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Old Oct 3 2008, 03:42 PM   #1
Cavatica
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Selkie
 
Join Date: Apr 2006
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Fan of: Pern, Talents
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Default The Price that Life Exacts

I figured I was liable to actually GET some feedback here, so:

The Price That Life Exacts
A Pern Story

Introduction

Threadfall always made liars out of dragonriders.

They would tell themselves they weren’t afraid. Some of them even believed it; it was easy for a man to convince himself that he and his beast were invincible. It was fortunate, too, that dragonriders lacked the ability to be alone with their own thoughts. In time, some gained their beasts’ proclivity for forgetfulness.

The Pernese didn’t know they were intruders in their own home. Their instincts, nurtured in forgotten eons on open steppes, were all that remained of old Earth. There were no strange clouds there, no repulsive, squirming silver with an appetite for flesh. On Earth, death didn’t rain from the sky. Mankind would never know some restless part of them still lived in the branches of that wet blue world long forgotten. They were as alien to their new paradise as the legions of squirming terror that assailed them, each species as unnatural as the other.

But the Pernese were ignorant of their primal origins, their lizard brains. They knew only that, given the choice, they would rid themselves of Thread forever: they would sooner face a thousand years of entropy than a single day against their insatiate foe.

In the face of that horror, mankind ceased to be its own worst enemy. For a thousand years, wars were reduced to squabbles—and so there were no armies on Pern. No navies. No militias. No draft.

But there was Search.

The chosen could say no, but who did? Most were children, and children didn’t know themselves. They knew only that they feared Thread more than they feared the great dragons who stood before them, with their gently smiling jaws full of daggers and flame. But even as they agreed to that prestigious conscription, many secretly hoped for failure.

In truth, few who accepted Search wanted to be heroes. The best dragonriders were cowards.


***

Chapter One

Kolya was an excellent coward.

Her needle vibrated between her shaking fingers as she forced stitches into her needlepoint. She could hear her mother and older sister talking in their alcove of a kitchen, their voices a low but constant exchange of alto and mezzo soprano. She heard only the notes, and not the lyrics, of their uneasy duet. Talking was how they coped.

Kolya did not cope. Instead, she stared into the fire, wide-eyed with visions of stray Thread sliding down the chimney and writhing in the soot, singed but not destroyed. Would it make its way to their hard-packed dirt floor, find some neglected shoot of a summer long faded? Could it feed on the moss grown into the cracks of their house—given the time, could Thread eat through stone?

She shuddered, looked across the room to where her father sat at his workbench mending a harness by glowlight. He was silent and intense, and avoided meeting her eye. His was a tight-lipped internal battle of sheer will; he was not to be disturbed, lest the killing stroke go astray.

Kolya stabbed indiscriminately at her canvas. She wasn’t the warrior her father was, couldn’t banish her fears to some steel-tight inner prison. Her dread was consuming. Would the dragons kill it all? Or was that the wet slap of death she heard upon the roof?

***

void and
heat
and silence.

***

“Boy, if I catch you tail-dragging one more time, I’ll tan your hide.”

Matrigan swore behind his teeth. He wasn’t tail-dragging. He was still just a little slow from his recent bout of the flu. He knew he was running behind with his gleaning, but the sacks of redfruit were an agony to muscles still sore from days of fever.

He knew better than to apologize to his father, an ominous leering presence even half a dragonlength off. Instead, Matrigan shifted the weight of the burlap bag between his shoulder blades and bent to inspect another of the fallen fruit. Clean, cold, ripe, and free of worm burrows: he dropped his sack to the ground and deposited his latest find.

He felt, rather than saw, his father move off to another part of the orchard. Without stopping his bent-backed motion, he reached one hand to his neck and dug his fingers into a knot. Pain burned in his left eye, and he groaned. How could a sore muscle in his neck cause pain in his eye, of all places? It wasn’t right. But when minutes of slow massage proved futile, he ceded the victory to the snag and resumed his work. Perhaps his mother would give him a heated compress for it later.

He glanced down the rows to Rinnor, who was using his shirt as a sweat mop: the impending cold snap meant nothing in the face of all those bent-backed hours. Matrigan watched his brother with envy. In spite of his obvious discomfort, Rinnor was completely engrossed in his task. He had always been responsible, in spite of his shortcomings. Even if he took little actual joy in physical labor, he took pride in it, and that gave him a strange, easy levity rare in farmfolk. He made the work look easy. Even now, as he tossed his latest haul into his wheelbarrow, Rinnor looked up from his growing pile of fruit to grin encouragingly at his younger sibling. Matrigan felt himself reply with a baffled wince. What was there to smile about?

With a grunt, Rinnor seized the handles of his wheelbarrow, rolling it down the lane until he came to a stop at Matrigan’s section. He inclined his head towards the younger boy’s pile, feigning dismay. “Better get a move on, there, Matty.” Matty. “Thread won’t wait for you to tie your pretty skirts up off the dirt.”

“Leave me alone.” Matrigan kicked at a piece of fruit too rotten for gleaning. “I’m still sick. And these redfruit are terrible. I don’t know how you find so many so fast.”

“I’m just better than you, I guess.” Rinnor tempered the jibe with a crooked grin. He moved to resume his trek towards the storage barn. “But you still better hurry. Supper’s gonna be on soon, and I don’t want to see you get a whuppin’ any more than you do. Or a ‘scoring.”

Easy for him to say. Matrigan cast a wary look to the barn, where his father and Annon were locked in an earnest discussion inaudible at his distance. “Yeah. I’ll be done in a minute.” He looked at his wheelbarrow, half as full as Rinnor’s, and sighed. Shaffit.

His brothers and the farmhands were almost finished unloading their hauls by the time Matrigan joined them almost a full half-hour later. The sun was showing real progress in its descent—it seemed to Matrigan that winter came on sooner every Turn—and while Rinnor and Annon merely continued sorting, their father’s parched face was drawn up with displeasure at his youngest son.

“I know you been sick, boy, but that ain’t no excuse for wasting time. You’re cuttin’ it real close. Real close.” Taranin opened the burlap sack on top of Matrigan’s pile. “I see rot in half a dozen of these just glancin’ in.”

“I’m sorry, sir.”

“Look at this one. And this one. Your brothers got twice the haul workin’ the same orchard as you.” Matrigan stood silent as Taranin chucked redfruit after redfruit away—perfectly good ones, in his estimation—though heat surged in his face. He had been trying to pick the best ones, not just any shiny red thing lying on the ground. He was going for quality, not quantity. But he didn’t dare say so, especially since it was evident he had failed on both counts.

His father must have seen the look on his face, because Taranin sighed and ran a gnarled hand through his thinning hair. “All right. All right. You been sick. You just hope you didn’t get your sickness on any of my redfruit.” Taranin turned to look directly at his youngest. “Get your haul unloaded and help Harlan close the shutters. You got fifteen minutes, or you’re waitin’ Thread out in the barn.” Matrigan didn’t have to be told his food wouldn’t be kept warm on his account, either.

“Yes, sir. I’m sorry, sir.”

Taranin shook his head in a strange, sad gesture, then turned to move off towards the house, Rinnor in tow. He’d gotten off easy, Matrigan knew, and he’d take it while he could get it. As he turned to start moving the redfruit sacks—now impossibly heavy—he met Annon’s gaze. Though his brother’s grey eyes were warm with sympathy, he felt the hot rush of shame: Annon was the eldest, the first to make the precarious crossing into manhood. Matrigan was painfully, keenly aware of the fact. He never felt like more of a stupid child than when Annon, strong and obedient—his father’s right hand—looked at him. Though he had fourteen Turns, Matrigan knew, in these moments, how few that truly was.

“Hey.” Annon jerked his chin towards the house, and their father. “Don’t let him get under your skin so bad.” Matrigan nodded, mute. The tendons in his thin arms stood out rope-thick as he reached for the first sack, and he suddenly wished he could cover them. He clenched his teeth against the impulse to look up, to ask for advice, to ask how he would ever, ever be the man his brother was.

Instead, he listened to the sound of Annon’s retreating footsteps, and tried to ignore the burning behind his eyes.

***

The riders were screaming. The dragons were screaming. Everyone was screaming.

