The blue dragon with its two passengers burst out of between in the air high above Ista Weyr.
Fifteen year old Magee caught his breath at the sight below them. Like most other Weyrs on Pern, Ista had been carved out of an extinct volcano. The hollow mountain stretched towards the sky, peaks like fingers rising on one side above the great open palm of the bowl. Scattered all around, dragons like bright jewels stood out against the stark colors of the rock. He saw a few splashing in the sunlit waves of the ocean, others circling lazily or purposefully in the sky, and still others resting on peaks and perches on the edge of the bowl.
He could even distantly see the entrance to the Hatching Ground, where Weyrwoman Jeniver's golden Cynth lay curled around a clutch of eggs. In only a few days, the eggs would hatch out a new generation of dragons, and the lives of the boys and girls who Impressed would be changed forever.
Magee felt a flutter of excitement. That could be me, he thought in silent wonder. The thought was still a little overwhelming: that he, of all people, had been chosen on Search. He might soon be paired for life to one Pern's magnificent protectors.
The dragonrider twisted around to look at Magee over his shoulder. "You all right back there?"
Magee nodded, swallowing hard. "Yeah, I'm fine. I just..." He stuttered to a stop, suddenly speechless. "...Wow."
The rider smiled. C'ris--Magee remembered dimly--that was how he'd introduced himself. "First time between, first time a'dragonback, or first sight of the Weyr?"
"Umm..." Nervousness made Magee stammer more than usual. "All of the above?"
C'ris chuckled and there was an answering rumble from his dragon, Paccith. Did dragons laugh? Magee wondered, startled. Somehow it had never occurred to him before to ask. But then, who would he have asked? Hold-bred boys didn't get much chance to interact with dragons--if a rider had business, it was with the Lord Holder or a crafter, not a child.
"You'll get used to it," C'ris assured him. "Now, hang on, we're heading in."
The warning was well-timed. Magee had no sooner tightened his grip on the rider in front of him than Paccith folded his wings into a dive, swooping with heart-stopping speed and grace to land in the bowl.
Almost as soon as they had touched solid ground, C'ris unfastened his riding straps and slid down Paccith's great neck. He reached up a hand to help Magee dismount as well, using the dragon's foreleg as a step (a rather high one, Magee thought privately).
"Come on," C'ris told him. "I'll take you to the headwoman, Hollis. She'll see you get to where you need to go."
"Why, where are you going?" Magee asked. He felt a little alarmed at the thought of being so quickly separated from the one person he knew here. It had been a very long time since he'd been a stranger anywhere: probably since he'd first been fostered to Ista Sea Hold as a boy.
C'ris laughed and smiled at him encouragingly. "Paccith and I have other duties. Don't worry, you'll get settled in soon enough. Maybe even make a few friends amongst the other boys standing up for Cynth's clutch."
Somehow Magee didn't find that very comforting. He said nothing, though, only following C'ris into the Weyr with a combination of nervousness and excitement roiling in his belly.
From the moment they stepped through the heavy doors, Magee and C'ris found themselves dodging people. Some wore the distinctive garb of riders, but there were crafters and holders in the mix, along with the requisite few drudges. It reminded Magee of the Sea Hold just after the ships had docked, with everyone bustling about to bring in the haul and prepare it. Of course, at such times the hold would generally reek of packtail and other fish oils: that was one difference he was already grateful for.
They reached the lower caverns and C'ris led Magee over to a petite but straight-backed woman with long, light brown hair nearly the same color as her dress. She turned at their approach, taking Magee in with shrewd, stone-grey eyes. "Is this the new Candidate?"
C'ris nodded. "Magee, this is Hollis, headwoman of Ista Weyr." He directed his next words to Hollis. "I was hoping you could see him to the Candidates' barracks. I have to report to the Weyrleader, then Paccith and I head out again."
She snorted, but there was a hint of a smile on the stern face. "Maybe if I didn't have a hatching to ready for, I might." Instead, she turned and called: "Abby!"
A girl a few years older than Magee turned at the sound of her name. She had black hair pulled back into a single braid and green eyes so bright they stood out even at a distance. Her dress was a deep red, embroidered all over with an intricate pattern of fire lizards in black thread. Magee found himself at a complete loss for words.
