The Last Rider
I hate you, Atath¸ M’touf told his green, before he’d even opened his eyes.
Hate you too, Atath replied sleepily. Why?
Because… M’touf flung his arm over to the other side of the bed. Empty, of course. Empty as it always was when Horovath flew Atath. Which was almost every time Atath rose. Because as possessive as that shaffing brown always was about claiming M’touf’s green as his – and as delighted as Atath always was to be caught by a Wingsecond’s brown nearly as light and fast as a blue – and as enthusiastic as N’rogen always was about M’touf straight after a flight…
M’touf opened his eyes and glared at the empty sheets beside him.
Because you let that tail-fork catch you again, he told Atath.
He rolled out of bed and pulled on the trousers he’d shed, then the loose linen tunic, shaking sand out of both of them. He leaned over to strip the bed in quick, efficient motions, dumping the sheets in the laundry basket for one of the Weyr’s washerwomen to collect. Not many Igenite green riders bothered, but M’touf always stripped the flight weyr’s bed, and put clean sheets on for the next green rider. He’d been taught to believe in that simple courtesy.
His left boot was on the floor near the weyr exit. The right, it turned out, was still on the ledge. M’touf shoved his feet into them, and then winced as his right toes encountered the gritty results of an hour’s exposure to Igen’s prevailing winds. He pulled the boot off, turned it upside down, and watched as sand poured out of it.
Atath lifted her nose from her forearm, showering sand. Sand had piled up against her in little heaps. Sand coated her hide, turning it dull and dry. Sand was always crusting under her eyelids, even the inner ones, causing nasty, sore little scratches on her eyes. The older Igenites all had permanent clouding to their eye-facets from a lifetime of sand blowing on them night and day. M’touf got a wet cloth and wiped Atath’s eyes clean of grit. He had to do it three or four times a day. “Better?”
I’d like a real wash, Atath said. I feel all dirty.
“You’re not the only one,” said M’touf. He looked out at the arid, sun-bleached Bowl of Igen Weyr, its Rim eroded by the constant blowing sand. Nothing grew there. No water ran, much less pooled. Igen’s dragons used sandy wallows to scour themselves, so accustomed to dust baths that few of them even bothered to go farther afield to bathe in actual water. Those that did tended to go to the coast and swim in the sea, but Atath hated that too. The only thing worse than a dusty hide, she insisted, was an itchy, sticky, salty one.
M’touf made a sudden decision. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s get out of here.”
Out of this weyr? Atath asked.
“Out of Igen,” said M’touf. Atath still had her harness on. She never gave M’touf much warning of rising, and they’d been on their way back from a routine sweep flight when she’d turned from her usual forest-green to something more like the vivid Boll jungle between one wingstroke and the next.
Atath got up, stretching like a feline. Where shall we go?
M’touf glanced up at the sun, still blistering even as it sank towards the western Rim of Igen’s Bowl. “Home.”
They emerged into a rain shower.
Oh! Atath exclaimed, giving a joyful little shimmy, and throwing her head upwards in pleasure.
M’touf tipped his head back too, relishing the gentle patter of raindrops on his face, taking a deep breath of cool, damp air. He wasn’t exactly dressed for it. He didn’t care. Being soaked to the skin was a luxury he’d seldom enjoyed since he transferred to Igen Weyr.
The bronze dragon on watch bugled a challenge that started strident and then lifted at the end, in surprise and recognition. Atath squealed with delight. Yes, Oaxuth, it is! We are back!
M’touf wiped water from his eyes with the back of his hand, blinking down at the Star Stones. Oaxuth’s dark, gold-dappled hide was unmistakeable, and so was the stocky rider leaning against him with one foot cocked characteristically back against the bronze’s side. He cupped his hands around his mouth. “Yooo! R’von!”
“Yooo, M’touf!” the rider below bellowed back. “Get your fork down here!”
Atath descended – rather hair-raisingly – towards the Rim. Sorry, she apologised. I was expecting more thermal!
We’re not in Igen any more, M’touf reminded her, grinning, as she corrected her descent.
Oaxuth stepped back to make room, barely waiting for Atath to alight beside him before putting his head fondly over her neck. “Don’t get fresh with her, you dirty old thing,” M’touf told the bronze, slapping Oaxuth’s broad muzzle. “She only rose this morning!”
“Well thank Faranth for that!” said R’von, grinning up from below. “Ox’d probably have flown her, and glad as I am to see you, I can do without a close-up view of your skinny ginger arse!”
“He’d never’ve caught her,” M’touf said, laughing, as he released his safety strap. He swung down Atath’s shoulder, straight into R’von’s bear hug. “Good to see you, too,” he panted, between breath-juddering thumps on his back.
