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Chapter seventy-seven: T’kamen

A holder looks at a dragon’s teeth and talons, and fears what it might do.

A Lord Holder looks at a dragon’s rider, and fears what he might not do.

– Excerpt from the personal diaries of Masterharper Marlaw

26.13.10-12 (26TH TURN, EIGHTH PASS)

T'kamen (Micah Johnson)Beaunath is hit, said Epherineth, and with no further warning he and Fetch plunged them between.

They emerged in the ash-filled sky beneath the Wings. “Where?” T’kamen shouted, over the din of battering wings and roaring flames, craning his neck upwards.

Then he saw how the formations were rippling outwards from the dragon falling like a stone in their midst, where the Wings were layered thickest. I can’t get to him, said Epherineth. No airspace.

Having to wait for a Threadstruck dragon’s plummet to carry him clear of the Wings was hideous. The glimpses Epherineth shared with T’kamen – images shared by the dragons dodging out of their wingmate’s way – described the horror in sickening flashes. Silver coiling around a lashing tail. Yellow-white eyes stretched too wide in agony. Wingsail tattering to lace.

A blue tumbled, screaming, out of the bottom of the stacked Wings, already more Thread than dragon.

Epherineth folded his wings and dived after him.

Easy, T’kamen told him, wincing against their steep descent. There’s nowhere safe to grab him.

Epherineth just grunted as he bore down on the falling dragon. Be still! he said, stretching out all four limbs, and the instant his claws framed Beaunath’s stricken form, he swept them between.

Do we have him? T’kamen asked, through the frigid chill.

He got his answer, racing heartbeats later, when they emerged over Madellon’s lake. Beaunath’s limp body drooped in Epherineth’s talons. Epherineth shook him, hard, showering pieces of frozen Thread into the water below. We have him, he said, but grimly. He covered the distance to the Dragon Healers’ station with two short sweeps of his wings, and set the blue dragon carefully down on the swept stones.

But Beaunath toppled over onto his side. His jaws worked futilely for air, his nostrils flaring. His collapse, and the latticework ruin of his wing, exposed the hole that Thread had eaten through his ribcage.

As Healers ran to pull Beaunath’s rider down from his neck, the blue’s chest expanded, but not with breath. The Thread that had burrowed into the chest cavity had found some protection from the cold of between amidst the wretched dragon’s internal organs. Restored to the warmth of the world, it was resuming its pitiless consumption of Beaunath’s twitching flesh, eating him alive from the inside out.

“Epherineth!” T’kamen shouted.

Epherineth was already coming about. Even as the Healers dragged Beaunath’s screaming rider clear, Epherineth sank his talons into the blue dragon’s flesh. He jerked Beaunath’s writhing form roughly off the ground, beat his wings once for height, and went between.

When they emerged again, Epherineth’s talons were empty, and the mourning keen for Beaunath was rising from the throats of the few dragons around the Weyr.

We were too late, said Epherineth. He landed hard on the shore of the lake and thrust his forepaws into the water, splashing vigorously.

“Faranth, are you Threaded?” T’kamen released his safety and slid down his dragon’s shoulder with no thought for his leg, landing knee-deep in shallows that were turning cloudy with ichor.

It’s not mine. Epherineth lifted his left forepaw from the water, and then extended it towards T’kamen, shuddering with revulsion. His hasty ablutions had washed most of the blood away, but he hadn’t been able to dislodge the grisly rags of recognisably blue hide that remained snagged in his talons.

T’kamen dug the shreds of hide out of Epherineth’s shivering claws with his fingernails, breathing shallowly, and trying to keep his breakfast down. “You did everything you could.”

“You shouldn’t have.”

T’kamen looked up from his work. Gusinien was approaching from the direction of the Dragon Healers. “What?”

“Is he all right?” Gusinien asked. “Is he hurt?”

“He’s fine,” T’kamen said. “What did you say?”

Gusinien shook his head. “Beaunath,” he said. “Tishurth, earlier. Meicrath and Aismith last time. You shouldn’t have brought them back. You should have let them go.”

Every name was a dragon T’kamen and Epherineth had rescued, or tried to rescue, in Fall. “I don’t understand,” he said. “We lost Beaunath, but…”

“Tishurth won’t see another morning,” said Gusinien. “Meicrath won’t fly. Aismith won’t walk. You’re saving them for what? To be broken and crippled for the rest of their short and painful lives? We can’t fix them, T’kamen. You should have let them die.”

