• Follow us on Twitter
  • RSS feed

Chapter sixty-seven: T’kamen

When the Commander plays host to his officers for poker, it’s your responsibility to ensure that his wine is properly watered. You should accommodate any preferences for stronger or weaker drinks from his guests, but absent any such indications you should continue to serve wine at its full strength.

No alcoholic drinks should be served when the Commander is in conference with the Weyrmarshal; klah and water alone are to be provided during such meetings.

The glowbaskets in the Commander’s weyr and office must not be permitted to fade and should NEVER be turned completely dark. The Commander prefers well-lit rooms even when sleeping and will be very displeased if you ever allow him to wake in darkness.

– Handover notes on tailing for Weyrcommander S’leondes by green rider Fraza

26.10.12 (26TH TURN, EIGHTH PASS)
MADELLON AND ISTA WEYRS

T'kamen (Micah Johnson)It was five days before the message came through from the north. T’kamen, with the assistance of several weyrlings, was putting yet another coat of oil on Epherineth, who had gone between so much in the last few days that his hide was as patchy as a four-month-old dragonet’s. He left H’juke supervising the younger weyrlings and made his way to R’lony’s office.

He was surprised to find both Dalka and S’leondes there – S’leondes especially. T’kamen knew that R’lony was usually obliged to climb the two flights of stairs to the Commander’s own office when they met. When he limped in, the three riders were standing around the big map of Pern that hung on the Marshal’s wall, and R’lony was measuring off distances with a piece of string.

“You were right, T’kamen,” said R’lony, without greeting or preamble. “Ista.” He stabbed the northern island on the map with his finger. “Though I’m blighted if I know how he contrived a route there without being seen.”

“Obviously he had help,” said S’leondes, and while he didn’t look directly at T’kamen – the Commander seldom deigned to look at him – his implication was clear.

“You’ve heard from him?” T’kamen asked.

“Chrelith bespoke Donauth,” said Dalka. “Ch’fil and Stratomath are at Ista Weyr, being treated with every courtesy –”

“As if we should give a shard how they’re being treated,” said S’leondes.

“– and Ceduth’s eggs are whole and undamaged,” Dalka went on, as though he hadn’t interrupted her. “Though she referred to them as the trade goods.”

“Won’t they have hatched by now?” T’kamen asked. The six eggs belonging to Brenelth and Ferrelth had hatched the previous day – or, at least, five of them had, all producing green dragonets; one of Ferrelth’s had been another dud.

“Ceduth’s were laid later, and the disruption might have retarded their development, so perhaps not,” said Dalka.

“It’s irrelevant,” said S’leondes. “Those eggs are lost to us now. We’re never getting them back.”

“Four green-laid eggs, Commander,” said R’lony. “It’s hardly like we’ve lost four fighting Wings, or even four fighting dragons. And they probably won’t hatch anyway –”

“You may think it’s acceptable for a brown rider to steal eggs from Madellon’s Hatching sands and give them to our bitterest enemies, Marshal,” S’leondes said, almost snarling down at him, “but I don’t, and nor do my riders. Those eggs were mine, laid by one of my greens, and one of your riders stole them. Someone’s going to pay for that, and as Ch’fil is now out of my reach, and you’re his commanding officer –”

“Oh, wind it in, Commander,” said R’lony, his pale blue eyes smouldering slow hatred.

“This isn’t helpful,” said Dalka, almost at the same moment, putting a hand on each man’s arm.

T’kamen thought that was almost as interesting as the way that both R’lony and S’leondes only ever addressed each other by title. “If Chrelith referred to the eggs as trade goods, that implies Ista have something to trade in return.”

“That was the other part of Chrelith’s message,” said Dalka, smoothly removing her hands from R’lony and S’leondes’ arms. “She said that our payment is ready for collection.”

“Payment,” said S’leondes. The fine spray of spittle he ejected along with the word sparkled briefly in the light from the window.

“Any specifics?” T’kamen asked Dalka.

“They have four fire-lizard eggs waiting for us. And Epherineth may reach out to Chrelith for a visual.”

T’kamen saw S’leondes’ lip curl, and the avid look on R’lony’s face, but he moved his gaze away from them both, because he didn’t trust his own expression not to betray his turmoil. Four fire-lizard eggs for four dragon eggs. The surface symmetry of the trade belied the complexity of the issues that roiled beneath it. What price could one put on a dragon’s egg? What price on a fire-lizard’s, whose occupant might grant access to between to the rider who Impressed it?

“What I could do with four more dragons who could go between,” said R’lony. The hunger in his voice matched that on his face.

“That’s what Ista is counting on you thinking, Marshal,” said S’leondes. “You think they won’t know now that fire-lizards can guide dragons between?”

“You think they didn’t already know that, before Ch’fil went to them?” R’lony retorted.

“I have no doubt that Strategic sympathisers leaked the knowledge north sevendays ago,” said S’leondes. “But on the basis that northern dragons haven’t been appearing all over the south like burrows after Fall, they can’t have mastered the technique. There’s only one rider on Pern who knows that secret, and isn’t it convenient that they want him to collect the fire-lizard eggs they supposedly have for us?”

“You think it’s a trap,” said Dalka.

“Of course it’s a shaffing trap,” S’leondes said. “We send Epherineth to Ista, and Madellon will never see him again.”

R’lony said, scornfully, “I hardly think T’kamen would defect.”

“You’ve said that about every Strategic rider who’s ever crossed the ocean,” said S’leondes. “If Chrelith’s coercion was responsible for all those defections, there’s no reason to think Epherineth would be immune.”

R’lony seemed to have no answer to S’leondes’ assertion. “We need those fire-lizards, Commander,” he said. “Even you must recognise that –”

“Without Epherineth to teach the other dragons how to work with them, they’re nothing more than ornaments,” said S’leondes.

“So Epherineth and I won’t go alone,” said T’kamen.

S’leondes looked at him for the first time. “What.” It was too flat to be a question.

“The only dragon capable of facing down a queen is another queen,” said T’kamen. “So we take a Madellon queen with us.”

R’lony said, with undisguised glee, “Ha!” and swivelled his eyes to S’leondes.

S’leondes’ face had frozen. “No,” he said, after an instant. “You won’t risk a Madellon queen in the north. I forbid it.”

“Forbid it?” R’lony asked. “You overstep your authority, Commander. The deployment of Madellon’s fighting dragons might be your exclusive privilege, but queens are not and will never be fighting dragons.”

“They don’t fall within the purview of Strategic, either!”

“No,” said Dalka. She looked curiously afire with the direction of the argument. “Queens fall under no one’s authority but their own.” Her eyes swept slowly over the two men, and then met T’kamen’s. “Not since the days when Madellon had a Weyrleader.”

“No indeed,” said R’lony, with relish. “Lirelle and Levierth will –”

“No, R’lony,” said Dalka. “You know quite well that Levierth wouldn’t be capable of overruling Chrelith’s will.”

R’lony looked at her, the elation fading from his face. “Donauth’s still on the sands,” he said, with the air of a man grasping for justification. “She won’t leave her eggs.”

Dalka dismissed that with a shrug. “They’ll Hatch tomorrow or the day after.”

