Black, blacker, blackest…
Mirrim couldn't feel Path's warm hide or Menolly's hands in the frozen nothingness of between. When Mirrim and the other new riders had first been taught to go between, they had been told to count to three slowly to distract themselves from the oppressive lack of sensation. Mirrim, who believed in experiencing things as they were, had instead recited the first line of "Lessa's Ride." Long after those first lessons, the habit remained. But however she tried to capture that airless no-time in measurable instants, part of her was always free to wonder if they would ever emerge, or if she and Path would be forever lost in darkness.
We are not lost, said Path.
Hot air rushed into Mirrim's lungs, and the white glare of Southern sunlight off Southern sands and Southern sea brought a film of protective tears to her eyes. Her three fire lizards and Menolly's nine swooped and dove through air that smelled like salt and citrus. Path glided down to the beach and landed lightly as a fallen leaf.
Mirrim asked, "Menolly, how do you measure time between?"
"'Black, blacker, blackest,'" sang Menolly.
Mirrim laughed. "You too? I should have known you'd count in music."
"Everything is music for me." Menolly whistled a few notes. "Hear that? It's the sound of the waves on the shore…" A few more notes. "…the wind in the leaves…" A few more. "…Your Reppa calling to my Diver…"
Menolly leaned against Path's hind leg. Her gaze drifted out of focus as she whistled that set of notes again, then tried a faster version, then one with a trill. Her queen and two bronzes dropped down to perch on her shoulders and add their own voices to her tune.
If I move, she might remember to help you unpack. Path sent Mirrim an image of Menolly tumbling over backwards in a flurry of gold and bronze.
"I don't mind. Unless you want to swim now?"
No words came to Mirrim's mind, only a sense of how pleasant it was to be lazy and bask in the sun. She shucked off her heavy riding gear, spread out a blanket, and began to unpack.
By the time Menolly finished working out the song to her liking, Mirrim had built a fire out of driftwood and climbed into the trees to pick redfruit. Mirrim parted the leaves to spy on her friend, and was amused to see Menolly look around in puzzlement, then spot the fishing pole – already baited with a squirming grub – and laugh. Menolly took the hint, and also the pole.
Path ambled into the ocean and splashed around. The contrast of her brilliant green hide with the intense blue of the water was so beautiful that Mirrim's eyes prickled with the threat of tears. To see something so lovely and perfect was to fear its loss: from Thread, from illness, from Mirrim's own death. Path had already narrowly escaped dying at birth. Dragonets who couldn't find a suitable partner went between forever rather than live without a rider.
If I hadn't been in the stands that day…
But you were, said Path.
But if, insisted Mirrim. You'd have found someone else, wouldn't you?
She hated her predilection for torturing herself, but she couldn't make herself stop. The thought of being without Path because she'd Impressed on another rider was almost as awful as the thought of Path dead, though Mirrim immediately felt guilty for thinking that.
I would have found you. The green dragon ducked under a wave, and any further thoughts vanished into wordless draconic delight at the wetness and coolness and movement of water.
Mirrim wondered what her dragon had meant. Could Path have called her to the Hatching Grounds if Mirrim had been in the Lower Caverns? Could Path have called her all the way from High Reaches Weyr, where Mirrim would have still lived if Wirenth and Prideth hadn't died?
So many different decisions had come together to produce a single, terrible result. If Kylara hadn't been so selfish and so negligent of Prideth's needs… If T'ron hadn't challenged F'lar… If T'kul hadn't been petty enough to foul the lake… If even one of those ifs had been different, Prideth and Wirenth wouldn't have killed each other, Brekke wouldn't have lost her dragon and Kylara wouldn't have lost her mind, and they'd all still be at High Reaches. Which would have been wonderful, except that Mirrim probably wouldn't have attended that hatching at Benden where she'd Impressed Path. Which brought her full circle. She sighed.
"Mirrim!" shouted Menolly. "Come out, come out, wherever you are! I got a yellow-stripe!"
She had not only caught the fish, but cleaned and roasted it on a spit made of driftwood. Mirrim slithered down the tree, redfruit cradled in her shirt, and set them out on the blanket beside the rest of the feast. Menolly squeezed tangy redfruit juice over the oily, crisp-skinned fish. The bread, soft cheese, flask of fruit juice, and still-warm bubbly pies from the Harper Hall kitchen completed the feast. The fire lizards, not content with the fish entrails Menolly had given them, were placated with a bowl of raw meat.
Path emerged from the ocean and shook herself, splashing both women. You are happy. You should be with Menolly more often.
"Path says I should spend more time with you," said Mirrim. "She called you by name. Dragons hardly ever do that with people who aren't riders."
Menolly stood up and formally bowed. "Thank you, Path. I'm honored." Sitting back down, she said, "And she's right. I should steal you away more often. You can't spend your whole life fighting Thread and trying to organize Benden Weyr by yourself."
"Who will if I don't?" asked Mirrim.
"Manora," said Menolly. "It's the Headwoman's job, after all."
Lessa, added Path. Greenriders do not run the weyr.
Mirrim flicked sand at Menolly and Path. "You two are ganging up on me. It's not fair."
"Oh yeah?" said Menolly. "Let me show you 'ganging up!'"
Menolly made no visible sign, but Mirrim was suddenly surrounded by a cloud of wheeling fire lizards, chittering and squeaking and batting her face and body with their wingtips and the smooth backs of their talons.
"I surrender!" cried Mirrim. "I'll relax more! In fact, I'll start right now!"
Mirrim flopped down full-length on to the sand, resting her cheek on Path's soft tail-tip. Her thoughts drifted along well-worn tracks: ideas for better Thread-fighting formations, worry that the Threadscore on Path's left wing wasn't healing as fast as it should, plans to convince Lessa to allow girls to stand as green candidates for the next hatching. But they slowed and grew vague, as Path's sensations of heat and the softness of sand joined Mirrim's own, until the thoughts of woman and dragon were one.
An eerie keening woke her. Mirrim scrambled up. The fire lizards were circling in the air and emitting weird high-pitched whines.
Menolly brushed sand from her chest. "What is it?"
The little ones are frightened, said Path.
"Of what?" Mirrim reached out to her fire lizards, and received confused images of bone-white and Thread-silver. "Thread's not due to fall in the south today."
"No, and it wasn't supposed to fall out of sequence either," said Menolly grimly. "Let's go."
Mirrim got some firestone from one of the sacks on Path's back and held it out to her, just in case. Path crunched the black rock as the women mounted.
Before they could strap in, the cloudless sky flashed silver. Mirrim was familiar with all the varieties of Threadfall: scattered patches, intermittent clumps, even single Threads. But she had never seen or heard of anything like this. Thread plummeted toward them in an unbroken sheet bigger than Path's own body. She would be covered in Thread before she could get enough altitude to fight.
"Get down!" Mirrim grabbed Menolly around the waist and leaped with her to the sand.
Burn it from the ground! Mirrim desperately projected an image of their only chance.
Path rose up on her hind legs and breathed fire straight up into the air. Her flames billowed up and out. A blisteringly hot shock-wave buffeted Mirrim, driving her face into the sand, and she choked on the phosphine stench. Her stomach clenched in horror as she heard Thread raining down all around them. It fell in such huge quantities that squirming masses piled up on the sand like seaweed. But nothing touched the women or their huddled fire lizards but powdery black ash.
Path informed her that the Threadfall wasn't over.
Mirrim and Menolly scrambled onto Path's back and strapped themselves on. Mirrim's mind was racing. If she'd never heard of this sort of Threadfall, no one else would have either. A single Fall like this could devastate an unprepared Weyr. The Oldtimer dragons at Southern Weyr were aging and slow, lacking Path's quick reflexes and agility. Mirrim could almost see them devoured alive by Thread, almost hear their screams as they blinked into merciful nothingness. She had no love for the riders, but no one deserved such a death, and certainly no dragon did.
Menolly clutched at Mirrim as Path rose into the air. Above them, the entire sky was silver patched with blue.
Southern Weyr. Mirrim visualized the destination. Now!
Path went between.
If Thread was falling over Southern Weyr now, they'd emerge in the middle of it. Or, since Mirrim had pictured clear skies, if Thread was falling, the coordinates would be wrong and they'd be trapped between.
Black, blacker, blackest…
Path appeared over Southern Weyr. The sky was blue. Mirrim had been braced for a challenge, but there was no watch dragon in sight. Nor were there any other dragons. Nor were there any humans. Nor were there as many trees as Mirrim remembered, and the ones that remained were leafless.
Path banked for a landing. No one is here.
Mirrim thought wildly, That's because they've all been devoured by Thread!
I would have known, said Path.
She landed neatly. The fire lizards launched themselves and began flitting in and out of the buildings. Menolly and Mirrim got off more sedately. The sandy earth was utterly bare of grass and weeds.
"Dragons know when other dragons die," said Mirrim. "Path says she never felt that. But she can't hear anyone either. When was the last time anyone had any contact with Southern Weyr, anyway? They could have abandoned it without telling anyone. They could have even gone back to the Old Time."
Beauty, Menolly's queen, flew up and, chittering urgently, dropped something shiny into Menolly's outstretched hands.
"I don't think so," said Menolly quietly. "At least, if they did, they left some odd items behind."
Menolly displayed the object. It was a metal belt buckle.
In nauseated silence, Menolly and Mirrim searched the area. They found more buckles, including the larger ones used for riding straps. A few belt knife blades were scattered around, but no sheaths, which were made of leather, and few hilts, which were often wood or bone. Every wooden roof was pierced with black-edged holes, as if they'd been stabbed with red-hot needles. Starved Thread rotted on stone floors.
I would have felt the deaths, insisted Path.
"Path says they can't be dead," said Mirrim. "But I don't see how they can be alive!"
Menolly squinted up at the sun. Then she snapped a low branch from the nearest tree and stuck it in the ground. The makeshift sundial cast a sharp-edged shadow across the bare earth.
Menolly frowned. "It's earlier in the day than when we left the beach. But if Path timed it into the past, why didn't she feel the dragons dying while were at the beach?"
I went to the coordinates you gave me. Path sounded aggrieved. They were very vivid.
Mirrim thought back to the frantic moments before Path had gone between, then groaned aloud. "I was worried that Southern Weyr would be devastated if they were hit by the same sort of Threadfall we saw. And I guess that was still on my mind when I told Path to come here. I think she timed us into the future – the future I was afraid of."
If I timed us forward, I could time us back, Path suggested.
Mirrim repeated her dragon's idea to Menolly, and added, "Though I'm not sure when we should aim for. If we go back to when we left, we could get caught in the same Threadfall here. I hate to risk being in two places at once, but maybe we should try timing it for before our arrival on the beach."
"Let's not rush off like wherries with our heads cut off. Has Path ever timed it before?"
Mirrim shook her head. "It's too dangerous. I don't risk my dragon for no reason!"
"Well, dragons don't usually go between times by accident," said Menolly thoughtfully. "So they must have a natural ability to arrive in the same time as the one they left. Ask Path if she could take us to Benden, in this time."
Menolly jumped. "I heard that!"
Dragons can choose to speak to whomever they please. Path nudged Menolly with her nose, almost bowling the lanky girl over. You are Mirrim's friend. You please me.
Mirrim was glad that Menolly looked as thrilled with Path's favor as that deserved. "It's a good idea. We can get a better idea of what happened from Benden, and better coordinates for Path, too."
The women mounted once again. Mirrim visualized Benden Weyr.
