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Old Jul 6 2008, 02:56 AM   #1
Kath
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Please leave any feedback for this story here... It's a work in progress, but almost completed now, so you can expect very regular updates for once.


Those the dragons heed


Chapter 1

As the three dragons appeared from between, high above the fields of Green Lake Hold, Martonal was already staring upwards into the pale sky, one hand shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun.

Aside from water breaks, this was the first time he’d stopped working all morning. Not that he’d had much choice—the new vegetables for his family cothold’s kitchen garden wouldn’t plant themselves, after all, and there was a lot more work to be done if his team of young siblings and cousins were to finish all their chores before evening. He could barely remember when they’d last had a proper rest-day at all. Certainly not since Nickor, the Journeyman Harper from South Telgar, had last visited Green Lake Hold to check on the children’s education. They hadn’t even had a decent Gather since the last trader caravan passed through earlier in the spring, but with things as they were all across Pern, that was hardly surprising. Too many people had been left half crippled by the plague seven turns back and able bodies were at a premium, especially with so many helpless mouths to feed. If you could walk, you worked; that was the law of Green Lake Hold.

Some things were different elsewhere. Nickor had told him that a few months back. In the first turn after the plague, some Holders had chosen to turn out their crippled, carting them to the borders of their Holds and leaving them there, Holdless and helpless. News of the crime had travelled slowly, with the Weyrs still holding themselves under quarantine, but even once the Conclave of Lords Holder had ruled against it the practise still continued in some out of the way spots. As distant as it was from South Telgar, Martonal was glad that Green Lake wasn’t one of those Holds; his father and three of his siblings were amongst the Hold’s crippled. But Holder Garrent was a good man, as well as one who worked harder than anyone else. ‘No-one starves before I do,’ he’d once said, according to Martonal’s father. Oh, they’d had some lean winters on half rations, that was for sure, but the Hold would survive and prosper again eventually. All the more reason to get today’s seedlings safely in the ground and well watered before they wilted in the hot sun.

As the oldest lad in his team Martonal had been doing the hardest work, shovelling over the dark, clay-rich earth that had held the turn’s first roots until the last of them had been harvested just last month. One of his cousins followed him with her rake, and behind her came the younger kids: pushing wheelbarrows, transplanting the seedlings, and watering them from buckets hauled up from the lake. With so much to do, he didn’t have time to pause for breath very often, but some sixth sense had made him straighten his back, lean on his shovel and gaze into the sky at just the right time.

It had happened just like that the last time dragons had come on Search, and the time before.

Sighing, Martonal tore his attention away from the three dark silhouettes flying overhead and back to the stiffened soil in front of him. He set to work with his shovel and had turned over a whole foot of ground before the first shrieks from the kids behind him broke the hot day’s silence. Well, they were entitled to a bit of excitement, he supposed. As for himself, he’d learned better.

“Martonal?”

Wedging his shovel firmly into the ground with his foot, Martonal turned round to hear what his cousin Sildea wanted. “Yeah?”

She shrugged apologetically, and gestured at the eager faces glued to the sky behind her. “Think we should head on down to the Hold, or wait to see if they ring the bell for us? It’s nearly lunchtime anyway.”

Smiling sadly, Martonal shook his head and weighed up his options. They really should stay out here and finish the job. And the dragons might not even be on Search. That would get them all in trouble, if they raced back to the Hold for no cause at all! On the other hand, there were only five plants left in the emptiest of the three barrows, and he doubted the kids would be gentle enough with the rest of them if he kept them out here waiting. “I dunno…” He wiped a line of sweat from his cheek, and stared over the garden’s low wall at the path that led to the Hold. The dragons would be nearly there, and when they landed their riders would be offered cool drinks and shade. If they were on Search… well, even if Martonal couldn’t bring himself to get excited about that idea any more, a break in the shade during the heat of the day was a very tempting thought indeed. “Oh, why not? Let’s get that barrow emptied first, and then head down. I’ll make up some excuse to your Da if we’re not wanted.”

