Epilogue: A Loop Left Open
It’s been almost a Turn now since the bronze rider succumbed to the fever. Almost a Turn since we piled stones carefully over his corpse on the headland he and the bronze claimed for so long as their own. Almost a Turn that we’ve been alone.
A queen will come soon. We both long for that day, for the sight of another dragon, for the sound of another voice; even when that dragon will crush our defiance with a glance, and the voice will speak only to renew our sentence.
We endure, as we have all these long Turns. As we must. For us there can be no easy release, no quick and merciful end to our imprisonment. Neither summer sickness nor winter privation can carry me off. No fall from the slippery rocks will drown me; no wound gone sour will poison my blood.
We will not be permitted to die here.
And so I plan.
Time is still our master. Time has not yet finished with us. Time protects itself.
Time, I have to hope, will let us make things right, one day.
Cass was measuring out feed, and wondering if she’d need to pry open the new barrel of alfalfa, when all the fire-lizards basking in the early morning sunshine on the roof of the stables sat up in a sudden commotion of fluttering wings.
She ducked out from the overhang of the eaves just in time to see the blue dragon appear in the sky above the main Hold. His far-off bugle of greeting, and the equally distant response from old Kimdanth on the fire-heights, carried well even across the miles between Blue Shale proper and the snug runner-hold that nestled back from the ocean cliffs.
Tolland, sweeping the yard, leaned on his broom. “Is that –”
“Darshanth, yes,” said Cass. She threw an extra half scoop of barley into the last bowl to make up for the missing alfalfa, then started around the yard, pushing insistent runner noses out of the way as she hung a feed bowl over each door. “I should go and tell my mum. Can you do the water for Teller Boy and Following Wind?”
“Yes’m,” said Tolland.
He didn’t quite tug his forelock. Mum had been trying to break him of the habit, at least when it came to the other apprentices. They’d teased him for it mercilessly when he’d first come up from the Hold, and Tolland was shy enough already.
Cass saddled Missy. She’d nearly grown out of the little mare: her stirrups hung almost below Missy’s belly. Mum had said that they could look for a new pony for her at the next Gather. It was a tempting prospect, but Cass had been carefully non-committal about it. She knew what her mother was trying to do, and it wasn’t going to work.
As she swung up, she whistled Handy down from the stable roof. He glided obediently to her shoulder and poked her ear with his nose before folding his wings. “There’s a boy,” Cass said, scratching him under the chin. Handy was always immaculately well behaved. Mum hadn’t needed to insist on that. Cass wanted no accusations that she couldn’t care for a fire-lizard properly.
She could have sent him ahead with a message, but she wasn’t sure exactly where the string was. Darshanth had gone to the Hold instead of straight to the runner-hold, so there was plenty of time. Besides, for all her ambitions, Cass still enjoyed riding. If she closed her eyes, and breathed in Handy’s scent, she could almost imagine she was aboard a dragon, not a pony; flying, not running.
Cass pulled Missy up when they crested the ridge behind the hold, scanning the valley for the string. On a sunny summer day, Mum said, there was no view to beat it. The white rails of Blue Shale’s racecourse marched up the slope to the east, overlooked by the viewing stands that stepped into the hillside all the way to the winning post. To the west, the pastures were full of just-shorn sheep. Between the two, the uphill gallop wended like a parched yellow ribbon up the steep incline, the grass worn away by summer heat and many sets of sharp-edged hoofs.
Mum was astride her old hack at the edge of the gallop, about two-thirds of the way up the hill. Lord Zendan was beside her, sitting less easily on the new black mare that had been terrorising the stable hands at the Hold proper. They were watching a pair of runners coming up the gallop towards them: a couple of Zendan’s unraced two-Turn-olds, being prepared for their maiden races.
Cass waited for the pair to pull up at the top of the gallop, raising a hand in greeting to their riders as they circled their snorting colts. Then, as they began to walk back down the side of the track, she nudged Missy after them.
Mum saw her coming, and Cass obeyed her brief glance, reining in her pony at a polite remove from where Lord Holder and Master Beastcrafter sat their runners.
“…ready in time for the Gather?” Zendan was asking.
“Blue Shore will be, barring disaster,” Mum said. “Blue Harbour I’m not as confident. He’s still a real baby. I’d rather wait and enter him at one of the minor meetings.”
Zendan didn’t look completely happy – he never did – but he nodded. “Shore will go in the six furlong?”
“For his debut,” said Mum. “He’s bred to get a mile and a half, but I don’t like to step them up too soon.”
“I’ll trust your judgement,” said Zendan. He looked over at Cass. “I’d best get back to the Hold.”
“Please don’t hold your mare in on my account,” said Mum. She patted her runner’s shoulder. “I don’t think poor old Bov could keep up with her these days.”
Zendan nodded and wheeled his runner. The black mare sprang away sharply enough to almost pull his arms from their sockets and galloped towards the ridge, shaking her head the whole way.
Cass heeled Missy over towards the edge of the gallop. “He doesn’t ride well enough for a runner that hot.”
“You can keep that opinion of our Lord Holder to yourself,” Mum said. She glanced after Zendan, and added, “But rather him than me. What are you doing here? Everything all right in the yard?”
“Everything’s fine,” said Cass. “But Darshanth’s over at the Seahold.”
“At this hour?” Mum asked. She frowned as she looked down the gallop to where another pair of runners was cantering up the hill. “You’d think they’d want to enjoy a few more lie-ins.”
“I bet they’re on Search,” said Cass. “I bet Tynerith’s laid her clutch.”
Mum waited for the runners to flash past in a thunder of hoofs. “It’s soon yet for that,” she said, with careful blandness. “But I’m sure Mine will tell us.” She raised her voice. “That’ll do, Gerray. Take them back.”
The lad on the bay colt touched a finger to his cap in acknowledgement. He and the other work rider turned their mounts downhill. They’d go home via the long route, letting the runners cool down, and walking through the stream at the bottom of the valley on the way. There was nothing better than salt water for a runner’s legs, and Mum exercised the string on the long flat western beaches at least once a sevenday, but the stream-water did them good, too. Mum, though, turned her gelding back towards the ridge, and Cass urged Missy to follow.
