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Winging It

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The party from the Edwards Hold had been travelling all morning through a chilly gray winter drizzle, and the draybeasts picked their way along the slick stones of the ancient road.  There were about a dozen men and twice as many animals in total: the Lord Holder and his wife the Lady Rachel, mounted on fine runnerbeasts, the draybeasts laden with the weyr’s tithe of wineskins and good cheese, and a number of the hold’s best men, attending to protect the party and the goods against thieves.

Danny Williams was the leader of the Lord’s men.  He was in a terrible mood: damp where the cold rain had begun to slip in along the seams of his oiled coat, frustrated because one of the runnerbeasts had developed a limp that had set the party’s progress back several hours, and most of all, furious with the Lord and Lady Holder, who were attending the weyr on business he absolutely did not approve of.  

As they entered the pass above the weyr valley, where herdbeasts grazed in great number, the clouds finally broke, and the green fields below them took on a light-and-dark pattern where the sun or shadows landed. On the other side of the valley was the famous sight of the Mauna Kea weyr: a sheer cliff face sliced into the gray stone of the mountain side, countless meters high. It was the first time that Danny had seen the weyr in person, although its image was famous and frequently depicted in the tapestries of the region. There was an old story that cliff wasn’t a natural phenomenon, but rather the work of the ancients, who had literally cut the mountain in two.  Danny didn’t see how that could possibly be true, but he could understand how the legend had come about, since from a distance the side of the cliff looked as perfectly even as ancient-cut stone.

There were holes in the cliff face. From a distance, they seemed as small as firelizards’ nests, and the dragons occasionally entering and exiting from them no larger.  When he squinted, though, Danny could just make out some with flying harnesses and tiny riders perched on their backs.

One of the riderless dragons took off over the valley, frightening the herdbeasts who huddled below. It looked as though it would swoop down and catch an animal between in its talons but at the last moment it feinted, caught an updraft, and arched up high above the valley. It trumpeted in a way that, to Danny at least, seemed to convey a clear delight in life. Then it flew over the group of Holders, so close that they struggled to keep a tight rein on their runners.

Hello, Danny heard in the back of his mind, like a voice echoing in the distance.

“Oh, isn’t it lovely,” Rachel said. “Just imagine, maybe Grace will be riding a dragon before long.”

Danny scowled at the reminder of the purpose of their trip.   

Energized by the improving weather and by finally being within sight of their destination, the travelers urged their runnerbeasts to move a bit faster. They descended fairly rapidly into the valley, where the skittish herds shied away from them as they passed, and then began a partial ascent back up the slopes, towards one of the lower entrances to the weyr at the base of the cliff.

As they drew near, a party from the weyr came out to meet them: weyrbrats, some drudges, and a few dragonriders, distinguishable by their fine hide clothing and elaborate shoulder knots.

Danny swung down from his runner beast gratefully, and set to unpacking the draybeasts.  The tithe from the hold needed to be counted and registered before it was carried away in the confusion. Edwards Hold, although small, prided itself on the quality of goods it delivered to the weyr in exchange for protection from thread.

From the corner of his eye he saw Lord Edwards helping Rachel down from her runner beast, and then introduce her to one of the riders.  He heard her bell-like laughter in response to someone’s pretty compliment.  He tried to shut the sound out, occupying himself instead with loosening the buckles that secured the load of the dray beast in front of him.

His feeling of humiliation never faded. Three years and he was still there, in the hold, lurking behind Rachel like a shadow. Lord Edwards tolerated him because, frankly, he needed Danny – men of his ability were hard to come by - but he knew how people talked behind his back. They whispered that he still loved Rachel, although she’d left him for the Lord Holder. It was pathetic. 

Danny pulled the load down from the beast’s back before moving on to the next animal.  Of course, if Grace stayed at the weyr, which she would if she actually impressed a queen - or even if she didn’t, it wasn’t unusual for girls to stay on – then what would he do?  The riders didn’t have any need of a man like Danny; he wouldn’t be useful to them as he was to Lord Edwards.  But he couldn’t leave Grace either. Despite having been taken on search, she was only thirteen, and that was far, far too young, in Danny’s eyes, to leave her to find her own way in the world.

He slung the second saddle bag of goods down from the draybeast’s back with such force that some of the drudges who had come to help him startled backwards, looking alarmed.

“Can I help you?” A voice behind him asked, and Danny swung around to see whoever was foolish enough to interrupt him when he was in such a foul mood.

The dragonrider was about Danny’s own age, tall and dark-haired. The knots on his shoulder were even more elaborate than those of his compatriots: while Danny wasn’t well-versed enough in weyrknots to know exactly what they meant, he could guess well enough that the rider was someone important.  Tall, broad-shouldered, and stupidly good-looking: men like that tended to leave Danny feeling slightly defensive. Not that he felt inadequate or anything, but one had stolen his wife. The rider was looking at Danny in a friendly way, though, with his head cocked to one side and a slight smile, as if perhaps Danny was broadcasting his reactions too obviously, and the dragonrider found them amusing.

“I’m St’ve,” he said. “Welcome to Mauna Kea.”

Danny huffed, not finding much to fault in the simple introduction.

“Danny Williams,” he replied.  “Can I register our tithe with you?” When St’ve nodded, Danny fumbled for the piece of paper he’d carefully folded beneath his coat.  “Fifty large cheeses, twenty casks of wine, and ten bolts of woven fabric,” he recited. “There are also a few smaller items, brought as gifts to the weyrleader and weyrwoman.”

The rider gave a low whistle. “Cheese from your region is a specialty,” he said, smiling. “We appreciate the generosity.”

Danny grunted. “Well, we wanted to give Grace a proper send-off.” Never mind that they shouldn’t be sending her off at all, he thought glumly.

“Right, the candidate from your hold,” St’ve nodded.  “Everyone’s excited about her. There are stories, but this is the first time we’ve seen someone who could actually talk to any dragon they liked.”

Danny frowned. “Is it really that rare an ability?”

The rider nodded. “We riders usually only ever talk to our own dragons, except maybe in exceptional circumstances. Grace is something else entirely. She’s been here ten days, and she’s already popular: all the dragons took to her immediately. In fact, I think my own Gareth is telling her secrets he won’t tell me.”

Danny smiled in spite of himself. “That does sound like Grace,” he admitted.

Stan and Rachel had already been lead into the weyr, presumably to settle into some lavish room the weyr had set aside for important guests. Danny looked around at his tired men and their animals, who were skittish, unused to the strange scents of the weyr, and wondered where they would rest.

“I’ll show you where to stable your animals,” suggested St’ve, “and where you can stay while you’re here. And then perhaps you’d like some klah to warm up after your journey.”

Danny nodded slowly, grateful for the help. He let St’ve bargain with the weyr’s stable master for a corner of space and fresh hay for the Edward’s hold animals, and then find modest but comfortable quarters for Danny’s men.  Given the confusion of the weyr, full of visitors and last minute preparations for the hatching, Danny was fairly sure that they wouldn’t have been settled in so rapidly without St’ve’s assistance.

 

 

“Is a hatching always like this?” He asked St’ve, who, graciously (for surely the rider had other things to attend to) had shepherded them to a corner of the dining hall, and somehow procured fragrant, piping hot mugs of klah.  Danny’s men had mostly gone to their cots, to rest, but he had found himself enjoying St’ve’s company, as well as the chance to have a bit of conversation and look over the weyrpeople.  He nodded to the bustle around them: drudges running this way and that, riders with their flying leathers unlaced, socializing, and some candidates – it was easy to see who they were – young men and women in white shifts, looking so nervous they were scarcely able to eat or drink.

“More or less,” St’ve replied easily, “although this time, with such a large clutch and a queen egg, it’s even worse than usual.”

Danny nodded, and then saw a streak of white coming through the crowded hall: his daughter, a head shorter than any of the other candidates, shrieking his name.

“Danno!” Grace cried, throwing herself into his arms.

“Monkey!” Danny replied, hugging her tight, before pulling away so that he could get a proper look at her. She looked much the same as she had at the hold, two weeks earlier when she’d been taken on search: nut brown from all the time she spent in the sun, cheerful, and excited, her eyes wide with stories to tell. She was already talking a streak, and Danny had to make her take a deep breath and sit down so that he could listen carefully to what she was saying.

“Danno, I missed you!”

“I missed you too,” Danny said, his voice sticking in his throat. “How have you been? How do you like it here?”

She smiled sunnily. “I like it,” she said. “It’s more fun than the hold. The girls don’t have to sit and do embroidery, we can play with the boys. We went swimming at the lake yesterday, and Calipeth squirted water on me.” She giggled, and then, noticing St’ve sitting next to Danny, belatedly remembered her manners enough to drop a curtsy. “Hello, Gareth’s rider,” she said.

St’ve grinned. “Hello. Gareth told me you were up on the ridge top this morning.”

