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The Reluctant Dragonrider

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Moreta frowned as she shoved the last of her clothing into the bag, and tried to figure out if there was any way she could delay any more. Maybe if she could put off leaving just a few more minutes, the dragonrider’s beast would tell his rider the Hatching was over, that they were too late. And then Moreta could just stay home, instead of being whisked away just because some blue dragon though she could Impress the hatching gold dragon. Sure it was a great honor to be a dragonrider, and a queen rider at that, but as far as Moreta was concerned, she was doing far more good for Pern staying home and helping her father raise his runner beast herds.

“Moreta? Are you almost done?” Her father poked his head in the room. “Come on honey, the dragonrider’s getting restless.”

Moreta sighed and tied down the flap of her bag. She didn’t want to go at all, but she was out of excuses. When the blue dragon and his rider had come on Search a sevenday ago, she’d been able to beg and plead with her parents to let her stay at the hold until her mare Silky had given birth. She’d been sure the mare had at least two sevendays to go which would have kept her safely home through the hatching. But Silky had dropped her foal last night - a healthy filly that would hopefully be a good addition to the hold’s bloodstock. But now she had no more excuses, and the eggs had not yet hatched. It seemed she would be going to the Weyr after all.

“I’m ready papa,” she said finally, and forced herself to give her father a small smile.

“That’s my girl,” he said, returning her smile. He pushed aside the door curtain and picked up her bag for her. “Now come say goodbye to your mother and lets get you on your way.”

There were tears of course. Moreta’s mother was already crying by the time Moreta came out of the house, and once she’d hugged both of her parents good by, Moreta realized there were tears streaming down her face as well. The beasthold was the only life she’d ever really known, and now she was leaving it for the vague hope of Impressing a dragon. The dragonrider reached down to give her a hand up, and her father helped boost her enough so she could swing herself astride the dragon’s neck in front of the dragonrider. It was wider than a runnerbeast’s back, and it took her a few moments to get her balance. The rider introduced himself as S’fel and his dragon as Cliseth as he helped her fasten the riding straps around her waist.

“This’ll be a rough takeoff,” S’fel said apologetically as his dragon rose up onto his hind legs. “But Cliseth says we need to hurry.” As soon as he’s said that, the blue jumped into the air, his wings beating in a powerful downstroke. Moreta was thrown back against S’fel and she scrambled for something to hold on to. “You’re fine,” S’fel said in her ear. “Cliseth won’t let you fall. Now deep breath, we’re going between.”

Theoretically, Moreta knew what to expect from between. She knew her Harper lessons as well as any other child. It was cold and dark and there was no sound. She took a deep breath like S’fel had suggested, and Cliseth disappeared from above her family’s beast hold.

She’d thought she was prepared.

She wasn’t.

Between wasn’t just cold, it was freezing. The cold seemed to stab into her very bones, drying out her eyes and mouth. But the worst was the darkness. It wasn’t just absence of light, it was absence of everything. She could feel S’fel behind her, and Cliseth under her, but no matter how hard she tried she could see neither of them. She was about to scream when light and warmth flooded in around her as they reappeared over Ista Weyr. Cliseth swooped down to land in the Bowl, and S’fel quickly unhooked Moreta’s straps and handed her down to a woman who was obviously waiting for them.

“I’m Jelera, rider of gold Ohanath” the woman said before Moreta’s feet even hit the Bowl. “Not the gold who’s eggs are hatching today mind you. I’m just the one sent to get you out on to those Sands as quickly as possible. Come with me.” She grabbed Moreta’s arm and led her over to what seemed to be the entrance to the Hatching cavern. There was a small alcove off to one side, with another woman standing it in, this one holding a white robe. “The eggs have already started to hatch,” Jelera said, shoving Moreta into the alcove. “We need to get you dressed and out there as soon as possible. The gold egg’s already cracking.”

With the women’s help, Moreta slid out of her clothes and into the roughspun white robe. The humming of the dragons in the Hatching cavern was almost a physical force, and she could hear the excited cheers of the crowd. Apparently some of the eggs had already hatched and were Impressing. Jelera gasped suddenly as she and the other woman finished tying a rope belt around Moreta’s waist. “The gold’s hatched! We need to get you out there!”

