ago, or so it seemed, she would have gone to C’mine. He had once been a reliable fund of good advice, sometimes understanding her better than she did herself, even if he lacked expertise on her Craft. In the old days, C’mine would have listened to Sarenya’s dilemma – leave Madellon and abandon her life, stay and perhaps stunt her career – and seen to the heart of her uncertainty. He wouldn’t have told her what to do, only shown her the most sensible way to resolve her indecision. But that C’mine was gone. When Sarenya had heard that he’d had been replaced as Assistant Weyrlingmaster, she’d gone to see him and been turned away by journeyman Benner. That in itself had increased her concern for him. She’d been treated by Benner herself after her kidnapping. Benner specialised in helping patients with troubled minds. And the sight of Darshanth, more grey than blue, on C’mine’s ledge filled her with dread. But whatever was wrong with C’mine – and something must be badly wrong – no one, neither rider nor crafter, would tell her.

She couldn’t go to Valonna. Even had they continued with their informal meetings since T’kamen’s disappearance, the Weyrwoman was utterly mired in Madellon’s affairs; Sarenya wouldn’t have presumed on her time simply to seek counsel for her own benefit. She found an honesty in her trepidation at what Valonna was facing. It might have been the first time Sarenya could tell herself sincerely that she didn’t envy the Weyrwoman her situation.

And she quite simply hadn’t had the opportunity to confide in M’ric. Their hectic lives – his running two Wings nearly single-handed, hers covering first for Jarrisam and then for Tebis since the stampede in which he’d broken his leg – meant that they’d spent little time together in the month since Long Bay. Sarenya might catch a glimpse of M’ric between evening stables and milking time, notice dark wings in the killing pens as Trebruth fed, or spot Agusta’s golden form stretched out in the sun alongside Sleek, but not much more than that. She could have sent him a note asking if he could find some time for them to talk, but she was reluctant to do so. M’ric was, after all, under nearly as much strain as Valonna; distracting him from Wing business seemed crass.

There, too, Sarenya was honest enough with herself to recognise that her reluctance was rooted in more than just an unwillingness to bother him. She still didn’t know what to make of what the Peninsula green rider, S’rebren, had said. If M’ric hadn’t been born in a seahold, and Trebruth hadn’t Hatched at the Peninsula, then where did they come from? And if either claim were true, why would M’ric have lied to her?

The second question troubled her more than the first. She’d always taken pains not to pry into M’ric’s business, to make it clear that he was not accountable to her in any way, to respect his prioritisation of Trebruth’s needs. Romantic involvement with a dragonrider demanded such considerations. Sarenya had seen too many fellow crafters fall out with their rider lovers over issues of privacy, transparency, and fidelity. It was the price she had chosen to pay for M’ric’s love – and before him, T’kamen’s – and one she felt that he recognised and appreciated that she paid. If Sarenya still found it upsetting that M’ric must be intimate with green riders two and three times a month in accordance with Trebruth’s libido, then at least M’ric neither denied it nor confronted her with it. She, in turn, didn’t demand a reckoning of his mating flight activities, or go out of her way to find out which greens Trebruth had flown. Neither of them pretended it wasn’t an issue at all, but skirting diplomatically around it made for fewer awkward conversations.

But their mutual, unspoken agreement not to discuss Trebruth’s sex life was different to peddling outright lies.

Sarenya turned it all over in her mind as she crossed the Weyr. M’ric had never outright said that Trebruth was a Peninsula dragon. She’d presumed he was. M’ric had never corrected her fallacious assumption, though she’d probably never stated it for him to contradict. But where, then, had M’ric Impressed his dragon? Not at Madellon , that was for sure. Sarenya hated herself for it, but she’d checked the public Weyr Book, with its chronicle of every dragonet Hatched and rider Impressed since Madellon’s founding. M’ric and Trebruth weren’t there. Southern? She doubted it. Before the recent conflict there’d have been no reason for M’ric to lie about coming from there – and besides, Southern was known for producing big dragons, not small ones. That only left the northern Weyrs, and there Sarenya’s knowledge ended. She’d never been north to know if Trebruth’s unusual size and coloration were typical of a northern bloodline. Then, too, if Trebruth – and by extension, M’ric – did originate from the north, that would also explain Agusta, a northern fire-lizard queen. Had M’ric ever specifically said he’d grown up in a Peninsula seahold? Perhaps he hadn’t. Perhaps his sin, if he had indeed sinned, was merely of omission. S’rebren had said something about M’ric making a bad jump between as a weyrling and addling his wits. But if that were true, why hadn’t M’ric just gone home? Surely it would have been facile to check which northern Weyr was missing a brown weyrling. Had M’ric been running away from something that had been done to him at his native Weyr? Or something he had done?

It seemed far-fetched. But then there was the question of the race-runner M’ric had backed, supposedly on S’rebren’s expert advice. That had turned out to be untrue, unless M’ric had simply misremembered the source of the tip. But that wasn’t like him; not at all. Even when he’d been drinking, as he had that first night of the Gather, M’ric always kept a clear head. So where had the tip come from? It wasn’t as if that runnerbeast had been well fancied, that M’ric could have heard about it and hoped to impress Sarenya by backing a winner. Sixteen-to-one shots seldom won at a canter as that grey colt Wonder Dream had. Sarenya paused in her stride for a moment. Could the colt have been a ringer? It wasn’t unheard of for one runner to be entered in a race under the name and auspices of another, similar-looking animal. A superior runner would be substituted for an outsider, allowing those in the know to collect a handsome return when it won at long odds. There were harsh penalties for any trainers caught running ringers, and the stewards kept a sharp eye open for suspicious behaviour in the racecourse stables and anomalous changes in the betting market that could indicate a scam, but the practice did still occur. Had M’ric got wind of some shady scheme to replace the real Wonder Dream with a higher-class stablemate? Had he been involved in it? M’ric always seemed to have marks to spend, and there wasn’t so much disparity between a Wingsecond’s stipend and a journeyman’s pay that he should be much better-off than Sarenya. Could M’ric be part of some Pern-wide conspiracy to defraud the wagermen by running ringers at the major race meetings?

Sarenya couldn’t have dreamed up a more absurd notion if she’d tried.

