Moreta was so tired, so weary with the day's effort of timing it. How could she keep this up? That was when she realized her carrying nets were empty, that the last hold had received their share. One more jump for her and aged Holth, she told herself. One more jump and she would be home again. She told the holder as much when he was so torn between hospitality and getting down to business, and wearily stroked along Holth's neck as the queen gathered her weary muscles for the spring.
For a woman who had put three times as many hours into her day, and a dragon whose fondest wish was for sun and rest, the idea of home was laden too heavily with the repeated impression of Keroon's hidden hill holds, so like her childhood that Moreta did not quite visualize things as she should have. Holth could only go where she was directed, even if those directions were a half-hazed partial memory of a day like this, too long ago. They blinked away from that hold with Moreta's mantra against the cold in her mind, and emerged in a far different one, with a herd of runners visible in the distance, and a young boy with a girl playing near to the hold's small stream in the lush plains' grass.
This is not Fort! Holth immediately complained, gray under the golden hide and shaking far more.
No...it's my childhood home, Moreta replied with a gasp for air at such a long ride between.
I cannot reach Leri properly. She feels strange! Holth was as close to panicked as the gold could get, considering how placidly she had handled the challenge of the Plague.
Calm, Holth. She is young now, as you are, and we need to rest, hunt...and avoid contact with anyone, if we wish to properly get home. Moreta's fatigued wits could have failed her, but the thought of spreading the contagion of the disease she had possessed to the people of this time was a paradox she did not want to tempt.
Rest. Then food. Then home. The thoughts were as fierce as the tired queen could project. She was uneasy, but she circled again, looking for a height of some kind to come down on, away from the people that were, at a gut level, distressing Moreta. The sun is warm, at least, she said, realizing her rider needed to be soothed.
"At least there is that much," Moreta agreed, turning aside the thoughts of herself and Talpan, oh her friend!, in that field playing so blithely. She rocked as Holth landed heavily on one of the few rises that would be mostly unmolested. If the children were in the field, it would not be a Thread Day. They should be safe to rest here, recoup some of their strength and then...then they would hunt wherries for Holth's strength before attempting to place themselves home. Deep in her soul, away from Holth's long ears, she promised herself she would never, ever leave Orlith's side like this again.
Orlith reared up in the sands, eyes whirling in violent shades of orange and red as the connection to her rider slipped away from her. On the side of the Sands, another was also brought low by the breaking of lifelong communication as Leri collapsed without that support she needed to struggle against the tide of the years. Rogeth spurred K'lon to act with a quiet intrusion in his rider's mind. Orlith began keening and thrashing, none too far from the eggs so in need of her attention.
They cannot feel Holth or her rider, was Roget's assessment, cutting through the plaintive noise of the stricken queen dragon, tied to her eggs.
"I can't make her live!" K'lon protested, but the wording of that, threaded with uncertainty made him help Leri, made him force air back into her starving lungs.
From all of the dragons in the Weyr came a massive swell of command, all brought to bear on their Queen in an unheard of turn of events. Quiet, it demanded, as if all the minds of the dragon population had heard something that the mind-bonded pair could not. The clutched-queen whimpered still, but the noise died away to levels that did not pain K'lon on the human level, making him more aware of the breaking, horrifying cries of the woman he held, her frail form shaking violently.
They live....so quiet, Rogeth said. Echoes? Their voices, we hear them, so far away.
Jallora and Lidora were coming, Kamiana with them, eyeing the needs of the dragon, and ultimately choosing to approach the hurting queen as the healer and other rider assisted the former Weyrwoman. Orlith hissed and drew back, but it was not in her nature to remain away from touch, and eventually consented to lay her head where Kamiana could stroke the ridges in calming motions.
"Echoes?" K'lon asked, out loud so that he could force himself around the knot of fear that he had interfered in a rightful suicide.
"We heard them all day this day, as we delivered vaccine," Lidora said softly. "They are not gone, Leri. Listen to me. Holth and Moreta, they live! They...must be overtired, and trapped between times. But we can still hear echoes from them. You have to be strong, be strong for Orlith as L'mal would have wished."
K'lon could see Leri nod, little by little getting her gasping sobs under control, saw as Haura and S'peren broke free of the waiting weyrfolk outside the Grounds, Haura went to aid with Orlith, while S'peren, friends for so long with Leri and L'mal, came to support her. It allowed K'lon to move back, to be free of the weight of what had, almost, happened there in front of him. Before long he could see K'dren and S'ligar bring Sh'gall, who was both pale and afraid as well as indignantly aware he was out of touch with all that had occurred in his Weyr, returning as well. Not long past that, Kadith came in and settled near his mate, twining his tail to hers until Orlith's muted cries subsided fully.
It was all a matter of waiting, now.
Rill was thankful for the presence of Desdra and Tuero both, nor could she protest B'lerion's continued presence in the Hold as the day progressed. The afternoon, beginning as it had with Oklina's faint and Alessan's traumatized shout, had worn hard on her nerves. From what could be made out just by B'lerion's repeated assurances, Rill had discerned that the deliveries had caused Moreta and Holth to become lost somehow, an event that each of the Ruathan heirs had felt distinctly. There could be no doubt that Oklina was bound for the Sands, nor that Lord Leef had denied Pern a strong rider when he refused to part with his second son.
Only once Tuero had charmed Alessan into sleep, and B'lerion had taken Oklina off for rest was Rill able to get the full story from Desdra. The one-time Fortian was not surprised, so much that Moreta and Alessan had been lovers, but could not figure out when, until Desdra discussed the miracle delivery across the world.
"Dragons go between times," Desdra confided, before explaining more. Her words of a magical interlude actually left the Journeywoman Healer glowing, and Rill did not need it spelled out that Desdra had found comfort with her MasterHealer that stolen afternoon. "B'lerion and the other riders say the dragons can hear Moreta and Holth both, but like echoes across a vast canyon. We must merely wait for them to find their way through time to us."
"But Alessan? He still seemed so pale, even once B'lerion explained," Rill protested.
"Nerilka," Desdra began, firming her tone when Rill went to protest the name. "No one knows why either of them felt the shock as the riders and dragons did, but the love of a Weyrwoman is a complication that must be negotiated carefully. Alessan has a hold that can still be profitable, that others like your father would love to despoil."
"All the more reason he never know of my Blood," Rill said firmly. Desdra eyed her and then shook her head.
"You are far more credit to your Blood than your father ever deserved. Duty will call, and with his love elsewhere, it will be a difficult place for his Lady to live within."
"For some other Lady, yes. I am content to only be his Holder, and no more," Rill said firmly, refusing to admit the spark within her that had existed ever since Suriana spoke of her loving husband.
Desdra did not comment, going instead to her own bed for the night, and leaving Rill to understand the plight of a man on the edge of a great tragedy that had not yet, fully, been averted. There was, Rill had to give Desdra, truth in the words concerning Alessan's affairs. Any future marriage would be a thing of duty, not love, for whomever he chose, no matter if Moreta lived or died from this point. The man had lost too much to let anyone else into his heart again.
Rill would just try to be the friend of the mother to his heirs, and hope for as much peace as could be spared.
Moreta slept only fitfully, and Holth didn't do much better despite the bone-numbing weariness they both felt. They had the light of both moons, though, as the attempt at sleep gave way to their more pressing need for food, and most importantly, the other halves they were missing.
"Holth, I doubt I can hunt wherry; are you going to be up for a night raid on the culling pens near here?" Moreta hated to do it, feeling like a Holdless thief. But they could not approach a Weyr, nor a hold, to ask for food.
There are wherries nearby. I may be old, but I am not incapable, the queen replied haughtily. They do rest at night. Sleeping wherries should offer me little trouble.
"Sorry, Holth," Moreta soothed quickly. "I'm not thinking very well right now. I'm...five Turns old not far from here, Orlith's not been clutched yet, and I want to go home." So much, too much, had happened and the weight of it, the betrayal of being here, cut off from Orlith's mind, was not helping her settle down and be the rational self she knew she needed to be.
I hunt wherries, then we go home, Holth told her, placid and calm to provide the needed anchor point.
Moreta breathed in and out, slowly, counting to five. "Yes. After your food settles; I won't listen to Leri coping with your sour belly."
Agreed, Holth sent, with a touch of resignation, knowing the healer/weyrwoman would not budge from that stance.
Moreta mounted the aged queen, and held on for the dizzying drop from the bluff and the flight under two moons, with its varied shadows. Near a copse of greenery, Holth slowed her flight and managed a ground landing despite the difficulty involved for her to take off again. With hunger as a goad, she managed a running spring once Moreta was off, but still safely close enough to comfort her mentally; having her partner too far away in time made her needy for her surrogate to be close by, an attitude Moreta echoed.
The rider knew when Holth found the wherries by sound, but knew she had been successful by the base, guttural pleasure of feeding that flooded through her. Being hungry herself, Moreta was thankful for the alleviation of Holth's demands, and put her mind over the matter of needing food of her own. They'd be home soon enough, and she could eat her fill in full sight of Orlith, on the side of the Hatching Ground, where she belonged.
Two, Holth warned just before she rushed and caught a second wherry from the nesting ones she had disturbed. Moreta had to smile at the visceral joy in the queen, her pride at being able to fend for herself outside the caldera of a Weyr's hunting ground.
You more than earned them, Moreta let her know. It wasn't much longer before Holth returned to her, curling to let the meat settle before they attempted to go home. Her current rider lazily stroked the queen's neck, before looking up at Belior and Timor. Home soon, Orlith mine, she whispered.
Yes, Holth agreed.