Black, blacker, blackest…
Path emerged into a storm of wings and flame. A gust of wind rocked Menolly back, and would have dislodged her from her seat if she hadn't been strapped in. Mirrim shouted something, but Menolly couldn't understand the words over the whistling wind and gnashing of dragons' teeth against firestone.
Path folded her wings and dove. Fire exploded a dragonlength above Menolly's head, and the black ash of Thread drifted over them. A small patch of Thread glinted silver in front of them. Path opened her jaws, but only a sputter of flame emerged.
"Firestone!" Mirrim jerked her thumb over her shoulder.
Startled, Menolly fumbled at the wrong sack, the one that had contained their picnic lunch. Then she grabbed a heavier, lumpier sack and passed it forward. Mirrim held out chunks of black rock in both hands. Path swiveled her head, delicately lipped the firestone from her rider's palms, and crunched it to gravel. Her inner fires stoked, she darted toward a patch of Thread and flamed it to ash.
As Path fell in with the formation, burning Thread that fell in manageable clumps and patches, Menolly distracted herself from the terror of Threadfall with the thought that if she observed everything carefully, she would later be able to write the most realistic song about fighting Thread to ever be penned by a non-rider. Songs never mentioned the leaden heft of even a small chunk of firestone, or the bitterness that coated the mouth after a few minutes of inhaling phosphine-tainted air.
Menolly shielded her eyes and looked up, squinting through the sooty haze. Something seemed odd about the formation, but it took her a moment to figure out what it was. There was Mnementh, easily recognizable as the biggest bronze on Pern, but where were the other bronzes? And where were the browns? She could only see a few of each, and none that she recognized. And, she realized, none of Benden's three queenriders were in the sky.
Menolly's head snapped back as Path veered to the right, dodged a single glistening strand, then whipped her head around to burn it. Unlike the South, where grubs would eat any Thread that reached the ground, even one Thread that fell and burrowed could devour the roots of every living plant for miles around. Menolly shuddered.
"More firestone!" shouted Mirrim.
Menolly passed her the second sack. "It's your last one!"
Path glided in slow circles as she crunched down the rock. A blue dragon flew above her, guarding her from Thread as she chewed. Suddenly, the bluerider slumped forward across his dragon's neck and lay still, apparently unconscious. The blue shrieked, then stopped circling and hovered. A patch of Thread descended toward him, but neither rider nor dragon reacted.
"Path!" Mirrim pointed upward.
Path spat out black fragments, batted the blue aside with one wing, and extended her head to flame the threatening patch. The blue dragon's wings faltered and he began to drift downward in an uncontrolled and widening spiral, veering dangerously close to the sheer rock face.
"Hold on!" shouted Mirrim.
Menolly winced at the thought of maneuvers even more acrobatic than what Path had been doing as a matter of course. She clutched the straps as if her life depended on her grip, hoping that it didn't.
Path burned a patch of Thread falling above the blue dragon, then dipped down to flank him. Before she could steer him into a safer course, the blue darted toward her, far too close. His left wingtip caught in one of her belly straps. Path beat her wings furiously, but she was pulled down by the heavier blue. The dragons dropped toward Benden Bowl like a stone.
Below them, Ramoth materialized, riderless. She supported both dragons with her vast golden back, her great wings straining to control their descent. Menolly gasped for air with a throat that had gone raw, though she didn't remember screaming. Ramoth landed heavily, and lowered the two dragons to the ground.
Path and the blue were so close that Menolly could see that there were no Thread burns on the unconscious bluerider's leathers. Mirrim unbuckled her fighting straps, stood up, and leaped from Path's back to the blue's.
Mirrim crouched behind the bluerider and gently shook him. "Wake up!"
He didn't respond. Path reached out with a talon to try to extricate the blue's wing. The blue dragon turned and hissed like a tunnel snake. Menolly jerked backward. She had never before heard such a threatening sound from a dragon.
Mirrim took off the rider's helmet, then slapped him across the face.
The blue screamed in protest and whipped his head around, eyes red and whirling with fury, but was unable to touch Mirrim without harming his rider. The bluerider's eyes fluttered open.
"D'wer, tell Trebeth you're all right," said Mirrim. "He's panicking."
D'wer stroked his dragon's neck. "S'all right," he mumbled. "Don' worry."
Trebeth crooned at his rider. His faceted eyes slowed their whirling and faded from red to yellow, and he relaxed his wings until Path could untangle herself and step away.
Mirrim unbuckled D'wer's straps and helped him off. He sat down on the ground, leaning against Trebeth's leg. His right arm hung limp. Pulling his left glove off with his teeth, D'wer laid his bare palm against his dragon's foot.
Menolly glanced around. An injured rider, a panicky dragon: where was the crowd that should have gathered to help? Except for Ramoth and the dragons fighting overhead, the Weyr seemed eerily empty. As if in response to her thought, her fire lizards, which had sensibly avoided the Threadfall, began to pop out from between.
Mirrim beckoned peremptorily at Menolly. "Supplies are in the sack! The other sack!"
Menolly found the bag of bandages and numbweed in the same sack as the picnic basket. "Do all riders take extra firestone and healing supplies with them wherever they go?"
"Of course not. That would be too sensible." Mirrim blew out her breath disdainfully, but her hands were gentle as she eased off D'wer's wherhide jacket. The shirt beneath was soaked with blood. As she cut it off with her belt knife, D'wer's eyes came into focus, and he seemed to see her for the first time.
"Mirrim!" he exclaimed. "We thought you were dead – ow!"
Menolly came forward with the numbweed, but stopped in confusion. Heavy bandages had already been applied to D'wer's back and right shoulder, but whatever wounds they covered had opened up and bled through.
"Threadfall before last." D'wer explained. "Guess I went out too soon."
"Of course it was too soon!" snapped Mirrim. "What made you think it was a good idea to sneak out and fight? You know dragons can panic if their rider passes out in the middle of a Fall. You endangered your dragon and everyone in your vicinity!"
A familiar voice spoke. "He didn't sneak out."
Menolly turned. Lessa was standing behind them, beside Ramoth. The Weyrwoman's gaze was as sharp as ever, her tone ironic as she said, "Don't scold D'wer. If we didn't let injured riders fight, we'd be wearing Thread in our hair right now."
Involuntarily, Menolly looked up. The Threadfall seemed to have stopped, and dragons began spiraling into the Bowl to land. As if on that cue, the elderly Headwoman Manora and her young second, Felena, came out of the Lower Caverns, followed by some drudges. They hurried toward D'wer, but stopped when they saw Mirrim and Menolly.
"I thought you were dead," said Felena, and turned away to brush her hair from her face with exaggerated care.
Manora hugged Mirrim. "I knew you weren't."
Mirrim relaxed into the embrace for a moment, then stepped away. "Don't keep wounded men waiting. I'll come see you later."
As the Lower Caverns women attended to the wounded, Mnementh landed on the ledge outside his and Lessa's weyr. F'lar slid rather than sprang down, and stood leaning against his dragon's side for a long moment before he walked into the cave.
Lessa looked up at him, then at Menolly and Mirrim. "We need to talk."
The fire lizards, sensibly given Lessa's opinion of them, stayed in the Bowl with Path, but Menolly and Mirrim followed Lessa up the steps to the queen's weyr. F'lar was waiting in the inner chamber. Menolly gasped when she saw him. His left cheek was furrowed with half-healed Threadscore, and he wore a black patch over that eye.
"You two disappeared the day before Southern Weyr was wiped out," said Lessa. "What happened?"
Mirrim took a deep breath. "I picked Menolly up at Harper Hall mid-morning…" By the time she finished an account of what had happened, her voice had gone scratchy.
"Sit down, both of you." F'lar poured out two cups of klah, then sank down into a chair. He looked pale and exhausted.
Menolly took hers and sipped, hoping the warmth of the drink would ease her nerves. Just being in a weyr with Lessa was intimidating, but she was more frightened of the story she was about to hear. Klah slopped over the edge of the cup and stained the front of her shirt. She couldn't get her hands to stop shaking.
When she looked up, she saw Lessa and F'lar watching each other in that intimate way that longtime weyrmates had. Some decision was made, for F'lar leaned back and closed his eye, and Lessa began to speak.
"We felt the deaths of most of the dragons at Southern Weyr. It was-" Lessa stopped short. Menolly heard the beating of great wings, followed by a thump as a dragon landed on the ledge outside. Lessa's eyes gaze softened, as Mirrim's did when Path addressed her.
Lessa continued, "We were busy caring for the wounded and trying to figure out what had happened when Thread began falling at Benden. It was out of sequence but at first it seemed like an ordinary Fall. Then huge, dense mats of Thread started falling. There were patches that were bigger than Ramoth! When the dragons went between, they emerged surrounded by Thread. Some dragons were able to avoid being scored by dodging, or by flaming an area as big as their own bodies."
"That's what Path did on the beach," said Mirrim.
"But Path is a green," said Lessa. "A small green. That's impossible for the larger dragons. F'lar was lucky his first score was as bad as it was, because it forced Mnementh to leave early. Otherwise-"
Lessa paused again. After a moment, she resumed in tones drained of feeling. "Ramoth was heavy with eggs, so she wasn't flying that day. But all across Pern, most of the queens, bronzes, and bigger browns are dead. The only way to fight without such terrible casualties would have been if we knew in advance exactly where each giant clump of Thread was going to fall. But dragonmen must fly…"
When Threads are in the sky, finished Menolly silently. Never before had that song seemed so ominous.
"Is it still going on?" asked Mirrim. "This Threadfall was normal."
Lessa shook her head. "It only lasted two weeks. Wansor said it was a similar phenomenon to the one that made Thread fall out of sequence last year, and very unlikely to occur again. But even after all we did, Thread got through and burrowed. Half the crops are gone. The holders are blaming the Weyrs for not seeding the north with the Thread-eating grubs that protect the south – the same grubs they spent centuries trying to stamp out as vermin! There's nowhere near enough riders left to cope with ordinary Threadfalls. It's as bad as when I first Impressed Ramoth. Except that this time there aren't any Oldtimers to call back from the past."
Though Menolly had known that something like this must have happened, hearing it from Lessa made it finally seem real. She remembered the dragons and riders she knew: Mirrim's friend T'gellan and his bronze Monarth, who'd brought her to Harper Hall; T'gran and brown Branth, who'd saved her life when she'd tried to outrun Thread; F'nor and huge brown Canth, whom she'd felt go to the Red Star; Talina and gold Arwith, the very first Impression she'd witnessed. She was afraid to ask about any of them.
She didn't know how long the silence lasted, but no human voice broke it. With a hesitant chirp, Beauty braved the presence of Ramoth and Lessa to land on Menolly's shoulder. Her tail snapped like a whip, then wrapped chokingly around Menolly's throat. But once Menolly wedged a finger under it to give herself some air, she felt comforted.
F'lar spoke without opening his eye. "But we do have people who've come forward from the past."
"That's right." Mirrim, who had slumped in grief, straightened her shoulders and lifted her chin. "We can go back and warn everyone. None of this has to happen."
Lessa's intense gaze didn't lighten. "F'nor and Brekke went between times a week ago to do just that."
"It didn't work?" asked Mirrim.
Lessa shrugged. "They never came back."
Menolly was hesitant to speak in the Weyrleaders' presence, especially since she wasn't a rider. She swallowed, trying to think of how to begin. Beauty flapped her wings and shrieked.
"Shush!" said Menolly, stroking her. But since everyone was already looking at her, she had no choice but to talk. "I don't know if this makes sense, but when F'nor went, what had happened was already in his past. But for us, it's the future, and the future isn't fixed. I think we could change it. But I'd need to talk to at least one rider and dragon from every Fall."