Grace nodded. “To see whether thread would fall. Freleyth says not for at least another seven-day. Freyleyth is the oldest dragon in the weyr,” she explained, turning back to Danny. “He’s a brown and he knows nearly everything.”

“Is that right?” Danny said.

Grace nodded, and then, unexpectedly launched herself at him again, hugging him tight. “Danny, I’m glad you’re here.”

“Me too, Monkey.”

“You’ll watch tomorrow, won’t you?”

He nodded, a lump in his throat.

“Grace!” He heard Rachel’s well-bred holder’s voice cutting through the crowd. “Grace, where are you?”

He and his daughter shared a quick look, and then Grace slipped obediently down from the bench. 

“Bye, Danno,” she said. “See you later.”

Danny hugged her again, quickly, before letting her go.

 

 

When he turned back to his klah, St’ve, who didn’t know any better, was looking at him as if he was confused.

“That’s right,” he said, as if he was remembering an old story. “The Lady Holder-”

Danny sighed.  It wasn’t a story he liked to tell to strangers, but, on the other hand, it would be circulating throughout the weyr soon enough, if it wasn’t already.

“Grace is my daughter,” he said. “Rachel – the Lady Edwards – was my woman before she became the Lady Holder.” He took a drink of his klah, which had gone cold, and seemed more bitter than it had before. “It’s not bad for Lord Holder Edwards that Grace has been searched: having her about the hold was always a bit of an embarrassment, especially now that Rachel’s given him his own heir.”

St’ve, to his credit, took in the information politely. “I remember that story,” he said. “It was a bit of a scandal at the time. Everyone said that the Lady Edwards must have been exceptional, because the Lord Stanley became besotted by her so completely.”

“She is that,” Danny agreed reluctantly.  Then, seeing St’ve’s face, he added hastily. “Not that there’s any feeling still between us. I’ve stayed at the hold for Grace: even if she’s been formally adopted by Lord Edwards, she’s still my daughter.”

St’ve nodded.  “You really love Grace, don’t you?” He leaned in conspiratorially. “Tomorrow, look for me once the hatching begins. I’ll make sure you have a front row seat.”

 

 

He kept his promise, too. Danny didn’t see St’ve the rest of that day or the morning of the next, but the early afternoon at the warmest part of the day, when the hum of the dragons had risen to a volume where it seemed to make the very mountain and Danny’s bones vibrate in time with the deep sound, the weyrleader and weyrwoman told their guests that it was time to assemble on the hatching ground and Danny caught sight of the dark-haired rider there. He waved, and Danny broke away from his men and the other holders – all a bit intimidated and made superstitious by the hatching –to join him at the edge of the hot sands with a cluster of other dragonriders.

The queen dragon was massive, a huge, golden skinned creature with iridescent eyes that seemed to take in everything around her at once: the spectators filling the stands, which had been placed at a respectful distance, and the candidates who had begun to form rows in the sand, and her own eggs, which were rocking back and forth.  On some, Danny could even see thin, hairline cracks forming.   The queen’s rider, the weyrlady Patricia, was tucked into the crook of her queen’s forearm. She stroked Jameth soothingly, and murmured quietly to the giant queen.

The queen egg stood somewhat apart from the rest of the clutch. It was clear which it was from the golden tinge of the shell, as well as its size. It was rocking just as vigorously as the others, and Danny watched it fascinated, wondering if inside that egg was the dragon that would become Grace’s partner.

“It’ll be soon,” St’ve said quietly to Danny. “No one can help the eggs hatch. Once the dragonets emerge, they’ll choose the candidate they want to be their rider, and impress.”

Danny nodded. Grace had emerged with the other queen candidates, a row of girls in simple white shifts that formed a respectful semi-circle around the queen egg.  Jameth looked at them for a few moments as if she didn’t like them, and Danny heard Patricia gently calming the queen again.

Then there was a crack, loud enough that everyone fell silent, and strained their eyes to see which of the eggs had made the sound.  There, in the middle of the clutch, one medium-sized bluish egg toppled over, splitting, and a wet, sapphire-colored dragonet crawled out. It was already as large as a dog, but still, Danny thought something about it was clearly like any other baby animal, appealing in its helplessness. The boys in the line moved towards the dragonet, and then, remembering protocol, held themselves back. The dragonet passed over three boys, making an odd sort of mewling sound Danny hadn’t expected, before stumbling forward until it ran, head-long, into the legs of the fourth, nearly toppling the boy over.

“His name is Ereweth!” The boy cried, breathlessly, and then he was hugging the dragonet, crying, and Danny thought he imagined the dragonet chanting happily, Mine, mine, my rider.

While that was happening three or four more eggs had begun to hatch, and all at once the hatching grounds became chaotic, filled with wet dragonets, weeping boys, and general confusion.  Much of the attention from the spectators was still on the queen egg, however, which had begun to crack neatly down the center. The dragonet inside was tapping rhythmically. With each blow, the egg cracked a bit farther.

Then, with a final, strong tap, the egg split open, and the new queen, gold and damp in the hot sun, spilled out.  There were seven girls around her, and Grace was the littlest, the last in line.  She was watching the queen with so much open hunger than Danny couldn’t help but hope for her, in spite of all his concerns.

But then, the little queen wobbled, not towards Grace, but towards the tallest girl, a willowy black-haired woman who looked more than twenty; the oldest of the lot.

“That’s Kono,” St’ve whispered. “She’s been in four hatchings until now, trying for a green. People have been saying she ought to give up-“

But she was already on her knees, in the sand, throwing her arms around the dragonet’s neck and saying, “Aleth, Aleth, Aleth.” The dragonet nuzzled her neck as though comforting her new rider.  They were so happy that even the disappointment of the other girls, and the increasing number of boys who saw they would be left dragonless, couldn’t dampen their joy, but Danny’s attention was already back to Grace, who looked so lost and confused that it was all he could do not to run out on the sand and gather her up. 

He felt St’ve’s hand on his arm, and he turned to see the dragonrider’s concerned expression. “It’s all right,” St’ve said. “There will be other hatchings for Grace.”

Danny couldn’t even have tried to explain what he felt.  Grace was led away, and he looked around the hatching grounds in a daze.  A few dragonets were wandering, still finding their riders, a few eggs that had been rocking but never cracked now slowed, as if the dragonets inside had lost energy, and were giving up.  One last egg cracked, and a small green dragon, its large eyes whirring, tumbled out, and began cautiously picking its way to the boys who still waited.

Where are you? Danny heard it asking.  Where are you?

It looked over each of the boys, and seemed to come away disappointed, until it was the last dragonet left alone on the sands, and there were no more candidates. The dragonet’s wings dropped, and its eyes seemed to dim. Danny looked at St’ve, who along with the other riders, was watching this last dragonet with concern, his lips pressed tightly together.

“It’s a bad sign,” he explained, “Dragonets that don’t impress die, and we need every dragon we have these days.”

Don’t give up, Danny thought, looking at the dragonet. Surely your rider is out there somewhere.

The green head popped up, and Danny had the uncanny but surely false impression that the dragonet was looking straight at him. Then it began to waddle forward in the sand, its wings dragging, wobbling as it walked but still managing to move faster than Danny would have thought a newly born animal capable of. It was moving straight towards him and St’ve. The dragonriders looked at each other and pulled back, making way for the dragonet. Danny tried to move as well, and found the dragonet diverting towards him. When he tried to shift again, someone behind him grabbed his shoulders, holding him in place.

Hello, the dragonet seemed to be – no, actually was saying, although it was just looking at Danny, not actually talking. Hello.

No, said Danny. Not me. That isn’t what I meant. Keep looking. What about that boy over there, doesn’t he look nice?

My name is Faroeth, the dragon said, and abruptly Danny realized, it wasn’t an ‘it’, it was a she. She was a she.  Faroeth reached Danny’s feet and plastered herself to his side, looking up at him with a plaintive expression. Don’t you want me?

Looking into her eyes, Danny experienced the same sinking feeling he did every time Grace came asking him for something he really shouldn’t give her.  How could he say no? He was in a lot of trouble. He couldn’t be a dragonrider.

Yes you can, said Faroeth. You have me, so now you can be a rider.

Danny was so, so, screwed.

 

 

“Boys,” said the brown rider, and then he cocked a brow at Danny and Faroeth, and Kono and Aleth.  “Lady,” he amended, “and Holder.”

Some of the boys snickered. Danny ignored them, and concentrated instead on Faroeth, who was tugging his pant leg with her claw. Despite the fact that she was being gentle, it would probably rip in a moment unless she stopped.

I’m hungry, she said, looking up at him plaintively.

You just ate, Danny reminded her. And now it’s time for training, remember?

Training, Faroeth agreed, and Danny thanked his lucky stars she was, so far, easily distracted. She stretched her wings carefully: although she’d grown in the past few days since her hatching, eating and sleeping endlessly, she wasn’t yet any larger than a wherry. Her wings were growing rapidly as well, and currently her wingspan was nearly the length of her body. By the time she was fully grown Danny estimated that it would be eight or ten times as great.

