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Old Apr 24 2006, 07:55 AM   #1
Kath
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Default DragonDays

Chapter 1: A mature Discussion (or, How do you spell proddy?)

Tarrie Chernoff ran her fingertips lightly across the edge of the warped metal sheet currently serving the dragonriders as a table, and snorted in disdain. It was a far cry from the smooth contours of the previous one, lightweight aluminium decorated with a coloured plastic veneer, which had once graced the wardroom of the Bahrain. The new one might still be big enough for all two dozen odd riders to gather round, plus the ground crew leaders when tactics for a Fall were being discussed, but size wasn't everything. And the practicality of the thing wasn't an issue either. The wide metal expanse was propped up on boxes of hardware, allowing it to be stowed neatly aside when it wasn't in use. Rickety and uneven it might be, but it served, and every space in the caverns seemed to serve three or more purposes these days.

"Sorry I'm late!'' Nora Sejby gasped as she entered the room at a trot, completing the complement of riders. Near on two turns of solid Threadfighting had steadily removed every last trace of clumsiness that the woman had possessed as a girl, and Nora was now recognised as one of the more competent users of a flamethrower amongst the gold riders. Not quite competent enough to challenge Tarrie for her leadership of the second wing, but close. Of course, there wasn't any real rivalry amongst the wings - Thread was enough of an enemy without the need to add another through petty human failings. No, they were a close-knit team, far more so than the regular ground crew squads. The dragons were responsible for that, Tarrie was certain. Team work was crucial for Threadfighting, whether on the ground or in the air, sled or dragon, flamethrower or dragonfire. But recently, the bond between the riders had seemed stronger than ever. Only another rider could understand what it was like, sharing that inseparable bond with your dragon. The long hours of physical endurance, the burns from char or acid, the bitter ice of between, the gut-clenching fear every time you met Thread in the air... and the ever-present, rock solid togetherness that she had with Porth, a twin soul within her. No, that wasn't something you could share with the land-bound.

"Not to worry, Nora.''

Sean's forgiving tone broke through Tarrie's thoughts in an instant, and she brought her attention swiftly back to the rest of the group. That tone usually meant that someone else was due for a haranguing, and she glanced across at Sorka for confirmation. The other rider's face was grim beneath her cheery freckled complexion. Trouble was on the cards, sure enough. Tarrie pulled her folding chair closer to the so-called table, and tried to find a smooth spot on which to rest her arms before it all came out. I wonder who's cocked up this time? But she'd scarcely finished thinking when a sudden sharp pain shot through her senses.

"Shaffit!''

Tarrie nearly unseated herself as she pulled back again, lifting a hand to reveal a thin line of red already beading with blood. Nora gave her a grimace of commiseration, seemingly glad to have the groups attention drawn away from her in such a dramatic manner. Oh, they all knew what that tone meant, all right!

"Tarrie?''

She ignored Jerry's solicitous inquiry on one side of her, and also Dave Caterel's swift offer of a hanky on the other, concentrating instead on soothing Porth's insistent concern.

I'm fine, love. Just a scratch from this dratted new table! I know it hurts, but it's nothing, really.

With Porth satisfied, she looked round at the two riders beside her. Really, closeness between the riders was one thing, but at times the others seemed downright clingy! It was stifling, that's what it was. And as for that puppyish expression on Jerry's face...

"I'm fine, Jerry, it's nothing some numbweed can't fix,'' and for sure they were more grateful than ever to that native plant! Tarrie almost snatched the hanky from Dave's outstretched hand. "And that'd better be a fresh one!'' she snapped, regretting it almost instantly. Well, you might as well hang for the sheep as the lamb.

Pressing the hanky to the ball of her palm, she looked up at Sean. "Sean, I don't care what else is on today's agenda, but I'm moving this... table to the top of it.''

"Seconded,'' Otto added without a pause, giving it a rock for good measure.

Surprisingly, Sorka didn't give her usual eye-roll at Otto's remark; the man had an annoying habit of seconding anything raised, even if it conflicted with whatever he'd backed the meeting before. And Sean didn't bat an eyelid either, and he was usually very picky about keeping fast to his plans. Even the disturbed papers which fluttered to the ground elicited no comment. He simply looked Tarrie in the eyes, and nodded.

"Very well,'' he said coldly. "We'd be getting on to it pretty soon anyway.''
He glanced across at his wife, and Sorka passed a handful of flimsies around the table.

"That's a report of the crop situation back in the main Fort Holding, and around Pierre de Courci's stake. I don't expect you to read it all, but the projections on what's available from the fields and hydroponics are chilling. Especially after the debacle of last Fall.''

Tarrie had wondered at the relevance of Sean's initial comments, but now it all became quite clear.

"We agreed, I wasn't at fault for that,'' she said firmly, fists clenching. Damn the man for bringing it up now. A rider stayed behind after every Fall to be certain the groundcrews tracked down every last burrow successfully, and with so few dragons it was a rare Fall indeed when the Pernese escaped unscathed.

"No, but with fifteen acres of arable land lost, along with every single plant, and every gram of nutrient in the soil... to a single burrow!'' Sean leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. "We can't afford mistakes like that again, and we can't begrudge the loss of a mere table. The hydroponicists needed it more than us. Wouldn't you agree?''

Abashed, Tarrie relaxed back into her own seat. She'd half stood up without realising it.
"Yes, yes, they need it more than us,'' she said, and sighed. "Do carry on.''

Tarrie let the debate continue around her, as the other riders discussed the options for replanting, and the other tracts of land that were particularly difficult to protect from Fall. Her own background in meteorology allowed her to make a few astute judgements of where the weather would be likely to help them out, or where unpredictable thermals would cause problems, and she almost found herself preening at Sean's praise of her suggestions. That wasn't like her at all. In fact, her moods were all over the place today!

Faranth says Sorka asks if you're really okay?

Bemused by her dragon's query, Tarrie made eye contact with Sorka. Pregnancy hadn't dulled Sorka's uncanny ability to read moods, not that anyone would be having trouble guessing Tarrie's mind set today. The red-head's hands were cupping her growing belly, and the question was clear.

Tell Faranth to tell Sorka that I'm fine, but I'll check with Basil later to be sure.

The complications brought about by frequently miscarrying an unexpected pregnancy could keep a goldrider out of action longer than actually bearing a child to full term. Better safe than sorry, and they needed every rider in the air right now. It wasn't just that they were over stretched, but everything else seemed to be failing around them. The sleds were virtually all grounded and steadily being recycled into carts, and each month it seemed that fewer of the small dragonets fought alongside them. And as for the groundcrews... oh they were brave enough without the recourse of a dragon and the ability to safely dodge between, but they expected so much of the riders these days. Always expecting more Falls to be covered, but never being able to spare the extra bodies to man the Falls on the ground. And every burrow blamed on the aerial defences.

The most recent Fall had been the last straw. Tarrie's calm explanation of the limitations of dragons - there was only so much Thread that three wings could catch, after all, especially in those conditions - hadn't exactly gone down well. Of course more dragons were needed, the ground crew had agreed. Of course the dragonets and groundcrews should play their part. But if the dragonets and groundcrews could provide replacements, what was wrong with the dragons? They were engineered to breed more than enough like them, weren't they? If anyone was failing Pern, it was the dragons, less use than the small cousins they'd been created from. What's wrong with your dragon, goldrider Chernoff? Small wonder she'd stormed off without double checking the groundcrew's work, without catching the burrow they'd missed. Oh, they'd been apologetic enough when they called her back a half hour later, with live Thread still roiling across the field, but it'd taken her whole wing most of the rest of the day to bring the outbreak under control.

"So that's decided then.''

With all other options exhausted, Sean's voice finally brought the discussion of what grounds they could cover to a close. "On to the next item on the agenda. Sorka?''

"We all know that a lot of people out there doubt us, and the viability of the dragons as a long-term defence against Thread. I also know Tarrie's not been the only one to catch the brunt of it recently.'' The other wingleader glanced across at her with a smile of reassurance. "Well, Sean and I would like to reassure you that their fears aren't yet warranted. We may not be as familiar with the program as Kitti or Wind Blossom, but none of their predictions suggest that the golds should have mated and clutched already, though it surely can't be much longer now. And compared with the other milestones of our dragons development, at least when it comes to mating, this isn't something that Sean can slip out and try on his own.''

Laughter echoes around the table, and the mood rapidly improved.

"Hopefully it won't mean a whole new set of flying trousers, either,'' Nora added with a giggle.

"We'd be fools not to expect some complications, though,'' Sorka said on a more serious note. "And it doesn't hurt to try and figure out what they might be beforehand. Sean and I talked it over, and I think we have to take our cue from the dragonets...''

"Fire lizards.''

Sorka blithely ignored Sean's old joke and went on.

"The dragonets first, and Kitti's program second. Genes are one thing, behaviour quite another.''

"But with all of our dragons from, what, six batches of eggs in two hatchings, how do we know they'll all react the same?'' If at all. There, Tarrie's own doubts were out in the open now.

"Oh come now Tarrie,'' Jerry reached over to give her arm a squeeze. "Kitti's tweaks were so minor at the end, there's nothing to tell which dragon come from where.'' He gestured at the six riders of the younger dragons from the second clutch. "You've said yourself that there's no discernible difference between them.'' Wind Blossom's own experimental beasts, those ugly photophobes, were diplomatically left unmentioned.

"It's not whether they rise that bothers me,'' Alianne said quietly, "but how it affects us, their riders. The empathic bond is so much stronger than with the dragonets, and though we don't need to act on their impulses, it's pretty easy to get carried away.''

Alianne was one of several female riders partnered to a non-rider, in this case one of the engineers busily carving access tunnels and installing plumbing in their new home. Tarrie could certainly see why she might be a little concerned about getting carried away with Chereth's activities.

"That's certainly one issue,'' Sean agreed.

"There are more?'' asked Catherine, rolling her eyes in mock-despair. She too had a happy marriage with a Fort Weyr Joat to maintain, and it hadn't proved easy to reconcile her husband with Siglath's demands over the first year of their dragons' lives. With so many people crammed into the tight quarters of the available habitable caverns, tensions had soared along with the divorce rates, but already there seemed to be a mild social disapproval attached to such acts. Not like the old world, Tarrie's parents had claimed, even suggesting that the growing stigma was more to do with the fact that the colonists' few legists were now training a number of young adults to take on the extra work. But 'Lawyers' wasn't a curse-word on Pern... yet!

Of course, Sean would be most concerned with successful flights, producing large clutches of healthy, viable, Thread-fighting dragons. The rider always came second with him. As if echoing Tarrie's thoughts, Sean continued with one of his standard lectures.

"The needs of dragon kind come first right now. We owe it to them to get this right, first time. As I'm sure you're bored of hearing,'' he went on with a twinkle in his eyes, "we can't afford mistakes.''

"And so we need to be prepared,'' Sorka continued. "We know how the gold dragonets behave before rising, more or less, but we have to be certain we havn't missed anything out. The most sensible place to start is probably pooling our knowledge of our own dragonets' behaviour. We need a good idea of how much variation there is in their behaviour, and between the mentasynth enhanced ones and those in the wild.''

"If you're asking for volunteers to watch mating lizards on a sunny beach in the south, well count me in,'' Pete Semling remarked with a broad smirk, setting Catherine's eyes rolling once more.

"That's certainly something worth following up,'' answered Sorka as she scribbled on a spare flimsy, "and you're now top of the list for that job.''

Once again, Tarrie simply listened as the conversation ebbed and flowed around her. Really, for everything they knew, the most important facts would be absent until things finally happened. Would Porth, the first hatched of the queens, actually rise first as some of the others seemed to think? Was Jerry's fawning behaviour a conscious decision, or just coincidence? Eventually, it all just became too much.

"Face it guys, we don't know anything useful yet!''

This time, Tarrie made it all the way upright, and she slammed her folding chair closed. "You watch the dragonets all you like, but I doubt they'll tell me anything I need to know about my Porth. If you need me, I'll be with her.''

Brushing aside Nora's appeal to stay, Tarrie calmly stacked her chair on top of the pile by the wall, and left the room. At least Porth was a soothing influence on her, without the hormonal ups and downs of a human, and the sooner they were together again, the better. But perhaps she should get Basil to check her over sooner rather than later. These mood swings simply weren't like her at all.


-----------------------
More to follow! Yes, I am working on Ch 8, but it's going sloooooowly. Sorry!
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Old May 2 2006, 03:58 AM   #2
Kath
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Tea with Wind Blossom

A stiff breeze was blowing through Fort Hold that morning, and it seemed to pierce every single opening with ease. Although less blustery and dangerous than it had been during fall on the preceding day, it was still an annoyance. As Sorka entered the Xeno lab, it lifted a handful of papers and flimsies off the nearest table and wafted them across the room. She hurriedly closed the heavy door behind her, and toggled the electric lights. A dim glow appeared from a single fluorescent tube, the remaining seven either broken or disabled. But the four workbenches each had their own movable spotlights, alongside the computer terminals, microscopes and banks of chemical analysis devices which seemed to fill every millimeter of free space.

Sorka walked across the lab towards the disturbed documents, sidestepping the awkward bulk of a large dewar flask of liquid gas on the way. Holding the papers up to the meager light, she leafed through them out of curiosity. Already the Pernese scientists were learning to make do with the limited resources available, and the grey recycled paper was simply covered in writing, most likely in Wind Blossom's tiny hand. Most of it seemed to relate to a study of enzyme balances, though Sorka had quite lost track of the Xenobiologists' research since impressing Faranth. There simply hadn't been time to keep up, and as a trainee vet she'd always concentrated on the more practical elements besides. These days, most of the work done in this lab was tinkering with livestock ova, but Wind Blossom and the Nietros still continued their study of both the indigenous Pernese organisms and the engineered dragons and... uglies. Sorka smiled as she realised the purpose of the dimmed lighting - Wind Blossom would have been working with her creatures in here. They were usually stabled in a dark cave downwind of the other animals, but Wind Blossom seemed strongly attached to several of the creatures, and with the geneticist living in an adjoining room, Sorka wouldn't be too surprised if one or two of the animals were permanently resident.

Deciding to leave the uglies' biochemistry to the experts, Sorka returned the documents to their home. She placed them back on the table nearest the door, but must have jostled it slightly in the process, as the rotating globe of Pern filling an adjacent display screen was abruptly replaced by several programs. Curious, Sorka took a few moments to observe them. A constant stream of calculations filled one window, while the familiar triple-helix of draconic DNA-analogue spun in three dimensions in another, flexing, splitting and recombining under the influence of other molecules. What looked like a series of cells appeared in another window, under siege from a bombardment of different interlopers of various sizes. A virus? Prions? The mono-molecular nanoids of the Nathis? Sorka was at a loss to figure it out. The dragonets certainly seemed to have suffered no ill effects from meeting humanity, not like the tribal cultures of the old world. Any residual illnesses in their evolution seemed to have been well tamed millennia ago, and now lay in dormant symbiosis. At least, that's the conclusion she thought Bay Harkonen-Nietro had reached, but the technicalities went way over her head. A rarity it might be, but the robust good health of the dragonets and their larger cousins was all that really mattered.

Hearing a noise from the adjoining room, Sorka remembered her mission. After yesterday's meeting, they'd agreed that someone should speak to Wind Blossom about the dragons.

"Wind Blossom? It's Sorka. Could I trouble you for your opinion?''

"Of course,'' came the reply after a short delay. "I thought I heard someone come in. Dim the lights on your way in if you wouldn't mind, and make yourself comfortable while I heat up the kettle.''

Sorka made her way through to the inner door, and entered Wind Blossom's sitting room. A spicy scent pervaded the atmosphere, not dissimilar to that of the dragons. And sure enough, sparkling in the far corner of the room were the fractured eyes of one of Wind Blossom's creations, misshapen facets reflecting the weak light given off by a basket of aged bioluminescent fungus in an alcove by the door. While many people had found the newly hatched dragons to be awkward, ugly creatures, there was no disagreement when it came to the photophobes. The beast was larger than a dog, but smaller than a donkey... A full-grown pig might be a better comparison for size and weight, but even that didn't give a full appreciation of the creatures, with their irregular conformation almost painful to the eye. It seemed to be a gold, though it was hard to tell, and Sorka was reluctant to allow any comparison with Faranth.

The ugly animal reared up on its hind limbs, and opened its awkward wings with a sharp flap. A sound somewhere between a growl and a hiss emitted from its mouth, and Wind Blossom quickly spoke up in a calm tone.

"Shush, Losk. Sorka's a friend to be welcomed.''

Although the animal instantly settled, Wind Blossom interrupted her preparations in order to usher the ugly creature out through a second door.

"She looks to be growing... well,'' Sorka said politely. Though the truth was, Sorka wasn't sure if the creature was conforming to Wind Blossom's expectations or not. "Do you need a hand with the tea?''

The petite scientist shook her head gently.

"I may not follow all my grandmother's habits, but this one I do. Please, do sit down. Are the dragons well after yesterday's threadfall?''

Sorka wasn't going to wait to be told a third time, and sat down in the nearest chair. While Wind Blossom finished her preparations, Sorka filled her in on all the details: Sean's new tactics for fighting thread in inclement conditions, the continually improving stamina of the dragons, and Porth's lucky escape. The other queen had jumped between to safety with only a minor score, after a cross wind had carried them straight into the clump of thread Tarrie'd been searing.

Wind Blossom gave Sorka a steady look as she poured out two cups of tea. "You are here to discuss the program then. You'd be taking fewer risks and suffering fewer injuries if there were more dragons, yes?"

Sorka took a sip of the warm tea - a herbal infusion rather than the true tea of the old world. It wasn't half as nice as Klah, but she doubted Wind Blossom would make the change any time soon. "You're right, this isn't simply a social call. I know we've discussed the dragons' fertility in the past, and you've always said it'd be between two and four years before our golds would rise, most likely somewhere in between. Is there any way of making a more precise prediction, now that they're older? Do you have any idea what signs we should look out for, to know that they're coming into season?''

"Well, we learned a lot from the aborts. They may not have hatched, but the females seemed to have functional ovaries. There's no reason to expect yours to be any different, though we can't be certain until we have more evidence one way or another. Other than that, there's no reason to suspect they'll act any different to the dragonets in that respect.''

Wind Blossom reached over to the table to leaf through some papers. "Ah yes,'' she said, finding the document she was after. "The different groups of eggs were engendered close enough as to make no difference, so the main factor will be the natural maturity of the dragon in question. Just like the dragonets, they mature at slightly different rates, especially with the added complication of human companions. Some may be mature enough to rise now, while others may still have another six months or more to wait.''

Well, that was scarcely anything new. Sorka expected that the riders who'd gone south to watch dragonets had picked up more clues than she had.

"Of course, if you are worried about their fertility,'' Wind Blossom continued, "we could tell for sure with a simple biopsy. Perhaps even generate a new clutch in vitro, rather than in vivo. If you were to allow me to test one of the queens directly...''

The visible outrage on Sorka's face was enough to stop Wind Blossom in her tracks. She might as well have suggested invasive surgical procedures on Sorka herself! But, it could work, might be a solution if the queens failed to rise.

"Perhaps if nothing's changed a year from now,'' Sorka conceded, taking another sip of her tea. Diplomacy never hurt, and she still had more questions. "There's another matter, as well. Kitti's insistence on sex-linked impression. I know she was a traditionalist, but with her skills she'd hardly need to be that chauvinistic, except by choice. Rendering the females flameless was one thing, and I can understand why she wished to protect the breeders from the hazards of fall, even if I don't agree with it myself. But I hardly need that same protection myself, nor any other female rider - even when bearing!'' Sorka was certainly doing her duty by the growing Pernese population, and would continue to do so as long as she could. "So why did the golds need to impress women? What did Kitti know, or suspect, that we don't?''

"Ah.''

Wind Blossom sat back in her chair, and seemed to look anywhere other than Sorka. So, she suspected something at least!

"Go on. Please. '' Sorka was finding it hard to keep a tone of annoyance out of her voice. The tradition of secrecy seemed to be another habit that Wind Blossom was maintaining in memory of her grandmother.

"The program has two aims, you know that. A defence against thread, but one that will be viable and self-sustaining through the centuries.''

Seeing Sorka listening attentively, Wind Blossom tucked her long hair behind her ears and continued with more confidence. "In order for the dragons to be an effective fighting force, it was absolutely necessary that they have a strong link with humans. To fight in the best interests of humanity, and to go on despite terrible injuries.''

"Well, we've escaped those so far.''

"You've been lucky so far, for which we're all grateful. But fighting thread's only a part of it.''

"The other part being mating?''

Wind Blossom dipped her head in agreement.

"Indeed. The species must be able to propagate itself, and adjust to the needs of the population. To rise to mate when it's safe, and when the dragon is healthy. To breed strong and true when the red star waxes in the east, to re-populate after hard falls, but not to over-populate when we eventually reach the end of threadfall forty years or so down the line. And to continue the cycle the next time the Red Star passes Pern by. We've already discussed the ideal mating scenario several times in the past: mating different pairs of dragons on subsequent flights, for the sake of the gene pool. But, you've seen how the dragonets behave. They mate with whom they will, and share their experience with their human companions. A strong link is crucial for control, so that you, the riders can influence your dragon's activity. You'll be in control... I'm convinced of that... but that doesn't mean that you won't feel what your dragon's feeling, or want to act on those impulses. Bay's data from her study of the dragonets suggests that much.''

"So, it's likely to be more intense than with the dragonets,'' Sorka asked.

The geneticist shrugged.

"It's irrelevant, really. If all you're interested in is how much you'll enjoy your dragon's maturity, go and speak to Bay. It's hardly science.''

Wind Blossom scowled, and Sorka found herself pondering the difference between the two women: the plump, happily married biologist with a passion for the little dragonets, and the sober, workaholic Wind Blossom. As far as she knew, while Wind Blossom seemed to enjoy the company of her ugly photophobes, she'd never sought out a dragonet egg, preferring the intricacies of their cells to the creatures themselves. Perhaps she should speak to Bay as well, and get a second opinion on how much 'control' the riders might actually have when their dragons eventually rose to mate. But Wind Blossom still had more to say.

"Those facts alone shouldn't make a difference Without the sex match, Kitti projected that the empathic link simply wouldn't fit your dragon's needs, and the rider could lose control over their dragon. Impression might even slip - we just don't know. But everything she did was in the best interests of the species,'' Wind Blossom finished defensively.

Impression might slip? An involuntary shiver ran down Sorka's spine at the thought of losing Faranth. It couldn't happen. Could it?

"But that won't happen to us, surely!''

"Of course not. Not with impression going male-to-male, and female-to-female, the way Kitti envisioned.'' Wind Blossom glanced at the other door, through which her light-sensitive creature had left, and sighed. "Your dragons needed to impress to you, but when I tried making the criteria less exact, they didn't fully impress at all. So you see, the link between rider and dragon cannot, must not be sundered in mating, nor can it be lessened to accommodate human sensibilities.''

"I doubt that'll appease Alianne and Catherine,'' Sorka said, setting her finished teacup down on the table, "but I don't think anyone'll be surprised. Thank you, Wind Blossom. You've certainly given us a slightly better idea of what to expect when it does happen, if not a way to predict when the golds will eventually rise.'' Sorka hoped she didn't sound too disillusioned with the meeting.

"If I'd known you were so concerned, Sorka, I'd have spoken to you about this before,'' Wind Blossom said, finally showing some compassion. "I'm sure you'll each have enough control over your dragons as you need, whatever Bay thinks''

Now that wasn't exactly reassuring! If there was any doubt over the amount of control the riders would have, well, she'd be damned if any dragon other than Carenath was the first dragon to fly Faranth! She could consider alternatives once the riders knew more of what they were facing. With more new questions than she'd had when she arrived, and no real hope of answers, Sorka thanked Wind Blossom again, made her excuses and left in search of Sean. Maybe he was right, and just treating the dragons like horses would be the best way forward. Their riders may not know what to look for, but perhaps the male dragons themselves would know. Sorka almost wished that she'd been one of the riders who'd gone to spend the afternoon on the hot, pleasant beaches of the south. Even if they didn't learn much there, warm sunshine was a much more appealing prospect than weak tea and Wind Blossom's sour company.
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Old May 2 2006, 04:05 AM   #3
Kath
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Beach life

Duck!

Forwarned by both his dragon and the dark shadow passing overhead, Peter Semling dived back beneath the surface of the warm southern ocean just in time. Eyes closed against the salty water, he nevertheless felt and heard the disturbance of Shih Lao's messy dive. He cracked open an eye to see what was going on. The other man was lucky not to be winded, but was swimming ably enough a meter or so below and seemed in no hurry to head back to the surface. So, he thought he could creep up on him, did he? Pete pulled his drenched head back out into the air, and resumed treading water while waiting for Shih Lao to resurface. Okay, so his head was just as wet this way, but at least he'd had his dunking on his own te...

The second arrival caught him completely off guard.

Firth, while not the largest of the brown dragons, still made a considerable splash, and Pete found himself unceremoniously swept aside and gasping for air. Gilgath, why didn't you warn me about him?, he asked his dragon, muttering expletives under his breath as soon as he had some to spare. The smothered mirth that came back through the link from his partner was answer enough. Yes, the prim bronze dragon sitting smugly on the shoreline, his very own Gilgath, was indeed giggling at him.

Firth dives very neatly, don't you think?

Pete shook his head, and splashed some water at the bathing brown, who simply ignored him and rolled over to float on his back, eyes whirling blue-green in pleasure. Shih Lao resurfaced beside his dragon's head, conveniently timed to miss Pete's insignificant revenge, and reached up to stroke his dragon's headknobs.

You may be out of range, oh dragon-mine, but don't think I'll forget!

But you won't enjoy splashing me if I forget why. Which I will!

In the few short turns since their dragons had hatched, the riders had often wondered if the dragons appreciated all they were missing with their limited memories. Once the pains of threadscore had become clear, the main advantage became obvious, but that didn't stop the dragons finding new reasons to be cheerful with their lot. Oh, they were well aware of their inability to remember specific events in their past, but any need for long-term recall was supplied by the human partner. Sometimes, though, Pete thought that Gilgath could remember more than he claimed. A bit like his grandfather back on First Centauri, who could hear well enough when it suited him (in other words, whenever a glass of booze was on offer) but was stone-deaf otherwise.

Eh?

Ha-bloody-ha, you great big joke of a dragon.
Pete's sister, a great believer in `karma', had always warned that one day he'd be stuck with someone with the same sense of humour. After impressing Gilgath, the inevitable had rapidly come to pass. Now, it seemed he was teaching Firth the same tricks. Realising he was fighting a losing battle, Pete gave up and swam over to Shih Lao, almost certainly an easier target. Dark hair sticking out in all directions, Shih Lao broke into a broad grin as he saw Pete approach.

"We really got you that time, didn't we.''

Pete didn't reply; he simply reached over and good-naturedly shoved the smaller man's head back under.

"Hey!'' Shih Lao said, spluttering. "I've already seen the reef-life, thanks.''

In between roaming over and along the shoreline in search of firelizards, all the riders had spent a lot of time in the water. Not just to cool off: after several years of regular threadfalls with only the resident fairs of firelizards for protection, large swathes of the surrounding land were barren, ugly and lifeless. The tarry remains of failed thread lay juxtaposed with wide regions of bare dirt, each burrow bordered by a perimeter of doomed, dying vegetation. Scorched bushes and the rare undamaged patches of greenery were very much in the minority, and overflying the shoreline in search of the beaches Pete remembered had been a depressing task, made even more difficult by the changed environment. Going straight between had been ruled out right from the start. On the other hand, the coastal waters were thriving, a veritable haven of life amidst the destruction of thread. With so few dragons to stave off humanity's decline, perhaps Kitti Ping would have been better advised to 'geneer gills into the population, like the people living in the aquatic worlds of the Orphiuchus sector? It was hard not to doubt the ability of the dragons and riders to keep the menace at bay, not when the price of failure was so clear. But after spending most of the day enjoying the best that the surviving wildlife of Pern had to offer, spirits were beginning to rise again.

"Yeah, but you don't mind another look.'' Pete settled back, and tried to float. "Wow, but we needed this holiday.''

"Sure did,'' Shih Lao agreed. "I think this is the first time I've been properly warm in weeks. Those storms Fort's been having won't get any better before midwinter now.'' He turned round in the water to look back at the other riders left on the beach. "Shame Tarrie couldn't get away, what with Porth scored and all, but I reckon Alianne needed it just as bad.''

Pete winced, remembering the argument they'd all pretended not to overhear. Alianne had been having some kind of problems with her partner, and had apparently missed a prior engagement while supervising the post-fall clean-up. That was meant to be Tarrie's job, but injuries in fall were never predictable. No one was willing to miss another burrow this month, so everyone was taking extra time, and care, with their tasks. When she and Chereth eventually returned back to their barracks, things had rapidly spiralled out of control. Strangely, Tarrie had seemed more composed than she had been all week - perhaps Porth's scoring had shocked her out of her stress, as she'd seemed much calmer waving the others off.

"Seems to be doing her some good though,'' Pete agreed. Both Alianne and Chereth were currently dozing in the shade beneath one of the surviving stands of trees.

"Peace and quiet all round - who could ask for more!''

"Yeah, you only say that because you didn't hear what the other girls were gossiping about earlier.''

Pete shook his head, refusing to rise to the bait.

"Race you to the shore?''

---

Pete hauled himself out of the water and onto his feet, feeling the motion of the waves dig burrows in the scratchy sand around his toes. Shih Lao was still about half a minute behind, but he didn't feel like waiting, not when there was news to be had - he'd been half-way back to the shore when he saw Dave Caterel and Polenth glide back to land. They'd located many fairs of fire lizards over the course of the day, but that was hardly unexpected, and not precisely what they'd been looking for. Fortunately, several of them had had gold flights in progress. They'd come across the first a few miles west of where they'd first arrived on the coastline; Nyassa's sharp eyes picking out the tell-tale flashes of sunlight on tiny gold, bronze, brown and blue hides above the denuded landscape. But there was nothing new to be learned there, not compared with everything the colonists already knew about their own small companions.

The second gold flight had been much more promising. Of course, the riders wouldn't have known to concentrate their attention on that particular fair had it not been for the presence of Dave Caterel's bronze lizard, Kundi. He'd instantly realised that the cluster of firelizards perched by a rock pool were doing more than just playing or hunting, and had raced off to join the preening gold's adoring suitors. The dragons had spiralled carefully down to the ground on the far side of the small cove, where the riders could watch the proceedings without causing a disturbance. They'd only had three pairs of binoculars to share between them, but that was enough to watch how things began.

The queen was shining bright gold in the sunlight amidst a crows of heavier males, green-tinged bronzes and duller, deeper hued browns. Nyassa reckoned that the gold's colour was brighter than the norm, and the binoculars switched hands in rapid succession as the others took their turn. As far as Pete could tell, it was just the lighting and Nyassa's imagination, but they all agreed that the lizards' eyes were whirling with the expected reddish colour. A bold, solitary blue lurked on the edge of the crowd, with a few more clustered further out. The other blues and greens of the fair were flitting around as if it were some kind of carnival. The remains of fish, and other lifeforms which thrived in Pernese tidepools, were scattered around the fire lizards. A few lizards were displaced by Kundi's arrival, allowing the riders to spot one bronze offering the gold a flopping, fresh fish, which she swiftly dispatched. Not long after that, the gold sprang aloft, her suitors in swift pursuit.

With Dave's bronze fire lizard taking part in the chase, the other riders had left the tall man behind to 'monitor' the progress of that flight, and continued up the shore line... but not without a few teasing comments first!

By the time Pete reached the group, Dave was helping himself to the remains of the riders' lunch and Polenth had ambled downwind to dig himself a sandy hollow. Dave's firelizard, Kundi, was nowhere in sight.

"So, no sign of...'' Alianne was saying, looking rather disgruntled at having been woken up.

"Yeah, yeah,'' Dave interrupted with a grin. "Kundi got lucky. I see the rest of you layabouts have made good use of your time,'' he continued.

Alianne opened her mouth, no doubt to say something cutting in reply. Not wanting to see things spark off yet again, Pete quickly sat down between them.

"Any more water in that flask, Dave?'' he asked.

"Oh yes!'' Kathy added from the other side of the group. "I'm almost starting to miss the morning's drizzle.''

Alianne smiled, and laughed softly. "Miss that? You're mad woman, quite mad!''

Pete took a gulp of water from Dave's flask, and passed it round the circle. "So. We'll understand if you don't want to fill us in on all the gory details, but... anything to add to what we've figured out so far?''

Dave smirked, and shook his head. "If you're expecting me to add anything to the colour argument, forget it. Gold is gold, and I wasn't waiting round all afternoon to see what colour a post-coital lizard goes.''

"I still say she was shining,'' Nyassa said, stirring the sand beside her.

"Reflecting,'' Pete countered.

Alianne rolled her eyes. "Honestly, everyone knows you can't expect a man to tell one colour from another. You can't tell the difference between two shades of pink, let alone gold.''

"Really?'' Shih Lao asked, joining the group at a jog. He brushed the wet sand off his feet, and sat down beside Pete. "Well, magenta's the colour Dave's face went earlier, but puce is the colour he goes when he gets angry... see?''

Kathy smothered a laugh, more successfully than Dave himself. "You know, I think he's right!''

Dave shrugged. "If you say so! Anyway, I took some time to inspect the rock-pool, and what was left of the 'gifts'... which wasn't much. A few greens came along to scavenge almost as soon as the rest were airborne.''

"Oh, so they really weren't interested in the same thing as the rest of them?'' Kathy asked.

"Well, that's debatable. They were hanging around the promontory during the flight; some of them even decided to keep Polenth company for a while. But once the unsuccessful suitors started returning, a few of them made the most of the opportunity.''

"Well, the greens don't seem too bothered by other greens getting lusty.'' Alianne said, intent on proving that she hadn't wasted any time herself. "We did see plenty of those later this morning, but then, greens are pretty much everywhere round here. They didn't spend so much time flirting first; they just darted off with a handful of males in tow. ''

"So, the males still knew what was going to happen?'' Dave asked.

"Oh yes,'' Alianne agreed, "but that's really all we can add, I'm afraid.''

Dave pulled a redfruit out of the bag of food. "Well, hopefully that'll be enough. Maybe Sorka'll have got something useful out of Wind Blossom. And hey,'' he took a bite out of the fruit. "At least we'll be heading home with some fresh supplies.''

"We should probably get going with the foraging pretty soon,'' Kathy suggested. "I reckon the fruit trees round Paradise Hold will be a good place to try - the dragonets might still be in the habit of protecting that area as well as their own nesting grounds. Who's with me?''

"Milath and I'', Nyassa answered straight away.

Alianne shifted onto her back, and folded her arms beneath her head. "I'd go, but I think both Chereth and I would prefer sticking round here a while.''

Gilgath? Fancy a trip to Paradise?

The lanky bronze lifted his head from the sand, had a quick look round, and then settled back down again. I'd rather stay round here too.

The others all opted to stay on the beach, not that they'd be lazing about much longer. There was hunting to be done too, and Paul knew where some surviving herds could still be found nearby. Soon enough, the two women and their gold dragons had winked between, and Paul, Otto and Pete were preparing for the hunt. Dave and Polenth would be staying behind, and relaying their news back to Sorka at Fort.

Straps in place, Pete hauled himself up between Gilgath's neck ridges, and waited for Paul to relay the coordinates to his dragon.

Alianne lifted one dark hand to shield her eyes, and used the other to push herself to a sitting position. "Well, you boys have fun hunting!'' she called out, giving them a wave. "I'm going to work on my tan,'' she finished sardonically.

Pete grinned and quickly waved back, before giving a reluctant Gilgath the signal to follow Shoth into the sky.

"You lazy thing,'' he muttered to his dragon. "We'll be back soon enough.''

Yes. We will.
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Old May 5 2006, 01:14 PM   #4
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On the Mend

Tarrie? Tarrie! I itch...

Tarrie could almost feel her own arms itching in sympathy with her dragon's discomfort. From past experience, she knew that the fairly mild sensations currently felt by her dragon were only the beginning, and as increased feeling returned to the scored areas, itching would soon be replaced by sharper pins and needles, and a dull ache that would steadily intensify into white-hot pain. That was threadscore. The thought of it still gave her nightmares at times.

Porth dearest, I know, and I'll be with you soon with more numbweed, Tarrie answered in haste as she made her way over to the ground-level infirmary weyr. She'd hoped Porth would sleep a little longer than she had. The full bucket of fresh salve knocked against Tarrie's leg with each step, but she was in too much of a rush to go to any extra effort with the awkward load, simply to spare herself a few bruises. Porth's needs were paramount, after all. At least she'd not needed to wrestle the damn bucket up the steep stairs to their normal weyr, not on a windy day like this. For about the fifth time that afternoon, Tarrie imagined the balmy warmth of a southern beach, even as another cold gust of wind found its way under her coat. Still, it kept the pungent aroma of the numbweed at bay.

Yesterday had been much worse. Tarrie may have trained as a meteorologist, but it didn't take much to know that changeable strong winds meant trouble when it came to Threadfall. It wouldn't have been so bad if it had been winter time, with the air cold enough to freeze thread into harmless black dust... or if they'd been blessed with the humidity of the previous week. Unimpeded by the weather, the voracious Threads had fallen in the most unpredictable of patterns. Tangles and clumps were bad enough, but when they shifted direction as if driven by some malign intelligence, when the easiest sheets became torn apart by crosswinds... that made a fall very nasty indeed. Add to that the sheer impossibility of flying in a straight line under those conditions, and you had a recipe for disaster.

And yet, the three wings had made it through more-or-less unscathed, until nearly the very end of the fall. It helped that they didn't need to fly all five hours; just over the acreage that was planted up or grazed by livestock. Even so, the exhaustion of the dragons was telling. The little dragonets were a help, but what they really needed was greater numbers of dragons. Tarrie was sure that even Sean was longing to have some nimble green and blue dragons in his wing, to dart hither and thither picking up the awkward clumps that the larger dragons had most trouble manoeuvring round. But that was still years off, even if the dragons started breeding that minute! It couldn't happen too soon though, that was certain.

Porth picked her head up off her folded forelegs as Tarrie arrived, eyes whirling in a muted mixture of blue and red.

When will it stop hurting, Tarrie? she asked plaintively.

"Very soon, dear. Soon.''

Tarrie dropped the bucket beside her dragon, and pulled the sterilised mop from under her arm.

"Left wing first?'' she asked softly, as she immersed it in the numbweed. Porth rapidly obliged, dipping her wing low enough for Tarrie to lift off the old dressings and slather the healing salve over the scored region.

Porth had been scored by practically the last threads to fall over fertile ground, right at the end of their threadfighting. The uppermost wing of dragons had already broken off, and was backtracking along the path of the fall in search of burrows, leaving the remaining threads to fall onto the barren unfarmed landscape where they could do no further damage. 'Firebreaks' up to half a click wide were maintained in the lowlands, to prevent burrowing thread crossing from the wastelands into Pern's few fields. But rocky ridgelines made a more practical natural defense, wherever the Pernese geology gave a helping hand. Of course, on a blustery day, there was no guarantee which side of the ridge a clump of thread would actually fall on.

Fortunately, Porth's sharp eyes had seen the falling clump just in time. Although the time spent threadfighting together was best counted in months rather than years, both dragon and rider understood what needed to be done in order to prevent the loss of yet another field. Porth began banking sharply even as Tarrie prepared the visual to send them between. They didn't have enough room, or time, to char the thread in the usual manner: the rider's flamethrower spewing out- and downwards as the dragon safely descended down the length of the thread. Nor was there enough time to alert one of the male pairs, who were more versatile with their flaming. Instead, Tarrie and Porth exited between with Porth's wings close to vertical, taking them in a tight spiral around the descending tangle of thread barely a dragonlength above the ground.

Flamethrower angled upwards, Tarrie seared the thread as it fell beside them, scarcely a wingspan away. It was a manoeuvre that would have worked perfectly under normal conditions, but both knew it could all go horribly wrong in an instant. Most of the tangle had been destroyed only a few seconds after exiting between, but what was left could still do considerable damage. It was at that point that the sidewind caught them, filling Porth's wings like sails and driving the pair through their own flames into the hot char and the remaining meters of falling thread. Expecting something of the sort, Tarrie had been able to give Porth a visual of the weyr bowl the instant they were blown off course, quickly enough to send them between the moment the thread struck. That's one way to stop it reaching the
ground, Tarrie had found herself thinking as the icy cold of between froze the last vestige of thread off Porth's wings. And then they'd been out above the weyr, safe, Porth's agony sending every other thought out of her head. She'd not even noticed her own burns until later, once Porth had slipped into sleep and Tarrie was finally able to tell which pains were her own.


Adding a final coat of numbweed salve 'for luck', Tarrie surveyed the damage. The score, although lengthy, had been pretty shallow and was already looking much better. Dragons didn't have too many nerve endings in their wings anyway, but Porth had more than enough on the rest of her body. Still, Sean said dragons were just like Earth-mammals when it came to injuries like burns and threadscore; a lot of pain was a good sign that the damage didn't go too deep.

"She's healing up well then?'' came a familiar voice from the entrance to the weyr.

He's been watching, Porth added, amused. But Carenath says his rider doesn't want to numb his hands today...

Tarrie slid down from her perch on Porth's near hind leg, and walked round to greet Sean. Oops. Gloves probably would have been a good idea. But with Porth calm, and healing, it really didn't seem to matter all that much.

"I could have done with your height ten minutes ago!'' Tarrie said with a chuckle. "But yes, she seems to be doing well - aren't you, love?''

Porth rumbled, eyes whirling a contented greeny-blue. Why wouldn't I be?

"I don't need Carenath to translate that look,'' Sean answered, grinning. "Dragon memories. Give her a day or so, and she'll forget she even got scored.'' He walked closer towards Porth, and gave her a quick rub behind her headknobs. "Aside from the scoring, she seems in good health. Mind if I take a closer look at her wings?''

Tarrie stepped aside, and watched as he checked Porth over from torso to wingtip, above and below.

"Circulation's good,'' he commented as he felt the underside of each fingerjoint. "As we thought, the scarring should be minimal, and won't impede her flight once she'd fully healed.''

"Good.''

"And next time, send a brown in for those kind of stunts!''

Carenath says we're not expendable, Porth relayed.

Nor are browns.

Browns don't clutch. I will. When I'm ready.

Tarrie bit her lip, and glanced at Sean. "Did you catch any of that from Carenath?''

"Some of it. Clutching, right?'' He lost focus for a moment, and turned towards wherever his bronze dragon must have been. "Not sure if it was her idea, or his. Carenath's being... elusive on the subject.''

"They're probably just picking it up from us, aren't they?'' Tarrie asked.

Sean opened his mouth to speak, paused, and looked back at Porth. "Maybe. Sorka's on her way over, along with the other riders still around.''

"Ahhh. So, she got something useful out of Wind Blossom then, aside from the usual platitudes and cups of tea?''

"That, and the news from the south. Not that there's much from what Carenath tells me, but best we all hear it together, wouldn't you say?''

Tarrie sat down, and leaned back against Porth for support. "So long as we get some answers, I'll be happy.''
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Old May 5 2006, 01:22 PM   #5
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The Hunt Begins

The powerful wing beats of the three dragons carried them rapidly aloft, and aided by Pern's ever-present prevailing winds they quickly gained altitude. As Gilgath levelled out, Pete stretched, and made the most of the welcome respite from the heat of the more sheltered beach. Ahead, a klick or so to the south of them, Pete could make out a glistening patch of blue-green; a marked contrast to the Thread-abused landscape, and, he supposed, the destination Paul had in mind.

Sure enough, moments later Gilgath relayed a message from the other man via his dragon.

Islorth's rider says we are to follow, but not land until we see how many beasts survive.

I wouldn't have thought anything could survive down here... but I guess if things are still growing, they can, Pete mused to his dragon. Threadfall devasted anything it touched, but it was only the rarer Threads that successfully burrowed that would leach every nutrient out of the soil, before eventually dying themselves. This early in a pass, the land still maintained some of its fertility, but it wouldn't last. Still, as things were now, in the absence of burrows the roots, seeds and pollen of Pern's plantlife would remain untouched, ready for regrowth in the springtime, or whenever favourable weather allowed. Many undefeated plants were taking advantage of the changing southern season to do just that, and patchy swathes of fresh growth, most of it doomed to die in the next threadfall, were dotted across the barren ground beneath. After who-knows how many millenia of passes, the Pernese
flora had evolved to favour rapid growth spurts, hardy weeds, and fine puffballs of microscopic seeds that could probably survive dormant long enough to outlast even a full pass unharmed.

Marsh grasses, lillies and oxygenating water-weeds were another success story, providing food and habitats for animals and insects alike. So, Pete was not in the least bit surprised when it became apparent that they were heading for a small patch of fenland, or flood-plain, or something... He wasn't quite sure; geography had never been his favourite subject as a child.

As they got closer, Pete leaned forwards to peer around Gilgath's bronze neck in search of their quarry. The landscape looked like a good spot for the herd that Paul claimed lived nearby. Some past event had lifted the land to the south east, creating a fairly sizeable cliff. Parts of it had collapsed, and there were large sections that were heavily undercut by a river, meandering its way across the land towards the sea. Natural shelter from Threadfall? Pete wondered. Water, safe grazing, shelter... even a dumb cow ought to recognise this place as a perfect refuge. Further east, the cliff was broken by the entrance of yet another waterway, which flowed out of its gorge to connect up with the main river. But no cows. Not one.

I see one animal, Gilgath supplied.

Where?

To your right; Shoth investigates!

Pete turned in time to see the second brown break away from their formation, and swoop silenty down towards a solitary animal drinking water from further upstream.

"He's gonna spook it,'' Pete mumbled to himself, seeing Shoth's broad shadow racing across the ground in advance of the dragon himself. Sure enough, the animal lifted its head with a squeal and, with a great deal of splashing, charged away as fast as it could.

Shoth says they weren't really hunting, Gilgath commented, barely supressing his amusement. And Islorth reminds us that we don't want to kill them here. We are to land; he shows me where.

The three dragons circled down to land on a raised patch of dry ground between the cliff face and the river, allowing their riders to dismount easily. This close, Pete could see several small holes high up the cliff. Curious at the new arrivals, a small green head briefly poked out of one of them; weyrs for firelizards, Pete realised. Yet another source of protection for any large animals still around. Firelizards would feed on the freshwater fish and insects that lived here, and would guard their feeding grounds during Threadfall.

"So, where's this herd got to then?'' Pete wondered aloud, as he leapt from Gilgath's shoulder to the ground.

Paul shook his head, with a wry smile. "Don't worry, they're around.''

A sudden outburst of swearing from Otto proved his point.

"Yeah, I'd say they were round here this morning,'' he muttered angrily, lifting a boot to inspect the sole, before wiping it hurridly on the grass. "Phwoar, that's fresh.''

Pete exchanged a grin with Paul. "Rather him than me!''

"Told you so! They've adapted pretty well to the local river grasses and algae, as well as the normal grass,'' Paul said, gesturing at the submerged fronds in the river.

"What's that?'' Pete asked, spotted a mostly submerged brown shape further downstream.

"Looks like what's left of a cow,'' Otto added, shading his eyes as he squinted into the bright sunlight. "I've already got as close as I like to smelly messes today; one of you can take a closer look.''

Pete started towards it. "I reckon I can keep my boots clean, at least!'' He squelched across the marshier ground to the shoreline, and cautiously approached what was left of the animal. Sure enough, there was a small splash as a scavenging tunnelsnake made its escape - not all varieties were that cowardly. There were score marks all across what was left of the beast's head and back; some old and healed, others fresh. Probably, it had been injured in the last Threadfall: the killing Threads drowning in the river after fatally wounding the animal.

