They say that the Weyrfolk know little of love;
their children are fostered, and rarely they wed.
But what human heart could ever compete
with the dragons for whom they are bred?
A woman would die for her children.
A man do the same for his wife.
But none know the truth of a dragonman's world:
The dragonless don't cling to life.
High Reaches Weyr
Between one step and the next, Rahnis' worst fears came to pass.
Utterly grief-stricken, each and every one of the Weyr's dragons keened for their lost queen with all their might. Inside Kiath's weyr, the sound must surely have been muted by metres of solid rock, but even so it struck Rahnis to her core, an almost physical blow that sent her reeling against the wall in shock. Alaireth wasn't there to share the dragons' emotions with her, but there was no mistaking the depth of their grief. The keening reverberated around the Weyr, a dissonant, high-pitched groan that set her earbones aching. This, this, was how a Weyr mourned its queens. Ahead of her, the door to Maenida's quarters swung open. G'dil and T'frick staggered through it, clinging to each other for support. Behind her, H'koll and M'arsen were locked in futile combat.
Rahnis hurried onwards, desperate to know the truth of what had occurred, both inside the weyr, and in the skies above them all. She could hear shouts and screams mixed with the full-throated keening of the dragons. She entered the inner rooms at a run, and stumbled to a stop as she saw them. There was S'kloss, closest to her, shaking his head in violent twitches, looking as if he was trying to dislodge water from his ears. He was half dressed and had the rest of his clothes clutched to his chest in a bundle, and he was swaying on the spot. Beyond him, C'nir grimaced silently, his arms wrapped around the shoulders of another man: M'gan, struggling fiercely and swearing at the top of his lungs as C'nir tried to pull him away. M'gan's face was wet with a spray of blood; his hands were grasping claws, mere inches from reaching the last bronzerider in the room: the man who'd killed Maenida.
And he was the one who was screaming.
He stared blankly across the room, mouth wide, not seeing her at all, nor Maenida's corpse crumpled on the floor beside him. He still held the knife he'd used to cut her throat. Blood dripped from it still, and from him. He was coated with it.
His screams were wordless: pain given voice. The sound was almost worse than the noise the dragons were still making. Rahnis wanted nothing more than to press her fists to her ears and run far, far away from it. She didn't want to think about what that terrible sound meant...but there was simply no escaping it. F'ren had killed Maenida, no question of it...but had he done so before or after Kiath's death? Had Trath caught her already, or not? As terrified as she was of finding out, she couldn't leave anyone to suffer like that.
The dragons' keening slowly began to fade, and she quietly and cautiously moved closer. C'nir pulled M'gan another step further back; the fight was going out of M'gan now, but she was glad not to be too close. C'nir shook his head and hissed at her to keep back as she passed; he was warning her about F'ren, not M'gan, she realised. Approaching an armed, insane, potentially dragonless man was a particularly foolhardy thing to do...but she'd seen herself, safe, being reunited with Alaireth again. As scared as she was, she knew he wouldn't hurt her.
He didn't respond, so she tried again. “F'ren!”
This time, he did stop screaming. The silence that replaced it was almost as horrifying as the noise had been. His chest was heaving rapidly, and she didn't know if he'd heard her, or had just run out of breath. Rahnis tentatively placed one hand on his knife-arm and the other on the hand that was holding the blade, not to try to make him let it go, just to stop him trying to use it on anyone else...or on himself. “F'ren, it's Rahnis. F'r-”
She broke off as he dropped the knife and whirled towards her, rigidity giving way to action faster than she'd have thought humanly possible. Before she could back away, he grabbed for her, eyes terrifyingly wild with dragonlust and madness. She cried out as his fingers tightened painfully on her injured arm; once again, he either didn't hear or didn't care. He pulled her closer, pressing himself against her, his maimed hand taking a twisting hold on the hair at the back of her head. It was almost a relief when he pressed his lips against hers, because that meant she was too close to see the anguished look in his eyes any more. She closed her eyes, fixing her mind on the promise of seeing Alaireth again, found the knife with her left foot, and kicked it in what she thought was C'nir's direction. It skittered across the floor. A heartbeat later, F'ren collapsed to his knees. He pulled her down with him and slumped against her, sobbing, at her breast.
Without thinking, she reached up and stroked his damp hair. Maenida lay no more than an arm's length away from them. The floor around Maenida's body was dark and drenched, but the flow of blood from the gaping wound at the Weyrwoman's neck had ebbed away to almost nothing now. Her face was pale and her eyes were growing glassy, like those of a dead beast. The man Rahnis was holding – the man she'd been growing to love – had done that to her. He'd mercilessly ended two lives...and, oh Faranth, how much else had he lost alongside them?
She'd had a chance to stop all of this from happening. He'd only done what he'd done because she'd failed.
"F'ren?” she said softly. “Faranth, F'ren! Talk to me, please!"
Slowly, the bronzerider lifted his head. The look on his face reminded her of a shocked weyrling she'd once seen, mortally wounded in his first Threadfall. There was nothing but horror and despair in his eyes, even now.
"I killed them," he whispered.
"I know." She cupped his face with her hands; they were just as bloody as his were, now. Swallowing back a mouthful of bile, she forced herself to ask the only question that mattered. “F'ren, what of Trath?”
He shuddered, but although he met her gaze, she could have sworn that he didn't recognise her at all.
“I don't know where he is.” F'ren's face twisted, broken, as he spoke. "I killed them,” he said again, and then once more. Over and over again he repeated the words, louder each time. Then, something snapped inside of him. He blinked, and she saw that he recognised her at last.
“Rahnis,” he said, his voice little more than a whisper. “Where are they? Where? You have to tell me, please!” His voice cracked and his eyes grew vague and distant again, just as if he was talking to his dragon. “Where are you, Trath?” he asked, and the sheer desperation and pain in the question was pitiful to behold. His head drooped, and he started to weep.
