Chapter two: Sarenya
There’s no such thing as ghosts.
– Harper wisdom
As the first hatchlings fought their way free of the shell, screaming, Sarenya nudged the youngster beside her forward. “Go on. Carefully.”
Ollen looked over his shoulder at her, still reluctant, and then back at the clutch as the first wet hatchling wriggled from its egg casing. “I didn’t know they’d be so ugly.”
“You probably weren’t very pretty at their age, either,” said Sarenya.
Ollen extended a cautious hand, then snatched it back as the squealing hatchling lashed out at him. “Faranth!”
“I told you to be careful,” said Sarenya. “Those claws aren’t for show.”
“The vicious little…!”
Two more eggs yielded their occupants in a heap, and the first hatchling immediately turned on its siblings, shrieking. Sarenya relented. “Grab that one,” she told Ollen, pointing at one of the later pair. “Like this.” She seized the first hatchling at the base of the neck with one hand and around the hind legs, just above the cruelly sharp claws, with the other. The infant wherry screeched and struggled, flailing hopelessly with its short front limbs and making wild, futile lunges with its beak, but Sarenya had it under control. “That’s it,” she said, as Ollen grabbed his hatchling. “Now into that box and get the lid on before it jumps out.”
Ollen looked revolted as he transferred his hatchling, at arm’s length, from the clutch pit to one of the brood-boxes. “Ouch!” he cried as the furious little creature made a last defiant stab with its beak.
Sarenya flipped her hatchling into another box and pushed the lid in place. “Did he get you?” She transferred the next hatchling, fending off the slashes of two more. “Show me.”
Ollen extended his hand to her, bleeding from a shallow graze. Sarenya looked it over. “It’s only a scratch. We’ll get the rest of these put away and then I’ll clean it up for you.”
“They’re sharding disgusting,” Ollen complained, wrangling another one. “Eurgh, this one just crapped on me!”
“There’s a reason why no one likes Hatchery duty,” Sarenya replied. She shook a hatchling free of her wrist and into its box. “Now that they can’t kill each other, we need to sex them.”
“Check which are male and which are female.”
“Oh.” Ollen didn’t look much less dismayed. “How do we do that?”
Sarenya showed him how to feel along each hatchling’s stubby tail to feel for the subtle bumps of the proto-quills that would eventually sprout into a cock-wherry’s flamboyant plumage. Ollen was dubious at first, but by the time they’d checked each of the sixteen wherry hatchlings, she thought he was getting the hang of it. Sarenya had him sweep up the discarded shells and dump them in the midden while she wrote the time and date of the hatching on the board.
Ollen’s hand had stopped bleeding by the time they’d finished with the clutch, but Sarenya cleaned and dressed it anyway. Beastcrafters got their hands too dirty too often to leave even a scratch uncovered. “Journeyman Tebis is expecting you in the stables,” she reminded him as they left the hatchery.
He groaned. “Shovelling more sh…”
“Sorry, journeyman,” he mumbled, and hastened away in the direction of the stables.
Sarenya shook her head as Ollen retreated. He was the third Weyr lad who’d been sent down to the Madellon Beastcraft that month, but she didn’t see him working out any more than the first two had.
The watchdragons were changing up by the Star Stones, signifying the end of the shift that had started in the muggy darkness before dawn, but Sarenya’s working day wasn’t over yet. She stopped at the Beastcrafters’ cot to discard her sweaty clothes, paused to check the spit canine with the broken leg who was sleeping in the common room, then headed out across the Weyr to start her second shift of the day.
She paused in front of the high archway that led into the dragon infirmary. “You’re not really here,” she said, to the indistinct figures that stood to the right of the entrance.
They didn’t answer. They never did. Sarenya took a deep breath and carried on inside.
“Good afternoon, Saren,” Vhion greeted her merrily as she entered the infirmary. “You just missed the Weyrwoman.”
“Did she leave a message, Master?” Sarenya asked, pausing in the act of taking down a clean smock from the row of pegs on the wall.
“Yes, yes she did; she asked if you could meet her at noon tomorrow, rather than this evening.”
Sarenya pulled the smock over her head and went to the wash stones. “Thank you.” She frowned as she pumped water to wash her hands. “Valonna came down herself?”
“She did,” Vhion agreed, with a shake of his head that made his collection of extra chins fly. “Though Sejanth is the only dragon here, so she could scarcely have sent a message another way.”
Sarenya dried her hands. “Atath’s gone?”
“Oh, I released her back to L’stev this morning. The swelling had gone down completely and she didn’t report any pain when I had her extend. No point keeping her in any longer.”
Atath, a green dragonet, had been sent to the infirmary in disgrace with severe strain to her upstroke muscle, the sign of a dragon who’d been pushing herself past safe tolerances in flight. “Did you get to the bottom of what they were up to?”
“Showing off, I should imagine,” Vhion replied. “M’touf almost admitted it. It seems his pals have brown and bronze dragons, so it’s not much of a stretch to see that he’d want to prove himself to them. I shall rather miss the little green. A very dainty young lady, even if she did nearly yell the Weyr down last night.”
“She wasn’t the only one who did that,” Sarenya said wryly. “Have you heard any theories on what that ruckus was all about?”