He was the oldest dragonrider in the new clutch by more than a decade. Kono, who had impressed the new queen, was ten years younger than he was, and most of the rest of the riders were even younger, between fifteen and twenty. At thirty-three, Danny felt ancient next to them: which only made his current position feel even more ridiculous.

“Today I’ll be teaching you about riding harnesses: how to make them, how to test them, and how to mend them when they break. Remember, once you’re in the air a good harness is the only thing between you and death –

Ch’n Ho, the brown rider in charge of teaching the new riders, was a calm man with a patient demeanor.  Nevertheless, he was strict, and seemed to have a preternatural ability to guess which young rider and which dragonets were dozing in the back of the class, and which were about to get into mischief.  Koleath, his brown, was the largest dragon in the weyr, except for the queen. At the moment, Koleath was blinking placidly down at Danny and the other trainees. The brown intimidated Danny, both for his massive size and because when something caught his attention, he could go from being as still as a stone to darting forward faster than even the little blues and greens.

“Ch’n Ho is my cousin,” Kono whispered to Danny. “It’s weird to hear him calling me, ‘lady’.”

Danny could sympathize.  It still didn’t seem real that he was expected to be a dragonrider now. Lord Edwards and Rachel had already promised to send his few possessions ahead to the weyr: just like that, his thirty years of life were erased, and he was forced to begin again. He was good at many things, but now he would have to learn entirely new skills: how to care for Faroeth, and how to fly and fight with her.

Faroeth nudged his leg uneasily: Danny looked at her and smiled.  He had her, now, and he had Grace, since the weyleader and weyrwoman had been more than happy to have her stay with them. That was already more than he could have hoped or dreamed of a few days ago. So, although it was awkward to be forced to learn a new profession at such a late age, he supposed that it was worth the price.  

He and Grace and Faroeth had been given a snug little weyr in the lower part of the cliff face to call their own. Apparently the highest weyrs were the most prized, but Danny couldn’t imagine why, as that was where the winds were strongest.  He was perfectly happy with a few rooms that were lower to the ground.

“D’nny” Ch’n Ho said, and Danny realized he was saying it for the second or third time, Danny had been distracted.

“I’m sorry,” he said.

“Can you demonstrate the proper way to tighten a harness, please?”

Frowing, Danny stepped up to Koleath’s massive belly. His flying harness has been unbuckled. Taking a guess, Danny re-fastened in the same fashion he was accustomed to use for riderbeasts.  Ch’n Ho watched him, and then smiled gently.

“Koleath isn’t a runner beast,” he said. “Done like that, you’d find yourself slipping up his neck the first time he dived. Here,” he said, demonstrating again.

Danny felt his face go red, but he nodded and resolved to keep his attention from wandering in the future. Being an old holder in a class of teenagers was bad enough without being the slow one of the class, as well.

 

 

After the lesson (and after feeding Faroeth again, and leaving her to rest) he was folding up his equipment before making his way to the dining hall for some lunch, when he heard someone sniffling.

He and Faroeth looked around the room, tracking the source of the sound. He found it in a storage room set just off of the training grounds: it was a weyrling, sitting by himself while his blue dragonet tried to curl itself around him.

Danny recognized the dragonet as Ereweth, but he had forgotten the boy’s name.

He approached carefully, not wanting to embarrass the boy. Faroeth was less cautious, and pushed her head against the flank of the blue dragonet, crooning to him.

“Are you alright?” Danny asked.

The boy looked up at him. His eyes were suspiciously red-rimmed, but he wasn’t actually crying.

“I’m fine,” he said. 

“Sure,” Danny said, squatting down next to him.  The boy reminded him a bit of Grace, with his light hair and somewhat delicate features, although he was probably a year or two older than she was. His thick handspun tunic looked like the clothing of a holder-bred child, and probably also of a poorer family.

“It’s a big change, isn’t it?” he said, “Being in the weyr.”

The boy looked at him for a moment and then shrugged.

“It’s just different,” he said. “All these guys who were raised in the weyr know everything already. What if I screw up and Ereweth gets hurt because of it?”

The blue nudged him reassuringly.

“That’s true,” Danny said. “I’ve had the same thought myself.”  He shrugged. “But maybe you’ll be better than they are, because you won’t take things for granted. You’ll be more careful, so you won’t make any dumb mistakes."

The boy shook his head dolefully, and Danny resisted the urge to reach out and ruffle his hair.

“Ereweth wouldn’t have chosen you if you weren’t up to the task,” he said, firmly.

The blue dragonet licked his rider’s face, making the boy laugh unexpectedly. “I didn’t think of that,” he told Danny sheepishly. “Ereweth says it’s true though.”

Danny nodded firmly.  “What hold are you from?” He asked.

“Forleath’s Crossing.”

“Ah,” Danny thought a minute. “I passed through there once, long ago.  It’s pretty far from here, but I guess once Ereweth’s a bit larger you’ll be able to visit as much as you want.”

The boy’s eyes lit up.  “I guess so!” He said. “This is the first time I’ve been without my parents and sisters,” he added quietly.

Danny nodded. “You’ll be protecting them from thread, though.”

“I’m Rihan,” the boy said. “Well, R’han now, I guess!” He smiled at his dragon, who tried to lick his face again.

“I’m Danny,” Danny said. R’han snorted. “I know. You’re famous already. Because you’re so old,” he added, cheekily.

“Yeah, yeah,” Danny grumbled, so that R’han smiled.

 

 

He left the weyrling at the corner of the training hall, took Faroeth back to his weyr (she promptly fell asleep) and, feeling his stomach rumbling, decided to head to the dining hall. 

He had scarcely turned the corner out of his door when St’ve fell into place besides him.  It was the first time he’d talked to the bronze rider since he impressed, although they’d passed each other in the hallways a few times, going from one place to another.

“Can I join you?” St’ve asked. Danny nodded.

In the dining hall, one of the drudges appeared to furnish them with good bread, thick meat stew, and tall mugs of klah. Danny sighed and breathed in the scents happily: Stan and Rachel’s hold had by no means been a stingy one, but still he had never eaten so well.

St’ve grinned, amused by Danny’s obvious pleasure in his food. “How are you settling into the weyr?” he asked. 

Danny shrugged. “It feels like I’ve been kicked back to nursery school,” he said.

St’ve laughed. “Sorry about that,” he said. “It won’t last forever, though.” He leaned across the table, looking at Danny. He had green eyes, and, with his riding jacket slung over the back of his chair, Danny could see that his arms were tattooed. The patterns looked like those he had seen among the fisherman of the southern coast.

“Where’d you get those?” he asked.

St’ve looked down at his arm. “I wasn’t always a dragonrider, either.”

“No?” For some reason – the deference people showed to him, and his obvious comfort and command of the weyr, probably – Danny had just assumed St’ve was weyrborn.

“I am,” St’ve said, answering his unasked question. “Weyrbred, I mean. But when I was young, I left and worked on a ship. It’s a long story,” he added, cutting off Danny’s next question. “I did it for a few years, and then I came back and impressed Gareth.  I still wasn’t as old as you were, though,” he added, laughing.

Danny groaned. “I’m never going to hear the end of that, am I?”

“Not for a couple of years, at least,” St’ve’s eyes crinkled when they smiled.

 

 

A few days later, Kono offered to take Danny on a tour of the weyr.

The most used part of the weyr was the part near to the cliff face: the weyrs which had ledges from which dragons could take off and land as they liked. But the weyr extended inward as well, deep into the mountainside.  The further inward one went, the smaller and twistier the corridors became. Many of the rooms back there were unused and covered in dust.

After having become lost once or twice already – on one occasion Danny had had to ask Faroeth to ask Grace to send someone to come looking for him, and that had been embarrassing - Danny had become wary of getting turned around in the weyr. So he tried to keep to the paths he had already memorized: between his weyr and the training grounds, and his weyr and the dining hall, and so forth.

The route Kono took was meandering, and after the eighteenth or nineteenth turn, Danny gave up at trying to understand it.  Eventually they went so far back into the weyr that there were no longer glows left along the walls to light the way. Kono simple snagged a basket of the softly phosphorescent rocks to carry with them. 

“So this is where you grew up?” Danny asked.

Kono’s eyes shone. “Yep, I’m weyrborn and weyrbred. My father and father’s father were both dragonriders.  I’ve been saying I would do it too, ever since I was a little girl.” She grinned. “I’m lucky Aleth saw fit to have me, since I’d have been useless as a holder’s wife.”

Danny grinned, but he didn’t deny it. From what he’d seen of Kono so far, she seemed as tough as any man, and so knowledgeable about dragons that the trainee classes she was politely sitting through with the rest of the group were more a formality than anything else. But he’d seen little evidence that she knew or had interest in any of the feminine arts, like weaving or cookery, and her language was just as rough as a dragonrider’s, too. He was sure she would have shocked many holders. In fact, she was just the sort of alarming woman that holders tended to bring up when they gossiped about the strange customs of weyr people. 