Tears filled her own eyes; she didn't even try to hold them back. Was it the stress and shock of Kiath's death, coupled with his own actions, that had done this to him? Having been deep in rapport with Trath, might he just be feeling a dragon's weight of grief at the queen's death? M'gan was in almost as bad a state... but, then again, M'gan wasn't continually questioning his dragon's whereabouts. Heart aching, Rahnis looked back over her shoulder and found C'nir and S'kloss watching her. M'gan sat slumped in a chair, sobbing his heart out even louder than F'ren, but with dragonriders that could mean anything or nothing. S'kloss had picked up the knife, a clear look of distaste on his face, but didn't seem to know what to do with it next. She wondered if it might have been his, and how much he and the others had known about the Weyrwoman's condition. “Maenida would never have brought Kiath back to the Weyr," she told them quietly.
S'kloss nodded right away, and sheathed his knife. C'nir's eyes merely narrowed, but she was fairly sure he'd understood, too. M'gan might as well not have even been in the room. She was on the verge of saying more, of telling them how she'd earlier tried to stop the flight herself, when she heard voices and footsteps in the outer weyr.
The door swung open, and Sh'vek stormed in. “What happened?” he demanded. Then, just as Rahnis herself had done, he stopped in his tracks as he took in the scene, mouthing Maenida's name silently.
Rahnis watched him as his eyes tracked over Maenida, the men, herself. Emotions coursed across his features, too fast for her to read.
“Faranth,” he muttered. “Faranth!”
An unfamiliar man wearing the knots of the Healer Hall made to follow him in, but Sh'vek stopped him with an out-flung arm.
“I might be able to...” the healer started.
“Her dragon's gone,” Sh'vek said softly. “There's nothing that you or I or anyone else can do for her now, Healer Renso. See to the living. You can start with my Wingsecond. This is Weyr business now.”
He ushered the healer back out of the room and closed the door firmly behind him, then walked slowly across the room and knelt down beside the Weyrwoman's body. Rahnis tightened her grip on F'ren; Faranth only knew what he might do in his state if he should notice Sh'vek was there. Tenderly, Sh'vek closed Maenida's unseeing eyes and folded her arms across her breast, but it did little to lessen the appalling sight of her. Rahnis could see pain and grief on his face clearly now, and perhaps a little guilt. The sight of it bewildered her; she couldn't reconcile it with what he'd done, with everything he hadn't done. Maenida might not have been the woman she once was, the woman he'd cared for, but she hadn't yet been lost completely. Did he regret her death, or simply the manner of it? If he'd truly felt that much for Maenida, how could he ever have let this happen? He could and should have done more to stop Kiath rising. Could have acted earlier. Could have acted as late as yesterday, even. Hadn't.
Sh'vek looked across at her and Fren, and his pained expression briefly changed into something that looked horribly like triumph. A moment later his face hardened and all sign of it was gone. Whatever he was truly feeling, Rahnis already knew that he'd intended to use the Weyrwoman's death to his own advantage, and she was determined not to let him get away with it if she could. Dear Faranth, whatever genuine grief he'd felt over his weyrmate's death, the slight trace of humanity it had given him was a small thing against the appalling way he'd used Maenida! With Maenida dead, he might think he could cow Delene into keeping him as Weyrleader...but it wouldn't be Delene's choice to make. Sh'vek didn't know it yet, but his days as Weyrleader were numbered. That single thought was enough to keep her going. For doing this to Kiath, to F'ren, to the entire Weyr, she promised herself then and there that she'd make him pay.
Slowly, Sh'vek rocked back onto his heels and pushed himself upright. He wiped his hands dry on his trousers, now gorily stained at the knees, then turned to address the other bronzeriders. “S'kloss, get M'gan out of here. Take him to Tarkan, but don't let them just clean him up and let him off. Someone needs to keep an eye on him. He's not in his right mind yet, probably won't be until Baxuth gets back, and I don't want him spreading wild rumours in the meanwhile. While you're there, tell Tarkan what's happened here, and ask him to see to the usual arrangements. When you've done that, find G'dil. If you think he's up to it, have him call back Delene, and make sure he knows he's to stay with her. If not, the job's yours. The Weyr needs her now. Got all that?”
“Yes, Weyrleader,” S'kloss said. He gave Sh'vek a tidily precise salute, incongruous as it was coming from a man wearing nothing but socks and a shirt, then resumed his search for the rest of his and M'gan's clothes amongst the bloodied mess at the foot of Maenida's bed.
“Delene's in Nerat,” C'nir said. “I know where to find her.”
Sh'vek gave him a level look. “I'm sure you do.”
C'nir stared back at him for a while, then gave up and turned away. “C'mon, M'gan. Let's get you out of here.” He helped the other bronzerider up and tried to encourage him to get himself dressed in the clothes S'kloss threw their way, but M'gan shook off the assistance and, ignoring his clothes, made for the door.
“S'kloss...” Sh'vek warned.
S'kloss gave up on his search for his second boot and followed hastily after M'gan. C'nir made to follow, but stopped at a signal from Sh'vek. As the other men left, M'arsen came back in, scowling; one of his arms hung limply in a makeshift sling and he was sporting a lacerated lip and cheek that was swelling rapidly up towards his right eye. H'koll must have broken his arm, Rahnis realised, and maybe his cheekbone too. She wondered, feeling slightly sickened, what the brownrider had done to him in return.
“Thir,” M'arsen lisped.
Sh'vek acknowledged his second's arrival, then gestured to C'nir. “Report, Wingleader. What occurred?”