Not everyone. Xavath’s voice was a thin, hot steel wire in D’nor’s mind, a tight, straining focus. The sound of the firestone in his jaws was like a rockslide. It’s never as bad as it sounds.

No, the bluerider admitted. But it was horrific, all the same. —watch your left.

I know. Xavath banked to avoid a brown just emerging from between. Of course he knew. He probably sensed the other dragon before it had quite materialized. Of course I did. —fire. D’nor braced himself for the sharp ascent he knew was coming—he felt his own shoulders tense with his dragon’s—and watched as the smoke and charred Thread fell away beneath Xavath’s feet.

Nicely done.


Xavath grunted, fell back into position. D’nor craned around to try and catch the position of the sun, but he couldn’t get his bearings through the smoke and the altitude. Somewhere in that half-darkness lurked the wild, wind-whipped sounds of dragons careening to avoid that most unpleasant of ends. Bursts of fire lit the dusk and the smoke; against the impending darkness, Thread, too, was beginning to glow. Night was coming on fast. How much longer would they have to endure this?

About 25 Turns.

Xavath.

A quarter of an hour.
An eternity. A short eternity. Garineth does not think it will be as bad as it has been. The Thread is thinning. A cold front comes. Well, that was some good news. D’nor lifted himself in his straps to get a better look at the Wingleader, who was already signaling for a more standard formation.

He felt Xavath’s attention shift downward, stone-fast. Dreskith—! The young green’s shriek was a wet, strangled noise, severed at one end. The blue set his jaws. I told her to watch for crosswinds.

She’s all right…?

She will be. She and her rider land at Fort.

They shouldn’t have assigned her to Wave Two.
Transferring into the middle of a Fall was tricky business for anyone, especially the untried. Even Xavath had had his share of close calls before he got the hang of it. Still, all the blues and greens had to learn it eventually. Trial by fire.

Fire’s fine, interjected Xavath. There are worse kinds of burns.

As if to make the point, a tangle of Thread whipped toward them on the unpredictable wind. D’nor felt a wingmate’s warning off to one side, like peripheral vision, and then he was pressed into absolute nothing: utter blackness, a frigid bubble between where they were and where they were going. He hated it. The only thing worse than Thread was going between to escape it.

It’s not so bad. Xavath’s voice—what approximated a voice—was sometimes the only thing that kept D’nor sane in this claustrophobe’s nightmare.

Speak for yourself. They burst into the fading sunshine: sweet, linear sunshine. D’nor felt his heartbeat fall back into step. No, he amended: he felt his heartbeat. Humans don’t do this naturally.

Good thing I’m not human.
Xavath swung his head around to reveal blue facets shining in the red pools of his eyes. D’nor touched a gloved hand to the great curved neck.

Luckily. I’m terrible at belching fire.

The worst I’ve seen.

Even to D’nor, their banter felt like heresy in the sulfurous air. He didn’t have to look hard at his wingmates to see their limping exhaustion, the weighted slump of their shoulders. The dragons’ hides were ever-so-slightly more ashen for their exertions, though ash had little to do with it: theirs was the matte, dull color of fatigue. But he needed it, that lightning-fast riposte. It was something solid for his mind to cling to, when the battles threatened to collapse him from the inside. Something to throw at the screaming.

He was grateful, then, when the last minutes were uneventful, as such things went. But V’dran and Garineth had barely given the signal to return to Fort when between enveloped them again—no one was eager to dawdle—and D’nor was feeling for Xavath in the darkness.

I am here. We are here.

Not words. Just truth. It felt material, and solid.

Something to lean against when they emerged into a holocaust of agony.

***

They burst from between high above the Fort caldera, but even there, the shrill echoes of dragons in pain whipped about them, magnified by the shape of the Weyrbowl. D’nor felt their alarm pressing at the edges of his consciousness; little colorless dots sparkled in the backs of his eyes. Xavath winced beneath him. It was bad.

The blue took care to land a fair distance from the bulk of the wounded: he would much rather have gone straight to their weyr, D’nor knew, but with casualties this bad, every pair was to be given a cursory inspection. Just in case.

In case what? They don’t think we’d know if either of us had fractured a rib? D’nor swung his leg over Xavath’s back as the blue settled to the ground.

I think they just want to know how much good news they can relay to the Weyrleader, Xavath offered. When D’nor was on his feet, the hearty, steel-colored blue rolled his shoulders and shook his wings. Ahhhh.

“Yes, well, they haven’t really got the staff for that just now, do they? You’d think they could at least wait until the worst of it is over.” D’nor tugged his goggles from his head, dragging one arm across the sweat and grime of his unprotected face. “I could use a bath.”

So could I. D’nor turned to regard his mount. The blue was still stretching his limbs, but stopped to return his rider’s gaze. His nostrils flared; a faint trail of lingering gray smoke wafted upward. His blue eyes burned with traces of yellow and red, an answer to D’nor’s unvoiced worry: I’m fine.

Just making sure.


“Bluerider.” A voice came at D’nor’s shoulder. A young man with a journeyman healer’s knot was giving him a strange, darting stare, his attention divided a thousand ways. “I’ve just come to give you and Xavath a quick once-over.”

“We’re fine, Istran.”

“I know you are. But policy’s policy.” The healer was still young—somewhere in his late twenties, though D’nor wasn’t exactly sure where—but D’nor couldn’t help notice the signs of premature aging: time and stress raked slow, subtle wrinkles into Istran’s long face. Like clawmarks. Like scars. Istran filled the dual role of healer and dragon healer, and so his work aged him, it seemed, twice as quickly as it did his fellows. Whether it did it quickly or whether it took its time, Thread would kill them all.

A man was crying out across the Bowl: his brown roared, bearing down on the healers who held his rider fast. Xavath’s skin shivered. Oneth’s rider. They set his arm.

Ouch.

The journeyman had finished checking D’nor’s garments for signs of close encounters with the spores, and now was staring at his pupils, checking his pulse, his color, his breathing. “Good, good.” That was all: the rider was of secondary importance to the dragon. The bulk of Istran’s attention was already on Xavath, and he approached the blue purposefully, if respectfully. “Wings out, Xavath.” In most cases, a rider might take offense to another man commanding his beast, but dragon healers were in a unique position. Perhaps, too, it might be different with one of the bronzes. But Xavath wasn’t a bronze.

You’d rather I were?

Don’t be ridiculous. I wouldn’t have sex half as often if you were bronze.

D’nor felt the distinct impression of “wry” settle just behind his right ear, before Istran brought him back. “Does he feel any strains or pulls, D’nor?”

I’m fine.

“None just now, no. We had a bit of a wrench near the end, but no scores, no collisions.” He tried to ignore Dreskith’s wretched gargling screams. Her rider, whose entire left side was saturated in liquid green, was weeping.

“Any ‘stone left in his belly?”

No. A little indigestion. I could use some supper.

“He cleared it on the way home. He’s got some indigestion, same as usual.”

“All right. You two are cleared. He can hunt if he wants to, but be quick about it, please. We’d like to have everyone back in their weyrs until the worst of this is cleared up. Your Wingleaders should have orders for you by then.” D’nor nodded.

“Thanks, Istran.”

“You’re welcome. Please excuse me.” The healer—a pole of a man, really, D’nor thought—hustled away in his weird, long stride, his sights set on a slim green and her rider, who appeared to have just finished vomiting. D’nor felt a wash of sympathy, and a wash of something else. Just what he wanted to see before supper.

Doesn’t bother me. Xavath was already lifting his neck to gaze at the feeding pens, which were themselves a riot of panicked animals and ravenous, bellowing dragons.

“Only because you have to vomit after every Fall anyway, you heartless savage.”

I’ve twice the hearts you have, and twice the stomachs. One of them should be empty. The other one should not. The huge triangular head turned to fix a sea-green stare upon D’nor. If it’s all right with you, I’d like to fill one up again.

“Don’t forget to use a napkin.” The dragon gave a derisive snort as he launched into a quick glide across the Bowl.

If there’s one thing I’m looking forward to, it’s forgetting.

D’nor sighed, turning to assess the worst of the stinking, noisy fray. He wished he could share the sentiment. Of all the dragons’ talents, forgetfulness was the one he envied most.

