T'jan had just dismounted and was pleased to see the children of the house already being called together. At too many cotholds he'd had to explain slowly and carefully what he had come for, and the ancient laws that gave him the right to do so. Only the fear of dragons had kept some of the cotholders in line, which saddened Hulath. T'jan's dragon couldn't understand why people would be afraid of him, and not afraid of Thread, which was much more likely to hurt them than the calm and placid blue dragon.
He scanned the line of children hopefully, but they all just looked like farmers to him.
Come on, let's give them the full inspection, he told Hulath wearily, as he shook hands with the cotholder's wife and exchanged meaningless pleasantries.
I do not think any of these will do, replied Huluth. Hmm. Unless... maybe that boy. There.
A girl scurried up to the gate, almost missing her place in the line. Her mother gave her a withering look, which wasn't lost on T'jan. Nor was the black eye, or the fact that she was the youngest there, and already quite the young lady - and her mother didn't exactly look past child-bearing age herself.
We're taking the girl, thought T'jan decisively.
What, the one on the end? asked Huluth in confusion. I don't think that...
I don't care if she Impresses, insisted T'jan. We're taking her anyway. Act like you're interested.
If you insist, replied Huluth doubtfully. The dragon dutifully approached the girl and provided a very creditable impression of being very interested, and to her credit the girl didn't cringe away or start whimpering like some of the others they'd encountered on the trail.
"Thank you very much for your time, Nantal," said T'jan. "I don't suppose Cotholder Drallen is around?"
"He's out at the Beastcraft Hall getting some medicine for the ovines," Nantal apologised.
"Well, Huluth tells me that your son Nallan here," he indicated the boy that Huluth had been slightly interested in, "would make an excellent Candidate, and your daughter, I'm sorry I didn't catch the name?"
"Taldra!" she interjected, radiant with hope.
"Taldra might even be of interest to the new Queen," concluded T'jan.
"Whatever service we might be to the Weyr, rider," offered Nantal obsequiously. "We follow the Traditions in this Cothold, never mind what anyone else is getting up to."
Nallan didn't look too pleased with the situation, but Taldra's enthusiasm was infectious and soon she and her brother had packed their bags and were looking up nervously at the forelimb of the blue dragon.
"Come on, I'll give you a boost up," said T'jan, loading the passengers carefully onto his dragon and noting their warm clothing approvingly. At least the shock of /between/ wouldn't also give them a chill.
Taldra took a deep breath as Huluth emerged from /between/, one she hadn't realised that she'd been holding through the dark and cold. They were still a good distance from the Weyr, and the view over the sunlit crater was glorious. Huluth floated lazily down beside the weyrlake, setting them down light as a feather on the rocky shore.
"That wasn't so bad, now, was it?" T'jan asked, attempting to lighten the mood. "I can't stay long, I'm afraid. Four more cotholds to get to. I'll see you to the Headwoman's office, though."
Taldra smiled gratefully at him, finding it difficult to speak. Now they were back on the ground she could see that the dragonman wasn't much older than her, and younger than some of her brothers. The party climbed down and set off for the Headwoman's office, where the Candidates were being officially registered.
"Aren't we hopeful, then, T'jan?" teased Manora as he entered with the two Candidates in tow. "And a girl this time, too! Well, do give me their names, and we'll see what we can do with them."
"These are Nallan and Taldra, from Drallen's cothold on Benden lands."
"Well, pleased to meet you, Nallan and Taldra. Let's see if we can't find some space for you. And what have you got in those little knapsacks of yours?"
T'jan took his leave, and Taldra and Nallan were taken to their new quarters by a quiet lady from the kitchens. Taldra got a glimpse of a fairly roomy cavern full of simple cots with large wooden trunks at one end, and boys of various ages rampaging between them, before Nallan disappeared into the room and closed the door. The girls were not packed in so tightly - after all, any one of them might be Weyrwoman after the Hatching, and many of them were the daughters of the Blood in various capacities. Taldra was shown to a slightly smaller cavern containing a blonde-haired girl who looked down her nose at the cotholder's daughter as soon as the Lower Caverns worker was well out of sight.
"How do you do?" asked the older girl with contempt. "Malia of Lemos. I see you've been assigned as my room-mate."
"I'm Taldra," said Taldra awkwardly, casting an eye over the room. It was littered with dropped socks and discarded thread-ends from some kind of needlework. The ceiling was surprisingly high, and the sheer volume somewhat alarming - she supposed that a small dragon and their rider could fit in here, if they had to.
"Dinner is in a candlemark," Malia informed her sniffily. "Make yourself at home. Don't touch any of my things."
"Of course not," replied Taldra indignantly. She shuffled over to the cot that was in less disarray, picking her way over discarded property carefully, and opened her knapsack to make a go of unpacking.
Taldra couldn't spot T'jan at the evening meal, so she sat with the other Queen Candidates. Several of them asked who she was, and some of them even attempted to cheer her up and enquire about the black eye that was coming out quite nicely now, but she refused to give them anything but her name and a vague explanation that she'd got the bruise in 'an accident'. Most of them seemed to be some kind of Blood relation, or at least the daughter of a Master Crafter or the Headwoman of a major Hold.
