High Reaches Weyr
The Weyr's lake was more than two thirds iced over, and the chill of snow to come lingered in the air. Rahnis hugged her arms tight to her chest, wishing that the heat of her temper was able to do half as much for her body as it did for her thoughts.
I won't swim long, Alaireth said. You could always wait in our weyr?
The weyrwoman gave a wry laugh. If I let myself warm up, I'll never cool down. Besides, if I head in now, I'll only end up listening to Egritte whinge about which youngsters are most deserving of apprenticeships, or whether the meatrolls are under-salted, or something equally inane. Or worse, Delene'll put her foot down and demand that I oversee the laundry scrub-down right now. Rahnis had been putting that job off for almost a sevenday, waiting for a day when her free time coincided with one of Rayne's duty-shifts instead of Varral's. Taking Alaireth out of the Weyr for a well-earned swim and oiling should have been more than good enough reason to delay the chore for another day...but apparently tending to her queen's needs had now joined visits to Holds and Crafthalls as personal visits that she needed permission to make! Faranth, but she wouldn't-
Rahnis let the half-formed thought fade away to nothing as she looked to the sky, drawn by her queen's sudden shift in attention. Flamestrike Wing were passing almost directly overhead, led by J'garray's Pryanth. A few seconds later, the entire Wing blinked away.
They go to Nerat, Alaireth informed her. A reward for their performance in their drills this morning, though I didn't think they flew any better than Cloudburst myself.
It would be close to sunset, Nerat-time. The sea would be pleasantly warm, the wind would be light and humid and soft instead of bitter and biting, and the company of an entire Wing of dragonriders was arguably more than suitable escort for a weyrwoman! She could feel her anger rising once again. And to spite us, don't forget.
You did tell Ormaith's rider that Telemath's C'nir had more right to wear a Weyrleader's knots, Alaireth reminded her. He won't forget that in a hurry.
No, more's the pity.
Out in the lake, Alaireth rose to her feet and shook her wings clear of the water.
Faranth, love, Rahnis sent swiftly, don't rush your swim for my sake! The way I feel right now, it's probably better if you make it a long one.
Ormaith says his rider requests your presence, Alaireth said, wading back towards the shore. I can swim later.
Did he now? Where?
He'll meet you out in the bowl, opposite the infirmary weyrs.
The walk across the bowl did little to warm Rahnis up, and several long minutes of waiting for Sh'vek to make an appearance thoroughly undid even that small benefit. “Not going to Nerat, then?” she snapped when he finally deigned to join her.
“Too warm for my liking,” he said, rubbing his gloved hands together. “Besides, the Weyr's accounts are in desperate need of my attention. There's always much to be done, and I could do with your help today.”
“Balancing the accounts?”
Sh'vek shook his head. “Of course not. I'm not Delene! But if you're still interested in an excursion to the coast...?”
Rahnis looked up at him, curiously. He was smiling slightly, but the expression didn't entirely reach his eyes. So, it probably wasn't going to be an offer of joining his Wing in Nerat, or even an easy errand. “Go on.”
“Thunderclap found something interesting on their sweep. Vallenka's mentioned such things in passing before, and I know how familiar you are with obscure references and records. Ormaith's showing Alaireth the visual now.”
Rahnis closed her eyes, the better to concentrate on the details of the image in her queen's mind. Scattered outcrops of rocks, rising above a rough sea. A small fishing vessel, struggling against unfavourable winds, coloured banners streaming from its mast. Salvage and assistance, that was what those colour-combinations meant, but the square of white cloth bordered in the Weyr's dark blue, flown to attract attention from any passing dragons, was missing. Not the boat, then. And then she saw it: a large, pale shape against the darker colours of water and wet rock, bloated in its mid-section and tapering to a long, ridged tail, net-limbs splayed out to either side. “Yes, I know what that is,” she murmured, opening her eyes, “though I've only ever seen drawings before. They're very rare...and very valuable.”
“Just as I thought,” the Weyrleader said. “It will be a pleasant change to see you using your expertise to the Weyr's profit for once. I'd like you to supervise the salvage efforts, Rahnis.”
She frowned. “Butchering a deep-dweller can't be all that different to a herdbeast, not once you've got through the skin.”
“Then it shouldn't be beyond you, should it?”
And that put an end to that part of the conversation. “What are the tides doing? It won't be a quick job, even with a whole Wing working on it.”
“High water was about an hour ago. G'dil took Thunderclap back that way to check on it again, and it's very much still there.”
