Gathering day was hot and blustery, a strong breeze snapping the pennants atop the crenelated walls of Beacon Hold. Overhead the iron shutters high above were thrown open in the name of cross-ventilation, security regulations be damned. Long ropes drooped from window to window, heavy with flags and painted advertisements that heaved like sails in the wind.
Despite the heat the Hold’s courtyards teemed with activity, normally barren paving stones having sprouted a ramshackle wall-to-wall maze of carts, caravans, tents and stalls overnight. The vendors and stages had been organized into rough lanes through which early visitors were already strolling, canines and children running amuck underfoot. The entire place was filled with the roar of a thousand conversations piled atop one another, echoing off the stern, strong stone of the walls.
The entire place felt alive, feverish, and hungry -- or maybe that was just Stiles.
Guardsman’s son that he was, Stiles let his senses drink in the feel of the gathering, drinking in the subtle difference in garb and manner of speaking that each visitor brought with them. Life in a Pernese hold felt stagnant at the best of times – these summer gatherings were the highlight of the turn, bringing with them new blood, new gossip, new songs.
Some seventeen turns ago the summer gathering had brought Stiles’ mother to Beacon Hold – and now that the summers stretched on without her, they seemed to be the only bright spark in his father’s typical summer melancholy.
Shaking off his thoughts, Stiles walked three aisles in and hung a left. Even then heavy odors of dust, sweat, herdbeast, and steaming meat pies couldn’t put Stiles off his course.
Shuffling between stalls teeming with goods (fresh garlic and onions, hot wax, pitch and firestone) and others boasting swaths of brightly dyed fabric (reds and blues, deep silver-grays and yellow-golds), Stiles skidded to a halt at last and dug into one pocket to fish out his remaining wooden marks. “One extra-large order of seasoned potatoes, please,” he recited double-time, beaming.
The woman behind the counter – Greta – snorted, reaching for the metal grate submerged in sweet, hot oil. “That’s your pass third today, Stilinski. How you stay so beanpole skinny is completely beyond my ken.”
“I better not hear you complaining about your number-one customer,” Stiles declared, spinning his hard-won mark between long fingers and grinning impishly. “I mucked out stables for two and a half candlemarks for this.”
Greta was an old friend of his mother’s, one who only made appearances at Beacon Hold during the massive regional festivals that drew in traders from near and far. She invariably brought with her the sweet ambrosia that was seasoned, curly fried potatoes – and word from his mother’s birth-hold, where her parents and younger brother lived and worked. Two turns past Stiles had returned there with Greta, summering with the family he so rarely visited.
“Has my dad been by?”
Greta laughed. “Of course.”
“And I told him we were fresh out, thanks in no small part to his bottomless pit of a son.”
“You’re the best,” Stiles sighed happily, shoving his mark across the counter. Greta shoved it right back and then busied herself shaking an extra layer of spicy-salt over the potatoes, just the way he liked them.
Dropping the mark into her tips-jar instead, Stiles allowed himself to banter with the woman as the potatoes simmered. Once they’d been drawn up and dished out into a clay bowl he favored Greta with a cheery salute, cheeks soon stuffed fit to bursting with his favorite treat.
Stiles knew that other Holds across Pern had their own local holidays – usually at times of the year when travel was easy and the weather was good – but at Beacon Hold, the largest celebration by far took place on the summer solstice. Three days of nonstop revelry meant his father was up to his eyeballs in drunken brawls and pickpockets, but they gave Stiles a full seventy two candlemarks of unmitigated freedom. Even better than freedom was the strange sense of anonymity he felt amidst the collection of visiting strangers – Beacon Hold was a small place, and new faces were few and far between. He loved simply walking through the crowd, listening to the scattered accents and stories, spotting strange fruits and new vintages of wine.
It was relaxing to be, for once, unrecognized as the guardcaptain’s son – on gathering day he was just another face in the crowd. The three inches he’d grown this turn combined with the indiscriminate nature of visiting vintners,he’d even gotten away with purchasing a flagon of wine.
Smiling in a self-satisfied way, Stiles hoisted himself up onto a barrel within earshot of the harper’s bandstand and raised that very flagon in a happy little toast before knocking back a few gulps and sighing with pleasure.
This was the largest Gathering Stiles had ever seen – and was likely the last he’d see in the immediate future. In the days leading up to the solstice Allison had taken to calling this their “last hurrah” – a bittersweet nickname for a bittersweet festival. Allison’s Holdmaster father had announced that this Gathering would be the final of the summer, and that meant it was the last of the Interval itself.
If the mathematicians and stargazers had their numbers right, in just a few short months they would – theoretically – be facing actual threadfall.
Everything would change.
Stiles knew that many gathered there within the secure walls of Beacon Hold no longer believed the stories of the viscous, viscous thread – an ancient terror that fell from the skies and devoured every patch of organic flesh it touched. By official counts the current interval had lasted some 247 turns, which meant the living memory of thread was long dead. Only the legends, songs and stories remained to warn the Pernese of what – might – lay in store for them in the following turns.
Stiles had never been optimistic enough to assume threadfall was a children’s tale.
In his darker moods Stiles often felt envious of the generations that had gone before him. He was fifteen years old, shard it. His father’s parents, their parents – entire generations had lived their lives without having to stockpile supplies and worry about the possibility of gruesome death raining from the skies. He and his had drawn the short straw and were left facing a possibly-but-not-likely-mythical threat when they should have been looking forward to a great stretch of happy years growing, aging, and raising families of their own.
The end of this interval felt like the end of the world. It was certainly the end of the comfortable life he’d grown accustomed to in Beacon Hold. There was a tension underlying everything nowadays, a tension that even the Gathering couldn’t completely erase. Everyone present knew of the ongoing animosity between Beacon Hold and Beacon Weyr – it was impossible to ignore the fact that Chris was planning to steer his hold through a fifty-year interval without dragonrider support.
Stiles could see it in the eyes of the Holders, the tense posture of the merchants, the way eyes glanced skywards, eastwards throughout the seemingly carefree celebrations. The Holdmaster might have ordered the gates closed to newcomers, announcing that the Hold would take in no more visitors than their food stores could support; however, the real problem had proven to be keeping residents in rather than out. Another two families had fled the holding just that week.
The only certain sign of the impending Pass was the deep, ominous glow of the Red Star each morning. It rose in the east and hovered like vulture low in the sky until the sunlight grew bright enough to drown it out.
Well, the Red Star and the increasingly common sight of dragon formations flying high far in the distances, formations always well clear of the edge of Beacon hold.