R’von released him and took a step back, underneath the awning that protected Madellon’s watch rider from the weather. “What’s brought you down from the sandpit?”
M’touf shrugged. “I just…needed a change of scene. Atath wants a bath. And word was when I swept this morning that Shimpath’s started laying?”
“Word is right,” said R’von. “She was on her fourth last Ox heard. Muzzanth’s like a wher with two tails.”
“Muzzanth, though,” M’touf said, shaking his head. “I couldn’t believe it when I heard he’d flown Shimpath!”
“You weren’t the only one,” said R’von. “I mean, not that I was expecting Ox to fly her, his first queen flight, but we thought Izath was in line for it. Redmyth or Kidbeth, maybe. But no one thought T’gat would end up Weyrleader.”
“How’s he doing?” M’touf asked.
R’von spread his hands. “So far, so nothing shocking? Let’s see; S’herdo’s got North Central now; but you must have known that. B’mon got his bump to four stripes; he has T’kamen’s old Wing. But – and you didn’t hear this from me – T’rello’s going to get West Central.”
“T’gat’s giving him H’ned’s Wing?” M’touf asked, shocked.
“Only because H’ned is offity-shaffing to Telgar just as soon as they can figure out which pain-in-the-fork bronze they want to exchange him for,” said R’von. “That’s why it’s not official yet.”
“How did you find out?” M’touf asked.
R’von shrugged. “Ox caught Jagunth last sevenday. And Carleah would’ve heard it from Tarshe, so you know it’s good intel.”
“But Berzunth’s still not risen yet?”
“Nope,” said R’von. “But then ours won’t be three for another couple months, will they?” He grinned and punched Oaxuth’s shoulder. “Anyway, it’s giving Ox some more time to get his eye in with the greens.”
“Have you and Tarshe…?” M’touf asked, and when R’von scowled, laughed out loud. “Shards, R’von, you looked exactly like Low-Brow then!”
“Go between,” R’von told him, shoving him. “Nah, Tarshe says she doesn’t want to pre-empt Berzunth’s choice by getting involved with any bronze riders. Including H’nar, before you ask,” he added. “I mean, she’s got brown riders trailing around after her like puppies. P’lian’s so lovesick he’s practically cross-eyed. He’s convinced that whoever flies Berzunth, Tarshe’ll have him as her weyrmate, like the Weyrwoman and G’kalte.”
“And will she?”
“Not when Ox flies Berzunth,” R’von said, with perfect bronze rider smugness.
“You know Tarshe would shove you off the Rim if she heard you say that,” M’touf told him.
“I know,” R’von admitted. “But you’re not going to tell her, are you?”
“I’ll think about it,” M’touf said, and ducked when R’von raised a fist with mock-menace.
“So why are you really here?” R’von asked, regarding M’touf measuringly. “It must be a restday in Igen, too. Isn’t there a Gather or something for you to go to?”
“Not at this time of day,” said M’touf. “It’s scorching until the sun goes down.”
“You do look a little scaly,” R’von observed.
M’touf scratched at the peeling, sunburnt skin of his face. “I don’t know, R’von,” he said finally. “I stayed at Igen because… Well. There was a brown rider.”
“Still is,” M’touf admitted. “But he’s a Wingsecond now. You know, at Igen, officers don’t eat with the rest of the Weyr? They have their own mess. N’rogen’s always in there, now, hobnobbing with the other rankers.”
“Oh yes, those shaffing snobby Wingseconds,” R’von said, brushing casually at his own two-stripe epaulettes.
“His brown still flies Atath, and sometimes he’ll come by my weyr late at night if he’s feeling lonely, but he wouldn’t be seen dead coming out of there in the morning.” M’touf huffed. “It’s just frustrating, you know? Like he thinks he’s better than me, now he has rank.”
“What about your Wing?” asked R’von. “Decent Wingleader?”
“Decent,” said M’touf, “but – I don’t know. I’m still ‘that Madellon green’. I never really bonded with the weyrlings I joined, you know. And their dragons were six sevendays older than Atath, so she was playing catch-up from the moment we got there. We were the last pair to be tapped to a Wing, and…”
“Faranth, M’touf, that sounds scorched,” R’von said, when M’touf trailed off. “Why don’t you just come home?”
“I –” M’touf began.
R’von punched his arm. “Come home. You’re a Madellon rider. Atath’s a Madellon green. Faranth’s sake, she can even go between! There are half a dozen greens and blues ready to retire from the Wings, and there’ve been no between-capable replacements since the Rainmakers graduated, six Turns ago. I guarantee there’s not a single Wingleader who wouldn’t bite your arm off to the shoulder.”