Sildea grinned broadly, her own excitement clearly showing. There hadn’t been a queen egg at either Igen or Telgar Weyr for many turns now, but you never knew when one would turn up, especially in an Interval. “Thanks, Mar.”

He left her to spread the news to the other kids, and pulled his shovel out of the ground again. It’d still be a while before they’d finish, and even though he didn’t really need to keep digging, the more he did now, the less there’d be for him to do later.

Besides, it kept his mind off the dragons.


* * *


He’d been barely twelve turns old the first time dragons had come on Search.

It had been the middle of winter: one of the hard, hungry winters two and a half turns after the plague had ended. The lads from the Hold and its three outlying cotholds had been assembled in the snow-covered courtyard in front of an enormous green dragon. Well, it had seemed enormous at the time. After what had seemed like hours but had probably only been a few minutes, the dragonrider, a tall man with bright orange hair, had stepped away from his dragon’s side and walked straight towards one of Garrent’s sons. No-one expected the rider to Search more than one lad from the Hold, least of all Martonal, and he might have begrudged his friend’s luck if he’d had the time to do so. But no sooner had the dragonrider invited Yorrent to step forward than he was pacing briskly down the line towards where Martonal was standing. “You too,” he’d said softly, gesturing for Martonal to join his friend. Martonal had been so elated, he hadn’t realised that the rider had Searched one of the fish-hold boys as well until all three of them were being helped up onto the dragon’s back.

Looking back, as happy as he, Yorrent and Drindaron had been to be found worthy, he suspected Holder Garrent had been just as pleased to see them leave for Telgar Weyr with the dragonriders. Three less mouths to feed, after all, even if one of them was his own son. But there’d been a full forty candidates for the eighteen eggs on the sands, most of them below the age of fifteen, and, of the three of them, only Drindaron had Impressed.

Poor Yorrent had had even worse luck than Martonal. His legs still weakened from the plague, he hadn’t been able to move fast enough to avoid a confused blue hatchling as it stumbled towards its soon-to-be rider. Martonal had been on the other side of the hatching grounds at the time—they’d decided to spread out to maximise their chances for bringing glory to their Hold—but had seen the whole thing. From a distance, the wound in his friend’s thigh hadn’t looked too bad, and as the Healers had reached him almost straight away. Martonal had waited until the last three dragonets had Impressed before rushing over to see him. But by the time he’d got there, Yorrent was unconscious, a dark pool of his own blood slowly seeping into the sands around him. He’d died right there on the sands a few minutes later, the Healers helpless in the face of a badly torn artery.

Martonal had returned to Green Lake the following morning, alone.
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Old Jul 6 2008, 02:30 PM   #2
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Chapter 2

The small group of youngsters had made it barely half way down the dusty path that led from the Cothold to the lakeside cliff which held the main Hold when the bell in the fire heights began to ring. Without a second thought, the younger children broke into a run, racing to see which of them would be first to reach the Hold’s arched gateway and the waiting dragons in the courtyard beyond. Sildea turned to flash a quick grin at Martonal, then broke out into a series of coughs as the rising dust cloud left by the departing youngsters reached her face. Martonal waited for his cousin to catch her breath, his lips quirked into a commiserating smile, and silently thanked his luck for having grown taller than her at last.

“Wish I’d not told them to be so careful with the water earlier,” she muttered as they started walking again. “Sharding path could do with a good wetting.”

Martonal laughed. “We’ll have thunder tomorrow, mark my words.”

“Ha. Not that you’ll be around to see it.”

Fighting the sudden rising chill in his belly, Martonal shook his head. He’d hoped there wouldn’t be another Search so soon, not now that they were well into the Interval. He’d hoped he’d be too old to even be considered. Oh, there was a chance the dragons weren’t on Search at all, but why else would they come to the Hold? Picking up his pace, he let his longer legs build a bit of distance between them. Sildea would catch up soon enough, none the wiser, and nice enough not to push him any further on the subject. She'd just think he was being modest, not bragging about his chances of being Searched for a third time, but eager all the same to reach the dragons as soon as he could.

