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Old Apr 24 2007, 02:25 AM   #3
HarperBrandy
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Join Date: Apr 2007
Location: California
Gender: F
Default Chapter 2

Chapter 2
Tap Your Heels Home




Caelin had his tasks set for him during Threadfall just like everyone else in the Weyr. Only, his chores were not about providing numbweed to scored hide or packing the right size and grade of firestone into bags. His main job was to keep the population of Weyr fire lizards from doing any real mischief during this very serious time.

It was no easy task. Weyrfolk in general were more empathic than the average Pernese, and able to bond easily with the little lizards. If Caelin could count above twenty, he would have known there was a population of give or take five hundred fire lizards populating the Weyr in any given time. The real amount never mattered to him. It was just “a lot”… much more than one man could handle. So during times like this he usually only directed the golds and bronzes. They would then pass on his orders to the other fairs.

Ista Weyr was at least rich in metallic fire lizards if not metallic dragons.

Caelin’s living quarters was pleasantly filled with squeaking, chattering and scolding fairs that knocked over everything there was to knock over, rearranged light objects, and generally tore the place apart. He didn’t care. It was much better to have them tear up his private room in pre-Threadfall anxiety rather than create havoc among the Weyr. It also gave him time to check up on them, and make sure no one had a cracked hide or was being underfed.

“Settle down, Suzza.” He murmured, reaching out with his mind to impose calm on the jittery green in his arms. She was a twitchy green, uncomfortable in her own skin, and obviously unused to being handled.

T’bayek had asked him one time what the mental voices of fire lizards sounded like, since he had none of his own. Caelin found at that time that couldn’t really answer him. It wasn’t as if he heard their squeaky little voices inside of his head like a rider did with a dragon. His brand of communication was instead filled with images and feelings and a sort of… understanding. Yes, that was probably the best word. It was as if he had an understanding with the fire lizards around him. He understood them, and they him.

Well, whatever it was, his abilities had him living at the Weyr now, and that was many times better than cleaning the cold rooms of Bitra Hold… even if had never been his decision to leave in the first place. It wasn’t a drudge’s right to decide where he was needed. His family had been good, solid workers and had benefited the Hold. He had been the spare and had been sent onto the Weyr along with one of the tithe trains a few turns back along with a few others to supplement a poor harvest.

With one hand, he dabbed at Suzza’s cracked hide with the jar of oil he kept in the room for just such an occasion. After the worst of the imperfections were taken care of, the little lizard sighed in relief and became putty in his hands, rubbing the side of her head against his arm in thanks. Caelin smiled and continued his ministrations, making a mental note to have a word with her owner. Suzza’s clutch brother, a bronze who had impressed to the same person, was sporting a flawless hide. It still irked Caelin that the Weyrfolk were more prone to neglecting their pets even more than the Hold folk had been. Here, as in Bitra, owning a fire lizard was a minor sign of rank. But in the Hold, fire lizards were scarcer and more treasured. The Weyrfolk seemed to take them almost for granted. After all, the main prized beast was the dragon, not the lowly lizard.

Finally, the fire lizard’s hide was as good as one long oiling would make it. “There we go. All better now?”

Suzza chirped again and took off from his arm to go hand next to her bronze brother on the frame of a portrait. She was replaced within moments by a pale shaded gold, young enough to be Impressed quite recently.

Caelin blinked in surprise. “Hello, I don’t think I’ve seen you before.” Which was odd, seeing as the harpers who had arrived at the Weyr only owned a pair of blue fire lizards. He hadn’t been aware of any recent fire lizard Impressions either, much less a gold hatchling.

Petrey, ever faithful on his shoulder, peeped a greeting that was ignored by the other lizard. Instead the stranger regarded Caelin for a moment before flopping on her side, laying herself across the table and lifting one wing to show Caelin where the oil was needed. Her soft skin was still cold from going /between/, but Caelin couldn’t find any imperfection in her hide. Whomever she belonged too at least knew how to oil a hatchling correctly. No images or fragmented feelings came from the strange gold to tell Caelin of her origin. With a shrug, he bent down an applied the oil anyway. He could never turn away a beast in need.

Once finished, the young gold gave his fingers a gentle nip of thanks and rubbed her back in a feline fashion against his hand. Only because she seemed to be unusually friendly for her color did he gently scoop her up, turning her small head to make her look into his eyes. He wanted to know who she was Impressed too, and who had socialized her so well.

Primal flashes of thought exploded into his mind. Emotions of fear! Regret! A sense of dread!

Then an image, clearer than Caelin had ever seen from a fire lizard before… Almost as if he was looking though his own two eyes. Rising up before him was a half crumbled stone wall, red lines cut across its face if someone had painted it wildly with blood. Words. But even though the image was burned into his mind, he not know the message on that wall. Caelin could not read.

“Stop!” He gasped, loosing his grip on the young queen in his surprise. The little fire lizard shrieked as she fell, disappearing into /between/ before she hit the floor.

As closely linked as he was to the fire lizards around him Caelin’s own thoughts sometimes bled accidentally into the fairs of the Weyr. There was a ripple of wings by questioning chirps as each lizard started to question each other for more information.

Caelin’s hands bit at the table in front of him. Even though the queen was gone, the images kept flooding, unbidden into his mind. Images of people arguing, people coughing, a piece of paper with writing scrawled on it… more people coughing… each image was echoed back and forth to the fire lizards in the room, and then attached with its own questioning feeling – or with the case of the golds – a command for some sort of answer. The fire lizards were relaying what they were picking up from either their owners or second hand from other fairs and were asking him for understanding.

Opening his eyes, Caelin was started to see that the population in his room had more than doubled. Fire lizards of every shade and size clung onto every surface. Hundreds of jeweled eyes were upon him.

“I… I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on.” He told the mass outloud, not understanding the why or how of the images anymore than his friends around him. Why were people coughing? Was it the plague? Reaching up to touch Petrey’s back, he fought down his own panic lest it translated to the fairs. “I don’t know what’s going on.” He said repeated, “But it’s going to be okay-“

Then, the fighting wings started their attack on the Thread, felt though the link between the Impressed lizards and their dragonrider owners.