“St’ve grew up here too?” he asked.

“Yes,” Kono said. “He and Ch’n Ho were big brothers to me when I was little. I was totally in awe of them, obviously.”

“St’ve said he left for a while?”

“Well, yah,” Kono said. “When he was fifteen or sixteen, he and his father fought all the time. I think that had more to do with it than anything.”

“His father?”

“The weyrleader,” Kono snuck him a look.  “You didn’t know that, did you? It’s not a secret or anything. I think J’hn convinced him to come back when Jameth’s second clutch was near to hatching. They still aren’t close, though. I mean, I would be careful about saying anything to St’ve.”

 

 

They climbed staircase after staircase, until Danny’s thighs began to burn: not that he was out of shape, mind, but Edwards Hold hadn’t been anywhere near as - vertical – as Mauna Kea. Finally a faint light became visible above them, and Kono covered her basket of glows and left it on the step besides them. 

The floor smoothed to a small rock niche, which in turn opened into forest. Danny breathed in the scent of the pine trees around them.

“You see?” Kono said eagerly. “We’re on the far side of the mountain, now. Come over here, there’s a good vantage point.”

Scrambling up the mountainside, they came to a large rock, stuck up straight amidst the trees as if it had been wedged upright. “We call that the sentinel rock,” said Kono.

As she spoke, Danny felt a strange popping sound in his ears, and then, just above them, a dragon winked into existence: a large bronze, with a rider strapped to his back.

Hello, D’nno, the dragon said, before landing neatly on the rock. 

“Hello,” called the rider, slipping down from the dragon’s back and jumping neatly across the divide that separated them, although it was nearly a meter wide. 

“S’tve!” Kono said.

“There you are,” St’ve said. “I’ve been looking for you and D’nno for half an hour.”

Gareth, St’ve’s bronze, made a strange huffing sound, as if laughing.

Danny scowled at the abbreviation of his name. He wasn’t used to it yet. In fact, ‘Danno’ was Grace’s name for him, and through some confusion – or perhaps because she had spoken to the dragons about him – everyone had begun to abbreviate his name as ‘D’nno’ instead of ‘D’nny’ or ‘D’niel’.  

But then he was distracted by the thought that it seemed very much as though Gareth had just spoken to him.

I hope you don’t mind, the bronze said politely.  You are a bit like your young one, only not so loud.

Danny frowned. 

“Ch’n Ho is looking for you,” St’ve said apologetically. “He said that more meat needs to be cut before the dragonets wake up.”

Although Faroeth was still sleeping, Danny could feel her hunger faintly in the back of his mind, and knew St’ve was right.

“I can give you a lift back, if you like,” St’ve said.

“Oh, can we?” Kono sounded surprised, and Danny wondered if it was common for riders to ride one another’s dragons.

“Just this once,” St’ve said lightly. Kono narrowed her eyes and considered him, and then she glanced at Danny and smiled.

“Alright,” she said, “I’ll be the envy of the weyr if you let me ride Gareth.”

“Whoa, whoa, whoa,” said Danny. “I’d prefer to take the stairs, if you don’t mind. But I don’t think I can find the way back on my own.”

“Come on,” Kono said, “this’ll save us half an hour.”  She was already making her way to Gareth’s back, who had obligingly come forward, and lowered his neck so that she could scramble upwards.

Danny looked between her and Gareth and St’ve, and back to Gareth again. He felt the back of his neck turning red.

“I’ve never actually rider a dragon before,” he said, “I’m not sure-”

Don’t worry, Gareth said, solemnly. St’ve and I will make sure you are very safe.

“No,” said Danny, “I mean, it’s very nice of you and all-,”

St’ve had a determined glint in his eye. “You haven’t ridden yet?” He said.

“No, but-"

“Come on,” St’ve said.

Gareth lowered his neck obligingly. His large multifaceted eyes shone hopefully, so Danny swallowed his objections and scrambled up in front of Kono.

“No, that’s not going to work,” St’ve said, swinging himself up behind him. “Kono, you go behind me.”

Somehow she and St’ve switched places. They had arranged it so that Danny was firmly in Gareth’s saddle, in the most stable position.

“Lean back,” St’ve said, his voice close and warm in Danny’s ear. Reluctantly, Danny did.

Then Gareth raised his neck, and all at once he was glad he had listened to St’ve, as, even with the saddle, he slid back with a lurch, so that his back was firmly pressed against St’ve’s chest.

“Gareth’s going to take off now,” St’ve said, and, with a push of his powerful hind legs, Gareth did, launching them off the ground and spreading his large bronze wings to push them still higher into the air.  Danny felt the breath leave his body. For a moment he was terrified, and then he was weightless.

Don’t worry, Faroeth’s rider, Gareth said, and then, teasingly, as if to St’ve, he said, I can go upside down.

“Don’t you dare, buddy,” St’ve murmured.

Gareth made a circle around the top of the mountain. When Danny managed to look down, he could see hollowed out crater of the extinct volcano the weyr had been build out of: in the middle of that crater were the sands of the hatching ground, as well as the space where he and the other new riders trained daily. 

Then Gareth swooped around, so that for a moment they were below the crater, and he could see the entrances to several of the weyrs in the cliff face, and then he caught an updraft and brought them up and over the rim of the crater and back down into the training grounds, where Grace was already running out to meet them.

“Danno!” she said. “Gareth told me you were coming!”

“Sure,” Danny said weakly. He hadn’t realized during the flight, how far back he’d settled into St’ve’s arms, but all at once he was completely aware: he was pressed up as close against him as one could get, through clothing and a layer of flying leathers: he was sure St’ve could feel his heart pounding in his chest. And St’ve arms were wrapped around him, although only so that he could keep a light hand on Gareth’s reins.

Behind them Kono was already gracefully dismounting.  St’ve managed to pull back a bit, unsticking them, and then he slid down as well, and held out a hand to help Danny.

“Thank you,” Danny said to Gareth, who bent his neck and closed one eye politely in acknowledgement: although Danny suspected there was some humor in the blink as well.

“Gareth says you will have to practice before you fly with Faroeth,” Grace said helpfully. “She won’t know what to do either, the first few times.”

 

 

Everything went well: Faroeth enjoyed her lessons, which had her flexing her wings and practicing short hops in preparation for flight. Grace had become the darling of the weyrwoman, who lent her books from her private collection. And Danny enjoyed the time he spent with St’ve, Ch’n Ho, and Kono, who, little by little, were teaching him about the customs of the weyr.

There were a few things about life as a dragonrider that Danny still couldn’t get used to, though. One was living underground: despite the fact that his weyr had a good window, it was still mostly lit by glows. The dining hall and other public parts of the weyr were completely within the mountain, so they were even worse.  It seemed to Danny that there was something unnatural about it, so he spent as many hours as he could each day above ground. 

Then there were the women. People always said that weyrfolk were different than holders, but before impressing Faroeth, Danny had never been sure how much of that was fact, and how much was rumor. Since coming to Mauna Kea, he’d realized that most of the more extreme stories he’d heard before were just that, only stories.

He was eating supper with St’ve, Ch’n Ho, and Kono when Gaby came into the great hall from the far side, a basket of bread on her knee.  Danny winked at her, but all he got in return was a vague, friendly smile. He sighed inwardly. In the hold, it had never been so hard to find a woman to share his bed occasionally: here, for all he’d heard that weyrwoman were less constrained than holders, and free to spend time with whoever they liked, they all seemed to treat him like a sweet younger brother. He’d tried to kiss Gaby once, in the storeroom behind the sacks of flour, and all he’d gotten for his trouble was a pat on the cheek.

St’ve, who had apparently seen Danny’s failed attempt yet again, was obviously laughing, half covering his hand with his mouth.  Danny didn’t get it. St’ve seemed to do alright with the skirts: at least, there was nothing fraternal about the way the weyrwomen tended to bat their eyes at him. Was it because St’ve was a wingleader? Or because he rode a bronze? Danny had seen plenty of blue riders do equally well with the ladies, though, so it couldn’t be entirely about rank.

“I don’t get it,” he said, rolling his eyes upward. “What am I doing wrong?”

Kono looked at him with wide eyes. “You really don’t know?” She said.

“You’re weyrbred,” Danny said. “Come on, give me some hints here, I’m desperate.”

St’ve coughed and stood up abruptly.

“I should go,” he said, when Danny looked at him in surprise. “I need to meet with the weyrleader to go over flight patterns for tomorrow.”

“Coward,” Kono told him cheerfully, which made even less sense to Danny. He was surprised to see St’ve turn a faint shade of pink as he headed towards the door.

“Ok,” said Kono, turning back to Danny. “Here’s the deal, ok?”

Danny nodded eagerly.

“You ride a green, right?”