Orlith lay coiled around her queen egg, proving to be far less accepting of admirers and visitors while the separation endured. Nightfall had come, and all the riders who had been timing it to deliver the vaccines had been weyred. K'lon had been present when Leri demanded that Sh'gall bring his queen's plight to a conclave of Leaders and Weyrwomen the next day. The blue rider had never seen a Weyrleader as full of his own sense of self-importance pinned back to seeming so small in all his Turns riding, and there was a small part of himself that had enjoyed it, for all of the small slights the hold-bred bronze had given to those who preferred their own for mating flights.
The only reason K'lon had refused to go to his weyr with Rogeth was that he was worried for Leri. Whereas Orlith could not go between due to her eggs, Leri had lived so long and done so much with Holth, that the strain was pulling at her.
"Get that look off your face, Rogeth's rider," Leri snapped, one eye cracking open from where he had thought she was dozing in the temporary bed made along the side of the Hatching Grounds. "Holth's out there. You did your heroic deed, and for that, I have to say thank you; couldn't leave my Holth behind."
"I'm just worried about all the strain," K'lon said quietly. "It's been hours since we realized something was wrong."
Leri sighed and frowned. "It's hard, but Orlith can hear the echoes now. She's with me, as we wait. You, blue rider, should be in your weyr with that dragon of yours. Or even in hot Igen, with that green partner of yours," Leri said, voice rising into a teasing harangue. K'lon lifted his hands, smiling and shaking his head.
"No, A'murry knows of the troubles." K'lon settled where he sat, making it clear by body language he was not leaving the woman he had been privileged to call Weyrwoman most of his life.
"Hmph. Troubles." Leri shifted and took the wine near her, sipping it slowly. "So much demanded of so many, and that troublesome M'tani complicating it all! No doubt L'bol will side with him on however this shakes out, but the other five will hold strong. If Sh'gall doesn't...." There was a sharp, vicious gleam in old eyes set within those earned wrinkles. K'lon found himself more than relieved to not be on the receiving end of Leri in a temper just then. Orlith added a menacing rumble from where she had curled, one eyelid rolling up so that the vaguest hint of orange could be seen.
"By the time morning comes, Moreta will be here to speak her own mind," K'lon said with full belief in the healing queen-rider.
"So she will," Leri said softly. "If she'd only make her preferences clearer in all things," she sighed, before settling to rest again. Holth, come home to me quickly!
Rill was up before the dawn, despite a late night, tackling more of the cleaning that needed to be done. She had thought, rightly, that she would be alone at this early hour. So much needed to be done, and Alessan nor Oklina would be up to the challenge, or so she mused as she settled into the hard drudgery of the chores. She did startle the cook, a man who had come for Gather before he lost his apprentice and his wife, as she got the items she wanted from the supply room. She nodded to him, and he nodded back, a dour look on his face as he went through the early morning routines to feed the much reduced Hold. His reason given to Alessan for staying was to spite the disease by staying where he'd lost so much. Several of those who had survived had chosen to remain for much the same reason.
Ruatha would be rebuilt to her glory, and it would be built by those who refused to lose anything else. Rill approved of this, and wondered, idly, how many were like herself, using the calamity of an entire world to begin anew. Certainly there would not be Holdless for some time after this. Alessan had worded a drum request for Tuero that would go out soon enough to those Holds known to harbor such peoples, like Igen, though there was little hope of survival there, either. K'lon had said the sand caves of Igen had been empty of life on a brief search there.
Still, people would be found to fill the holds that no longer answered the drums, that had failed to respond to shouts from the Harpers on their relaying of messages. Rill and Tuero, on Desdra's advice to Oklina and Alessan both, had more or less become the clearing point for the survivors choosing to make a claim in Ruatha, rather than go home to devastated Holds. Not, Rill noted wryly to herself, Ruatha was any less devastated. No,but it did make for an easier rebuilding to keep centralized to a Hold that could and would call in all marks owed.
"Do I have to find my own scrub brush, or did your thoughtfulness go that far?" came the gruff, sleep-torn voice of her new Lord. She turned to see him in patched, rough work clothing, and then nodded to point to the table she had set everything on.
"You should still be sleeping," she pointed out, treating him as he had asked, as a man doing what they all were, rebuilding a life.
"Can't. No matter how much you try to manage me into doing it." Alessan gave a sardonic expression her way, before taking up the stringent cleaners and the brushes so they could scrub the walls clean of lingering contagions and grime. "I'm going to wind up making you the Hold Steward at this rate," he said some time later. "Deefer can't shoulder both jobs on his own, and Oklina..." He grimaced, growing quiet as the cause for his sleeplessness intruded in the back of his mind.
Rill turned to him, and raised her chin just a little. "Lord Alessan, the Weyrwoman will survive her ordeal and return. B'lerion said last night, though you may not have heard, she would likely try for the dawn, as the positionings are easier to remember in reference to the Star Stones." She then reached out to leaven her strong words with kindness, seeing the slight shock in his eyes that she would speak of it so bluntly. "Soon, life will begin anew, with neither the Plague, nor the heroics necessary to overcome it, to shadow us. Oklina will ride, you will Hold, and the world will set right again."
Alessan regarded her shrewdly, before they both turned back to the work at hand.
You are certain? came the skeptical questioning. Moreta had to smile, before she clambered up to the last neck ridge above the shoulders.
I am. I look at the charts as often as Sh'gall does. She could see just how far to place the sun, the Red Star, the other few stars that did not fade out in the sun's glow as swiftly as others did. I know the roster for watch, so I know which brown will be on the ridge; I know where his rider stands. All details that will help us.
Then we go, Holth replied wearily, ready to be home to her rider, to curl in the sun on her own ledge and not budge for less than Threadfall.
"Black, blacker, blackest," Moreta chanted softly to herself, fixing the details in her mind, clear and strong so that Holth could find their way back to the missing halves they each needed.
Orlith shot straight up off the sands the instant the watch rider bugled in surprise and relief. She skimmed just barely over the top of her precious eggs, shooting out the entrance to the Bowl, trumpeting in relief and welcome at the top of her lungs, until every single dragon in the Weyr was sleepily coming out onto their ledges.
Orlith! You've awakened everyone! Moreta scolded, but feeling Orlith right there, in her own mind where she belonged, was too much a comfort to truly be firm with her dragon.
They wish to know! You are home! Orlith's path had taken her up to shadow the aged queen coming in for a landing on the Bowl floor, despite the pain it would cause. Then Leri was hobbling out of the Grounds as fast as her age and cane allowed, assisted, to her annoyance, by K'lon. Finally, seeing the dragons would land first, K'lon grinned, and scooped the Weyrwoman up to sprint the distance, much to Leri's protesting words.
"You rascal of a blue! The presumption!" Leri scolded, except she was just as glad to get to her dragon swiftly as Orlith was to get to her rider.
"Hush, Leri...no one saw. They're all staring at Holth." K'lon grinned, but put her down as the pair of golds back-winged a landing, and then twined necks in an unparalleled show of mutual affection. Moreta was dismounting as fast as she could, pelting from one dragon-neck to the other's chest. Orlith bugled as she felt her rider plastered to her chest, bringing one fore-paw in to hold her there. As they were reunited, Leri made her way in to her own dragon, making use of the leathers to get astride and lean in against Holth's neck.
We are home, Holth said in Leri's mind, sighing deeply enough to raise twin dirt-devils on the exhalation.
"And none of us is going anywhere for a full sevenday at least!" Leri snapped, waggling a finger down at Moreta. The other rider was oblivious, lost in the glow of the rider-dragon bond.
Nabeth's warbling at the dawn was enough to let Rill know the probable cause of her Lord's sudden distraction. From up in the Hold's sleeping areas, she heard a triumphant shout from Nabeth's rider, followed by a very feminine protest that was abruptly muffled. Rill had to smile softly, looking down at the brush in her hand to hide it from her Lord as he did come back to himself.
"Bronze'll wake everyone in the Hold, and I don't mean the dragon," Alessan protested, to cover his obviously new-found joy at the knowledge Moreta was safe and sound.
"Perhaps, once everyone is fed and seen to, B'lerion will tender the concerns of High Reaches, and oblige Ruatha with a conveyance of her Lord for the same?" Rill suggested. She caught the shrewd look Alessan tossed her way, then the rueful shake of a too shaggy head.
"There is work to be done, my holder," he said firmly. "The fields won't till themselves, the seed does not sow itself into the ground."
"No, these things do not happen alone, but there is also a duty to the Weyr that has offered us succor and protection." Rill wondered at her own presumption, until she realized that so much had she loved Suriana that Alessan's happiness, no matter how illicit it seemed, was tantamount in her own concerns now.
"Perhaps, Rill. Perhaps." Alessan looked at the room, then back to her. "Painting can begin as soon as we find the pigments?"
"Leave it to me; one of the Aunties was mentioning a treasure trove of wall hangings." Rill would see the dreadful white covered, one way or the other.
"I know the Hold is in good hands, Rill, if I trust in you," Alessan told her, before he gathered their supplies to head out, leaving her curious at his intent in those words.
Because it had been anticipated that Moreta would arrive at dawn, the conclave of Weyrleaders and Weyrwomen had been scheduled for that morning at Fort. Falga arrived with S'ligar, as Tamianth was not yet ready for between, but Falga had refused to be absent. She was bundled in furs to protect her own recovering injuries, but looked none the worse for wear. Levalla and K'dren were there swiftly behind the High Reaches pair, but Dalova arrived alone on Perforth. That was not surprising to those who had known L'bol's descent into depression at all. F'gal and Wimmia arrived as a couple, with F'gal looking a little worse for the day than some, but he would stand by Moreta for she had ridden at his Weyr the first half of her career.
Miridan, the brave rider of junior queen Sutanith, arrived with T'grel and Raylinth just as the conclave's members were assembling in the Weyrwoman's chambers. Moreta had torn herself from Orlith's side by force of will, helped by the fact that Kadith had come to join his mate, and keep her settled in Moreta's absence. When Moreta saw the younger queen and the experienced Wing Leader, she moved from her place near Sh'gall, and caught a hand from each to reassure them.