Before she could react, Moreta found herself hustled through the tunnel and out into the Hatching cavern. At first, everything seemed a confusing mish-mash of sights and sounds and sensations, but she quickly tried to sort them out. There in front of her was the great golden bulk of the clutch mother, hovering protectively over the hatching eggs. The other Candidates blocked Moreta’s view of most of the baby dragons, and she stepped forward, hoping to catch a glimpse of the all-important gold. Shards but the sands were hot! The thin sandals the women had given her did almost nothing to protect her feet from the heat, so she walked as quickly as possible towards where the Candidates were bunched up. For the first time in her life, Moreta was happy she was taller and broader than most girls. It made it easier to elbow her way into the group so she could catch a glimpse of the actual hatchling dragons. Some of the other Candidates protested her shoving, but the minute she broke through the crowd, that didn’t matter. The hatching gold, which had just moments before been wandering around crying piteously, swung her head unerringly towards Moreta. Their eyes met, and Moreta finished shoving her way through the crowd to race across the Sands to the gold.

My name is Orlith, the dragon said, as Moreta crouched down and threw her arms around the gold’s neck. How could she have ever though she didn’t want to Impress? Orlith was in her mind, a part of her very being, filling every last empty place Moreta hadn’t even realized she had. She was crying again, and didn’t even care that there were hundreds of people watching her. She could have stayed there all day, heedless of the heat of the sands, of the people watching, but Orlith gently but firmly shoved her muzzle into Moreta’s belly. I love you very much, but I am also very hungry, the gold commented.

Moreta felt herself blush fiercely as she struggled back to her feet. Of course Orlith must be hungry. She’d just hatched after all, and weren’t all babies hungry after birth? Moreta looked around, unsure of where they were supposed to go. Finally she noticed another newly Impressed pair heading off to one side. “Let’s follow them,” she said, directing Orlith’s attention to the other pair.

That is a good idea. You are very smart, Orlith commented, and followed as Moreta began to walk in the indicated direction.

Moreta found she had to check her long stride to let the baby dragon keep up with her. “You’re as clumsy as a new colt,” she laughed as she helped Orlith up from another stumble.

Is that a bad thing? The gold asked, her eyes starting to whirl the yellow of worry.

“No, no, it’s not,” Moreta reassured her hurriedly. Fortunately, they’d reached the exit from the Hatching Sands, and Orlith’s attention was drawn away by the smell of meat. There were bowls of raw meat being passed out to all the new dragon pairs, and Moreta found one shoved into her hands before she had a chance to blink.

“Don’t let her just gulp it. Make her chew, else she’ll make herself sick,” the man who’d handed her the bowl said. Moreta nodded as she fished out a chunk of meat and held it out to Orlith. The little gold took it almost delicately, but it was down her throat before Moreta could say anything.

More! The gold demanded.

Moreta frowned slightly and held the bowl out of Orlith’s reach. “Only if you promise to chew it,” she said in the firm tone she’d learned to use on her younger siblings.

Moreta got the distinct impression Orlith was pouting, but the gold gave a mental sigh and said I’ll try. And then she opened her mouth, looking so much like one of the canines back home begging for a treat that Moreta had to laugh.

“Here you go, silly beast,” she said, handing over another chunk of meat.

I am not a beast. I am your dragon. Orlith commented primly as she obligingly chewed before swallowing and opening her mouth for another chunk. Moreta laughed again and passed over another bit of meat.

Two bowls and one pot’s worth of oil later, Orlith was starting to wobble with fatigue. Moreta helped support her on what seemed like an endless walk to the cavern that would be their new home. She wasn’t sure if it was bleed over from Orlith’s exhaustion, or her own from the whirlwind of arrival and Impresson, but Moreta felt like she was practically asleep on her feet. She wanted to collapse into the first cot she came to, but an older man - probably the Weyrlingmaster her tired brain informed her - directed her and Orlith down to the other end of the cavern, where screens had been set up to provide her and Orlith some privacy.

They were both roused out of bed the next morning by the combination of the Weyrlingmaster’s bellowing voice and the bellowing of his dragon. If that had somehow failed to wake her up, the noise in the rest of the barracks certainly would have. Twenty-some young men and dragons did not wake up quietly. She was glad of the screens that let her dress in privacy. Well, relative privacy. She found the curious, intense gaze of Orlith rather disconcerting as she changed.

