Chapter fifty-seven: C’mine
Never underestimate how far a dragon will go to protect his rider.
He crafted the visual as carefully as any he’d ever constructed, placing the sun in the sky just so, striping the shadows at the correct angle, recalling exactly the colours and locations of dragons he knew had been there, isolating that place and that time as precisely as his memory would allow.
There had been many dragons, and he couldn’t remember them all, so he concentrated on the ones who had stood out: queens and bronzes from other Weyrs, distinctive not only for their hides, but for the unusual fact of their presence. He filled in the gaps with details of less clarity but general relevance: Lords and Ladies in their finery arriving on dragons of all colours; the overall hum of excitement; the smell of meat that had been roasting on spits since before dawn. Finally he placed Darshanth in the visual where he knew he had been.
When at last he was satisfied that it was as complete as he could make it, he said, Darshanth, would you please pass our visual of Long Bay to Vanzanth?
Darshanth obeyed, and then said, Vanzanth says his rider will come when he can. We are not to go anywhere until he has.
C’mine hadn’t thought he still possessed the capacity to dread L’stev’s censure. He found he was wrong. Yet he wouldn’t try to duck it any more. He’d been wrong about many things, and tried to run away from them. He was tired of running away. He sat quietly in his empty weyr and looked at the wall where his charts and maps had hung.
After a bit, heavy footfalls stumped up the steps to Darshanth’s ledge. L’stev came in without waiting for an invitation. His graphic face was, for once, impassive, which was to say that it had settled only into its default frown. He sat down on the stripped bed in the sleeping alcove that had been strewn with C’los’ diaries and C’mine’s notes. He fixed his gaze on C’mine.
C’mine looked back at him.
At length, L’stev said, “And I always thought you were the sensible one.”
C’mine had no answer to that.
“I suppose you are,” L’stev went on, “on account of you being the only one left out of the three of you. It’s just that that doesn’t say much for you as a group.”
C’mine said nothing.
“Benner said I wasn’t to upset you,” L’stev said, in a conversational tone. “Well, you can imagine what I thought of that.” He leaned forwards. “Only tell me one thing, C’mine, so I can be prepared to deal with the aftermath. Will you be coming back?”
“I don’t know,” C’mine said.
“Huh. At least you’re honest about that. Better that you’d chosen to share the truth with me long ago.” L’stev took a short breath. “But it’s too late for that. Isn’t it.”
It wasn’t a question. “I don’t regret what I did,” C’mine said. “Or the cost.”
“The cost. As if trading your sanity for Carleah’s life were a straightforward transaction.”
“It’s the best deal I’ll ever make.”
L’stev snorted. “Darshanth may disagree.” He got up and stalked a couple of paces. “You don’t have to do this now.”
C’mine looked up at him.
“You have to do it. That’s unavoidable. But it could be a Turn from now. Ten Turns from now.”
C’mine found himself shaking his head. “No,” he said. “It has to be now.” He raised his shoulders slightly, and pre-empted the inevitable question. “I just know.”
L’stev stared at him for a moment. “All right. Best you get on with it, then.”
C’mine rose to his feet. He walked out to the ledge. L’stev followed him, silent and brooding. Darshanth was already harnessed. He lifted his head at their approach.
“Wait,” said L’stev.
C’mine looked back at him, one hand on Darshanth’s aft-strap.
“The weyrlings said that your other self was wearing a hood.” L’stev went back inside, then re-emerged with C’mine’s foul-weather cape. “Here.”
C’mine shrugged into the garment. He raised the hood. Then he climbed onto his dragon. Darshanth shifted uneasily beneath him.
“Strap in, for Faranth’s sake,” L’stev told him. Disgust, at last, tinged his voice. “If you’re going to die it should be for a better reason than because you fell off your Thread-blighted dragon.”
C’mine buckled in, then tugged on his safety.
L’stev stalked around to Darshanth’s head. Then he did something C’mine had only ever seen him do to juvenile dragons. He took Darshanth’s muzzle between his two hands and pulled his head down to him. Darshanth was so startled that he didn’t resist, and C’mine felt the contact as if L’stev were touching him directly. “This is on you if it goes wrong,” L’stev told Darshanth. “You’ve got it right so far. Don’t be sloppy.”
Vanzanth gives us permission to go between times to Long Bay, said Darshanth. He sounded slightly shaky.
C’mine touched Darshanth’s neck as he took off from the ledge, spreading his wings. Is he still in contact with you?
