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Chapter sixty-five: Valonna

The substance felah, developed at the behest of Weyrleader P’raima of Southern Weyr in the mid-Seventh Interval, has the primary property of dulling the connection between rider and dragon. This is achieved on a physiological rather than chemical level; felah’s active ingredients cause actual damage to the part of the brain that facilitates communication between the partners of a dragonpair. The extent of the damage depends upon the strength of the dosage, and while a low dose taken regularly will not create a cumulative effect, a large single dose can inflict permanent, lasting dragon-deafness on a rider unfortunate enough to be administered with it.

– Except from Felah: properties and usage by Master Healer Shauncey


Valonna (Micah Johnson)Valonna had just dismissed Tarshe and Carleah back to the barracks for their afternoon muster when she heard the distinctive sound of Izath landing on the ledge outside, and then the agitated report of H’ned’s boots as he came striding into the Weyrleader’s office.

“They’ll never admit to it,” he said without preamble, slapping his riding gloves agitatedly against his thigh.

“The Hall?” Valonna asked.

“The Hall. The Holds. Anyone with any clout whatsoever who was mixed up in this mess. Oh, they’ll stake a few journeymen and stewards out for Fall, and then they’ll look you in the eye – Meturvian, and Winstone, and that slippery tail-fork of a Masterherder – and say that they’ve dealt with the culprits and they very much regret the cost to the Weyr, and then they’ll all go home and throw a few more shovelfuls of dirt over wherever they’ve buried their share of the marks they’ve all made ripping off Madellon for the last two Turns.” H’ned slapped his gloves against his leg again for emphasis. “You see if I’m wrong.”

Valonna had the sinking feeling that he wouldn’t be. Still, she objected, “But Arrense’s notes make it clear that the scheme was too widespread to have been constrained to mid-level Beastcrafters. Even if Masterherder Kiedracc wasn’t involved…”

“Of course he was involved,” H’ned said, with a snort. “Why’d you think he was so keen to get a new Master into our cothold within half a day of this breaking? It wasn’t to make sure that Madellon’s dragons don’t go hungry, that’s for certain.” He shifted moodily, and added, “As it is, I’m wondering if we can really trust that journeyman you’ve put in charge. Or any Beastcrafter, for that matter.”

“Sarenya has vouched for Jarrisam,” said Valonna. “And you can’t believe that she had anything to do with it!”

H’ned looked as if he’d like to dispute that for a moment, and then he said, “I suppose not. But blight it, Valonna. The people behind this are going to get away with it.”

“The herdsmen M’ric rounded up –”

He threw her a pained look. “Even if you could prove that any of them had a direct hand in Arrense’s murder – and even if your journeyman could identify them, she didn’t see them actually kill him – it’s small good to Madellon. Kiedracc will claim compensation for Arrense’s loss to the Beastcraft. Meturvian will magnanimously offer to pay. And we won’t see a sliver of it.”

“It’s not just about the marks, H’ned,” Valonna said. “It’s about getting justice for Arrense.”

“I wouldn’t hold out too much hope for either. The best we can hope for is to use it to drive a better deal at the primary tithe negotiations. Do you have figures yet for how many beasts we’ve been done out of because of this? At least we can hope our dragons won’t have to go so sharding hungry next Turn.”

“Leave the primary tithe to me,” Valonna told him.

“Of course, of course,” H’ned said, and Valonna felt a moment of gratification for how quickly he backed off the territory she had come to claim as hers. Then he said, “I can’t hold off the Wingleader and Wingsecond appointments any longer, though. I know the timing isn’t ideal, but how quickly can Crauva organise a suitable meal?”

Valonna recognised the approach for what it was. H’ned was as intent to establish his authority over Madellon’s fighting operations as she was over its domestic governance. For all the many complications that Sh’zon’s transfer back to the Peninsula had caused, it had at least simplified Madellon’s command structure: one Deputy Weyrleader was easier to manage than two. “I’ll speak to her today and let you know. You’ve decided on T’kamen’s replacement, then?”

H’ned nodded, though his expression betrayed that he still had some doubts. “I’d like to keep F’halig on as Wingleader, but then I’d have to move either S’herdo or B’mon under him as Wingsecond so that North High has a bronze, and I don’t see that working. B’mon wasn’t ready the first time he took a run at Wingleader, but he’s learned a great deal under L’mis this last Turn, and F’halig will prop him up if he needs it. Then I can put K’letan in as L’mis’ replacement Wingsecond, and everyone’s more or less happy.”

“Then S’herdo will be taking over Sh’zon’s Wing?” Valonna asked, hearing the note of dismay in her own voice.

“I’m less worried about him,” said H’ned. “I know you don’t like him much, but he’s competent enough.”

“He has awful breath.”

“Then I’ll be sure not to let him sit next to you at dinner.” Then H’ned paused, throwing her a strange look. “Is there…anyone you’d prefer to have on your left…in particular?”

A couple of sevendays ago, Valonna would have looked at him blankly. Now, though, she felt a creeping heat touch her face, and tried to will it away. “There’s no one,” she said, and then in a rush, because she feared she misled him, “no one at Madellon…”

“Weyrwoman,” said H’ned. His eyes were oddly bright. “I know I’m not really your Weyrleader. I know our dragons have never – we’ve never –” He stopped himself, took a breath, then reached over and put his hand over hers. “Valonna.”

She had to stop herself from snatching her hand back. It wasn’t that H’ned was unattractive – the opposite, if anything – but that his advance had come so suddenly and unexpectedly. She stared fixedly at his hand atop hers, unable to both control her racing thoughts and speak simultaneously.

H’ned seemed to take her stunned silence as an encouragement. “The last Turn has been so hard,” he said. “The weyrlings. T’kamen’s disappearance. Everything that’s happened with Southern. And through it all you’ve managed wonderfully. Better than most riders would have imagined you ever could.” He said that last as though it were a compliment. “I want you know to know that it hasn’t gone unnoticed. At least, not by me.”

