The dragons are humming.
Humming. Not roaring or rumbling or bugling. Nothing so familiar as that. They’re humming, every one of them. It started mid-morning, almost too softly to hear, but it’s been rising in volume ever since. It’s still not loud, but it’s urgent. You can feel it in your teeth and in your bones. You can feel it in your blood, background vibration to the cadence of your own racing pulse.
You’re sitting very still, but no one else is. The anteroom off the Hatching ground is full of pacing, fidgeting, sweating candidates, all wearing the same ritual white that you are. It should feel ridiculous, the robe flapping around your knees, but no one’s complained yet. On the far side of the room you can see Leddrome holding court with his usual gang. He’s pretending to be casual, pretending this is nothing to him, but you know he’s as nervous as the rest of you. Maybe more nervous. Leddrome’s the son of a Wingleader. He has more to lose than anyone if he doesn’t Impress.
Kamen comes back over from the door. “Weyrlingmaster says a few more minutes.” He speaks even more curtly than usual. He’s always been intense, but it’s almost uncomfortable to look at him now: shoulders rigid, jaw taut, knuckles white beneath the scabbed-over grazes. “Sit down,” you tell him, and he does, but only for a moment. Then he’s up again, stalking a tight circuit of your side of the room, an animal caged.
There’s no point telling Los to sit down. He’s leaning against the wall with his head back and his eyes closed, muttering a Harper ballad, mantra-like, drumming his fingers against his thigh. He’s vibrating almost more than the dragons are, and nothing you can say will soothe him. You know. You’ve tried.
You look down at your own hands. The bruises are fading now, and Los has promised that your black eye is more yellow than black, but not everything’s healed so fast. There are places on your ribs too tender to touch yet, and there’s still a metallic taste in your mouth, still teeth loose to the tentative probe of your tongue. L’stev, the Weyrlingmaster, had made a rough jest about the state of your face when you first arrived. “If a dragonet gave a half a damn about choosing a pretty rider, I’d never have Impressed Vanzanth,” he’d said, and touched you with rare sensitivity on your less battered shoulder. “You’ll do.”
The door opens. Heads turn sharply, and L’stev steps into the doorway. He eyes you all with the deepest of scepticism. “All right,” he says at last. “Come on.”
There’s a scrum at the door as candidates shove to be first out. Boys push in front of girls; girls elbow other girls; the smallest kids almost get trampled. “Enough of that!” L’stev snaps. “Try to behave like you might be worthy of Impressing dragons!” He deals cuffs to a couple of the worst offenders – Leddrome included – shaking his head disgustedly.
Chuvone, the youngest candidate, has been knocked down. You offer him a hand up, and don’t wince too much when he grabs your wrist to haul himself to his feet. “Thanks,” he says. “Leddrome did that on purpose.”
“Put it out of your mind,” you tell him. “You don’t want to put your dragon off, thinking about him.”
Chuvone grins and darts off to catch up with his friends.
You, Kamen and Los bring up the rear – not that Kamen ever likes giving way to Leddrome and his cronies, but on this of all days you’ve made him promise to stay calm. You glance sideways at each of them. Los is still reciting lyrics under his breath. Kamen’s like a coiled spring. You put a hand on each of their shoulders, and they look at you, the smallest fraction of tension leaving them both. “Come on,” you tell them, with a confidence you don’t feel. “Let’s go meet our dragons.”
You step through the door and into the Hatching cavern.
The heat hits you first, as it always does, rising off sand warmed from below by the Weyr’s volcanic foundations, and then the sound. The hum of two hundred dragons is nearly thunderous in the immense cavern, joined by the buzz of human voices. The tiered seats that surround the Hatching ground are crammed with people, and dragons have claimed every space on the precipitous ledges high above. They crane down with eyes glowing violet in anticipation.
L’stev is directing the candidates left and right as you filter out onto the hot sand. He regards Kamen and Los and then you, and motions to his left with a tiny jerk of his head. “Good luck, boys.”
You take your places in the circle of candidates. Cherganth, the queen, looms before you, golden wings mantled protectively to conceal her eggs. The Weyrwoman is beside her, talking her down, quiet and firm. Cherganth subsides. She steps back, furling her wings, and reveals, at last, her clutch.
There are eighteen mottled eggs, each knee-high to a grown man, gleaming iridescent in the light. You’ve seen them many times, counted them, even touched them as they lay slowly hardening in the heat. You’ve never seen them like this. They’re moving. The shells that only yesterday were smooth to eye and hand are crazing with hairline fractures as the dragonets within shift restlessly. As you watch, an egg near the edge of the brood topples onto its side with the force of its occupant’s struggles, and the sharp crack of shell breaking snaps through the Hatching ground like a whip.
The humming stops.
A pointed muzzle pokes abruptly through the curve of the fallen egg. It withdraws, hesitates, then thrusts through again, shattering the shell, and with an immense shrug a dragonet heaves itself squalling into the light.
You’ve never seen a hatchling before. The adult dragons crowded above are immense, beautiful, glorious, but the dragonet isn’t. It’s sticky with egg fluid, spindly-limbed, and its wings drag behind it in the sand. Its head is too large for its body. By all reasonable standards, it’s hideous.
You’ve never wanted anything so badly in your life.
You have time to see that the hatchling is blue before the closest boys rush forward to surround it. The dragonet’s cry becomes shrill with alarm, and L’stev barks out a command. “Get back!”
Then two more dragonets break free, and a third, a fourth, a fifth.
There are eighteen eggs and twenty-four candidates. Not everyone will leave with a dragon.