Last edited by Cavatica; Nov 16 2011 at 11:47 PM. Reason: Updated introduction
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Old Oct 3 2008, 03:53 PM   #2
Cavatica
Senior Member
Selkie
 
Join Date: Apr 2006
Location: Raleigh, NC
Gender: F
Fan of: Pern, Talents
Now Reading: Just finished: House of Suns
Default Chapter Two

Chapter Two

a strange, amorphous consciousness: a seeking, tendriled thing, lonely, unfinished. without. when? when?

soon.


***

The claxon sounded. Fall was over.

Kolya’s father rose from his work, and her mother and sister emerged from the kitchen. Kolya set her needlepoint down and quietly moved to the hearth, reaching for a long poker to brandish at the fire. The flue was the sole entrance left open to Thread, and only by necessity: with winter fast approaching, even an hour without a fire would severely retard any serious attempts at cooking a meal or warming the house. But Kolya was always loath to prod the flame after Fall. She feared she might provoke one of the malicious grey masses into rolling from some back corner of the furnace and onto her feet, where it would eat through her slippers, her toes, her—

“Kolya.” Her heart leaped out of rhythm. She must have jumped, because her mother was wearing a startled expression. “I’m sorry.”

“No, no, I was just—I was distracted. Sorry. What do you need?”

“Your father’s going out to groundcrew.” Kolya looked over her shoulder. Indeed, Fallor was slinging the heavy agenothree tank onto his back, and checking his goggles and gloves for holes. “I need you and your sister to open the stable and check on the runners.” Kolya felt her stomach drop. Her mother was usually merciful enough to relegate her to some harmless kitchen duty, but with Fall happening more frequently, her father was more often on crew duty than not. Which left the unpleasant business to her and her sister. She took a deep breath.

“All right.” Hanging the poker from its hook, Kolya turned to where Sara was opening the last set of shutters. “Let’s get this over with.”

Her sister huffed dramatically as the heavy blind swung into place against the wall. “Sure. Let me just find my—here.” Sara retrieved a leather thong from the front pocket of her apron, then quickly tied her long dark hair away from her face. Reaching for one of several pegs along one wall, she took a lined brown cloak and settled its weight evenly across her shoulders. She turned to Kolya, a wry half-smile slanting her mouth. “Ready when you are.”

Kolya pursed her lips. If they waited until she was ready, they’d never go.

“Come on, girls, you can follow me out.” Fallor swung open the front door, glancing out at the assembling groundcrew. It was fully dark by now, but the men were illuminated by experimental bursts of fire from their flamethrower nozzles, and by the dull, greenish light of the glows they carried at their sides. Stopping to take her own grey cloak down from the wall, Kolya hesitated long enough to let her sister leave first, and made a point of avoiding her father’s gaze as she passed him. There was nothing to gain by showing her fear. She just needed to stay focused.

The ground felt soft and susceptible under her feet, which she lifted in a brisk, anxious stride. She wanted as little contact with it as possible. What if the groundcrew missed a burrow? What if she caught her foot in one? Not for the first time, Kolya wished for a world made of stone. Only a stone world could be Threadbare.

The stable seemed an impossible distance from the house, but they came to it eventually. For its small size, there was something familiar and reliable about it: Kolya felt reassured by its stillness, its stability. It had protected her father’s runners, and his father’s runners before that. It smelled of earth and animal, heady and natural. Kolya could hear the runners pacing and nickering behind its thick wooden walls. She worried about those walls.

Sara set her lantern down on the ground, then reached for the bar across the double doors. “A little help, huh?” Kolya blinked herself out of her thoughts.

“Got it,” she said, placing both hands beneath the center of the metal barricade. Grunting, she and her sister swung the bar up on its hinge, angling to slide it vertically along the door frame. Kolya marveled that their father could lift it unassisted. It settled into place with a muffled bang.

“I hate that thing,” Sara declared, as if to read her sibling’s thoughts. “Fat lot of good it would do against Thread, anyway. The whole thing’s made of kindling.”

“It would keep the runners from breaking out in a panic.”

“It would also keep them nicely penned up for any Thread that made it inside. A runner buffet.” It was a deeply disturbing suggestion, and Kolya let her horror show. Sara raised an eyebrow. “What? Don’t say you’ve never thought about it.”

“You’re so—crass.”

“I know.” Sara pulled open one of the doors. “You take the left side and I’ll take the right?” Kolya nodded and, gathering her own hair into a loose bun, took up the lantern to follow her sister into the musky darkness.

***

It was always awkward, trying to eat a meal with a war going on overhead.

Matrigan’s family was resoundingly silent as they dined, their eyes on forkfuls of smoked pork and steamed greens. His mother was a fine cook, given her limited resources, but he may as well have been eating sand, for all the pleasure he took in his food. His brothers fared better: Rinnor was already helping himself to seconds, and Annon’s eyes were glazed with the look of a man lost in some deeper, more profound thought. The act of eating was mere reflex for him.

Matrigan supposed his lack of appetite could be attributed to his recent illness, but it was doubtful: he had eaten a full breakfast, after all. He knew, in truth, that guilt and anxiety played equal roles in tempering his hunger. He still felt the sting of his father’s reproach, mild as it had been—maybe that made it worse, he thought. It was one thing to be disciplined. It was another to be pitied as well.

He thought he perceived the sound of dragons roaring into the wind.

“Matrigan, are you well?” He looked up, into his mother’s worried face. He realized he must have been picking at his food. “You’ve hardly touched your plate. Is it the fever again?” His father fixed him with a stare.

“He’s fine, Lissa. He’s just sulkin’.” The heat in Matrigan’s face bloomed in his chest and hands.

“I’m fine.” Deliberately, he speared a substantial forkful of meat and vegetables, chewing and swallowing in short order. His throat felt all the more parched for the effort. “I just had a rough day. I’m tired.” His father snorted.

“Not any rougher than your brothers, who did all your work for you.”

Then Rinnor and his mother were speaking at the same time: “Dad, be fair,” and “Taranin, you know he’s not been well.” Taranin raised his voice to meet their protests, and Rinnor half-rose from his seat, his boyish features contorted into a fierce mask of indignation. The look didn’t suit him. At the far end of the table, Annon was silent: a rock in the swelling, sucking tide. Matrigan felt a fresh wash of shame give way to outrage. He was being alternately cosseted and ignored—why? Because he brought in five bags instead of eight?

Rinnor was brandishing a fork to gesture angrily at his father, whose face was saturated crimson. It was so ludicrous, it was comical—even the vein in his father’s forehead was protruding, a caricature of a livid man, a man brought to apoplexy by an enemy armed with flatware—but Matrigan didn’t realize he was laughing until he saw the perplexed, wide-eyed stares of his family members.

“I’m sorry,” he gasped. “I’m sorry. It’s so stupid.” Through the fog of his rising hysterics, he perceived a hardening in his father’s face and, to his surprise, in Rinnor’s. But he couldn’t stop laughing.

He waited for the threats, for a blow to the side of his face. He waited for his mother to admonish his insensitivity. Instead, his brothers and his parents watched him in silence, until at last his mocking laughter trailed away and he held his burning face in his hands. He felt his shoulders slumping. He was surprised to find he felt exhausted.

His mother said, quietly, “You’re excused, Matrigan.”

Daring to part his fingers, he let his hands slide from his face to land palm-down upon the table. Rinnor and his father were intently pretending to eat, but Matrigan thought he saw his brother shoot him a hurt look. Guilt sang in his gut. Escape was suddenly all that he wanted, and he was glad for the excuse to make it: wordlessly, he stood and removed himself from the table.

The room he shared with his brothers was a small one, but tidy, and spare. The boys didn’t have the luxury of a bedroom door, and so there was nothing to slam in anger or rebuke – but Matrigan was too tired to feel so inclined. He found, though, that he was unwilling to go straight to his cot. He bent to adjust the thin knotted rug that covered a few feet of the packed dirt floor, fidgeted with the few simple carvings that sat upon the shared mantle. He looked at their small, round window, obstructed by the thick façade of the Thread shutter, and was surprised to find he felt trapped by it. It felt as much a barrier as it was a protector, and it struck Matrigan that he was useless and weak behind it as he was in his brothers’ shadows.