Valonna didn’t know where she found her voice, but she did. “Thank you, Wingleader,” she said, hoping she didn’t sound as strangled as she felt.

If H’ned noticed her use of his title rather than his name, it didn’t put him off. “I only hope I haven’t let you down,” he went on. “It hasn’t been the easiest thing, sharing command with Sh’zon. At least –” He caught himself, perhaps noticing how that sounded. “At least, it hasn’t been straightforward. Sh’zon and I didn’t always agree on everything. We had different opinions on how to go about leading Madellon. But – well – now that he’s gone back to the Peninsula, I was hoping that you and I would be able to…to work more closely together. And…perhaps more than that.”

Controlling the instinctive desire to retrieve her hand was getting harder, but Valonna had the alarming feeling that H’ned would only grip tighter if her fingers so much as twitched. “I…” she said, and then stopped, her mind whirling. Rallai had warned her to expect H’ned to press his advantage with his chief rival removed; she had even predicted that K’ken’s promotion to Weyrleader at the Peninsula would spur Madellon’s one remaining Deputy to push for the same recognition. Between Arrense’s murder and the question of how Madellon would seek compensation for the fraud that had been perpetrated against it, Valonna hadn’t had time to initiate the process of confirming H’ned as Weyrleader. She’d given even less thought to what she would do in this situation. She wished, vainly, that she could consult Shimpath, and then reflected that her queen would probably already have bitten Izath’s head off for his rider’s forwardness.

“Valonna?” H’ned prompted her, and squeezed her fingers.

She took a deep breath, caught between saying nothing and encouraging H’ned further, and saying something that would offend him. “H’ned,” she said. “I’m very grateful for everything you’ve done since T’kamen disappeared. Madellon owes you a great debt of gratitude.”

H’ned’s voice nearly vibrated with emotion as he said, “Weyrwoman, thank you. I can’t tell you what it means to have your support.” To Valonna’s dismay, he ran his other hand lightly over her hair. “And your regard.”

Valonna changed her mind. She wished Shimpath were there to bite Izath’s head off. It would have been a kinder way to dissuade H’ned of his sudden flight into fantasy. “Wingleader,” she said, pulling away and shaking her hand free of his grasp. H’ned let her go abruptly, as if burned. “If I’ve given you the wrong impression, then…”

She trailed off as H’ned’s expression transformed from surprised to injured to affronted. “I don’t know what you mean,” he said, jerking his shoulders back. “I didn’t realise it was so offensive for a man to offer comfort to a fellow rider.”

For a long, horrible moment, Valonna was stricken by the frozen horror that she’d misinterpreted his overfamiliarity for something else. “H’ned,” she began. “I didn’t mean to suggest…that is, I wasn’t implying…”

He turned sharply away from her attempt at conciliation, his entire demeanour gone from friendly to hostile. If Valonna hadn’t been so mortified she’d have laughed at the absurdity of it. But then H’ned spun back to face her, and undid all Valonna’s embarrassment. “Are you still in love with L’dro? Is that it?”

Valonna nearly gaped at him, not just for the accusation, but for the confirmation that her first assessment of H’ned’s intentions had been right.

“Because if that’s it, and I’m sorry to be the one to say it, then you’re a blighted fool,” H’ned went on. His pale eyes flashed. “If you’d heard some of the things he used to say about you! The names he called you! The cruel jokes he made!”

Anger, and humiliation, and the sudden pain of an old wound torn unexpectedly open, struck Valonna all at once, but where once the hurt would have dominated, suddenly she found that her anger was stronger. “And what were those things, H’ned?” she asked. “What were those names he called me? Well? Are you going to tell me, or are you just trying to make me feel small?”

H’ned’s eyes went suddenly huge as he realised his blunder. “No, Weyrwoman, I…I just don’t want to repeat them!”

“You don’t want to repeat them? But you were happy to laugh along with him when he was making jokes at my expense?”

“No, Valonna, I didn’t laugh; Faranth, no, I was just –”

“You were just there,” Valonna finished for him, when H’ned couldn’t complete his sentence. “You were there, and you didn’t speak out in my defence.”

He looked wretched. “I didn’t know you, then.”

“I was your Weyrwoman,” she said softly. “It shouldn’t have mattered.” She stared unseeingly at the surface of the Weyrleader’s desk. Old humiliations didn’t cut any less deep, or taste any less bitter.


She raised her head, though she still wouldn’t look directly at him. “I think you should go. Bronze rider.”

Even from the corner of her eye, she saw how he stiffened at her use of that title. “Weyrwoman,” he said, and stalked away.

When he had gone, Valonna let out the breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding. She felt wretched. H’ned had deserved her anger – the rude, condescending watch-wher! – but alienating him would only make her life more difficult. When it came to it, Madellon’s bronze riders probably would ratify H’ned as Weyrleader just as the Peninsula had confirmed K’ken in the same post. She would have to endure him for at least another two Turns, until Shimpath’s next mating flight. The fact that she couldn’t think of any Madellon bronze rider she’d like to see take up residence in T’kamen’s weyr was hardly a consolation. They were all tainted by their association with L’dro, almost to a man; they had all enthusiastically supported his rank-centric policies, even if not every one had been part of his inner coterie. She was sick of the whole rotten lot of them. She missed T’kamen. She even missed Sh’zon, who for all his bluster and bravado, had never suffered anyone to give her insult. His rivalry with H’ned had kept both of them on their best behaviour; now he was gone, H’ned was free to revert to form. The thought made Valonna despair.

Distracting herself with work was the surest remedy she knew for that. She shuddered instinctively away from the coming conflict with the Beastcrafthall, and yet half the items on her desk intersected with it. She’d already negotiated hasty short-term measures with Southern and the Peninsula, allowing Madellon’s riders to take more than their normal share from the free-roaming herds of the unoccupied South until Madellon’s livestock supply lines could be re-established. She’d authorised the Headwoman to draw on Madellon’s winter stores of dried and salted meat to compensate for the lack of fresh. She’d reassured the crèche mistress that there would be no break in the supply of milk from the Weyr’s dairy herds, and assigned extra hands to help in the milking sheds to be sure of keeping that promise.