Of course she’d think that. They all did. But it Martonal was sure of anything at all in life, it was that no dragon would ever choose him on Search again.


* * *

He still had nightmares about that Hatching, every now and then. The first one had found him the very night he’d been returned from Igen Weyr, and he’d woken the entire cothold with his screams. Well, his father had told him that he’d done that later the next day, when he finally came round from the Fellis they’d given him, but Martonal had no memory of it himself. Apparently he’d been wild, inconsolable, lashing out at anyone who came close. Screaming about the blue who had to stop, who mustn’t do that. Desperately begging someone not to die, to stay with him. But it was alright, his father explained, they understood. It was only natural for that second hatching to bring back memories of the first, of all those traumatic scenes that he’d blocked away for well over a turn. And it was healthy for that to happen, so the healers said. It was best to grieve for Yorrent as much as he needed to, rather than keeping the pain locked away where it would fester. Sometimes you couldn’t save the ones you loved, and just had to let them go. They’d learned that time and time again in the turns after the plague.

Martonal had nodded and promised to try, all the while hating himself for his cowardice. And perhaps that was why it had all happened? But whatever the reason, he couldn’t bear to tell his father that it wasn’t the Telgar Hatching that had woken him screaming at all.

He still had the nightmares every now and then, but he’d learned to bear them silently after the first.

* * *

Not normally so busy in the heat of the day, Green Lake Hold’s paved courtyard would have seemed crowded even without the presence of the green and blue dragons crouched beside the flood defences that marked the boundary between the courtyard and the lake shore. Martonal hesitated for a moment in the arched entrance, making the most of the shadows as he tried to figure out how best to stay unnoticed for as long as he could. Not by staying put, that was for sure! The rest of the Hold’s youngsters had gathered on the flood-wall to gawp at the dragons, and Sildea was already on her way to join them, but that wouldn’t do either. Martonal decided to make himself useful instead. Smiling to himself, he started to walk across the courtyard, his path taking him parallel to the cliff. If he was right, he’d not make it half-way acro—

“Martonal! Come here a minute, boy”

Swallowing his smile, he sighed extravagantly and kicked at the dirt, then ambled in apparent reluctance towards the scatterbrained cook. Lexa could always be relied upon to have more chores than people to do them!

Lexa smiled kindly at him. “Now don’t look so downhearted, Martonal, I won’t keep you for long and you’re the perfect choice really because I know you won’t dawdle like some of these layabouts, not with dragons here.”

He nodded, and listened absently as Lexa rambled on, her eyes darting this way and that as she kept careful watch on the drudges laying tables. She’d get to whatever chore she had for him eventually.

“…but they will just turn up without any warning, and it doesn’t matter that they’ll be happy with whatever I feed them, Faranth knows they eat from the tithes we send ‘em, but Holder Garrent wants our best on show, and that means I’ve sent half the stuff I’d had brought up back down again, and it’s still not good enough. And as if the brandied redfruit would be suitable at this time of day, I ask you! But we can hardly offer dragonriders the good wine and let everyone else stand around parched, and now that Garrent’s had the bell rung the whole fishhold will turn up soon, and one barrel of ale really won’t...”

Martonal took a risk, and interrupted her. “You want me to fetch another keg?”

“Yes dear, and quickly, but that goes without saying with dragons here, doesn’t it?” Lexa squinted at the dragons, briefly taking her eyes off her small workforce. “Why, I remember… Billit, no, no, how many times do I have to tell you no?”

Making his escape as the cook turned to deal with the hapless Billit, Martonal jogged into the Hold proper. The ale kegs were kept in the storage rooms deep in the cliff behind the kitchens, where it was always nice and cool. It’d be easy enough to pass the keg onto one of the drudges heading back outside, and then he could stay useful in the Hold for as long as he wanted, safely out of sight. For a while, his plan seemed to be working. He’d just handed the keg over to one of the drudges – Billit, in fact – and was heading back towards the kitchens when Sildea ran up breathlessly beside him.