“None I’d credit enough to repeat,” said Vhion. “Sejanth didn’t seem to react to whatever it was that set all the others off, thank Faranth. Bad enough to have one green going off in an enclosed space like this without him adding his contribution. I can’t imagine what it would have been like with three or four more in here.”
They’d had about half the dragonets in the infirmary for minor complaints at some point – strains and sprains, digestive problems, and five of them together with a sinus infection that had manifested more or less like the common cold, except with dragon-sized sneezes and gallons more snot. Vhion checked each weyrling every sevenday, and Sarenya helped if she was on shift at the time. Her secondment to the Dragon Healer, made necessary when some broken ribs had precluded her from performing the full physical duties of a Beastcrafter, had technically ended months ago, but Vhion’s journeyman Rymon had been reassigned to the Peninsula Weyr, and the Dragon Healer had asked Sarenya’s Master if she could continue to help out.
That was fine with Sarenya. Everyone knew that the Weyrleader was cutting back on the number of crafters at Madellon. Besides Rymon, and the two apprentices that the Beastcraft had lost, the Tailors were a journeyman down, the Smiths had let three apprentices go, and rumour had it that when the Weyr Weaver completed his current contract he wouldn’t be asked to stay on. Sarenya knew there was more to that situation than met the eye – and she wouldn’t mourn Master Laniyan’s departure one bit – but Madellon’s crafter population had plenty of reason to feel edgy. Some contracts were being renewed as they reached their expiry dates, but no one liked feeling so vulnerable to reassignment.
Sarenya should have felt even more exposed than most. Her contract had expired months ago, and it hadn’t been renewed – at least, not for the same Turn-long term of her original assignment to the Weyr. Instead, it had been extended, more than once, by a month each time. That was as much as Master Arrense could promise her. Sarenya’s work in the dragon infirmary was the ostensible justification for her continued retention, but it was just a cover. Sarenya wouldn’t boast of it, and nor would either of her Masters, but she was too well-connected to truly fear for her position.
She still had to keep up appearances, though. “What do you have for me after I’ve done Sejanth?”
Vhion spread his hands. “We’re quiet today. M’touf tidied up Atath’s wallow before they left this morning, and unless someone comes in later…”
“Any more apprentice notes for me?”
Vhion furrowed his brow at her. “No. You’ve had the lot. I’m not sure the Master Dragon Healer at Fort would approve if I started you on journeyman studies. Or your Master, for that matter. You haven’t sat the examinations, and – well, the Beastcrafthall might have something to say about it if you did.”
“Arrense doesn’t mind,” Sarenya pressed.
“Be that as it may,” Vhion said, “you are a journeyman of the Beastcraft. Certainly it befits you to know more than the basics of caring for dragons, and I’m glad to have you here, but you must look to your own Craft. You have your Mastery to consider.”
“I’m Turns away from Mastery,” she insisted. “I haven’t done nearly enough with runners, and that’s a third of the requirement before I can begin Mastery studies. I’d qualify on food beasts, and I might scrape by with small animals, but I see more dragons than runners. You know that.”
“And you know that you should be discussing this with Master Arrense, Sarenya,” Vhion said. He humphed out a great breath. “I know it’s frustrating for you. You have a real touch with the dragons. Faranth, if you weren’t already obligated to the Beastcrafthall I’d sponsor you to my Craft.” When Sarenya recoiled slightly at the idea, he waved his hands. “No, no, journeyman, that wasn’t an ultimatum. I know you’d never give up your Beastcraft career for one with the Dragon Healers.”
“I wouldn’t. I just don’t see why I can’t do both, at least while I’m still a journeyman.”
“Let me speak to your uncle,” Vhion said soothingly. “Perhaps we can work something out.” He shook his head. “With all the hours you work, it’s a wonder you even have time to think about it.”
“That’s the idea,” Sarenya said.
Vhion shot her a penetrating look at odds with his jolly demeanour. “Go on and see to Sejanth, journeyman.”
The permanent resident of the dragon infirmary lay in a curtained-off bay at the rear of the cavern. The Weyr Mason was working on a better solution, enlarging a hollow in the caldera wall just above the infirmary that could be used to provide more appropriate accommodation, but until the new weyr was complete Sejanth remained in Vhion’s care. Sarenya took a broom and pitchfork from the rack and stacked them on a barrow before wheeling through the drape that partitioned off Sejanth’s wallow, announcing herself as she went. “Hello, big fella. How are you today?”
The overpowering stench of sick dragon washed over her as she entered Sejanth’s bay. Sarenya was used to it, but she wondered idly how Ollen’s delicate nose, offended as it had been by the healthy stink of the Hatchery, would have reacted to the reek of Sejanth’s illness.
The bronze dragon turned his head slowly in her direction. He lay as he always did: on his side, the remains of his right wing splayed stiffly open, his head drawn into his chest. His eyes were open. They seldom brightened beyond a dull blue, but the sluggish whirling of the facets did increase in speed as Sarenya approached.
She put down the barrow and stepped up close to him. “It’s good to see you too, Sejanth.” She scratched behind his near headknob and rubbed his eye-ridge. His hide felt lax and dry, but that was normal for him. “Let’s see how you’re doing, shall we?”
