Leonard stumbles down the road out of Bitra Hold, all of his meager possessions stuffed in a rucksack that he clutches to his chest, his mind blank with shock.
Banished. And for what? The crime of loving a fickle bitch, Leonard thought bitterly. She finished with him and decided she didn’t want him hanging around the Hold anymore, and she…he feels sick thinking about it. Forcing yourself on someone was a high crime on Pern, and while her accusation couldn’t be proved, Jocelyn’s father, the Lord Holder, had given him the greatest punishment he could without there being proof. Banishment, instead of being staked out during a Threadfall.
He shakes his head and his Journeyman Healer’s knot, complete with a small emerald, clinks against the buckle of his rucksack. By now, Bitra’s Lord Holder would have sent his fire lizard around to the other Holds, and he won’t be able to get a position as a Healer anywhere. Abruptly he feels sick, and stumbles to the side of the road to empty his stomach. When his heaves finally stop, he raises a shaking hand to wipe his mouth.
This isn’t how he imagined his life going.
Everything shadows suddenly, reflexively he looks up to see a brown dragon circling above him. He feels a flash of fear, wondering if word had reached the Weyr of the accusation laid against him, wondering if the Dragonrider was there to take him Between, permanently. The dragon circles one more time and then lands, settling its considerable bulk down on the sands with a grunt, less than a dragonlength from him. The brown stretches out his neck and snorts, his breath making Leonard’s clothes flap against his rangy, muscled frame. The clothes are old and don’t fit him well; hand me downs, because the clothes that the Bitran’s had outfitted him in had been stripped from him along with everything else. The dragon snorts again and raises his head, turning back toward his rider, who slaps the side of his dragon’s neck and then slides out of his riding harness.
“Tupelith told my Gareth that you’ve been falsely accused and banished from Bitra Hold,” the rider says, leaning against his dragon.
“Tupelith?” Leonard says, blankly. The Dragonrider didn’t think he was guilty? He felt a wash of relief. At least someone did.
“The dragon posted at the Healer Hall,” the rider says in explanation. “We could use a Healer at the Weyr, if you’re interested. There’s a chance of an egg in it for you.”
For the third time that day, Leonard feels his mind go static. A position in a Weyr? A chance at an egg…he thought for a moment. The only Clutch he knew of was at Benden Weyr, which was by far regarded as the best Weyr. He knows people who would give an arm and a leg for a chance to Impress a Benden Hatchling.
“I would- That is-,” he stumbles over his words.
The man grimaces in sympathy, walks over to place a hand on Leonard’s shoulder and looks him in the eyes. “Just nod or shake,” he said, and Leonard nods. The rider gives his shoulder a squeeze and then let’s go to clap him on the shoulder lightly. “Come on, then.”
Leonard lets himself be lead, gently, to the brown, Gareth. The rider, whose name he still hasn’t caught, nondescript in his flying leathers, boosts him up onto his dragon and buckles the straps on the harness that would prevent him from falling. Gareth shakes out his wings as his rider climbs up behind their passenger and straps himself in, and then takes off when his rider gives him a silent signal.
He launches himself up, wings beating powerfully, and then hovers, barely moving, as his rider leans forward and says, with his mouth right next to Leonard’s ear “We’re going to go Between. It’s a bit startling the first time you experience it, but just try to relax, and it will be over in about the same time as it takes to cough three times.”
Leonard nods, and the rider leaned back and says “To Benden Weyr, Gareth.”
And then they were Between.
It was worse than all the stories and Ballads he’s heard about it. It’s a total abscene of everything; air, sound, and the feeling of the dragon beneath him, of everything all gone. He takes paniced breathes of air that isn’t there, feeling light headed. He thinks he would go insane if he had to experience the loss of everything except a sense of ‘self’ for any length of time. They aren’t Between long, he knows it, in his head, but when they come out to bright sunshine, he takes deep gasping breaths, unable to drag enough air in his lungs.
“That was horrible,” he mutters, but the rider hears him anyway, and laughs.
“You get used to it,” he says, and Leonard shudders.
“I don’t want to get used to it,” he snaps.
“You’ll need too,” the rider says cryptically. Leonard just shakes his head and clenches his eyes shut, because he knows that he won’t fall but that doesn’t really stop the nagging feeling that he’s much too far away from solid ground. A jarring sensation that causes him to jerk forward heralds their landing, and he opens his eyes to take in his first view of Benden Weyr.
The dragonrider laughs, and unbuckles the straps holding Leonard into the riding harness. “Beautiful, isn’t it?” he asks, and Leonard can only nod.
Leonard slides gracelessly from the brown’s back when his rider finishes unbuckling him. He stumbles a little, before catching his balance and turning back to the dragon.
“Thank you, Gareth,” he says, sketching a short bow to the brown, who turns his head and blows gently in his direction.
You’re welcome, Healer. he hears in his mind, and he starts. He bows again to Gareth, deeper this time.
“He likes you,” the dragon’s rider says, sliding from his dragon’s back, “I’m M’chell, by the way,” he says.
“Thank you, M’chell,” he says, and for what he doesn’t really know, but the rider seems to know what he means.
M’chell nods at him, then snaps his head around at the same time his dragon does.
“And just in time, too,” he says, and Leonard is really beginning to hate the way he speaks in riddles.
“Come on, back up,” M’chell says, hustling Leonard back onto Gareth and taking off quickly. They wink in and out of between again, and then glide down into what is the ancient remains of a volcano, a perfect bowl in the heart of the mountain, the Weyr. The air is full of dragons of every color, and Leonard isn’t sure how the blues, browns, greens, and bronzes aren’t colliding in midair.
Gareth back wings to land lightly on the sands in the bowl, and Leonard starts when M’chell starts unbuckling him from the harness again.
“What-” Leonard starts, but M’chell cuts him off.
“They’re hatching,” he says, and Leonard is reminded of what the dragonrider told him not a moment after they first met ‘There’s a chance of an egg in it for you’.
This is a Hatching.
He doesn’t protest being unclipped and dropped unceremoniously onto the hot sands, though his ill fitting shoes don’t protect him from the heat. He ignores it – Tillek Hold was his birth home so he was used to heat. There are a group of males, no more than boys really, waiting in a group new the edge of the eggs. A few are rocking gently, and a semi-circle of girls is spread out on the opposite side of the Hatching Grounds as the boys, around a glowing golden egg.
He makes his way over to the boys, gives them a nod when they look at him nervously. The dragons, crouched above them on ledges around the edges of the sands, are humming, a counterpoint to his pounding heart. The humming picks up in tempo, getting faster and louder – and then one of the eggs cracks.
The wet head of the first hatched dragonet pokes through the hard shell that it had lain in, and Leonard can see from here it’s a blue. A sigh goes through the humming dragons, and the sound seems to encourage him, because he shakes inside his egg, causing the remainder to crack and fall in shards around him. It flops onto the hot sands, and Leonard finds himself encouraging it to get up under his breath, without really thinking about it.
The dragonet does, and shakes himself again, before turning his head and looking around. When the blue sees the boys gathered near the edge of the eggs, he makes his way toward them. Leonard is conscious of other dragon’s hatching, but the blue has his attention.
The blue stops in front of him and croons, his eyes whirling blue and green.
My name is Atlanth, the blue says inside his mind, and Leonard feels himself fall into the whirling, faceted eyes, feels his heart fill up with love, and knows that he will never be alone again.