"Slim pickings here,'' he said, peering down at the corpse and shaking his head. It looked like the local fire lizards had had a free meal, as well as the snakes.

"There's another spot, up the gorge over there, where the herds are bound to be,'' Paul said pointing at the break in the cliff. "The steep slopes offer good protection in Fall, and there are a few caves as well. But if none of you object, Islorth's feeling a few hunger pangs - might as well not waste what's here.''

"Shoth's got no objections.''

Gilgath?

Bit scrawny for my tastes.

"Nor Gilgath.'' Pete ambled back to the other riders, and watched as Islorth launched himself into the air in pursuit of the original cow, now contentedly grazing several hundred metres away and keeping a watchfull eye on the dragons.

Otto twisted his bootheel into the patchy grass, in a vain effort to remove the last of the cowshit. "Hey... how come this grass is still here? Even with the firelizards, it's way too dry to survive Fall.''

"Aha!'' Paul said, tapping his nose as if he were about to reveal an important secrect. "Well, you remember the Tubberman grubs?''

"The grubs that failed in every field they were seeded in?'' They'd seemed like such a promising solution, Pete mused. But months of trial and error had resulted only in failure. Grubs had been seeded into both scored and living fields, at many different times of year. But either they didn't like the cold, or their efficacy had been tested in
Fall too early... whatever the reason, the only result had been more dead land.

"Hey, it's not like my father had any say in where they were used,'' Paul protested. "Bad enough that the original lab work got destroyed, and that Wind Blossom refused to work on them, wasting her time on those no-good, ugly, walking bellies,'' he continued, pulling a disgusted face.

In the distance, Islorth swooped down on the hapless bovine, killing it swiftly.

"Oh, nice catch,'' Otto commented.

Paul grinned. "Anyway, my father... ahem... acquired a few cocoons last year.''

"So that's where you went on your secret spring break!'' Otto gasped. "You were raiding the source, weren't you?''

Pete crouched down to pull up a tussock of grass. And there, wriggling between the roots, were the weird little grubs, silently working their Thread-defying magic.

"Yeah, the grubs were doing okay back on the old Tubberman stake, and we took as much as we dared,'' Paul went on. "It'd take years to gather enough cocoons to protect a single field, even if the grubs on the Tubberman stake could produce
them quick enough. We knew this land, marginal as it was, still gave the animals a
chance. So, we tried seeding it, in different places, different times. Some of them took, others didn't. And the protection is pretty scant so far,'' Paul gestured at the patchy grass, "even if there aren't half as many signs of burrows as there should be. Simple truth is, we just don't know how they even do what they do, let alone how to
encourage them to do it. But when I think how many were wasted on scored and burrowed fields though...'' He trailed off, shaking his head. "Still. It's enough that this herd survived.''

"Until Islorth came along, anyway!'' Pete said, smiling. Thinking back to the events of the morning, he changed subjects. "So, how much of the firelizards' mating rituals do you think'll translate to these big guys?'' he asked, curious to hear the opinion of the other riders.

"Who the heck knows!'' Paul said. "If we knew why they did what they did,
maybe... Take the food offering Dave said he saw earlier. I'm sure I've never seen that before, not in any of the flights our family's lizards had. Doesn't mean it doesn't serve a purpose though... but whether it's simply picquing the queen's interest, or extra calories for a strenuous flight, or they just happened to be real hungry first... Aargh! Ask Sorka, Sean, maybe Bay - what else do we have experts for?''

"So, what you're saying is that it could just be flirting?'' Otto wondered.

"I hope so! I mean, what's the alternative? Plucking a couple of sugar-coated Wherries out of between?''

We don't like sugar, echoed into three separate minds.

"No, but if you want a plump, juicy bullock of your own, we'd better get back to work,'' Pete said, dumping his handful of grub-infested soil back on the ground, and wiping his hands clean on his trousers.

"Now there's a sight to put me off my food,'' Paul muttered, as a rather gory Islorth ambled back up to the group, having finished his meal. "You two head down that gorge then, while I try and make this brown lummox presentable. We'll be waiting out here, ready to channel them downstream to the coast.''

Otto glanced at the break in the bluff, and tilted his head in thought. "Shall we drive out the whole herd?''

"About a dozen animals is what we need, I reckon, and an idea of how many are left behind. There should be more, but don't worry if you can't break the group up - I don't want us facing down a stampede out here!''

Pete grinned. "I think we can just about manage.''

Time to hunt again? Gilgath queried, and lowered himself to allow Pete to mount. The blond rider gave Gilgath a light slap on the shoulder, and hauled himself up into place between the dragon's neck ridges.

The two dragons, brown and bronze, took to the skies once more, heading for Paul's gorge. After that, locating the herd was easy; perhaps thirty animals or more huddled in a group. Most bore signs of old and new scores, but aside from that, they looked in good health.

So Gilgath... any ideas on how to act like a sheepdog?

Eyes whirling orange with excitement, the dragon gave a mental laugh.

Ideas? I can manage these creatures far better than any animal can!

Gilgath elegantly tilted a wingtip, and set about proving his point.
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Old May 17 2006, 05:22 PM   #6
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Mayhem!


"So,'' Pete began with a wry smile, keeping a close eye on the bellowing cluster of fearful cows as they huddled between the three dragons and the sea. "Which of us was in charge of remembering to bring the butcher's kit?''

Otto gave Pete a concerned glance, while Paul simply crumpled to the soft white sand with a groan.

"Dammit, dammit, dammit! I knew there was something else I was meant to bring along...''

"Shall I see if the others have anything?'' Otto asked, glancing towards the other dragons and riders at the far side of the bay. Firth and Chereth were both dozing in the warm sun, which seemed to catch every glint in the gold dragon's hide, while Polenth was stalking possessively around the group. Alianne and Shih Lao seemed to be chatting, but Dave himself was striding swiftly towards the hunters, with Kundi fluttering overhead.

"Somehow I don't think a bread knife will get us very far,'' Paul muttered bitterly, holding his head in his hands, brow furrowed in concentration as he tried to think things through.

Yes, they certainly had a bit of a problem here. But while Paul was still softly cursing his own forgetful idiocy, the solution came to Pete in a flash.

Gilgath, what do you reckon?

The bronze tilted his head and listened carefully to Pete's idea.

Well, I don't know why it took you so long to ask, he replied laconically. Of course we can manage the job! Gilgath rose up onto all fours, muscles rippling across his haunches as he stretched in readiness.

Buoyed by his dragon's eagerness, Pete slapped Paul cheerily on the shoulder. "Hang about, mate, I've got an idea!'' Who needed knives, ropes, bruises and the risks of being side-kicked by a stupid cow... when you had the fangs and talons of a half dozen dragons to hand? He rapidly explained his idea to Otto and Paul, who were soon nodding in agreement, their dragons equally enthusiastic.

"Of course, we could do with taking a few live animals over for the Weyr's breeding stock,'' Paul elaborated, "but we can always collect them later, from here or back at the gorge.''

"Threadfall's here again in two days, but that gives us plenty of time,'' Dave said as he joined the group. "Don't worry; Polenth's filled me in on all the details. Damn, Paul, I can't believe you forgot the one piece of kit you were meant to bring!''

Paul stiffened, not entirely sure if Dave was joking until the other rider's face broke into a broad smirk. He sighed and shrugged, knowing better than to make an issue of it. "So, six dragons, two animals apiece... we may as well get the dragons to slaughter the lot after all.''

Pete shook his head with a wistful smile. "It'll be mayhem.''

"Probably,'' Dave agreed, suddenly more serious. "But teaching Gilgath a little more restraint might be a good idea right now,'' he snapped.

Pete's smile faded. This wasn't like Dave at all. "What's up?'' he demanded.

"Sorry, that was uncalled for,'' Dave sighed. "I'm just a bit... tense, I guess. Perhaps it's best to let them get started, give them a distraction. It's nothing to worry about, but you lot really need to hear Sorka's news, and I don't want it colouring their instincts. Not until us humans have had a chance to think things through.''

"Wind Blossom came up with the goods then?'' Otto asked, unconcerned.

Ignoring the other brown rider, a worried-looking Paul dragged himself to his feet. "You'd better start explaining things. Fast.''

Dave nodded. "Let's walk.''

Knowing the strength of the bond between Gilgath and himself, Pete found himself rather unsurprised by Wind Blossom's theories about impression, and the likelihood that a mating dragon could lead to some pretty overwhelming urges. After all, it was pretty much what the group of riders had figured out for themselves. He glanced back to check on the progress of Gilgath's hunting. Not bad; the bronze had singled out a plump bullock and was homing in for the kill, while the other dragons kept the rest of the small herd under control. But then Dave started mentioning 'dire consequences', bringing Pete's attention rapidly back into focus.

"What?!'' the three men exclaimed in near-unison.

"We can't afford to shy away from staying in full contact, full control of our dragons. Wind Blossom thinks... well, you know what she's like, and I don't think her ideas hold any water when it comes to the permanence of impression.'' Dave stopped, realising that he was only adding to the other riders' confusion. "Look, Sorka spoke to Bay as well, and they agree on this point. What happens to any member of dragonkind, fire lizard, or dragon, when they panic?''

"They go between...'' Pete said slowly, and whistled through pursed lips.

"Can they do that, without us?'' Otto asked.

"Do you think Marco had any say in things when Duluth panicked?'' Dave snapped, kicking at the sand in irritation. "Of course they can go between without us; it's knowing where to come out again that's the problem.''

"So we stay with them, stay in control like you said,'' Otto said. "Problem solved, ja?''

"If what Wind Blossom says is true, Bay doesn't think it'll be that easy,'' Dave answered. "Whatever happens, when and if it does happen, it'll be pretty intense, and could very well overwhelm whoever's involved. Bay was brutally honest with Sorka in that respect, and I'll trust her instincts over Wind Blossom's any day.''

Pete spent a few moments considering the mechanics of the problem, and try as he might, he couldn't see any other conclusions.

"But... doesn't that mean...''

"I'm glad at least one of you appreciates the gravity of all this. If it's any consolation, Sorka says Sean insists we should understand that we're all in the same boat. But, we can't afford any harm to come to our dragons. ''

"So what do we do?'' Paul asked.

`"It's not as if we have much choice, really,'' Dave said calmly, trying to reassure the other men. "Whatever Polenth truly needs, I'll do. I doubt you'd have much trouble in that respect,'' he added, throwing a significant look Otto's way.

Oho! Pete wondered. What gossip have I missed out on here?

"How was I to know you were interested in her too? Hey, you know I can't resist a pretty face.''

"You might have to,'' Pete said cautiously. He was sure he was more considerate of his partners than Otto, if the other man's reputation was anything to go by, but whatever happened, consideration was probably something they'd all need plenty of in the times ahead. A sudden surge of elation reached him from Gilgath; he'd made his kill neatly, and was feeling quite proud of himself. Ahead, Shih Lao and Alianne seemed to be in the middle of a heated debate, and were oblivious of their approach. Pete found himself quite distracted by Alianne; she was certainly quite, no, very attractive when she got angry. Especially in that bikini. Oops. Pete coughed, and decided that now would be a good time to concentrate very hard on the wiring schematics of the Weyr's new lighting system.

"Yeah, it's one thing to put our dragons first, but it has to be a last resort... if that makes any sense at all,'' Paul said, breaking the tension with a laugh. "C'mon, it's not as if Catherine or Alianne, or any of the girls for that matter, are going to be too enthusiastic about... how can I put this? Just going with the flow.''

Otto snickered. "Nyassa might be okay with it.''

The others gave him a dirty look.

"Say that to her face, and she'll deck you,'' Dave murmured quietly.

"And if you think Sean will let you get away with having your wicked way with Sorka...'' Paul continued.

Otto raised his hands in defence.
"Well! That's obviously out of the question. I mean, we do have some say in which dragons chase which queen, don't we? Assuming that any of them eventually rise, that is.''

"Do we?'' Dave wondered.

Pete stopped, and let the others walk on ahead. Even though the afternoon was beginning to cool, he was starting to feel a bit hot under the collar. On top of that, Gilgath was feeling... weird.

What are you doing? he asked, turning back to watch his dragon, hunched over the beast he'd killed. Is it Thread?

We are to return the meat, and so I shan't eat any. But the blood. It tastes very good, and there's no need to waste it. And. I. Want. It.

Stunned into silence by Gilgath's wild insistence, Pete was startled when Dave laid a hand on his arm.

"Shaffit, you nearly had me jumping out of my skin!''

"What's he doing?''

Pete's mouth went dry. "I, uh. Um. He didn't want to waste the blood. I think.''

"Polenth thinks that's a good idea, and he's going to give him a hand,'' Dave said, seeming equally distracted. "Otto and Paul are trying to calm things down between Shih and Alianne; I guess one of them managed to wind the other up while I was gone.''

"Probably Shih. You know what he's like.''

Polenth landed with a bellow, outstretched talons pinning a kicking heifer to the ground. The rest of the herd scattered, grunting and lowing, no longer caring whether they ran towards or away from the watching dragons.

"Mayhem, just as you predicted,'' Dave said with a sigh. The pair turned back towards the other riders, and Pete winced as the wind carried a fresh batch of expletives towards them. The argument seemed to have intensified, and Otto and Alianne were standing toe-to-toe, screeching at each other. 'Loud enough to wake a sleeping dragon' seemed an appropriate description in Pete's mind. Shih Lao always swore Firth could sleep through anything, but he was being tested to the limits right now. As for Chereth, well, her tail was twitching madly; she'd soon be awake.

"I see Paul and Otto didn't manage to calm things down then.''

"What? Oh, sure,'' Pete agreed, entranced by Chereth's twitches. He didn't want to look back at Alianne again, perturbed by his earlier reaction. No, dammit, don't think of the woman, think of the nice, safe, boring wiring. "You know, I think Nyassa was right - that's not a normal shade of gold, is it?''

The other man gave him a slow, steady look. "I've been hoping it was just the sunlight, but if you see it too...''

"You too?'' Pete queried.

Dave nodded. "It's Chereth,'' he hissed. Realising that something was about to start happening, he grabbed Pete's arm and started hauling him back towards the other riders at a jog.

As they ran, a frantic cow lumbered past the sleeping queen, mooing as loud as its lungs could manage. This was apparently the last straw, and the gold dragon finally woke with a shriek of annoyance, and rose up on her hind legs, wings flapping.

"Does she know?'' Pete gasped as they approached the group. If the way he was feeling was anything to go by, they were about to find out how dragon mating worked first hand. Gilgath's steady anticipation only confirmed things further.

Chereth knows. I know. Polenth knows. Firth will no doubt know when he finally wakes up.

Not Chereth, Alianne, you foolish dragon.

As Dave and Pete reached the others, the argument seemed to be reaching its peak.

"...well, I'm sure me and Shoth could... Ow!''

Whatever Otto was about to suggest was cut short by Alianne's slap. Pete couldn't help feeling that he'd probably deserved Alianne's reaction... and with the woman storming off after Chereth, who was now hunting down the cow that had disturbed her rest, at least the shouting match had ended.

Shih Lao shrugged as Dave and Pete arrived. "I did try and cool things down, honest. Not that some people seemed to care,'' he finished, glaring at Otto.

Dave shook his head. "C'mon, let's go pick up the pieces while we still can.''

They quickly caught up with Alianne, who hadn't gone very far at all. The short woman was standing rigidly, fists clenched, watching as Chereth tore hungrily into the belly of the unfortunate cow, scattering gore across the sands as she ate.

"Chereth?'' she asked huskily, letting out a shuddering breath.

Pete glanced at Dave, hoping he'd know what to say. Even though they didn't lead a wing during Fall, Dave and Polenth had always been a pair that many of the other riders felt they could turn to at need. But the other man was silent, jaws fixed, just watching and waiting to see what would happen next.

"Oh, Chereth, don't do this to me!'' Alianne demanded firmly, uncowed, as her dragon swallowed another bloody mouthful of meat. "You have to stop this. Listen to me, girl, you can't do this now.''

Some part of Pete's mind registered the presence of a fourth dragon in the corner of his eye -- Shoth? The brown was tearing the entrails out of another animal as he eagerly gorged himself on the fresh meat, much as Chereth was doing ahead of them. Alianne seemed to be having no luck in her attempt to disrupt Chereth's heat, and things were spiralling rapidly out of control. It all seemed irrelevant though; Pete was finding himself increasingly enraptured by Chereth's behaviour, as she rapidly consumed what was left of the carcass. The perspective kept shifting awkwardly, dizzyingly, and he realised he was also watching the queen through Gilgath's impatient eyes.

Wind Blossom said we'd be in full control...

But Bay and Sorka thought otherwise!

Pete tried to pull back to his own perspective, holding himself both apart from and together with Gilgath. It seemed to work, until Chereth suddenly launched herself skywards, and every other dragon followed. Firth must have woken up too when no one was looking, Pete realised absently. Betrayed by his need to know what the hell was going on, he found himself slipping back into Gilgath's mind completely. The lanky bronze was leading the pack of males chasing their queen. Nothing else seemed to matter any more, and the little voice saying No! Wait! was easily subdued. He was Gilgath: sleek, fast and powerful! He felt imbued with boundless energy, the warm blood firing his thirst rather than quenching it, and with each wingbeat he flew higher, higher and ever closer to his goal.

His brothers were clustered around him; around, yet slightly behind, except for Polenth. But that didn't matter; he would win this flight.

But Alianne...!

The whisper was rapidly drowned out. Gilgath wanted his queen, needed his queen.

Chereth!

Desperate with desire, he powered onwards, quickly gaining on the golden form above and ahead. Some instinct told him that it shouldn't be so easy, that the queen, worthy as she was of his adoration, should still be far out of reach. Surely her stronger wings should have given her more of a head start? It might have been the whisper, trying to slow him down, put him off? No, it was of little concern, not when Chereth was there for him to win, here and now.

Yes. We will have her, the whisper agreed.

Securely self-confident, and exhilarated by the cool winds, the heat of the sun beating down and his own lusts, Gilgath was surprised when Chereth faltered in her flight. In a matter of heartbeats, she was practically at a standstill. A moment later, Gilgath/Pete were shocked further as an uncertain cry, tinged with anguish, erupted from Chereth's throat and mind as she struggled through the air.

ALIANNE...! I NEED, and I need you! Where... please?

Stunned, Pete once again found himself staring through two sets of eyes. He turned wildly, not wanting to see Alianne's fierce nudity, tears pouring down her dark cheeks, or the glazed, lustful longing of the other men, muttering encouragement to their dragons under their breath. Except Dave, who seemed to be begging for her forgiveness.

Control? What fardling control? Pete almost felt like crying himself. This wasn't fair, not on Alianne, not on any of them. And not fair on the dragons, either, who couldn't help the way they were, their needs... Gilgath's needs.

"It's okay, I know, I'm here, my dearest, dearest Chereth'', Alianne said, almost gasping the words out. She sounded... no, not resigned, simply determined, her voice choked with the unconditional affection they all had for their partners. She was willing to encompass... this? Oh, what a woman! And before he could manage another thought, Pete found himself subsumed in Gilgath once more, unwillingly dragged under by his respect and compassion for Alianne.

Who would be his.

Gilgath roared a challenge, daring the other bronzes and browns to try to win this flight, to defeat him. He might have lost ground during his rider's momentary lapse into confusion, but he was still far ahead of the pack. Chereth was nearly within reach; not yet ready to be caught, but oh yes, wanting it. Soon, so soon...

Then, strangely, a shadow drifted across Gilgath's back. Who! Who would dare...? He craned his head round, staring upwards, powerless as Polenth dived past, silently, picking up speed, effortlessly reaching Chereth ahead of him.

Chereth! Chereth, who cried out in joy as their union began, and was echoed on the ground. Not looking back, Pete stumbled away, shaking, trying to rid himself of the waves of emotion thrumming through the air from the mating dragons. Though a sense of relief would surely arrive later, right then he was conscious only of Gilgath's crushing disappointment, as the defeated bronze spiralled slowly back to land.


A land that wasn't really too far below him.


Nor all that far below the helplessly entwined Polenth and Chereth, surely oblivious in their passion...
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Old May 17 2006, 05:37 PM   #7
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Picking up the pieces


"Well, that went better than I expected,'' Sorka murmured, as she watched the group of riders walk away from the infirmary weyr. Even Catherine hadn't taken things too badly, though she hadn't said much either, and had made her excuses to leave very quickly once everything had been said. Almost as if she'd felt uncomfortable around the other riders, Sorka mused. Perhaps, it might be an idea to pop up to the new Weyr and have a few words with Nick, before Catherine caught up with him? Smiling tenderly at Faranth, she checked the tension in the straps spanning the gold's neck, and prepared to mount up. A light drizzle was beginning to fall from the sky -- typical, for a Thread-free day! -- and Sorka wondered whether it was best to risk a drenching on a straight flight, or to take the easy option of between. Another couple of weeks, and she'd be flying straight everywhere, but even though she still had the choice, Sorka preferred to avoid the effects of between on a pregnancy-stressed bladder when she could. Well, she could decide either way once they were in the air.

Just a short hop up to the Weyr, love?

As Faranth crouched down in order to allow her rider to mount, Sorka heard footsteps behind her. Tarrie must have finished tending to Porth, and was now standing in the shelter of the overhanging roof of the weyr.

"Need a lift?'' Sorka asked cheerily, tucking her hair behind her ears and out of the wind's reach. Past time it was cut again! "We're off up to the Weyr, but could easily drop you off en route.''

"Thanks, but no.'' Tarrie shook her head, eyes narrowed in thought. Sighing, she tugged on the sleeves of her jumper and folded her arms against the breeze, before giving Sorka a speculative glance. "Damage control?''

Sorka nodded. "Unless you have a better idea?''

"I wish! I'm still trying to straighten out my own head with all this, let alone anyone else's. It just feels like...''

Tarrie's voice trailed away into a strained, awkward silence.

"Just bear in mind that we could be worrying for no reason at all,'' Sorka said reassuringly.

"Yeah, right.''

The look Tarrie gave her in return told Sorka all she needed to know. Tarrie, too, thought that Bay rather than Wind Blossom was closer to the truth. She waited patiently, giving Tarrie the space she needed to gather her thoughts. It was pretty clear that the woman needed to talk, and be listened to, and Sorka wasn't going to let the opportunity slide. Better by far to get things out in the open, than to keep them boiling away under the surface.

Carenath and Sean have offered to go to the Weyr in our place, if we need to stay here? Faranth must have been listening in on her thoughts, and Sorka readily agreed with her dragon's suggestion even as Tarrie started talking once more.

"I mean, part of me wants to suggest you let Catherine sort out her own problems! I know I'm being unfair, and things are different for her and Alianne, and Paul too I suppose.'' Tarrie took a deep breath, and went on, arms still folded defensively.

"But just because I'm not in a relationship right now, it doesn't necessarily make things any easier for me! And I really resent having my concerns sidelined by the others.''

Grimacing, Sorka had to agree. "Oh, Tarrie. You're not being unfair at all.'' Would it be Porth who was the first to mate, she wondered? Sean had shared Carenath's earlier thoughts on the matter, and had agreed it seemed likely. She'd tried to find out what Faranth's instincts were on the same subject, but the gold had simply brushed her aside, apparently in no hurry to think about such things. Any maternal instincts the dragon might have were focused solely on Sorka's own pregnancy. Why would she, Faranth, need to mate, when Sorka still hadn't clutched her own newborn?

"I know,'' Tarrie answered, walking out to join Sorka in the drizzle. She looked up at the darkening skies, and shook her head at the weather. "Typical! Anyway, I'm sorry for going on about all this, but it's just good to know that you know how I feel, at least. Weight off my mind!'' she finished, smiling.

Sorka was glad to hear the obvious relief in Tarrie's voice. "Good!''

Tarrie gave Faranth a friendly pat, and briefly turned aside to glance back at her own dragon, a quizzical look on her face. "Mind you, it makes me wonder... just how much our emotional turmoil affects our dragons, and vice versa,'' she said.

Sorka raised an eyebrow, and, in lieu of a chair, leaned back against Faranth's supporting bulk. Any further insights the woman might have were more than welcome! "Go on.''

"You remember how Milath got all snappy at Porth last week, over sharing the sunlight on the ridge?''

"Mmm.''

"I was speaking to Nyassa later, and she mentioned that she'd run out of her usual meds, and asked if I had any to spare. It could just be the way they reflect our moods automatically, but I wondered... if it might be more
than that?''

"Interesting,'' Sorka murmured slowly. She thought she could see where Tarrie was going with this. "So. You think that Milath may have been directly influenced by Nyassa's cycle, and it might be possible that Milath's hormones could affect Nyassa in turn?'' Or, more likely: was Porth the cause of Tarrie's own outburst the other day?

Tarrie laughed, and blushed slightly. "As far as I know, dragons don't normally suffer from PMT! I just wondered if you'd noticed anything similar?''

Well, perhaps Sorka had. Perhaps Porth, and Tarrie, did need careful watching after all? In answer, Sorka shook her head. "It's worth watching out for, you're right about tha...''

A sudden surge of alarm from Faranth stopped Sorka in her tracks.

Something's wrong with Chereth!

A weird sense of heated anguish rolled across the link between dragon and rider. Sorka frantically tried to understand what Faranth was sensing, while the gold queen attempted to reach Chereth herself. Tarrie looked equally stunned, and must surely be experiencing the same thing via Porth. Confused queries from other dragons echoed through from Faranth, as the other riders tried to ascertain what was happening, and Sorka found herself slip into her accustomed role as a coordinator. Milath and Amalath were no longer with the others, and had no idea what was happening. Try as she might, Faranth was unable to make contact with any of the other dragons currently down in the south. Carenath was on his way with Sean; everyone else was to be told to sit tight and wait for news.

"She needs Alianne!'' Tarrie gasped, eyes clenched shut as she concentrated on communicating with Porth.

Porth is right, Faranth agreeed. But I do not see why she cannot find her?

This was exactly the kind of thing Sorka had been fearing, ever since speaking to Wind Blossom earlier that day. Worried, she asked Faranth to renew her efforts. Even as she did, she saw Tarrie open her eyes again, and brush her hair away from her face.

"Porth says Chereth is mating!'' Tarrie blurted out.

While this was both an amazing, and worrying, development, Sorka was simply relieved that Porth had actually had some luck reaching Chereth. The two queens flew in the same wing after all, and were probably more familiar with each others' minds. Certainly Faranth found Amalath's mind more readily than Milath's, for much the same reason.

"Mating?'' she asked.

The sense of panic felt by Faranth suddenly abated, as Tarrie continued speaking.

"Yes! Porth still can't reach any of them clearly, but Chereth... Chereth isn't frightened any more. I think they're going to be okay. ''

"We're not out of the woods yet,'' Sorka said. Instinct made her look over her shoulder in time to see Carenath and Sean blink out of between, far closer to the ground than they should. "Keep trying to reach them,'' she shouted over her shoulder, as she jogged towards her husband and his dragon. Carenath skidded to an untidy halt on the muddy ground, his eyes edging out of their usual blue-green into flashes of purple and a stressful red.

"Chereth's bloody mating,'' Sean shouted as he flung himself towards the ground.

Sorka sidestepped to avoid a puddle and waited for Sean to reach her. "So I hear!''

Sean, too, seemed torn between his broadest grin and most concerned glare. Finally, he laughed, and gave Sorka a quick squeeze across her shoulders. "Shaffit, I'm glad I didn't put any bets on this. Please tell me Faranth knows more about what's happening down there than Carenath does? It's bad enough trying to convince him not to fly down there and join in, and he certainly wants to try.''

No, I don't know any more, Faranth bespoke both riders. But Porth has reached Gilgath!

Sorka grabbed onto Sean's arm for support as the images appeared in her mind.

An entangled pair of dragons, bronze and gold, plummeting groundwards in a barely controlled descent. Another view: two bodies on the ground, mimicking their dragons above. Emotions swept over her; Gilgath's dejection, and his growing concern, both of which were soon drowned out by the rising tide of
Chereth's joy.

Fourth hand, she picked out the thread of human commentary; Pete's thoughts, Sorka realised.

I tried, so hard, but we had no choice! None of us did.

If what Sorka was feeling via Faranth was even the slightest fraction of what the others had faced, it was no wonder that events had unfolded in the way they had. A quick glance at Sean, and they were both rushing to their dragons, to get airborne as fast as they could. As Sorka ran, the
viewpoint shifted once more, Gilgath diving in an attempt to intervene, to give warning.

I don't know what to do. I cannot reach them!

Man or dragon, the need to do something was clear, but their actions were utterly in vain. Alianne's empty, vacant eyes stared past Pete's gaze, and Gilgath's warning was rebuffed by the winning bronze's talons.

Sorka shook the images clear of her mind, and found Tarrie standing beside her, a spare set of riding straps in hand.

"Sean isn't needed there now, or Carenath. But they'll listen to Faranth.''

Numbly, Sorka nodded, realising that Tarrie was right. Once there, Faranth could make herself heard; one of the many unexpected advantages of her gender. And Alianne... Sean's presence was the last thing she'd need. Sorka hauled herself into place between Faranth's neck ridges, and reached down to assist Tarrie into place behind her.

Tell Carenath and Sean to stay here, she asked of her dragon, and to call the men back as soon as they can hear them. We'll deal with this.

She glanced over at Sean, already mounted on Carenath's back, to see him nod his head soberly. Sorka braced herself, barely anticipating Faranth's powerful leap into the air, and continued her instructions. Tell Gilgath we come, and take the visual from him.

Gilgath's visual was quickly received, and Sorka held it firm in her mind as she instructed Faranth to make the jump between.

I know what to do, Faranth supplied, as they reemerged into the humid sunshine. Wings beating strongly, she followed the mating pair down towards the earth, insisting that they hear her. Gilgath, and Firth too, were both echoing Faranth's commands, as they flew alongside in readiness.

END THIS NOW! YOU ENDANGER YOURSELVES, AND EACH OTHER!

At long last aware of something other than themselves, Polenth and Chereth finally reacted; Chereth snarling angrily at Faranth's impertinent interruption, while her mate pulled away with a frantic bellow. But with the distraction of her lover removed, the enraged queen thankfully turned her attention back to her own flight. Sorka watched anxiously as Chereth twisted in the air, her wide wings once more bearing her own weight in full. There was little room left in which to manoeuvre, but enough to avoid disaster. Mere moments later, the barely sated gold made a heavy landing on the sands, shrieking in pain. Polenth, a little luckier, made a safer landing beside her, and started crooning his support.

"That was too close,'' Tarrie shouted into Sorka's ear, fighting against the air rushing past them.

Indeed it was, but Chereth was surely not too badly hurt, Sorka hoped. Faranth soon answered her concern.

Her legs hurt from the shock of the landing, and her wings are strained, but she will be fit to fly again in a few hours.

Sorka directed Faranth to land beside the other males, a little further down the beach, and as they circled in she finally had a chance to survey the scene. A dishevelled Alianne had clambered to her feet, and was stumbling towards her dragon, leaving David Caterel sitting alone in the sands. The other men were grouped around their dragons, all looking utterly exhausted. Carcasses--of cows?--littered the heavily stained sands all around, some more-or-less intact, and others little more than piles of mostly devoured bones. It looked like a warzone, like the kind Sorka remembered from the old
programmes on tri-d.

Otto, Paul and Shih Lao were already mounting their dragons as Faranth landed, and none seemed willing to meet Sorka's eyes as she slid off Faranth's neck, Tarrie beside her. So. Sean had called them back; he could deal with them. She sighed, watching Pete approach. He was trying to pull his clothes back into some semblance of order, and not having much luck.

"I'll go and see how Alianne's doing, okay?'' Tarrie said as she hurried off.

Sorka wasn't sure which if them had the easier task, as Pete stopped before her. The man looked dreadful, haunted by what had occured.

"Thankyou for getting here in time,'' he said, a twisted look of self-disgust on his face. Sorka found herself dreading speaking to Dave, who'd surely be feeling far worse about himself.

"You all did what you could, we know that,'' she said, wondering how true her words really were. But the best thing to do now was surely to give what support she could to those involved, and to avoid imlpying that anyone was to blame.

"Gilgath says we're to return north, as soon as we can,'' Pete said slowly. "But I thought I'd see if you wanted me to take care of Dave? Alianne'll need you more, but someone should see to him as well.''

"Oh come here, you silly, thoughtful man!'' Sorka said, reaching out to give Pete a warm hug. She thumped him firmly on the back, and gave him a quick smile. "Thanks, you do that then. Both of you can head back when you're ready. Tell Sean that Tarrie and I'll return when we can, but it'll likely not be until Chereth's ready to take to the air again.'' And certainly not until Alianne was up to heading home.

Leaving Pete to see to Dave, Sorka took what comfort she could in Faranth's mental support, and turned to pick her way across the blood-soaked sand. It was time to start picking up the pieces. If she could.




Well, you're all caught up now. I'm working on the next bit right now, and hope to have it up in another day or two.
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Old Jun 8 2006, 04:39 AM   #8
Kath
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Choices

Running across the sands, Tarrie found herself drawing deeply on the steadfast strength of her bond with Porth. Her mind felt like it had been battered by the sheer weight of Chereth's emotions, and even now that the gold queen had stopped broadcasting to all who could hear, the numb silence created by its absence was even worse. The distance between the Hold and this beach was of no consequence. As always, Porth was simply there in Tarrie's mind: a contrast, a reflection, the perfect complement to all that was best about Tarrie herself. Until today, Tarrie would have said the same was true of all her wingmates, but now... now Tarrie could no longer be fully certain.

The sight before her provided no assurances. Chereth lay slumped morosely across the churned sand, with her wedge-shaped head cradled in Alianne's arms. The gold dragon's strained wings were still awkwardly outstretched, twitching restlessly as she tried in vain to find a position free of discomfort. True, it was a relief that Chereth didn't seem too badly injured, but all Porth could sense from the other queen were nested
layers of confusion, pain, and concern for Alianne. Certainly, Chereth had no time for Porth's intrusive appeals, not with her rider in so much distress. Even from half a beach away, Tarrie could see that the other rider was very shaken, understandably so!

Polenth and David were yet another source of worry. Clearly torn between concern for his new mate and his rider, the bronze dragon looked equally forlorn as he paced uneasily to and fro beside Chereth; the graceless draconic gait made all the more ungainly by the bronze dragon's indecision.

Oh Porth, he looks so confused.

He is. I will tell him to return to his rider, who needs him more.

The bronze dragon twisted his neck to cast his slowly whirling gaze on Tarrie for a few moments, and she waited patiently to see how he would act.

Polenth says we must make things right again.

Tarrie nodded, and watched the pale, brawny bronze give Chereth one last wistful glance before he turned to make his way back to Dave. Not a problem solved, perhaps, but at least it meant one less thing to deal with right now. Which just left Alianne, and Chereth. Taking a deep breath, Tarrie took the last few steps that separated her from the pair. She was so uncertain of what to say, how to begin, that it seemed easier by far to concentrate on Chereth's condition first. Tarrie could almost hear Sean's mantra: the dragon always comes first. After over a year fighting Thread in the air, it was now a deeply ingrained habit which was well worth sticking to.

"How is she?'' she asked, seeing no better way to begin.

The other woman abruptly looked up and stared her coldly in the eyes, her dark face carefully held in an expressionless mask. The woman was trying so hard to keep things bottled up, but there was no mistaking the moisture in her eyes or the undercurrents of raw emotion in her voice. Hardly surprising, after what had happened.

"She's hurting, Tarrie, but she knows it won't last. She'll be fine, with a bit of time and numbweed.'' Alianne choked the last sentence out, and closed her eyes.

Porth?

Chereth does hurt, but mostly because her rider hurts, and she doesn't understand why. She is very confused! I do not understand either. Her rider has mated before, has she not?

It's... complicated. But one thing was sure, Alianne herself needed considerably more than just time and numbweed.

It wasn't all that cold, but Tarrie realised that Alianne was shivering in the breeze as she tried to comfort Chereth. She could be going into shock, for all Tarrie knew. Shrugging her way out of her heavy jacket, Tarrie crouched down to sit on the sand beside Alianne.

"Here,'' she said, handing the coat over. "Sorka'll be here soon, and she'll take fine care of Chereth.''

"Thanks.''

Alianne drew back from the unwelcome contact, and pulled the garment over her bare arms. Just watching was enough to twist Tarrie up inside; as much as she wanted to reach out and comfort Alianne, she didn't know if she could, or should. For all that they'd had some warning of what might take place when their dragons mated, Tarrie herself had barely had a chance to assimilate what the possible consequences could be, and even now she still needed more answers.

Alianne would have faced the reality almost totally unprepared.

How traumatised was she by what had happened? And what of Chereth? After all of Wind Blossom's warnings, Tarrie was desperately worried that the closeness between dragon and rider might have been affected in some way. But as Alianne turned her back on Tarrie, to return her attentions to her dragon, maybe there was less to worry about on that score? Though there was almost a sense of desperation in Alianne's manner, in the way she caressed Chereth's eye ridges. What was she thinking? Did she blame the men for what had happened, and could any of them ever work together again?

Tarrie looked behind her, in search of Sorka. Good. She was on her way. "What about you, Alianne? Everything happened so suddenly. Are you alright?'' Tarrie asked.

The silence stretched out awkwardly, until Alianne let out a deep sigh. She hugged her knees in towards her chest, and started speaking with what little control she could muster.

"Am I alright? What do you think, Tarrie? What are you expecting me to do about it? Scream? Cry? Start hitting things like a kid with a tantrum?''

"I don't expect anything, Alianne. Honestly, I simply wouldn't know where to start. We're here for you, for whatever you need.'' Tarrie left the list unspoken, voice thick with caring concern.

Alianne grunted. "I know. For me, for Chereth. Don't worry about deciding which of us matters most, because there's not much distinction any more.'' Bitter words, bitterly said. "Easy there, Chereth,'' she added soothingly, as her dragon jerked her head upwards with a start. Alianne leaned in close to caress the queen's headknobs again, and Chereth nuzzled her gently in reply.

Tarrie suspected that the dragon was well aware of Alianne's need for comfort, even if she didn't really understand her rider's distress. If the bond of trust between dragon and rider had been somewhat strained, at least it still seemed to be intact. But although it could give Alianne the support she needed, the woman still needed to face what had happened somehow, rather than just avoid it completely. Hopefully Sorka would have a better idea of what to do now that she was here.

"I've asked Tenneth and Nora to bring some medical supplies over,'' Sorka said calmly as she looked over the gold dragon. "We'll have Chereth's pains eased in no time. Faranth says the left wing hurts most. Is that right, Alianne?''

Alianne laughed, almost in disbelief. "You'll ease her pain? I am her pain, don't you understand?'' she whimpered.

Tarrie reached out to wrap Alianne in her arms. "It's okay, Alianne. You're upset, hurt, and she doesn't understand it, does she? I don't know if I'll do much better, but Alianne, I really need to try. We're all here for you.''
Had she gone too far, pushed too hard, too soon? Was Alianne ready to
talk? Was it even the right thing to do? Tarrie verbally backed off, and let her arms drop to her sides. "But if you're...''

"Don't you dare treat me like a rape victim, Tarrie!''

"Ali, I...''

Confused, Tarrie was momentarily stunned by the woman's outburst, even as Chereth surged to her feet with a bellow, looming protectively over her rider.

Porth!

Sorka was at Tarrie's side within seconds, all the weight of Faranth's authority behind her. There were tears in her eyes as she knelt down beside Alianne.

"Alianne, dear, we won't do anything you don't want. But we can't do nothing, we can't leave you like this. Chereth just needs to know you'll be alright; she cares so much for you.''

"She's the only thing that matters to me...'' Alianne whispered. "I'd do anything for her, she knows that. She wants to be happy, for me to feel as good as her, and I can't. And she can still feel me hurting, and it's not her fault!''

Of course. Suddenly, all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place. Alianne had so much emotion bottled up, all of it revolving around the gold dragon: the source of her distress and her only hope of healing, and the one being who needed to be protected from this painful burden if at all possible. It didn't matter that Alianne was close to breaking point, or that Chereth was the prime cause of Alianne's distress. For Alianne to place any blame on her dragon was simply unconscionable. Chereth had only done what came naturally, after all. So whatever Alianne was feeling about what had happened, however much she'd been unwittingly caught up in events, the woman had to find some way of coming to terms with it that didn't war with her bond with Chereth. Tarrie looked up at Sorka, hoping that the other rider had understood.

"I know,'' Sorka said softly. "It's no-one's fault.''

Alianne shot her a challenging glare, and brushed a tear off her cheek with the heel of her palm. "Of course it's no-one's fault. You'd have done the same, both of you.''

"Ali, you didn't have a choice,'' Tarrie said.

"Didn't I? I've never been so close to her before, and I've never felt further away. She was so strong, so alien, so... her.''
Alianne stopped to look lovingly up at her dragon, and burst into tears. "Oh love, I'm so sorry, I came so close to letting you down.''

"Everything'll be okay,'' Tarrie said soothingly. "Look, Tenneth's here, with Nora.''

Alianne lifted her head, and tried to smile. "Chereth's glad. She says I can stop worrying about her now. She says I should talk to you, if I can't talk to her.''

Sorka gravely took hold of her hand. "They know us better than we think, sometimes. I'll be back soon, and we'll have Chereth better in no time. Tarrie'll stay here with you for now.''

Faranth says Sorka says you're doing well, and you should keep helping her, Porth said, her comforting strength a welcome reassurance in Tarrie's mind.

That's good to know. Listen in, and keep them informed, Tarrie suggested, the rapid mental exchange taking barely a moment. She nodded in reply to Sorka's words. "We've been so worried for you, Alianne, especially after everything Wind Blossom and Bay told Sorka.''

"They didn't know the half of it.''

"No?''

Alianne sighed. "I would never have chosen this. Ever. And that's why I had to, to make it my choice, to protect her and everyone else. But I wouldn't change what happened, either. I've never felt more amazing, more alive. And if that were all it was, just the sex, it wouldn't matter, even if it was the be... I mean, it's not like David and I are emotionally involved at all, not in the slightest. It was Chereth's emotions I shared, and that's what made it so... different.''

From the sounds of things, Alianne had a lot of doubts to work out, but had she really enjoyed it? No wonder the woman was feeling so confused!
"So, you're not... hurt, are you?''

Alianne shook her head. "Nothing unusual. Just a bit, no, very shaken up. Of course, Samuel won't like it one bit, and he'll probably still try and cripple David if he gets the chance - hey, I'll try it myself if he comes anywhere near me again - but we could deal with that.'' She paused, and stared off into space. "I'm probably not making much sense, am I, rambling on like this?''

Tarrie smiled encouragingly. "You're doing better than I would, believe me. And don't worry about Dave. Leave that to Sean and Sorka.''

Seeing Nora and Sorka returning, Alianne spoke up to give them instructions. "It's the secondary dorsal muscle that's hurting her most. Can you start there please, and she'll tell Faranth and Tenneth what to see to next.'' She watched as Sorka nodded her agreement and gestured for Nora to place the bucket of numbweed beside the aching dragon. Happy that Sorka had Chereth's care in hand, she turned her attention back to Tarrie.

"Ever since she hatched, Chereth's always come first, however much I've pretended otherwise. Sam was okay at the start, when she was just a hatchling, but we seem to spend so little time together these days, and I keep letting him down. He wants a family, and so do I, but it's not easy doing what we do.'' She covered her eyes with her hands, a let out a smothered sob.

Tarrie reached out to stroke Alianne's dark hair, to let her know she cared. "Alianne, you don't need to tell me all this if you don't want to.''

The other woman took a ragged breath. "That's just it. I do need to tell you, one of you. You're a dragon rider too, and I can't think of anyone else who'd understand, and I have to get this off my chest. I've just been fighting this losing battle for so long, ever since the move north. I can't live two lives anymore, always putting a brave face on things, no matter how much I want to.''

Tarrie was stunned. "Alianne, I had no idea. You've seemed so happy together; I've envied you so much for that.''

"But it can't work anymore! There'll never be a time when I can put his needs first, and if we had a family, what then? Look at Sorka's boy. He's been raised more by Mairi than anyone else. I keep trying to find an answer, some way to make things work, but Sam deserves better. I love him so much. I don't want it to be over, but Chereth can already feel his resentment, and I can't do anything to make things right again. Oh Tarrie, how I've tried!''

"Oh come here,'' Tarrie said, holding Alianne close as the other rider finally allowed her tears to break loose. Yes, this seemed to be the root of things. Once Impression had been made, there was no going back, no denying the dragon that had become the sole focus of your life. In that, none of the riders had a choice. Oh, there were hardships and regrets, and constant danger, but your dragon made everything worthwhile, wondrously so. But never easy, no, never that.

"We'll figure something out, all of us will,'' Tarrie said. She hated herself for sounding so upbeat, so reassuring. Alianne's life would probably never be the same again.
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Old Jun 24 2006, 02:36 PM   #9
Kath
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Join Date: Nov 2004
Location: Oop North

Fan of: Moreta
Default Re: DragonDays

Chapter 9: In Council

Sipping carefully at her mug of piping hot Klah, Tarrie slowly made her way through the growing warren of Fort Hold. She really wasn't in a hurry to reach the dragon riders' meeting room, but neither did she want to draw attention to herself by being late. Halfway up one of the winding staircases that connected the various levels of the Hold, she heard a familiar voice behind her.

"Tarrie! Any change in the outlook for today's fall?''

She turned, and waited for Sean to reach her. He was climbing the steps two at a time in his usual exuberant fashion, but the serious expression that they'd seen so much of in the past few days was firmly affixed to his face.

"No, it should stay clear, more's the pity.''

Sean gestured at the weather report flimsy she was holding under one arm. "May I?''

"Sure,'' Tarrie said, handing it over for Sean to scan as they walked. "Talia caught up with me at breakfast; she's predicting some heavy weather next week, which could drown a fall or two if we're lucky. They've lost the uplink to the last MetSat though... so it'll be back to the age-old guesswork until the end of the pass.'' And probably longer than that, Tarrie thought to herself.

"So I heard. Ongola's not too happy about it; he thinks it was probably Thread ovoids knocking it out of orbit. As if we can do a damn thing about the stuff while it's all the way up there.''

As the pair paused to allow a team of maintenance workers carrying heavy crates to pass through a narrowing in the corridor, Tarrie wondered what would break down next. Not the hydroponics, hopefully. Or the hot-water plumbing.

"I was meaning to ask: how's Porth doing today?''

Glad to have her depressing reverie interrupted, Tarrie smiled briefly. Thinking of Porth always cheered her up. "Healing well. She doesn't seem too stiff, so I'd like to get her out in the air again once 'fall's passed over.'' Porth seemed to be feeling better and better with every hour that passed, but now she was dozing, giving Tarrie a sense of dreamy calm that she really didn't want to interrupt.

"Hmmm. Best not to rush back in to action until you're sure she's fully healed, but there's no reason not to fly her later. Will you be sitting Threadfall out with her, or joining the groundcrews?''

Tarrie snorted. Sean rarely left such choices up to the individual, but in the wake of yesterday, perhaps he and Sorka had decided to go a bit easier on everyone? "If they ask me, I'll gladly help. But you know, after everything that happened yesterday, I think I'd rather just spend some time with her.''

