Chapter sixty: T’kamen
Hug your children, kiss your sweetheart, and leave your insignia at home.
– Motto carved in Madellon Weyr ready rooms, Eighth Pass
Especially if you’re in the Third Flight!
– Graffiti scratched below the same
The trumpeting of the morning watchdragon was never the kindest herald to wakefulness, and T’kamen, not habitually a deep sleeper, had learned to be up and about before the deafening sound hit the camp. He eased out from beneath the arm Leda had flung across his chest, tucked the fur back around her, found his cane by feel in the semi-darkness, and slipped out before she or the two other riders sharing their tent were any the wiser.
The sky was growing light. A narrow line of gold tipped the ridge that sheltered the valley from the east, softening the sharp edges of crag and gully. Up at the Weyrstation, looming above the plateau where the camp was pitched, light blazed from the kitchens, though the rest of the windows were still shuttered tightly against the gusty wind that had blown all night. The fighting riders wouldn’t need to be up and about for another hour, but for the men of the Seventh Flight the day began earlier.
Apart from the flap of tent canvas in the wind, their camp was still largely quiet. Someone was awake a few rows over – probably the mess tent; T’kamen could hear the clanging of kettles – but no one was stirring from any of the other tents that made up their section. He went to the glowing remnants of last night’s banked fire and nudged the ends of logs into it to reawaken the blaze. There was a thin scum of ice on the water barrel. T’kamen broke it and filled the klah kettle. He put it to heat and went to pay a visit to the latrines.
H’juke was squatting by the fire when he came back. His slender frame was deceptively bulked out by his layers of furs. He passed T’kamen up his mug, brimming with the first brew of the day. T’kamen accepted it with a nod. The scalding heat of the tin cup was moderated through T’kamen’s gloves, and a welcome warmth against the icy morning. Steam blew into tatters around his face as his sipped his klah, unadulterated by either milk or sweetener, and the jolt of bitter heat woke him fully to the day.
He was wondering if Ch’fil was awake when the brown rider emerged from his tent. H’juke, the perfect tailman, had his klah ready, too. Ch’fil took it and crouched down beside the fire to drink it. Almost as an afterthought, he nodded to T’kamen. The three of them sat there in mutually-agreeable silence, drinking their klah and warming themselves by the revitalised flames, until the dragon on watch finally voiced his strident morning wake-up call.
All along the ridge, dragons woke with startled grunts, and the camp came to groaning life around them. Seventh Flight riders staggered, yawning, from their tents. H’juke poured cup after cup of klah until the kettle was empty and then went to get more water from the barrel. By the time the second kettle had heated, six more brown and bronze riders stood or squatted around their fire, and the only cup still left upturned was Leda’s.
T’kamen filled it, then took it back into the tent. “Hey,” he said, as he ducked through the flap. “You up yet?”
Leda had her arm over her eyes. She made a reluctant sound. “Do I have to be?”
T’kamen took the klah over to her. “Probably not. But we do, and we’ll be striking camp before long.”
She groaned. Then she took her arm away from her eyes and smiled sleepily up at him. “Good morning, bronzie.”
T’kamen put the klah mug in her hands, then straightened up. “I’ll leave you to get dressed. You should be up at the station for your breakfast muster.”
“Do I have to be?” she asked again.
She sighed. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
Down by the lake, wherries were being released in small groups. Blues and greens darted down on them, snatching up bucks with neat efficiency and carrying them off. T’kamen saw the scene strangely doubled, his perspective overlapping with Epherineth’s. Hungry?
Fetch is with you?
You’ll let him eat from your kill?
T’kamen resisted smiling. The bronzes and browns wouldn’t eat until all the fighting dragons were satisfied. In that, their riders did slightly better. Morning food for the Seventh Flight was served from the mess tent, manned by the riders who’d drawn breakfast duty. T’kamen had never heard of dragonriders cooking their own meals before. Ch’fil had shrugged when he asked about it. “It’s only when we have one of these overnighters. Used to be we’d eat up at the station with the fighting riders, but there’s only so long you can wait for a meal. Quicker we do it ourselves.”
Leda burst from their tent, looking frantic. “Have to go,” she apologised, still struggling into her jacket. “Querenne’s giving me an earful for not being there yet. I was sure I wasn’t late!”
“You’ll be fine if you hurry,” T’kamen told her. “Here.” He straightened her sleeve for her.
She smiled in relief as she got her arm through the sleeve at last. “Thank you, bronzie.” She tilted her face up to him. “Kiss me for luck?”
T’kamen hesitated only a moment before obliging her. “Good flaming.”
“And you’d better have firestone ready for us when we need it,” Leda told him. Then she was off, running up the hill towards the Weyrstation.
“Kamen,” Ch’fil said. He jerked his chin at him. “Coming to the mess?”
T’kamen fell stiffly in beside him. He thought he knew what was coming. “I didn’t ask her to come down to the camp,” he said, as they walked at his limited speed.
“I know you didn’t. Not that it’d’ve mattered if you had, not as far as I care.”
“I’ll apologise to J’lope and Z’renniz,” T’kamen said. He’d been painfully conscious of his presence of his tent-mates when Leda had sneaked down from the Weyrstation the previous evening, although neither brown rider seemed to have minded.
“They don’t care either. It’s not having a guest that’s the problem. Faranth knows, on a cold night like we’ve just had, we could all do with someone to share our furs. It’s not her being here, Kamen. It’s her not being there.”
T’kamen followed his nod towards the Weyrstation. “They’ll judge her for being with me?”