“If she has, though,” she said, “and they’re short of candidates, and there’s a gold egg –”
“You’d better hope there’s not,” Mum said. She met Cass’ accusing stare calmly. “I don’t know how many times I’ve told you this. You’re only twelve, and you know how the Weyrwoman feels about very young dragonriders.”
“You always say that,” said Cass. “Like it’s the Weyrwoman who doesn’t want me to Impress –”
“No one doesn’t want you to Impress,” said Mum.
“– or as if I wouldn’t want a dragon unless it was a queen –”
“It’s a matter of having possibilities,” said Mum. “If there’s not a queen egg, it’s green or nothing –”
“Or blue,” Cass said, though she knew perfectly well that there were only two female blue riders.
“You’re too young, Cassejan, and that’s that.”
“You let Saker go when he was twelve.”
“A sevenday before his thirteenth Turnday.”
“You treat him differently because he’s a boy!”
“Because it is different for a boy,” Mum said. There was steel in her voice, but concern in her eyes, as she looked down at Cass from her tall hack. She softened her tone. “Everything’s different for boys in this world, Cass. Don’t let the fact that I’m a Master convince you otherwise. I just want you to have a chance to be you before you think about wedding yourself to the Weyr. To see a bit of Pern. To do other things. It’s not such a bad life we have here, is it?”
“I suppose,” Cass said, grudgingly.
“Come on,” said Mum. “Race you to the top?”
“Race? Bovey’s five hundred Turns old!”
“And your feet are nearly dragging on the ground,” Mum completed their familiar exchange. “Which makes us about even!”
She kicked her chestnut on, and if Bovey didn’t quite surge forward like Lord Zendan’s mare, then he could still run gamely enough to give Missy, with her tearaway speed, a good race to the top of the ridge: Mum’s Sleek and Cass’ Handy flying in their wake.
Darshanth had landed behind the stables by the time they walked their blowing runners back into the yard. He was a regular enough visitor to the runner-hold that most of the animals had become desensitised to him. Mum said that was an advantage in race-runners, which had to learn to be calm in all kinds of circumstances. Cass herself had seen runners from other holds frothing and rearing at even the distant sight of dragons before a race, while theirs simply ignored them.
C’mine was in the yard with a mug of klah in hand, talking to Tolland. Cass wondered, with a sudden flare of intense jealousy, if he meant to Search him. But as she and Mum dismounted, C’mine set his mug down and came to greet them. “There’s my girls,” he said, and caught Mum in a one-armed hug. He held the other hand out to Cass, and she bundled gladly into the cuddle.
“Go and say hello to Darshanth,” C’mine told her, planting a kiss on the top of her head.
Cass extricated herself from the hug and ran around the corner of the stable block. As often as she saw C’mine’s blue, he was always pleased to see her. Darshanth lowered his handsome head, and when Cass ran up against him to hug his muzzle, he closed the circle of his forearms around her. “Love you, love you, love you!”
I love you too.
When Cass returned to the stable yard, Mum and C’mine both had bacon rolls from the table that Merrana, the hold-keeper, set out for the lads and riders every morning. Cass helped herself to her own roll, and wandered back across the yard to join them. They were deep in conversation, and Mum’s expression was unusually stern. “What is it?” Cass asked. “What’s happened? Has Tynerith clutched?”
“No,” said C’mine. “She has another ten days at least to go.” He looked at Cass. “I’m sure you grow an inch every time I see you.”
“You only saw me last sevenday!”
C’mine laughed. “I know!”
He went to ruffle her hair, as he always did. Cass dodged, as she always did. “Just because you don’t have any any more,” she complained, although she barely remembered a time when C’mine had had any hair at all.
He shook his head ruefully, and stroked Mum’s hair instead. “It’s a cruel, cruel daughter you’re bringing up here.”
“She takes after me like that,” said Mum, but distractedly.
Cass looked from one to the other. “What is it?”
C’mine and Mum exchanged a look.
“What’s Saker done now?” Cass asked, with an exaggerated sigh. C’mine was always bringing news of some trouble that Sakerren – Cass still couldn’t get used to thinking of her brother as S’ker – had got himself into.
“Never you mind,” said Mum. “Go and get ready for your lessons.”
“I have to go to lessons this morning?” Cass asked, crestfallen. “But C’mine –”
“Can’t stay long,” said C’mine. “Darshanth will give you a ride down to the Hold.”
Cass sighed, although arriving for Harper Garynal’s morning classes on Darshanth always won her a few envious glances. “All right.”
She raced through a wash and a change of clothes. She would have been content to wear her old riding clothes all day, but Mum insisted that a Master’s daughter should look as respectable as any of the Hold’s highly-born fosterlings. She hunted in vain for her good shoes for several minutes before she remembered that she’d left them in the tack room. In her socks, she descended the stairs from the apartment on the upper floor of the runner-hold where she and Mum lived.
“…my fault really.”
Cass paused, one hand still on the bannister. C’mine’s voice was muffled by the door of Mum’s office – the closed door of Mum’s office – but Cass had always had very sharp ears.
“Oh, don’t start with that again,” said Mum. Then she added, “Though you’re right this time. It is your fault. I thought we’d agreed you’d wait until he was older before you gave him that blighted letter.”
“He was having a terrible time of it,” said C’mine. “We always knew it would be difficult for him once it got out whose son he is. He looks –”
“Just like his father,” said Mum, as sharply as Cass had ever heard her.
“More and more every day,” said C’mine. “No one pays too much attention to weyrlings until they’re about ready to graduate, but when the Wingleaders were inspecting the class, and H’ned laid eyes on him…”
“That old bastard,” said Mum, with a snort. “Hasn’t he retired yet?”
“You should have seen his face,” said C’mine. “It was like he’d seen a ghost. By the next day it was all around the Weyr. M’dan wouldn’t even speak to him, and they’ve been inseparable since they Impressed.”
“He should have gone to Southern,” said Mum. “He was never going to get an even hand at Madellon.”
“Would you really have wanted him so far away?”
“No,” said Mum. “I just wish he didn’t have that shadow over him. I wish he hadn’t been exposed like this.”
“You never hid it from him.”
“Sometimes I think I should have.”
Cass went very still, straining to hear every word. Even she knew that her brother’s father was a dragonrider who’d been Exiled to Westisle before Saker had even been born, but she didn’t know the details. It wasn’t a subject you brought up with Mum; not ever.