She’d done Sejanth’s observations so many times now that she hardly had to think about them. She tucked her hand into his armpit to find the deep thump of his two hearts, and then felt just above the belly-whorl for the abdominal pulses. She did the same for his respiration, counting his slow breaths with her hand on his ribcage. She felt down the long, rather thickened length of his tail, then pinched up a fold of hide on his neck with both hands to check if it sprang back. It did, but only reluctantly.
The drinking trough was half full, but the water in it had gone cloudy. She tipped it out into the channel that ran past the front of the wallow, then refilled it bucket by bucket from the cistern. Sejanth actually raised his head to watch, but it wasn’t long before he laid his muzzle disinterestedly back down between his forepaws.
“What did you think of that weyrling green, eh?” Sarenya asked him as she pushed the wheelbarrow closer and picked up the pitchfork. “Daft thing, wasn’t she? Pretty, though. I bet you’ll miss her.” She forked dung and wet reeds into the barrow, keeping up her monologue all the time. “You should see the young queen. She’s really going to be a looker.” She pitched fresh reeds down around Sejanth. Getting him to move out entirely was always a painful process, so she refreshed the entire wallow only once a sevenday, when she coaxed him, step by painful step, out of the infirmary for a wash in the lake. “Maybe the Weyrlingmaster will let her come in for a visit. You’d like that, wouldn’t you?”
Vhion had concocted a special salve for Sejanth’s scars. His burns had eventually healed, but they’d left heavy keloid scar tissue that restricted the extension of the bronze dragon’s muscles. “Let’s have your wing, Sejanth,” Sarenya said, as if he would hold it out to her. He didn’t, of course, but he let her spread the thick, greasy ointment along the edges of his bare wingbones, and work it carefully into the joints where the fingers fanned out to form the structure of the limb. There wasn’t much actual wing left. More than half of the sail was gone, either incinerated in the initial injury or cut away to prevent further mortification much later when the blood poisoning had set in. “That’s better. Are you going to let me do your sore places now?”
Lying immobile for extended periods had caused terrible pressure sores on Sejanth’s left-hand side. Sarenya used a different salve on them when he consented to turn over and let her, which wasn’t often. Today was no exception to that rule. He didn’t react to her prompting at all, either to comply or to object. “Sejanth,” she said, and put her hand on his neck. “Come on, fella. You know it’ll make you feel better.”
But Sejanth ignored her, and Sarenya had to settle for wiping the parts of him she could reach with cloths soaked in redwort. She was painfully aware as she did of how the muscle was wasting from his bones, slackening under his dull hide. Vhion had speculated that the atrophy was behind Sejanth’s increasing reluctance to move. Saren thought, privately, that it was a matter of will, not strength.
There’d been a point during Sejanth’s illness when, half mad with firestone poisoning, he’d refused to allow anyone near him. Shimpath had intervened, subduing his violent outbursts so that Vhion could treat him, but even now, months later, he became agitated when the Dragon Healer got too close. Sejanth did tolerate Sarenya, and so she had assumed responsibility for his treatment. But she wondered if the queen’s influence had suppressed Sejanth’s desire to live as well as his desire to fight. Bit by bit, she could see him slipping away.
D’feng’s carers brought him down every day, but it didn’t help dragon or rider. D’feng – himself crippled, and confined to a chair – quickly became distraught when left with his bronze for any length of time. His distress upset Sejanth; Sejanth’s distress made D’feng’s worse; and so it went, a cycle of suffering that could only be interrupted by keeping the visits brief.
There’d been talk around the Weyr that they should just let Sejanth take himself and his rider between; that it wasn’t fair to keep them both going when they’d been so hideously wounded. Sometimes Sarenya wondered herself if what they were doing was right. But occasionally, very occasionally, Sejanth would speak to her. Itchy there, or Dry eyes. Once, preciously, Thank you.
Sarenya had spent her childhood trying to coax sick animals back to health. Arthritic hounds, abandoned lambs, hoof-sore runners. Once she’d even patched up a mangled tunnel-snake, though that particular patient hadn’t been overly grateful and neither had Lanen Hold’s stablemaster. She hadn’t always succeeded, but she’d always tried. Her Beastcraft apprenticeship had trained her to be more pragmatic, taught her to know when a life shouldn’t be artificially preserved, when a swift and humane death was the compassionate alternative. But Sejanth could communicate if he wanted to, and until such time as he expressed a wish to go between, Sarenya would keep trying to get him better. She might not succeed, but she would try. Sejanth was her patient, her responsibility.
And she would never forget the part he had played in saving her life.
When she had done as much for him as he would allow, she loaded her tools back onto the barrow. Then she placed both her hands on his muzzle, leaning against him. Even as sick as he was, her weight was a negligible force. You’re going to get well again, Sejanth. You’re going to get better.
He didn’t reply. She didn’t expect him to. She wasn’t even certain he’d heard her. He’d never responded to a direct address. She took her hands off him, and lifted the handles of the wheelbarrow.
Once she’d dumped the soiled reeds on the midden heap, she racked her tools and put her head around the corner into Vhion’s office. “Sejanth’s all done, Master. Is there anything else you need me to do?”
