There were five of us waiting on the main Gather grounds of Dragon’s Head Hold, five Candidates-to-be waiting for our draconic escorts to sweep us away to the Weyr. The only other people around were the guards stationed on the Hold’s outside wall, and they were studiously ignoring all of us. Three of the other Candidates-to-be were ones I knew, fellow children of the Hold, clustered in a small group whispering amongst themselves. From the furtive glances they kept shooting my way, I had little doubt they were talking about me. Rumor travels fast in the Hold, and I had little doubt there were at least three or four rumors flying about me, no matter how much my parents and Lord Artex had tried to keep things quiet. If nothing else, they were likely to remember I’d not been there when the dragons did their official Search, and were whispering about why I was nonetheless standing out with them now.
The other person waiting was a young man I didn’t recognize, a fact that was easily explained by the Apprentice Harper knots on his shoulder. He kept glancing at me as well, and I had a sinking feeling he was one of those busybody Harpers who thought it was okay to bother others even when they obviously wanted to be left alone. I shifted slightly, turning further away from him, hoping he would take the hint. These were the last few minutes I was ever going to be at Dragon’s Head Hold, and I certainly didn’t want to waste it talking to some idiot Harper.
Luck and I however had never been friends, especially lately, and the Harper boy sauntered over. “What do you want?” I growled, hoping that being antisocial enough would make him leave me alone. Instead, it just made his mouth curl up into a half smile.
“My name’s Tarrant,” he said, offering his hand. I glared at it for a long moment before finally giving it a quick shake. Thankfully he didn’t try to bow over it or kiss the back of my hand like some Harpers did.
“Iana,” I said with a curt nod that would have scandalized my mother. ‘Be polite!’ I could almost hear her hiss. ‘No one ever got ahead insulting perfectly attractive young men!’ Not that I cared much for the opinions of young men, attractive or otherwise, but that had never mattered to her. What I wanted rarely did.
When I didn’t say anything further, Tarrant dropped his back next to mine and stared towards the direction of Dorado Weyr. We couldn’t see it from the Gather grounds of course. You couldn’t really see it from anywhere in the Hold, until you got right up to the canyon’s edge and looked down. It was how the Hold had gotten it’s name after all, perched up on the western cliff that formed half of the Weyr. The silence stretched, broken only by the low whispering of the other Candidates-to-be. Which was fine by me, but of course the Harper broke it. Were they allergic to quiet or something?
“Figured I should come over and introduce myself and thank you,” he said. I shot him a look, but he’d kept his gaze focused on the horizon.
“You’re welcome,” I said, an almost instinctive response, though I had no idea why he was thanking me. I’d never met him before, which sort of limited what I could have done to earn his thanks.
That thought obviously occurred to him, because he shoved his hands into his pockets and dropped his voice to a low whisper, thought he never quite stopped smiling. “I… know why you’re here. Today. And why you weren’t when they did Search.”
“And you’re thanking me for that?” I said, so taken aback by his words I wasn’t even offended.
Tarrant nodded emphatically, making the Harper-blue glass beads at the ends of his braids click together. “It’s politics, which means it’s totally stupid of course. My father is Masterharper Kobin, and he didn’t exactly want to lose his only son to the Weyr. But apparently I smell really enticing to dragons or something, because they really really want me. Lord Artex wanted to get rid of you, and the Weyr said they’d only take you if they could take me as well. Our dear Lord Holder went and talked to my father and thus, here I am.”
I felt the muscles in my jaw tighten, and I sucked in a deep breath to keep from saying something unforgivably rude. “How do you know that?” I finally managed to ask, as I tried to get my emotions back under control. I wasn’t even sure what I was angry at. That Tarrant knew even part of my situation? That the Weyr had used me to play politics? I was mad at Lord Artex of course, but that wasn’t new.
“I… tend to eavesdrop,” he said, his smile turning wry. “When I saw Lord Artex riding into the Hall, I knew something was up, so…” he shrugged as his words trailed off. His smile melted away and he reached toward me like he was going to put a hand on my shoulder. I twitched away and he let his hand drop. “I’m sorry,” he said after another moment. “I… heard why Artex wanted rid of you. It’s stupid and unfair.”
I felt myself flush. The circumstances that had led to my current exile from the Hold were not exactly something I wanted some random Harper boy to know. I certainly didn’t want his sympathy. I wanted to be able to be angry, or at least annoyed at him, to push him away so I could wallow in self pity. But I’ve always been terrible at holding on to anger, and he did sound honestly sympathetic, without any of the judgement that I would have expected. Which probably meant he didn’t actually know the whole story, but that was probably a good thing anyway. “Thank you,” I said finally, with a sidelong look at Tarrant.