Resentment traveled the length of his spine: they were all weak, he thought, everyone who hid in their dark holes while the real men did the real work, fighting and dying so that men like his father could build their lives on bushels of fruit – could have any fruit at all. Matrigan laid his hand against the cold, smooth metal shield and thought, miserably, that he would be his father’s age before he would know a world without Thread shutters, or flamethrower duty, or curfews. And even then, his life would probably go much as it had already: years and years of routine. Necessary routine, and useful, and sometimes even rewarding. Reflecting on it, Matrigan was comfortable as a farmer’s son, and not averse to the idea of becoming a farmer himself. But was that really enough?

The shutter bore down on him, implacable and without answer. The doorless room was no longer the safe, warm haven it had been for years, but a closed cell, an oubliette, and Matrigan found himself alternately pacing its circumference and sitting uneasily on the edge of his cot. He listened for the muffled sound of dinner conversation, but heard none, so even his family’s silence clogged the doorway. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could endure the night. What was it he longed for? What duty was there, if not to his own flesh and blood?

The question was stifling. And just as Matrigan resigned himself to a long night without answers, the all-clear claxon cut the silence, and his ruminations. Resolving not to brood, but rather to apply himself to something useful before his brothers caught him moping, Matrigan pushed up from his cot again and crossed the short distance to the window. And it was then, as he fumbled with the latches and anticipated the next item of his post-Fall checklist, that he perceived an answer to his question – and knew that it had been dwelling in him all along. The thrill of the knowledge changed the cadence of his heartbeat, and Matrigan squashed it down, embarrassed at his audacity. No, he told himself firmly, no.

The starless night might have been a summer blue sky, for the welcome it gave as Matrigan swung the shutter open, but he wasn’t comforted by it. The hard, hollow thuds banging in from the main room of the house reported his brothers were doing the same, and he knew it wouldn’t be long before someone came to give him a new set of chores. The sound of life, and the sight of his neighbors’ torchlights, settled the tension in the cothold, but Matrigan felt as restless as he ever had. He would have to wait: there wasn’t time for self-examination now. He heard his mother calling him, and he began to gather his gear for flamethrower crew. He would talk to Annon later, he decided. He didn’t want to. But he’d do it all the same.

He just had no idea what he’d say.

***

“Patrol, sir?” D’nor found himself unable to totally quash the surprise in his voice. Not that he meant to be contrary; he hadn’t a mind for insubordination. But sweeps were for the young, the injured, or the inept. Why him?

V’dran must have been reading his mind. “It’s not a punishment,” he said. “You and Xavath flew Fall well. But my usual sweeps riders are in tatters or the abyss, and the fellows I’ve got left aren’t enough. I can use them, but I need one or two more.” The bronzerider, a rough, olive-complexioned man of restless disposition, rapped his knuckles on the surface of his desk, gray eyes cast down to read a schedule covered in notes and scratchmarks. One hand, dusted in ash for all that it had been gloved, ran through his short crop of dark hair, and his heavy brows moved together in a tight, focused pinch. “My whole roster’s shot. If it’s any consolation,” and when V’dran looked up, D’nor could see the man was already nursing a healthy set of bags below his eyes, “you won’t be the only one pulling weyrling duties the next week or two.” It wasn’t, but D’nor appreciated the gesture: a wingleader certainly didn’t owe his riders any explanation. He nodded.

“Understood, sir. What’s our route, then?” V’dran brushed several hides clear of the large map he kept on his desk, and awkwardly tried to rotate it for the bluerider’s perusal. D’nor stepped around the side of the desk to look, and deftly ignored the indecipherable overlay of scribbles and strategy; he hardly saw the man’s notes anymore. V’dran gestured with two thick fingers as he spoke.

“I’ve put you and Xavath with K’din and Pedranth—” That was good: Pedranth was a mid-weight brown, sturdy and reliable, and he and Xavath meshed well. “—and W’lim and Nesseth.” That wasn’t as good. Nesseth was close to rising, and Xavath would be useless as long as he had to be anywhere near her.

Oh, yes, it’s my attention span that’s the problem. You’d have W’lim’s knickers off just as soon as look at him, you hypocrite. I’d be doing you a favor.

D’nor waged, and won, a valiant war with a smile. Well. At least K’din could be trusted to focus. V’dran was plowing on, oblivious to the exchange. “You’ll split up a triangle between here, Gar, and the Sea Hold; I’ve got two extra men flying between here and Fort Hold.” V’dran paused to glance up; seeing that D’nor comprehended, he went on.

“The six of you will go straight to Gar. K’din will take Pedranth over the mountains, in a line directly back from Gar to the Weyr. I want you and Xavath to follow the edge of the foothills up to Fort Hold; W’lim and Nesseth will take the coastline up to the Sea Hold.” It made sense: Pedranth had the straightest line and the shortest distance, but following the mountains would take him through thinner air. While Nesseth had flown the first wave of the Fall, and had thus had sufficient time to rest, she was still the smallest of the three: the coast would be an easy, flat expanse, mostly beach and scrub. Xavath would split the difference, although the rocky crevices and shadowed cliffs of the foothills would be tough to navigate in the darkness.

I see perfectly well in the dark.

It’s still a long haul.
D’nor could feel Xavath puffing himself up; his own shoulders twitched, as with the motion of spreading wings.

I am large for a blue. It was true. All the same, D’nor was glad to have slept in that morning. He could sleep a’dragonback if it came to that, but for all that sweepriding was a tedious duty, D’nor took it seriously. He’d prefer to be awake and alert.

“You’ll be on your own in your section, but if you need backup, Nesseth and Pedranth are in shouting distance. Resist the urge for heroics. The locals have flamethrowers and they’re not half on their arses from exhaustion. Do whatever you need to do and come home. We’ve got Fall again in another day and a half and I need you rested.” V’dran cocked his back to one side; the bronzerider’s wince punctuated a muffled pop in his spine, and he slouched. Had the man really only been riding ten years?

No rest for the weary. It was hard to tell if the thought was Xavath’s or his own. No: no rest for the weary. But there could at least be a nap. D’nor took in the crooked picture of his exhausted wingleader and decided he’d better hurry things along.

“W’lim and K’din have already been briefed?” D’nor asked. V’dran nodded.

“Just a few minutes before you got here. They’ll be off once we’ve finished.”

“Have we finished?”

“Yes.”

The bluerider saluted. “Then we’d best be off.”

***

They found Pedranth and Nesseth back in fighting straps – well, D’nor realized, Pedranth had probably never had them off. W’lim had had the better part of the afternoon to clean Nesseth up after her shift in Fall, and in tandem with her impending estrus, she shone even in the wan light of glows and quarter-moons.

Xavath exhaled; D’nor lay a restraining hand on his partner’s neck.

Pedranth looked surprisingly wakeful for having flown the duration of a six-hour Fall – and for having done so every other day for the last several months – but dragons had an uncanny ability to catnap when and wherever it was convenient.The fireheights stayed lit by the sun long after the Bowl was cast into shadow, and it was common practice for dragons to huddle there in warm, snoring piles after a hard day’s flight. D’nor supposed some would still be there now, though many would have retired – some in pairs – to their own weyr ledges.

Xavath leveled resentment at his rider. You’re going to make me yawn.

Sorry.


Too late: even as the blue backwinged to land, his jaw parted in a massive sucking breath. Aaaaagggh. Now Nesseth will make fun of me. Indeed: the green’s delicate triangular head turned to face Xavath with a sparkle-eyed regard, and Pedranth chuffed at some joke known only to the three dragons. --she is making fun of me.

Sorry, lad.

“Bit tired, are we?” called K’din as Xavath, ineffectually trying to stifle the rest of his yawn, came to a graceless halt. “Had a long day? Must’ve been a hard three hours, poor things.”

“Not as hard as the three hours I spent with your mother last night,” D’nor replied. He didn’t bother hiding his pleasure as W’lim broke into hearty, loud guffaws and K’din was momentarily rendered speechless. But – to his credit, D’nor thought – the brownrider recovered and flashed a brilliant, inviting smile.