Stiles’ impromptu picnic was abruptly interrupted by a chattering, chirping whirlwind of glittering wings and scales. He had only the briefest of moments to tighten his grip on his bowl of fries before Allison’s bottomless pit of a firelizard sunk his little talons through the cloth of Stiles’ good trousers, balancing on his knee as he snatched at the largest of the remaining fries.
“Hey!” Stiles yelped, laughing as Coby tipped his head sideways and backwards, lurching as he endeavored to swallow the potato slide whole. “If you choke on that you’re out of luck, mister.”
He was not the least bit surprised when Allison appeared behind Coby, making a face as she wrapped her hands around his middle and attempted to extricate his claws from the snagged cloth of Stiles’ trousers. “You’re a menace,” she told the little bronze hopelessly.
The firelizard chirruped, allowing her to drape him over her shoulders like a very fancy stole before opening his mouth expectantly, clearly waiting for another bite.
Stiles sighed dramatically, but still passed over another slice – he couldn’t help spoiling the little creature. Allison had Impressed Coby when they were ten years old – Stiles had been there the moment the egg’s leathery skin cracked, had watched Allison feed the creature meat and fish alike until the famously unbreakable bond of Impression was formed.
Beacon Hold was an inland settlement, meaning that firelizards – who laid their eggs on the sandy beaches in the south – were a rare sight. Still, when your father was a Holdmaster...
“Quit fattening him up!” Allison swatted at Stiles’ hand as he reached for another, so he gave Coby an apologetic shrug and scooted over, making room for Allison on the barrel next to him. She settled herself and then promptly reached across his lap for the flagon of wine.
“That’s my girl!” Stiles cheered, giving up his prize willingly.
Allison pulled two – three – four massive gulps from the bottle and then tipped her head back with a sigh, nearly dislodging Coby in the process. “My dad is as asshole,” she announced raising the flagon emphatically.
“What else is new?” Stiles asked, plucking the flagon from her hands before she managed to down it all. “What’s wrong this time?”
“He pulled me off the flame-thrower training,” Allison said, voice close to a growl.
“What?!” Stiles gaped at her. “Why?!”
Chris Argent was many things – sour, intimidating, tight-lipped — but he certainly wasn’t a thread-denier, despite his family’s rocky relations with Beacon Weyr. Stiles knew that some of the holds, particularly in the south, weren’t even bothering with the flamethrower training mandated by their settlement charters. Chris, on the other hand, put every resident between the ages of fifteen and fifty on mandatory flame-thrower training two weekends a month until turn’s end.
“It’s too dangerous, apparently,” she said, rolling her eyes.
Stiles winced. Ever since Alison’s mother died, Chris and Allison’s relationship had been tumultuous at best, downright hostile at worst. He vacillated between demandingly harsh and unfathomably overprotective, and had already vetoed her efforts to join the Guard twice that turn. Now he’d finally capitulated to her request only to yank her off duty two days before her training was scheduled to start.
“He’ll change his mind,” Stiles told her, rubbing her knee consolingly. “If not, we can feed him to the dragons once threadfall starts in earnest.”
Allison perked up at that, her irritated expression dissolving momentarily. “Oh! The news isn’t all bad Stiles, he invited a dragonrider to the Gathering! A rider from Beacon Weyr!”
“There’s a dragon rider coming here?” Stiles’ voice tipped up into an undignified squawk, eyes going wide. “To the gathering?! Today?”
Allison laughed at him. “Mmhmm.”
“How could you keep this a secret from me?!”
“They only answered the courier last night,” Allison said, grinning at him. “I overheard our fathers talking about it, but didn’t want you to get your hopes up.”
“By Faranth – Allison, I swear, you – did they say who they were sending? What color dragon? Do you think it’ll be Laura and her gold?” Stiles had to stop for a moment to gulp in air, his hands flapping in excitement. “This’ll be the first dragon at Beacon Hold in ten turns at least!”
“Eight,” she corrected, grinning at his reaction.
Stiles counted back mentally and had to admit that she was right. It had been eight years since the sudden, sobering murder of the previous Weyrleaders – Talia and her weyrmate – while visiting a newly rediscovered firestone mine in the hills over Beacon Hold. When it came to light that the Holdmaster’s own sister had locked the pair in the mines there had nearly been an out-and-out war between Hold and Weyr, the likes of which Pern had never seen. Laura, their daughter and newly minted Weyrleader, had declared Beacon Hold outside the Weyr’s protection – vowing that dragons would not sear thread from the sky so long as Argent held the land.
A visiting dragonrider could only mean one thing – the hold and weyr had opened diplomatic relations once again.
Allison looked away, no doubt allowing her thoughts trend in the same direction. She had been young when her aunt committed the double-homicide, but they had been close in the years leading up to Kate’s psychotic break. “I can’t imagine Laura will come– it’s just a gesture, but it’s long overdue. If Laura doesn’t agree to take on the protection of the Weyr, residents will have no choice but to abandon the holding.”
Stiles began to worry at his thumbnail with his teeth. “It’s nice to know that Chris is willing to talk.”
“He’s always been willing to talk,” Allison huffed. “It’s the Hales that have rebuffed every attempt at negotiation… and turned away the tithe since the … incident.”
“It’s hard to believe the riders would leave the Hold to burn, despite what the Harpers tell of Laura’s temper.”
Allison sighed, her expression pinched. “They wouldn’t. Dad says the Hales were always real sticklers for duty. If that didn’t inspire them, one of the other weyrs would pressure them to fulfill their obligations.”
Historically, Holds tithed food and supplies to the weyrs in return for the protection of dragons. Thread could only be ended with fire, and dragons trained in interval and pass alike to burn it from the sky before it could touch the soil and destroy the carefully tended crops of the Holders. It was meant to be a balanced, symbiotic relationship.
In the nearly two hundred and fifty turns since Therad had last been seen, however, Holders had grown tired of tithing away a share of the crops and profits. People like Kate refused to believe the thread would return, suspecting instead that the Weyrs were taking advantage of the holds productivity and hospitality.
The rejection of a tithe was the rejection of duty, an unprecedented insult, a tangible threat.
Stiles gently bumped their shoulders together, hoping to draw them both away from grim thoughts. Coby took the opportunity to snake his long neck down and snag another potato from his hand.
In the silence that stretched between them, Stiles could make out a familiar tune emanating from the quartet on the bandstand, a simple chorus that each and every hold resident learned at their mother’s knee. He could remember his own mother teaching him the words as he learned his colors.
Wheel and turn or bleed and burn,
Fly between, blue and green
Soar, dive down, bronze and brown
Dragonmen must fly when threads are in the sky…
As they sang, a sudden dark shadow passed over the crowd, the heightened breeze picking up and ruffling through Stiles’ shaggy hair. A shadow like that could mean one thing and one thing only.