“I’m fairly attached to my arm,” M’touf said.
R’von gave him a look. “You know what I mean. Maybe Igen haven’t got it through their dusty brains yet, but Pern’s not producing dragons who can go between any more. Faranth, M’touf – you’re the last one! The last new rider who can join a traditional Wing. From here on in, between-capable Wings are only going to shrink. Whoever gets you gets the last drop of fresh, between-capable blood on Pern.”
“I hadn’t thought about it like that,” M’touf admitted.
“And that’s why I Impressed a bronze and you got a green,” said R’von, with a shrug.
M’touf punched him. “Tail-fork!”
“Yeah, but I’m a Madellon tail-fork,” said R’von. “Look. Think about it. Go and give Atath a nice long, wet bath – you can borrow some clothes from my weyr if you want; we’re in SE14, one of the new ones – and then go see T’gat. He’ll be in the Hatching Ground drooling over everything that falls out from under Shimpath’s tail.”
“There’s that Madellonian respect for the senior queen that I’ve been missing,” said M’touf.
“Best Weyr on Pern,” said R’von. “Go on. I don’t know if it’s you or Atath, but someone around here’s smelling funky…”
An hour later, and with Atath nearly buried in a heap of her blue and green clutchmates, who’d arrived en masse to greet their prodigal sister during her bath, M’touf tugged self-consciously at the sleeves of his borrowed shirt – R’von was stockier and shorter than him – and headed into the Hatching Ground.
He stopped barely a pace inside, staring. Shimpath, Madellon’s senior queen, was hunching in the most awkward position – one wing extended, the other tightly furled; her tail held up over her back; her head turned almost completely around on her neck, with one eye squeezed shut and the other spinning like a green and yellow pinwheel in a hurricane.
Muzzanth, T’gat’s bronze, crouched beside her, looking apologetic. As M’touf watched, the pale bronze dragon made a soft query – to which Shimpath responded with a short, sharp bark that made Muzzanth cringe back, flattening himself. Then Shimpath made a long, high keening sound, scrunching her other eye shut.
Valonna, Madellon’s diminutive Senior Weyrwoman, stood at the edge of the tiers of seating, holding onto the barrier between stands and sands. She was, M’touf noticed, quite noticeably pregnant, herself. “That’s it, Shimpath; it’s almost there,” she said, craning her neck to look underneath her queen. “I can see it – one more push!”
Shimpath groaned, and then an egg rolled out from beneath her tail – a big greeny-grey one. It was a rather elongated shape, though M’touf thought that was probably down to its torturous journey. The queen nudged it out from under herself before settling back to the sand with a long, exhausted sigh, and framing the new egg – and four smaller ones – between her forearms.
“Oh, that’s a lovely sized egg!” said T’gat, Madellon’s new Weyrleader, from just beyond Valonna.
Shimpath snorted. “She says that’s all right for you to say,” said Valonna. “You didn’t have to lay it.” She leaned over the barrier slightly to look at her queen’s hind parts. “You look quite sore, Shimpath. I think Master Vhion should take a look at you.” She looked around, frowning. “Bother. I keep forgetting Besson’s not here to run my errands.”
“I’ll go,” T’gat said. “I think Shimpath might like a break from looking at my face. Can I get you anything, Valonna?”
“Well, you can’t go to the necessary for me, or I’d have you do that,” said Valonna.
“I would if I could!” T’gat laughed. “Hang tight. I’ll get the Dragon Healer.”
“I could go and get him, sir,” M’touf volunteered, feeling rather awkward standing there.
The Weyrleader cocked his head as he approached him. “Green rider…M’touf, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir,” M’touf said, standing straight. “M’touf, green Atath’s rider, Igen Weyr.”
“Wildfire class, weren’t you?” asked T’gat.
M’touf couldn’t remember ever exchanging ten words with T’gat before. He’d been a Wingleader at Madellon for Turns, but a rather self-contained, unpresumptuous one: medium height, medium build, mostly bald, with mild brown eyes and expressive eyebrows. “Yes, sir,” he replied.
“But your green could go between, so H’ned shipped you off north to finish your training with a between-capable class,” T’gat said, nodding. “I remember now.”
“Sir, I can fetch Master Vhion for you,” M’touf said.
“That’s kind of you to offer, son, but I need to stretch my legs anyway.” T’gat turned. “Valonna, young M’touf’s visiting, from Igen.”
“Do come over, M’touf,” Valonna said. “I’d come to you, but I’m not moving very quickly these days!”