“I understand. I’m sure it was a nice change of pace from the five minutes you spent with your right hand after Destith’s flight last week.”

“Be fair, K’din,” said D’nor, feigning hurt. “You know I prefer the left.” W’lim was beginning to make choking sounds.

“Well,” said K’din, slinging an arm across the greenrider’s shoulders, “you’ll want to make sure Leftie gets plenty of practice before tomorrow afternoon.”

Nesseth snorted and backed neatly away from Pedranth. W’lim, abruptly silent, flung K’din’s arm away; D’nor burst into laughter as the brownrider’s smirk evaporated.

“Good try, man,” he said as W’lim hastened to Nesseth’s side. “Let’s leave the banter to the professionals next time, huh? We’ve got actual work to do tonight, and I suspect you’ll be better at that.” K’din, conceding with a pained half-grin, moved to haul himself aboard Pedranth.

“Aye.” The brownrider’s voice crescendoed as Pedranth, rising from his half-crouch, brought K’din from the ground to just above eye level. “Woof! Steady, lad. – Aye, though I can’t say’s I volunteered for the job. But I never could say no to V’dran’s pretty face. It’s those long eyelashes. Right, W’lim? You know what they say about a man with long eyelashes.”

“That he’s got small feet? You must have the longest eyelashes on the planet, K’din.”

“Now, just a minute—”

This is what D’nor had been afraid of. Thank the Ancestors these two would have a good 50 miles between them for the duration of the evening. “Gentlemen,” he broke in. “If you don’t mind…” The brown and the greenrider, separated by Xavath’s bulk, glowered at one another across the blue, but K’din broke the silence.

“Right then. Check straps.” Though he had no official rank, K’din was senior of the three by virtue of his dragon’s color: it fell to him to ensure the safety of their party. All three dragons shook themselves vigorously, ensuring the strength of their gear.

All lies well, said Xavath, broadly. The dragons could – and did – communicate the same checklist in a matter of seconds, but redundancy was a given where safety was concerned. Dutifully, if unnecessarily, D’nor repeated his dragon aloud.

“Check firestone.”

They were only at a quarter load for sweeps; even at the height of Fall, D’nor couldn’t remember anyone finding more than a handful of burrows, and the holders had typically dealt with them by the time the dragons showed up. But one never knew. Each rider hauled on the bags’ carabiners, and verified they sat comfortably at their dragons’ sides. Check.

“Check gear.” A general check of jackets, goggles, gloves, harness, bags and supplies: there could be nothing loose, nothing left to catch, or be caught by, the wind. It was a lot of tugging and snapping and tucking in. Check.

“All right, boys.” Nesseth snorted, wings furled for takeoff. “—and ladies. Hup!”

Xavath heaved from the ground with a wingstroke that brushed the dirt: one, two, three hard pumps and they were aloft. D’nor already had a mind for Gar, but they were to clear the watchdragon first; the small blue, barely illuminated by firelight, bugled an affirming response to Pedranth’s mental call. K’din raised his fist for the jump.

D’nor felt Xavath press against the Gar-image, saw/felt him touch it and take it with a surgeon’s precision, felt/heard/taste him roll it in his mind like wine across the tongue and then—

***

Kolya woke to the sound of fire, and men yelling. Her mother’s face was close, but backlit by flame, Kolya could barely make it out. Clenching her hands experimentally, she felt her fingernails rake dry dirt; the sharp edge of a small rock bit into the back of her skull. A warm and recent horror was leaving her body, and she lay still as her mind cycled, slowed, struggled to restart and suppress, to purge and comprehend. She stared into the darkness where her mother was, and made a small sound. A warm hand went to her forehead.

“Don’t move.” Kolya had no intention of moving, although the rock was a nuisance. She thought she might have asked where her sister was, but as she was only half-present, it was hard to be certain. “Sara’s with your brother. She’s fine. You’re both fine.” Her mother’s voice made it evident that this single, simple truth was all that prevented her from crumbling. Kolya felt her mind seize on it, accept it, and then she was awake, and could see. She perceived Anya’s touch on her wrist, and turned her hand to grip her mother’s fingers. Restless orange light illuminated the edges of a joyless smile. Kolya turned her head to look at the source of the fire.

The barn must have been a towering blaze just moments before, but already the flames were subsiding. None of the dozen men in the vicinity were attempting to douse or smother it, but instead were hauling on the reins of wild-eyed runnerbeasts, corralling them to safety, or plunging the long nozzles of their flamethrowers into every crack and crevice in the ground. One or two large, unrecognizable shapes lay a short distance from the barn.

Anya’s gaze followed her daughter’s. She said, grim, “We didn’t dare get close enough to slit their throats. The men had to burn them.” Kolya felt her mind skip and start over: in the gap, she remembered the hideous screams of the mares, the whites of their rolling eyes. In horror, she pushed back, but the memories broke over her:
—the warm darkness of the stable, her lantern’s wan gold light on the walls
—the smell of runner sweat and hay
—starlight through a hole in the smooth slate roof
—a hole in the roof, oh no, a hole in the roo—
—a squeal in a corner, something wet and gray
—GO
—run, run, run, bring fire, run, run, runrunrun, fire fire
it consumed them so fast, the slick silt soundless rainbows, burned them to the white bone like moonlight on
her father’s hands, her brother’s hands, the sharp, acrid, poisonous fear, the smell of vomit, and down, down
into darkness—
—her mother seized her by the shoulders, pulled her shuddering body into a sitting embrace. Over, over, over, it was over, she had been smart to react as she did, her beautiful, clever girl, to run so fast. But Kolya knew, painfully, that it had been Sara who seized the first runners by their bridles and manes, who had called for her sister to go while she stayed and dragged the frantic beasts to safety.

Ashamed, Kolya hid her face in her mother’s shoulder, and because she was weeping, she didn’t see when the first of the dragons landed.
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Old Dec 29 2009, 03:02 PM   #3
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Default Re: The Price that Life Exacts

Over a YEAR since I've posted anything? Ouch. Alas: Chapter 3 is still being worked, but here's an excerpt.
---

Chapter Three

Xavath, who could indeed see quite well in the dark, had been the first to spot the flames below.

D'nor. Tension crackled white just inside D'nor's temples. Something is wrong.

The rider leaned to see over the blue's neck, and Xavath banked – almost perpendicular to the ground – to afford D'nor a better view. There it was, set back in a semicircular niche at the base of the hills: a stunted tower of flickering orange, and short bursts of flamethrower fire for meters all around it. Show me.

Closing his eyes, D'nor felt Xavath ease him into a careful merge: too fast, and D'nor would become nauseous, disoriented. As it was, his mind wrestled to interpret the multifaceted panorama the dragons-eye view afforded him, but Xavath helped him isolate the scene, brought him in on a tight focus. From the babble, the white noise, the meaningless monochrome flashes, a warped, fisheye picture resolved itself. A structure – a home? no, a stable, a barn – on fire. Panic. Animal fear. D'nor's hands tingled.

xavath tell pedranth tell nesseth tell somebody we're landing tell them to bring help

open your eyes, d'nor, we're going to fall

?!


The bottom dropped out: sparing his inner ear, D'nor snapped his eyes open as his mount plunged in a nearly vertical drop to the circle of stone holds below. Floating in the straps, he struggled to give his thoughts some punctuation, but Xavath communicated in rushed abstractions: no, he did not need firestone just yet; Pedranth had heard and was going to land at a settlement not far from here; Nesseth was nearly done with her route and would continue on. It only took seconds to know.

As they got closer, D'nor realized the blaze was bigger than it had first appeared. The stable must have accommodated at least a dozen runners – probably the bulk of the hold's transportation. It would be a hard loss. He didn't relish being the first on the scene.

Pedranth will come soon, Xavath said, circling in to land. Holders scattered beneath him. He's bringing help.

No sooner had the dragon touched earth than a terrific splitting noise drew the eyes and ears of all present: half a dozen townspeople leaped away as the roof of the ruined barn caved in, spraying ash and sparks. The structure sighed a fresh plume of smoke.

Do we need to tell him to bring water
? asked D'nor, releasing his buckles and carabiners. He was met with no reply—only stillness. It stopped him cold. —Xavath?