“No!” Caelin felt the intentions of the massed lizards just as well as if they were his own. Hyped up and nervous over the images they had already received; they wanted to go and help their owners and protect them from danger. But that would be a disaster… before he had come to the Weyr many firelizards were lost when the Threadfighting became sour. Faranth help them they tried to help, but they were flighty and untrained and many died -- either by scoring or by the flame of a dragon who didn’t see them in time. “No, you can’t! Stop!”

Reaching out to the queens he knew were in the room, he forced them to obey him, and though them, the rest of the population.

None of the lizards blinked /between/, but it didn’t stop the images from coming, unceasing, into his mind. Revamped images of the sickened people he had witnessed before – fire lizards loved to repeat things over and over again – images of dragons fighting, of Thread being flamed.

And over and over again, came the image of the wall, words written in blood…

Caelin shook his head, squeezing his eyes firmly shut to try to get a handle back on his own mind. He had no formal training… everything he had learned was from trial and error, and so there were holes in the walls he tried to throw up inside of his own mind. Slowly, he regained control and the frightening images finally slowed.

Opening his eyes, he forced himself to breathe deeply and calmly. Although alarming, he logically knew that there was nothing he could do about what he had just seen at this moment with the Weyr engaged in its battle with Thread. As soon as this fall was over, he would report what he had seen to the Headwoman and let her make the report to the people who could do things. As he had been told many times by the people who called themselves his betters, anything outside of the scope of fire lizard care and control were not his to bother with. Surely the Weyrleaders would know what to do if the plague had returned. They rode the dragons, after all

That thought should have calmed him, but he had spent too much time listening to T’bayek. Try as he might, he didn’t have the confidence that he should have in the Weyr leadership.

Angeli’s golden Regan, who was sitting nearby, chirped a question at him, probably picking up on his thoughts.

“Don’t tell on me.” He answered weakly, wiping the sweat from his brow with his sleeve. He wasn’t really worried, though. The impression he had received from Regan was that the fire lizard never got as much attention as she wanted ever since Angeli had Impressed Palomath some fifteen turns prior. The chances of her paying attention long enough for Regan to communicate Caelin’s dissatisfaction were very slim. He was more concerned about Headwoman Phasha’s bronze Bellow. That woman not only listened carefully to her fire lizard, she didn’t like Caelin. Something about her having to give up her room to support the large amount of fire lizards that flocked to him during Threadfall …

Caelin snorted in amusement, and the action helped to clear his mind of the rest of the repeating images. As he relaxed, so did the fire lizards around him. He had gained their trust a long time ago, and to see that he wasn’t upset anymore helped them all settle down immensely. After a bit they grew bored with trading the images back and forth.

Acting more out of habit than anything else, Caelin picked up the jar of oil and went to administer it to the next cracked hide that he saw. Hands shaking, he didn’t allow himself to think any longer about the young gold or what she had shown him, knowing that the fire lizards around him would focus in immediately on those thoughts again.

And so the hours passed with the supply of the oil growing slowly lower and lower.

He was just starting to think about preparing the fire lizard’s mid-day meal when yet another sudden disturbing image hit him, jerking him out of his thoughts. Only this image wasn’t from some mysterious hatchling. It was from the collection around him, passed to him by way of the dragons.

… A darkly colored bronze pushing Palomath out of the way of a Thread ovoid, and then crying out in pain, left wing scored by a Thread ovoid that had burst open…

“Zhemyth!”

The seconds ticked slowly by as he waited for the reaction of the fire lizards around him. Some of them twittered and shuffled their wings, but were otherwise unconcerned. T’bayek himself wasn’t linked to any fire lizards, and they had become far too used to seeing dragons scored in falls like this.

It couldn’t have been a bad hit then.

Then Petrey gave a shriek of alarm, forewarning Caelin against an onslaught of other images. Golden Palomath was screaming in agony on the bowl, her neck gushing green ichor…

Then came the images of a bronze body bowled over by Thread, and blinking /between/.

Caelin’s knees became like water and he sat down, hard. “No… no… oh shards, no… please…”Around him the fire lizards keened softly, a higher pitched echo of their greater cousins. Dully, he shook his head, refusing to believe the images he was still seeing… no… not Zhemyth… not T’bayek…. He never got to tell him…

Another mass of images including one he recognized from the mind of D’en’s green Illia. One of a man with dark hair and haunted eyes screaming, fighting against another who was trying to keep him adragonback.

Without pause for thought about the fire lizards around him, Caelin pelted out of his room, dashing though the lower caverns and emerging outside just as D’en and Lelioth emerged out of /between/. The brown turned in a tight circle and landed beside the entrance to the infirmary.

Running up, Caelin could see the figure of a slumped over man still astride the brown’s neck. He arrived just as D’en was passing T’bayek down to the waiting healers. Still unconscious, there was the slight puff of a dark bruise forming around his temple and right eye.

“—had to do it. He would have pulled me along with him.” D’en was saying.

“Any scores?” The healer asked as he manhandled the limp form to a nearby stretcher.

“No. Neither me or him.”

Caelin shouldered his way in, “What happened?” He asked, eyes darting from his prone friend to the Weyrlingmaster.

“Bad fall… Zhemyth got hit by a clump. It….” D’en cut off what he was about to say what a snap of his teeth and a convulsive swallow. “I need to get back up there. My Weyrlings need me. Take care of your friend… He’ll need someone now.” Lelioth shivered his hide as he spoke, warning the people around him that he was about to take off. A great leap upward and only one downsweep of wings and they were back /between/ to the fall.


*******

Later in the evening, after the Weyr had completed its fall and the all clear had sounded, Weyrwoman Angeli still stood by her injured lifemate in the infirmary dedicated solely for dragons. “How are you feeling?” Angeli murmured, reaching up and placing one hand on her queen’s golden jaw. “Any more pain?”

The gold leaned into her rider’s touch, welcoming it. My neck feels tight, but no. No pain.

“Are you hungry? Thirsty? I could fetch a drudge to get you some water.”

Palomath’s jeweled eyes gleamed bluely in the semi darkness of early evening. You worry about me too much. I am fine.