C'nir stiffened. “What occurred? Kiath, did, that's what. I've never known a flight like it. Nothing even comes close. It wasn't so bad to start with – Telemath and I, it was like we were just deeper into the chase than usual – but the further we got from the Weyr, every time another one of us dropped back....” He trailed off, and shuddered. “Faranth, it was like that threadfall when this whole mess began, only ten times worse. Kiath, she...where were you, Sh'vek? I didn't see any sign of Ormaith, not once!”
“I went to fetch a healer for Maenida. I thought there might be something they could give her to help her through it. Sadly, I was delayed, and we got back too late to be of any use.”
“Oh.” C'nir's brow furrowed, but he clearly knew better than to question Sh'vek's story then and there.
“Continue, C'nir,” Sh'vek prompted.
“Kiath pulled at us. Every time a bronze dropped back, the rest of us just flew faster and harder. We didn't have a choice. Telemath almost had her, once, then that fardling wherry Baxuth got in our way, and Trath overtook us both. I didn't see much after that. We were in and out of the cloud tops, trying to get past Baxuth again, and then Kiath dived. We all followed, and then...then Tel and I felt something from Kiath. We thought she'd been caught, but it was all wrong, and we could tell she couldn't feel Maenida any more. She screamed, somewhere below us, and that's when I saw what F'ren was doing. When Kiath went between. She'd lost Maenida, and she just... she just went between. We felt her die. We felt them both die.”
“What about Trath?” Rahnis asked.
Sh'vek shot her a furious look, but with a quick flick of his fingers he motioned for C'nir to answer the question all the same. “I'd like to know that, too.”
C'nir's eyes slid speculatively across to F'ren. “Like I said, we didn't see it, but Telemath says... Telemath says he can't hear anything from Trath. He says he went between, too.”
The words seared into Rahnis like live threads. Trath had gone between? She pressed a hand to her mouth in horror, tasting Maenida's blood on her lips, wishing she could turn time back on itself and un-hear what C'nir had said. It couldn't be true. She wouldn't let it be true. And she knew, deep in her heart, that she'd been waiting for someone to say those very words; there was no surprise in hearing them, none whatsoever. Trath had gone between. Even so, she couldn't abandon her last, slim hopes. “He might have come back out!”
C'nir shook his head. “We didn't hear him, and I'm not going to press Telemath to reach for any dragon who's more likely to be dead than not, not now, not so soon after losing Kiath like that. If he's alive, we'll soon know about it. But I don't think we'll see him again, not after this.”
“Ormaith concurs,” Sh'vek said. “He can't hear Trath either.”
She looked down at F'ren, desperate to see some sign, any sign at all, that Trath hadn't been lost, that F'ren wasn't now dragonless. But the small glimpse of sanity she'd seen in him earlier was nowhere now, and the only words she could make out among his muffled moans were appeals for his dragon's forgiveness. If Alaireth was back with her, she'd know for sure. If she got Alaireth back fast enough, might there even be a chance that the queen could act? The slimmest of hopes...but the queen would need to reach into the very core of Kiath's flight, an almost unbearable proposition so close to her own rising. Even if the queen could do it, if success was guaranteed, Rahnis knew it would be utterly wrong for her to insist that Alaireth make the attempt.
“So,” Sh'vek continued, “F'ren is once again Firrenor, it seems. That simplifies matters. This, though. This.” He pointed back behind him at Maenida, without looking around.“Did it happen before or after Kiath died? Did he cause it?”
C'nir shook his head. “It all happened at once. I don't know! Before, I think. He said he killed them, and Kiath definitely lost touch with Maenida before she went between.” He frowned, and closed his eyes. “I need to remember, Tel. Don't stop me looking.”
There was a pause before the bronzerider spoke again, his eyes still tightly shut. “I didn't know he had a knife. The part of me that wasn't with Tel...I saw him. Kiath was pulling us, and he was first to reach her. Then he just....” Slowly, he opened his eyes again, and nodded. “That's when he did it, right then, the moment he reached her. There was nothing any of the rest of us could do.”
“So he murdered Kiath as well as Maenida.” Sh'vek paced away across the room, and folded his hands behind his back. “You'd swear to that, would you, C'nir?”
Rahnis couldn't see Sh'vek's face, but she could tell that he wasn't displeased by what he'd just said. There was no crime worse than causing the death of a dragon, and, without another dragon's life in the balance, nothing to hold Sh'vek back from demanding that the ultimate sanctions be applied. In an Interval, that supposedly meant permanent exile...although the records were clear that on the few occasions when such things had happened before, unfortunate 'accidents' had befallen the perpetrator more often than not. In a Pass.... Rahnis looked up at C'nir, silently pleading for him to raise the extenuating circumstances they were all aware of: that F'ren had acted in the defence of his own dragon's life.
The bronzerider refused to meet her eyes. “Everything I've said is the truth,” he said. “I'll swear to that.”
“That will suffice,” Sh'vek said. “I'll prepare a document for your sig-” He stopped, interrupted by a knock at the door, and went to see who was there.
“How could you, C'nir?” Rahnis hissed as Sh'vek left the room, furious that he was giving up on another dragonrider so easily.
“I don't owe him anything!”
Now that was a lie! “You think Sh'vek cared which of your bronzes died with Kiath?”
C'nir swallowed back whatever his retort might have been as Sh'vek returned, trailed by Healer Tilga and a pair of stretcher bearers. Did C'nir believe her? Rahnis wasn't sure, but he didn't look comfortable with the idea, even as he busied himself with his bootlaces, making no move to draw Sh'vek's attention, which was back with Maenida again. The room was silent while Tilga made a brief examination of the Weyrwoman's body. She spoke a few instructions to the men who'd accompanied her, who then eased Maenida's body gently onto the stretcher and bore her away. Sh'vek lingered in the doorway and watched them depart, while Tilga turned her attention to F'ren.
“Ah,” she said, and tutted her lips. The Healer's face was bleakly resigned with what she was seeing. “Would you move so I can see him better, Rahnis?”