“Come on, Ally!” he exclaimed, sliding off the barrel, tucking the flagon into the bag cinched at his belt and grabbing her by the hand. She went willingly, eyes lighting up at the prospect of seeing a dragon up close and personal for the first time since they were children. Together they darted through the narrow alleyways between the stalls and carts, slipping into the central gathering area to the south of the harper’s stage.
As they ran, Stiles spotted his father in the crowd along with half the Hold’s guard, struggling to keep the space clear against the struggle of the crowd. The massive shape overhead began to sink towards the earth, making Guardsman Stilinski’s job got significantly easier – the crowd began surging back as fervently as they’d been surging forward only moments before.
Stiles had never seen a dragon in flight at such a close distance. As the huge beast sank towards the earth he could clearly make out the thick cords of muscle bunching and releasing beneath the surface of its skin. The dragon’s wingspan was easily half the width of the courtyard, and its long, coiling tail actually brushed against the upper crenellations of the walls.
His tail, Stiles corrected himself. The dragon’s gleaming bronze scales meant it was certainly a male – one of the prestigious bronzes best able to fly the golden females and sire clutches of eggs.
The downbeat of each massive wing set cloth, paper, and pennant flags fluttering in every direction until the dragon had settled onto the courtyard, stretching its neck and tail out in a display of size and strength before lowering his head to the ground, allowing his rider to dismount neatly.
The harpers brought the round of ancient song to a close as the crowd parted, allowing Holdmaster Chris to walk into the center of the square. He executed a deep formal bow to both dragon and rider, then raised his voice and began to speak. Stiles had to lean forward on tiptoe to hear the words exchanged, while next to him Allison did the same.
“Rider Hale,” Chris greeted, formally. “You are very welcome to Beacon Hold. We are most honored that you accepted our invitation this summer’s eve.”
The dragonrider – a Hale, Stiles realized breathlessly – reached up and drew back the leather riding hood that had half-obscured his face, pulling off the flight-lenses in the same graceful motion. He had dark hair, thick brows, and a solid, serious expression on his handsome face.
“Oh,” Allison sighed. “He’s gorgeous.”
Stiles nodded a fervent agreement before realizing that Allison was gazing up at the dragon.
His own eyes were trained to the face of the rider.
“Holdmaster, the invitation was and is most appreciated. It has been far too long since a rider of Beacon Weyr has availed of your hospitality.”
“Booo-ring,” Stiles whispered in Allison’s ear. “Think the dragon’s fed up? Maybe we’ll see some flames!”
“Stiles!” Allison elbowed him in the ribs. Overhead the massive dragon’s head swung sideways, his massive jeweled eye shining in the afternoon sunlight.
“Well then,” Chris continued. “Do me the honor of joining me inside?”
The rider raised a gloved hand – his flight gear was elaborate, a gray leather coat with cinches at each wrist and a thick set of deep black gloves. “Before I do so, may I share the news of the Weyr with your hold?”
“By all means,” Chris agreed, looking as though he had an unpleasant taste in his mouth.
Hale stepped back and his dragon shifted upwards, sinews and tendons creaking as he towered over the nervous crowd. Hale cupped his hands over his mouth, shouting his news with all the volume of the Hold’s crier. “People of Beacon Hold, I come bearing news! Weyrwoman Laura’s golden Aconith has risen and clutched; she now guards thirty-three eggs on the hatching ground sands.”
A collective gasp rolled through the crowd at his words, the volume escalating as people hurriedly turned to whisper and chatter to their neighbors. Overhead, Hale’s bronze trumpeted an excited, proud note. Stiles heard take up the cry with a whoop of excitement; even Chris wore a grudgingly pleased look – thinking, no doubt, of the dragonpower it would take to protect his holdings should their relations be restored.
Weyrwoman Laura’s dragon hadn’t risen to mate even once since the death of the previous weyrleaders – many suggested she was barren by some stroke of cruelty on the part of Kate Argent, others attributed the failure to the burden grief and anguish that came with losing both human and dragon parents alike.
“I, Derek Hale, humbly request your permission to search Beacon Hold for suitable candidates to stand on the sands,” Derek petitioned, stance and request formal.
Chris simply nodded and all around them the crowd began to stamp and cheer, jostling excitedly. Some visitors stepped forwards in their eagerness while others moved back and away to put more distance between themselves and the massive dragon.
Before the initial cheers could quiet or further instructions could be given, the bronze’s massive head swung unerringly to the right, his neck stretching long and sinuous as he leveled his huge face with Allison and Stiles. Stiles stared upwards, mouth falling open as he took in his own reflection refracted in huge, multi-faceted eyes.
Next to him Allison let out a soft curse. “Stiles— “
Stiles had always dreamed of being searched. Of being picked out of a crowd, raised up as special and worthy, drawn to the enormous, strong, ferocious dragon he would Impress and then partner with for life. Growing up with the threat of Thread on the horizon meant that dragonriders would again walk the thin line between life and death, the only ones able to protect and support the holds.
This was the moment he’d fantasized about, the moment he’d been waiting for, the moment everything changed. He was being Searched, he could see feel his life diverting its course from the dull, routine existence locked behind the iron doors of Beacon Hold and filling with fantastic creatures and adventure —
Bronzerider Hale suddenly appeared next to the creature’s head, his thick eyebrows forming an unhappy V over his (extremely handsome) features. His expression was suspicious as he took in Stiles and Allison, though it went oddly soft a he glanced up at his dragon as though answering some unspoken comment.
The bronze snorted brusquely – Stiles didn’t need dragon-rider telepathy to tell him it was the draconic equivalent of rolling your eyes.
“An Argent,” Hale sighed, raising a hand to pinch the bridge of his nose. “You had to pick an Argent.”
Allison let out a squeak of dismay, Coby fluttered his wings excitedly, and Stiles – well.
Stiles turned tail and ran.
Stiles didn’t say goodbye when Allison left all of three hours later. He pointedly didn’t join the crowd as the bronze dragon spread cursory glances out over the other hopeful candidates as Hale negotiated Allison status as a candidate. He didn’t follow the parade of hushed, nervous residents who followed her through the halls and alternately cheered and catcalled the hunky bronzerider as he hoisted her up onto the rear seat of the dragon’s leather harness.
He did, however, watch from an upper window as the two of them rocketed up into the sky, accompanied by the snap and creak of enormous, leathery wings.
One suitable female candidate was not a strong showing – but then, the weyr always had a surplus of male hopefuls. It was the prime, strong young women that they sought out so carefully, as any woman who Impressed a gold dragon could one-day stand as Weyrwoman. She had to be more than simply a suitable candidate for the dragon – she had to fit the weyr as well.