“What if the fire-lizard eggs hatch before then?”

“Chrelith said nothing about that.”

“Faranth blight it, Dalka!” R’lony swore. “I can’t risk you going between!”

Dalka smiled with what could have been affection, had her eyes not been so calculatingly a-glitter. She cupped R’lony’s cheek fondly in her hand. “T’kamen won’t dare let any harm come to me. Will you, bronze rider?”

T’kamen had glanced at S’leondes to see if he would react to Dalka’s placation of R’lony. He had, if only through the slightest narrowing of his eyes. But when Dalka turned her back on both men to flash her most arresting smile at T’kamen, S’leondes’ eyes, flaring like banked coals given a sudden prod,  confirmed T’kamen’s growing suspicions.

“I won’t go between on a reference from a dragon who’s never been between herself,” he said. “Not even a queen.”

“Thank Faranth,” said R’lony, with a grunt. “Some sense.”

T’kamen ignored him and stepped closer to the map. “Epherineth and I will fly straight,” he said. He put his finger on the promontory of land that extended north from Southern territory, closest to the south tip of Ista Island. “From here. Once we have sight of Ista Weyr, and a good reference to work with, we’ll jump back to Madellon and pick up Dalka and Donauth.”

“I still don’t like it,” said R’lony.

S’leondes’ nostrils flared before he said, “Neither do I.” It seemed to pain him to be agreeing with his ancient rival.

“It’s out of your hands, gentlemen,” said Dalka. She turned back to them, so she stood with T’kamen on one side of the map, R’lony and S’leondes on the other. “Donauth is in agreement with me. Once her clutch has Hatched, we’ll go with Epherineth to Ista Weyr. Madellon will have fire-lizards.”

She placed her hand on T’kamen’s arm as she spoke. The proprietary gesture made him mildly uncomfortable, but not, he suspected, as unhappy as the expression on R’lony’s face reflected, or as deeply angry, frustrated, and afraid as S’leondes resentment-filled stare seemed, disproportionately, to betray.


Though R’lony insisted, with a string of dire warnings, that the ocean crossing could be perilous at this time of Turn, with difficult winds, unpredictable weather, and the risk of encountering raiding parties using the same, shortest route from the northern continent to the south, T’kamen and Epherineth’s reconnaissance mission went off without incident.

The straight flight across the ocean from the northernmost point of Southern Weyr’s coastline to the islets off the south shore of Ista Island took Epherineth about ten hours. Sunburn and boredom were the greatest threats T’kamen encountered; those, and the dazzle of sunlight reflecting off the miles of sparkling blue ocean below. When the first spits of land came into view, Epherineth climbed to a higher level than the cruising altitude he’d been maintaining so as not to alarm the residents of those outposts of civilisation with his Interval size.

Even from their high elevation, T’kamen was surprised by the density of the settlements clustered along the coasts of the archipelago. More piers and jetties extended out into the sea than he ever remembered from the Interval, and vessels of all sizes, from tiny dories to three- and four-mast clippers, plied the Istan waters.

They had only one encounter with an Istan dragonpair: a green, flying a sweep by the vector of her flight. Epherineth climbed higher still to avoid her notice, concealing himself in the tufts of cloud that punctuated the bright, Thread-free sky – and soaking himself and T’kamen with a drenching mist of water vapour – until the sweepdragon had moved on.

When the five black spires of Ista Weyr broke the horizon, T’kamen sent Epherineth into a high holding pattern. He didn’t dare go much closer in case some vigilant Istan dragon noticed and sent a queen questing after them. He noted the contours of the headlands, the scribble of the paths that hugged the clifftops, the irregular grids of cotholds and barns and beast pens. He ignored, carefully, the line of the coast, where the black Istan sand met the sea; a margin that would change with the tides, providing unsafe time-specific detail. Then he looked away from the reality, holding his visual of it in his mind. What do you think? Will it get us and Donauth back here safely between?

Epherineth inspected the reference gravely. T’kamen felt the inquisitive presence of Fetch accompanying his dragon’s scrutiny. It is a good reference.

T’kamen committed the details to his Interval-trained memory. Then he cleared his thoughts of the Istan reference, and summoned instead his visual for Madellon. Then let’s go home.

Epherineth was wing-weary, and both of them were tired and hungry, when they emerged back over Madellon. Why don’t you drop me at our weyr and then go and get yourself something to eat? T’kamen suggested.

Donauth’s clutch has hatched while we were gone, Epherineth said, as he angled towards their ledge in response.

How was it?

No bronzes. A brown. Two blues and the rest green.

I guess that’s what passes for a good clutch, these days.

Epherineth snorted his opinion of that.

T’kamen unrigged his harness and began to haul it into the weyr for cleaning, but his leg seized up painfully with the first step, and he grimaced, catching himself against Epherineth’s shoulder.

Epherineth turned his head down to him. His fiercely scarred face was incongruous with his concern, but T’kamen looked away from it anyway. Are you all right?

“I will be. I should report to R’lony and Dalka, but I won’t make it across the Bowl if I don’t see to this leg first.”

I will speak to Donauth and Geninth.

“Thank you.” T’kamen pushed himself upright again, keeping most of his weight on his good leg. Then he noticed a rough patch just in front of Epherineth’s near arm-pit. “You need oiling again.”

Epherineth nosed at the spot, then exhaled a sigh through his nostrils. I will ask Bularth to send his rider.

The irony that H’juke, who was still technically Ch’fil’s tail in spite of the Crewleader’s defection, had been seconded to T’kamen, who wasn’t supposed to ever have a tailman again, was not lost on any of them. “Ask him if H’juke can bring up something for Fetch and me to eat, too.”

I will.

T’kamen had left his cane inside his weyr so he had to hop-limp in, hunched over, gripping his twisted and cramping leg with one hand. Fetch fluttered after him, humming sympathetically.

Someone must have anticipated their return, because there was already food laid out on the table in the weyr: meatrolls and cheese, half a loaf of bread, a pitcher of klah and a dish of dried redberries. Fetch’s attention diverted onto the food the moment he saw it, but T’kamen discovered that the pain in his leg had killed his appetite. The only thing that nearly tempted him was the klah, but it would be old and cold, and he couldn’t stand stale klah. “Go and help yourself,” he told his fire-lizard.

Fetch flew over to the table and – true to form – ignored the meatrolls in favour of shoving his head into the bowl of redberries.

T’kamen sat down heavily on his bed, stretching his leg out in front of him. He rested a moment, then leaned down to undo the buttons that closed the lower part of his left trouser leg. He could have sewn them up once the initial swelling had gone down, but he’d found that his torn and twisted calf muscles still gave him enough trouble after a long flight that quick access was welcome.

As the blissful cooling effect of numbweed spread down his leg, T’kamen closed his eyes. Now that Donauth’s latest dragonets were Hatched and matched, and he had the visual that Fetch and Epherineth needed, they could go to Ista and pick up the fire-lizard eggs for which Ch’fil had sacrificed himself. Assuming that they existed, and that Ista would honour the bargain, anyway. S’leondes was still against the entire thing, and even R’lony clearly mistrusted the Istans, for all his eagerness to get his hands on more fire-lizard eggs. T’kamen realised he didn’t even know the name of Chrelith’s rider, but he hoped she would defy the reputation that preceded her.

