Chapter sixty-three: T’kamen
He wouldn’t let her go. Couldn’t let her go.
Wouldn’t bear it, so he dared the darkness men should never know.
And she shone there for him, brightly in the void of cold between
And he sought her, man to woman, love to lover, bronze to green.
– The Ballad of Leda, music and lyrics by Weyr Singer Tawgert
It was strange to walk the Weyr with Fetch riding openly on his shoulder, to take him freely into the dining hall and find the kitchen staff ready with a dish of sweetmeats for him, to have other riders look at the little brown with envy rather than revulsion; but then, in a way, Madellon’s new-found acceptance of T’kamen’s fire-lizard was only the least of the disconcerting changes he’d faced since the day of that Threadfall out of Madellon West.
Another rider might have basked in the glow of approval that T’kamen found radiated his way, in the admiring glances and respectful nods that he encountered as he went about the Weyr. T’kamen wasn’t that rider. The mellowing of Madellon’s opinion of him had been happening slowly and naturally enough for him to be comfortable with it; this new dramatic shift from grudging acceptance to outright reverence unnerved him. Riders who would once have refused even to acknowledge his existence were suddenly falling over themselves to make themselves known to him. The youngsters who had made sport of mocking his halting gait still trailed after him, but in hope that he might have an errand for them to run, so that they could say they were about on his business. And more green riders had invited him to join their dragons’ mating flights than he could possibly have satisfied, even had he been inclined to oblige them. Epherineth was finding the avid interest of a veritable bevy of flirtatious young green dragons more trial than temptation.
Yet T’kamen understood the desire of all those dragonpairs to make his acquaintance, because overnight, he and Epherineth had gone from being the scarcely-tolerated remnants of a forgotten age to the shining saviours of Madellon Weyr, responsible already for preserving the lives of not just one fighting dragonpair in Leda and Suatreth, but multiple others in the Threadfalls since. Freed to go between at will during a Fall, they had on three occasions seized and taken between dragons with Thread-strike that the cold of the void could arrest before it killed them. Four dragonpairs owed them their lives now, and no fighting rider in the Weyr was blind to the idea that he could be next.
As reasons to be lauded went, T’kamen supposed it could have been worse, but he still found the avid interest in him wearing. The growing presumption that he and Epherineth would always be there to save a dragon in need exerted a pressure on them both unlike anything they’d ever experienced before, in Pass or Interval. And it had soon become clear that the demand for the use of their ability to go between would quickly exceed their capacity to fulfil.
And they still didn’t have their liberty. R’lony made that clear. “You can do what you have to do during Fall,” he told T’kamen, “but I’m not having you jaunting around Pern unfettered. You’re the most valuable asset the Seventh has now. I won’t be accused of letting you use between frivolously on top of everything else.”
R’lony’s ill-temper had fair justification. He had been fighting a losing battle to save face in the aftermath of Epherineth’s rescue of Suatreth. T’kamen had heard riders of all colours criticising R’lony’s decision to keep the link between fire-lizards and between secret, but as ever, the loudest voice was the Commander’s, and it was his succinct condemnation of R’lony that T’kamen heard repeated the most often. If we’d known fire-lizards could enable dragons to go between, we’d never have let M’ric fight.
No one had called for R’lony’s resignation over that error of judgement – yet. It wasn’t deemed necessary, with the annual Marshal ballot only a few months away. But if R’lony felt the inevitability of his unseating, he was bullishly ignoring it. For that, T’kamen allowed him a degree of credit. Some riders would just have given up in the face of such universal disfavour, and the Weyr would have suffered for it. And T’kamen’s reluctance to denounce R’lony was rooted, too, in his bleak conviction that, as wrong as R’lony had been in his decision to keep the fire-lizard link secret, he himself was just as complicit in M’ric’s loss.
T’kamen missed him with a keenness he would never have believed possible. I know you loved that boy like he was your own. Ch’fil’s words had seemed wide of the mark at the time, but as the days passed T’kamen began to see the truth in them. He’d never had a son to love, but perhaps if he had he’d have felt the same mixture of exasperation, pride, irritation, and protectiveness that M’ric had gradually engendered in him. It was jarring to think of the boy he’d come to know so well growing into the man he’d barely known at all, and yet he wished now that he had known the adult M’ric better.
It was his fault. He didn’t think he was being unduly hard on himself to claim that responsibility. He’d relied too heavily on his assumption that nothing serious would happen to M’ric. He should have been more cautious. He should have insisted that M’ric withdraw from the Wings once Agusta’s importance became clear. He should have argued more strongly with R’lony’s stance. He’d failed on all counts, and if he could take some comfort in the knowledge that M’ric was only gone, not dead, then it paled in the face of the wider catastrophe his weakness had wrought: the loss of the only known fire-lizard queen on Pern, and with her, the potential for any future dragonriders to go between.
It was thin solace that R’lony seemed to have shouldered the entire blame for the mistake. No one had pointed a finger at T’kamen for failing to disclose the truth; he had, after all, merely been following orders. Ch’fil, too, had escaped the brunt of public disfavour, although T’kamen had his suspicions about the reason for that. Ch’fil himself was too decent to turn the situation to his own political advantage even had he wanted it, but S’leondes had been extravagantly careful to focus his censure on R’lony alone. The Commander wasn’t supposed to get involved with Strategic politics, just as Seventh riders were supposed to keep out of the business of Tactical, but given the enmity between the two leaders of Madellon’s riders T’kamen could see why S’leondes would want to preserve Ch’fil’s reputation. It seemed increasingly likely that either Ch’fil or G’bral would become Marshal in R’lony’s place come ballot day, and S’leondes would surely consider Stratomath’s rider a more palatable candidate than G’bral, who was thoroughly R’lony’s man.