The Weyrwoman winced; wishing for just a moment that she could enjoy the benefits of a dragon’s shortened memory. It was only a few hours ago that Palomath was bleeding profusely on the floor of the Weyr bowl, the shrapnel of the Thread ovoid opening up a deep wound in her neck, dangerously close to the big artery there. She had to have emergency stitches, and was now confined by healer’s orders to the infirmary for the next few days, neck swathed with clean cotton bandages. Luckily, the scoring had been unusually neat and she was expected to recover fully.

I am fine. The queen repeated, firmly. I am luckier than some.

“Try not to think about that, love.” Angeli rested her head against her dragon’s soft hide, listening to the soothing double heart beats and the blood rushing though now unbroken veins. Hot tears pricked at the back of her eyes. She had been lucky, very lucky not to loose her Palomath today. If Zhemyth and T’bayek had not been there…

They were. Palomath mental voice was ever calm, ever present in her head. And you should take your own advice and not think about it.

She smiled up at the dragon. “I thought that I was supposed to be the one to comfort you.”

The healers stitched me up, and I am comfortable. The Weyr is what needs you, now.

The Weyrwoman sighed, knowing that Palomath was right. From the moment they had been scored, Angeli had been so involved in helping Palomath with her pain, and later on directing the healers in stitching up her hide, she had barely enough time to recognize and deal with the end of the Threadfall. Of course, once Thread had left the sky, it was up to the Holders to raise and maintain ground defense, but usually she had Palomath fly a low sweep for visible moral support. Especially since Benden was her home Hold and her father was Lord of Benden Hold.

She also had to help the Weyr cope with the loss of a young bronze.

It was a rare occasion when a rider wasn’t mortally injured along with his dragon. The last time it had happened was two turns ago with an extremely unlucky bluerider who had run his beast in the path of another’s flame. The man had, of course, become psychotic at the loss of his dragon and had killed himself a few days after. An event like that upset the entire Weyr, and Angeli wasn’t looking forward to having to rebuild moral after this incident.

Plus, she had the uneasy feeling that she may be blamed by some for what happened. Not only had Zhemyth given his life to save Palomath, but Angeli had been the one to put them in the Weyrling wing in the first place. It was a shame… the bronzerider had been a loud mouth, and needed to be knocked down a peg or two, but his dragon had not deserved to die.

What was even worse, the Weyr had surely been upset by their senior queen’s injury… that was the only reason in her mind that would explain why the focus on fighting had fell in the fighting wings just when the unpredictable winds became their worst. No more dragons were lost, thank Faranth, but five had taken scores that would keep them out for at least three falls.

No, she was not looking forward to fixing this mess. For a long moment, Angeli longed to be a Weyrling again with no other responsibilities other than to stay next to her dragon, make her as comfy as possible and bask in her calm presence. Oh, how she wished she could have her problems all just disappear! Sometimes she felt smothered by her duties, and the problems of the Weyr that seemed to multiply like tunnelsnakes in a cave. Maybe she would start small and work her way up, visit some of the wounded dragons and lend them support—

The one whom the fire lizards heed is upset.
Palomath cut in, helpfully. Maybe you could visit him?

Her ambiguous statement caused Angeli a moment of confusion until the queen sent her a picture of the man she was talking about. The drudge who she had seen the night before, dancing with T’bayek.

He is upset, and it upsets Regan.
Palomath’s eyes had a tinge of gray to them underneath the whirling blue. He blames himself for Zhemyth, I have tried to talk to him… but he does hear me.

Tears again pricked the corner of her eyes, overcome for a moment by her queen’s compassion even in the face of her own injury. “Oh Palomath, don’t worry yourself about him.” She wrapped her arms around the golden muzzle, “Save your strength and focus on getting well again. I promise as soon as your able we’ll spend a day just relaxing at the beach so we both just put this behind us. Just you and me.” She then attended to the dragon’s eye ridges, giving her a good scratch and telling her queen how wonderful, how beautiful and caring she was until the gold was comfortable enough to fall asleep.

Now, to deal with those who would upset her queen.


*******

Caelin sighed, shifted in the uncomfortable chair that he had been given to sit in and then sighed again for lack of anything else to do. Although he sat at his side when the healers had done their checkup, T’bayek had remained firmly unconscious throughout the rest of the day and into the evening. As it was explained a few hours ago, beyond waiting there was nothing that the healers could do for him. T’bayek didn’t have any real physical issues aside from the bruising D’en had given him.

All of his grievous injuries were the mental sort.

It didn’t seem possible that this could happen. Not to someone he knew. Not to T’bayek. Caelin didn’t know of anything that was more feared by any dragonrider than to have their lifemates die, leaving the riders to live alone, a mere shell of a person.

That was, if they chose to live at all.

None of the healers would answer any of his questions directly, and Caelin could guess why. If T’bayek was in too much pain, and if he was absolutely set on ending his own life they wouldn’t do a thing to stop him. It would be more of a mercy for him to die than have him suffering a lifetime half dead.

Lying in the infirmary cot, T’bayek he looked even smaller than he usually did, more fragile. His skin was pale, drained of the confident sort of energy that had nearly radiated off of him when… when Zhemyth was still alive. Caelin remembered it was that energy that had first warmed him to the other man in the first place, despite his lack of fire lizards. Even though he was a bronzerider, T’bayek had never treated him as someone of less importance. As Caelin got to know him more, the friendship he felt turned into a nagging crush that wouldn’t go away, and at times – well a lot of the time -- Caelin wished that Zhemyth was a blue or green instead of a bronze.

He remembered dancing…

( X ) ( X ) ( X )

It had been a turn ago, almost to the exact day. The night of Turnover had brought hours of feasting and celebration over the official start of the new calendar Turn, a time for the promise of new things. There had been wine… oh yes; there had been lots and lot of wine to go around. The Weyr had flown a successful fall that very day and the uninjured riders wanted to celebrate both their success and take advantage of the rare Harper visit. Everyone was dancing.

Caelin remembered that his calves had ached from it after awhile, but when T’bayek had jokingly asked him to join him on the dancing square for the first time, well, suddenly his legs found new life again.

The dragonrider was light in his arms, lithe and nimble to complement his own larger form. They were also both drunk enough not to care what people thought about a bronzerider dancing with another male, a drudge at that. All Caelin cared about in those whirlwind dances was pulling T’bayek closer, or the all too short moments when the other man was pressed up against him, touching him.