"Neither of you take a blame in this," she said to forestall Miridan's worry and T'grel's anger. "Everything was accomplished, and the mishap was my own fault for not following basic weyrling exercises," she added.
"Moreta, it's not as if you didn't have reason to forget!" Levalla quickly retorted. "I know I would never have been as capable on a dragon not my own, and even when you did make the mistake, you found your way home anyway!"
"Moreta's accident aside, that's not the real reason we're here!" Sh'gall said irritably. Everyone looked at him, waiting for the childish outburst, but Sh'gall seemed to have made some rapid decisions in the night of waiting for Moreta to return. "We had an emergency, which I did not know the full details of, but during which the Weyrs had pledged support to the Holds and Crafts. A single Weyrleader jeopardized the entire project, putting dangerously overtaxed dragons and riders in the position of having to meet demands they had not anticipated in order to prevent that vile plague from spreading once more. That is the real issue, the issue of M'tani's intransigence, and his Weyrwoman for cooperating!"
K'dren and S'ligar were momentarily stunned that for once, Sh'gall had cut to the heart of things without turning it all into a slight on himself, but the women were not fooled. Without Moreta, Sh'gall could not Lead. Yet if he made it too much about the accident with Moreta, his motive would be transparent to one and all. Phrasing it as he had, he was on the moral high ground, and able to bring Fort's eminence into play by leading the complaint against Telgar.
"Miridan? Can you tell us the situation there? Your Weyr was growing closed off even before the Plague, I fear," Levalla pointed out, as Benden flew most often with Telgar during normal Falls.
"We have a heavy population of older riders, you know," Miridan said, softly, unused to this. "My Sutanith was out of Dalgeth's last clutch with a Queen, and we do tend to favor weyr-born for our eggs." That was acknowledged by the other leaders, who had given up promising boys and girls over the course of the last decade or more. "There is some question as to whether Dalgeth will rise again, but she's not far enough off cycle for it to be an issue yet."
"She should step back gracefully, if she's off at all," Falga said. "No harm in retiring even if your queen may have a last rise in her."
"M'tani was intent to see this Pass out," T'grel said. "He runs the Weyr tighter than a Bitran Lord...no offense, K'dren."
"None taken...the resemblance is duly noted," the Benden Leader said. "The question, Leaders and Ladies, is what can be done? Must we wait for the next senior queen to rise? By Tradition, he's in his rights to run the Weyr until his bronze fails to catch the senior queen."
T'grel stepped forward. "There are a number of riders who will no longer answer to M'tani, Weyrleaders and Weyrwomen. We seek redress of wrongs done to us, to our kin, to the attempt to make us abrogate our duty to all Pern."
Moreta listened to that, and then the cycle of 'what can we do' versus 'we have to do something' that broke out among the men present. She looked to every other gold rider there, seeing that her own feeling of decisive action was favored by them, and tipped her head in Levalla's direction before Falga, with those two weighing it out between them. When the silent discourse ended, Levalla was named spokeswoman, probably because of Falga's injuries that had kept her from participating in the miraculous delivery.
"Weyrleaders and Weyrwomen, we who ride the gold are unanimous in our demand that redress be made. It is an unprecedented action that must be taken, the deposement of a sitting pair of Leaders. However, with nearly eight turns left of the Pass, it cannot be allowed to wait until Dalgeth's rider admits she must step down. The actions of both her and Hogarth's rider have come down to the criminal endangerment of not just their Weyr, but the dragons and riders of other Weyrs and the people we are sworn to protect." She looked to Dalova, who was paying keen attention, due to her unenviable status of having a disaffected Weyrmate. Dalova nodded firmly, that she was in full accord, no matter what. "The next queen, no matter what Weyr she is from, so long as she is not already a senior dragon, will be Weyrwoman at Telgar. It will be an Open Flight, as in the time of the founding of the Weyrs aside from Fort. This is the fairest way to decide, and will see Telgar properly reintegrated with the rest of the dragonfolk. Any found to oppose this course can take up residence on the Eastern islands, where their transgressions will not endanger any further lives."
"It's extreme," F'gal protested.
""It's our decision," Wimmia told her mate, firmly. "Tradition is that the Leaders lead because of their Women. We are invoking our power now, to set matters right."
"And until they rise?" T'grel asked, not certain where this left his Weyr now.
"Sutanith's rider will take charge, and the bronze of her choice," Falga said, leveling her look on T'grel, who was known to be Miridan's weyrmate.
"The Queens will go to inform Hogarth and Dalgeth, as well as their riders, that their services are at an end." Levalla rose from her seat, along with the other queen riders, including Falga and Moreta, who would not be able to take their queens. Still, four queens in accord would be enough to force both Dalgeth and Hogarth to obey, and their riders would have no choice.
"This meeting is at a close, it seems," Sh'gall said, as stunned as his fellow bronze riders at the full weight of the women they mated being brought to bear.
It was B'lerion who finally decided to broach the matter of visiting the Weyr. He had not hidden his own attachment to Moreta from either Alessan or Oklina, but he chose a different tact for making the trip necessary. "Oklina, I know Fort Weyr's been up to their neck-ridges in busy, so do you think we might spare some of the berries the children found this morning?"
The young woman bit her lip a little, realizing that B'lerion was being truthful in his reasoning, and remembering how expansive the Weyr had been in releasing supplies to them. "Enough for every rider to have a few, perhaps," she agreed. "The children made sure to get all they could, since the brambles are adjacent to land Alessan wants to plow." She smiled at the man that had captured her heart, coming over to adjust the sling for him. "You can't carry them, though. My brother will have to make the gift of the fruit," she decided, looking at Alessan who had followed the exchange throughout. She knew he was hurting, wanting to see with his own eyes that the returned rider and queen were truly safe, despite having resisted the temptation for three days now. Oklina noted Rill, hovering almost protectively near Alessan, and was curious. Rill was a deft healer, knew her way around hold management, and had been unafraid to try even the most back-breaking task of putting Ruatha back to rights, yet she was, without fail, in easy call of Alessan.
It was something that Oklina would have to discuss with Desdra before the Healer left for Fort again. Desdra did seem to be fully in support of Rill, after all. For now, she needed to nudge her brother toward that glimmer of happiness. Alessan shook his head, a faint smile creasing his lips but Oklina saw it as a pale shadow of his former one. To lose Suriana, and be nearly recovered, then to have this tragedy fall on his shoulders had been the cruelest thing fate could have done.
"Come, Bronze rider. Let's get to this task before the Fort riders sit to their evening meal," Alessan agreed.
"So we must, Lord Holder," B'lerion said in an uplifting voice, clasping Alessan's shoulder with his good hand, and guiding him down to the kitchens. Oklina watched it fondly; there was something calming to her to see her brother and her lover in accord. She glanced back and saw Rill had smoothly picked up Alessan's task of writing letters of inquiry and reminders of obligations. The runners would be busy, Oklina thought, as she continued to observe the mystery that was Rill. After a moment, she cleared her thoughts and went to find Desdra instead.
The healer was in the hold infirmary, restocking the shelves, making sure they were labeled correctly. The past few days had been tiring and heartbreaking in smaller ways, as the nearer cot-holds were investigated, and unused supplies reclaimed from those that were no longer tenanted. On the one hand, it would see Ruatha through the year, even if harvest was lean, but on the other, it was an ever-present reminder of the losses. Thankfully, the sweep rider was reporting back to the Hold and Weyr that many holds had been spared, thanks to Alessan's quick wits in setting a quarantine on the Gather prior to the official announcement. Oklina would take every small blessing they got.
"Desdra?" Oklina began, picking up the next packet of herbs to sort and applying herself to it dutifully.
"You've spoken highly of Rill, and you are not a woman given to faint praise," the Ruathan said. "Yet we know so little of her."
Desdra smiled, having long since seen this coming. It was natural, after all, especially with Oklina destined to the Weyr, that she try her best to protect Alessan. "Rill is a woman of firm heart, great care, and was woefully under-appreciated by nearly all who knew her before the Plague," Desdra told Oklina carefully. "But, I respect her wishes for a new beginning, and will merely say that she can be trusted as if she were a member of the Blood."
Oklina looked at the Healer with intelligent eyes, slowly piecing things together, including that vague sense of familiarity Rill stirred in her. Her eyes went wide in shock as it all fell into place. "But..."
"To make amends, Oklina, for the lack of assistance her Blood rendered, I think," Desdra said, making certain to keep her voice down. "Don't let on; she needs this as much as Alessan needs her aid," Desdra added. "Can you keep that secret?"
Oklina drew in a deep breath. Rill was becoming fast like a sister to her, and did always seem to put Alessan first; that could be nothing but good. She wished Rill would forgive herself for the losses, but that would only come with time. "I will keep it, until she is ready to say," the younger of the pair said firmly. "Not all healing is done yet."
"How very wise, and good for Pern that you'll fly gold," Desdra said firmly.
"The egg's not even hatched yet!" Oklina protested, but she smiled brightly, dreaming of dragon gold hide.
"This is one even I would bet on."
Nabeth is here. He brings the Lord, Orlith said, rousing Moreta from a faint nap on the couch that was her temporary home during Orlith's final days of brooding over the clutch. The meaning filtered through, and Moreta's eyes widened in worry. For the first time in years, she actually cared about how mussed her tunic was, or that her short curly hair was in disarray. He will not care, Orlith told her, in that tone that still seemed to approve of Alessan being in Moreta's life.
"Really," she fussed, but she flicked her fingers through her short hair and looked toward the entrance of the Hatching Grounds.