She laughed out loud at the wild direction her conjecture had taken. Sleek chuffed enquiringly, and she put her hand up to him. “It’s nothing, fella,” she told him, opening the lower half of the split back door of the Beastcraft cot. “I’m just seeing schemes and conspiracies everywhere I look these days.”

Jarrisam raised his head from where he sat poring over a slate behind Arrense’s desk. “What’s that you say, Saren?”

“Nothing, Sam. Just talking to myself.” Sarenya crossed to the klah pot, craning her neck to see what he was looking at. “Milk projections?”

“What else?” he asked. “We’ll be under quota for the entire next quarter if this dry spell doesn’t break soon.”

Sarenya poured herself a mug. “There’s nothing much we can do about that.”

“I don’t want to be the one who has to tell the Weyr to expect more goat milk than cow in its klah for the foreseeable future.”

Sarenya sipped her klah, then almost gagged. “It might not be the milk that’s the problem. Who brewed this pot?”

“I did,” Jarrisam said. “What’s wrong with it?”

“It tastes like wet hound.”

“It seemed all right to me,” Jarrisam said. He pushed his slate away. “How was Sejanth today?”

“Not good. Vhion doesn’t think he has long to go.”

“Faranth. I’m sorry.” Jarrisam paused. “You’re not back on shift until first evening watch, are you?”

“Not strictly, no.” Sarenya eyed him charily. “Why?”

“I wouldn’t normally ask, but I’m not sure if anyone’s gone down the valley to headcount the drive.” He jerked a thumb over his shoulder to the blackboard on the wall. “It was Teb’s turn.”

“Didn’t Arrense go?” Sarenya asked. “He said he would this morning.”

“I haven’t seen him,” said Jarrisam. “And Franc’s still in his stall.”

“Maybe he was called away,” Sarenya said. She kept her tone neutral. More likely Arrense had disappeared out-Weyr on another of the investigative missions that he’d been refusing to discuss with her, but she didn’t want to get into a conversation with Jarrisam about it. He’d already been speculating on the reason for Arrense’s regular absences. “Let me just change my clothes, and I’ll ride down for the count. But only if you’ll get an apprentice to run over to the dining hall and bring me something to eat on the way. And something to drink that isn’t that disgusting klah.”

“Deal.”

Sarenya stopped in her room to exchange her tunic and trousers for riding clothes. The dirty items went into the overflowing basket at the end of her bed. Doing laundry just hadn’t quite reached the top of the list for the last sevenday or so. She put it out of her mind as she buckled on chaps. Laundry could wait.

Arrense’s tall bay Franc was still in his end box in the stables, barred in to prevent him from savaging hapless passers-by. What Jarrisam hadn’t noticed was that Bovey was missing from the turn-out paddock behind the stables. When Sarenya went into the tack room to investigate, she found Bovey’s saddle missing, too, and a note in Arrense’s scrawl chalked on the board. Time we had Crawler back.

She experienced a moment’s red rage. Maybe Bovey wasn’t hers, but Arrense knew she’d been enjoying riding him. And what was the point of her having oversight of the stables if he was just going to take a runner without asking? It must be a ploy to discourage her from staying at Madellon, to remove one more reason she might have cited against leaving. And it was mean spirited enough on Arrense’s part that Sarenya wondered if souring her to him wasn’t half the point.

Well, if Arrense thought he was going to manipulate her that way, he was going to be disappointed. Sarenya took Franc’s saddle down from its rack. If Arrense was going to take her mount without asking, she’d take his.

She led Franc out of his box to saddle him. He wasn’t quite as aggressive out of his stable as in. She still had to dodge the snap of his teeth twice as she tightened the girth. “Don’t be a sod,” she warned him when he made as if to sidle away from her as she put her foot in the stirrup to mount. He didn’t, but he did start forwards before Saren had got her leg fully across his broad back.

Anthelle came into the yard as Sarenya was shortening the stirrup leathers. The apprentice looked askance at Sarenya’s choice of mount, and made a wide detour to avoid getting too close to Franc’s ready teeth. “Hand me up that waterskin, too,” Sarenya said, taking the bulging napkin Anthelle handed her and slipping it into one of her saddlebags. “And while I’m gone, would you skip Bovey’s box completely out and scrub it down with redwort? Master Arrense will probably be bringing Crawler back up, and he should go into a clean stall.”

“You’re joining him to do headcount?” Anthelle asked, passing her the waterskin.

“Just going to make sure he gets it right.” Sarenya nearly fumbled the waterskin, and caught it only by the end of its carry strap. She swore, and wrapped the thong of the skin twice around the saddle horn. “He might get it wrong if it’s more than he can tally on his fingers.”

She regretted the remark as she whistled Sleek down from where he’d arranged himself in his favourite sunny spot on the stable roof. It was poor form to be snide about one’s Master in front of the apprentices. In truth, Sarenya was more interested in making a point with Arrense by riding down the valley on his own personal mount. No one else would have dared take Franc. But Arrense, by his own admission, had been treating Sarenya differently because of their blood relationship; she didn’t see why she shouldn’t take a few liberties in return.

It was, at least, a fine afternoon for a ride. She kept Franc to a walk until they had left the tunnel that bored through the wall of the Bowl, raising a hand in passing to the duty watchman, then followed the paved road that was the main ground approach to Madellon as far as the first crossroads. There, the thoroughfare split, descending north and east through the mountains to Kellad in one direction and the southernmost border of Blue Shale in the other. The trail wasn’t paved along its entire length, but it was always passable, winding through passes that laden tithe wagons could traverse in all but the worst winter snows.

Sarenya turned Franc off the main road onto the unpaved but still broad herders’ trail, its margins defined not with stone or gravel but with the churned-up prints of thousands of hard-edged herdbeast hoofs. The food beasts they drove up to the Weyr twice each sevenday from the pasture at the base of the range didn’t require such a gentle climb as the tithe wagons, though even their route had been made easier by Turns of work on Madellon’s road system. The high switchbacks of the beast trail looked daunting from above, on dragonback, but they rode straightforwardly enough for the doziest apprentice to negotiate, even when heat, stillness, and the passage of a herd combined to fill the air with dust. The heat and stillness applied, but not the herd, and the only dust was what hung in Franc’s wake as he trotted along each leg of the switchbacks, dropping to a walk to negotiate the hairpin bend at each end.