He nodded, not following her logic.

“Well,” Kono said. “That’s your problem.”

“What?” Why?” Danny frowned, irritated at the thought that someone might be looking down on Faroeth.

“No, not like that,” Kono said. “It’s just… weyrfolk have certain ideas about what kinds of men impress the different colors of dragon, all right?  Leaders tend to impress bronze, while men who are steady and even-tempered,” she nodded towards Ch’n, who grunted in acknowledgement, “end up with browns. Blue riders tend to be quick-tempered, fast, and good fighters.”

“And greens?”  D’nny asked warily.

“Gay.” Kono pronounced. Ch’n Ho nodded in agreement. Danny felt his mouth dropping open.

“What?”

Kono looked at him mildly. “Really? You didn’t know?”

Danny shook his head.

“Greens are the only female dragons besides queens,” she said, “and green riders are usually men,” she shrugged expressively.

“So Gaby thinks I’m gay?” Danny said. Well, at least that explained it, he thought, shaking his head. Maybe he could get her alone and try to convince her…

“You mean you aren’t?” asked Kono, sounding surprised.

“No!” he said.

“Even a little bit?”

Danny felt his head whirling. “No. What? You thought I was too?”

Kono bit her lip, looking worried. “Well, I just assumed…” she said. “I mean, you haven’t ever? With a man?”

Danny stared at her, and then at Ch’n Ho.

“What Kono is trying to say,” Ch’n said, “is that, although Faroeth is still a dragonet, she’ll grow up quickly. Usually when the rider is older, it speeds up the development of the dragon a little bit too. So, she’ll probably start flying in a turn or two.”

Danny looked at him blankly.  “Faroeth is already starting to fly.” He said.

Ch’n Ho looked carefully for a moment and then opened his mouth to respond, but Kono interrupted first.

“Not flying,” she said. “He means, flying. Mating flights. You do know how those work, don’t you?” Kono asked.

“Well, yeah,” Danny said slowly. He knew as much as the average holder, probably, and had picked up more since he’d been in the weyr. As with some other things, he wasn’t quite sure how much was fact and how much was exaggeration, though. “The queens – and the greens – fly, but only the queens lay eggs. Usually when a dragon’s ready to mate, several of the males will chase her. The winner becomes her mate, and… uh… what am I missing?” he demanded, looking at Kono and Ch’n Ho’s faces.

“No, no, you got that all right,” Ch’n said. “It’s just, the flight affects the rider too, you know? When Faroeth wants to fly, you’re going to have to stay with her, to make sure she bloods her kill instead of eating it, and then to make sure she doesn’t try to go between during the flight.  Usually the rider’s  mind becomes caught up with the dragon’s.  Whatever Faroeth does in the sky, you and,” it seemed like he was about to say something else, “the rider of whichever dragon mates her, will probably end up repeating on the ground.”

Danny felt his eyes growing wide. “You mean…?” he asked, hoping he was misunderstanding.

But to his horror Ch’n nodded encouragingly instead.  “Right. It tends to be, ah – a bit rough. So green riders especially – it isn’t – I mean, if you’ve really never tumbled a man before, it might not be the best way to start.”

“You should ask St’ve,” Kono said bluntly. It looked like she enjoyed the way Danny’s mouth dropped open. “I mean it. He’s – uh – I mean, he sleeps with both men and women. He’d be good to you, and teach you enough to make sure you don’t hurt yourself or get hurt when Faroeth does fly.”

Ok, all this talking openly about sex was very different from what Danny had ever experienced at the hold. He thanked Ch’n and Kono for their help as best as he was able, and then turned and more or less fled the table.

I’m sorry, Faroeth said, penitent for something she hadn’t even done.  I shouldn’t have been a green.

You’re perfect, Danny reassured her. This isn’t your fault. I’ll get used to it; I just need some time to think.

 

 

When it came to sex, among other things, dragonriders were considerably more open than holders. Danny wasn’t born yesterday; he knew there were some men who preferred the company of others. But in the Hold the expectation was that such things happened behind closed doors, and were rarely discussed publically.

The dragonriders seemed to feel no such shame. In the days following his unsettling conversation with Ch’n and Kono, Danny began to see things he’d been blind too before:  the way of some his fellow green riders sometimes disappeared into dark corners with other riders, the way they appeared, looking blurry-eyed the next morning, stumbling out of a weyr that clearly weren’t their own.  There were even some riders who shared a weyr, just as the straight dragonriders sometimes shared their living space with their women. Danny saw what to look for in the dragons, too:  when a green and a blue, or a green and a bronze seemed unusually close, sharing space when they slept, and swimming and eating together, it seemed to be a sign that their riders were growing closer.

He didn’t have a problem with it: adults ought to be free to tumble whomever they liked, so long as it didn’t bring trouble to anyone. And he supposed he could see the appeal: there were some men – like St’ve, if Danny was going to be entirely honest with himself - who were really quite attractive if he looked at them objectively. On the other hand, Danny had never been much tempted towards men when he had lived on the Hold. Women were pleasant, and soft, and he had a much better idea of how to go about wooing one.

He put off thinking about Faroeth’s eventual flight, though: it was far away still, and there was really no point in worry about it for now. In any case, his life in the weyr was so full that he was already busy from morning until night, without giving himself more things to worry about.

 

 

St’ve and Ch’n Ho were both wingleaders. All throughout the damp winter, little thread had fallen, but now the weather was warming up, and Mauna Kea received and sent messengers daily from Benden and High Reaches, to track the movement of threadfalls across the continent. It seemed as though the spring thread would be unusually thick and fierce.  St’ve and Ch’n Ho mapped out elaborate three-dimensional patterns of attack, scratched out on parchment: the plans varied depending on whether the threadfall occurred over the mountains, or in the valleys, and whether it was near a Hold or in a less inhabited area.

When the first thread finally fell in Mauna Kea’s catchment area, Faroeth and the other dragonets were still too small to fly. But they felt it any way: their eyes turned red just before the mature dragons and their riders took flight, and then they were distracted and anxious all day, and often raised their necks up into the sky, hissing.

Why are you doing that, sweet one? Danny asked Faroeth. The thread isn’t even above us, is it?

She looked at him and twitched her tail: she wasn't too far from her adult size now, and had begun to make short flights, although many involved nothing more than throwing herself off a high rock. She tumbled down more often than she managed a successful glide, but Ch’n Ho had promised Danny that dragon hide was thick.

Evil bad kill bad, she responded: not discrete words so much as a rush of emotion, an anger so potent that for a moment Danny was senselessly furious, caught up in its backwash.  Then, easily distracted as she was, Faroeth looked at him and said Danny, mine, and let’s fly instead.

Featherwit, Danny told her affectionately.

I am not. She blinked delicately at him.

She bent her neck down so that he could reach out and scratch her behind the ears.  But at that moment above them, a dragon blinked into the sky above them, screaming.

Its hide was blackened, the thin but tough wing burnt through, and its flank was red, as if the skin had been burn entirely away. 

Calipeth said Faroeth, and then, the dragon screamed again, and blinked away, between.

A dragon roared, and then another and another. There were few in the weyr at that moment: only the oldest dragons who had not gone out with the flame-throwers, and the dragonets from the most recent hatching.  Faroeth raised her head back and extended her wings fully, and roared. It was angry, and sorrowful, and terrifying, and the sounds that Danny felt through her were things that did not have human names.

Calipeth had been about to die, and would not return from between. And that meant that her rider, the dark-haired M’ka, was dead as well.  Danny shook his head, trying to collect his thoughts. He did not know the rider well.  He was in St’ve’s wing.

The riders and the dragons began to return from the threadfall late that evening. They were all clearly exhausted, by M’ka and Calipeth’s deaths many times more than by the thread, although it had fallen for hours.

When Danny saw Gareth land, he went over without thinking.  St’ve seemed to be held in place by his riding harness, and indeed, when Gareth lowered his neck so that Danny could work at the scraps, St’ve nearly fell into his arms as soon as they were sufficiently loosened.

All his clothing, and the tiny uncovered bit of his face were blacked by dragonfire. Gareth’s body and wings were black as well, although it appeared to be merely soot; they were not singed.

“Come on,” Danny said, pushing St’ve to sit down on the floor, leaning against Gareth.

He gently removed Gareth’s harness, and called for soft soapy water.  Around him, dragonriders and other members of the weyr were all doing the same, working in teams to clean the smoky residue from the dragons’ hides until they gleamed once again.

Grace came to help Danny, and Kono. Gareth stayed in a lump, allowing them to work, and St’ve watched without speaking. Finally, Danny went over to him.

“Take those off,” he said, gesturing to St’ve’s riding leathers. 

When St’ve didn’t reply, Danny moved toward, unfastening the ties of St’ve’s gloves, and his thick hide jacket, worrying them loose until finally St’ve helped him a little and shrugged them the rest of the way off.