T’kamen took a step back, stumbling against Epherineth’s forearm. “We have to get back to Fall,” he said, but Gusinien’s words, so plainly spoken, had shaken him.

Concentrate, Epherineth told him, when T’kamen twice missed his footing on the painful climb back up to the neck-ridges. Fall is nearly over. You can worry about him later.

Monbeth supplied the visual they needed to jump between back to the Fall. T’kamen signalled acknowledgement to O’sten as Epherineth turned to resume his station beneath the Wings.

It had just begun to rain when the shout came down from above that the Fall had dribbled to its conclusion. A few of the lowest-flying dragons still emitted the odd burst of flame as the last stray Threads reached them, but above them the greens and blues of Madellon’s fighting Wings veered wearily off from their formations, turning for home.

Tell the Wingleaders of the Fourth that they need to divert to Merlake if they want to eat, T’kamen said.

Epherineth passed the message on. Manyath’s rider isn’t happy. She wants to know why they can’t go to Ishon Hold with everyone else.

Ishon doesn’t have enough stock on hand. If Querenne wants her dragons to eat, it’s Merlake or nothing.

She’s still not happy.

Faranth, Epherineth. I’m too tired for this whershit. T’kamen wiped his sleeve across his goggles, where the spitting rain was smearing a film of greasy ash across the glass. Tell her she can take it up with me back at the Weyr.

I will tell her so.

Below them, bunker dragons were chewing firestone as they wheeled in place to join in the clean-up. A glance back along the flightpath showed the usual palls of smoke rising from burned-out burrows – not the worst T’kamen had ever seen, but not good. The fire-crews would be combing back over Fall’s footprint for hours before they could expect anything to eat. Is there any word on Netraceth?

She has lost most of the wing.

Of the seven rescues they’d mounted during the course of the Fall, it was the one T’kamen had most feared would end badly – at least until Beaunath. Netraceth had already been badly Threaded when Epherineth had dragged her between. And Hybalth?

The neck score looked worse than it was. He will recover.

Any bodies?

One. Mestinth.

T’kamen let out his breath. Let’s go and get that done.

Epherineth flew back along the path of Fall, passing along each section leader’s comments on the action as they reported in. The worst logistical failure was that the bunkers had run out by the final half hour of the Fall, leaving some fighting dragons having to hoard their remaining stone. Br’lom had got into an argument with several Wingleaders, insisting that any dragon needing to re-stoke so close to the end of Fall must have been wasting flame. G’reyan’s Ginth told Epherineth that his rider wanted to speak to T’kamen about the issue as soon as they returned to Madellon. Pass it on to El’yan, he told Epherineth. Though I don’t see how we could have added even one more bunker to this Fall, with the strike over the border to handle tomorrow morning. How many catches did the Aid section make?

Six, said Epherineth. Three wing injuries, two firestone burns, one over-flown.

Anyone need urgent transportation back to the Weyr?

Epherineth paused. Kondrath is worst. But the Dragon Healers have his burns under control. They don’t want to risk his hide between. He’ll return to the Weyrstation for treatment.

Other injuries?

I don’t have that information.

T’kamen always asked, but the Wingleaders didn’t report their casualties directly to Epherineth. He never got an accurate summary of how well the fighting Wings had taken a Fall until he returned to the Weyr. He had a rough impression from the Seventh’s actions, though. Only three dead, but one more fatally wounded, and as many as twelve others who might be out for months, if not permanently. The thought made his already-aching head throb.

I have a visual on Mestinth, said Epherineth. Tetketh is with her.

All right, said T’kamen. Take us there.

He felt the lacing of Epherineth’s mind and Fetch’s, like a hand-clasp, and they went between.

They emerged again over the familiar grim sight of a dragon’s corpse. It was impossible to tell exactly how Mestinth had been Threaded. She was barely even recognisable as a green. Her broken body still smoked where dragon-flame had incinerated the Thread infestation that had killed her; her hide was black and crisp. T’kamen didn’t want to look too closely, but he made himself take in the bent, burnt form of the rider, still strapped to the dead dragon’s neck.

Tetketh, F’sta’s blue, and a second blue T’kamen didn’t recognise were waiting behind Mestinth’s corpse. Bussarth, Epherineth supplied, as he landed beside them dwarfing both smaller dragons. Then he added, His rider was Mestinth’s rider’s clutch-mate.