Ch’fil was predictably dour about his prospects, though not because he feared G’bral as a rival. “Faranth, Kamen, you know I’ve never wanted this,” he said one evening. They were in M’ric’s weyr, going through his possessions. T’kamen hadn’t had the heart to do it alone. “Get down to it and someone like El’yan would be a better Marshal than I ever would. It’s all paper-shuffling and arithmetic.”
The thought of eccentric old El’yan butting heads with S’leondes as the Weyrmarshal made T’kamen snort. “I think he’d rather fly into leading edge without any firestone.”
“Aye, and you think I wouldn’t?” Ch’fil asked. He was pulling shirts and underclothes out of a chest and tossing them on the bed M’ric had left unmade. “Fact is, R’lony’s good at the grind of being Marshal. No one understands Madellon’s logistics like he does.
“Why not keep him on, then?” T’kamen asked. “Make him Deputy Marshal, or something.”
“No. If he goes down at the ballot, he’ll go down hard. He can’t refuse an assignment to bunker or fire crew, but he’d be a liability with rank.”
T’kamen could understand that. Former leaders tended to make poor subordinates. He included himself in that appraisal. “G’bral seems confident he can give you a contest.”
“I’d give him my own vote if I didn’t think he’d be an even worse disaster for the Seventh than me. Say what you will about R’lony, T’kamen, but the man’s held Strategic together for twenty Turns. Whoever succeeds him is going to go through the mill. Now what in the Void is this?”
T’kamen reached for his new walking cane to cross the weyr, noticing as he did how sleekly the ornate handle fit his hand. The cane had been a gift from E’rol, whose blue Grechanth Epherineth had pulled out of between three Falls previously. The haft alone – cast in bronze, and in the shape of a snarling dragon’s head – must have cost more marks than a fighting rider made in a Turn, but E’rol was the second-born of the Lord Holder of Kellad, and Lord Fantrol had been extremely grateful for his son’s deliverance. Dalka had told T’kamen in no uncertain terms that to refuse the gift would cause a diplomatic incident. T’kamen wasn’t comfortable with it – and even less so with the fact that the bronze dragon head bore a terribly familiar scar down the right side of its face – but he couldn’t deny that the cane suited his height and hand perfectly.
Ch’fil had pulled out the top drawer of the cabinet beside M’ric’s bed and was going through the contents. The sheaf of paper he’d found was covered with M’ric’s compact handwriting, but blotches and crossings-out marred the close script. “A letter?”
Ch’fil frowned over the pages. “I think it’s poetry,” he said after a moment, and then read aloud.
“‘Was in moonlight I first saw you.
Soft-eyed, sleepy, languorous.
Moonbeam fingers touching your lips.
How I wished those hands were mine
In snowfall then I watched you.
Chilled and laughing, breath as steam.
Snowflakes tangled bright in your hair.
Snowflakes spangling like stars.
And at sunset I beheld you.
Painted amber, streaming sky.
Night-time shines on your horizon
Will the evening make you mine –’”
“Stop, Ch’fil,” T’kamen implored him, “Please, for the love of Faranth, please stop.”
“Are you sure?” Ch’fil asked. “It goes on for about another twenty verses.” He sat down on the edge of M’ric’s bed. “Faranth, T’kamen.” His voice had turned gruff. “He was so sharding young.”
“Youth is no excuse for poetry that bad.”
“Oh, and yours was so much better, when you were his age.”
“I don’t think I ever wrote any.”
“You didn’t? Shame on you, T’kamen. Was there no romance in the Interval?” Then Ch’fil shook his head. “You don’t need to answer that, what with Tawgert’s latest –”
“Ch’fil,” T’kamen said, more sharply than he intended.
Ch’fil returned the look with exaggerated innocence. “But it’s a lovely song,” he said. “All heroic and romantic, and –”
“Please, Ch’fil,” T’kamen said. The song that the Weyr Singer had written about his rescue of Leda in Threadfall had become an unlikely hit in the lower caverns. T’kamen cringed instinctively every time he heard the opening chords. “What are we going to do with this?” It was a genuine question. He was loath to simply throw away M’ric’s poetry, excruciatingly earnest though it was.
“Do you know who he wrote it for?” Ch’fil asked.
Ch’fil snorted. “She should have it, then. There’s nothing those green riders love better than a tragic bawl over their wingmates. You saw what it was like when they put M’ric’s name on the Wall.”
The thought of that ceremony made T’kamen uncomfortable, and not only because it was the first time he’d been invited to witness the inscription of a new name on Madellon’s memorial. S’leondes had spoken eloquently of M’ric’s sacrifice; G’reyan, his second, had paid tribute to Trebruth’s courage; Fraza, and several of the other younger green riders, had indeed wept heartbrokenly over M’ric’s loss. It all seemed a far cry from the suspicious cold-shouldering that M’ric himself had told T’kamen about. He was perhaps most surprised that neither S’leondes nor G’reyan had used the opportunity to blame Trebruth’s colour for his death, in case any other brown riders took it into their heads to aspire to the fighting Wings. But whatever rancour M’ric’s wingmates might have felt towards him for Trebruth’s hide seemed to have been wiped away entirely by his loss. After the ceremony, several riders T’kamen hardly knew came to him to offer him apparently genuine condolences and to compliment him on his former tailman’s spirit and persistence. In death, it seemed, M’ric was far more popular than he’d ever been in life.
“I’ll give it to her,” T’kamen said, and Ch’fil put the pages in his hand. T’kamen tucked them into his belt pouch.