Hollis gestured her over. "Abby is a Candidate for the queen egg," she explained to Magee as the girl wove her way through the busy cavern over to their side. "She's also weyrbred, so there's little of Ista she doesn't know from infancy. She'll tend to you until you can find your own way around."
Abby reached them just in time to hear the end of this speech. She smiled at Magee. "Hey. First time at the Weyr?"
Magee felt as if his heart were in his throat, but hoped that swallowing it would send it back to its proper place. "Um..."
Abby grinned and hooked her arm through his. "Don't worry; you'll get to know your way around soon enough. How about I give you the tour?"
Magee threw a helpless look towards C'ris, who only chuckled in return. Hollis eyed him sharply, but not without amusement. "And get the lad a cup of hot klah while you're at it," she suggested. "Possibly something to eat as well. He looks a bit overwhelmed."
When they reached the sleeping quarters where all but the queen Candidates resided, the cavern was empty. All the other boys were still at their assigned tasks about the Weyr: a fate Magee only escaped because he was a new arrival who hadn't yet settled in. Idleness was never encouraged on Pern, but during a Pass it was pretty much unthinkable, except on Gather days.
Even Abby had to return to her own duties once she'd seen him installed in an empty corner; Magee was only partly successful at hiding his disappointment about this when they said goodbye.
Most of the hammocks were already claimed with some small personal item, but between the two of them they managed to find one that was not only unadorned (except for standard bedding) but with the small chest underneath it still standing empty. He emptied his small traveling bag of the few clothes and prized possessions he'd brought with him then contemplated the hammock. He hadn't really brought anything suitable for marking it as his own.
He finally settled on the Harper-blue ribbon his little sister, Sarah, had given him as a parting gift. It brought an affectionate smile to his face to see it knotted there around the rope. She'd made him promise to come back to "show her his dragon" as soon as they were cleared to fly. The idea that he wouldn't Impress never occurred to her.
He'd just finished tying the ribbon when a group of other boys returned from their work. Magee heard the raucous sound of several young male voices raised in laughter a good minute before he saw them.
There were six of them, all at least a year or two older than Magee. All six were well-tanned and fairly well-muscled for their ages too, suggesting that they were islanders by birth and breeding. The obvious leader was a green-eyed boy probably two years Magee's senior, with short-cropped brown hair and an easy smile.
The smile disappeared, though, when he saw the new arrival. Eyes narrowed as he looked Magee up and down. "I think someone took a wrong turn looking for the kitchen cavern. These quarters are for Candidates only."
Magee had a familiar sinking feeling but swallowed his fear and forced a friendly smile onto his face. "Actually, I am a Candidate," he answered far more confidently than he felt. "My name's Magee--I arrived today from Ista Sea Hold."
"You're a Candidate?" the older boy asked mockingly. "For what, the watch-wher? Please."
The other boys snickered behind him and Magee could feel his face heating. Okay, so back at the Hold he'd spent most of his time indoors, assisting the Harper, rather than engaging in a lot of manual labor. He was good with information: he had a good memory for drum codes and could read and write better than almost anyone else at the Hold. Okay, so yeah, that hadn't won him a whole lot of friends among the other boys, but stupidly he'd thought things would be different at the Weyr.
"I have as much a right to be here as you," Magee mumbled defensively.
The boys snickered again. "Is that so?" the leader demanded. "Tell me, Magee, how many weyrleaders have you got in your bloodline?"
The question threw him for a moment. "Um...I don't know. None, I guess."
The boy pointed to himself. "Three. My sire, grandsire and great-grandsire. You were saying?"
One of the other boys, a hawk-faced lad with short dark hair, laid a hand on the leader's arm. "He does have a point, though, Dinozzo. After all, somebody has to Impress the greens."
Another round of conspiratorial snickers rippled through the group of boys flanking Dinozzo, whose face had broken out again into that wide, derisive grin. Magee knew he was probably bright red by now, he just wasn't sure if it was embarrassment or anger.
"Good point, Berent," Dinozzo agreed with a smug leer. "I bet you like taking it up the ass, don't you, Magreen?"
Magee wasn't sure whether it was bravado or just pure stupidity that made his next words come out. "I wouldn't know: I've never done it. Since you seem to know so much on the subject, why don't you tell me?"
Dinozzo's face turned a peculiar shade of purple that Magee wasn't sure he'd ever seen before, but he knew instinctively that it meant nothing good for him.