She waited, as Sean gave her a slow, considering look. Eventually, he nodded in agreement. "Might be a wise idea at that. Of course, I could do with someone on the ground to keep a handle on the younger dragons, when they're not flying with the rest of us. Madrath and Shallarth seem to have settled down well, but I want the other four flying in shifts, alternating between wing and firestone duty. I'm still not happy with Lin's technique with her 'thrower, and Jess's Hallath seems to think he has something to prove.''

Tarrie shook her head in exasperation at his litany of the younger riders' deficiencies. No, nothing was ever done well enough to please Sean, but he did have a point about Lin. Really, the woman needed a sharp talking too about proper maintenance of her equipment. "We must have been just as bad when we were their age. Three months of Threadfighting isn't much, when you think we've got another forty years of fall to look forward to. They'll catch up!''

"They'd better. ''

As they turned a corner, Tarrie was surprised to see a crowd of people waiting outside the usual meeting room. Bay Harkonen-Nietro and Phas Radamanth were amongst them, chatting quietly to Sorka.

"What're you all doing out here?'' Sean asked, clearly equally as confused.

"S'okay,'' Kathy said cheerily, poking her head out from around the door. "We're just about finished in here. Tarrie, you're gonna love this!''

Bemused, Tarrie waited to file into the room amongst the rest of the group. With everyone jostling around to find either their usual places or an empty spot, at first Tarrie couldn't tell what the fuss was about. She wasn't too surprised to see Wind Blossom in the room, a still, aloof figure gazing out the window. But beside her, Nyassa and Pete were frantically unfolding the last of the stacked chairs and placing them around a large, pale brown, smoothly carved, beautiful wooden table. Mouth agape with wonder, Tarrie shook her head.

"How? Where?''

"Courtesy of Paradise Hold,'' Nyassa said smugly. "They abandoned it; so we took it.''

"Tell me we can keep this one?''

"Seeing as it doesn't officially exist, I don't see why not,'' Sorka said. "Though we'll have to get it shifted up to our new Weyr pretty soon if we want it to stay that way.''

Tarrie moved to her usual place between Dave and Jerry, and sat down, still smiling like an idiot. Eyes closed, she ran her fingers over the varnished surface, enjoying the novelty. Furniture like this wouldn't be made again until well after the pass ended, but with care, it could easily
last until the next one.

"How was she?'' Dave asked quietly as the others slowly settled into their seats.

Tarrie opened her eyes, suddenly sober. There was no need to ask who she was. "She's not too happy. Not at all. Not because of you and Polenth, but... well yes, but she doesn't blame you for it. I think it was just... too much, with too little warning.''

Dave nodded sadly. "She had to put Chereth first. It's that, isn't it?''

Tarrie looked up to meet Dave's steady grey gaze. He'd cut right to the heart of things, just like that. Not that she was surprised to hear it; more reassured, if anything.

"Yeah.'' Tarrie couldn't help wondering if losing nearly everyone he'd loved had made that particular adjustment easier for Dave. Polenth was everything to him. There'd be no jealous rivalries, no sense of being torn between your dragon and your lovers, family or friends. But her train of thought was interrupted by Sean's voice, calling the meeting to attention. He rapidly ran through the necessary briefing he gave before every fall, laying out the expected hazards and conditions, and the role each wing would play. There were groans from the inexperienced riders who'd be left ground-bound at the start, anxious that they weren't doing as much as they could. Sean silenced them with a glare, and gestured for his wife to take over.

"Right now, we have only twenty three dragons. Porth won't be flying this fall, and Chereth is grounded until we know if she's carrying eggs,'' Sorka said. "We've every reason to expect that other queens will rise to mate over the next few months, and until we know more, there's no way to know how many dragons we'll have capable of fighting Thread at any given time. So, it's utterly imperative that we keep the younger dragons in reserve, fit and healthy. You'll all be doing more than your fair share of Threadfighting if things go the way we hope, so keep that in mind. We need you to take this seriously.''

"Did I hear you correctly, Sorka?'' Wind Blossom interjected, ever defensive of her mother's work. "If she's carrying eggs? Now that she's mated, I certainly have no doubts at all that Chereth will clutch!''

"With all due respect, Blossom, we don't believe the flight went as well as it should, or could have,'' Sorka stated coldly.

"No? Well! You can hardly blame that on the program. If you're not capable of controlling your dragons, that's hardly my concern. You chose to reject the in vitro route, so if the dragon doesn't produce as decent a clutch as she should, it's on. Your. Heads.''

As Tarrie listened to the petite Xenologist's words, all of her hard-earned serenity trickled away. The woman didn't have a clue! Every rider in the room had felt the strength of Chereth's demands, and as badly as things had ended, all were well aware that they'd only barely avoided an even worse outcome. She was on the verge of giving Wind Blossom a piece of her mind, when she felt Dave's hand on her arm, gently holding her back.

"Let her think what she likes,'' he said quietly, before continuing to address the whole group. "We've lessons to learn, it's true. That's why we're all here. To make sure that none of us face that experience unprepared, ever again.''

"Indeed,'' Sean agreed firmly. "Wind Blossom, you'll have the opportunity to discuss the clutching aspect of the dragon program when we get round to it.'' Having effectively dismissed Wind Blossom's burgeoning tirade, he continued without a pause. "But right now, we have other things to consider. Now, I've spoken to everyone involved, and a few facts are clear. One. As Bay suspected, it seems there's no way to get around a direct involvement during such... proceedings. Draconic instincts take over, completely, and it's in no-ones interests to fight them. Let me stress this again, in case any of you failed to appreciate it the first, second or thousandth time I've said it. Your dragon comes first. Always.''

Sean paused to let his words sink in, and Tarrie glanced round the room to check on the reactions. Wind Blossom's derisive scorn was hardly unexpected, but even Bay looked a little discomfited. Strange. Given her expertise, and all the old gossip, Tarrie would have thought she'd have been most at ease with this particular issue. Of course, if she'd met with Alianne, that could explain things. Was the motherly scientist feeling a certain amount of guilt? As for the other senior riders, none looked entirely happy, but with a few exceptions, most seemed to share a look of grim determination.

"Good to see no-one cares to dispute that point,'' Sean continued. "Two. A mating dragon needs extra energy, and this need is expressed as hunger. I'm reliably informed that it's not as bad as a hatchling's hunger-pangs, but the desire to feed is pretty much unstoppable on the part of the queen. Fortunately, the one desire the rider does not seem to share is the desire for raw meat.''

A brief, hastily smothered laugh echoed around the room, and Tarrie found herself smiling. Sean was nothing if not serious about this topic, but his carefully chosen words seemed to be setting the group a little more at ease.

"Sorka and I spent some time last night discussing the performance of the male dragons, and we agree that feeding may be the key. We all know better than to expect heavy exercise from a dragon with a full stomach, but that's what happened yesterday. Chereth, Shoth and Islorth; all three ate before the flight began.''

Otto immediately looked up, with a relieved expression on his face. "So, it's not because they're browns, that we couldn't keep up? I mean, Shoth's really fast in the air, fighting thread or otherwise, you all know that. I was so worried that something was wrong, but if it's just the feeding, then next time...''

Now why did he have to look at her when he said that?

Sean nodded. "It handicapped them, Chereth as well as the browns.''

"Gilgath knew that,'' Pete said from the far side of the table. "Instincts. She should have been higher, harder to catch.''

"He's right,'' Dave agreed. "We needed more altitude, for safety if nothing else. Our dragons wouldn't normally endanger themselves so recklessly, but I don't think any of us were very aware of what was going on outside of our dragons. That's got to be the main concern, next time -- to get as high and far as possible.''

"Paul, Shih -- do you have anything to add?'' Sean asked.

"I do,'' Paul said. "I don't know what Shih would say, but I think Firth was outstripped as well as Shoth and my Islorth. He may not have been weighed down by a cow or two, but he didn't have half the speed that Polenth and Gilgath did.''

Silently, Shih Lao nodded.

"From what we've been told, we agree with you'' Sorka said. "The dragons need that extra energy, and it looks like fresh blood is going to be the best source, providing we can stop them eating the whole animal. That may be easier said than done, but I think we have to try and give them all the encouragement we can.''

"Are you all clear so far?'' Sean asked. "One, don't fight your dragon. Two, encourage him to blood, stop her eating if you can. Three... what happens, happens, and when it's over, it's over. Got that? Over. We're all going to have to learn to live with the consequences, and I don't want to have dragons and riders distressed and out of action for days afterwards.''

"Sean, I have to ask something here,'' Catherine said from across the table. "Is Alianne a special case, or will all of us goldriders get some time to come to terms with things afterwards? And I know you've grounded Chereth, but what about whoever's next?''

Most of the other gold riders in the room were quick to nod in agreement, but Tarrie wasn't so sure. There was no way to make things easier, and little sense in trying.

Sean sighed. "Chereth and Alianne are a special case. I hope no one begrudges her some with her family. In her case, it's a necessity, not a luxury. And even if Chereth stays out of fall until she clutches, I do expect Alianne to be back on duty again soon.''

"We're just going to have to learn to live with this,'' Nyassa added. She looked round to consider the group of xenologists. "And what about the issue of the gene pool? How much flexibility have we got, in terms of our dragons sticking to one partner?''

Now that was a good question, and it made Tarrie wonder how comfortable Sorka and Sean were about taking their own advice. After all, there was no guarantee that Carenath would catch Faranth when she mated!

Sorka's lips narrowed, but she stayed silent as Bay answered the question.

"These are early days, and I don't think it'd be in anyone's interests to set things in stone. I know Wind Blossom has gone over the genetic encoding of your dragons again and again, and we're very confident that the genome is robustly protected against harmful mutations. But just to be absolutely sure of the viability of the second generation, I agree with Sorka that Polenth at least has to be grounded from participating in the next flight.''

"Oh, that's fine by me!'' Dave said with a relieved grin. "Do go on.''

"And Polenth will eventually have a chance of flying other queens, once we're certain of the health of the first clutch. With so many golds, all of the males will have to do their share. Of course, when Chereth rises again in the future, we may want to ensure a different sire then as well. Possibly,'' she added, giving Sorka a sideways glance. "But by then, we may have sufficient diversity that we don't need such restrictions. Yes, that'll likely be the case.''

"I'm sure you're right, Bay,'' Sean said, his tone of conviction adding weight to her words.

Tarrie was almost convinced, but she felt a little sorry for the woman. Bay was clearly trying to make things more palatable for the riders, but there was no disguising the obvious. It seemed like everyone had some kind of question or doubt, and a brisk conversation erupted throughout the room. How large a population of dragons would be large enough? Did the dragons have any concept of fidelity to their mates? When would the next queen rise, and whose would it be? How obvious was a gold dragon on the verge of heat?

Tarrie looked around the room, fully aware that it would be Porth's turn eventually, and probably sooner than she'd like. One thing was sure: over the next few years they'd all, with few exceptions, get to know each other a hell of a lot better! Who would it be? One and all, the other riders made good colleagues and friends, but some were much closer than others. Certainly, there were a few, men and women, who rather grated on Tarrie's nerves. There was no chance she'd have to get intimate with Kathy, thankfully, but some of the other options were hardly much better. Jerry was plain claustrophobic, Otto was an obnoxious twit, and Shih's antics simply drove her up the nearest wall! And as for Sean, well, enough said there!

Some of the other discussions were a lot more practical, and more suited to Tarrie's current mood. Bay had some interesting ideas about how to monitor the progress of Chereth's pregnancy until she clutched, which was expected to be in a little over three months time. There were a few technical issues to be sorted out with the bioscanners, which the dragons had outgrown well before their first year was out, but Otto managed to come up with an inspired solution. Of course, with one problem solved, another immediately reared its head. Wind Blossom seemed to have little patience with Sean's enforced caution, and saw no reason to keep Chereth from going between; the smaller dragonets didn't have any problems during pregnancy after all. Before things could get too heated, Sorka swiftly pointed out that unlike humans and every other animal on the planet, the dragonets were the only creatures unaffected by between in that way, and no-one wanted to take any chances with the dragons until they knew for sure.

"Well let's make sure!'' Pol suggested calmly. "If one of the other queens is willing to suffer a few indignities, Bay and I can easily find out exactly what effects between has on her system.

"I'm happy to volunteer Milath for that,'' Nyassa said. "And maybe Alianne might want to help out too?''

Bay looked to Sean and Sorka for approval. "Well, the equipment'll take more than two pairs of hands, and I'm sure it would help her to become more involved in things. In a useful manner, that is.''

Sorka nodded. "Ask her then, but don't push her.''

Tarrie, too, had a feeling that Alianne would jump at the chance. Smart of Nyassa to think of that function of between, especially since the full effects of Chereth's flight were not common knowledge around the Hold. Not that there weren't other options available to her, but Tarrie wasn't sure how much of what had occured Alianne was actually going to tell her husband, nor how soon. Still, it wasn't really her business at all, and not worth dwelling on. Suddenly, she became aware that Jerry was looking at her intently, as if he expected her to say something.

"Hmm? Sorry, I was klicks away.''

"I was just asking how much Porth's colour varies naturally. You know, so we know what to look for in the queens.''

Was he really asking about Porth specifically? Tarrie brushed the question aside quickly with a laugh.

"From what we've heard, Nyassa's the person to ask on that score. Aren't you, Ny?''

"What? Oh, the colour thing. If you say so! I'm not sure that it's really a reliable measure of anything though, just a heightened sign of health and good condition. Of course, I didn't get to see Chereth later on yesterday
afternoon, but from the sounds of things, by the time it's obvious, it's too late.''

"So how do we know which queen'll mate next!'' Jerry demanded.

"Eventually, the queens should each have their own very regular cycles,'' Wind Blossom explained patiently, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "But of course, you riders know your dragons far better than I, so I wouldn't dream of lecturing you on noticing the obvious signs.''

"Oh, come now Blossom, that's hardly fair,'' Bay said, turning to glare at her colleague.

"Sean had the right of it last time we all met,'' Dave stated calmly, his voice cutting through the remaining conversation. "Instinct. The dragons will know.''

"First thing I knew was Chereth going crazy,'' Paul muttered into the growing silence.

Dave couldn't quite conceal a brief smirk. "Islorth's a brown,'' he drawled. "Gilgath knew something was up, didn't he Pete?''

Pete flushed. "Well... yeah, I suppose he did. But Firth...''

"Firth was asleep. I don't think that really counts.''

"So what does Polenth say about all this?'' Tarrie asked, staring firmly at Dave until he dropped his gaze.

The man simply shook his head. "He's totally wrapped up with Chereth, bless him. If I can peel him away, I might manage to get some sense out of him later.''

That answer seemed to satisfy nearly everyone else, but Tarrie soon found herself the uncomfortable object of several pairs of eyes. Instinct, huh? Well, she had asked. Fortunately, Sorka quickly came to her rescue with the final item on the day's agenda.

"So, that just leaves the issue of what to do when Chereth clutches,'' she began. "I think we're agreed that it'd be best to have the hatchling dragons based at our new quarters as soon as we can. Most of us remember what things were like before moving into the Catherine Caves, and I know the younger dragons found the cramped conditions here in Fort very awkward.''

"Oh yes!''

"Hear hear.''

"So, Sean and I spoke to Telgar after the last meeting, and he's had a team up surveying our crater. Incidentally, Wind Blossom, he was full of praise for your nocturnal creatures.''

The scientist smiled serenely. "You should never have doubted their worth.''

Tarrie almost laughed at this. For all that the woman doted on them now, there'd been quite a length of time, during all the chaos of the eruptions and the move up north, when Wind Blossom had just about abandoned them.

Sorka ignored her remarks, and carried on speaking. "Telgar has mapped out the best place to lay explosive charges to widen the entrance to one of the larger cave bubbles, which we think would make a fantastic nesting ground. The plan is to get the work started tomorrow, and try and get the place set up and fully functional as soon as we can. Perhaps, Wind Blossom, you'd like to give us your revised requirements for the eggs?''

"Why certainly, Sorka.''

Tarrie listened carefully as Wind Blossom thoroughly explained the type of heating and temperatures required, depending on how big the eggs eventually ended up being. A sandy base was deemed the most appropriate surface, allowing the eggs to be easily shifted and securely bolstered. That just left the problem of heating, which was simple in practice, but drilling the necessary bore holes would be rather time consuming. Discussing the various options took up the rest of their meeting, but by the end of another half hour, everyone had agreed on the best course of action.

As the meeting finally drew to a close and the riders and scientists started to leave, Pete called over to her.

"Tarrie, will you be in the bar later, after we've dealt with Thread?''

He seemed a little disappointed when Jerry, Paul and Nora immediately echoed his suggestion.

"Maybe,'' she replied noncommittally. "I might drop in, but if not, I'll see you all at the Weyr tomorrow. Good luck in fall, all of you.'' Really, Tarrie wasn't feeling in the mood for company, but if she decided not to show, at least he wouldn't be alone. And besides, tomorrow would be a very busy day.

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Old Jul 24 2006, 11:47 AM   #10
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Building a Weyr

"TEN!''

In the still, cold, morning air, Cara Telgar's high-pitched shout carried remarkably well, Pete mused. The small child was so well wrapped in wherry-hide, she seemed almost as wide as she was tall. Telgar, standing proudly behind her, looked just as lanky and emaciated as he always had, and if he was starting to go grey around the edges, well, he still worked with an energy that men and women more than half his age could envy.

In the corner of his vision, Pete spotted another couple of firelizards hopping off their human friends' shoulders and vanishing between. They'd been gradually disappearing all morning, and he hoped none would still be hanging around by the time Cara finished her countdown. He'd encouraged his own small fair to see to themselves today, and they were now probably pestering his parents back at the Hold. After Garben'd blown its head off, he'd not seem any of them for more than a week, and he didn't reckon they'd be much more happy with today's activities.

Pete raised a hand to cover a yawn. Two hours before dawn they'd started, and on a rest-day too! Okay, so he could have spent a little less time in the bar last night, but at least he didn't have a sore head to show for it. In a way, he was a little glad Tarrie hadn't turned up.

So was she, Porth says.

What had his dragon been gossiping about now? Pete wondered.

Oh, not a lot. You, mostly.

And?

And what?

"SIX!''

Huh? What happened to seven? Ah, there it went. A few brief laughs rippled through the crowd, the spectators glad to hear the countdown resume a more predictable pattern. Well, so long as Cara got "one'' in the right place, that was really all that mattered. Pete craned his neck round to smile at his dragon lounging in the sunshine by the lake's edge. There was a definite humourous edge to Gilgath's mental voice; the bronze could never hide his attempts to wind his rider up. Details, dragon-mine, details. Not that there's time for that now. Wouldn't want you to get caught off-guard and fall off your perch now, would we?

What, ME?

Get ready!

"ONE!''

Pete covered his ears in anticipation, and watched the young girl bend down to twist the control-unit's key. After that, things seemed to happen in slow motion. He swore he could feel the trembling of the ground the merest fraction of a second before the other signs of the explosion: a billowing grey cloud that swiftly engulfed father and daughter in dust, and an echoing thundercrack that repeated many times around the weyr-bowl before gradually dying away. Around him, the other riders and workers were cheering and jumping around, not that he could hear them, or even his own whoops, over the incessant ringing in his ears. Somewhere out there, Gilgath was also bellowing his excitement. That, Pete could sense far too well.

Ever so slowly, his hearing returned and the dust cloud started to thin. It didn't seem to show any signs of settling just yet, and still masked the far end of the bowl completely. The small herd of culls, penned up behind them beside the lake, showed no signs of settling either. It must have been pretty unnerving for the animals, as if being forced into close proximity with dragons wasn't bad enough. As the seconds dragged on, Pete started to wonder if the engineer and his daughter were okay. As if on cue, a darker shape suddenly resolved itself into Telgar's figure, striding swiftly out of the pale grey confusion with a grinning Cara perched on his shoulders, twin pig-tails poking out from behind the smallest pair of ear-defenders Pete had ever seen. As Telgar reached the group, he swung her down with a smile, and the small child awkwardly ran off, presumably to rejoin her siblings and that ugly pet of hers. So now, the only worry was whether the blasting had worked the way they intended. Did the dragons and their riders now have the makings of an easily accessible hatching cavern, or... not?

David Caterel was the first of the riders to reach Telgar, and Pete himself was not far behind.

"So Telgar, how well do you think it went?'' Dave asked.

"Well?'' The tall engineer shook his head, and sighed. "The goddess of the mountains will likely never forgive me, but we worked carefully enough that she's unlikely to punish me in return. There are many checks to be made, of course, but that is why we began our work so early this fine, rest-day morning. It will not take so long that we do not finish before midday, I believe, unless Pern decides to surprise me after all.'' His broad, satisfied smile gained a wry edge. Telgar knew very well the value of his expertise, but wasn't blind to the ever-present limitations of human fallibility.

"Hey, that's not bad,'' Pete said. "I could do with a few hours of rest after all that.'' They'd certainly had little enough chance to pause so far that morning. While most of Fort Hold's population were taking things easy, and maybe now beginning to don their best clothes in preparation for the day's entertainment, the riders, support workers and engineers had been hard at work for hours. First, there'd been the final engineering surveys, with the aid of Cara Telgar's ugly pet. Then there'd been the drilling, wiring and placing the charges, digging out the debris... hours of backbreaking labour, basically. The photophobe had worked as tirelessly as the humans, snuffling over ever inch of the large cavern, until the encroaching twilight
had her creeling for her blindfold and rest. Now, at last, it was time for humans to follow her example. Working on a rest-day wasn't ideal, but the combination of no Thread, and access to all the free power-packs without having to fight for them was too good to pass up.

"Who said anything about rest?'' Dave said, amused.

"Hell no!'' Paul said, joining the group. "We've a few miles of stock fencing to get set up, and Porrig's claiming anything we've not used by the end of the day.''

There were groans all round, but Pete couldn't deny the sense of it. The riders needed the fields made ready before the last of the livestock was brought up north, and that needed doing before the next southern fall. No sense leaving meat that could fill a dragon's belly to the rapacious appetite of Thread! And, providing they started soon enough, no-one would have an excuse to leave for the Hold before the work was done.

"Shall we see if Tarrie's brewed any fresh Klah up first, before she stinks the place out with numbweed?'' Kathy suggested. "We've time for that, and you guys know I'm really not a morning person!''

"Yeah.'' Now that was a sentiment that Pete could totally agree with. As the group walked over to join the humans and dragons outside the other main cavern, which would eventually become the communal living area, Pete wondered once again what exactly Gilgath had told Porth, and what Porth had passed on to her rider. Tarrie was standing by the outdoor stove, pouring the Klah into mugs and chatting to Pol. They hadn't completely escaped the dust cloud, not that it made any difference to Pol's tousled white mane, but at least the Klah would have been safe enough in its kettle. And if Pol was here, that meant... yes, that was Milath behind Manooth. Dark Alianne was standing beside the pale blonde Nyassa, helping the tall rider affix various lengths of wires to different parts of Milath's anatomy. Pete glanced round to see if Dave was still following them over, but the other man had stopped, to carry on talking to Telgar. As he watched, the pair turned and began heading back to the hatching cavern. No, Pete couldn't really blame Dave for that, though it was horrible seeing them avoid each other like this. Deep down, the riders were too close-knit a team for all this awkwardness; surely it couldn't last! Life was too short to smother your feelings with false solicitousness, or to hide away in solitude, especially with Thread falling.

"Here.''

Pete gave a start, and smiled a welcome at Tarrie. He hadn't heard her approach at all, but there she was, bearing a tray with three steaming mugs.

"Hey, Tarrie. Please tell me one of those is mine?''

"Yours, Dave's and Telgar's.'' She gave him a sideways, conspiratorial look. "If you move quickly, Gilgath won't end up being the beast of burden!''

Ah, the fence posts! Gilgath must have kept Porth amused enough, then. "I owe you, Tarrie.''

She winked, brushed a smudge of dust off her face with the back of her sleeve, and hurried back, not giving him a chance to start the conversation he'd wanted last night. Well, lunch time would have to do.

I would rather carry people than fence posts, Gilgath said.

Juggling mug and tray, Pete took a gulp of Klah and checked out the large stack of metal poles and fence wire by the walls of the bowl; Manooth had made a poor choice of resting spot right beside them.

If you head up to the ridge for now, you'll be fine.

Pete lifted his head, and held a hand over his eyes as he watched Gilgath launch himself skywards and wing his way up to the heights, a sight he'd never tire of seeing. The bronze settled on one of the lower flat stretches to the north of the bowl, partially in the shadow of Porth's perch. She, Siglath and Amalath had had a bit of a disagreement over the best roosting ground earlier that morning, or so it had seemed to Pete on the ground. Who knew how the queens' hierarchy really worked? Certainly every male dragon would defer to a queen's requests, or to Carenath as 'Leader' in threadfall. And browns would rarely disagree with their larger bronze siblings. But Porth and Faranth had a much more marginal edge over the other queens in their wings, and the changing dynamics amongst the group had Pete lost entirely. Today though, Porth had vocally claimed the best sunlight on the sheltered lee ridge without a second thought, and had pointedly ignored Siglath's persistent complaints that there was ample room for two. Females. Who could figure them? Certainly not Dave or Telgar, that was for sure!

"...better than a mile deep, we've traced that vein--Ah! Semling, you bear a most welcome gift.''

"Fort's finest, Telgar,'' Pete said, handing the spare mugs over to the other two men and tucking the tray beneath his arm.

"Telgar was telling me of a new find; firestone, good quality, accessible, and scarcely twenty klicks from here,'' Dave said.

Pete politely mumbled a few appreciative comments, and quickly made his excuses. Sean would be glad to hear that news, but Pete wasn't particularly interested in the gritty details. Poetic and lyrical the geologist might be, but listening to him extolling the glories of the rocks while his klah went cold wasn't his idea of a good time.

Polenth says that his rider...

I know, I know! Pete cut Gilgath off mid-thought. Really, the sooner things got back to normal, the better. Alianne really didn't hate Dave or anything, and she and Nyassa weren't even anywhere near the others. But everyone was trying so hard not to be awkward around each other that it seemed to be having completely the opposite effect. It didn't help that only a select few other than the riders knew what had really happened down south, not that the scuttlebutt could be held in check much longer. Of course, half the Hold could probably sense the tensions in the group, even if they didn't quite know the cause. At least Dave wouldn't be stuck talking to Telgar any longer than he wanted to, not with a growing cluster of engineers heading in that direction. Ozzie Munson gave him a big thumbs-up as he jogged past, followed by one of the Ostrovskys, probably Sonja, though it was hard to tell underneath all the equipment she was carrying. Everyone else seemed to be slowly working their way towards the fencing material, and Pete soon found himself dragged in to help loading up the hapless Manooth. By the time he returned to his mug, left momentarily on a rock, it was cold, and had a drowning vtol in it. He grimaced at Pol, and shook the mug out on the ground.

"Next time, drink it while it's hot.''

"You're not going back and forth with Milath?''

"With these joints?'' Pol cracked his knuckles and turned back to adjust his datalogger. "No, all that between-ings best left to you youngsters. Bay and I'll take care of all the science you need, but you won't get us popping in and out any more than we have to. Or wielding sledgehammers, for that matter.''

"Sledgehammers?''

Pete twisted round, as Pol nodded at something over his shoulder. Today was definitely his day for women sneaking up on him. This time, it was Kathy's tanned figure that confronted him, a heavy tool slung over each shoulder.

"Time to go, Pete.''


***


Once they'd reached the weyr's meadows, a short hop down from the eastern slope of the bowl, work progressed quickly. Yet again, Dave threw himself into things with a focussed intensity that had characterised his every action since Chereth's flight. An outsider might have thought he was trying to work his way back into the riders' good books, trying to prove his worth to the team, but the riders knew better. Dave might have been masking his feelings in hard work, but he wasn't the only one acting somewhat elusive. Catherine didn't seem willing to let Nick out of her sight, Sean and Sorka kept vanishing off for various meetings. Tarrie had leapt at the chance to brew numbweed all afternoon, even if that was the traditional chore for the rider of a grounded dragon. The hold-folk certainly preferred not to have dragon-scaled quantities brewed up back at the Fort, and any injury that meant you used up a lot of it automatically put the rider top of the rota to replace it. No, Dave was simply moving forwards in his own way, drawing a line under the past. Though it was really Alianne he needed to act normally around, not anyone else.

At least Alianne was talking to people again, apparently. According to Nyassa and Milath, she'd almost seemed herself first thing this morning. But at least Samuel hadn't been part of the morning's work team for once, being back at the Fort helping prepare for the gather instead. Looking Alianne in the eye was one thing, her husband quite another. As the sun rose higher towards noon and beyond, the riders frequently swapped tasks with each other, taking turns to dig post holes, hammer posts in, unwind the bulky reels of wire meshing, and attach the awkward clips that held the fencing together. Right now, Kathy was busy teasing the last few recalcitrant ties into place, whacking them with a hammer whenever necessary.

"All done with this one,'' Kathy said wearily, and stuffed her hammer and pliers back into a trouser pocket. Like everyone else, she'd quickly peeled off her jacket, which was now tied loosely around her waist. It wasn't particularly warm in these mountains at this time of year, but hard work and a bit of sunshine soon brought a glow to everyone's faces.

Pete grabbed the large hammer and hefted it up onto a shoulder. "Post time again, huh?'' The division of labour was working quite well, although the wide length of fencing crossing the landscape behind him didn't look half as long as it felt. It would probably have been a much quicker job if they'd had machine power for it, but the power packs they did have available were busily in use by the engineers and Nick's team of plumbers back at the bowl. Unskilled manual work like this was something the riders could manage on their own, when they could spare the time, and it was far better to have the well-trained JOATs fixing up the tricky things like a decent hot water supply. Now, that was another reason to hope that Alianne didn't sour her husband's opinions of the riders any time soon. With a quick hammer blow, Pete felt the last post of their batch slip partway towards its alloted depth. Pausing for breath, he spun slowly round in a full cirlce to survey the view, and there coming over the rise were the other three riders: Jerry, Uloa and Pranav.

"Are you guys here already?'' he asked, surprised. Although, thinking about it, he'd noticed Milath appear and disappear a fair few times, so they couldn't have finished too early. And he was certainly hungry enough for some lunch, too!

"Well, the other teams have checked out, and we're out of posts.'' Jerry answered. "Lili must have calculated things to the last metre.''

"You mean millimetre!''

"Yeah, so hurry up with that last one so we can all head back for some lunch!'' Uloa encouraged.

Not that they'd want to head back to the weyr before Tarrie'd finished boiling the first batch of numbweed, Pete mused as Dave unwound the last length of meshing towards him. She'd been kind of subdued after Chereth's flight, and not with the kind of anxiousness she normally got when she was stressed, or worried about something, like when her mother had had a cancer last year. No, she just seemed... watchful, and quiet, with a certainty to her actions that seemed to have more to do with fatalism than any kind of self-assurance. Maybe it was Porth's injury. Maybe it was Porth. Was that why she'd not joined him and the others last night? Had she thought he'd meant...?

"Are you going to swing that thing today or not?'' Dave said.

"Sorry,'' Pete mumbled, losing track of his thoughts. He'd almost been onto something there, maybe. With a few careful blows, he drove the last post deeply into the ground, and stepped back, wiping sweat on his sleeve, so that Kathy and Dave could fix the last running lengths of wire to it. Yes, it was a job well done.

"So, who's giving us a lift back up to the weyr?'' he asked. The new road curved past the bottom of the meadow, its newly levelled surface spanning all the miles back to the Hold, and the last few hundred meters in a switchback path approaching up to the main entrance to the Weyr. It certainly wasn't a road like those of old Terra, but it was better than nothing, and it would do the job. But from here, it was up hill all the way.

Uloa spoke up quickly. "I asked Elliath while you were, um, thinking. Sean wants Pranav and I back at the Hold for more drills this afternoon, so it makes sense for us to drop the rest of you off, and head straight there. Is that okay?''

Pete exchanged a glance with Kathy, who rolled her eyes as Dave reassured the younger riders that yes, it was a sensible plan. Uloa was a thoughtful, caring young woman, but she really didn't seem comfortable making decisions on her own. Ith and Elliath were soon gliding in to land, and Pete followed Dave over to the young brown. The young dragons had flown well during yesterday's fall, and would probably graduate to full wing-duty within the month. It was always strange to ride a dragon other than your own, not to sense each turn and wingbeat before it happened. But once in the air, they had a fine view of their new field, which Paul was even now searching for livestock to fill it with, though the animals would still have to be taken up to the main cavern during fall for a while to come. Yes, they'd done a good job today. Eventually, the temporary fencing would be replaced by dry stone walls, and stone thread shelters would replace the bulkhead-panel lean-to on the north-east side of the meadow. Of course, the culls would always be kept in the bowl, separate from the breeding stock. Those up there now were the expendable ones, ready for whenever a dragon got hungry. But as far as building material went, they should definitely have enough spare rock after today's excavations! But that was probably a job for next spring. For now, it was enough that the ground work had been done.

Pete sniffed cautiously at the weyr bowl air as he dismounted from Ith, and walked far enough away to give the young dragon room to take off again. There was a fair deal of steam rising from Tarrie's stove, but the large grey vat used for boiling the numbweed was nowhere to be seen. The only obvious odour was the slightly musky scent of not-quite dragon, and sure enough, there was Telgar's miscegenated ugly ambling out of the soon-to-be hatching cavern in the tow of three of his children, with a thick hood shielding her yellowish head and a giggling Cara perched between her stubby wings. Well, she sure wasn't a dragon, but at least she'd found a use, and some friends.

Of course that's no dragon! Gilgath snorted in disdain. You certainly cannot compare her with Porth, or Milath.

Oh, I agree! It'd be like comparing numbweed with... chilli?
Pete sighed with happiness as the aroma reached him. They had hours more work ahead of them this afternoon, but at least they had one of his favourite meals to look forward to first. As the riders assembled from their various tasks and settled down to eat, Telgar quickly explained the few little jobs that still needed to be done. Not that building a perfectly working geothermal bore was ever a little task, but that was the worst of it. As they'd already got several obvious bugs worked out installing the heating system for the main weyr caverns, the engineers didn't think it'd be too problematic. And although the heat-exchangers were awkward to install, once in place, they could be easily managed and maintained, with little need for complex replacement parts. The riders and their support workers had the powerpacks and stonecutters assigned for the rest of the week, which was more than enough time to smooth over the rough patches in the new cavern, and lay the ground work for the hypocaust which would one day heat the hatching sands. Of course, they'd be using what was effectively a large electric blanket for the first few months, maybe up to a year, until all the building work was finished. But at least now they could really see how quickly the work would progress.

Deciding which bit to work on first, and how much room Chereth needed to clutch in was a bit more tricky, and no one could agree on the best spot. Eventually, Kathy called Amalath down to help, and the plump gold agreeably posed in various spots as if she owned the place, much to Tarrie's growing irritation. So much for people treading softly around each other. Pete winced as Tarrie visibly stopped herself saying something nasty, and stormed off to brew some more numbweed. But the almost-argument seemed to spur people back into cooperation again, and a compromise decision was finally reached.

"I think that's enough procrastination for one day,'' Catherine said, as she straightened herself up and reeled in her tape measure for the fourth or fifth time. "Nick and I have definitely got all of the measurements we need, even if you guys do end up changing your minds again; we'll get on back to the Hold and start sorting out the components for the electrics.''

"Yeah, right. Don't pretend you won't be dancing all night long,'' Jerry said easily.

"Wining and dining the resources committee is more like it!''

"Look, why don't we all head off?'' Kathy asked. "We're just going to get more tired and annoyed if we keep on like this, and it is supposed to be a rest day, isn't it?''

"So much to do, so little time,'' Pete said with a grin. "Especially if we're going to get the drilling teams in here in a few days time.'' He was surprised to still be feeling pretty energetic. "I'll probably ache all over tomorrow, and be good for nothing at all. So if Kathy'll work her healing charms on me then, I'll do her share of the rubble-hauling today.''

"Who are you trying to impress with those muscles, Petey-boy?'' she mocked, shaking her head. "Okay, okay, anyone who needs a massage tomorrow knows where to find me. Better that than listening to you big, strong men moaning all day long.''

Pete spluttered in denial, but the look in Kathy and Catherine's eyes said he'd be fighting a losing battle if he tried, even with Jerry and Dave's support. Nick simply winked, and stayed diplomatically silent. Lifting his arms in defeat, Pete wandered back out into the daylight, and the other riders soon followed, some to mount their dragons and return to the Hold, and a hardy few to stick around for a few hours of wielding shovels. Amalath and Siglath had barely been gone a moment before Porth peeled herself off her sunny spot on the heights, where she'd spent the entire day resting, to glide down to Tarrie's side.

"Well, look at that,'' Dave muttered. "She was staying up there just to spite them, wasn't she?''

"Damned if I know,'' Jerry said. "But that's females for you.''
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Old Jul 29 2006, 12:59 PM   #11
Kath
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Chapter 11: No Regrets

The sun's going down, Porth mumbled sleepily into Tarrie's mind as the change in temperature and lighting woke her from her doze.

Tarrie closed her eyes and smiled at Porth, enjoying the last warmth of the autumn sunlight on her face as the reddening orb dipped gradually out of sight. They'd been lucky with the weather today. Although clouds now filled nearly half the sky, they'd generally stayed clear of the sun itself throughout. Despite the lingering odour of numbweed and her earlier irritation, she was hard pressed to remember a more pleasant afternoon. Back at the Hold, the entertainment would be in full swing. Musicians would be playing, people would be dancing, and the overindulgence would likely last all night long. Jake had sent a message up with Sira, encouraging Tarrie to return early enough that she wouldn't miss Florizel's guitar solos. But as much as she enjoyed her brother's company and the vintner's skillful playing, today, Tarrie wasn't in the mood. The hold was a claustrophobic place at the best of times, and although the populace would have spilled out into the surrounding valley, the sheer exuberance of the gathered crowds as they enjoyed the open spaces would make them seem all the larger. She'd sent Sira back with a scrawled note of apology, suggesting to the little dragonet that Jake would find her some tasty treats from one of the fire-pits.

No, today, Tarrie had wanted solitude, and not the kind she could have found quite easily in a large gathering, continually moving out of step between one group and the next. All she'd needed was time to think, time to be with Porth, time to reconcile all the recent worries and events. Behind the necessary veneer of unpleasant solitary tasks, and some general coordination of the work teams in the main cavern, that was exactly what she'd done. Porth had been... well, amazing, just as she had been the day before, listening as Tarrie explained all the various human concerns and adding her own draconic viewpoint. She was far less concerned about whether Chereth had successfully conceived, for one thing. Porth, supremely confident in her own nature and that of her sister golds, matter-of-factly pointed out that if Chereth and Polenth were happy with the outcome, what could possibly be wrong? Still, time would tell on that score. She'd had a little more difficulty fully comprehending Tarrie's human qualms, though she quickly confirmed that several other dragons had noticed similar worries in their own riders. As far as Porth was concerned, Chereth and Alianne had shared their experience, and so long as dragon and rider were together, everything was as it should be. But even if some uncertainties remained in Tarrie's mind, she knew she'd never felt closer to Porth than she did right now.

So, will you be heading back up onto the ridge into the sunshine again?

Maybe. I don't know.

The gold dragon had looked quite beautiful in the sunlight, gleaming as the rays brought out ever scrap of irridescence in her hide. Now, she still seemed half asleep, reluctant to wake up fully, and pressing on the edges of Tarrie's mind for guidance. Tarrie sensed a disturbance on the ridge, more through Porth's mind than out of the corner of her vision. Turning, she recognised Polenth gliding down to the bowl, presumably to take Dave back to the Hold. The others had finished their work already then? Or...

A sudden pain lanced through Tarrie's arm, and she realised she'd let it drop against the hot klah kettle in her distraction. Grimacing, she turned down the temperature on the stove, and decided that the numbweed had probably simmered long enough as well. Lowering the bulky grey vats down to the ground was an awkward task, but by the time she was reaching for the second, a quicker and stronger pair of hands had got there first.

"Thought you could do with a hand.''

Tarrie's eyes darted back to the ridge, checking on the other dragons, noting which were looking a little more restless. If they were leaving soon... But if not?

"Thanks, Dave.'' She forced out a smile she really didn't feel.

"How's the Klah going?''

Tarrie reached for a ladle, lifted the lid off the kettle, and gave the contents a quick stir.

"I'm sure it's drinkable, but it could really do with another ten minutes or so.''

"Somehow, I don't think I'll be able to stick around that long.''

"Oh? Shirking off already?'' She hadn't meant to be so short, but her irritation was still a little too close to the surface, and really, there were hours of daylight left. If everyone was going to slope off to the gather now, they'd be stuck with working through the winter snows. But she wasn't at all surprised when Dave slowly reached out to hold her shoulder, a cautious look on his face. Unthinkingly, she tightened her grip on the spoon, and before she knew it she thought she could feel herself trembling slightly. Embarassed and more than a little flustered, Tarrie pulled away.

"You know what's coming,'' he said quietly, letting his arm drop back down to his side.

Definitely more of a statement than a question. So. That was the last of her doubts dispelled.

"Better than Alianne did, I suppose.'' Tarrie sighed. "Oh, I've had my suspicions all day, so you coming over like this just confirms them. Klah? We've some time, I think.'' She smiled wryly, and without waiting, ladled out the dark liquid into two mugs and passed one over to the sombre bronzerider. "Here.''

"Tarrie... You are okay with this, aren't you?''

"Who nominated you to be my counsellor?'' she muttered. "Ignore that,'' she went on, waving a hand in the air in apology. "Ah, I'd fardling well better be okay with it; I've certainly not been thinking of much else since... It's just the unknown, you know?''

"Yeah. Look, Just trust her. Don't worry about them,'' Dave said, gesturing in the direction of the other riders, "they don't have any more of a clue than last time, believe me. Porth'll take care of you, and you'll take care of her. Just get some altitude, okay?'' He downed the klah in a few quick mouthfuls.

Tarrie followed his example with a small sip. Wow, that was still way too bitter!

"Will do. Thanks. I mean it, you know. Almost wish you could stick around.'' Truly, he'd been kind and thoughtful to come over like this, much as Porth said Pete had felt earlier today. It'd make things easier, almost, to know that at least one person knew what was going to happen, though Tarrie had never expected to find herself saying something like this to Dave's face. Still, it wasn't to be. She watched him take it in, and nod slowly. His lips twisted into a grin, and he gave her a quick, cheeky wink.

"Ah, well there's always next time!''

Tarrie grabbed the klah ladle from the side of the stove and gave him a mock prod on the chest. "Get out of here!'' she said with a laugh, genuine this time.

Dave placed his used cup in the bowl of used crocks. "That's the spirit. I'll start getting everyone else out of your hair then, while Polenth -'' he paused, glared at his dragon, and sighed. "While Polenth lets Faranth know what's happening. ''

"Sure.'' So, Tarrie mused, it seemed like the bronze was a bit reluctant to invite in the competition.

I don't know why he has to leave, Porth said petulantly. Chereth doesn't need him all the time.

Tarrie raised an eyebrow, and walked across to Porth as Dave turned towards the main cavern, to see if any of the few remaining workers needed a lift back to the hold. Nyassa couldn't take them all back in one trip, and it made sense to keep these goings-on between the riders alone. "And don't you dare worry!'' the tall rider shouted over his shoulder as he reached the entrance.

Tarrie placed her hands on her hips, and gave him the Look, well practised from her teenage years with two annoying brothers. He shook his head, smiling kindly, and went inside.

Do you want Polenth to stay? Tarrie asked Porth curiously.

I want... but Faranth orders him back to the hold. He doesn't want to leave, though. I like that.

The gold was going through a series of elegant, cat-like stretches as she shook off the lingering remains of her recent placidity. The pale tracery left by a healed threadscore was the only sign remaining of last week's injury; aside from that, her hide showed the full lustre of good health and an afternoon of rest. Tarrie had wondered, earlier, if it had been a sign of something more, if this was what the others had meant by heightened colour. It had been hard to tell either way at the time, but now, with the sunlight gone and shadows stretching across the weyr basin, Porth's gentle radiance seemed none the weaker.

Porth's mind, however, shared none of her physical serenity.

She'd been watchful all day, using her advantageous location to keep a careful eye on the workers going about their tasks, inside the bowl and out. Each time Milath had appeared overhead, and later when Firth had blinked in with the wing of younger riders in tow, Porth had called out a strident, almost territorial greeting. Amalath had half-heartedly echoed her a few times, until Porth had locked gazes with the other queen and said something that Tarrie couldn't quite catch. Queens were highly strung at the best of times, but Porth had taken things to a new level today. It had certainly kept Tarrie on edge, like sensing an encroaching thunderstorm, or a dog barking at things beyond human senses. Tarrie mentally reached out to her dragon. If anything, Porth's mind seemed even more turbulent than earlier, her emotions building up into a constant pressure, a sense of imminence. The dragon seemed to be unconscious of her own emotions and changing mental state. Tarrie challenged her, and asked Porth how she felt.

I feel the way I should feel.

Outwardly, Porth was as confident as she'd been all day, but the touch on Tarrie's mind held a layer of concern. Porth was sensing her rider's uncertainty, and needed to be reassured. Your dragon always comes first. Sean's words, but Tarrie felt them in her heart.

Of course you feel the way you should do. See? Tarrie opened her mind in wide-open empathy with her dragon; nothing concealed or rejected. And it was then that the first bronze let out a cry from the ridgeline.

Dave came racing out of the cavern, followed by the rest of the remaining workers, and a less urgent Nyassa. She called Milath over from her spot by the lake, and took more time getting her passengers properly settled. Of course, she didn't have a male dragon that needed to get out of the way in a hurry. By the time Dave had scrambled up onto Polenth's neck and hauled a few passengers up behind him, Firth had appeared above the far end of the bowl and begun to dive steeply towards the ground. Gilgath and Manooth were airborne too, circling above the agitated cows. Soon, the reluctant Polenth was also in flight, and within a few wingbeats he disappeared from sight into between.

Before mounting Milath herself, Nyassa jogged over, and gave Tarrie a very welcome, quick hug. "Good luck! And we'll want a full report, remember!'' she added, in her best imitation of Sean's tone.

That almost had Tarrie giggling. She said her thanks, and returned the hug. Milath soon followed Polenth bewteen, and Tarrie watched and waited quietly as a few more males blinked in, deposited their riders
and made for the herd. Islorth, Shoth, young Psillinth and finally Carenath. Everyone was here.

The men were clustered in a group, watching their dragons amongst the herd of culls, and glancing back to Tarrie periodically. The bronzes and browns called challenges to each other as they made their kills, while Porth watched from the heights, serene. Much like Tarrie herself was doing, as she found herself considering the small group of riders in a way that she didn't normally do. Having thrown herself headlong into this, there was no going back now.

Tarrie wandered over, amused at the uncertainty on the faces of the men, a far cry from the sassy confidence she herself felt. Well, they were all here now, but they'd still have to prove themselves worthy of Porth, and of herself.

"Well, some of you have been here before. Anything different?'' she asked, breaking the tension. She was surprised at how calm she sounded. She felt like she was being carried by a swift, safe current, buoyed up by Porth, shining golden up on the heights. This was almost... easy, just concentrating on the now, on each moment as it passed.

Pete laughed. "They don't need much encouragement to blood, not at all. They know what they want.''

Otto gave Tarrie an intense, studied look, as if he knew what he wanted too. "Yeah, Shoth just got carried away last time. He knows better, now.''

The other riders nodded in agreement, and Tarrie turned to face Sean, who had a faraway look on his face as he watched Carenath drain the blood from a bullock. He twitched, his fair complexion almost flushing, as he
sensed Tarrie's look, one eyebrow raised. Well, this was a first, Tarrie mused. Catching Sean out of kilter certainly didn't happen every day.