Choking back a sob of her own, Rahnis nodded and shuffled sideways, until F'ren was slumped almost face-up in her lap. He'd started shaking some time ago, and the change in position only worsened it.
Tilga winced, and stretched out a hand to take a measure of F'ren's movements. “Shock's normal in these circumstances. Best we can do now is see that he rests. Hold his head for me, weyrwoman.”
She did as instructed while Tilga fished out a bottle and a set of measuring spoons from her apron. The healer selected the second smallest and filled it to brimming, then slipped it with practised ease into F'ren's mouth. His face twisted in distaste at the bitter liquid, but he swallowed it down regardless.
“He'll sleep a few hours, that's all,” Tilga said softly. “Some aren't affected as badly as others, but we won't know for cer-”
“You might not, but the rest of us do,” C'nir said. “He won't want to wake. Kinder to end it now.”
“Shut up, C'nir!” Rahnis hissed, wishing with all her heart that she could disagree with the man. If Trath was gone.... She'd thought she'd hated the Weyrleader before, for his part in the destruction of her past, and the child that might have been her future, but for doing this to Kiath and Maenida and F'ren and the whole fardling Weyr there could never be any possibility of forgiveness. She held F'ren close while his shaking eased, watched his eyelids slowly droop closed and an inane smile grow on his face. Maybe C'nir was right, maybe it would be for the best if he simply slipped into death from his sleep. Alaireth will know, she decided. If Trath was gone, and nothing could be done to bring him back, she wouldn't try to deny F'ren that option the next time he woke. Not if he was sane enough to ask for it.
F'ren drifted deeper into sleep and, as his breathing steadied and slowed and the immediacy of each moment faded, Rahnis abruptly remembered that there was a world and people beyond the walls of Maenida's weyr. “Was H'koll hurt, too?” she asked Tilga, hoping that the woman might know what had happened to him. With luck, she could claim responsibility for his actions and prevent him from being punished for helping her...but she didn't know how she'd ever make it up to him or his dragon if the greenrider had been badly injured on her account.
“Four broken ribs and two fingers,” Tilga said. “He's lucky not to have a punctured lung, but we still have to wait and see for his kidney. Tarkan's treating him now.”
That news could have been worse. “Please pass on my hopes for his recovery when you see him.”
“I shall. There, that's better.” Tilga lifted her hand from the pulse point at F'ren's wrist, and looked over at Sh'vek, still stood by the door. “He should really be moved to the infirmary. Can I send for some more bearers, Weyrleader?”
Sh'vek crossed his arms and shook his head. “He's too dangerous. I want him detained.”
“Dangerous? He's unconscious!”
“Well then, he'll be easier to manage. You can go back to your usual duties now, Healer Tilga. C'nir? See to it. And make sure he stays detained.”
With Tilga's assistance, C'nir wrestled F'ren up and onto his shoulder. Rahnis followed them to the door, reluctant to let F'ren out of her sight, but equally keen to get him safely away from Sh'vek. With Alaireth still between times, she felt horribly alone and adrift; she needed to get out to the bowl, needed to be where Alaireth had shown her so she could call the queen back to the Weyr again. Finding out Trath's fate for certain was only a part of it. The Weyr would need both Linnebith and Alaireth right now, to soothe the dragons' grief. You need me, Alaireth had told her, and, They'll need me too. Rahnis hadn't understood her dragon's urgency earlier, but now it all made sense. The Weyr also needed to know the truth of the circumstances surrounding Maenida's death. With Alaireth's help, she'd see to it that every last dragon on Pern knew what had happened here today, and there wasn't a fardling thing Sh'vek could do to stop her!
Or was there? Sh'vek might think there was, she realised, meeting the Weyrleader's gaze as he stepped squarely into her path. Rahnis felt suddenly afraid, and less certain than ever that her position as a queenrider afforded her any protection at all. But Alaireth had seen her future self alive and well in the bowl; surely that had to be enough. “If you'll excuse me, Weyrleader?” she tried.
“Where do you think you're going?”
Anywhere would suit her fine, but she settled for the simplest, honest answer. “My weyr. I need to call Alaireth back.”
“No, you don't,” Sh'vek said firmly. “I'm not done with you yet. Get back over there, and sit down.”
She heard a scraping sound, and turned to see M'arsen pulling one of the chairs away from the table with his good arm. “You heard the Weyrleader, Rahnith.”
“No.” She glared back and forth between both men. “I am hurt, I am filthy, but most of all right now, you are keeping me from my dragon. Alaireth will be back soon, and she won't be happy about any of this. If you have anything more to say to me, it can wait until later, assuming Alaireth will permit either one of you onto her ledge. I rather doubt that she will.”
Sh'vek raised an eyebrow. “What will it take to teach you to follow orders, I wonder? I won't put up with any more of your interference in the running of my Weyr, Rahnis.”
“Fine!” she snapped. “I'll make sure you don't have to.”
“Oh, very good, Weyrwoman Rahnis! That almost sounds like a threat.”
“Are you going to let me leave, or not?”
He smiled coldly down at her. “If you leave, you won't have any say in Firrenor's fate.”
Firrenor's fate? A shiver ran down her spine. Was Sh'vek so certain that Trath was lost for good? How quickly did he mean to act?
“Yes. I rather thought that might get your attention. He was your lover, wasn't he?”
She didn't dignify the question with an answer, nor waste time wondering how he'd guessed. She didn't think he had any intention of listening to her opinions in any case, but whatever chance there was that Trath might return from between, it wouldn't matter one bit if Sh'vek meant to see that he didn't have a rider to come back to. “Alaireth-”
“Alaireth can wait. She's not going anywhere. Neither are you, are you?”
Reluctantly, she shook her head. “What will happen to F'ren?”