T’kamen winced. He used the moments it took for him to dismount from Epherineth, pull down his cane, and push up his goggles to prepare himself. It wouldn’t be the first time that a grieving friend or relative had confronted him over his failure to save a loved one.

But the young man standing with F’sta seemed to be dry-eyed as T’kamen approached. “Blue rider,” T’kamen said, with a stiff nod. “I’m sorry about Mestinth and your –” He didn’t know Mestinth’s rider’s name, nor even if the green rider had been a man or a woman. “Brother,” he said, hoping he’d guessed correctly.

He had. The blue rider snorted. “Don’t be. I won’t miss him.”

E’ban!” F’sta said, horrified.

“Well, I won’t,” said E’ban. “J’ban was always a bastard to me, right from when we were kids.” He paused, then said grudgingly, “I’m sorry for Mestinth. She deserved better.”

“They both did,” said F’sta.

“You didn’t know him,” said E’ban. “But never let it be said that I’m a wher like he was. Don’t just dump them between. Take them to Little Madellon.”

That did give T’kamen pause. He and Epherineth had interred many dragons between in the last few months; no one had asked him to take a body to Little Madellon before. “Why?”

E’ban folded his arms. “He was in the Commander’s Wing; what do you expect? If he wants to go someplace to rot for all eternity, who am I to argue?”

“J’ban flew in the Commander’s Wing?” T’kamen asked.

“And didn’t he just love to lord that over me,” said E’ban. He stared at the cooling corpse of his brother’s dragon. “Well, which of us is still standing, huh, Jerby? That’s right. Me.

“If Little Madellon’s what he wanted, then we’ll take them there,” said T’kamen.

Tetketh and Bussarth helped Epherineth with the gruesome work of lifting Mestinth’s remains into a chain rig. T’kamen was still more disturbed by E’ban’s callousness. “How could he have hated his own brother that much?” he asked F’sta.

“J’ban was kind of a tail-fork,” said F’sta. “Always putting E’ban down, even before he got assigned to the Third. Always bragging about how he’d been tailman for the Commander and how E’ban wouldn’t ever even get a Wingsecond to tail for.”

T’kamen sighed. If the dead green rider had been one of S’leondes’ former tails, the Commander would be in an even worse mood than usual. He wondered if S’leondes would deign to come and accuse him of failing to save E’ban to his face: that, or complain that the six fighting riders of the Unseen were being wasted, sitting back at the Weyr and doing nothing.

It would be hard to argue with him if he did. Everyone had been spooked by the disaster with the Istan riders – T’kamen himself included. He’d suspended training with the Unseen and their fire-lizards for a couple of days out of respect, but he’d been dismayed by how grateful most of his riders had been for the respite. Even Fraza and Dannie, who were the most competitive of the Unseen, seemed relieved to be off the hook. T’kamen knew he needed to get them all back in training, and rebuild their confidence, and he knew he needed to do it soon. He just wasn’t sure how he could when his own confidence in the fire-lizard project had become so fragile.

Four Pass riders had tried to go between with the help of fire-lizards now, and all of them had failed. Well: M’ric must ultimately have succeeded, but his journey back to the Interval had been fore-ordained. He hadn’t been able to do it under controlled conditions in the Pass. And Epherineth, for all that he needed Fetch’s help to navigate between, was an Interval dragon, Hatched and trained long before the problem with between had first reared its head. Neither he nor Trebruth could be held up as evidence that Pass dragons just needed a fire-lizard’s assistance to go between safely. No such evidence existed.

What if I’m wrong?

The question kept T’kamen awake at night. He didn’t dare speak it aloud to anyone: not Dalka, not El’yan, not Ch’fil at Ista; certainly not to any of the Unseen. If he allowed his conviction in the fire-lizard solution to weaken, the project was over. The Unseen would never go between if they didn’t believe it was possible. Madellon would lose faith in him. S’leondes would use the failure as a stick to beat him with. T’kamen was surprised he hadn’t already, although the fact that the three dead riders were Istan had helped him a little there. He hated to think of their deaths in such bluntly political terms; equally, he knew he no longer had the luxury of doing otherwise.