“Not all of them,” said Ch’fil. “But enough. There’s probably not a green rider in the Weyr who hasn’t had a fling with a bronze or brown rider at least once, but that’s all we’re good for. They can’t bar the big dragons from green flights completely – none of them would have that – but if a green rider wants to weyr up with someone outside of mating, it’d better be a blue rider.”
The all-pervading colour politics of the Pass made T’kamen weary. “I haven’t weyred up with her,” he said. “She’s –” He wanted to say that Leda was more attached to him than he was to her, but that seemed a cowardly admission. “She’s a sweet girl.”
“That she is,” Ch’fil said. Then he glanced sideways at him. “And your heart’s not in it.”
“It’s only been a couple of sevendays, Ch’fil.”
“Would it make any difference if it’d been a couple of Turns?”
T’kamen couldn’t answer that, at least not any way he liked to.
“She’s falling for you, Kamen,” Ch’fil told him. “Faranth knows why, ugly bastard that you are, but that’s young girls for you. If you were falling for her right back, I wouldn’t say anything.” He paused. “You’re not. And you’re not going to. Are you?”
“Faranth, Ch’fil, we’re dragonriders,” T’kamen said irritably. “Since when did sharing furs with a green rider get so blighted complicated?”
“All I’m saying is that it’s costing her more to be with you than it is you to be with her.”
“You’re telling me I should break it off?”
“I’m not telling you any such blighted thing.”
That, at least, was true. Ch’fil rarely issued orders at all, much less on personal matters. He didn’t need to for his counsel to have weight. And he’d said very little that T’kamen didn’t already know. He knew from Leda’s remarks that allowing a bronze to humiliate more than a dozen fighting blues in Suatreth’s flight had gone down badly with some of her wingmates. He knew her Wingleader disapproved of bronze riders in general, and T’kamen in particular. He knew it was damaging Leda’s prospects that she was flaunting her connection to a Strategic rider. And he knew she was doing it out of some misguided, starry-eyed infatuation with him that he in no meaningful way returned.
Much better if you were only interested in mating during a flight, said Epherineth.
Breakfast was cereal and toast, eaten standing up, and with every man expected to wash his own bowl and spoon. The Seventh riders who had cooked up the porridge were dousing their cookfires and scraping out the kettles; other riders were already knocking down tents and packing up the camp. The speed with which it all happened was impressive, but then the Pass riders had had plenty of practice. Even before his leg injury, T’kamen hadn’t mastered the knack of either pitching or striking a camp at speed; now, he was even less handy with guy-lines and tent-pegs.
It would be a long day for the Seventh Flight. Thread was falling two hours south of Madellon West Weyrstation and would end even farther away. The fighting riders would fly immediately for home once Fall was over, but the Seventh would have a massive swathe of sparsely-populated territory to comb over for burrows, with limited assistance from local ground-crews. R’lony didn’t expect them to get back to Madellon much before midnight. It was a grim and gruelling prospect on a day that was windy enough to be tiring, but not so cold that Thread would be any less lethal.
The firestone bunkers at the Weyrstation were, at least, fully stocked. They’d spend most of the previous evening grading and bagging stone. Each of the bunker dragons, Epherineth included, had his own small mountain of sacks piled up nearby. T’kamen rigged his bronze with the heavy cargo harness, tied a pair of sacks to each ring, and then returned to the firestone dump to fill more.
He hated the work. It was so menial, so boring, so lacking in any skill or satisfaction. Epherineth’s ability to go between should have freed them from the drudgery of flying everywhere straight and wrangling massive loads of firestone. T’kamen understood why it couldn’t be, but he still chafed at the necessity of keeping Epherineth’s ability secret. With every effort at finding more fire-lizard eggs drawing a blank, they had no way of extending between to any dragon besides Epherineth and Trebruth, and revealing how agonisingly close they were to an answer would only be demoralising.
Their work with M’ric and Trebruth had lapsed, too: not for want of motivation, but simply for lack of time. The warming weather meant that Fall had returned in its full deadly force, and finding opportunities to get M’ric away from his Wing duties had become almost impossible. M’ric had been so exhausted from drills and Fall over the last few nights that he’d nearly fallen asleep over their increasingly futile study of the Peninsula records.
T’kamen supposed, bleakly, that it didn’t matter. M’ric was still struggling with his own ingrained fear of between, and his frustration that he and Trebruth hadn’t yet mastered it. And even once Trebruth did learn to overcome his aversion to between, he couldn’t do much with it, either. Until such time as Agusta was old enough to produce eggs, no one could know about the link between fire-lizards and between. And that was even assuming that Fetch would be up to the challenge of catching M’ric’s queen – and that, if he did, they would be able to find Agusta’s clutch. Against the dispiriting backdrop of failures, disappointments, and frustrations, T’kamen thought the solace he took in Leda’s affections was little enough compensation.
He didn’t see Suatreth among the closest rank of fighting dragons chewing stone, but Trebruth was impossible to miss when he took his turn at the bunker, the one brown hide in a sea of blue and green. Despite everything, T’kamen still took satisfaction in M’ric’s successful ascension to the fighting Wings. The boy might be having a hard time of it with his wingmates, but the only grumbles T’kamen had heard had been about Trebruth’s colour, not his competence.
The riders of S’leondes’ Wing fanned out around the dump to select bags for their dragons, or to ask Seventh riders to fill them to order. T’kamen whistled M’ric over as he shovelled firestone into a sack. “Your size?” he asked, showing him the grade he was shifting.
M’ric nodded his thanks. “It still feels strange having you doing this for me.”
“Nothing’s stopping you picking up a shovel,” T’kamen pointed out, and then when M’ric reached for the closest tool, “Put it down. I was joking.”