There were a few other keepsakes in M’ric’s top drawer – a lock of hair tied in a ribbon; his weyrling shoulder-cord, complete with the tailman’s knot that he’d refused to untie; and right at the back, nestling in the felt-lined interior of a box the size of T’kamen’s hand, a piece of iridescent shell that must have come from Trebruth’s egg. He gathered them together with the Wing insignia that Tactical riders deliberately didn’t sew onto their fighting wherhides, so as to leave something to be remembered by. M’ric’s mother had been informed of her son’s death by the West Gully watchrider, but T’kamen decided he would take the small mementos of M’ric’s life to her at Fiver as soon as he had the opportunity.
It didn’t take them much longer to finish clearing M’ric’s weyr. Most of his clothes and tools would go back down to Stores. Trebruth’s spare harness would be taken apart by the Weyr Tanner, the metalwork returned to the Smiths to be melted down, and the hide given to weyrlings to practice their leather-working skills. T’kamen kept the long-bladed hunting knife that M’ric had carried on their excursions. The leather-wrapped hilt was stained dark with sweat. It still seemed unbelievable that he was gone.
Finally, they stood looking around the weyr, M’ric’s occupation of it reduced to a few boxes of possessions. “I guess we should strip the bed,” said T’kamen. “Whoever moves in here next won’t want M’ric’s grubby furs.”
“Might be a while before anyone does move in,” said Ch’fil, coming over to help T’kamen pull the rumpled linens off the mattress. “It’s not like we don’t have enough weyrs, and this one wouldn’t be top of many lists.”
It was the closest anyone had come to saying that Madellon was under-populated, though T’kamen had drawn his own conclusions. He paused in pulling the cover off a pillow. “Just how bad is it?”
Ch’fil slowly rolled a sheet into a bundle. “We’re below seven hundred dragonpairs for the first time since the early Turns.”
“Adult dragonpairs?” T’kamen asked, but Ch’fil shook his head.
“Including weyrlings, watchdragons, and invalids. Six hundred and ninety-eight of us left. A little over five hundred fighting dragons. It’s getting draughty out there in the Wings. Everyone’s understrength.”
“I’ve heard rumours that the Third is going to be disbanded.”
“Likely true,” Ch’fil said. “It’s been floundering the last four Turns, no matter which Wingleaders S’leondes puts in. Though no one competent wants to get rotated into a Third assignment when they’re twice as likely to get hit in that Flight as any other.”
“Then it’s the Third’s riders that are the problem?”
Ch’fil shrugged. “It’s become a dumping ground for riders who are good enough.”
“Good enough never is,” T’kamen said.
“Aye. But I don’t think we can lay it all at the Third’s feet. They aren’t the only part of the Weyr that’s underperforming.”
T’kamen looked at him, and then surmised, “The queens.”
Ch’fil nodded grim agreement. “I never thought I’d see a situation where a queen’s clutch was outnumbered by green-laid eggs. It’s twice in three clutches now that Donauth’s produced fewer than ten. She was never the most generous layer, but you don’t have to look too far back to see her production’s on the decline. Levierth’s doing a little better, but she’s not a young queen. Fact is, we’re losing more dragons than we’re replacing. Ten Turns ago we had over eight hundred, even after half the browns and bronzes defected north. If we keep declining at this same rate, we’ll be under six hundred dragons in another ten Turns, with two queens near the end of their breeding lives.”
That painted an even bleaker picture than T’kamen had realised. “I suppose it’s not helpful to point out that Madellon needs another queen.”
“Not helpful at all, unless you know a way of rustling one up.”
“A decent long flight with a decent strong bronze would probably do it.”
“Or perhaps just produce a mob of massive bronzes and browns that no one wants.” Ch’fil sighed. “No offence meant.”
“None taken. But maybe a few clutches of bigger dragons is the price you need to pay. You don’t get queen eggs from short or low flights, and a brown can’t push a queen to the limits of her potential like a bronze would. No offence meant.”
“Or even if you can’t brook the idea of bronzes taking on queens again, maybe you should un-ground the browns who’ve sired too many bronzes.” T’kamen said. “If a brown can throw a bronze, he’s a prime candidate to throw a queen.”
“And I’d look a right paragon of objectivity then, wouldn’t I?” said Ch’fil. “Stratomath’s the only grounded brown, Kamen, unless you count old Rhugranth, and he’s so ancient you’d probably stop his hearts if you told him he was needed to sire a queen.”
“You can’t appeal to one of the other Weyrs for a transfer?”
“No one’s overburdened with queens, T’kamen,” Ch’fil said. “Southern had a gold egg four, five Turns back, but that was the last one anyone had.”
“Faranth, Ch’fil,” said T’kamen. “You’re barely halfway through the Pass. Why isn’t anyone thinking long-term?”
“When you have a life expectancy of four and a half Turns, I guess the question of what’s going to happen in a decade’s time isn’t so urgent,” Ch’fil said. His eyes fell back onto M’ric’s bed. “And poor old M’ric didn’t even get four and a half Turns.” He frowned. “What I don’t understand is why he didn’t come out again. From between. Hadn’t you shown him how?”
“He’d struggled with it,” T’kamen said. “It went against every bit of training he’d had drilled into him. Epherineth almost had to pull Trebruth out every time he tried it in practice. And then the one time Trebruth actually had to do it for real, we were elsewhere. If we hadn’t been rescuing Leda…”
“Don’t do that to yourself, Kamen,” Ch’fil told him. “You weren’t to know. And if you’d had the choice between saving Leda and saving the boy…” He made a face. “Just don’t. At least it was clean. They wouldn’t have suffered for long, and no one had to put them down.”
Every time someone made a remark like that – offering T’kamen comfort over M’ric – he had to stop himself from correcting their assumption that he was dead. It wasn’t in his nature to dissemble. “I suppose he’d have been miserable anyway,” he said instead. “He’d be grounded.”