The clutch at Beacon Weyr instantly became the talk of the hold, every person suddenly airing opinions as to the viability of the eggs, the size of the clutch, the likelihood of impression for the nine male candidates and, of course, Allison. The bookies were going crazy, wheedling marks from anyone foolish enough to broadcast their opinions on the matter.
The sheer numbers of viable candidates in Beacon Hold made Stiles ill. It was difficult not to resent the friends and neighbors chosen when he’d always thought he’d stood a solid chance of candidacy. His mother had stood on the stands twice, though she’d never been chosen, and raised him on stories of the weyr, the magnificent dragons and their riders. While it was true that no one knew why a candidate Impressed, or how the dragons knew who was had a strong potential to bond with a hatchling, it was still difficult to watch that dream evaporate.
Some people claimed suitable candidates were somehow tied to family lineage (and it was true that in some families Impression was a given rather than an oddity – the Hales were five for five in the current generation) while others claimed it was personality, dependent on the measure of bravery, determination and wit that the candidate possessed.
Stiles had always hoped for the latter, though his mother’s candidacy gave him hope even if the former proved to be true. He was a strong choice, shard it. His father was the captain of the guard and he’d grown up being taught that the weak and helpless were meant to be protected, that the strong should be respectful and responsible whenever possible. He’d always been brave, too – he’d once climbed up and stolen the Hold’s flag from the highest flagpole on the tallest guard tower just to win a bet.
What’s more, he was absolutely certain that there was nobody at Beacon Hold who wanted it more than he did. Stiles craved a chance to take action against the inexorable fall of thread and the promise of fifty years of danger and deprivation. He couldn’t even summon up a sense of satisfaction at Allison’s selection, either – she had been his very best friend since they were small, but candidacy had never been her dream. She intended to expand on the land holdings of her father, to move from being just another minor holdmaster to a true Lady Holder.
He tried to imagine Allison at Beacon Weyr, but he just – he couldn’t. He’d often imagined himself flourishing in the broadened horizons of a Weyr, losing his awkward clumsiness and flourishing into a cool, collected adult thanks to the calming, reassuring presence of his dragon.
But the idea of Allison doing the same was… foreign. Women were only eligible for green and blue dragons, plus of course the rarest and most highly sought after – the beautiful golden queens, the only dragons capable of clutching and the only women who could rise through the ranks to the status of Weyrwoman. Stiles supposed Allison was well prepared for that sort of role – but Stiles personally believed she would be wasted with a green or blue dragon, traditionally unable to rise even to the status of wingleader.
Part of him wondered if Rider Hale had only chosen Allison out of spite – as a test, perhaps, to see if her father was committed to peace between their families enough to let his only daughter stand. His dragon had, after all, picked her out instantly, in a way so public that Holdmaster Argent could not decline without causing a very public offense.
The rest of him felt certain the dragon had merely sensed the traits that he loved in Allison.
Either way, Beacon Hold was terribly quiet without Allison and Coby. Stiles missed the pair of them desperately, his moods swinging like a pendulum back and forth between loneliness and envy. He had never been a popular kid, and with ten of his schoolmates taken for candidacy the pool of potential friends had never been smaller. Stiles was too gangly and awkward to impress and too fidgety and sharp-tongued to endear himself with teachers and students alike.
Allison had been gone for almost six weeks when Stiles returned home to find his father and Holdmaster Chris working their way through what looked like half the contents of the Hold’s wine cellars. The pair of them had grown thick as thieves, both having lost their wives too young. Allison and Stiles were different as night and day, but the struggles of raising a child alone at the end of an Interval meant that Chris and John were fast friends.
Tonight Chris had huge, dark circles beneath his eyes and Stiles’ father was waving a hand vaguely in the direction of Beacon Weyr. “She’ll be fine, Chris. She’s a sharp girl, she wouldn’t have gone if she wasn’t prepared to accept the consequences of the choice.”
“Choice?! Don’t talk to me about… about choices,” Chris spat. “It took me eight cursed years to bring the Hales back to Beacon Hold, Allison refusing to be Searched would have – They would have— It wasn’t a choice, and she knew it.”
“There’s always a choice,” his father declared, fervently.
Not always, thought Stiles. He hadn’t had a choice. He hadn’t been Searched.
Sighing, he turned towards the bedchambers rather than interrupt the pair, only to be called back by his father’s only slightly slushy voice.
“Dad,” Stiles agreed, letting himself be drawn into their conversation. John threw an arm around his back and gave him a squeeze while Chris surreptitiously poured a third glass of one and shoved it across the table in Stiles’ direction.
“One,” John said warningly, though Stiles wasn’t certain if he was speaking to him or to Chris. His smile was fond when it flicked to his son, his hand reaching up to ruffle his hair. “You hanging in there?”
“I’m alright,” Stiles told them, shrugging a shoulder half-heartedly. He wrapped his hands around his cup, glad despite his dark mood to be treated as an adult, invited to drink with the highest-ranking residents of his Hold. He had confidences that counted, it wasn’t as though he had nothing here.
“Alright,” John echoed, raising a brow.
“I miss her,” Stiles amended, knowing his father would see through any excuse he might dredge up for his sour attitude.
Chris muttered something into his glass that might have been me, too.
“I, uh,” Stiles started to speak, then cleared his throat. “I heard there might be a gold on the sands. Everyone is talking about it.”
Chris furrowed his brows, sighing heavily. “There is. Not that it make me feel the slightest bit better – she’s far more likely to impress a gold than some miserable, tiny green.”
Even Stiles had to admit that was true – though he’d have been happy with any dragon regardless of color. The dragon picked the person, not the other way around. No rider ended up with the dragon they weren’t meant for, which really made the color irrelevant.
“Daniel – you know him, the southern herdsman’s son – told us this week. News travels fast amongst the herding families. His family was amongst the delegation sent to renegotiate the tithes.”
“What?!” Stiles asked, shocked. “The weyr has agreed to accept our tithes?”
“It was part of the agreement for letting Allison stand,” Chris admitted. “It doesn’t guarantee us protection, but it reopens our relations, and grants us a solid foundation from which to request aide.”
“If Allison Impresses it will certainly lessen the hostility from the weyr’s side,” John speculated, taking another long sip of wine.
“Yes, but then Allison will have Impressed and be living in a den of sin and iniquity,” Chris pointed out, drily.
“At any rate, the Mahealanis have been chosen to ferry up saltmeat and yearlings to be slaughtered for the hatching. Knowing that boy, I expect he’ll talk a greenrider into giving him a peek at the eggs.”