The tread of feet at the entrance to his weyr made him open his eyes. “H’juke?”

“No, it’s me.” The voice was Leda’s. “I saw Epherineth get back. His harness is on the ledge; did you want me to bring it in?”

“Leave it,” T’kamen told her. “Juke will deal with it. My knee just stiffened up while I was out, is all.”

“You poor thing,” Leda said, coming into the weyr. “Why don’t you go and soak it in the bathing pool?”

“In a minute,” T’kamen said. “Would you put some water on for klah? That stuff someone left is stone cold.”

Leda crossed to the hearth, craning her neck to look at the food on the table as she did. “Not hungry, eh, Fetch?” she asked, stroking the brown’s folded wings.

T’kamen sat up a bit. “He’s always hungry,” he said. “Hasn’t he eaten anything?”

“I don’t think he has,” Leda said, looking in the bowl of redberries. She popped one in her mouth. “Ooh, these are a bit sour. Maybe not sweet enough for his tooth.”

Ask H’juke to make sure he brings some scraps for Fetch. “Epherineth said that Donauth’s eggs Hatched.”

“Oh, you missed that,” said Leda, filling the klah kettle with water. “The Commander’s in a foul mood. One of his sons Impressed the brown.”

T’kamen laughed. “Serves him right. S’leondes, that is, not the boy.”

“You know I can’t have a word said against the Commander,” said Leda, but her eyes sparkled mischief nonetheless. She gathered cups and spoons and klahbark and squatted on her heels by the hearth, waiting for the water to boil. “So where did you go today?”

“Around and about,” said T’kamen. “Just the normal runs.”

“Tithe collections?”

T’kamen made a noncommittal sound.

“Without Epherineth’s cargo rig?”

“Nothing to pick up today,” T’kamen said.

“Really?” Leda asked. “That must be the first time ever.”

T’kamen gave her a flat look.

Leda returned it with an arched eyebrow.

“What are you trying to say, Leda?”

“Look,” she said. “It’s not that I need to know where you’ve been. That’s your business. But if I’ve noticed you’ve been gone all day, and Epherineth’s come back in light harness without so much as a despatch satchel, then you can wager your last mark that other people will be wondering what you’ve been up to.”

“Madellon’s riders have enough to worry about with double Fall over the border tomorrow without wasting time watching our comings and goings.”

Leda snorted. “Don’t be so naïve. There’s not a fighting dragon in this Weyr who isn’t watching every move Epherineth makes. Especially since Ch’fil.”

T’kamen shifted position on his bed, uncomfortable in both senses. “Why?”

“Why?” Leda echoed. “Oh, I don’t know. Maybe because they’re petrified you’re going to follow him and leave the Wings without Epherineth’s protection?”

“I’m not going anywhere.”

I know that. And Faranth knows, I’ve told it to everyone who’ll listen.” She shrugged, a bit petulantly. “Doesn’t stop other green riders making comments about how it would be better if you had someone prettier in your weyr to keep you loyal.”

T’kamen sat up, then regretted it as his leg protested. He gritted his teeth. “That’s whershit. I don’t need anyone in my weyr to keep me loyal.” Then he added, belatedly, “And I don’t want anyone prettier, or…not prettier, or…”

“Take your foot out of your mouth, Kamen,” Leda said. She pointed at him with a spoon. “But they don’t know you like I do. All they can see is that you’re a Strategic rider who lost his tailman flying in the Commander’s Wing, and whose closest ally has just defected to a Weyr where bronze and brown riders are treated with a lot more respect and reverence than they are in the south. Can you blame them for being worried?”

“Now that you put it in those terms, no.”

“I mean, just look at your weyr,” Leda said. “The food. The wall hangings. The new bedfurs –”

T’kamen looked down. “These are new bedfurs?”

“Clouded feline, not that you’d notice,” said Leda, “and if there’s not a love-note under the pillow from whoever thought you’d like it then I’m a wherry’s uncle.” She gestured. “Look around T’kamen. Your weyr’s full of the sort of nice things that bronze riders shouldn’t – wouldn’t – expect to have.”

He obeyed, with a frown. He’d assumed that the new rugs on the floor, and the tapestries that had appeared on the walls, and the comfortable cushions that had replaced the patched and worn old ones on the couch, had been Leda’s doing. “This is all intended to make me want to stay?”

“Yes!”

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“I know. And that’s the problem. You’re oblivious to your own importance in the eyes of the Weyr. And that means you can’t disappear off for hours, in light rig, and come back without cargo or passengers, without people speculating about what you’ve been doing all day.”

T’kamen let out his breath, which didn’t relieve in any way the headache that had joined his throbbing leg in tormenting him. “Then I’ll be more circumspect next time.”

“Circumspect doing what?”

“I thought you said you didn’t need to know.”

“I don’t need to. I’d like to.”

“I’m not going to talk about it.”

“Then don’t talk about it. I’ll talk, and you can tell me if I’m right. Or just look evasive, which amounts to the same thing.”

“Leda –”

“Look, Kamen, you know I’m not going to blab your business around the Wings. But that doesn’t mean I don’t think about what’s going on. Unless you count trying to persuade Tr’seff not to be an idiot, it’s about all I have to do with myself at the moment.” She said the last with a scowl. Leda had taken Suatreth’s miraculous escape from death with the gratitude it merited, but she still chafed against the limitations of her green’s recovery. “Ceduth’s eggs were taken days ago, and nothing’s been done, unless you count N’meru being reamed in front of the entire Weyr. The Commander’s been boiling away like a Thread-bomb ready to explode, and the Marshal’s not much better. You’d think he’d be pleased that Ch’fil did what he did, given how it leaves him clear to be re-elected.”

“I think R’lony has other things on his mind,” said T’kamen, thinking of how neither R’lony nor S’leondes had liked the way Dalka had deferred to him.

Leda snorted again. “You must be joking. The only thing that R’lony thinks about more than staying Marshal is how much he hates the Commander. But it’s the inaction that doesn’t make sense. The Commander’s furious, and R’lony has a trundlebug up his fork, but neither of them are doing anything.” She looked at him with those bright brown eyes. “Unless you’re doing the doing.”

T’kamen tried not to look evasive.

He must have been partially successful, because Leda didn’t leap on him. “Is there more to it than we know?” she said, speculating aloud rather than asking. “Was this someone’s scheme all along, to get Ch’fil out of the way? But if R’lony had a hand in it, then why’s he so testy? And why would the Commander plot to get rid of Ch’fil, when everyone knows he’d rather have him as Marshal than R’lony or G’bral?”

“Ch’fil had his reasons,” T’kamen said, more brusquely than he intended.

“Really?” Leda asked. “Do you know what they were?”

“I can make a good guess,” said T’kamen. “It doesn’t make him any less of an idiot for defecting. Or a –” He couldn’t make himself say traitor. “Or a pariah in Madellon’s eyes.”

Leda was quiet for a moment, absorbing that. “Then you are doing something?”