“That he would,” Ch’fil agreed. “Probably permanently, like the riders of the fertile greens. He’d have hated that. Hold on; we’ve missed something here.”
As he stripped the base sheet off M’ric’s mattress, he revealed the corner of a box poking out from under the bed. Ch’fil balled up the sheet and tossed it over with the rest of the dirty linens, then hooked the box out with his foot. It was almost more chest than box, made of heavy dark-stained wood with brass hinges. The hasp of the lid was secured with a substantial padlock. “You haven’t chanced across a key, have you?” Ch’fil asked.
“No.” T’kamen sat on the edge of the bed, his bad leg extended in front of him, to inspect the box. “Was this his? This much brass and hardwood must have cost a few marks.”
“And a few more on top of those,” said Ch’fil. He rattled the padlock, then leaned closer to peer at it. “Skimped on the lock, though. Hand me that narrow borer from his leatherworking kit, would you?”
T’kamen handed him the tool. Ch’fil drew his belt knife and, between knife-tip and bradawl, soon had the padlock open. He tossed it on the floor with a snort. “Ten-mark box, two-mark lock. Stupid.”
“Where did you learn how to open locks?” T’kamen asked.
“I wasn’t always the upstanding, law-abiding fellow you know now, T’kamen.”
T’kamen blinked at that inference. “How did you end up a dragonrider?”
“Long story. Now, what have we got in here?”
Ch’fil flipped open the lid of the heavy box. It was crammed with rolled and folded documents. “More bad poetry?” T’kamen asked.
“I don’t think so,” Ch’fil said. “Looks older. All hide, no paper.” He picked up the top record. “This has a Peninsula mark.” He passed it up to T’kamen.
It only took T’kamen a moment to identify the hide. “It’s one of the records Weyrwoman Estrinel loaned us,” he said. “I told M’ric not to take them out of my weyr.”
“Not exactly light bedtime reading, is it?” Ch’fil asked.
T’kamen ran his eyes down the top couple of paragraphs. The script, like so much of the writing on the old records they’d been studying, was badly faded, but a word leapt out at him. Between. “This is a Weyrlingmaster’s report,” he said. He struggled to piece together the sentences. “No. Not a report. A training guide. ‘On visualisation’. It’s a Weyrlingmaster’s treatise on exercises to teach weyrlings to go between.” He frowned. “This is exactly the kind of thing we’d been looking for. What was M’ric doing with it locked up under his bed?”
Ch’fil looked as puzzled as T’kamen felt. He pulled several more hides out of the lockbox. “This one’s falling apart.”
“Be careful with it,” T’kamen told him. “These all need to go back to Estrinel.”
Ch’fil held the record gingerly by its flaking corners. “This is old,” he said. “Pre-Pass old. This is the Igenite seal, isn’t it?”
T’kamen looked at the cracked and dusty lozenge of pale yellow wax affixed to the corner of the document. The seal had been stamped there sloppily, blurring the outline. “I’m not sure it is,” he said. He touched the imprint, trying to trace the shape. “I think it might be Istan, not Igenite. The colour’s just faded. What is it?”
“It’s a barter agreement,” said Ch’fil. “Five cases of Hoffen Hold single malt, in return for…”
“In return for what?” T’kamen asked, when Ch’fil stopped abruptly.
He stared at the old document. “Two fire-lizard eggs.”
T’kamen didn’t mean to snatch the record off Ch’fil, but he did. “‘Tavie, I hope this finds you in good health and that both eggs are whole and sound. Weyrleader R’don has been very much enjoying the Hoffen malt and we should be glad to share a bottle with you should you and Weyrleader Th’gare make the journey north to see us. Please convey our regards also to queen rider Alanne on the occasion of her naming day, and our wishes that she enjoy the exclusivity of her new companions.’”
“Dalka said they were a naming-day gift,” Ch’fil said. “And they were. But they came from the north.”
“Then there are still fire-lizards there?” T’kamen asked
Ch’fil hesitated for a long moment, and then said, “This has to be more than fifty Turns old, Kamen. Even if there were then, there’s no telling if there still are now.”
“But it’s the best lead we’ve had on fire-lizards,” said T’kamen. “Faranth, there can’t be a beach in Madellon territory that hasn’t been picked over by off-duty riders now, and they’ve found nothing.”
“What are you suggesting, Kamen?” Ch’fil asked. “We can’t just go to Ista Island and start searching their beaches for fire-lizard clutches.”
“Why in Faranth’s name not? Epherineth can go between. We could be there and back in an afternoon –”
“Aye, and you have a visual of some nice secluded place for him to jump into without being seen, have you?” Ch’fil asked. “You know where to look for fire-lizard clutches, do you? Shards, do you even know if it’s the right season for them to be breeding?”
T’kamen didn’t have answers to any of those questions. “Then I go direct to the Istan Weyrleaders,” he said determinedly, “or whoever leads Ista these days. I –”
He was interrupted by Ch’fil’s short bark of laughter. “T’kamen,” he said, “I know you don’t like being the centre of attention much, what with every other green rider humping your leg. But I can’t think of any way for you to turn every rider and dragon of Madellon against you that would be quicker than you going to Ista Weyr.”
“Why?” T’kamen asked. “What did Ista do?”
Ch’fil paused, and then said, “Ista’s where Chrelith went, when she defected.”
“And the last time a Strategic rider took it into his head to go north…he wound up west.”
“Westisle?” T’kamen asked. “Really? S’leondes is that blinkered he’d exile a dragonpair just out of spite?”
“It wasn’t S’leondes,” said Ch’fil. “It was R’lony.” He looked away from T’kamen for a minute, his eyes narrowing. Then he looked back. “Not how I’d have played it. But the penalty for defection has to be stiff, or Faranth knows, there’d barely be a bronze or brown left in Madellon.”