Without thinking, Danny took a rag, dipped it in a little soapy water, and the back of St’ve’s hand, cleaning the soot away as if St’ve were a dragon.

“St’ve!” barked the weyrleader’s voice, and St’ve stiffened.

The weyrleader strode forward: like St’ve, he’d removed his riding leathers, but was still otherwise fresh from the fight.  He stared at St’ve, who looked back as if waiting for a death sentence.  It was the first time Danny had had a good look at the two of them next to each other: St’ve really did look a good deal like J’hn: they had the same hairline, the same eyes, and the same stubborn jaw.

“It wasn’t your fault,” the weyrleader said firmly. “M’ka and Calipeth flew well. Your orders were good. The thread just-” he shook his head.  “It happens.”

St’ve looked down without replying.

Outside, a dragon howled.

 

 

In the next days and weeks, Faroeth and Aleth learned to glide for longer and longer distances, and finally to fly. Although they were still not strong enough to support their riders in flight, Danny spent more and more time scrambling on and off of Faroeth’s back, timing how long it took to get his riding harness cinched.  During unexpected threadfall, a quick and accurate response, without cutting corners, was crucial.

As a green, Faroeth was among the smaller of the dragons. Aleth had already far outstripped her in size, for she was still growing nearly as rapidly as she had when newly hatched. Kono, when perched on her back, sat high above him. 

Faroeth had begun to eat firestone, too, and make her first little hiccups of smoke and soot. She had not quite mastered the art of projecting the flame outward, but Danny had no doubt in his mind that she soon would. She had too, anyway: the thread had been worse than expected all season, and the dragonets were already needed in the field.

Then, one sunny day, Ch’n Ho looked over Faroeth’s wingspan, and the girth of her powerful shoulder muscles, and decided that she and Danny might try a short flight together over the vale.  Danny had hidden his anxiety with bravado, and adjusted his harness and his leathers twice before climbing onto his back.

Don’t worry, D’nno. Faroeth said. She meant to reassure him, but he could feel the thread of anxiety in her thoughts as well.

Why should I be worried? He asked her, when I have the very best dragon?

He felt her pleasure in response. As many times as Danny had reassured her, Faroeth still seemed to feel guilty, in a vague dragonish way (which is to say, not so guilty that she would have acted differently, if she could do it over) about impressing Danny and taking him away from his life as a holder.  It made her work hard for his approval, which he never stinted in providing.

Dragon and rider took a deep breath as Faroeth took a few short steps to the cliff’s edge, which the dragonets had been using as a launching point. Just beyond her front claws, the mountain fell away and there was nothing but green below, looking as near as a carpet that Danny could reach out and touch.  In fact, though, it was far below them, the individual tops of trees almost too small to see clearly.

Go. Danny said, and Faroeth leapt.

She caught the updraft, swooping upward and out over the valley. All at once green trees and pale grass were under her, and the herdbeasts kept for the dragon’s suppers scattered, fanning out in front of her.

Danny whooped, and lost the sound of it in the wind, rushing by his ears. He knew Ch’n had told them only to go to the edge of the valley and come back, but he could feel the strength in Faroeth’s wings, the pleasure she took in each powerful stroke, pushing them upwards back among the clouds.

Then, besides them, was a large bronze body: St’ve’s Gareth, who had apparently been out on his daily hunt.

D’nno, he said, and then, playfully made a sort of somersaulting loop in the area, flying over and under Faroeth so that she snorted in confusion. For a moment she tried to chase him, but, unused to Danny’s weight on her back, it unbalanced her, so that she momentarily lost control and fell a few feet in the air before catching herself.

Gareth seemed to feel apologetic, because he stopped gamboling at once and took up a position beneath her. Faroeth caught the next updraft and managed a fairly graceful turn around the side of the valley, before flapping her way back up to the top of weyr cliff, and the other trainees.

Ch’n Ho looked amused when Danny finally dismounted.

“Gareth decided to say hello, did he?” He asked. “I imagine St’ve will be sorry he missed that.”

“Gareth and Faroeth are good friends,” Danny agreed blandly. Ch’n Ho smiled and returned his attention to the next trainee.

 

 

The next time that thread fell, the new riders were finally allowed to participate in the fight.

They were restricted to the lowest level of the fighting, with Kono and Aleth and the weyrlady and Jameth, who had flamethrowers and the task of burning any last bit of thread that managed to survive the ranks of dragons above them. Danny and the other young riders were tasked with bringing firestone to any dragon that needed it, and helping any dragon or rider who was thread-scored.

It was only recently that Faoreth had mastered the art of going between. It still sent an icy jolt through Danny’s chest each time she did so, and from what he heard from the older dragonriders, it was a feeling that would never go away.  But when Faroeth took them between to the place where thread was falling, Danny’s excitement at finally seeing the dragons in action outweighed his dislike of between.

The battlefield was a clear blue sky, situated above cultivated green fields where pale shoots of new wheat were already working their way up through the soil.  That was what would be lost if even only a little thread made it to the land, Danny thought: not people or animals, but their food, which would leave them in hunger over the next winter, and force them to sew good earth with salt, besides, to kill the nests of thread that burrowed there. It was a battle he could feel total pride in playing his role in: one day, he and Faroeth would burn thread with the rest of the fast-flying greens, darting in and out so quickly that the thread was scorched to dust before they reappeared. 

Faroeth sent him the sense of her agreement. She was already primed for the fight: eyes red and whirring with that strange anger that only came over her when she imagined thread. 

The dragons were flying in formation, their heads lifted upwards, looking high into the sky.  Faroeth saw it before Danny could: a glint of silver, something metallic falling, except that it writhed and twisted like a living thing as it fell.

He felt deep disgust coil in his gut. There was something horrible about the thread: he didn’t know if it was a subconscious thing, or something every child on Pern learned when they were still too young to talk.  The thread was revolting; it made him shudder.

As he watched, the wavefront of thread fell to the level of the highest dragonriders, fast-flying blues and greens who darted forward, released a long, hot breath of flame, and then pulled back into the ranks to chew firestone while another dragon replaced their position.  They protected the backs of the bronzes and browns, who took the level below: they had the job of acting more systematically, clearing the air of any patches the spottier action of the greens and blues might have missed.  Lowest of all were the queens, with their flamethrowers: and below them, on the ground, were men from the nearest hold, armed with torches. If a single thread made it past the dragons, the men leapt upon it, burning it before it had a chance to burrow into the earth.

Danny could have spent all his time just watching the battle: it was fascinating to see how carefully each dragon was matched to his task: the quick blues who could go between quickly to catch the thread or to escape it also had the most dangerous task, the wingleaders below had a position from which they could monitor and reposition their entire teams as necessary. The dragons chattered to each other constantly. The conversation was not really meant for Danny, although it was not private either, and by concentrating he could sometimes tell which dragon was making a particular comment. As the dragons preferred to do when they were communicating with each other and not to their human riders, the information flowed between them mostly in the form of images: a sense of thread, spatially positioned, anger to indicate that it had slipped past the dragon’s flame or satisfaction when it had been burnt. In this way, the dragons built between them a vast mental map of the battle, all of them more or less aware of where everything and each of them were located.

He didn’t have much time to wonder about that, though, because then the calls for firestone began to come in, and he and the other new riders took turns flying upward, into the middle ranks, to bring the material to whichever dragon and rider had called for it. They ate from large baskets strapped to Faroeth’s flanks, and then she slipped down again, waiting for the next call.

Luckily, it was a fairly short threadfall: or rather, it was a long one, but the riders had previous decided not to defend the rocky foothills of the mountains, where the soil was inhospitable to thread and where no holders reportedly lived: so when the wind began pushing the thread firmly in that direction, St’ve told them not to follow.  The dragons hissed as they watched the thread receding: they wanted to chase it, down and although Danny told Faroeth to hold back, she couldn’t help but keep turning towards it.  Danny understood perfectly well: it wasn’t something he liked to turn his back on either.

 

 

“You and Faoreth did well,” St’ve told him that evening, falling into stop besides Danny as he was on his way to the great hall. “We’re dividing up the new riders among the wings. You’ll be in mine.”

“Are you asking me, or telling me?” Danny said, teasing him.

“Telling you.” 

Danny rolled his eyes, “Fine.  So,” he added, “who else are you taking?”

“I was thinking of J’hane and Olegath,” St’ve said, “and R’han and Ereweth. Why are you looking at me like that?”

Danny, who had been frowning without thinking about it, shrugged and spoke his mind.

“R’han would be good,” he said. “He’s a nice kid, and steady, and it seems like you need a few more blues in your wing.  But J’hane is hot-headed, and frankly, he’s going to wear you out. I think Ch’n Ho might manage him better.”

“Oh, do you?” St’ve drawled, but he sounded intrigued, rather than annoyed.

Danny shrugged. “They’re nice kids. Then one I’d really keep my eye on is  H’ro.”

Steve grinned. “That squirt?”