But the consequences she couldn’t mitigate were more numerous than those she could. Madellon’s Beastcrafters were still reeling from the loss of their Master and the exposure of journeyman Tebis as a conspirator in the scheme that had cost Arrense his life. Valonna had assigned the Dragon Healer, Vhion, to oversee the remaining Beastcrafters, and Jarrisam, the most senior journeyman, had assumed responsibility for the Craft’s work at Madellon, but with Arrense gone, Tebis in custody, and Sarenya still in deep shock, they were struggling.

Worse, the Weyr itself was divided in its opinion. Many of the riders Valonna had spoken to were so outraged by the fraud that had been perpetrated against them and their dragons that there had been calls for the Beastcraft to be turned out of Madellon entirely. And in the lower caverns, where Master Arrense had been a highly respected figure amongst the Weyr’s crafter population, there were mutterings that his murder had not attracted as swift and fierce an investigation as the killing of a rider would have. The general dissatisfaction and unrest hadn’t yet spilled over into anything more, but Valonna feared it wouldn’t take too great a catalyst to turn discontent into conflict.

There were other issues. The Ops Wing had been tasked with finding and bringing in the herdsmen who had killed Arrense and almost Sarenya too. In retrospect, Valonna realised, that had been a mistake: M’ric, the Ops Wingleader, was far too personally invested. The dozen herders that they’d brought back to Madellon had been more bruised and bloodied than Valonna would have liked, and while none of them had actually complained of heavy-handedness, the looks some of them had darted towards a stone-faced M’ric were telling. Madellon had a small gaol where two or three men might be locked securely overnight, but no facilities for holding a larger group for an extended period. They’d had to put them in vacant sky-level weyrs for want of anywhere else to house them.

The very first night one man had tried to climb down from his high weyr. His body had been found early the next morning by the blue dragon onto whose ledge he’d fatally fallen. No one at Madellon had been particularly concerned about the herdsman’s fate, save the blue’s rider, who was outraged at the grisly mess on his doorstep.

Meturvian, though, had been less pleased. The Lord Holder of Kellad had been most vocal in his objection to Madellon’s imprisonment of the men. The herders were Kelladians, he argued, and the crimes of which they had been accused had been committed on Kelladian soil; they should therefore answer to Kellad’s justice. The death of one of the men while in Madellon’s keeping had been the final straw. Meturvian had ridden up to the Weyr personally with the Masterharper at his side, demanding the release of the eleven remaining herdsmen into the custody of his constables and citing Madellon’s obvious lack of facilities for confining them. It was a battle neither Valonna nor H’ned could win. They’d allowed the band of herders to leave with Meturvian, although, privately, they’d agreed that Kellad itself had probably been a beneficiary of the fraudulent trade in falsified livestock that had led to Arrense’s murder in the first place.

Valonna had, however, resisted the Beastcrafthall’s offer to send a replacement Master directly to Madellon. The notes Arrense had left on his investigation clearly implicated the highest echelons of the Hall in the scheme to deny Madellon its Charter-enshrined right to the fruits of its own territory. Any senior Beastcrafter must be considered suspicious. But there, too, she had been obliged to couch her refusal of a new Weyr Beastcrafter in carefully polite terms, insisting that Madellon’s Beastcrafters were a tight-knit group that would be demoralised rather than stabilised by the imposition of a new superior, and that in any case they were managing in spite of their losses. They were thin excuses, made thinner by the paucity of truth to them.

She worked for an hour on the tithe review, losing herself in the neat and orderly numbers, at least until the dismaying thought that she would have to persuade Madellon’s Lords Holder of those same figures crept up on her. She pushed them aside, contemplated the other work on her desk, and then left it.

Crauva happened to be in the kitchens when Valonna found her, overseeing the preparation of the evening meal. The Headwoman’s staff had done a fair job so far of disguising the dried meat that had replaced fresh on Madellon’s menus. Tonight’s effort involved marinating the tough strips of herdbeast in a bath of oil and herbs. Crauva listened with a pained expression to Valonna’s request for a celebration feast. “I think we could pull something together by the day after tomorrow, say,” she said, “but there are some things I’ll need.”

Valonna left the kitchens with a list of Crauva’s requirements and a sense of resignation. She supposed she’d been too optimistic, imagining she might be able to avoid thinking about the Beastcraft crisis for an afternoon; but then it was probably a good thing. Pretending it didn’t exist wouldn’t make it go away. And unpopular though Beastcrafters currently were with most of Madellon’s rider population, they were still residents of the Weyr, and Valonna’s responsibility.

And Sarenya most of all.

Sarenya had resisted every suggestion that she take time off from her work to recover from her ordeal, but Vhion and Jarrisam between them had at least seen to it that the duties she was assigned didn’t take her too far from home. Valonna spotted Sarenya’s fire-lizard on the stable roof as she walked down towards the Beastcrafters’ compound, and altered her route to head that way. “Hello, Sleek,” she said, as she passed beneath where the blue lizard perched. “Let Saren know it’s just me, won’t you?”

She’d never been sure quite how intelligent fire-lizards were, but Sleek must have alerted his mistress in some way, because when Valonna turned the corner into the stable yard Sarenya didn’t look surprised to see her. She was bending to pick up a hoof knife from the ground beside the runnerbeast she had out in the yard. As she straightened up, putting her hand on the animal’s shoulder for balance, Valonna noticed that Sarenya’s eyes took just slightly longer to focus on her than they should. “Weyrwoman. Is there something I can do for you?”

Valonna hesitated, wondering if she should ask how Sarenya was doing first, then changed her mind. “The Headwoman has asked me to source some extra supplies for a feast the day after tomorrow,” she said. “I hoped you might be able to help.”

“A feast,” Sarenya said, in a voice so devoid of inflection that Valonna nearly flinched. Then she went on, “What do you need?”