But C’mine just said, “I thought his father’s letter would give him some answers. I didn’t think he’d do anything rash.”
Mum’s retort was laced with sarcasm. “This is my son we’re talking about?”
“Saker’s never been stupid. Bold, but not stupid.”
“And yet he –” Mum stopped. “What did he do?”
C’mine sighed. “We still don’t exactly know. They were gone for most of a sevenday, but they had leave the first two days; it was that long before anyone realised they were missing.”
“Faranth, Mine; and you’re only just telling me now?”
“We knew nothing had happened to Sormoranth or Arkandeth.”
“I’ve heard that one before.”
“They’re both fine, Saren. In disgrace, but fine.”
“And the queens haven’t got it out of them?”
“That’s just it. Their dragons won’t talk. We think they’ve been silenced.”
“By another queen.”
“It makes sense,” said C’mine. “Not even Arkandeth could have broken Tr–”
“Don’t say that name,” Mum said, in a suddenly brittle tone.
“I’m sorry,” said C’mine. “But the lads can’t have been acting alone. They’d need a queen to lift the compulsion on an Exiled dragon.”
Mum didn’t answer for a long moment. When she did, she spoke almost too softly even for Cass’ keen hearing. “Then he’s escaped?”
“He’s not on Westisle any more.”
“Where’s he gone?”
“Faranth, C’mine!” Mum sounded stricken. Cass almost never heard her use C’mine’s full name to his face. “After everything he did? And no one’s trying to find him and put him back where he belongs?”
“He was there seventeen Turns, Saren. Seventeen Turns on that barren rock.”
“He took T’kamen away from me. If it had been C’los he’d killed –”
“He didn’t kill T’kamen,” said C’mine.
Mum went silent again. “You’ve always said that,” she said at last. “And I’ve never understood why.”
“I wish I could tell you,” said C’mine.
“What’s going to happen to the boys?”
“They’ll have a few privileges revoked, stand some cold watches. The Weyrleaders can’t really prove they did anything wrong, apart from going missing for a sevenday. D’cars is no martinet, and Valonna doesn’t want to antagonise the other Weyrs by accusing another queen rider of breaking someone out of Exile.”
“And Saker’s all right? In himself?”
“Now that he and M’dan are friends again. He’s always been resilient. You’ll see him in a few sevendays, if you come to Tynerith’s Hatching.”
“You know I won’t, Mine,” said Mum, without rancour.
“And you know I’ll never stop asking,” said C’mine.
“We won’t be seeing so much of you when the clutch Hatches, will we?”
“I don’t know,” said C’mine. “I have high hopes for R’von as my assistant. And if we’re going to talk about riders resembling their fathers; Faranth, but it’s like L’stev’s back from the dead, seeing him stalking around the barracks.”
“L’stev would be proud,” said Mum. “Of both of you.”
Neither of them spoke again for a while. Cass wondered if she should stay to see if they said anything else interesting. Then, suddenly, C’mine said, “I should get back. And I promised Cass that ride down to the Hold.”
Cass fled for the safety of the tack room before she was caught listening at the door.
C’mine was waiting beside Darshanth when she came out of the runner-hold, good shoes on and slate under her arm. “Leg up?”
“I can get on myself, you know,” Cass said. Darshanth promptly drew himself up so his shoulder was higher than Cass’ head. She stuck her tongue out at him, and he dropped his jaw in a grin. “At least, I can if your dragon doesn’t act like a horrible watch-wher!”
Darshanth huffed with tolerant indignation at that. C’mine touched his elbow, and the blue dragon settled back down again. “A couple more Turns and you’ll be taller than me,” said C’mine. “And I’ll miss not giving you a boost up.”
“A couple more Turns, and I’ll have my own dragon,” Cass countered. “If Mum ever lets me.”
“She’s right about you being too young,” C’mine said. “Don’t worry. There’ll still be dragons by the time you’re old enough to stand.”
“There’d better be,” said Cass. She let him leg her up onto Darshanth’s neck. She snapped her tethers onto the secondary rings on his neck straps, then fastened the safety as C’mine had taught her when she was tiny.
C’mine swung up behind her, buckling in his own lines and then checking hers. “Anyway, you don’t want to leave your mum on her own too soon, do you?”
“She does miss Saker,” said Cass. “And you. Sometimes I wish –”
She was interrupted by Darshanth’s take-off. The force of it pushed Cass back against C’mine. He put his arm around her as Darshanth spiralled upwards over the runner-hold.
The flight to the Hold Proper was over too soon. Cass glanced up at the third floor as Darshanth landed neatly in the courtyard. Sure enough, her classmates were watching at the windows. That cheered her up.
“What do you wish?” C’mine asked, as he undid the safeties.
Cass had almost forgotten her half-finished thought. “Oh,” she said, sliding down Darshanth’s shoulder. “That we could all just go and live at the Weyr with you.”
“I don’t think there’d be room for all the runners,” C’mine told her seriously.
“Mum doesn’t just train runners,” said Cass. “Master Terroc said that she’s one of the top experts on fire-lizards on the whole of Pern.”
“That’s why Blue Shale’s the best place for her,” said C’mine. “There aren’t many fire-lizards at Madellon.”
Cass grinned up at him. “But dragons are just big fire-lizards!”
She whirled to run before C’mine could pretend to be cross with her. She wasn’t fast enough. Darshanth lunged and caught the back of her jacket in his teeth, jerking her up short. “Let go of me!” Cass complained, and when Darshanth deliberately bit down harder, his eyes whirling merrily green, she turned an imploring look on C’mine. “Make him let go!”
C’mine was laughing as he jumped down from Darshanth’s neck. He disengaged Darshanth’s teeth from Cass’ jacket, pushing his dragon’s nose away. He tugged the jacket down, straightening it out. “Serves you right for calling him a fire-lizard. Now give me a kiss and go to your lessons. And be a good girl for Harper Garynal.”
“I will,” Cass said, stretching up on tiptoe to kiss him. “Thank you for the lift.”
She’d already started away when C’mine said, “Love you.”
Cass glanced back over her shoulder to look at C’mine and Darshanth. She smiled, knowing that her classmates were still watching. “Love you too, Dad.”