“He’s sharp. Trust me, future wingleader material. But he needs to work with someone smart, who’ll keep him from getting cocky.”

“I’ll take that under advisement.”

Sure enough, when wing assignments were announced, Danny and H’ro were with Steve, and J’hane and Olegath were put in Ch’n Ho’s wing.  Danny caught St’ve’s eye from across the room and saluted flippantly.  St’ve grinned, and then covered his mouth with his hand, so that the weyrleader wouldn’t see.

 

 

The next afternoon, Danny was cursing over his riding leathers. He was a fair hand with a needle, thank you very much, but working with leather was nothing like working with fabric. Faroeth, who had eaten an entire herdbeast that morning, was dozing in her weyr next door.  Grace was tucked beside Danny, eating an apple and reading a novel the weyrwoman had lent her.

“There’s a Gather being held down in Hedder’s Hold next Country Sunday,” she told him. “Can we go?”

Danny thought about it for a moment. “Why not?” he said. “I’m sure most of the weyr is going already.” He paused. “Faroeth isn’t strong enough yet to hold both of us, though.”

“That’s fine, St’ve and Gareth already said I could ride with them.”

“Oh, did they?” Danny asked, playfully ruffling her curls.  Grace had grown rapidly in the time since they’d left the hold, and now all her dresses were too short for her, her wrists and ankles stuck out much farther than they should.  On the other hand, perhaps it didn’t matter much, as she wore riding leathers and pants more often than not.

She was fifteen already, and had they stayed in the Hold, he supposed she would have been coming to an age where Rachel would have had her at home sewing all the time, making the quilts and tatting the lace that were supposed to go into every good holder girl’s trousseau.  In the hold, the most important thing for a girl was to have good manners and a pretty face. Here in the weyr Grace had grown comparatively wild: she dressed like a boy when it was convenient, but she had also learned to speak her mind, and was growing more and more independent by the day.  Despite being holder-bred himself, Danny didn’t regret the change at all. Instead, every day he looked at his daughter and thought he could see a little bit more of the weyrwoman she would surely become.

“Danno,” Grace said, distracting him from her thoughts.  “I like this weyr, but – you aren’t thinking of moving, are you?”

“What?” Danny asked, completely confused.  Grace looked at him and then sighed. It was just the expression Rachel had had when she thought he was being dense about something.

“I just thought maybe you would be moving into St’ve’s weyr soon,” she said.

Danny felt his mouth drop open.

“No,” he said, and then, “where did you get that idea?” 

Grace rolled her eyes. “It’s just, you’re with him all the time, and Faroeth and Gareth are constantly together too. And you talk to Gareth – don’t tell me you don’t!” She said, waving a finger at him.

“I wasn’t going to deny it,” Danny said, laughing at her. “But I only talk to him sometimes.”

“So, why aren’t you – you know?”  She squinted at him. 

Danny shrugged uncomfortably, although he knew what she meant. They’d been living in the weyr for almost two years now, too long to pretend that he was still naïve to weyr customs. When dragons grew as close as Faroeth and Gareth were to each other – and talked to riders that were not their own – it usually meant that there was something more than friendship between the riders.  On the other hand, he had gone so long without speaking to St’ve on the subject, that it felt like he had missed the right moment. They were comfortable now, both flying and fighting thread and on the ground.

“I will,” he said reluctantly. Faroeth had nearly completed two turns, and it was better that he have it out sooner with St’ve rather than later. “I’ll talk to him at the gather, ok?”

Grace flashed him a brilliant smile.

“Good,” she said, and then surprised him by coming up to him and wrapping her arms around his neck. 

“I love you, Gracie,” he told her.

“I love you too, Danno.”

 

 

Hedder’s Hold was the biggest hold for three day’s ride, and the signs for the gather were good – no thread had been spotted, and none was expected, during the days it had been planned. Grace braided bright ribbons into her hair in the morning of the Gather, and put on her best dress, which Rachel had had sent to her: the seams had been let down twice, but it was already too small again.  Danny looked her over carefully and sighed 

“Well,” he said. “I suppose you’d better look for silk for a new dress, then,” he said.

“Really?” Grace launched himself into her arms with a hug. “It isn’t too dear?”

As it happened, the weyrleader had passed a small wallet of marks into Danny’s hands just the day before –something he hadn’t realized that he was entitled too – and Danny had nothing to spend it on besides his daughter.  “Perhaps some new boots, as well?” He teased.

Grace smiled at him and then danced away to tell Faroeth (who was taken in by pretty finery even more easily than his daughter) the good news. 

I’ll find ribbons for your leathers too, shall I? He asked her.

Yes please, she said. Danny came up to her and scratched her eye ridges. She leaned appreciatively into the touch, and then butted him with her head. She had been finicky and grumpy earlier that morning, and he was glad to see her good mood had been restored.  He watched St’ve help Grace up onto Gareth’s back, and then seated himself.

When Faroeth came out of between, it was right above the gather, so that the brightly tents were spread out like flowers on the field below them.

Set down there, Danny told her, you can wait with Gareth and Koleath while we explore.

She and Gareth each settled down. Grace slid graceful down Gareth’s back, looking more like a weyrbred girl than a holder, and took off immediately for the silk merchant’s stalls.  Danny and Steve looked at each other, shrugged, and followed her at a more leisurely pace.

“This may take a while,” Danny told St’ve ruefully.

“I don’t mind waiting,” St’ve said, smiling slightly.

Danny grinned.  “All right, then – don’t say that I didn’t warn you.”

They waited and watched as Grace looked through the bolts of fabric, feeling their quality and asking shrewd questions about price in a manner that reminded Danny of her mother. Then he noticed that the baker across the street from the silk stalls was selling bubbly pies: he bought half a dozen, handing two to St’ve and two to Grace. They were perfect, sweet and so hot they had to bite them open and then wait for the steam to escape before they could eat.

St’ve was sucking the last of a bit of pie off his fingers, and when he caught Danny looking at him he grinned boyishly at him. Danny smiled in response, shaking his head.  Then St’ve let one finger linger in his mouth, and caught Danny’s eye, still smiling. Danny felt his face growing heated in response.

It seemed like as good a moment as any to try to say something, but just as Danny opened his mouth the weyrleader came from around the corner, interrupting them.

“I have a meeting with Lord Hedder,” he said, patting St’ve on the shoulder. “Care to join me?”

Although it was phrased as a request, it clearly wasn’t.  St’ve looked apologetically at Danny, who waved him away.  “Don’t worry,” he said. “We’ll talk later.”

As they hurried off, Danny noticed another man he recognized coming from the other direction.

“Greter!” He said.

“Danny!”

It felt strange to hear his name pronounced that way again, but Danny simply smiled and shook the man’s hand.  Greter was one of Lord Edward’s best men, and they had spent many days working together, and many nights drinking, before Danny had gone to Mauna Kea.

“How is everything?” he asked, and, to his surprise, the large, black-bearded man blushed.

“Well,” he said.  “I asked Lorena to marry me last spring, and now we have a daughter.”

“Congratulations!” Danny said, slapping his back. He felt a sudden remorse that he’d made no effort to keep in touch with Edward’s Hold after becoming a rider: although he certainly had little desire to stay in contact with Lord Edwards or Rachel, there were very many good people there that he missed.

“How old is she?” he asked.

“Five months already. She’s putting all manner of things in her mouth, Lorena has a devil of a time keeping her from finding bugs to eat-”

“And Bran Aderson? And Jhon?” 

“Both very well. Jhon’s grown huge – you’d scarcely believe it, given what a scrawny boy he was.  His father is thinking of settling out on his own and forming a new smallhold, down around Arenden valley.”

Danny frowned, thinking of the thread maps he’d seen. “That might not be a bad area,” he mused. “The currents around the valley cause most thread to avoid it.”

“That’s right, you’re a rider now,” Greter said. “You ought to tell us all about it. A few men are waiting for me back in the tavern, would you join us?”

“I’d be glad to.”

Danny told Grace where he was going, and she waved him away happily.  There were more than enough weyrpeople about to keep their eyes on her, so he happily followed his friend back to the tavern, where four more of Edward’s men were drinking and enjoying the festivities.

“We sent out tithe to the weyr this year by rider,” Bran informed Danny. “We thought of sending a caravan, but I think Lord Edward’s was happy enough to avoid a visit to the weyr. Lady Rachel would love to see you, though – she misses Grace a great deal.”

“They’ll have cause to come next year, if the queen lays another clutch,” Danny said, as he took a sip of ale. Surprisingly, the thought of seeing Rachel again didn’t make him feel pain and sadness, as it had for so many years.  It might even be a good thing, he thought, to renew their relationship on less bitter terms.

“Drink up,” Greter said, pouring ale into his cup, and Danny obliged, feeling happy to see his old friends around him, and well, did so.

“And how is your woman, Bran?” He asked.