One of the more frantic, fast paced tunes had them unable to keep up. Stumbling off the dance floor, they somehow ended up in darkened corridor. Caelin didn’t remember who started kissing whom, but suddenly their lips met in the dark and he was tasting the night’s wine on T’bayek’s lips and smelling the spiced scent of dragon on him.

Drunken peels of laughter broke them apart every few moments for breath, and Caelin remembered wondering if any of it was truly real. But T’bayek was kissing him back with increasing need and real or no, he responded by pushing the bronzerider further in the dark for more privacy.

The coquettish kisses turned into something more, and soon the chuckles stopped as their mouth’s met in something that was deep and roiling with unleashed passion. He remembered feeling hands in his short hair and on the back of his neck, feeling those fingers leaving hot trails wherever they touched. Pressed together as they were, he could feel T’bayek’s heart beat under his thin shirt, felt as well as heard the shuddering moan when Caelin pressed harder against him.

The kiss broke suddenly, surprising Caelin into looking into his friends eyes. Despite the darkness, they had been just as dilated with a mix of intoxication and lust as his were, but there was something else… something was wrong. “What?”

“We need to stop.”

Caelin gave a quick shake of his head, and trying to brush off the request, he bent his head down to place small kisses on the side of his jaw, hands slipping under his shirt to stroke and feel the taunt skin he felt there. T’bayek shivered and pulled him in for another long, deep kiss.

But it only lasted for a few brief moments. Again, T’bayek was the one who broke it off broke it off, gasping for air. “Caelin… please…” Gently, but firmly the rider had put a hand on either shoulder and pushed him away.

Caelin didn’t remember being angry or confused, just frustrated. “Why?”

“Because I’m a bronzerider.” T’bayek only met his eyes for a moment before turning away, leaning a closed fist on the cool stone wall. “I’m sorry.”

And although Caelin didn’t know it then, looking back he knew that was when his secret resentment of Zhemyth had started. If only he were a brown or a blue or a green or… or anything but bronze! Even the brownriders sometimes took male mates. But the bronzers… never. Not outside of mating flight, and everyone knew those didn’t count for anything. It just wasn’t right. It went against the order of things

“It’s okay,” he had said, a turn ago, his voice gruff with emotion.

T’bayek gave a mirthless laugh, “I swear, I’m never going to drink this much again.”

“It’s okay.” He repeated, knowing that T’bayek was just making excuses, and that he was letting him do it.

( X ) ( X ) ( X )

It wasn’t okay.

He should have never let T’bayek excuse away what happened on that night. He should have never let it go, never let himself be such a coward. Or maybe he should have done the opposite… just ended everything right there, as much as his heart rebelled against it. One thing was for sure; he should have never let himself entertain the wish that Zhemyth was a bronze and not something else.

Caelin shut his eyes, squeezing out the resentful thoughts that wouldn’t stop bubbling up. On some level Zhemyth must have known what was in his heart. Couldn’t dragons see what was in a man’s mind and in his soul? What if he had somehow been the cause of the dragon’s death?

The logical part of him said that one thing had nothing to do with another. But all the logic in Pern didn’t help with the massive guilt that had bubbled up upon seeing T’bayek like this… or the shame.

“I’m so sorry, Tobay. I should have been a better friend to you. I should have never, never let myself think badly of you or Zhemyth.”

There was no answer from the unconscious man. Not even a twitch.

Caelin sat quiet for a moment, twisting his fingers together nervously. “I’m sure you don’t want to hear it, anyway. I’m sure that’s the last thing you’re probably thinking about.” He heaved a sigh, “I’m so sorry. I would give anything, anything to take away your pain.”

Footsteps echoed down the narrow hallway, cutting off his rambling and Caelin turned expecting to see another one of the healers come to check on their charge, but it came as a shock so acute that it was almost painful to see the Weyrwoman instead.

“Don’t bother.” She said, waiving at him to sit back down when he stood automatically to acknowledge her presence. “How is he doing?”

“Um, he—he’s still asleep.” He stammered, hoping that the woman wasn’t mistaking him for a healer, despite his lack of knots. Even though he helped care for her fire lizard, Angeli had never spoken directly to him, other than to order him to get her drinks. What was she doing there anyway? It was she who put T’bayek in the Weyrling wing, and therefore in the path of danger. Still, Thread wasn’t anyone’s fault… she had not chosen to intentionally hurt T’bayek or Zhemyth. In fact, her dragon had been seriously injured as well. “Weyrwoman… can, I ask… er, what I mean is—“ He couldn’t help it. In the face of someone with so much rank, none of the words he wanted to say would come out right.

Angeli wasn’t very much help. “Spit it out, Caelin.”

She knew his name? That surprising knowledge helped him find his words. “How is Palomath, ma’am?”

Some of his surprise must have translated to his voice for she glanced at him quickly before answering. “Recovering. She took a nasty score to her neck and it would have hit been worse if not for Zhemyth.” Angeli paused, then added, “I would have lost her.”

Good, came the irrational, blasphemous thought. Who cared if Palomath was one of only two queens? T’bayek would be okay. He would be whole again. “I’m glad that she will be okay.” His voice sounded hollow and insincere, even to his own ears.

For a moment, Angeli didn’t speak. Walking around to the other side of T’bayek’s cot, she reached out and felt his forehead for a moment before withdrawing her hand. “You’re upset with me.” It wasn’t a question.

Caelin shook his head quickly. Interacting with the Weyrwoman was akin to dealing with fire if she was in the wrong mood. She had proven that much with T’bayek last night. but he couldn’t lie to her, either. It was wrong to lie to a goldrider. “No, Ma’am...Well, not really. I didn’t know Zhemyth saved Palomath, is all.”

Her next words surprised him. “It wasn’t your fault either.”

“How did—“Caelin looked up at her, surprise written on his face. Then he glanced over to his shoulder where Petrey sat, looking properly ashamed. “Did Petrey tell you?”

“No.” She walked over to the foot of T’bayek’s cot as she spoke, picking up the chart and pausing to read whatever was inscribed there before placing it back. “Your fire lizard told my Regan who told Palomath. She then tried to talk some sense to you, but… are you dragon deaf?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“For all that you can manage the fire lizards… amazing.”