"That could be arranged," said Lessa briskly. "What do you need from them?"
"The riders can tell me exactly where each sheet of Thread fell," said Menolly. "And the dragons can show Path, Path can show me, and I can write it down. I know the system for writing down the steps of dances, I can add in numbers to show the altitude, and then we'll have detailed Threadfall charts in choreographic aerial notation."
Lessa stared at her. A wave of dizziness came over Menolly, and she staggered. Mirrim caught her by the shoulders.
"Ramoth will call in the dragons," said Lessa. "In the meantime, you both should rest."
"For all the good it'll do us," muttered Mirrim. Time travel was notoriously draining for riders, though easier on dragons.
As Mirrim had predicted, Menolly woke up the next morning as exhausted as if she hadn't slept at all. Mirrim and Path accompanied her to meet with riders and their dragons. Most of the dragons were green or blue, though a few were young or undersized browns. All the men seemed haunted, many still dazed, and some were badly Threadscored. Other than D'wer, who showed up leaning on a friend's shoulder, Menolly didn't recognize a single one of them.
Mirrim knew all the Benden riders, but only once did she ask about anyone who wasn't there, when a stocky young man came to them without a dragon but with a bronze fire-lizard on his shoulder.
"Where's Roth?" Mirrim asked. An instant later, her fist flew up to cover her mouth.
The rider didn't answer – didn't even seem to hear her, so fixed was his gaze on something far away – but his fire lizard gave voice to a mournful keen.
Menolly wrote and wrote, translating the chaos and terror of Threadfall into black marks on white hides. Manora came now and again to remind her and Mirrim to eat and sleep. Occasionally Menolly overheard bits of conversations that she knew Master Robinton would want her to memorize:
"They say none of Ramoth's eggs will hatch. All dead in the shell. It can happen, they say, if the queen's grieving before she lays."
"They say the order's going out to not let all of the young greens start chewing firestone. Their eggs will be small and there won't be any bronzes or queens in the clutch, but at least there'll be more dragons."
"They say Igen Hold is refusing to supply the Weyr. Blamed it for their crops getting Threaded."
"They say the Harpers knew this would happen and never said a word. Harpers go everywhere and see everything, right? They're more spies than singers, really. You can't trust them."
They never say anything hopeful, Menolly thought. Unless you counted the plan to have green dragons lay eggs. It sounded desperate.
The night Menolly finished the last chart, she finally slept both soundly and well. When she woke she still felt wobbly and tired, but the crushing exhaustion and despair of the last few days had lifted with the prospect of leaving – saving - the devastated Weyr. Mirrim too looked brighter when the women met on the heights in their riding leathers. Menolly carried the Threadfall charts in a Thread-proof metal box inside a thick leather pack.
Lessa and Ramoth joined them. Lessa, who could hear any dragon and had once gone four hundred Turns back in time, was to give Path the coordinates to Benden-in-the-past. But Lessa looked unwell, and Ramoth was a sickly yellow.
Ramoth's eggs will never hatch, said Path. Even inside Menolly's head, the voice was no more than a whisper. They worried before, but today they know.
Lessa turned to Path. Menolly didn't hear what passed between them, but after a moment Lessa nodded.
"Make things different," Lessa said in a rough voice unlike her usual crisply articulated words. "And I hope the next time I see you… I'll be another me."
Black, blacker, blackest…
Despite the clinging exhaustion of timing it, some hope and energy returned to Mirrim when Path appeared above Benden Weyr. Her greatest fear – that they would return to the grief and despair of that future Benden – vanished when she looked down. No longer empty, Benden teemed with dragons. Path swooped lower.
The watch dragon bugled a challenge.
A brown dragon Mirrim didn't recognize rose up beside them.
They don't know me. They don't know you. They say there's no dragon at Benden called Path.
"Ah!" Mirrim exclaimed aloud in frustration. "Wrong time again. I wonder when we are?"
I'm sure I went when Lessa showed me, Path protested. Following the brown dragon toward the feeding ground, she added, Lessa was very sad. She was thinking of times long ago, and of what she could have done differently.
Menolly must have heard that too, because she groaned. Then she remarked with slightly forced cheer, "Since they've never heard of you and you were at Benden before I was, at least we don't have to worry about meeting ourselves."
"That's good," said Mirrim unenthusiastically. Path's sensitivity to undercurrents of feeling was one of the things Mirrim loved about her dragon, but Mirrim was going to have a talk with her about ignoring such things when she was receiving coordinates.
Mnementh and F'lar were waiting for them when they landed. A smaller, younger Ramoth was inside the feeding ground, gulping down a fat wherry, but Lessa was nowhere to be seen. This F'lar was leaner than the man she knew, with an unlined face and an air of brittle arrogance.
His first words were completely unexpected. "Are those fire lizards? So the legends are true!"
He took a second look at Mirrim, who had taken off her helmet. "Women don't Impress fighting dragons! And I know every rider on Pern. Who are you?"
"Mirrim, Path's rider. This is Harper Menolly."
"And women aren't Harpers, either." F'lar laughed sharply, more in incredulity than humor.
The brown rider who had escorted them to the grounds whistled at the fire lizards. He was older than F'lar and looked vaguely familiar, with merry blue eyes and a burn scar that started at his left temple and pulled his hair into a swirl.
"Fire lizards!" he exclaimed. "I thought those were myth. Here, little beauty." Reppa, that shameless flirt, landed on his outstretched forearm and preened.
"Enough chat," said F'lar sharply. "I want to know who these people are."
Mirrim would have liked to consult with Menolly first, but it wasn't as if they could keep any secrets anyway once Ramoth bespoke Path. "Can we speak to you and Lessa in private?"
F'lar's amber eyes widened in astonishment.
The brown rider burst out laughing. "Looks like the whole world knows who's got the Weyrleader's ear – not to mention some other parts!"
"Be quiet, L'tol," said F'lar. "You, girl, what do you want with Lady Holder Lessa?"
"Oh, no," breathed Mirrim. Not only were they in the past, they were in the wrong past – a past that had never happened. Or a past that could have happened, like the future that might still happen. "If Lessa's a Lady Holder, then who's Weyrwoman?"
A voice she had hoped to never hear again rang out. "Why did no one see fit to alert me about these mysterious visitors and their pretty little pets?"
Kylara strode forward, golden hair and crimson skirts swirling around her. L'tol hastily mounted his dragon and fled.
"Ramoth!" Kylara called. "Stop your gobbling and question the green dragon!"
Through the haze of fury that enveloped Mirrim, she managed to retain enough wits to shout, "Path, please ask Ramoth if she can wait a moment!"
Mirrim couldn't look at Kylara without getting the urge to strike her, so she turned to F'lar and spoke as fast as she could. "Dragons can travel between time as well as space. I'm a rider from Benden Weyr – Benden Weyr about ten Turns into the future. It could be extremely dangerous to know what's going to happen before it does, so please, don't have Ramoth question Path to find out more than that we really are from the future!"
"Ramoth, is that true?" asked Kylara. A moment later, she exclaimed, "It is!" Her full lips slowly curved into a smile. "I like the idea of knowing the future. Especially if we're the only ones who do. F'lar, these girls haven't told anyone else, have they?"
Mirrim felt ill.
I can't defy the queen, said Path. I'm sorry.
Of course you can't, replied Mirrim. And I can't fly. It's not your fault.
"Weyrleader, Weyrwoman, we must ask again that you not question us or Path beyond what is necessary to verify our origin. It could be catastrophic for all of us." Menolly spoke in a Harper's the trained, formal tones. If Mirrim hadn't known to look, she would have never guessed that Menolly's hands were trembling.
"But—" protested Kylara.
F'lar glowered. "Kylara, I order you not to have Ramoth question Path unless we both agree to do so."
"No one can command a queen dragon!" Kylara flushed angrily, then smiled. "Except me."
Ramoth is unhappy, said Path. She doesn't want to question me. She isn't interested in me. She is thinking about her eggs.
Eggs sired by Mnementh, clearly, as F'lar was Weyrleader. Mirrim had never imagined she'd feel sorry for F'lar for any reason, but she did. Though she felt sorrier for Ramoth.
Ramoth sprang up and settled upon a herdbeast. Bones cracked.
F'lar's voice rose angrily. "Kylara, if you're that interested in keeping secrets, why are we having this discussion out here?"
"You're shouting," Kylara said sweetly. Then she peered past F'lar and scowled. "Oh, look who was sneaking around in the Records Room. I don't recall giving permission for Holders to rummage through private Weyr documents."
Lessa ran up to F'lar, but stopped well within proper greeting distance.
"Weyrleader," she said formally.
"Lady Holder," he countered.
They said nothing more and did not touch, but Mirrim felt as if she'd walked in on a mating flight.
"Harper, tell Lady Holder Lessa what you just told us," said F'lar.
"It's none of Ruatha's business!" snapped Kylara. "Though since you blab everything to her anyway, I suppose the Harper may as well too. Speak."
Menolly gave Mirrim a wry look, then once more launched into explanation. This time she added a brief account of the terrible Threadfall, and that they should copy and save her Threadfall charts. Getting the box, Menolly started to hand it to Lessa before she checked herself and offered it to F'lar.
"So Pern survives at least another ten Turns," said F'lar. "I understand that you shouldn't tell me about the future. But right now, it doesn't look as if Pern has a future. Maybe it was you coming back here that makes the future possible."
I hope not, thought Mirrim. She recalled the emptied Southern Weyr with a shudder.
"How do we do it?" asked F'lar.
Tell Menolly Kylara shouldn't know about Lessa going back in time, said Mirrim to Path. I hate to think what Kylara might do if she went back instead.
A moment later, Path said, Menolly says she wouldn't dream of it.
Kylara broke into the silence. "You – greenrider girl – do women often ride fighting dragons in your time?"
"Not often," said Mirrim.
"But it is possible." Kylara glowed with triumph. "Lessa, don't you understand what this means? You could stand as a candidate for a green dragon!"
"Whyever would I want to?" asked Lessa acidly. "I could have Impressed Ramoth –"
Kylara's cheeks went dull red. "You could have tried."
Lessa continued as if Kylara hadn't spoken. "If I turned down a queen, why would I want a green?"
I'd much rather have you than any queen, Mirrim hurriedly – and honestly – told Path.
You are not Lessa, said Path.
"Because you could still be Lady Holder," said Kylara.
F'lar's arched eyebrows lifted even higher. "Even for you, that's a ridiculous argument."
"No, it isn't!" Kylara said. "Being Weyrwoman is your entire life. You couldn't run a hold at the same time. But if you rode a green, you'd still have time to be Lady Holder in between Threadfalls. You'd have flight. You'd have the freedom to be anywhere on Pern, in the blink of an eye."
Kylara's voice softened as she looked out at Ramoth, who had gone on to a second herdbeast. "And you'd have someone who loves you, more than anything in the world, no matter what." She deliberately turned her gaze to F'lar. "More than any human ever could. And when dragons mate – you can't even imagine what that's like."
"How generous of you," remarked Lessa. "Are you aware that bronzes also fly greens?"
Kylara tossed her golden hair in what Mirrim recognized as the early incarnation of a gesture Kylara had polished to devastating effect after ten Turns of practice. "I'm aware that you don't need dragons to get what you want from Benden's Weyrleader. You don't have to be coy. Weyrfolk aren't ashamed of our needs and desires."
Lessa didn't flush when she was angry, like Kylara did; she went white as salt. "If they're you? They should be."