At the base of the switchbacks, the trail became gentler both in gradient and in its curve, following the descending ridges to the pasturage below. For Beastcrafters riding down unencumbered by a herd there were two options. They could kick their runners on, cantering – and more often than not, racing – along the flat stretch of trail, or else they could leave the track entirely and ride one of the steep and narrow ravines that offered the most direct descent to the valley. Bovey had been swift on the flat and surefooted down the more civilised gorges, and Franc was just as able, but Sarenya decided not to push her luck. She stopped where a creek bisected the trail, dismounting to let Franc drink and nibble a leaf or two off the bushes that overhung the water. Sleek carried off half a meatroll from the napkin Sarenya took out of her saddlebag, leaving her one-and-a-half meatrolls and some cheese for her own lunch.

She stretched her legs as she ate, looking down towards the pasture. The herds moved only sluggishly in the heat of the day, making it easy to estimate their numbers. They looked short. A hundred and fifty head didn’t have to mean a hundred and fifty steers. Depending on the season, up to a third of the count might comprise wethers, at the rate of six to the steer; a drive could involve up to four hundred individual beasts in total. That was part of the reason for headcount: so the Weyr’s Beastcrafters knew how many animals to expect and of which type. From this distance, Sarenya wasn’t certain that even the sheep and goats, penned according to their type, would make up the shortfall in the head of cattle. That probably meant that the drovers hadn’t finished bringing up all the animals for tomorrow’s drive yet, which in turn meant that she would have to ride down to the lower pastures to get an accurate count.

“Looks like you’re going to have to put up with me a bit longer,” she said to Franc, pulling his near rein to get him to raise his head.

Franc ignored her. He continued to nose around in search of something worth eating.

Sarenya sighed. “You bugger. Bovey was never like this.”

Franc ignored that too.

There was a sticky square of travel-cake at the bottom of the napkin Anthelle had brought from the dining cavern. Sarenya broke it in two. “What about if I give you this?”

That made Franc lift his head. He sniffed the cake, then lipped it off her palm without leaving a crumb behind. Sarenya took advantage of his noisy enjoyment of the oats and dried fruit to boost herself the long way back up into the saddle. She heeled him on, eating her half of the cake as she rode.

By the time they were off the ridge and onto the last stretch of rough ground before the pasture, one of the drovers had ridden up to meet them. Sarenya raised her hand in greeting even as she recognised him, and winced mentally. Not all of Madellon’s drovers were agreeable. “Afternoon, Ernick.”

“Ho, journeyman.” The herdsman pulled in his runnerbeast in front of them. “What brings yeh down t’mountain?”

Sarenya had to rein Franc in sharply. He was nearly three hands taller than Ernick’s hill-runner, and would have barged the smaller animal without intervention. “Count,” she said. “Tebis’ ankle was broken, not just sprained, so I’m filling in on his runs.”

“Aye, heard bout Teb,” Ernick said. His grey sidestepped a bit under him, and he jabbed it in the mouth with a sharp tug of the reins. “But Master’s already bin down fer count. Wasted trip fer yeh.”

“The herd’s looking light,” Sarenya said, nodding towards the pasture. “Has he gone down the valley to see the rest?”

“Aye, aye, that he has. Down t’valley.” Ernick’s runner danced a bit more; again, he yanked harder on the reins than the mare deserved. “Probably going t’be a while. Lennig’s runner were down with t’colic this morn. Master said he’d look t’it.”

Sarenya never liked to see a runner socked in the mouth like that. “Something up with your mare, Ernick?”

“Bin nappy since t’dragon last drive. Hope t’rider gits shit on.”

“I think he has been,” said Sarenya. “Look, since I’m here anyway, I may as well come down and see what you have for us. Then I can ride back to the Weyr with my Master once he’s seen to Lennig’s runner.”

Ernick looked like he was about to argue with her. Then he shrugged and spun his agitated runnerbeast. “Suit self.”

Sarenya was glad to see him trot back towards the drovers’ hut. She’d never had much time for Ernick. It wasn’t unusual for herdsmen to dislike Craft folk with equal parts resentment of their status and contempt for the Hall’s methods. To a herder family that had been breeding, handling, and treating its own animals for generations, the opinion of a Hall-trained Beastcrafter might seem patronising. But most of Madellon’s drovers were at least polite, and if one of their own beasts was sick then having a Beastcrafter look at it could be the difference between recovery and euthanasia. Ernick, though, had always shown the minimum possible tolerance towards Madellon’s Beastcrafters. Sarenya thought dryly that at least if she left the Weyr, she wouldn’t have to deal with Kellad’s sullen drovers any more.

She rode to the edge of the pasture to inspect the herds. Some of the wether sheep had been shorn of their summer fleeces. The ones that hadn’t would be sheared up at the Weyr. There was no point in feeding good wool to dragons. The goats were all of the coarse-haired hill variety and not worth shearing, though the hides of the ones that went for human consumption, rather than into dragons’ bellies, would make decent leather. Sarenya counted nearly a hundred of each: the equivalent of thirty steers.

There weren’t a hundred and twenty bullocks. Sarenya’s tally only reached eighty-four, and two more penned apart from the rest in such a sorry state that together they would barely have counted as one. Arrense would have ordered those beasts roped off from the others, and an additional animal brought up to compensate for their condition. The rest were the sort of bullocks they’d become accustomed to seeing – poor quality, under-fleshed, but at least in a condition to be driven to the Weyr without dying on the way.

Arrense had been quite firm about Sarenya keeping out of his investigation of the animals being supplied to the Weyr by Madellon’s Holds. Specifically, he’d told Sarenya not to go looking for Peninsula cattle in the herds. She’d obeyed that order, at least insofar as she didn’t make a point of poking around at ear tattoos. But now that she knew there was something to look for, she couldn’t help but notice when she saw a Keroon Red with its hide suspiciously free of river itch.