Nallan was at a different table, apparently having a grand old time laughing and joking with the other boys. They seemed to come from a much wider range of backgrounds, judging by their clothing. Taldra's plain, slightly patched travelling dress had been her mother's before her, and felt rather out of place compared to the rich blouses and skirts of the other girls and the practical leathers the riders all wore.
It was at breakfast that 'her' rider - as she'd already started thinking of him - caught up with her again.
"Taldra?" he called, as she was making her way into the dining cavern. Malia shot her a spiteful look - no dragonman was calling for her, even if T'jan was 'only' a bluerider. "I'm sorry I couldn't make it back for dinner - one of the other cotholders invited me in for a meal and I couldn't exactly refuse them. How are you settling in?"
"Fine," replied Taldra, a little more resentfully than she had intended, slipping out of the crowd of girls to speak to him.
"That doesn't sound very fine to me," said T'jan, looking at the black eye with some concern. "How's Nallan doing? And you really should get the Healers to have a look at that eye, I'm sure there's something they could do for it."
"Nallan's doing great," said Taldra, with more conviction than her previous reply. "There seem to be a lot more boys. All of the girls are, well..."
"Of higher rank than you?" asked T'jan sympathetically. "Maybe, by the way that the world outside thinks. But you're in the Weyr now. All that matters here is what the dragons think of you."
"And a pretty picture I am right now too, with this," complained Taldra. She wondered if she was being too familiar with the dragonman - after all, there were terrible stories, and it wouldn't do to get too close to one - but here in the imposing surroundings of the Weyr she couldn't help but cling to any scraps of comfort she could find, and at least he seemed to like her.
"Look, let's get some breakfast and then I'll take you down to the Infirmary."
She was sure that all the girls were looking at her as she collected her tray with the rather handsome and dashing bluerider. No doubt some of them were jealous, and some of them were incredulous that a Queen Candidate would waste their time on someone with such an inferior colour of dragon. But T'jan seemed to have her best interests at heart, and that was more than she could say for any other person in the Weyr.
T'jan felt distinctly small and vulnerable as he dropped Taldra off next to the great golden egg. Most of the dragons in the area were significantly larger than Huluth, and they were practically jostling for space. He supposed it made sense - the bronzes and the browns were the ones who would be in the running for Weyrleader once the new Queen was mature enough to fly, and so it was natural for them to have gone out and picked their favourites.
So why did you pick her up, T'jan? he thought to himself.
It will all be fine, his dragon reassured him. She's not going to Impress. You'll get to keep her.
That didn't really make T'jan feel much better. Was he really just acting like one of the dragonmen of rumour, snatching girls from their parents for their own sordid purposes with false promises of dragon wings?
She likes you. You like her. I don't see what's so complicated, contributed Huluth, bringing a smile to T'jan's face as they manoeuvred down carefully through the assembled throng of dragonkind.
"Off we go now," prompted T'jan, offering a hand to steady Taldra as she climbed down onto the platform. "Remember, if she wants you, she'll find you. If she doesn't want you, she won't even see you, so don't stand too close."
With those ominous words of warning, Huluth took T'jan back into the skies to clear the way for the rest of the Queen Candidates, darting nimbly between the larger dragons until he reached the open air beyond.
In the face of this adversity, the Queen Candidates seemed much more equal. There was little to distinguish her from the others once T'jan and Huluth had disappeared into the crowd, and they made space for her in the loose circle that had formed around the egg. Except for one... one kept herself apart from the pack, and Taldra didn't recognise her from the Dining Caverns or any of the other places where she'd got to know the others, even come to quite like some of them. Maybe she was a late arrival, or whoever brought her in had been keeping her to themselves. She looked kind of lonely, but also very fierce, a defiant kind of loneliness which kept Taldra from her first impulse to go and introduce herself.
It was a bit late for introductions, anyhow, what with the humming of the dragons that meant they could barely hear each other. They were about to be in competition, possibly the greatest competition of their lives. It wasn't really surprising that the other girl didn't want to talk to her adversaries.
"B'len said the hatchlings are very clumsy," whispered one of the other girls, in a stage whisper that carried across the noisy backdrop. "And their claws are razor-sharp - even their wingtips are dangerous!"
The girls eyed the rocking golden egg with new respect. An awkward mixture of hope and terror, anticipation and dread, fuelled the swapping of rumours gleaned from the riders that had brought them here. They were all in competition, but also strangely united against the dangers they had been warned of. All except the one who stood apart.
"That was F'lar who dropped her off," whispered Malia. "I hear he picked her up from Ruatha Hold. Just a drudge, they say. Maybe that's why she won't come over here. Too ashamed - or too stupid to take comfort in others."
Then the eggs started to break, and with them the screams, and the terror. Taldra shrank away against the wall, not wanting to look. Nallan was down there somewhere, in the chaos that had beset the male candidates, and soon the ominous rocking golden egg would unleash their own terrifying, out of control creature that one of them would be expected to step forwards and tame.