But the question still haunted him. Epherineth couldn’t help. He didn’t know, any more than any of them did, if the fire-lizard connection was a universal solution. He had no mystical dragonish insight to offer. He would only say, It works for me, and T’kamen would remark caustically that perhaps Epherineth was special, and Epherineth would reply that of course he was. The exchange was comforting only because it was familiar, not because it was helpful.

Once Mestinth’s body was secure in the rig, T’kamen dismissed F’sta and Tetketh back to the Weyr. Epherineth took off, circled once to build some momentum, then swooped low over Mestinth’s chain-wrapped remains and snagged his claws into the mesh. With a heave, he got his grisly load aloft.

They stayed at Little Madellon only for the length of time it took Epherineth to carefully disentangle Mestinth from the chain net. T’kamen did look around for any evidence that Alanne’s fire-lizards had returned, and even made a pass through the cavern where Ryth’s skeleton still lay, gathering dust now with no one to tend it. He didn’t expect to find anything there, as he hadn’t on the previous half dozen occasions when he’d visited Little Madellon to look for eggs. Alanne’s fair, no longer compelled by their owner’s powerful mind to stay or lay in that inland place, was long gone. T’kamen stood looking at the old bones, wondering if he’d crippled himself and maimed Epherineth for nothing.

On his shoulder, Fetch whistled in outrage, and then bit him hard on the ear.

Lord Dako signed the bottom of the document and rose from his seat. “Thank you, Weyrmarshal. This is more than fair.”

T’kamen was a little taken aback. He resisted glancing at El’yan, beside him, for insight. “Thank you, my Lord. Jessaf’s tithe to the Weyr continues to be very generous.”

Dako darted him a quick, furtive look at that, which T’kamen couldn’t decipher. Then he smiled, too brightly. “Of course, Weyrmarshal. We are, as ever, Madellon’s most devoted supporters.”

“I have no doubt,” said T’kamen. Then something occurred to him. “Will you be joining us at Levierth’s upcoming Hatching?”

Dako’s smile vanished as quickly as it had appeared. “Joining…you?”

That reaction baffled T’kamen too. “A tradition from my time,” he said. “All of Madellon’s Lords Holder were welcomed to the Weyr on the occasion of a Hatching.”

“I see, I see,” said Dako. “It’s only that my daughters – well, a dragon’s never been interested in them before – but I thought perhaps you meant…”

T’kamen suddenly grasped the source of Dako’s fear in a rush. He’s afraid that we’ll Search one of his children. He would have liked to promise Jessaf’s Lord Holder that Search would pass over his children, but caution stopped him. This was his first time dealing with a Pass Lord and he didn’t want to give anything away without discussing it with El’yan. He settled for a vague reassurance. “I’m sure the Search riders will find enough candidates in your outlying holdings without needing to deplete the Hold Proper.”

“I’m certain they won’t be disappointed,” said Dako, almost crumpling with relief. “Please, won’t you and your dragons take refreshment while you wait for them to return?”

I am hungry, said Epherineth.

T’kamen suddenly felt like he was exploiting the Hold’s generosity. “Thank you, but they’ll eat when we return to the Weyr,” he said. “Perhaps a cup of klah, though?”

“He could afford a couple of cows, you know,” El’yan remarked, as they stood in the Jessaf Hold courtyard sipping their klah. “Just like he could afford to give you that fancy knife you turned down.”

T’kamen touched the hilt of M’ric’s old hunting blade where it rode on his belt. “I don’t need a new knife,” he said, “fancy or otherwise.”

“Not used to the Holds being open-handed, are you?”

“I had to fight tooth and nail for everything in the Interval,” T’kamen said. “This kind of generosity seems…unnatural.”

El’yan regarded him with his deceptively rheumy eyes. “Since you turned down our dragons’ dinner, what do you say to a little wherry hunt?”

Epherineth, who’d been put out by T’kamen’s refusal of Dako’s herdbeasts, lifted his head interestedly.

“Where did you have in mind?” T’kamen asked.

“Nowhere far,” said El’yan. “Just have Epherineth follow Ayarth.”

As they crossed the courtyard to their dragons, T’kamen noticed how the Holdfolk largely ignored them. Not even senior rank knots merited much respect if they showed brown or bronze. But then, he thought, between old El’yan’s peg leg, and his own halting cane-assisted limp, neither of them looked very heroic.