What was curious about the bullocks that grazed the pasture before her now was that none of them were obviously Peninsularite. Every Keroon that Sarenya could see had some amount of stippling on its hide. She wondered if that meant that the shortfall she could see in this group would comprise only Peninsula stock. Arrense would probably have come to the same conclusion. He would have gone down the valley as much to investigate where the Peninsula beasts were being held as to count the stock still being brought up for the drive. Sarenya supposed that she shouldn’t go after him. That would have taken her very close to sticking her nose into his investigation, and she’d agreed she wouldn’t.

Still, she thought she might as well ride down as far as Gadman’s cot to see if he was pleased to have Bovey back. Gadman, unlike Ernick, was always cheerful, and he might like to know how his gelding had been going for Sarenya up at the Weyr. Casendie, Gadman’s cot-bound wife, liked visitors, and Sarenya wouldn’t mind a mug of proper klah while she waited for Arrense to come back up from the bottom of the valley.

Gadman’s smallholding lay in one of the many dales that branched off from the broad valley that descended through the Madellon range. The vale had water, a bit of rough grazing, and shelter from the weather: resources enough for a drover and his wife. As Franc crested the ridge that overlooked the holding, Sarenya looked down at Gadman’s cot. The cottage itself, seemingly tumbledown in the way of all the structures built of the mottled local stone, was tight against wind and rain. The lean-to stable on the south side was just as snug. Bovey was hitched to the rail near the gate of the small paddock, enclosed by a dry stone wall, that fronted the holding. A smaller runner was tethered beside him.

The chestnut gelding raised his head as Sarenya rode Franc up to the front of Gadman’s cot. “Hey, fella,” she said. “I’m going to miss you.” She raised her voice. “Hello, the hold?”

An instant after she called out, a muffled shout from within made her hesitate in the saddle. On her shoulder, Sleek mantled his wings, suddenly rigid with alarm.

A man came out of the cothold. He had a drover’s staff in one hand, but he wasn’t Gadman, nor any other herdsman Sarenya recognised. More than that she didn’t have time to see. “Git down offa dat runner!” he bawled, grabbing at Franc’s reins.

He never got near them.

Sarenya found herself with a faceful of mane as Franc reared. Instinctively, she shifted her weight forwards to stay aboard. She felt rather than saw one of Franc’s feet connect, a sickening sensation of iron-shod hoof striking bone. She couldn’t tell if the screams she could hear were Franc’s or Sleek’s or even her own.

Then Franc crashed down onto all four hoofs again, making Sarenya’s teeth clash together. The man who’d grabbed at him was howling on the ground, clutching at his shoulder. His arm was bent at a grotesque angle. “You idiot!” Sarenya shouted down at him. She could hear her own voice shaking, and her fingers felt boneless on Franc’s reins as she tried to turn him. “Why did you have to snatch at him like that? Faranth!”

She didn’t know how she got down, except that it was a long way down from Franc’s back to the ground. She took a step towards the writhing man. “Are you all right?”

Then her foot caught the staff he’d been holding, sending it rolling. She looked down. The end of the stave was sticky with blood.

“Why’d ya hafta come?” the man panted. His accent wasn’t Kelladian. “Why’d ya hafta? Whut mind’s it o’ ya’s where the shedded bists is kem from?”

Sarenya took a step back, then another. “Where’s Gadman?” she asked, and then as realisation struck, she whirled towards the cothold.

Sleek preceded her into the cot, whistling urgently. It was dim inside, damp and dusty with neglect, the hearth old ashes, the floor mildewed reeds. Oddments of broken furniture were all that remained of Gadman and Casendie’s possessions.

Arrense was sitting on the floor, his back against one of the roof posts. He’d been gagged and bound. And beaten. Blood from a gash at his temple washed half his face. But he was alive. His eyes burned blue from the ghastly mask, and when he saw Sarenya he began to struggle, his shoulders bunching against his bonds.

“Master!” Sarenya flew to him. She tore the filthy and blood-stained gag from his mouth. “Faranth, Master!”

“The herdsman,” Arrense said thickly, and spat out a bloody mouthful. “What happened to the herdsman?”

“Franc kicked him,” Sarenya said. “I think he’s broken his arm.”

“Franc? Franc’s here?” Then he shook his shaggy head. “Never mind that. Send your lizard for help. Send him now!”

“He’s never –” Sarenya began, and then stopped. “Sleek!” She almost had to catch him out of the air, so great was his agitation. “Sleek, go back to Madellon! Find Agusta, tell her to send M’ric and Trebruth!”

Sleek shook free of her grasp, too upset to be held. He flew up to the top of the fireplace and perched there, creeling excitedly.

“Thread take you, Sleek!” Sarenya shouted at him.

“Never mind!” Arrense barked. “Untie me!”

Sarenya fumbled her belt knife out of its sheath. It took her two tries to slice through the thongs that bound Arrense’s wrists, and she nearly cut him in the process. “Can you get up?”

“Give me your hand.”

Sarenya did, and braced herself as he used it to help heave himself to his feet. Arrense’s grip was still strong, but he caught himself against the post he’d been tied to, visibly swaying, and when Sarenya took his arm to steady him he swore and drew it back. “Master –”

“I’m all right,” he said. “I’ll be all right.” With an effort, he let go of the post to stand unaided. Sarenya could see what it cost him to do so. “What in the Void are you doing here, Sarenya? I told you to stay out of it!”

“I came to do the count!”

“You knew I was doing it! I didn’t want you down here today!”

“You took Bovey. You didn’t even ask!”

“You came down because of a shaffing runnerbeast?”

“I thought you’d done it to try and encourage me to leave,” Sarenya said. It sounded stupid now she said it aloud. “I wanted to have it out with you, away from the others.”

Arrense gave her a hard look made all the worse for his bloody condition. “I guess I should be grateful you picked today to be stupid,” he said. “They were expecting Tebis. They –” He paused to spit blood again, pressing one hand to the side of his chest. “They needed him to falsify the tattoos.”

Sarenya’s head swam. Tebis? Stolid, unremarkable Tebis? “He can’t be,” she protested weakly.

“We knew they had to have someone this end,” Arrense said. “Thought it would be down the valley.” He put his hand gingerly to his head and brought it away sticky. “I came to see Gadman. I thought he’d be reasonable. They were expecting Tebis to go down to the lower pastures and tattoo the Peninsula stock –”  He stopped to clear his mouth again. “Do you have any water?”