Caelin felt the heat of a blush spreading from his cheeks to his neck. In the three turns he had been at the Weyr, this was by far the most the Weyrwoman had ever spoken to him. In fact, the Weyrwoman seemed to be waiting for him to speak further. That surprised him, for as much as he was respected though the Weyr for his ability with the firelizards, his rank was nothing. Angeli and Gh’stin had made it clear enough that a person’s rank meant very much to them… why had that changed now? He tried to think of a response, perhaps something eloquent like he had heard the dragonriders say… but nothing else was springing to his mind other than, “They like me, I guess.”

Angeli still studied the chart, not affording him a glance. “My dragon should be resting and trying to recover, but she was bothered enough to ask me to talk to you. What do you think about that?”

Uh-oh. The tone of warning in her voice was loud and clear. “Weyrwoman, I would never want to… I mean, the last thing I would want to do is bother a dragon as important as yours, ma’am.” And that was the honest truth.

Now Angeli looked up from the chart and walked over to him, all power and confidence in her step. “Palomath also told me that you blame yourself for Zhemyth’s death, and that you somehow think you caused it.” One hand fell to her hip as she regarded him levelly. “So, tell me, drudge. Do you think that your silly thoughts are important enough to influence a dragon, much less a bronze?”

Again he shook his head, taking a step back despite himself. “No-no, Weyrwoman.”

“And do you think that a dragon would even care what someone like you would have in your head?”

“Of course not. No.”

The Weyrwoman finally seemed satisfied at his answers. “Good. Then I trust that I won’t hear of you keeping my queen up and agitated while she is trying to recover.”

He nodded again, promising himself that he wouldn’t be so outspoken with his own thoughts. Even though her words had been sharp, she did have a point and he did feel a little better. It was just a bit stupid to be worried that he might have somehow influenced a great beast like Zhemyth just because he liked his rider.

The silence lengthened, and Caelin looked down at the cot, feeling his throat tighten up all over again at the sight of his friend. He hadn’t much as twitched at the conversation going on above him. What was he going to do if T’bayek didn’t want to live anymore? Was he just going to let him die? On the other hand, how could he in good conscience ask him to live?

As he searched his own soul for the answers to that, another thought struck him. The mystery of the coughing people that the fire lizards had told him about earlier, and the wall written with blood. Looking up, he saw that the Weyrwoman had moved to the other side of the cot and was also watching T’bayek, an expression on her face he couldn’t quite read. Well, it would be inexcusable not to report what he had seen from the fire lizards… he should not have waited this long already. “Weyrwoman?”

“Yes?”

“Has the Sickness come back?”

Now she looked up sharply, “What in the world would make you ask something like that, Caelin?”

“Oh, um,” he shifted around nervously, now seriously regretting having spoken up. Belatedly, he realized that he should have just taken this to the Headwoman, despite the fact that they didn’t really get along. “Well, the fire lizards… you see, they tell me things, and they were showing me sick people. It looked like they were in Benden Hold, although I can’t be sure.” He intentionally left out the vision of the bloody wall, knowing that talking about it would make him seem… crazy.

But far from being alarmed, she closed her eyes in a look of exasperation. “And that is why you don’t get your gossip from fire lizards. Bendan is my home Hold, and my father is the Lord. No one is sick there.”

The images had seemed so real! Those couldn’t have been faked… could they? “But, ma’am…Fire lizards don’t just make things up. They don’t have the minds for it. They only pass on what they’ve seen, and they saw sick people. In Benden.”

“That’s enough! Your Weyrleader visited the Hold just today and reported all to be well, and I trust his word more than any fire lizard.”

At her sharp tone, he looked down again, eyes firmly fixed to T’bayek’s cot. He knew what he saw, and he trusted his fire lizard friends, even if she didn’t. “Weyrwoman, I am not--.”

She cut him off, with a dismissive wave of her hand. “I’ll have no more of that nonsense spread about by the fire lizards either.” Despite her words, she shivered, “People around here are stressed enough by this fall, and by my Palomath’s injury. I do not want to hear you spreading panic in this Weyr!”

Caelin flinched at her rising tone, and swallowed hard, nodding his head. Maybe she was right. She would know, wouldn’t she? She was a goldrider, and he had no right to question her. “Yes, ma’am.”

Angeli stared at him for a moment, as if testing the integrity of his words. Finally, she let out an annoyed sigh, rubbing her hands together as if trying to rid herself of all disturbing thoughts of the plague. “Very well. All of this talk has made me thirsty. Fetch me some juice – I’ll stay with T’bayek while you’re away.”

He hesitated for a moment, somehow not feeling comfortable with the idea of leaving her with his friend. He knew a dismissal when he heard it, and also feared what she might do if he just outright refused her. With a nod and one last glance at T’bayek, he walked out of the room and down the long hallway, averting his eyes from the mostly empty sickbeds. Thank the first egg the fire lizards had not shown those full of sick and dying people. That would only make sense during the time of a plague. He must have just been… mistaken, somehow.

“The Weyrwoman requests some juice,” he said, walking up to the station where the Journeyman on duty sat, thumbing through some hides.

The man didn’t even look up to acknowledge him. “Down the hall and to the right,” he answered in an obviously bored tone, pointing in the general direction.

Caelin hadn’t taken more than three steps before a shriek was heard, coming back from T’bayek’s room. Without a pause he turned, pelting back towards the room with the healer hot on his heels. He half expected… well, he didn’t know what to expect. Only that T’bayek would surely be upset – crazed - over the loss of his dragon, and the Weyrwoman would make an all too easy target…

But rounding the corner he saw no violent scene. Angeli was standing back against the wall, looking at T’bayek in surprise… and T’bayek… well he was still laying down. In fact, there was no change about him at all other than the fact that his eyes were half opened, staring up, face blank at the ceiling above.

“Weyrwoman?” The healer questioned, looking between them.

“I—“she shook her head, “he startled me, is all. One moment he was asleep and the next, his eyes were open.”

Caelin didn’t care. Forgetting his place for a moment, he went over to the side of the cot, gripping T’bayek’s hand and finding it cold to the touch. “T’bayek? Can you hear me?”