F'lar cleared his throat, but Kylara spoke before he could say anything. "Ruatha has an heir now, thanks to F'lar's... generosity. It doesn't need you. Be honest with yourself, Lessa. You know you envy dragonriders. Everyone does."
"I know," said Lessa, "That as long as I'm Lady Holder of Ruatha, you have no power over me. But if I was a Benden greenrider, at the very least, your dragon would command mine – and I believe that would make me ineligible to be a Lady Holder. Try another ploy, Kylara. This one's too obvious."
"It's not a ploy," protested Kylara. Then she spoke in tones that, if she had been anyone but Kylara, Mirrim would have taken to be sincere. "You're a rider born. I see it. Ramoth sees it. You see it. What I really wonder, Lessa, is why F'lar doesn't see it. Maybe he likes having Mnementh be the only way you can ever fly."
"That's enough, Kylara!" shouted F'lar. "We have visitors from the future, and all you can think about is trying to bolster your power by undermining Lessa's? What's important is how we're supposed to cope with a single Weyr when it took six to protect the land in olden times!"
"And forty eggs, including a queen," said Kylara smugly. "Ramoth did herself proud. Didn't you, my beauty?"
Path, is Ramoth listening to you right now? Mirrim asked.
No. She is busy eating. I'm hungry too, added Path.
I'll make sure you get your pick of the beasts. But first, please ask Mnementh to tell F'lar and Lessa we need to talk to them in private. Second... Mirrim ran through a few possibilities, then grinned to herself. Tell Menolly to faint.
Menolly crumpled artistically to the ground. Mirrim ran to her and cradled her in her arms. Looking up at Kylara's irritated face and F'lar's and Lessa's deadpan ones, she said, "Time travel is exhausting and dangerous. Menolly needs rest and care. When she wakes up, someone will need to spoon-feed her and help her to the necessary. Weyrwoman, do you do the nursing here?"
"Ugh, no." Kylara backed away. "But that would be a perfect job for F'lar and Lessa! They can toss a Mark to see who gets the spoon-feeding and who gets the necessary."
She swept away. Once she was out of earshot, F'lar said, "We're going to Ruatha. Mnementh will give Path the coordinates."
"Can Path eat at Ruatha?" asked Mirrim.
Lessa laughed. "I'll see that she gets her choice of their fattest beasts."
That will be nice, said Path.
For Ramoth's benefit, F'lar helped load a convincingly limp Menolly on to Path. Mirrim scrambled up after her.
Black, blacker, blackest…
Mirrim was relieved when they actually arrived in Ruatha, with F'lar and Mnementh in the air beside them.
It's easier to stay in a time than find another one, said Path.
Ruatha was a well-run hold in Mirrim's day, but this Ruatha's workers moved with the precision of a fighting formation, and its grounds almost sparkled with cleanliness. Lessa directed Path to an enclosure containing some of the plumpest beasts Mirrim had ever seen. Path neatly broke a beast's neck, ripped open its belly, and nosed the steaming entrails toward the waiting fire lizards before she took a single bite herself. Mirrim was proud to see her dragon being so gracious and considerate.
Lessa led them into the Hold. It was as beautifully organized inside as it was outside. Not even the drudges halted their duties to gawk at the fire lizards. When Lessa requested food and wine, the cooks had trays ready in… Mirrim was disturbed to realize that she had automatically counted in black, blacker, blackest. But they were indeed done in the time it took to go between. Her heart lifted to see such a perfect expression of efficiency.
To Mirrim's surprise, Lessa took them to a room with a crib and a woman singing to a baby. She scooped up the baby, dismissed the woman, and shut the door.
"Is he yours?" asked Mirrim.
Lessa smiled tenderly down at the baby. "His name is Felessan. Now eat. You both look as hungry as dragons."
Mirrim and Menolly fell upon the juicy meat rolls and crisp-fried greens like Path upon the beasts, but Menolly soon cleared her throat with a gulp of wine and asked, "What do you know about the empty Weyrs?"
F'lar gave her a curious look. "That's the very question Lessa and I have been scouring the records to answer, but it's still a mystery. There's even a song about that." He sang a few lines of the Question Song in a voice deeper than the one he used to speak.
"I didn't know you could sing!" exclaimed Menolly, then blushed.
"Benden's Weyrleader is full of surprises." Lessa took a long, slow sip of wine, watching F'lar from over the rim of her glass.
F'lar continued hurriedly, "I believe that Thread will fall again, and soon. I've found some designs for flamethrowers in the old records, and I hope we'll be able to reproduce them. But it won't be enough. We need more dragons."
Mirrim and Menolly glanced at each other.
"I don't see what harm it can do to tell him." Mirrim turned to F'lar and Lessa. "In the future, Kylara is the cause of two queens dying. She didn't take her queen far enough away when hers and another were due to rise. Don't let that happen!"
F'lar paled, and his hand that was resting on the table curled into a tight fist. "I won't."
Menolly said, "The other Weyrs are empty because a queen rider – not Kylara - went back in time four hundred Turns and asked them to come forward. I don't know what sort of mischief Kylara could get up to in the past, but I bet she'd think of something. Mnementh might be able to do it, but it's very dangerous. Try having him take it in stages of twenty-five Turns."
F'lar shook his head. "I wish…"
Lessa gave him an ironic smile. "That I was available to risk my life instead?"
The arrogant mask dropped from F'lar's face. He said simply, "I wish Ramoth was yours. That's all."
Though Lessa didn't try to touch him, there seemed to be no distance at all between them. "If Gemma's babe had lived, perhaps… But I was the last of the Ruathan Blood. There could have been no other choice."
Mirrim felt like an intruder. She stood up. "You should start copying those charts. It'll take a while."
Lessa took the charts from F'lar and showed Mirrim and Menolly to a room they could share, well-appointed with two beds and a jug of steaming klah.
As soon as the door closed behind her, Mirrim and Menolly collapsed on the beds.
"I don't know if I'm worn out from timing it, or from being in the same room as those two!" said Menolly.
"Poor Lessa," said Mirrim. "To have Ramoth be there, and not be hers…"
"She'll never know the difference."
"But…" Mirrim stopped herself from saying, You're not a rider. You can't understand. The Weyrleaders thought that Impressing fire lizards gave commoners a taste of what it was like to Impress a dragon. But only Mirrim had Impressed fire lizards first and a dragon later, and only she understood how faint that taste really was. Much as she loathed Kylara, the woman had been absolutely right about what it meant to ride a dragon.
"It seems like most of what's different in this time came about because Jaxom didn't live." Menolly spoke slowly, with yawns between the longer phrases. "I saw him Impress Ruth, you know. He seemed like a nice boy. I feel like mourning him, except that he's not dead. At least in our time he isn't. Do you think these other times are real in some way, or will they just… not have ever happened… once we get back to our time?"
"It feels real. If it isn't real, why bother giving them our charts? I hope the one in our future will never happen, though. I don't know." Mirrim rubbed her aching head. "I'm so tired."
Menolly didn't reply. Mirrim raised herself on one elbow and glanced over at the other bed. Her friend was fast asleep. That seemed like a good idea. Mirrim laid down her head.
Mirrim woke with a start.
Lessa stood in the doorway. "Ramoth's eggs are hatching. F'lar and I are going to watch. Would you two like to come?"
Menolly grinned. "Of course!"
"Oh, and here you are." Lessa handed Menolly the box of Threadfall charts. "Thank you."
They hurried outside, and Mirrim and Menolly mounted Path.
Black, blacker, blackest…
Mirrim and Menolly were seated with F'lar and Lessa on a stone ledge high above the heated sands, with Mnementh and Path behind them. Below them, a large group of nervous-looking teenage boys fanned out around the rocking eggs. There were almost twice as many candidates as there were eggs and it was a large clutch, so even the huge area seemed crowded. Ramoth loomed over the seven women in their late teens and early twenties who clustered around the golden queen egg. The steady humming of dragons filled the air. Mirrim had never had such a good seat for a Hatching before, not even for the one where she'd Impressed Path. She smiled to herself, recalling the joy of that moment.
"We're watching history," whispered Menolly. "Ramoth's first clutch! Do you see anyone you know?"
Mirrim peered out at the candidates below. "The woman with black hair and narrow eyes might be Celina, who Impressed – will Impress - Lamanth. Everyone's so young, it's hard to recognize them. That boy over there – is that N'ton?"
Warm air buffeted them as Canth landed on the ledge. F'nor slid down, followed by Kylara. F'nor gave F'lar an apologetic look.
"I decided this ledge had a better view," said Kylara. "Oh, hello, Lessa. I'm sure you won't begrudge the Weyrwoman a seat."
As Lessa shot her a murderous glare, Kylara squeezed in between her and F'lar, dangling her legs over the edge. It occurred to Mirrim that one small shove would send Kylara flying. The drop wouldn't kill her, but with luck it would break her arm. With lots of luck, it would be a messy, painful compound fracture. Of the elbow. Those never healed well.
"I'm sure F'nor would like to sit by his brother," said Menolly loudly.
Grabbing Mirrim by the arm, Menolly directed a bewildered F'nor to switch seats so that Mirrim was separated from Kylara by F'lar, F'nor, and Menolly.
Did you tell her what I was thinking? Mirrim demanded. You ought to know I wasn't serious.
I didn't say anything, replied Path. Menolly is observant.
"Are those fire lizards?" F'nor asked, extending his hand hopefully to Beauty. "I thought they were –"
The dragons stopped humming. An instant later, the first egg broke with a loud pop. A small blue dragonet rolled out and landed with one wing pinned beneath him.
"Just a blue," sniffed Kylara. "I was hoping the queen would be first. Or at least a bronze."
As if agreeing with her, several candidates edged away. Mirrim eyed them with dislike, hoping that the more prestigious bronzes and browns they were no doubt aiming for would reject them.
The blue dragonet squealed and flapped his free wing. A lanky boy with raggedly cut black hair stepped forward. Moving carefully to avoid being clawed, he flicked the wing loose. Then a look of awe transformed his ordinary face. "He says his name is Trebeth!"
Mirrim felt a surge of protectiveness toward the boy and his little dragonet, even more powerful than the one she had felt for the wounded man and terrified dragon they had been when she had last seen them.
I won't let that happen to you, she thought fiercely. I promise.
Mirrim longed to be able to see every individual Impression, but the eggs began to break faster now. She got so caught up in the odyssey of a small brown who rejected half the candidates before settling on a chubby boy she didn't recognize that she only knew N'ton had Impressed when he announced that his dragon's name was Lioth.
As always, there were far more greens than any other color. When the majority of the dragonets had already chosen their riders and the queen had not yet hatched, it was mostly greens who were the stragglers. As unpaired candidates trailed them, several confused green dragonets wandered near their ledge.
A scream tore through the air. Before Mirrim could react, a body plummeted from the ledge and slammed into the sands below.
"Lessa!" F'lar was on his knees at the brink, teetering dangerously, a scrap of gauzy fabric in one outstretched hand. F'nor caught and dragged him to safety.
Mirrim saw Kylara's satisfied expression before it was wiped away and replaced with an exaggerated look of horror.
Lessa sat up, wincing, and came face to face with three green dragonets. Mirrim didn't think it would be a terrible fate to Impress a green, even if it did put Lessa under Kylara's thumb. But pre-Impressed dragonets could accidentally injure people, sometimes severely, and Lessa might not be able to get out of their way.
Mirrim jumped to her feet, thinking to have Path fly her down. Then nine fire lizards blinked out from between to block the dragonets, forming a living barrier to protect Lessa.
