Our imprisonment began that day, though it would be a long time before anyone else knew it.
Time. We invoke its name so casually. We make time. Spend time. Find it, borrow it, lose it. We speak as if we can control it, as if time were a servant and we its master. We even imagine we can break it into pieces for our convenience: days and months; hours and minutes; moments, instants, heartbeats.
It is the grossest of conceits. Time will not be broken. Time is all of one piece.
Time protects itself.
81ST TURN, SEVENTH INTERVAL (NINETEEN TURNS BEFORE PRESENT DAY)
NEAR SIXER HOLD, PENINSULA TERRITORY
They’d almost finished their sweep, chasing the setting sun as far as the Madellon border, when they heard the scream.
Krodith spooked, checking her vector, and S’rebren swore breathlessly as her fore-ridge caught him right in the sternum. Sorry! she apologised, levelling off, and turning her head to peer at him with an eye limned ruby with sunset.
“S’all right, Kro,” S’rebren told her, rubbing his chest. “What on Pern was that?”
Dragon, said Krodith, unhelpfully.
“Where?” S’rebren asked. “And who? I didn’t think anyone else was sweeping this far west.”
I don’t know who it is, but he’s scared, and he’s alone, and he’s hurt.
They were too far from the Weyr to raise the alarm. A green couldn’t reach over that sort of distance. “Tell Beregoth at Redyen Hold what’s happened,” S’rebren told her instead. He wiped grime off his goggles, looking around to get his bearings, and spied the rock spires of Sixer Hold thrusting black on the horizon. “Tell him we’re east of Sixer. And then let’s get some height, and see if we can find whoever that was.”
Krodith banked to catch a thermal as he spoke, using the warm air rising off the arid plains below to gain altitude. It was a bad place for a ground sweep. The Redyen Badlands were all scrubby trees and tangled brush, rocky outcrops and blind gullies. Tricky terrain to search at the best of times – and they were losing the light. The sinking sun washed everything in scarlet, and every stone and bush and grain of sand threw its own elongated shadow, deceiving the eye.
“There…!” S’rebren cried, leaning hard right over Krodith’s neck, and then sat back as his eyes resolved only a boulder, rearing from the ground, matted vegetation drooping, wing-like, from its sides.
Then, No, Krodith said, there!
She wheeled hard left, putting on a spurt of speed, her slender muzzle pointing the way. S’rebren thought for an instant that even his dragon was mistaken, but then a heap of rocks stirred and moved and raised its head: dark, with eyes glowing eerie white.
“Hey, down there!” S’rebren shouted as Krodith circled in to land. “You all right?”
The dragon below curved his head threateningly towards Krodith with a hiss. She twitched back, startled. Be calm! We’re here to help!
S’rebren released the buckle on his safety-strap and slid the short distance from Krodith’s neck to the ground. This sharding light, Kro. I can’t even see what colour he is!
My rider will help your rider, Krodith told the strange dragon. What’s wrong?
The stranger subsided, dipping his head back down into the protective mantle of his wings. He wasn’t much bigger than Krodith, S’rebren thought, and slowed his approach. Must be a weyrling. Be careful, Kro. Plenty of dragons would lash out in defence of an injured rider, and weyrlings were the most unpredictable of all. “All right, there,” he said. “You’re all right. Where’s your rider?”
He says they’re hurt, Krodith reported. He says they were caught and they hurt and where is Epherineth.
“Epherineth?” said S’rebren. The name wasn’t familiar to him. “We don’t know an Epherineth. You’re not from the Peninsula, are you?” Ask him his name and where he comes from.
He says he came from between, said Krodith. She sounded as baffled as S’rebren felt.
A blast of cold wind overhead and the beat of enormous wings interrupted them. S’rebren glanced up to see the underside of a much bigger dragon, and then he recognised the grey-muzzled bronze as Beregoth. “Hey, J’deyn!” he shouted.
“What have you got?” the bronze rider called down hoarsely from his dragon’s neck.
“Don’t know!” S’rebren yelled back. “Lost weyrling, maybe?”
The young dragon hunched smaller, whistling in distress, as Beregoth made his ponderous descent. He says his rider won’t wake up, Krodith told S’rebren.
“Beregoth will hold him,” said J’deyn, coming stiffly over from his dragon. The elderly bronze rider pulled down his goggles. “There now, young fellow. Let’s see what’s the matter with your rider.”
The resistance went out of the dragonet’s bearing. He lowered his wings, and a fire-lizard came boiling out from the shelter of them, screaming, before disappearing between.