Typical Danny – he’d certainly swap the peek for a kiss. Stiles said nothing -- Danny’s tendency to fall for holder’s sons rather than daughters was not precisely disliked at Beacon Hold, but it was certainly the butt of many jokes. Stiles had been careful to keep his own proclivities under wraps; he wouldn’t be Impressing any time soon and there were some things a father simply didn’t need to know.
After a moment’s silence the rest of Chris’ statement began to filter through Stiles’ brain. If the yearlings were already being driven into the mountains, then… “Wait, they’re already preparing for the feast? So soon?”
“They sent out invitations this evening,” John admitted, giving Chris a manly pat on the back. It was traditional for the families of candidates along with holders, lords and minor alike, to attend the hatching and partake in the ensuing feast. Chris looked at that moment like he’d rather have his teeth pulled out one by one than attend such a gathering. “Beacon Hold was one of the last they visited.”
A lead weight settled in the pit of Stiles’ stomach. “She might not Impress,” Stiles pointed out. “She could be home by the end of the sevenday.”
“True enough,” John agreed -- Chris didn’t look convinced.
Stiles tossed and turned that night, staring at the glowlight filtering through the crack under his door and imagining that Allison might, up in the mountains, be doing the exact same thing. He should have said goodbye – she couldn’t help being chosen as a candidate. He hadn’t even stayed to support her as she stared at the bronzerider and chose between her family and the weyr.
He’d let his own petty jealousy come between him and his closest friend in the world.
No wonder he hadn’t been found suitable as a candidate.
By the time the chime in the courtyard rang out to signal the changing of the guard, Stiles made up his mind.
Convincing Danny to ‘hire’ him for the three-day trek to Beacon Weyr was easy enough – Danny liked everyone, and the desperation in Stiles’ face must have been obvious. Danny’s father owned a series of small ranches that lined the southern edge of Chris’ holding, and they would be sending up a herd of choice yearlings to be slaughtered as a part of the newly reinstated quarterly tithe.
He wasn’t entirely sure how he was going to get into the Hatching once they reached the Weyr, but he had three days yet to think about it. He had a half-cocked notion of slipping into the weyr kitchens and setting himself up as a server, but that wouldn’t guarantee him access to the sands. Perhaps he’d be able to lose himself in the crowds? How many people attended a Hatching, anyway?
Convincing Danny to keep the journey a secret from John had been harder, but Stiles couldn’t sit through another well-meant attempt at consolation. His father knew he’d dreamed of being Searched ever since he’d learned that his mother had stood as a candidate, and he had – of course – been there to witness Allison’s selection and Stiles’ humiliation at being passed over.
Instead of navigating another awkward family heart to heart on the matter Stiles simply wrote out a note on a scrap of hide and left it tacked to their doorway. Gone to see A on the sands – back before next secondday. --S’
If push came to shove he was certain his father would send a firelizard out with a note to stop his son’s progress – but none came. Stiles suspected he wasn’t all that surprised by the disappearance.
The work wasn’t easy, and the walk was terribly long, leaving his calves tingling painfully each evening. Aside his summer with Greta and his maternal grandparents this was the furthest he’d ever been from home, and each step that took them higher into the mountains brought them closer and closer to the gates of the Weyr.
The mountain pass was full of awkward switchbacks and slick gravel that made the footing consistently treacherous. Every so often a beast would slip or skid, particularly when the shadow of dragon wings fell across their traveling caravan – a more and more frequent sight as they neared the high reaches of the range.
“You know I’m not actually paying you,” Danny reminded Stiles, watching in amusement as Stiles wrestled with the lead of a stray herdbeast, attempt to force it back in line.
“Not even with your body?” Stiles asked hopefully, earning a dirty look from Danny’s father at the head of the line. The herdbeast at his side thrashed its head, jerking the lead and sending Stiles flailing painfully against the rocky outcroppings of the mountain pass.
“Currently off-limits,” Danny informed him with a smirk.
Stiles arched his brows at that curiously. Danny had been his first kiss as well as his first mutual orgasm. Nowadays they weren’t quite friends, but they certainly knew one enough well enough for a little gentle teasing. “Ohhhh, is that the mysterious greenrider?”
“Hmm,” Danny said, entirely noncommittal. Stiles returned to shoving his herdbeast back into line with a grunt.
It was also hard not to get attached to the creatures as they moved along. They had very distinct personalities, and the yearlings were still small enough to be amusingly awkward as they navigated the steep terrain.
Stiles knew that the act of feeding a hatchling fresh meat apparently solidified the bond between candidate and dragon – Stiles felt slightly guilty as he watched the creatures plod on, munching on the mouthful of weeds it had claimed from the slopes above.
The walk took them the better part of three days – days that left Stiles tired and sore, but eventually provided his very first glimpse of Beacon Weyr. The weyrs of Pern were generally situated in the highest, rockiest reaches of the mountains… places kept devoid of the vegetation that Thread required to feed and thrive. The Weyrs had no need of arable land, as all their supplies were provided by the lowland holds.
For all that most residents came and went via dragon, the ground level entrance to Beacon Weyr was breathtaking. They passed through a series of iron gates and then crossed a massive chasm via a narrow stone bridge, its enormous flagstones seemingly held together without a drop of mortar. Looking down yielded a view of the rushing, plunging river far below – the height was more than enough to make Stiles dizzy.
“Don’t fall,” teased Danny as he mock-shoved at Stiles’ shoulders, making him yelp. He was clearly unfazed by the height and/or view… but then, the tithe of herdbeasts had been a quarterly gesture back in the day, so he might have grown up with the view.
The bridge ended at a massive tunnel. As they plunged into the twilight of the tunnel’s interior Stiles realized its walls were easily three times his own height and wide enough for a dozen or more herdbeast to walk abreast. Stiles counted his steps as they walked through but lost count somewhere around one hundred and seventy-five.
After a short time the tunnel hooked a sharp right and then opened up into a massive caldera.
Stiles had never actually set foot in a weyr before – he had imagined it much like the holds he had seen, perhaps a bit steeper, with doorways large enough to accommodate dragons. The sight of its massive black stone spires and enormous yawning cave mouths took his breath away. He stopped to gape at the scene before him, head craned back in awe so that he could take in the full range of the weyr’s interior – and only stumbled into motion again when the herdbeast behind him clipped his hip with its bony head.
The caldera walls were towering and natural, covered with outcroppings and cave mouths carved into the porous volcanic stone. There were patches of color scattered about in the high reaches, dragons sprawled out and sunning themselves in the warm afternoon light. Stiles could make out swarms of firelizards, fluttering back and forth through the air like the waving pennants he’d left behind at Beacon Hold. As he watched, one of the sleeping blues roused itself and rolled straight off the edge of the cliff, bringing its wings out into a broad glide and beginning a lazy circle of the caldera.