Valonna handed over the list Crauva had written. Sarenya looked down it. “We can provide enough milk for either the cream or the butter,” she said, “so long as you don’t mind that it’ll be watery for a couple of mornings, but probably not both. Wherry eggs shouldn’t be a problem as they’re overlaying at the moment anyway. The meat, though… Even if we took from what’s in the dragons’ pens, those beasts aren’t going to be much use for human consumption. They’re hardly worth a dragon eating, let alone people.”

“What about swine?” Valonna asked.

“We could slaughter some of the hoglets early, but it would mean there’s that much less to be smoked and cured.”

Valonna didn’t like to solve one problem by creating another, but at last she nodded. “We’ll worry about that when it comes. Please, if you could make the arrangements for the slaughter. That is – if you have the manpower…”

“We can manage,” Sarenya said. There was more of an edge to that statement than there had been to anything else she’d said. Then, as if recalling her professionalism, she said, “Hannser can do it. He doesn’t need much supervision.” She paused. “It’s time he walked. Sam and I can put him through his assessments. But he can’t be promoted without a Master to approve it.”

The remark hung in the air between them, pregnant with significance. Valonna couldn’t read Sarenya at all. She had always been slightly inscrutable to Valonna’s understanding, and the brittle withdrawal that was the most obvious mark of her recent ordeal made her even more difficult to read. “It’s likely to be a bit longer before a new Master arrives at Madellon,” Valonna said at last.

Sarenya nodded slowly. Her eyes were still carefully vague. “Because the Hall won’t assign one?” she asked. “Or because the Weyr barely trusts those of us who are here now?”

The truth of that made Valonna uncomfortable. “No one is accusing you of anything, Saren,” she said. “With all you’ve been through –”

“All I’ve been through,” Sarenya repeated, as though the words were somehow amusing. “There are more riders blaming me for Sejanth’s death than care what I’ve been through.”

That took Valonna aback. “Blaming you? In Faranth’s name, why?”

“Because he sacrificed himself for me. Because I called and he came.” Sarenya’s mouth twisted in an expression half of resentment, half self-loathing. “Now every other rider looks at me as if I’m going to lure their dragons to their deaths too.”

“But Sejanth died valiantly!”

“Sejanth should have died with his rider beside him. D’feng…”

Sarenya stopped, for which Valonna was grateful. She hadn’t seen D’feng’s body until just before his interment between, but she’d had to read the reports of the condition he’d been in when he was found, with both wrists sliced through right to the bone. “It’s still not your fault,” she said. “You couldn’t have known Sejanth would hear you.”

Sarenya turned her head to look at the runnerbeast she was tending without focusing her eyes on it. “It runs in the family.” When Valonna didn’t answer straightaway, she went on, “Arrense was once a candidate; did you know that?”

Valonna shook her head. “I didn’t.”

“Neither did I. I found his Search acceptance slip in his quarters. It was dated before I was even born, forty-odd Turns ago. And he was Searched to the Peninsula, not Madellon. But he never forgot.” Sarenya’s eyes were distant and unreadable. “You never do.”

Valonna could think of nothing to say that wouldn’t have sounded either patronising or crass. She had consoled unsuccessful candidates as well as congratulated new weyrlings after both of Shimpath’s Hatchings, but the kind words of commiseration –better luck next time and your dragonet didn’t Hatch today and there’ll be other clutches – could offer no comfort to an adult long past the age of candidacy. In practice, Hold- and Craft-bred candidates seldom got a second chance. Most of those left standing after an Impression returned quickly to their previous lives, and clutches were so infrequent that few of them had the opportunity to come back two or three Turns later to try again. It was different for Weyrbred candidates. While all those aged from twelve to twenty were entitled to stand, many elected not to. Anyone who grew up around dragons knew from an early age if they had potential or not; those who didn’t often chose to excuse themselves from candidacy to spare themselves the disappointment of failure. Some Weyrbred youngsters simply didn’t want to become dragonriders, perhaps too familiar with the regimented lifestyle and restricted choices that came with being partner to a dragon. But those who did stand again and again until they grew too old tended to leave the Weyr.

One of the few pieces of advice Fianine had imparted to Valonna before her death was the instruction not to try and stop them.

So Valonna looked at Sarenya, a woman who, Turns ago, had once dreamed of being in her place, and felt – what? Pity? Guilt? Elements of both, perhaps, but neither so strongly as she felt the echo of Sarenya’s pain. How it must have twisted the knife, to know that she was not the first in her family to be presented to dragonets; how unjust it must feel, that she and Arrense had enough sensitivity to dragons to be noticed by them, but not the fortune to Impress; how agonising it must be, to discover they had something so keenly in common only after her uncle’s death. And how painful it must be for Sarenya – how painful it must have been for Arrense – to be around dragons, the constant reminder of what had once been within their reach, and yet never within their grasp.

“Will you leave?” she asked.

Sarenya looked as surprised as Valonna felt at the baldness of the question. “I…don’t know,” she said. “Arrense wanted me to. He was desperate for me to be somewhere else.” She stopped, staring at nothing, her fingers clenching on the runnerbeast’s orange-coloured mane. “I can’t leave Sam to cope alone.”

“Is that the only thing keeping you here?”

“M’ric,” Sarenya said. “He could have gone back to the Peninsula with Sh’zon. I know I’m part of the reason he didn’t. And I’d never have left while Sejanth still needed…while Sejanth was still alive.” She looked at Valonna with anguish plain in her eyes. “Or while T’kamen was.”

That smote Valonna harder than she would have imagined it could. For all the tacit agreement that T’kamen was gone and not coming back, she still resisted believing he was dead. There had been so much death among the dragonriders of Pern. The weyrlings lost between; Margone and Grizbath; H’pold and Suffath; P’raima and Tezonth; D’feng and Sejanth. Valonna couldn’t bear to add T’kamen and Epherineth to the roll. That even Sarenya seemed to have accepted that they, too, were dead was more compelling than any pressure H’ned had put on her to acknowledge the Weyrleader’s demise. “Sarenya,” she said, and grasped her forearm. “I’m so sorry. For everything you’ve had to go through.”