“On Franc’s saddle,” Sarenya said, and when Arrense looked at her, his brows contracting in a scowl, she added, “I was really annoyed about Bovey.”

“That sharding –”

The sound of hoofbeats, going fast and moving away, stopped Arrense mid-sentence. He staggered out of the cothold; Sarenya followed close behind him. The man Franc had kicked was riding away as fast as his little runnerbeast could carry him, still favouring his broken arm.

Arrense watched him go. “Shaff.” He spoke quietly. “A pity Franc didn’t break his leg.”

Out in the light, the evidence of the beating Arrense had taken was more explicit. His face was swollen, the skin over his cheekbones split, and bruises mottled his jaw. Sarenya dreaded to think what he looked like under his sweat-darkened shirt. “Can you ride?”

“Going to have to,” Arrense said. “That fellow wasn’t acting alone.” He looked at Sarenya. “What, you think, one little bastard was enough to do this much damage to me? That little shit Ernick was the worst though.” He touched his face. “I think he broke my shaffing nose again.”

Sarenya peered harder at his face. It didn’t look any different to her.

Arrense gave her a withering glare. “The fellow who just left isn’t a local. He’s some sort of overseer. The drovers were terrified of him.” He threw a look at the abandoned cothold. “Guess Gadman stepped out of line. They made an example of him.”

The thought chilled Sarenya to the bone. “Is he dead?”

“There are two shallow graves behind the cot.”

“Two?” Sarenya asked, and then, realising, “Casendie. Oh, Faranth.”

“No one wants the flow of marks to dry up,” Arrense said savagely. “And they won’t treat you or me any more kindly if we’re still here when that bastard with the broken arm gets back here with reinforcements. We need to move. Take the chestnut.”

It only took a moment for Sarenya to adjust Bovey’s stirrup leathers and swing up into the saddle. Arrense had to use the wall to climb up onto Franc. He was moving cautiously, and he was shaking, but once he’d settled into the saddle with the instinctive ease of a lifelong runner-man some of the pain seemed to go out of him. He swigged from the waterskin, spat, swigged again. “We need to do this the hard way,” he said. “Are you ready?”

Sarenya put her hand to Bovey’s neck. He was picking his feet up nervously, reacting to Sarenya’s tension and Franc’s unease – and the smell of blood. “Ready.”

Arrense nodded. “Hyah.”

Franc leapt forward to Arrense’s urging, and Bovey went after him.

Arrense didn’t take the well-worn trail to the top of the ridge that Sarenya had used to approach Gadman’s cothold. He led the way instead towards the steeper ridge at the southern end of the valley, uncut by any path left by man or beast. Franc, willing beneath Arrense as he had not been for Sarenya, waded through stiff high grass, through tangling undergrowth and around hidden boulders. Bovey scrambled after him, cantering the clearer stretches where Franck’s passage had flattened the undergrowth into something close to a trail, trotting or walking the treacherous parts where rocks could catch his hoofs. It was a jolting, difficult ascent to the top of that high ridge, and when Bovey struggled up to its peak to stand blowing beside Franc, Sarenya was glad of the chance to catch her breath, too.

The other side of the ridge dropped as steeply as the slope they’d just climbed had risen. Sarenya followed the route with her eyes. Arrense was taking them around the base of the great upthrust of mountain that culminated in Madellon Weyr. By doing so, they could avoid completely the main road and the traitorous drovers who were watching it – but the terrain was fearsome. Crossing it would take every bit of courage that their runners had. Sarenya was glad for Bovey beneath her. “We follow the ridge?” she asked Arrense, when there was air in her lungs again.

Arrense shook his head. “Too exposed. We’ll be visible from every direction.” He pointed down into the brushy draw that lay between them and the next ridge. “Half a dozen ridges, and then we turn west.”

Sarenya mentally plotted the route. “But that’ll take us up below the Water Tank. That’s not a route to ride at speed!”

“Bovey can do it,” Arrense said. “So can you.”

“But –”

“Don’t argue. Just keep close.”

With that, Arrense kicked Franc on. Sarenya couldn’t have hung back if she’d wanted to; Bovey was too keen to keep his head at the other runner’s flank. They plunged down the precipitous far side of the ridge, through brush and scrub that fouled the runners’ legs, slowing their progress even where it didn’t threaten to bring them down. Bovey had the easier task, following in Franc’s wake, but the descent was a jolting one, beset with hidden hazards. One chance misplacement of a hoof on false ground, or a hole that would catch a fetlock, would have been disastrous. Sarenya let Bovey’s reins run through her fingers to the buckle, giving him his head entirely and leaning hard back in the saddle as he wallowed down the ridge in Franc’s tracks.

A shallow stream wound along the bottom of the gully, heavily overhung from the other side. They turned west to follow it for a quarter of a mile before the slope of the far bank gentled enough to offer them a way out. Then the runners were fighting their way uphill again, this time up a gradient comprising more shale and gravel than sound stone. Sarenya saw Arrense kick Franc hard in the belly to force him onwards. It frightened her. He would never have ridden a runner so severely if he weren’t afraid. Both geldings were blowing hard. The sun blazed down from the sky, and foamy white sweat showed in dribbles from beneath Franc’s saddle pad and patches where Bovey’s reins chafed his neck.

As they made the top of the ridge, a green dragon suddenly soared over them. They both waved their arms and shouted, trying to get the rider’s attention, but then a cluster of blues and browns boiled over in pursuit of the green. It was a mating flight, and the dragons’ minds were otherwise occupied. Sarenya let her arms drop, crestfallen. They pushed on.

At the top of the next ridge, Arrense reined in. He turned back towards her. His face was sweaty and grey with pain, and blood was bubbling from the corner of his mouth. He had only one hand on the reins; the other was clamped to his side. His bruised and swollen face had narrowed his left eye to a slit. “Take the lead.” His breath was beginning to sound wet and thick. “I can’t make Franc go on.”

That really frightened Sarenya, but she fought not to let it show. “Shouldn’t we take a break?”