There was nothing much wrong with Ayarth, though. Epherineth followed El’yan’s old brown, matching a speed that would have been respectable for a much younger dragon. He could have outpaced Ayarth in moments had he so desired, but there was no need for that. Epherineth, at least, had nothing to prove.

It was overcast enough that T’kamen couldn’t be sure of the sun’s position in the sky, and he’d stopped carrying a compass since Epherineth had started going between again, so he had no idea where they were going until they arrived. Even so, he didn’t recognise the line of roofs and towers that interrupted the horizon half an hour’s flight out of Jessaf. That itself wasn’t unusual. Many of Madellon’s holdings had changed dramatically since T’kamen’s native time, and many more hadn’t been built until late in the Interval. But as they drew closer, and the details became clearer, T’kamen realised that their destination wasn’t a new hold, or even an old one that had been expanded since he’d last seen it.

It was Peranvo Hold.

Peranvo had once been the richest Hold in Madellon territory: the unrivalled centre for the production and trade of luxury goods in southern Pern. White clay-beds of surpassing quality enabled the manufacture of ceramics so delicate they were even exported to the north; natural deposits of vermilion and lapis supplied pigments for the dyes and paints and glazes used by every Hold and Hall in the south; and above all, its deep rich soil and cool climate provided optimum growing conditions for the acres upon acres of flax fields from which Pern’s finest linen thread was spun and woven. The wealth of exceptional resources had attracted crafters of every kind to Peranvo in the Interval. Weavers and dyers, tanners and potters, smiths and stonemasons: the Craft quarter had always thronged with artists and artisans creating items of matchless quality and beauty. Peranvo had prospered, and five generations of Lords and Ladies had flaunted their wealth by adding towers and turrets to the original keep of the Hold, each grander and more vividly-painted than the last, and furnishing them with the very best of the luxurious goods that its Craft population turned out. It laid on the most extravagant Gathers on Pern, and if its vendors struck the hardest bargains anywhere outside of Bitra, then the buyers were generally too pleased with the quality of what they had bought to complain.

T’kamen had known that the Pass had not been kind to Peranvo. It was marked on the maps with the symbol for wild wherry, and he’d assumed it was a mistake until Ch’fil had confirmed, in passing, that Peranvo was no longer populated. T’kamen hadn’t given it any further thought. He’d had other things on his mind. And while he’d seen Holds a shadow of their former selves – denuded Kellad chief among them – he’d never seen anything like this.

The towers that had once thrust so proudly into the sky were crumbling. The tallest of them all, rising from beside the original, oldest part of the Hold, showed a gaping hole part way up its height, and its masonry was blackened and scorched. The windows that had once blazed with lead-latticed stained glass were empty, like the hollow eye-sockets of a skull, and almost every window-ledge was fringed with the debris and filth of roosting wherries. The sprawling flax fields that had been at the heart of the Hold’s Interval prosperity were gone. All T’kamen could see was Thread-blighted earth.

He turned on Epherineth’s neck to look at El’yan on Ayarth’s with blank incomprehension.

El’yan simply made the arm signal for down.

“What in the Void happened here?” T’kamen demanded, even before the dragons had landed outside the ragged outer wall of the Hold.

“Well,” El’yan said. He dismounted stiffly, though through age, rather than on account of his wooden leg, which seemed hardly to inconvenience him. “That’s a story. Let’s take a walk.”

The great bronze doors that had once barred entry into Peranvo’s Great Hall were gone. The archway yawned empty. “Is it safe?” T’kamen asked.

“Safe enough, so long as you don’t go poking at things,” said El’yan. “The dragons will keep most of the wherries on the wing.”

T’kamen loosened the hunting knife in its sheath. Then he limped forwards, through the doorway.

The darkness at the edges of Peranvo’s abandoned Great Hall contrasted starkly with the sunlight flooding in through the great lanterned skylight that dominated the centre of the room. Every pane of glass had been broken, and the heavy shutters that should have closed out light and Thread alike were long gone, looted from the Hold’s ruins along with the bronze doors. T’kamen paused to let his eyes adjust to the light. The fabulous frescoes that had once lavished the walls and ceiling had disappeared beneath layers of soot and dirt. The floor was thick with filth – ashes, mould, vermin scat, the bones of small animals – and the nauseating, acrid stink of dead Thread. That chilled T’kamen to the bottom of his dragonrider’s soul. Madellon hadn’t flown Fall over Peranvo since the earliest days of the Pass. There wasn’t much greenery left for it to eat outside, and dead Thread broke down and washed away quickly in sunlight and rain. But Thread had penetrated Peranvo’s unprotected interior, and its blackened remains added to the litter that befouled the place.