“Something,” he allowed, at last, and when Leda grinned, he said, “Not a word. Not one word to anyone.”

“I can live with that,” she said.

H’juke arrived at that moment, forestalling any further conversation – for which T’kamen was grateful. It wasn’t that he didn’t trust Leda; not exactly. But he’d twice placed his confidence in riders since coming to the Pass – first M’ric, then Ch’fil – and both of them had done stupid things. Not treacherous – he wasn’t ready to believe that was true of either of them – but they’d each taken something he’d told them, and used it to martyr themselves. He’d pulled Leda out of the fire once already. He didn’t want any reason to have to do it again.


The time difference between Ista and Madellon made it simpler to keep their second journey there quiet, though R’lony did manipulate the watch roster to make sure that a Strategic rider was on duty in the darkest part of the night.

T’kamen rigged Epherineth with his catching harness – having double- and triple-checked every buckle and every inch of leather, especially the thick band that lay across his withers and which T’kamen had already replaced twice. He had no doubt of Epherineth’s ability to carry Donauth’s weight, but didn’t want to risk Donauth’s grip slipping as they took her between. He’d already incurred Dalka’s displeasure when he’d told her to check Donauth’s hide for any rough patches, but he’d rather that than deliver the queen back to Madellon with a lesion. Hide care in the Pass wasn’t as stringent as it had been in the Interval, and a couple of the dragons T’kamen and Epherineth had saved during Fall had emerged with ugly sores where imperfectly oiled hide had broken in the deep cold of between.

He didn’t have to sneak out past Leda or manufacture an excuse for her. She’d retired to her own weyr early the previous night, pleading an upset stomach. T’kamen knew he should have been more sympathetic than he actually was, but it was undeniably convenient that she wasn’t around to speculate about what he was doing.

He didn’t like the subterfuge, but he appreciated the need for it. If S’leondes was right about northern sympathisers at Madellon, and any hint of what T’kamen and Dalka planned got back to Ista, they would lose what advantage of surprise they had. Ista would be expecting Epherineth to come alone, and while S’leondes was an arrogant wher, he was right about how vulnerable a bronze would be to a queen’s will. Donauth’s presence would protect him – and put Ista off balance.

Epherineth took off with a crackle of wingsail that made T’kamen wince. The sound of his dragon’s wings was unmistakable to anyone who had an ear for such things. But the only eyes he could see glowing across the Bowl belonged to the brown on watch, and he didn’t react to Epherineth’s spiralling climb into the star-speckled night sky.

They flew straight on a leisurely easterly vector for a few minutes before T’kamen became aware of their pursuer. Epherineth slowed his wingstroke slightly, and a few moments later a fast-moving patch of darkness soared above them, cutting a dragon-shaped hole in the blanket of stars. Epherineth lifted his head but made no sound. Donauth, I hope? T’kamen asked.

Of course. Brace.

T’kamen did, feeling Epherineth follow his own advice. The dragon above matched their speed and direction, and then bore sharply down on them.

Epherineth didn’t make a sound as Donauth landed on his back, though T’kamen felt all the air whoosh out of the bronze’s lungs. For an alarming moment, gold and bronze wings tangled as Epherineth’s resumed their powerful beat to regain the altitude they’d lost in their glide; and Donauth fussed with furling hers. Then Epherineth steadied, Donauth settled down, and T’kamen heard a snatch of Dalka’s laughter, whipped briskly away by the cool night wind.

He ran his hand over Fetch’s head, feeling the brown fire-lizard nuzzle happily into the contact from his usual perch on the fore neck-strap. Is everyone ready?

He felt as well as heard Donauth’s talons clench into the broad catching-strap. All ready, said Epherineth.

T’kamen summoned up the visual for Ista he’d taken earlier, stripped of any temporal details. The last thing they needed was to encounter their earlier selves there. Fetch and Epherineth inspected it; hooked into it, as T’kamen sometimes felt was a more accurate description of what they did.

It passed their muster. Epherineth resettled his precious burden with a ponderous roll of his shoulders. T’kamen felt Donauth snort a warm breath from somewhere just above him. We go between, Epherineth said, and they did.

It occurred to T’kamen, in a frozen flash, that however much he disliked going between, it must be far worse for the dragonpairs they took along with them. No rider had ever asked them for a lift before. The Threadscored dragons that they seized and took between were already in such pain and shock that a sojourn in painless darkness probably came as a relief to them, but Dalka and Donauth had no such distraction. T’kamen wondered how they were coping with it.

Then Epherineth and Fetch dragged them all out of the darkness and into the brilliant sunlight over Ista. T’kamen winced and had to shade his eyes, adjusted for the night-time, but he didn’t need to see to hear the exhilarated cry coming from Dalka’s direction.

Donauth disengaged from Epherineth’s back, angling away on a downstroke to avoid fouling wings. Is Dalka all right? T’kamen asked Epherineth, making the arm signal for All well? as Donauth levelled off alongside them.

Donauth says she will be.

Dalka ignored his arm signal. She had thrown her head back and seemed to be laughing. Did she enjoy it? T’kamen asked, unbuttoning his riding jacket against the heat.

I think she did.

T’kamen shook his head.

Ahead, the dark specks of dragons were rising in a cloud from the splayed hand of Ista Weyr’s caldera. Ista knows we are here, said Epherineth.

“Come on, bronze rider!” Dalka shouted across from Donauth’s neck. “See if you can beat us there!”

“Is that –” T’kamen began.

Donauth looked back at Epherineth with a challenging cry, and then she was off, and nothing T’kamen could have said could have stopped him from following.

The first Istan dragons met them halfway to the Weyr. Donauth grandly ignored the browns and bronzes, though she slowed to let Epherineth, half a level higher than her, overlap her protectively. Thus escorted, they proceeded to the Weyr.

Ista’s shape was closer to Little Madellon’s than Madellon’s. Its jet-black curtain wall was interrupted where some titanic force had sheared away a quarter of its circumference eons ago. The Bowl revealed was open to the ocean, and water from the stream-fed lake cascaded off the sheer edge of the plateau into the bay below. The outside walls of the caldera were broken by the famous forest weyrs that had once been unique to Ista, and though none of them were in use, almost every one of the ledges sheltering inside the cupped palm of black volcanic stone was occupied by a dragon.

A single queen waited for them on the Istan plateau, flanked by bronzes on both sides. The cry that she uttered to Donauth was neither welcoming nor a threat; instead, it was curiously neutral.

We may land, Epherineth told T’kamen.

As they descended towards the plateau, something about the dragons watching them from their weyr ledges struck T’kamen as significant. It took him almost until Epherineth landed to realise what it was. Most of the dragons he could see had the same compact, short-winged conformation that was typical of Geninth and Donauth’s offspring. Ista’s dragons were clearly almost all descendants of Madellon’s dominant pair.

The Istan queen was even more clearly the scion of a Madellon bloodline. That was no surprise to T’kamen. Her rider was. Ista’s Weyrwoman stepped forward as T’kamen and Dalka dismounted from their dragons, flanked by her retinue.

“Reloka,” Dalka greeted her, cool enough to chill the hot Istan day.