“Firrenor,” he corrected. “Exile, if he's lucky. Threadfall, if not. Or perhaps I'll let him choose for himself?”
There was a cruel gleam in Sh'vek's eyes; Rahnis could guess all too easily which option he favoured. “You can't do that!”
“We'll see. It all rather depends on...well, we'll get to that.” He turned away from her and pushed the door closed. “But you're right,” he went on, “you could do with getting yourself cleaned up. Use the pool. You can borrow something clean of Maenida's for now.”
M'arsen opened the dresser one-handed and rifled through it, pulling out a shirt and a long skirt. There weren't many less appealing notions than dressing in a dead woman's clothes...although, having M'arsen sent in after her to force her into them was probably one of them. Better perhaps to go along with Sh'vek for now; he couldn't keep her in here for ever. She snatched the clothes from M'arsen's outstretched hand, hoping that they'd actually fit, and carried on into the back room. Once inside, she stripped off her own soiled clothes and washed as quickly as she could manage. Over the noise of the flowing water she could just about hear Sh'vek and M'arsen engaged in a low conversation, but nothing of what was said beyond the odd word here and there. M'arsen mentioned a map at one point. Shard it, she hoped they were only discussing possible islands!
The water seemed to take forever to run clear but eventually she was clean enough to dress herself again without ruining another set of clothes. The fit of the shirt and skirt was near enough, but it felt wrong, quite wrong, wearing Maenida's clothes. When she came out again, M'arsen was gone, and Sh'vek was standing beside the table, busily examining a map and making notes on a nearby slate. As she watched, he carefully re-positioned a set of engraved metal spacers used to measure out threadfall patterns. Faranth, he hadn't been bluffing about Threadfall! Rahnis thought ahead to the rest of the month's falls: she'd been told that the spring cycle in the two months following the Crom nor-easter was a well-established and familiar pattern for the Weyr, with the threads of every second and third fall striking well within Hold boundaries, where not one could be permitted a chance to burrow. Sh'vek had to be considering one of the one-in-three falls that fell off-pattern...or perhaps even outside High Reaches territory. Curious and afraid, she went to see for herself.
The map was an old one, covering the southernmost regions of uninhabited tundra extending down from the North Ranges all the way to Ogren Hold. Sh'vek jotted down another set of coordinates and dates as she reached the table: the tail end of an off-pattern threadfall five days from now that would trace the barren hills and mountains of the Ranges before petering out above the higher-altitude glacier lying east of Ogren. As there was little for the threads to feed on up there it wasn't a fall the Weyr would waste resources fighting: the lower-lying valleys were flamed clear of greenery several times a turn, and the nearest crop fields were an hour's flight away, well out of range of even the hardiest burrows. Rahnis reached out and placed her fingers on the map, touching the area in question. “You mean...” she began, but her mouth was almost too dry to speak. She swallowed, moistened her lips, and tried again. “You mean to abandon him there, don't you?”
“A well-defended crop field would hardly suit,” Sh'vek said. “But no. I doubt there'll be anything falling there but crackdust for a good month or more.” He sighed loudly. “Never thought I'd see the day when I actually wanted a nice spell of warm weather in the north. I may have to time it after all.”
Rahnis looked round at Sh'vek; the fardling man was smiling to himself! “And you dare to call F'ren a murderer? All he did was try to save his own dragon's life; no rider can be condemned for that!”
“No?” He straightened up, and crossed his arms. “Remind me, Rahnis, of the crimes a man can be exiled for.”
On that score the Charter was very clear. Rahnis turned around and paraphrased the relevant passage from memory, voice dripping with scorn. “Depending on the severity of the offence and upon any mitigating circumstances, a man may be exiled for murder, aggravated rape and other grievous acts of violence, deliberate contagion or breach of quarantine leading to an outbreak of pestilence, and acts of gross negligence resulting in the loss of life or, during a Pass, foodstuffs equivalent to a half-turn's tithe. And, any act, intentional or otherwise, which results in the death of a dragon. Not that any of that applies to dragonriders, else every single Weyrlingmaster, Wingleader and Weyrleader would be guilty multiple times over.”
“Irrelevant, in his case.”
“So you say.”
Sh'vek barked a laugh. “Shells, woman, you are desperate! But I suppose I could humour you for a while. You want to treat Firrenor as a dragonrider, still? Then tell me what the penalty is when one dragonrider kills another!”
It rarely happened. When it did, the culprit's fate was to be transferred to another Weyr, grounded and in disgrace, where the dragon would be inhibited by the Weyr's queens and the rider would be shunned and forced to survive on subsistence rations. If that proved inadequate, the dragon and rider would be forcibly separated from each other's company. “It's certainly not being left out for Thread!” Rahnis snapped.
“More's the pity! You've read of Ankala, I assume?”
Who hadn't? She might have lived and died well over a century into the previous interval, but Igen Weyr had never recovered from the consequences of their most infamous Weyrwoman's actions. “Ankala was a sick, jealous fool.”
“Mmm.” Sh'vek took a step towards her and leaned in close to speak softly into her ear. “M'arsen told me what you attempted to do, earlier. A good thing you failed, Otherwise, I think you'd find yourself envying Ankala's fate.”
“What?” Was he seriously suggesting that he'd have held her accountable for Kiath's death, if she'd succeeded? That what she'd attempted, out of sheer, hideous necessity, was in any way comparable to an unhinged woman who'd murdered a rival? “Kiath was doomed from the outset. Are two deaths worse than three, or more? Is a heart-broken Weyr better off for having experienced her last flight? I tried to spare the Weyr as much pain as I could,” she cried, jabbing her own chest for emphasis and then levelling a finger accusingly at his, “but you're the one who brought it down on us.”
Sh'vek brushed her hand aside. “Then you stand by your actions?”
“I do. H'koll's too,” she added hastily. “He acted on my behalf.”