"I guess we'll see, won't we?" Dinozzo hissed through clenched teeth. Then he and all his entourage stalked away as if to say Magee was no longer worth their time.
Magee buried his face in his hands. Great: not even here an hour and he'd already offended a self-proclaimed future Weyrleader. At least Abby liked him. Of course, Abby seemed to like just about everybody, so that might not say much.
Magee heard a throat cleared somewhere nearby and lifted his head to see a boy about his own age smiling sheepishly. "I came in just in time to catch the tail end of that. That was great, the way you stood up to Dinozzo."
"You think so?" Magee answered dubiously. "Then why do I feel like I just got myself into a world of trouble?"
The other boy shrugged. "They give all the Hold and Hall bred boys a hard time. I got the same: only good enough for a green. But I don't mind. I think all the dragons are beautiful, so it doesn't matter to me what color I Impress."
Magee pondered that thought for a heartbeat. Part of him felt the same way: he'd found Paccith every bit as awe-inspiring in his own way as the larger dragons. But another part of him, perhaps a selfish part, wanted to Impress bronze. Partly to show up Dinozzo and his friends, but more because--he flushed again at the thought--only bronzes flew queens. And Abby was a Candidate for the queen egg.
"I'm Palmer, by the way," the other boy introduced himself.
"Magee of Ista," Magee returned the introduction. "Hold, not Weyr," he added quickly for clarification. "Where are you from?"
"Healer Hall," Palmer answered, much to Magee's surprise. "I'm apprentice to Masterhealer Donal, but he insisted that if I have the chance to Impress, I have to take it." He smiled. "He told me a long, rambling story about how he passed up the chance when he was young and while he doesn't regret it, he does wonder sometimes what it would've been like."
Magee frowned. "But why Ista? Isn't the main Healer Hall beholden to Fort?"
Palmer nodded. "It is, but we were already here."
"Oh." Magee supposed that was as sensible a reason as any.
Palmer smiled. "Well, I should probably go. We really only got let out for the midday meal, and then back to work. It was nice to meet you."
"You too," Magee commented idly to Palmer's departing back. He glanced over at the small niche he'd made for himself, debating whether or not to follow the other boys down to the great hall. He'd turned down the offer of something to eat earlier, being at the time too nervous to be hungry. Truthfully, he still was, but if he passed up this chance he probably wouldn't get another one until evening.
There was just one problem. Magee had no idea how to get to the Great Hall. Although maybe if he hurried, he could catch up to Palmer--
The solution presented itself in the form of a familiar head being poked through the entrance to the barracks. "Hey," Abby called out. "Food's on. Are you coming?"
Magee grinned and happily followed her.
The days that followed, while they waited for the eggs on the Hatching Ground to mature, quickly fell into a routine. Magee discovered that there was really no one task that Candidates were put to: they were used wherever an extra pair of hands was needed, especially if the hands in question were small.
There were a few duties specifically designed to prepare them for their potential future as dragonriders, of course, such as breaking up firestone to be bagged and delivered to the fighting wings. There was also instruction on how to behave on the Hatching Ground (don't show fear, don't let the hatchling overeat) and of course the fitting for the traditional white Candidates' robes as well. Aside from that, though, Magee sometimes found himself assigned to tasks as diverse as hunting tunnel snakes in the lower levels or helping out in the kitchen. He got used to the idea that if he didn't appear to be doing something at any given moment, he would be snatched up by whoever was nearest and assigned to a job.
Only one thing disrupted the routine: Threadfall.
Magee had lived all his life with Thread: the current Pass had started before he was even born. Still, Threadfall at a Weyr was very different from at a Hold. At the Hold, anyone not assigned to a ground crew shut the doors, sealed the windows and held their collective breath, waiting for the deadly rain to end. Life didn't come to a standstill, of course, but there was a sort of helpless apprehension that descended on everyone. Like it or not, there was nothing they could do to ride out the Fall but stay tight indoors and pray that the dragonriders didn't fail in their traditional duty.
At the Weyr, though, the mood was far from helpless. It was the Weyrs, after all, that kept the rest of Pern safe.