He looked up from a record hide. “No, Saren; tomorrow will be soon enough. Take the rest of the afternoon off, hm?”
Sarenya didn’t want to take the rest of the afternoon off, but she couldn’t argue with Vhion. “Yes, Master.”
Emerging into the sunny Bowl after the glow-lit gloom of the infirmary nearly blinded her. She welcomed it. It made the half-there figures outside that much harder to see. She shaded her eyes with her hand until they adjusted, and then Sleek burst chattering out of between directly in front of her face, making her jump. “Shards, haven’t I told you not to do that?” Sarenya asked, fending him off. “Come here. What has you so excited?”
Sleek flapped and fluttered around before landing on Sarenya’s shoulder, grabbing a handful of her hair with one forepaw for balance. She had to concentrate to make sense of the scattered images he was sending. Fire-lizard wings spread against the blazing sun, dark tails lashing, eyes glowing red, and a single golden shape challenging any male who might think himself worthy to follow. “Oh,” Sarenya said, and then, realising, “Oh.”
There was only one queen fire-lizard at Madellon, so unless they had a visitor, Agusta was rising.
“Too much for you, little fella?” Sarenya tweaked her blue’s tail. He squalled in protest, snatching it out of her grasp, then settled. From his patchy visuals, he’d followed the queen and her pursuers for a short way before the intensity of the race had compelled him to break off. Male fire-lizards of all colours would go after a queen, but the field would have to be pretty poor for a blue to have a chance of winning.
Tarnish would have been in the thick of it. The thought came unbidden, and the twinge of sadness with it. Sarenya’s bronze fire-lizard had been giddily in love with M’ric’s queen. He’d gone between in agony on Hatching night, seconds after taking a slice from Katel’s knife, and she hadn’t seen him since. He might have been the smallest participant that night, but he’d played his own role in Sarenya’s rescue, and she still missed him.
She put the memory firmly aside. “Let’s go and find M’ric.”
He was easy to find. Trebruth had taken a bullock in one of the killing paddocks, and his distinctive size and colour stood out on the killing grounds. M’ric was leaning on the fence, watching as his dragon dismembered the herdbeast he’d felled.
He didn’t see Sarenya approach, which was strange for a man who usually noticed everything. M’ric was tall and lean, long-legged and broad-shouldered, tanned and handsome. His shaggy hair was the same dark brown as his dragon, his keen eyes a shade or so lighter. He was a Wingsecond, and sometimes a Wingleader, and though he only wore insignia when he had to, it showed. Some dragonriders carried their rank in their bearing, not on their shoulders. M’ric was one of them.
“I don’t know how you can watch him do that,” Sarenya said, stepping up to the fence beside him.
M’ric gave the smallest start, and then his smile flashed white in his tanned face. “You’ve dissected your share of cows in your time, Sarenya.” He put his arm over her shoulders. “Sorry, Sleek,” he added, as the motion almost dislodged the blue.
Sarenya put her hand on his back, leaning just slightly into the contact. “I don’t do it for fun, though.”
“He does like to play with his food,” M’ric admitted. “Though he complains it’s hardly worth the effort.”
“None of them are at the moment,” Sarenya said, looking at what was left of the carcass. “He went for a Shorthorn? Tell him to try a Keroon Red next time. The ones we drove up this morning had more flesh on them.”
“I’ll pass that on.” He kissed her temple, and Sarenya noticed that his hair was damp. “Are you still on duty?”
“Vhion let me go early,” said Sarenya. She glanced up at him, wondering what had him so distracted. “Was that Agusta rising that had Sleek so excited?”
“I thought you might notice,” M’ric said. “Trebruth was chasing a green, and it set her off.”
“Oh,” Sarenya said. She schooled her voice to neutrality, and resisted the small, mean urge to flinch away from him. “Of course that would. Who caught her?”
M’ric hesitated for the barest breath of a moment. “A bronze I didn’t recognise.”
It wasn’t a good lie. There were so few fire-lizards at Madellon that everyone who had one knew every member of the Weyr’s fair. If M’ric had seen a bronze catch Agusta he would have known whose it was. The fact that he didn’t confirmed that he’d been otherwise occupied.
Which explains why his hair is wet, a traitorous little voice in Sarenya’s head noticed.
She ignored it. “Speaking of setting off,” she said, to change the subject, “what upset all the dragons last night?”
“That woke you up?”
“It woke everyone up,” Sarenya said, deciding not to mention that she’d been awake anyway. “What happened? Sleek went off, too, but I can never get much sense out of him. I thought we’d lost another dragon, but I haven’t heard anything about a death”
M’ric looked at his dragon, who was gulping down the last ragged forequarter of beef whole. “It wasn’t one.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Trebruth couldn’t say.”
“Sam couldn’t get an answer out of his weyrmate, either,” said Sarenya.
Trebruth sat back on his haunches, licking his chops: the only evidence of his meal the bloody patch on the sun-scorched grass and a few gory scraps of hide. “I don’t think any of us know what it was,” said M’ric. Then he raised his voice. “Lake, Trebruth.”