“Wow,” Stiles managed, swallowing tightly.
“Wow is right,” Danny agreed. “Look around – sometimes they have the candidates out working in the yard. They always get the worst jobs – scrubbing out the kitchens and mucking the stables and the likes. We could say hi to Allison.”
The weight that had settled on Stiles’ shoulder as he’d watched Allison rise up on dragonback and vanish in the clear summer sky began to lift. He couldn’t help but grin, trying to imagine Allison mucking out a stable. “That would be awesome,” he agreed.
First, though, the herdbeasts had to be coaxed into their pens – they hadn’t come all this way to have one be picked off by a hungry dragon. Danny, Stiles and the other herders aimed the column of animals at a stone enclosure along one side of the yard, its roof made of narrow stone shingles. The gates were swung wide and a handful of weyr residents helped corral the animals and count off their numbers so that they might be added to the bill of tithe from Beacon Hold. Then the fattest of the animals were pulled aside into a corridor that smelled like blood even to Stiles’ human nose – he watched them stamp nervously and excused himself, feeling queasy.
As Danny was still hard at work, Stiles took the opportunity to poke around the ground level of the weyr, locating what smelled like an entrance to the kitchens – no candidates scrubbing floors at this hour, sadly – and a set of huge double doors guarded by two bored looking, leather-clad twins. Pressed by the call of nature he soon found musing in the topic of dragon feces and as he relieved himself behind a stone, wondering soberly if it was true the only did their business between.
Re-emerging into the late afternoon sunlight Stiles continued his wander along the base of the crater’s wall towards the massive blue-green lake that flooded the south-westernmost portion of the weyr. South of the kitchens and mess halls were a series of what seemed to be shops or crafter’s studios – people bustled in and out of a laundry leaking steam through the open shutters of its windows … one even appeared to be a tavern, filled with the sound of conversation and off-key singing. The mood of the place was almost like a Gathering – but then, they were about to witness the first hatching of a clutch in nearly ten years, the riders certainly had cause for cheer. The shallows of the lake were full of rollicking dragons – more dragons that Stiles had ever seen in his life – and the water was roiling and churning with the swish and swirl of wings and tails.
It was funny how little thought he’d really given to life in a weyr. If you removed the dragons from the scene before him, Beacon Weyr and Beacon Hold were really quite similar, if architecturally diverse. Given the timber of the songs and poems celebrating their exploits Stiles had always imagined dragonriders as stoic and silent guardians, patiently awaiting the day their services were needed once again… but the dragons he watched frolic through the water in the lake were nothing like the stern, serious creatures he’d envisioned.
It looked like a nice place to live, he thought wistfully.
If Allison Impressed, this would be her home. She’d never go back to sneaking wine at Hold gatherings with Stiles, never help him decorate the halls with tiny glass baubles for winter solstice, Coby draping the strands over the highest beams…
“You’re new,” said a voice behind him, soft and curious.
Stiles jumped and turned quickly, rejoinder dying in his throat as he stared at the man before him. The rider – and he was definitely a rider – was clad in a dark sleeveless doublet and deep gray pants. The dark colors of the clothing only stood to highlight the livid pink scars that spread across fully half of his face, neck, and the shoulder of one exposed arm.
They were obviously burns, obviously old, and obviously still very, very raw.
“I, uh, I’m just visiting,” Stiles managed to say, weakly. There was something in this man’s stance that was almost predatory; his muddy eyes gave the impression that he was looking through everything and everyone around him.
“Mmm,” said the burned man, corner of his lips twitching up into a smile. The charred side of his face gave the expression a nearly-charming lopsided tilt. “For the hatching?”
Stiles stood up a little bit straighter. “I’m here to watch my friend stand as a candidate.”
“Well, that’s something to celebrate,” he said, airily. The proclamation didn’t appear to strike him as odd, which was comforting. Perhaps Stiles wouldn’t need to invent an excuse in order to crash the Hatching. “I’m surprised you aren’t standing. You seem like you would be… receptive.”
Stiles swallowed, pained. “Are you a rider?”
The man tipped his head and there was that gutting stare again – Stiles had to swallow back the urge to step back and away from him. “Once a rider, always a rider,” he said with a hollow little chuckle.
“Um,” Stiles gave in to his baser instinct and took a step backwards – right into the stone wall edging the riders’ tavern. He stuck out one hand to shake. “I’m Stiles, of Beacon Hold.”
The Rider before him did not reciprocate the introduction. Instead he took Stiles’ offered hand and studied it thoughtfully, allowing his eyes to rake up Stiles’ forearm, over his shoulders before peering thoughtfully into his eyes. “Beacon Hold… no wonder I do not recognize you.”
Stiles swallowed, squashing the urge to jerk his hand away. “Can you tell me where the Candidates might be? I’ve only just arrived with the tithing caravan, and…”
“I’m certain they’re hard at work,” the burned man said, coolly. “They don’t simply gallivant around the Weyr waiting for the eggs to hatch. You would do best to wait until dinner, when most should be in the great dining hall.”
“Thank you, Rider,” Stiles finally gave in, tugging his fingers free.
The Rider smiled an oily smile that made Stiles shudder. “Perhaps you are looking for a way to entertain yourself this afternoon? The Weyr can be a very freeing experience for those unaccustomed to our… liberal ways.”
Stiles swallowed. “I…”
Stepping in, the Rider neatly pressed a hand to the small of Stiles’ back, steering him gently towards the rowdy tavern. “Have you never been curious what it might be like to pass a candlemark in the company of the Riders of Pern?” he asked. “The stories we could tell you…”
“Uh,” Stiles said, finding his tongue had deserted him. He thought of Danny and his greenrider friend, of the coupling of male riders the residents of Beacon Hold so often laughed at when the wine was flowing. He would be stupid not to recognize this for the opportunity that it was.
“Those men who Impress dragons, who fight Thread – they’re a breed all of their own. Perhaps you could convince one that you have the makings of a proper candidate,” the burned man continued. “Then you could stand beside your friend, Impress in your own right rather than watching others seize the glory of—“
Stiles blinked, eyes struggling to adjust to the low glowlight as a new arrival the crossed the threshold. He only noticed the cross-armed figure blocking their path inside the door in time to jerk sideways, though he still managed to catch the man’s arm with a shoulder. The burned man righted him from his stumblr, sighing as he did so.
“What. Is this,” growled – oh, crackdust. Stiles squeezed his eyes shut, recognizing that voice instantly. Why, in Faranth’s name, did it have to be --
“Derek,” said the burned man. “This is Stiles, a visitor from Beacon Hold. We were just about to—”
Stiles felt Rider Hale’s gaze slide from the burned man to Stiles, his pale eyes critical. His features were all the more beautiful up close, his nose long and straight and beard pleasantly neat. “I can guess at your intentions,” Derek snapped. “We have spoken on this, Peter. What did he offer you, boy?”