M’ric tucked his hands under his armpits. “Put in a few little bits for Agusta, would you?”
T’kamen paused in his shovelling for a moment. “I don’t think she’s going to cut much of a swathe.”
“Try telling her that. I’d just sooner she didn’t choke trying to eat a lump Trebruth’s size.”
“I’d sooner you left her with us,” said T’kamen.
“She wouldn’t stay,” M’ric said, “and anyway, even if she did get scored, she’d just go between, wouldn’t she?”
“It’s not that simple,” said T’kamen. “And I’m more worried about her encouraging Fetch. He’s as important as she is, given that he’s the only male we have to fly her.”
“If he can catch her,” M’ric said. Then a thought seemed to occur to him. “Faranth. It’s not going to be like a dragon mating flight, is it, when she rises?”
The look of sudden horror on his face was too much for T’kamen to resist. “We’re dragonriders, M’ric. You knew you’d have to make sacrifices when you Impressed.”
“When I Impressed Trebruth, yes! Not for Impressing a sharding fire-lizard!”
“The lizard decides and the rider complies,” T’kamen said gravely. “You’ll be taking one for the Weyr.”
“I don’t care if Agusta’s the only way for us to get more fire-lizard eggs! I am not having sex with you! That would be like –”
M’ric stopped. T’kamen realised that his face must have given him away. He scratched his beard with one hand to try to cover it, but it was too late. “You tail-fork,” M’ric said flatly. “You sick shaffing tail-fork. You actually had me believing…” He whirled suddenly at an outbreak of snickering, and shouted at a young tailman who had been filling firestone sacks behind him. “And you can just shaff off, S’dore!” He punched T’kamen on the shoulder, quite hard. “Don’t do that to me again!”
T’kamen couldn’t hide his smile. “You were too easy a mark,” he said. “I couldn’t resist.”
“Tail-fork,” M’ric grumbled.
T’kamen looked up at where the dragons of the Commander’s Wing were assembled. “Spalinoth’s looking very green this morning.”
“She’s giving all the males in the Wing something to think about,” M’ric said, with a sigh. “Even Karzith.”
“Think Trebruth is up to outflying him?” T’kamen asked.
M’ric gave him a startled look. “What, Karzith? Karzith’s not going to chase Spalinoth. That would be gross.”
“Because Fraza tailed for S’leondes?”
“Because she’s practically like his daughter,” said M’ric. “I mean, it’s not as if tails don’t sleep with their officers sometimes, but it’s not like that with Fraza and the Commander.”
T’kamen wondered if M’ric was telling himself that for his own reassurance. “But Trebruth’s going to chase her?”
“He’s entitled to,” M’ric said, with asperity. “He’s a fighting dragon. He doesn’t need permission to chase a green any more.”
“Permission or not,” said T’kamen, “is Fraza happy about you taking part?”
“She said she doesn’t care if I do or not, because she doesn’t see Spalinoth ever being caught by a brown anyway,” said M’ric. He snorted. “We’ll see about that.”
“No one likes a flight pest, M’ric,” T’kamen said. “It’s not fair to exploit a mating flight to get in bed with a green rider who’s not interested in you.”
M’ric looked genuinely offended. “Do you think I would?”
“No,” T’kamen said. “You were raised better than that.”
“Thank you. I think.”
“Speaking of how you were raised,” said T’kamen. “Will you be able to get permission to visit your mother tomorrow or the day after?”
“I…” M’ric shifted uncomfortably. “A couple of the guys in the Wing already think I’m some kind of mummy’s boy, because I ask for home leave so often.”
“We have to keep at this, M’ric,” T’kamen told him. “I know you’re not enjoying it, but you can’t give up.”
M’ric sighed. “Maybe the day after next Fall,” he said. “We’re going to have to drill even harder after today.”
“It’s just…” M’ric shrugged vaguely. “Changes in formation, you know.”
T’kamen gave him a hard look. It wasn’t like M’ric to make so many excuses. He finished filling firestone bags and stretched as he straightened up from tying off the necks, knuckling the aches in the small of his back. “This is where I came into this time,” he said suddenly, looking up at the ridge. “Madellon West.”
“Yeah,” said M’ric. He looked like he was about to say something else, and then didn’t, looking uncomfortable.
“What?” T’kamen asked.
M’ric hesitated. Then he said, “You know Dalka has a drawing of you.”
“She has what?”
“A drawing. Of you. In her workshop.” M’ric met T’kamen’s blink, and added, “It’s all right, it’s not a naked drawing.”
“That’s reassuring,” said T’kamen. He frowned. Dalka had threatened to draw him, but he hadn’t thought she’d meant it. “What were you doing in Dalka’s workshop?”
M’ric didn’t reply. “Do you think she’s…” He halted the sentence unfinished, and then said, “Why’s she so interested in you?
“I didn’t know that she was.”
“She always has been,” M’ric said, “right from –” He stopped.
“You were reporting to her about me, weren’t you?” T’kamen asked. “When I first arrived. She set you on me.”
M’ric looked torn. Then he nodded. “I didn’t know you then,” he said. “I wasn’t spying on you, just…telling her what you’d said, about being Madellon’s Weyrleader.”
“You didn’t owe me any loyalty then,” said T’kamen. When M’ric looked even more wretched, he asked, “Are you still reporting to her?”
“No!” M’ric said, and then added, “I mean, she thinks I am, but I don’t say anything important. Nothing anyone else who knows you couldn’t tell her, like Ch’fil or El’yan.”
“Why are you telling me this now?”
“It’s just that…I went up to see her yesterday, before we left to come here. I must have got there earlier than she’d expected. I think I saw something, in her office, that I wasn’t supposed to see.”