Nabeth's rider and the Lord speak to that woman in the Caverns, Orlith supplied, her dislike of Nesso shining through.
"Thank you, Orlith." She rose and made her way to the Lower Caverns in dignified haste. "B'lerion! Lord Alessan!" She smiled at both men equally, but the relief in Alessan's eyes made her knees feel a little weak. "Orlith told me Nabeth had arrived. I think she's half upset she can't in good conscience flirt with him." She kept her voice light and easy as Nesso scuttled away with whatever the two men had brought. The headwoman had taken the fact of her whining the morning of Moreta's and Holth's misadventure badly and decided to try, for now, not to annoy her Weyrwoman. "Berries?"
"In rather good supply, among the brambles that we've been clearing of late for spring tilling," Alessan remarked, proper and respectful. His eyes lingered, as Moreta noted with an unseemly interest. She forced herself to look to B'lerion, as there was no way to discuss those resonances in the Caverns.
"And you, one-armed menace, are setting yourself to help how?" she teased in good nature.
"Well, since K'lon is back to normal duties here, I opted to take on the fetch and carry aspect of Ruatha's needs until S'ligar has his own need of me." B'lerion's eyes twinkled, which reassured Moreta. They all would be marked by the passing of the Plague in the losses, the grief, the recoveries, even the guilt for still living where so many had died. But they also would recover, move on, and eventually live under Thread-free skies once more.
"Then I would be out of boundaries to keep you from your conveyances, Bronze Rider, or you, Lord Holder, from the tilling," she said in polite tones, the smile on her lips giving the tease into her words. Both men smiled back at her, relieved to see her in high spirits apparently. "My duty to Nabeth, B'lerion, and my respects to your sister, Alessan."
"I will tell her," the Lord said, on top of the lighter touch of the bronze dragon himself.
I hear you, Nabeth said, his voice a distant echo of B'lerion's own, and sounding pleased.
"Well, I guess I don't have to," B'lerion said, but it pleased him to know Nabeth would speak to her.
"Until the Hatching?" Alessan asked softly for his leave. She took his hands warmly, and nodded.
She remained in her place as the two men walked out, before deciding that she had better return to Orlith, instead of standing there like a love-struck fool.
You are not a fool; the man makes you happy, Orlith told her firmly. Moreta smiled inwardly, taking her time in walking back, so that all her weyrfolk could see their Weyrwoman was holding her head high, and that life would go on, if they but let it, without constant burden of the tragedy bearing out all joy in life.
Rill watched the vigor that came back to her Lord, now that he had been to the Weyr, no matter how short a time it may have been, and knew that Desdra was correct. Alessan and Moreta were lovers, and whether it was an infatuation to soon pass, or something more tempered and time-wearing, it was real and a matter of slight concern, for the matter of the Hold. It was not, however, her place to remind the Lord of his need to look to the Hold's inheritance. Perhaps, of his brothers that had died, there might be survivors yet that could be fostered. Oklina's young, if and when she bore them, were evidently to return to their mother's hold, but with the dragon-riding blood so strong, there was always a chance they'd be weyr-bound in time themselves.
There was much to be done in the time leading up to the day of the Hatching. Oklina made her Candidate tunic to the pattern that B'lerion had helpfully provided before being recalled to High Reaches Weyr. Alessan and every able-bodied hand they could find turned the fields and saw to the seed being set properly. Drums resounded with the messages being passed of relief and supplies for those who needed them. Desdra returned to sit her mastery exams, and like so many who had been Journeymen before found that Mastery came easily to fill the ranks. Apprentices were also being prodded for advancement, some with as little as two years training, if they had aided the efforts to thwart the Plague with every effort they could spare.
In general, life was beginning anew for many, and Alessan had decided to let Tuero and Rill handle the initial application to hold in Ruatha's cots. He had been amazed by the number coming to his blighted Hold to begin their new lives, but he listened to the pair he had assigned, before doing the final contract himself, with each and every one that had passed muster.
Very few did not; the Plague had been a crucible that sorted out much of the chaff.
"Rill?" It was Deefer, ducking his head in to the stillroom that she was inventorying at last.
"Yes, Deefer?" she asked politely.
"Alessan wants you in his office," the Warden said with a shrug of his shoulders that said he had no idea why. "Tuero just signed his official contract," he added, in case it was relevant.
"Thank you, Deefer." She gave him a smile, which made him smile back. He turned on his heel to see to his work, while she slipped from the stillroom, brushing her tunic clean of the dried herbs that had settled on her in the progress of her work. She knew the Hold as well as her old one, now, having supervised so much of the restoration effort, scraping her knuckles, and breaking her back in the community effort. Here, supervision meant pitching in fullheartedly, and Rill never shirked from that.
She came to his office, and knocked briefly but firmly on the outer frame, as the door was wide open. "Lord Alessan?"
"Come in, Rill, and shut the door?" he called to her, shuffling hides from in front of him so that only one remained. It was face down, though, so Rill's curious eye was unable to catch what it might pertain to. She carefully closed the door, then sat down properly in the chair opposite the desk. "Rill, we've had a few weeks to get to know one another now, yes?" he queried.
Rill inclined her head. "Yes, Lord Alessan." He frowned, then came and perched on the front side of his desk, putting him that much closer to her.
"Just Alessan. Yes, this is about your future here, in the Hold, but, friends use names, not titles." He looked into her eyes until she felt uncomfortable, and nodded in understanding rather than trust her voice. He then gave her a gentle smile, one that held a trace of sadness, and Rill had to reach out, because that sadness pulled on a corner of her soul. He took her hand, holding it in both of his, the thumb sliding gently over her knuckles. "Why have you run away to me, Rill?" he asked her softly, pulling on the pain in her heart, tugging up happy times in Misty Hold, the love and carefree time of fostering to Suriana.
"Chance. Destiny, if such a thing exists?" she offered, a bitter laugh in her words now. She was aware of his gentle petting, the firmness of his grasp that insisted her hand remain in his. "I was in the last hold that M'barak stopped in, gathering the glasses, where the brothers came from," she offered. "I had traveled doing inoculations for the Healers, once travel was safe," she admitted.
"You're a long way from home," Alessan murmured.
Rill's eyes went wide, and she had to take her hand back, which he allowed. "No...this is far more home than all but one place, my entire life, has been!" She wanted to deny him knowing; she had never wanted the revelation to mar what she had built here.
"Nerilka," he said, a soft tone in the shape of her name. "How could I not know you, when Suriana drew as she breathed?" His words made Rill flush at the way he made it so obvious.
"I wish the same as those who come. A chance to begin anew, in a place I may be happy." She met his eyes again, seeing the way they were studying her. "I had hoped to come with them all," she admitted. "But Lord Tolocamp saw fit to strike me from his list, and my mother...pointed out that my presence would not be a boon to you."
Alessan's voice was tight when he spoke again. "Your mother was wrong in that case, but...I am going to voice relief that events turned as they did, Rill. Because you belong here, now, helping build Ruatha once more."
Rill swallowed hard, then nodded. "I still prefer it not to be known, my Lord. Tuero may one day figure out who I am, but others...is there a need?"
"It is your choice, Rill. I can start your new life with a mark of my stylus," Alessan said. "But...ask yourself this. By hiding in anonymity, do you really point up the failings of those you left, or do you grace them by silence?"
The verbal blow landed squarely, and Nerilka's spine stiffened. To let her mother and sisters who had nursed others unto their own death be the only mark of grace given by Fortian Blood caught Nerilka off guard, and made her ire rise. "You..." She took a deep breath and released it slowly. "You're right, Alessan. Lord Tolocamp's actions shall not speak for our Blood alone."
Alessan smiled, and slipped off the desk, turning to pick up the hide that was facing down. He drug it to where she could read it, a bold contract written neatly with her proper name, placing her as Hold Steward with a proper Hold apartment and salary. Her eyes widened again on reading it; the provisions were very similar to the ones hammered out between Tuero and Alessan.
"This is far too generous!" she gasped.
"It's less than a member of the Blood deserves," Alessan said gruffly. "I'm placing my trust in you, Nerilka of Ruatha."
Tears flecked her eyes at that sudden address by her name and new Hold. She stopped protesting, taking the stylus and dipping it in the ink. Carefully, she signed her name, let Alessan sign his own, and then sat there waiting for Tuero on the end of Alessan's bellowed summons. The harper's eyes boggled a little as he read the contract and witnessed it, but when he turned to Rill, there was not a trace of mockery in his voice or face. "Lady, I..."
"It seems, in Ruatha, friends don't lean on titles," Nerilka told him, grasping his hands in her own and squeezing. The journeyman nodded, smiling, before Alessan pulled up a wine skin.
"A drink, to seal that I have settled my Hold's Offices to the best of our ability," Alessan said, and Tuero obligingly found three cups so they could all toast with fine Benden white.
The day of the Hatching was certain to be this one. Orlith had arranged all the eggs in as good a spacing as she possibly could to allow the Candidates to have room to meet her children. The golden egg was the furthest back from the seats, pillowed so lovingly on a pillar of sand. Orlith remained near it, despite Moreta's teasing attempts to tempt her to a washing and oiling. Moreta herself had chosen a fine gown to wear, not the gather gown, for fear of provoking memories, but one that still shone with the attention to detail in the needlework.
She had very little to do as Nesso was determined to set a fine feast. Leri wasn't likely to mingle much until after the Hatching, but Moreta headed to her weyr to check on her.
"In here, Moreta," the older woman called. Moreta slipped into the bathchamber to see Leri had opted to soak the aches out of her bones this morning. Moreta took a seat on the small stone bench, cocking her head at the woman she looked to for guidance and advice.
"Need wine?" she inquired with that head tilt.