Xavath was transfixed by the fire. The serrated curves of his teeth glittered in the half-gape of his slack jaw, and his eyes glowed a scorching, restless red. There was no telling whether the source of the light was internal or external. D'nor felt something stir in his chest: an inexpressible amalgam of grief and determination; an urgency—and a strange, primal, alien satisfaction. Xavath's low growl was a purr: it sent a shiver down the rider's spine.

No, the dragon said. Let it burn.

***
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Old Nov 14 2011, 09:51 AM   #4
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Default Re: The Price that Life Exacts

Someone was shoving Matrigan toward a small group of young men. "Here, we've got one more," the man said, ignoring the teenager’s feeble protests. "You still got fuel in that flamethrower, boy?"

Matrigan heard a response in his own voice, but it sounded disembodied and foreign: "Uh, yes, yes sir. Maybe half a tank." He mastered himself. "—but I don't think…"

"Don't have to. Just keep the nozzle pointed towards the burrows." Matrigan looked to see if the man was making a joke. He wasn't. "All right, Jeck, you got enough now? You need any more?"

Matrigan followed his neighbor's gaze to a sturdy, swarthy man standing at the edge of the cluster of men and teenagers. He held up one finger in the "wait" position as he counted heads with the other hand, his lips moving in silent sync.

"…six, seven. Yeah, that oughta be enough. All right, boys, listen up. They only need enough to flush out the Thread burrows. Dragonflame's too uncontrolled for the small work, but they’ll have a few handy for haulin' rubble. We ain't bringin' water for the fire. Just ourselves and our gear." He paused. "You're gonna be sittin' cozy adragonback. Try not to bitch about the smell. We already know how bad you reek." The attempt at levity fell flat. As it was, Matrigan was barely listening.

Adragonback?

Where—?

Overhead, there came an explosive noise, a blast of cold wind: the pale ambient light of the double moons winked with a transiting shadow. And then a second. As one, the men looked up at the bellies and wings of the passing dragons, their color indistinguishable in silhouette. Matrigan's heart thundered out of rhythm.

He wondered, when they landed, how he hadn't seen the third, already waiting in the darkness cast by the cliffside. But maybe he had seen it. He couldn't remember.

"…so if no one's got questions…" Jeck was still talking. He paused, barely, to allow for an interruption. None came. "…then I'll turn it over to K'din."

It was the first time Matrigan ever heard an elided name. A tall, dark-skinned man stepped forward from where he had been standing beside Jeck. He cleared his throat and shifted his riding helmet to the crook of his arm. "I've got two blues and my brown Pedranth. The blues can each take three, counting their riders; I can take four, counting me. You and you," he said, pointing to two men near the front, "you'll go with the small blue. You and you, you'll go with the bigger one. You three in the back, you're with me.

"We haven't got straps for all of you, but we're not going very far or very high. You'll have to dig in your heels and hold tight to the pack of the man in front of you. The trip will take about two minutes, and most of that is takeoff and landing. All right?" He threw a glance back at the trio of dragons, where the two blueriders were dismounting. They waved to indicate they were ready. "All right. So, you two, you're with N'dar. You two, you're with B'nil. The rest of you, come with me."

It took Matrigan a second to comprehend that he was one of "the rest of you." A brown dragon? Truly?

"Hey." The voice was familiar. Matrigan turned and saw that Rinnor’s face, beneath the sweat and grime and darkness, was alive with barely-controlled ecstasy. "Dragons, man. Fardling dragons."

Matrigan found his voice at last, but pitched it just above a whisper. "I didn't see you. I didn't even see them. Well, the one. The brown. I didn’t see him. Has he been here the whole time?"

"He landed just before you got conscripted. But I—"

"MOVE IT, gentlemen."

"—we'll talk later." Rinnor's already erratic path diverged towards the blues. "Good luck!"

"Yeah, you too."

Matrigan took a quick loping jog to catch up with the brownrider, his agenothree pack bouncing unforgivingly on his sore shoulders. It wasn't far, and the dragon, already on its feet, was walking to meet them halfway. Well—it was sort of walking. It looked as graceful on all fours as Matrigan himself might have, its heavy, huge rear legs bent in a half-crouch, hopping forward to meet its armlike forelegs on either side. The disconnect was unexpected—and even a little funny.

(Suddenly, it wasn't. And then it was again. Like a hiccup of indignation—there and gone, between the flickers of a candle flame. Had it even happened?)

He came to a stop beside the two young men, sons of two of his fathers' friends. They were about Annon's age, strapping and severe, and while they were wary of the dragon, they seemed to pay it (him, Matrigan corrected) little attention as they checked their gear. Matrigan gave his own flamethrower wand a cursory glance, turning it over once in his hands, but there was no time to remove and check his pack – and he found himself little inclined to focus on equipment with a 30-foot carnivore bearing down upon him.

No one spoke as they finished their preparations, but the three young men finished at nearly the same time. The brownrider (already Matrigan had forgotten the odd name) had his back to them, in the midst of pulling firmly down on the wide band of an anchoring strap. The dragon made a soft noise; the rider turned. "Ready, lads? All right. Shortest goes first." His eyes fell on Matrigan. "Your gear secure?"

Matrigan froze. Talking to me. He's talking to me. Is he talking to me? Yes. Yes? Yes. Gear. How's your— "…fine. Yes. Yes, sir, my gear is secure." His fingers clenched, craving an outlet, something to fidget with. He tried to settle his hands at his thighs. "I, uh, how do I… board, or…?"

"You ride runners?" Despite himself, Matrigan felt a little offended by the question. Who didn't ride? He managed a terse nod. "Same thing. Don't slow down, just swing that leg right over." The rider (K'din, that was it, K'din and Pedranth) threw a look to the pair of blues, whose passengers were almost totally settled. In spite of the darkness, a shadow settled where K'din's brow wrinkled with impatience. "Hustle."

The brown lowered his shoulder. It was a necessary, simple gesture, but it was also polite – and an entirely alien thing for an animal to do. Animals did not extend courtesies. Animals were not polite. They did nothing remotely human, in fact – shake or stand on their hind legs or fetch or speak – without being commanded to. The effect was jarring. Matrigan had always just thought of dragons as big runnerbeasts, but the brown was as much like a runner as Matrigan was like a hairless rat.

Even through his gloves, Matrigan could tell that the dragon's hide was warm. He braced himself against the sturdy side, a wall of featureless darkness in the poor moonlight, and found a foothold just above Pedranth's half-crooked elbow. He felt K'din's hand go to his right knee, and in a single smooth motion, the dragon and the rider swept Matrigan into a dimple behind the last neckridge. His agenothree pack tried to continue over the other side, but Matrigan clutched at the rounded spinal protuberance in front of him – and hoped desperately that doing so would cause neither harm nor offense.

Pedranth turned to look at him. In the darkness, the single visible eye burned a feverish yellow, casting a small ring of pallid light on eyeridge and cheekbone. The beast exhaled, and for a fraction of a second, Matrigan thought he saw a flash of bright blue glisten in the center of its faceted regard. A wink? A warning? He didn't dream it was a smile.

It was cramped with the other two boys loaded in, and they quickly found that their agenothree packs just about doubled their volume. Even so, there was room for K'din, who squeezed in between Pedranth's neckridge and Matrigan's narrow body. At least, Matrigan thought, there wasn't much chance of him becoming dislodged.

He changed his mind when they lifted off.

It was like nothing he had felt before. As the brown lurched from the earth, Matrigan was driven hard into his seat as if restrained by great invisible hands; on the first upstroke of the great wide wings, he was alarmed to find himself lifting away from the dragon's warm, solid body. He grasped wildly for purchase at K'din's waist, and held his breath even as one of the rider's gloved hands squeezed his wrist reassuringly. Sure enough, gravity seemed to stabilize as Pedranth's wingbeats became more smooth and even. For a brief moment, they simply sat and gained altitude, and Matrigan regretted the late hour – in the darkness, he was unable to see his lifelong home from this new and dizzying perspective.

"All right!" They were not traveling fast, but K'din projected his voice just the same. "We're going between. You won't like it, but it won't last long. We'll be out by the count of five." Matrigan felt his heart resume a frantic beat. How to anticipate what couldn't be described? Would it be cold?