“I don’t want to defect,” said T’kamen. “But we need fire-lizards. Epherineth and I by ourselves are shaff-all use without being able to train more dragons to go between.”
“Tell that to Leda,” Ch’fil told him. “Or E’rol, or Vellary, or whoever that other green rider was that you saved last Fall.”
“We can’t save them all,” T’kamen said. “Not by ourselves. Shard it, we couldn’t even save M’ric and Trebruth.”
Ch’fil went quiet. “I told you,” he said after a moment. “You weren’t to know.”
T’kamen exhaled a long, weary breath. He looked at the open lockbox on the floor. “What was he doing?” he wondered aloud. “He didn’t tell me he’d found these documents. He knew these were exactly what I was looking for. Why did he hide them?”
“Maybe he thought to spring them on you?” Ch’fil suggested. “The boy always did love to be praised for a good job done.”
T’kamen shook his head slowly. “The day he went between,” he said. “Before Fall, he told me that he’d been reporting to Dalka.”
“Reporting to her?” Ch’fil asked. “About you?”
“Yes.” T’kamen frowned, thinking back. “He seemed upset about it. Guilty, I guess. I couldn’t work out why. I don’t think there’s much he could have told Dalka.”
“You think he was hoarding these for her?” Ch’fil asked, kicking the chest lightly with the toe of his boot.
“I don’t know. Maybe. She was the one who sent us to the Peninsula for them. But if she wanted these documents, I don’t know why she wouldn’t have just asked for them.” Something else occurred to T’kamen then. “He said he saw something in her workroom. Something he shouldn’t have seen.”
“Did he say what it was?”
“No.” T’kamen looked at Ch’fil. “You know Dalka better than I do. What’s her angle?”
“What does she want? It seems to me that she has what she needs. She’s Senior; she has her workroom; she seems genuinely devoted to R’lony…”
“Oh, aye, devoted,” Ch’fil agreed, but irony shaded his voice. He gave T’kamen a look. “You know Stratomath flew Donauth a couple Turns ago.”
T’kamen nodded. “When he sired Stenseth and Bularth. The flight that got you grounded.”
“It wasn’t an accident that Stratomath won,” said Ch’fil. He shrugged. “It wasn’t an accident that Geninth wasn’t there that day.”
T’kamen didn’t follow. “Dalka wanted you to win?”
“I think she thought I was set to make Marshal that Turn. The Seventh was restless. R’lony wasn’t looking secure. Or maybe they’d fought. I don’t know what it was exactly.”
“She was lining you up as his successor.”
“Something like that. Anyway, I didn’t get the votes for Marshal, not that I wanted them then any more then than I do now. Maybe it blew over with her and R’lony. But Dalka…Dalka likes to have a hand in things. She likes to stay close to power and influence.” He shrugged. “If she has an angle, that’s it.”
“Then why’s she interested in me?”
“Don’t sell yourself short, Kamen,” said Ch’fil. “Just by being here you’ve shaken this Weyr up more than any rider has since S’leondes’ coup.”
“Being a curiosity doesn’t give me any special pleasure,” T’kamen said. “Not when we could do so much more.”
“Like helping other dragons to go between again?”
“I came a long way to be here. If there isn’t some purpose to that…” He sighed. “Do you know how history remembers me, Ch’fil? As a minor Weyrleader who abandoned Madellon when it was most in need.”
“But you didn’t abandon it,” said Ch’fil. “You came here. You didn’t mean to leave your post.”
“I know,” said T’kamen. “And if I thought that I could do some real good here, I could live with being remembered as a deserter.” Even saying it aloud made the bald fact of it sting anew. “Probably, if I’d known I could make a difference now by deserting Madellon then, I’d do it anyway. It would be worth the sacrifice. And worth the shame.”
Ch’fil only gave him a sidelong look in response to that, which T’kamen took as his way of telling him he was being pompous. The thought that M’ric wouldn’t have scrupled to tell him he was being pompous to his face made him miss him even more.
R’lony, ever the pragmatist, had quickly grasped the value of having even a single dragonpair capable of going between, and it was several days before T’kamen was able to convince him to fit a visit to Fiver Hold into their schedule. R’lony’s reluctance had little to do with his opinion of M’ric, and everything to do with the restrictions T’kamen himself had insisted upon. For all that Epherineth and Fetch in concert could see them safely from one point to another, going between was no longer a skill T’kamen took for granted. He felt less in control of the process, it took much longer to reach a destination than it ever had in the Interval, and Fetch was, after all, still very young. Besides, the unsettling trip they had made into between itself to rescue Leda and Suatreth had given T’kamen too frightening a glimpse of the real nature of what he had always assumed to be a featureless void. He’d kept that part completely to himself. But he’d decided that Epherineth should make no more than five trips between on any day when there was no Thread, and even during Fall they should refrain from making jumps that were any less than critical until he felt more confident in this new way of travelling.
The business of deciding where best to employ T’kamen and Epherineth on Thread-free days was already becoming a bone of contention between R’lony and S’leondes. In spite of – or perhaps fuelled by – his waning influence at Madellon, R’lony stubbornly resisted the pressure to cede rights to their deployment to the Commander. T’kamen wasn’t a party to any of the arguments between R’lony and S’leondes, but he could imagine how ugly they were. He kept his head down, flew the assignments R’lony gave him, and quietly reported to Ch’fil when he thought a mission had been prompted by the Commander rather that the Marshal.