That wasn't to say that Threadfall wasn't still terrifying: in fact, in many ways it was more so. Before coming to the Weyr, Magee had never had the chance to see Threadscore up close: now he helped Abby and Palmer treat wounded riders and dragons. It was a sight that burned into his memory the very first time, and if he was honest the thought of feeling that someday terrified him. It raised doubts he wouldn't have believed he had. But at the same time, the thought of being able to do something--that he was doing something--to help the fight against Thread was strangely empowering.
On this particular day, the entire group of male Candidates had been assigned to break up firestone. Thread was expected any day over Igen Hold and the only way to be certain of being prepared was to have more supplies than they were likely to need.
It wasn't a job Magee particularly liked. Mainly because Dinozzo and his cronies never failed to notice every single time he stopped to rest earlier or more often than the other boys, or anything else he did that they perceived as a failure. Not that they didn't do the same on every other task, but he couldn't help but feel like he gave them more excuses here, since he wasn't used to this sort of physical labor.
As a result, it was something of a relief when Abby burst in, shouting that Threads had been spotted over the part of Igen that was in Ista's territory. She hurried to where he and Palmer were working together. "Come on," she told them urgently. "Gerald says he'll need all the extra hands he can get."
Gerald was the journeyman healer assigned to Ista since at the moment they had no Weyrhealer. That was a position Palmer would likely fill if he Impressed.
"And where do you think you're going," Dinozzo interrupted, moving to intercept.
Magee looked at him as if he were stupid. "Um, to help the Healer?"
"What's the matter, Magreen? Too much of a wherry to deliver firestone like the rest of us?"
Before Magee could answer, Abby unexpectedly slapped Dinozzo upside the head. He yelped, probably as much in indignation at being shown up in front of his cronies as in surprise or pain. "What in fardles was that for?"
"Be nice!" Abby scolded him. She leaned in close before adding, "Or I'll tell them all how you failed to Impress the first two times you stood as a Candidate." Dinozzo flushed a bright, angry shade of scarlet and began to sputter.
Abby took advantage of the moment to quickly herd Magee and Palmer out. "Has Dinozzo been giving you trouble like that ever since you arrived?" she asked. When Magee reluctantly nodded, she asked, "Why didn't you tell me?"
He sighed. "Because, do you really think it won't make it worse to have to be protected by a girl?"
Abby snorted. "Not when I'm a queen rider."
"But you're not one, yet," he pointed out carefully.
It was Abby's turn to sigh. She looked from him to Palmer and back. "Honestly? Dinozzo's not such a bad guy once you get to know him. He's just--"
"Loud, arrogant and obnoxious?" Magee interrupted sourly.
"A hunk of firestone," Abby agreed with a smile. "But one with a lot of expectations riding on him."
Magee remembered something Dinozzo himself had said when they met. "The sire who used to be Weyrleader?"
Abby nodded. "He died years ago, but not before making it very clear he expected his son to live up to his legacy. Dinozzo's terrified of failing that expectation in front of the whole Weyr. He's desperate to Impress--not just a bronze, but L'roy too. If he doesn't like you, it's because he sees you as a threat to that."
"How could we possibly be a threat?" Magee asked incredulously.
"Oh, I don't think I am," Palmer answered with oblivious cheerfulness. "At least not anymore. Dinozzo hasn't really given me any trouble since you showed up."
Abby hid a smile. "Because you're Holdbred," she explained to Magee. "You were chosen on Search. Dinozzo gets to stand as a candidate because of who his father was. He wasn't chosen by a dragon and rider--no one even knows if he even can Impress. Especially after the last two times, the rumor is that he can't."
Ah. Even Magee could see how that would be a little embarrassing for the son of a former Weyrleader. Still: "If this is supposed to make me more sympathetic--" he warned.
Abby rolled her eyes as if he were the biggest dimglow on Pern. "The point is that it doesn't matter. Dinozzo's not the one who decides whether you two deserve to be dragonriders or not. And the dragons never choose wrong."
The long, ugly Threadscore ran almost the length of M'chal's arm. The older bronze rider was probably close to retirement age, but like most dragonriders seemed determined to go out fighting instead. Magee was trying to apply numbweed to it, but was quickly becoming exasperated as the older rider flinched away almost every time he came near.
"Don't know why they let inexperienced boys do this bit," M'chal groused with a sour look at Magee. "I want the Healer, by Faranth. Someone who knows how to do the job."
"I could do the job just fine if you would hold still," Magee blurted out, quickly amending, "Sir."