Rahnis nodded thoughtfully. “So we have until sunset to get it secured, and we can finish the job properly over the next few days.”
“It's a little more urgent than that, I'm afraid.”
That could only mean one thing. Rahnis looked up to meet his gaze. “Thread? How close?”
“Those islets are right in the fall's path. The whole thing'll be gone in a matter of hours, unless we can retrieve it first...and the Weyr needs the marks. As for you...” He paused, looking thoughtfully down at her. “G'dil thinks he's going to get a share of the profits...assuming there are any. I was thinking you might like the opportunity to volunteer for a few extended sweeprides as your reward?”
So, he did know that banning her from leaving the Weyr wasn't something he could enforce...and that was how he meant to break the impasse, was it? “If they're at a time and place of my choosing, Weyrleader, then yes.”
“I suppose that's acceptable. Just so long as you keep the watchdragon fully informed.”
Twenty minutes later, she and Alaireth were on their way to what promised to be a particularly nasty patch of water a half day's sailing off the Tillek coast. Rahnis had gathered three full-sized belly nets, now safely stowed within the fourth already slung between Alaireth's legs, along with hooks, ropes and as much butchering equipment as she could find. She'd already been wearing her work clothes, but knowing how wet she was likely to get, she added an additional two layers of knit between her shirt and her oiled wherhides.
The queen crested the rim, ascending into a bitter blast of air from the northwest. Rahnis shrank down in on herself as tightly as she could manage. Any change in the conditions?
Just the waterline, Alaireth said. Here.
Heggith's visual showed the sea boiling furiously around the shoals, sending sprays of white high into the air and freezing onto anything it touched. Dragonlength-long tendrils of fast growing ocean weeds lay limply across the stretches of exposed sand that ran between the wet rocks – the corpse of the deep-dweller was wedged half in and half out of one such sandy channel – while blistered expanses of clingers demarked the relative safety of the high tide mark. Going by the extent of the sea-life clinging to them, those particular rocks had long been ignored by Thread, but in a matter of hours the whole expanse would be scoured bare once again. They would have until then to secure their prize.
Rahnis held the visual as they went between. She was starting to think there was some truth in the old joke – she could never imagine describing the darkness as warm, but it did seem as though the deeper cold of between wasn't half as piercing as the icy bite of wind-chill back at the Weyr. The skies above the western seas, thankfully, were only unpleasantly cold rather than outright numbing – even at the altitude they'd arrived at. Alaireth spiralled down, giving Rahnis a fine opportunity to survey the scene. Thunderclap's dragons were scattered over a large area, making use of whatever perches they could find. Heggith had claimed the tallest outcrop of the shoals, almost half a mile away from where the dragonriders were working, which didn't strike Rahnis as a particularly sensible choice.
There, Rahnis thought, concentrating on a flatish expanse close to the water's edge on the lee side of the shoals, presently occupied by two greens and a blue. The dimpled platform was covered in short, fast-growing patches of slimy blue-green weeds; she knew the type from Ista. Thread would scour it back to bare rock maybe once or twice a turn, but drown in the higher seas, fertilising the re-growth. Alaireth's claws would have good enough purchase on the rocks beneath, but she'd need to tread carefully herself; the main advantage of the site was its proximity. Erabelth and Tindath won't mind moving for you.
As the green and the blue obligingly winged away, one of G'dil's riders clambered into view to perch on the sea creature's back. Rahnis mentally revised the time it'd take to get the job done; Faranth, but she hadn't appreciated the true scale of the beast! The deep-dweller's pale body was freshly marred by a long dark line, as well as smaller gouges weeping dark green ichor. One of the net-limbs had already been cut half-way loose, but the thick cartilaginous bones had proved too awkward to saw through with belt knives alone. One of the riders was bashing at it with a rock, now. A handful of other riders were clustered on a bare patch of rock a little further off, while the rest of the Wing were more widely dispersed over the shoals, busy chipping at clingers with belt knives or gathering weeds.
Rahnis dropped down from her queen's back and instantly lost her footing, one boot sliding out from underneath her and straight into a small rockpool. The rest of her would have gone the same way if she hadn't had Alaireth's belly-net within arm's reach.
Rahnis! Are you alright?
She hauled herself carefully upright, wincing at the sudden ache in one thigh.There was sand on the sole of her boot, as well as traces of weeds. I think so. I'll go more carefully, now I know how bad it is. She reached up and unfastened the hooks that held the belly net in place. Anyone coming to help with this yet?