“Heard, and witnessed, Weyrwoman.” Sh'vek bent back over the table, and moved the weights off the corners of the uppermost map, allowing it to spring back into a loose roll.
“What about F'ren?” Rahnis demanded. Sh'vek could make as many empty threats as he wanted, but she wasn't going to leave until she had a better idea of what he intended.
Ignoring her, Sh'vek picked up the map and began to wind it tighter between his palms. As he did so, the formality of his earlier words suddenly struck her. He'd asked her if she stood by her actions. She did, of course, but not necessarily as M'arsen had described them to the Weyrleader. And for Sh'vek to hear and witness her answer said much. She hadn't had any intention of lying about what had occurred in Maenida's weyr today, so what purpose could a witnessed confession on her part, accurate or not, possibly serve? Surely M'arsen's version of events couldn't differ too far from her own? On the other hand, M'arsen hadn't been there to hear what Sh'vek had told her before he'd left. What part of the truth could he or Sh'vek have twisted to the Weyrleader's own ends? Having asked herself that question, she could see only the one answer. She shivered, not liking the way this was going.
“You're going to tell them that Maenida might have survived Kiath's flight, aren't you?” she murmured.
Sh'vek looped a twist of leather around the rolled-up hide, and acknowledged her words with a slight nod. “I received confirmation from the Healer Hall, oh, three days ago. Master Rynder found no cause to believe that the normal physical activity of a woman in her position was beyond her.”
“But that hasn't been an issue for months!” Rahnis blurted out at once, surprised that the man's ploy was so weak. “Her connection with Kiath was the problem, has always been the problem! Faranth, Sh'vek, how many hours – days! – months! – have Ormaith and Linnebith and Alaireth spent holding them together, through force of will alone at times? She might have got better physically over the last couple of months, but mentally she barely improved at all!”
“And you think you can convince the Weyr of that, do you? Even when I tell them otherwise?”
Could she? It might be the absolute truth, she might have Alaireth's own experiences with Kiath to back it up, but dragons often misunderstood some of the smaller details of their rider's lives, and other humans even more frequently. Her queen could tell the other dragons that her rider was being truthful, but everyone knew that a canny rider could slip a well-crafted lie past her dragon's attention. If Sh'vek were to take an opposing stance, with Delene to back him up and M'arsen to portray the Weyrleader's absence from the flight as a doomed attempt to avert disaster – and there was no doubt in her mind that he'd manage that detail easily enough – who would the Weyr believe?
Furious with herself almost as much as she was with Sh'vek, Rahnis looked away, swearing under her breath. There was nothing she could do or say here that would do any good at all, not with Sh'vek so determined to see F'ren pay the price for the Weyrleader's own crimes. And, if she was reading the situation correctly, he intended to tar her with the same brush, to ruin her credibility before she could act against him. How had she got herself into this mess? What kind of weyrwoman was she, to be so useless without Alaireth beside her? Was she truly so powerless on her own, without a queen's authority to lend weight to her words?
Without a queen's authority.
That was it. That was all she needed. Leaving Sh'vek's question unanswered – it didn't matter any more – Rahnis made for the door. Opening it, she was confronted by an expanse of Ormaith's flank. “Tell your dragon to move, Sh'vek,” she said, wondering how else the Weyrleader planned to stymie her. The dragon would have to move eventually, but sooner would be better than later.
Ormaith didn't budge an inch, but Rahnis' patience was already short. She glared back at Sh'vek. “Well?”
Sh'vek pulled opened a drawer and took out a pot of ink and a stylus, which he set down on the table beside a stack of document hides. “I'm not finished with you yet, Rahnis.”
Oh, wasn't he? “No?”
Rahnis couldn't hold her fury in check any longer. He had no right to keep her here, no right at all! “Well I'm finished with you. You became nothing more than an interim Weyrleader from the moment you announced Maenida's retirement, but by right of her age Linnebith is senior in truth now. Your authority died with Kiath, and until the next queen rises, Delene's the one who makes the final decisions around here, not you. I don't think she'll be at all pleased by what you did today. I know for a fact that C'nir isn't, and right now? Right now, he has a better right by far to wear those knots than you do. Now get your ugly bronze to move his lazy backside out of my way right now, before I get really angry!”
Chukling to himself, Sh'vek sauntered towards her, evidently not the least bit perturbed by her outburst. “Rahnis, Rahnis! C'nir has almost as little chance of becoming Weyrleader here as Delene does of becoming Weyrwoman.”
She hadn't expected him to back down in the face of what she'd said, not right away, but she had thought she might provoke him at least enough to gain some leverage. Rather than being angry with her, the man seemed amused! As things stood, it was true that Delene probably wasn't capable of recognising how the balance of power in the Weyr had shifted in her favour, as temporary as it would be, but even she would figure it out fast enough if Sh'vek tried to remove her.
“Kiath's gone, Sh'vek,” she said, growing ever more exasperated. “Don't tell me that fact has escaped your attention! If you ever had any genuine intention of transferring Linnebith, it's too late for that now. The best thing you can do for yourself is to let me leave.” She looked him in the eyes, and made her offer. “Give me good enough reason to be circumspect, and I'll hold my silence. Let me leave, put F'ren's fate in my hands, and I'll give you my word that I'll never speak out against my Weyrleader.”
He looked at her thoughtfully. “Good enough reason, eh? Strangely enough, I already had something along those lines in mind. The details differ, and my version doesn't have loopholes big enough to fly a dragon through...but I think we can come to a mutually beneficial arrangement. You see, Rahnis...I know exactly what you got up to this winter.”
He paused, giving his words a chance to sink in. Dread grew inside Rahnis like burrowing thread, growing unstoppably and consuming everything in its path.
“I know all of it,” he continued. “Where you were, and when you went.”