"C'mon, he needs some practise before Faranth's turn comes round. Don't begrudge us that.''

Tarrie didn't, of course, but that wasn't the point. Porth wasn't here for practise, and the gold dragon didn't appreciate Sean's implied disinterest. She roared, drowning out the muted conversation and immediately drawing everyone's attention.

"Yes, but it's our turn now,'' Tarrie said softly, not caring if anyone heard. Porth had the eye of every male, and she lazily launched herself off the ridge to glide neatly down towards the culls. The browns and bronzes scattered to make room, some staying close by, while others made their way up to wait on the ridgeline. In seconds, she'd made her first kill from amongst the herd, and Tarrie could almost taste that first blood hot in her throat. She found herself stunned by Porth's intense hunger, as the gold queen swiftly disembowelled the beast with one tearing bite. Doesn't need much encouragement? Easy? As if! Tarrie was suddenly fearful as Porth lowered her head to eat, wanting to feed, yearning to slake that terrible need. Tarrie reached out towards Porth, fighting her way through to her dragon's tumultuous mind as she shoved aside several male bodies, trying to divert Porth's attention... all the while scared stupid that Porth could end up just the way Chereth did, sluggish in the air.

"Can't eat, can't eat, can't eat,'' Tarrie muttered like a mantra under her breath, as she struggled to control Porth's behaviour. With the dragon's rising instincts threatening to sweep Tarrie's control aside, the queen was almost impossible to reach. Porth lifted her red muzzle into the air, and shrieked, enraged that Tarrie would try to divert her now, after a single mere mouthfull! But somehow the connection was made, and Porth lowered her head, this time to drink deeply of the pooling blood spilling out of the broken body of the beast. The tide of blood slowed, and Porth started worrying at the carcass, trying to gain more sustenance, more blood, more meat.

No! Tarrie demanded, forcing Porth to turn her attention to the remains of the confused herd. Ungainly on the ground, but oh so swift in her hunger, Porth spun and sprang, killing again. This time, she pinned the beast to the ground with a foreleg and went straight for the throat. Now it was Tarrie held firm, entranced by Porth's mind, feeling light-headed and exhilarated all at once. She trusted Porth, she trusted the men, and there was no denying this, these instincts, these needs, not at all! Having come so far down this path, Tarrie was starting to feel her own response to it. The thought that Alianne could have tried to fight against this... how had the woman managed it?

But then, Porth had finished her second beast, and Tarrie was ready, ready to fly far and fast and high, ready to be chased and won, by whichever pair could prove themselves up to the challenge.

Porth twisted, shrieking flirtatiously from the ground, issuing her challenge to the world. And even as the males roared in reply, she was launching herself away into the air. Tarrie found herself running, breaking away from the grasping arms of the men, but within a few steps she realised there was no need, for she was in the air, with Porth, and they were flying. So, this was what Alianne had meant. There were no boundaries between dragon and rider, no distinction at all. They were one, with just one aim in mind.

To fly. To mate.

To fly, high and far, above the smaller males. In her first rush of speed, Porth outstripped them effortlessly. She revelled in the glory of her flight, of the wide air around her, and the boundless energy that carried her on.

The humid grey depths of the clouds were a feeble barrier, and soon she was through them, above them in the cold, thin air. Spiralling, Porth turned into a glide, skirting along the top of the cloudbank as she waited to see which of the males would break through first. Sunlight and her own alacrity soon peeled the last of the moisture from her wings, and as the first of her seven suitors appeared in the daylight, alarmingly close to her, Porth made her escape, powering upwards once more. Every wingbeat carried her south, into the light wind, gaining altitude with every stroke. It was cold so high up, but her lusty exuberance was more than enough for now. Following her, neither bronzes nor browns showed any signs of flagging, nor reluctance. Today they were hers, every one of them, to the last of their strength.

Turning once again, Porth flew back towards the pack, but far enough above them to be well out of reach. The males were thrown into chaos by her passage. The three leaders had the space to make a choice: Shoth rapidly attempting to ascend to her level, Carenath maintaining his forward momentum, and Manooth trying to change direction in whatever space he could find. Bellows of pain and lust echoed behind her as the other three dragons twisted to avoid the heavy brown, lashing out with fangs and claws to protect their own chances, but they were of no concern to Porth. The worthy ones would come through unscathed. Giving them no chance to regroup she continued on in her flight. Below her, she recognised the lay of the land, having overflown it countless times during the last year while fighting thread. She'd flown far, high and long enough. Now was the chance for the strongest, fastest bronze or brown to prove their worth. Truly she had no preference other than the need for the best mate; nor did Tarrie's desires offer any means of swaying her choice one way or another.

Banking to one side in a lazy spiral, Porth surveyed the leaders of the now-scattered band of pursuers. Carenath, Gilgath, Shoth; all three were fine dragons, all had a chance to catch her. And now that the first burst of energy had faded from her tiring muscles, they now had the opportunity to close the distance. She started turning sharply, first one way, then the other. Each manoeuvre was designed to test them, though it tired her further. Soon she was climbing again, flanked on either side by the two remaining males, one of whom would make her theirs. Porth dived, allowing each to try and reach her in turn before twisting and spiralling out of reach. Until finally, she made her choice: Tarrie reaching out her arms to draw in her lover, and Porth purposefully leaving that last evasion a little too late. Conscious thought vanished beneath the tide of primal instincts. Bodies interlocked in the air and on the ground, four minds subsumed by a single purpose, until the glorious rush of emotions had finally faded from tired hearts, bodies and minds.

Breathless, Tarrie found herself alone in her mind once more, Porth a distant, sated presence just a feather-touch away. Not totally alone of course, though that was to be expected. She sighed, and stretched her arms above her head, smiling at her partner of the moment. Whatever the repurcussions of today might be, right now Tarrie had absolutely no regrets.
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Old Aug 1 2006, 05:42 AM   #12
Kath
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Chapter 12: Waiting for Answers

"You're doing the right thing, you know.''

Sorka grimly tried to smile, and failed. "I know, Da. Doesn't make it any easier though.''

The day had been filled with one committee after another, with scarcely a free minute for Sorka to enjoy her husband's company or share some games with young Mick. Now of course, she was desperate for something to fill her mind and take her attention away from this awful waiting game. She'd tried idly leafing through Red's notes, but the latest ailments of the Hold's pets and livestock couldn't hold her interest. Before too long, she'd found herself standing by the window, staring into space and twisting the neatly rolled flimsies in her hands.

This was meant to have been the last meeting of the day, before a well-earned evening of relaxation. They'd been discussing Chereth's condition, she, Sean and Red, trying to work out how best to monitor over a dozen different aspects of the gold dragon's biology. There were so many minor details that Wind Blossom insisted would need careful monitoring, and where the more theoretical knowledge of Pol, Bay and Phas had drawn a blank, Red had found some answers. It had all been going so well, until Faranth had passed on Polenth's news, and everything had changed. Red had been thrilled, at first, a broad grin appearing on his face as he dropped his notes to one side and slapped Sean on the back in congratulation. But his cheery expression had faded quickly, as he realised that his daughter and son-in-law weren't sharing the same reaction.

They'd known this day was coming, had talked about it long into the night every day since Chereth rose, and had believed they were prepared. Red had listened attentively while Sean and Sorka tookturns explaining what it all meant, and what had really occured on that beach in the south. And then Sean had left, promising that everything would be fine, his blue eyes shining with Carenath's anticipation. Watching him leave, while her heart had been screaming for him to stay, had been one of the hardest things Sorka had ever had to do.

"Easy? The right thing rarely is,'' Red said tenderly, giving his daughter a warm hug. He peeled her fingers free of the flimsies, and tossed them across to the nearest table.

Fathers always knew the right thing to do. For all of Faranth's constant devotion and the love she shared with Sean, right now, her Da's unconditional approval and concern was all that was keeping Sorka going. She returned the hug, glad to be sharing this burden with someone who understood and cared.

It wasn't much longer before a knock on the door announced the arrival of Phas, Pol and Bay, with Alianne in tow.

"What, no Sean?'' Bay asked as she entered the room, her gold dragonet Mariah clinging tightly on to one plump shoulder.

"Oh, you know. Weyr business,'' Sorka said evenly, brushing aside the query as well as she could.

Alianne, of course, knew the exact cause of Sean's absence, but she kept diplomatically silent as Red changed the subject.

"But we have got answers to all of Wind Blossom's extra worries, we reckon. Here, take a look and tell me what you think.''

As Red ushered the scientists over to the far side of the lab, Alianne walked over to Sorka and gave her hand a quick squeeze. "Chereth's told me what's going on. Anytime you need to talk, you know where I am.''

"Thanks Ali. Do you know if Polenth made it back?''

Alianne rolled her eyes, and frowned. "Oh, just a few seconds ago, but Chereth's already being dreadfully smug about it. Believe me, if I could swap him for Carenath right now, I'd do it in a flash!''

Sorka couldn't help but smile. She'd asked Faranth to listen in on how things progressed at the weyr, but she'd far rather have Carenath back instead.

"Are you two going to join us?'' Phas asked from beside the far table, a flimsy in each hand.

Alianne quickly walked over, trusting Sorka to follow when she was ready. "More tests, I suppose?''

Red ran through the list as briefly as he could. "Pretty standard, most of them, but this last one should prove useful. I've collected samples from a number of different dragonets, one of whom should clutch within a week or so. With Milath's bloodwork as well, I think we've got a good chance of figuring out a draconic pregnancy test!''

Alianne looked relieved. "Great. All I really need is to know it was all worth it. I just want to move on with my life. Chereth insists that she's perfectly well, but I'll be glad to have you all confirm it.''

"I'm quite sure that's the case,'' Pol agreed. "Chereth's bloodwork looked pretty good last time I checked, with a healthy nutrient balance. We know the males have been fully functional for over a year now, so all the signs are very promising.''

"Well, we'll know one way or another soon enough,'' Sorka said, rejoining the group. "Anyway, what are the results of your between tests?'' She hoped the conversation could keep her mind off the questions she really wanted answering. Up at the weyr, the bronzes were blooding their kills, and though Faranth had tried to stay in contact with Carenath, the queen had soon found herself shut out of his mind. Faranth seemed a little disgruntled by that, and had shifted her concern to Sorka instead, refusing to watch where she wasn't needed, especially when Sorka clearly needed her right now.

Bay smiled warmly, and started to explain their findings. Milath's figures were fine - just as the scientists had expected from the extrapolations made from Mariah's baseline, and more-or-less in line with the range incubation figures Wind Blossom provided.

"Has Yuen got wind of your data yet?'' Red asked. Having expected a quiet retirement on Pern, the discovery of between had sent the staid astronomer into a frenzy of research, with plenty of excitement despite his almost total lack of success.

"Give him time,'' Pol said. "He should be pretty pleased with it though. We've confirmed that between doesn't chill from the surface in, but leeches energy throughout the entire body. You'd think that'd be a bad thing for Chereth's condition, but however the dragons and fire-lizards manage to make their jumps, their core temperatures rise immediately afterwards to compensate. If you carried a pregnant fire-lizard between, then they might well suffer the same complications that us mammals do, despite all the subtle differences in their systems. Of course, that's irrelevant for something as large as a dragon. Chereth's body is designed to compensate for it naturally, so up until the point where she's too bulky to get airborne, it's our opinion that she's perfectly safe to fly between and rejoin the wings.''

"Oh, thank you!'' Alianne said, quickly stretching out to give Pol a hug.

"Oh, you don't need to thank...'' Bay began, only to be interrupted by Mariah's sudden crooning. She flushed, obviously embarrassed by the emotions she was sharing with the little gold. Confused, the scientist started to apologise. "Really, I don't know what's got into her. She's not due to rise for another month or more.''

"It's Porth,'' Sorka said, her calm voice cutting through Bay's flustered apologies. The flight had begun, and was steadily building up towards its
culmination. Sorka could feel it in her bones, and so could Alianne, judging by her carefully neutral expression.

"It is? Oh, that's wonder-- but it's not, is it?'' Bay's face rapidly went through much the same set of reactions as Red's had done earlier, as she quickly put two and two together. "That's what you meant by weyr business, isn't it Sorka. And Sean, is he...? Oh dear. Oh, Sorka.''

"What happens, happens,'' Sorka said quietly, with as much determination as she could muster. "We've all talked it through, and agreed that it's the only way. You all know how much outcrossing we need in these first few generations. As far as things go, the odds are in our favour really. Carenath has plenty of competition out there, but one day, hopefully, it'll be Faranth's turn to mate, and I really do want Carenath well prepared for it.''

"Of course you do,'' Phas agreed.

"Anyway, we've more important things to worry about, like ensuring Chereth carries whatever eggs she's conceived to term.'' If Sorka could keep talking, she wouldn't need to think, or feel. "The only thing we havn't covered yet is Otto's scanner adaption. It certainly seems feasible; Sean and I looked over all the design changes today, and there's no reason at all that they shouldn't work.''

"How long before he has it up and running?'' Alianne asked.

"He thought he could finish it today, but that was before Porth...''

Red quickly stepped in as Sorka's voice trailed off. "Not that there'd be anything much to see yet if he had.''

"Well, no, not for a while yet,'' Bay agreed.

"So, how long do we have to wait? You must have a fair idea of how the fetuses develop, from Kitti's original program?''

Red grinned at Alianne. "Well, we think we do. Assuming Otto gets us the sensitivity we need, we may be lucky enough to get an idea of numbers in another few weeks. Early development is meant to be pretty rapid, but Chereth's dietary requirements are my main concern. She's certainly no test-tube! So, I'd like to monitor her meals for now as well, at least until we know how wellthat side of things scales up from the dragonets''

The scientists continued discussing the details with the vet, but Sorka's heart wasn't in it. She wondered how many of the Hold-folk were aware of what was happening through their pet dragonets. Faranth had tried finding Carenath again, but his mind was still closed to her.

"Look, perhaps we should discuss all this in the morning?'' Phas suggested. No-one was really paying much attention to anything being said anymore.

"Agreed,'' Red said with a sigh, turning a concerned gaze on his daughter. The vet lab hastily emptied, even as a sudden note of triumph was added to the emotions flooding the room. Porth was caught, and no-one at the hold with any sensitivity would have missed it, that was for sure. Her mind rebelling, Sorka tried to feel which minds were involved, which dragon had won, but it was no use. Overwhelmed, she gave up.

"Sorka, are you okay?''

She screwed her eyes shut, and reached for her coat. "I'll be fine. I just need Faranth right now.''

* * *

Sorka had certainly had no desire to rejoin the festivities, which seemed to have taken a more raucous turn than usual. Instead, she'd retreated to the cave Faranth and Carenath had shared as a temporary weyr for the past turn, to wait for Sean's return. It had taken some time for the strength of Porth's broadcast to subside; time Sorka had spent desperately wanting answers that Faranth was unable to provide. The minutes and seconds seemed to slow down to a crawl, as woman and dragon waited, watching the lengthening shadows slowly shroud the valley.

Eventually, Faranth had reached Carenath. The contact had been brief, an almost voyeuristic insight into the bronze's emotions, which Faranth had cut off immediately with a resentful wail. Short as it was, it had told Sorka all that she needed to know. All of the tensions and apprehensions that she'd been struggling to keep at bay since Sean had left broke free, and she burst into tears.

The flight was done with, over. Soon, Sean and Carenath would return, and everything would be back to normal, at least until the next gold rose. Eight more golds still waiting to rise, and if Faranth's tender concern towards Sorka's pregnancy was anything to go by, Faranth would more than likely be one of the last. And how long before the cycle began anew? How many more times would she be left waiting like this, forced by the needs of the species to wait, while Carenath and Sean took their chances with the rest, driven by the urgency of draconic instints.

Faranth plaintively reached out for her rider. He shouldn't have been so disappointed. He told me he wasn't interested in Porth!

I know dearest, I know.

Was Sean feeling as dejected as his dragon? To have come so close, to have had Porth almost within reach, and then lost her to another... Surely not, but Carenath's disappointment had been painfully palpable. After Chereth's flight, Sean had debriefed the losing riders. Despite all the confusion of that day, it had apparently taken some time for the emotions to wear off. She herself had seen their faces in the South: need and shame, warring for dominance. How was Sean coping? Sorka could scarcely bear to contemplate it.

Carenath re-emerged from between in silence, and made a quick descent down to land. It was obvious from his flight that he was on the verge of exhaustion. Sean wearily dismounted, and rested his head against Carenath's neck for a few moments of silent communion, before turning to his wife. He looked haunted, his flying coat hanging open and his shirt buttons mismatched. Sorka waited patiently, as he slowly walked over to her. As he took her in his arms, his emotions broke out.

"You shouldn't have had to go through this. I'm sorry love, so sorry.''

"Shhh... it's okay. You're home now.''

He kissed her hungrily. "You know you're all I've ever wanted, all I ever will.''

Sorka smiled, sadly. "I know. This doesn't matter, any of it, we agreed on that.''

Sean sighed, and shook his head. "I thought I could keep control, that I could hold him back once we'd started. Oh Sorka, I was so wrong. I'm an arrogant fool, thinking I was a better rider than the others, that I could do what they couldn't. And I left you here to wait, knowing everything would be fine, and it wasn't. We came too close, Carenath and I.''

"Sean, stop blaming yourself. You're not thinking clearly right now.''

He collapsed into a chair, and rested his head in his hands, running his fingers through his hair. Sorka perched gracelessly beside him.

"I know, I know,'' he said. "And I know what we agreed, that this was necessary for the dragons. Doesn't mean I have to like it, but I suppose we have to set the right example. Carenath will do his duty, and so will I, for as long as we have to. But I'm still not letting another dragon anywhere near you and Faranth!''

"I should hope not!'' Privately, Sorka was hopeful. Ten golds, and seven males, with another three on the cusp of maturity. By the time each gold rose for a second time, whether in a few months or a whole year, the situation was bound to be vastly improved.

Sean pulled her into his lap, and buried his face in her hair. "Damn right,'' he muttered, holding her close, and unwilling to let go.

"So, who actually won Porth's flight in the end?'' Pleased as she was that it hadn't been Carenath, Sorka was still curious.

"Hmm? Oh, Shoth caught her.''

"Shoth and Otto? Remind me to thank Tarrie in the morning.''

"What on earth for? He's quite popular with the ladies, isn't he?''

For all of Sean's empathy for dragons and animals, he could be remarkably obtuse about women at times.

"That's exactly my point.''
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Old Aug 6 2006, 04:28 PM   #13
Kath
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This chapter is a little more adult in nature. Consider yourselves warned.



Chapter 13: Temptations

For a while, they had lain together in silence, content to simply share the deep communion with their dragons' minds and the warmth of each other's bodies. The cool evening air was gradually chilling the thin sheen of perspiration on Tarrie's body; soon, she'd need to find her clothes again, wherever they were. The riders had somehow ended up on one of the blankets which had been spread across the rocky surface of the bowl earlier that day, though it did little to mask out the discomfort of the larger pebbles, one of which was pressing mercilessly into Tarrie's body. She arched her back, and tried to shift to a more comfortable position, out from beneath Otto's out-flung arm.

She'd thought he was asleep, but that was clearly not the case. He lifted his arm to allow her to move, and Tarrie shuffled across to find a slightly less stony patch of ground. To her surprise, as she lay back down she realised that Otto was just as close as ever, propped up beside her on one elbow. His features were shadowed in the twilight, silhouetted by waxing Belior's dim gleam, but not so much that Tarrie couldn't see his smile. Well, she and Porth had made their choice. Not, perhaps, the choice she'd expected to make, but that hardly mattered now. She closed her eyes, and sighed, remembering how wonderful she'd felt.

Slowly, Otto's free hand resumed its gentle pressure on her body, in a series of soothing caresses that gradually changed into something more, something almost possessive in nature. Tarrie still felt barely half aware, but Porth's overwhelming influence had faded to memory; surely this was not caused by the lusts of the two dragons?

"Otto?'' Tarrie asked in query. She reached out to Porth, to confirm her instincts. The gold was still gliding smugly northwards, wingtip-to-wingtip with Shoth. With a tired benevolence, she wished Tarrie well, and urged her to continue enjoying herself if that was what she wanted.

Was it?

"Tarrie.'' Otto lowered his hand to the ground where it could bear his weight, leaned in closer, and kissed her. "You know how good I can be, Tarrie. Let me show you again.'' His hands resumed their work, followed by his mouth, leaving Tarrie breathless. No, this wasn't Porth's influence, nor Shoth's. This... seduction was something new, something that had everything to do with the type of man Otto was, and nothing to do with the dragons. She'd been caught, she and Porth, but not conquered. Not yet. And yet here she was, with a man who instinctively knew what Tarrie's other lovers had taken weeks to discover, and who was now using that knowledge quite ruthlessly.

Tarrie lifted her eyes to watch the moonlit clouds scudding overhead, tried to clear her mind, and failed.

"Shhh... that's it. Just relax.''

Oh, she'd laughed over all the gossip with the other goldriders in her wing. They'd heard all the stories, of course, of the foolish women who fell for Otto's undeniable charms, for however long he cared to pay them any attention before moving on to the next pretty face. He always let them down gently though, and so she hadn't despised him for his fickleness straight away, not until it had been her brother Jake left heartbroken, while the girl he'd wanted to marry lay in Otto's arms.

So, here she was, responding easily to his touch. She still hadn't answered his earlier question, but her body was doing that very well by itself, and would be all the answer Otto needed unless she chose to speak out. How much more enjoyment could she afford? Despite knowing her own mind, Tarrie didn't still want this to end... but sooner would be better than later, that was certain.

"Otto, enough.''

His movements stilled, and he pulled his dark head away from her body.

"Ah, Tarrie, why so elusive?''

"They'll be back soon, Porth and Shoth,'' Tarrie insisted. As pleasant and intense as the whole experience had been, now was the time to draw a line under it and move on. Before Otto could convince her otherwise.

"We've time,'' Otto countered, as she'd half suspected he would. "We're in no hurry, are we? Tarrie, you chose us, Shoth and I. Remember? Why not make the most of it?'' With a smile, he carried on where he'd left off, very convincingly indeed.

"Shoth, yes,'' Tarrie said as soon as she could spare the breath. That part was undeniably true. "He flew well. Porth was very impressed.''

"So she should be. But we're not bound by the same limitations as our dragons, you and I. So let's not waste this opportunity.'' He smiled persuasively, and carried on speaking. "After all, there's no-one waiting for you back at the hold, is there.''

Tarrie froze, scarcely believing what she'd just heard. Was he seriously suggesting that because she was single, she had no reason not to continue? Accepting the need to share Porth's experience hadn't been easy in the first place, and for all of Sorka's and Sean's insistence that when it was over, it'd be over, Tarrie had been unconvinced. She'd seen the looks on the men's faces before the flight, seen more there than simply an uncertain anticipation. There'd been relief, as well; relief that with her, there'd be
no need to hold back. And afterwards? Maybe, there'd be no need to end the night in an awkward silence, waiting for their dragons to return. And no need to recognise the difference between the choices she made because she'd had to, and those she chose for herself. Well, Tarrie wouldn't stand
for it!

"How dare you! Is that meant to make a difference?''

"Shouldn't it?'' Otto asked, seemingly oblivious to what he'd done wrong.

Tarrie glared at him. Typical man, missing the point completely. "This has nothing to do with our dragons anymore, Otto.''

He rolled over, raising his hands in apology. "So? C'mon, Tarrie, you can't pretend not to want this. You and I both know that you made the choice, not Porth.''

"Yes. But I made it for Sorka's sake, not for myself.''

Otto barked out a bitter laugh. "Like that'll make a difference in the long run. Oh, I'm sure Carenath won't let another dragon within reach of Faranth if he can help it, but he'll fly other golds, and we all know it. Not Porth, at least not this time, but there'll be others.''

Tarrie couldn't argue with that, but she didn't have to be a party to it. She'd wanted to enjoy this experience, with no regrets, allowing Porth to mate with a worthy dragon who wouldn't abandon her immediately afterwards for another. She didn't actually know if dragons really cared about such things, but Porth had been so pleased with all the extra attention she'd received that it seemed pretty likely. And so, when it had come down to the last two dragons, Carenath and Shoth, Tarrie's deeply buried rationality had somehow tipped the balance in Shoth's favour. But had Tarrie, too, subconsciously chosen the more available mate, the one whose reputation appealed to the darker side of her curiosity?

Impatient with her silence, or maybe confused by it, Otto pushed her again. "Admit it Tarrie, you do want me, don't you?''

Tarrie closed her eyes. She really didn't like the man all that much, but she couldn't deny the attraction either. "Yes,'' she admitted. "Yes, here and now, I do. But that's not enough.'' She rolled over to her side, and sat up to face him. "I certainly don't want to be just another notch on your belt, Otto. Whatever choices I made earlier, they mean absolutely nothing now.''

He sighed, and lay back with his arms crossed behind his head, smiling smugly at her admission. "Ah, the disadvantage of my reputation, I suppose. Always knew it'd come back to haunt me. Still, I'm sure you don't blame me for trying?''

Deciding that that wasn't a question worth answering, Tarrie raised an eyebrow, and gathered the loose end of the blanket around her body. It was getting pretty damn cold out here. She looked around, trying to locate her clothes. Was that her jacket, or his?

Otto, apparently, still had more to say.

"But we've come this far, give me one good reason why we should stop now? I understand your reluctance, Tarrie, of course, but this needn't be
just one night. I do know you're not that type of woman.''


Tarrie shook her head. "Otto, as far as relationships go, you're certainly not my first choice. You don't even make the list.''

"Even after tonight?'' he asked, teasingly. "I'm surprised, Tarrie. Or is it just that you don't think you're capable of holding my interest?''

Tarrie stared at him, briefly stunned. She didn't need to see the expression on his shadowed face to recognise the implied challenge, and almost, she found herself rising to it. Really, the man was impossible. She shook her head, and laughed.

"Otto, Otto, there's not a woman alive who could manage that!''

He gave an exaggerated sigh. "If you say so. Knowing my luck, she'd probably have a couple of disapproving brothers anyway. But what does it matter, Tarrie, if it doesn't last?''

"It matters to me.'' She stood up, and tugged at the blanket until he moved free of it. Her clothes had to be around here somewhere. Barefoot, she picked her way carefully across the weyrbowl towards the nearest crumpled lump of fabric, Otto's voice following her.

"If you think you can have a settled life with anyone other than Porth, you're fooling yourself, Tarrie. What holder will ever understand the way things are for us? Even us riders can't make monogamy work anymore, not even Sean and Sorka. I'd be a fool to try and convince you otherwise, and why should I want to? Thread could kill any of us, any day. Live a little. I won't pretend it'll last, but we'll make the most of it, and enjoy ourselves. Let the holders try and live out what's left of their colonial dream, breeding like rabbits in a warren. You're free of that. ''

He might turn out to be right, but it was too soon to tell, and Tarrie certainly wasn't likely to change her opinions overnight. She bent down to lift the heavy wherry-hide coat at her feet, hoping it was hers. No, the cut was wrong, and it was far too big. Wondering where hers had got to, she threw the coat roughly in Otto's direction. He deftly snatched it out of the air, let it drop to the ground, and scrambled to his feet.

"I know you don't think highly of me, Tarrie, but I also know what we both want tonight. So do you. You're denying yourself, just for the sake of your pride. Is it really worth it?''

"I'll be the judge of that.'' And what about your pride, Otto? Tarrie thought to herself. She was pretty sure that that was the source of his persistence. She'd been his, true, but only because of Shoth, and the man seemed incapable of leaving things as they were. "None of this matters, Otto, none of this has any relevance at all. We've done what we had to do, nothing more. Tomorrow, nothing will have changed between us, despite what we've done. And I still won't like you, any more than I do right now.''

Unwilling to give him an opening for another riposte, Tarrie stalked off to find her clothes. They had to be around here somewhere.

After a few minutes of fruitless searching, Tarrie heard soft footsteps approaching from behind her. What did Otto want now?

"So. Tomorrow, nothing changes,'' he said quietly. "That still leaves tonight.''

She looked back over her shoulder, and glared at the tall rider. "You don't give up, do you?'' she muttered disdainfully. Wondering how close Porth was, she reached out to check on the gold dragon's progress. The pair
were still a few minutes away from the Weyr. For a moment, Tarrie once again found her senses echoing those of her dragon. An easy, contented lethargy settled over her body, together with a deep seated need for her mate's presence. Porth would not be easily parted from Shoth, that was clear, and Tarrie abruptly realised that neither she nor Otto would be leaving the Weyr before morning. This could be... awkward.

"Give up? Of course not. Unless you insist.''

He slipped his arms around her waist, tugged the blanket away from her shoulders, and waited passively for her answer. This time, Tarrie knew he would stop if she asked, that the choice was fully hers. And oh, right now she was sorely tempted. She smiled, slowly, unsure of her decision, but knowing full well what she wanted, no matter how much she wished that she didn't.

But really, what did she have to lose?

"I insist,'' she whispered, lifting her mouth towards his.
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Old Dec 10 2006, 04:59 PM   #14
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It's been a long time, and I'm very sorry about that! So, here's the long-awaited Chapter 14.


The night before

The morning hadn't started well at all. At first, Pete had put the atmosphere down to a mass hangover. It wasn't often that the entire population had the chance to gather together, and last night's party seemed to have got a little rowdy. But although the early morning shifts wouldn't have had much of a chance to sleep off any overindulgence from the night before, this was getting ridiculous!

It had begun almost as soon as he'd walked into the main hall; no matter where he looked, Pete found himself on the receiving end of one sour look after another. Even when he'd joined the short queue at the food counter, his usual greeting to the serving staff had been totally ignored. Okay, so he hadn't felt like eating much anyway, but he did want something, even if it was only a bowl of Ethan's oatmeal. The man's unintelligible muttering had been bad enough, but it was Yashma's scowl as she brusquely shoved a mug of Klah into his hands that had threatened to ruin Pete's appetite entirely. Unwilling to annoy the usually cheerful woman any further, Pete had made a hasty retreat to a quiet table in the corner.

Having sat down, Pete attempted to enjoy his breakfast. A few spoonfuls into the bowl of watery, over-salted porridge, he spotted a familiar face bearing a heavily laden tray across the room. Morag was a good friend of his sisters, and had always been more than willing to give him the time of day in the past. Pete lifted himself halfway off the bench and raised a hand to beckon her over to join him, but as soon as she spotted him, her eyes glazed and darted away. Pete found himself glaring at her back as she shifted course to sit alone at an empty table on the far side of the room.

What the hell? Being invisible would be better than this, Pete thought. Running out of better options, he dropped his gaze to his mug, and watched the last thin swirls of bubbles slowly rotate to a halt on the surface of the dark liquid. Wondering if it was cool enough to drink, he took a sip, and burned his tongue on the bitter liquid. Damnit, he'd forgotten to add any sweetener as well. Oh, he could wander back over to the counter and add a spoon or two easily enough, but that would mean facing Yashma's accusing stare for a second time. Yes, everything was going wrong today, and he'd barely just got up.

As if it had been waiting for the right moment, a wave of pain stretched across Pete's head. Great. Just great. He hadn't slept off his own hangover either, but the way things were going, he could hardly be surprised by that today. Why wasn't Jerry the one sitting here scarcely past the crack of dawn? Pete wondered. It ought to be him, by rights... but Manooth had come through the flight unscathed, while it had been Gilgath who'd suffered from the brown's ill-thought-out aerobatics. Gilgath had been so intent upon Porth that the sudden appearance of the brown, flailing into the midst of the pack, had given them practically no time to react at all. Pete supposed that they'd been lucky to avoid any collisions, and he didn't want to think about what kind of injuries would have resulted at those speeds. As it was, he was pretty sure that Gilgath had struck out at some point, that another dragon bore the marks of his talons. But Gilgath's near-impossible aerial twists had somehow brought them through the tangle of dragons... although not entirely without cost. Oh, they'd emerged in the lead, convinced Porth would be theirs, but her later manoeuvres had taxed badly-stressed muscles too far. Ignorable discomfort steadily turned to pain, and once more Pete had found himself separated from Gilgath, the mating urges fading as the injured dragon spiralled down towards the hold.

While the adrenaline rush subsided, Pete had silently rejoined the other unsuccessful riders. Unwilling to look back, he'd kept his eyes firmly fixed on the southern rim of the weyr, where the first returning dragons would reappear. He couldn't remember who it was who'd given him a lift back to the Hold, to Gilgath. At least the infirmary hadn't still been occupied, but even that was another reminder that Porth was flying again. Porth, who he could still feel. At that point, Pete had decided that he'd spend the rest of the evening getting himself very, very drunk.

In the end, once Gilgath's needs had been tended to, the urge to drown his sorrows in alcohol had lessened somewhat. Gilgath was surprisingly blase about Shoth's success - Shoth! Once he'd dropped out himself, the identity of the victor seemed to be a moot point as far as the dragon was concerned. Pete had briefly tried seeing things that way, and failed. Tarrie wouldn't have wanted that, surely? If they didn't, they wouldn't had been Gilgath's unhelpful reply. And so Pete had decided that getting drunk was still a good idea after all.

Of course, he wasn't the only person who'd had that idea, not on a gather night. The main palisade beneath the Hold entrance had been crowded with intoxicated revellers; not exactly the company Pete had wanted to keep. Pete had grabbed a jug of spirits and walked slowly for a short way down the valley, just as far as the last baskets of glows marking the fork in the road. In daylight, it commanded a good view of the road towards the harbour, weaving its way across the countryside, skirted by the few green fields that kept the colony alive. At night, its only redeeming feature was that it was quiet... but even that solitude was soon broken, by the sound of a stumbling figure following Pete's path towards the road.

In the dim light of the glows, Pete had almost not recognised Samuel, Alianne's husband. The man had seemed almost totally unaware of his surroundings as he stumbled haphazardly towards Pete, most likely due to too much to drink. As he approached, Pete had caught sight of the bitter expression on his face, and too much moisture around his eyes to blame on the light drizzle. Briefly, Pete had considered leaving the man to his misery - but by then, Sam was too close to slip away from easily.

"I can't escape,'' Sam had muttered, squinting his eyes in recognition, or perhaps just in an attempt to focus. It hadn't made much sense to Pete last night, and even this morning, he still wasn't quite what Sam had meant. He'd offered up his jug to the other man; well, it was one sure way of easing distress, though with hindsight, perhaps not the best choice he could have made.

Before he could ask Sam what he'd meant, the man had started muttering again. "I thought it was her,'' he'd said, slumping down on the ground beside Pete. "All of you. But it was them, all the time.'' He'd paused long enough to take a deep swig directly from the jug, giving Pete barely enough time to ask if he was okay. If he'd heard Pete, he gave no sign of it. Instead, he'd passed the jug back again and carried on with his drunken rambling, interrupting himself every now and then with bursts of increasingly hysterical laughter, while Pete had tried in vain to understand what the hell he was going on about.

"And now we're all to blame as well... Everyone... Especially me. I should have listened... Should have understood! Never... she'll never forgive me.''

By the time Pete had reached the bottom of the jug, he was only a little the wiser, and both men had reached their limits. Sam had slept with someone he regretted, and was convinced his marriage was over, but beyond that, Pete was lost. Somehow, he'd made his way back to Gilgath before passing out, but he didn't have a clue where Sam had got to in the end. What had the man meant by the rest of it? There seemed to be more to it than infidelity - and under the circumstances, that in itself was hardly surprising. But who had he meant by 'all of us'? Pete groaned, and clenched his fists in his hair. Damn hangover didn't help him think straight at all.

"Bad night?''

Pete looked up, surprised that someone was actually willing to speak to him at last. It was Dave. He carefully placed his full tray on the table, and eased himself onto the bench opposite Pete, an understanding smile on his face..

"Like you wouldn't believe,'' Pete replied.

"Try me.''

Wondering what was the best place to begin, Pete twisted his spoon around in his oatmeal and watched Dave liberally coat his breakfast with salt and one of Catrina's new experimental sauces. How could the man face fried meat and beans at this time in the morning?

"Too much to drink, and the wrong company,'' he began with a sigh. As Dave shovelled food into his mouth, Pete quickly related his confusing encounter with Sam. "Doesn't look too good for Alianne, as far as I can make out,'' he concluded.

"Perhaps not as bad as you think,'' Dave said, tapping his chin thoughtfully. "He threw her out earlier--''

"He what?!'' Pete gasped. Now that was unpleasant news... and it sounded worse, not better!

"Oh yes. After we left the Weyr, Polenth had wanted to go straight back to Chereth, so we landed by her ledge, and all Ali's stuff was there, scattered about in bags and crates. She came along a few minutes later, and didn't need more than a few seconds to figure it all out. I was up half the night comforting her, before she let me try and find the man, to talk some sense into him...''

"So how does that make things any better for her?'' Pete asked. Was everyone trying to confuse him?

"Ah, but he understands how little choice she had now, first-hand. He never really had any moral high ground in the first place, but he's lost it now for sure, and knows it too. If he's having regrets about his company last night, then there might still be a chance for them. If Alianne decides that that's what she wants, of course.''

Pete blinked, uncertain. Not many women would be that forgiving. "Well, he wasn't the kind of company I was expecting last night, that's for sure.''

Dave let out a loud guffaw, and shook his head. "Well, we know you're not alone in that sentiment, mate.'' His eyes suddenly narrowed, and Pete realised that there was something he'd been missing, something about last night...

"You don't know, do you?''

"Why we're being treated like the latest outbreak of Centauran Sand Roaches? I'm not in the mood for guessing games today, so just cut it out and set me straight,'' he snapped.

Dave grimaced. "Drink your Klah, it'll clear your head a bit. And be glad it's me telling you this, and not someone's husband, or brother.''

Something had caught Dave's eye, and Pete turned to see what it was. Nothing unusual was happening, just a steady trickle of people collecting their breakfast... including Tarrie's two brothers, Peter and Jake. Neither would be someone he wanted to speak to today, not after Porth's flight. Pete shook his head, and gulped down a mouthful of Klah.

"Well?'' he asked.

"Okay. We know how the flights have affected us, and had some forewarning at least, but no-one thought to think about the people living here, or the people with fire lizards in particular. You know what they're like as far as strong emotions are concerned.''

Pete groaned, as the pieces finally fell into place. Hundreds of the little empathic creatures scattered throughout the hold, and everyone they looked to must have felt some echoes of what the riders and dragons had experienced. He'd learned that well enough from his own small fair. But fire-lizard induced emotions, as fun or as inconvenient as they were, well, they could usually be ignored if a human chose. And if not ignored, it wasn't always necessary to act on them, not unless you wanted to. But add the party atmosphere as well...

"So, they felt the flight,'' he said, gesturing with a nod at the growing crowd in the dining room. "But not like us, surely.''

"At first, just those with mentas, and just enough to loosen inhibitions a little,'' Dave explained. "But Porth was loud, and not all that far away.''

"Ah.''

"A lot of people did things they might regret, I think. Or they wanted to. Anyway, guess who they're holding responsible?''

Well, that did explain things. "Huh. And Wind Blossom expected us to control ourselves. Still, she can't hold us responsible for everyone else as well. No-one can!'

Dave leaned across the table with a conspiratorial gleam in his eyes. "Oh, I really don't think we'll be hearing her harp on about that issue any more.''

"Wind Blossom? Don't tell me! Her too?''

Dave nodded, and gave a wicked chuckle.

"The ice queen actually melted?'' Pete was stunned. So, the woman did have normal human emotions in there somewhere.

"I ran into Jake last night, while I was trying to track down Sam to give him a piece of my mind,'' Dave explained.

"Him?''

"Oh, no. He had Tarrie's Sira with him, and had been picking up strange emotions off the lizard. What with the filial bond and all, he was probably one of the least affected people around. Anyway, he'd gone to get some advice from Wind Blossom. Only he wasn't the first. Someone with a common interest...''

"She has them?''

"Ask her about her uglies, and she's even been known to smile.''

Pete thought for a moment. There weren't many people willing to accommodate the beasts, except the miners. "Not Telgar, surely?'' he asked.

Dave looked round to check that no-one was close enough to hear. "Ozzie Munson,'' he whispered.

"Ah,'' Pete gasped. "And they were...?''

"What's the old phrase? In flagrante something-or-other... ah, you know what I mean. Jake was pretty shocked, but by then it was Tarrie he was more worried about. I managed to set him straight about her and Porth at least, not that he was too happy about it - I think he'd figured out the details. But I think I convinced him that she'd be fine, and was okay with it all, not that it's really any of his business at all.''

Trying hard not to picture what Jake must have seen, a niggling worry appeared in Pete's mind. "Did you tell him it was Shoth that caught Porth?''

"No. Why?'' He clenched his jaws into a fixed smile, and hissed through his teeth. "Best tell me quickly, 'cos they're coming over here now.''

"There's some kind of history between Otto and Jake,'' Pete said with a grimace. "I don't know exactly how it began, but knowing Otto, I can probably make a good guess.''

Dave groaned, and hid his face in his hands. "Damn. Even if he hasn't picked it up from the lizards, he'll know which dragons are missing from the fire heights.'' He opened his fingers, and rubbed his brows. "You ready for them?''

Pete shook his head, and turned round to see what Tarrie's brothers wanted. Answers he didn't have, most likely.

"Jake, Peter, how are you both this morning?'' he asked, still hoping that this was a simple social visit. The cold expression on Jake's face suggested otherwise.

"Where's Tarrie?'' Peter asked.

At least that was one question Pete could answer, thanks to Gilgath. "I think she's still wi...''

"With Otto?'' Jake hissed, pushing his brother aside to stand looming over Pete.

"No, with Porth,'' Pete insisted, hoping that the man's anger was only directed at the absent Otto. "Let me just ask Gilgath where they are.''

He reached out mentally towards his dragon, and was surprised by the bronze's immediate response. Polenth says to keep them distracted, Gilgath said. Porth returned not long ago, with Shoth, and their riders are on their way inside. Polenth's rider will try to meet them first.

"Well?'' Jake asked impatiently.

"Um...'' Typical of Gilgath to put him on the spot like this! Dave had already slipped away, and Pete couldn't help glancing quickly around the room looking for him. "Gilgath says they're...''

"Never mind, I can see them well enough myself,'' Jake said, glaring at the entrance to the dining room.

What? Sure enough, there was Tarrie, standing frozen in the doorway. And Otto too, greeting some of his friends enthusiastically. But where was Dave? Pete couldn't waste time looking, because Jake and Peter were already striding across the room towards them. "Jake, wait a minute,'' he tried, but neither brother even paused. Pete sighed, hauled himself to his feet again, and quickly hurried after them. He had a horrible feeling that he was wrong about this morning not getting any worse.

Across the room, all conversations seemed to stop, bar one. The exception was the small group surrounding Otto, which had just erupted into hearty laughter. Damn the man! Pete himself was starting to get the urge to thump that smug expression off his face, and he was pretty certain that Jake had the same idea. Making a scene like this wasn't fair on Tarrie at all! He caught up with Jake just a few metres short of the group and, grabbing his arm, pulled him to a halt.

Jake scowled, shook Pete's grip aside, and took another step forwards. "I thought I warned you to stay away from my family, Otto!''

"Don't make a scene,'' Pete pleaded quietly. "I know he's an arsehole, but Tarrie didn't have a helluva lot of choice.'' He raised his voice, and turned to Otto with a glare. "Did she, Otto?''

As the words left his mouth, he realised that they might not be taken in quite the way he'd meant, and he'd probably just enraged Jake even more.

Tarrie was shaking her head, teeth gritted. "Leave it, all of you,'' she hissed.

Otto shrugged. "Look, I gave my word. If you three want all the sordid details, you'll have to ask her.''

Feeling Jake surge forwards, Pete tried to keep himself between the two antagonists. This wasn't getting any better at all, and he wondered if it was even worth trying to stop things coming to blows. From somewhere behind him, he heard Tarrie's exasperated voice.

"Bloody men!''

Pete twisted his head round, just in time to see her turn on her heel and storm off. And there was Dave, at last, going after her. Where the hell had he been? But Pete couldn't stay distracted very long, because Otto was talking again.

"Now look what you've done,'' he said to Jake, making a feeble pretence at innocence.

With a growl, Jake lunged at the rider. Pete ducked, and looked up to see Tarrie's other brother Peter trying to separate the pair before too much damage was done to either men or furniture. Oh well, Pete thought, and decided to see if the pair of them could manage any better than he had on his own. He reached out to grab Otto, and suddenly found his feet sliding out from beneath him, leaving him toppling forwards towards the nearest table. Damned Klah! he had time to think, just before his elbow made contact with the bench and his head with the side of the table. Not hard enough to any damage, thankfully, but more than enough on top of a hangover.

Dazed, Pete shook his head and blinked, desperately hoping that his eyes were playing tricks on him.

Admiral Benden did not look amused.

Sean Connell looked far, far worse.

Last edited by Cheryl; Mar 4 2007 at 01:43 PM.
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Old Mar 4 2007, 07:23 AM   #15
Kath
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Chapter 15: The morning after

Sorka awoke to a nagging sense of unease, of things left undone or unsaid. Deep in her mind, she could feel that there was something she should be doing, someone she needed to see... and as her eyes adjusted to the dim light, she found herself being watched, by three different dragonets sitting scarcely a metre from her head, all of them emoting like crazy.

With a yawn, Sorka eased herself up on her elbows and glared at Duke. The one morning when Michael wasn't around to wake her and Sean up at the crack of dawn, and the dragonets did the job instead. Duke crooned apologetically, and then chittered territorially at the other two, a gold and a blue, sending them fluttering around the room. That really didn't make identifying them any easier, but was that..? Yes, there was a message tube strapped to one of the gold's legs. Duke and the other dragonets that looked to her and Sean would usually deter visitors at times like this, but if the gold was here to deliver a message, there wouldn't be any shifting her until she'd completed her task.

Faranth? Sorka groggily reached out to her queen, and rubbed at her sleep-encrusted eyelids with a finger. Moments later, the two creatures meekly swooped over to the chest of drawers beside the bed - there were definite advantages to having a dragon around, especially when it came to dealing with their miniature cousins. The gold hopped closer and tentatively extended a leg, allowing Sorka to carefully pull the tube free. Sean was still fast asleep, sprawled on his front and breathing softly, but this was probably for his eyes just as much as hers. With a sigh, Sorka nudged her husband awake, and began to unroll the scrap of paper.

"Sean? Someone has a message for us.''

He mumbled something unintelligible into his pillow, and rolled over. "Don't they fecking know what time it is?''

Sorka held the paper up to the light, and realised that she recognised the writing. There weren't many people who could presume to get a message into Sorka's bedroom, but Ju and Benden were certainly two of them. Ju's gold was still broadcasting her impatience, so Sorka took the hint and began reading. The message began rather vaguely, which was worrying in itself. It wasn't like Ju to be so... oblique.

"Well?''

She turned to glance at her husband. All of his earlier sleepiness was gone, replaced by an intense focus. Whatever this problem was, Sean would want to waste no time in seeing it resolved. "Benden wants to see us. At 'our earliest convenience'.''

"What have they bloody done now?'' he asked, rolling his eyes.

"I'm not sure,'' Sorka said, shaking her head. "He wants Tarrie there as well, along with whoever else is 'responsible for last night's disorder'.''

"He does, does he?''

As Sorka finished reading, Sean hauled himself out of the bed and hurriedly dressed, grabbing a clean shirt from the dresser and some trousers from the floor beside the bed. It didn't take much guesswork to figure out what this had to be about, but the urgency of the message seemed a little... odd. Surely Porth's flight couldn't have disturbed the Holders in the same way as it had affected the riders? Or could it? She was still uncertain about what had actually transpired when Sean passed her a bundle of clothes, and took the paper from her hands.