She was still cowering against the wall when the golden egg exploded into glorious life, watching paralysed with terror as the other girls fled the hatchling's confused rampage.
She was still cowering against the wall when the girl from Ruatha took the beast's head and cradled it, and spoke to it as if nothing was wrong and it was the most wonderful thing in all the world.
She was still cowering against the wall when the Healers took the bodies away, leaving just the russet stain of Malia's blood seeping away into the sand, and T'jan came back down to tell her it was okay now, it was okay, and would she like to come back to his weyr to clean up?
Looking down, she saw the blood on her white robe, and that was when she fainted.
The chaos of returning the unsuccessful Candidates, and finding enough food for the new dragonets, left little attention from the Weyr's authorities for the case of Taldra and T'jan. She asked for a position in the Lower Caverns, and set to her work in the laundry and kitchens with enthusiasm. The Weyr was so big compared to the cothold she had grown up in; there were so many people to look after.
"Hey, Taldra," called one of the kitchen's best gossips, Naldri, as Taldra showed up for her shift one day. "You moving in with your dragon-boy already?"
"Not that he's told me..." said Taldra, confused. "Why, what do you know?"
"Haneni told me they were cleaning out an old set of weyrs for the new riders and 'a couple of guys who wanted to be in walking distance'. And I don't figure T'jan for someone who's doing it to get maid service."
"No, that wouldn't be..." Taldra trailed off. "Anyway, it's none of my business where he lives, really."
"Still not taken him to bed?" teased Naldri. "Or does he not like girls after all?"
Taldra tried not to rise to the bait, but she could feel the blush rising in her cheeks anyway. She still hadn't quite got used to the promiscuous ways of the weyrfolk, and T'jan had been very kind and gentlemanly about it. The other women alternated between jealousy that she had a dragonman all of her very own, and derision that she would settle for a bluerider and not compete as they did for the affections of those of the 'higher' colours, however fleeting those affections might be. And it was practically scandalous that she wasn't even doing anything with T'jan.
"T'jan and I are friends," Taldra asserted stiffly, "that's all. And you know it."
"Yeah, yeah. Haven't you noticed that Huluth hasn't chased a single green since you got here? Fanryn's seen them heading for the hills every time one's done as much as sparkled in the sunlight."
So Taldra was not entirely surprised when T'jan looked unusually serious and subdued as they queued up to get their dinner. He wouldn't tell her what was wrong until they were sat at a table and settled.
"Taldra," he said, "I've been wondering, these past sevendays. What is it that you... that you feel about me?"
"What have people been telling you?" asked Taldra, nervously.
"People think I'm silly, of course," confessed T'jan. "I mean, if I was a greenrider they'd actually be worried about it. You... I know I haven't made things very clear to you. I don't want to put you under any pressure. I don't want people.. I don't want you to think I took you away from your family just so that I could..."
"Oh, T'jan," replied Taldra, with sadness in her voice but also fondness. "I'd never think that of you. You did the right thing. I've been so much happier here, without the threat of being married off to some cotholder I've never seen before hanging over me. As for what other people think, let them think what they like. Does it matter that terribly? None of the other riders are half as gentlemanly about these things as you."
"So..." continued T'jan, awkwardly. "If I said I'd managed to get a weyr that you could walk to. It's not much, but it's nicer than the caverns..."
Taldra took another bite of her food, ostensibly by accident, but really to give her a moment to think. She was rather fond of T'jan. He had been good to her, and if Naldri's information was accurate, he'd been as much of a gentleman as a dragonman could ever afford to be. She enjoyed his company, and she didn't want to push him away. But no-one had ever really spoken of love to her. She had assumed, in her previous life, that she would be married off to some other cotholder when it was convenient, or maybe even a farm labourer if no cotholders had presented themselves. T'jan was a much more pleasant match than she'd ever expected to make, even with the bad reputation that dragonmen had.
"I..." she began. "I... would be honoured..."
T'jan smiled, with a hint of sadness. "I don't want you to do this because I'm a dragonrider," he said. "I don't want you to do this because you think you owe me something for bringing you here. And I don't want to rush into anything. I can't offer you a wedding, or an inheritance. There are so many training accidents, and maybe there will even be Thread, if the rumours are correct! I don't know if I can even offer you... a life, not one that will last for many years."
"That doesn't matter to me," said Taldra, with more confidence than she'd expected to feel. "You'd offer me yourself - for as long as you can - and that's more than most here would even consider..."
"I love you, Taldra," said T'jan. "It's a silly thing for a rider to say, and I didn't know if I did when I brought you here. I thought it might just be a passing fancy, like riders are meant to have. But since that day I haven't wanted anyone but you."
And that was that. They returned to T'jan's weyr after dinner, and Taldra rearranged the furniture a bit, and they had their first kiss. It was kind of confusing, but Taldra was sure that she could grow to like it, given time.
And it was rather nice to hold someone as they fell asleep.