All right. C’mine took a long, deep breath as Darshanth beat his wings to altitude. Let’s go to Long Bay.
Darshanth went between.
The instant the blackness had enveloped them, C’mine flung the image he had created of Long Bay on Gather day away from their joined minds.
What are you doing? Darshanth demanded.
In the darkness, C’mine couldn’t feel his palms, but he was sure they would have been sweaty. He’d never changed a visual in transit before. We’re not going to Long Bay, Darshanth. He called up the visual he’d created so carefully instead, pushing it firmly into his dragon’s mind. We’re going here. To this when.
He felt Darshanth take hold of the new reference, wrapping his consciousness around it. What is this when?
It doesn’t matter, C’mine told him. Just take us there.
What is it? What are you doing?
Darshanth’s fury came between them as nothing had ever come between them before. Please, C’mine begged. Please, you have to take us there. Please!
When is it? Darshanth demanded.
C’mine had never experienced the full force of his dragon’s mind pitted against his. He hung grimly on to the tiny corner of his consciousness that held his secret intention locked away, but Darshanth found it, and brushed aside his attempts at concealment. Please, C’mine pleaded. Please, Darshanth. We have to go back to Hatching day. We have to save C’los. Please!
THIS CANNOT BE!
Darshanth’s scream in the silence of between rent C’mine’s thoughts like the rake of piercing talons. Why not? he screamed back. He pushed the visual at his dragon again: the image, fraying now, of Madellon as it had been that dreadful day when C’los had been stabbed to death. We can change it! C’los doesn’t have to die!
No, no, no, no! Darshanth flung the visual aside. The past will not be changed! It is forbidden!
C’mine would have wept, but they were between, and between allowed no tears. I don’t care if it’s forbidden. Please, Darshanth. If you love me, please try.
It is because I love you that I will not. You cannot understand, C’mine. You are not a dragon. Time protects itself. And I must protect you.
Darshanth’s will was absolute. In the utter nothingness of between, C’mine knew he was defeated. Feebly, he tried to summon his home visual, his return to the Madellon of the present. But they had been between too long. He could feel the blackness entering him through his eyes and ears and mouth. He could feel it entering through his soul. And the visual would not come. The reference was smoke in his grasp. He had nothing. Darshanth, he whispered. Darshanth. I’m so sorry.
He felt Darshanth’s mind envelop his. And then he felt nothing.
The rain drumming on his head drowned out all other sound, all other sensation, all other thought.
The peak of his hood poured water in a steady stream like a leaking gutter. He had pulled it down over his eyes, but rain still dripped constantly from the end of his nose. He could feel the dampness spreading along his arms where the seams of his cape were the least weather-proof. His trouser legs were soaked, his feet clammy. He looked down at the ground and saw his boots sinking, step by step, into churned mud, nearly to the ankles. He saw other boots, too, all around, and recognised the jostle of other bodies beside him. He was not alone in this sodden march. This road had been well travelled before them. He lifted his head, but the rain lashed his face and stung his eyes. For a step or two he was blind as well as deaf. He stumbled to a halt, adrift.
A hand smacked him across the shoulder-blades. “Keep going, friend! Not far now!”
The blow jostled him into motion again. “I don’t understand,” he said. His own voice rang oddly inside his hood. “Where are we?”
“I told you, not far now. See, we’ll be onto the road soon.”
He shielded his eyes with his hand to keep the rain from them and looked up again.
A great crater squatted above them, shrouded by the sheeting rain.
“Here.” His amiable friend pushed a flask into his hand. “Have another sip of that. Should get you the rest of the way.”
He uncorked the flask and lifted it to his lips. Whiskey, strong and fierce, scorched a path down his throat to coil in his belly like a serpent.
“What did you say your name was again?”
Even as he realised he didn’t know the answer, he heard himself say something.
“Yoseller,” his friend introduced himself. “Must be your first time up at the Weyr, Mine. Well, it’s a long slog in weather like this, and no one’ll deny it, but it’s not every day you get enough warning of a Hatching to trek up.”
“And this the big one, too. Not that I should think we’ll see sod-all. We’ll get let in last of all and if you glimpse so much as a wing over the heads of every rider and rich bugger in front of us, you’ll be lucky. But it’s the being there that counts. And there’s nothing on Pern tastes better than a free drink on someone else’s mark; am I right?” Yoseller joshed Mine in the ribs. “Have another sip. You look like you need it.”