“What?” Stiles asked, throat gone dry.
“Money? A flit or two? My uncle does so love promising that which is not his to give,” Rider Hale – Derek – spoke with a voice dripping condescension.
“Conversation,” Stiles said, summoning the courage to tip his chin up. Like hell he was admitting he’d been offered a chance at candidacy -- as if this burned-out shell of a man had that to offer.
Derek seemed surprised by that small measure of defiance. “You… look familiar,” he said, dark brows wrinkling.
“I am of Beacon hold – I arrived this morning with the tithing train.”
“Perhaps…” Derek started, tipping his head to the left as though listening to something neither Stiles nor Peter could hear. “Lycanth tells me—“
A candlemark bell sounded somewhere in the great basin of the weyr, echoing across the stony surfaces.
Stiles seized upon it, taking a full step away from both Derek and his uncle. “Ah, the time! I’m afraid that duty calls,” he said quickly, smirking at Peter. “A measly little holder can’t spend all of his time gallivanting about the Weyr when there’s work enough to be done.”
“Hate to see you leave, love to watch you go,” Peter called after him. Stiles didn't turn around – not even when he heard the telltale sound of Derek striking his Uncle’s shoulder in disgust.
Stiles awoke that night, bleary-eyed and disoriented on his pallet in the lower caverns. Danny wasn’t on the pallet beside him – unsurprising, really, since he had a “friend” in the weyr.
At first Stiles thought the strangeness of his surroundings must have awoken him – the hearthfires burned low on the opposite wall, leaving the entire hall slightly too-warm despite the early morning coolness. But no, that wasn’t it -- he could make out a sound, lower and softer than the crackle of logs in the fire, impossible to ignore. It tugged at his gut, ruffled through his consciousness… though the other three Mahealani herders snoring beside him didn’t seem to register the disturbance at all.
He sat up, crossing his legs and combing a hand through his unruly hair. Not knowing what else to do he reached a toe out and prodded the boy sleeping next to him. “Hey,” he hissed, pressing one hand to his chest and feeling the weird noise reverberate there. “Hey--”
Before the words could leave his mouth the doors at the end of the great hall flew open and a handful of residents burst into the room, hurrying to throw coal on the fire and drop fresh glowstones into the dozens of lanterns hanging from wrought iron hooks around the room, scattering fresh, sweet-smelling rushes between the tables. The sound roused the other boys, who instantly began scrambling to their feet and rifling through their belongings.
“Where’s the fire?” Stiles groaned around a yawn.
The eldest of the three herders favored Stiles with a withering look. “The Hatching!” he exclaimed. “The Hatching begins!”
“We’ll be needed for the slaughter,” another said, shouldering his neatly wrapped bedroll with practiced ease. “Where’s Danny?”
“Where do you think?”
“He’ll have heard the dragonsong,” Stiles pointed out, tying up his own bedroll with significantly less ease. “I’m sure he’s already at the stables.”
“That blasted twirlskirt…” muttered the first of the three. “Meet us there,” he ordered Stiles, who nodded as though he had every intention of doing so.
As his companions dashed towards the entrance to the cavern, more kitchen drudges began bustling through the room. Some bore towering stacks of clay plates and platters while others shoved large metal carts or enormous barrels of wine into position. The celebratory feast, it seemed, would be held regardless of the time of day.
The low humming of dragons electrified the weyr, growing louder as the seconds ticked by. Every resident knew their appointed role, leaving Stiles feeling out of place and awkward in his corner of the hall; he certainly wasn’t going to go assist in the yearling slaughter.
He waited there for a few minutes, listening to the hum grew louder. It echoed in his ears and thrummed through his mind as though there were an underlying psychic element to it… which there very well might be, since dragons and riders were known to speak to one another mentally. If the entire weyr hadn’t already been awake they would be now – the air was buzzing with anticipation and excitement and the hum made Stiles’ heart swell in his chest as it crescendoed.
Unable to take waiting any longer, Stiles jogged out of the lower caverns with his pack slung over his shoulder. It was later in the morning than he’d thought, the sky a dull shade of pre-dawn lavender while the red star hung like a single watchful eye ever over the eastern rim of the caldera, shimmering through the morning light. The eastern wall of the weyr had a stony outcropping protruding upwards near its center, almost like a watchtower. The top was wide enough for several men to stand abreast at its base and boasted a single spire of stone now centered on the rising red star.
“The star-stones,” Stiles murmured, shivering at the sight. Beacon Hold was too small to have its own set of predictive star-stones, but even Stiles knew that when the stone spire aligned with the red star in the morning hours, threadfall was very nearly upon them.
Even the staunchest of thread-deniers would surely think twice before ignoring such a blatant warning, for the spire was smooth and glassy, clearly constructed by ancient hands.
In the air between him and the heavens, dragon after dragon began to appear and vanish, winking in and out seemingly at random. Some flew in giddy patterns, figure eights and loops and dives, while others moved slowly, managing to pop in and land gracefully without clipping a wing or tail. Stiles knew they would were flying between, teleporting to Holds scattered throughout Pern to ferry any important guests to the Hatching despite the early hour.
Stiles couldn’t help but scan the great expanse of caldera for Allison, his heart swelling in anticipation of her Standing. He’d hoped he could see the Hatching, of course, but he hadn’t expected it to be so easy – all he’d have to do now was sneak into the heated sands. He’d brought along his finest set of clothing in order to look like an invited guest, but with the number of people pouring out of the weyr he wasn’t sure he’d be able to find an out-of-the-way place to change.
The hum was escalating throughout the weyr, having grown strong it set his teeth vibrating. He was starting across the expanse towards the hatching cavern when a massive shadow fell over him -- worse, he recognized the dragon as the massive bronze he’d met at Beacon Hold. The monstrous bronze looked utterly regal, sleek rows of darker scales glazed across the ridge of its spine and down towards its tail, almost like dorsal stripes. Stiles knew with absolute certainty that it belonged to Rider Hale.
The dragon landed not twenty yards before him, obediently dropping a shoulder so that the first of his passengers could dismount. Much to his horror, Stiles spotted the striking pale silver canine’s fur of Chris’ formal mantle … Allison’s father was perched in the broad leather flying harness.
It was definitely Hale’s dragon, then – and he’d made a personal house call to pick up Chris for the Impression. That was expected -- but not ideal. Surely Chris wouldn’t send Stiles home for shirking his duties in the name of watching Allison Impress...