“The painting of me?”
M’ric shook his head. “It was something else.” He took a breath, and his eyes flickered up towards the Weyrstation.
“Stop messing around and get mounted up, brown rider!” G’reyan’s shout made them both jump. “This isn’t a sharding Gather!”
M’ric looked stricken. “Go,” T’kamen told him. “And if it makes you feel any better, I don’t think you’ve been disloyal to me.” He clapped his shoulder. “Good flaming, M’ric.”
M’ric didn’t look much less troubled, but he heaved his firestone sacks over his shoulders and, with a parting nod, headed back towards Trebruth.
T’kamen had always known that M’ric had been reporting on him to someone in his early sevendays in the Pass. It didn’t really surprise him to have confirmation that it had been Dalka. She certainly seemed to have an agenda where T’kamen was concerned. He just didn’t know what it was. As sincere as Dalka’s attachment to R’lony seemed to be, they clearly didn’t think or act as one, so whatever Dalka was up to didn’t necessarily involve R’lony. He just couldn’t think what was at the root of her particular interest in him.
Epherineth commented on his preoccupation as he paced up the ridge to find a good place to take off. Who can know the mind of a queen’s rider?
Epherineth spread his wings and sprang ponderously from the ridge, into the wind. For a stomach-turning moment he dropped, and then his sail caught the air and he rose, beating hard. Donauth won’t tell me.
No, said T’kamen, as they angled up to join the massed Wings of Madellon Weyr. I suppose she won’t.
M’ric’s confession left him feeling conflicted. The boy hadn’t owed him anything, at least at first, and T’kamen couldn’t fault a weyrling with poor prospects for leaping to curry favour with any major player in the Weyr. It stung him more that M’ric hadn’t come clean with him sooner. T’kamen believed his assertion that he hadn’t told Dalka anything of serious significance, but it still put him off-balance to wonder what M’ric had told her. He’d suspected for a long time that Dalka knew more about him than Madellon’s incomplete records should have permitted; now, knowing that M’ric had been sharing intelligence with her, catching her out would be that much harder. It gave T’kamen plenty to contemplate as they flew south-east to meet Fall.
Any hope that the windy morning would yield a snowfall to blunt the force of Thread proved fruitless. The sun was shining down weakly between fast-moving scuds of cloud by the time the fighting Wings rose to burn the first sheeting fall of Thread. The prevailing southerly had every dragon working hard just to keep on station, and the unpredictability of the gusts make Thread difficult to judge. Three times in the first hour of Fall, fighting dragons had to break their formations to chase stray Threads that the crosswind had blown nearly as far as the bunker dragons.
Epherineth roused suddenly beneath T’kamen, stirring from his dull and dogged struggle against the wind. Geninth says we are to chew stone.
T’kamen glanced up to where R’lony was overseeing the Seventh’s operations from his usual high vantage. He’s letting us stoke?
There’s too much Thread getting through the Wings when the fighting dragons break formation. Stratomath says they can’t keep up with the burrows. Geninth says we need to protect ourselves.
T’kamen hesitated a moment over the wisdom of allowing his bronze stone with Thread in sight. He remembered with a shudder how Epherineth had reacted to that first Threadfall, and the relish with which he’d destroyed the burrow at Fiver Hold.
You can trust me.
Epherineth didn’t sound offended. T’kamen reached back for the closest firestone sack. This stuff was graded for a green.
It will have to do.
T’kamen untied the neck of the sack and put his hand inside. The stone he pulled out was about half the size of one he’d have selected for Epherineth. Here.
Epherineth twisted his head back over his left shoulder, opening his mouth. T’kamen got five chunks of stone between his dragon’s teeth before Epherineth closed his mouth and turned back, chewing. The grind of firestone mostly masked the sound of slobbering, though T’kamen was still very conscious of it. He was aware, too, of how Epherineth always took care to avoid turning the scarred side of his face towards him if he could help it. Perhaps in time he’d become accustomed to the twisted snarl that characterised his dragon’s once-handsome face, but the scars, and the shame he felt at being responsible for them, were too fresh yet.
Fetch, clinging to Epherineth’s harness in his accustomed perch just in front of T’kamen, chirped hopefully. “Not a chance,” T’kamen told him. “You wouldn’t do any good.” More, Epherineth?
After three more reloads, twenty stones and nearly half a sack, Epherineth said, That’s enough.
Be careful where you breathe, T’kamen warned him. You don’t need to set your load off.
Epherineth angled his head carefully upwards and exhaled a long breath of flame. Up and down the row of bunker dragons, other bronzes and browns were testing their fire, too, but none of them could match Epherineth’s range. T’kamen got a faceful of sooty firestone stench, carried by the manic gusting of the wind. He found he didn’t mind. Epherineth was alive and awake to the Fall now as he hadn’t been since that first time, watching the fighting dragons with eyes tinged orange with the beginnings of combat aggression. The agile little blues and greens darted around the sky, but the net they wove couldn’t catch everything, and as T’kamen watched, his perception enhanced through Epherineth’s, he began to see the gaps. The northern flank of the Wing flying the pivotal centre stack was missing more Thread than any other. He couldn’t identify the Wing – the fast-moving greens and blues gave him no point of reference – but he could see why it was failing. It was the two anchor blues, trying in vain to both contain the edge of the Fall and hold station against the constant crosswind. T’kamen watched as the two toiling dragons took it in turns to attempt to mop up what was getting blown past them before struggling back to resume their appointed places. They were just too small for the job under the conditions; they lacked either the strength or the flame range they needed.