The downpour slacked off as they climbed the final approach to the Weyr, two men in a long column of others making their way up the mountain. Mine found he had nothing at all to say for himself, but Yoseller was happy to talk enough for both of them. He was a woolman, he explained, and a good one. He travelled a circuit with a gang of other shearers through Kellad’s lesser Holds from each Turn, clipping the fleece from ewes in the spring, wethers in the autumn. He and his lads were the fastest and the best, he told Mine, without a hint of boastfulness; otherwise the holders wouldn’t pay them top mark for the piecework. His crew went its separate ways for the winter, and Yoseller himself spent the cold months with his nephew in Blue Shale. Every spring it took a little more effort to roust himself out of that comfortable berth and round up his lads, but a flat mark purse made him a poor guest by the time the days were lengthening again, and besides, he wasn’t one to want to put down roots anyway, and by the time he was on the road again he always found he was pleased to be there.
Yoseller just about paused for breath, and then asked, “And what’s your story, friend? You’ve a Kellad sort of sound to you, a Hold Proper twang, unless I miss my mark, and I’ve an ear for that sort of thing.”
“I –” Mine had no answer. It was not that he had forgotten, or mislaid the facts; there was simply a smooth, blank expanse in his mind like a wall of bricks fitted so closely together that they needed no mortar to bind them. Such things as his name and his origin were, he was sure, behind that wall, but it would not yield to his attempts to breach it.
“Thought so,” Yoseller said, nodding sagely. “Well, you’ll not have me pressing you for why you left, or asking if your master knows you’re for the Weyr today; it’s as I said, not every man has a chance to see a dragon Hatching, and likely worth the bollocking.”
It occurred gradually to Mine that Yoseller thought him somewhat slow: a drudge, or at best a dull-witted worker fled from his tasks without permission to go to the Weyr. He thought he should feel insulted by the assessment. Then he wondered why he thought that. For all he knew, Yoseller was right. Mine had no better explanation for who he was.
As they trudged into the great tunnel bored through the rock at the base of the caldera, men flung back their hoods and exclaimed at the welcome shelter from the rain. Yoseller did the same, shaking out a long tail of silver hair. He was older than Mine had imagined him: a lean, weather-beaten man in his fifties. “Come, friend, you’re here now; no one’ll send you home for seeing your face uncovered.”
Mine hesitated. A small, urgent voice in the back of his mind insisted You mustn’t be seen.
“Suit yourself,” Yoseller said, when he made no move to put down his hood. “Though no one’s here to look at you. Not with – ah, not with them to be looking at.”
They had passed through the tunnel – too regular not to be man-made – and into the great open palm of the Weyr Bowl, and before them, squarely in line with the inside opening of the tunnel, was a dragon.
The dragon was brown, a rich tan shade made glossy by the rain. He had just alighted. He shook his wings. Beads of water flew from their edges like jewels. Then he folded the great sweep of them to his back in an intricate overlapping of translucent amber sail. He towered over them, his shoulders seeming to crowd out the grey sky. His rider, himself a big and burly fellow, jumped down from his neck. “Keep moving, people, don’t block the tunnel!” he shouted. “You’re coming in, you’re turning left, keep going around the Bowl, and you’ll get to the Hatching Ground. Once you’re in there, don’t wander off, don’t go into the roped-off half, and if you need the necessary it’s on the right on your way in. Keep moving, that’s right, keep moving…”
Yoseller nudged Mine in the back. “Better do what he says.”
Kumine realised that he wasn’t the only person who’d stopped to stare. “The dragon…”
“Not seen one up close before?” Yoseller asked. “They’re mighty impressive in the flesh, I’ll give you, if you’ve only ever seen them on the wing.
“No,” said Mine. He was still staring at the dragon. He knew him, but he didn’t know how. That knowledge was locked away behind the wall in his mind, too.
“They don’t like it when you stare,” Yoseller said, and tugged him firmly away.
Mine turned his head away from the brown, and tugged his hood down over his face as they passed the dragonrider.
They joined a long procession of people following a curving path around the inside of the Weyr Bowl. The path was well gravelled, and the high walls of the crater provided shelter from the rain. Mine didn’t lower his hood and he didn’t raise his head to look around, because he knew there would be dragons everywhere.
He was afraid he’d know them, too.
“Feel that?” Yoseller asked, as they walked. “The humming? Feel it?”
Mine did feel it.
“That’s them,” said Yoseller. “The dragons. It’s their welcome. It’s how they welcome the baby dragons.”
“When they hatch,” said Mine.