“I'm not sure I unders-”
“Oh, but you do!”
“No!” Rahnis shook her head in sheer denial. This couldn't be happening, not like this, not now!
He tilted his head to one side, seemingly bemused by her surprise. “Faranth, girl, do you think I can't recognise when a rider's been timing it? Did you think I hadn't read my own records?”
She struggled to find something more to say, some way of denying the truth. But, Sh'vek knows more than you'd think, he'd told her, no more than a sevenday ago. More than she'd thought he might at the time; more, even, than he'd later admitted to. And if he was telling the truth about having known that she'd timed it, having known when she'd timed it...then it probably wasn't a recent discovery. He took her by the arm and drew her away from the door; she was too stunned by his revelation to protest. “How long?” she whispered, more to herself than to Sh'vek. Her limbs felt like useless, heavy weights, but the despair that grew in her heart as she raced through the implications was even worse. Everything she and F'ren had done, for all those months, and Sh'vek hadn't been deceived at all.
“When did I find out you were timing?” Sh'vek stopped, and turned her to face him. “I guessed what was happening the morning after that bluerider drank himself to death. It took a little longer before I was certain, but that was still well before you figured it out for yourself. Once I knew what you were up to, well, the reasons for it were obvious. I assumed I'd have to lead you through the whole process at first – your Istan really did you no favours with his stupid demise – but even when everything went wrong after Turnover and you decided to figure it all out for yourself, I couldn't be completely displeased. The fact that you were timing was all that mattered. The timing was everything.”
Rahnis started; he'd said those very same words the night he'd come to her in her weyr, the night she and F'ren had gone between times with their dragons. He had known, even then!
“Fortunately,” Sh'vek continued, “the end result was exactly the same regardless of whether I went with you or not. You and Alaireth lived your double life long enough to ensure that she'd rise before Linnebith, you spared me all the risk...and the only people who know what you've done are you, me and Firrenor. I should compliment you on how well you've concealed your queen's condition, by the way. Keep that up, and with the rest of the Weyr so focused on Linnebith I doubt anyone, man or dragon, will be any the wiser until the very hour she rises.”
“But...but you, you and Delene!” He'd slept with the other weyrwoman, had coddled and cosseted her. Would he really have done all that if he hadn't expected Linnebith to rise first?
“Misdirection,” Sh'vek answered simply.
He gave a curt laugh. “Very much the same game that you were playing yourself. It was most entertaining, I assure you: how much you assisted me with your games with Delene and G'dil and the others; how well you were dancing to my tune all the while. Those records you found for Delene were a bit much, I'll give you that. It cost me quite a bit of effort to cover the extra eventualities those created, should anything have happened to you and left me with Delene as my Weyrwoman. Not that G'dil didn't merit his demotion. Tell me, did you actually think it might make her a more competent Weyrwoman, or were you just trying to limit Ormaith's chances with Linnebith?”
There was little point in denying it now. “Both,” Rahnis admitted.
“Mmm. I don't think Faranth herself could do much about the former. Thankfully, we don't need to worry about the latter.” He placed his hands on her shoulders, and drew her closer. “I'm sure you've seen the Bitrans pulling the same trick at Gathers. The mark's never in the cup they keep your attention on. Between the two of us, we have the rest of the Weyr thoroughly gulled. Their eyes are on the empty cup, while I... I hold five-mark piece in the palm of my hand.”
A five-mark piece, was she? Rahnis pulled out of his grip and backed away towards the wall. “I wouldn't count on that! If you imagine I have any intention of letting Ormaith catch Alaireth you're very much mistaken. It'll be a warm day between when that happens. I swear, Sh'vek, I'll see you stripped of your rank and out of this Weyr so fast you'll think you've timed it. You'll be lucky if you manage to beg use of a wher's den to live in.”
Sh'vek made no attempt to follow her. “And who will you choose? // asked the queen of her rider,” he sang softly. “You still see it that way, don't you? You actually think you have a choice!”
“Ormaith will never-”
“And who's going to stop us? One of the other bronzes? After today? Even if it were only physical strain they had to recover from, a mere matter of days won't be anywhere near long enough. Your preferences don't matter a jot when there's only one bronze who can compete.”
The scope of his actions sickened her. He'd planned this, had known exactly what he was doing when he'd allowed Kiath to come into her mating cycle. It wasn't just about bringing an end to Maenida's tortured life and removing one of his rivals; he'd done it to ensure his continued ascendance as Weyrleader. It was the exact same trick that he and Vallenka had pulled on F'ren when they'd sent him to Ista four turns back, the day Alaireth had risen to mate, only this time writ large enough to encompass an entire Weyr. Rahnis shook her head defiantly. “You're insane if you think I'll let you get away with this! The minute Alaireth gets back here, I will see you finished. I can't stop her rising, and I can't stop Ormaith chasing, but I'll have time enough before that happens to be sharding certain that every dragon on Pern knows what a thread-spawned monster you are!”
“You need to open your eyes to the gravity of your situation,” he snarled back at her. “You made a very large mistake by coming here this morning. This isn't the impasse you seem to think it is.”
“Oh, no. You've quite a record, Rahnis.” He strode towards her, counting off on his fingers. “Insubordination, theft of records, conniving with your dragon's cycle, illicit betweening through time. Then there was that mess in Bitra, the blame for which you so cunningly laid on Egritte's head. I think that will have to be looked into again, won't it? And, of course, you attempted to kill Maenida yourself, and stopped me from getting help to her in time. I already have M'arsen's record of events, and any queen who touches your mind will see the truth of it in an instant. You can count on Delene's word and Vallenka's against you already, and thanks to your interference Delene can ensure that your very own dragon condemns you. As for Alaireth, she may not be here yet, but she surely used you as a marker. You won't see your dragon again unless and until I permit it, and that's not going to happen a single second before you've given me your full cooperation.”