He stepped into the puddle of light beneath the ruined cupola and extended the tip of his cane to prod at a Thread-shell. The black cinder collapsed, releasing a fresh stench. “I remember this Hold when it was beautiful.”

“So do I,” said El’yan. “Beautiful and decadent. Some would say arrogant. Some would say it got what it deserved.”

“Nowhere deserves this,” said T’kamen. “The people who lived here –”

“Defied the Weyr,” said El’yan. He walked forward to join T’kamen in the pool of light. “And were taught a lesson about where the power truly resided once the Red Star began to blink in Pern’s skies.”

“A lesson,” T’kamen repeated.

El’yan looked around. “Let’s go back outside,” he said. “I’d sooner not tempt a snake to sink its fangs into the one ankle I have left.”

They left the Great Hall through a side entrance, into what T’kamen recalled as the West Courtyard. The floor there had once been patterned in a riot of coloured mosaic tiles: floor and tiles both were hidden now beneath a thick layer of dirt. A fountain had once played at the centre of the courtyard, and its circular shape was still there, but the copper pipes that had fed it had gone to the looters, and the bowl itself was filled to the brim with detritus. Ruined pieces of statuary – too heavy to be carried off – stood in the corners, frozen and forlorn, like forgotten guests at a party.

El’yan stumped over to the fountain and sat down on its raised edge. T’kamen followed him, more slowly. Then he asked, “What happened?”

“It was the flax fields,” said El’yan. “They were the beginning of the end. Them, and Lord Ortan, thinking he could force the Weyr’s hand.” He laced his fingers in his lap. “Madellon began to demand bigger livestock tithes towards the end of the Interval. The dragon population had been rising steadily for Turns, but in the last decade or so, with the queens rising twice a Turn, we had a lot of hungry dragonets to feed. Most of the Holds had been converting arable land into pasture, but not Peranvo. Ortan didn’t want to give over his precious flax fields to cows. He banked on being able to trade with his neighbours to fulfil Peranvo’s livestock obligations to the Weyr. He just didn’t realise how the coming of Thread would kill the demand for luxury goods on Pern. Nearly overnight, or at least within the first Turn or so. When suddenly you’re dipping into your winter granaries to feed your holders before midsummer’s even out, wearing the latest fashions and eating off a new dinner service every other month apparently doesn’t seem so important any more.

“Those early Turns were a shock to everyone. We all thought we knew how we’d have to tighten our belts. We didn’t have a clue. The Holds had spread so much, and we didn’t have the dragon power to defend everything. So the call went up that all the Holds would have to consolidate, to reduce their liability. Dragons were dying trying to protect crops that just weren’t important enough to save. And high-quality flax? There’s no linen on Pern worth more per yard than a dragon’s hide.

“But Ortan. Ortan balked when he was told to raze his fields. He refused. The Weyr had a responsibility to protect the Holds, he argued: a sacred responsibility, and one written down in the Madellon Charter. He had a copy of it, all done on Peranvo’s best linen paper, all got up in fancy calligraphy and coloured illustrations. Peranvo wasn’t obliged to tithe, Ortan said, if Madellon wasn’t going to protect it like it ought.” El’yan shook his head. “He was quite the gambler, was Ortan. Dice and cards. But not much of a poker player, because he never dreamed that, when he disobeyed the Weyr’s orders, and refused to tithe, the bold new Commander of the fighting Wings would call his bluff and decline to protect Peranvo’s lands at all.”

It took T’kamen a moment to connect the dots. “S’leondes?”

“All eighteen-and-a-half Turns of him,” said El’yan.

“Faranth,” said T’kamen.

“The first Fall that hit Peranvo without any dragons to burn it destroyed half the flax crop,” El’yan continued. “The second took most of what remained. Ortan couldn’t have capitulated to the Weyr if he’d wanted to. By the third, Ortan wasn’t Lord Holder any more. His own guards removed him from power – through the window of the big tower where he had his apartments. The Hold was sacked and robbed, and ultimately set on fire. And Madellon had made an example out of Peranvo that resonated around the entire continent. Any Hold that defied the Weyr would be on its own, Charter be blighted. And if anyone still held to the old beliefs that green and blue riders couldn’t wield power, it set them right of that notion, too.”