“That’s right,” said Yoseller. “Only time they do it, I hear. Funny thing, isn’t it? Dragons, singing. Who’d think dragons would sing? But only on Hatching day.”
“Hatching day,” Mine repeated. It seemed significant. It seemed very significant. What had he forgotten?
They reached a yawning opening in the crater wall. Far, far above, Mine heard the sound of wings. He didn’t need to look up to know that dragons were flying through the same entrance high over their heads. A dry heat washed out of the cavern, and the babble of many excited voices made a counterpoint to the humming, a vibration that thrummed the air.
The entrance to the immense cavern had been split into two with ropes and posts. Riders with loud voices marshalled their procession down the left-hand lane, crying, “Keep left, keep left, common folk are to keep left!” They filed obediently in, their progress slowed to a shuffle as the mass of bodies crammed along the narrow roped lane. On the other side of the barrier, dragonriders and Weyrfolk, and the occasional richly-dressed Lord or Lady Holder, strode past unhindered.
And then they were inside the Hatching Cavern.
Mine saw it only in glimpses, framed by the heads and shoulders of the people in front of him, and by the peak of his hood. He saw the rising tiers, although the stone steps themselves were blanketed by the people cramming them. He saw, through the haze of steam that had risen from the wet clothes of the many spectators who’d come through the rain, the flash of brightly-coloured wings above as dragons shifted on the high ledges. He saw a slice of the sands themselves, a dull ochre that no volcano ever spewed out. And he saw, briefly, the flicker of an immense golden wing as the mother of the clutch shifted agitatedly over her eggs.
“See if I wasn’t right,” Yoseller said, with more chagrin than satisfaction, as they were herded to their places. The flat gallery at the back of the top tier had no rake, so those standing more than a few rows deep could see little of the sands at all. “Well. We’re here, aren’t we? Here on Hatching day, and with a gold egg on the Sands, too.”
“Hatching day,” Mine said. “And a gold egg.”
He knew it was significant.
“I’m going to have a little wager,” said Yoseller. “Now, what do you think, Mine? Do you have your letters, or should I read the odds out for you?”
Mine followed Yoseller’s pointing finger to the wagermen’s boards, raised up high for everyone in the gallery to see. Each one was chalked with a different set of odds. How many greens would there be, how many blues, how many browns and bronzes. How many girls would Impress and how many boys. What would be the first colour to break shell. When would the first bronze hatch. When would the queen. People were pressing around the wagermen, shouting out their bets, exchanging marks for wager slips.
“See, I could play it safe, take evens for the first one being green,” Yoseller said. “Turns a quarter mark into a half, and there’s no quicker way I know to do that.”
“Brown,” said Mine. “A brown will Hatch first.”
Yoseller guffawed good-naturedly. “Well, and said with such certainty! Do you have a marker?”
Mine didn’t know. He put his hand in the pocket of his cape. It was virtually dry now, he noticed, from the heat of the Hatching cavern. There were no marks there. He tried the pocket of his trousers and his fingers closed on a wooden disc. He drew it out and stood looking at it.
“Quarter mark?” Yoseller asked, plucking the coin from his hand. “On a brown to Hatch first? That’ll score you four-to-one. Now, you stay here and keep our place. I’ll put these wagers on.”
As Yoseller pushed his way through the throng, leaving Mine standing alone, an excited shout went up from the crowd. Mine looked up. His hood slid off his head as he did. Bronze dragons, more than a dozen of them, were flying into the cavern, each carrying a white-clad girl on his neck along with his rider. “The queen candidates,” went the murmur.
A queen egg.
“Why am I here?” Mine asked himself, aloud.
There was something he was supposed to be doing here, but what was it?
The bronzes landed, dipping down out of his line of sight, then took off again a moment later having deposited their passengers on the Sands. The humming was so intense now that Mine could feel it in every part of his body: his skin, his teeth, his bones.
What had he come here to do?
Yoseller came shouldering his way back through the crush. “Here, got your mark on just in time,” he said, pressing a stamped slip of hide into Mine’s hand. “If the bronzes are here, the eggs must be fit to burst! See, brown to Hatch first on yours, and I took the safe wager, green for me. And I had a little fancy on the girl who’d get the queen. They have all the names up there, you see, on that end board, and where they’re from. Well, I wasn’t going to risk it, but the favourite’s an apprentice from the Beastcraft and I’m not Hall trained or anything, but a wool-man like me has to support a Herder lass, don’t you think? Imagine that, a Beaster girl on a queen, and this one likely to be Weyrwoman before long, if what they’re saying about the old queen rider is true.”