M’ric always spoke aloud to his dragon when Sarenya was there. It was a small courtesy, but one she valued. Some riders could be downright rude, holding extensive silent conversations with their dragons that completely excluded their non-rider companions. Trebruth sprang aloft with neat economy and the downbeat of his wings as he overflew them stirred up a welcome breeze.
Madellon’s lake, fed by underground watercourses that flowed from the higher peaks of the mountain range in which the Weyr was located, had shrunk from its usual size, exposing mud flats that had dried and cracked in the hot weather. Riders had flown in dragonloads of sand from the coast to top up the natural beaches and give dragons and people alike a clean surface from which to access the water, and on the shore nearest the barracks, the weyrlings were bathing their dragonets. The diminutive term hardly seemed appropriate any more. “I can’t believe how much they’ve grown,” Sarenya said, watching as one of the bronzes waddled out of the water, his wet wings extended awkwardly above him.
M’ric followed her gaze. “They’ll have most of their adult length by the time they’re a Turn old.”
“That bronze of R’von’s is almost the size of Trebruth already,” Sarenya said.
“Which would actually be impressive if Trebruth weren’t such a runt,” said M’ric. “But they do grow up fast. There’s a bronze at the Peninsula, Solstorth, who flew a queen when he was fourteen months old.”
“Not the senior?” Sarenya asked, appalled.
“No,” M’ric laughed. “That would have gone down very badly. As it was, his rider was in ten kinds of trouble for the next Turn. But he got the same queen again the next time she flew. Produced a gold egg, too. That dragonet was a real monster. Nearly as big as a Southern bronze.” He glanced around at the dragons visible on the Rim and on their ledges. “Madellon’s bronzes are a better size.”
“Isn’t bigger better?” Sarenya teased him.
“Not as far as I’m concerned.”
Sarenya wondered what nerve she’d hit. M’ric was normally the first to make fun of his own dragon’s size. “I think T’rello’s bronze is the biggest,” she said, to cover the uncomfortable moment. “Santinoth. He came into the infirmary the other day with a nasty gash…” She hesitated as she realised that she’d swerved away from one source of awkwardness and back into the clutches of another. Santinoth had received his wound in a green flight. “Well, anyway, I’m sure he’s the biggest dragon at Madellon, apart from Shimpath.”
M’ric didn’t reply, and Sarenya stole a sideways glance at him. He was looking at the dragonets with a kind of tightness around his eyes. Then he seemed to shake himself, returning his gaze to his own dragon, who was washing himself vigorously in the lake. “Aren’t you seeing C’mine today?”
“Tomorrow,” Sarenya said. “Valonna changed the time. Why do you ask?”
“It’s just that I was talking to one of his Wingseconds this morning,” M’ric said. “We were comparing notes on our riders. C’mine’s name came up.”
The way he said it made Sarenya feel uneasy. “Came up?”
“He’s been missing some drills and turning up late to others,” M’ric said. “F’halig’s worried about him. Said he’s never been unreliable before. I wouldn’t even mention it to you, but I know how close you and he are.”
“He’s been doing better,” she said. “I mean, he’s not been the same since –” None of us are the same. “But I thought he’d come out the other side.” She thought about it. “He missed our last meeting with Valonna. I assumed he had other duties that day. Maybe he didn’t.”
“You know he turned down a place in Ops,” said M’ric.
“I didn’t know you’d offered him one.”
“He distinguished himself in that wildfire at Kellad last Turn’s End. That’s the kind of proven experience I want.” He shrugged. “He said no.”
“He wouldn’t want the fuss,” said Sarenya. “The riders you’ve tapped are getting a lot of attention for being singled out for your Wing.”
“Tell any rider he’s special, and he’ll fall over himself to believe it,” said M’ric.
“Not C’mine. C’los was the glory-hound out of those two.”
“I thought you’d want to know,” said M’ric. “Maybe you could talk to him. Or talk to the Weyrleader about him.”
Sarenya turned to him in frank surprise. “You want me to talk to T’kamen? About Mine?”
“You’re his friend.”
“T’kamen’s his Wingleader. If there’s something going on with C’mine, he’ll already know.”
“Maybe not. I got the impression that F’halig is reluctant to complain about C’mine when he and the Weyrleader have so much history. I know I would be.”
“I’m just a Beastcrafter. I can’t stick my nose into Wing business.”
“You’re not just anything, Saren,” M’ric told her. “But it was only a thought.”
Sleek rescued Sarenya from having to find another excuse. He chirped suddenly in her ear, and then took off, stroking her across the face with his wings, and spiralled upwards to join a scattering of other fire-lizards that were wheeling expectantly. Sarenya tracked them aloft. “Agusta’s back.”
“So it would seem,” M’ric agreed, looking up. “There she is. Looks like that bronze of Caddall’s caught her.”
“I miss having a bronze,” Sarenya said, and then realised she’d spoken it aloud. M’ric looked at her, and she went on hastily, “Not just because of Agusta. I miss having a fire-lizard I can rely on.”
“There are some well-trained blues here,” said M’ric.
“I know, and Sleek isn’t one of them.” Sarenya sighed. “I wasn’t supposed to Impress him, you know. I already had Tarnish, and once you have a bronze there’s not much point having anything smaller. But his egg was going spare, and if I’d let him revert to the wild without a fair, he probably wouldn’t have survived. My Master always said it was sentimental of me to keep him.”