“Faranth!” S’rebren exclaimed.
The young dragon’s rider hung limply against the side of his mount’s neck, secured by a single safety tether. The other lines of his harness dangled from his belt, severed. S’rebren took the rider’s weight on his shoulder while J’deyn cut the remaining strap, and together they lifted the stricken dragonrider down.
The strange dragon turned his head down to his rider as they laid him between his forepaws. An overpowering stench of firestone hit S’rebren full in the face, and he coughed, grateful for his goggles, though his eyes still watered as the stink got up his nose. “What have you two been up to?” he asked, as he crouched down to the unconscious rider.
He was young beneath his goggles, perhaps twenty Turns old; clean-shaven, and errant bits of dark hair escaped his flying helmet. He wore neither shoulder-knots nor insignia on his wherhides, and like his dragon, he reeked of firestone. S’rebren pulled off a glove to feel for the pulse at the boy’s throat and was rewarded with a strong, if elevated, throb. Gritty dust came away on his fingers, and he wiped them on his trousers. “Well, he’s alive.”
“Course he is,” said J’deyn. “What’s up with his leg, there?”
There was a wound across the young man’s left thigh, hard to see in the fading light and beneath a coating of more black dust. S’rebren touched the limb gently and the rider flinched, mumbling. This time his fingers came away sticky. “We need to get him to a Healer.”
Krodith had drawn closer to the stranger, touching his neck with her nose. S’rebren.
It was easier to make out the young dragon’s colour with the contrast between his hide and Krodith’s. He was brown, but so small that he had to be a weyrling. S’rebren stood up, wiping his hands again. “What is it, Kro?”
The green dragon’s eyes had been whirling faster than usual with the excitement of the search, but as she stared at the brown dragon’s neck, where the riding straps hung torn and broken, red glints started to appear among the blue. His neck.
S’rebren put his hand near the torn riding harness and felt the brown dragon shudder away. A long, sticky stripe, hardly visible against the dark hide, left yet more gritty particles on his fingers, mixed with the dark green of fresh ichor. “Faranth’s toenails…”
“What is it?” J’deyn asked, squinting near-sightedly at the brown.
S’rebren went to his knees beside the brown rider. He was stirring weakly. “Brown rider. Brown rider!” He eased the goggles off the rider’s sweaty face. “Where have you come from?”
The rider’s eyes fluttered open. He was even younger than S’rebren had thought. His face was grey with ash and with pain, and his gaze wouldn’t focus. “T’kamen?”
“My name’s S’rebren,” he told him. “I’m a green rider of Peninsula Weyr. What happened to you?”
“The formation broke,” the brown rider said. “There was too much. We were…had to protect…Spalinoth…oh Faranth…Fraza…”
“What’s your name?” S’rebren pressed. He was beginning to feel panicky. “Where did you come from?”
The young rider’s lips moved as he repeated S’rebren’s words silently. Then he said. “What…Turn?”
“No, where’ve you come from? How did you get…hurt?” S’rebren couldn’t bring himself to say a word that he couldn’t believe he needed to use.
“What Turn is it?” the wounded rider asked again.
“It’s 81,” S’rebren said, and then added, incredulously, “Interval 81.”
“Interval.” The brown rider closed his eyes, and for a moment S’rebren thought he’d passed out again. Then he said, anguished, “It’s too soon. I’m not ready!” He raised a hand to the dragon’s muzzle, and the brown instantly put his head down to him. His firestone breath was noxious, but the young rider didn’t seem to notice. “Oh, Faranth, I wasn’t ready!”
And then he did faint again. The brown whined, and Krodith pressed her head against his neck in support. It’s all right. It’s all right.
“Help’s on the way, S’rebren,” J’deyn said. There was an odd quality to his voice. “Beregoth’s alerted Haeith. Willeth, too.”
S’rebren looked dazedly at the old watchrider. J’deyn’s creased face was set in grim lines. “Both of them?”
“The Weyrleaders need to know about this,” J’deyn said. He lifted a hand to the frightened brown’s neck, grimacing as the young dragon flinched away.
“Not a fresh one,” said J’deyn. “I’m not that old. But a mark like that, covered with this?” He flicked grainy black dust off his fingers. “You know your Ballads, same as I do.”
Crackdust, blackdust. The sing-song rhyme capered in S’rebren’s head. He suddenly couldn’t wipe his hands clean enough. “Then it’s really a…”
“Oh, yes,” J’deyn said. His voice was bleak. “That’s a Threadscore.”