"Ready?"

Would it be dark?

"Pedranth, take us—"

Would it be—?





oh

!!

nothing nothing nothing to see nothing to hear nothing to feel


Matrigan could not see, because he had no eyes.

try to count try to c… c… oonnne…

Even if there had been air – there wasn't – he could not breathe it; Matrigan had no lungs.

t… two… oh help, help me help me

It did not feel cold, because Matrigan had no body.

three… four… where are you i wanna get out i wanna get out

He could not scream—he had no voice—no throat

i don't wanna die five five five FIVE

They emerged. A sharp bang sounded in the wake of displaced air, and Matrigan's skin sang and tingled as his body surged back into a material dimension. He felt a sudden horror at the thought he may have soiled himself, but while he quailed and trembled, he was relieved to find his trousers were dry. K'din squeezed his hand again—it was a reassurance as much as a reminder that Matrigan still had hands. His heart was a sledgehammer under his ribs. He had never been so grateful for fear.

As promised, the trip was no more than a quick hop over (under? Through? No, between) the mountain. At first, Matrigan was too preoccupied with orienting himself to think much about why this hold was more visible than his own had been. But as Pedranth started a tight downward spiral, Matrigan saw the smoldering structure at the heart of long, scattered shadows, illuminating the hurried motions of dozens of frantic people. Throughout the township and into the narrow valley, the dark earth was punctuated by abrupt gouts of flamethrower fire. That could be understood, but why was no one attempting to douse the one structure? Why would they let it burn?

Matrigan's train of throught was interrupted by Pedranth's sudden backwing. The boy behind him grunted as Matrigan's agenothree tank caught him in the chest. Turning to apologize, Matrigan succeeded only in whacking the boy's shoulder with his gear.

"Sorry, I'm really sorry—" he began.

"It's fine," the other boy said in a thinly controlled voice. Even in the relative darkness, he looked pale and distracted. "Just—whatever, it's fine."

"All right, lads, down we go." K’din had unbuckled and was already sliding off Pedranth's neck. He lifted his hands to catch Matrigan just as Pedranth raised his own arm as a step-down; the simultaneous motion was surreal. With no more skill than he had used to mount up, Matrigan braced himself on a neckridge as he swung himself over Pedranth’s side. Landing, he found his legs were weak, and he struggled to brace himself on the brownrider. "Got it? All right, all right, good job," K'din said, clapping him on the shoulder. "Good job. Next one, come on. Watch your—there you go, okay, let's keep moving, fellas."

In short order, the blues landed and deposited their passengers. The dragons stood apace while K'din gathered the young men a short distance from the burning structure. He turned to face them; his expression was unreadable, cast in shadow by the flames at his back. "Stay here," he said. "Check your gear. I'll only be a moment."

Most of the boys half-heartedly inspected their agenothree tanks and wands; a few fidgeted with gloves and goggles. Matrigan watched as K'din approached a small cluster of men, some of whom gestured angrily and often towards the glowing remains of the building. One man jabbed a rigid finger in the direction of the dragons before another seemed to calm him—but only just. What was the argument? Why were they—

"Hey." Rinnor’s voice at his ear startled Matrigan from his thoughts. "Was that amazing or what?"

It took Matrigan several seconds to understand what his brother meant. "Oh," he said, turning to look at the gathered dragons. "Yeah. It was really something." His fingers plucked at grime collected along the flamethrower wand. "Were you scared?"

"Shit no." Rinnor ran a hand through his disorderly mess of hair. Matrigan knew it as a signal of unease, and regarded his sibling with skepticism. "Well… that between stuff was pretty wild," he confessed. "But those guys do it all the time. We weren't ever really in danger."

"I guess not," Matrigan said doubtfully. He returned his attention to the group of older men. "What do you think they’re talking about?" Even in the unreliable light of the dying fire, he could see surprise reflected in Rinnor’s face.

"Didn't you hear that part?" Matrigan shook his head. Rinnor's eyebrows slanted down towards his nose. "I guess you came late. Okay. See that burning mess over there?" How could he not? Matrigan nodded. "Well—I guess there was a hole in the roof or something. Thread got in." Matrigan felt a hard knot of dread settle at the base of his stomach; it was every holder's worst nightmare come to life. "It ate a couple of the runners before they could burn it all down. Maybe it ate more before we got here, I don't know. One of the sweepriders from Fort spotted it and that's when they called for help."

"Help with what? It's already burned to the ground."

"Man, you're stupid," said one of the older boys, slapping his goggles to his thigh with disgust. Matrigan felt his cheeks begin to burn, and Rinnor stiffened at his side. "Don't you get it? One of the dragons let Thread through."

"So?" asked Rinnor. "That happens all the time. It's not their fault. It's the height of the Pass."

"Not their fault? It's their job," the older boy—Jernan, Matrigan thought his name was—shot back, his eyes round with incredulity.

"There are only so many of them," Rinnor persisted. "There's a whole sky full of Thread."

"Whatever. It doesn't matter. All that matters is these people lost their runnerbeasts. You think they'll take chances with the rest of their land?” Jernan brandished his flamethrower wand. "We're gonna be making love to the dirt until the sun rises."

At first, Matrigan felt himself denying it. Okay, maybe they would have some work to do, but maybe it was something else. Maybe they'd burn a few burrows, sort through the wreckage, help find new places for the runners to go. But as K'din approached, followed by three other men – two holders and a rider he didn’t recognize – he knew it to be a vain hope. None of them would get much rest tonight.

"All right, lads. This here's D'nor, whose Xavath spotted the blaze. This is Darnel, holder here, and this is Fallor, who's lost his prized stables tonight."

"His stables, and damn near his two daughters," spat Darnel, an aging man who seemed built of cracked leather over wire. Fallor, maybe a decade younger and of kinder, yet weary countenance, lay a hand on the other's shoulder.

"Darnel," he said. "Please." The holder bristled, but fell silent.

"Yes, well," K'din went on after a pause, "Fort knows her duty to those beholden. We've agreed to the terms of a recompense, and in the meantime, these fellows have generously volunteered to help their neighbors in need." The brownrider looked meaningfully at his conscripted groundcrew, then back to the holders. With a slight bow, he added, "We are at your service."

"Damn right you are," growled Darnel. Matrigan felt his fingers curl into fists. What right did the man have to speak to a dragonrider that way? Wasn't it his holder's own stupid fault for having a stable made of wood? Everyone knew better than that this far into the Pass. He was amazed Gar, if not Fort itself, had allowed the thing to stand at all.

He must not have been alone in the thought, for one of the dragons gave a low growl. Matrigan saw K’din’s posture stiffen. The man named D’nor lay a hand on his fellow’s arm.

"Fort knows her duty," D'nor repeated, "and we don't contest its necessity here. We are, again, deeply sorry for the loss of your property. Our resources are at your disposal, sirs. Please direct us."

That seemed to satisfy Darnel. For now, anyway. The man sniffed, wiped the back of his hand across his nose, and spat. "The stables're done for, that's obvious," he grunted, "though Fallor's girls still got their hides. You smell meat, it ain't a pit fire. That's our runners burnin'. Two fillies, three mares, a stallion and one of our best drays." Matrigan wasn't the only one who winced at the tally, though Darnel's expression was hard. "We ain't gonna cover ground as fast without 'em, so I hope you boys're stronger'n you look." Even in darkness, Matrigan could see Darnel flick a disdainful glance in his direction. Blood rushed into his face. He tried his best to look tall and hale.

As the man laid out their strategy – a grid pattern augmented by another dozen or so of the local holders – Matrigan found his attention wandering to the dragonriders.

K'din was the taller of the two; taller, in fact, than any of the men present. He was not, however, what Matrigan's mother would call a "bean pole." Even in full leathers – and lit only by torches, glows, and the filtered light of the gibbous moons – it was clear that K'din was a stalwart, broad-shouldered man of considerable strength. Between his broad, angular face and dark skin, K'din exuded a starkness, an assertiveness, that Matrigan found intimidating. This was a man's man, the consummate dragonrider – a man who commanded attention and respect. With a start, Matrigan realized this man was not unlike his own father. Maybe that was unnerved him the most.