It seemed inadequate as an expression of sympathy, but Sarenya slowly reached out to return the gesture. “None of it has been your fault. But thank you, Weyrwoman.”

“Will you be all right?”

“I have been so far,” Sarenya said, but the dullness in her eyes put the lie to that.

Under different circumstances, Valonna would have made a point of talking to H’ned about how Madellon’s riders had been speaking about Sarenya. It certainly wasn’t fair that she was being blamed for Sejanth’s death, and any small way that Valonna could intervene to stop it must ease her burden. But the thought of seeking out H’ned, given how he had behaved earlier, filled Valonna with a kind of weary dread. She knew she couldn’t avoid him for long, but hastening their next meeting was something she couldn’t bear to do. Recalling how he had touched her hair gave her a sudden shudder of such visceral revulsion that she had to stop dead on her way back to her weyr to collect herself.

The sight of a green dragon lazing on a low ledge close by gave Valonna a sudden impulse. She changed course to head for the weyr, and hardly paused before climbing the steps to the ledge. The green raised her head, her eyes spinning politely blue. “Jyelth,” said Valonna, “is your rider available?”

The green dragon exhaled a soft snort through her nostrils, and then a moment later her rider appeared at the entrance to the weyr. Z’fell was a handsome man in his forties, always rather smartly-dressed, and very popular with the ladies of the lower caverns. He was known for a number of talents, the reports of some of which would have made the bawdiest Harper blush, but most widely for his skill at cutting and styling hair. “Weyrwoman,” Z’fell said warmly. “Jyelth said it was you. Have you come for a cut?”

“Only if you’re not busy, Z’fell,” Valonna said. “I know I don’t have an appointment.”

“Not necessary for you, my dear,” he told her. “Why don’t you come in, and I’ll have everything ready in a jiffy.”

It was a mark of how valued Z’fell’s expertise was that, as an unattached green rider, he rated a weyr that most Wingseconds wouldn’t have disdained. Beside his living and sleeping space and the bathing room, there was a third chamber which he used exclusively to practice his barbering. He preceded Valonna into that comfortably-appointed room and ushered her into the chair that waited before what must have been the largest looking-glass in the Weyr. Then he went around opening the glow-baskets that sat in each corner, taking clean towels from a cupboard, and laying out his scissors and combs within easy reach. Finally, he draped a gown around Valonna to protect her clothes, fastening it at the back of her neck, and then stood behind her with a smile. “Now. What did you have in mind today? Just your normal trim?”

Valonna looked at herself in the mirror. “Actually, I…I was thinking of something a bit more dramatic.”

“Oh, lovely,” said Z’fell. “Well, let’s see.” He began to unpin Valonna’s braid, removing the grips that held it in place with quick, competent speed. When it fell free, he ran its length through his fingers. “You’d like to go shorter? Like this?” He described with his hands a cut that would have reduced the length of her hair by a third.

It was curious, Valonna thought, how Z’fell’s sure and professional touch didn’t wake the distaste in her that H’ned’s did. “Shorter than that,” she said. “I think…I’m not a young woman any more. I think my hair should be more sober.”

“Weyrwoman,” Z’fell chided her. “Of course you’re a young woman.” He demonstrated again, moving his hands up her hair. “Like so?”

“Shorter,” Valonna blurted out, and wrapped her fist around her braid at the back of her head. “Short.”

“Valonna, my dear, I should never have guessed you’d be so daring!” Z’fell exclaimed, sounding delighted. He turned her head this way and that, looking from her to the mirror and back again. “Yes, yes, that would suit you very well. Businesslike. Sophisticated. Very practical.” He leaned down closer, putting his arm around her shoulders; again, Valonna reflected how the intimacy didn’t make her feel uncomfortable. “You’re sure this is what you want?”

Valonna thought of how H’ned had looked at her, that first time she’d noticed him looking, when her hair had been down and unbraided. She took a deep breath, and nodded. “Yes. Please, do it.”

“As you say,” Z’fell replied. He picked up a pair of shears, and before Valonna could change her mind, snicked through the thick tail of her hair at the nape of her neck.

She gasped in spite of herself at the sudden sensation of lightness, and Z’fell chuckled. He handed her the pale rope of hair he’d so ruthlessly cut off. “Well, there’s no going back now!”

“No,” Valonna agreed faintly. The severed braid was heavy in her hands, and yet oddly pathetic, like a dead tunnelsnake. Suddenly revolted by it, she put it down on the ledge below the looking glass. She didn’t dare look at herself; not yet.

“Don’t worry,” Z’fell reassured her. “You’re going to look spectacular when I’ve finished. Now. Tell me. Have you heard about the outrageous party Hollie and H’imo threw the night before last? No? Let me tell you, those two are going to give green riders a bad name!”

It was uniquely relaxing, to sit still and passive as Z’fell washed and brushed and cut her hair, talking all the while about inconsequential things. He seemed to know instinctively which subjects were causing Valonna anxiety, and adroitly avoided them. Valonna let the friendly talk wash over her like a balm.

Then Z’fell’s busy hands and stream of chat stopped at the same moment, jolting Valonna out of her serenity. “Z’fell?” she asked, alarmed. “What is it?” She opened one eye gingerly. “Is there… Oh!”

The woman looking back at her from the mirror was a stranger. The intricate, traditional Hold-style braiding that Valonna had worn since she was a girl of twelve was gone, and so were the smooth, neat wings of hair, parted in the middle, that had underlain it. In its place was a choppy, textured style, short but not uniform or severe. It framed her face without dominating it, and Valonna was startled to see how much more strongly her facial features stood out: her eyes, her cheekbones, the line of her mouth. The pale gold of her hair that had always seemed so washed-out and insipid caught the light in different ways in its new style, creating highlights and shadows and depth. She put her hand to her head, hardly able to believe it, but the woman in the looking glass moved her hand to her hair as she did, and when Valonna spoke, her lips moved too. “Z’fell, it’s…I love it!”