“Oh Martonal, I’ve been looking for you everywhere!”

“Lexa had chores,” he explained.

Sildea pulled him to one side, away from the bustle of workers, and rolled her eyes. “Lexa always has chores. Come on, we learned how to avoid her turns ago! Please, Mar? It’s Igen Weyr, and I overheard the bronzerider talking to Holder Garrent, and they mentioned your name!”

Martonal swallowed uncomfortably and shook his head. What were they saying about him? “That doesn’t mean anything, Sil.”

“It means they remember you! And this time there’s a queen egg! A queen egg!

“Seriously? So…”

“Martonal, when’ve I ever asked you for anything? Couldn’t you introduce me? Please?” She bit her lips and blushed, as if she couldn’t quite believe the effrontery of what she was proposing.

If he thought he’d be doing her any favours at all, he might have considered agreeing with her, but the whole idea was laughable. Going up to the bronzerider, saying Hello there sir, you remember me, don’t you? Well here’s my cousin Sildea, and she’d make just as good a rider as they once thought I would. Yeah, that’d go down about as well as a stray Thread in Lexa’s kitchen. Or the truth of what had happened at Igen in Garrent’s ears. Had the bronzerider told him yet, or not? He shook his head, and scrabbled for a decent excuse. “Sil, it’s the dragon you want to impress, not the rider!”

“Well, you can’t introduce me to the dragon!”

Couldn’t he? He could certainly try, and maybe that wasn’t the only thing he could do….
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Old Jul 7 2008, 04:52 PM   #3
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Chapter 3

“Come on.” His mind made up, Martonal tugged at his cousin’s sleeve, and she followed him towards the Hold’s doorway. Dragons didn’t speak to people other than their riders, not unless there was something special about the person or urgent that the dragon had to say… but he’d learned at Telgar Weyr that sometimes they did listen. If he could approach one of the dragons, preferably the bronze – they were smarter, everyone said – then maybe he could explain his problem, that he didn’t want to bring shame on the Hold when he wasn’t Searched. He doubted Garrent would be all that angry, but he’d certainly expect him to be Searched, and would probably say as much, too. Martonal couldn’t bear the thought of embarrassing his Holder that way, not if he could do something about it. The only alternative was staying out of sight completely and hoping his absence got overlooked. The dragon might not hear a word he said, but he might pass it on to his rider. And even if it didn’t work, he could at least try and get Sildea noticed without making it too obvious!

He peered out into the courtyard again. There was Holder Garrent, chatting amiably with one of the riders beyond the green dragon, and not looking the least bit disappointed or embarrassed. That was a good sign! The other two riders were talking to each other, but where was the third dragon, the bronze? Martonal closed his eyes, and pictured how the Hold had looked as they’d approached. The riders had all been in the courtyard when he’d arrived, but what about the fireheights? Had one of the dragons gone to catch the sun up there? Yes, Martonal thought he had.

“Ah, there you are, boy!”

Martonal quickly opened his eyes at the sound of Lexa’s voice, and groaned. She was striding towards them with a tray in her hands and a conspiratorial gleam in her eyes.

“A favour for me means a favour for you,” she said. “Take these drinks over to the Holder and the dragonriders would you? There’s a good lad.”

Nodding reluctantly, he realised he had no way out. Lexa’s tables were all set up, the drudges dismissed, and she was probably planning to stand there and watch him walk all the way across the courtyard. He took the tray from her hands with a word of thanks, and gestured with his head for Sildea to follow. “Sildea can help me serve, can’t she.”

He hurried off without waiting for an answer, conscious of his cousin keeping pace beside him. Maybe there was still a chance he could get out of this, and give Sildea her wish at the same time. The riders and Holder Garrent were on the move, and, just as he’d hoped, they were soon hidden from sight of the main Hold behind the bulk of the blue dragon. Perfect. Martonal waited until he and Sildea were similarly obscured, then thrust the tray into her hands and dropped into a crouch on the ground. “Stone in my shoe, Sil,” he said as she stared at him in confusion. “You go on. I’ll catch up.” He winked, giving her just the right impression of his intent, and her face broke into a wide grin of excitement.