"Damn holders. Can't leave well enough alone, and they're probably still too drunk to think straight anyway,'' he muttered, scanning the paper quickly.

"What do you think happened?'' she asked, pulling on her boots.

Sean shrugged. "Guess we'll just have to figure that out on the way. C'mon, we've time to grab a cup of Klah on the way to the Admiral's office.''

The path up to the Hold-proper was littered with debris from the previous day's revelry. Folding chairs lay stacked in haphazard piles against the low wall, and a crumpled banner fluttered limply above an abandoned stall. A little more effort had been made in the main square in front of the dining hall, where there would have been dancing in the evening, but it wouldn't get cleared completely until later in the morning, when the main crews of cleaners appeared. A few sleeping bodies lingered in the odd corner: some no doubt taking advantage of the safety of a thread-free morning and the mild autumn weather to sleep out in the fresh air, while others were probably just sleeping off their hangovers wherever they'd passed out.

Inside the hold, they were met by the welcome aroma of fresh Klah. A steady trickle of people were making their way into the main hall, but in deference to the early hour and sore heads, the heavy curtains across the east-facing windows were pulled closed, and the glow-baskets still held the dim glows of the night before. As they reached the entrance to the hall, Sorka was surprised to see Tarrie rush out, her face flushed in embarrassment. Spotting Sorka and Sean, she slowed in hesitation. Unsure of whether she'd stop fully or keep moving, Sorka reached out to her friend in concern.

"Tarrie, what's happened?''

She looked away, and took a deep breath, composing herself. "I made a mistake. A very big mistake. You should go in, before anything else goes wrong.''

"Oh, Tarrie,'' Sorka said, drawing her into a hug. "It'll be okay, I promise.''

"I know,'' she whispered. "Seriously though, don't waste any time on me. They're probably fighting in there by now.''

"Who?'' Sean demanded.

Before Tarrie could reply, Dave Caterel appeared at a run. "Oh good, you're all here,'' he said with a relieved sigh. "Listen, Sean, you'd better go straight in. Benden's after you, but that's not all.''

"We got the message that the Admiral wanted to see us earlier this morning. Now you tell us there's more?''

"Tarrie's brothers and Otto, between them they're causing a bit of a scene in there.''

Sean groaned. "As if I didn't have enough to bloody deal with.''

"Last I saw, Pete was trying to calm things down. But Benden's in there too. I left him when Polenth told me you were on your way, but you'd better hurry.''

"Go on in,'' Sorka said. "I'll follow as soon as I can.''

As Sean nodded and hurried inside, Sorka turned her attention to Dave. "What's going on? There's more to it than the obvious, isn't there?''

"There is?'' Tarrie muttered. "Great. Just what I need.''

Dave looked compassionately at the two women. "If it's any consolation, Tarrie, I had no idea about any of it until Pete explained. We tried to get to you and Otto before your brothers did, to stop all of that before it started, but the Admiral found me first.''

Well, that was probably enough information for Sorka to go on, to fill in the gaps. Really, it was no-one's business other than Tarrie's and Otto's. It certainly wasn't her brothers' concern, and it was very unfair of them to presume so.

Tarrie smiled gratefully. "Well, I guess you couldn't ignore the Admiral.'' She glanced at Sorka, with a worried expression. "Sean did say that he's been looking for you all morning, didn't he. What else happened?''

The expression on Dave's scarred face grew more solemn. Sorka calmly waited for him to speak; this was the information that she really needed to hear.

"The flight. Sorry, Tarrie. Porth flew practically overhead, and every holder with a fire-lizard felt her. The consequences were exactly as you'd expect, considering.''

"Oh. Oh, damn. I thought it'd just been Jake, hearing it through Sira...''

"I wish I could say you were right,'' Dave said.

Well, Sorka had been expecting something like this. She gave Tarrie's arm a quick squeeze. The poor woman looked even worse than she had earlier, if that was possible, and could probably do with some time alone. "If it wasn't Porth, it'd be one of the other queens. This isn't about you. Look, why don't you go and find Porth. Dave can get you some Klah and breakfast.'' She looked at Dave appealingly, and he nodded.

"Or tea, if you prefer,'' he suggested. "The chamomile's growing like a weed further down the valley, and I know Yashma'll have a pot brewing somewhere in the kitchens.''

"Thanks, but no. I can't hide from this. None of us can, and none of us should.'' Tarrie took a deep breath, and did her best to look determined. "I expect Benden will want to speak to me, too, seeing as Porth's my dragon.''

Porth's rider is right, you know.

Faranth? Have you heard from Carenath?

Yes. The admiral still wishes to see all of you. The humans who live here are not happy with us.

"He wants to see all of us, Faranth says,'' Sorka explained. The other riders nodded, neither looking too thrilled at the prospect. As they made their way up the main stairs towards the largest meeting room, Sorka decided that she was glad that Dave and Tarrie were with her. If she had to choose two riders to lay this problem on, they'd probably both be at the top of the list. Both were respected wingleaders, and Dave's reputation would carry a lot of weight. Even though the average holders wouldn't know him as well as Joel and the Admiral did, they all recognised him as someone who put duty to Pern at the forefront of his life - after Polenth, of course. Sorka hoped that they thought as well of her and Sean.

They caught up with a grim-faced Sean halfway down the main second-level corridor, Otto, Jake and Pete waiting uneasily beside him. Otto looked subdued but unapologetic, and Jake simply looked peeved. Surprisingly, it was a rather shamefaced Pete who was the first to greet Tarrie, and ask if she was okay. As she quietly reassured him that she'd be fine, Sorka couldn't help but notice the calculating frown that passed across Dave's face... well, that was interesting, but at least he was one person who could be counted on not to fly off in a jealous rage. She turned to Sean, wondering what had happened between the three men in the last few minutes.

"Faranth has filled me in on some of the details. Do I need to know anything else before we go in?''

"Aside from Otto and Pete earning themselves a day of bagging firestone? The holders aren't happy, and want answers.''

They continued down the dim passageway towards the meetings room, where Joel Lilienkamp met the small group at the entrance and ushered them inside. A few holders were already waiting in the far corner, and another half-dozen followed the riders into the room. Admiral Benden was already seated behind the single desk, and as the last delegates filed inside, Joel walked over to stand behind him. Usually, the room would be filled with chairs, but on this occasion they'd been left stacked behind a screen. Today, Sorka mused, it seemed the riders were very much the supplicants, rather than equals. Now that simply wouldn't do! She smiled a quick greeting at the Admiral and Joel, and reached out to Faranth.

Will you ask Carenath? He's not going to stand for it, is he?

Carenath says Sean says you should follow his lead. He says Porth has given you an opportunity to make up for yesterday.

The previous day's meeting with the Resources Committee had not gone well at all, and Sean had been fuming by the time they'd left. If he'd seen the same thing she had, a way in which to turn this situation to their advantage... Sorka gave Sean a quick look, and nodded her understanding.

I have told Carenath you had the same idea, and understand what Sean intends, Faranth said into her mind.

Let the others know too please, Faranth dearest.

Carenath has told them what to do.

Ignoring the somewhat furtive conversations occuring between the holders, Sean stepped forward to speak to Benden and Lili, taking control of the meeting straight away.

"Admiral, Joel, I understand you've been having some... disorder issues here in the Hold.''

"No thanks to you!'' someone interjected. Sorka looked round, to see who had spoken. Ah, that was Beryl Aughton, one of the more vocal women who worked in the hydroponics section.

Sean ignored her, and continued. "Clearly we have a few minor discipline issues to deal with as well. My riders may not start fights, but I do expect better of them than this, and I've seen to it that they'll been disciplined appropriately.'' He looked around the room to address the larger group. "So. Where did you want to begin?''

The holders all started to speak at once, voicing their demands for explanations.

"How dare you let your dragons behave like that!''

"You could have warned us!''

"What was going on?''

"Oh, we can all guess what was going on, can't we?''

"How am I expected to keep those lads in line?''

"My daughter wouldn't act like that!''

The holders' voices rapidly became raised in both pitch and volume, and soon any sense to what they were saying was lost. Dave quietly pulled three chairs off the stack, and brought them over for Sean and Sorka. He gestured for Tarrie to take the third, and returned to collect some more, Otto and Pete following. The second batch were offered to the Holder delegates, and by the time the whole room was seated, silence reigned once more. Paul Benden had been watching the proceedings silently, absently rubbing the fingers of his prosthetic hand. Sorka suspected that he'd be rather amused at how well Sean had learned from him, were it not for the circumstances. The Admiral folded his arms, and gave Sean a steady look.

"You can start by explaining what... no, whether what happened last
night is normal.''

"Normal?'' Beryl shrieked.

Joel glared at her, as Benden lifted a hand for silence, and continued.

"And, why neither your report, nor Wind Blossom's, covered this... aspect... of events.''

"I can hardly speak for Wind Blossom on this issue,'' Sean explained calmly. "In fact, I'm surprised she's not here to speak for herself. As for my report, what, exactly, did you expect me to write? You all have fire lizards looking to you, do you not?''

"That's a specious point, Sean, and you damn well know it.'' Joel said. "Regardless of what you dragonriders get up to amongst yourselves, we don't have the whole place in uproar every times someone's pet starts feeling frisky!''

"No, you don't.'' He sighed, and leaned back in his chair, determined to take as much time as he needed. "I take it these - delegates - have all been, ah, inconvenienced by Porth's flight?''

A confusion of muttering threatened to erupt once more, and again Benden raised his hand for silence.

Sean grunted. "And you want to know whether last night was normal. Normal! Right now, I have one rider with her marriage in tatters, and another who's done her very best to do right by her dragon, only to have her own family brawling over what is, quite frankly, none of their business.''

"And would you say what happened to my family is none of our business?'' a dark haired man interjected. Bryn Evans, Sorka noted, one of the hold's electricians.

"Sean...'' Tarrie began quietly. She looked across at the holders apologetically. "We didn't know. I'm sorry.''

Sorka could almost feel her hurt, but it wasn't right or fair that she should feel obliged to take responsibility like that. "You've nothing to apologise for,'' she said.

"No, she doesn't,'' Sean agreed. His voice held the cold tone of suppressed anger, enough that Sorka wouldn't be surprised if he leapt up and started pacing the room at any moment.

"You want to know what we get up to amongst ourselves? We fight thread. Now, next week, next year, and for however many generations it'll take to rid our skies of this plague for good! Right now, we have twenty three dragons. Twenty-three, to safeguard how many thousand acres, Lili? How many more, once you and the rest of the RC start approving those expansion plans?

"And don't think we haven't heard the talk that's been going round the hold since summer. 'What's wrong with the dragons?' 'Why aren't they breeding yet?' You want enough dragons to do the job properly? Well, they're damn well breeding now. And if that means we have to make sacrifices, we will do it.

Sean paused, allowing everything he'd said, and everything he'd left unsaid, to sink in to the listening minds. The dragonriders made sacrifices every day, and Sean certainly expected no less of the holders. When he started speaking again, it was in a far more conciliatory tone.

"We've done our damnedest to anticipate what's required of us, and to reconcile all of that with keeping both riders and dragons at full fighting strength. I know, we haven't got everything right, and a lot of this has caught us all by surprise. But all of this!'' he gestured expansively at the holders. "No, fire lizards don't have this kind of effect on people, and they emote far more broadly than dragons do. Usually. So yes, there were some omissions in my report, Admiral, but I doubt they'd have made a single bit of difference. We couldn't know,'' he insisted. "Chereth was the first queen to mate, but there was no one else within hundreds of miles, except for the other riders - and they had dragons involved.''

"Chereth's flight didn't go as well as it should have,'' Dave added. "We made mistakes there, and we've learned from it.''

"But at least we didn't rely on Wind Blossom's predictions,'' Sorka said. It was time to remind everyone that the resident expert was as much in the dark as the rest of them. "She didn't think we'd be dealing with anything like that at all.''

"Didn't look that way last night,'' Jake muttered uncharitably.

Had he really just implied what Sorka thought he had? A small flurry of laughter rippled across the room, and Sorka found herself pitying the scientist. It was likely that she wouldn't be able to live down whatever had happened for quite a while.

Sean diplomatically glossed over the hearsay. "As I said, we've all been caught out by this. Now. You've had your explanations. By all means blame the dragons for breaking down a few inhibitions, but don't think you can hold either them or my riders accountable for whatever you chose to do in that state. You, at least, had the luxury of choice.''

"That's all very well,'' Bryn said, "but why weren't we warned? I still say you owe us some apologies!''

"Yes, and some assurances that it won't happen again!''

"Hear, hear!''

Unfortunately, it seemed that not everyone was satisfied with the explanation they'd received. As most of the voices died down, one still remained.

"My daughter would never have acted like that,'' Beryl said sharply, and spat on the floor in Tarrie's direction. "It's your fault, you tart, you hussy, you...!''

Immediately, both Jake and Otto leapt to their feet and began speaking in Tarrie's defence, and Beryl hurriedly sat back down. The two men shared a confused glance, both seeming surprised to have shared some common ground with the other. Sorka tried to hide a smile. They weren't going to solve the problem this way, but it would probably help nudge the holders towards falling in with Sean's scheme.

"Tarrie. May I ask a few questions?'' the Admiral asked. "I know these can't be easy circumstances for you.''

"I've had better days,'' she replied.

"Were you... aware, of how strongly Porth was, ah, broadcasting?''

Tarrie shook her head. "She... she was overwhelming. Strong, yes, but I'd have said it was only between the two of us. I guess not.'' She smiled wryly, and looked to Sean and Sorka for support. "I think, maybe, it can't have helped that she was so close. To the hold. We know this region so well, and with the winds the way they were, it was only natural that she'd fly in this direction.'' She paused, and added one last thought. "At least she didn't rise from here!''

Sorka found herself stifling a smile. She didn't need to look out of the window to see where half a dozen pairs of eyes were looking right at that moment - at the three gold dragons sunning themselves on the peaks on the far side of the valley.

"No, thankfully,'' Sorka added. "We were lucky.'' She decided not to push the point any further; she imagined that Lili and Benden could already see what they were driving for. No, at this stage they could let the holders do the pushing.

"What about the other queens?'' the first voice asked on cue. "When will they rise? Will we get any warning?''

"They can't stay here! They just can't!''

"They have their own place, don't they? That crater-watchamacallit.''

Sean turned round on his chair to give the group an appeasing smile. "Of course, but it's not fully habitable yet. With limited resources, we do have to prioritise. The dragons' immediate needs come first, and that means a sustainable food supply, and now, somewhere for the queens to clutch. But we've years of work to do before it's fully habitable.'' He looked back over his shoulder at the Admiral and Joel. "Lili, do you still have the projections on hand from yesterday's RC meeting?''

Lili smiled harshly. Oh yes, he knew they were well and truly trapped now. Admiral Benden, however, had an easy twinkle in his eyes - as far as Sorka could tell, it seemed that he had no problem with the riders getting their way on this score.

"Years of work?'' one of the holders asked with a gasp. "We're going to have this to deal with for years?''

Benden sighed. "No, I think we can come up with a mutually satisfactory alternative. Sean, I think we might be able to manage a few adjustments to your stonecutter allocation, for a start.''

Sean raised an eyebrow. "There are still no guarantees, you know, when a queen flies. Simply too many random factors.''

"We do have some... options,'' Tarrie said quietly, and glanced between Sean and Otto. "If I'd known, we could have tried to fly another way. It might work.''

Sorka thought she understood. So, she did have a choice, of sorts. Otto looked challengingly back at Tarrie with a smile, and her face flushed slightly. Oh, there was more going on there than she'd thought, Sorka realised. She remembered Tarrie's earlier comment, about making mistakes, and wondered if she'd ever know the full story.

The Admiral nodded his head, and thanked her, before turning to the hold delgates. "I don't know that there's anything more they can offer.''

"An apology?'' Beryl suggested.

Benden's disapproval was obvious, and Sean grunted disparagingly.

"I'll apologise to Jake, but not to anyone else. Truce?'' Otto said, offering the other man his hand. "It was wrong of me to rub your nose in it. Sorry.''

Jake gave him a look of undisguised hate. "Apology accepted. After all, it's not like...''

Tarrie leaned over and stretched out a hand to her brother, giving him a warning look. "We'll talk, later.''

"The only solution is to get that Weyr running as soon as possible. That's the best we can ask, isn't it?'' Bryn said.

Sorka listened as the delegates reinforced their demands to get the riders out of the hold, and Sean made obvious efforts to appear to bend over backwards for them. By the time they were through, it wouldn't just be stonecutters that the dragonriders had priority for. She wondered how many more times the riders would have to go through these ordeals, how long it would be before both riders and holders could accept what living in close proximity with dragons meant for humankind. The riders would get through this, in time, even Alianne. They might end up alienated from the rest of the population in the process, but at least they'd be unified.

Last edited by Kath; Mar 4 2007 at 07:43 AM.
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Old Mar 18 2007, 04:28 PM   #16
Kath
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Join Date: Nov 2004
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Chapter 16: From dreams to reality

For the second time that month, Tarrie foundherself hurrying towards Fort Hold's infirmary weyr, a noxious bucket banging against her leg with every stride. Her haste on this occasion was nothing to do with Porth, and everything to do with the inescapably foul odour emanating from within the sealed container. That, and also the torrential rain, which was doing a damned good job of drenching her to the skin, and yet somehow failing to mask the smell of fewmets by a single bit.

I told you this was a silly idea. I'm perfectly fine.

Deciding that she couldn't get any wetter, Tarrie looked back over her shoulder towards Porth. Her queen was languorously sprawled out at the entrance to their weyr, watching the sheets of falling rain create patterns in the heavy grey sky. Over the years, Porth had developed a fascination with the weather to match her own, but Tarrie had never been able to figure out if it was a genuine interest born from Porth's character, or simply because their minds were so closely woven together. When she truly thought about it, Tarrie suspected that some of the changes in her own character were due to more than just the natural influences of age and maturity. If anything had rubbed off on her, it was Porth's bold pragmatism, her confidence in living in the now without worrying about the future. But Porth, too, was maturing. Wanting her rider to be as happy as possible, she seemed to have developed a few ideas over the last few weeks about how that happiness was best achieved. Well, the understanding between the dragons and their riders wasn't totally perfect.... Tarrie had ignored those few gentle, unspoken nudges of encouragement as best she could.

Perhaps she was just reflecting Porth's own confidence, Tarrie thought, as she found herself agreeing with her dragon.

I know, dearest, and I think you're right. But Wind Blossom wants to be sure. You dragons are so much bigger than the little dragonets, and aside from Kitti Ping's original projections, we've no idea how your eggs will develop.


Kitti Ping. She was Wind Blossom's mother, wasn't she? I would have liked to meet her.

Porth paused, while Tarrie carefully negotiated the slippery half-dozen steps on the path ahead. The dragon's next thought was one that Tarrie had never heard from her before.

I don't have a mother.

Tarrie couldn't help but smile at Porth's tone. Her impending motherhood would be quite a big step for the dragon, and perhaps she wasn't quite so confident about the future after all.

No, I suppose you don't. Bay's little Mariah might be the closest you dragons have, but from what Sorka's told me, Kitti really re-wrote your entire genome.

It was a pity that the old lady hadn't survived to see her creations hatch, but Wind Blossom had shown no hesitation in taking up her mother's mantle, and doing everything necessary to ensure that those first eggs hatched. Now, with a new generation of dragons on the way, she had thrown herself back into the work, running model after model late into the night, producing revised projections on growth rates, nutrient uptakes, and a whole host of other things that Sorka and Sean no doubt understood perfectly, but which went right over Tarrie's head. The colonists owed so much to Kitti and her daughter, as reclusive and obnoxious as the latter had become. She was still human, and cared deeply for her mother's creations, and her own.

"Hey, Tarrie, let me take that!''

Tarrie looked up, and squinted through the rain. David Caterel was striding through the downpour towards her, a large umbrella held overhead.

"Are you sure?'' she asked with a smile. If she'd had the choice, she wouldn't have got within half a mile of her burden.

Dave grimaced as he got close enough for his nose to detect the smell, and traded her the bucket for his umbrella. "Ugh... what've you been feeding her?''

"Wherries, mostly,'' Tarrie said matter-of-factly.

"And what had they been eating I wonder? Damn, but I pity poor Sita Radamanth, having to run the analyses on these.''

Tarrie chuckled. "Didn't you hear? Phas got fed up of her attitude. I think this is some kind of punishment for her.''

Dave rolled his eyes. "Ha. Well, knowing her, she probably earned it. You'd better head on in - they're still setting up the equipment in there. Plenty of time for me to deliver this, and not miss anything important.''

"Sure.''

Following Dave's suggestion, Tarrie walked over to join the small crowd of people sheltering beneath the rocky overhang beside the entrance to the dragon infirmary. Peering inside, she shook the rain off Dave's umbrella. Chereth was blocking her view of the interior, but she could recognise a few voices: Sean's, Otto's, Alianne's... Sorka and Wind Blossom would probably be inside as well. Curious, Tarrie turned towards Pol, and waited for him to finish lecturing the two teenage lads who were considering careers in biology.

"...but like any organism, things can very easily become unbalanced under certain circumstances.'' Pol smiled warmly at Tarrie, and scratched at his beard. "Ah, Tarrie! I was just explaining to these two why you and the others have been lugging those dreadful buckets around for the last few weeks. I must say, I'm glad Dave stopped you bringing it over here.''

"So am I,'' Tarrie drawled. "Any idea how much longer we'll need to keep collecting it?'' Honestly, both she and Porth were getting fed up of the inconvenience, and she knew that Alianne, Nyassa and Nora felt much the same way. She'd forgotten until now how unpleasant that aspect of weyrling life had been, until they'd figured out that the dragons could relieve themselves between.

"Well, I may have some good news for you then,'' Pol said, a conspiratorial gleam in his eye. "Porth's nutrient uptake is exactly on-track, and she seems to be getting everything she needs from her normal diet. So long as this batch doesn't throw up any surprises, it'll be the last one.''

Porth, did you hear that?


The dragon's relief was quite obvious. I could have told them that from the start. I said it was...

I know, I know, it was a silly idea.

Tarrie herself was equally relieved by Pol's news. "Oh, you've no idea how good it is to hear you say that!'' She twisted her head to peer inside again, as all the earlier voices seemed to have stopped speaking. "They've gone quiet, haven't they?''

"Probably for a good reason,'' Pol said, reaching into his shirt pocket to pull out a pair of glasses. Only the most essential surgery was carried out in the hold these days, and low-tech alternatives like reading glasses were becoming increasingly common amongst the older colonists. "Shall we sneak in and see what's going on?'' he asked.

"Why not?''

Followed by the two students, Tarrie and Pol stepped over Chereth's twitching tail and entered the large cave. It was far brighter inside than it had been outdoors; extra glow-baskets had been brought down to light the large space, and were suspended at regular intervals from hooks on the ceiling. The infirmary weyr was easily large enough to hold two fully grown gold dragons, but with the number of people milling around Chereth the room felt quite crowded, and Tarrie was glad that Porth would be waiting her turn. There were more people here than she'd expected. Wind Blossom was with Sorka and Alianne, running her hands over Chereth's slightly distended belly, watched by Bay and the rest of the xeno team, and half the vets. A cargo-net had been strapped into place around the dragon's body, holding various sensors in position. Several thick cables led away from the net towards the alcove which usually held camp-beds for the riders of injured dragons, but now was filled with a large table, visibly sagging beneath the weight of various boxes and pieces of equipment. A second group of people, including Sean, Basil Tomlinson, Samuel and even Admiral Benden, were clustered around the table in silence, all eyes intent on the monitor screen.

"What's happening?'' Pol asked, sounding worried. "Technical hitch?''

From beneath the table, a familiar and rather annoyed voice answered him.

"For the last time, it WILL work, as soon as I can find an OFTU connector that didn't stop working sometime before the crossing,'' Otto said with a sigh.

Tarrie smothered a grin, and wandered over to join the group. She didn't have the faintest idea what an OFTU connector was, but Otto had been unbearably smug about his boot-strapped creation all week. He'd get it working soon enough, she was sure.

"There. See anything?''

Sean sat down in the single chair in front of the computer unit, tapped at the keyboard, and frowned. "Is the power supply still connected?''

Otto groaned, and noisily began extracting himself from beneath the table. "****, don't tell me I dislodged it? Damn.'' Half-way out, he paused, and a soft click followed a few seconds later. "Give it a few minutes to reset itself.'' He clambered to his feet, and moved round to take Sean's place in the chair.

Quiet conversations resumed as the minutes passed by, and from her spot by the wall, Tarrie absently listened in on Basil and Pol's discussion of sensor placements. Assuming Otto's adaptions did work okay, it'd be Porth's turn soon enough - and Tarrie could already guess what the dragon's reaction would be. The thought had barely crossed Tarrie's mind when her dragon gave a mental snort. Porth, too, had been paying close attention to the proceedings.

I wasn't sure, at first, but Chereth tells me they seem to know what they're doing.

I don't think she'd have let them get anywhere near her if they didn't, Tarrie answered, smiling. Maybe they could turn the screen around at some point, so the dragons could see too?

I'd like that. You should ask, later.

Tarrie turned her attention back to the modified scanner and the surrounding crowd just in time to hear Otto announce his success.

"I think... yeah, I think I've got something.''

"Good work,'' Sean said, slapping him on the back. "Wind Blossom? Did you want to take control now, or leave this to Basil?''

"I'll defer to his greater experience, I think,'' she said graciously, and turned her back to resume her inspection of Chereth. She raised her voice to add a final, imperious comment. "Do call me over when you have something worth viewing though.''

The group rearranged itself as Basil settled himself into the now vacant seat, and began tapping on keys. Every now and then he called out instructions to Bay and Alianne, standing on either side of the sensor net. Tarrie could just about make out one corner of the screen, if she stood on tiptoes, but Sean, Pol and Otto were doing a very good job of blocking the rest of it from her view. She looked around, and decided that no one else was any better off.

"Alianne, Blossom, would you like to come and see how Chereth's doing?'' Basil said eventually. "And Dave too, if he's back.''

Alianne gave Chereth a loving caress on her headknobs, and smiled enthusiastically at Tarrie as she walked over. "Can you see the eggs?'' she asked Basil.

"Oh, yes,'' the doctor said.

Admiral Benden turned to her, a twinkle in his eye. "I can hear Sean counting under his breath. I expect they can see them very well indeed.''

Otto and Pol stepped back to let Alianne and Wind Blossom through, while Sean continued to stare at the screen. "How many did you make it, Basil?''

"Nine, I think.'' He gestured for Alianne to take his seat, and quickly went over the controls with Wind Blossom.

Wind Blossom nodded once, and began to competently adjust the display. Tarrie could feel tears growing in the corners of her eyes as she watched Alianne's face transform. The woman seemed almost awestruck by what she was seeing, and she lifted a hand to touch the screen in wonder.

"I make it nine, too,'' Sean said, as Dave reappeared and pushed his way through the crowd.

"I concur,'' Wind Blossom agreed. "I've saved a few frames for later analysis, but if the scaling is accurate, most of the eggs appear to be developing normally.''

"Most?'' Sean queried, worried. "The smaller eggs... the blues and greens, surely they're meant to have smaller eggs?''

"Hmm. Perhaps,'' the scientist answered.

"Of course!'' Bay called out from beside Chereth, seeing Alianne's discomfort with Wind Blossom's uncertain tone. "And they'll hatch fine, mark my words''

She walked over to join the group, which had erupted into half a dozen different discussions - whether heartbeats ought to be detectable, the size variations, and more esoteric things like projected shell density and developmental morphology. Tarrie was glad that no one seemed overly surprised or concerned by what they were viewing, and eventually she got her own chance to sit at the display and view the saved images. Several roundish grey shapes were visible at any one time, some twice as big as her head, and others larger still. What would Porth's eggs look like, she mused.

"Tarrie? Would you call Porth in now?''

Tarrie looked up at Sorka - they'd finished removing the last of the sensors from Chereth, and Alianne was ushering her dragon out of the cave.

"Sure.''

Your turn now, dear,
Tarrie informed her dragon. As she waited for Porth to glide down towards land, Wind Blossom returned to take another look at the images.

"I'd hoped for more,'' she said coldly.

The riders exchanged glances. Thinking about it, Sean had also seemed a little reticent, Tarrie decided.

"Well, let's just see what Porth's scan shows,'' Dave said reassuringly. "Judging by Milath's and Tenneth's flights as well, Chereth's flight was the exception, not the norm.''

"Agreed,'' Sean said with a sigh.

A scrabbling of claws on stone announced Porth's arrival. Shaking her wings free of the rain, she paced into the cave, and inspected the devices that would soon be attached to various parts of her anatomy.

I'm ready, Tarrie.


Getting everything in place took longer than Tarrie had expected. Despite her dragon's agreement to the whole process, she was rather reluctant about a few of the sensors.

Are you sure we need all of them?

I don't think it'll work without them, Tarrie reassured Porth. Smiling, and knowing the gold couldn't see her face from where she was standing, Tarrie let a hint of how patient Chereth had been slip through her mind, and the dragon rapidly acquiesced. Once everything was properly in place and double-checked by Bay, they waited once again for Basil to tune in the detector, Tarrie moving up to take her place beside Porth's head. Remembering Porth's earlier request, Tarrie called out and asked him to turn the screen for her dragon when he was ready. As Basil worked, she watched Otto and Sean staring at the screen, both of them counting this time, and broad grins growing on both faces. Behind them, even Wind Blossom looked pleased. Had Porth outdone Chereth? Picking up a stylus, Basil scribbled something on a flimsy and showed it to Sean.

"That's my count - I don't want to spoil Tarrie's surprise.''

Otto swung the monitor around so that both Tarrie and Porth could see the display, and Basil hit the replay button. Watching the screen and feeling Porth's confident, queenly presence in her mind, Tarrie was so stunned that she forgot to count herself.

"How many were there?'' she whispered when the display darkened once more.

Sean laughed, clearly elated. "Twenty-two!''

Tarrie shook her head, still not quite believing what she was hearing, or what she'd seen. "Are you sure?''

"Quite sure,'' Sorka said, coming round to offer her a warm hug. "Congratulations, Porth.''

Eyes whirling blue-green, Porth had the final word.

I did tell you. I'm perfectly fine.
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Old May 13 2007, 05:26 PM   #17
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Chapter 17: Steam and Sand

Lying in a dark, wet trench was definitely not Pete's idea of a good way to spend the day. Especially when he wasn't simply lying there, but had been working solidly since the dawn. Wielding a stonecutter was a hard job at the best of times - they were heavy instruments, and the noise was pretty deafening even when wearing muffling ear-defenders - but doing so prone, blinded by the rock-dust that the constant spray of water couldn't quite keep down, and drenched by the same icy water as it ran back to the collecting cistern, really didn't improve the job at all.

For about the twentieth time that day, Pete swore to himself that he'd never, ever piss off Sean or the Admiral ever again.

On the plus side, this phase of construction was very nearly finished, despite the long delays in getting things started. The floor of the large cavern that was to be used for the Queens' clutches was now neatly criss-crossed with row upon row of deep trenches. Teams of workers were already sealing off the drainage gutters at the bottom of the completed channels; the next job would be to shift the large slabs of stone from their stack out in the bowl into place above the trenches, and then to seal the whole system with instacrete, except for the necessary access hatches. Telgar's geothermal tap was already supplying plentiful amounts of energy to the heat exchange unit installed within the main cavern, and over a klick of pipework had been buried in several different paths snaking across the weyrbowl. Two more units would be connected up later today, and one would soon be boiling up as much steam as the hypocaust system needed. The only thing left to do after that would be to coat the floor of the cavern with who knew how many tonnes of soft sand... and hope that the job met with the Queens' satisfaction!

An abrupt easing of the pressure on Pete's arms, and an increase in pitch of the stonecutter's whine, told him that his last cut of the day was finally done. Relieved, he fumbled for the off switch, and hauled his aching body upright. As the dust settled, someone gradually turned down the cool spray of water, and Pete slowly found himself able to see across the floodlit cavern once again. The whole place was a hive of activity, and somewhere out there were Catherine and Nick, who, together with Sonja Ostrovsky, were nominal overseers of the construction work.

As Pete glanced around the cave, a hand reached down to tug off his ear defenders; he twisted his head round to see Jake tossing them to his younger brother Peter, standing beside the hydraulic lifter.

"What did you do that for?'' Pete asked, feeling a little irritated.

Jake grinned. "I said, did you want your Klah before or after we get the last block shifted?''

Ah. Well, it probably had been the best way to grab his attention. Klah was a tempting thought, but the way his muscles were feeling, Pete didn't think he'd be able to drag himself back in here again afterwards. He shook his head.

"No, lets get this finished. Just getting out of this miserable hole will be enough for now!''

Bracing his arms against the chest-level cavern floor, Pete tried to push himself out of the trench, with limited success. Laughing at his predicament, his two fellow 'volunteers' rapidly came to his rescue nonetheless, and a grateful Pete soon found himself back on dry ground.

"Thanks. Hey, did you, ah, need any help with attaching the grapples?'' he asked the brothers, desperately hoping that they didn't.

Peter raised an eyebrow, and looked across at Jake. "I don't think he's capable of doing anything right now, do you?''

"Nah. Break-time for you, dragonrider,''

Pete smiled, relieved. "Thanks.''

"Besides, you'd only drop that lump of rock on someone's toes if we let you help,'' Jake added, "so don't think we're letting you off just out of the goodness of our hearts!''

What could he possibly say to that? Pete rolled his eyes and gingerly walked away, leaving the lads to continue strapping ropes to the last block of stone. It was quite incredible, the amount of material that had come out of the cavern, and was now piled in large stacks in the Weyrbowl. First there'd been the second phase of blasting, creating a high-level access for dragons on the wing, slanted to let the air in but keep the weather out... and also some linking passageways which would eventually lead from the hatching cavern into other parts of the Weyr. Then, there were all the many large, squarish blocks excavated during the construction of the hypocaust. Some of the stone would be used for exterior buildings: stabling for the livestock and quarters for the young dragons before they were
capable of flying on their own. A lot of it was making its way back into the cave again already in the form of smooth slabs, to cover up the newly-made steam trenches. The rest was set aside for building a tiered seating area along one wall of the cavern.

On that side of the cave, a large patch of the cavern floor was raised a couple of metres higher than the rest, in a natural dais, making it an obvious viewing platform. And, as it wouldn't be disturbed by the construction of the hypocaust, it was also the ideal spot for Chereth to lay her eggs. It still needed heating, of course, and that was the problem which had occupied most of Cath and Nick's attention over the last few days. The giant electric blanket which had been used to heat the sands beneath the first engineered clutches had developed a few faults, and every scrap of its sandy covering had had to be shifted back out into the weyrbowl before the repairs could be made. And then it had rained for three days straight, drenching the sand pile from top to bottom... hardly ideal for dragon eggs.

Skirting the edge of the cave to avoid having to jump over all the trenches, Pete slowly made his way towards one of the ladders giving access to the dais. Several cables trailed over the edge and snaked their way out of the cavern and up to the wind turbines on the Weyr ridge: most were for the blanket, but a couple of others were powering two large space-heaters, which would hopefully dry out the sand well before Chereth actually needed it. The space heaters had been a lucky find, deep inside one of the caves used for calving livestock. Twisting Porrig Connell's arm into lending them to the dragonriders for the winter had been left to Sean, of course!

As for the rest of the grounds, well, they'd be completed piece by piece, just covering enough ground to keep the queens happy. Hopefully part of the hypocaust would be up and running in time for Porth to clutch - Pete didn't imagine that she'd easily share the dais with Chereth - but it'd certainly be ready when Tenneth clutched Gilgath's eggs.

Even if I have to haul rocks myself, Gilgath quietly commented into Pete's mind, mental voice still full of pride.

Don't you worry - I'll work all night if I have to!

Then Polenth's rider should have been working last night. Chereth is on her way here right now.

She is? Damn, I'm not sure if we're even
ready for her yet!

News travelled fast between dragons and riders. As Pete clambered up the ladder, Catherine's voice shrilly called out for more help.

"All hands to the shovels! Chereth'll be here in minutes, and we need the last of the sand spread out now!''

Grimacing, Pete found a shovel pressed into his hands the moment he reached the top of the ladder. Ignoring the pains running the length of his arms and back, he set to work shifting the driest sand to wherever Catherine indicated it was most needed, while Gilgath tried to distract him from his discomfort with a running commentary on the growing excitement outside.

Chereth is here! She glides down, but does not answer us. She is thinking about clutching very soon. Our food was being moved, and now they scatter, thinking Chereth will eat them.

Oh, we can hear the cows in here. Wondered what had set them off.

She has landed, but walking is awkward. I think she wishes to move faster than she can. Do you see her yet?


Leaning on his shovel, Pete looked round, and saw a growing shadow near the cavern entrance. Alianne appeared first, with Chereth waddling close
behind, whirling eyes flickering between blue and red. As he watched, Catherine leapt off the dais, and ran to greet the anxious pair.

"We're all set for you, and ready to make whatever alterations she needs,'' Catherine said.

Alianne smiled, and gave her a hug. "Thanks... we knew you'd manage it.'' She turned to her dragon, and gave Chereth a loving caress on the headknobs. "Your sands await you, love. Go on up, and make yourself comfortable.''

Workers scattered as Chereth lumbered towards them at impressive speed. The gold dragon hauled herself up onto the raised sandy bed and gave a loud bellow, twisting her head to watch until the last person had left her sands. Pete followed Catherine and Nick's examples, and decided not to bother with the ladder on the way back down.

"Guess she doesn't want any disturbances,'' Nick mused as Pete joined him. Together, they walked towards Catherine and Alianne.

"Well, it's a good thing she missed all the noise we had earlier. We only finished the stone cutting a few minutes ago. Chereth was pretty lucky.''

"You think so?'' Nick grinned cheekily, and greeted his wife with a wink.

Watching the exchange, Alianne sighed. "Catherine had Siglath call us the moment you stopped working. I don't think she could have waited much longer in any case, but she really didn't want to clutch with all of that racket going on.''

Looking indulgently towards Chereth, she suddenly frowned. The gold queen had dipped her muzzle towards the sand, and was intently nosing it around. "Chereth says the sand is still too damp in places.''

Catherine shrugged. "Over there, it still might be. Will she mind if I go up with you? I think I know which areas will suit her right now, or we could just shift the heaters if she prefers.''

The two women returned to the ladders, and were soon dodging out of Chereth's way as she circled like a cat, scuffing sand this way and that until she'd found whatever she'd been looking for. Abruptly, Chereth spun round once more, arched her lower back, and with a wuffling exhalation did something, sending muscles rippling across her body.

Was that the first egg? Pete, along with nearly everyone else in the cavern, rushed round to see if he could get a better view. Up on the dais, Alianne ducked beneath Chereth's half out-stretched wings, and disappeared behind her dragon's bulk.

"Well?'' someone shouted.

"Let me see, dearest,'' Alianne's voice could be heard quietly.

The silence lingered, and Pete considered asking Gilgath if he knew any more... but then Alianne reappeared, smiling as widely as anyone could.

"She's done it! She's laid our first egg!''

Cheers erupted across the cavern, and Pete found himself jumping around arm in arm with Tarrie's brothers. Chereth shifted and began to nose the sand again, and he got his first glimpse of the egg. It was a pale milky orange, with abstract whorls of yellow and white patterning its surface. Curious, he wasn't the only person to start moving forwards for a closer look... to be met with Chereth's angry hiss.

"Okay, give her some room, people,'' Catherine called out, and hopped back down to ground level.

"She just needs some quiet, please,'' said Alianne.

Catherine looked back, and shook her head. "We'll get right out, I think. Sorka and Sean are flying here straight, and I've just been asked to retrieve Wind Blossom and a few others.'' She looked across at Pete. "I'll need your help ferrying people around, if Gilgath doesn't mind.''

Pete shook his head. He wouldn't only be transporting a few people that afternoon, but Alianne didn't need to know about the party just yet. "No problem,'' he said, grinning at Alianne. "You look after Chereth, let us know how she does, and we'll keep the crowds entertained in the big cavern for as long as you need.''


~*~*~


The atmosphere during the first few hours of waiting had been almost party-like, despite the absence of the main celebrants. Chereth laid seven eggs at fairly regular intervals, and the news was met with cheers, songs, and toasts to the dragons and their riders. Sitting at a bench with a sobering mug of Klah in his hands, Pete tried to muster up a little more enthusiasm.

Over the last hour and a half though, things had become a lot more subdued. Eggs eight and nine had failed to materialise on schedule, and Chereth had apparently shown no signs that they'd arrive any time soon. What with Wind Blossom's insistence that Chereth should have laid them, Alianne's concern, and Chereth's determination that she'd finished laying, the poor dragon had begun to become flustered and confused. Polenth, along with almost every other dragon, was perched miserably up on the heights in the rain.

"Hey, Pete.''

Pete looked up to see Alianne's sister Yashma bearing a tray of fresh Klah.

"Thanks, but I'm oka... Yashma, are you alright?''

The cook's eyes were moist with unshed tears, but she pursed her lips in a firm smile. "Be a good lad and take these over to them, for me. And come straight back and tell me how dear Chereth's doing.''

Pete could scarcely refuse such a request, and stood up to take Yashma's tray. "Of course I will.''

He made his way out into the darkening bowl, feet crunching over the hailstones that had fallen earlier. It was getting pretty cold, and the Klah would be welcome over in the hatching caverns - more for its stimulant properties than anything else, with the heaters still running full-blast. As Pete entered the cave, the first person he saw was Red, sluicing himself off beside a bucket, and speaking to Sean and Sorka. Alianne was with Sam and Basil up beside Chereth on the dais, and the final group was made up of David, Wind Blossom and the rest of the dragon-project Xenologists.

Sean broke off whatever he'd been saying, and strode over to take the tray from Pete's hands and place it on the ground. Standing up again, he took one look at Pete's face, and smiled broadly.

"Don't look so worried, man, Chereth'll be fine!'' He scowled slightly, and added, "but she'd be better if we'd spent more time listening to her from the start.''

Pete almost felt like collapsing with relief, and quickly passed the news back to Gilgath. The tension of the last hours had been unbearable for everyone.

"So she's not egg-bound? Has she laid the last two?''

"No, and no,'' Sorka said. "She finished laying hours ago. Sean and I checked her over, and Da's just confirmed that again, at Blossom's insistence. There may have been nine several weeks back, but there are seven now, and that'll do fine''

Sean shook his head, and sighed. "As if we haven't told them time after time, we know our own dragons. She trusts you though, so if you ask her nicely, Chereth may let you up to take a closer look.''

Pete retrieved the tray, less three mugs, and cautiously approached Chereth and Alianne. The gold dragon was curled up protectively on a mound of sand, still eying every movement in the cavern. Alianne, smiling wistfully, was deep in conversation with Basil, and Pete waited for her to finish rather than interrupting.

"...know the odds as well as anyone, Sam and I. So does Chereth. She's okay, and that's all that matters to me, and she's got seven fine eggs to take care of. Oh, Pete! Is that Klah?''

"With Yashma's complements.''

Alianne took a mug, and passed another back to Sam. "Thanks. Chereth
will let you take a look, if you want.''

Pete looked over at the gold queen, and she slowly lifted her neck off the sands. Several large shapes of different colours were revealed, some decorated with swirls and others with blotches. The largest was a bit larger than his torso at its longest, and the smallest about twice the size of his head.

"Wind Blossom is still sure that the smaller ones will hatch greens or blues. Chereth and I hope she's right. "

"Hello up there! Do I smell Klah?''

Alianne turned back to greet Dave, half-way up the ladder. "I was just telling Pete what Wind Blossom says about the smaller eggs. Shall we let Lili know too? He's bound to have a book open already on which egg'll hatch what, even back at the Fort.''

Dave laughed, and shook his head. "He's got his own sources. But he's not at the Fort, you know.''

Pete grinned impishly. "He's right here. There's a clutching celebration party waiting for you in the main cavern.''

Alianne appeared quite shocked, and lifted a hand to her mouth. "Really? I haven't heard a thing, but I guess Chereth and I have been a little busy!''

"Well, you didn't think we'd be allowed to laze around doing nothing this afternoon, did you?'' Pete asked.

Sam snorted a laugh, and Dave quietly shook his head. After the briefest of pauses, Alianne laughed too. "We have kept you busy as well today, haven't we? You guys go ahead then. Sam and I will be with you as soon as Chereth's settled... but if there isn't a bottle of Rene's sparkling white waiting on ice for me by the time we get there, mark my words, there'll be trouble!''

Pete whistled through his teeth, and shook his head with a smile. Not many bottles of the pre-crossing wines were left in the stores, and Mallibeau was quite desperate to find some decent land to get his business started again. But Nyassa knew Alianne's preferences well enough, and had managed to get hold of a bottle a few weeks ago. Still, there was no need to make it too obvious!

"I'll see what I can do,'' he said with a chuckle.

Pete's smile stayed on his face all the way back across the bowl. Alianne had seemed more herself in the last few minutes than she had done since the day Chereth rose, and he was very glad that things seemed to be working out for her again. In fact, everything was going alright, for once.

Tonight had the makings of a damn good party.
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Old Jun 3 2007, 05:05 PM   #18
Kath
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Chapter 18: The Right Stuff

Ignoring the inventive cursing emanating from several aisles away, Sorka closed her eyes and concentrated on the smell of growing plants, and the feel of the humid air on her skin. Tomato plants made up the bulk of the aroma where she was standing, but there were subtler overtones as well: the lavender bush on the corner, a local tuber, and some kind of mint. Quite different, really, to the herbal smell that had filled the gardens of the Yokohama on the first day she'd met Sean, but the memories came flooding back nonetheless. It was remarkable how smells could do that, far more easily than sights or sounds.

She hadn't had reason to visit the 'ponics rooms of the Hold since the first weeks after the second crossing when everything was being installed, and the place had changed immeasurably. Seeds and seedlings had grown and flourished, transforming a natural dark cave into a bright and living near-jungle. Well, perhaps not so bright... right now, nearly half of the banks of lights filling the room were malfunctioning and, according to Mar Dook, failures like these were all too common. Yesterday it had been a feed-line, last week the air filters, and before that- well, Sorka had had to interrupt at that point. She had an appointment with Joel later that afternoon, and wanted to try speaking to a few other people before then. Sorka could understand why he was so worried. This single cave held so many hopes for the agronomists, and provided the backbone of the Hold's nutrition. She'd tried to reassure Mar that with the growing dragon population he'd soon be able to put all those worries aside, but the man was too smart to be easily swayed. He knew just as well as she did that if his two senior technicians Impressed, his problems would get worse, not better.

"Yes!''

At the sound of Saul Mott's yell of success, Sorka opened her eyes. One by one, the darkened lights were flickering back into life across the room. By the time the last one had resumed its usual steady yellow glow, the three men were nearly back to her again, leaves rustling in their wake. Grinning broadly, Mar Dook gestured for Lucas to stow the tool box he was bearing under a rather familiar looking table, and shook his greying head.

"Sorry about that Sorka, but the plants take precedence.''

"I quite understand. You've fixed the problem?''

Dook continued shaking his head, his earlier smile fading into a face of such pitiable sadness that Sorka almost felt guilty for continuing to pester the man.

"Temporarily, but it'll hold until we can cobble a few replacement parts together. You must understand how stretched we are down here. I simply can't spare either Saul or Lucas right now, or indeed in the foreseeable future.''