"Already did...from the batch you mixed yesterday," Leri shot back. "Thought I'd come down and see the crowds today," she added. "Holth is sleeping in, and I'm feeling sociable."
Moreta hid her frown; Holth didn't do much but sleep of late. Leri caught the tension no matter, and sighed.
"She's still worn out from all the to and fro, Moreta, but she'll be fine. We both will, so stop worrying your pretty head over us." She gave her protege a sharp glance, one with an edge of mischief. "Planning to abscond with our young Lord and his convenient stash of Benden wine?"
"Of course not!" Moreta protested, but her cheeks flushed a little, knowing he'd be here today. The past couple of sevendays had been difficult at best, with Orlith very wedded to the Hatching Ground, and Moreta doing all she could to be available to her Weyr, even if Sh'gall was all but avoiding her. Kadith was still killing for his mate while Orlith preferred to not part from her eggs for long, and Sh'gall had the praise of most of his peers for his handling of Thread during the combined flights. Alessan, Moreta reminded herself, was a diversion of a tender, sweet nature, but they both had duties to their own people.
"Well, once Orlith's seen her hatchlings safely paired off, you'll be able to visit as you choose, within discretion's sake," Leri said.
"Leri, really! He's Lord of a Hold that has been .... "
"Devastated, my girl. And the heart goes where it will. I've no doubt you'll do your duty by Orlith and the Weyr, but you have a right to some happiness, and he certainly does, that light-eyed son of Leef's," Leri scolded. "Relax. Alessan would not have been Confirmed if he wasn't intent on his duties. This matter will eventually taper off, but if you handle it well, you'll know happiness and still have a wonderful friend at the end of it all."
Moreta gave her a thoughtful look, considering her words. She knew she could never be Alessan's Lady, not even if Pass was over. She was still young enough to allow a discreet pregnancy, but that would eventually cause questions at some point. And she was dedicated to the Weyr. Much as she hoped to foster her unpaired children into taking Hold in her family's hold, she knew without a doubt her destiny was here for all time. Moreta also knew holders looked at wedding contracts differently than an weyr-bound person would. Once Alessan moved to secure his Hold's future, she would have to step aside for his Lady. It would be the only right thing to do. Until that point, though, Leri was right. There was comfort they could each offer to one another.
"Leri, you are so wise," Moreta offered, standing. "Would you like me to ask a rider to come for you?"
"S'peren said he would," Leri responded, shooing her on. "Better warn Sh'gall K'lon's friend will be here today," she added in a parting shot, a cackle of laughter escaping her. Moreta had to smile too, despite herself. Poor Sh'gall, who had never shaken his holder prejudice against the various riders who preferred their own. K'lon and A'murry were one of the most devoted couples, having kept their pairing despite living in two separate Weyrs for quite some time. They would not be overt to annoy Sh'gall, but sometimes just their existence put the Weyrleader on edge. Moreta personally ascribed that to Sh'gall's lack of strong attachments through his own life, more than any prejudice. The blue and green pair had proven that love worked for nearly as long as Moreta had been riding, after all.
With her mind on various forms of relationships and lack of them, she returned to her Weyr to dress, making certain to put on the heavy bracelets that had been a gift form Lord Leef. It would serve to catch the old Lord's son's eyes, she thought, not that he was likely to miss her even in the excitement for his sister.
Oklina was overjoyed that the Hatching was finally happening. She had been growing more and more convinced that Ruatha, and her brother, would be in fine hands. Nerilka had taken to the Steward's position well, and Deefer was handling the Warden's job properly. Tuero was settled in as Harper, and the Hold was beginning to look as it ought to this far into Spring. The need for fast yielding crops had led Alessan to try new seed stock from the Farm craft in half his fields, which had the Master Farmer supporting his every effort. The young woman did not need to fret any longer, or think of it as abandoning her place so much as she was moving forward with everything of her past in safe hands.
She listened, patiently, to Weyrleader Sh'gall as he instructed her and the other girls of what was to come. She'd never had much cause to be near the man before, but he seemed to be everything a dragon rider typically was: distant, strong-willed, and focused. Of course, now Oklina knew better. K'lon and B'lerion had proven that riders weren't necessarily so distant. A faint flush touched her cheeks at thinking of her handsome bronze rider. She was thankful of her darker complexion as she was supposed to be paying attention to the care and feeding of a newly-hatched dragonet. She refocused her mind on Sh'gall's words, in case he told her something in a different way than B'lerion had. The hardest part of the coming years, if she Impressed, would be cooling that relationship down to protect her dragonet, but they could do it. B'lerion was the man she loved, and he loved her back.
Her thinking came to an end as the dragons changed from a low hum to one that was far more vibrant and intent. Sh'gall cut off his words at that sound, and turned on his heel. With a martinet's stride, the Weyrleader strode into the Hatching Grounds, leading Oklina and the other girls. The heat of the sands was palpable, striking them in the face, and burning through their thin-soled sandals, but such details hardly mattered. Ahead, all the way back in the Cavern, was the gleaming egg that held the beginning of a new future. Oklina hardly even noticed Alessan with Tuero and Nerilka both at his side; Deefer had demurred, citing a fear of heights, she did recall once she looked around and saw them. Capiam and Desdra were there too, she saw after a long moment, with Desdra wearing her Master's rank.
Observations had to end quickly, for the eggs all around her were rocking. The hum almost blanketed out the sound of the cracking eggs, their shells being hammered at and striated by the fitfully rocking inhabitants inside them. Oklina hardly knew what to do, the shaking of the queen egg keeping her attention mostly, but curiosity drawing her eyes out...there, the bronze beneath her brother's place, and over closer to her a blue... but then no one could have taken her eyes from the egg she knew was calling to her. She saw the solid shake that had brought her attention fully back lead to a giant crack along one side, and then the next started a new fracture in the shell before the golden dragonet leaped out of the broken halves. Oklina saw two of the girls move hesitatingly, but she was steady, standing right where she could watch the beautiful little queen. She was braced, then, for the rush when that hungry little gold ran to her, eyes locked in a whirl of pleasure, joy, and want.
There you are! the little queen said, her voice relieved and grateful. I am so hungry!
Oklina lit up in smiles as the name of Hannath rode on that concept of self. She thought she called it out to the spectators, as so many of the boys had, but all she could truly care about was that Hannath, her golden, glowing Hannath, was hungry and needed to be fed right then. To her side, she realized B'lerion had come to help her off the Sands, which was highly irregular, but neither leader was protesting, and Nabeth was there in Oklina's mind, already talking kindly to the young queen as they moved. And why not, for the bond between the four of them would never be broken this side of death...a fate to be delayed for a very long time, Oklina promised in her innermost heart so as not to distress her newborn partner.
Sh'gall knew, of course, that he was not Moreta's preferred companion. He had known it through the course of their joint leadership. Affection, he knew, was secondary to the leadership needed in a Weyr. Kadith was honestly fond of Orlith, and the feeling seemed to be quite mutual. It did not, however, keep his Hold-bred feelings from being affronted by the evidence that Moreta's heart had landed on someone. She was being her usual proper self, but someone here...and it was not B'lerion, with the way he was caught up in the new queen-rider...had her in a lighter mood than he had seen in several sevendays even prior to the Plague.
"She'll always do her duty," came a voice from at his elbow, and he winced inwardly. Was he being so transparent? And how did Leri sneak up on people the way she did? "Have no concerns there, Weyrleader. But maybe," she said, waggling a finger up at him. "You might want to look beyond Fall, and see to your own heart in such matters." Leri continued on her way, giving him no recourse at all, nor the ability to defend himself. Sh'gall wasn't sure which part aggravated him more.
There was music to be had, for Tirone had brought several of his Harpers, and Tuero could scarcely avoid the festive spirit prevailing. So many Lords, Ladies, and other notables of rank stayed to make it a festive day, though some, like Ratoshigan and Tolocamp, made their own ways home, courtesy of various riders who had other places to return to. It was only a matter of time before various riders swept the Cavern clear of the tables, and dancing was in the making. The harpers conspired too, making lively strains that called to the masses to let go the grief, to begin the healing fully. Moreta turned to Sh'gall, whom she had been near since the feast, and inclined her head slightly. It caught the Leader off guard, yet...they were partners in Leadership, and this was expected. He inclined his head, taking her hand stiffly, and guided her out to dance with the others. K'dren followed suit, having chosen to make a late night of it with his lady, and T'grel followed suit. S'ligar was going to sit out, but Falga gamely pointed to Dalova, alone again, and the mismatched pair took up that challenge. With the Weyrs represented, the Holds could do no less, led by Alessan, for Fort was his Weyr protector, and Tolocamp had already departed.
"Lady Nerilka?" he asked, courteous and polite. Nerilka felt herself flush, her inclination to shake her head in disagreement, but Alessan's eyes held hers, and she knew she had to act to her station; her Blood demanded it. She placed her hand in his, letting him lead her out into the midst of the other dancers, maintaining as light a presence on her feet as she could. It was lifting, to dance with so graceful a man, and it was almost as if Suriana's blessing was on her, for she did not fail to match him in steps at all.
"Tirone has no partner, Capiam," Desdra said firmly.
"So he does not." Capiam looked around before a sharp sound of Desdra clearing her throat drew his eyes back to her. "Yes?"
"Master Capiam, the Weyrs and the Holds are on the floor, and I believe as this is Fort..."
Capiam caught the point then, with a hasty gesture to her hand, before the pair joined the dancing, caught up in the festive mood as the others were, and showing that the world still moved despite the illness that had devastated so many.