“Thanks Mar!”

“Don’t mention it.”

As his cousin walked on, he rose, and jogged in the opposite direction towards the side gate to the lake. Why, if he’d done what Lexa wanted there’d have been no avoiding the topic of him being Searched! But his cousin would keep them distracted with pleasantries, at least until the dragons began their inspection, and so long as he was out of sight by then it was probably the best he could do. As usual, the gate was propped open with one of the sandbags left over from the spring floods. Martonal darted through the gateway and cut across the curve of the lake shore towards the jetty. With everyone else milling around the Hold and its courtyard, the Lake was probably the best place he could choose for staying out of the way. Green Lake was shallow at the best of times, but this season the waters were even lower than normal. He had to pick his way carefully over the rounded stones that lined the lake bed, but at least their algae coating was brown and crusty rather than green and slippery for once. Every now and then he stopped, and stooped to pick up one of the smaller, flatter stones, perfect for skimming, which he slipped them into his pockets.

The jetty itself was made of stone; wood would have been no good during a Pass, and was more useful for making boats and furniture besides. It extended five or six dragonlengths into the lake from the usual waterline, with two sets of steps leading down to the water, one at the far end and the other half way along. He climbed the steps at the halfway mark – which were well clear of the lake’s edge – walked along the jetty, and then climbed down the steps at the end. The bottom step was still a few handspans above the lake’s surface; Martonal pulled off his shoes, rolled up his trouser legs and slumped down onto the step, letting his legs dangle into the cool water. Surely no-one would find him out here?

The boy leaned back against the stone and closed his eyes, and tried not to notice the flickering glare of reflected sunlight on his eyelids. Dragonriders wouldn’t spend long in talk, not if they had other Holds and Cotholds to visit before the day was out. They’d have had their refreshments by now, and would be waiting for the boys to line up for the Search. Bronzes Searched the girls, he’d been told, but the bronze was still up on the heights and the blue and green in the courtyard, so it’d be the boys they’d look at first. All he had to do was wait it out. Hide from it. No point changing the pattern of the last three turns, was there?

Eyes still closed, Martonal felt in his pocket for a suitable stone, and with a well practised flick of his wrist send it spinning bitterly towards the water. It was quiet enough to count the diminishing splashes by sound. One… two… three… four-five-six. Not too bad, but he’d done much better in the past. He tried again, and listened closely, his ears straining to catch the seventh and eighth bounces… which were suddenly lost in the loud crash of something much, much larger hitting the water.

Half expecting to be drenched by a wave, he cautiously opened one eye. Oh. It was one of the dragons, the bronze from the fireheights, flown down for a swim. Dragons liked water, he knew. It had been quite a shock, at his first hatching at Telgar Weyr, to see dragons of all ages and colours cavorting in the Weyr’s lake as if they were little kids playing games. This one was no exception, and as he watched the dragon he felt his mood lighten. The dragon ducked his head under the water and flexed his back, sending waves of water lapping onto his outstretched wings, much like a wherry cleaning its feathers in the shallows. Sunlight reflected from the water glistened on the underside of his broad wings and neck, adding a shimmer of gold to his iridescent bronze hide, except where a paler line stood out against the flesh of the dragon’s neck. Martonal was no longer at all surprised that Sildea had heard the bronzerider mention him by name; this was the very dragon that had brought him back from the Igen hatching. The scar was a long-healed Threadscore from the last Pass. B’dril had told him and the other candidates all about it before the hatching, how they’d got it in the last Fall of the Pass while still weyrlings, breaking every rule there was just to fight just once. That was the kind of rider a bronze dragon looked for, not a cowardly boy who couldn’t even face up to his own inadequacy. Martonal watched until the dragon slowly settled into a restful float, and all the waves cast up by his activity had ebbed away into mere ripples, then reached into his pocket for another stone.