I do not mean to be disconcerting? The gold said, sounding confused and mildly distressed. You are my rider. Why shouldn’t I look at you?

“I’m not used to having someone watch me while I change,” Moreta whispered, trying not to be overheard by the boys on the other side of the screen.

Oh, Orlith said, sounding disappointed.

“It’s all right,” Moreta added quickly. “I’ll get used to it. And see? All done now!”

Orlith practically jumped to her feet and shouldered Moreta aside in her eagerness to head outside. Hamakoth says there is food outside, she said, in explanation for her haste. Moreta laughed and followed her dragon down the middle of the barracks and outside to where there was indeed a table set out with fresh chopped meat for the young dragons. Orlith darted for the table, but collided with a blue dragon, managing to get her wings tangled with those of the other dragon. Orlith let out a piteous creel as she tried unsuccessfully to disentangle herself. Moreta rushed to help but was cut off by a larger boy, who separated the two dragons with a quick efficiency. As soon as she was freed, Orlith bounded over to Moreta’s side, almost cowering behind her rider’s legs. I didn’t mean to! She said, her eyes whirling a worried yellow.

Moreta was about to ask Orlith what she was talking about when the young man stood from where he’d been crouched next to his dragon and whirled on Moreta. “You need to watch where you’re dragon’s going,” he snarled. “Just because you got the gold doesn’t mean you can just let her do whatever.”

“I’m sorry,” Moreta said, feeling terribly confused. “Orlith was just excited to get to the food. Is your dragon all right?”

The boy snorted derisively and turned back to his dragon, soothing the blue who was continuing to whimper. “Like a gold rider’s really gonna care about a mere blue.”

Before Moreta could formulate a reply to that ludicrous statement, the Weyrlingmaster was looming over them. “What’s going on here?” the older man rumbled.

“Our new gold rider just let her dragon careen into my Sheteth, and when they got tangled up, the gold’s finger joint cut Sheteth,” the young blue rider said sullenly.

“It was an accident,” Moreta protested, placing a hand on Orlith’s head, though whether it was to reassure herself or her dragon she wasn’t sure.

“Let me see,” the Weyrlingmaster said, turning his attention to the blue and his rider. “Lift his wing up K’san, I can’t assess the damage if he’s covering it.”

Moreta leaned to the side just enough to see around the Weyrlingmaster as K’san gently lifted his dragon’s wing. From what she could see, there was only a very small scrape along the blue’s flank. While she didn’t know much about dragons yet, it didn’t look that different than any number of minor scratches and scrapes she’d dealt with on her family’s runners. It certainly didn’t seem like something worth getting worked up over. Sheteth’s reaction she could understand, he was still a baby, but she wouldn’t have thought K’san would overreact. I am very sorry Orlith commented, pressing herself closer to Moreta.

“It’s not that bad,” the Weyrlingmaster said, confirming Moreta’s amateur diagnosis. “There’s numbweed at the far end of the table. Slather some on the scratch and it’ll be fine.”

“Orlith says she’s really sorry,” Moreta added, hoping to mollify the boy. It didn’t seem to work, as he pointedly ignored her, leading his blue away towards the far end of the table.

“Moreta, once you get Orlith settled down after you feed and oil her, come see me in my office.”

“Orlith didn’t mean to hurt Sheteth, she was just hungry.”

“I know,” the Weyrlingmaster said with a very slight smile. “That’s part of what we need to talk about.”

Before she could respond, he’d turned away to deal with another problem. “Come on,” she said to Orlith. “Let’s get you fed.”

Once feeding and oiling was finished, Orlith complained of being sleepy, so Moreta got her settled back on the stone couch in the barracks. Her stomach was beginning to inform her of the necessity of breakfast, but the Weyrlingmaster had said to report once she’d gotten Orlith settled, not after breakfast, so she told her stomach to be quiet and went in search of his office. It turned out to be just at the other end of the barrack, and the door curtain was pushed aside to reveal the Weyrlingmaster sitting at a plain desk covered in hides and bits of harness.