“If you survive your first day, you’ll be fine,” Lehanna had said, with a knowing grin, and the words kept going through D’kedu’s mind, mantra-like. Survive today and you’ll be fine. Survive today and you’ll be fine.
You will, Covanth told him.
It wasn’t as if Lehanna hadn’t left everything in good order when she’d handed over. T’kamen’s weyr was spotlessly clean; all his harness was still shining from its last greasing; and when Covanth had asked Epherineth if he needed anything, the great bronze had replied peaceably that he didn’t. But that still left D’kedu with the Weyrleader’s office to gate-keep, his schedule to mind, and all his mundane needs to fulfil. “If he’s busy, he won’t eat unless you literally put food in front of his nose,” Lehanna had said. “And he’ll complain if you do that when he preoccupied with something, which is most of the time. Don’t let that stop you. He barks, but he doesn’t bite.”
T’kamen had indeed been preoccupied when D’kedu had brought him his breakfast, mid-morning. He’d been at Benden most of the last three days, and he hadn’t yet readjusted to Madellon time. That was something else Lehanna had warned D’kedu he’d find challenging: the need to keep appointments across multiple timezones. The row of clocks on the office wall, each showing the current time at one of the other Weyrs of Pern, had to be wound daily, and synchronised with the clock at the Smithcrafthall every other day. That was laborious, as Covanth couldn’t reach as far as the watchdragon at Taive Hold, but D’kedu wasn’t about to let that interfere with his duties. Tr’seff drilled it into them from when they were candidates that colour was no barrier to anything, and D’kedu hadn’t won the privilege of tailing for T’kamen by making excuses of his dragon’s natural limitations. He’d set aside an hour of his own free time later to go to Taive, introduce himself to the watchrider there, and arrange a relay of the accurate time via the watchdragon at Gartner Hold. It wouldn’t be his last such excursion. Lehanna had told him he’d need to make friends with people all over – not just riders, but Craft and Holdfolk too. Wherever T’kamen went, D’kedu had to smooth the way for his visit. The knowledge that he and Covanth and Mirka now had the liberty to go anywhere on Madellon’s business without asking permission from the Weyrlingmaster was both daunting and exhilarating.
But the thought that he was now responsible for the smooth day-to-day running of the Weyrleader’s life still made D’kedu nervous. Almost every name on the roll of honour that hung upon the wall above his new desk belonged to a rider who’d gone on to great things since tailing for T’kamen. Lehanna had promised to leave him alone unless he needed her – and she’d left so many helpful notes, tucked into desk drawers and between the pages of records, that D’kedu didn’t think he would. But that didn’t stop any of her predecessors from finding the time to stop by and inspect the newest addition to their esteemed ranks during that seemingly endless first morning. “It’s traditional,” Lehanna had warned him. “The old tails. They’ll try to break you, first opportunity they get. Just remember that you work for T’kamen, not them.”
So he had his response ready by the time Marshal Gr’len came storming up to the office, insisting on seeing T’kamen at once. “I’m sorry, sir, but he’s asked not to be disturbed until after forenoon.”
“Are you refusing me entry, weyrling?”
“Yes, sir,” said D’kedu. “I’m sorry, sir.”
Gr’len scowled down at him, and so did the pilot on his shoulder. “Who do you think you are, boy?”
D’kedu held himself a bit more rigidly. “The Weyrleader’s tail, sir.”
Gr’len growled, “T’kamen’s tail, and don’t ever forget it.” Then he grinned. “You might want to ask if there’s anything you can do in his stead, the next time a senior rider comes up here, though.”
“I’ll remember that, sir,” D’kedu said gratefully. Then he added, “Is there anything I can do for you?”
“No,” said Gr’len, laughing. “Just inspecting the new meat.” And he clapped D’kedu on the shoulder.
D’kedu repelled seven further would-be interlopers, including three more of T’kamen’s former tailmen. He respectfully accepted half a dozen letters and documents, and read each one carefully before sorting it into one of three piles – Urgent, Important, and Information Only. Lehanna had told him that he should probably put most things in the Important pile at first, until he learned to distinguish between what mattered and what didn’t.
He did leap instinctively out of his chair when the Weyrwoman paid a visit. “You must be the new tail,” she said. “Is he still asleep?”
D’kedu tried not to let the fact that T’kamen actually was taking an hour’s nap on the couch in his office affect his face or his tone. “He’s asked not to be disturbed,” he recited. “Is there something I can do for you, Weyrwoman?”
Dalka eyed him sceptically. “I swear you get younger every Turn. Your dragon wasn’t one of ours, was he?”
“No, Weyrwoman,” said D’kedu. “Covanth is out of Loxteth.”
“That’s the next best thing, I suppose.” She stared at him a moment longer. Then she tossed a sealed note onto the desk in front of him. “Well, weyrling; when T’kamen wakes up, give him this and tell him that we think we’ve found another sensitive, but he’s going to need to move fast unless we want Southern to claim her. And don’t repeat that to anyone, you hear?”
“Yes, Weyrwoman,” said D’kedu.
“And especially not to weyrwoman Yannise or weyrwoman Pleira; understood?”
Dalka narrowed her eyes at him, then turned and stalked away.
D’kedu put the document on the top of the Urgent pile. Even he knew that the news of another sensitive was critically important. The egg shortage meant that some weyrlings weren’t Impressing their pilots until more than a Turn into training delaying their graduation into the Wings. There’d only been fifteen eggs available for the twenty-three dragonpairs of Inferno Class when they’d begun their between training. D’kedu had been lucky to get one of them, but like any rider with a green pilot, he was painfully conscious of how fragile she was. Greens got egg-bound and died all the time, and without Mirka, Covanth couldn’t go between. D’kedu didn’t want to end up grounded like so many riders did when they lost their pilots, especially now, when fighting riders got priority over weyrlings for replacements. If Madellon had found another girl who was sensitive to dragonkind, that was another girl able to persuade a queen pilot to lay her eggs where they could be found.
The clock hands ticked over onto noon. By five minutes past, D’kedu was beginning to wonder if he should go in when the office door opened. He stood up as T’kamen rolled out. “Weyrleader, sir!”
“When I say don’t disturb me until noon, that means when it gets to noon I want to be woken,” said T’kamen.
“Yes, Weyrleader,” D’kedu said, chagrined.