Nerilka did not know if she could even sleep when she finally found her bed that night. Their Hold, the healers, the harpers, and High Reaches had been last to leave the Weyr in light of the impromptu festivities. Alessan had only relinquished her as his partner to other Lords, Masters, or riders. It had been as if he were insisting that she act to a rank equivalent of his own the whole night, while protecting her in some ways by lending her his presence to lean into. She was only his Steward, not ... and yet she was a daughter of Fort's Blood. She had rank of her own, even if yesterday had sealed the fact that Tolocamp would not acknowledge her ever again.
She tossed her chin high. She had her birth rank unless he repudiated her, and that was not something he could do in face of Capiam's glowing commendation on Desdra's advice. If Alessan preferred to keep her close and mingle in those ranks, she would learn to do so for his sake. There would be talk, in time, and while Nerilka knew better than to listen to such talk, it would give Alessan breathing room from courting Daughters to set his Hold straight. That his heart was caught in the Weyrwoman had been clear, but only because Nerilka knew to look for it. He had partnered Moreta for one dance, while Nerilka was being charmed by the older S'ligar, and Nerilka would be hard pressed to say they had given the image of anything but proper decorum. Yet Alessan had been almost abuzz for the next dance they shared, energized by the brief, licit contact with the dragonrider.
Nerilka had carefully not noticed it outwardly, but it did warm her soul to know that Alessan had finally found a reason to truly love again. From all of Suriana's correspondence, he deserved to live free and know such love. Nerilka did feel a little trepidation on the matter of heirs for the Hold, but that was a ford they'd make once life was truly back to normal. Some woman of the Blood would be found, and she had no doubt Alessan would be far more circumspect in his dallianaces than her own father ever had been.
Her mind raced, even as she shied from the feelings in her own heart. She was not what Alessan needed, and her fondness for him was stemming from gratitude, and from her second-hand affections through Suriana's letters. There was nothing more to it than that, and she needed to put fanciful thoughts to the contrary aside. Alessan was a dear friend, and her Lord now. Nothing more. With the firm conviction of this in her mind, she settled into sleep.
Never mind that her heart betrayed her with sleeping thoughts she would not voice by day, thoughts of Alessan and his light-colored eyes looking at her with the affection he felt for his Weyrwoman.
Oklina's time spent nursing the ill was putting her in good stead as the riders came back from Fall with minor injuries. As a queen rider, she was not on firestone duty; instead, Moreta herself had pushed her to volunteer to be at the Bowl to assist in healing. Many riders would flick in, land, and it was a matter of wiping char away, numbing the area, and watching them go back to the Fall. The dragon's injuries, on the other hand, were the ones for which a rider would merely set the Fall out. Wingtips, tails, an occasional score across a wither could mean no more Thread fighting for them she learned. With Jallora's help, and various women and men from the Caverns, Oklina was able to keep on top of the injuries so well, that when Moreta arrived, the Weyrwoman had little more to do than check the various riders and dragons.
She went to find Oklina as soon as she passed on the report to Sh'gall of five riders with minor scores, and three dragons who would need to sit out one Fall for shallow scores across major muscles. Overall, despite how windblown this Fall had been, the wings had come through admirably. Sh'gall would never credit the experience of riding with other Weyrs so long, but Moreta knew it had sharpened all the riders.
Oklina was just helping to store away the various first aid supplies when Moreta caught up to her. "Oklina?" Moreta called, as if the gloves and goggles attached to her belt had not made enough noise to announce her presence. The younger woman turned, offering her a tired smile. "Ahh, but you did an excellent job today," Moreta said, understanding the fatigue that came even with a light day of tending injuries. "A'dan was grateful for your assistance with Tagrath. He told me five times, as F'duril did."
Oklina glowed under the praise, before looking at Moreta with a shy smile. "They told me how you worked on Dilenth's wing a few months ago. Can you teach me how to help you?" she asked. "I...my skills are more like Nesso and Gorta have..."
"Don't sell yourself short, Oklina. Yes, you are relieved of the vast majority of organization for the care and feeding of everyone, laying in supplies, and such. But knowing how to do so will make it easier for you to mind a Headwoman in time." Moreta indicated the steps that led from the storage rooms to her own weyr. "I would, however, be very glad to teach you, if you have an interest and a stomach for it. Just come with me to get out of this wherhide and get Orlith unharnessed. She's been patient enough."
"Oh! Of course." Oklina followed her on up, and went straight to Orlith so Moreta could change into more comfortable clothing.
Moreta came to finish getting Orlith settled. There would be bathing later, after the fighting dragons had finished their ablutions, but for now Oklina and Moreta used soft cloths and wiped away the dust and ash so the queen could lay on her couch properly and rest. That done, Moreta served klah and took an early redfruit, offering another to Oklina, who declined. "I never knew just how many injuries occurred," Oklina told Moreta.
"Today was a very light day, thankfully. Even with the winds being so capricious this morning." Moreta smiled at Oklina's expression... eager and wondering... before continuing. "Eventually they'll show you the rougher side, unfortunately." Her eyes were shadowed with the past for a long moment. "Anyway... you can learn all you want from me. Haura is not adept with the dragons, but works with rider injuries well. Leri was never one for the healing, but she handles people, especially holders, well. Kamiana is shaping up to be like that. Lidora hasn't really settled into any outstanding specialty, but she's good at all aspects a weyrwoman ought to have," Moreta told Oklina. "You can take any aspect and work on it. With this Pass close to an end, helaing might not be where you want to concentrate your skills."
"But it is. I learned --" Oklina hesitated, then barreled on, winning Moreta's approval, "--during the plague, that I had the right mindset for caring for people. And now, seeing the dragons hurting, I want to extend those skills to help them too."
Moreta thanked Ruathan Blood again; there was something about them that made for high empathy. "Then, now that you've had a taste of what I do, I will be glad to take you under my wing and teach you," Moreta said kindly.
The first Gather fell in Keroon, of all places. But there was a logic to it, as well. They had spent much time wrestling hard-hit and wandering herds into control, and there were bloodlines where the breeders no longer lived. All of these extra animals were to be auctioned off, with bids to start low so as not to make profit on death. The marks earned from the auction were going to be divided evenly between the beastholds and the healers, a recognition of all they had done to save man and beast. It was to be a large animal fair, with the attendant feast and dancing, with many coming from all over Pern to sell excess wares.
The day of the Gather came, and in the predawn of Ruatha's cool air, a golden dragon appeared, circling lazily down to the courtyard. Orlith was in fine spirits, reflecting her rider's mood. There had been precious little time to visit Alessan of late, but the few times they had made time for each other had been as spectacularly cleansing for their souls as the first time on the needlethorn gathering run. Alessan had learned to unburden his frustrations to her, and she listened, before sharing an outsider's insight into his problems. In turn, he consoled her against her losses among her riders, either due to not being able to fully heal their injuries for fighting fitness, as in the case of an older brown rider who had lost too much of the use one hand to ride safely in Fall, or by death, as had happened during a recent Fall when a young blue had emerged from between too soon, and been scored to death.
For this Gather, Moreta had dressed sensibly in hide, for she intended to look at the pickets. No more would she contain her natural inclinations. She had a dress with her that could stand up to crushing, and she saw Alessan carrying a case as he approached her, Nerilka walking at his side to take last minute directions. Dag, on the other hand, had gone on days before, so he could drive back any that they bought, along with his rascal grandson, Fergal.
"Weyrwoman," Nerilka greeted as they came close. "Orlith." She inclined her head to the dragon, before she took the case from Alessan.
"Good morning, Nerilka." Moreta smiled at the woman, who was everything Alessan needed in a right arm for his Hold. Amazing that Moreta had never truly seen her at Fort, because she did have a commanding presence. Perhaps it was just as Leri said; the Plague had been a crucible, exposing flaws, and burning them off in the best of the people. "Orlith says thank you for the greeting." She noted the polite smile from Nerilka, then the solicitous concern for Alessan as she regarded her Lord. Moreta wondered, but Orlith clarified it.
The woman cares.
"Moreta, kind of you to come for me," Alessan said, a flicker of amusement in his eyes. "Orlith, you are glowing bright today!" He reached up, caught Moreta's hand, and let her help him up the dragon's back, noting it took more effort than mounting Nabeth did. He reached back for his case to secure to the harness, as Moreta's was, and Nerilka passed it up easily. Moreta had shifted enough to see, and the way Alessan favored Nerilka with a smile settled Moreta's worries from Orlith's announcement. He was aware, and there was an undercurrent that he was trying to place it all in perspective.
"Leri said I might as well go, but Peterpar had decided to ride in with R'limeak. He'll decide if we need to freshen our stock with a drove, and negotiate it with the Herdmaster. I think all the Weyrs are, but we want the Holders to get the bloodlines they want before we ask," Moreta said. "Of course, R'limeak is there for the racing, even if he disapproves of me sharing his fascination with the sport."
Alessan laughed softly at that, remembering the shock of the blue rider the one time they'd met, before that race that had made their lives spiral out of control. Moreta saw that he was fully settled, the case was secure, and Nerilka had retreated to a safe distance. Orlith... She steadied herself as Alessan's hands settled on her hips, and then her dragon had them aloft, climbing easily. There was silence between them, no words needed, as the sheer closeness of the Lord and the Weyrwoman said it all.
There had been dancing indeed, as Moreta partnered all comers, and Alessan entertained the Daughters set after him. Now, the pair sat in the comforting silence on Ruatha's fireheights, Orlith serving as their back drop.
"They'll never stop courting you this side of a contract," Moreta teased him. Alessan nodded, sighing wearily.
"I have a duty to do, but I wish to be fair," he admitted.
Moreta reached out and laid her hand along his cheek. "We have our friendship, Alessan, no matter what. I will not intrude on Hold matters in such a way as to turn opinion against you, nor cause you trouble with this potential Lady of your future."
He leaned in, kissing her deeply for a long moment, the passion they shared in that one sign of affection making Orlith croon sweetly. Moreta broke with a smile. "Good thing it's a darkened night, or we'd be a scandal," she teased. "Have you ideas on the matter?"