“Come in,” he said, when he noticed Moreta standing in the doorway. She did as she was bid, and sat in the chair he indicated on the other side of the desk.

“You wanted to see me sir?” she asked, when he didn’t say anything for a long moment.

“Yes, yes,” the Weyrlingmaster said, steepling his fingers together in front of him. “You are Moreta, lately of a beasthold in Keroon, correct? The one who arrived late to the Hatching yesterday?”

“Yes sir.”

The Weyrlingmaster nodded. “So you know very little of the Weyr.”

“I know my Teaching Ballads,” she said, feeling suddenly defensive.

The Weyrlingmaster waved a hand, seeming to dismiss whatever Moreta might have learned from her lessons with the Harpers. “Ballads are fine for holders and crafters, to remind them of their duties to dragonkind, but they’re rubbish for explaining what Weyr life is like. Usually Candidates arrive at least a few days before the eggs hatch, giving both them and us time to… adjust to each other. Since you didn’t have that, it’s going to make things… difficult, at least for the first few days.”

“Difficult, sir?” Moreta felt confused. She hadn’t meant to make things difficult for anyone. She hadn’t meant to Impress at all, it had just happened.

“Difficult,” the Weyrlingmaster said with a sharp nod. “Take your interaction with K’san this morning.”

“He didn’t seem to like me for some reason,” Moreta offered.

“No, and it has very little to do with you personally. K’san’s animosity is twofold - first, and most immediately, his sister was also a Candidate for the gold egg, and he likely resents that you, a newcomer and a late one at that, Impressed instead of her. The second is more complicated. K’san in weyrborn, and he expected to Impress a bronze. Impressing a blue is a bit of a blow to his pride.”

Despite her beasthold upbringing, Moreta wasn’t completely ignorant of Weyr hierarchy, and she nodded slowly, understanding how Impressing a blue when you were expecting a bronze could be disappointing. “But it’s the dragon who chooses, isn’t it?”

“Of course it is. But K’san is young, and still thinks more with his heart than with his head. He’s defensive about his status and you provided both an excuse and an easy target this morning.”

“Because I Impressed Orlith.”

“Yes. Golds are rare, and thus they and their riders have an implied status in a way that blueriders do not.”

“But all dragons are needed to fight Thread, aren’t they?”

“Yes, and never forget that, goldrider. You more than anyone in the Weyr needs to remember that all colors are needed to fight Thread. Every clutch your dragon lays with be vitally important to give the Weyr new dragonpairs to replace those injured or killed by Thread. Bronze, brown, blue or green, all are needed to keep Pern safe.”

Moreta nodded solemnly. She’s seen the devastation even a single Thread burrow could cause. Her father and brothers had been able to flame it out before it destroyed the entire field, but they’d lost nearly half the upper pasture. Thankfully it hadn’t been the crops, or it might have been a lean winter for both her family and their runners.

The Weyrlingmaster continued. “As much as I might wish otherwise, K’san is not likely to be the only one of your fellow weyrlings to hold some resentment towards you for your Impression of Orlith. While I will do my best to stamp out such attitudes as quickly as possible, I want you to be aware they will be there.”

“I understand.”

The Weyrlingmaster gave her a long measuring look. “We will see. It is also important to understand that while once you graduate, you will be one of the junior weyrwomen of the Weyr, until then you are a weyrling like any other. The fact that Orlith is a gold does not mean you get any sort of privilege or rank amongst your fellow weyrlings. You will participate in every lesson they do, with the exception of learning to produce flame. In addition, every evening, you’ll meet with one or more of Ista’s goldriders to learn diplomacy, Weyr management and the other responsibilities of a goldrider. Is that understood?”

Moreta frowned. The part about having the same rank and responsibilities as the other weyrlings made sense. That was only fair. But she was going to have to do all those lessons and have extra lessons in the evenings as well? She was no stranger to hard work, but when was she supposed to have any time for herself?

“That’s the price of Impressing a gold,” the Weyrlingmaster said, as if he’d read her mind. “It may not seem fair, but it is important. Now go get something to eat before you waste away.”

--

A week later, Moreta returned to the barracks after her evening lesson with the Weyrwoman feeling completely exhausted. She’s thought work at the beast hold had been hard, but that seemed like a restday’s idle amusement compared to weyrling training. Every muscle in her body ached, and her brain practically buzzed with all the names, dates and other information she was assured was vitally important to know as a goldrider.