“And quit with the Weyrleadering. I have a name.”
“Yes, T’kamen, sir.”
T’kamen wheeled himself deftly alongside D’kedu’s desk, one-handed, to survey the documents piled there. “What’s this?” he asked, picking up the sealed note on the Urgent pile.
“From the Weyrwoman, sir,” said D’kedu. “She says there’s word of another sensitive in Southern territory.”
“And she’ll be wanting to start a war with Eslayn to snatch her, I suppose,” said T’kamen. “It would have to be Southern, wouldn’t it?” He broke the seal on the document and scanned it, his dark eyes moving quickly. “Faranth. I need to put this fire out. Is there anything else?”
“Nothing urgent I don’t think, sir,” said D’kedu. “Notices from Starfall and the Seacraft, the Peninsula’s casualty list from their last Fall, and our eastern territory forecast.”
T’kamen swept all three piles of documents into a single stack and dropped them on his lap. “I’ll take a look.” He glanced up at the clock above D’kedu’s desk. “I’ll be an hour at least with Dalka. Why don’t you go and get something to eat?”
“Yes, sir. Can I bring you anything, sir?”
“No. That’ll do for now.”
D’kedu took a deep breath as T’kamen wheeled briskly down the corridor towards Dalka’s workroom, feeling a little bruised by his brusqueness. Covanth crowded closer in sympathy. He is a very important man, he offered.
I know, D’kedu said. I just… He took another breath, then squared his shoulders. It’s fine.
The dining hall was packed with riders. D’kedu’s new shoulder-knot would have let him jump the queue at the serving hatch, but he didn’t think he should take advantage when he was only there for himself. He waited in line for noodles and sauce, then turned to find himself a place at a weyrling table.
“Kedu! Kedu! Over here!”
J’ret’s shout carried over the hubbub of the lunchtime crowd. D’kedu moved gratefully in the direction of the tails’ table, close to the officers. “I’d forgotten I’m allowed to sit here,” he confessed, stepping over the bench to sit beside J’ret.
“Sit here?” J’ret echoed. He joshed D’kedu with an elbow, almost making him spill noodles down his wherhides. “You’re Lord of the table now!”
Several of the older tails snorted tolerantly. “Don’t get ideas,” said the girl on J’ret’s right. “You might be T’kamen’s, but you don’t have seniority.”
“Oh, and you do, Ederra,” said another boy, who was feeding noodles to his pilot.
“Was here before you, T’yanden; will be here long after you’re gone,” Ederra said serenely.
“Eddie, the career tail,” said T’yanden. He offered his hand to D’kedu across the table. “T’yanden. Danateth’s rider. I tail for Flightleader H’juke.”
“Ederra, Cenkoth’s,” said Ederra, leaning past J’ret. “And I belong to weyrwoman Pleira; permanently, since Cenkoth’s got a duff wing and is never going to fight!”
“D’kedu, Covanth’s rider,” D’kedu introduced himself in turn. “I tail for –”
“T’kamen; yes we know,” said Ederra. “Have you had a morning?”
“A little bit,” said D’kedu.
“The old tails started beasting you yet?”
“How did you know?”
“I’ve seen his tails come and go,” said Ederra. “It’s always the same story. So, any juicy gossip from his desk?”
D’kedu thought immediately of the news Dalka had brought – and her command not to tell anyone. Everyone knew that the two junior weyrwomen, Pleira and Yannise, were locked in a bitter rivalry to be named as the next Senior Weyrwoman – and that Dalka, who was just as bitterly opposed to accepting that Donauth wouldn’t rise again, hated them both. “Nothing really,” he said. “How’s your first morning gone, J’ret?”
“Oh, I have it easy, N’gon’s only a Wingsecond,” said J’ret. “And he’s just –”
Epherineth asks you to go to his rider immediately, Covanth said abruptly. In the Weyrwoman’s office.
“Shards!” D’kedu swore.
“Summons?” Ederra asked. She waved her hand at D’kedu’s startled look. “Go on, go. You don’t keep him waiting.”
D’kedu ran all the way back to Command. “I’m here, T’kamen, sir,” he panted as he rushed into Dalka’s office.
T’kamen was sitting in his chair with a document in his hand – the eastern forecast D’kedu had passed to him. He looked up from it. There was a curious expression on his face. “I need you to harness Epherineth and Covanth.”
“Of course, sir,” said D’kedu. He hesitated. “Where are we going, sir?”
T’kamen’s eyes dropped back to the document. “Fiver Hold.”
“I wonder what they’re going to call it now,” said Dalka. She was standing on the far side of the room, her arms folded. Her face was almost as unreadable as T’kamen’s.
“All these Turns it’s taken,” said T’kamen. Then he looked at D’kedu. “Well, weyrling?”
“Yes, sir,” D’kedu said quickly, and fled.
Harnessing Covanth was the work of moments. Rigging Epherineth seemed to take forever. “Harness goes on same as any other,” Lehanna had told him. “You get used to the size difference, and Epherineth will make it easy on you. Don’t let his face scare you. He’s really just a big softie.”
D’kedu had practised putting harness on a bronze – Covanth’s clutchmate Meroganth – so Epherineth’s size didn’t faze him. But there was a big difference between handling a juvenile bronze he’d known from a hatchling and touching the Weyrleader’s own dragon. His fingers fumbled over every strap, and stepping up onto the forearm that Epherineth offered him seemed a gross insult. Finally he tightened the last buckle, and stood back to examine his handiwork doubtfully.
“He says it’s fine.”
D’kedu hadn’t even heard T’kamen approach, but there he was. “I’ll get better at it, sir.”
“I know you will,” said T’kamen. “Now you can help me on.”
That was something else D’kedu had practised. Mostly, he was there to steady and support T’kamen as he got up from the chair. The Weyrleader wasn’t a big man; still D’kedu understood why his tailmen had to be tall and strong. T’kamen gripped his shoulder as he transferred his standing weight to his left, good leg, and though his lean, lined face gave no sign of discomfort, D’kedu felt it in the convulsive strength of the hand that clenched on his arm.
Epherineth pressed himself almost flat to the ground and, with grim, silent effort, T’kamen pulled himself up between the ridges. He settled his braced leg in place with only the faintest of winces, and looked down at D’kedu. “All right. Get on.”