There was no reaction from the dragonless man. Not a blink or a twitch on his vacant face. It was as if he was only half awake, completely unaware of those around him.

The Journeyman stepped in, putting a hand on Caelin’s shoulder to gently but firmly push him away so he could step in to take the man’s pulse and lean over to look into his eyes. There was no reaction to his poking and prodding, and after a few moments he looked up at Angeli and shook his head. “He’s still in a state of shock. We may need to sedate him once he comes out of it, though. For his own protection.”

“But—but if you do that, how will he learn to get over the loss of his dragon?” Caelin protested, looking from the healer to Weyrwoman and back again.

“A loss of a dragon is not something you ‘get over’, drudge.” Angeli answered, unnecessarily reminding him of his place. In slightly more civil tones, she spoke to the Journeyman. “Do whatever you can do for him. I don’t need to remind you the sacrifice this man has just made to protect Pern. See to it that he doesn’t suffer.” With that order made, she turned and exited the small room.

To Caelin, it somehow looked like a retreat.

*******


It was the voices that woke him. The voices that brought him back into awareness and emptiness. He knew that something was wrong immediately. There was something gone from him, something that left such a hole in his heart and mind that it physically hurt.

He mentally reached out, instinctively seeking comfort from the other who had been in his mind, only to encounter nothing.

Half of him was dead, and all he wanted to do was to have the other half die along with it.

It was so quiet. The voices had stopped talking in the room, and the silence in his head pressed inward unbearably. Then… it wasn’t so silent any more. The female voice spoke again, although it seemed to be at first to herself.

“—it’s okay dear heart,” came a murmur, right beside him. “I’m not that upset.” A pause, “Go to sleep, Palomath. I’ll be there presently.”

Palomath… Zhemyth… where was Zhemyth?

The empty ache and brutal silence now had a name.

Instinctively, his mind shrank away from that pain and knowledge that the very name brought up. Fleeing from the pain, not thinking about it… not allowing himself to think at all felt much better than to actually have to face what was gone from him now.

He lost himself, then. There, but not there. Awake, but not apart of the conscious world. He shrank himself away from reality, because he couldn’t bear to deal with the pain of existing without his other half.

Eyes opening, he looked around the room, not caring that he didn’t recognize where he was at all. It didn’t matter… nothing mattered.

There was a woman standing by his bed. She called him T’bayek… but that wasn’t his name, was it? Not anymore.

A shout brought in two males. They talked, and the words meant nothing to him. Words couldn’t stop the pain, or dampen the feeling of loss that engulfed him in a fog. He couldn’t move… he could only feel the emptiness inside. The outside world wasn’t important anymore… Nothing was important anymore.

He woke many times since then, and more often than not a man with fair hair and eyes was there by his bed. The man would often smile brightly at his awakening and try to engage him in conversation, but he couldn’t answer back. The pain and the silence inside muted him.

Nevertheless, the sound of the voice did bring a small measure of comfort, if only slightly.

There were also people in healer’s knots. They didn’t talk very much, and their voices didn’t carry the same caring tone. They also tried to get him to eat, but as soon as he tasted their soups on his tongue he spat it out.

To eat and drink was to exist… he didn’t want to exist.

*******


The next morning, Weyrleader Gh’stin was in a rare sort of mood. “Eleven established burrows!” He punctuated this with a pounded hand on the conference table, making the assembled Wingleaders in front of him start in surprise. “One is unacceptable, but eleven!?”

In his mind he could hear Ozycath give the same treatment to the Wingleader’s dragons, only the bronze was using more descriptive language.

There was the sound of shuffling feet and cleared throats before Wingleader Ed’mon decided to speak. “Simply put, Weyrleader, we are down on dragons.”

Gh’stin rounded on him, happy to find an outlet for his rage at his Weyr’s poor performance. “That is a sad excuse, brownrider! We have flown well with twenty less dragons just a turn before! So tell me, why did your wing let so many Threads fall past their wings?”

To his credit, Ed’mon didn’t back down from the other man’s fury. Instead he straightened up, squaring his shoulders and replied crisply, “Last turn I had two more brownriders to add to my numbers, but now they’ve been shuffled around to leadership and I no longer have their flame to back us up.”

“You have some of the best blues and greens to your wings, and if you don’t take advantage of them, your brownrider friends will not be the last to be shuffled out.” Gh’stin glared around at the rest of the assembled group, “Well? What about the rest of you? F’ron? B’yau? H’randle?”

None of those men spoke up, but aged bronzerider R’jule took his opportunity to speak. “Sir, Ed’mon has a point. Faranth help the blues and greens. They turn on a mark and do more work than my Winth can in two Threadfalls, but they don’t have the wide flame to take out the most on the upper levels. The greens have to rest for half the fall, leaving us at only partial strength. It’s not enough, sir.” He spoke with a tone that suggested Gh’stin, being Weyrleader, should know this by now. Only another bronzerider could get away with that insolent voice. “We were always were low before, but last turn we hadn’t lost bronzer Br’ret to that heart attack. We also had Zhemyth, and Palomath wasn’t out of action.”

Angeli spoke from the back, “Palomath will fly with the queen’s wing in the next fall.”

R’jule nodded his head to her, “Yes, but Trenith will rise soon, and one gold a wing does not make.”

There was a general murmur around the room as the Wingleader’s agreed.

Gh’stin held up his hand for silence. “D’en, how is your senior class coming along?”

The Weyrlingmaster looked up from the table, a sour expression on his face. He had been at his post for far too long not to know where his Weyrleader was going with this. “It’s too soon for them. We’ve just got them started on flaming drills. They’re not ready.”

Gh’stin’s jaw tightened, “You’ve got a week to make them ready. We need reinforcements, even if it is just for part of a fall. We cannot have this fall happen again.”

“Sir-“

“One week.” He repeated, cutting the other man off short. “It’s about time they were properly blooded, anyway. Pern needs dragonmen, not boys.”