Sorka kept her expression neutral, glad that he hadn't used the phrase 'essential personnel' yet; she'd had enough of that excuse today to last her a lifetime. But if anyone was essential, the two men in question were the closest to that description that she'd seen all day. Essential in their current jobs, yes, but they'd be even more so as dragonriders.

"I realise that, but there are so few people left from Kitti Ping's list, and we're going to have a lot of young dragons on our hands very soon now.''

Saul stepped forward. "What about the younger staff? I remember what most of Kitti's criteria were, and I reckon a few of the lads might suit. Some of the girls too, of course.''

Sorka certainly hadn't forgotten about them, and made a mental note to compare names with Saul later. But it was the original candidates she needed most, the ones whom Kitti had chosen, with all of the experience needed to become a fighting dragonrider and less of the recklessness of youth. She decided to make one last attempt at changing Mar's mind, and suggested a compromise.

"It's likely that we'll be interviewing some of them as well, but we really need experienced riders for the first new clutches, and preferbaly people who've been candidates before and know what to expect. Mar, what if just one of them stands as a candidate?''

The wiry agronomist gave her a slow stare, and shrugged. "You'll just get Lili down here to requisition them if I say no, won't you?''

Sorka blinked, surprised. Dook knew about her meeting with Joel, but she hadn't thought he'd draw that kind of conclusion from it. If Sorka had a tenth that much influence, life for the dragonriders would be a lot easier! "Mar, I...''

"Just the one then, and just for the one hatching. That's my final word. And only if they're happy with it.'' He turned his stare onto his two prized workers. "Mott, Trury, make your decisions quickly and then get back to me in the control room. We've got enough work for five of us to get on with, and don't think you can disappear off to the Weyr until it's done.''

"Thank you, Mar,'' Sorka said with a genuine smile as the two younger men began talking amongst themselves. "You'll have them both for at least another week before the hatching, maybe longer. I'll make sure that you're kept fully informed.''

"Yes. Well. I'll just keep hoping that I get them both back afterwards,'' Mar said, and wandered off down the aisle muttering to himself.

Sorka waited patiently for Lucas and Saul to finish discussing things. Eventually, Lucas turned to her, with a barely constrained look of excitement on his face.

"Sorka, um, we'd both like to try and Impress one more time. I don't know, should we draw lots? Or should we let you decide?''

There was definitely a difference between those who'd been candidates, and those who hadn't. Both Saul and Lucas had been there on the day that Sorka had Impressed Faranth, and had also been present at the second southern hatching. They'd seen the wonder and amazement of Impression, and knew enough to want the same joy for themselves. Not everyone on Kitti's list still felt that way, of course, but Sorka didn't want those who did to miss out on another opportunity, especially not when they were needed so badly. But which of the two men should be chosen? Both were happily married, and there might be problems there. But Lucas Trury was the younger by five years, and Sorka remembered Sean's surprise that he hadn't Impressed the last time. Small reasons to change someone's life, but it was the best she had.

"I'll decide, if that's fine with both of you,'' she said, and continued as they both nodded their assent. "This isn't an easy choice, believe me. But Saul, I think Mar needs you more than Lucas, and I think we might need him more than you. But I'd have both of you as candidates if I possibly could.''

Saul sighed, and slapped his colleague on the back. "Prob'ly for the best. Well done, mate.''

"Th-thanks, Sorka,'' Lucas stuttered, clearly glad of his luck.

Sorka, confident then that she'd made the right choice, explained to the young man when he'd be expected to attend pre-hatching evening classes along with the rest of the candidates. But as she left them to their work, she couldn't help but feel that she'd failed. Both of them should be present at Chereth's hatching, not just Lucas. But one was better than none... all Sorka needed now was another few dozen or so like him.

Some sixty young people had made up Kitti's original list, all of them aged between eighteen and thirty. Twenty-four had successfully Impressed dragons, and except for poor Marco, all of them had survived the last few years. The same couldn't be said of the thirty-six who hadn't Impressed; eight of them had died since the first hatching. Young Willem de Poer was the most recent loss, killed on groundcrew duty during 'fall, barely even a month ago. That left less than half of Kitti's list, and nine of those were now well into their thirties, living settled lives in the Hold. Sorka would've considered some of them, but Wind Blossom had convinced her that they wouldn't have the flexibility of mind that a young hatchling dragon needed.

Of the nineteen remaining, eleven had refused or were unable to stand as candidates. Well, at least it was only eleven now, rather than twelve. Some of them had perfectly understandable reasons for declining the invitation: Maren Jorgensen-Duff was a new mother of triplets, and Ciara Brennan had finished qualifying as a doctor last year. Mark Radelin would have leapt at the chance to try again... but he wasn't leaping anywhere these days, on only one leg. Lee Wang was now firmly ensconced among the dolphineers, and was simply no longer interested in becoming a dragon rider. But the rest... well, Sorka had hoped they'd decide differently.

That left eight. Eight of the original candidates, for Chereth's seven eggs, with Porth's clutch due to appear any day now, and Milath's and Tenneth's sometime not long after that. There simply weren't enough.

"Well?''

With a start, Sorka realised that she'd been so lost in thought that she hadn't noticed she was already at the door to the Hold's main hall, or that Sean had been standing there waiting for her.

"Oh!'' She smiled at her husband, and leaned sideways to kiss him. "Mmm. Well, we can add Lucas to the list again, but not Saul or any of the others. I've tried, but no one else will budge.''

"That's better than I hoped for, to be honest,'' Sean said, and began to guide her towards a table on the far side of the room. "We're over there, in the corner - as far from the kids learning their times tables as possible. But remind me - who's left on Kitti's list?''

Taking Sean's hand, Sorka awkwardly picked her way between two large piles of mending, and the circle of older women working on them. With such a short list, the remaining names were easy for her to recall.

"Well, there's Sasha de Poer, Jelena Belyakova, Sara Byrne, and Betsy Patrick of course.''

"It's a pity about Willem. He'd have made an excellent rider. But it's good to see at least one of the dolphineers hasn't given up on us.'' Sean paused, thoughtful. "How old's Sara's brother now?''

Sorka had been thinking along much the same lines herself after speaking to both the young dolphineers at the harbour earlier that morning.

"Michael's sixteen. I think we're agreed that we're going to have to lower the age limit, aren't we?''

Sean nodded. "We have to, really.''

"If so, he's a must.''

"Hmm. And good old Betsy. It'd be nice to see more of her around the Weyr.''

Sorka had to agree. They'd been friends for so many years, but she couldn't remember when they'd last had a chance to just sit down and chat. Yes, it'd be good to have her warm presence up at the Weyr, whether she Impressed or not.

"Ah, here we are,'' Sean said, pulling out a chair for Sorka to sit down. She sank down into it, grateful to be off her aching feet again.

"Farenna Galliani's still with us, I take it?'' Sean continued with a twinkle in his eye, as he grabbed a chair for himself.

As if the woman would ever let herself be separated from Paul! "Well, that's one person I didn't need to ask twice,'' Sorka said, trying not to laugh.

Sean grunted. "It keeps them happy, and that keeps Islorth happy... and anything that keeps the dragons happy is fine by me.''

"Mmm. And that just leaves Nyassa's younger brother Jens, and Dean Rado.''

Sean shook his head. "They're good, but we need so many more. Still, Joel should be here soon, and I've asked someone to bring over a plate of those spiced tarts you can't seem to get enough of.''

"Oh Sean, I'm large enough already!'' Sorka exclaimed, but she was sure her eyes had lit up unmistakably. They really did need to get the Weyr accommodation improved soon, if only to tempt a few more cooks up there.

A pleasing aroma announced the arrival of the klah and tarts, with Joel following them not far behind. He greeted the two dragonriders warmly, and with a dramatic flourish presented them with a flimsy.

"As promised, oh Weyrleaders, your list of non-essential volunteers.''

Sean took it from his hands, quickly read it, then twisted it over to study the blank far side. "Where are the rest?'' he asked mildly, and passed it to Sorka.

As she'd expected from Sean's reaction, it was depressingly short, and some of the names on it were wildly inappropriate. Aggy Shwartz was prone to violent outbursts, Mikael Tashkovich looked out for himself first and last, and Chris Wilcox was surprisingly unempathic for a vet. They'd be lucky to Impress a dragonet, let alone a dragon! Scanning down the list again, Sorka reckoned they'd be lucky if there were another dozen acceptable candidates on it.

Joel shook his head as she looked up.

"Best I could do, I'm afraid. If you'd asked me a week ago, it might have been a different picture, but...''

"Lara.'' Sean groaned and put his head in his hands.

Sorka grimaced. Suddenly, the fruit tarts didn't look so appealing any more. With all the recent mating flights, the Queens' wings had been thrown into turmoil. Half of Tarrie's wing was grounded or on light duty, and Sorka herself was no longer able to fight Thread. They'd needed to integrate the rest of the younger riders into full fighting duties ahead of schedule, and under inexperienced wing leaders. Mistakes had been made, and Lara and Venvaith had borne the brunt of them. Oh, every one of the original dragon riders had picked up injuries over the years, and Lara had been no exception. But this time, the scale of the damage had been truly horrific. Venvaith would be out of action until spring, and Lara had spent several days undergoing restorative surgery in the care of the Hold's best medics. They'd saved one of her eyes, true, but not her legendary looks. And in the Hold, the scuttlebutt travelled very fast indeed.

"I'm afraid so,'' Joel confirmed. "How is she doing, by the way?''

"She's recovering well,'' Sorka said, "but she'd be better away from here and back with Venvaith. Each of them only care about the other's health, you know.'' Poor Lara certainly wasn't as shallow as the Hold girls who'd idolised her.

Sean sighed audibly. "Then there's only one answer. We need the sixteen-plus group. They're just kids, but we need them.''

Joel blanched. "They may not be non-essential personnel, but surely...''

"Non-essential personnel! Pah! Are we dragonriders non-essential personnel?'' Sorka asked, exasperated. "If you've got a better answer, Joel, I'd very much like to hear it.''

The table fell silent, quiet enough to hear the sound of approaching footsteps. Sorka turned, and saw a large group of both familiar and unfamiliar faces come to a halt behind her, led by Pablo Moreno and Lia Akamoto. Essential personnel, all of them, Sorka was certain of it. Hoping she was right, she found herself smiling once again.

Uncertainly, the two leaders of the group looked at each other, until Lia gave Pablo a nudge.

"Err... we might?'' Pablo asked, looking hopeful.

Across the table, it was Joel's turn to put his head in his hands and groan.

Sean rose, and slapped him on the back in commiseration. He turned to the group, and gave them one of his long stares, waiting to judge their resolve.

"So. You lot think you've got what it takes to be dragon riders, eh?''

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Old Aug 31 2007, 09:07 AM   #19
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Chapter 19: Dragonriding 101

Halfway down the glow-lit corridor, Pete stopped dead in his tracks, a question for Gilgath at the edge of his mind.

What's the first thing you remember, Gilgath?

High up on the Hold's fire-heights, the bronze snorted with amusement. I remember what you remember. Remember? Why do you ask?

I was thinking about the eggs, the new dragons. If they're... conscious yet. If they have their names.

Gilgath answered with matter-of-fact certainty. They are unborn.

Is that a 'no'?

There was a long pause before the dragon replied. Chereth watches over them, and listens. She tells me... it is not like they dream, not quite. Except... one day they will wake from that dream. One day they will wake, hatch and find riders. And other days after that they will fly, and hunt, and mate, and fight Thread. Like us.

Pete closed his eyes to better see his dragon's awe-struck mental imagery. Yes, just like us.

Pete?

Yes?

My earliest memory. It's you, I think. I've never been without you.

Heart in his throat, Pete smiled. There was so much potential waiting inside those amazing, precious eggs, and the candidates waiting in the classroom at the end of the corridor had no idea how much Impression meant, or how lucky some of them would be. In a few short weeks, their lives, no, they would change forever! And they didn't have the faintest clue.

But that is why you are teaching them!

"Then I'd better not be late," Pete said with a laugh, and started walking again.

Somehow, Sorka and Sean had managed to get over ninety people signed up as candidates, and Pete was expecting about a third of them to be present for this class. Most names on the list he knew by sight, and a few were even close friends, but there were some that Pete only had a vague idea about. Well, he'd figure out who was who soon enough. Reaching the open doorway, he paused to take a quick look round the classroom and check the numbers. As usual, the tables were arranged in the regular double-horseshoe that Pete's dad Hans Semling preferred for his teaching - not that the waiting candidates were making much use of them. Oh, a few were sitting stiffly on the plastic benches, either rapt with anticipation or too awkward to make conversation, but the vast majority were standing around chatting, or perched on top of the desks. A large group had gathered in front of the colourful array of hand-drawn posters of Pernese flora and fauna on the left-hand wall; Pete hoped that they'd still be that interested once they'd moved on to the details of draconic anatomy. Small cliques had formed throughout the rest of the room, most apparently divided by age or occupation. From the snippets of conversation he could hear from the doorway, expectations for the class were very mixed indeed, and, as Sorka had expected, the psych profiles were a particularly hot topic. Well, at least everyone was here. Pete closed the door, took a deep breath, and walked towards the front of the room, hoping he'd remembered his father's advice correctly.

By the time he'd reached the front of the room, he would've been smiling if he hadn't been so nervous. The raucous chatter had died rapidly away, and been replaced by an attentive silence. He bit back his nerves, and reminded himself that his Dad did this kind of thing five and a half days a week. Oh, old Hans Semling had no trouble dealing with kids of any sort... but adults were likely to be a lot more awkward, Pete reckoned. Still. No point waiting any longer, was there? He forced out a welcoming smile, and launched into his opening speech.

"Most of you know me already, but for the benefit of those of you that don't, I'm Peter Semling, rider of bronze Gilgath. And, in a matter of a few weeks, some of you... Some of you will be dragonriders as well."

Looking round the room, Pete was pleased but unsurprised by the enthusiastic faces he saw. A few people had needed a bit of persuasion to get here, but on the whole, they'd all volunteered to be candidates. He couldn't help wondering how long that enthusiasm would last though - Sorka had warned him that many of the candidates were likely to have unrealistic expectations of what dragonriding was all about. The next few weeks would change things, that was for sure. There were a few uncertain looks exchanged here and there as well, of course. That might even be better than blind enthusiasm in some ways - at least the doubters had the sense to know they didn't really know what they were letting themselves in for. Pete added the names to his mental list, to discuss with Sean and Sorka later, though some were a bit questionable. Young Michael Byrne, the dolphineer lad, might just be awkward amongst so many adults. And Betsy... well, she knew what it was to be a candidate inside-out by now, and spent so much time with the other riders that she already seemed one of the team. Was she really having second thoughts? Well, that was the whole point of the classes - to make sure the candidates were sure about things. But which would impress though? Ah, now that was the real question.

Putting his thoughts to one side, Pete continued with his introduction. "I gather most of you have impressed fire-lizards in the past, so you might think you know what to expect from a newly hatched dragon, or know something of the bond between dragon and rider?"

Scattered nods and grins across the room answered his question, and Pete grinned back.

"They hatch hungry, and for the next few months, they'll continue eating, sleeping, outgrowing their own skins... and not much more. Easy, right?"

A few of the candidates murmured their agreement, lulled into a false sense of security by Pete's lazy description. The loudest was a tall man sitting beside the window; Euan Evans, one of the volunteers according to Sorka's list. Pete turned towards him, eyebrows raised. As he did, he caught sight of Lia in the edge of his vision, leaning over to hiss something at Farenna. To Pete's ears, it sounded a lot like 'is this it?'! So, at least the grounded pilot was expecting more of a challenge! Time to set the rest of them straight.

"Wrong. You're not simply spending all your time and energy caring for a young dragon. You'll be sharing your heart, mind and soul with him or her, for the rest. Of. Your. Lives.''

He paused for a moment to let the message sink in before carrying on. "And you won't be spending those years safely tucked up behind stone and shutters here at the Hold. You'll be out there, fighting Thread, saving the lives and livelihoods of everyone you know and love.

"If this doesn't scare you at all, you've missed the point." Pete smiled reassuringly at his audience, some of whom had noticeably paled. "For some of you, probably most of you, very soon your lives will change completely, and never be the same again. And it'll be the best thing that's ever happened to you."

Had he been convincing enough? Quickly scanning the audience, Pete noted wistful expressions emerging on face after face, particularly the younger ones. Ah, now that was more like it.

"So. Why are you all here? You're not here to be drilled non-stop on how to care for a young dragon - though we will be covering that in some depth, of course. You're not here so you can be whittled down to a select few, either, despite all those rumours about those psych profiles you took..." That statement got a very audible reaction, much as Pete had expected it would, and he decided to
elaborate a little. "You've already been chosen as suitable candidates - even the volunteers - but we want you to understand what it means to be a dragonrider before you even meet your dragons. When your dragon hatches, and finds you... Well, you'll be ready. Anyway, this evening will be just a general introduction; I'll explain what we'll be doing over the next few weeks, and what'll be
expected of you. Before I start on that, are there any questions?"

Euan's hand was the first to rise, and Pete nodded for him to speak.

"What was the point of spending all that time on psych profiles if you're not going to do anything with them?"

"Evans, isn't it?"

The tall man nodded.

"Who says we're not?" Pete asked him softly.

Euan frowned in confusion, and shifted uncomfortably on the plastic bench. As he groped for an answer, a strident female voice spoke up from the centre of the horseshoe, breaking the silence.

"So if we've answered something wrong... but you said we wouldn't be 'whittled down'!''

It was Annalise Aughton, one of the more sociable young women at the Hold. Pete didn't know her too well himself, but she could clearly shriek as badly as her mother had, that morning after Porth's flight. She didn't seem the type to get within spitting distance of a hard lifestyle, but you never could tell. Mind you, maybe any lifestyle out of the Hold would suit her better than sticking around her family.

Pete turned to the pair of women sitting calmly in the far corner - Betsy Patrick, and Paul's partner Farenna Galliani. "Betsy, Farenna - could you two stand up for a moment? Thanks." He glanced quickly round the room, finally finding Lucas Trury lounging easily at the back. "You too, Lucas, if you wouldn't mind."

Facing the whole class once more, Pete addressed Annalise. "All of you are candidates. That won't change, and you'll all get the chance to stand for as many clutches as you want. But some of you have done this before; Betsy, Farenna and Lucas in this class, and a handful of others. We have no idea why the dragons chose the riders they did, or why some candidates weren't chosen. The psych profiles don't help us much now - we simply don't have the numbers - but in a few more years, if some of you have impressed dragons, and some of you haven't, well, they might help us understand things better. That's what they're for. It may not seem like much now, but we are going to need a lot more candidates soon, and if we can choose the right people from the outset, so much the better."

With the preliminaries out of the way, Pete encouraged the group to start discussing their different motivations for volunteering as candidates. There were a lot of misconceptions about what dragonriding was like, but it was best to figure those out as early as possible. Excepting the trio of original candidates, Lia was
probably the most realistic in her attitudes, expecting a hard time and no guarantees, but willing to try anything to get flying again. Pete hoped she'd be one of the candidates to Impress; she'd certainly have no trouble in the air. It did become clearer that Annalise was desperate to escape her mother's smothering via any means possible, but at least the young woman's enthusiasm about the dragons and their smaller cousins seemed genuine.

Having gained a better appreciation of the class, Pete quickly ran through the timetable for the next few weeks.

"We'll start with Impression today, and move on from there. The next class will be held down at the harbour, the morning after tomorrow. It'll be a practical session, your first introduction to caring for a dragon: dragon anatomy, feeding, bathing and oiling.'' Pete couldn't stop a wicked grin appearing on his face. Oh, they'd have a shock stripping down and wading into the ocean at this time of year! Uloa had promised him that Elliath would be particularly filthy that day.

"Thread falls the following afternoon, and you'll be spending the whole day at the Weyr. I'll warn you now, it may be a rest day here, but they don't exist up at the Weyr. On the plus side, you'll all get a chance to fly a-dragonback, and we'll even take you between. We'll start finding out what skills you've got, and you'll all make yourselves useful. We've got a barracks to construct for the new dragons and their riders, and Threadfall to prepare for.''

"Will we have to fight it as well?''

Pete smiled kindly at Nick Gomez, the youngest candidate present after Michael Byrne. The lad seemed torn between fear and expectant excitement.

"Anyone with groundcrew experience can help out that way, but the rest get to wait in the caverns. You'll be glad of the rest - there's a lot of work involved in preparing for 'fall, but it's all stuff you'll need to know if you Impress. How to grade firestone, bag it, and load it. For those of you who aren't yet competent with a flamethrowers, over the next few weeks we'll teach you that too. This is most important for the female candidates - we expect most of you will impress greens rather than golds in the near future, if the hatchling numbers are anything like those of firelizards, but there's a good chance you'll need to use one at some point. Basic first aid is another essential, and if anyone wants full training as a healer of either humans or dragons, that can be arranged very easily.''

At the front of the room, a nervous-looking Claire Lensdale tentatively lifted her hand. Pete nodded for her to ask her question; she bit her lower lip, and then blurted out a rushed sentence as quickly as she could.

"If we're already trained, and there're injuries, will we...'' She trailed off, looking slightly pale.

Pete sighed - he'd known someone would bring this up. Sorka had warned him that Claire had needed a lot of persuasion to join the class, but she was a very good friend to her fair of fire-lizards, and, despite her squeamishness, almost as good a nurse as Betsy.

"None of you will have to do anything you're uncomfortable with, but any help you can offer dealing with injuries would be very gratefully received. Most times, it's nothing more than char burns and minor scores, and they're very easily managed. Worse injuries do happen, as you all should know... but thankfully, they're very rare. We'll be covering the details of Threadfighting, the likely injuries and how to avoid them in the fourth class, which'll be back here - we'll arrange the exact time as soon as we can. It's very important to us that you're realistic about the risks we dragonriders face. In the classes after that, we'll go into more details about Weyrling training: how we teach you to fly, flame, and travel between, as well as going over dragon care in more depth. But first, Impression.''

Pete turned and reached down to pick up a piece of chalk from the ledge on the wall, and drew a line down the middle of the chalkboard. On one side, he wrote the word 'dragon', and 'firelizard' on the other. He briefly explained Kitti Ping's alterations to the mentasynth adaptions of the dragons, and how much stronger and complete the telepathy of the dragons was compared to the empathic images of the fire lizards. The candidates enthusiastically joined in the collective brainstorming, going over the best way to Impress the smaller fire lizards - food and friendship were agreed on as the only essentials there! But with the understanding that the dragons were a lot more sensitive, the group quickly came round to the idea that there was a lot more than that to Impressing a dragon. It was hard for Pete to agree on what was most likely to work - after all, they still didn't know the answer to that problem! - but the group made good progress in appreciating what was likely to deter a hatchling dragon from a potential lifemate. Openness and honesty were Pete's best guess for the right attitude.

When it came to how Impression affected the human part of the partnership, Pete was on his own. There were a lot of things that changed for the better; the new riders had certainly all become a lot more self-assured. And then there were the little differences, long since vanished, like Otto's stutter, and Rosalind's panic attacks. He tried to stick to the facts as often as possible; Pete knew that whenever he talked about his Impression of Gilgath, he had a tendency to become rather dreamy-eyed. Giving the candidates the right idea was one thing, but acting a little like a lobotomised fool would probably be going too far. Even so, there was no escaping how big a deal Impression was. Accepting another sentient mind, or soul, into your own... it'd be a big step, and it was good to get the candidates coming to terms with the concept as soon as they could. Pete finished by reassuring the group that they'd be going through the same discussions again right before the eggs hatched, and then asked if there were any more questions.

Martin Moore raised his hand, a challenging look in his eyes. "What about mating? You haven't mentioned that yet."

Damn, he had forgotten! Was Martin going to make a big issue of it?

Sorry, Pete. I'd have reminded you, but I didn't want to think about that.

Gilgath? Why?

Siglath has risen.

Pete blinked, trying to clear the glazed expression from his face and think of something to say before Gilgath's awareness of the distant queen distracted him completely. Sitting at the front bench, Jamie Duff rolled his eyes and nudged Sita Radamanth, and she covered her mouth in a vain attempt to hide a giggle. Pete ignored them as best he could, though he had a horrible feeling that he was blushing.

"Don't worry, we'll cover that too in one of the later classes," he answered, and then hurriedly added more detail. "In these first few generations, we're having to keep a close eye on the different genetic mixes, so it's definitely not something we'd overlook in your training."

You're okay not taking part? Pete asked his dragon, trying to work out what was happening as quickly as possible.

Tenneth would be jealous. And she's a long way away, Gilgath replied unconvincingly.

In the south? Damn, guess I lost that bet then. Thought you said she didn't seem ready?

She wasn't, this morning.

Huh. Nyassa's sunlight theory might be right then. Either that, or you bronzes don't know everything after all. Reassured that Gilgath wasn't going to swamp his emotions completely, Pete returned his attention to the class.

"Besides, it's not obligatory to participate in the flight of any dragon you don't want to, or that your dragon does. We've learned enough now... we know it's possible to keep a dragon grounded, if that's what's desired or necessary. But when you're directly involved, then yes, it is pretty overwhelming. You're all welcome to discuss the issue with any of the riders whenever you want, and if you are particularly worried, I'd really encourage you to talk to us. But I think that'll do for today."

Pete began to dismiss the class, his mind still on Siglath's flight. Catherine had mentioned her ideal solution for Siglath's mate in passing a few weeks back, and it seemed a rider who was already spoken for would be her first choice for sharing the experience - less threat to her marriage that way. Had she broached the subject with Sean or Paul yet? Or to Sorka, or Farenna Galliani? They'd be just as involved as their partners, if the flight went the way Catherine intended.

It is. Islorth leads the chase.

Pete grimaced, his mind made up by Gilgath's comment, and caught Farenna's eye before she could leave the room with Lia and Betsy. Warning her that a flight was underway was really the only fair thing to do.

He hoped the implications wouldn't come as too much of a surprise.

Last edited by Kath; Aug 31 2007 at 09:27 AM. Reason: all edits finished!
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Old Sep 1 2007, 06:52 PM   #20
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Chapter 20: Sand in all the wrong places

Eyes closed and still half asleep, Tarrie listened to the sound of the waves gently lapping on the shoreline. It was normally such a relaxing sound, but at that moment, Tarrie wished it would stop. Each wave was like the tick of a clock, each one seeming louder than the last, like an insistent alarm that wouldn't go away. The more she tried to slip back into sleep, the more awake she became, and with wakefulness came an increasing sense of discomfort. The pleasant sea breeze that the riders had enjoyed earlier in the afternoon had died away, and the air's humidity had risen shockingly. Rukbat's growing glare was another reminder of time passing; Tarrie could feel the sun's heat inching up her face, as the shade she'd been lying in slowly vanished. She was hot, sticky, and... bloated?

Tarrie slid her hands down to her belly, realising as she did so that some of the sensations she was feeling weren't her own. In a panic, she sat bolt upright, her head pounding, and flung her mind out towards Porth.

Porth!

Her dragon's mind unfolded around her, and Tarrie suddenly became aware of everything the queen dragon was feeling - far more than just the mild discomfort that had leaked through while Tarrie slept.

I didn't want to wake you... but could you come back soon?

Oh Porth, I'll be there as soon as I can. You should have woken me. It's time, isn't it?

Far away to the north, the gold dragon rumbled uncertainly. I tried to wait for you.

Waves of guilt washed through Tarrie, even as Porth tried to reassure her.

I should have agreed to use the blankets, then you'd be here.

Porth, no. There's no excusing it, I should have been back with you by now. I should never have left you.

Tarrie sighed. It had all seemed like such a good idea that morning. Porth, sensing that she was near to clutching, had spent the early hours pacing in and out of the hatching cavern, finding fault with every piece of ground not already occupied by Chereth and her eggs. The heated matting and blankets caught on her claws, and were too awkward to rearrange around the soon-to-be-clutched eggs. And as for the completed section of hypocaust flooring - well, that was far too draughty. Chereth had scoured all the sand away from the one spot that Porth thought was reasonable, and the other gold was very reluctant to allow a work crew in to replenish it so close to her own eggs. Tarrie was doubtful that she'd let Porth clutch there, even if there had been enough sand. Eventually, Tarrie managed to get Porth to decide on a viable location within the large cavern - as far from Chereth as she could get - thankfully before the two queens' bickering got too far out of hand. The hypocaust works hadn't yet reached that far, so the matting had had to be shifted again, and a second compromise reached. Porth would leave Chereth in peace until she needed to Clutch, and in return, half the dragonriders would head south to the old Paradise stakehold, to gather enough fresh, dry sand to keep Porth happy.

Even then, Tarrie had worried about getting the job done in time... but Porth had been insistent that there was no immediate hurry, and that even if there was, she wasn't laying a single egg until the grounds were ready for her.

So, straight after breakfast, a small team of whoever wasn't otherwise occupied had gathered shovels and heavy-duty canvas skips and departed for the warmth of the Southern beaches. It was backbreaking work, especially in the growing summer heat, but they managed to shift quite a number of tonnes of soft white sand back to the Weyr before lunchtime. As they rested by the shore eating a lunch of sandwiches, Catherine had suddenly demanded to know why they were bothering. If the beaches were good enough for the dragonets, why shouldn't they do for a dragon? It'd be far easier to Thread-proof a large enough stretch of beach than it was to shift the beach grain by grain half way round the planet. Given Chereth and Porth's antagonism that morning, preparing a beach spot for either Tenneth or Milath was immediately deemed a Good Plan for another day. As it was, they hadn't yet transported enough sand to meet Porth's demands, so the afternoon had been spent the same way as the morning had been - sweating and shovelling.

Until Siglath rose to mate.

The only male dragon present who'd caught a queen before was Polenth, and David had quickly sent him back to Fort with a full load of sand, away from the queen's temptation. An unfortunate passing flock of wherries was rapidly decimated, and the participating riders quickly vanished for the privacy of the next beach down the coast. Tarrie had been left with David, seven spare shovels, and three empty skips that still needed filling with sand. Her hands were already blistered, her nose was sunburned, she'd barely had a wink of sleep all night, she was concerned for Porth... and it had all suddenly become too much to bear. But David had been there for her, strong arms supporting her, making her laugh at the ridiculousness of her worries. Catherine wouldn't want anyone lingering round in the aftermath of the flight, and the rest of the workforce would soon be back to finish the job - and even if they weren't, it wouldn't take five minutes to summon more people from the Weyr to help finish the last few loads. The one thing he had insisted on was that Tarrie's shovelling was done for the day, and that she needed a rest.

They'd ended up walking down the beach together, knee-deep in the sea, Tarrie's hands soothed by a long dip in the cool water. Conversation had inevitably turned towards the flight, and the ones that had gone before. It seemed the experience had subtly changed - or rather, educated - the dragons, giving both Polenth and Porth a far clearer awareness of human sexuality than either dragon had had before. Polenth apparently hadn't been encouraging his rider in quite the same way as Porth had... but David had assured Tarrie, laughing all the while, that his dragon's remarks at times were as wildly inappropriate as some of Porth's suggestions. Further education was the key, he'd suggested. With appropriate
partners, chosen in a human, not draconic, manner.

Tarrie had had to agree. They'd paused to watch the dark shapes of the dragons dwindle into nothing high above, but distance was no barrier to the emotions the dragons engendered. Even so, without Porth's involvement they were no more than an aphrodisiac, an opportunity. Tarrie had seized the moment, and insistently stammered out that Porth was in no way nudging her at that moment, and she did have a human choice in mind. So, it seemed, did David. After that... well, things had gone rather well indeed.

Except of course they hadn't, because Tarrie had spent an afternoon indulging herself on a southern beach, and she was still stuck there, and all the while Porth had been needing her in the north. No, she should never have left her dragon, not today of all days!

Porth was clearly in no mood to disagree; despite the dragon's earlier reassurances, Tarrie could feel Porth's concentration drifting away from her rider's turmoil and instead focusing on the muscular pangs in her own body. Head still pounding, Tarrie hauled herself to her feet and stumbled down the beach. She had to get back to the Weyr, right away. David was nowhere to be seen, but Polenth had returned, and was watching the waves from his vantage point on a low sandstone bluff. She scrambled up the slope towards the dragon and called out to him, hoping he'd hear her.

"Polenth?"

The bronze dragon tilted his head, and looked down at her quizzically.

"Where's Dave? I need to get back to Fort. It's Porth."

Polenth gazed at her steadily for a few moments, giving no indication that he'd understood a word of what she'd said. Then he stood up, and turned to face in the opposite direction. Tarrie was just beginning to think that the fool beast was ignoring her, when she heard the sound of jogging footsteps, and realised that Polenth was simply watching Dave return. Moments later he joined her on the top of the bluff, dripping wet and bearing a sealed water flask.

"Went to find some fresh," Dave said quickly. "But Porth needs you, he says."

He didn't even wait for her to answer, immediately giving her a leg up to the gap between Polenth's neck ridges, and scrambling up behind her. It was a short glide down the beach to where the dragons' harnesses had been left alongside the riders' flying jackets and the unfilled skips; they'd need the harness and wherhide even if they did return without the rest of the necessary sand.

"Polenth's called back the others, to collect the last of the sand," Dave said, as if hearing Tarrie's unspoken concerns.

Tarrie nodded, too busy listening in on Porth to speak. As Dave began slinging straps over Polenth's neck and the other dragons appeared from further down the beach, Tarrie grabbed two jackets from the pile - there simply wasn't time to be fussy. Porth couldn't wait much longer.

I'm coming Porth, I'm coming. I'll be with you soon.

I can't wait any more, Tarrie! the gold replied.

"You'd better get us back in time, Dave," Tarrie snapped as he pulled her back up onto Polenth's neck. Both riders shrugged jackets over their shoulders as the dragon powered up into the air, quickly gaining the height needed to jump between. Tarrie could feel Porth lumbering hurriedly from her weyr towards the hatching sands, and knew in her heart that her dragon would reach it long before Polenth got them back... Between had never seemed so long, but then they were out above the Weyr, so low the peaks of the Weyrbowl rose high above them, and there, impossibly, was Porth, still not quite at the cavern's gaping entrance.

Polenth folded his wings and they dropped the last hundred feet like a stone. And then they were grounded, and Tarrie was off and running, finally back where she belonged. Otto and Shoth were waiting just inside the cavern, neither looking amused by Tarrie's last-minute arrival. But that didn't matter. Only Porth mattered now.

I'm here darling, I'm here.

I'm glad, Tarrie. Thankyou for hurrying.

Together, dragon and rider entered the cavern, heading directly for Porth's chosen spot. There was warm sand aplenty for the first few eggs; if Porth's clutching was anything like Chereth's had been, they'd have all night to get the last few loads delivered. On the far side of the cavern, Chereth watched them closely, curled protectively around her eggs. For a moment, she bared her teeth and made to rise, but Alianne was there to swiftly soothe her down. Porth didn't notice a thing, so intent was she on the needs of her eggs.

Tarrie was glad to have Alianne nearby, but Otto she could do without. She knew he was going to say something; he couldn't help himself. Sure enough, they were only halfway across the cavern, Shoth following on behind, when he started speaking.

"Well I'm glad to see you've got your priorities right." He snidely eyed the long shirt peeking out beneath Tarrie's borrowed flying jacket, obviously as much her own as the jacket was.

Oh, but Tarrie didn't need this now. Feeling guilty was one thing, but having Otto rub it in, now that she wouldn't tolerate! The man had been infuriating ever since Porth's flight, half the time acting the gentleman, and the rest his usual self. Perhaps there was too much pride on both sides, but every time Tarrie had tried to smooth things over, or apologise for judging him too harshly... well, it hadn't quite worked. And then there were Porth's nudges! Why wouldn't the man just leave her be?

Tarrie couldn't even spare time to glare at him; Porth's mind was totally focused, and Tarrie wasn't going to let her down now. The gold dragon pawed at the sandy ground, and Tarrie could feel her dragon thinking, gauging it, and all the uncertainty... Porth started to scrape the sand towards her, deepening it beneath her belly, and Tarrie suddenly understood exactly what her dragon needed. She bellowed out asking for help, for anyone near to get the rest of the waiting sand in quickly. Surely the others should have arrived with it by now?

"If you'd been back when you said, instead of..."

"Oh, shut up and do something useful, you possessive cretin!" Tarrie was furious, stressed, distressed... She turned to reassure Porth, and lost herself in the dragon's whirling gaze. It was Porth feeling lost and uncertain, needing confidence and calmness, not Tarrie herself. Guiltily, in the tiny part of her mind that wasn't consumed with concern for Porth, she decided she owed Otto another apology - but the man had already left. Tarrie soothed Porth as well as she could... everything would be fine, and Porth would feel much better once the first egg was safely delivered.

Porth's sudden accepting calm was contagious. The dragon was concentrating deeply now, and there was a sense of pressure, growing steadily. Tarrie swayed as it suddenly passed, Porth's muscles rippling, and she realised that she'd been holding her breath the whole time. But Porth had done it! She'd laid her first egg, it was there, safe on the sands, glistening and perfect. Tarrie felt an amazing upswelling of pride. The sense of relief from Porth was palpable as the dragon inspected her first egg. The dragon gently nudged it with her muzzle, trying to decide on the best position for it. It seemed to be okay, or at least Porth thought it was, even though she didn't know enough to be sure. Dragon and rider shared a moment of feeling totally lost and totally natural - revelling in the instinct of the moment - until Porth nosed a simple hollow in the sand, and rolled the egg carefully into it.

Tarrie looked up and met Alianne's eyes. The other goldrider grinned, not needing to say a word. She understood what this meant for the pair.

Porth's eyes were whirling a calm green now, the dragon content with how things were progressing.

How long before the next egg?

Not for a little while. I will lay another soon though.

Tarrie grinned, and turned back to face the cavern entrance, where a small crowd had gathered.

"Well? Where's the rest of our sand?" she demanded, still smiling like a fool.

Throughout the night, the workers just about kept pace with Porth's demands for more sand, and egg after egg appeared at regular intervals. Tarrie's back began to ache again sometime around midnight, but at least her headache had gone - whether it was the pills Dave had pressed into her hand with a glass of water that had done the trick, or the crisply cool bottle of white wine supplied by Kathy didn't really matter. Porth was doing fine.

Nearly a full twenty-four hours later, there were twenty-one eggs on the hatching sands and Porth had been given the all-clear. Her dragon fast asleep, Tarrie scratched the sand out of her hair and stumbled back to her own bed, nearly delerious with tiredness, but feeling happier than she'd done in weeks.
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Old Sep 12 2007, 07:24 PM   #21
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Chapter 21: A few home comforts

Looking around the Weyr's massive living-cavern, Sorka was hard pressed to remember how it had appeared just a couple of months ago, empty and desolate. Now, it was almost unrecognisable. The hardest work had been cutting through into the adjacent caverns to the south and east, even with the use of as many powerpacks and stonecutters as Joel could spare. But with the bulk of the rubble finally shifted, things had changed very rapidly indeed. The eastern cave complex was dry and mostly snake-free, and would be used for storage. The south-western cave had the best drainage and its own water supply. It also had a natural two-tiered structure; the lower level was now well on the way to becoming a functional laundry and bathing room, with more sleeping accommodation and an infirmary above.

To the southeast of the main cavern, wide steps led down into another natural cave, which was steadily being partitioned into further living quarters, more storage and offices. A heavy door on the far side opened onto the road out of the Weyr, which was over half a klick long and descended nearly a hundred metres along its length. Grading and levelling the ground in all the major caverns and along the tunnel that connected the Weyr with the road to Fort Hold had been another major job, but it had eventually been completed to Sean's satisfaction. The road needed to be both broad and smooth, especially since they couldn't waste glows along its whole length. On the far side, they'd excavated some caves for storage and stabling - there was no sense bringing horses into the Weyrbowl, after all!

But the most dramatic changes had occurred inside the main cavern, with only the last few finishing touches now left to be made. Sonja Ostrovsky and Nick Doyle had done sterling work completing the geothermal tap and connecting it up to various points in the main cavern, and the kitchen had been fully plumbed in. To Sorka's satisfaction, Yashma had pronounced it even better than Fort Hold's; it seemed they'd have no trouble encouraging some of the kitchen workers up to the Weyr, especially now that they had proper beds for everyone, and tables and chairs to sit on. A second hearth had been set up near the main entrance to the living-caverns, making good use of a natural chimney running through the rock face. It'd be kept on the go all day long providing klah and stews to the workers and riders, and saving them the trouble of trudging all the way through to the main kitchens just for a warm drink.

Several other vertical shafts had been widened and straightened, and converted into light-shafts to catch the afternoon sunlight. Each one had its own cunning system of shutters and gutters to protect the cavern during Threadfall, in the event that a stray Thread escaped the notice of the dragons. The autumnal sunlight streaming down the shafts was fairly dim, but even that made a very pleasant change from glowbaskets in the dark of the caves - and provided some entertainment for the handful of young children hanging around the Weyr today while their parents worked. Smiling, Sorka watched the small group jump from one patch of light to another, chasing dust-motes. In her arms, Michael squirmed, probably wanting to join in with the fun.

"Off you go then, love," she said as she lowered him to the ground. The toddler took a few steps towards the other kids, and promptly got distracted by the soft dried seagrass that was strewn across the cavern floor. Sorka smiled indulgently; he'd always had a knack for creating his own fun, far more so than the other children of that age that Mairi fostered.

Keeping a close eye on her son, Sorka carefully crossed the cavern towards the table where Helen Trury was working. The diminutive women was barely visible behind the piles of fabric offcuts, wherry-down and an idle sewing machine, and Sorka was curious about what the woman was working on today. Lucas's wife had been one of the most welcome additions to the Weyr; she was a qualified surveyor, and had spent many hours with Sonja's team working out how to make best use of the Weyr's natural caves, to great effect. Amongst her other ideas, a number of natural undulations in the rock wall on the north side of the cavern had been deepened to form storage alcoves. A small team of joats were working there today, fitting shelving to the newly created spaces. But even though all the major structural work had now been completed, Helen hadn't stopped working. For the last week, she'd instead turned her creativity towards recycling fabric scraps into comfortable soft furnishings.

"Afternoon, Sorka!" Helen called out cheerily as she spotted Sorka approaching. "How're you doing today?"

Sorka shook her head, and pulled out a chair. "I've been kicked, inside and out, and the sciatica's killing me."

Helen pursed her lips in sympathy. "Can't be much longer now though. What does Basil reckon again?"

"Three more weeks. Him and my Ma both tell me this little one won't be as slow as Mikey was though."

"Ain't that the truth," the other woman agreed with a laugh.

Sorka grinned, and looked round to check on Michael again. He'd got bored of the grasses, and joined the other kids in a game of follow-the-leader; thankfully, they weren't being too rambunctious about it.

"So what're you making for us today?"

"Oh, I'm just experimenting, really. And it's not for the Weyr this time either." Helen gave Sorka a conspiratorial wink, and pulled a bundle of colourful fabric out of her lap. "I haven't finished stuffing him yet, but you can probably figure it out."

Four legs, a long tail and neck, two wings. Iridescent shell buttons sewn on tight made the dragon's eyes, and white stitching marked out the claws. Real dragons didn't come in quite so many different shades of course, but that hardly mattered in a toy.

"Helen, that's marvellous!"

"Well, we don't get as many of the dragonet clutches here in the north, so I thought I might try and come up with a substitute - for the younger kids, at least. Something to inspire them, maybe get them dreaming about a career with real dragons, eh?"

Now that wasn't a bad idea at all, Sorka decided. In the two weeks since the candidate lessons had begun, ten had dropped out. Sorka had managed to convince a handful more people to join the classes in a week or so's time, once Chereth's and Porth's clutches had hatched, but they'd soon be feeling the lack of numbers. Tenneth's clutch was expected to be almost as large as Porth's, with Milath's even larger.

"In that case, I'd call it Weyr work anyway." Sorka said. "You know how badly we need more candidates. Let me have your timesheet later, and I'll sign off some marked hours on the Weyr's tab for you."

Helen shook her head. "No, this is just fun for me, not work. Besides, I got plenty of marks from all the surveying I did for you over the last few months. Getting a chance to use my training is worth twice the wages, believe me" She picked up the miniature dragon again, and stuffed another handful of wherry-down into its belly. "Say, would you know any nice young gentlemen in need of a dragon? He's not very big, so his friend will need to be quite small, I think."

Sorka laughed. "I can think of one or two!" And sure enough, Michael had come running up at just that moment, blue eyes round at the sight of the little dragon.

"Well, young man," Helen began. "Are you big and strong and brave enough to be a dragonrider?"

Mikey nodded, his expression as serious as a two and a half year old's could be.

"And you'll treat your dragon kindly, and not chew on his tail?" Sorka added.

"Yes, mummy," the young boy answered without a second's pause.

"I think I believe him," Helen said, and ruffled his hair. "I've just got a few stitches to put in him before he's ready, but that won't take long, and then he's all yours."

Thrilled, Michael turned to his mother with a beaming smile.

"And what do you say to Helen for giving him to you?"

"Thankoo!"

The boy was bouncing up and down by Sorka's side impatiently by the time Helen was finished, and the moment the toy dragon was passed over he was off, trotting around the room making its wings flutter in the air. Sorka and Helen watched him make it fly for a while, until Mairi collected him along with the rest of the youngsters for their afternoon nap. Somehow, Sorka didn't think they'd get much rest today.

"Mind if I join you?"

Sorka twisted her head round to see Alianne, carrying a tray of Klah and sweet cakes. "No, not at all."

Alianne placed the tray on the table, brushing the fabric aside, and sat down. "Ma sends her compliments - she still can't believe how perfect the kitchen is, you know. Personally, I think she just likes being away from Morag's nattering... any sweetener, Helen?"

Sorka found her mind drifting as the two women conversed, simply enjoying the sharp taste of the klah contrasting with the soft cake. She'd cut down on her caffeine intake a lot during the pregnancy, and although the Klah would probably jolt the baby into action pretty soon, she was determined to enjoy the tranquility of the moment while it lasted. Her attention returned when the conversation moved on to the hatching and impression, as most conversations inevitably did these days.

"...of course I'd love to see Lucas Impress, despite everything we've heard. If you can cope, so can we, right?"

"What if he doesn't? Will the two of you stay here?" Sorka asked.

Helen looked almost shocked. "Of course! Why do you think I've spent so much time making this place comfortable? We want this to be our home, just as much as it is yours and your dragons'."

"We'll be glad to have you here with us," Alianne said warmly.

Sorka nodded agreement. Even if Lucas didn't Impress, the two had certainly done their bit for the Weyr, and set a good example. And the better life at the Weyr seemed, the more chance there was that Sorka could persuade other people to stand as candidates for the eggs.

Thinking of candidates... Sorka sighed. Her back was aching quite a bit today, and she didn't relish the ten minute waddle over to the weyrling barracks, but it was a job that needed doing. "I should probably make a move. I want to check how the barracks are progressing before they get completely shadowed by the ridge."

Alianne shook her head firmly. "No, you're staying put, Sorka. I spoke to Sonja earlier, and she said all the building work looked fine. Some of the candidates may be pretty clueless about dragons, but at least most of them can put one stone on top another, or wield a shovel!"

"They're not doing too badly in their classes, Pete tells me."