The Istan queen rider’s reply confirmed what T’kamen’s eyes had already told him. “Mother.”

Just as Chrelith was visibly the get of her parents, her rider was unmistakeably the daughter of hers. Reloka was her mother, twenty Turns younger, in the slenderness of her frame beneath her flowing Istan dress, and the angle of her cheekbones, and the sensual curve of her lips, and though her hair was darker, the resemblance between mother and daughter as they stared at each other was striking. It was no wonder R’lony had taken Chrelith’s defection so personally, T’kamen thought. He hadn’t just lost Geninth’s daughter to the north. He’d lost his own.

Then Reloka looked at him, and her eyes narrowed in exactly the way Dalka’s had the first time she’d looked at him. “Weyrleader T’kamen.”

The use of his Interval title sounded odd to T’kamen’s ears. “It’s just bronze rider now, Weyrwoman. Where’s Ch’fil?”

Reloka was unmoved by the abruptness of his question. “On his way,” she replied. “If you’d told us you were coming…”

“And ruined the surprise?” Dalka asked. She smiled a thin, thin smile. “I know how you love to be surprised, Reloka.”

Reloka didn’t rise to the apparent bait. Instead, she looked at T’kamen. “Did my mother tell you I couldn’t be trusted?” she asked. “Or was it my father who sent Donauth to protect your bronze from Chrelith’s irresistible charms?” She must have detected some small motion of Dalka’s, because she cocked her head slightly. “Oh, Mother. You do me such great disservice.”

“I taught you too well,” said Dalka.

“You certainly didn’t teach me to keep guests standing outside getting sunstroke,” Reloka replied. “Won’t you please come in out of the heat, bronze rider?” When T’kamen hesitated, she smiled. “Epherineth would come to no harm even without Donauth’s protection, I assure you; much less with her claws sunk into his tail.”

“What about Ch’fil?” T’kamen asked.

“He’ll meet us,” Reloka replied. “See, there’s Stratomath.” She pointed up the Bowl wall.

He says his rider has not been hurt or coerced, Epherineth told T’kamen.

“And the eggs?” T’kamen asked.

He was deliberately non-specific. Reloka paused before replying. “Also inside.”

“Fine,” T’kamen said, and turned to take his cane down from its loop on Epherineth’s harness.

“Not you, though, Mother,” Reloka said, with a smile as sharp as Ista’s spires. “You’d best stay with your queen. I wouldn’t like her to start beguiling Chrelith’s bronzes away from her. Better if you stay to control her.”

T’kamen was about to object, but Dalka said, “If you’re so concerned she might, Reloka, then that’s fine. I wouldn’t want to poach away any of your bronzes.” She cast a scathing glance over the arrayed Istan dragons. “I truly wouldn’t.”

Is she sure?

Quite sure, Epherineth replied. She believes her daughter will be more honest without her around.

Keep an eye on her? T’kamen asked, whistling Fetch down from his place on Epherineth’s neck to his shoulder.

“I’d heard you’ve had an uncomfortable time in the Pass,” Reloka said to T’kamen as they walked across the plateau towards a low, white-painted building perched on the lip of the Weyr. When he looked at her for clarification, she drew a hand across her own face to illustrate. “You and your dragon.”

“We got on the wrong side of a queen rider,” said T’kamen.

Reloka laughed. The brittle rim of ice that had edged her pleasantries seemed to have thawed. “Never the wisest course of action.”

“So I’ve learned.”

“And yet fruitful,” said Reloka, glancing at Fetch.

“You’re very well informed,” said T’kamen.

“If you’re asking if Ch’fil is my source, then I’ll relieve you of that misconception,” Reloka said. “He’s not the only southern continent rider who sympathises with the north’s plight. And the south has been afire with talk of little but you and your bronze ever since you arrived. I feel privileged to meet you.”

T’kamen found himself assuming the irony that he would have expected from Dalka in her daughter’s words. He made himself set the presumption aside. “Your own reputation precedes you,” he said. “Though I’d never heard your name before today.”

“Ha.” Reloka’s eyes flashed. “You can thank my inimitable parents for that. Has Dalka seduced you yet?” She narrowed her gaze at T’kamen’s wordless reaction. “I’ll take that as a no. She must be losing her touch.”

“What do you want from me, Weyrwoman?” T’kamen asked.

“Your knowledge, your dragon, and your loyalty,” she replied, and then laughed. “Is that so much to ask?”

“It’s a fair amount to ask,” said T’kamen. He kept his voice even. “My loyalty is already promised elsewhere. My dragon isn’t mine to give.”

“And your knowledge?” Reloka asked.

“That may be negotiable.”

“You can go between,” Reloka said. There was a hunger in her voice that reminded T’kamen strongly of R’lony.

“Epherineth is an Interval bronze,” he said. “He was trained to go between from a dragonet. And even he finds it difficult now.”

She looked at Fetch. “The fire-lizards are the key.”

T’kamen lifted the shoulder his brown wasn’t riding on in a deliberately noncommittal shrug. “Perhaps.”

“Perhaps?” Reloka stopped. “Ch’fil stole dragon eggs and scorched his reputation for a perhaps?”

“Ch’fil’s a numbwit,” said T’kamen.

“No,” said Reloka. “Ch’fil’s not a numbwit. A martyr. An idealist, even, but not a numbwit.”

They had reached the white-painted structure. It was more a shelter than a building, the roof supported by pillars, the walls made of woven panels that swung gently from hooks in the breeze off the ocean. Three cushioned seats clustered around a table made of a solid block of polished basalt. Reloka gestured T’kamen to one of them.

As he sat, leaning his stick against the side of the chair, several serving-men arrived with refreshments. The water they poured for him was lukewarm, but welcome in the Istan heat. It was another small reminder of something T’kamen had taken for granted as an Interval rider: the availability of fresh ice to chill drinks.

“I like to come here,” Reloka said. “To look…”

She didn’t finish the sentence. T’kamen tried to guess how it might have ended. Was it the ocean she liked to watch, in all its endless, rolling, Thread-drowning beauty? Was she thinking of Madellon, far and far south beyond the sparkling horizon? Or was it simply a way to escape the oppressive claw of Ista that groped impotently at the sky behind her, and all the responsibilities that it represented?

“I could set Chrelith against Donauth,” she said abruptly. “Ista’s bronzes may be few and weak, but we have a dozen against your one. And Chrelith is young and strong. They see to that.”

T’kamen sipped his water, to give himself time to think, and to watch Reloka over the rim of his cup. “And then what?”

She measured him with her eyes. “I could compel you to stay.”

“Perhaps.”

“Your bronze couldn’t disobey Chrelith.”

“She is a queen.”

“And you’d co-operate.”

It wasn’t quite a statement, nor quite a question. T’kamen smiled. “I’m not a bronze dragon. I can’t be forced.”

“There’s honour here for a bronze rider.”

“You’re asking me to defect,” T’kamen said, feeling sudden anger surge in him. “There’s no honour in that.”

Reloka leaned impassionedly forward in her seat. “I’m asking you to open your eyes. There’s a Pern beyond Madellon Weyr!” Then she sat back, the force gone from her, and said softly, “Less and less of it with every Threadfall.”