“There’s nothing wrong with sentimentality,” said M’ric. “When I Impressed Trebruth, no one thought we’d ever amount to anything.”
“He’s a dragon, though,” said Sarenya. “And a brown.”
“Exactly,” M’ric said.
“And you’ve proved them wrong,” Sarenya continued. She frowned. “What do you mean, ‘exactly’?”
M’ric shook his head. “If you did the drive this morning, you must be on a late start tomorrow. Why don’t you come up to our weyr tonight?”
“I don’t know,” Sarenya hedged. “We’re still short-handed. I’ll probably have to be up before morning watch.”
“Trebruth doesn’t mind waking up early,” M’ric said. “You know he’ll always give you a lift back down to the Bowl. Or I can come down to the cot tonight, if that’s easier?”
“With the apprentices listening at the door to every sound we make?” Sarenya asked, laughing.
“Let them listen,” said M’ric. “It’ll be educational for them.”
“You’re appalling,” Sarenya told him.
“I do my best.”
“It’s been sweltering the last few nights. It’s not very comfortable.”
“I can live with sweltering,” said M’ric. Then he looked over towards the lake. “All right, Trebruth, I’m coming.” He shrugged apologetically. “He has an itch.”
“What if I come up to your weyr after dinner?” Sarenya asked. “I’ll probably come back down before bedtime, but that gives us a few hours.”
“That sounds like a plan,” said M’ric.
Sarenya reached over to hug him, relieved. “I’d better get on with my chores. I’ll see you later.”
It wasn’t that she didn’t want to be with M’ric. The opposite, in fact. He was good company, alone or in a crowd. He was romantic, stealing her away for a few hours or an afternoon whenever he could, to a Gather or a beach or just to share a pretty view he and Trebruth had found. He was a tender and sensitive lover and, green flights aside, more faithful to her than she had any right to expect from a dragonrider. She knew she was the object of envy from both riders and non-riders for having snagged such a handsome and respected Wingsecond. He was clever and observant and kind.
And that was the problem.
The events of Hatching day would have shaken anybody. That was what they’d all said – M’ric; Sarenya’s Master; the Weyr Healer. She’d found C’los in a spreading pool of blood. She’d been abducted at knifepoint by his killer, whom she’d known and worked with and liked. She’d been forced blind and half strangled across treacherous terrain on runner-back in the dark. She’d felt her fire-lizard’s mortal scream as he went between in death. Any one of the horrors Sarenya had faced on that awful night would have been bad enough, they’d said, but as components of a whole they were worse still. She couldn’t be expected to shrug off such an experience lightly. They’d given her the time and space and comfort that they’d thought she needed to come to terms with her ordeal. She’d let them believe she had, because there was a limit to how long sympathy could endure without hardening into impatience or mutating into pity, and she couldn’t bear either.
The ghosts were easier to endure.
Perhaps that was because they were always there. Sarenya saw them, and refused to see them, every time she went into the dragon infirmary. Their constancy was almost a comfort. They never did anything. They were just there – or not-there – and Sarenya could recognise them and ignore them and refuse to give them any power over her.
But the dreams were back, and she couldn’t ignore those.
In the first few sevendays, M’ric had been her comfort. She’d barely spent a night apart from him, relying on him to be there when she woke sweating and shaking from the nightmarish re-enactment of Hatching night. He’d always been there and never complained, but comfort alone wasn’t enough.
Master Isnan had told her it was normal to relive a traumatic experience in night terrors, and he’d given her a tea to drink before she slept, to quiet her mind. She’d taken it gladly, making it a ritual every night. The dreams had gone away, and she’d reasserted her independence, returning to her own quarters in the Beastcraft cothold most nights. But Sarenya knew too much botanical medicine to be comfortable dosing herself with a sedative for long, and she’d stopped after a month or so, when she thought the sharp edges of the memories had grown dull enough to handle. For a while it had seemed that they were. But then the dreams had crept back, bit by bit. Subtly at first, in the glimpse of a face or a hand or a knife in another dream, and then with more clarity, as though the scattered pieces of her nightmare were drawing themselves together again. Sometimes she’d relive the sequence in perfect detail. Sometimes the details would change, and the corpse she found was M’ric’s, or C’mine’s, or her own. Sometimes she seemed to see the night overlaid with the intersecting images and flickering emotions of a fire-lizard. Those ones always ended with the dance of light on a knife blade, and a slash, and a scream. None of them ever ended with rescue, as the ordeal truly had, but perhaps that was because Sarenya always came violently awake before the full events played out, sweating and shaking with the memory of horrors freshly revisited.
And that was why she was reluctant to sleep beside M’ric these days. She’d told him the nightmares had stopped. She’d told him she was better. They hadn’t, and she wasn’t, but some things were worse than ghosts or nightmares, and it would be a warm day between before she’d let a man she thought she almost loved know how broken she still was.
She was hanging her clothes to dry – the last of her chores – when the shadow of a big dragon, flying low, passed over her. It was hardly an unusual occurrence: the cothold was on the edge of the Weyr’s paddocks, and a hundred dragons overflew every day on their way to eat. But some vestige of the sensitivity that had once made Sarenya a candidate for a queen still remained to her. It caused her to look up, narrow her eyes against the sinking sun, and recognise Epherineth.