Back in the courtyard, the boys would be lining up in a row, then waiting while the two dragons looked them over. It was better this way, wasn’t it? He flicked the stone towards the shimmering water, well away from the bronze dragon, and counted the skips before fumbling for another. The last two times Searchriders had come to Green Lake, the riders had left the choosing to their dragons, only calling a lad forward once a decision had been made. But he’d talked to other candidates at the Weyr, and had learned that it didn’t always work that way.

Martonal pulled out another stone, and wondered how today’s Search would go. Some riders liked to talk to the potential candidates first, to give their dragons a chance to focus more clearly on each individual in turn, while others kept their dragon’s choice close to their chests until after they’d discussed the potential candidates with the local Holder. Not that it mattered which way they were Searching today, because he wasn’t there to embarrass the Hold when they failed to choose him. Holder Garrent was far less likely to make an issue of it under those circumsatnces. Every candidate Searched was an honour for the Hold, true, but if a hard-working boy was foolish enough to miss his chance, well, it was his loss and the Hold’s gain. Martonal grinned at the thought. Oh, he’d get teased for this, for sure, but at least he was doing his duty to Hold and Weyr as well as he could!

He flung another stone at the water, and noticed for the first time that the bronze dragon’s head was tracking every bounce. Probably worried he might send one too close! As Martonal wondered whether he ought to keep skimming them or not, the bronze turned his head to look at him, his eyes whirling an inscrutable green-blue. Maybe he just liked to watch? Cautiously, the boy reached into his pocket for what turned out to be his last stone, and turned it over in his hand silently. The dragon was still watching him. Martonal drew his arm back to make the throw, and suddenly became conscious of the sound of booted footsteps on the jetty behind him. Dropping the stone onto the steps, he twisted his head round to see who was approaching.

It was the bronzerider, B’dril.
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Old Jul 19 2008, 08:43 AM   #4
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Chapter 4

Martonal hunched down into the steps, half-heartedly hoping the rider hadn’t seen him and would go away. But the footsteps continued towards him steadily, and soon the rider was sitting on the steps beside him, his legs folded to keep his boots clear of the water.

“Martonal, isn’t it?” B’dril said absently.

He didn’t want to look round, but dragonmen deserved respect. “Yes sir.”

The bronzerider was staring out at his dragon floating happily on the lake, an expression of relaxed tenderness on his face. Martonal felt his face flush in a rush of envy and shame, and embarrassment at sharing such a private moment. What would it be like, to have a dragon want you so much? What did it take, and what crucial part of him was missing? He dropped his eyes, and looked away.

Eventually, the bronzerider sighed, and addressed him again. “Holder Garrent was wondering where you’d got to. He wasn’t too pleased with your cousin taking your place, you know.”

Martonal winced. “She’d have more chance on the sands than I would.”

“Perhaps. Neither Callinth nor the others have had a chance to have a good look at her yet though. That’s why you disappeared, is it, to give her a chance to get noticed?”

He nodded once, then decided it was worth giving an honest answer. “Partly.”

In the growing silence, B’dril picked up Martonal’s abandoned stone, and skipped it across the water. “I used to do this all the time at the Weyr Lake when we were Weyrlings. Callinth loved watching the ripples, and he’s enjoyed watching yours.” The expanding wavelets slowly faded under the watchful gaze of man, boy and dragon, and only when they’d faded completely did the bronzerider speak again. “You never told them, did you?”

Martonal shook his head. After the first few weeks had passed, it had just got harder and harder to even think about it, let alone talk to anyone about it. It wasn’t exactly something you could drop into a casual conversation. Oh yeah, I didn’t just fail to Impress, I watched a dragon die in horrible distress because I wasn’t even halfway good enough for him. The Search dragons were wrong about me, but that little blue wasn’t. He knew. And now all the other dragons do too, even if no-one in the Hold does. If he could have gone back in time, told his younger self to hide away just like he’d done today, why, then that unnamed dragon might have lived! The Hold hadn’t been able to afford the loss of more than one boy that summer, and Holder Garrent had announced that fact to the small crowd that had assembled to watch the Search even before the boys had lined up in front of the dragons. If he hadn’t been there…

He felt a firm hand rest on his shoulder, and the rider spoke again.