D’kedu vaulted up to Covanth’s ridges as he had a thousand times before, and only then realised how crass it was to make an exhibition of his able-bodied athleticism.
“Don’t feel bad.” T’kamen spoke only just loud enough for his voice to carry between their two dragons. He was almost smiling as he looked down from his high seat on Epherineth’s neck. “There was a time, a couple hundred Turns ago, when I could do that.” Epherineth turned his head towards him with an unmistakeable expression of scepticism, and T’kamen drove his knuckles reproachfully against the fore-ridge. “When he was about half grown, anyway. What I’m saying, D’kedu, is that you should enjoy your youth and your fitness while it’s still yours. Don’t suppress it on my account.”
“Yes, sir,” said D’kedu, feeling worse than ever.
“Faranth, Epherineth,” T’kamen said, addressing his dragon. “These first few sevendays when they’re scared of me are always a shaffing pain in the ass.”
“I’m sorry, sir,” said D’kedu.
“You probably will be,” said T’kamen. “Let’s go to Fiver. And have Covanth take a fresh visual from Epherineth. It’s changed.”
Mirka had already taken up her position on Covanth’s fore-strap. D’kedu let himself relax as his dragon shared the visual from Epherineth and T’kamen’s pilot Fetch with both of them. He’d only been to Fiver once, when his class had been learning the visuals for Madellon’s easternmost holdings, and it took him a moment to notice what was different.
Can you see the way through? he asked, as he’d been taught.
We see it, said Covanth.
On Epherineth’s mark.
They emerged from between in the same formation they’d gone in: three dragonlengths to Epherineth’s left. The crisply autumnal chill that had been in the air at Madellon was replaced with a warm, dry, dusty breeze, and the sun was farther west in the sky. Below, along the ridge that backed Fiver Hold, the rock spires that gave the Hold its name thrust like outstretched fingers into the sky.
But one of them was gone. The second spire of the five was conspicuous as a missing tooth by its absence. Epherineth glided silently over the remaining columns, craning his neck down to look, and Covanth looked too. It fell over, he remarked to D’kedu, and sure enough the rock that had comprised the column lay in an untidy snake on the ground, fractured into sections like the vertebrae of a spine.
Epherineth circled above the fallen spire half a dozen times. Then, finally, he veered towards the Hold, and Covanth followed dutifully after him.
D’kedu helped T’kamen down from his dragon, well shielded from view by Epherineth’s bulk. Lehanna had warned D’kedu against being too quick to talk his arm. “He’ll tell you if he wants you to do that,” she’d said. “Don’t ever assume he can’t manage. Just be there to help if he can’t.”
So D’kedu followed a respectful pace behind T’kamen as the Weyrleader walked stiffly out past Epherineth towards the entrance to the Hold. It was strange to see T’kamen on his feet. At the Weyr, with the ramps and smooth floors that had been laid for him, he could move around quickly and easily in his chair, but very few places on Pern had such level surfaces. Seeing him walking – slowly, painfully, and leaning hard on his dragon-hafted cane – D’kedu could understand why T’kamen used the chair.
He searched his memory for the name of Fiver’s Holder, and recalled it just as a weather-beaten man came out of the Hold to greet T’kamen. Holder Terihf. “Weyrleader T’kamen,” he said. “This is an unexpected honour.”
T’kamen gripped the wrist offered to him. “It’s good to see you, Terihf.” He gestured with his head towards the ridge. “What happened?”
“It came down before first light,” said Terihf. “The frost this morning probably did it in the end. It’s been precarious for a long time. Frankly, we expected it to fall Turns ago.”
“Before first light,” T’kamen repeated. “And you’ve not had any…visitors?”
“Several, actually,” said Terihf. “I sent a runner to the watchrider at West Gully presently it happened. We’ve had dragons coming in all morning to get a sight.”
“There’ll be more,” said T’kamen. “Every Weyr will need to take the new visual. No one else has stopped?”
“No, they’ve just popped in and popped out again,” said Terihf. “Were you expecting someone?”
T’kamen cocked his head. “I don’t know,” he said. “Do you mind if we stay a little while?”
“It’s Fiver’s pleasure to have you here,” said Terihf. “Can I offer you something to eat or drink? A cow for Epherineth and your man’s young blue there?”
“Thank you, but no,” said T’kamen. Then he almost laughed. “Cows, Terihf? Fiver must be doing well.”
“Thanks to you,” Terihf said, with an embarrassed smile. “Peranvo’s ordered so much stone, I’ve had to hire more men.”
“Credit Dannie for that, not me,” said T’kamen. “She’s the one who authorised the resettlement. I don’t have much say in how Madellon territory is run these days.”
Terihf laughed, a polite exclamation of scepticism. “Nonetheless, Weyrleader, Fiver is grateful. And please, if there’s anything you need, don’t hesitate to ask.” He nodded to D’kedu. “Blue rider.”
T’kamen walked slowly to the edge of the courtyard and looked up at the ridge with its depleted row of spires. D’kedu looked at them, too, trying to figure out their significance to him. Lehanna hadn’t told him anything about Fiver. He thought hard, worried that he’d forgotten some crucial fact.
“What do you know about Westisle, D’kedu?”
He almost started at the direct question. He rapidly re-ordered his thoughts. “The penal colony, sir?”
“That’s the one.”
“Not very much, sir.”
T’kamen looked at him. “So you know something.”
D’kedu stood straighter. “The Weyrlingmaster said that we don’t talk about Westisle.”
“But you know what it’s for.”
“Dragonriders who’ve done really bad things.”
“Do you know the names of any of the riders who are there now?”
D’kedu shook his head.
“Have you ever heard of a rider called S’leondes?”
D’kedu thought about it. Then he shook his head again. “No, sir.”
“What about the Commander? Have you heard of him?”
That name made D’kedu go rigid. “Yes, sir.”
“And people wonder why I don’t like being called Weyrleader.” T’kamen was silent for a moment. Then he said, “A rider escaped from Westisle in the middle of the last Interval. Just one. But there’s no record of who he was.”
“Or she,” said D’kedu.
T’kamen looked at him.
“I’m sorry, sir,” D’kedu said quickly.
“Don’t be sorry,” said T’kamen. “You’re right. It could have been a woman.” He looked up towards the spires again. “But I don’t think it was.”