I've asked Kanleth to pass the word.
P'lindis' bronze bellowed loudly, but otherwise made no move from his own perch. On a neighbouring islet, a brown and a blue unfurled their wings and launched into the air, swooping low above the riders working close to the water's edge. Rahnis watched as first one man, then a second, reached up and grabbed hold of dangling straps as the dragons passed overhead, hanging suspended for the duration of the short flight over the treacherous rocky ground to where she and Alaireth were waiting. Both riders had more luck on their landing than she'd done, forutnately. The two dragons looped around twice more, and four more riders followed the same way as the first. G'dil was one of the final pair. Hauling hard on one of the loose straps, he set himself swinging right before he let go, and landed flashily half a length away from Alaireth's head. Rahnis would have been genuinely impressed by the stunt if it had taken place back at the Weyr, but the layer of drying slime that coated G'dil's backside and one full leg of his trousers was more than adequate evidence that the man already knew what an idiot he was being, but had chosen to show off regardless. If Thunderclap returned to the Weyr with everyone's ankles intact they'd be luckier by far than they deserved.
G'dil grinned broadly at her as he straightened up again. “Rahnis! I hear you know all about these monstrosities.”
“Only from drawings, and the odd body-part brought back to Ista Hold on the ships when I was a child.”
He stepped carefully over the weed-ridden rocks towards where his wingmen were sorting through the contents of Alaireth's belly-net, and picked out a hand-axe. “Tough things,” he muttered, testing the blade's edge with his fingertip before stuffing the haft behind his belt. “I swear there's a man's length of greasy fat to get through before we hit the meat. Good eating, is it?”
Rahnis chuckled. “Hardly! It won't kill you by morning like a red-stripe tunnelsnake would, but you won't be interested in eating anything else for a while.”
The bronzerider's face fell. “But Sh'vek said the fardling thing was valuable! Faranth, and I've already sent L'grain to the Crafthall to spend my share! Shells, if he's bought it already....”
G'dil hadn't realised he was out here as a punishment? And he thought he'd be getting a cut of the Weyr's profits, too? Rahnis resisted the urge to roll her eyes. “Oh it is. They're more than worth the salvage effort – a fisherboat can make its fortune even from a small one. The skin is rough – like it's covered in countless minuscule teeth that aren't easily blunted. That alone is worth ten times its weight in marks from any woodcrafter you meet, though it's not easy to cut through.”
“Tell us something we don't know, weyrwoman!” one of the other riders muttered.
“The fat can be rendered down to oil,” Rahnis continued, “and if you can hack your way through the smaller fin-bones, there's any number of uses for them. Same with the teeth. The harder bones inside the beast are layered, like a shell, or maybe tree-rings. It's highly prized for decorative work.”
“Belt buckles. Hair ornaments. Inlaid trinket boxes and table-tops. And corsetry, of course. The sort of thing a Hold lady would pay a premium for.”
The hint of disparagement in G'dil's voice was well and truly gone now, and Rahnis hoped that the prospect of impressing Delene with further gifts would motivate the man through the messy work to come. “Assuming we work fast enough. Aside from the skin, the best of it is pretty hard to reach.”
G'dil spun on his heel and clapped both hands together. “You heard the weyrwoman! Let's get moving. D'zannis and H'ro, get the saw and take the fins and its head off. Zelayne, get over here and start figuring out which of the nets Rahnis brought will be big enough for the head. The rest of you, take the machetes and start hacking your way in! Quickly now, or thread'll be on us before we're through!”
Hadn't he listened to a single thing she'd said? “G'dil, we won't have time to butcher it properly here,” she said, hastening to follow him. “Even getting the skin off would be pushing it.”
He slowed to a halt and waved his wingmen to carry on without him. “I'm not going to fail, Rahnis! Not today! Today's the day I show the whole Weyr what I'm capable of. If that means hacking an overgrown tunnelsnake-shipfish-Faranth-knows-what to pieces at double-quick time, then by the First Egg I'll see it done if we end up clawing it apart with our fingernails! We'll work in shifts, set up a human chain and-”
“Do you want to hear a better idea?”
“Not if it means bringing another Wing in to help.”
Rahnis shook her head. “Not that. We focus our efforts getting some lines attached securely, and get it back to the Weyr.”
“What kind of deadglow do you take me for? You think we hadn't tried that first of all? That hide of hers might be valuable to woodcrafters, but it's sharding hard on rope. And skin! We barely got it a finger's width off the ground before the first line broke!”