He smiled and flicked his fingers roughly through the choppy locks, then applied his scissors critically to a few more strands. “I thought it would suit you. And it does, doesn’t it?” He turned her chin gently with his fingertips, left and then right, so she could see the sides. “But I’m sorry I froze a moment there. Shimpath bespoke Jyelth, and Jyelth doesn’t often have a queen’s attention. It quite overwhelmed her.”

“Is she all right?” Valonna asked.

“Oh, yes,” Z’fell said, “they’re both splendid. But Shimpath said someone came looking for you in your weyr – let me see if this is right – a ‘very ugly brown rider’.” He made a small, pained expression. “Forgive me. That might not be the best translation, through my girl. And, Faranth, there are ugly brown riders to spare at Madellon.”

It took Valonna a moment to realise that she had no idea who Shimpath meant, and to ask Z’fell for more details would be terribly discourteous to whomever it was. “Would you please ask Jyelth to tell his brown that I’ll be with him shortly?”

Z’fell paused, his eyes moving up and left as some riders’ did when they were speaking directly to their dragons. “He says it would be better if you met his rider in the infirmary,” he said after a moment.

That gave Valonna an instant’s alarm, but she nodded quickly. It must be L’stev. Perhaps one of the weyrlings had been taken ill? She was momentarily distracted by her reflection, nodding with her, the shortened locks of hair flipping energetically. “Then I’ll go there now,” she said. “Is it…that is, are you finished?”

Z’fell scrunched his fingers through her hair one last time, setting a few locks just so, and then nodded. “A work of art, if you’ll allow me to say so. Yes, Weyrwoman, I’m very pleased.”

“So am I,” Valonna said, and then caught his hands, momentarily overwhelmed with gratitude to him. “Thank you so much, Z’fell.”

“All of the pleasure is mine, my dear.”

Valonna left him sweeping up the gleaming strands of her hair, and hastened around the perimeter of the Bowl in the direction of the infirmary. She kept putting her hand up to her head, hardly able to believe she’d finally had her long hair cropped short. She didn’t know if she was more exhilarated or terrified by the change, and until she sorted out which was dominant, she couldn’t quite make herself meet anyone’s gaze.

She hurried into the infirmary and up to the duty Healer on the desk. “Hello, Harling,” she said, rather breathlessly. “Is the Weyrlingmaster here?”

The journeyman looked up at her, looked down, and then looked back up again with an almost comically surprised expression. “Weyrwoman! I’m sorry, I didn’t…” He composed himself. “Um, no, I haven’t seen the Weyrlingmaster. Were you expecting him?”

Valonna didn’t know quite how to take the reaction to her new look. She lifted her chin, determined to ignore it. “I got a message third-hand that there was a brown rider here to see me.”

“Oh, that Peninsula rider came through a few minutes ago,” said Harling. He gestured over his shoulder. “He’s back with Master Shauncey and the herbalists.”

If Valonna could have scolded Shimpath, she would have. Why hadn’t she just said she meant G’kalte? And why had she described Archidath’s rider as very ugly? “Thank you, Harling,” she said, trying not to let dismay sound in her voice. “I’ll show myself through.”

As she made her way through the labyrinthine infirmary complex, she caught herself patting anxiously at her hair again. She felt suddenly terribly exposed by it; shorn, scalped. What if it looked awful? What if it looked silly? Harling’s reaction hadn’t exactly been encouraging. She wished desperately she hadn’t been so impulsive. It took an enormous effort of will to stand outside the archway to the workroom where Shauncey and his team were based and not turn around and pretend she hadn’t got the message. She overcame the temptation, made herself stop fussing with her hair, and went in.

As always, the pungent odour of the workroom hit her full in the face as she entered, making her eyes water and her throat sting. The long benches where Master Isnan’s apprentices would normally have been busy making basic healing supplies were occupied instead by the motley group of Healers and herbalists who had been working on the felah counter-agent. Their tools were the same – the mortars and pestles, the precise scales, the miniature braziers – but the blackboard that would ordinarily have listed the precise proportions for whatever salve or tonic the apprentices were mixing up was covered instead with questions and suggestions in the handwriting of at least half a dozen different people, some of them spilling beyond the confines of the board and onto the walls.

Valonna had observed the group at work several times in the sevendays since it had taken up residence in the Weyr. Master Shauncey was typically to be found stalking the rows, poking at concoctions, looming over shoulders, and occasionally having loud arguments with the non-Hall herbalists about their unscientific methods. Valonna usually left the room when that happened. Today, though, the Master Healer was standing at the front of the room where the supervising journeyman normally sat, with several members of his team gathered in front of him. They had G’kalte seated on a stool with his sleeves rolled up; one of the journeymen was taking his pulse as Valonna came in, and another was testing his eyes by moving a lit candle near to them.

Shauncey was a tall bald man, stoop-shouldered from a career of bending close over bubbling flasks and boiling potions. The hairless dome of his head contrasted with the untidy growth of white beard that covered the lower half of his face and neck. One of the journeymen on his team had told Valonna that the length of Shauncey’s stubble correlated directly to the intensity of his current line of enquiry. The longer it was, the more days he’d gone without troubling to shave or wash, which meant he was particularly absorbed in his research. Its present length, almost half an inch, gave Valonna a sudden flutter of hopeful wings in her stomach.

“Weyrwoman!” Shauncey boomed across the room. “Come in. We may have cracked it.”

The flutter became a flurry. Valonna hurried over towards the Master Healer, glancing sideways towards G’kalte. He hadn’t yet looked at her, intent on whatever tests the journeyman had him doing, but he said, “I can hear Archie clearly again, Valonna. Really hear him, without having to concentrate and guess at every other word.”

“Credit to Berro,” said Shauncey, jerking his chin at one of the other Healers. “He’s the one who came up with black narlbark resin as a contender for a herb with stimulant and nervine properties.”

Valonna knew Berro slightly better than any of the other Healers. He’d been one of Isnan’s journeyman before earning his Mastery. He’d taken a new assignment in Southern territory a Turn or so ago, researching new plants and roots for their medicinal uses, before a scandal around his illicit trade in fellis juice during his time at Madellon had resulted in a demotion back to journeyman. His expertise, however, had seen him assigned to Shauncey’s team. “Black narlbark resin?” Valonna asked.