T’kamen sat, blinking, on the edge of the fountain. The ruin all around them was graphic evidence of the terrible destruction that Thread – and Ortan’s pride – and S’leondes’ ruthlessness – had wrought upon Peranvo. It brought into focus why Dako had been so desperately eager to please him. And yet he still couldn’t quite grasp what had happened. “Why was it never resettled?”

“How could it be?” El’yan asked. “The fields were sterilised by Thread. All these towers and follies weren’t built to hold up to being gutted by fire. And then there’s the ghosts of Lord Ortan and his family, still haunting that tower.”

“Ghosts, El’yan?” T’kamen asked.

El’yan shrugged. “At the very least, it’s unlucky.”

T’kamen got up from the fountain. He walked around the courtyard, looking at the statues without really seeing them. A flight of shallow steps led from the courtyard to a terrace; he walked slowly up them, placing his feet carefully. More shattered sculptures – the fantastic carvings that had once protruded from each tower corner – littered the terrace, but a chipped stone bench had avoided most of the damage. T’kamen made his way carefully to it and sat down. The tallest tower rose crookedly to his left; the fireheights to his right, but the slender bridge that had once connected them had collapsed: a dragonlength’s empty space yawned between them. He looked up at the top of the tower, and tried not to imagine Lord Ortan scrabbling at the garishly-painted blocks in a vain attempt to cling on as his angry guards tossed him from the window.

And then he thought about what S’leondes had done, and wondered if, in his place, he would have done the same thing.

His first reaction: No. No: he, T’kamen, would never have condemned a whole Hold to destruction for the crimes of its Lord Holder. He would never have made Holdless the hundreds of people who called Peranvo home – workers, crafters, families. Children. He would never have turned a Hold whose name had once been a byword for beauty into a monument to the Weyr’s unassailable Pass-time authority.

And yet. And yet.

T’kamen had dealt with Lords Holder in the Interval who grudged every last ounce of the harvest that disappeared into a tithe wagon. For two hundred Turns, Madellon’s holders had treated with the Weyr from a position of strength, never having known the deprivations of life under the Red Star. Those attitudes, from Holders required over the last Turns of the Interval to give more and more to support more and more dragons, ran deep. Locked up safe in their stone Holds, as Madellon’s dragons flung themselves recklessly at Thread in their defence, it would have taken a severe lesson indeed to teach them the error of their entrenched, entitled ways.

I serve my Weyr in the best way I can. It doesn’t always allow me the luxury of a clear conscience. Dalka’s words sounded in his head again. Had she said the same thing to S’leondes? Probably. But did S’leondes feel the weight of what he’d done to Peranvo Hold on his conscience? That, T’kamen didn’t know. Perhaps S’leondes had done the right thing. Perhaps the fall of Peranvo had been the object lesson all of Pern needed to fall in behind the Weyr at a time when dragonriders couldn’t afford to bicker back and forth with the Holds over the tithe they needed to function.

A shadow fell suddenly over T’kamen, and he looked up. Epherineth soared over the ruined Hold, a black shape against the overcast sky. He had a limp wherry in each forepaw. He landed atop the fire-height, throwing his catch down with satisfaction and folding his wings.

T’kamen stood up. Epherineth, should you be –

As he spoke, the stones of the fire-height made a long, drawn-out grumbling sound.

For an instant, Epherineth froze, an almost comical expression of concern on his face.

Then the fire-height gave way beneath him.

Epherineth made a scrambling half-leap from the roof. The surface collapsed as he jumped, masonry falling in on itself with a terrible grinding roar that threw up a cloud of dirt. “Epherineth!” T’kamen shouted, and then coughed, choking, half-blinded as dust and bits of stone rained down.

When the dust cleared, Epherineth was clinging to the tallest tower.