If they could go between, T’kamen said, and Epherineth concurred.
It seemed inevitable that the struggling blues would let something past sooner or later, and so it proved. A heavy patch of Thread disintegrated into more strands than they could contain, and the stragglers were blown erratically towards the line of bunker dragons flying lateral to the Wings.
Epherineth was moving before the threat even became fully clear. He thrust in towards the Wings as though his heavy load of firestone weighed nothing, warning off the dragons to either side of him, and came up underneath the writhing strands. T’kamen felt the firestone gas surge up his dragon’s gullet and then burst free in a sooty scarlet lance. It took the first Thread square on, incinerating it instantly. Epherineth twitched his head slightly and the tip of his exhalation caught the second Thread, setting it on fire that ran hungrily up the length of the strand, leaving dissolving ash in its wake. The third strand had blown farther and fallen faster. Epherineth folded his wings slightly to drop with it, and a final belch of fire obliterated the filament completely.
T’kamen thumped his neck. He realised he was grinning. Good job, Epherineth.
Epherineth had to beat his wings hard to regain the altitude he’d lost. It burns differently to how I had expected, he said. I should not have expended so much flame on the first one. It was wasteful.
Between with wasteful, Epherineth. It was well done.
He rumbled, and not just with his stored gas. Those blues are still struggling.
The frustration in his voice had no solution. T’kamen could just imagine how receptive S’leondes would be to his opinion on the competence of the fighting Wings. Still, he couldn’t help agreeing with Epherineth. One bronze, or even a big brown, would anchor that formation far more effectively, especially in the windy conditions. But watching one of the blues roll narrowly out of the way of a fast-falling tangle reminded him that a bronze or big brown wouldn’t be capable of the acrobatics needed to stay alive.
He tore his eyes away from the compelling toil of the two blues to seek out Trebruth. It took him several minutes to pinpoint M’ric’s dragon through the overlapping ranks of blue and green bodies and the frequent flares of crimson flame, even with Epherineth’s long eyes to help him. S’leondes’ Wing was flying on the top level two ranks back from leading edge. Trebruth was stationed halfway down the southern arm of the Wing with a green either side of him, and as T’kamen watched he recognised that the three were working as a squad. M’ric’s grumbles about how S’leondes had deployed him were not unfounded. The Commander’s entire Wing was split into trios, each comprising a blue and a pair of greens flying in a reverse stacked triangle with the blue above and slightly behind, the greens forward and somewhat spread out. The blue in each squad met any Thread coming into their airspace first, burning everything he could reach; the greens tackled what he missed. As often as any member of the trio had to break formation to reach a strand, or to dodge one, each dragon maintained his overall position. The trios themselves were stacked on two levels, alternating all along the line of the Wing, and from time to time the two levels exchanged positions, the lower rank rising as the upper descended for a respite from the thickest rain of Thread.
It was an elegant formation, and an effective use of a blue’s skills – but not for Trebruth’s. For all his small stature, M’ric’s brown was just put together differently to a blue. His deeper chest and greater lung capacity meant he scarcely had to move at all to cover off his section of sky. He could flame Thread at a range greater than that of any blue in the Wing. It was impossible to tell at that range, but T’kamen suspected that Trebruth’s squad was letting through less Thread than any other in the Wing. That was fine, but it still seemed a gross misuse of him as a unique asset. Trebruth and M’ric were inexperienced, it was true, and perhaps S’leondes sought only to protect them while he got their measure, but T’kamen still wondered why the Commander, famously colour-biased, had taken them into his Wing if not to make proper use of them.
The wind direction was changing when the first dragons began to come back to the Seventh for firestone. The weak winter sun that had partly counteracted its chill found fewer and fewer places to filter through the racing streamers of cloud, and the headwind moved gradually around to the south-west, blowing across and into the Wings. Amidst much shouting and exchanging of arm signals, the Wings shifted formation to cope with the strengthening wind, but dragons already besieged by the conditions began visibly to struggle. One blue who came to Epherineth for firestone was buffeted so violently into his flank that a smaller dragon would have been sent spinning. Another blue’s rider missed the catch, and shouted up an apology when Epherineth had to duck down sharply to grab the falling sacks. Almost every dragon who pulled alongside them for a reload was heaving with exertion. The first green retired with wing cramps not far into the third hour of Fall. But it was the unpredictability of the wind, more so than its punishing strength, that claimed the first life.
T’kamen didn’t know if older riders ever got used to the sound of a dragon’s mortal screams. He knew he never would. He caught a glimpse he didn’t want, passed reflexively through Epherineth’s perceptions, of a green dragon thrashing wildly in the grip of a spreading net of Thread filaments. The fact that her shriek reached them in pieces, torn apart by the gale, made it no less harrowing. It did, at least, cut off quickly. But the sound of that cry was still ringing in his ears when the next one rent the sky, and Epherineth groaned. Who is it?
The youngster was Twibith. Jolyoth tried to cover her vector and has been struck.
Salionth and Recranth were sprinting inwards, angled down. A moment later, T’kamen saw Jolyoth, a Wingsecond’s blue, dropping like a stone through the massed fighting dragons, his wings already more Thread than sail. But in the space of moments the orderly rhythm of the fighting Wings disintegrated into chaos. Dragons veered in all directions to dodge Jolyoth’s unchecked tumble through the centre of the stacked formations. Not all of them succeeded. Some of those who did avoid the plummeting blue collided with each other instead. And Thread poured through the gap left in the top level by the two stricken dragons.