“Dragons prefer Weyrbred,” Leddrome had told Kamen, that first night, when you were all fresh in from Search. “Not Hold. Not Craft. Not Trader.”
Kamen hadn’t needed to describe how Leddrome had twisted that last word into a slur when he told you about it later. You weren’t there. You were still in the infirmary, getting patched up. Maybe if you had been there you could have headed off the fight. But maybe not. Kamen’s temper was always getting him into trouble, just like Los’ sharp tongue. Kamen bloodied some noses that day, and almost got himself thrown out for it. “Dragonriders don’t fight!” L’stev had told him. “One more incident – one more – and you’re done.”
There were other incidents. Of course there were. Leddrome did everything he could to get Kamen – to get all of you – kicked out.
“Dragons don’t like victims,” he told you, when you were released from the Healers. “Dragons don’t like cowards. Dragons don’t like kids who let their friends do their fighting for them.”
Dragons like this. Dragons don’t like that. The dragon always knows. How many assertions have you heard since you came to the Weyr? You have to be brave. You have to be worthy. You have to be dragonrider material. You have to be a cut above. A breed apart.
You don’t know if you’re any of those things. You’re just a kid from the Holds; nothing special. When the Search dragons came your parents let you go for the Weyr out of relief. The beating was a parting gift from the other Hold boys. They caught you alone, beat the shit out of you. What dragon’s going to want you now?
You don’t know either.
Eighteen eggs. Twenty-four candidates.
More dragonets are hatching. Greens, browns, blues. Then – to a gasp from the audience – a bronze, and boys surge towards it, heedless of L’stev’s command to wait. Leddrome is among them. The thought of Leddrome on a bronze dragon makes your stomach knot. There are dragonets everywhere, staggering around; ugly, clumsy things, but everyone’s watching the bronze. You see it lift its head to stare at the boys in its way with amber eyes. Leddrome steps directly into its path.
You feel something brush your shoulder. It’s Kamen. He walks past you without seeming to see you – without seeming to see anything. He walks towards the bronze dragonet with his face completely still and blank.
The bronze steps past Leddrome with unearthly grace. It isn’t crying out like the other dragonets. It’s as if it knows. It stops. Kamen stops. They look at each other.
Kamen falls bonelessly to his knees. “Epherineth…” He bows his head to the bronze dragonet, and his shoulders heave. When he raises his head again he’s crying. You’ve never seen him cry. He looks around at you with tears streaming down his face, and you can’t see Taskamen in his eyes any longer. He’s something else. He’s something more. He’s what he was always meant to be. He’s T’kamen now. A dragonrider of Pern.
You look away, torn: glad for him, but so envious your chest hurts with the force of it.
Dragons are finding riders everywhere you look. All four girls have greens. Chuvone’s Impressed a blue. There’s another bronze. You see Leddrome lunge for it, but it lurches past him.
But no dragonet has come for you. They approach and then swerve, as if repelled. A brown turns away and chooses someone else. A blue reverses course when it sees you. A green staggers straight past. There are broken shells, and Impressed dragonets, and weeping new riders everywhere, but no dragon for you. They don’t want you. They’re staying away from you.
Los’ voice breaks on your name. You turn to him.
He’s kneeling on the sand. His arms are wrapped around a green dragonet. He stares at you wide-eyed, disbelieving, all his edge and bite fled. “She says her name’s Indioth!”
You reach to him, to congratulate him, but he’s already buried his face in his dragonet’s neck, and you know you’ll always be an outsider to this sudden, giddy love affair of rider and dragon, C’los and Indioth.
When they came for you at the Hold, they were looking for him. He was who they really wanted. You wouldn’t tell them where to find him, and so they settled for you instead. Every punch, every kick, every cut and bruise and broken bone, you took for him, and you never regretted it.
You still don’t regret it, even as you watch him give his heart and soul to his dragon.
It’s nearly over. A final big bronze wallows from its shell. It casts about. For a moment its head turns in your direction. Surely, a bronze couldn’t want… and then, no. It wanders, swinging its head from side to side, inspecting each remaining candidate. It hesitates, considers, and then turns towards Leddrome.
Leddrome whoops with delight. “Pierdeth!” Leddrome and Kamen, both bronze riders; Los vulnerable on a green. Dragonriders aren’t meant to fight each other. You can’t see how they won’t. How can you protect Los now? Who’ll hold Kamen back when his temper bests him? The heat of the sand, the nausea you feel at Leddrome’s Impression, the nagging throb of your half-healed injuries; it’s too much. You drop to one knee, struggling to breathe.
There you are.
You don’t understand where the voice is coming from.
I’ve been looking for you.
You raise your head.
It’s the blue. It’s the ugly, clumsy blue that hatched first. It’s covered with sand and bits of shell, but its hide has dried out in the heat of the Hatching ground. It’s the silver sky-blue of a clear winter morning.
He’s the most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen.
You look into coruscating eyes and see yourself looking back, and abruptly you’re aware of him with a completeness that stops the breath in your chest: wings and tail, heavy head, fearsome teeth and birth-soft claws.
You lay your hand against his damp, sandy neck, and he thrusts his muzzle against your cheek, and you realise you’re not you any more. The Cairmine that was is gone. Even the memory of being alone, being without your dragon, of not being C’mine, is fading like a half-remembered dream. His consciousness is in yours and yours in his. You’ve never loved anyone, anything, so much. You’ve never been so loved, or so certain of it.
I wouldn’t let anyone else have you, he says. My name is Darshanth. And you are mine.
Continue to The Last Rider