"One." Alessan took a deep breath. "But, as with you, there is friendship to consider."
"Nerilka?" Moreta pressed, to be certain, and Alessan nodded. "That would be delicate. She cares for you."
The Lord looked down at the distant court below. "I believe I care for her as well. She fostered with Suriana, so I knew of her. Having her arrive in my Hold in such bitterly desperate times was a shock. In time, though, I saw all that Suriana did, and it was just a matter of learning why she chose to preserve her anonymity. Of course, in view of Tolocamp...I would have been shamed too."
Moreta snorted softly at that. "Him." She had lost all respect for him in the wake of things, and Sh'gall was actually in agreement with her on this, now that he had some distance from events.
"Why must duty and love intersect so harshly, Moreta?" Alessan asked softly.
Moreta considered her own straits. She knew she loved Alessan as she had not loved a man, not even B'lerion, in all her days. Yet, duty bound her to Sh'gall, to the point she was almost certain Kadith would win Orlith again in another two Turns. That would see them close enough to Pass end for her to ease her conscience on that matter. "I think, Alessan, if we knew the answer to that, life would be a simple matter. All I can suggest is talk to her. She has eyes; she is your Steward, and knows I come here more often than I ever graced Fort Hold. See what her mind is; she seems to have quite a fair one, and Oklina thinks highly of her for it."
Alessan leaned in and embraced her lovingly, before nodding against her shoulder. "Such advice you give me," he teased lightly. "From my lover, to approach my potential suitor..."
Moreta laughed softly, before setting it from her mind to just enjoy his company.
Nerilka looked up from working on the Hold accounts to see Alessan leaning in the doorway. She was unsure how long he had been there, which made her a little more conscious of her state. She knew she had ink smudged on one cheek, and her hair was frazzled from having to run out into the rain earlier to help gather in the wash from the unexpected showers. Her tunic had crisped as it dried, which left her looking rather rumpled overall. She wasn't sure why that mattered, looking up to see Alessan with his neatly trimmed hair and freshly pressed tunic.
"Alessan," she said to cover her discomfit. She started to rise, but he waved that aside, coming in and settling on the corner of her desk.
"Nerilka, you work entirely too much," he said, with that light in his eyes she knew meant he was teasing. Given that they both tended to be up at dawn and fall into their beds well after supper was a running tease against them from Tuero who had sworn off seeing any future sunrises.
"If you have room to stand on that plank, I'm a spotted wherry," she came back at him, smiling and relaxing, all thoughts of her looks pushed away in the ease of his company.
"True." He then shrugged. "Still, since both of us have worked far too hard and too much this sevenday, I propose something to break the pace." His expression challenged her to even think of denying what was about to emerge from his lips. "I say, in one hour, as no Thread is due and the weather has seen fit to clear again, that you and I take two runners, a basket of food, a skin of wine, and go ride to a place I know. We can discuss Hold matters more leisurely that way," he said.
Nerilka shook her head, laughing softly and smiling as she considered that. "My Lord Alessan, you just want an excuse to be astride and away," she countered. "But yes, that is a fine idea, as long as Fergal does not choose my mount," she told him. The last time Nerilka had gone to ride with Deefer to check the closer cotholds, Fergal had put her on a very spirited runner who seemed to have decided that gelding was not going to dampen his spirits one whit.
"As I have a bit of time on my hand, I'll see to our mounts. You can acquire the food," he offered magnanimously. "Of course, I'll get the wine, and be certain Tuero doesn't follow, for his own sake." That made Nerilka burst into happy laughter, a sound that he joined her in. It was a running joke that the Benden white was Tuero's main vice.
"I will handle the food," she promised once she had the fit under control. She stood from her desk, making plans to change, as Alessan rose off the corner of her desk. She let him precede her from the office, shutting and locking the door by habit, and chose to change first. She'd pack the basket herself; self-sufficiency in this hold was encouraged rahter than overworking drudges and laborers. In fact, Nerilka had come to realize that the drudges here, no matter how difficult their grasp on tasks might be, were treated far more gently than she'd ever seen in Fort, on the whole. Alessan was never one to overwork a person or ask more than their abilities. Another mark of note had been learning that every single member of the Hold was expected to know their Teaching Songs, and most of them could read. She'd seen several of their newcomers stung into remedying their lack, after learning that the drudges were educated. Too many Lord Holders saw it as a waste; Alessan and his father had seen it as a right.
The place Alessan had chosen was near a small stream about an hour's ride from the Hold. There was a slight swell to the land, as they were nearing the foothills but the mare she rode accepted it gracefully enough. She had been amused to see him on the fractious gelding, but apparently the grey beast knew him for its master. They'd ridden at a decorous rate, never breaking more than a canter on one level stretch. Conversation had flowed, with companionable silences, through the ride, until Alessan finally decided they were at their destination. The runners were unsaddled, and drop-reined, before Alessan spread a ground cover for them to share.
"It's beautiful here," Nerilka said as she set out their food for them.
"Suriana loved it here," he commented, sharing something of her foster sister. "When we could break free of the Hold, we'd come out here for our own peace and quiet."
"She was always at home in the outdoors, no matter how the other girls feared the wide open spaces," Nerilka said, smiling softly at how Suriana had opened her to the concept of freedom, breaking the instilled agoraphobia of their culture. "I taught her about herbs, and she taught me about wild game," she added.
"She spoke of you often, you know, when telling me of her childhood," Alessan told her after he poured her a cup of wine. "It always made me curious about you, as ..."
"Most talk of my blood was unfavorable?" Nerilka said with awry grin. "I know. The Fort Horde."
"Your mother was a gracious woman, and so were your sisters, in the face of adversity," he immediately responded, reaching out and touching her hand lightly. She nodded, accepting the pain that lay under their hearts, to speak of people gone too soon.
"Now that you've met me, Alessan, your thoughts?" she challenged, as much to get them off the train of thought spinning up.
Alessan regarded her with such a seriousness that she began to regret her quipped words, seeing something lurking in his eyes that made the pit of her stomach tremble. "I see a woman who is radiant with an internal passion and wit that cannot be matched. I see a heart that will never fail to beat with compassion and service to others. I see a friend, whom I wish to have near me for the rest of my life, however long or short it determines itself to be," he told her in a softer voice than his usual conversational tone. "I see a woman who has every grace I could ask for in a woman to stand with me as Ruatha's Lady. Yet, in the end, even duty could not ask me to abridge the friendship we've wrought, unless that friendship is enough to be a foundation to more."
Nerilka's mouth went dry, her breath caught in her throat to realize just what he had said to her. She knew he was emotionally bound to Moreta, but had never doubted he would do his duty to his Hold. However, she had been set to help his Lady, whomever it was, not be that Lady, no matter how strongly she cared for Alessan. Yet...she knew. She had watched her Lady mother deal with Tolocamp's affairs for years with dignity and grace. At least Moreta was actually worth Alessan, and there could never be any serious union between them. Alessan would be fair to her, and she would have his affection, his friendship, his children. Was that... could that be... enough?
"Nerilka? I am not offering you an empty union," Alessan pressed, seeing the hunger in her eyes. "I know you know things of my personal life that are probably giving you pause..."
"You and Moreta are beautiful together, Alessan. No one with half a heart would deny you each other," Nerilka told him. "Nor do I think you would ever slight me in any way, but there are far more suitable prospects."
He moved closer to her, after setting his wine cup aside. He took both her hands, meeting her eyes. "I have been gifted twice now with beautiful, proud, strong women to know love with. I see a chance for a third, and perhaps I am greedy, but Nerilka...you and I have a rapport that I think is the beginning of something far greater than friendship. Will you let us explore that? I would be a good husband, as surely you know."
Nerilka flushed; Suriana had indeed written of most private things to her. Yet, how could Alessan think that they... her eyes widened as she realized what he had not yet said outright, but implied.
"You...me?" He cared for her in more than the ways of friends?
"Yes. Though...it took being present with another bevy of marriage prospects to make me see just how much I had come to care for you, Rill," he admitted. "Every one that was at Keroon failed to meet your measure, and I asked myself why I was holding them to your standards...and saw that you had taken up residence solidly in my heart. Whether we go forward from here as friends, or more, is all in your choosing."
Nerilka considered if he was choosing her for any reason but what he said, yet she thought she knew him well enough to find that beneath him. She considered all the downsides of this, and decided that no matter what, she did love him, having steadily grown toward the full emotion in the months here. She nodded, squeezing his hands. "I...accept." She looked up at him, fighting the strange compulsion to shed tears over this decision and gave him a smile instead. That was too much to resist for him, and he leaned in, kissing her softly to seal the promise between them. When they separated, he drew the cup she had been using up to her hands, and then took his own back.
"Another toast to a better future?"
Nerilka nodded once more, and tried to wrestle her emotions under the control of her will, before sharing the toast, and then the meal between them.
Oklina came to the Hold as often as she could to help sew dresses, once word went around that there was to be a wedding. At first, well-aware that her brother was in love with Moreta, Oklina had worried. Moreta herself had set matters in perspective.
"Alessan chose the best possible woman to share his future with, Oklina. I truly hope they prosper, and cherish what he have shared before this."
Oklina wanted to find some way to get a feel for Nerilka's thoughts on the matter, and had used the dresses as a reason to do so. Hannath was strong enough to fly, and Ruatha had been a sensible beginning point for her lessons on going between. She found Nerilka to be in high spirits, balancing her duties as Steward with needing to get the Hold prepared for the wedding.
"I don't know why we have to make a fuss. He doesn't want one, and I don't want one," Nerilka admitted to Oklina as they worked on the dress for her. "Tirone said we owe it to Pern. You should have seen Alessan's face and heard his anger."