"Good idea, Menolly." Mirrim sent Reppa, Lok, and Tolly to join Menolly's nine. The twelve hung in the air, shrieking at the startled dragonets.
F'lar leaped on Mnementh's back, and the bronze dragon launched himself from the ledge. But there was no space near Lessa where a full-grown dragon could land without endangering a hatchling or candidate or unhatched egg, so Mnementh was forced to head for the far end of the grounds.
Lessa slowly stood up, awkwardly balancing on one leg. The fire lizards, screeching and darting, scared the greens into retreat. The smallest one fled in such haste that she collided with a stocky, redheaded boy. He crouched down and looked into her eyes, and the two were forever joined.
Mirrim never saw the queen egg hatch. But she did see first one, then another of the few women on the sands step aside as a glistening golden figure staggered past them, swinging her heavy wedge-shaped head and seeming to search with her whirling eyes. Lessa clutched at the inner wall, trying to pull herself out of the way. Then the little queen's eyes fixed on her, and Lessa fell to her knees and opened her arms.
F'lar came skidding up to her, but she barely seemed to notice him, even when he offered her an arm to lean on. Her voice rang out with astonished joy. "She says her name is Prideth!"
Mirrim heard a tiny scraping noise beside her. Turning, she realized that it was Kylara, grinding her teeth.
Mirrim let herself laugh aloud. "I was tempted to push you off after her, but this is much better."
"Um, Mirrim…" Menolly urgently tapped on her shoulder.
Kylara rounded on both of them. "Don't think I've forgotten you! Neither of you are going anywhere till I find out exactly what you can tell me that might be useful. Don't forget, a green dragon can never disobey a queen."
Now! said Path.
Mirrim and Menolly scrambled onto Path's back.
"Ramoth!" shouted Kylara. "Tell the green dragon –"
Path launched herself from the ledge without waiting for them to buckle in. Mirrim felt Menolly begin to slide backward. She grabbed Menolly with one hand and the straps with the other, and pictured Benden Weyr in her own time.
Black, blacker, blackest…
Menolly hung on to the straps so tightly that her right hand ached and her scarred left palm felt as if it had been sliced open anew, but she didn't dare release her hold in order to try to buckle herself in.
A dragon bugled. It was the blue watch dragon, whom she now recognized as Trebeth. He was riderless. The Bowl below them was a hive of chaotic activity, with dragons circling in the air and people running on the ground.
"Oh, this isn't right…" muttered Mirrim. Glancing back at Menolly, she said, "Trebeth doesn't know Path, so I guess we're in the past again."
Path began to spiral down into the Bowl.
"Shards!" Mirrim exclaimed. "This is my fault. I was thinking about the Hatching when I gave Path the coordinates… and Trebeth told Path she can land so we can help out, because something's gone wrong at a Hatching."
Path landed by the entrance to the Hatching Ground. The women scrambled off. A very young weyrling making a mad dash for the entrance collided with Mirrim and bounced off. She grabbed him by the shoulders before he could escape.
"Let go!" he yelped.
"I will when you tell me what's going on," said Mirrim.
"A dragonet won't Impress and they tried the people in the stands and she doesn't want them either and they're rounding up everyone in the Weyr before she goes between and dies and maybe she wants someone my age, let go," the boy gabbled in a single breath.
Mirrim released him, and he tore into the Hatching Ground.
"I wasn't in the stands," Mirrim muttered. She began to pace back and forth in small, jerky steps. "Where am I? She'll die without me."
"It might not be Path," said Menolly doubtfully. "Remember, last time was different."
It is Path. She must find a rider!
Mirrim took a step toward the Hatching Ground. Path swung down her head, blocking her rider's way.
Menolly caught her friend's arm. "Mirrim, you already have your Path. You can't Impress twice!"
Mirrim whirled on her with a look so fierce that Menolly took a step back. "She'll die!"
"Then go look for yourself," said Menolly. "You must be here somewhere. You take the Weyrling Barracks, I'll take the Lower Caverns."
Menolly gave Mirrim a shove away from the Hatching Ground. Mirrim staggered, hesitated, then dashed for the Weyrling Barracks. Menolly headed for the Lower Caverns. With any luck the younger Mirrim would be there and Menolly would find her before the older Mirrim could. It was supposed to be a terrible strain on body and mind for a human to meet herself, or even come near herself. Even so, it couldn't possibly be worse for Mirrim to meet another Mirrim than to be present when – if – Path, even a pre-Impressed dragonet Path, went between to her death.
The Caverns were full of riders running around, bumping into each other and knocking things over in their haste. Menolly found Trebeth's rider D'wer by the hearths, where several pots were boiling over while drudges stood gaping at the commotion. She tapped him on the shoulder.
"Look for girls," she suggested. Too late, she remembered that she only knew him from a future he had never experienced.
D'wer squinted at her. The Cavern air was hazed with steam and smoke. "Menolly. I thought you were at Ruatha."
Menolly wondered about that, but had no time to inquire. No dragonet had ever failed to Impress in her lifetime, and she didn't know how much time they had.
Felena ran out of a storage cave. A forgotten ladle in one hand dripped stew on to the floor. "It's empty!" she called out to no one.
D'wer caught her by the hand. "How many Turns do you have?"
"Twenty-eight," she replied. "I've never been a candidate – I'm three Turns too old to even stand for a queen – she can't want me!"
"Maybe she does. Come on!"
They ran out together, Felena still clutching her ladle. Bemused, Menolly automatically removed an overflowing pot of soup from the fire, then started for the Inner Cavern. Could the other Path really want Felena? And if a younger Mirrim was somewhere in Benden, then where could she be?
Menolly almost collided with Manora, who was calmly directing dragonriders and young weyrlings out of the Cavern, and drudges to tend to the neglected cookfires.
"Manora, is Mirrim here?" asked Menolly.
The old Headwoman's forehead creased in thought. "Mirrim… Mirrim… The young Headwoman at High Reaches Weyr? If she was here, she'd be in the stands with Weyrwoman Brekke. But I don't think either of them came to this Hatching."
Menolly scanned the Cavern, but there was no one left inside but drudges and people far too old to Impress. She dashed back out. At least the dragonet hadn't yet gone between, or the dragons would have begun their terrible mourning keen.
Menolly and Mirrim reached the entrance to the Hatching Grounds almost simultaneously. Mirrim looked wild-eyed and desperate. Her hair had come out of her braid and was hanging in hanks.
"You're not here," gasped Menolly. "You're at High Reaches Weyr. Maybe someone can go get you."
It will be too late. Path's voice was sad but certain.
There was a burst of shouting. Some boys, rejected candidates judging by their white robes, were brawling at the entrance to the Hatching Grounds.
"Break it up!" Mirrim, sounding a little more like her old self, pulled them apart, revealing a drudge at the center of the fight.
"She was trying to get into the Hatching Grounds!" one of the boys shouted. "A drudge!"
The drudge, a girl with a bloody nose and reddening bruises on her face, turned to Mirrim. "Let me in. Everyone else has tried."
"She's a drudge," another boy protested.
The drudge bolted for the entrance, but two boys moved to bar her way. An instant later, all three of them were once again struggling on the ground.
The look on Mirrim's face as she watched the battle was one Menolly had seen before, when the last dragonrider had given his report to Menolly, and Mirrim had known that everyone she hadn't already seen was dead.
The drudge's voice rose up shrilly. "She'll die! Don't you care? She'll die!"
Mirrim stooped and grabbed a boy, and Menolly grabbed another. They pulled the boys off the drudge and held them.
"Go!" said Mirrim.
The drudge scrambled to her feet and dashed into the Hatching Ground. There was some shouting from inside, and then Ramoth's bugle rose up and cut off all human noise. The silence that followed was broken by the drudge's ecstatic cry: "She says her name is Path!"
Mirrim walked up to Path and rested her cheek against her dragon's deep green hide. Path nuzzled her, eyes whirling blue. The intimacy between them was so intense that Menolly had to look away.
Auntie One and Auntie Two landed on Menolly's shoulders, and Beauty and Diver clung to her shirt. Menolly scratched Diver's eye ridges until his eyes closed with pleasure and Auntie Two leaned down and swatted him. She was the luckiest person on Pern to have nine fire lizards. But she couldn't help wondering if they gave her even the remotest idea of what it was like to Impress a dragon.
The drudge came out of the Hatching Grounds side by side with the tiny dragonet Path, followed by Lessa, F'lar, and F'lessan with his newly Impressed bronze Golanth. The Weyrleaders seemed torn between pride over their son and perplexity over the drudge.
"Are you in disguise?" asked Lessa.
"No." The girl bent down, avoiding the Weyrleaders' scrutiny, and scratched the small Path's eyebrow ridges.
"But you're of dragonrider blood?" asked F'lar.
She shook her head. "Just a drudge."
The dragonet Path squeaked. Menolly was amused to hear a noise so small sound so indignant. The drudge straightened her back and looked directly at Lessa. She was taller than the Weyrwoman. "My name is Riya."
Menolly decided that everyone concerned might be happy to have her step in. "Excuse me…"
"Menolly!" Lessa did sound relieved. Then she gave Menolly a second look. "What are you doing with all those fire lizards?"
"We've timed it from the future." Menolly got the box of Threadfall charts from one of Path's several sacks and handed it to Lessa, feeling as if she was caught in the sort of dream where you repeat the same action over and over. "Have someone copy these and give the originals back to us. You're going to have a terrible Threadfall in about two years. The exact dates are on the charts."
"Wait, where is –" F'lar began.
Lessa slapped his arm lightly with the back of her hand. "Ruatha, remember? And she's not coming back till tomorrow, so it'll be fine."
Riya and her dragonet stopped in front of Mirrim's Path. The grown dragon bent her head toward her younger self. The dragonet looked up into opalescent eyes that were bigger than her own head.
You chose well.
Menolly wasn't sure which dragon had spoken, but both riders smiled.
"Golanth is hungry," said F'lessan.
"So is Path," admitted Riya.
"Let's get them fed," said F'lar.
Lessa took the box into the Records Room, and F'lar led the young dragons and riders away. Menolly and Mirrim stood watching the dragonets until they disappeared from view.
"That was extremely strange," said Mirrim. "Path, it didn't bother you to meet yourself?"
We are not as delicate as humans.
"I'd forgotten how little Path used to be," Mirrim mused. "She used to lie across my shoulders so my fire lizards couldn't land." She patted her dragon. "A drudge, huh? I always thought drudges were stupid and lazy. Guess the other you knew better."
Suddenly Menolly's vision blurred, and the earth shifted beneath her feet. When the feeling didn't ease after a moment of waiting, she sat down on the ground and put her head between her knees.
"What's wrong?" asked Mirrim.
"I'm a little dizzy. Must be all the timing it catching up to me."
There was a loud thump and a gentle shockwave of warm, spicy-scented air.
Just as Path's voice had the same timbre as Mirrim's, this voice had the same timbre as Menolly's. But unlike Path's, which was only a voice in her head, this one came suffused with emotion: curiosity, wonderment, and love. The owner of the voice loved her.
Menolly looked up into the whirling eyes of Arwith, Talina's queen dragon.
I am Menolly's queen dragon, corrected Arwith. You are… not my Menolly. But you are a Menolly. How interesting!
The dragon's fascination and delight flooded Menolly. Arwith was curious as a child, but passionate as a grown woman. She was impulsive, easily pleased, strong-willed, and utterly fearless. She loved the taste of hot blood and the sound of women singing, she loved fighting Thread and basking in the sun, and she loved Menolly most of all.
Menolly's fire lizards flew close to inspect Arwith. Beauty hovered nose to nose with her, the miniature image of a queen a hundred times her size.