Bronzerider B’yau cleared his throat before he stood up. “Gh’stin, perhaps we should hold Weyr-wide drills on our off days, and rotate the dragons in and out. The riders are getting stagnant in their positions. If we switched things up-“

“No,” he dismissed that notion with a quick shake of his head. “The last thing this Weyr needs is a reshuffle. The greens and blues won’t know what to do with themselves, and I won’t be putting exhausted riders at risk with pointless wing drills. Exhaustion breeds lower immunity and the last thing we need is the Sickness in this Weyr. We need every thing on wings we can get up there, men. No…” He shook his head again, “I want your ideas – good ideas – on my desk at first light. Dismissed!”

One by one the Wingleaders filed out, too used to Weyr discipline to question their Weyrleader outright. Finally there was only Gh’stin and Angeli left. Alone with his Weyrmate at last, the Weyrleader let his shoulder’s slump, “They’re right, you know. The blues and greens are doing their best, but we need bigger dragons to balance it out!”

“Palomath and I will be up for next fall.” Angeli repeated, walking over to sit down in this chair next to his. “It will be fine. You will find a way to work it out tomorrow. You’ll see.”

Gh’stin dragged a hand down his face, turning away from his Weyrmate to stand up and pace. “Have you spoken to Clea yet?”

“Yes, and she is aware of how important it is that this be a good, long flight.”

Her words buoyed him for a moment and he smiled at her. “Good, because I don’t intend on letting any of the others have their chance at Palomath when she rises.” He knew that his Ozzy’s notoriously short catches was a source of several rude jokes in the Weyr, but it didn’t matter. He had loved Angeli since they were Hold children. She, a daughter of the Lord and he a simple weaver’s craft boy. They had been searched at the same time, and Impressed compatible colors… and now, Weyrmates for the past thirteen turns that Palomath had risen. His childhood dream had come true and he never intended to let any other man have so much as a shot at winning her. Yes, a short flight made for small clutches, but Clea’s Trenith was young and fertile and should be able to pick up the manageable slack.

Angeli raised her head, a half smile on her face. She had been thinking along the same lines. “You know that Ozycath’s already won her hearts, and mine.” She looked like she wanted to say more, but was interrupted by a wide yawn. “Excuse me! It’s been a tiring day!”

“Yes, and you were having nightmares all night.” Gh’stin’s smile softened when she looked at him in surprise, “You can’t fool me, woman. We’ve been Weyrmates for far too long. Still worried about Palomath?”

She tried to wave that away, “No, she’ll be fine. It’s just… I was so close to losing her…”

Striding over, the Gh’stin took Angeli’s hand and pulled her up into a hug. “But you didn’t. She’ll live and you’ll live and she’ll have a hundred more eggs next clutch to repopulate the Weyr.”

Angeli chuckled, “I’d be over the moons if next clutch was over thirty.”

“Hmm… first let’s have Clea prove herself,” Pulling back, Gh’stin cradled her jaw in his wide hand, “then next time, my love, it’ll be your turn.”


*******

5 days later

*******


“How are you?” Yenessa asked, sitting herself by Caelin’s side, giving him a sad sort of smile.

“Huh?” Caelin had been absently stirring his spoon into his mashed oats, lost in his own thoughts. He had been sitting there, trying to eat today’s breakfast for the better part of a hour, but all he managed was to make a soupy mess in his bowl. It was hard to find an appetite nowdays. “T’bayek still won’t eat or talk. It’s been nearly five days. He just lays there and just stares at nothing for hours at a time. Yenessa, I don’t know if he’s going to survive.”

The Wingthird sighed and scooted closer, giving his knee a friendly pat. “Silly, I didn’t ask about that stubborn idiot. I asked how you were holding up.”

Caelin shot her a dark look, but despite her flippant words there were lines of worry on her face that matched his own. “Fine, I guess.” He murmured, around a spoonful of oats.

Her green eyes regarded him for a moment. “You are a horrible liar.” A pause, “Caelin, I know that you don’t want to hear this, but—“

“Yeah, I don’t want to hear it.”

Of course she continued anyway. “—but the man we knew died days ago. What is lying in that infirmary is,” she broke off and sighed, “just a shell.”

In all honestly, Caelin wasn’t surprised at her attitude. He had been expecting someone to come to him and say something like this for a few days now. In fact if he was a betting man he would put marks that she had probably been put up to it, possibly by one of the healers. “How would you know?” He asked her, putting down the spoon and regarding her solemnly, “You haven’t been to see him once.”

That struck home, and Yenessa looked down, knowing she had no real recourse to that. “I know. You’re right. It is hard to explain, but… seeing someone like that, who has lost so much… Caelin… it’s too hard to think about. ”

So this is what the dragonriders of Ista have become? thought Caelin, sadly, so self absorbed that they didn’t even care to see any of their friends because it upset them? For the first time, he really understood what T’bayek used say when their discussion of the Weyr politics ran late into the night and wine bottle… there was something wrong in this Weyr.

But he didn’t say that out loud. He knew he didn’t carry a high enough rank to have the privilege to speak his mind. The only one he could ever really do that with was lying in the infirmary right now, for despite all of her friendliness Yenessa was still a ranker of the Weyr. Her ideas were more valid than his, and any real argument he put forward would get him into trouble. So he just stayed silent.

She shifted around, uncomfortable with his obvious disapproval, but having nothing to say when he said nothing. “Well? What do you want me to say?” She asked, at last.

“I want you to help me find a reason for T’bayek to live again.”

“I can think of every reason for him not to want to live.” She answered, honesty making her voice crack. “I can’t even imagine what it must be like, and to be surrounded by other people’s dragons…. Has anyone thought of taking him back to his home hold? Maybe he should be with family, now.”

Caelin rejected that idea right away. “No.” He said, firmly. “You know how he said he said he hated it there. Shards, that’d be the worst place for him to go! They’d eat him alive. You were in Weyrling training with him. You have to think of something!”

She was silent, staring at him with slow burning realization in her eyes, and at first he worried that he had gone too far with her. Yes, they were friends, but they were not equals and now she looked as if she was going to call him out on that. Her next words surprised him. “Did you ever tell him how you felt? Don’t deny it, Caelin.”

Caelin glanced down at the table, an unexpected lump sticking in the middle of his throat. “No. It doesn’t matter, anyway. He won’t want to hear it, and that’s not going to be good enough to make him want to live.” And as he said it, he knew it was true.