M'chal looked at him and chuckled. Somewhere outside, a dragon (probably M'chal's Franth) also made the sound of amusement that had gradually become familiar to Magee.
"Ah, don't mind me, boy," M'chal told him in a far more cheerful tone. "I'm just a grumpy old man. All right, I'll sit still. But I warn you, if I do and you still screw up--"
"I promise, I'll beg a ride on the next dragon headed between," Magee promised dryly, earning another chuckle from the old rider.
It became a lot less funny an instant later when the air was split by the sound of every dragon in the Weyr letting out the same peculiar keen. It was a sound guaranteed to send shivers up your spine, especially if you knew what it meant as Magee now did.
Thread had cost a dragon its life.
Across the cavern, Abby's head jerked up, her eyes wide with horror. Magee looked at her, his own dread written plainly on his face. "What? Who is it?"
Like many of the legendary Weyrwomen of Pern, Abby could speak to any dragon in the Weyr, and based on her stricken expression he knew the lost pair was someone she'd been close to.
Abby swallowed hard. "Paccith," she stated in a numb voice. "We lost C'ris and Paccith."
Magee's head suddenly started to swim. He felt dizzy and short of breath, as much so as when that very pair had first landed him in the bowl of the Weyr. C'ris and Paccith? But...it couldn't be! "No..." he whispered, swaying suddenly on his feet.
M'chal looked alarmed. "You okay, boy?"
"They..." Magee stammered. He'd never felt so completely lost for words. "They found me. On Search."
"Ah." M'chal looked suddenly sympathetic.
"I'm so sorry, Magee," Abby whispered. Her pained eyes showed she wasn't just grieving for him: she would've felt just as devastated if it were any other dragon in the Weyr. But he...
Magee suddenly needed to be alone. "Tell...tell Gerald..." he stammered. Abby didn't even let him finish his sentence, just nodded.
It was a shameful thing to do, and he knew it. They were in the middle of a Threadfall: every available hand was needed. No doubt Dinozzo would never let him hear the end of it if he found out. He'd be more convinced than ever that Magee wasn't worthy to ride a dragon.
Maybe he was right. For the first time, the reality of what he was signing up for really hit Magee. It wasn't just the occasional Threadscore that riders had to fear. Thread killed, riders and dragons both, and not always together. He'd heard nightmare stories of riders rendered dragonless: some suicided, others lost their minds. Even those few who did survive both physically and mentally were never the same.
Did he have the courage to face that? Magee didn't know.
He felt a touch on his shoulder, and looked up to see Abby standing over him.
"You shouldn't be here," he told her contritely. "It's bad enough that I ran off--"
"Hey," she interrupted quietly, sitting down beside him. "We get it."
As soon as Abby's hand touched his, Magee found himself talking as if he couldn't stop. "I don't know if I can do this. I know I shouldn't have run off like that. I know everyone is needed, especially during a Fall, but I just...maybe Dinozzo's right. Maybe I'm not cut out to be a dragonrider."
Abby squeezed his hand. "Because you got upset when a dragon and rider died?" she asked a little incredulously.
He shook his head. "No...because I let it cripple me."
Abby looked at him for a long, silent moment. Then she sighed and asked, "Magee, have you ever lost someone you cared about to Thread before?"
He thought about it for a moment, then slowly shook his head. "No...I guess not."
"Well, I can tell you I didn't exactly cope well the first time it happened to me, either," she answered softly. "It's not a sign of weakness, or whatever you're thinking. You get used to it. Or...no, you don't. But after a while it's not so big a shock, even if it hurts just as badly. And it's the shock that 'cripples' you, as you put it."
Magee mulled over her words. He wanted to believe them, but he knew what Dinozzo would probably say. He must've mumbled something to that effect, because this time Abby slapped him upside the head. "What did I tell you about listening to what Dinozzo says?" she scolded. "Caring when a pair dies...that's not just an important quality for a rider, it's absolutely necessary in a Weyrleader."
Magee's eyes met hers in shock. "Weyrleader? Me?" he squeaked. Even now, he didn't think his ambition went quite that far. Not that it was something he'd have to worry about any time too soon--L'roy and Jeth weren't going anywhere.
She shrugged. "Maybe, someday. Or maybe not. The important thing is, don't start to doubt yourself because of Dinozzo. Dragons respond to confidence, Magee. As long as you believe you're worthy, so will they. And then it doesn't really matter what anyone else thinks, does it?"