Greetings, little sister, said Arwith courteously. To Menolly, she said, My Menolly doesn't have any fire lizards. I'm sure she'd enjoy seeing yours. But they say it's not good to meet yourself, so I won't call her.
That thought of meeting another Menolly made Menolly felt even dizzier, but she forced her eyes open to drink in the sight of her beautiful lithe dragon, with her eyes shifting from green to blue and her hide shining gold.
You're ill, said Arwith. Her eyes went yellow with worry. I'll get help.
No, don't go! Menolly stroked the dragon's velvet hide. Stay with me. Tell me how I – how your Menolly – Impressed you.
My Menolly loves stories too. Arwith's eyes darkened to blue. There was a fire-head epidemic, and the riders who got sick couldn't go between for a month after they recovered. Some of them got so bored that they started flying straight to Search holds that had never been searched before. That's how Canth found you. You stood on the sands with other girls, but I only remember you. I remember that you hummed.
A harsh voice was shouting at her. Menolly gradually managed to identify words, and that the speaker was Mirrim. "Menolly! Menolly! What's going on? Is Arwith talking to you?"
"Yes," said Menolly, irritated at the interruption.
We were called back from Ruatha because there was trouble with the Impression, Arwith explained. My Menolly's at the Hatching Grounds, but I wanted to come meet you. She thinks I'm in our weyr.
Arwith's mischievous glee and her joy at this meeting filled Menolly's heart with a happiness so exquisite as to be close to pain. "I'm so glad you did."
Oh! Arwith was startled, then disappointed. My Menolly says we have to go back to Ruatha. I'm sorry. Maybe we can talk again some day.
"No!" cried Menolly.
But the golden dragon leaped into the air and blinked between. Menolly felt a terrible sense of loss. Then everything went black.
Black, blacker, blackest…
Black, blacker, blackest…
Black, blacker, blackest…
They had stayed between too long. They would never get out. What had been wrong with the coordinates this time? Mirrim was certain she'd fixed her mind on the Benden Weyr of her own time.
Black, blacker, blackest…
Path's voice joined with Mirrim's, continuing the song:
And cold beyond frozen things
Where is between when there is naught
To life beyond fragile dragon wings?
Path emerged above Benden Weyr. The watch dragon was a very small blue, barely more than a fledgling, and Mirrim wasn't surprised when he challenged them. They had spent far too long between to have returned to their own time. She wondered if they were in the past or even farther into the future, and by how many Turns. At least it couldn't be as long as Lessa's ride four hundred Turns into the past. That had made her sick for weeks and though Mirrim didn't feel good, she was at least still conscious.
I'm Path! Path of Benden Weyr! Harper Menolly is ill from exhaustion. We need help.
In ones and twos, fire lizards began to pop in and out of between, chittering and squeaking in curiosity.
Path banked in a lazy circle above the Weyr. A green dragon is telling me to come to her weyr. Shall I wait for the queen's command?
"No. Let's go where they tell us."
Her dragon followed the blue's directions, and landed on a familiar ledge.
But this is Ramoth's weyr, said Path.
Not in this time, replied Mirrim.
A strong-looking man and a dainty woman came out. Both of them stared at Path, wide-eyed and, in the case of the man, open-mouthed.
See, Path, this weyr is clearly reserved for the very small Weyrwomen. A moment later Mirrim, who felt as giddy as if she had drunk too much wine, hoped she hadn't said that aloud.
"I'm Weyrleader Elana, Kiroth's rider," said the woman. A bronze fire lizard flew out of the weyr, squeaked at the sight of Path, and dove into the woman's arms.
"And I'm Weyrleader K'lalon, Brehanath's rider. Let me help you with your Harper. Just exhausted, is she?" The man laughed. "I can see how you'd work her hard."
He helped her lift the unconscious Menolly off Path, and carried her into the weyr. Mirrim and Elana followed, but Path stayed outside on the ledge. They passed the stone ledge that Ramoth liked to lie on. The ledge was occupied by two dragons, a brown and a green. The brown wasn't much bigger than the watch-dragon, and the green was the size of a sturdy runner beast. A fire lizard queen leaped from her place beside the brown dragon to sit on K'lalon's shoulder.
Inside the Weyrleaders' chambers, Elana snapped her fingers. "Harper! Care for this woman!"
A woman in Harper blue scuttled out of a small room. A blue fire lizard perched on her shoulder. When she looked up warily, Mirrim saw that her face was marred by two knife-straight scars under her eyes.
The Harper led Mirrim and K'lalon into the little room, which was empty except for a plain cot and some musical instruments, and helped K'lalon tuck Menolly into the cot. Menolly's fire lizards settled down around her.
"I think she just needs rest," said Mirrim. "She's traveled a long way, and she… had a shock."
Mirrim brushed a stray lock of hair out of Menolly's eyes, hoping that her communion with Arwith hadn't made the same bond as a true Impression, and that her friend wouldn't wake to the lonely despair of the dragonless. "Call me if she wakes up."
K'lalon pointed to Menolly's scarred palm. "Weren't you worried it wouldn't heal well enough for her to play?"
"Well, yes," said Mirrim. "But that was a long time ago."
"In Benden, we usually mark them on the face." He drew his finger along his cheek in mimicry of the Harper's scars.
Mirrim stared at him, unable to put words together to ask if he'd meant what it sounded like he'd meant. It hadn't seemed significant before, but both he and Elana wore belt knives.
Without seeming to register her horror, he turned and beckoned for her follow him into the Weyrleaders' chambers, which were lavishly furnished with real wood. They offered her hot klah. Mirrim sipped at it, hoping it would clear her head. Reppa and Lok perched on her shoulders and Tolly in her lap, but she still felt cold. What had happened to this Benden that Harpers were mutilated and treated like drudges, and the riders of undersized brown and green dragons were Weyrleaders?
"You bred greens!" Mirrim exclaimed. "That's why your dragons are so small."
"Yours was bred from a queen," replied Elana. "That's why she's so large. She's magnificent! Whose clutch was she from?"
"Ramoth's," said Mirrim proudly. "The biggest queen on Pern."
"And the last," said K'lalon.
Mirrim spilled her klah.
I don't like this place, said Path.
I don't either, said Mirrim. We'll leave as soon as Menolly's able to ride.
She cupped her hands around her cooling klah while K'lalon filled her in on the last hundred years. The terrible Threadfall had left Ramoth the last queen on Pern, but when her clutch failed to hatch, she and Lessa went back in time to warn the Weyrs. They never returned. With the loss of crops to Threadfall, many Holds held the dragonriders responsible and refused to supply them with food and other necessities. Faced with starvation, the dragonriders took what they needed by force. The Holds fought back. And then the dragonriders fought back.
"But all that's long in the past," said K'lalon cheerfully. "There hasn't been a rebellion since Elana dueled Jolisa to become Weyrleader."
Elana nodded, but her expression was grim. "There's trouble brewing at Ruatha."
"True," said K'lalon. "But I'll wager we can stop it before it starts. With Path on our side, her size alone may terrify them into laying down their arms without a single man needing to be burned."
Mirrim was shocked silent. Her fire lizards hissed.
Never, said Path.
Then Mirrim leaped to her feet, to defy them, to shout that she and Path would die between before they'd use firestone on anything but Thread. But as soon as she stood up, the room spun around her and the floor slid out from under her feet. Just as it occurred to her that she ought to sit back down, the weyr went dark.
When Mirrim woke up, for a moment she couldn't recall where she was or what had happened. Then memories rushed back to her. Lying still, her eyes closed, she bespoke her dragon.
I am here. You have been ill for several days. Menolly was worried.
Mirrim was relieved. Then Menolly's all right?
She is in the room with you. You may ask her yourself.
Mirrim opened her eyes. She was in a beautiful bed of real wood in another lavishly decorated weyr, with her fire lizards drowsing beside her on soft pillows. Path sprawled on and overflowed from a stone ledge far too small for a dragon her size. A cot had been shoved into one corner, and that where Menolly sat, oiling her blue fire lizard, Uncle.
"Mirrim!" Menolly ran to the bed. "How are you feeling?"
Mirrim sat up, relieved that the movement didn't make her dizzy. "Better. How are you feeling? And I don't mean because of nearly meeting yourself."
Menolly smiled, but there was a wistful shadow in her eyes. "It almost seems like a dream now. It was so strange, Mirrim. I suppose I still don't truly know what it means to Impress a dragon, because if I did, I'd be devastated now. Half of me thinks it would have been worth it. Half of me thinks I'm lucky to have had that experience exactly as it was. But the other half…"
"That's three halves," remarked Mirrim.
Menolly flicked her with the corner of the sheet. "Some other part thinks, but that other Menolly didn't have fire lizards. She must have been Searched before she found the clutch – a clutch I saved. In that time, none of my fire lizards were ever born. And, of course, she wasn't a Harper. Though Arwith did love to listen to her sing."
Menolly sighed. Uncle flew over and extended his dull left wing at her. The rest of his hide was blue and glistening as the icy lake at Ruatha. She smoothed more oil over his wing. He crooned happily at her. The rest of her fire lizards joined him, crooning and nuzzling her. After a moment, she began to hum.
Mirrim cautiously dangled her legs over the bed, then stood up. She was a little wobbly, but no worse than if she'd fought a long Threadfall. As she got dressed, she thought of all the choices made and actions taken and chances missed that made so many different possible worlds. How many decisions had been made that had seemed wise and good but had led to this time of dragons killing people? Had it been Mirrim's memory of how Lessa had almost Impressed a green that had led them to this place where greenriders could be Weyrleaders? How many trips would Path have to take before she could find her way back home?
I have not been careless with the coordinates, said Path. I don't know why I keep appearing at the wrong Benden.
I'm not blaming you, said Mirrim automatically. Then she realized that, in fact, she had been blaming Path: Path, and herself, and Lessa. But what if the coordinates weren't the problem?
"I was thinking," said Mirrim.
"That's good," said Menolly solemnly, but her eyes sparkled with suppressed laughter.
"I was thinking," repeated Mirrim, irritated, "We keep ending up in the wrong time because once we got into the future, like you said, the future isn't fixed. I think once you're out of time that's fixed, like our own past and our own present, it's hard to return to it."
"Like a boat in a storm," suggested Menolly. "We keep getting pulled off-course."
"And I think the other part of the problem is that we got into the future from that beach in the South, but we keep trying to return to a different location in the same time. But if we tried to return to the same time and the same place we left from..."
"You mean, go back into the Threadfall the moment after we left?" suggested Menolly. "Oh, it's been in the back of my mind for a while. I just don't know how we could survive it. Green dragons don't have the stamina to fight an entire Threadfall, let alone one like that."
I could fight through the Fall into a place where the air is clear.
"Path thinks she can do it," said Mirrim.
Menolly's hand froze on the tip of Uncle's wing. Mirrim remembered that Menolly was a holder, born and raised to be terrified of Thread, and had once been caught unprotected in a Fall.
Uncle chirped indignantly, and Menolly's hands resumed their motion. "Let's do it."
Mirrim looked around. "Where's our riding gear?"
"They took it," said Menolly. "The charts too. I tried to convince them that we'd go along with whatever they wanted, but this is a suspicious time. Did you notice all the fire lizards? They're used as spies. The Weyrleaders' bronze and gold, and that poor Harper woman's blue keep flitting in and out to see if you've woken up yet."