And that, she supposed, was why Sh'vek had sent her all the way out there, instead of simply ordering her to supervise things once the beast's corpse was back at the Weyr. That, and punishing her with the wet and heavy labour ahead. “We need to cut away as much of the skin as we can, and dig through the fat until we reach the ribs. We can hook the ropes onto those. That's how seacrafters do it.”
“Fine!” G'dil snapped. “We do it your way then.”
The first rope was soon secured, but the creature's bones thickened into a broad, spiny plate behind the medial net-fin, making the second line proved exceedingly awkward to place. It was another hour before they'd cut away enough flesh to find somewhere to tie it, but once that was done the remaining ropes were quickly tied into place. By then, Rahnis was sweating on the inside of her clothes and soaked and stinking on the outside. The deep-dweller's ichor had set the exposed skin of her wrists itching, and she was fairly sure that she'd never wear those particular wherhides again. G'dil called in his Wing's larger browns and the bronzes to take the strain of the lines, but once again the deep-dweller's body had barely risen off the ground before one of the ropes gave way.
“It's too fardling heavy!” P'lindis yelled over the crashing of the waves.
"Doubling up the ropes should do it,” Rahnis suggested, hauling a spare coil up onto one shoulder. “Zelayne? If I work on this one, can you see to the others?”
G'dil frowned at the sea-creature's corpse as the greenrider moved away. “I don't know, it still looks pretty well wedged in here.” Gathering up the frayed ends of the broken rope, he started to knot them back together. “A herder's shank should fix this.”
“I'd prefer a whole new rope. Two new ones would be better. Would you mind?”
“H'ro, fetch another rope over, would you?” He picked his way over the slimy rocks towards where Rahnis was working, blocking her light as effectively as a lump of rock. “Thread'll be here soon. We've only time for one more attempt. What about the organs? Are they worth anything?”
Rahnis shrugged, then resumed threading the rope through the lacy holes in the creature's rib-plate. “Not that I know of. Would you mind moving, G'dil? The next part's a bit awkward, and I need to see what I'm doing.”
“Hmph. Think I'll go and make myself useful then,” he muttered.
The second of the two new ropes was almost fully secured when Rahnis heard the wet thunk of a blade striking flesh. She looked around to find G'dil wielding an axe only a few metres from where she was. “What are you doing?”
“Being useful!” he said, swinging the axe again. This time, it glanced off one of the creature's spiny protuberances, skittering towards the rocks. “Ah, shard it,” G'dil muttered, repositioning himself for another blow. He prodded the creature's flesh with one foot, then nodded to himself as he found a soft spot. “Cutting a hole...big enough to get out all the bits we don't need. Eviscerating the fardling thing!”
The axe fell again, slowly and inevitably. The deep-dweller's skin dimpled, and then the axehead slid through the dark green fatty flesh, and in. The flesh seemed almost to ripple, and then there was a noise like a flatulent gulp and a sudden split appeared in the creature's side, a gaping wound a full arm's length in size that broadened even further under the flood of Faranth-knew what that was being disgorged from the creature's ruptured stomach.
Rahnis yelped and tried to duck, but it was already far too late. A tide of noxious salty fluid, brown slime and greasy, partially-digested drowned threads struck her at waist height, and all her instinctive attempt to avoid it achieved was to make her lose her already precarious footing. She landed hard on the ground and slid the best part of a dragonlength down towards the sea, swearing loudly at G'dil the whole while.
Rahnis? Are you hurt? Alaireth was already in the air, quick to come to her rider's aid.
“Bruised. Filthy.” Rahnis heaved a loud sigh, and shook a clump of something she didn't want to inspect too closely off her arm. She'd definitely need new wherhides now.
G'dil crouched down beside her, and offered her his arm. “I, ah...sorry, Rahnis. Didn't expect that to happen.”
“No, you're not quite that vindictive, are you?” she replied. Not like fardling Sh'vek! “Ah well. I suppose it'll be easier to lift now. And once we've got it back to the Weyr, there'll only be a few more hours work to go.”
“That's the spirit. Think of the marks, weyrwoman! It'll all be worth it in the end.”
Rahnis forced a smile onto her face. “Oh, I am, G'dil, I am. Counting my marks is the only thing that's keeping me going right now.” Marks of imagined chalk, not of wood; marks that traced the passage of time from the present moment to the day when everything changed for the better.
It would all be worth it then.