“Not my fault, before you ask,” T’gat said, with the air of a man who’d been asked more than a few times. “Though Muzzanth’s happy to take all the blame for Shimpath’s current delicacy.” He smiled and slapped M’touf’s shoulder in a friendly way.
“Come and sit with me, M’touf,” Valonna said. “Shimpath’s brewing another egg that was stuck behind that big one, but she won’t bite.”
Obediently, M’touf stepped up into the bottom tier, circling the Sands to reach Valonna’s position close to the queen. Madellon’s senior Weyrwoman was a tiny young woman – notwithstanding her pregnancy – who nonetheless radiated a calm, hard-won sense of authority. “You and Shimpath look well, Weyrwoman,” M’touf offered.
“We’re both enormous and miserable with it!” Valonna said, laughing. “Though at least Shimpath will be free of her burden in another day or two; I still have months to go.” She settled herself back down on one of the cushioned seats, and patted the one next to her. “Sit! How has Igen been treating you, M’touf?”
M’touf sat. “It’s very…dry.”
“I see,” said Valonna. She paused. “And how is Atath finding it?”
“She…” M’touf stopped, halfway through formulating a polite answer. “It’s not Madellon,” he said at last, honestly.
“I see,” Valonna said again.
They sat there for a moment. M’touf was too embarrassed to look at the Weyrwoman, feeling he’d said too much; that he’d complained; that he’d implied there was something wrong with his adoptive Weyr.
Shimpath groaned again, and lifted herself up off the sand.
“Is Besson all right?” M’touf asked, to fill the uncomfortable silence. Besson had Impressed from the clutch before Atath’s – a clutch where M’touf himself had been left standing at the tender age of thirteen, and Besson, younger than him by two full months, had been the youngest girl to Impress.
“Oh, she’s fine,” said Valonna. “Just – like all of us, it seems – expecting. It’s been such a help, having her on hand to run errands for me. I don’t know what I ever did without her – even before I discovered I was pregnant.” She rose, uncomfortably, to look at Shimpath, who was contorting herself again. “No, I can’t see anything yet. You really think you have another so soon?”
Shimpath blew out a long breath through her nostrils, and lay down again. The greeny-grey egg was rounding out, M’touf thought, now it had space to relax. Shimpath licked it wearily.
“It’s usually at least an hour between eggs,” Valonna said, her brow wrinkling. “And it took her almost three to lay that big one. It’s nearly the size of Berzunth’s egg.”
“A bronze, then?” asked M’touf.
“I’m sure L’stev will have an opinion, when he sees it,” Valonna says. “He’s always been the best at judging.”
“Will he be Weyrlingmaster again?”
The Weyrwoman nodded. “He’s already briefing the Search riders.” She looked sideways at M’touf. “Is Atath sensitive, do you know?”
“No, I don’t think so,” said M’touf. “At least, she’s never paid attention to a candidate. We always thought P’lian’s Sparth would be the Search-sensitive one, from the Wildfires.”
“Now, you’re the second person to say that to me this morning,” said Valonna. “Carleah said the exact same thing. Sparth? A brown?” She frowned. “I’ll mention it to L’stev. Though it is inconvenient that Sparth can’t go between. It rather limits his range. But P’lian’s from the Healer Hall. Perhaps, if he’s visiting home in the next few sevendays he might keep his eyes open for a prospect.” She frowned again. “Which reminds me – bother. Someone needs to go to Speardike and collect our medicine. Tarshe and Carleah are too busy to fly straight.”
M’touf hesitated. “I could do that.”
“You’re very kind, M’touf,” Valonna said, smiling, “but you’re a guest. I wouldn’t dream of putting you to work!”
“No, I mean…” M’touf felt himself colour. “I mean, I could run errands for you. Like Besson, I mean. That was always the tradition, wasn’t it? Weyrwoman Fianine had E’sorin as her runner, didn’t she, and V’ley before that, because they were the youngest green riders from their classes.”
“You’re not the youngest green rider, M’touf,” Valonna said, though there was a thoughtful note to her voice. “And – shells, you belong to Igen now!”
“But I am the youngest green rider whose dragon can go between,” said M’touf. “The – the last rider, of any colour, or any Weyr, who can. I could help here. I could be useful.”
Valonna went very quiet. Then she turned to M’touf, laying her hand – slim, pale, but somehow incredibly comforting, on his arm. “Do you want to come home, M’touf?”
Yes! said Atath.
M’touf put his hand over the Weyrwoman’s. “Yes,” he said, and felt his voice vibrate with emotion. “I want to come home.”