T’kamen shifted with a discomfort that had nothing to do with his leg. “How bad is it?”

“Bad.”

The voice was Ch’fil’s. He walked slowly into the shade, his scarred face set in even grimmer lines than usual. He wore Istan dress, a flowing shirt over light linen trousers, sandals on his feet. “Hello, T’kamen.”

T’kamen rose, too quickly. His fingers curled themselves into fists. For a sevenday he’d thought about what he’d say to Ch’fil when he saw him, but now the moment had come, the words escaped him. He tore his eyes away, too angry to even look at his face.

Ch’fil stumped over and flung himself into a chair. “Good to see you, too.”

And that boiled T’kamen’s anger over. “You abandoned your post!” he shouted. “You stole Madellon’s eggs, and you slipped away like a coward, and you abandoned your Weyr and your Wing and everyone who was relying on you, you miserable, Thread-riddled piece of shit! Faranth!

Fetch squealed and took flight in alarm as T’kamen stood, shaking with rage, over Ch’fil, but Epherineth, twined as he was with T’kamen’s thoughts and feelings, said nothing. Neither did Reloka. She had gone silent, watching, her eyes flicking from one to the other. At last, it was Ch’fil who spoke. “I’m all those things but one,” he said. “I’m a thief. I’ll hold my hands to that. I’m a deserter. A Thread-riddled piece of shit, no question.” He stared at T’kamen, running his tongue around his mouth, as though to remind himself of the scars that were as present inside as out. “But I’m no coward. When we’re done here, whatever’s decided, I’ll go back to Madellon to face what’s coming to me.”

Reloka gave an exasperated cry. “Where they’ll send you to Westisle at best, making your sacrifice completely futile!” She shook her head, disgusted. “You were right, T’kamen. He is an idiot.”

T’kamen sat down. “What?” he asked, not sure which of them he was addressing.

“I didn’t defect,” said Ch’fil. “That was never what this was about. This was about getting what Madellon needs.” He pointed at Fetch, who’d perched on a rafter, and was peering down at them. “More of him.”

“You stole Ceduth’s eggs!”

“You think S’leondes would’ve given them to me if I’d asked?” Ch’fil asked, with a snort. Then he stabbed a finger at Reloka. “And you think she’d trade fire-lizard eggs for anything less valuable?”

“You said yourself that Madellon’s population is declining –”

“Declining?” Reloka asked. “Madellon, with seven hundred dragons, declining?” She waved a hand around Ista. “How many dragons can you count here, T’kamen?”

“I…” T’kamen looked around the Bowl. “A hundred? A hundred and ten?”

“One hundred and twelve,” Reloka said. “You’re looking at Ista’s entire fighting roster.”

“But that’s barely three Wings,” T’kamen objected. Ista’s protectorate wasn’t anywhere near the size of Madellon’s, but he’d assumed there must be at least twice as many Istan dragons as he’d noticed on their ledges. “How can you protect all your territory with only one Flight?”

“We can’t,” said Reloka. “We tried. That’s why we only have a hundred and twelve dragons left. Now, we concentrate on the coasts, and a few of the most valuable valleys, and leave the rest to Thread.”

“Southern Keroon alone –”

“Keroon,” Reloka said, with a humourless laugh. “They used to call Keroon the breadbasket of Pern.” She shook her head slowly. “Keroon’s gone, T’kamen. It’s dead Thread and dead earth and ashes. We didn’t have the air power to protect so much naked land.”

T’kamen felt stunned, as though someone had struck him between the eyes. “But the south –”

“Has grubbed enclaves,” said Reloka. “And riders willing to overthrow tradition to survive. And the luxury of letting greens go without firestone on the off-chance they might be fertile, long past the age when we need every pair of wings in the air!”

“Then that’s why you wanted Ceduth’s eggs,” said T’kamen.

“Ista’s need is far greater than Madellon’s.”

“Why,” T’kamen started, and then stopped. He didn’t need Reloka to tell him why he’d never heard how bad it was in the north. Of course the southern Weyrs wouldn’t want their riders sympathising with the plight of the northern continent. “What about all the bronze and brown riders who came north with you?”

“What about them?” Reloka asked. “They came. They spread out among the remaining northern Weyrs. Most of them died.”

Ch’fil said, “S’leondes is right about that much, Kamen. Threadfall’s no place for a bronze or brown dragon.”

“It’s no place for any dragon who can’t go between,” said Reloka. Her cool eyes met T’kamen’s. “Which brings us back to you. And to fire-lizards.”

“Do you even have any?” T’kamen asked. “Didn’t fire-lizards fall out of favour for eating carrion here, too?”

“They did,” said Reloka. “But the one advantage of having ceded swathes of the continent to Thread is that it left the wild fairs that survived the cull free to replenish themselves. We’ve had riders out searching every dune and sand-flat from Nerat Tip to Bayhead. All three Weyrs have been doing the same since word came from the south that a fire-lizard could pilot a dragon between.”

T’kamen was sure he’d heard that wrong. “Three Weyrs? But there are –”

“Six,” said Reloka. “There were six northern Weyrs when the Pass began. And now there are three. Ista. Igen. Fort. They abandoned the others. Too far inland; too far north. There are fewer than five hundred dragons left on the entire continent.”

If Reloka meant to put him off-balance with the magnitude of the crisis, she was succeeding. T’kamen had to force himself not to dwell on the appalling implications. He focused on the issue at hand. “How many fire-lizard eggs have you found?”

“Enough to honour Ch’fil’s bargain.”

“Fire-lizard eggs come in clutches of more than four.”

“Not enough to equip all my riders.”

“Have any of them hatched yet?”

Reloka shook her head.

“When they do, don’t waste them on riders with older dragons.”

“Ch’fil’s already warned us about that.” She looked out over the water for a moment. “We don’t have so many older dragons that it’s a problem.”

T’kamen wondered how old Chrelith was, but he didn’t ask. Instead, he said, “What if I asked you for more?”

Reloka snatched her eyes away from the ocean. “In return for your co-operation?”

“In return for something.” T’kamen assessed her. “Twenty.”

“Twenty?” Reloka asked, outraged, but he could see her weighing it up in her mind. “Six.”

“Sixteen.”

“Ten.”

“Twelve.”

Reloka laughed. “I don’t even know what it is I’m bargaining to gain!”

“I don’t know if I can train Pass dragons to go between, fire-lizards or not,” T’kamen said. “The one rider I tried to teach went between and never came back.” It wasn’t all of the truth, but he needed the partial lie. “Ista can’t afford to lose dragons to my poor teaching any more than it can risk giving fire-lizards to dragonriders and letting them experiment on their own.”

He heard Ch’fil swear under his breath, but he didn’t take his eyes off Reloka. “But Madellon can,” she realised aloud.

“Give me twelve eggs, and I can train a Wing,” said T’kamen. “A Wing like in the old days. A Wing of dragonpairs with fire-lizards to pilot them.” He paused. “A Wing whose members I can deploy to all the Weyrs of Pern to give them back between.”