Arrense looked back the way they’d come. Over Franc and Bovey’s blowing, the distant sounds of pursuit carried well. “Not until we reach the Water Tank,” he said, and then, “I’ll be all right,” to Sarenya’s unspoken question. “Just keep moving.”

Sarenya heeled Bovey past Franc and on down the ridge. Bovey was more reluctant to break the trail than he had been simply to follow, and she had to boot him hard to send him forward. It struck her as she glanced back to make sure Arrense was still following that they had left a trail even a child could follow.

A narrow path zig-zagged the descending slope of the next ridge. Following it would slow their progress to the bottom of the cut, but Sarenya feared that Arrense would fall from Franc’s saddle if they attempted the direct route. Bovey seemed grateful to follow the path, thought Sarenya had to keep chivvying him along to keep his walk brisk.

Climbing the other side of the ridge was an ordeal. Bovey didn’t want to do it, and for all Sarenya’s efforts, she was too tired to make him. It was as much as she could do to keep him moving, and even then he would only consent to follow a gradual, meandering path up the slope.

At last, they crested the ridge. Ahead, the terrain flattened into one of the high pastures that the herders used to graze their own flocks in the spring. The gradient from their current vantage down to that even plateau was invitingly gentle. At the end of it, the mountain pushed up again a sheer cliff face cut only by occasional ravines and gorges. The best of them were passable, barely, in summer, when the meltwater-fed streams that had carved them in the first place no longer ran, and their stony beds offered a direct but dangerous route from the plateau to the foot of the Madellon caldera.

Behind, their pursuers had made it to the top of the second-to-last ridge.

The shouts that went up from the mounted riders turned Sarenya’s blood to ice under the blazing sun. The Beastcrafter’s eye that could tally up a herd of steers in a glance told her that there were eight men chasing them, all mounted on hill runners far better equipped for the rough terrain than poor Franc and Bovey.

One of them nocked an arrow to a bow and loosed it in their direction.

The shaft fell far short, but it had made the intent plain. Sarenya thought about the shallow graves Arrense had found at Gadman’s cothold. The drovers who had been benefitting so handsomely from the trade in Peninsula herdbeasts had no desire for their scheme to be exposed – and they wouldn’t scruple to kill to prevent it.

“We have to –” she began, turning towards Arrense.

Arrense was sagging slowly in Franc’s saddle.

“Master!” Sarenya cried.

He roused from his stupor. With a terrible effort he pulled himself straight. He looked dreadful. “Water Tank,” he said. His breath was gurgling now. “Now.”

Some dispassionate part of Sarenya’s mind noted that one of Arrense’s broken ribs must have punctured a lung. “Can you even stay mounted?”

Arrense’s fingers tightened on the horn of Franc’s saddle. “Just get us there.”

Sarenya snatched Franc’s reins. He was too weary to object after an hour’s hard riding. Then she kicked Bovey on, one hand on his reins, the other leading Franc.

Somehow the two runners found a canter down the gentle slope. Sarenya glanced back often to check that Arrense was still mounted, wrapping her legs more tightly around Bovey’s sides to ensure her own seat. She glanced up nearly as often at the Weyr, crouching above them atop its mountain.

It might as well have been a thousand miles away.

The Water Tank lay between them and any hope of sanctuary. The steep ravine, carved down through the cliffs by hundreds of Turns of spring melts, was named for the old water trough that had been pushed off the plateau above by some recalcitrant herdbeast, and lodged partway down the canyon. The stream that tumbled down through the rock strata made it impassable in winter, but in summer the flowing water shrank to a trickle, and its gravelly margin became a treacherous, narrow, but negotiable shortcut from the base of the mountain back up to the tithe road that led to Madellon.

The thought that traversing the Water Tank on two large and weary runnerbeasts was the best chance she and Arrense had of returning to Madellon alive made Sarenya feel physically sick. Yet as they approached the ravine, and she reined Bovey back to a walk, the sight of the narrow passage between rock-faces that led into the gully gave her hope. Their pursuers would lose sight of them for a time as they passed between the stony walls, and they would be as constrained by the close quarters as Sarenya and Arrense. There could be no arrows loosed through that  crooked corridor. Sarenya urged Bovey on into the gap in the cliffs. The rock walls swallowed them, muffling the sounds of pursuit that had trailed them ever since Gadman’s valley.

“We’re almost there, Master,” she said, turning back to Arrense. “Almost there. Just hold on a bit longer. I’ll get us home.”

Arrense didn’t stir from his slump. His big shoulders were hunched, his shaggy head drooping. Franc’s reins were taut only where Sarenya had hold of them. Arrense remained there in his runner’s saddle, his seat not failing him even as the rest of his body faltered, and Sarenya pushed on through the passage, too afraid to rouse her Master from his torpor.

A thin lance of sunlight marked the divide between the narrow passageway and the bottom of the Water Tank. The chasm walls opened up slightly, and the runners’ hoofs crunched over gravel. Bovey lifted his head as he stepped into the slender shaft of light, and so did Sarenya, craning her neck back, up and up, at the steep, twisting, terrifying ascent that cut the cliff face before them.

“Stop.”

Arrense’s voice was thick and slurred, as if his tongue were too big for his mouth. He looked dreadful in the light, the bruises darker than ever, the fresh blood that had masked his face cracking as it dried. “We can’t,” Sarenya said. “They’re not far behind us.”

Arrense shook his head painfully. “Your runner. Let him get his breath. Water. Then go.”

Water. Sarenya focused on that word. The stream that ran down the gorge in winter and roared in a torrent with the thaw was barely a seep by autumn, but a mossy green patch of gravel showed at the bottom of its course. Bovey was already questing towards it, his nostrils flaring. “Water. Hold on, Master. I’ll get you something to drink.” She dismounted from Bovey, letting his reins and Franc’s drop. She dug with her bare hands at the gravel, scraping away a shallow basin and damming the lip, and after a moment the trickle of water began to puddle there. She pushed Bovey away long enough to scoop several handfuls of muddy water into the neck of the empty waterskin, and then turned back to Arrense. “Here you –”

Arrense was dismounting slowly from Franc.

“Faranth, Master!”

He ignored her. His knees nearly buckled as he hit the ground, but Franc stood stolidly for him, letting him lean against his side. “Take Tebis in,” Arrense said. He spoke slowly but with determination, despite his failing breath. “Before he runs. To H’ned. Tell the Weyr…the Weyrwoman.”