Mirrim whistled to her own fire lizards. They circled her head in a flurry of brown and green. "If they can use fire lizards…"
"I'm still ahead of you," said Menolly mischievously. "I already sent mine out to search for the charts. They found the pack, but the metal box makes it much too heavy for them to carry, even if they all worked together. We'll have to get it ourselves. It's in the Records Room. There's two guards, but twelve fire lizards should distract them long enough for us to get the charts and go. "
"And strap in?" asked Mirrim. "You almost fell off when we launched out of the Hatching Grounds."
Path still wore her fighting straps, which surprised Mirrim.
I wouldn't let them take the straps off, said Path. I wouldn't have let them take anything, but before Menolly woke up I was so worried about you that I didn't notice what they were doing.
"The straps are the important thing," said Mirrim. "We can do without wherhide."
Menolly looked dubious.
"Really," Mirrim assured her. "Path dodges better than any green on Pern. I've never been scored."
Mirrim looked around. Tossed in a corner of the weyr were two empty sacks that still smelled of firestone, and another sack with her healing supplies and a picnic basket empty except for a piece of moldy cheese. She took a jar from the bag.
"Powdered fellis," Mirrim explained. "Every guard I've ever seen has a pitcher of klah by their station to help them stay awake. Or, in this case, put them to sleep…"
"Even with all the fire lizards flying around, they're going to notice one carrying a jar," Menolly pointed out. She whistled to Beauty. After several demonstrations and careful explanations, Beauty managed to press her front feet into a tight golden cup. Mirrim poured in as much of the powder into the cup as it would hold, and Beauty went between.
Mirrim lay back down on the bed, pulling the covers up to her head to conceal what she was wearing. "Let me know when the guards are asleep, in case any more flying spies check in."
Mirrim was startled awake when Menolly shook her. She must have been more tired than she had realized to have dozed off again. She scrambled out of bed.
"Beauty says the guards are asleep," said Menolly. "But the Records Room is right next to the Weyrleaders' weyr. We'll have to move fast."
Mirrim and Menolly mounted Path. The green dragon leaped from the ledge and arrowed toward the Record Room. Just when it seemed that she would crash into the cliff, she backwinged and landed on the sands.
Show-off, said Mirrim.
With immense dignity, Path informed her rider that Menolly had said fast.
Mirrim and Menolly dismounted. Path flew off to chew firestone from the supply kept near the feeding grounds. Menolly dashed into the Record Room, past the drugged guards, while Mirrim kept watch outside.
Sound carried in the vast bowl of the Weyr. A Harper and a chorus of children were singing a Teaching Song. Mirrim felt a pang of nostalgia for her childhood. It hadn't been particularly happy, but she had enjoyed the songs like the one the children were singing now, a tune contrasting the joys of flight with the responsibilities of the rider. But these lyrics were different from the ones she'd learned:
Blue riders are humble and loyal and true
Greens count their eggs, one-two-three
Browns give the orders for all to obey
The rulers of Pern are we!
Holders grow crops for the riders to eat
Healers cure only by our decree
Harpers must sing what we tell them to say
The rulers of Pern are we!
Menolly was taking far too long. Hadn't Beauty told her exactly where the charts had been hidden? Mirrim hurried into the room.
Menolly stood speaking in urgent whispers to the scarred Harper. On a table before them were the leather pack and the metal box that had held the charts. The box was empty.
Mirrim grabbed the Harper by the shoulders. "Where did you hide the charts?"
"No, no, it wasn't her!" exclaimed Menolly. "She's trying to help us."
The woman spoke for the first time. Her voice was unexpectedly light and sweet. "My blue was hiding here to see if you'd come. I was supposed to tell the Weyrleaders if you did. But I came to warn you instead. They've hidden – "
The Weyrleaders come, said Path.
"They're here!" said Mirrim.
The women dashed out of the room, Menolly grabbing the box and pack as she went. Outside, the Weyrleaders stood beside their dragons.
Path asked if she should return now.
Mirrim sent her an emphatic negative. You keep chewing firestone till you can't get any more down!
As Mirrim watched, more and more dragons appeared at ledges and landed on the ground. Though Path was bigger than any of them, she would also be far outnumbered. A battle would be bloody, and there could be no assurance of victory. But as soon as she had that thought, Mirrim was horrified that she had even considered pitting dragon against dragon. This was a matter for humans to settle.
"Traitor," said Elana to the Harper. "Did you think we had no one watching you? You're like the ancient Harper-spies who encouraged holders to rebel. Worse – you're like the Harpers who knew of the killing Threadfall and said nothing!"
Elana put her hand on the hilt of her belt knife.
The Harper's trained voice rose in a desperate shout. "The charts are under their bed!"
Elana glared at the Harper, then darted aside to block the stairs to her weyr.
K'lalon addressed Mirrim. "Let's be reasonable. We're not asking you stay here forever. We only want your help to put down Ruatha. Once you've done that, you can take your charts and go."
Mirrim's right hand ached. She realized that it was clenched around the hilt of her belt knife. She forced her fingers to let go. It wasn't as if she could duel the Weyrleader, like F'lar had dueled Fax… or T'ron…
Her fire lizards bugled.
Path flew in and landed so lightly that the sand barely stirred beneath her feet and tail. I am ready.
So am I.
Path was the most agile, swift, intelligent, loving, and courageous green dragon on Pern. Mirrim could never be worthy of her. But she could try.
"Weyrleader, I challenge you." Mirrim drew her knife.
"Mirrim, no!" exclaimed Menolly. "Have you ever fought with a knife?"
"I fought T'gellan." No need to let the Weyrleaders know it was in the course of T'gellan coaching her. K'lalon was about T'gellan's size and had the advantage of her in both reach and strength. But she was used to that.
Elana stepped forward. "I claim this challenge."
"I accept that." K'lalon sheathed his blade and took Elana's place guarding the stairs.
Mirrim had never practiced fighting with another woman. Though small, Elana moved with more grace and precision than K'lalon, and Mirrim suspected that she was the more dangerous opponent.
Before Mirrim could even begin to consider strategy, Elana lunged. Mirrim stepped to the side, but the woman followed, fast as a tunnel snake. Elana's wrist flipped over and the knife spun out, almost too fast for the eye to track. Mirrim threw out her right arm in a desperate block, and the blow meant for her throat struck her forearm instead. The sharp blade laid her arm open from elbow to wrist.
"First blood!" K'lalon called. "Hold!"
Elana and Mirrim backed away from each other. The laceration on Mirrim's arm hurt surprisingly little, considering how much it was bleeding. She was grateful for that until she realized that the pain was only waiting to ambush her later on.
"Concede," demanded K'lalon. "Fight Ruatha with us. Don't let your dragon die for the sake of your foolish pride."
The wound was to Mirrim's knife-arm, and the blood that had seeped between her palm and the hilt made it hard to maintain a grip. She'd treated injuries like this, and knew how the shock that eased the pain would also slow her reflexes and dull her mind. Elana was already faster than Mirrim, and her strike had been intended as a kill. One more round would end with Mirrim dead on the ground, and Path, her beautiful Path -
You risk me every time we fight Thread, said Path. And I risk you. Fight. I trust you.
"No," said Mirrim.
The women circled. Elana bounced lightly on the balls of her feet, but didn't attack. Mirrim suspected that Elana was waiting for her to lunge out recklessly. Or maybe her plan was simply to delay until Mirrim grew weak from loss of blood. Elana was faster, more skilled, more experienced, unwounded, and not suffering from cumulative time exhaustion. Mirrim wasn't going to give up, but she had nothing that could compete with Elana's advantages.
You don't give up, said Path. But she might.
Maybe her dragon had a point. Elana had impulsively taken K'lalon's challenge. Whether her intent was to wait till Mirrim charged her or passed out, if Mirrim didn't comply soon, Elana might get impatient and try something else – maybe something poorly thought out. Mirrim waited.
Elana feinted with her left hand. Mirrim dodged the real attack that she anticipated would come from the right. Elana's left hand closed around Mirrim's right wrist and jerked her forward. The feint had been a trick, all right, but not the trick Mirrim had expected. Mirrim brought up her left arm to block Elana's slashing attack from the right and stepped forward, going with the way Elana was tugging her rather than against it.
Elana lurched backward. Mirrim, continuing her movement forward, slammed their joined hands into Elana's face. The Weyrleader staggered and released her grip. Blood ran down her chin from a split lip.
"Do you concede?" asked Mirrim. It was hard to get even those few words out. Her chest and throat burned, and there was a sharp pain in her side as well as, now, her arm.
Elana spat blood on the sand. "No."
Menolly says her fire lizards will cause a distraction in a moment.
Stinging sweat dripped into Mirrim's eyes. She blinked. Elana lashed out with fist and knife. Mirrim ducked the knife, but the fist caught her across the temple. A burst of light obscured her vision.
She flung herself backward, sure some attack was coming. Her foot caught in a hollow in the ground, and she fell. Immediately, she rolled to the side, slashing her knife wildly about. An instant later, she scrambled to her feet. As her vision cleared, she saw Elana sliding backward, untouched. At least Mirrim's fall had surprised Elana enough that she hadn't been able to press her attack.
A man shouted, followed by another one. Caught up in the fight, the distraction startled Mirrim as much as it did Elana. Both women froze for an instant. But Mirrim, who had been forewarned, recovered faster. She dove forward, tackling Elana around the knees and throwing them both to the ground. Jamming her left palm into the sandy earth as a pivot point, Mirrim threw her body around to reverse her position, and kicked Elana in the head.
The Weyrleader went limp.
Mirrim rolled away. Her left hand hurt, which was strange because she didn't remember Elana cutting it. She glanced at it. The palm was a mess of blood and ground-in sand. All the skin had been scraped off when she'd spun around on it. More blood ran down her right arm and soaked into the sand.
F'lar had fought a duel, been wounded, rallied the Weyrleaders, and immediately gone and fought Thread for hours. How had he done it? Mirrim wasn't even sure she could stand up.
A gentle breeze blew over her face. Path's head dipped down and nuzzled her so delicately that it didn't even hurt.
You can stand. You can fight. You are the bravest greenrider on Pern.
Path's love gave her strength. Mirrim staggered to her feet. A mass of fire lizards hovered overhead. Riders pointed and stared as they dropped a bundle into Menolly's waiting hands. She emptied out the charts into the box and crammed the box into her pack.
"Come on! Before the Weyrleader wakes up!" Menolly said.
K'lalon moved to block them. "Wait! You won the duel. Why leave? You could be Weyrleader yourself!"
Much as Mirrim had fantasized about how much better she'd be as Weyrwoman than some people she could name, she didn't even consider it. She side-stepped him and went to mount. Her hands slipped, and then her feet. She leaned her cheek against Path's soft hide, feeling nauseated and dizzy.
Menolly gave her a boost up, followed her, and helped strap her in. Then she tapped Mirrim on the shoulder. "Turn around."
Mirrim turned. She vaguely noted that Menolly was brandishing what looked like a canteen. Then cold water splashed across her face. She gasped and choked, and wondered why Path hadn't objected to the attack. But by the time she wiped the water from her eyes, her mind and vision were clearer. Mirrim dug her clipped fingernails into her cheek, then slowly dragged them down. She had to stay conscious, or she'd get them all killed. No dragon fights Thread alone.
A fire lizard screeched. It was a blue she didn't recognize, hovering in front of her face. The Harper's blue. Mirrim looked down.
"They'll kill me once you go," said the Harper quietly.
Menolly leaned over and held out her hand. "Then come with us."
The Harper's eyes lit up with a wild hope. "Can I?"