“Girl in the hall!” one of the boys shouted to a chorus of laughter, as she pushed the curtain aside and stepped into the barracks. She pressed her lips together and lifted her chin slightly, trying to ignore the snickers and whispers as she walked down the long corridor between the bunks towards her screened off area. The best thing to do was to pretend it didn’t bother her, and hopefully they’d grow bored. Hopefully. You’d think they’d been too tired from training to be making jokes, but if living with her brothers had taught her anything it was that boys could have amazing endurance for making pests of themselves.

She reached over to lightly stroke Orlith’s head as she changed into her nightgown. The gold was already asleep, and barely shifted as Moreta scratched her eye ridges. Moreta sighed. While the screens provided a little privacy, they did nothing to muffle the voices of the boys beyond it. She’d never asked to even be Searched, but so many of her classmates still seemed to act as if it was her fault that she’d Impressed the gold. She was hit with a sudden wave of homesickness. She would never want to give up Orlith of course, but she desperately wished she could just take her dragon and go home. Leave behind the endless training and the snide comments and everything, and just go back to helping with the family’s herds.

“Oh for Faranth’s sake!” said one of the boys, loud enough to cut across Moreta’s musings. “It’s not like we didn’t all know there was a gold egg on the Sands! So I don’t get why you’re all so up in arms about her being here.”

“Yea, but…” said someone else, who Moreta was pretty sure was K’san.

“But nothing,” the first boy said, cutting K’san off. “Aren’t they always saying ‘the dragon decides’? Orlith decided, so that’s that. Ugh, I’m so sick and tired of listening to all your half-assed jokes and snark. Show some sharding respect.”

“Show some sharding respect,” one of the other boys repeated in a teasing sing-song, and the conversation devolved into insults and shouts until the Weyrlingmaster finally came in and roared for everyone to shut up and go to bed. As she settled down under the thin blanket that was all she could tolerate in the Istan heat, Moreta found herself smiling slightly. She might still miss home, but it was nice to know at least one of her classmates was willing to stand up for her.

--

Moreta’s legs felt dangerously wobbly as she carefully made her way across the dining cavern with her tray. Riding dragons she was learning, was very different from riding runners and the muscles in her legs were still adapting. Why did the weyrling table have to be all the way across the cavern from where the food was served? As she approached the table she stumbled slightly and would have dropped her tray if Z’tair, one of the class’s bronzeriders hadn’t caught her elbow and steadied her until she was sure she wasn’t going to fall.

“Thank you,” she said, as she slid into an empty seat.

There was a derisive snort from further down the table. “Suck up.” Moreta wasn’t surprised to see it was K’san. Over the past few months she’d grown used to ignoring his comments. She was pretty sure the bluerider was just never going to like her, and it was just better not to react.

Z’tair apparently didn’t share her opinion. “I’m not sucking up, I’m being polite,” he said, glaring at K’san, who just laughed.

“‘Course you are,” the bluerider sneered. “You’re just being nice so your lump of a bronze might have a chance with her gold.”

Z’tair’s expression started to shift into one of anger, and Moreta suppressed a sigh. If she didn’t diffuse this, the boys would end up fighting, and then the Weyrlingmaster would yell at all of them. “Tokoth is Orlith’s full brother,” she said calmly, but loud enough to be heard down the whole table. “He won’t be allowed to participate in any of Orlith’s flights no matter what. So there’s no reason for Z’tair not to be nice.” And she pointedly turned her attention back to her food. She could hear K’san continue to mutter, but she laid a hand on Z’tair’s arm before the weyrling bronzerider could say anything else. “Let it go,” she said quietly.

Z’tair didn’t seem happy about it, but he settled down and started talking to one of the other weyrlings about the lecture they’d had that morning. Moreta smiled slightly to herself. Z’tair was one of the younger weyrlings in the class, and strongly reminded her of her youngest brother - sweet and earnest, but also quick to take offense on behalf of people he liked. She was pretty sure he had a crush on her, but it was a harmless thing she was pretty sure he’d grow out of, so there was no need to dissuade him at the moment.