The irony was that it didn't register, at first, that the moment had finally arrived. Magee was helping in the kitchen caverns when the humming began, scrubbing pots with sweetsand at Hollis' behest. Only when everyone else suddenly stopped what they were doing did Magee register that the low, musical sound penetrating the entirety of the Weyr was being made by the dragons.
Abby immediately grabbed the pot out of Magee's hands and shoved it towards a drudge. Then she had him by the hand and they were running, dodging people of all sorts in the corridor on their way back to the barracks.
The next few minutes disappeared into a blur in his memory ever afterwards. Magee remembered fumbling into the white Candidate's robe, but not taking off his regular clothes. He had no idea how he'd wound up in the middle of the line of Candidates, sandwiched squarely between Dinozzo and Palmer. He barely even felt the hot sand of the Hatching Ground until they were all there, standing in a semi-circle around the rocking eggs.
Magee could feel his heart pounding like a drum. No fear, he reminded himself. That was the one thing S'tan had emphasized to them over and over again, and Abby's words had only reinforced it. No matter what he felt, he couldn't allow the hatchlings to see it or he might be passed over entirely.
Desperate to distract himself, Magee let his eyes drift up to the stands, where spectators were hurrying to their seats. He recognized several notable figures, if not on sight than by their rank knots and colors. Donal he knew even before Palmer pointed him out, and Gerald seated beside him. Weyrleader L'roy and Weyrwoman Jeniver, too, were easy to recognize, as were many of the grown riders he'd met since arriving at the Weyr. But there were others whose presence amazed him--Ista was the smallest Weyr, with fewer than two hundred dragons. Surely if any hatching was going to be such an occasion, it would be at Fort or Benden! There must've been a meeting of the Weyrleaders or something, because why else would F'nell of Bitra and L'van of Igen be in the stands? Unbelievably, he even thought he saw Lord Eli of Lemos, and the boy and girls flanking him must be his heir, Ari, and daughters, Ziva and Tali.
Deciding that at this rate, their audience was going to make him more nervous rather than less, Magee returned his attention to the eggs. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Dinozzo shift from one foot to the other, probably due to the hot sand.
But, no...looking at him closer, Magee realized with a sudden start that Dinozzo's face was as white as his robe. He remembered suddenly what Abby had told him, about the expectations Dinozzo had riding on him, and the fact that he'd failed to meet them twice already. No wonder he was terrified.
A part of Magee was tempted to think it would serve him right, but another part surprised him by feeling sorry for Dinozzo. He, Magee, was here because he wanted to be here. He'd been given a chance and he'd seized it. Dinozzo was here because he felt he had to, because his entire self-worth was wrapped up in Impressing. And yet it was probably that very fear of failing that had doomed him to be passed over before.
Dinozzo must've felt Magee's eyes on him, because he turned to the other boy with a scowl. "You got a problem, Magreen?"
"No," he answered truthfully. "I was just thinking about some good advice I got a few days ago."
Dinozzo sneered. "Oh yeah? And what is that?"
"That it doesn't matter if anyone else believes I'm worthy to be a dragonrider or not." Magee looked at him, keeping his face and his voice calm through sheer force of will. "It only matters that I believe it, because if I do, then my hatchling will too, and that's the only one I have to Impress."
"Good for you," Dinozzo scoffed, but the scorn in his voice seemed only half-hearted and there was a thoughtful look on his face.
Magee smiled. He honestly didn't know why he'd shared Abby's words with Dinozzo, but it didn't matter. Already just hearing them aloud again had lifted his spirit. Looking across the sand to where the heap of mottled eggs was rocking, he felt more confident than he probably ever had in his life. He was going to Impress today, and he would Impress well.
All at once, the first shell split and the first hatchling leaped from the broken shards. A cry went up from the crowd: it was a bronze, a good omen! The hatchling let out a creel that was both hungry and searching, and as one the entire semi-circle of boys stepped closer.
It didn't matter, though, because the minute Magee laid eyes on the gleaming bronze dragonet, he knew this one was meant for him, and that if it wasn't then he didn't belong here after all. Oh, he knew the heroes in ballads never got the first egg. There always had to be a suitably dramatic period of suspense before they found their lifemate. Magee didn't care. Maybe he'd never be the subject of a ballad anyway, so what did it matter?