In one way, Reloka was not like her mother. Dalka would never have let so much unguarded longing show on her face. But she lifted her chin, and said, “You spin a lovely dream, T’kamen. But my father and the Commander would never allow you that much autonomy.”

“Leave your father and the Commander to me,” T’kamen told her, and then nearly stumbled on his own bluster, because by the strengthening light of hope in Reloka’s eyes, she believed him.

But she still shook her head. “It’s not enough. I need more than a promise of future payment. Ista’s dying, T’kamen. At this rate we won’t see out the Pass. We may not see out the next five Turns! Chrelith’s only one queen, and her suitors…” She didn’t need to elaborate on the thin, weary collection of bronzes and browns that Dalka had scorned. “I can’t save the north alone!”

“I understand,” T’kamen said. He glanced over towards where Epherineth and Donauth were waiting. “Will you give me a few minutes?”

“A few minutes I can grant you,” Reloka said. She smiled, but it was a taut, painful thing. “Our next Fall’s not for another four days.”

Ch’fil accompanied T’kamen back across the Istan Bowl. “I knew you’d be spitting at me,” he said. “I would’ve been, if you’d done what I did.”

T’kamen’s preoccupations didn’t blunt his residual anger much. “R’lony’s making you out as a traitor like Madellon’s never known.”

“Thought he might,” said Ch’fil. “Guess he’ll be happy enough, though. G’bral’s not likely to go up against him in the ballot.”

T’kamen halted his stride so abruptly that Ch’fil walked on a pace or two without him. When he turned back, T’kamen said, “That’s what makes me angriest of all, Ch’fil. You’ve condemned Madellon to another Turn of being torn in two by R’lony and S’leondes’ Thread-blighted vendetta.”

Ch’fil made a disparaging sound. “If you think I could have healed that rift as Marshal, T’kamen, you’re more of a naïf than I thought.”

“You could have made a start,” T’kamen told him. “You could have worked with S’leondes. R’lony would bite off his own tongue before he ever spoke a word of compromise. ”

“Oh, aye,” Ch’fil said. “R’lony never met a grudge he didn’t want to hug to his bosom for all of time. But don’t think S’leondes is any better. What he built in the early Turns of the Pass, when the traditional ways had gone all to shit, and Pern needed a revolution to survive, was nothing less than heroic. There’s a reason his riders love him, just as there’s a reason the Harpers sing songs about him. He pulled all our hides out of the fire. But it’s too easy for a man to believe he’s a hero when he’s been told he is every day for twenty Turns, even when he hasn’t done anything to deserve it for a long time. And sometimes the opposite.”

“Is that some kind of half-stoked justification for tipping yourself over the villainous end of the scale?”

Ch’fil shrugged. “I think it’s better to do what you think is right at the time, reputation be blighted, and let history sort it out. And it’s like you said to me, back when we were clearing out M’ric’s weyr. Sometimes it’s worth the shame.”

“For Madellon’s sake?” T’kamen asked. “Or for Ista’s?”

“There’s a saying among the riders who’ve defected here from the south,” said Ch’fil. “No one ever came here because they wanted to save the north. But they sure as shells didn’t stay here for the food.”

Epherineth was staring out over the water at the distant shape of one of the smaller Istan islets – glaring at it, it would have seemed to an observer of his permanently snarling right side. T’kamen knew better. He leaned against his dragon’s forepaw, folding his arms.

If you had wanted your life to be simple, said Epherineth, in response to his unspoken feelings, you should have Impressed a blue.

S’leondes would probably dispute that.

He probably would.

T’kamen tipped his head back against Epherineth’s neck. Do we have a right to interfere? We shouldn’t even be here. We don’t belong in this time.

And yet we are here. Epherineth had always been sanguine about their temporal relocation. We do not have a right, T’kamen. We have a responsibility.

Founded on what? The colour of your hide?

The colour of a dragon’s hide is no indication of his worth. Epherineth said it without rancour. Nor a guarantee of his rider’s character. I have no doubts about my worth or your character. I’m not so certain about others.

Madellon chose S’leondes to lead the Wings and R’lony to coordinate Strategic. We can’t just usurp the will of the Weyr. 

Madellon chose Pierdeth’s rider for its Weyrleader, said Epherineth. You had no qualms about challenging his right to lead.

T’kamen wanted to argue that that had been different; that they had beaten L’dro and Pierdeth fair and square for the Weyrleadership, in flight, as was traditional.

Except it hadn’t been as simple as that. Even in Interval Madellon, where absolute power hung on the strength of a bronze dragon’s wings, strength alone wasn’t enough. T’kamen thought about how he’d really won the Weyrleadership, how C’los had crafted the campaign that had raised him to prominence among Madellon’s riders, how C’mine had guided Valonna towards breaking free of L’dro’s hold on her. Epherineth’s wings had been strong, but T’kamen still recalled how another force had lifted them at the end of Shimpath’s flight when his bronze had been at the limit of his strength.

The will of the Weyr.

Dalka was sitting on a rock at the edge of the plateau. She had a sketchbook on her knee, fine vellum bound into pages, and with loose, economical pencil lines, she had described the ocean vista. There were no people in the drawing, and no dragons. I don’t do dragons.

“He’s right,” she said, not looking up from her work.

T’kamen decided not to ask for clarification. “He’s a bronze. He always thinks he’s right.”

“I ride a queen, T’kamen. You don’t need to tutor me on the inflexibility of a dragon’s convictions.” With short strokes of her pencil, Dalka suggested the deep shadow cast by the closest of the islets. “You temper your ambition with caution.”

“It’s not a matter of ambition.”

“It’s always a matter of ambition.” Her mouth curved. “But for argument’s sake, let’s call it vision. Something that’s been in short supply among Madellon’s riders for, oh, twenty Turns.”

“S’leondes…”

“Had vision. Made it a reality. And now everyone’s living that wild boy’s dream, whether they want to or…well. Not living it.” She smudged a line with the edge of her thumb. “R’lony, of course, never had any imagination at all, which was his greatest weakness as Weyrleader, and his greatest strength as Marshal.”

“What makes you think I’d do any better than either of them? History remembers me as the Weyrleader who deserted his post.”

“History,” Dalka said, with a snort. “History gets rewritten all the time, by those with the ambition to steer it.”

“You want me to oppose R’lony in the Marshal ballot.”

“Any brown rider could do that,” said Dalka. “Ch’fil could have done that. Instead he’ll be Exiled. Because he lacked sufficient…vision.”

T’kamen ignored that. “But I can’t compete with S’leondes. Epherineth’s bronze. I’m half a cripple. We’ve never fought Thread in anger or led a Wing into Fall. We’d be laughed out of the Weyr.”

Dalka did turn to look at him, then. “Is that what you’re afraid of? Ridicule? Is that what’s holding you back?”

“I’m not qualified to do what S’leondes does. He’d be right to deride me.”

“S’leondes doesn’t deride you, T’kamen,” Dalka said. “S’leondes fears you. Since the moment you arrived in the Pass, you’ve been everything he hates, everything he dreads. You’re the Thread that burrows in his mind, the ghost that haunts him when he sleeps, the monster that turns his dream into a nightmare, because you make him irrelevant.