One story turned into another and another.  Possibly he had drunk more than he realized, because after a while he found himself trying to tell his friends what it felt like to fly with Faroeth, but the words came out confused and switched with each other.  When he looked up, he was surprised to see that the sun was setting, and the tavern owner putting out their glows. How had so much time passed so quickly?

“I should back,” he said, and stood, searching for Faroeth in his mind. She was still sleeping, out in the field beyond the gather.

Wake up, he told her.

Danny? Her voice sounded sleep-muzzled, cranky at having been woken.  I don’t feel good, she complained.

He ran into St’ve literally right outside the door to the tavern.

“Where have you been?” the Bronze rider sounded upset.

“I’m sorry,” Danny said, “I ran into some old friends, and-” he tried to focus, but his head was swimming.  “The hour got away from me.” He swayed, and St’ve grabbed him by the shoulders to steady him.  “And maybe the drink went to my head more than I realized,” he admitted.

St’ve was staring at him, alarmed.  “That’s not it, D’nno,” he said. “Didn’t you realize? We need to go, now.”

The seriousness in his voice made Danny even more worried. “Thread?” he said.

“No,” said St’ve. He must have seen that his intensity was worrying Danny, because he stepped back, removing his hands from Danny’s shoulders as if with difficulty. “Nothing like that.”

He had to half support Danny on their way back to the field where the dragons waited. As night had fallen, the gather had taken on a more intimate atmosphere: now there were bonfires, and couples laughing quietly together before slipping away into even darker corners. Danny found himself leaning against Steve so that his head was tucked against his shoulder, and leaning in and taking a long shaky breath, taking in the scent of him: leather and warm skin, and the faint aroma of bubbly pie and wine beneath it.

“Where’s Grace?” Danny asked.

“She went back earlier with Kono.”

In the field, there were only a few dragons left: Faroeth, Gareth, one or two browns and a blue. The riders of these dragons were standing with their arms crossed; a few were pacing back and forth.

Faroeth was standing in the center of them. Her skin looked eerily, brightly green under the moonlight, and she hissed whenever one of the other dragons came too close to her.

What is it, sweetheart? Danny asked her.

I don’t feel good, she said again.

“She’s sick,” he told St’ve, looking wildly around at the assembled riders. “We need to help her!”

“She’s not sick, Danny,” St’ve said.  “She’s going to fly. I’m sorry – she was fine in the morning, and we didn’t see.”

“We should return to the weyr,” one of the riders behind him murmured.

“We can’t,” another replied.

Faroeth was twitching her tail back and forth. I’m hungry, she said. She was looking at the riderbeasts corralled in the next field over from the dragons.

No! said Danny, sharply. You can’t eat those.

She looked at him and huffed.

“She’s hungry,” he told St’ve.

He looked at the other riders, who frowned at each other.  “Go buy one of the herdbeasts!” St’ve barked: one left reluctantly.

The night air had seemed cool and crisp, but now it felt humid and warm, unseasonably so. Danny loosened his riding coat with a finger. St’ve’s eyes snapped to his neck, and the strip of skin than had been exposed by the gesture. The other riders muttered and moved in closer, in a ring around them: the dragons tried to approach Faroeth, but she snapped and hissed to hold them back.

“I don’t understand,” Danny said, hoping by talking to regain some control of the situations. “I thought dragons didn’t fly at night.”

“They don’t,” St’ve said, touching Danny’s sleeve, “It’s rare. It’s more dangerous, too. This close to the Gather, too - you need to tell Faroeth to get away from here, so that the herdbeasts don’t stampede.”

“Alright,” said Danny, trying to keep his head clear. “We can do that. Stay away from the Gather, right?”

“And don’t let her go between,” St’ve said. “No matter what, do you understand? And if you can make her blood the kill, and not eat it, that will be better.”

Danny nodded.  “Don’t worry,” he added, because St’ve looked closer to panic than he’d ever seen.

St’ve let out a long, shaky breath, and nodded.  “Yes,” he said. “Of course we will.”

The rider returned, dragging a herdbeast forward.  The poor creature dug in its heels in all the way, clearly terrified to be surrounded by dragons, and bleated like a calf.

“Let it go,” St’ve ordered, and the beast bolted: with dragons and men behind it, the only direction it had to run was forward, away from the direction of the Gather.

Faroeth leapt into the air, screeching, leaping down on it a moment later. Her claws pierced its back and the animal shrieked and died as she tore into its throat, painting her muzzle red with its blood.

Drink, Danny said, closing his eyes. He felt closer to Faroeth than he ever had before, except maybe when she had impressed. It was like he was seeing through her eyes, feeling the hunger clawing inside of her, so deep that it was painful, and he could feel the air – cold, too cold – on her skin, and when she roared, he cried out with her.

She looked at the dragons assembled around her – weak, she thought, and slow – except for Gareth, and Faroeth taunted him with a flick of her tail. Come get me. He was older and bigger, but she was small and fast, and could outfly them all.

All at once the blood that she had sucked desperately a moment before, rich and warm, was too much, cloying and sweet and unpleasant. She grimaced at the taste of it and pulled away, darting up into the air.

Not that way, Danny told her, when she cast a disdainful glance towards the tents of the people behind her. Go towards the mountains.

The mountains were good.  But she feinted first, leaping up as if she intended to fly towards the river, before changing the trajectory at the last moment. Then she was off, like an arrow released from the bow, flying up and up into the cold night air.

For a moment she was blissfully alone, and the air was quiet and she could see the moon, hanging in the sky, a perfect, not quite rounded golden sphere.  Then she felt them, right on her tail, trying to overtake her.

She snorted and tossed her head at the thought of it. She would go faster, and higher. 

A feint downwards before she went up caused one of the browns to become befuddled, and by the time it had righted itself, it had lost the race.  A quick loop set another brown and the little blue on a collision course, and they met with claws bared, scratching, before their riders were able to calm them and break off the fight.  Then there was only Gareth left: big, proud Gareth, his bronze hide glowing in the moonlight only a shade darker than Faroeth’s iridescent green.

With his large wings, he was steadily gaining on her, but he was not as fast as she was, or as clever. Abruptly she paused, mid-air, and then just before he caught her, she darted below him. He wouldn’t be able to follow such a sharp turn. 

But just before she slipped free she felt her tail brushing his, and to tease him, she let them twist together. That was her mistake, because his tail tightened, and, as he turned, she was pulled back, and they became entangled together.

Gareth screamed in victory, and Faroeth echoed it. On the ground below them, the dragonriders retreated to the edge of the paddock to give Danny and St’ve as much privacy as they could.  Danny couldn’t separate out what was happening. One minute he was Faroeth, twisting her neck around Gareth’s, and then next he was himself, his arms and St’ve’s wrapped around each other as they pulled each other close and met, mouth to mouth, and skin to skin. His riding leathers – his breaches and his boots – he tore at them like they were alien things, and then he was Faroeth again, trusting in Gareth’s powerful wings to hold them both aloft. 

 

 

“My weyr is bigger,” said St’ve. “There’s no way Gareth and Faroeth can fit into your small space together.”

“Your place is a thousand feet off the ground, St’ve. It makes me nervous just going out on the ledge. A strong wind could blow you right off.”

St’ve rolled his eyes. “That’s not going to happen, D’nno.”

“Seriously, just call me Danny, ok?”

St’ve grinned. “When are you going to accept that you’re a dragonrider already?”

“When are you going to accept that these abbreviations are ridiculous?”

 

 

Three turns after Danny had impressed Faroeth, he was standing at the edge of the hot sands once again: this time to watch Jameth hatch what was likely to be her very last clutch.  It was smaller than her prior clutches had been: only eight eggs, but the last was unmistakably a gold, which meant that Mauna Kea would have two laying queens to keep the weyr going. Everyone was understandably excited: even more so because Aleth had flown for the first time several weeks ago, and was already showing signs of becoming broody. 

Grace stood with seven other girls around the queen egg. At sixteen, she was already taller than Danny, and as graceful and dignified as her mother as she stood with her back straight, and her eyes forward. Whether she impressed this dragonet or not, Danny knew that his daughter was well on her way to becoming an adult, who would conduct herself well in Hold, Hall, or Weyr. 

But the chances were more than good that Grace would impress this queen. In fact, she confided to Danny that she had already begun to speak to the young queen, who would be called Teileth. “Not complete images, exactly,” she had told him, “because all she knows is the egg. But a sense of being warm, and seeing the light shining through her shell as it becomes thinner. Right now she is hungry all the time, and she wants to know who I am.”

St’ve reached out and took Danny’s fingers, squeezing them gently, and Danny smiled at him, grateful for the reassurance.

Somewhere in the stands Rachel and Lord Edwards were watching, and Danny knew Rachel was just as nervous as he was, waiting to see what would happen. He had greeted her when she came to the weyr, and, for the first time since she had left him for Lord Edwards, it had been without anger.

Then he put his thoughts aside, and concentrated on the scene in front of him. All around them the dragons had started to hum.