“You can tell her yourself,” Sarenya said, recognising the sharpness of fear in her own voice. “We’re nearly there. We just have to…just have to ride up.”

“And then get yourself out of the Thread-blighted Weyr,” Arrense continued, as if she hadn’t spoken. “To Benallen. Or Rosken. Anywhere there aren’t shaffing dragons. And dragonriders. Get out.”

“Master –”

Listen to me,” Arrense said, and his hand on her shoulder trembled. He focused, somehow, his bloodshot eyes upon her. “The Weyr’s not good for you. No better than it was for me. I didn’t have a choice. You do!” He gave her a shake that at full strength would have rattled her teeth. “Get away from dragons, Sarenya. Stop wasting your life yearning for what wasn’t meant to be. A wound can’t heal if you keep picking at the scab. I should know.” He shook her again. “Get out of here. Get out of Madellon. Don’t ever look back.”

“I’m not leaving you here!”

“Franc wouldn’t make it, even if I could,” Arrense said. He seemed to have steadied. “I’ll hold them here. They won’t get through more than two at a time.” He grinned, baring his red-rimmed teeth; a ghastly sight. “I’ll hold them.”

“Master,” Sarenya said helplessly. She grasped his shoulder, then his hand on her own shoulder. “Uncle.”

“Now she admits it,” said Arrense. He lowered his head to press his bloody brow briefly against hers. Then he thrust her away from him. “Go.”

Sarenya nearly couldn’t see as she set her foot into Bovey’s stirrup. She pulled his head up one-handed, knuckling away the tears that blurred her eyes with the other. She looked down one final time at her uncle: bleeding, battered, drowning in his own blood, but unbowed as he led Franc closer to the gap in the chasm, blocking it with the runner’s solid bulk.

Then she set her heels to Bovey’s sides.

He trotted up the first, gentlest stretch of dry stream bed, his hoofs sending small stones flying in all directions. Despite his weariness, and his ill-suited size, he followed the twisting path of stones as it wound up towards the lip of the cliff dragonlengths above. Sarenya leaned over his neck, shifting her weight to help as he toiled upwards. Bovey lurched up a series of shallow steps where the winter would form frozen teeth of ice and the spring foaming cataracts, and Sarenya pressed herself smaller against him as the sides of the ravine closed in on them.

It grew steeper, and Bovey’s gait changed to a halting canter, his forequarters heaving beneath Sarenya’s precarious seat as his hind legs drove them higher up the defile. Sarenya remembered to duck just in time to avoid the low-hanging rock slab that protruded into the gully at head level to a runner-rider; the saddle horn caught her painfully in the side as she did, and she felt rock scrape her shoulders.

And then, from below, the first shouts drifted upwards to meet Sarenya’s ears.

As Bovey hauled himself around a sharp-corner boulder, Sarenya turned in the saddle to look back the way they’d come. She regretted it at once. The sheer drop behind dizzied her; she swayed in her seat, and only Turns of experience at staying atop difficult mounts prevented her from tumbling sideways off her runner. In dreadful detail she pictured herself toppling down the gully, smashing into the rending teeth of the rocks either side. She squeezed her eyes shut, grabbing handfuls of Bovey’s mane as vertigo made her head spin.

But through it, through the laboured sounds of Bovey’s breathing, and his grunts of exertion as he obeyed the dig of her heels into his sides, she still heard Franc’s scream from far below, and the resounding crash as a large and heavy body dropped, and the frenzied voices of half a dozen men, and Arrense’s gurgling shout.

Almost, Sarenya halted Bovey. She couldn’t leave her uncle to die down there! She tugged at Bovey’s head, trying to turn him.

But Bovey had reached a flatter part of the climb, where the gravel that made the trail so slippery was less deep, and with his feet on truer ground he surged doggedly on. Sarenya clenched her fingers deeper into his flying mane, trying to deny the fresh tears that fell onto her cheeks.

The sudden clang of an iron-shod hoof against metal jolted her from her near stupefaction. Sarenya glanced down Bovey’s shoulder and recognised the rusted frame of the famous water tank. Bovey’s pace had slowed to an uneven jog, and as Sarenya turned her gaze from the tank to what waited above them, she wasn’t sure if she should be relived or more afraid than ever.

They were nearly at the top of the narrow chimney of stone, but a final obstacle lay between them and the safety of the tithe road. Bovey halted as he came up against the lip of stone that marked the divide between the Water Tank and the road. It was four feet high. He couldn’t climb it with Sarenya aboard. She must dismount, as she had the first time she had ridden the Water Tank, and lead him up after her.

There was scant room for her to climb down from her shuddering runnerbeast. Above the edge of the shelf the defile opened out onto the road. It was achingly inviting, but Sarenya leaned a moment against Bovey’s lathered shoulder, bracing herself.

A soft tick made her raise her head, and then another, and then a third, a more solid clunk of metal against stone, followed by the clatter of a wooden shaft falling back down the gorge.

Arrows.

Sarenya wrenched Bovey’s reins over his head. Her chaps protected her knees as she scrambled up the shelf, but the edge of the stone bit cruelly into her hands. She left bloody smears behind her as she clambered up over the lip of the cliff.

Bovey rolled his eyes as she began to tug on his reins to induce him to follow her up. He tossed his head and took a step backwards. One more step, and he would slip backwards, dragging Sarenya with him. But then Bovey gathered himself and leapt at the cliff edge. He got one front leg up cleanly, the other on its knee. “Come on, you bastard, push!” she shouted at him, and as her voice bounced and echoed down the ravine, Bovey thrust with his back legs and somehow scrambled up onto the flat ground beside her.

Sarenya would have wept with relief if she’d had the time. She’d have worried about the bleeding scrapes on all four of Bovey’s legs if she’d had the luxury. She had neither. She patted his neck and spoke a few words of praise, and then looked up at the hulking form of the Weyr, so close ahead now.

She didn’t know how she got back into Bovey’s saddle, but she found herself there, reins and mane in her hands. His weary, dragging gait jarred her with every step, but Sarenya didn’t think she’d have been able to walk under her own power. Still Bovey placed one foot in front of another. “One more step,” Sarenya found herself saying. “One more step. One more step.”