When, one morning, T’kamen’s daily orders did include a visit to Fiver Hold, it was the last stop of three in the region. They went first to West Gully, the Hold Major to which Fiver looked, to deliver a packet of correspondence to the watchpair there; flew straight to the nearby Minehold to make enquiries of the Master Miner about the quality of firestone it was tithing; and only then proceeded to Fiver Hold to meet with M’ric’s mother.
As committed as T’kamen was to the errand, he still dreaded it. He’d never had to deliver bad news to the family of his Interval riders. The few riders who’d died during his tenure as Madellon Weyrleader had been Weyrbred, and L’stev had insisted on going to the families of the weyrlings they’d lost to between. He wasn’t sure what he could say to Alisker. Even if he’d been able to tell her where M’ric had really gone – which he couldn’t – it would have been cold comfort. She was never going to see her son again.
Yet when he arrived at Fiver, using the reference of the great stone stacks that had become so familiar from his training attempts with M’ric, Alisker met him straight-backed and dry-eyed, with a dignity that humbled him. “He was a dragonrider of Pern,” she said, when T’kamen expressed his deepest condolences at her son’s death. “And his father’s son. From the moment he was Searched he was at peace with the notion that he wouldn’t live to an old age.”
T’kamen gave her the keepsakes he’d salvaged from M’ric’s weyr, in the heavy box that he and Ch’fil had found under the weyrling’s bed, emptied of its scrolls. Alisker examined each item carefully, tracing the careful braid of M’ric’s weyrling knots, flattening out the curling corners of the diamond-shaped black-and-indigo Madellon patch; touching with reverence the shard of Trebruth’s eggshell. Then she said, “There was a ring, a silver ring…?”
She didn’t have to complete the sentence. T’kamen bowed his head. “His father’s signet. I’m sorry, Alisker. He was wearing it when he went between.”
Alisker closed her eyes, and for a moment T’kamen feared that the grief would break through her composure. Then she straightened her shoulders. “I should have liked to pass it on,” she said. “He was M’gral’s only issue, but he had cousins at Starfall Weyr.”
T’kamen had slipped the gold twin of M’ric’s silver ring into his pocket, as he had on the previous occasions he’d been at Fiver Hold; he could feel the heavy signet pressing against his leg. The question of how M’ric’s family had ended up with a silver replica of the Madellon Weyrleader’s seal was still a mystery; one he supposed he would never solve now. “He was very proud of where he came from,” he said. “Fiver, as well as the Weyr.”
“You’re kind to say so, bronze rider,” said Alisker, “but he chafed to leave Fiver for Turns before he was Searched. It almost seems he became more interested in Fiver in the last few months than he was the whole time he lived here.”
The remark made T’kamen pay attention. “In what sense?”
“He’d started asking about when the Hold’s name changed,” said Alisker. “Not only just before the Pass, when the sixth spire collapsed, but back to even earlier than that. He had Terihf look out the old records for him. I didn’t know until he said that there were nine columns when the Hold was first founded.” She smiled sadly. “I wonder how they’ll call it when they have all fallen.”
That’s how he did it, Epherineth, T’kamen commented to his dragon later, as they were leaving Fiver. He visualised this place when it was still Sixer Hold.
Epherineth turned his head slightly to look at the five stone spires as he spiralled upwards. Was it not Sixer Hold for many Turns?
T’kamen hadn’t thought of that. Would that stop him from using it as a reference?
It would stop me.
The thought that M’ric had been actively seeking a route back to the Interval, in spite of his shaky grasp of between, gave T’kamen something to think about as he and Epherineth continued on their rounds. In one sense it didn’t surprise him. M’ric had been far too inquisitive and resourceful not to want to find out as much as he could about his place in the tangle of time that had snared them both. But it was yet more evidence that there was much the boy hadn’t been telling T’kamen. He tried not to take it personally, even as he still sought to puzzle out why M’ric had kept those crucial Peninsula documents from him, but it was hard not to feel hurt by it. It was hard not to wonder what else M’ric had been hiding from him.
Wake up. Wake up!
Epherineth’s urgent intrusion jarred T’kamen instantly out of sleep. He opened his eyes to pitch darkness. “What is it?”
Donauth’s rider comes.
T’kamen sat up. The bed was empty next to him; he had a dawn Threadfall, but Leda had gone back to her own weyr. She hated being woken early when she didn’t have to be up. “What watch is it?”
Middle. Donauth’s rider is here.
“Keep your voice down, T’kamen.” Dalka’s low hiss came out of the darkness along with an almost shielded glow-basket. “Get up. Get dressed. I need you.”
“What’s wrong, Weyrwoman?” T’kamen swung his legs stiffly over the edge of his bed. “It’s the middle of the night.”
“Quickly. Don’t ask questions.”
That made the last vestiges of sleepy disorientation flee. “Weyrwoman?”
“Now, bronze rider!”
T’kamen groped for his cane and got up. Dalka was a slender shape in the gloom. “All right. Give me a moment.”
As he dragged on clothes, he asked Epherineth, Is something going on?
Donauth won’t say. The Weyr is quiet. The watchdragon seems calm.
“Come with me,” Dalka said, when T’kamen was dressed. “Leave that,” she added, when he reached for another glow-basket. “I don’t want the watchdragon to see you.”
T’kamen followed her out past Epherineth’s couch. He watched them pass, his eyes whirling faster than normal. “What’s going on, Dalka?” he asked, limping determinedly to keep up with her long-legged stride.
Dalka’s face was shrouded in shadow, the narrow wedge of light cast by her glow-basket illuminating only the ground in front of her feet. “When we get to the Hatching Grounds.”
“Is Donauth all right? Her clutch?”
There was enough of a pause before Dalka’s reply to make T’kamen pay attention. “Donauth and her eggs are fine.”
“Save your breath for walking,” Dalka said sharply.