In fact, except for those that had dropped out, the candidates had all found very suitable roles in the Weyr's routines. Not everyone was at work on building the barracks; some of the girls and younger lads simply hadn't developed the strength for heavy labour yet. A number had displayed some aptitude for animals, and were working with the Weyr's resident herdsman on getting the cows settled, and marking the culls that'd be butchered as soon as they had a better idea of when the eggs would hatch. A first aid class had been run that morning, and the same small group were now helping Tarrie oil Porth. Others were working with Sam and Nick on the Weyr's power supply, Betsy was brewing numbweed on the outside stove, and anyone who hadn't found a better excuse was out by the bunker bagging firestone. Three of the candidates, Sara Byrne, Sita Radamanth and Jamie Duff had shown an interest in dragonhealing, and done well in the anatomy class; Sorka had started training them in the basics, with dragonets as props. She had high hopes that the latter two would stay at the Weyr even if they didn't Impress. Sara was more doubtful - Sean reckoned she'd go back to being a dolphineer if a dragon didn't choose her before spring.

"Oh, they're trying, I'll give 'em that," Alianne said, rolling her eyes. "Very, very trying! They're in and out of the hatching cavern every time they have a moment to spare, always asking Tarrie or I if they can have a closer look at the eggs." Alianne scowled. "There's only so many times I can say 'no' politely."

"Lucas too?" Helen asked with a wince.

"Don't worry dear, he's not the worst of them by a long way!" Alianne leaned back in her chair, and ran her fingers through her hair. "I guess I just want to have this all done with. I keep second guessing Chereth, you know, wondering why she's favouring this egg over that one, things like that. We'll both be glad when they hatch."

"I know the feeling," Sorka said, resting her hands on her tummy. Baby Connell was definitely waking up again.

"Lucas tells me it could be as early as next week?" Helen asked.

Sorka nodded. "That's what we think. But hopefully we'll get a day or two more; there's still so much to be done."

"And I guess I'll have to make sure Chereth lets the dignitaries have a good view tomorrow," Alianne said with a sigh.

If today had been busy, tomorrow would almost certainly be worse. All of the work crews had strict instructions to tidy things up tonight, in preparation for Admiral Benden's visit the following morning. He'd had quite a few useful suggestions for the efficient running of a quasi-military establishment, and Sean was determined to make him proud of what they'd achieved here. And, he certainly had influence back at the Hold... a few favourable comments from either the Admiral himself or Ju, his wife, might possibly encourage a few more volunteers for the Weyr.

Sorka smiled reassuringly. "Please. It'll be the last time before the hatching; I'll make sure the candidates stop bothering you when I speak to them tonight."

"Thank you, Sorka. Anyway, I should get back to Chereth. She's starting to wonder where I am."

Michael's nap should be over soon, and Sorka wanted to be there when he woke up. "I should head off too. Thanks for the Klah, Ali. And for Mikey's dragon, Helen... though I'm sure it won't be the last you make!"

Sorka pushed her chair back, and made her way back across the organised chaos of the cavern. Everything was progressing as well as it ought to, it seemed.

Now all they needed was for the newest dragons to successfully hatch and Impress.
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Old Sep 22 2007, 06:25 AM   #22
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Chapter 22 - Facing the Future

As she approached the hatching cavern's broad entrance, Tarrie paused, and quickly pulled a heavy woollen jumper over her head. She'd already ventured out once that morning for a wash and a change of clothes, and it was damn cold outside. It was certainly a far cry from the warm humidity of the cavern, which seemed to have grown even warmer now that Tenneth was also inside, brooding over her own clutch of eggs. Tarrie had seen a glimmer of contented blue-green beneath the queen's lidded eyes as she'd walked past, but Nora had still been fast asleep, and snoring loudly to prove it. Well, she was probably still catching up on her sleep after staying up all night a few days before.

Outside, the floor of the weyrbowl was still dark with the long shadows cast by the encircling mountains, and a thin grey mist hung in the air. It would burn off very quickly once the sun rose a little higher in the sky... Tarrie raised her eyes, and checked the progress of the sunlight sliding slowly down the western side of the Weyr towards the new 'Weyrling' barracks. It was probably a little after eight in the morning, and past time that she got her watch fixed - not that she'd have much time for that today, with Threadfall due before lunch.

Tarrie tucked her hands under her armpits, and trudged carefully towards the main living cavern. It had rained yesterday evening, and a thin layer of ice had formed over the puddles during the night. She'd nearly slipped on a patch earlier, and didn't want to make the same mistake again. Arriving at the entrance, she was greeted by the distinctive aroma of freshly-brewed klah. Now that was what she needed right now! Tarrie followed her nose deeper into the cavern, and found Alianne and Sam standing beside the night hearth.

"I wondered where you two had got to," she said, and suddenly found herself stifling a yawn.

"Surprised you slept in so long," Alianne replied with a smile. "Klah? Looks like you need it as much as we did."

Tarrie thanked her friend, and took the offered mug.

"You didn't eat the last of the sweetrolls, did you Sam?" Alianne asked.

"No, there's still two left. One for Tarrie, one more for me, and the latecomers will have to settle for porridge."

Alianne thumped her husband gently in mock disapproval and sighed. "Greedy-guts."

"I'm excavating our new home today, woman! Don't you think I need sustenance?"

Tarrie couldn't help but smile as they left, arm-in-arm. It was great seeing the couple enjoying each others' company again after the difficult time they'd had when Chereth rose. Of course, their plans also got her thinking - she hadn't decided on a spot for Porth's new weyr yet, let alone arranged time with the stonecutters and a work-crew to start getting all the work done. As she munched on her breakfast, she mentally counted down the days to Porth's eggs hatching... would she have time to get started before then? Probably not, she decided - there was simply too much else to be done right now. Today, that meant taking charge of three of the candidates prior to Threadfall, and teaching them to prepare flamethrowers. They wouldn't be going out with the groundcrews, like some of the more experienced candidates. But instead, once the 'fall was over, Pete would be taking them out to help deal with any burrows, and to familiarise them with live Thread at the same time.

Finishing her sweetroll, Tarrie scanned the busy cavern in search of her three candidates. Hopefully, they'd already be up and breakfasted, but there was a good chance they wouldn't be. The last finishing touches to the Weyrling barracks had been completed late the previous afternoon, ahead of schedule, and the candidates had filled their free evening with a rather drunken celebration. Tarrie didn't begrudge it to them - they'd worked damn hard, after all - but Thread didn't stop falling just because you had a hangover, as much as you might wish it would. Fortunately, the three young women in question were indeed up and awake, chatting sleepily together at a table near the main kitchen.

As a group, they couldn't look more different. All of them were wearing standard-issue work coveralls, but any resemblance between the women began and ended there. Sara Byrne's were the most well-worn; as a trainee dolphineer, she was pretty used wearing them. Dolphineering was much like dragonriding, really - there was a lot of unglamourous work behind the scenes: working on boats, stevedoring on the docks and suchlike. Unlike some of the other candidates, Sara had had no trouble adjusting to the heavy workload they'd been burdened with.

Sita, too, had thrown herself into the work of candidacy, joking that there wasn't a job they could give her that was worse than what she'd already done, and that she was the only one of them that knew what weyrling life would really be like. Tarrie was quietly amused; Sita might have spent a few weeks in close company with dragon excrement, but if she Impressed she'd have the best part of a year of it! Would the young scientist remain so impeccably neat and tidy in the company of a young dragon, especially once they were flying every day? Tarrie had her doubts.

The last girl in the group was Annalise Aughton... and boy, did she know how to accessorise! Her coverall was belted with a bright scarf, with another in coordinating colours covering her long hair. She'd even found time that morning to apply a perfect veneer of make-up! Tarrie wondered if the girl's eyeshadow was one of Pei Pei Ting's new colours. The chemist was continually developing new ranges, supposedly to maintain morale at Fort Hold, and Tarrie had half-heartedly been meaning to acquire some for special occasions for a while now. But really, who was she trying to impress? Only another dragonrider could truly understand, and they all knew each other well enough by now. Porth would always come first. Would any of the three girls waiting for her ever learn what that was like?

Oh, they were all enthusiastic enough, but only time would tell if they were fit to be dragonriders. Annalise had had perhaps the hardest time adjusting to the sometimes heavy labour required from the candidates, and had blistered up horribly on more than one occasion. But she'd borne the pain stoically enough, even turning it to her advantage garnering pity from her many male admirers. No, Tarrie certainly couldn't tell what the new dragons might look for, or if they'd find it in any particular candidate, despite the frequent discussions amongst the dragonriders. They'd find out soon enough, that was for sure.

"Good morning, candidates," Tarrie said as she arrived at the girls table.

The girls quickly rose from their chairs, and eagerly returned the greeting. Tarrie checked that they all had their work gloves with them and were ready to get started, and soon had a short procession following her out into the bowl, towards the small cave where the flamethrowers and spare tanks were stored. Judging by the number of people hurrying about outside, several other workgroups had also got an early start. Tables laden with medical supplies were being laid out in the bowl, in preparation for treating Threadscores and char burns, and a large group were busily bagging firestone over by the storage bunker. Later in the morning, pairs of candidates would be shadowing each dragonrider, helping the riders check straps and feed firestone to the male dragons, or to load up the tanks of nitric acid onto the golds. Once Threadfall began, everyone who was already proficient with a flamethrower would be joining the groundcrews, except for those like Betsy who were far more valuable for their other skills.

The flamethrower cave was really little more than a deep rocky overhang with one brick wall, stacked from floor to roof with various bits of equipment. The waiting trolley was already half loaded, but it was hard to tell at a glance whether it was in the process of being readied for Threadfall, or if someone had just not finished putting everything away after the last one. With the help of the three girls, Tarrie quickly filled it with wands, tanks, control units and all the other component parts of the flamethrowers; enough for each of the queenriders who'd be fighting Thread, and several more to spare. The plan was that the girls would service the 'throwers under Tarrie's supervision, and once Threadfall was over, they'd get the chance to use the spares to help destroy any new burrows.

It was hard work hauling the trolley out towards the open patch of ground beside the drainage sump, but at least it helped make the cold air seem more bearable. As usual, Tarrie began with the tanks. She grabbed the nearest one with both hands, twisted it round, and lent it against the trolley for the three girls to see.

"Tanks first, because they're heaviest," Tarrie began. "You always have to make sure they're upright before you check the levels." She pointed out the relevant gauge, and gestured for the girls to take a closer look.

"It looks the same as the cryo gas in the labs," Sita said.

"And my diving tanks," Sara agreed.

Tarrie nodded. "Tanks are tanks. Except for size, there's really not much difference." The different valves were the next things to check; Tarrie pulled on a pair of gloves and demonstrated how the valves worked. It was very important to check that they were working smoothly; between did rather unpleasant things to metal joints, and you could often find the different parts expanding or contracting in unexpected ways. There was really nothing worse than having Thread falling right at you, toggling your flamethrower and having nothing come out - just because something was vacuum-welded that shouldn't be. Tarrie grinned; the three girls had looked quite horrified at the thought. The riders had had one or two problems like that in the early days, but thankfully, the old spacefarers of the colony knew more than a thing or two about using technology in a vacuum, and solutions were soon found. Not that between was really a vacuum at all, but there were one or two aspects of it that were close enough as made no difference.

Happy that they knew what they were doing, Tarrie stepped back and watched the candidates slowly check each of the tanks. As she'd expected, a few of them were only partially full - they'd do for checking burrows, but not for fighting a full Threadfall. Those tanks were moved to one side, separate from the rest, but they could really do with being marked. She reached into her pockets and felt around, looking for the small piece of chalk she remembered picking up the week before. Ah, there it was. Tarrie passed it over to Annalise, and the young woman quickly knelt down to draw an 'X' on the five half-empty tanks.

Flushing and drying the wands was the next job on the list. That was followed by careful oiling of all the connecting joints - valves weren't the only things that could get stuck in place. The last part of the flamethrowers to check were the control units, which were each hooked up in turn to the test sprayer. If everything was functioning properly, they'd give the perfect mix of fuel and accelerant - or in the case of the test sprayer, a jet of water dyed a very particular shade of lurid green!

With the control units all passing the test, the only thing left to do was to assemble each of the individual flamethrowers together. It was a long job, and took longer than all the earlier checks combined. By the time the last one had been put together to Tarrie's satisfaction - and she'd made the girls strip down a flamethrower and start from scratch four times along the way - preparations for Threadfall were almost complete. Tarrie glanced at the sun; they had perhaps ten minutes before the first of the other queenriders appeared, which was time enough to grab a quick drink.

"Good work, girls," Tarrie said with a wide smile. For novices, they'd done a pretty impressive job, and rightfully seemed quite pleased with their achievements. "Time for a drink, I think."

Back in the main cavern, Tarrie found a jug of fruit juice, and a chair near the entrance. It still seemed like quite a novelty not getting ready to fight, even after several months that way. One by one, the dragons assembled in the bowl, and were laden with either flamethrower tanks or bags of firestone. Fairs of the tiny dragonets flitted here and there, pausing to chew firestone and belch tiny flames every now and then. The riders mounted, the dragons shared their usual silent conversations, and Sean craned his neck in all directions to check the orderliness of his five Wings. And then the signal was given, powerful hind legs launched the dragons skywards, and the first downstroke carried them higher into the sky. Ten wingbeats later, they were gone.

Tarrie took her used mug back to the kitchen, and walked back out into the bowl. She might not be fighting today, but there was still work to be done. Today, she'd be helping Sorka alongside the healers. Tarrie briefly touched Porth's mind, to check if the dragon was listening in on the progress of the Threadfall. But the dragon was half asleep, her mind focused on her eggs. No matter; Faranth would be keeping Sorka informed as usual. Hopefully, there wouldn't be many injuries today. Most thread injuries were minor, and would get treated at the end of the Fall. The dragons had a high pain threshold, and a strong natural desire to fight Thread. If they could keep fighting, they invariably would, which was a good thing indeed. With the pregnant queens forbidden from fighting unless absolutely necessary, they really couldn't spare any of the dragons in the air.

"How does it fall today?" Tarrie asked Sorka quietly.

Sorka looked skywards, and sighed. "Evenly now, but there's a nasty front building over the mountain range."

Tarrie nodded grimly. This could be a tricky Threadfall. The air currents were awkward to predict over certain parts of the mountains, and depending on how the weather front had developed over the morning and what the jet stream was doing, things might change for the worse before the end of the 'fall. That was always the worst type of scenario. Fighting Thread was a timeless task, and it was too easy to lose track of where you were, or to get lulled into a false sense of security. Well, if it did turn out to be a bad 'fall, at least the candidates had already seen an easy one earlier in the week.

Four of the candidates had joined the healers that day, either to gain new experiences or to put their knowledge into practise. Betsy Patrick, Claire Lensdale and Jamie Duff already had varying amounts of medical training, but it was apparently all new to Lucas Trury. As the first hour of the 'fall passed uneventfully, Betsy and Jamie graphically described some of the possible wounds and injuries he might see treated, and quizzed him on his knowledge of dragon anatomy. Jamie's blue dragonet was a willing assistant, stretching out his wings whenever his friend wanted a different body-part named.

By the time the second hour of Threadfall was halfway through, the candidates had got a bit more relaxed, and Sorka and Tarrie had become considerably more tense. Thread had almost finished falling on the cultivated land west of Fort Hold, and would soon be falling above the snowline where any burrows could do no damage. But it was falling awkwardly, according to Faranth, and the dragons and riders were getting tired.

Mere moments after Sorka had conveyed Faranth's news, a brown dragon burst out of between above the Weyr, screaming.

The sound sent chills down Tarrie's spine, and she instinctively reached out towards Porth for comfort. How badly was he hurt?

It's Madrath, Porth said. I do not know what happened, but he's been badly scored.

"Madrath," Sorka echoed, "Faranth, help him!"

The gold queen launched herself from her spot on the Weyr's heights, and gently used her greater size to ease the brown dragon's glide towards the ground. The healers gathered bandages, numbweed, stepladders, swabs and threaded needles, and rushed towards the descending dragons, Sorka following as fast as she could. Tarrie slowed down to keep pace with her.

"Porth says it's bad."

Sorka nodded. "Overconfidence and acrobatics, Carenath says. They flamed one clump, and promptly backwinged into another."

Tarrie winced. "Wingtips, whole sails, or their backs?"

"Some of each, I think." She broke off, and whistled through her teeth as Madrath landed, dropping his wings to the ground. Black flakes of frozen Thread were falling from all over them, revealing a tracery of greenish ichor beneath. The pair must have held themselves between long enough to kill all the Thread they'd entangled themselves with, and they must have jumped fast as well! But it was a big injury, and the cold of between could only damp down the pain for so long.

As Mike slid down from his dragon's neck, Tarrie reached out to Porth. What one queen could do, two could do better.

Help Madrath with the pain if you can, Porth.

We do, Faranth and I. He hurts a lot, but we distract him, and keep his thoughts close to his rider.

Sorka directed Lucas and Betsy to start helping the healers sponge Madrath's wings with numbweed, and walked round behind the dragon's trailing edge to take a closer look at his back, Claire and Jamie following. Tarrie's eyes were on Mike as she wielded her mop; the man was standing by his dragon's head, quietly muttering so fast he was barely pausing for breath. He was unharmed, it seemed, and Tarrie could see the guilt on his face.

"I need swabs and the stepladder," Sorka called out suddenly.

Tarrie whirled round, in time to see Claire make a dash for the edge of the group to vomit. Lucas paused uncertainly, not sure whether to keep slathering numbweed on Madrath's wings, or to follow Sorka's instructions himself. Tarrie shook her head at him. "No, Jonas is already on it. Just keep on with that; you're doing a great job."

She looked back round to check on Claire. The tall woman was drying her face with a look of grim determination, and visibly shaking. Tarrie felt for her; sometimes the sight of Threadscores could be too much for even the strongest stomachs. She called out for a new bucket of numbweed, and moved on to the next score. They were extensive, but thankfully not too deep, and most were easily dealt with. Soon, Madrath's wings had been fully cleaned and numbed, and the dragon's eyes were whirling with a lot less violence. There were a few tears which needed stitching, but none were immediately urgent.

Clambering down her steps, Tarrie walked round the brown's outstretched wings to check how things were going at the other end. Sorka was sitting on an upturned crate beside a pile of soaked bandages, while Claire worked on Madrath.

"How is he?" Tarrie asked.

"Lucky. A hand to the left, and the deepest score would have cut the dorsal artery. We've got the bleeding stopped now, and the muscle damage isn't so bad he'll lose wing function." Sorka sighed. "Just the stitching left to do, but I can't get close enough to do it properly."

Tarrie smiled. `"You've got a good excuse. Claire didn't look comfortable earlier... I take it she's okay now?"

"Neater stiches than mine, according to Jamie. I think she'll do fine, you know, once she gets used to it. How were your crew with the flamethrowers?"

"Better than I hoped." Tarrie placed her hands on her hips, and stretched out her aching back. She suddenly realised that the bowl was filling up with dragons once again, that the 'fall was over. Well... almost. There was Pete, dashing past Madrath towards the spare flamethrowers, with the three girls in tow.

Gilgath tells me there are six burrows they need to eradicate, Porth said as Tarrie watched them pass. He asks me if your candidates are up to it.

Of course they are. I'm sure they'll do well.

The last of the healers stepped away from Madrath, and the brown dragon carefully lifted himself to his feet. His wounds treated, he began the slow walk towards the Weyr's infirmary cave, Mike resting a hand on one of his forelegs as they walked. Tarrie began to help clear up the used bandages, and watched the three girls load up their equipment onto Gilgath out of the corner of her eye.

Yes, they'd done well today, and they'd do well in the future as dragonriders, if that was what fate had in store for them. Today, all of the candidates had faced the worst of things.

And if that hadn't put them off, well, she was pretty sure that nothing would.

Last edited by Kath; Sep 23 2007 at 07:03 PM.
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Old Sep 23 2007, 07:03 PM   #23
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Chapter 23- First Impressions

The humming of the dragons was unmistakeable.

The sound had hit Pete's ears the moment Gilgath had emerged out of between, and the bronze had immediately added his own voice to those of the other dragons present. It was a far deeper tone than the humming of the fire-lizards, but soothing and melodious all the same. He could feel it as well as hear it, Pete realised, where his legs met Gilgath's neck.

This is it then! he commented to his dragon as they descended. Gilgath said nothing in reply, but Pete could sense his growing anticipation and pride. He had his own clutch of eggs waiting for another day, after all. But all those weeks of worry, and the months of waiting and preparation, at last they were coming to a close. Today, the dragon experiment would finally come to fruition. It was honestly quite a relief.

As they descended into the Weyrbowl, Pete took a good look around. They'd guessed the eggs would hatch sometime over the next two days, and the candidates had all assembled in the Weyr the night before. Hopefully, they'd all have figured out what was going on by now... and sure enough, a large crowd had already assembled outside the hatching cavern's ground-level entrance. Pete directed Gilgath to land beside the group, and dismounted smoothly.

"Candidates, assemble into your groups," he shouted over the excited chatter. By the time he'd walked up to the first group, they'd managed to arrange themselves into a bare modicum of order. Pete suppressed a grin; Sean was currently conveying some of the Hold dignitaries up to the Weyr to witness the hatching, but he'd certainly have words to say to the successful candidates when the time came for their first formation drills. He did a quick headcount, and came up one candidate short. Ah, there he was, racing across the Weyrbowl.

"Sorry sir, came as fast as I could!" gasped the young Mike Byrne, red-faced.

"Never mind, you're not too late," Pete said. "Just join your group. Oh, and you might want to do up your flies," he finished quietly with a grin. When nature called, you had to answer! Facing the candidates, he raised his voice to address the whole group. "I'm just going to pop into the cavern to see if they're ready for you yet. Wait here, and try and stay calm if you can."

Pete turned on his heel and walked briskly into the dark cavern. Over the past week, Chereth had become more and more protective of her eggs, and the other two queens had picked up on some of her anxieties. Nyassa was glad that Milath was well out of it, comfortably ensconced in her sandy shelter at the southern tip of the peninsula. But with the imminent arrival of dozens of candidates, something more needed to be done, and large screens had been erected around Porth's and Tenneth's clutches. Nora met him at the entrance to Tenneth's part of the cavern, a wide smile on her face. Oh, he could get used to that face, Pete thought, and leaned down to give her a quick kiss.

"Our turn soon," she said, stepping back again.

"I know. How is she, with all of this?"

"So long as no-one disturbs us, she's fine. I think she's got the hang of the blankets now as well; she hasn't got any stuck on her talons for a few days, and she seems happy with how they're warming the eggs."

"That's good to know." Pete glanced up towards the dais, where Chereth was crouched protectively beside her mottled eggs. Every other queen in the Weyr had heard Chereth's protests when they'd suggested she try the feel of the fabric bedding, and when storms had prevented them bringing in enough sand for Tenneth's clutch, the queen had been none too pleased with the result.

"Hmm."

He turned back to Nora, and realised she was looking worried. "What is it?"

Nora sighed. "Chereth's eggs. She doesn't turn all of them, you know. That greenish one with the wavy pattern and the yellow blob, it's been facing this way for the last two days."

"I hadn't noticed," Pete said quietly. Truth be told, he didn't think many people would have done, the way the three queens were acting.

"Tenneth says... she says Chereth won't answer questions about them. Tenneth doesn't think that one will hatch." Nora reached out to take Pete's hand. "Oh Pete, what if none of them do? What if we're doing something wrong? I don't think I could bear it if there was something wrong with Tenneth's clutch."

Pete was at a loss. The thought had never even crossed his mind, and he had no idea how best to respond. "Nora... they'll be fine, I'm sure. They've been monitored, haven't they?"

She shook her head. "Not for well over a week now. The shells are thickening, hardening. Sorka says it's harder to get good measurements, and besides, the queens don't like the interference."

"Pete!"

Pete turned at the sound of Sean's voice. The Weyrleader was striding across the cavern, followed by Admiral Benden, Wind Blossom and the rest of the dragon project scientists.

"Are they ready for the candidates yet?" Sean asked.

Pete shook his head, and wondered what to say. He hadn't had time to ask yet!

But I did, Gilgath said smugly.

A shadow moved across the cavern floor, and Pete looked up to see Gilgath perched at the upper entrance to the cavern.

Don't keep me in the dark then!

I've been talking to Chereth and Tenneth. Chereth will move out of the way for the candidates, but she wants the watchers seated first. It's too crowded otherwise.

"Well?" Sean pressed.

"Sorry, Gilgath was just telling me something. But, ah, I'm not to bring them up until the audience is settled. Chereth doesn't want her eggs crowded."

Sean nodded his head. "Good. Carry on. If you'll follow me, please" he said, turning back to the guests.

Pete stepped back to let them pass, nodded to Nora, and hurried back outside. It wouldn't be long now, and he wanted to give the candidates a few reminders before they went inside.

Gilgath, you'll let me know when they're ready for them, right?

Of course!

At some point while he'd been inside the candidates had broken ranks, and they hastily reformed as he approached. Of to one side, another small group had assembled; the Weyr's resident butcher, his newly trained apprentices and a couple of other helpers. They were capably dismembering the carcasses of three large cows, and chopping them up into pieces of meat small enough for the mouths of newly hatched dragons. It'd be quite a walk for the almost starving beasts, but it was best that they didn't get distracted by food before Impression had been made. Pete called the candidates to attention, and directed them to watch.

"Some of you'll be learning how to do this yourselves tomorrow, but today, all you need to remember is that the food for your new dragon is out here waiting for you. When you Impress, if you're one of the lucky ones, we'll meet you with the first bucket of meat at the entrance."

He looked along the rows of candidates, checking that they were still paying attention. "How many pieces of meat at a time?" he asked.

"One, sir!" they chorused back to him.

"Good. You'll have a hard time remembering that when you're feeling your dragon's hunger, but we will expect you to all the same. They've never eaten anything before, and we don't want them choking."

Pete? They're ready for the candidates now, Gilgath informed him.

"Right, candidates. It's time." Pete smiled, and took one last look at the group. So much for mental calm - they looked like over-excited school kids, even the older ones! "Deep breaths, positive thoughts, and prepare for a long wait. The first clutches took over a day to hatch. This one could be over in ten minutes, or ten hours."

A ripple of laughter spread through the group. That was more like it.

"Right. When we get to the ramp, I'll stand aside, and you all go straight up, just as we rehearsed. Don't stand too close together or block anyone out; there's room enough for all of you. And keep clear of the eggs until they start hatching, and don't rush the hatchlings when they do. They're clumsy things when they're just out of their shells. If one of them wants you, he or she will find you. Are you
all clear?"

"Yes sir!"

"Are you ready?"

"YES, SIR!"

"Brilliant. Now let's get started."

Pete led the eager group into the cavern. The seats beneath the dais were all filled now, and their occupants stood to applaud the arrival of the candidates - not that Pete could hear it too well over the humming of the dragons, perched precariously on the higher outcroppings within the cave. Almost all the riders were there. The queens with eggs had their riders beside them of course: Dave was watching with Tarrie, standing beside Porth's enclosure, and Alianne and Sam were sitting on folding chairs beside Chereth's feet. The Weyr staff were also present, except for those waiting outside. A few of the candidates had family with them; they were probably applauding loudest of all.

Reaching the bottom of the ramp, Pete stepped back to let the candidates file past. It was a weird sight, seeing eighty eager young people surrounding only seven eggs... but by the time Siglath's clutch hatched, they'd probably need every last one. The heat of the sand up on the dais seemed to have caught a few of them out; he'd forgotten to warn them all to wear thick soles.

The eggs themselves were quite a sight to behold, very different to those of the first hatching. Those had been a creamy white, with only subtle variations in shade and texture. These were much more varied in both size and colour. The smallest came up to his knee, and the largest was half as big again, and each was uniquely patterned. Several of them were visibly rocking now, and the candidates lost no time in spotting those. A few people started to inch closer, until Chereth growled at them. She'd let them Impress, Gilgath told him, but they'd do as they were told beforehand. Pete looked back round to his dragon, high up above the sands, remembering his own Impression. What an amazing, miraculous day that had been! Pete lost himself in his dragon's whirling eyes, until a dull crack echoed through the cave and Gilgath's humming intensified, along with that of all the other dragons.

Pete? Aren't you going to watch?

Of course I am, he answered sheepishly. Pete turned back to the dais; he could just make out what was going on over on the far side. It was one of the larger eggs, but its occupant hadn't quite emerged yet. A dark, zig-zagging crack had appeared on the surface, and it was slowly widening, the inner membrane thinning. The dragon within gave the egg a second blow, and its head burst through, dark with fluid but clearly a gleaming blue.

For a moment, he paused there. All eyes were on the little dragon, and it seemed that scarcely anyone dared breathe. Then he twisted, and a wing appeared, then a leg. As the dragon struggled to free itself, the egg toppled over, and the two halves finally separated. The blue gave a confused wail, and struggled to his feet in front of the candidates. Uncertainly at first, and then with growing confidence, the closest few male candidates stepped forward a few paces. But they were still metres away when the blue stumbled round to face the other way, calling out again. The young dragon made quite remarkable speed across the sand, stopping briefly only when another egg blocked his way. With the obstacle negotiated, he picked up speed again and continued towards his goal, which seemed to be Lucas Trury.

Pete couldn't see Lucas's face from where he was standing, but it was instantly clear when Impression was made, all the same. Lucas suddenly ran forward to meet his dragon, sinking onto his knees on the sand in front of the little blue. Applause once again erupted through the cavern, and one woman - probably Lucas's wife - was jumping up and down with glee.

"What's his name, Lucas?," Sorka called out from the front row of the audience.

Lucas didn't even turn around, so engrossed was he with his new dragon. But he had breath enough to shout with, that was certain, as he answered with the blue's name.

"Kurath! He's called Kurath. Oh fardles, he's starving."

Lucas scrambled back to his feet, and coaxed Kurath towards the ramp. Pete could hear him talking about the tasty, fresh meat that would soon fill the hole in Kurath's belly... Pete snorted a laugh. It'd do the trick, but it'd only be a few hours before he was hungry again!

Pete walked up the ramp, and helped Lucas guide the young dragon back down. It really wasn't too far to the entrance, and soon the little dragon was gorging himself, morsel by morsel.

"He's a fine young thing, isn't he?" someone asked behind Pete.

"Oh, Phas, I thought you were inside."

The xenobiologist grinned. "Far more interesting out here. The next egg might not hatch for ages yet, and I wanted to see this young chap up close."

"He looks pretty good, from what I can tell," Pete said. He'd watched the blue closely as they walked out, and the dragon seemed to have pretty decent conformation, and a good amount of strength for a dragon so young.

Another egg is rocking, Pete. I think it'll hatch soon.

Pete glanced back round at the cavern. They were close enough to the entrance that he could still see what was going on, just about, and he really needed to stay out to supervise this first meal. Let me know when it does, he compromised.

Five minutes later, the cheers from the crowd told him something had happened even before Gilgath could relay the news.

Two hatched at once! A green and a brown.

Wonderful! Which eggs did they come from?

The blue-speckled closest to Chereth hatched the green, and the brown came from the greyish mottled egg in the centre.

Those were the two largest eggs, Pete realised. And one had hatched a green, the smallest of the dragon colours. Well, presumably the smallest - this one was the first, of course! He looked round for Phas, to let him know, but the man had already hurried back inside. Nora was making her way out though.

"I'll take over, Pete," she said. "David's ready to bring the next hatchling out, but with two at once they might need you as well."

He nodded, and followed Phas inside. Neither the brown nor the green had the same certainty that Kurath had had. By the time Pete had returned to the foot of the ramp, the two hatchlings were still stumbling around. Hoping to help the hungry dragons out, once again the candidates started to get closer to the hatchlings. Pete could no longer see quite what was going on, just a flash of green between legs every now and then. And then there was a scream, and the group parted. One of the female candidates had fallen, or been knocked aside as the green struggled past, and she'd been caught by one of the dragon's flailing hind legs.

"Make room!" Sean shouted before Pete could say anything. The audience had erupted into clamourous discussions, but that was of no concern to Pete as he ran up the ramp, David beside him. How badly was Moira injured?

Another of the candidates was beside her when Pete arrived. Betsy, of course - she knew what to do. The girl lifted her head and looked round guiltily. "I got in her way. She didn't mean it."

"Are you hurt?" David asked.

"Just scrapes," Betsy answered for her. "But we should get her cleaned up all the same."

Pete and Betsy carried her down the ramp, where another of the medics was waiting to treat her. Scattered cheers sounded when they were halfway down; another Impression had been made. Leaving Moira with Betsy, Pete went back to stand with Dave.

"The brown Impressed to Abe Kaarvan. Noldrith, he's called," Dave said.

"And the green?"

"She was still looking... ah, there she is, beside Jelena."

Pete looked across the sands for the distinctive white-blonde hair of Jelena Belyakova. He shook his head as Impression was made, and Jelena announced Veryath's name. "Didn't she start off right next to her?"

David shrugged. "They kept moving around; I couldn't keep track. But thank heavens they found each other."

The two newest dragonriders helped their dragons towards the ramp, and followed David out into the bowl. Pete returned to the foot of the ramp, and checked out the remaining four eggs. The green one with the yellow blob still hadn't even twitched. The largest of the remaining eggs was rocking intermittently, but the two others were still. They were closer to the yellow blob egg in size, but perhaps a little larger. The candidates were still milling around on the hot sands, and it was hard to tell if the three smaller eggs weren't moving, or if they just weren't doing it when Pete was watching.

Pete had just turned back to the large egg again, when it seemed to simply disintegrate. Sitting in the remains of her shell was a delicate green dragon. She shook her wings out and called out in hunger, but seemed reluctant to step out of her shell and start looking for her lifemate.

Moments later, Pete understood - the little dragon had found her already. As he watched, Annalise took a single step forward, and embraced her dragon.

"Of course I'll feed you, Belleth!" she said, her voice cracking with emotion.

Now that was a result Pete was pleased with. The girl had been surprisingly fearless facing Thread a few days back, and Pete had no doubt that she'd eventually make an effective dragonrider, even if she was more than a little overwhelmed by Impression itself. Pete pulled a hanky out of his pocket, and offered it to Annalise as she and Belleth reached the floor of the cavern. She took it without reply - Pete wondered if he should take her arm, because she wasn't even looking at where she was walking, just gazing in wonder at her dragon. But they made it outside without incident, and soon Belleth's cries of hunger were transformed into greedy gulping.

With Belleth eating well, Pete looked to see how the other new dragons were doing. Kurath seemed to have finished his meal, and was dozily leaning against Lucas's side as he introduced the blue to his wife. Noldrith and Veryath were still tucking in to their meat heartily, and would probably do so for a while yet.

What about the last eggs? Pete asked his dragon. Is there any change?

The dragon was silent for a moment, and then, abruptly, the humming of the dragons simply stopped.

"Oh no," Pete whispered. He'd been half expecting one of the eggs to fail to hatch, but three of them? That was nearly half the clutch! He ran back inside, wondering what was going on.

The audience seemed confused, and so were the candidates. Some seemed to have given up, and were moving towards the ramp to leave, while others were still looking longingly at the last few eggs. Alianne had come down to speak to Sean and Sorka, but Bay and Wind Blossom... all of the dragon project team, in fact, were there too. Pete went to join the other riders - he'd find out what was happening soon enough, he supposed, and he didn't want any part of the rather heated discussion that was taking place between the scientists. Alianne came over to join him, smiling sadly.

"Chereth tells me her hatchlings are doing well," she said. "She's pleased they all found good partners, and wants to thank you for your help."

"Alianne, I don't know what..."

"Shh," she said, folding her arms. "They're doing well, those four. That's miracle enough for me." Alianne turned away, and walked towards the audience, Sorka breaking away from the scientist's group to follow her.

Wind Blossom was the next departure. "Of course I can't tell you why," she said sharply. "We won't know a thing until the autopsies are done."

Uh oh. That sounded pretty final. As she walked towards the exit, Pete caught Sean's eye. He was frowning, but appeared resigned to what Wind Blossom had said.

"Sean, shall I collect the candidates?" Pete asked.

Sean shook his head. "I'll tell them. David's gone to help get the new dragons settled, but I'd appreciate it if you went over there too. He may be... I'm sure this is nothing to do with Polenth, but we can't be sure. He's not the easiest person to read, but if he wants to talk, listen."

Glumly, Pete nodded. Gilgath was waiting for him outside. And while they'd relived their own wonderful Impression as each egg hatched, a small part of Pete's mind was running through the what-ifs. What if Gilgath's egg had been one of those that had failed to hatch, all those years ago. He simply couldn't imagine life without him, and didn't really want to try. Reaching the bronze, Pete gave him an affectionate stroke on his headknobs. "I love you, Gilgath. But damn, I hope Porth's and Tenneth's eggs do better than Chereth's."

So do I, Pete. So do I.
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Old Oct 4 2007, 11:43 AM   #24
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Chapter 24: Lessons from the lost

The following morning dawned dull and misty.

Sorka had woken early, as she usually did, and like most of the other Weyrfolk, had spent the morning in the company of the newest dragons and their riders. The four dragons had appeared to be in perfectly good health, and were all doing as well as anyone could have expected - at least until Noldrith chewed his own tongue in his haste to eat breakfast. But as the morning progressed, Sorka had found it increasingly hard to shake off her worries about the future of the dragon project. Four new dragons were a very welcome addition to the Weyr, but there should have been almost twice as many! With the new dragons settled and the evening's celebrations well underway, Sean and David had quietly slipped out and returned to the hatching cavern. The unhatched eggs had been carefully loaded into panniers, and conveyed back to the Hold, where Wind Blossom and the other scientists had been working on them ever since. Finding answers took time, of course, but knowing that didn't make the waiting any easier for Sorka to bear.

In the end, the morning was almost over by the time the first news came back to the Weyr, carried by Bay's gold fire-lizard, Mariah. The scientists had apparently learned enough; now, all that was left for the two Weyrleaders to do was to find out whether or not dragonkind had a viable future on Pern.

The flight from Weyr to Hold had never seemed so long as it did today, Sorka decided. It didn't help that she barely fit between Carenath's neck ridges right now, though that mild discomfort was a far better prospect than any more waiting back at the Weyr. Solicitous of her needs, Carenath glided for the last half klick of their descent, landing as lightly as he could in the middle of the Hold's central courtyard.

"We're expected," Sean told her as he slid down from the bronze dragon's neck.

Sorka twisted awkwardly, giving herself just enough room to swing her right leg over Carenath's last neck ridge, and cautiously began her own descent. Sean reached up to support her for the final metre.

"Admiral Benden," he said quietly into her ear, as her feet touched the ground.

"Oh?"

Sorka leaned back into her husband's arms, and closed her eyes. He felt so tense, and had done all day, despite the business as usual demeanour he'd displayed to the rest of the Weyr.

"Mmm. Can't say I'm surprised, after yesterday."

Sorka nodded. Paul Benden hadn't rushed to join the scientists in the immediate aftermath of the hatching, preferring instead to stay with the rest of the spectators. He'd kept them waiting patiently in place until Alianne and Sorka returned to dismiss the audience, and then offered a very brief, off-the-cuff speech welcoming the new dragonriders, before everyone began to file out of the cavern.

It was only then that he'd started asking questions.

Alianne had answered many of them herself. Yes, Chereth had had some concerns about at least one of the eggs, but no, there was no reason to believe that so many of them would be left unhatched. Concerned about the fate of the other clutches still waiting to hatch, he'd pressed for proper answers and explanations. Sorka had found herself echoing Wind Blossom's earlier remarks: they couldn't leap to conclusions, and the answers would have to wait until they knew more.

Until this morning, in fact.

Together, Sean and Sorka turned to face the Admiral. It had been a long time since they'd seen that exact look of steely determination on his face - maybe once or twice since the first time the dragons had fought Thread above Fort Hold - and seeing it didn't make Sorka feel any better.

"How are the hatchlings doing?" Benden asked, getting straight to the point.

Sean straightened up, and looked him in the eyes. "Very well, sir. To be honest, I'm rather pleased with them."

The Admiral smiled, and gave him a quick pat on the shoulder. "Good, good." He stepped to one side and looked Carenath up and down. "Seeing the new dragons hatch yesterday... I didn't really congratulate you properly. I forget, sometimes, quite what remarkable creatures they are." He paused briefly, as if searching for the right words. "Something Alianne said yesterday... 'there's no changing things now'... I want you to know, I still believe in this project, one hundred percent. You're the best hope we've got. I don't know if yesterday was a fluke or a genuine obstacle, but you have my confidence. If changes do need to be made, or if you need any more resources, the Hold will provide them for you."

"Thank you. We appreciate it," Sean said.

Sorka quietly breathed a sigh of relief. It seemed as thought the Admiral would side with the dragonriders in this matter, if sides ever needed to be chosen. "How have the Holders taken the news?" she asked, wondering after the mood in the Hold.

Benden shook his head. "There've been some awkward undercurrents in the last few weeks. Too many groundcrew injuries, the loss of those acres of orchard three Threadfalls back, and the Weyr seeming to drain the best of everything... people, equipment, supplies. They needed something to show for it, and they didn't get it yesterday."

Sean couldn't quite mask his disapproving frown. "I see."

"No, I see," the Admiral insisted. "You've made the best of a bad situation. Could've done with people with your determination back when I was the one fighting battles. So don't think I'm not aware of what you're up against. If I didn't think you were doing a good job, you'd know about it!"

He looked back over his shoulder at the looming cliff-face of the Hold. "They're scared, worried about what the future holds. So, I'm not going to let you sugar-coat anything. If the news is bad, I need to know up front. Your job may be fighting Thread, but it's my job to manage the holders, and to decide how much or how little to tell them. If I'm going to get that right, I need to know the facts, what to expect."

Sean nodded. "I think you're right. I expect I'd do the same, in your position."

They walked in silence to Wind Blossom's laboratory, and were met by Phas Radamanth at the door. Sita was also there, quietly rinsing out glassware and loading up the steriliser at the back of the room, but neither Wind Blossom nor the Harkonen-Nietros appeared to be present.

The place had changed almost beyond recognition since Sorka had last visited. Two of the large workbenches had been dismantled and removed, and the displaced equipment was stacked in piles around the room, wherever a space could be found. Losk must have been re-homed as well, as the laboratory was now brightly lit. All of Wind Blossom's old notes had been wiped clean from the marker board, and replaced by newer diagrams and scribblings. Those, too, were partially obscured, by various papers taped into place, but Sorka could see at least one interesting line. An underlined heading had been edited, so that 'what went wrong?' now read 'what went RIGHT!'. But what most drew Sorka's attention were the two steel autopsy tables standing in the centre of the room, each holding the remains of one of the unhatched dragons.

Even from the doorway, Sorka could tell that there was something grossly wrong with one of them. The creature's hide was a greyish hue, but even ignoring its colour, it simply didn't look like a dragonet should. So, one of them at least had aborted naturally, and apparently with good cause.

The other was a green. Despite her post-autopsy condition, it was quite clear that she was small, much smaller than the other two green dragonets that had hatched the previous day. Sorka walked over for a closer look, Sean beside her. She took his hand, almost without thinking. They'd both seen hatchling autopsies before, after the very first hatching, but this felt so much worse. Spending years of your life partnered to a dragon, a creature who was the other half of your own soul, well, it was inevitable that you'd find your persepective altered. The little green was a pitiful sight. Despite her size, there appeared to be nothing wrong with her. In a way, that made things more worrying. The living hatchlings appeared to be in good health too. Would they stay that way though?

Do not fret, Sorka, Faranth said, feeling her concern. They are strong. They will do well, I am sure.

Sean squeezed her hand, as if he'd heard Faranth as well. "We'll know soon enough." He looked across the table to Phas. "Is Wind Blossom not here? Or Pol, or Bay?"

Phas shook his head. "Pol and Bay needed a break. They'll be back around lunchtime to finish off the last few tests, but they really needed to catch up on their sleep as well. Wind Blossom's still up and about. She went out to collect some samples from her Wher."

"Wher?" Sorka queried the unfamiliar word.

"Hasn't that one reached the Weyr yet?" Phas smiled, and started to explain. "Cara Telgar started it, or maybe one of her brothers, teasing her about her friend not having a proper species name. It caught on pretty quick down here... Blossom's never really liked them being called 'uglies'."

"Many things in nature may be awkward in form, but beautiful in function. Wouldn't you agree?" Wind Blossom closed the door behind her, and beckoned Sita over. "Prep these for testing, then get some rest."

"She's helped all night?" Sorka asked, as the girl took the samples and left the room via the inner door.

Phas beamed with pride. "Never seen her work so hard before. Spotted one or two things I'd have missed as well, but she said that was just because you dragonriders had taught her so much." He pulled out a couple of lab stools from beneath a bench, and offered them to Sorka and the Admiral. "Please, sit down."

Wind Blossom walked over to one of the remaining work benches, moved a microscope out of the way, and twisted one of the computer screens round so that everyone could see it.

"I'll start with the samples Pol collected from the hatchlings last night." She bent over a keyboard and tapped out a quick sequence of keystrokes, bringing up an animation on the screen. "The mentasynth adaption is well in place, and appears to have been perfectly transferred to the next generation." Thousands of tiny lights began to flicker in various places along the colour-coded triple helix.

"I'll take your word for it," Benden said, staring blankly at the screen.

Sorka grunted a laugh. Understanding the full complexity of draconic DNA was beyond everyone in the room, except for Wind Blossom herself.

The scientist overlaid a second pattern on top of the first, then a third. "You can see there's no change, despite the other variations."

"Are those all from the hatchlings?" Sean asked.

"No. The first was Trury's blue, the second Polenth, and the last was from the green." Wind Blossom gestured at the dissected corpse. "Splicing the mentasynth sequences into the fire-lizard genome only a few generations before developing an entirely new species could have caused problems. It didn't."

Wind Blossom spent the next half hour carefully explaining all the major differences between dragons and fire-lizards that had been engineered into the genome. Sorka could remember most of it, but after several years, some of the details eluded her.

"That ZD31 sequence... was that only in the first batch of eggs Kitti engineered?" Sorka had a vague memory that it had been implicated as a risk factor for some of the aborts from the first clutch.

"Yes, but it transferred well from Polenth to two of the surviving hatchlings, and the strengthened RB3 locus was also properly expressed."

Sorka nodded. Kitti had made some serious alterations to the genome; as far as Sorka remembered, that one was supposed to be linked to the dragon's ability to go between, though how it worked and what it did was beyond her grasp.

"And the others?" Sean asked.

"Those too," Phas confirmed. "But it was translocated in the case of the mutation, along with half a dozen other different sequences. Blossom, shall we move on to that one now?"

"We've only covered the basics... but I suppose the rest can go into my report," Wind Blossom said as she reluctantly switched the machine off.

She led the group over to the first hatchling. Under the cold, artificial lighting, it didn't look much like a dragon at all.

"What colour is it?" Benden wondered aloud.

"'It' is the operative word," Phas said. "There are aspects of both genders, alongside several other issues.". He counted off some of the main findings on his fingers. "Brain was normal, weak heart, fused wing bones, shortened legs, and half its organs in the wrong place. It died some time ago."

"Probably for the best, then," Benden said.

"Yes," Sean agreed. "There's only so much Kitti could do to prevent mutations, but nature has its own way of managing them."

"What about the other two?" Benden asked.

"May I?" Sean pulled a pair of disposable gloves out of the box on the nearest workbench, and strode over to examine the green.

"She's quite normal, except for her size," Wind Blossom said, as Sean began to flex the unhatched dragon's wings and legs. "The brown was just the same."

"So what went wrong?" Sean asked, prising open the dragon's jaw so he could peer into her mouth.

"On the genetic front, nothing at all. Six of the seven were perfect."

"Was it the condition of the hatching grounds, then?"

Wind Blossom laughed softly. "Sean Connell, I'd have thought you'd have figured it out by now."

"And if not," Phas began, "take a look at this." He went over to one of the other benches which was covered in fragments of shell, and selected two pieces. "This is from the green's egg, and this other..." He turned it over to check the pen markings, and then passed them both to Sorka. "Veryath's shell. Look at the structure. The different deposition rates are quite obvious."