“Can’t say I blame you, lad. It was a bad day, that one. Never should have happened. Still, life goes on, and we’ve a new clutch to worry about today. Spellianth and Negth are starting the Search. I told Holder Garrent not to be concerned by your absence, that Callinth was keeping an eye on you.”

Martonal nodded his understanding. “Have they chosen anyone yet,” he asked, hoping that Garrent would have at least one thing to be pleased about by the end of today.

“Ah.” B’dril leaned back against the steps, a thoughtful look on his face. “As a matter of fact, yes. There’s one very promising lad we’d like to take back to Igen with us.”

Hearing that, Martonal relaxed. This was the best news possible! “That’s good,” he said, “Garrent will be pleased!” Idly, he wondered which boy had been lucky enough to be chosen, not that it wouldn’t be obvious the moment he returned to the Hold. “Will you… have you told Garrent why I won’t be Searched?”

The bronzerider’s lips quirked into a quick smile. “Why you believe yourself to be unworthy, or a suitable excuse that’ll maintain the Hold’s pride?” He kept his gaze firmly on Martonal’s own, until the boy realised that this was a question that the bronzerider expected to be answered.

“Whatever’s best, sir.” If he was honest with himself, he really didn’t know. The truth was unpleasant, but was it right to keep hiding from it? Keeping the pain locked away… “What would be best?” he asked.

“I don’t know,” B’dril admitted. “I wanted to speak to you again first, before I made up my mind, but you conveniently managed to disappear after I asked for you specifically.”

Martonal started to stammer out an apology, but the bronzerider waved him to silence.

“Never mind that. No. I don’t know how much you took in that night. Why do you think the blue died?”

Slumping back against the steps, the boy hung his head in shame. “None of us were right for him. You told us that.”

“I did, yes. And that’s was the truth. But it’s not all of the truth.”

Curious, Martonal looked up, trying to figure out what the bronzerider meant.

B’dril’s eyes were full of compassion as he began to explain. “No-one knows quite what makes a hatchling dragon pick a certain candidate. Why some boys Impress, why others are left standing. Why some hatchlings will Impress to the nearest candidate almost straight out of the egg, while others will scour the entire cavern before settling on a rider. Or why some of them don’t Impress at all… Oh, there are all sorts of theories. Perhaps they sensed their ideal match while still in the shell, but not on the sands, or maybe just never at all. Sometimes, an egg doesn’t even hatch. That blue… none of you were right for him, we know that much, but we don’t know if anyone on Pern would have been. Does that mean that there isn’t a single dragon on all of Pern, hatched, unhatched, or yet to be, that you boys would be right for?”

“I don’t know,” Martonal said, still trying to understand everything the rider had said.

“More to the point, nor do we.” He stood up, and called to his dragon out on the lake. “Your turn, Callinth. Time to take a look at the Hold’s ladies.” He stretched a hand down to Martonal, and helped him to his feet. “Well then. Shall we see if your cousin meets Callinth’s exacting standards?”

* * *

Back in Green Lake Hold’s courtyard, Martonal didn’t know where to look. The boys had broken up into smaller groups, but, try as he might, Martonal couldn’t spot which lucky lad had been Searched. And, as curious as he was, he was far more interested in watching the large bronze inspect the Hold’s girls and unmarried young women, especially since Sildea was next in line. B’dril was still standing beside him, watching his dragon from a distance while the blue and green riders led each girl up in turn, first to their own dragons, and then on to the bronze. When Sildea’s turn came, she walked forwards boldly, and Martonal was sure that Callinth spent longer inspecting her than he had the girl before. But then it was the next girl’s turn, and she was sent back to her place in the line. Had she been unsuccessful, or was B’dril waiting until his dragon had seen everyone?