“His dream,” said T’kamen. “Blue and green riders…”

“The overthrow of the traditional order,” said Dalka. “The humbling of the old colour hierarchy. S’leondes’ necessary revolution. It could only exist without between. And now you want to bring back between and destroy everything he’s spent the whole Pass building.”

“He doesn’t want dragonriders to be able to go between?” T’kamen said. The notion was absurd. “With all the death and destruction that not having it has caused?”

“What’s a little death and destruction in the pursuit of preserving one’s own legend?” Dalka asked.

T’kamen took a long, slow breath. He didn’t like S’leondes, and S’leondes didn’t like him, but accepting Dalka’s allegations as truth would commit him to a goal that he only half believed was right, let alone feasible. And how far could he really trust a woman who was prepared to betray her lover – or lovers – in favour of an alliance with someone like him?

“You don’t trust me,” said Dalka. She had been watching him. “You think I’m a fickle, faithless woman. You think I use powerful riders and then set them aside when a more tempting prospect comes along.”

“Do you?” T’kamen asked.

“I serve my Weyr in the best way I can,” she said. “It doesn’t always allow me the luxury of a clear conscience.” She shrugged. “You’re right not to trust me. But what else can you do?”

“I don’t have to do anything,” T’kamen told her.

She smiled, as if indulging a child. “But you do. You can’t help yourself. You’re incapable of sitting idly by while there’s a villain to be vanquished and a world to be saved.”

“You haven’t convinced me yet that S’leondes is a villain,” said T’kamen. “Or that he’d resist the return of between. Or that he’s the least bit afraid of anything.”

“Sometimes it’s as if he’s carved out of stone,” said Dalka. “There’s no weakness in S’leondes, no softness. He can’t afford to let his riders see that he’s as human and fallible as they are.” She smiled. “But strip away the anger and the aggression, make him lower his guard and bare his soul, and he’s just like almost every other man I’ve ever known. Just a scared little boy, frightened that someone will come and take away his playthings. Afraid of the dark.” She flipped her sketchbook to its first page and pushed it at T’kamen.

The picture was so familiar it was as if Dalka had seen into his mind and drawn what she’d found there. A sharp-toothed ridge. A beacon fire. Dawn lightening the east. A distant Wing, sketched against the starry sky. And the black, black outline of a dragon, wings spread in titanic cruciform, as if to cast the whole of Pern in his terrible shadow.

“You were there,” he said. “At Rift Valley. When we arrived.”

“I wasn’t,” said Dalka. “S’leondes was. This is the scene that’s haunted his nightmares. Between. Epherineth. You.” She closed the sketchbook with a snap. “Do you think he resisted you coming here today because he was afraid you’d change your allegiance? Do you think anyone but R’lony believes that the brown and bronze riders who came north were forced? No. S’leondes was afraid you’d come here and, in doing exactly what you set out to do, set in motion the axe that’s been hanging over his head since the instant you came out of between and into his Pass.”

“Why are you only telling me this now?” T’kamen asked. “Why weren’t you honest with me before?”

Dalka’s eyes flickered. “Because I had to know for myself what kind of man you are before I could go all in with you.”

He forced a smile. “I’m not much of a poker player, Dalka.”

“Maybe not. But I know that chessboard in your weyr isn’t just there for decoration.”

That wasn’t all she knew, T’kamen realised. The resonance of all that Dalka knew and wasn’t telling fair thrummed through her.

Worrying about it could wait. T’kamen put his hand on Epherineth’s shoulder. We go into this together, Epherineth. You and me.

Epherineth lowered his head. Always.

Reloka had reclaimed her seat in the shade. She watched them approach, T’kamen and Dalka, with Ch’fil a pace behind, but her face was completely composed, completely inscrutable.

“How long did he last?” Dalka asked her daughter, before T’kamen could begin.

Reloka lifted her eyes unapologetically. “Not long enough.”

The flare of Dalka’s nostrils was her only reaction. “Who’s been leading the Wings?”

Reloka shrugged. “Whoever’s still alive.”

“The north should have been abandoned Turns ago.”

“It’s too late for that now, Mother.”

“It’s never too late.”

The two Weyrwoman locked eyes with each other. T’kamen noticed Ch’fil shifting his weight uneasily from foot to foot, and wondered how much more he knew about the history between mother and daughter.

It wasn’t the time for that, either. T’kamen took a step forwards, deliberately bringing his cane down against the ground to punctuate the tense silence. “Twelve fire-lizard eggs, Reloka.”

She looked at him without betraying a hint that she was grateful to break her mother’s stare. “What are you offering for them?”

“Every egg but one from Donauth’s next clutch.”

Ch’fil muttered a profanity, and even Dalka couldn’t catch her reflexive intake of breath.

Reloka’s eyes searched T’kamen’s face as she grasped the significance of his words. “What about between?”

“A rider to train Ista’s dragons, when Madellon has more than one to spare.”

Her disappointment was plain. “It won’t be you.”

“I’m going to have my hands full at Madellon for the next little while,” T’kamen said. “One more thing.” He paused, letting her guess, taking a tiny shred of pleasure from it, and then gestured over his shoulder towards Ch’fil. “You can have him.”

“What?”

What?”

The demand came from Reloka and Ch’fil at the same instant: Reloka’s laced with uncertain delight, Ch’fil’s with flat disbelief.

Dalka just laughed.

“I’m not taking him back to Madellon to be Exiled,” said T’kamen. “Consider him Ista’s.”

“You have no right –” Ch’fil protested.

“I’d take it as a personal favour if you’d have Chrelith make sure Stratomath doesn’t go anywhere,” T’kamen continued, raising his voice only slightly over Ch’fil’s objections.

“She’ll be happy to oblige,” said Reloka.

Ch’fil was still spluttering. T’kamen had never seen him so outraged. “You don’t have the authority to do this, Kamen!”

“Do you think I give a trader’s cuss about that?” T’kamen asked him, with all the coldness he could find. “I’m not going to indulge your desire to martyr yourself. Or the Commander’s to make an example of you. If you want to get yourself killed, at least you can do it by putting yourself between Thread and Ista.” He turned brusquely away from Ch’fil. “Are we in agreement, Weyrwoman Reloka?”

“Yes, Weyrleader,” she replied. “I believe we are.”

It was peculiar how, this time, her use of his old title felt right. It shouldn’t have. T’kamen had no real claim to the mantle. Not yet. But the moment he’d made the decision to take on Dalka’s challenge, he’d felt the familiar gravity of the Weyrleader descend, the weight of rights and responsibilities that had been snatched from him. It was like shouldering into an old harness and rediscovering all the spots where it chafed, all the binding places he’d almost forgotten, all the cold and comfortless fittings of it.

He welcomed it back like an old friend.

Continue to

Comments and feedback

Dragonchoice 3 is also being posted at FanFiction.net and An Archive Of Our Own - if you'd like to review, comment, or ask a question, feel free to do so there.

Artists wanted!

Dragonchoice has always been as much about the artwork as the story. If you'd like to help illustrate Dragonchoice 3, please get in touch!

Dragonchoice 3 news

Leave a reply

Comments, questions, reviews? Leave them here.