He gave me a smile and started to say something when a blast of air caught us both off guard. I shielded my eyes with my hand as dust swirled everywhere. The dragonriders had arrived. There were two of them, a green and a blue, and they were huge. I’d seen dragons before, but always from a distance.
Tarrant let out a low whistle as the dragons settled into a landing. “If those two are that big, how huge must the bronzes be?” I hadn’t thought about that, and I quickly decided it was not something I really wanted to contemplate. But the rider of the green had dismounted and was heading our way, so I was saved from having to make a reply. Tarrant picked up his bag, and after a moment’s hesitation, I followed suit.
“You must be Tarrant and Iana!” the rider said, pulling off her flight helmet. I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised that the greenrider was female, but I hadn’t really thought about it until just then. The surprise left me embarrassingly tongue-tied, but fortunately the greenrider didn’t seem to be waiting for a response. “I’m Tania, and that green lump over there is Maith. She’s y’all’s ride down to Dorado. You can just follow me and we’ll get you all strapped in and get you down to the Weyr.”
Mounting and strapping in was a lot less difficult than I’d expected it to be, and Tania assisted with everything with the ease of long practice. She even helped me tuck my skirts around my legs so no one on the ground would get an improper look up them. Once that was done and she’d double and triple checked that Tarrant and I and our bags were secure, she swung up and fastened her own straps. “Hold tight,” she said over her shoulder. “We’ll circle the Hold so you can have one last look, and then head straight to the Weyr.” On some unseen command, her green stood, rocking backward, and I tightened my grip on the straps as the dragon shoved itself into the air. I would love to say that flying was an amazing, joyous experience, but it really wasn’t. Intellectually I knew the straps were secure, but I kept feeling like I was going to slide off the dragon’s side at any moment. “Maith says to calm down, you’re fine!” Tania shouted over her shoulder, words barely audible over the rushing wind. I tried to take deep breaths, to calm my rapidly beating heart, and it worked a bit, until the dragon banked to circle us around the Hold. I made the mistake of looking down, wanting a last look at the place that had been my home for the past sixteen Turns of my life. But nostalgia was wiped away by panic as I realized exactly how far away the ground was. I squeezed my eyes shut, and gripped the straps tighter, trying to ignore the chill of the wind that still managed to find its way under my skirt hem. I could hear Tania laughing, and felt myself flush, though I didn’t open my eyes. “Last chance to say goodby to Dragon’s Head!” she called. “On to Dorado Weyr!”
I’m not ashamed to admit I kept my eyes shut the entire flight from the Hold to the Weyr. Even once we landed, it took a supreme effort of will to open them and start unbuckling the straps. My fingers felt clumsy and numb, making the process seem to take twice as long as it should. At least Tarrant seemed to be having equal difficulty which made me feel marginally less embarrassed. Marginally.
It didn’t help that there seemed to be dragons everywhere - landing, taking off, just lounging… I mean I’d seen dragons of course, but never this close, and with the sound echoing off the canyon walls, it just made everything that much more overwhelming.
“It’s not usually this crowded,” Tania said over the general commotion. “‘Least not when there isn’t Fall. But we’re bringing all the Candidates in today, and it looks like somehow everyone’s all arriving at once. Let’s get you into the Caverns and out of the noise.”
It was a bit quieter once she led us into the stone building built out from one of the canyon walls, but no less busy. Men and women moved through the halls with determined purpose, dodging Tania, Tarrant, and I with barely a glance. “Weyr staff,” Tania supplied before we even asked. “Dinner kitchen crew’s going on duty, midday crew’s coming off. Ah, here we are.”
‘Here’ looked like just another hallway lined with doors. We’d passed at least three just like it, and I couldn’t see what made this one any different. Tania counted doors as we passed them, stopping at the fifth one on the right. Tania knocked on it twice, then pushed the door open. “Tarrant, this one’ll be yours. Looks like we got in before whoever’s your roommate, so you’ll get to pick your bunk. Get yourself comfortable, and at the next bell continue down this hall, turn right and go all the way to the room at the end. The Headwoman’ll be taking attendance and giving you all the orientation lecture.”
Tarrant nodded and flashed a smile at the dragonrider. “Right’o, lady dragonrider. Thank you for the ride here, and please pass on my respects to your dragon. Lady Iana, I shall see you after the bell.” And with that, he gave a flourishing bow to the both of us, and closed the door.
Tania sighed and shook her head. “Harpers. Always making everything a performance.” She scrawled Tarrant’s name on the slate next to the door and gave me a smile. “Come on. Girls dorms are next hall over.”
Unlike Tarrant’s room, the door Tania led me to already had a name written on the slate. “Weiyan’s weyrborn, and visiting her father Southern Weyr at the moment.” Tania explained to me as she added my name to the slate. “She’ll be back later today or tomorrow.”