"I can imagine. But he gave in?" Oklina could not imagine Tirone's presumption there.
"Capiam explained it better. So yes. We'll hold a large wedding, for all our new holders to come and see and celebrate with us," Nerilka said. "I just... it's more about appearance than emotions for us, isn't it?"
Oklina frowned. "Alessan doesn't..."
"No, no Oklina... not on his part, sister." Nerilka smiled softly; she'd come to appreciate the quiet moments spent getting to know Alessan better, to see more of his innermost thoughts. "I meant in the eyes of the Hold."
Oklina relaxed. "Yes, that...even Makfar's wedding was publicized, as were all the unions of our siblings." A frown crossed her pretty features, and Nerilka moved close to hug her, carefully avoiding the pins in the fabric they were working on. "It's sometimes so hard, to know we've lost them all," Oklina said after a moment. "But life goes on, and that's what this public event is for."
"Yes, which Capiam explained." Nerilka forged ahead, to say what she suspected lay underneath it. "It also helps close off any suspicions, doesn't it, about Alessan's feelings?" She met Oklina's eyes, letting it show that she knew.
"He would never make an offer for duty," Oklina began. Nerilka smiled.
"I know. I just...how do I let him know that I... am at peace with what he finds in her company? That I can be happy with just one side of his heart?" Nerilka had thought on it long and hard, and her sense of fairness said it was wrong to take Alessan from his love. Both had given so much...Moreta would have died, if that jump had gone any more wrong than it had.
Oklina, who had adapted to Weyr life, and understood that matters of the heart and the body both got complicated, but didn't have to hurt, looked at her brother's chosen wife with surprise. "You are to be his Lady, Rill. He would not want you to ever be slighted; he's not like some Lords."
"Like my father, you mean."
"Or our own, for that matter," Oklina retorted. "He and Moreta... are friends."
"More... and I want them at ease with it." Nerilka drew in a deep breath. "Alessan will always love my foster-sister. He will always love Moreta. And I am learning he loves me. Does any one of these loves have to be greater, and the rest sacrificed to be fair? Where would the justice in that be?"
"Have you mentioned this to my brother?" Oklina asked, shocked in one part, but admiring Nerilka even more for such ability to express herself.
"I don't know how. I know how strongly people would disapprove if their liaison was ever to be more public than the few who know. But I can only see the good in it." Nerilka smiled, shaking her head. "Maybe, maybe because I half-loved your brother when he was Suriana's, I can see my way to sharing, or maybe it is just that love is making me feel so good, I wish to see more of it." She looked at Oklina, and waited for her reaction.
"Or maybe we've all seen so much pain now, we need the joy?" the queen rider asked softly.
That led to both women hugging again before they could settle in for more pinning and stitching.
Oklina had grown accustomed to sharing a private meal with Moreta after Fall's injuries had been tended. Sometimes, they ate with Leri, but often it was only the two of them. Oklina enjoyed the privilege, but knew she earned it with her staunch aid at the end of every Fall. She'd be glad when Hannath was old enough for her to ride with the Queens, but for now, she practiced as hard as she could and helped as each injury came in.
"Falls are really growing less frequent," Oklina said. "I'd read the charts, but living it is different."
"I know. Leri told me how Falls were at the beginning of the Pass, and I scarcely believed her." Moreta broke the bread and passed half over to Oklina, who spread a soft cheese on the bread to nibble on.
"It will make it easier for the wedding at least," she boldly volunteered. Usually if she mentioned anything of home, it was just about Alessan. She knew that Moreta had purposefully taken a step back from Alessan's life to give his union the honor it was due. She watched her Weyrwoman, seeing the subtle sign of an internal struggle, and took it as the break she needed. "I think you and Nerilka should talk," Oklina blurted out. "Please."
Moreta considered that request, the idea visibly touching her eyes after a few moments. At last, she nodded. "Maybe you're right. To be certain this is aired out privately and doesn't affect Alessan's welfare."
//You may be surprised at what gets aired,// Oklina thought very privately. "Of course."
Moreta's visit to Ruatha was timed, with Oklina's help, to be on a day when Alessan would be touring the outer cotholds. Ostensibly she was there to deliver a gift of Neratian crockery, as Lord Gram was under the weather, and had passed it on through Leri who had been visiting Wimmia. She was glad of the excuse, and landed in the Courtyard, managing to get the carefully protected packages free just as Deefer and Fergal met her. The boy was putting on some height, and Deefer looked flustered to see her.
"Weyrwoman, we were not... here, let us take..."
"Deefer, please." She gave him a pleasant smile. "I've brought gifts for Nerilka and Alessan's wedding, but promised Leri who promised Wimmia that I'd see them safely to her." She looked toward Fergal who was inching back, as if ready to bolt at a word, and smiled. "I don't want to keep either of you from your tasks. Just tell me where I may find her?"
Deefer relaxed a little then, and Fergal did run off to help in the stables. "She's in her office, which is at the head of the stairs just as you go up and turn right." He made as if to escort her, but a polite shake of her head deterred him, and then he was off to his tasks. Moreta settled the carry sacks carefully, and headed inside with them. She wanted to keep this gentle and easy, honeslty hoping that she would become friends with Nerilka, so that Alessan was not too strained by his union which had necessitated curtailing their affair.
She paused outside the open door, put a good smile of friendship on her features, and tapped lightly. As Nerilka looked up from her ledgers, Moreta saw nothing but sincere respect in her eyes, which made this so much easier. "I bring gifts, via Ista, from Nerat," she offered, showing the carry sacks. The younger woman got up and came around the desk, helping Moreta set them down so she could investigate. "I think the intent was to deliver them now for usage on the big day," Moreta added.
"A visit from you, Weyrwoman, is always welcome, but now you have my curiosity invested as well." She set about removing the crockery from the sacks, careful of her grip on each piece, before marveling at the vivid, bright colors in the glazed pieces, each more than large enough to help serve at the feast they would be serving. "Oh they are beautiful," Nerilka breathed..
"A fitting gift to both of you, then," Moreta said warmly.
Nerilka looked at her, seeing the warmth, and had to smile, gently, at the Weyrwoman. "Let me get you some klah? Wine? Water?" she offered. "I would love to visit with you, as someone dear to Alessan," she added.
Moreta weighed that, weighed her wish to come, Oklina's plea, and nodded. "Klah would be lovely," she agreed. She watched as Nerilka acquired mugs and the decanter from a table to one side. The former Fortian poured and then brought one mug to Moreta, before indicating the small but serviceable settee Alessan had insisted be moved into her office for comfort between ledgers, as he had put it. In truth, there were a number of nights that saw them on it, discussing the end results of their day's work, so that work could truly be left behind before bed.
Moreta settled on one sid eof it, and Nerilka the other, after the Steward and future Lady of Ruatha had shut the office door. Moreta opened her mouth to speak, but Nerilka shook her head.
"Please, let me..." Nerilka's eyes were gentle, so wise to be so young.
"Go ahead, Lady Nerilka."
"I hope that Nerilka is all you ever wish to call me, Weyrwoman," the woman said firmly. "Because I cannot bear the idea of being formal with the woman Alessan loves."
"Then it is Moreta, and that is why I came, to reassure you that no matter what you had known before of he and I... I think he's made a good choice in a match. Desdra speaks so well of you, and so does Oklina," Moreta told her. "I have my duties, for all that Alessan is dear, and understand his."
"As he does, and I do, and I am honored that he ever thought of me in such a manner," Nerilka said evenly. "What I wish to point out is that I am aware Weyr customs are different, and life has shown me that love is not something that should be boxed away inside traditions and hidden from sight when circumstances change." She met the older woman's gaze intently. "He loves you. He has known deep tragedy in his life. Tragedies I have shared but on a lesser level, for Suriana was my foster sister, not my wife. I lost my mother and four sisters; he lost all but one. I would see him have every shade of happiness to shelter him that I can, and one of those is his alliance to you. I know, were I ill at ease over this, that he would never be more than your friend again. But I am not. All that remains is to know if you are willing to let me be a friend to you, and turn a blind eye to what it is I know moves him so deeply?"
Moreta was not used to such open thinking in a hold-bred woman. Here was a Blooded Daughter willing to give up her sole claim on her Lord, one of the few Lords in all of Pern who probably would have been faithful to his Lady, for sake of said Lord's happiness. Such a generosity of the spirit was so unheard of, and Moreta found herself setting her klah down in order to reach out and take Nerilka's hands in her own. "I think you know your own mind. And what you offer... is more than I have a right to ask. So, as a counter, why don't we see just how things go as you and I get to know each other more? Perhaps friendship is all we need, the three of us."
Nerilka shook her head. "Only if you accept that I am far more willing to know he has your support. It's quite likely I won't be all he needs," Nerilka said firmly. "I'm not...worldly." She almost blushed, and Moreta had to squeeze her fingers.
"Oh, he'll teach you all that, I have no doubt," she could not help but say, watching as Nerilka's skin deepened in color.
"You'll be my friend too?" Nerilka asked softly once she had gotten a control on her embarrassment. Moreta saw in that question someone who had only just truly realized how lonely she had been for a long time. There was, she realized, a tantalizing mix of skill, determination, and young naivete within Nerilka. No wonder the women thought so well of her, and Alessan had been intrigued enough to consider the chances.
"I think, Nerilka, you and I will be friends for a very long time, no matter what," Moreta answered firmly. She let go of Nerilka's hands and picked up her klah to sip it, before cocking her head to one side. "Alessan has no idea, does he?"
Nerilka gave her a shy smile. "I thought, all things considered, it was a better idea to be certain you and I could agree, before raising any hopes?"
Moreta had to laugh at that, agreeing, before settling in to start getting to know this woman her lover had chosen to wed.