“It’s not well known outside Madellon territory,” said Berro. He was a bright-eyed man in his late thirties whose obvious passion for his specialism didn’t seem to have been dimmed by his professional disgrace. “In fact the black narl doesn’t grow outside a smallish region of south-eastern Kellad, around Speardike Hold. The medicinal properties of its resin are only present in early spring, when the new sap is flowing, but if you start harvesting it before the last frosts of the season the bush will die. The resin is also poisonous in its raw form, and the process of leaching the toxins from it without compromising the potency of its desirable qualities is both lengthy and –”

“Yes, yes, Berro, the Weyrwoman gets the idea,” Shauncey cut him off. “Additionally, Weyrwoman, narlbark is a protected substance under the Healerhall’s governance. The Healerhall has first refusal on all refined narlbark produced by Speardike, at a price that is agreed and controlled each Turn.”

“What does it do?” Valonna asked.

“Stimulant, nervine, hallucinogenic,” Berro rattled off. “Blend it with the right mixture of other herbs, and it’ll take you on flights of fantasy like you wouldn’t believe.”

“And then kill you,” Shauncey said, “unless you know exactly what you’re doing.”

“That’s why it’s protected?” Valonna asked. “Because it’s dangerous?”

“Yes, but also because, in the right hands, it can be a powerful remedy. It’s been used with some success to rouse those with injuries to the brain from deep comas. Nonetheless it is a most obscure substance, not known to most Healers, and both rare and difficult to obtain. And yet seemingly the missing piece to the puzzle of this counter-agent for Southern’s felah.

“Well, obviously,” Berro muttered.

“Scarcely that, journeyman,” Shauncey told him, with cool emphasis on his craftmate’s diminished rank.

“Analysis of the sample substance clearly indicated the presence of an aromatic terpene –”

“Of which there are literally hundreds of more likely candidates native to Southern –”

“I said right from the start that you were being too provincial –”

“The balance of probability –” Shauncey bit off his words mid-sentence, and then composed himself. “Apologies, Weyrwoman. Journeyman Berro’s insight may have resulted from an…unorthodox…logical leap. Regardless, it seems that by whatever means, we have succeeded in recreating the sample counter-agent.”

The unintelligible nature of the argument had briefly dulled Valonna’s hope; now, it came jabbing back. “Recreating,” she repeated. She took control of her excitement. “Does that mean you have a cure?”

From the bench behind him, Shauncey took three glass flasks. “This is the sample substance that was taken from Weyrleader P’raima,” he said, tapping the first one. He indicated the second. It looked almost identical to Valonna’s inexpert eye; perhaps a shade lighter in hue “This is the incomplete counter-agent that we’d formulated but not perfected.” He pushed the first two flasks back, and flicked with one finger the final container. “And this is that incomplete formula with the addition of two parts in one hundred of a distillate of black narlbark resin. It is, as far as our craft enables us to discern, identical to the original sample. And it appears, in our trials on G’kalte, to produce the same results.” Shauncey inclined his bald head. “So I believe, yes, we do.”

“Shauncey’s had me on different doses of this stuff for the last sevenday,” said G’kalte. He sounded contrite. “I wanted to tell you it was working, but until he was sure, I didn’t dare say anything.”

Valonna couldn’t take her eyes off the glass flask. A crazy, desperate part of her wanted to snatch it off Shauncey and gulp down its contents. She made herself stay calm. “But G’kalte was only partially impaired by the felah.”

“Just so,” said Shauncey. “This formula’s efficaciousness on a subject fully dragon-deaf has yet to be tested.”

Valonna spoke before Shauncey had even completed his sentence. “Try it on me.”

“Are you sure, Weyrwoman?” he asked gravely. “It might be more prudent to test it on a less eminent rider first.”

“Less eminent?” Valonna asked. “No. G’kalte has taken the risk for all of us. I won’t ask any of the others to shield me. And I’ve gone without my queen’s counsel for long enough.”

Shauncey almost smiled. “Very well,” he said, and nodded to one of the journeymen who’d been examining G’kalte. “Olyden, if you’d take the Weyrwoman’s vitals.”

For the next several minutes, Valonna sat on the stool beside G’kalte’s as Olyden took her pulse, counted her breaths, and listened to her heart and lungs. She wondered if her building excitement skewed the measurements he took. She could feel her heart beating much faster than normal. She was acutely aware, as she had come not to be over the sevendays, of the negative space in her mind where Shimpath should have been; she explored it with fingertips of thought, probing the boundaries of the barrier that separated them. Shimpath was still there on the other side, a distant throb, like dragons humming through many layers of rock; Valonna was aware of her as she might be vaguely aware of someone’s presence in an adjacent room. But the hateful remove that she had forced herself to live with since Long Bay had never seemed more unfair or unnatural with the promise of reunion seemingly within her grasp.

“All right, Weyrwoman,” Shauncey her, and handed her a cup. “Drink this. Slowly.”

Obeying the last part of his instruction was difficult. Valonna sipped the liquid in the cup, though she wanted to gulp it down. It tasted bitter, but with a sickly aftertaste, like fruit gone beyond overripe. She didn’t care. She drank it all, and set down the cup on the bench. She raised her eyes to Shauncey’s. “Now what?”

“Now we wait,” Shauncey said. “You should start to notice a difference within a few minutes.”

Valonna could still taste the rotten-sweet flavour of the mixture in her mouth. She licked her lips to make sure she’d got all of it. She must have grimaced, because G’kalte said, “It’s not good, is it?”

“I’ll drink it every day for the rest of my life, so long as it works,” Valonna replied.

“You may have to,” said Shauncey. “We don’t have much data on felah’s long-term effects yet. But my colleagues at Southern are studying the riders there who’ve been taking a low dose for several Turns. The early indications are that prolonged use causes interference to the dragon-rider bond that is not reversed simply by abstention. The counter-agent doesn’t undo the physiological damage; it merely seems to bypass it. It may be that you’ll be reliant on this drug indefinitely to maintain your connection to your dragon.”