The bronzerider must have caught sight of the look on his face, because he started talking softly soon after. “It’s different when we Search girls for a queen egg, lad. If she were a boy, we’d be in no doubt about Searching her. She’s bold enough, self-assured, and willing to learn, my Callinth says. But Queen dragons are different to the others, and look for different things in their riders. Sometimes they pick someone motherly, or someone tough enough to wrestle wherries before breakfast like our old Weyrwoman Alanti, or one of those rare women who can hear all dragons without even trying, like Torene or Moreta of Benden. Those ones always seem to Impress, mind. They’re all different though, weyrwomen, no real pattern to them, except that a bronze dragon chose them out of hundreds or thousands of others. The girls we leave behind… oh, I’m sure some of them could Impress a gold, if there was no-one else there, and would make fine, capable weyrwomen… but the ones that come back to the Weyr with us have something more. Some… affinity that the bronzes feel. Oh, some girls get to the Weyr without it, but they’re Searched by the riders, not the dragons, and not for the egg on the sands.”

Martonal nodded. There were stories about some bronzeriders, he remembered, but the note of disgust that had edged into B’dril’s voice towards the end suggested that he at least wasn’t one of them. “Does… does Sildea have it?” he asked.

B’dril sighed, and shook his head, his eyes on the final girl in the line as she returned to her place, then on his dragon as the bronze began to amble back towards his rider. “Sorry lad. None of them do.”

Disappointment for his cousin filled his mind. Oh, he knew she hadn’t expected to be Searched, but she’d be feeling hurt and inadequate all the same. Martonal knew how that felt, but she wouldn’t understand his empathy until she knew why he could sympathise with her so. Everyone would know soon, for B’dril would surely explain to Holder Garrent what had happened at the last Igen hatching before he and the other riders left with their chosen candidate, and the gossip would probably spread through the rest of the Hold even before the dragons blinked between. He watched as B’dril greeted his dragon with an affectionate slap on the bronze’s foreleg, and waited to see what the rider would do next. Eventually, B’dril craned his neck back over his shoulder to look at him.

“Martonal, I’m going to speak to Garrent about you now,” B’dril said, almost as if the rider had read the boy’s mind. “Will you come?”

Martonal nodded glumly and took a deep breath, mustering his courage for what was to come. “I think I should. It helped, you know. What you said at the lake. I think I can face it better now.”

The bronzerider’s hand slipped from his dragon’s leg, and he barked a laugh. “Oh, lad. You still think that? Which promising boy did you think I was talking about out at the lake then?”

The different pieces of the puzzle finally clicked together, and Martonal felt his jaw drop. Surely he didn’t mean… “But… But last time, you should have chosen someone else, one of the other boys! He might have Impressed. There must be a better choice than me!”

B’dril leaned casually back against Callinth’s leg, and shook his head. “Here? No. Not according to Spellianth and Negth, and they’re two of the best Searchdragons Igen has. Elsewhere? Maybe, maybe. But we’re not in the habit of leaving candidates behind, not when the hatchlings need a good choice. You may not Impress this time either. And I won’t lie to you: you may even be unfortunate enough to witness another hatchling die because he or she doesn’t want you… but after watching that blue die, do you dare refuse?”

Martonal froze in horror. It was slowly sinking in that he need no longer believe himself responsible for the blue dragonet’s death – he was flawed, yes, but not responsible – but if he caused another dragon to die by not being there, instead of just by not being someone else… “No!” he exclaimed.

“Good,” B’dril said firmly, and in just that one word Martonal got for the first time the clear impression that this rider was more than just a man willing to concern himself with the well-being of a one-time candidate. He was manipulative and determined, a man to be obeyed, a true dragonrider doing his duty by his Weyr for all Pern’s benefit. The impression solidified as the bronzerider went on. “Good. You will stand, boy, but not with those doubts in your head. We don’t have many lads to choose from in these hard times, and by the shards of Callinth’s egg, we’re not going to let any of you waste the chance those dragons need you to have.”
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