“Was it –” D’kedu began, and then stopped. Lehanna hadn’t given him any advice on how to ask T’kamen about his past. Maybe he wasn’t supposed to ask him that sort of question at all. You didn’t talk about – D’kedu hesitated even to think the word – timing. And T’kamen was the Weyrleader, even if he didn’t like to be called that to his face.
“I don’t bite,” said T’kamen.
“Was it someone you knew, in the Interval?” D’kedu asked.
T’kamen idly put his hand up to Fetch, riding on his shoulder as if he’d been born there. “Master Marlaw’s been like a hound with a bone ever since he stepped down as Masterharper, you know. There’s hardly a sevenday goes by that he doesn’t unearth some old document that mentions someone I knew in the Interval. Barely knew, half the time. Riders I haven’t thought about in Turns. I don’t quite have the heart to tell Marlaw to stop. I think he enjoys finding this stuff more than I do. But for all those passing references to blue and green riders I scarcely knew, Marlaw never found anything on him.”
“Who was he, sir?” D’kedu asked.
“A Wingsecond,” said T’kamen. “And Wingleader of Ops, when I left him, but not by a few months later. T’rello had taken over Ops by the time they dug half of Gartner Hold out of an avalanche in the winter of 100, and there were two new browns in the Wing. And no mention of him. No mention of him anywhere, however hard Marlaw looked. Not even as the father of one of Starfall’s founding riders, and even I made it into that record.”
D’kedu still had no idea who T’kamen was talking about. “Then you think he was…sent to Westisle?”
“I think he was,” said T’kamen, and his gaze moved again to the broken line of spires on the ridge above the Hold. “And I think he escaped. And if you escaped from Westisle, where would you go?” He answered his own question. “You wouldn’t. You couldn’t. Every dragonrider on Pern would know you were a fugitive. It’s not a question of where you would go. But when.” He looked up again, at the sky this time. “So where are you?”
D’kedu looked obediently up, but the sky was an obstinately uninterrupted expanse of blue, empty of clouds and dragons alike.
They waited there for a time, in silence. Then, finally, T’kamen exhaled a long breath. “I suppose even he wouldn’t take that kind of risk. Let’s get back to the Weyr. Epherineth.”
On the Fiver fire-heights, Epherineth roused from where he had been dozing in the warm sunshine. He rose to his hind legs, stretching out his wings, and for a moment the vast cruciform of his silhouette blotted out the sun itself.
Then he paused, his immense wings still spread. He cocked his head.
On T’kamen’s shoulder, Fetch suddenly adopted the same listening pose.
Then dragon and pilot cried out at the same time, and T’kamen swore, “Faranth shaffit!”
Epherineth sprang from the fire-heights with a tremendous leap that belied his enormous size. Fetch arrowed up to join him in a blur of wings. D’kedu looked up, shading his eyes with his hand, as the outlines of dragon and pilot merged together, and then disappeared.
“Where did they –” D’kedu began.
“You stupid reckless idiot!” T’kamen shouted. D’kedu nearly cringed away from the Weyrleader’s anger until he realised it wasn’t directed at him. T’kamen’s eyes searched the sky relentlessly for three breaths, six, ten…
And then Epherineth reappeared. D’kedu let go of the breath he hadn’t realised he’d held. For an awful instant he’d thought the Weyrleader’s dragon had gone between for good.
Then he realised that Epherineth hadn’t emerged alone.
T’kamen’s bronze had another dragon in his talons. D’kedu was put immediately in mind of the murals that decorated the dining hall in the barracks: painted scenes of heroism from earlier in the Pass, of blue and green dragons rising alone to fight Thread, of bronzes and browns flying in tireless support, and of a single bronze, greater than all of them, with a wing-scored green dragon safe in his clutches: snatched, as the ballad so famously told, from the void of cold between.
The dragon hanging now from Epherineth’s claws was no green. He was brown, but the greyest, thinnest, smallest brown D’kedu had ever seen. As Epherineth descended to the courtyard and set the small dragon carefully down, the brown’s hind legs went out from under him. He lay in a heap, his wings limply unfurled, panting and exhausted.
The sound of T’kamen’s cane clattering to the ground made D’kedu jump. The Weyrleader’s hand was suddenly on his shoulder, gripping uncomfortably hard. “Bring him a cow,” he said. “Bring him all the shaffing cows.”
D’kedu knew even his mental voice was shaky as he called, Covanth!
Then T’kamen raised his voice. “Report! Faranth blight you, brown rider, report!”
The brown’s rider released his safety and dismounted. He nearly crumpled when his feet touched the ground, just as his dragon had. He had a gold pilot on his shoulder, and she shrieked objection to the impact, dealing him a glancing blow to the back of the head with one wing.
D’kedu felt T’kamen’s fingers bite into his shoulder.
The brown rider approached slowly. He was as ragged as his dragon. His wherhides were worn and shiny with age. The glass of his goggles was cracked and his chin-strap hung loose from a broken buckle. Even his boots were patched and threadbare. He pulled goggles and helmet off in the same motion to reveal shaggy hair, mostly silver, a haggard face, and dark eyes that were both older and younger than the rest of him; and then he stopped, staring at T’kamen.
T’kamen’s hand fell from D’kedu’s shoulder. He took one halting step towards the brown rider and then another. His eyes were fixed upon the old rider’s face. They were suddenly, fiercely, full of tears. “You careless shaffing tail-fork,” he said. His voice shook. “Do you know how long it’s been since Epherineth had to pull a stupid weyrling out of between?”
The helmet dropped unheeded from the brown rider’s hand. “Kamen,” he said hoarsely, and stepped forwards. “Oh, Faranth, Kamen!”
D’kedu watched, mystified, as the brown rider fell suddenly to his knees before the Weyrleader. For an instant T’kamen looked stricken. He put his hand to the side of the brown rider’s head, forcing him to lift it, searching the gaunt, lined face. “Faranth. Faranth.” And then he went heavily to his one good knee, and hugged the brown rider’s head hard to his shoulder. “M’ric, M’ric, what did they do to you?”