Sorka weighed the two pieces of shell in her hand. Both were about the same size, but the unhatched eggshell was far thicker, and much more rough to the touch. "I see."

"My mother's safeguards worked exactly as planned," Wind Blossom said. "Growing eggs in vitro was easy, but in vivo you have to prioritise"

"We can't afford stunted dragons," Phas explained, mainly for the Admiral's benefit. "If there are limited resources, the system needs to take that into account. In this case, by not allowing more hatchlings to grow to term than the queen can cope with."

An idea slowly began to form inside Sorka's mind. Chereth's clutch had been small, but her flight had been low... The connection was obvious, yes, but the reason for it had eluded her until now. "That old theory about cats. They're a bit like that, aren't they."

"Not quite the same at all, but..." Sean's eyes lit up. "It was the flight, then?"

Wind Blossom dipped her head in agreement, and offered Sorka a piece of paper. "Bay isolated the hormone in some of Mariah's samples. We found the same one in the ichor from the queen dragons, but look how much lower it is in Chereth's case."

Sorka peered at the figures. Well, this was interesting. And quite a relief, too!

"Ahem."

Everyone turned to look at Admiral Benden.

"I'm none the wiser here," he said.

"Sorry, sir," Sean said. "I'm guessing there's a link between the intensity of a dragon's mating, and her fertility. Is that correct, Blossom?"

The scientist's face darkened in the faintest of blushes. "Basically, yes. We can't agree on whether it affects the number of eggs or not, but she simply wasn't prepared for a large pregnancy, not on a hormonal level."

"And that was because of her flight?" the Admiral said.

Sorka's mind was racing. Oh, this was such good news. There was no reason to worry about Chereth, Polenth, or any of their surviving offspring. Alianne and David would be so relieved! And if Blossom's theory was correct, then surely there was no reason to worry about Porth's clutch, or any of the others! The scientist's next words confirmed her hopes.

"Yes. A longer flight, and you'd have had at least two more dragons, I think."

Benden raised his eyebrows. "Would you say Porth's flight was sufficiently intense for a good clutch?"

Wind Blossom was definitely blushing now! "I think the number of eggs she laid speaks for itself."

"And to think of all the complaints," Benden said, shaking his head.

"The main thing is, Chereth clutched four healthy offspring, and Porth's clutch ought to do better." Phas said.

"Yes," Wind Blossom agreed, regaining her composure. "You'll all have my full report tomorrow, of course, but I do have more work to do. Was there anything else?"

Sorka knew a dismissal when she heard one, and shook her head. She was curious about some of the details, but that could wait until after she and Sean had shared the good news with the rest of the Weyr. They thanked the scientists together and left the laboratory, Admiral Benden following.

"I think I've learned enough for one day," he said, as they walked back to the main courtyard. "But how long will it be before Porth's clutch hatches?"

Sean slowed, thinking. "Three, maybe four days?"

"Good, good. I'd like to attend again, if possible, along with the other guests?"

Sean looked at Sorka to see if she agreed, and she nodded her head. "I think that would help," she said.

The admiral stayed with them for a few more minutes, exchanging small talk while Sean helped Sorka up between Carenath's ridges. Sorka watched him go with mixed emotions. She'd as much as implied that Porth's clutch would definitely hatch well, but if she was honest with herself, she still had a few lingering doubts. Things could always go wrong at the last minute.

"Carenath says you're troubled?" Sean said, mounting up behind her. He reached one arm round to hold her belly, and kissed the back of her neck. "She'll be fine. The dragons are fine. And Dave and Alianne will be over the moons."

"I know," Sorka said, trying to sound convincing. They'd know one way or the other soon enough, but for now, their hopes would have to do.
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Old Oct 12 2007, 04:39 AM   #25
Kath
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Default Re: DragonDays

Chapter 25: The moment of truth

With the gentlest of nudges, Porth carefully rolled the mottled brown egg back into its warm, sandy hollow. As Tarrie watched, the gold queen craned her neck to either side of the egg, checking its position. Sira, Tarrie's queen dragonet, was also watching Porth at work, from a vantage point on top of a nearby egg. The little gold had been chirruping at Porth since before dawn, no doubt making her own suggestions about which egg should be turned next.

Tarrie reached out to the nearest egg, and stroked its hard shell. They'd started off feeling like soft suede, but after several weeks on the hot sands, they'd hardened up nicely. It was tricky to say how soon they'd hatch just based on their texture, but surely it wouldn't be long now?

It won't, Porth confirmed.

Tarrie looked around the cavern, admiring the sight of all Porth's eggs. Will they all hatch, do you think?

I don't know. The dragon lowered her head to rest it on the sand beside the brown egg and lidded her eyes, listening intently. She'd been doing it for a few days now, and claimed she could hear the unborn dragons in their shells if she listened right. Not thoughts as such, just vague tendrils of hungry emotions.

After a few minutes, Porth lifted her head and gave a mental sigh. This little one has grown too quiet.

Tarrie fearfully touched the egg beside her again. Nearly half of Chereth's eggs had failed to hatch, and although the scientists had assured her that Porth's clutch was likely to do much, much better, the uncertainty made the waiting interminable.

And then she felt the egg move beneath her fingers. Startled, she looked down in time to see it move again, rocking ever so slightly. Tarrie laughed in delight. ``But this one's woken up!''

It grows impatient, and hungry. It will hatch today. Porth carefully sidestepped around her eggs, and crooned soothingly at the rocking egg. It was a strange sound, and Tarrie could almost catch the edge of the full-throated hum that would announce the hatching. The queen dipped her head, and listened again. Today, but not yet, she eventually decided.

Even so, perhaps I should tell Sean?


He knows. Carenath asked me earlier. Shoth, too. I told them both it would be today.

Aided by Porth's keen senses, Tarrie realised that someone was heading in their direction. She turned to see Otto, carrying a tray of breakfast.

"Good morning, Otto."

He returned her greeting, and nodded at Porth. "Didn't think you'd want to leave her today."

Tarrie shook her head. "Not really. And thanks, it was very thoughtful of you."

"Well, I aim to please."

Something caught Otto's eye beyond Tarrie's shoulder, and she realised he was staring at one of the eggs. Tarrie twisted her head to take a look.

"Was it just my imagination, or have some of them started moving?" he asked.

"No, that one's definitely rocking now. This one, too," she added, pointing at the egg between them. At that point, her stomach rumbled, and she eyed the tray Otto was carrying. "Did you bring enough for two?"

"Depends on how hungry you are." Otto quickly glanced round the cavern. "Ah, is David still here then? I thought he'd left already."

Tarrie arched an eyebrow. "I don't offer twice, you know. Dave's out with Chereth's hatchlings down by the lake." As usual. Tarrie stilled her face, stopping the growing frown in its tracks. Feeling jealous of the young dragons was really rather foolish, wasn't it.

Otto grunted a laugh and smiled charmingly. "Breakfast then. Guess I should've tried this tack a long time ago."

He was lucky she was in a good mood, Tarrie thought, shaking her head. She walked over to the rough seating ledge, trusting him to follow. Otto sat down beside her, and passed her a plate of toast and a jar of redfruit preserve.

"It won't be long now, will it?" he asked.

Tarrie shook her head again, and twisted open the jar. "Not now they've started moving," she said, spreading the dark jam thinly on her toast. "That's three of them now," she added, waving a piece of toast in the direction of one of the eggs in the centre.

"So I see. Oh, and there goes another."

Tarrie craned her neck. "The one with the brown hashing on yellow? That was moving earlier."

"Oh?"

It'll be one of the first to hatch, I'm sure, Porth said.

Tarrie shared Porth's comment with Otto, and together they watched it twitch again, more violently this time.

Otto whistled through his teeth as the egg almost toppled over. "How much time do we have?" he asked.

Tarrie gave up on finishing the rest of her toast, and absently passed the crusts to Sira. She glanced up at the dais, only recently vacated by Chereth. The plan was that the spectators would be seated up there, but only half of the chairs had been put into position so far. "I guess we could get started removing Porth's screens, and finish setting up the chairs for the guests," she suggested.

"You think there'll be many?"

"I don't know. I hope so." Tarrie knew that Admiral Benden and the scientists were intent on attending, but the last she'd heard, Sean and Sorka had been undecided over how many of the friends and relatives of the candidates should be invited. A good hatching would be good for the Weyr, and good for the Holdfolk to witness. But if the eggs didn't hatch well... no, they would. Sorka had seemed so confident, about Porth's clutch.

And so am I, Porth said. They will see my eggs hatch well. They need to. They should be proud of what we achieved, not ashamed of us. The dragon's mental tone was cheerful and confident, but beneath it Tarrie could detect some lingering resentment over all the awkwardness that the Holders had put Tarrie through.

Of course they should! Tarrie agreed, unconsciously bolstering her dragon. "Let's put all the chairs out," she decided.

The riders set to work laying out the chairs, and were soon joined by Nora. "How's Tenneth?" Tarrie asked as the two women completed the fourth row.

"Getting some sleep while she can," Nora said softly. "Hatchings are noisy business!"

Together, they laid out another half row of chairs, and returned to the stack by the wall for more, where Otto was waiting.

"Leave those, Tarrie," he said, eyes half-glazed. "Shoth says the guests are arriving. We should probably go out and greet them."

"Already?" She blinked, and reached out for Porth.

I told them to hurry, the dragon said. It won't be very long now, and I didn't want them to be late.

"You two go ahead; I'll finish here," Nora said, shooing Tarrie and Otto aside.

Outside, the Weyr Bowl was busier than Tarrie had ever seen it before. The sky seemed to be filled with dragons, either returning from the Hold with passengers, or heading back to collect more guests. Those that had already arrived were gathered in small groups, waiting to be invited into the hatching cavern. Off to one side, the candidates had already assembled for their final briefing. She spotted Admiral Benden amongst them, probably wishing them luck, and walked over to join him.

"Admiral Benden, it's good to see you here."

"Ah, Tarrie." Benden grinned, and slapped her enthusiastically on the back. "Stop looking so worried. Your Weyrleader's convinced those eggs of your will hatch well, and so are all the scientists. I can hardly do anything other than agree with them now, can I?"

Tarrie laughed, buoyed up by the admiral's confidence.

"I suppose so sir."

It had been a strange few days, to say the least. On the one hand, she trusted Porth's instincts about the eggs, and everything Sorka had told her of the scientists' last meeting had only strengthened her conviction. But she'd also seen what David had been going through since Chereth's clutch had hatched... or rather, not seen, as he'd barely spent a moment's time with her, preferring to be alone with Polenth. And when he wasn't with Polenth, he was checking on the hatchlings for the fourth or fifth time that day. Aside from meals and Threadfalls, they'd not had much chance to talk, but even so she couldn't help but share some of his doubts.

Gradually, the other guests joined them, and Tarrie went from person to person welcoming them to the Weyr and explaining where they'd be seated, and what to expect from the hatching if they hadn't been at Chereth's. She kept half her mind close to Porth as she and Otto led the guests inside, hoping that it didn't make her seem too distracted... but she'd rather look silly than be the last to know when it was time for the hatching to start.

In the end, Tarrie was never certain whether she heard it first, or felt it. The guests were still only half seated when Porth's gentle crooning altered into the long-expected hum, and the sound was almost instantly picked up by Shoth, who was perched at the upper entrance to the cavern, and also by Sira, nestled tightly around Tarrie's neck. The other dragons and fire-lizards followed suit, and soon the sound was reverberating across the Weyr. Porth carefully stepped back away from her eggs, barely disturbing the sands at all, and joined Tarrie and Otto beside the cavern wall. Together, they watched the candidates file in.

They are good people, Porth said.

"All eighty-three of them," Tarrie agreed aloud. And they were indeed. From young Michael Byrne, barely sixteen years old, to Paul's partner Farenna Galliani, the oldest at thirty-one, they truly were some of the better colonists in Tarrie's eyes. All of them would do well as dragonriders, but which would be chosen today? At least the inevitable disappointment for many wouldn't last long, not with Tenneth's and Milath's clutches hardening daily. The candidates formed a loose ring around the rocking eggs, to allow the dragons a clear choice once they'd hatched, and waited.

And waited.

Tarrie looked around the ring of candidates, and then smiled at David, Shih and Kathy, standing on the other side of Porth ready to treat any injuries. Pete, Lin and Jerry were standing on the far side of the candidates, close to the cavern's gaping entrance; they'd be supervising the new pairs after Impression, leading them out and getting the hungry dragons fed. Steadily, the humming of the dragons and fire lizards increased in intensity, until Tarrie could feel it in her bones. And then the first new sound echoed across the cavern, a loud cracking that could only mean one thing.

Tarrie peered between the candidates, trying to spot her favoured egg. No, it wasn't that one that had cracked, though it was rocking so hard it had almost set itself rolling over. Ah, there it was! The cracked egg was mottled with striking irregular shapes, almost like clouds, with the crack resembling a bolt of lightning. The second crack was enough for the tip of the dragonet's nose to break through, damp with fluids. It stretched forwards, trying to escape its shell through the hole it had already made, then retreated. With the third blow, the dragonet surged free, its egg splintering around it. Was it...

A bronze, Porth informed her.

The bronze unfurled his wings, and stumbled forwards towards the waiting candidates, creeling. He looked around, and changed direction slightly, heading directly for Michael Byrne. Impression was swift; Porth's elation told her the moment it had happened. The cheers of the audience almost drowned out Michael's voice as the lad announced his dragon's name, but Porth had heard well enough.

Kalinth. They will do well together.

Tarrie was barely conscious of Otto hugging her; her attention had been drawn back to the brown and yellow egg she'd been watching most of the morning. It had rolled over completely now, the shell crumpling. The dragonet inside hadn't yet got free of it, and appeared to be trying to kick a way out. One green leg appeared, followed by a wing, and then the movement ceased. The nearest candidates began to murmer, wondering whether the dragonet needed help.

Porth?

She's managing. She rests for a moment, but her hunger will make her try again soon. They must let her choose for herself.

Tarrie shook her head at the girls nearest to the dragonet. "Not yet. Give her a moment."

As if she'd merely been waiting for enough of the audience, the green dragon rolled herself over again and stood up, shaking herself free of her shell. Again, she seemed to have an instinctive knowledge of where her rider was, finding Farenna Galliani with ease. This time, Tarrie was close enough to hear the dragon's name: Allath. She was a little amused by the dragonets' choices; Michael and Farenna, the youngest and oldest candidates. What were the odds of that? Still, at least it proved that age wasn't the biggest factor when the dragons looked for their riders.

It was a few minutes before the next egg hatched, but Tarrie was no longer in any doubt that they would. Porth was brimming with confidence, and thrilled with the two dragons that had hatched already. The others would hatch in their own time, she insisted. As it happened, three of them chose almost the same moment: a green on the far side of the clustered eggs, and a brown and a blue right next to each other. The blue, Sineath, Impressed Jens Clissman almost straight away, but the brown and green were apparently a little more uncertain. Or maybe they were just more choosy.

Suddenly, the brown went sprawling into the sands, one lucky candidate just managing to throw himself out of the way in time. The brown hauled himself back onto his feet, his muzzle covered in sand, ignoring the two candidates who'd tried to help him up. He turned away from them and, limping, began to search again. Shih started to shadow him outside the ring of candidates, ready to check on the
dragon's injury once Impression had taken place.

Another green hatched, then another blue, but neither found their human partners quickly. With four dragons scattered around the ring, and candidates milling to and fro, it was hard to keep track of what was going on.

Brown Luruth has Impressed, Porth said, and visualised the face of one of the candidates.

The cheers from the dais reached a crescendo again, and Tarrie realised that they had a far better view than she did.

"Any idea?'' David called out to her, equally confused.

"Simon Keating is rider to brown Luruth," Tarrie said, as Dave walked over to join her and Otto. "Oh, and one of the greens has stopped in front of Lia."

"She'll make a good rider, I reckon," Dave said with a smile as they waited for Lia to announce her dragon's name. "Tegwenth, that's rather pretty."

"If you say so," Otto said. "But hey, five dragons Impressed. That's better than Chereth already."

David glared at him, sparing Tarrie the need to jab Otto in the ribs.

"There's still a lot to go," she said, watching with trepidation as the un-Impressed dragons roam the sands.

David wrapped an arm around her shoulders. "They'll do fine, I promise."

She smiled, and snaked an arm around his waist to hug him back. "We know."

Otto rolled his eyes, but whether it was at the show of affection or the unnecessary reassurances, Tarrie couldn't quite tell. "Of course they'll Impress well," he said insistently. "You know what Wind Blossom said about the flights. Why wouldn't they?"

Tarrie knew that look. Otto could be far too smug at times. "We knew what to expect. That's all," she said drily.

Otto grunted a laugh, and looked away. "Oh, you were full of surprises, Tarrie," he muttered under his breath. But except for the creeling of hungry dragons, the crowd had quietened, and Otto's voice was just loud enough for David to overhear.

"She was, was she?" David folded his arms across his chest, his face tight.

Otto looked him in the eyes. "Well that explains a lot, doesn't it."

"Stop it," Tarrie hissed. "You're not doing this here, not now." She reached out for Porth, hoping the men would quit their bickering quickly. How are they doing?

Green Nolath has Impressed. Another blue has hatched and Impressed - Wymeth. The other blue is still searching.


Tarrie quickly scanned the crowd, looking for Pete or one of his other helpers, but they were nowhere to be seen. Ah, there was Shih, heading back inside again. David seemed to have spotted the same problem.

"I'll help get those two out and fed, Tarrie," he said, still glaring at Otto. "Someone should." He trudged away across the sand, leaving Tarrie and Otto in an awkward silence.

After a few moments, Otto looked blankly up at Shoth, and sighed. "Why's he always right?" he asked no one in particular. He smiled sheepishly at Tarrie, and then set off after David.

Fardling useless men, Tarrie said to Porth, not really happy with either of them.

He's jealous.

Perhaps. But that still doesn't excuse his behaviour.

Through a gap in the ring of candidates, Tarrie got a good look at the remaining eggs. Another two greens had hatched, and as she watched, a third green broke shell. That blue's been looking for a while now, she mused.

Porth silently agreed, as two more Impressions took place. Michael's sister Sara Impressed green Harth, but Porth hadn't got a good look at the young girl who'd Impressed Enyith, the last green to hatch. Never mind. There'd be plenty of time to put names to faces later on. The remaining green on the sands stopped before Claire Lensdale, and moments later the usually unflinchingly sensible woman had tears spilling down her cheeks as she insisted that yes, she would feed her darling Liseth very, very soon.

Tarrie was starting to get worried about the blue as it completed another circuit of the waiting candidates. She was briefly distracted by a brown dragon bursting free of his shell and Impressing almost straight away, and when she looked back, it was clear that the blue had finally found his lifemate as well, in the form of Martin Moore.

Jormath, the blue is called.

How can some of them can find partners so quickly, while others just keep looking, and looking? Tarrie wondered. Would a blue be more particular than a brown? Were they looking for different things in the candidates?

Porth gave a mental snort. He was undecided. If the boy he chose wasn't here, he'd have Impressed one of the other candidates. The brown, Shardenth, was not so fussy.

Really?

Yes.

Tarrie was relieved to hear it. For the first time in what seemed like hours, there were no hatchling dragons looking for riders. Tarrie took the opportunity to count up the remaining eggs. Only nine left... no, eight! Tarrie adjusted her count as another green sprang out of the remains of her shell. She quickly Impressed one of the younger girls; Tarrie rummaged in her memory for the girl's name, and came up with nothing. She wasn't someone Tarrie knew, except as a vaguely familiar face from the Hold. But even though she couldn't place the girl's name, the wonderstruck look on her face as she told the watching Weyr that the green's name was Plarrath was very familiar to Tarrie, reminding her of how she'd felt when she'd Impressed Porth. She felt a lot more forgiving by the time Otto came back over to join her.

"Sorry. I was being an idiot," he admitted.

"It's been hard for him. You rubbing it in doesn't help anything."

Otto winced. "I know." He looked at her wistfully for a moment, then shook his head and turned back to watch the rocking eggs.

I wonder what that was about, Tarrie mused to her dragon.

You humans are too complicated,
Porth said. He likes you more than he wants to. That's just foolish. You should either like someone, or not. But he is sorry too.

Ah. And there I was thinking he was just a sore loser. She switched her attention back to the eggs again. There were still eight left, of the twenty one that Porth had laid. Two hatched at once, spilling a blue and a second bronze onto the sands. They were followed by first one green, then another, transforming the earlier quiet into a raucous circus of stumbling, hungry dragons and eager candidates. Porth was a boon in the confusion, keeping Tarrie closely informed about how the dragons were doing. Green Silth Impressed first, then bronze Auvreth found Pablo Moreno. The candidates, well over sixty of them remaining, were moving around a lot more now that there were fewer eggs left to hatch - in spite of the fact that they'd all have another chance in a little under two weeks. Oh, they were still following instructions and not getting too close to the young dragons, but with only four eggs and two roaming hatchlings left, the tension was certainly getting higher. Blue Tanth Impressed, and was replaced on the sands by another blue hatchling at almost the same moment. That blue, too, soon found his rider.

Porth, what was the name? I didn't hear.


Invaloth.

In a flurry of activity, another green and blue broke shell. Liam Cooper was found acceptable by blue Undinth, leaving just two greens roaming the sands, and a single unhatched egg. Tarrie wasn't surprised to see that it was the one Porth had been concerned about earlier. The remaining male candidates began to slip away from the circle to cluster around the last egg, leaving just the girls ringing the two green dragonets. Tarrie watched Meriel Clarkson Impress Werriath, and then glanced back at the last egg. It hadn't moved an inch, she was sure of it.

Will it hatch?

Porth was silent for a moment. No, Tarrie. I do not think it will. That one is lost, she finished sadly.

Tarrie sighed. Even though it was just the one... well, dragonkind was so special, and the knowledge that this little egg was lost... well, it was still very hard to take. All she could do was hope that the last green found a good partner amongst the remaining girls.

As Tarrie and Porth watched, the green dragon came to a halt in the middle of the ring, and tilted her head thoughtfully. She sat back on her haunches, and then lurched sideways, making a beeline for Sita Radamanth and Betsy Patrick. Had she chosen one of them? Which would it be?

"Fenneth!"

It was Sita who called out the dragon's name, and then sank gracefully to the sands to embrace the delicate dragon. Slowly, the dragons' humming faded away to silence, leaving only the cheers of the spectators. The hatching had undoubtedly been a success.

Smiling, Tarrie spun round to hug her dragon round the neck, utterly thrilled with the way things had turned out. Porth, too, was pleased with her offspring. The dragon's eyes were whirling green-blue with pride as she watched Sita lead Fenneth out into the bowl.

They will all do very well, I think.

There was no doubt about that in Tarrie's mind at all. Yes, I do believe they will. Oh Porth, I'm so proud of you!
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Old Oct 16 2007, 04:43 AM   #26
Kath
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Join Date: Nov 2004
Location: Oop North

Fan of: Moreta
Default Re: DragonDays

Epilogue

Early Autumn. The Fourth Year of the First Pass.



A hundred metres beneath the ascending dragons, a small girl, one of the watching Holdfolk, raised an arm and vigorously began waving the dragons goodbye. It was rare for any first-time passenger to dare to return a wave during the steep climb out of the Hold's valley, despite being securely strapped in place. But a few wingbeats later, Sorka felt one of the hands clasped tightly around her waist loosen, then disappear completely. She smiled, glad that Genny had summoned up enough confidence to let go and return her sister's wave; it boded well for the girl's first trip between. Sorka looked downwards again, judging the altitude by eye, and then turned to check on the positions of the other dragons, and the state of their passengers. Thankfully, none of them looked too terrified... yet.

Faranth, tell the others they're free to go as soon as their passengers are ready.

Sorka twisted between Faranth's ridges until she could see their own two passengers, Genevieve Messurier and Imran Raghir.

"Is it time?" Imran shouted over the rushing of the wind.

Sorka nodded. "Yes. I'll raise my arm, like this, and drop it when we're about to make the jump. You've been told what to expect, but until you've experienced between, you don't really know. Just don't panic. You may not feel anything, but we're all there, together, and it'll soon be over. Are you ready?"

"Yes, ma'am."

"Yes, Weyrwoman."

Satisfied with their answers, Sorka nodded, and began to visualise the view of the Weyrbowl from the south. The solid weyrling barracks, the new excavations on the north face above Faranth's own weyr, and the first snow of the year coating the Tooth Crag in white.

Porth and Chereth are on the heights south of the Crag, Faranth told her.

Sorka added the two golds to her image, and raised her right arm. She waited a few second to let the candidates compose themselves, then let the arm drop. Let's go home.

Blackness enveloped them, cutting off Genny's shriek before it had properly started. Sorka counted down through the silence, hoping the girl would have given up by the time they re-emerged. She'd been almost deafened by frightened passengers several times in the past, and hoped this wouldn't be another one of those occasions. Luckily, as Faranth burst back out into the air above the Weyr, Genevieve was merely gasping for breath. Sorka reached back to give the girl a reassuring pat on the thigh, and looked round for the others. Catherine and Siglath had arrived before them, and were circling a few dragonlengths away. Jerry and Manooth arrived next, followed by Arna and gold Shallarth. Sorka smothered a laugh; from the sounds of it, poor Arna had got today's screamer.

"Faranth will land us as gently as possible," Sorka shouted back over her shoulder, "but it can still give you a bit of a jolt if you're too tense. Try and relax."

Once on the ground, the candidates were soon dismounted. As this was their first visit to the Weyr, they'd be starting with a full tour. The candidate barracks were the first stop, giving the eight young people a chance to drop their belongings by a bed, and put on a change of trousers if necessary. They'd meet their fellow candidates later in the day, once everyone had completed their assigned chores. While the new candidates sorted themselves out, Sorka stopped by each of the doorways to the dormitories and scanned the rooms, counting the spare beds. There was enough room to accommodate another thirty or so female candidates, with maybe half that many spare beds in the boy's dorms. She tallied up the eggs which were now hardening on the sands; sixty-three candidates plus the eight new arrivals would be more than ample for the fourteen eggs of Venvaith's clutch... but Elliath's twenty-three and Ukith's fifteen would also be hatching before the month was out.

Without a reliable means of knowing who would actually Impress, it was absolutely essential that the hatchling dragons had a large pool of candidates from which to select their riders. When Amalath's and Faranth's clutches had hatched within hours of each other, they'd had to split the candidates into two groups, sending one group down to the southern peninsula while the other half remained at the Weyr. There'd been barely half a dozen 'spare' candidates for each hatching, but they'd thought that would be enough... at least until the first dragon died, going between in hungry anguish, having failed to find a suitable rider. They'd lost a bronze and a blue from Amalath's clutch, and a green from Faranth's. That had been the final straw; Sean had sworn he'd never allow a dragon to die that way again. Ever since, the Weyr had presented a minimum of fifty candidates at every hatching, taking their pick from the young people of the Hold. Only the most essential workers could deny the Weyr's Search, with the candidates only having their position reviewed if they didn't Impress within a year, or, in the case of female candidates, if they fell pregnant. And if some girls were throwing themselves into that duty with suspicious haste, well, the Hold always needed new babies.

There were a few exceptions to the one-year rule, of course. Poor Betsy had been utterly distraught when the green had suicided in front of her, refusing to Impress to either her or any of the other women present. Having been rejected once in such a manner, Betsy had refused to stand again, claiming that merely by the fact of being a candidate she was giving the dragons less choice rather than more. She'd moved back to her family's stakehold on Ierne Island, as far from the Weyr as possible, where they still fought Thread only with fire lizards and flamethrowers. Apparently she was very happy there, newly married to Andy Kiersey... but Sorka still missed her friend.

Of the remaining original candidates, only Betsy and Dean Rado had failed to Impress. Most of the youngsters on Kitti's reserve-list had also Impressed, but the volunteers hadn't done quite so well on average. As Jerry and Arna gathered the new candidates together again, Sorka decided that she'd have to go back to the Hold sooner rather than later. She had a fairly good idea of who the Weyr's next sixteen candidates would be, but they were in desperate need of a better way of selecting them. Hopefully, Sorka was close to finding one, and the next few clutches would prove her theory one way or the other.

Jerry and Arna's tour would probably take several hours, but it was only really the next stop that Sorka was interested in - the Weyrling barracks. Lucas and blue Kurath were waiting beside the heavy metal doors, with Claire and Liseth behind them; the candidates didn't need to know that these two pairs were no longer resident in the barracks, having already graduated to one of the ground-level weyrs on the far side of the bowl due to lack of space for the younger dragons. No, the important thing was giving the candidates the chance to meet some of the smaller green and blue dragons up close... and giving Kurath the chance to meet them.

"Gather round, candidates, and take a good look at Kurath and Liseth," Jerry began. "You'll see some of the younger weyrling dragons inside, sleeping off their last meal, but we want you to see what the greens and blues look like when they're almost fully grown. Lucas, would you ask Kurath to stand up and extend his wings?"

"Sure thing, Jerry." Lucas gave his dragon an affectionate rub on the headknobs and stood to one side, giving Kurath the space to stand up and stretch out. The blue was significantly smaller than the browns and bronzes, only about sixteen hands at the shoulder, but his body was far longer than that of a horse of the same height. Stocky hind limbs would give him the strength to leap skywards, and his heavily muscled barrel chest gave him the lungs and wingpower to fly with. Sean didn't think that the blues and greens would have the same staying power as the larger dragons, but that was something they'd only find out for certain once they started flying properly.

With Lucas' permission, Jerry invited the candidates to take a closer look, and even to feel the blue's soft hide. Kurath turned his whirling blue-green eyes on each of them, head cocked to one side in interest. Green Liseth was then asked to perform the same demonstration, and after that, Claire showed the candidates how much easier it was to mount and dismount from one of the smaller dragons. All the while, Kurath kept his attention on the candidates, looking to nd fro between them. As the candidates were led by Jerry and Arna inside the barracks, Sorka walked over to speak to Lucas.

"Well?" she asked.

Lucas grinned sheepishly. "I still can't believe you're taking us seriously, but we did as you asked. Kurath's an amiable lad, and... I guess he likes people."

"Not all of them."

"No, guess not. But..."

"No 'buts', Lucas," Sorka insisted. "There isn't a single candidate he's shown an interest in that didn't Impress within two or three clutches, you know that. Montse Cervantes and Nick Gomez from Faranth's clutch, and about a dozen since. And the reverse, too - he couldn't stand Euan Evans, could he?"

"Well, no..."

"Lucas, really I think you two are on to something."

Lucas shook his head and shrugged. "I don't want you to choose the wrong people, just because Kurath takes a shine to them."

Sorka grimaced, sharing some of the same doubts herself. But if it worked... "We've got to narrow the field somehow, and I think this is a risk worth taking," she said. "Venvaith's clutch hatches tomorrow, and I know which of the current candidates he favours. If they do better on average than the other candidates, Sean and I will insist you join our Search team."

Lucas nodded, and turned to his dragon. "Kurath, what do you think?" Seconds later, he looked back at Sorka. "I think you're right. He says he likes them, and that they're people that any dragon should like."

"Well, that's good enough for now. What about the new ones?"

The bluerider's eyes glazed briefly. "The Messurier girl, he liked, and the two brothers. Oh, and the short pretty one who couldn't stop giggling."

Sorka pulled a stub of pencil and paper out of her pocket, and scribbled down the names to be added to her list. "Thank him for me, would you?"

"Of course. Will you be around to watch us fly later?"

After nine months of intensive training and hours of solo flights on the part of the dragons, today was the day that the Weyrlings from Porth's and Chereth's clutches would be flying with their riders for the first time. Sorka folded her arms across her chest, and smiled in mock exasperation. "You need to ask? Lucas Trury, almost the whole Weyr will be watching. Sean and I wouldn't miss it for the world."



* * *



Peter Semling watched the weyrlings lead their dragons out the shallow water at the edge of the Weyr's lake, shaking his head in dismay. Despite the waders they'd all been given, and the oilskin waterproofs, almost half the class were soaked to the skin, and shivering. It hadn't mattered so much during the hot summer, when the new dragonriders had appreciated their dragons' exuberance in the water... but now that the weather had started to turn, the lake had become a far less pleasant place to bathe.

He nodded to Gilgath, and the sturdy bronze bellowed loudly enough to get the Weyrlings' attention, startling several of the watching candidates in the process.

"Weyrlings! What's the first rule?"

A few hands were raised, but Pete was looking for one of the wetter weyrlings from Faranth's and Amalath's clutches to answer. Ah, Jamie Duff would do.

"Yes, Jamie?"

"My dragon's needs come first, sir," he said, teeth chattering.

Pete forced a stern frown onto his face. "And who's responsible for your dragon?"

"I am, sir."

"So what happens if you become ill, or incapacitated?"

Jamie stuffed his hands under his armpits, attempting to warm them up. "Err... I mean..." He trailed off, and began to look genuinely concerned. "Sir, what does happen if we fall ill?"

Pete looked round the class, making sure that all of the weyrlings were paying attention. "You don't fall ill. Not if you can help it. You and your dragon need to look out for each other. There's not a lot either of you can do about a winter virus, but you can make sure you're fit, healthy, and don't do stupid things like getting drenched in the lake on a cold day. Is that understood?"

"Yes, sir," the class chorused back immediately.

Pete smiled again. "Good. Now let's get these dragons oiled. You'll soon warm up if you do the job properly..." He looked over his shoulder towards Gilgath and the waiting group of candidates. "Candidates, each of you pair up with a weyrling. Do as they say, and remind yourself of your anatomy lessons as you work. You'll be tested on your knowledge of dragon muscles tomorrow, so if there're any you don't remember, ask your weyrling."

Stepping carefully over the many puddles of spilled oil, Pete took his time inspecting the weyrlings. By and large, this was a chore the weyrlings greatly enjoyed; any amount of time spent together in close contact was generally a good bonding experience for dragon and rider. But there were always exceptions, weyrlings with feelings of doubt or inadequacy, or just overwhelmed by the strength of the Impression bond. Oiling had proved to be a good opportunity for Pete to spot those problems... a doubtful rider wouldn't pick up on her dragon's needs as swiftly, while a strong-minded dragon would have his rider focus on whatever parts of his hide felt best, rather than letting the rider do the job properly. Subtleties, yes, but Pete was finally beginning to feel experienced enough to trust his instincts.

Don't forget my help, Pete, Gilgath drawled.

Couldn't do it without you, oh dragon-mine! Gilgath was quite right; only another dragon could hear some of the complaints that were either ignored or misunderstood by the new dragonriders. A weyrling would feel discomfort from a constipated dragon, but often neither would know what it meant. Emotions were another problem area; the young dragons were simple souls, and were often confused by their rider's behaviour... and sometimes the single-mindedness of the dragons would lead to a failure of the riders' better judgement, in any number of different ways. Yes, Gilgath was indeed a boon when it came to nipping some of those problems in the bud.

Pete's circuit of the weyrlings eventually brought him alongside Sasha de Poer, Nicholas Gomez and their dragons. Petrath was one of the three bronzes from Faranth's clutch; the dragons all hatched about the same size, but it was the bronzes and browns that grew most rapidly and, because of that, needed special attention when it came to oiling.

"Well, Nicholas, how are you doing with Petrath?"

Nicholas bent down to dip his sponge in the bucket of oil sitting between Petrath and green Zunelth, and then moved back to continue oiling his dragon. "Pretty well, sir, I think. But there's just so much of him!"

"And more every day," Sasha joked from beside her own dragon.

Pete gave her a smile. "Bet you're glad you didn't Impress one of the golds now, aren't you?"

Sasha rolled her eyes. "Shards, yes! Besides, Zunelth's the only dragon for me, aren't you dear?" She turned to her green, and her face took on the familiar blankness of a rider in total rapport with her dragon "Yes of course I'll do that rough patch next, but I need to finish your leg first," she muttered absently.

Sasha, like many of the weyrlings, was still easily distracted by her dragon. Knowing that he was unlikely to get any more conversation out of her unless he insisted, Pete shook his head, and turned back to Nicholas. "Where's his skin stretched the most then?"

Nicholas directed his assistant to continue rubbing oil into Petrath's flank, and asked his dragon to spread his wings. He stepped beneath the bronze's right wing, and ran a hand over the dragon's full belly. "Belly, but the skin's more supple there now, and he's not growing as much in that direction any more." He pointed up at the undersurface of Petrath's wing. "Here though, where the wingbones are growing fastest. The membrane's pretty thin anyway."

"Good. Hind legs are another problem area; you'll notice them more once he starts bulking out with more muscle."

"You're doing a good job though Nicholas."

Sorka's voice came as quite a surprise to Pete; although she often checked on the progress of Faranth's and Carenath's offspring, he'd thought she'd be too busy to drop by today.

"Sorka! Finished with the candidates already?"

The Weyrwoman nodded. "I only wanted to see what they made of Kurath and Liseth."

The other reason went unstated; Pete was well aware of Sorka's theory about the blue, but it wouldn't be wise to mention it in front of the candidates until they were certain. "And did they... did they like Kurath? And Liseth?" he added hurriedly.

Sorka winked at him. "I'll tell you all about it later."

"How's Anne doing?" Pete asked, as they resumed his circuit of the Weyrlings. "Is she speaking yet?"

Sorka's new daughter was always a favourite subject. Now that she'd been weaned, she was fostered with her brother back at the Hold, living with Sorka's mother Mairi. Both Sean and Sorka spent as much time with their family as their duties would allow, but the Weyr's Search for candidates provided some very welcome extra opportunities for visits.

"Not yet, but she's growing like a dragon. That reminds me, I've brought back a bag of outfits she's outgrown for Alianne's girls."

"Have you spoken to Alianne today?" he said, trying to remember whether Sorka had left before or after Alianne came down to breakfast.

"No, not yet. Why?"

Pete grinned broadly. "Then you won't have seen what Sam's bought for her!"

"Oh?"

"You know that sapphire Artur Gneiss has spent the last few months working on? Turns out, Sam commissioned it for Alianne."

Sorka's eyes widened in amazement, and she shook her head "No! Well, I can't say she doesn't deserve it. Sam's besotted with those twins of theirs, and I've never seen them happier."

"Yeah, it wasn't easy, last year. Good to see things working out for them again."

"It is, isn't it. You know, I think I'll go and find her now."

Sorka said goodbye, leaving Pete with his weyrlings. They were doing a good job, overall; by the time he'd completed his circuit, he'd only had to berate five of them for missing dry patches of skin. As the weyrlings finished their oiling, Pete's attention returned to the hardening eggs on the hatching sands. Carenath hadn't sired as many eggs on Venvaith as he had on Faranth, but that was hardly surprising given the circumstances. If you didn't get your dragon away in time, a mating queen was simply too insistent to ignore... but the rider did have some measure of control over how long the flight lasted. Sorka had taken it pretty well, as far as Pete could tell. If anyone wanted what was best for the dragons it was the two Weyrleaders, and with more breeding queens than browns and bronzes put together... well, it was both inevitable, and good for the gene pool. Of course, Pete had to admit that he didn't like the idea of any dragon other than Gilgath flying Tenneth.

I could catch a different queen, Gilgath said slyly. Would you mind all that much?

Pete sighed, and dismissed the class, giving the damper weyrlings strict instructions to dry off with some hot soup in the kitchens. Tease! You'd have to find one that'd let you catch her first.

The bronze gave a mental chuckle, and, as they walked back across the Weyrbowl, jokingly began comparing the merits of the various queen dragons. Pete tried not to laugh, and failed miserably, causing a few of the candidates to stare at him in confusion. Well, some of them would soon understand.

It was a great life, being a dragonrider!



* * *



Turning her back on the weyrlings, Tarrie looked up at the perfect blue sky above the Weyrbowl. It was such a beautiful sight when it was like this, free of the threat of Thread. A few months from now, a day like this would be even more welcome, with the cold, high-pressure air freezing Thread to dust before it had a chance to fall to land.

Twenty-four dragons had been engineered from the genetic material of the firelizards, a renewable airforce bred by the greatest minds that Pern would ever know. Oh, Wind Blossom had had her doubters, but the clutches now hardening on the hatching sands more than proved her competence as her mother's successor. For the past three years, those two dozen dragons had been all that stood between the colonists and utter disaster. They'd lost Marco and Duluth right at the start, but somehow everyone else had survived, in spite of many dreadful injuries. It had been a struggle to cope at times, but they'd managed, and Pern had thrived.

Today, another twenty-four dragons would take to the skies with their riders for the very first time.

How many more would follow them in the years ahead? Tarrie wondered. She tried to picture the Weyr's skies filled with hundreds of dragons, the ranks of browns, bronzes and golds joined by deep sapphire blues and rich emerald greens. Oh, it would be quite a sight, though it was still a long way off. But with each new clutch that hatched, Pern's hopes grew a little brighter. By springtime, this class of Weyrlings would be experienced enough to begin their integration into the fighting wings. With twice as many dragons fighting Thread in the air, the Weyr could defend a wider corridor of land during 'fall, and the Hold's fields could finally be enlarged.

But the first step was to get them in the air with their riders. Tarrie grinned, remembering her own first flight on Porth.

Did you really bruise my neck, Tarrie? Porth asked, picking up on Tarrie's thoughts.

Shards, Porth, I was terrified I'd fall off, even with Sean's straps! It certainly taught me not to pull on them too hard.

Tarrie reached up to take hold of Porth's neck-strap and stepped onto the dragon's bent foreleg. From there, she could swing herself into position between Porth's neck ridges, ready to take to the air. Tarrie clipped herself onto her flying straps, and looked back over her shoulder to check on the weyrlings. Dave was giving them a final briefing, but he hadn't gone over to speak to Lia and Tegwenth alone
yet.

Porth, would you tell Polenth to tell Dave that we're ready?

Although the dragons had all flown short distances within the Weyrbowl already, adding a passenger for the first time could potentially be very confusing for a young dragon. Conflicting thoughts, different dynamics in the air, all the excitement of the occasion... Tarrie and Porth would stay in the air throughout today's class, nominally to check the technique of the inexperienced dragons and riders, but in reality ready to assist any pairs that got into difficulty.

He knows, Porth answered a few seconds later. Shall we fly?

The gold dragon took to the air, and settled into an easy circle not too far above the weyrlings. David was talking to Lia now, and her green had sat back on her haunches, gathering her energy for her leap into the air. Moments later, the green enthusiastically launched herself skywards, seemingly catching her rider unaware. Aside from Lia's flailing arms, from Tarrie's vantage the dragon's take-off was textbook perfect.

Polenth has told them to circle the Weyrbowl once anticlockwise, then to turn, ascend, and repeat in the opposite direction above the peaks.

Tarrie nodded, already familiar with the planned drill. Good. Stay a few dragonlengths behind and above on this loop, then let her climb above us for the next. The switch would give Tarrie a good chance to check the workings of the green's wings both from above and below, all the better to assess how well the small dragon was managing. At the end of the first loop, the green dipped a wing and changed direction remarkably quickly. Tarrie decided she shouldn't have been too surprised by that; Lia knew her aerodynamics, and the small dragon had easily proved herself nimble enough to impress Sean and Sorka, watching from the ground.

We might have to watch them on that turn, she suggested to Porth. I can see some of that class getting a bit competetive over how tightly they take it.

The rest of Tegwenth's flight passed without incident, as did those of the next handful of dragons. Tarrie and David swapped roles before the seventh pair were sent aloft, this time Jens and blue Sineath. As Tarrie watched the blue fly, she realised that Porth was spending more time watching Polenth than the weyrling.

Porth?

You were thinking about David again yesterday. Polenth flies well; I was wondering if he might manage to catch me, the next time I mate.

Tarrie sighed; her brief relationship with David had fizzled out a few months ago, but every now and then Porth forgot that they were no longer any more than good friends. Oh, he was a lovely man, a considerate lover, and he certainly understood the strength of the bond between dragon and rider. Too well, perhaps. Polenth was the most important thing in Dave's life, probably the only important thing. It made him a safe choice, someone who'd be understanding if things didn't work out... but you couldn't go into a relationship trusting in an easy ending, not if you wanted more out of it than mere company. If Porth was going to rise again soon... well, Tarrie had some thinking to do, that was for sure. There was at least one man who seemed to want more from her than that, perhaps as much as Sean and Sorka shared, or Pete and Nora. And maybe that was what she wanted, too. Maybe.

Do you think you'll rise soon? she asked the gold.

Porth smirked. Firth and Gilgath seem to think so.

Well, we'll just have to wait and see which dragon is good enough for you, won't we?

Sineath descended back towards the floor of the bowl, and misjudged his landing slightly, sending Jens toppling sideways over his dragon's neck.

"And that's why you always use your straps!" Tarrie told the class.

Jens hauled himself back into place, fair skin blushing furiously.

Tarrie laughed, and smiled kindly. "Don't worry, Jens, you did far better than Nya did on her first flight. Dismount when you're ready, and give him a good rub down. Claire, you and Liseth are up next."

Liseth was followed by another green, then bronze Auvreth and blue Kurath. The last pair in the second batch were Simon Keating and his brown, Luruth.

Sure enough, the mistake that Tarrie had been anticipating finally occured. Luruth tried to take the turn as sharply as the smallest greens, and compounded his error by turning towards the inner face of the crater rather than away. Lurching in panic, the brown suddenly shrieked, desperate to find enough room in the air, and lacking the strength to do so. Porth was airborne again almost before Tarrie could think, stretching her mind out towards the faltering brown.

He's hurt, Porth told her, powering upwards. I've told Polenth to grab him.

Polenth soon had the brown grasped firmly across the back, enough to steady their flight for long enough for Porth to slip beneath them. Tarrie twisted round to check their position, and gave the okay for Polenth to lower the smaller dragon across Porth's back. It was an awkward maneouvre, but at least it worked. Together, they deposited the weyrling pair in front of Sean and Sorka. The Weyrleaders quickly diagnosed which muscle groups had been strained, and soon Luruth's pains were being eased by numbweed. With the dragon tended, they turned their attention to Simon, and took considerably longer tearing strips out of his hide.

Tarrie was glad to find the weyrlings greatly subdued by Luruth's mistake, and the remainder of the day's flights went reasonably well. Not perfectly, or even close to perfect in most cases, but good enough for a first attempt. Before the month was out, the weyrlings' drills would all be airborne. Longer flights would build endurance, and teach them the landmarks they'd need to know in order to travel safely between. Going between would be the last thing they learned; Tarrie hoped the weyrlings would figure out that they couldn't afford to make any mistakes by then. Mistakes during 'fall could be deadly. But Threadfall was still months away for the weyrlings; they could only get there one step at a time.

The sun was setting by the time the last of the weyrlings dismounted, bringing the day to a close. No doubt they'd do better tomorrow, especially without the excitement of half the Weyr watching them. One step at a time, one day at a time. Tarrie leaned back against Porth's flank, marvelling at the progress they'd already made. They'd kept enough of Pern Thread-free to ensure survival, and turned a barren crater into a thriving Weyr. Porth's offspring would soon join the fighting wings, and the dragonriders' endless struggle would at last become slightly easier. With all of the new clutches, the dragon population was growing explosively, and it was surely only a matter of time before the first new queen was clutched, and the dragons' future as a species assured for good. Yes, the dragon experiment had undoubtedly been a success, giving Pern the hope it needed for the future.

Nothing was certain, of course, especially not these days, with Thread falling with increasing frequency. But whatever the future held for Porth and herself, and for all the other dragons and riders, perhaps one thing was certain.

They'd spend those days together.


The End
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