D'nor was something else entirely. Shorter, slimmer, and more compact than K'din, the bluerider seemed better suited to swimming than to flight. There was no judging color in the darkness, but between helmet and wind, the man’s hair – cut at a sensible, reasonably close length – was a bit of a touseled mess. On another man, his prominent nose might have been overwhelming; on D'nor, it perfectly complemented warm, dark eyes and long, symmetrical features. Matrigan was a poor judge of age, but he estimated that the man would not yet have seen his thirtieth Turn.

When the bluerider glanced at him, Matrigan realized he was staring. His face burned as he wrenched his attention back to Darnel.

"...any questions? No? All right. Pair up and get moving."

Matrigan sighed and shifted the weight of his pack for the dozenth time. He cast a glance sideways as his brother sidled up to him. Rinnor's usually full smile was tempered into a wry half-grin.

"So on the bright side," he said, releasing a short gout of flame, "I'm pretty sure this will get us girls."

"Yeah," Matrigan said doubtfully. He found himself struggling not to look back at D'nor. "At least there's girls."
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Old Nov 16 2011, 03:03 PM   #5
Cavatica
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Join Date: Apr 2006
Location: Raleigh, NC
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Fan of: Pern, Talents
Now Reading: Just finished: House of Suns
Default Re: The Price that Life Exacts

Hey, look! More!

This is not the full chapter, but I enjoyed writing this section of it so much, I wanted to share it right away.
---

Chapter Four

a slow thought, a wisp
languid timelessness
and an eternal dream:
awake! awake and be!

Kolya woke again to darkness, and the ebbing aftertaste of fear. Although she could hardly see, she could feel that her environs were warm, close, and familiar—her own bedroom, the one she shared with Sara.

Sara.

Kolya sat up as though pulled; her head swam and protested against the sudden motion. Turning slowly, she perceived the dim light of dying glows by her sister's bedside. They illuminated the dark shape of something in bed: it rose and fell as Sara, her back turned to Kolya, drew the shallow breaths of a deep sleep. Kolya felt some of the tension ease from her back and shoulders, and allowed a deep sighing breath of her own.

She wondered what time it was. For that matter, what day is it? She stood and went to the room's single small window, which admitted moonslight without any sign of the moons. They must have been directly overhead, or just starting into the west. They had been rising over the eastern sky when Kolya had last seen them, just before...

She shuddered, choking back a wave of nausea. Her mind clamped down on the memory, burying it until she could uncover it safely and in the light of day.

Out of the corner of her eye, at some distance, she saw a breath of light along the earth. A few seconds passed before a second burst flared at somewhat closer range. Flamethrowers. So it was the same night, but late. Surely dawn wasn't far off—would the ground crews really have been working all night?

Although her head throbbed, Kolya knew there was no sleep in her immediate future. Someone had helped her into her night dress, she realized. Propriety dictated that she change into proper attire before emerging from the house, but a strange and inexplicable urgency drew her instead to her heavy cloak. She shrugged it on, and fumbled for her boots by the bedside. Sara made a soft noise and rolled over, settling into a deeper sleep. Kolya expelled a breath she didn’t remember holding, then padded quietly out into the hallway.

Stepping lightly, Kolya allowed herself only the briefest pause outside the entrance to her parents' room. There were no doors inside the small house, which made stealth a trick – but while Kolya could see little in the darkness, she heard her mother’s soft snoring. Usually it was masked by her father's noisy sawing. Which meant—

He must still be out with the crews. Kolya hesitated as she approached the front door. What sort of mood would she find him in? Was it really so important to go outside? Why was she even doing this?

Despite her reservations, Kolya found herself unbolting the lock and sliding out into the night. She was surprised to find her hands trembling. Stop it, she told herself. Stop it. What are you so afraid of?

She fought the answer as it tried to surface. Pulling her cloak around her did little against the shivers that crawled over her skin, but still she turned and forced herself to face the wider world. Her instincts screamed for shelter. She set her jaw and swallowed them.

Kolya tried to focus. The moons had, in fact, made a good deal of progress across the sky, but their light was still enough to see by. Already it seemed that the spurts of agenothree were becoming more sporadic, less frequent. Small clusters of weary men and boys gathered at the edges of her family's property, drawing slowly, wearily, towards one another as they finished their work. None of them appeared to take much notice of her. What had she hoped to find out here? Reassurance, perhaps—but how? Of what?

She stepped uncertainly away from the house. One step. Two. If her father was out here, he was impossible to discern from the other silhouettes. What if he wasn't here? What if something had happened to him? She struggled to recall if his face had been amongst those she glimpsed after the fire. Would they have told her if he had been trapped, burned, or—or worse?

"Father," she said aloud, softly, into the darkness. No one heard her. Her heart thundered in her chest; a strange tension gripped her extremities. The moisture vanished from her mouth and throat. She licked her lips. "Father," she said again, more loudly, "father, where are you? Father! Father!"

The writhing rainbows, like silt, like intestines.
Kolya's vision swam. "Father. Father!"

The runners screaming as they melted and burned and died. The earth under her feet. Missing time, the scent of death, a beautiful alien horror and the lurching world— "Father! Daddy! Daddy, where are you!"

Two lights dropped from the sky, blazing red and terrible. Where the treeline had been, now there was only a mountain of darkness—and the lights. Kolya screamed.

She staggered back. She fell.

—and was caught.

Child, be still.

The thought came as clearly as her own, but it was not her own. It had no timbre, no volume, no pitch—but it was a voice distinct from her own, and it was not unkind. She trembled, but felt herself grow still. She felt warm. She felt tired. Her mind carefully, gingerly uncurled.

What are you?

Open your eyes. See me.


Distantly, Kolya heard men shouting. She opened her eyes, turned her head to see.

The two lights still floated above her – twin suns on the horizon, fitful and orange as candle flames. But they had a texture like cobblestones, or the fractal swirl of a sunflower's crown. She felt a strange, serene smile pull at her lips. Was this what it was to be intoxicated?

You're beautiful. Am I going to die?
Kolya felt a wave of calm pass over her. She thought of her sister braiding her hair. She thought of her father's rough lullabies. The memories came as if extracted, pressed into her consciousness as a mother might give a fearful child her favorite stuffed animal. She clung to them.

No. You have broken inside. But you will live. You must be strong.
The men's voices were growing louder. Kolya stretched out a hand and felt warmth, felt softness—like her best suede boots left out in the sun. A moment's silence stretched out like a lifetime. Kolya drew her thumb over the dragon's massive jaw.

I'm very tired. May I go back to bed?

Yes, sweet child, very soon. You must stand now. Your father comes.
Kolya shuddered.

He will be angry.

He is afraid, like you.
Kolya scoffed at that.

He isn't afraid of anything.

All men fear.
The dragon rumbled as he gently set Kolya on her feet. It is how they show their love, I think. Do not falter. We are here. You are safe.

"Kolya!" That was him now. Kolya steadied herself against the dragon's great foreleg as she struggled to balance on her own feet. Then her father had her in his arms, crushing her to his chest. "Kolya, Kolya, my girl, what happened to you?" Cold air rushed into her lungs as he held her out at arm's length. His face looked haggard and twisted; the night's long shadows deepened each hollow into a ravine. "What are you doing out here? Do you know what time it is? What were you thinking?"

Another voice, brash and male, came from somewhere to her side. "She's having a fit. You should keep better track of your women, Fallor."

"Keep your tongue, Darnel," said another voice. Men were gathering around now – men she knew and men she didn't. Shadows made strangers of them all. "The man has had more grief in one night than most of us will know in a Pass."

Their bickering fizzled in the periphery of Kolya's awareness like white noise, distant and ignorable. She studied her father's worried face, trying to gather the right words to explain. She wanted to tell him that she was drawn out by some need – curiosity or restlessness or even fear. She wanted to tell him of the voice in her mind, of warmth and strength and memory. But her mouth would not obey her; her tongue tasted simpler words. All at once, Kolya felt exhausted. "I'm glad you're okay, father," she said. "Did you see?"

Her father's voice sounded strained and far away. He cupped a hand over her forehead. "What did you say? Did I see what?"

Kolya smiled. She closed her eyes and drifted.

"I was falling, and a dragon caught me."
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