Another dragon was hit by Thread and went between. Dragons who’d clipped wings fought to regain lost altitude and their lost positions. A green had slammed broadside into a blue and the pair of them were tangled hopelessly with each other. Roars from around and above T’kamen accompanied the surge of catching trios from the Seventh, and then Epherineth’s muscles bunched beneath him. We go to catch Kahnath. Plumiath assists!
If Epherineth’s load of firestone troubled him at all, he didn’t show it. He arrowed inwards and down, dropping beneath the level of the lowest Wings. T’kamen stole a glance up and back to see A’dry and Plumiath darting after them. No third?
We are spread too thin. Plumiath will clear and steady. I will catch!
There were at least half a dozen dragons in distress, Threaded or injured or both, down below the Wings. T’kamen didn’t have time to identify them all. Epherineth locked onto their target and T’kamen assessed the situation as the gap closed between them. Kahnath, a big blue for the Pass, was losing height with every passing moment. The main sail of his left wing had been sliced through from elbow to trailing edge, and the rent halves fluttered in useless strips, but the damage was clearly the result of another dragon’s talons rather than Thread. Kahnath could be saved. Epherineth bugled out to him, and the blue raised a frightened warble in return.
He cannot control his speed, Epherineth told T’kamen as he drew alongside the stricken blue, matching his precipitous vector. Hold tight.
Then he dipped below Kahnath and angled beneath him. T’kamen felt the shudder through Epherineth’s frame as Kahnath’s belly bumped his back, and then a massive jolt rattled his teeth as Epherineth came up hard beneath the smaller dragon.
They had never caught a dragon for real before. For all the practice catches they’d made, those dragons had been faking injuries, and Thread had not been falling around them. T’kamen heard Plumiath flaming above them, felt the heat of his fiery breath, and bits of charred Thread rained down on them. Kahnath’s scrabbling claws sliced several firestone sacks free from Epherineth’s harness, sending them tumbling to the ground. And the ground itself was not as far away as it had been. A glance earthwards revealed the alarming proximity of the hilly moorland below, all rocks and ridges.
He is only a blue, Epherineth insisted, and gradually the power of his wings levelled out their steep trajectory. A third, lesser impact was Plumiath, grasping Kahnath’s wing-shoulders from above to steady him on Epherineth’s back.
T’kamen twisted in his seat to find Kahnath’s rider. He didn’t know the man’s name. “We’ve got you,” he shouted up to the shocked blue rider. “Keep him calm. We’ll get you down.”
With Kahnath secure on his back, Epherineth veered against the direction of Fall, heading back towards the safety of territory it had already passed over.
But the carnage of the last several minutes was made bleakly plain by the sight that awaited them. The burrows dotting the width of Thread’s footprint as far as the eye could see were not the only things on fire. Three bigger blazes marked the corpses of dragons, set alight to sear away the Thread infestations that had taken their lives. T’kamen tore his eyes away from them.
The catching trios were setting down the injured but unscored fighting dragons on a knoll some way outside the Thread corridor. Healer and Dragon Healer teams, riding with G’bral’s Watch section, were already at work on the wounded. Epherineth landed downwind of them, and Plumiath helped the moaning Kahnath down from his back. Ichor from the blue dragon’s slashed wing spattered T’kamen and Epherineth as one of the Dragon Healers raced over. “Leave him with us, bronze rider!” he called up to T’kamen.
“Good catch, T’kamen!” A’dry shouted down. Plumiath was already airborne again. “Check Epherineth’s shoulder. Kahnath gave him a rake!”
T’kamen turned to look at his dragon’s back. Epherineth’s left shoulder was seeping ichor from three short slashes. Is it bad?
Epherineth put his head over his shoulder to investigate. He licked the gash experimentally, then turned back, dismissing it. It’s nothing important. Geninth wants us back in formation.
He heaved off from the ground. In that heavy take-off, T’kamen knew that Epherineth’s strength had been tested more sorely than he would admit. The bunker dragons weren’t normally expected to make catches while carrying loads of firestone. You all right?
Yes. Epherineth’s reply was terse as he beat his wings hard, battling the crosswind to catch up with the fighting Wings. I was the only one who could have caught Kahnath. I had to go. He would not have survived the fall.
It took T’kamen a moment to grasp Epherineth’s implication. Geninth didn’t order you to make the catch?
All the other catchers had already deployed. Kahnath had no one to help him.
You disobeyed Geninth?
Geninth did not tell me to go. Geninth did not tell me not to go.
T’kamen slapped the fore-ridge. You did the right thing.
They were less than halfway back to the Wings when a distant cry made Epherineth falter in his stroke, and then go rigid. What? T’kamen asked, abruptly afraid. There were few individual dragons whose distress would have rocked Epherineth’s composure. Is it Trebruth? Is he all right?
But the stricken dragon whose image, passed back through the other dragons of the Wings, Epherineth shared with him was not Trebruth.
It was Suatreth.
She had been hit. A partially-burned Thread, not much more than a yard long, had glanced the trailing edge of her left wing. A gust of wind in the right direction would have blown it clear, but that gust had not come, and the half-burned Thread was slowly taking hold. T’kamen experienced that vision in all its horrible clarity, and then, abruptly, Suatreth and Leda were gone.
It seemed for an instant as if the world had ceased turning.
Every moment’s inattention, every dismissive word, every half-hearted kiss T’kamen had given Leda came back to him like a punch to the gut. His willingness to accept what she offered without returning it in kind shamed him to his bones. The salve to his ego that the candid ardour of a much younger woman had been seemed a tawdry self-indulgence.
His pretty, defiant, bright-eyed young green rider was going to die between.