He peered down at T’kamen from the precarious perch he’d found there, at full stretch: one hind foot planted on a crumbling decorative archway below, one forepaw gripping an ornate merlon high above. With his scarred face, he could have been one of the fearsome carvings that had once decorated Peranvo’s roofs. His eyes were whirling a startled orange, and dust had turned his hide a greyish shade. T’kamen…

But the stonework to which he clung was already groaning, and as T’kamen watched in horror the merlon began to tear free of its crenellation. Epherineth shook his forepaw free of the collapsing masonry and lunged for a ledge higher up. His tail lashed frantically as he struggled for balance. T’kamen grasped with sudden certainty that if Epherineth fell, he wouldn’t be able to catch himself. There wasn’t room for him to spread his wings. The broken pillars and shattered walls below where he hung looked like an eagerly open mouth full of jagged teeth.

A chunk of stonework came free beneath Epherineth’s groping talons. He twisted to evade its ponderous tumble, losing the grip of all but his right forepaw. He hung there, his hind feet scrabbling for purchase, and then a huge section of the rotting tower wall broke away all at once and he fell helplessly backwards.

And then he disappeared.

T’kamen stared, struck dumb, as blocks and bits of stone bounced and tumbled down the wall of the tower from the massive gap where Epherineth had been clinging.

Hours later – or so it seemed – Epherineth reappeared, high above Peranvo. He had something in his forepaws. It took T’kamen a moment to realise it was the slab of masonry from the tower.

He didn’t know how he got down the steps so quickly, or how he managed to run on his game leg, all the way to where Epherineth was alighting meekly, well beyond the treacherous ruins of Peranvo. “You idiot!”

Epherineth looked unsure about what to do with the piece of wall. He put it down, and carefully pushed it away from himself, as if it might spontaneously attack him. I didn’t know it would collapse.

“What sort of stupid shaffing stunt do you think you were pulling landing on that roof?” T’kamen shouted. “You call yourself a bronze? Stupid shaffing idiot!

Then his knee, as if remembering it was crippled, went out from under him, and he sat down hard against Epherineth’s elbow. “Stupid shaffing idiot,” he said under his breath.

Epherineth turned his head down towards him.

Fetch came fluttering down from his usual perch, chattering happily to himself at how heroically he’d helped Epherineth to jump between out of danger. T’kamen put his hand up to the little brown. “At least one of us is sensible.”

Ayarth asks if we are all right. Epherineth sounded embarrassed.

“Tell him we’re fine,” said T’kamen. “Just stupid.”

Fetch objected.

“Except for Fetch. He’s not stupid.”

I’m sorry, T’kamen. I didn’t mean to scare you.

“I know. But if you’d been any other dragon…”

He left the sentence unfinished, but not the thought. If you’d been any other dragon, you wouldn’t have been able to go between to save yourself.

And that thought led naturally to another. If dragons could still go between, Peranvo wouldn’t have fallen.

How many people had died in the razing of the Hold? How many had been left Holdless? How many people had S’leondes left to their fate to guarantee submission to the will of the Weyr? How many people were crammed into Holds across Pern now: afraid of Thread, afraid of famine, afraid that their children would be taken for the Weyr to face short and brutal lives as fighting dragonriders? How many had died when half the north had been abandoned? How many dragonriders died every day, throwing themselves between Thread and Pern in a futile war of attrition that could never truly be won?

Hundreds. Thousands. Lives without number, human and dragon.

How many had been lost to T’kamen’s crusade to restore between?

Three dragonpairs. Four, including M’ric, but M’ric didn’t count. Three dragonpairs. Six lives.

They’d lost more than six lives in the first two hours of yesterday’s Fall alone.

S’leondes had been willing to spend lives in the service of the Weyr – in the service of Pern – and from the ashes of that sacrifice an eighteen-Turn-old blue rider, barely a weyrling, had risen as Pern’s saviour.

I serve my Weyr in the best way I can. It doesn’t always allow me the luxury of a clear conscience.

Maybe fire-lizards weren’t the answer. Maybe T’kamen was wrong. He wasn’t infallible. Nor was Epherineth. He’d just become graphically aware of that. And maybe the Unseen would pay the price if T’kamen was wrong. Maybe more than just the twelve of them would pay.

Maybe T’kamen had to be prepared to spend lives in the service of Pern, too.

He pulled himself up, using his cane for support. His bad knee complained, and he winced, knowing he’d pay for his haste tomorrow. “Come on, Epherineth. Back to Madellon. And tell Bularth to have the Unseen ready for inspection first thing in the morning.”

Epherineth paused, relaying the message. Bularth asks why.

“Because they’re going back into training,” said T’kamen. “I’m going to get dragons going between again if it kills them.”

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