He wasn’t the only one of her fellow weyrlings she’d grown to like either. Sure, K’san had his little group of weyrlings who seemed determined to find fault with everything she did, but most of the other boys were all right, and some like Z’tair, brownrider P’kesh and the green riders Al’ren and U’shel had become her actual friends. P’kesh and U’shel were weyrborn, and they’d been wonderful in the past few weeks, helping Moreta better understand Weyr culture and her place within it, almost more than her lessons with the Weyr’s goldriders. She still missed her family and the simple life at the beasthold, but the Weyr no longer felt quite so foreign.

Moreta grabbed at the neck strap as Orlith banked sharply to the left, trying to keep her balance even as she wrestled the bulky flamethrower up and pressed the trigger to flame the strands of painted rope falling towards them. She caught about half of the strands in her flame, and Orlith curved away so the unburned bits fell harmlessly into the ocean below them. She growled as she watched them fall. In a real Threadfall, over actual land, those unburned strands would burrow and destroy crops if a ground crew didn’t get to it in time. Her whole job was supposed to be to catch those little bits that got through the dragons flying above her. Unfortunately, the flamethrower was far more unwieldy than she’d expected, and it was hard to aim it when Orlith was flying. It didn’t help that unlike the rest of the weyrling class, she had any experience in actual Threadfall yet. The rest of the class was making supply runs, but Moreta and Orlith were assigned to the Infirmary during actual ‘Fall. Not that she minded that. Ever since the Weyrhealer had learned she had beasthealing experience, he’d been training her to work on injured dragons. And having a gold dragon, even an young one to help calm injured dragons was a big help. But it meant that these training exercises were pretty much the only times she had to practice with the flamethrower. She’s learned the basics on the ground of course, but as she was learning, it was one thing to flame a non-moving target with your feet firmly on the ground, and a very different one to flame something falling through the sky on the back of a moving dragon.

That is why we practice, the gold commented with her usual calm logic. So you can learn to aim better, and I can learn to fly smoother. Soon, we will both be perfect.

Of course, Moreta replied with a mental smile. Orlith was always an optimist. On the right! She said, spotting another clump of the dyed ropes. Orlith banked to the right, steadying herself right as they passed by the clump. These Moreta managed to flame completely to ash, and she allowed herself a small whoop of triumph, which caused her to miss the clump behind them until she heard the paint-soaked ropes slapped across Orlith’s haunches. Between to the Weyr! Moreta ordered, mentally picturing Ista’s Bowl.

A brief few seconds of utter cold - still her least favorite part of dragonriding - and they were back at Ista, spiraling in for a landing by the Infirmary. Once Orlith had landed, Moreta unclipped her straps and slid down the gold’s side to inspect the marks the ropes had left on her gold’s haunches.

“What’s your opinion, goldrider?” the Weyrhealer asked, as he came up beside her. Over the past few weeks, he’d been actively soliciting her opinion, both of these fake injuries and the real ones.

Moreta pursed her lips as she studied the marks. “They’re spread out, over an area of dense muscle, and we went between as soon as I heard them hit. I’d say it’s a minor score - numbweed and then back out?” She glanced at the Weyrhealer who nodded in approval of her diagnosis.

He seemed about to say something else when another one of the weyrling dragons popped out from between, a blue, with a broad swath of dye marks across one wing. “What about that one?” the Weyrlingmaster asked, nodding towards the blue.

“Main wingsail would be lacerated, if not in full tatters,” Moreta said, watching as the dragon landed. “Probably would have needed another dragon to help him land. Out for the rest of the ‘Fall, and probably at least a couple sevendays of rest after that, depending on severity.”

The Weyrhealer nodded again. “You’ve quite a talent for assessing injury. And for fixing them.”

“Thank you sir. At least dragons can tell their riders exactly what’s wrong, unlike the runners back home.”

The Weyrhealer laughed and clapped her on the back. “Very true goldrider, very true. It seems Ista had been favored with both a new goldrider and a new dragonhealer. I’m glad we have you.”

“Thank you, sir,” Moreta said, with a genuine smile. It was a wonderful feeling to be able to offer her skills not just to her own dragon, but to all the dragons of the Weyr. She might not have wanted to come to the Weyr in the first place, but now, she was glad she had.