Dragonriders died. Fighting riders died. Pass riders died. T’kamen had seen it with his own eyes. He’d thought he understood. He’d thought he grasped the meaning of a dragon’s death in Threadfall. He’d thought he comprehended how unflinchingly fighting riders faced the possibility – the probability – of death in battle. He’d thought he could live with it.
He’d been wrong.
Once, and only once, had another rider’s death shaken him to the bottom of his soul; not in Thread, not even in the Pass. He still recalled in nightmares the horror of Epherineth’s cry when C’los’ murder had sent Indioth fleeing into the oblivion of a death between. Over the Turns he had lost classmates and wingmates, friends and mentors, but none had hit him as devastatingly as C’los’ death, not only because he had been one of his oldest and closest friends, but because he’d died while carrying out T’kamen’s orders. If only he’d paid C’los more attention, if only he’d counselled him to more caution, if only he’d expected less of him; perhaps his death could have been averted.
Now another green rider’s life hung in the balance.
Leda was not C’los. T’kamen hadn’t grown up with her, hadn’t spent his adult life confiding in her, hadn’t come to rely on her as ally and adviser. She wasn’t family as C’los had been. But she was one of the few riders in the Pass who had accepted him, welcomed him, despite the colour of his dragon and the many mistakes and blunders he’d made in his ignorance of the era. She’d offered him companionship and intimacy where no one else had, freely and honestly. He didn’t love her. He didn’t know that he would ever love her. But he did care for her, and in that moment, in that instant, with rider and dragon beyond all possible hope, he knew he couldn’t let his inaction end her life.
He didn’t have to communicate his decision, or his reasoning, to his dragon. Epherineth knew and he understood, as he’d known and understood every major decision T’kamen had ever made. Fetch reared up from his perch on the fore-strap, spreading his wings, infected with their mutual decisive intent. T’kamen felt Epherineth’s mind, twined with the brown fire-lizard’s, reach into between. It was like and yet unlike their groping after Trebruth when M’ric’s dragon had lost his way. Trebruth had required only a steadying, the imposition of the solid visual that he and Agusta needed to bring them safely out. Suatreth had no fire-lizard to pilot her. No visual Epherineth could provide could show her the way through. Bronze dragon and brown fire-lizard quested instead to find her between, to strain the intangible fabric of that unknowable place through their combined comprehension of it, and to centre themselves on the tiny, fading speck of life that was Suatreth within it.
Epherineth flung all three of them recklessly between as he had never done before: with between itself as his only destination. The choking darkness seemed blacker and more final than ever with no light of an endpoint to guide them. T’kamen wrapped his thoughts tight with his dragon’s, letting neither fear nor doubt tug at Epherineth’s resolve, lending his strength instead to the tremendous mental effort. And as he surrendered himself completely to Epherineth’s purpose, he glimpsed at last how a dragon perceived between: not the blank nothingness that was all a human’s mind could comprehend, but an infinitely complex, infinitely huge nexus of glowing paths, criss-crossing, overlapping, sprawling out to encompass everywhere and every when. T’kamen’s mind tried to shudder back from the alien intricacy of it, but he was carried along as Epherineth’s will and Fetch’s vision traversed the monstrous immensity along gleaming threads like the gossamer of a spinner’s web. They were not alone. Other motes of life flickered in and out of existence all around them, too fast to follow, nearly too fleetingly to see. They were green and blue and brown and bronze and gold. They were the dragons and fire-lizards of Pern: the present, past, and future indistinguishable from each other in that timeless, limitless place.
But not every strand glimmered with potential. As Fetch led and Epherineth followed, they skirted places where the shimmering paths hung dark and dead, the threads drifting forlornly in infinity; not severed, with ends sliced cleanly through, but frayed, as though they had been tested to snapping point and been found wanting. They moved faster and faster through the maze of paths and it seemed to T’kamen that the dark places grew more abundant as they travelled. Between was broken. If he had not comprehended that fact before, now he finally did. And he realised, too, that some of the points of brightness that he saw winking out were not dragons exiting between, but dragons perishing there, helpless to navigate the incomplete pathways unaided, their lives and lights extinguished there in the endless tangle of possibilities.
And then they arrived at their destination, at the weakly shining verdant gleam that was somehow recognisably Suatreth. The collective consciousness of their three minds, dragon and lizard and human, enveloped her, wrapping her in its steadying strength.
Epherineth did not speak the question. It echoed through the fabric of their combined being, and T’kamen found himself thrust back into the confines of his own perceptions to answer it. Between fell around him again like a shroud, black and frozen. It seemed they’d been there forever. But fifteen Turns of training made the emergency visual spring into his mind. With the last of his consciousness he held tightly to it. Home. Get us all home, Epherineth.
Ch’fil was there when he awoke.
T’kamen raised his head marginally off the pillow, and then regretted it. It felt thick and sodden, like he’d come off a two-day drunk, and for a moment he had no idea where he was or any recollection of how he’d got there.
Ch’fil had been dozing in a chair beside the bed, but he straightened up at T’kamen’s groan. “Kamen. You’re awake.”
T’kamen found enough saliva to speak. “Not the…sharding…infirmary…again.”
Ch’fil’s low affirmative grunt hurt T’kamen’s head, and so did the light from the glow-basket he opened a crack. “The Healers want to start charging you rent. Here.”
T’kamen took gratefully the water mug Ch’fil pushed into his hand. A cool swig restored him more than he would have imagined it could. “What time is it?”
“About half through middle watch. The Healers thought you might be out for longer, but they didn’t have much precedent to go on.”
T’kamen tried to reckon the hours. He couldn’t. “We missed the end of Fall.”
“Aye. You get a pass, though. This time. R’lony wanted to bollock you for dereliction of duty, but I talked him out of that, under the circumstances.”