Mine held his betting slip tightly in both hands. Brown to hatch first, it stated, ¼ mark, 4/1, total return 1 ¼ mark. A disclaimer had been stamped at the bottom, the ink blurry where it had been applied in haste. Valid this Hatching only, 91.10.18, Madellon Weyr.
There was something about the date.
It was the wrong Hatching.
He didn’t know why, but he knew. It was the wrong Hatching.
“What’s that you say, friend?” Yoseller asked.
Mine stared at his wager slip. Then he turned to Yoseller. “The Beastcraft girl. What was her name?”
“Oh, it started with S, let me see now.” Yoseller squinted at his betting slip.
Candidate Sarenya (Beastcraft apprentice) to Impress the queen, ½ mark, 5/2, total return 1 3/4 marks.
The humming ceased at the precise moment that realisation exploded in his mind.
“She’s not going to Impress,” he said numbly. “She doesn’t Impress. She never Impresses.” He raised his head, looking around wildly. “Oh, Faranth. What am I doing here? This is the wrong Hatching day!”
But his exclamation was drowned in the roar that went up from the crowd, whoops and shouts, and a few disappointed cries. “The first Impression!” came audibly through the clamour, and then, “Brown, it’s a brown first!”
Yoseller’s thump jolted Mine out of his horrified realisation. “Brown, friend Mine, you were right, you’ve made yourself a mark! Here, now, don’t be losing it!”
The winning wager slip had fallen from Mine’s suddenly boneless hands. Who am I? he demanded of the blank smooth place. It was less blank and less smooth now. It had cracked, and things were seeping through the fissures. Things like A brown dragon will Hatch first and Sarenya will never Impress a dragon and This isn’t the Hatching day when C’los died.
“Who’s C’los?” he cried aloud.
And then he knew.
He wasn’t some half-wit drudge from the Hold called Mine. He was C’mine. He was Darshanth’s rider. He was C’los’ weyrmate. And he was out of time.
He reached for his dragon, but the blankness stopped him. It had a curve to it, he realised, and a texture. It wasn’t smooth and blank at all. It had the pebbled roughness of an eggshell. A dragon’s eggshell.
It curved in on him, not the convex shape of the outside of an egg, but the concave confines of the inside.
It was Darshanth.
I had to protect you. I had to hide you from myself.
He had trapped him within the only prison he had ever known.
C’mine was suddenly suffocated. Please! He clawed at the weakening shell. Darshanth, please! Why did you bring us here?
You asked to go to Hatching day.
Not this Hatching day! I was going to save C’los! I was going to warn him! Then realisation struck C’mine anew. He’s here. I can still warn him. I can tell him.
The lash of Darshanth’s mind was blunted only slightly by the cocoon of the eggshell. It is forbidden!
And C’mine was suddenly thrust back into consciousness of his surroundings. He was on his knees, and the floor was painfully hard and rough. People had swayed from him. He realised he’d vomited. Yoseller was crouching over him, patting his back. “There, friend. There, now it’ll be all right. The Healer’s coming. You’ll be fine, friend.”
A voice, vaguely familiar, spoke from above. “Here, now, I’ve got him. He needs to get out of this crowd.”
Hands, firm but gentle, heaved C’mine to his feet. He staggered and was caught. A strong arm went around his shoulders, keeping him even. He walked, dazed, only half under his own power. His hood had been placed back over his face; he could hardly see past it. Distantly, he heard the exclamations as dragonets chose their riders. “I’m C’mine,” he said, slurred but determined. “I’m C’mine. I’m C’mine. I’m C’mine.”
“I know. Keep walking with me.”
The familiar voice belonged to the man who was helping him. C’mine tried to turn his head to see, but his hood obscured his vision. “I shouldn’t be here,” he fretted. “Please. I need to find my dragon.”
“It’s going to be all right, C’mine. Come on. We’re nearly there.”
And then they were, out of the oppressive heat, the cacophony of the Hatching crowd behind them. C’mine felt rain spatter the lower half of his face. “Who are you?” he begged. “Why are you helping me?”
They stopped. C’mine pawed the hood back from his face. He looked up at his rescuer.
His eyes were hollow and tired, his face gaunt and lined. For a moment C’mine saw the shadow of someone else in that weary, drawn expression. “I’m here because someone we both love sent me. Come on. Darshanth isn’t far. We’ll get you safely home.”
Continue to Chapter fifty-eight: T’kamen
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