Reaching out, she covered his hand with her own, shapely fingers curving over his own wider ones. In her gentle touch she expressed the sorrow that her pride would not allow her to say out loud. “Caelin, it’s not a reflection on you. There can’t be any other way after Impression. Think about what it would feel like to lose Petrey, and then multiply that by a hundred.”

“I… I was never so good at math.”

“You know what I mean, dear.”

The lump expanded in his throat bringing with it a wash of despair and resignation so intense that he closed eyes. He was going to have to watch the man he cared for so deeply waste away, and there was nothing he could do for him. He wasn’t enough. He wasn’t even enough for T’bayek when Zhemyth was alive. That had been proven when they had danced at the last-

Wait a minute.

A cornel of an idea struck Caelin and he opened his eyes to look on Yenessa’s sympathetic face. “Turnover is today?” He had been so worried that he had quite forgotten the date.

But to his relief she nodded wiping a stray tear from her eye. “Yes.”

The despair dissipated from his mind, burned away by the barest flicker of hope. “Save two seats this evening, would you?” He asked, getting up.

“What? Why?”

Caelin couldn’t resist the barest ghost of a smile. “You know how much T’bayek loves his music.”

*******


He woke again to sharp words, a man and a woman holding a short but intense conversation over his head. Reluctantly opening his eyes, he saw the blond man again. Now, the caring voice that he had come to associate with his presence was gone. He and one of the females in healer’s knots were exchanging words.

Not caring, he closed his eyes, but was shaken a few moments later by the man. He was saying something, asking him to do… something. The meaning escaped him, and it hurt too much to understand anyway.

Unsatisfied with his lack of response, the man grabbed his arms in a firm yet supportive grip and tipped him up. Suddenly he found himself standing up. Feet that had only felt the cot mattress the last few days were suddenly on the ground and supporting him as he was pushed along. It didn’t matter where he was going.

There was nothing useful for his eyes to see. He didn’t care where he was being led. His legs felt weak, but they still worked. His balance was unsteady, but the hand on his shoulder made sure he didn’t tip. He didn’t care. Didn’t care about the seat he was finally instilled in with a woman with sad green eyes staring at him across the table.

More noises. More sounds. He let his chin fall on his chest, eyes staring straight ahead… seeing but not seeing.

It didn’t matter.

A sound in the air… a vibration that was no simple clatter or talk. Without meaning too, he tipped his head to the noise and was rewarded by another sound, a twang of an instrument. It was followed by another… and then opening notes.

Notes. Music.

The Duty song.

A flicker of a memory sparked up in the vague recesses of his mind. The Duty song was the first song he played as a boy… he had played it on the little flute his uncle had given to him until it had made his parents sick to hear it. For awhile, it had actually been banned at the cot hold, forcing him to find little tunings around the melody it so they would never know it was that very song he played.

Memories of his childhood seeped back, giving him a starting point for the man that was himself. His childhood had been difficult. Hands that should have been tuning instruments were instead put to work trying to turn out a decent harvest out of poor soil, but he had not known any other existence. For the most part, he had been happy.

Happy…

His memories, his soul did not come back to him like a dam bursting. It was like a snowball starting its long decent down a mountain, gathering speed and mass as it went.

Blinking his eyes, he saw objects and the people around him. A table. A plate. And the familiar man sitting to the side of him with hope in those light blue eyes of him. He looked horrible, like he hadn’t slept for a week. Concerned, he reached out, touching a hand to the side of the other man’s face, “Caelin?”

Caelin lit up into an incredulous smile, “Welcome back, my friend.” Reaching up, Caelin took the other man’s hand and curled his fingers around something cold and hard. It was an object he now recognized as a spoon. Someone had also placed a bowl of soup in front of him, too.

The Duty song ended, but just as he started to wonder at the loss of sound another chord was struck. It chased away the immediate deafening silence in his head. Sighing in relief, he picked up the spoon and ladled the broth in his mouth.

The moment the mild liquid hit his tongue he didn’t need any more encouragement to keep going. Suddenly he was aware of his body, aware of the deep ache in his stomach and thirst that he had not felt before, lost in his grief as he had been. The woman – Yenessa - placed a cup of water before him just as he started to look for it, and he gulped it down.

“How are you feeling, T’bayek?” She asked refilling the cup with a pitcher.

For a moment he was confused. The name sounded… alien to him. Wrong. It belonged to another man in another time. Someone special had been the first to call him that… way back in another lifetime. That thought brought a fresh wave of pain that lingered with him, as if a door had been opened in his mind that he couldn’t close again.

Shutting his eyes for a moment he shook his head. “Don’t call me that. I’m Tobay. Just… Tobay.”

“Okay.” Caelin squeezed his shoulder, and Tobay felt unexpectedly warm at the human contact.

The change to yet another song caught his attention, drawing him even away from the food. Turning his head towards it, he gave it his rapt attention. The sound of music helped to fill in the emptiness in his thoughts, and he was content to just stay still and listen.

The two sitting next to him seemed to sense that he didn’t want to talk and let him be, encouraging him to eat and drink mostly between the brief breaks.

Eventually, though, the toll of Tobay’s self imposed starvation started to catch up with him, robbing his body of energy. Before long his head started to bob against his chest.

“Tobay,” Yenessa said the word awkwardly, as she was not used to the new name yet. “Are you ready to go back to the infirmary now?”

Sleepily, he shook his head. “No. I don’t. Don’t make me…” He didn’t want to go back there to the sterile walls and the silence inside and out … to not wanting to eat or sleep… not wanting to exist. But he didn’t have the energy to express himself, nor had the words in his newly awakened mind.

“No?” She repeated, and if he would have looked at her he would have seen her frowning. “Caelin, install him in your room, then.”

He felt the other man give a little start behind him. “I can’t do that—“

“Well do you expect me to put him in my weyr?”

Weyr? He remembered he had a weyr…

“No, of course not.” Caelin gave a sigh of resignation, and the hand slipped again to Tobay’s shoulder. “Can you walk? It’s not far.”

He gave a tired nod and before he knew it he was being helped up again and led to another area. Although Caelin had only promised a short walk, he was exhausted and ready to collapse by the time he found the bed. Lying down with a groan, the last thing he felt before he drifted off was the warm feeling of Petrey curling up by the small of his back.

To be continued...

*******


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