M’ric. The name struck D’kedu like a thunderbolt. M’ric, whose name was top of the honour roll outside the Weyrleader’s office. M’ric, who had been T’kamen’s very first tailman. M’ric, who had been lost to Thread a dozen Turns ago, when he was barely out of weyrlinghood. How could this grey old man be M’ric?
For long moments the two riders knelt there, both shaking, both weeping. D’kedu didn’t know where to look. Lehanna hadn’t prepared him for this situation at all. How’s that cow coming, Covanth? he asked, desperately searching the sky for his dragon.
They’re faster than they look! Covanth replied muffledly.
Then, mercifully, T’kamen and the brown rider whom he’d called M’ric and embraced like a long-lost son ceased their fierce hug. M’ric raised his head. “You look older, too.”
“It’s been twelve Turns, M’ric,” said T’kamen. He spoke roughly, as if realising now that he should be embarrassed by his own emotion. “Twelve shaffing Turns. What took you so shaffing long?”
“I was…” M’ric’s mouth formed several silent words. “Detained. For seventeen Turns.”
“Seventeen –” T’kamen bit the word off. “Faranth. You look like you haven’t eaten for sixteen of those.”
“Not to say I wouldn’t be grateful for a bite,” said M’ric. “But if you offer me anything that even looks like a fish, I think I’ll go back between and stay there.”
“Get him something to eat,” T’kamen told D’kedu.
D’kedu was grateful to have something to do. He ran a dozen paces beyond the malnourished brown dragon. Half of Fiver’s holders were standing, staring, on the steps of the Hold. “Food, please, quickly,” he said. “And klah. And wine.”
Covanth came soaring over the heights then with a grey-and-white spotted cow in his grasp. He landed at a polite distance from the brown, then laid his kill down and nudged it carefully towards the drooping dragon with his nose. The brown hummed a croaky thank-you and snagged his claws into the cow to pull it closer.
A woman rushed out from the Hold, darting anxious glances at the three dragons. “More’s coming,” she said, pushing a plate of meatrolls into D’kedu’s hands.
He turned back towards T’kamen and M’ric. They were still kneeling on the ground. It struck him as suddenly ludicrous. But T’kamen suddenly recoiled from M’ric, awkward with his bad leg, and Epherineth whined. As D’kedu approached with the meatrolls, he heard T’kamen ask, “What do you mean?”
“Please,” said M’ric. “I took her from you. I can give you her back. I can send you home.”
T’kamen looked away from him, and for a moment D’kedu saw something surface in his eyes: an ancient yearning, long suppressed. The word resonated like a grumble of thunder, elemental and seductive. Home.
And then the longing faded from his eyes, like a brief spring squall clearing from the sky. “Home is here, M’ric. For a very long time. Home is now.”
“But she’s –”
“She’s fine,” T’kamen said. He spoke more firmly now. Whatever temptation had made him waver had passed. “She doesn’t need either of us. She never did.”
M’ric sat back on his haunches, looking lost. “All these Turns,” he said. “All these Turns I’ve thought about how to make it right…”
“There’s nothing to make right,” said T’kamen. “Everything’s as it should be. And you’re home. You’re free.”
M’ric echoed the word as if it had no meaning to him. “Free?”
“Free to choose your own path,” said T’kamen.
M’ric shook his head. “I don’t even know what that is.”
“That’s the point,” said T’kamen. “That’s the whole Thread-blighted point.”
The two riders stared at each other, and though they didn’t look very alike, D’kedu was suddenly struck by how their fierce dark eyes mirrored each other, black with shared secrets and unspoken knowledge.
“There’s so much I have to tell you,” M’ric began, in a voice that nearly broke. “Saren. C’mine. My son. Yours –”
T’kamen silenced him with a gesture. “And there’ll be time for that.” He spoke roughly again. “There’ll be time for all of that.” He turned his head. “Help me up, D’kedu.”
As D’kedu reached down to help him to his feet, M’ric asked, “Who’s this?”
“My current tail,” said T’kamen. “D’kedu, this is M’ric.” He smiled suddenly, somewhere between a grin and a grimace. “My many-times great-grandson.”
“Five times,” said M’ric, accepting D’kedu’s hand up.
“I always suspected,” said M’ric. “Dalka showed me her picture of M’dan. I figured out the rest in the Interval.”
“Faranth blight it,” said T’kamen. “Seeing the look of horror on your face when I told you was the only reason I ever wanted to see you again.”
“So do I have to call you granddad?”
“You do that and I’ll send you straight back where you came from,” said T’kamen. “Like I don’t feel old enough as it is.”
“Then what do I call you?” M’ric asked. He touched the braid on T’kamen’s shoulder. “Who are you now?”
“I’m who I always was,” said T’kamen. “I’m Epherineth’s rider. Nothing else really matters.” He limped a couple of paces towards the brown dragon. “Faranth, Trebruth, you need feeding up.”
“He’s the Weyrleader,” D’kedu muttered, affronted despite himself that anyone, even a brown rider back from the dead, didn’t know.
M’ric turned back to him, frowning. “The Weyrleader? Since when did Eighth Pass Madellon have a Weyrleader?”
“Not Madellon’s Weyrleader,” said D’kedu. “The Weyrleader.”
M’ric looked at him, his lined brow creased in a frown.
D’kedu made a gesture with both hands, but even as he did he knew he couldn’t encompass everything T’kamen was, everything he’d done, everything he represented. “He’s T’kamen,” he said, because the name alone would have sufficed for any other man, woman, or child on Pern, any dragon or pilot, every rider or holder or crafter with eyes to see or ears to hear. “T’kamen,” he said again, and heard pride resound in his own voice. “The Weyrleader of Pern.”
Continue to Characters in Act Five
Comments and feedback
Dragonchoice 3 is also posted at FanFiction.net and An Archive Of Our Own - if you'd like to review, comment, or ask a question, feel free to do so there.
- Dragonchoice 3 at FanFiction.net
- Dragonchoice 3 at An Archive Of Our Own
- Dragonchoice is also on Twitter and Tumblr
Dragonchoice 3 news
- Dragonchoice re-read and commentary at AO3 posted 22 December 2017
- The end is nigh posted 8 February 2017
- Happy (nearly) birthday, Dragonchoice 3! posted 5 October 2016
- Venn diagram posted 25 February 2016
- Don’t let me Rosebud; or, why your feedback matters posted 17 February 2016