"We're flying into the worst Threadfall in the history of Pern," said Mirrim, too tired to be anything but blunt. "And you're from a future that might not happen, so you probably won't even arrive. But get on, if you want to risk it. Path's strong enough for three."
The Harper needed no further encouragement. She scrambled up behind Menolly and strapped herself in.
On the ground, Elana began to stir. Mirrim saw metal glint in her hand.
Path leaped into the air. The little dragons became even smaller as she rose above Benden, until they were lost to sight.
Mirrim pictured the Southern beach and the mass of Thread looming above. She hurt all over, she couldn't stop shivering, and she knew she'd feel worse after a jump of a hundred Turns. Mirrim raked her nails along her cheek again, but even that new pain seemed blurred and distant. Her vision began to gray out.
Fight on your own if you have to, Path. You can do it. I trust you.
"Hold tight!" called Menolly. "This will be a long jump."
Black, blacker, blackest…
Menolly was flung backward the instant Path came out of between. The green dragon shot upward until she was positioned vertically in the air, belching flame straight up at the descending Thread. A choking cloud of black ash and heated air settled on them, but only for a moment. Path dove down and forward, almost skimming the beach. A clot of Thread the size of a house fell beside them.
Then Path was leaping upward again, always aiming her flame in bursts directly above her body. The air was almost too hot to breathe. Menolly leaned forward, shielding Mirrim's slack body with her own, and reached above Mirrim's head to grip the straps and pin them both down. The fire lizards too were clinging tightly to the straps and to Menolly's body. Wind tore at her face as Path dodged another great mass of Thread.
Menolly thought the Harper woman had been lost between, as Mirrim had pessimistically predicted, until she heard a shriek from behind her. Path winked between. Menolly was too shaken to try to measure the time. They emerged back on the beach. A convulsive grip around her waist reassured Menolly that the woman was still alive.
Acid dripped down Menolly's shoulder. An instant later, they were back between. Menolly clawed at the Threads that had eaten through her skin. They froze and crumbled beneath her fingers. Then they were back above the beach. Her shoulder hurt, but not as fiercely as before.
Path whipped to the left, then upward. The sky was almost entirely silver, but there were a few patches that were free of Thread. Path dipped her wings and arrowed toward one of the few small areas of blue. They emerged in a Thread-free sky.
Below them, Thread plummeted to the beach. Normal Threadfall in the south pierced leaves and fell harmlessly through, to be eaten by the grubs when it burrowed beneath the soil. These mats of Thread tangled in the trees and devoured them down to the roots. In moments, the beach was bare sand and rock.
"Path, do you know when you are?" asked Menolly.
Yes. Shall I go to Benden now? Mirrim needs help!
"Wait! Wait for the coordinates!" Menolly pictured Benden Weyr, taking into account the normal six hours' time difference between Benden and Southern Weyrs. "This time, Path. Make sure it's this time!"
Black, blacker, blackest…
It was with immense relief that Menolly recognized the watch dragon at Benden, blue Trebeth. D'wer waved to them.
"Path, tell Trebeth…" Menolly was having a hard time putting her thoughts together. "Tell Ramoth…"
I am telling everyone, said Path.
When Path landed in the Bowl, Lessa and F'lar were waiting for them at the forefront of a crowd of riders. T'gellan came forward to lift Mirrim from Path and carry her toward the Lower Caverns. Path followed them to the entrance of the Caverns and crouched down beside it, crooning anxiously.
T'gran, the brown rider who had rescued Menolly from Thread and mistaken her for a boy, shook his head incredulously. "You again! Branth says you should stop going out in Threadfall. Or at least wear riding gear."
"Tell him I'll try my best." Menolly thrust her precious box of charts at Lessa. "A devastating Threadfall starts tomorrow. Southern Weyr needs to evacuate temporarily. For the rest of Pern, use these charts. They're in choreographic notation – I can explain them, or any Harper can."
"We'll try 'any Harper,'" said Lessa, eyeing Menolly. "You look dead on your feet."
Lessa suddenly rounded on the Harper from the future. "Speaking of Harpers, who's this?"
The woman shrank back, clearly too frightened to speak.
"Someone who helped save Pern," said Menolly.
F'lar said mildly, "Lessa, let the women rest. We can always have Ramoth wake them up if we need them."
Arwith's rider Talina ran up, scanning the scene with an open curiosity that reminded Menolly painfully of her dragon. Menolly closed her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, the young queen was beside her rider.
"Greetings, Arwith," Menolly managed to say.
You have come a long way. Arwith's voice was a voice, nothing more, and she sounded like Talina.
"She likes you," said Talina. "I've never heard her speak to anyone who isn't a rider before."
Arwith didn't reply, or at least not that Menolly could hear. But a moment later, Talina said, "We'll have to listen to her sing some time, then. You silly thing, why didn't you ever tell me before that you loved music?"
Menolly told herself that it was a great honor and a wonderful thing to be liked by a queen dragon.
Her knees began to give way. T'gran scooped her into his arms.
"You're heavier than last time," he said. Her entire fair of fire lizards settled down on him and her, squeaking indignantly. "Oh, my mistake. It's just lizard-weight."
"I can walk," said Menolly, but didn't make a fuss when he ignored her and headed for the Lower Caverns, accompanied by another rider who carried the Harper. Menolly was asleep before he crossed the threshold.
She woke to the sound of music. The scarred Harper sat on a bed beside her, playing a lap harp. The tune was one Menolly had never heard before, heroic but also sad. If Menolly had been asked to set words to it, she would have written a lament for a dragonrider – Moreta, perhaps.
"Mirrim!" exclaimed Menolly. "Where is she – Is she –"
"She's fine," the woman said. "Or she will be, with a little more rest. The Healers moved her into Path's weyr so they could be together."
"And the Threadfall?"
"They say it will continue for another week, according to your charts, but there haven't been any deaths. Most of the injuries aren't serious. There was a lot of damage to vegetation in the south, but no Thread burrowed in the north."
Menolly let out a long breath and relaxed, for the first time in… days? Weeks? A hundred years?
"What's your name?" she asked.
"I'm Kiellen. And my fire lizard is Teff." Her wary expression didn't change, but Teff left the game he was playing with Menolly's greens to burrow into Kiellen's lap.
"Is something the matter?" Menolly realized how foolish the question was as soon as she spoke it. If the Oldtimers had found it difficult to adjust to modern Pern, how much more so would Kiellen find it, coming as she did from a culture that had never even existed here – might never exist, now.
"I don't want to sound ungrateful," Kiellen said slowly. "I'm very glad you did save me and Teff. But where do I go now? I spoke a little to your Weyrleaders, and… Well, they were perfectly nice, but I could tell I was horrifying them right down to the bones every time I opened my mouth. Not to mention every time they looked at my face. And apparently women aren't Harpers here? Except for you?" She laughed, a sound both incredulous and bitter. "Does that mean I'm not even a Harper any more?"
"No!" exclaimed Menolly. "I'm sure there'll be a place for you at Harper Hall. If you decide that's what you want. You don't have to decide immediately. Take your time."
She wondered if Kiellen's presence meant that her twisted version of Benden Weyr would still happen in some future time, or if the woman had somehow been plucked out of nonexistence. Both ideas made her head hurt, and she decided there would be time to ponder them later.
She thought of showing Kiellen the scar on her palm, and telling her about Half Circle Sea Hold and how hard it had been to adjust to life in Harper Hall, even though she'd hated the first and loved the second. But for that, too, there would be time.
"Is that tune you were playing traditional, or one you wrote?" asked Menolly. "Could you teach it to me?"
The day Menolly could walk father than to and from the necessary, she headed out to find a dragonrider to fly her into Path's weyr, and nearly collided with Mirrim, who was on her way to visit Menolly.
"Are you allowed to walk around?" asked Menolly, gesturing at the bandages on Mirrim's left hand, right arm, and face.
"You should talk." Mirrim indicated Menolly's shoulder, which was also bandaged. "Path told me it's thanks to you that I still don't have any Threadscores… Thanks."
"You're welcome," replied Menolly. "And I notice that you didn't answer my question. If you were your patient – which I now realize could actually happen – you'd order yourself back to bed."
"Aren't you glad there's only one of me?" retorted Mirrim. But her question lacked the bitter edge that Menolly had so often heard in her voice. "Speaking of which… Want to come with me to find 'just a drudge?'"
"Mirrim, are you sure…" Menolly let her words trail off. Mirrim could have been a Headwoman or a Weyrleader. Menolly could have been a queen rider or a sea holder. Just because the world had always been a certain way didn't mean it was the only way it could ever possibly be.
They found Riya changing glows in an empty room. The drudge glanced up at them curiously, then returned to her work. It seemed impossible that anyone could miss the strong will and intelligence in her eyes. But then, who looks into a drudge's eyes? Who would believe what they saw if they did?
Mirrim looked at Menolly. Menolly looked at Mirrim. Mirrim plunged in. "Would you like to be a candidate to Impress a fighting dragon?"
Riya stared for a moment, then slammed down a glow. "Very funny. Ha, ha, ha. Ha!"
"I'm not joking!" snapped Mirrim. "I'm Mirrim, Path's rider, and… er… Path Searched you. No dragonrider would joke about that."
Apparently dragonriders would lie about that, but Menolly held her tongue. In any case, it was true. In a way.
Riya began to wield a cloth with unnecessary vigor, sending up clouds of dust.
Mirrim coughed and glared. "Path, tell her I'm serious!"
A moment later, Riya froze in place, dust cloth dangling from her hand. "But… I'm a drudge. They'll never let me on the grounds."
"Well, of course they won't want to at first," said Mirrim. "But when Path and I explain to them –"
"Don't explain anything to anyone," said Riya. "They won't let me stand, and they'll kick me out of the Weyr so I can't try. But if I pretended I had an errand at the next Hatching, and snuck into the Hatching Grounds when everyone's distracted watching the Impression…"
Mirrim shuddered. "And if you don't Impress the first dragon who sees you, that'll be the last chance you'll ever get. No, I'm telling you, this has to go through the proper channels. When I explain to Lessa -"
"And I'm telling you, they'll never accept that," Riya said, her voice rising.
It occurred to Menolly that Path had very particular tastes in riders. Well, however Riya made it to the sands, surely some other dragon in some other clutch would want a girl who was determined and tactless and anxious and brave.
A girl… A woman, really. Riya was no younger than Mirrim or Menolly, though still of eligible age for the Hatching Grounds. Menolly herself was still young enough to Impress. She had never considered it before, but surely that was what they had intended for her at Benden, before Master Robinton had found her and offered her Harper Hall.
If she submitted herself for Search, she'd certainly be selected. She – another Menolly – had been Searched by Canth and chosen by Arwith. And unlike that other Menolly, she already had her fire lizards, so there was no need to choose between them. She could ride a queen dragon, and experience that bond once again.
Her life would be fighting Thread and running the weyr, not playing and composing music. She would see Master Robinton occasionally, not often. She would never have time to train to any advanced level. Her mate would be her dragon's choice, not hers. And her queen wouldn't be Arwith.
Like she'd told Kiellen, Menolly didn't have to make an immediate decision about what she wanted to do with her life. She would have time.
Menolly leaned against a wall and let words fall into a rhythm in her mind. She and Mirrim hadn't decided whether or not to tell anyone about the alternate pasts they'd visited, but she could leave those parts out for now. Either way, Mirrim and Path deserved a ballad with a rousing chorus and a martial theme, one so catchy and easy to sing that when it was done, all of Pern would raise their voices to celebrate the heroism of a stubborn woman and her willful green dragon.
As Mirrim and Riya continued to argue, Menolly began to hum.