When the other boys stopped, hesitant, Magee kept moving as though he were a fish caught in a net. The hatchling let out a cry of recognition and a heartbeat later they met in the middle of the sands. Human eyes met draconic ones and a part of Magee fell into place that he'd never before known was missing. He knew instinctively that he'd never again be afraid to do anything, as long as Timoth was with him.
And I will always be with you, Timoth promised him, even as his snout gently bumped against Magee's hand, begging to be scratched.
"What's his name?" someone shouted from the stands above, jolting Magee out of his reverie and back to the real world.
He cleared his throat and answered as loudly as it would let him, "Timoth. His name is Timoth!"
Food? Timoth asked plaintively.
Food? Of course, food! He'd been so caught up in the wonder of feeling another mind so tied to his own that he'd completely forgotten what he'd been taught. Hatchlings were always born starving. Even now he felt the pangs as sharply as if they were his own. Barely even aware of Weyrlingmaster S'tan's hand at his back, Magee led his new lifemate from the Hatching Ground out into the bowl, where more meat than he'd ever seen in one place before awaited them.
Only a day ago, the carnivorous greed with which Timoth gulped down whole gobbets of raw flesh would've probably revolted him, but now he just stared in wonder at the fact that this beautiful creature was his for life. He could feel the ravening hunger slowly subside in Timoth, and was so caught up in trying to keep him under control that he barely noticed when Palmer--P'mer, now--emerged from the Hatching Grounds proudly carrying a little emerald green hatchling.
"Her name is Leeth," P'mer told Magee proudly. "Isn't she beautiful?"
Not as beautiful as Timoth, Magee thought privately, but prudently kept the notion to himself. Other new-minted pairs were emerging from the Hatching Ground now, too. He recognized all of them--B'rent leading a brown he introduced as Langeth, and to his delight, Abby with a stunning golden hatchling at her side. She waved gleefully at him across the bowl before settling in to feed her new weyrmate.
Timoth paused in his headlong consumption to eye the new queen speculatively. Caitlinth says that when she is grown, she will out-fly every bronze in the Weyr. He paused to swallow before adding confidently. We will see about that.
"Something funny?" a voice interjected from behind him. Magee spun, startled: for a moment, he'd completely forgotten about Dinozzo--or D'nozzo, rather, he amended as he took in the sight of the bronze hatchling at the older boy's side. Noticing his scrutiny, D'nozzo reached down to give the dragonet's eye ridge an affectionate scratch. It was the gentlest thing Magee had ever seen him do.
"His name's Anth," D'nozzo said simply. He looked at Magee. "Yours?"
"Timoth," Magee answered, still wary. He waited for the insult, not only ready but eager to leap to Timoth's defense if D'nozzo so much as criticized the exact hue of his color.
Much to his surprise, D'nozzo just nodded and smiled when Anth bumped his hand with his head. "Looks like I'd better get this one something in his stomach." He turned away, leaving a stunned Magee behind him, but not as stunned as he became a moment later when D'nozzo turned back. "And M'gee..." he met the other boy's eyes and to M'gee's surprise, there was genuine gratitude there. "...thanks."
He didn't say thanks for what, but he didn't have to. M'gee swallowed hard and nodded, and D'nozzo turned away again to tend to Anth's appetite.
Only then did it occur to M'gee with a start that D'nozzo, of all people, had been the first to give him the traditional dragonrider honorific. He hadn't even ascribed it to himself before that moment, as if a part of him still hadn't believed it was real. But if D'nozzo could acknowledge it, who had seen nothing of value in him, then it must be real.
I'm real, Timoth promised him.
M'gee closed his eyes and just wrapped his arms around Timoth's neck. They communed for a long moment before M'gee opened his eyes again.
They were new eyes that studied his fellows now. This was what it meant to be a dragonrider of Pern. Fighting Thread was part of it, maybe even the heart of it, but that came later. Some of them, he acknowledged as he looked around at the faces again, wouldn't survive their first encounter with Thread. Some of them wouldn't survive their training. Only a lucky few would live to see the end of the Pass and age into graceful retirement. It was a fact of life at the Weyr that he really understood for the first time.
But that didn't matter. What mattered was that no matter how long or short the days ahead, he was forever part of something greater than himself. And he would never be in it alone.