It was a sobering thought, but Valonna wouldn’t let it dismay her. “Whatever it takes.”

“If you can get the narlbark resin,” Berro said, half under his breath.

“Berro!” Shauncey snapped.

“I’m just saying,” Berro insisted. “It’s hard to source, hard to refine, and it doesn’t keep well. Speardike’s supply has been limited in recent Turns, and this season’s harvest won’t be ready for at least another month.”

“I’ve spoken to several of my colleagues in the Farmcraft about cultivation,” began Shauncey.

“It doesn’t cultivate,” said Berro, with the air of someone who’d made the point more than once. “It’s like spolymoss or Neratian beachroot. Reliant on a specific set of environmental conditions to thrive. I’ve harvested the stuff myself, and let me tell you – two valleys over, you won’t find a black narl bush no matter how hard you look. It’s that fussy about where it grows.”

“If it’s so rare,” G’kalte said, into the silence that was Shauncey’s inability to counter Berro’s assertions, “and so obscure, then how did P’raima know about it?”

Even Berro didn’t seem to have an answer for that. Behind him, Pericho, one of the non-Hall herbalists from Southern, cleared her throat. “The Weyrleader wouldn’t have known about it,” she said. “He wasn’t any sort of a botanist. That’s what he had us for.”

“And yet he had a counter-agent,” said G’kalte. He looked from Pericho to Berro to Shauncey. “So someone else must have been helping him.”

“Another herbal expert,” said Valonna. “Someone with knowledge of rare plants native only to Madellon territory.”

“Well it wasn’t me,” said Berro, when she and G’kalte both glanced in his direction. “I was in Boll five Turns ago, when P’raima was perfecting his felah counter.”

“Has anyone spoken to Speardike’s holders?” Valonna asked. “Someone must have been selling the resin to P’raima for him to make his own supply of the counter-drug.”

“Illegally,” Shauncey added. “As I said, it’s a protected substance. Although if Speardike was supplying it to P’raima, it would explain the scarcity of it in recent Turns.”

“I’ve worked with these botanists,” said Berro. “I don’t think they would sell it illegally. Narlbark isn’t the only rare herb they supply to the Healerhall. There’s a lot of scrutiny over what they produce.”

Valonna frowned. “Could they have advised P’raima on narlbark’s properties?”

“Does it truly matter, Weyrwoman?” asked Shauncey. “The agenda was P’raima’s. Whatever crafter or herbalist first thought of narlbark as a component to counteract felah wouldn’t have been acting with any malice towards you.”

“It matters to me,” Valonna replied.

And to me.

The voice was so small and faint, and so closely in agreement with Valonna’s opinion, that it was a moment before she even registered it as separate to her own. Shimpath? The thought still seemed to echo. She pushed against the blankness in her mind. Shimpath?

I am here, the tiny voice replied, as though from terribly, terribly far away, and then, infinitesimally louder, I can hear you!

Valonna didn’t realise how abruptly she’d stood until the clatter of her stool falling over made her jump. I can hear you too! she shouted back, with all her strength.

G’kalte’s hands landed lightly on her shoulders. “Valonna. Valonna!”

She looked up almost uncomprehendingly at him. “I can hear her, G’kalte!”

“I know you can, and it’s wonderful, but don’t strain yourself doing it,” he told her. He grasped her shoulders encouragingly. “It’s working. Let it happen. You’ll blast each other senseless if you’re shouting when the barrier goes.”

Presumptuous little brown, Shimpath said. Telling me what to do. Oh, Valonna. My Valonna. I have missed you so!

If G’kalte hadn’t been holding her, Valonna knew she would have crumpled. Shimpath’s awareness was flooding back into her mind like sunlight into a darkened room, and suddenly she was fourteen again, a candidate again, looking down into the liquid blue eyes of a hatchling queen and hearing her name herself to her for the first time. Shimpath. Oh. Shimpath.

They flowed into each other like two streams of water rushing into the same channel. They shared in instants all that they had been unable to share since the Gather at Long Bay, absorbing thoughts and emotions that each had experienced alone during their separation. Valonna felt her queen sift through each of the preoccupations with which she had been struggling by herself: understanding her dilemmas, approving her decisions, validating her opinions. And offering, at last, some of her own.

Izath shall never fly me, Shimpath said, dismissing the notion with a contempt and revulsion that soothed immeasurably Valonna’s guilt at how she had rebuffed H’ned’s advances. Then she added, You do not look awful. Or silly. And he agrees, you know.

Their perfect comprehension snagged on that. H’ned? Valonna asked, confused. But he hasn’t seen me.

Not him, said Shimpath. Him. That ugly brown rider.

The image Shimpath offered Valonna was the sight before her own eyes, shared and sent back: G’kalte’s handsome face, his warm blue-grey gaze locked with her. Why do you say he’s ugly? Valonna asked, seizing on that smallest of mysteries.

He is ugly. Compared to you.

Then you don’t –

Approve? Of him, for having the audacity to court you? I do not! Just as I do not approve of you, for finally meeting a man almost worth liking and him being the rider of a Peninsula brown. Shimpath radiated outrage. We are separated for a few sevendays, and this is what I find when you come back to me?

Valonna didn’t know what to say. She hadn’t been prepared for such opposition from her queen. Shimpath, I… Then she did something she had never done in her eight Turns as Shimpath’s rider. I’m sorry if you don’t like him, Shimpath. But I do.

She didn’t expect the warm glow of admiration that Shimpath transmitted to her. She could almost see how her queen had dropped her jaw in a dragonish expression of pleasure. If he was not worth defying me for, Valonna, then he was not worthy of you. I have told Archidath he may stay.

Stay? Valonna asked, at the same moment as G’kalte exclaimed the same word aloud.

I have already spoken to Ipith, Shimpath said nonchalantly. We are in agreement. She says we had probably better keep him.

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