He still made her heart catch a little in her breast. If there’d been a breed standard for dragons, Epherineth would have embodied it. He was so very beautiful, from the gold-green lustre of his hide to the noble set of his head to the perfect elegance of his conformation. He was neither puny nor over-muscled, neither the largest bronze in the Weyr nor the smallest. His limbs were clean and straight, his chest deep, his wings like translucent glass. Sarenya could see some of those characteristics in his offspring, the dragonets of Shimpath’s clutch, and perhaps at full growth one or more of those weyrling dragons would match or even surpass their father’s conformation. She hoped so. The supreme test of any breeding male – stallion, bull, or bronze – was his ability to pass his best qualities to his progeny. Only then could the contribution of an outstanding individual bestow improvement on the breed as a whole.
It was, she told herself, merely for the pleasure of observing an exceptional example of dragonkind that she strolled over to the paddock to watch Epherineth make his kill. There were already two green riders there, talking quietly as their dragons feasted on a pair of wherries apiece. Sarenya nodded to them as she leaned her arms on the top rail of the fence, but didn’t interrupt. And when Epherineth’s rider came around the corner of the cothold, Sarenya managed to refrain from expressing either delight or dismay, which was just as well, because she couldn’t have said which was the most genuine reaction.
“Good evening, Weyrleader,” she heard one of the riders say.
“Green riders,” T’kamen replied, and then, as he came to stand on Sarenya’s right-hand side, crossing his forearms on the railing, he added, “Sarenya.”
She didn’t look at him. She didn’t need to. He wasn’t the extraordinary specimen that his dragon represented, but as familiar as Sarenya was with Epherineth, she knew T’kamen even more intimately. He was not quite a hand taller than her, with a build that could politely be described as spare and more accurately as gaunt. His dark hair had always stuck up stubbornly, and even the flattening effect of a flying helmet could be undone entirely with one careless rake of a hand. His face was all lines and angles: nose, cheekbones, jaw unsoftened by any excess flesh, mouth untouched by any lasting evidence that it ever smiled. His eyes, deep-set and velvety brown, would be tired, and the lines around them, and on his brow, and above the bridge of his nose, would describe with their depth how the weight of the Weyr pressed down upon him. He would be wearing black and white, because he always wore black and white, with the sleeves of his shirt rolled back to above his elbows; a long knife would ride on his hip and a spare one, these days, in his boot; and the only touch of colour about him would be the bronze and indigo and silver braids of the shoulder-knots, tailed and tasselled, that declared him Weyrleader of Madellon.
Sarenya pitched her voice low enough to go unheard by the two green riders. “Hello, T’kamen.”
They might have left it there – a cordial greeting and no more. They didn’t have to talk. Sometimes it was almost as if they weren’t two people with shared history, mutual heartache, and divergent paths. But even without looking at him, even with but three words exchanged, Sarenya knew that this wasn’t one of those times. The only question was which of them would crack first.
“He’s still the most handsome dragon in the Weyr, you know,” she heard herself say. Then she added, quickly, “Tell him to go for one of the Keroon Reds.”
From the corner of her eye she saw T’kamen cock his head, and over the paddock Epherineth changed course. “Thank you. He appreciates that.”
There’d been a time when Epherineth might have thanked Sarenya himself, but that privilege was no longer hers to enjoy. “The wherries are probably better,” she said. “The home-breds, at least. They’ll eat anything and turn it into flesh. Until we get some rain to bring the grass back, there’s not much more we can do with the bullocks.”
“Last night,” T’kamen said abruptly. “When the dragons called out. Did you hear what woke them up?”
Sarenya glanced sideways. “No. Should I have?”
“Probably not,” he admitted. “I thought you might have heard it through your lizard.”
Any attentive listener would have discerned T’kamen’s dislike of fire-lizards from the flat way he said the word. He had better reason than most. The marks where Sleek had once taken an angry swipe at him were still faintly visible on his cheekbone. “M’ric said even the dragons couldn’t explain it.”
T’kamen didn’t go tense, or set his jaw, or show any sign whatsoever of his personal dislike of the brown rider, but Epherineth picked that moment to descend with more than necessary force on his chosen herdbeast.
“I just have this feeling,” T’kamen said. He sounded frustrated, as though the notion had been dogging him all day. “Something’s coming.”
She met his troubled gaze this time. “What sort of something?”
“I don’t know. Nothing good.”
“You just love a worst-case scenario.”
“If I’d bet on every situation since I became Weyrleader turning out badly, I’d be a rich man by now.”
“Then surely by law of averages alone, you’re due some good luck.” There were more strands of silver at his temples than Sarenya remembered seeing before. Minor as it was, the fact she hadn’t noticed the change before bothered her nearly as much as the stress it reflected. Without thinking, without any conscious intention at all, she lifted her fingers to his worried brow, as if stroking back the grey hairs could deny their existence. “Thread can’t fall all the time.”
T’kamen flinched at the touch, and Sarenya almost had time to reconsider the wisdom of it, but not before he’d reached out to lay his hand against her cheek in wordless, helpless reciprocation.