The room itself was small and plain, but clean. There were two beds, and two dressers, both rough-made but serviceable. It didn’t take long for me to unpack my meager belongings, which left me with far too much time to sit and think. To think and fret and feel homesick. I didn’t want to be here, in this strange room, in this strange Weyr. I wanted to be home, helping Mama pluck chickens for the supper pot or helping Father clean tack. To pass time I poked around the other dresser, the one already in use by thing ‘Weiyan’ I would be rooming with. Rude, I know, but I was hoping to get some idea of the kind of person she was. However, my snooping revealed little more than the expected clothing, and a few carved dragon figurines. Which really didn’t tell me much. All Weyr children were probably obsessed with dragons.
The Weyr bell rang, startling me out of my snooping. I had wondered if I’d hear it, considering how far we were inside the Weyr’s walls, but I needn’t have worried. The sound carried loud and clear. To the point I wondered how one was supposed to sleep through its sound. But that was something I could worry about later. For now, I joined the small crowd of other girls heading out and to the lecture hall.
The lecture hall was almost identical to the one I’d taken Harper lessons in back at the Hold. There were several rows of benches, all facing a large slate board. At the front of the room stood a sour faced woman who’s shoulder knots proclaimed her to be the Headwoman.
“Over here!” Tarrant called when he spotted me, waving for me to join him on one of the rear-most benches. I made my way over and sat down, figuring a friendly face was better than sitting alone. I’d barely sat down though when another girl came over, gave me one glance and then very purposefully turned her gaze to Tarrant.
“Oh a Masterharper’s son really be sitting with the likes of her,” the girl said in an obnoxiously sweet tone. “You should come sit with Harton and I!”
Tarrant gave the girl a long look, complete with a slow blink of his eyes and the blandest expression I’d ever seen. But before he could say anything, the Headwoman cleared her throat and ordered us to silence. The girl gave a little squeak and hustled away. “That’s Hyla” Tarrant whispered to me. “Her father’s a minor holder who thinks he should be more than he is. Seems that’s passed on to the daughter.”
I smothered a laugh behind a hand and turned my attention to the Headwoman.
“I am Headwoman Lexa,” she began. “And until those eggs crack shell, you all are my responsibility. So let’s get the basics out of the way first.” She placed a stack of Candidate knots on the small table at the front. “From this point forward, who you or your parents are doesn’t matter. You’re a Candidate, which means you’re the lowest of the low in the Weyr. Until the dragons hatch and if one of them chooses you, you are answerable to every single other person at this Weyr. Is that clear?” There was a general unhappy grumbling, but the Headwwoman didn’t pause too long before continuing. “If you have any issues with that or anything else here, tell me and I will make sure you get sent back to your nice safe Hall or Hold. Dragonriding’s a dangerous business. Thread is falling, which means each and every dragonrider has a chance of dying horribly every time the Weyr fights Thread.”
I gave a soft snort, “She’s not pulling any punches, is she?”
“Probably a good thing” Tarrent hissed back, nodding slightly towards where some of their fellow Candidates were sitting. They looked far less excited now. One boy was even looking a bit green around the edges.
The Headwoman plowed on, paying little attention to our whispering. “In the event you do Impress, you are bound to the Weyr, bound to your dragon, and bound to fighting to protect our world. You will never get the thanks you deserve, and you will most likely die young, but you will be providing a vital service to the Weyr and to Pern as a whole no matter what color dragon you ride. Some of you may have heard the rumors that there is a gold egg on the Sands.” A murmur of cautious excitement went through the girls, but was quickly quashed by a glare from the Headwoman. “The rumor is true, but don’t think that is going to change a sharding thing for any of you until that golden shell cracks. Both Weyrwoman Behra and myself believe very strongly in not separating female Candidates in any way.”
The lecture went on for a bit longer - laying out the rules we were supposed to follow, and the Weyr’s bell schedule. As far as I was concerned, none of it sounded too unreasonable despite the grumblings I could both hear from some of the others. Of course they would have chores. “You’d think some of them’ve never had to work before they way they’re fussing,” I whispered to Tarrant.
He gave a grin and a nod. “What they think this was, a holiday trip?”
“Any questions?” the Headwoman said finally, in that tone that seemed to discourage too many questions. Unsurprisingly there were none, and, she dismissed us all, saying “If anyone has any further questions or concerns, I will be in my office for the next two bells.” With that, she left the room, which promptly dissolved into a chaos of people and noise as everyone seemed to clump up into little groups and start chattering. Which was annoying, but it made it easier for me to slip out. They were all excited, despite the Headwoman’s dire warnings, nattering on and on about what sort of dragon they wanted to Impress and so forth. I didn’t want any part of that. I just wanted to go home. Suddenly I remembered. Hadn’t the Headwoman said she could get a Candidate sent home? Maybe I wasn’t stuck here after all.