Sh'vek might be right about Alaireth's return, but he couldn't keep her from her queen indefinitely. Hands on her hips, Rahnis stood her ground. “Are you seriously trying to coerce a weyrwoman? Linnebith will rise before you get that much out of me.”
“Time is not on your side, Rahnis. Not if you want your weyrmate to live.”
“You can't do a thing to him from inside this weyr,” she retorted. “And I will speak up for him at the formal hearing.”
“There won't be one. I have more than enough evidence to condemn Firrenor with, posthumously if necessary. Keep this up, and he'll be staked out for Thread at dawn tomorrow. Push me too far, and I'll even make you watch him die.” He leaned close, his voice low. “The icefields near that abandoned Hold you found will do, even if I have to time it all the way back to midsummer. Thread can't burrow there, so it'll take a direct strike to finish him. Just imagine the terror he'll feel, waiting and watching while the threads rain down all around him, hissing into the ice ever closer to where he lies. Or perhaps I'll give him length of chain enough to move, and we'll see how long he fights for his life...or if he'll try to make a quick death for himself. Fast or slow, it'll get him eventua-”
“Stop it!” she cried, unable to bear hearing any more.
He fell silent, and waited until she met his gaze before speaking again. “You will accompany me when I address the Weyr. You will say what I ask you to say, and stay silent otherwise. If you can satisfy me now, I'm willing to present Maenida's death as a tragic accident, F'ren's actions being a sad consequence of the madness brought on by losing his dragon. He'll still be exiled, but the island I choose for him will have shelter and good enough fishing for him to survive as long as he wishes to do so.
“Until Alaireth rises, you will publicly support Delene as well as myself. You won't go anywhere outside your own weyr unless escorted by either M'arsen or me, you will limit your interactions with the other weyrfolk to the essentials of your duties, and you will instruct your queen not to discuss certain topics with the other dragons. Delene will be listening, as will Ormaith; breach any one of these conditions and the first thing that happens is that Firrenor dies.
“Once you're my Weyrwoman you may manage the Lower Caverns as you see fit, but I will expect to be consulted on any major decisions, and to have the final say on any issue that affects my riders directly. You will be obedient and dutiful and compliant, giving your Weyr the unified leadership it deserves. Indiscretions will not be tolerated and, at the very least, I expect you to convincingly maintain all the usual polite fictions regarding our relationship.”
“You think you can hold me to all of that?” Rahnis was aghast. “You can only kill F'ren once, Sh'vek. He may be worth a thousand of you in my eyes, but there are limits to what I'll sacrifice for any man. Alaireth deserves better, and so does the Weyr! My life is hers; it is absolutely not yours. You can do what you want, say what you want, but in the end it will still come down to your word against mine. I'm sure there'll be doubt enough to ruin us both, but that's a sacrifice I can live with.”
“Your word against mine?” He shook his head, and grinned fiercely down at her. “Oh no, I think not.”
“Really? Why is that, Sh'vek?”
He turned and walked back across to the table, sidestepping the blood drying on the floor. “Before we leave this room, you'll prepare a certain document for me,” he said, pulling a chair into position in front of the waiting ink, pen and hides. It was the same one that M'arsen had offered her earlier, Rahnis noticed.
“It will detail every aspect of your crimes,” Sh'vek continued, “crimes you're about to confess to in, oh, a fit of grief-stricken honesty, or something. Don't worry about the exact phrasing; I'll dictate as you go. Should you choose to defy me at some point in the future, it won't be your word against mine. I'll already have your word. You might not like it, but there'll be more than enough truth in it to make it very, very convincing.”
He couldn't possibly think he could force her to do such a thing! The thought of the uses he could put such a document to was utterly abominable. “You think I'll give you the power to do to Alaireth and me what Igen did to Fagreeth and Ankala?” To live her life caged away from her beloved dragon, never again to see or touch each other except by mind, to have her queen's will damped down by the strength of every other gold on Pern, until the day they died...oh, no. And even if he didn't use it, the threat of doing so would be more than enough in and of itself. She'd be a fool to give him even a fraction as much of a hold over her. “I won't do it, Sh'vek. Not that. Never that.”
“You'll do it, Rahnis.” he said. “If you hadn't interfered today it might never have come to this, but you did, and it has. So, if you ever want to see your dragon again, you will do it. Your queen went between times this morning, and she went without you.”
“I saw her coming back to me, Sh'vek. It might not have happened yet, bu-”
“You saw her visual!” he corrected. “You can't change the past, but nor can you be certain of the future! Alaireth will have used you as a marker but it won't have been her only one. Queens have a stronger time sense than most dragons do, and she'll expect to be back with you in a matter of hours. She might have the strength of will to stretch it by another day, perhaps even by two or three, but sooner or later the conditions of her jump will pass, and you will feel her die.”
F'ren and Trath had made just such a jump at Turnover, and had been lucky to survive it. The memory returned to her forcefully, of standing knee deep in snow and thick fog, growing ever more cold and sick with fear with every extra passing minute. If Sh'vek held her here too long...would any dragonrider dare call such a bluff? Oh Faranth, there was no way she could ever take that risk, not with her beloved Alaireth's life hanging in the balance. And Sh'vek knew that too. Of course he did. He could ask anything of her right now, anything at all, and be utterly assured that she would do it. Rahnis groaned in desperation as the last of her resolve shattered, fresh tears blurring her vision. What else could she do? Bringing Alaireth back to the here and now was all that mattered. Worrying about the consequences of her actions – and what else Sh'vek might demand from her –would have to wait. Alaireth came first, Alaireth always came first. “You heartless bastard,” she cried. “How can Ormaith stand you?”
Slowly, Sh'vek extended his hand towards her. “Well, Weyrwoman Rahnis. I believe we have a deal.”
END OF PART 3