Several things happened at once. Sarenya froze with her fingertips brushing his temple. A sentence from the apprentice Dragon Healer notes she’d been studying floated incongruously into her head. A previously mated pair with residual mutual affection may continue to exhibit bonding behaviours including neck-twining, social grooming, and physical mirroring. And Epherineth looked up from his meal, licking gore from his chops, and made a small, curious sound deep in his chest.
“…get her harness clean for inspection tomorrow morning… Good night, Weyrleader…”
Sarenya snatched her hand away even as T’kamen did the same, and half turned to stare intently out at the paddock as the two green riders walked past, not daring to look to see if they’d noticed anything.
T’kamen’s voice was lower and rougher than it had been a moment before as he stiffly bade the two riders farewell. “Good night, V’nor. Garlan.”
They stood side by side for a moment, united in uneasy silence.
“I didn’t mean…” Sarenya began.
“I don’t know why we…” T’kamen said at the same moment.
They both stopped.
“Of course you didn’t,” said T’kamen. He almost bit off the words. “Faranth. I’m sorry.”
“Kamen, I –”
“Don’t,” he said harshly. “Don’t call me that.” He cut himself off. The look he shot her was angry, reproachful, and accusatory in equal parts. “Faranth, Sarenya. It’s not as if I can send him after a green.”
Sarenya took a deep breath, feeling wretched. “I’m sorry. T’kamen. I wasn’t thinking.”
He gripped the fence rail with both hands, fixing his gaze on his dragon, deliberately turning his shoulder to her. “This was a bad idea.”
The most prudent course would probably have been to beat a retreat then, but Sarenya had never been very prudent when it came to Epherineth’s rider. “What’s going on with Mine, T’kamen?”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve heard he’s been having a bad couple of sevendays.” T’kamen didn’t answer, and Sarenya pushed, recklessly, “Turning up late to briefings. Not turning up at all –”
A muscle in T’kamen’s jaw jumped. “Are you trying to tell me what’s going on in my own Wing?”
“Is it true?” Sarenya asked. “Because if it is…”
“Don’t interfere,” T’kamen told her, curtly.
“I’m not interfering. But if he’s backsliding, he needs help. You can’t ignore him.”
“I’m not ignoring him, Sarenya,” T’kamen said. “I can’t. I’m his Wingleader.”
“He doesn’t need you to be his Wingleader. He needs you to be his friend.”
T’kamen half turned to her, as if he were about to say something harsh, and then whatever it was seemed to go out of him. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I haven’t been paying enough attention.”
“You’re the Weyrleader,” she told him. “You have a lot on your mind.”
“That’s one way of putting it,” he said. “I’ll talk to him.”
Sarenya felt the tension dissipate from her like smoke. “I just want to be sure that he’s all right.”
“And you?” T’kamen asked. “You’re all right?”
For one frozen instant, Sarenya felt everything that she’d been holding back bearing down on her control like a raging river against a failing dam. She wanted to tell him about the ghosts and the nightmares. She wanted to unburden her guilt and shame and frustration onto him. She wanted him to tell her that she wasn’t crazy, that it hadn’t been her fault, that everything was going to be all right.
“I’m fine,” she said.
T’kamen looked relieved. “Good. I’m glad.”
Sarenya hesitated, then put a hand on his shoulder. She felt him tense, then relax. “T’kamen, whatever’s coming, you and Epherineth will handle it. You always do. You’ll make it right.”
“I’m not sure what I’ve done to justify that kind of confidence.”
“I wouldn’t be here, if it wasn’t for you.”
The statement was true in more than one way. T’kamen looked at her, lines forming between his brows as he tried to discern which she meant. Then his gaze slipped sideways, back to Epherineth. “That night,” he said, and stopped.
They had never spoken of it to each other. Sarenya swallowed down a sudden surge of acid in her throat. “What you did…”
“What I did,” T’kamen said. His face had gone impassive, but not his eyes. His eyes were savage. Abruptly, he said, “I don’t want to talk about what I did, Sarenya.”
The muscles of his back had gone rigid beneath her hand. Sarenya jerked her fingers away, as if from a hot stove. “I’m grateful all the same.”
“Saren,” he said. It could have been anything, but he made it a farewell. Stiffly, he inclined his head. “Have a good evening.”
As he walked away, Sarenya looked over at Epherineth. He was poised over his half-eaten herdbeast, watching T’kamen with blue eyes. Then he swivelled his head to return Sarenya’s gaze so deliberately that she almost took a step back.
He didn’t say anything. He made no sound. But Sarenya thought to him, silently, Take care of him, Epherineth.
She turned to go back to the cothold, and she was almost home when the deep, resonant voice intruded softly on her mind. Always, Sarenya.
Continue to Chapter three: C’mine
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Dragonchoice 3 news
- Dragonchoice re-read and commentary at AO3 posted 22 December 2017
- The end is nigh posted 8 February 2017
- Happy (nearly) birthday, Dragonchoice 3! posted 5 October 2016
- Venn diagram posted 25 February 2016
- Don’t let me Rosebud; or, why your feedback matters posted 17 February 2016