The circumstances. It all began to rush back into T’kamen’s mind: emerging over Madellon in a snowstorm with Suatreth dangling limply from Epherineth’s grip; the startled bugles of the off-duty dragons below; Donauth, arrowing across the Bowl to assist in landing the Threadscored green; dragons everywhere barking incredulous queries at Epherineth over the nature of his arrival; Epherineth silencing them with a tired, irate bellow. Epherineth landing hard, and standing there, heaving and exhausted, as Suatreth was mobbed by Dragon Healers. And then the slow, dizzy spin into unconsciousness that was the last thing T’kamen remembered. “Ch’fil. Is Suatreth…?”
“Suatreth’s fine,” Ch’fil said. His voice was tired and dull. “As fine as a green dragon who by all rights should be dead can hope to be, anyway.”
“How badly was her wing scored?”
“She’s down about a fourth part of the trailing sail and the last joint of the middle and inner fingers. She’ll have lost some speed and the fine control on that side, but the Dragon Healers are saying they’ve seen dragons with worse wing injuries flying again. There’s not a scratch on Leda. She’d be in here now if it weren’t that she don’t want to leave Suatreth.”
T’kamen let out his breath, weak with relief. “Thank Faranth for that.”
Ch’fil didn’t reply. His silence seemed peculiar to T’kamen, and then he grasped the reason why. “Shards,” he said, after a minute. “The snake’s out of the bag about between, now, isn’t it?”
“Aye,” said Ch’fil. “Every dragon who wasn’t flying Fall saw Epherineth appear out of nowhere with Suatreth in his talons. There’s nothing to be done about it now. In the morning we’ll work out the details of what you’ll say happened. Best you don’t talk to anyone else before then.”
“How bad was the Fall?” T’kamen asked, and when Ch’fil hesitated, he went on, “I heard three go between before Suatreth, but there could have been more.”
“There were more,” Ch’fil said. “It was… Ah, Faranth, T’kamen, I’m sorry. I’m really shaffing sorry.”
He suddenly gripped T’kamen’s shoulder. T’kamen looked at Ch’fil’s hand blankly, and then searched his face. His expression was twisted in a rictus of grief that he’d never seen there before. “What’s happened, Ch’fil?”
“The Wings took such a beating,” Ch’fil said. “It was mayhem after Jolyoth got hit. You saw it. And…” He visibly took hold of himself. “M’ric didn’t make it, T’kamen.”
“He didn’t…” T’kamen began, and then stopped. Ch’fil’s words didn’t seem to make sense. “What do you mean?”
“I talked to G’reyan,” Ch’fil said. “He saw it happen. He said Trebruth just didn’t have the experience to know what to do when the formations went to shit. He tried to burn a Thread-bomb by himself, and it shattered down all over them. There’s no dragonpair in the Weyr would have had a chance.”
“Then he went between?” T’kamen asked. He still couldn’t make sense of Ch’fil account.
“Aye.” Ch’fil’s hand closed painfully hard on T’kamen’s shoulder. “I’m sorry, T’kamen. He’s gone.”
T’kamen stared uncomprehendingly into nothing for a moment. Then he said, determinedly, “No. He went between. He would have come out somewhere else. Probably Fiver. That’s where we’d been training, that was his emergency reference. He’s probably there right now, too ashamed to come back here until he’s found himself clean pants.” Epherineth, wake up.
“We already thought of that, Kamen,” Ch’fil said. “Stratomath and Geninth both tried to raise Trebruth. Even Donauth did. They couldn’t find him.”
“They weren’t looking in the right place,” T’kamen said. Epherineth!
Epherineth roused sluggishly, but in an instant he discerned T’kamen’s distress. I will look for Trebruth.
“Epherineth’s looking right now,” T’kamen told Ch’fil. “He’ll find him.”
“He will,” T’kamen insisted. “Void take you, Ch’fil; you shaffing Pass riders give up far too shaffing easily!”
I cannot find him.
Don’t be ridiculous, Epherineth, look harder. Try Fiver Hold.
I have. Trebruth is not there.
“Blight you between, Epherineth!” T’kamen shouted. “Find him!”
Epherineth’s voice came back full of regret. He is not here.
Only then did T’kamen allow the truth of Ch’fil’s report to hit him. He choked, his throat gone suddenly tight with emotion, his voice dried up, and raised his eyes to Ch’fil’s in mute entreaty.
“I’m sorry, Kamen,” Ch’fil said. “I know you loved that boy like he was your own. He was a credit to what you did with him. He died as brave a dragonrider as any we’ve ever had.”
It was the use of that word, inaccurate as it was, that jolted T’kamen from his grief. Dead. The pieces finally fell into place. “He’s gone,” he heard himself say aloud, and then bit off the words that wanted to follow them. Gone. Not dead. Gone to the Interval. For an instant he felt overwhelmed with relief. He did it. He went back. He did it!
And then desolation struck him like a Threadscore.
“You stupid boy,” he heard himself say, and then his anger roared up his throat and out like a dragon’s flame. “You stupid, thoughtless little shit! Look what you’ve done!”
“T’kamen!” Ch’fil barked. “Settle down! He was a fighting rider! It happens!”
“Void take it, Ch’fil, don’t you get it? We should never have let him fight!”
“That was never your decision –”
“It should have been! Blight it, Ch’fil! It’s not just M’ric we’ve lost, it’s Agusta!” T’kamen raked both hands agitatedly through his hair. “Where on Pern are we going to find more shaffing fire-lizards now?”
Continue to Chapter sixty-one: Sh’zon
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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