And then the shout from behind her made her blood freeze.

She looked over her shoulder. There were runners on the road, not more than a dozen dragonlengths behind her. The herders must have split up, some of them taking the longer but easier route back up to the Weyr, hoping to cut them off if they did escape through the Water Tank. “No, no, no, no!” Sarenya heard herself cry out the denial, even as instinct tightened her legs around Bovey’s sides to urge him on one last, desperate time.

And as Bovey gathered himself into a heavy-limbed canter, the realisation that Sarenya had been fending off ever since she and Arrense had begun their wild flight from Gadman’s cothold slipped past her weakening defences.

She had been here before.

Not precisely. Not exactly. The circumstances had been different, on that dreadful day. Hatching day. It had been dark, not light; Madellon had been behind her, not before; her pursuit had been friend, not foe.

Yet she was on runnerback now, as before; terrified for her life, as before; fleeing beneath the uncaring, oblivious shadow of the Weyr, as before; with the threat of death behind her, as before; and the distinctions faded away as the similarities tightened inexorably around her. She blinked, and a cloud over the sun turned day to night; the knot of the bandanna catching against her throat became the hard leather of a belt wrapped with malice around her windpipe; the slickness of sweat on her palms was blood, ghastly warm between her fingers with the dying heat of the man who’d shed it.

And C’los lay dead once more upon the floor of the dragon infirmary at her feet, scarlet blooming on the pristine white of his shirt, crimson shining on his lips, and Sarenya felt again the pain as she fell to her knees beside him, trying vainly to stanch the wound that had already killed him.

And his murderer’s knife bit again at her throat as Katel seized her, and noosed her neck with his belt to subdue her.

And Sejanth roared and howled, and flung himself about the infirmary, too big and too slow and too ill to help.

Sarenya was helpless against the tumult of images and emotions and sensations that crashed over her, the debilitating trauma of her abduction made cripplingly fresh by this new ordeal. Every ghastly memory, every unprompted flash of recollection, every sweat-soaked nightmare crowded in on her at once. Her world reduced to that tiny, terrifying place, suffocating her, choking her as surely as that belt around her throat had choked her, tightening hideously as the drumming hoofbeats of her pursuers drew closer and ever closer.

The last corner of her mind that wasn’t paralysed by fear rebelled against the absurdity of it all. Was this how it would end for her, chased down by a gang of herdsmen in broad daylight in the shadow of the Weyr itself? Was she to be murdered to stop her exposing the scam that had been lining their pockets at Madellon’s expense? Sarenya felt a terrible, bubbling laugh of hysteria escape her throat. What had Madellon ever given her to warrant such a price? What good had the Weyr ever done her, that she should surrender her life in its service? The shaffing Weyr, with its dragons who hadn’t wanted her. The Weyr that squatted there, oblivious to the reality that her life hung by the slenderest of threads.

The rage and resentment Sarenya had harboured for Turns, had suppressed for Turns, surged up and out of her like a torrent of flame from a dragon’s maw. What do you even care if I live or die?

If it had been a shout, it would have echoed from peak to peak all along the Madellon range.

It wasn’t a shout. And neither was the voice that responded.

I care.

The touch on her mind, weak and feeble though it was, hit Sarenya like a slap, forcing her back to herself. Bovey still loped haltingly along beneath her, but the three herders pursuing her were close now, less than a dragonlength away. She could hear the laboured blowing of their mounts, nearly as harsh as Bovey’s own sucking breaths. An arrow hummed past her ear. Sarenya felt the vulnerability of her unprotected back as though a target hung between her shoulder-blades. The next one wouldn’t miss. And finally, she wrenched on Bovey’s reins, hauling his head around, because if she was going to die alone on the tithe road, she was blighted if the arrow would take her through the back.

In a blur, she saw the faces of her pursuers. She saw their surprise as she wheeled Bovey to confront them. She saw the one on the right raise his bow to take the shot that would kill her. In an instant of clarity Sarenya recognised Ernick. “Come on, you bastards,” she panted. “Come on and kill me!”

And then the sky was full of dragon.

Sejanth barrelled towards Sarenya’s hunters, his ruined wings barely arresting his descent. Bovey reared, screaming, as shadow and stench hit them at once. Sarenya clung frantically to his neck, but his fright was too great. The runnerbeast who had borne her so honestly for so long crashed down onto his front feet and pitched up his hindquarters, hurling her from his back, and Sarenya hit the ground hard.

Lying there she watched, dazed, as Sejanth fell upon the herdsmen.

His immense bulk crushed Ernick, hill-runner and all. A flail of his talons snatched another drover off the back of his mount, sending him flying through the air helpless as a doll. The third man had managed to turn his runner, fighting with its panicky plunges. Sejanth lunged after him. He snagged the claws of one forepaw into the hill-runner’s hindquarters, and the other deep into its rider’s back, rending man and beast into bloody meat. He spread wide the wings that would never again bear him in flight and trumpeted a dreadful scream of victory.

And then he collapsed.

The uncontrolled plummet had crushed more than just Ernick and his runner. Sejanth’s chest was grotesquely misshapen where he lay upon it. One hind leg was caught at an impossible angle beneath his quarters. Ichor was pooling beneath him.

He lifted his head, swung it ponderously to where Sarenya lay on the hard paved road, and then let it fall with a crack to within the reach of her hand. The stink of his sickness, joined by the metallic rankness of dragon blood, was like a miasma.

To Sarenya no smell could have been sweeter.

“Sejanth. Oh, Sejanth.” She scrambled to her knees and pressed her hands to his face. His breath washed over her, foul and moist, spattering her with a fine mist of warm ichor. Sarenya leaned her head against his muzzle, sobbing: for him, for herself, for Arrense.

I care, Sejanth said. Sarenya.

And then Sarenya tumbled abruptly forwards, barely catching herself with her hands. She knelt there on the tithe road, her hands soaked with Sejanth’s blood and her own and her uncle’s, surrounded by the mangled corpses of men and runners, and an immense, shining pool of dark ichor where a bronze dragon of Madellon Weyr had spent his last breaths to save her.

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