Even with his cane to help, T’kamen was leg-weary by the time they reached the Hatching Cavern. Inside, Donauth was lying imperiously by her eggs, the clutch of nine neatly enclosed within the curl of her tail. She turned her head to look at Dalka with chilly indifference.
“Has Epherineth ever lied to you?” Dalka asked abruptly.
“No,” T’kamen replied, before his surprise at the nature of the question even had time to register.
Dalka glanced over at her dragon with an expression that almost matched Donauth’s iciness. “Perhaps only queens have that propensity,” she said. Then she said, “Ceduth’s eggs are gone.”
Dalka led him around the bottom tier of the stands to the partitioned-off corner where Madellon’s green-laid eggs were kept. Ceduth’s rider sat there in the lowest tier, his face in his hands. He lifted his head as they approached, and leapt to his feet. “Dalka! Have you…” He trailed off when he recognised T’kamen, looking confused.
“Sit down, N’meru,” Dalka told him. “I told you, you need to stay calm. The last thing we need is Ceduth getting upset.”
“Ceduth doesn’t understand why I’m upset,” N’meru said despairingly. “She doesn’t understand at all.”
“She’s a green,” Dalka said. “Of course she doesn’t understand. Just keep her quiet.”
T’kamen looked behind the screens. There were six eggs half-buried in the mounded sand in two groups of three, all of them the small, pale green-blue common to green-laid eggs, and not much more than half the size of Donauth’s smallest egg. But more noteworthy than the eggs he saw there were the ones he didn’t. There were four holes where eggs had clearly been dug out of their sandy incubators. “What’s happened to them?”
“I don’t know yet,” said Dalka, but she threw another cool look at her queen.
That was easier to read. “You think she ate them?”
“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Dalka said, her eyes flashing. Then she added, “She says she didn’t. But so she did last time this happened.”
T’kamen looked at the holes where the missing eggs should have been. “And it’s just Ceduth’s that have disappeared?”
“Yes, blight it,” said Dalka. It was the most agitated T’kamen had ever heard the ordinarily cool and collected Weywoman. “I don’t suppose anyone would have cared much if it were Ferrelth’s that had gone missing, or even Brenelth’s, but no, she had to eat Ceduth’s eggs, didn’t she?”
Across the Hatching Sands, Donauth turned her head away from her rider in a gesture of utter disdain.
“She must have gone for them especially,” N’meru said miserably. “Ferrelth’s were closer, and they’re bigger than Ceduth’s were, but there they all still are.”
“Then you didn’t see it happen?” T’kamen asked.
“I’d only stepped out to the dining cavern for an hour or so.”
By his guilty tone, N’meru had been absent from his post minding the green-laid eggs for longer than that. “You weren’t here either, Dalka?”
She made a dismissive gesture. “Donauth doesn’t need me to help her watch her eggs all night.”
“And she didn’t see what happened to Ceduth’s?”
“She says she was asleep.”
T’kamen transferred more of his standing weight onto his cane, wrapping his fingers around the dragon-head haft. “Does R’lony know?”
“Between with R’lony,” Dalka said. “When the Commander finds out –”
“What?” T’kamen asked. “What will he do?” He glanced at the wretched N’meru, then turned Dalka slightly aside, so the green rider couldn’t hear them. “S’leondes is a blue rider, Dalka. Karzith can’t intimidate Donauth. The Commander has no hold over you.”
The words had hardly left his mouth before he saw, in the lines of strain on Dalka’s face, how mistaken they were. “I need your help, T’kamen,” she said, speaking each word with careful precision, and not an ounce of entreaty, despite her obvious distress.
“Who else am I to turn to? No Wingleader or Wingsecond is going to take my part. The Seventh is at Madellon South, and there’s not another bronze or brown rider with a spine left in Madellon tonight!”
Ch’fil was – he would be leading a Seventh Wing in the partial Threadfall over Jessaf the following day – but T’kamen supposed that the history between Dalka, R’lony, and Ch’fil precluded Stratomath’s rider from getting involved. Still, he suspected that Dalka’s compliment was merely flattery. He knew what his real use to her was. “Do you want me to go and get R’lony from Madellon South?”
“And what can he do? R’lony’s days as Marshal are running out, and even if they weren’t, he’d be no match for S’leondes!”
T’kamen had to let that sink in for several seconds before he could form an answer. “And you think I am?” he asked, incredulous. “You want me to fight him?”
“Don’t be absurd,” Dalka said coolly. “But no one has held a candle to the Commander’s charisma in the Weyr for decades. Not since the Pass began. You know how he’s adored. You’ve seen it. You’re the only rider who would even have a chance of facing him down in a battle for the heart of this Weyr.”
“What are you saying, Dalka?”
“That you might not wear the knots of a Weyrleader on your shoulder any more, but everyone can see them there just the same.” She leaned closer. “Help me, T’kamen. Stand up to S’leondes, and I’ll make sure that when the Marshal votes are counted, your name will come out on top.”
T’kamen stared at her in frank astonishment.
“It’s your only way to ever be a credible threat to S’leondes. If you knew the things he’s done to stay where he is –”
She broke off for no reason T’kamen could discern except to bait him into asking for more. Even realising that, he nearly did anyway. What had S’leondes done? But the thought of setting himself up as an actual rival to the Commander seemed so ludicrous that he almost laughed aloud. S’leondes had two decades’ experience leading the Wings into Fall. He had the hero-worship of six-sevenths of the Weyr. He was almost a head taller than T’kamen, outweighed him by half his weight, and he didn’t need a stick to walk on a crippled and twisted leg. On every front, S’leondes had the advantage.
Except that he is only a blue rider, said Epherineth.
That remark was nearly more startling than Dalka’s had been. You think this is a good idea?
Epherineth said nothing.
“If Donauth really has eaten Ceduth’s clutch,” T’kamen said, looking at the pits where the green-laid eggs had been, “then –”
He stopped, then limped closer to look more carefully at the eggs that had been left. The sand was mounded up around them, and yet where Ceduth’s four were missing the holes were almost flush with the surface of the sand. “Where’s the rest of the sand gone?”
“What?” said Dalka.
“The rest of the sand.” T’kamen pointed at one of the other green-laid eggs. “If you took that egg away, some of the sand would fall into the hole it left, but there’d still be more piled around the edges.” Then he added, “There aren’t any claw marks, either.”
He stepped back a pace to survey the scene. As he did, he noticed how both his boots and the end of his cane had left clear prints. The sand around the eggs was scarred with many overlapping sets of footprints, and with the long, thin marks left by the front wheel of the barrow that was used to move the green-laid eggs around.
One of the wheelbarrow tracks stopped at the lip where the sand met the lip of the stands, which wouldn’t have been remarkable, except that the narrow rut overlaid almost all of the other footprints.
“Donauth didn’t eat them,” T’kamen said. He crouched awkwardly, extending his bad leg stiffly and holding onto his cane with one hand, then reached down with the other to trace the fresh wheel print. “They were taken.”
For an instant, Dalka’s face betrayed her relief. Then she said, “The watchdragon…!”
Brifnith says there have been no intruders, said Epherineth, before T’kamen could even ask.
“Wake up the Weyr!” Dalka cried to Donauth. “Someone’s stolen Ceduth’s eggs!”
Donauth looked unmoved by her rider’s urgency, but with a grudging toss of her muzzle, she bugled out a brassy alarum, answered an instant later by a cacophony of queries from the hundreds of dragons of Madellon.
“Northerners?” T’kamen asked, raising his voice to be heard above the din.
Dalka’s eyes were sparkling black now, her normal confidence restored. “It has to be. They’ve been after our green-laid eggs for Turns.”
“But how did they get past the watchdragon?”
“Brifnith’s blue. His rider can answer to the Commander on that count.” Then Dalka cried, “Intruders, on Donauth’s Hatching sands! Northerners stealing our eggs! Get after them! They can’t have gone far!”
T’kamen wasn’t so sure about that – he suspected that N’meru’s dereliction of duty had lasted longer than the green rider had been prepared to admit. “They could have two hours’ head start on us, and it’s pitch dark,” he said. “Anyone clever enough to get in and out of here unchallenged is clever enough to plot a route back to the north that we won’t expect.”
Geninth’s rider demands that we go to Madellon South and bring him back to the Weyr, said Epherineth, sounding about as enthused by the prospect as Donauth had been by Dalka’s demand that she raise the alarm.
“R’lony wants picking up,” T’kamen told Dalka, even as he asked Epherineth, Can you bring Fetch and your harness and meet me at the Hatching cavern?
Dalka looked at him warily. “You won’t mention what I said to you.” It was a statement, not a question.
“No,” said T’kamen. He didn’t trust himself to say any more than that. “You’ll be all right until we get back?”
Her mouth quirked. “I won’t forget what you’ve done here, T’kamen.”
He nearly winced at the implication, but he didn’t think it was the moment to argue with her. Then his gaze fell on N’meru, forgotten and terrified. “Are you going to be all right, green rider?”
“The Commander’s going to kill me,” he said, faintly. “He’ll stake me out for Thread. He’ll ground Ceduth for a Turn. He’ll…”
“He won’t,” T’kamen told him, “but if you need some advice on the most efficient way to shovel the shit out of the weyrling barracks, then come and ask me. I’m the expert on that.”
N’meru looked slightly reassured – though only slightly. “Thank you, T’kamen.”
Riders were beginning to converge on the entrance to the Hatching sands, and then T’kamen heard the distinctive snap of Epherineth’s wings. “We’ll be back with R’lony in a few minutes,” he told Dalka. “Ch’fil should take charge here.”
She looked at him. “Ch’fil’s at Madellon South with R’lony.”
“No,” T’kamen said, “he’s sitting this Fall out so he can lead the Seventh at Jessaf tomorrow.”
“But he’s not here,” said Dalka. “He’s not at Madellon now.”
T’kamen blinked. Epherineth?
Stratomath is not here.
Did he go to Madellon South with the Seventh?
He is not at Madellon South.
Then where is he?
Epherineth paused. I don’t know.
Dalka said, sharply, “Donauth can’t find Stratomath.”
They looked at each other. T’kamen wondered abstractedly if his face wore the same sort of alarm as Dalka’s.
“Epherineth,” he said, speaking the thought aloud, “ask Brifnith if Stratomath went anywhere during his watch.”
It seemed to be an age before Epherineth replied. He says Stratomath left the Weyr about two hours ago.
“What in the –” Dalka began, and then, “He couldn’t have been involved, could he? Ch’fil? Ch’fil?”
It hit T’kamen so hard that if he hadn’t been leaning most of his weight on his cane, he might have staggered. He could feel the blood draining from his face. “Oh, Faranth,” he said. “Ch’fil, you didn’t. You couldn’t. You Thread-blighted fool.”
“What is it?” Dalka asked. “What’s he done? Answer me, T’kamen!”
“I know where he’s gone,” T’kamen said. “I know where he’s taken them.”
“Where?” Dalka demanded, her voice snapping like a whip.
“Ista,” T’kamen said. “He’s going to trade Ceduth’s clutch for fire-lizard eggs.”
Continue to Chapter sixty-four: Sarenya
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Dragonchoice 3 news
- Dragonchoice re-read and commentary at AO3 posted 22 December 2017
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- 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