Stiles was rapidly distracted from Chris when he recognized the newly-dismounted passenger reaching up to assist Chris in his own dismount. Stiles would recognize the all-too-familiar dark brown cloak of Beacon Hold’s Guardcaptain anywhere.
Shard it – his dad was here. He was in so much trouble.
Stiles watched frozen in place as Chris and John set out across the caldera towards the entrance to the hatching grounds. Hale’s dragon swung his huge bronze head away from the hatching cavern’s entrance until his stare was leveled at Stiles, glittering eyes fathomless and unblinking. Something in his visage struck Stiles as curious – and then the bronze chest rumbled with a deep huff. Annoyance, perhaps – or satisfaction?
It was impossible to guess.
Then his gaze broke away and Stiles watched his rider – tall, dark and leatherclad – reach up to place a hand gently on his snout. A few moments later he was clambering aboard again, every inch of the movement graceful and practiced. Stiles held his breath unconsciously as they launched skywards, with a crack of skin and sinew, teleporting between a few short seconds later.
He suspected it would be easier to slip into the Hatching cavern without Rider Hale standing guard – he would have to move fast to make this reprieve count, but not so fast that he caught up with his father and Chris.
Picking his way along the caldera wall through the rapidly growing crowd, Stiles was very nearly almost run over by a group of drudges. They were hauling huge, overflowing baskets of dripping red meat away from the slaughterhouses.
“Don’t just stand there you lazy wher’stail,” one swore at him – a curly-haired boy a little taller than Stiles. Stiles ducked sideways, heart pounding in his chest as he looked around for any sign of Danny or his father.
“I -- sorry, uh, here,” Stiles automatically reached out to help the teen steady his load, but had to resist the urge to pump his fist. “Let me,” he said eagerly, throwing himself into hauling it across the caldera.
The meat was steaming in the cool morning air, as fresh as fresh could be and Stiles wondered with a slight, hysterical gulp if this was what was left of Danny’s yearlings.
They walked east towards the rising sun and the heavy red star, moving towards an enormous cave slashed into the side of the caldera like a clawmark. The hum grew louder and louder as they went until it was vibrating the bowl of meat, the stones beneath their feet, and every fiber of Stiles’ being. The attendees paid them no attention whatsoever despite the fact that Stiles was dressed as a traveler and still wearing his pack. The meat was distasteful enough that eyes slid away from them instantaneously.
Then again, with the amount of fine clothing and noteworthy guests present, perhaps that wasn’t so surprising… Stiles had never seen so many fine cloths and delicate jewels.
Beyond the cave’s entrance was an enormous chamber, easily the largest single room Stiles had ever seen. The floor was covered in drifts of white sand that had been partially wallowed out by the towering queen dragon sprawled within, and the roof was open to the rapidly brightening sky above. Laura’s golden Aconith was enormous, even bigger than Derek’s bronze and she sat on her haunches with her wings fluttering almost anxiously, her giant wedge-shaped head snaking back and forth over her clutch of eggs.
The eggs themselves were each easily the size of a man. Some were mottled and swirled with the faintest suggestion of browns and blues and greens, others matched the sands in hue. Cracks were already beginning to appear in the many, some rocking and twitching with the promise of life.
To the far left, close to the golden dragon’s right haunch, stood a huge golden egg, unmistakable for the glitter and shine of its shell.
The candidates were arranged just within to the cave entrance, each of them wearing a featureless white robe that reached past their knees and hung belted with a thin rope. They ranged in age from young – one little boy couldn’t be more than twelve turns of age – to even older than Stiles, though the oldest of the batch looked almost bored with the proceedings.
Despite the early hour they looked wide-awake, charged with nervous energy.
“CANDIDATES!” shouted a squat, wiry-haired man. “MEAT. Get your hands on some tasty meat – yeah it’s hot, it’s nice and fresh! Greenberg, if you puke, I swear by Faranth’s egg I will—“
Stiles helped the other kitchen drudge drop the basket of meat next to two others already prepared, then stepped back as the candidates filed up and filled the pouches hanging from their belts. Stiles couldn’t help but scan their faces, wondering what exactly had made them more suitable than himself for their role as candidate and potential dragon-rider -- especially those so obviously squeamish at the sight of blood. None of them looked quite as scrawny as he was – could there be a physical element? Or maybe it was—
“Candidates,” a firm female voice broke through his musings, and Stiles looked up sharply at the woman standing between the candidates and the sands. Laura Hale wasn’t hard to identify, particularly after he’d set eyes on her brother and uncle. The only visible mark of her rank was a golden spiral mark embroidered into the left shoulder of her riding leathers.
She was also, of course, gorgeous -- and deadly calm, despite tension in the air.
Laura was flanked by a small entourage, including a man with a similar rank marking who could only be the Weyrleader. Stiles knew that whomever rode the dragon who caught her golden Aconith during her mating flight would ascend to the position, but from the familiar glances between them he suspected that their friendship predated the recent flight. He didn’t miss the way Laura steeled her shoulders and tipped up her chin up, just the way Derek did.
“This day is an important one,” Laura put her hands on her hips, eyes scanning the boys and then settling on the cluster of female candidates closest to her sands. “But please remember, your lives are important as well. Finstock has prepared you as best he can for the task ahead of you. Remember that you cannot second-guess or force the bond -- the dragons always know.”
“They -- they aren’t going to attack us, are they?” one of the younger boys asked, voice wavering.
“As long as you don’t get between them and what is theirs,” Laura responded, cryptically. “This is the moment in which you make a choice -- those of you who do not Impress will be taken home, or invited to stay and stand at the next Hatching, provided you are still of age. Those who are chosen by a dragon are committing to a lifetime of servitude, hard work, and danger. Very soon we shall return to our ancient and sacred obligation, risking our lives daily to protect the fields and holds as threadfall scours Pern. If you are unable or unwilling to make that sacrifice I suggest that you proceed no further.”
The candidates shifted from foot to foot, looking everywhere but into Laura’s hard expression. Stiles let his eyes slide sideways, away from the main cluster and over towards the dozen or so women standing closest to the steaming sands, scanning their faces.
“Go,” Laura ordered, and the candidates turned to obey. Stiles wasted no time turning and charging into the pack. The greys and browns of his travel garb would surely alert the weyrlingmaster to the interloper in their midst, and he couldn’t leave the floor before finding Allison.
The sound of his name made Stiles jump -- and in half a moment he was wrapped up in Allison’s arms, her expression crinkled into utter joy at the sight of him. Stiles threw his arms around her, squeezing her tight. “Alli,” he said happily, the weight of worry lifting from his shoulders.
“You came,” she gasped, eyes glistening.
“Wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Stiles agreed. He noticed some of the other candidates staring at them, including one in dark leathers with a crooked jaw and a furrowed brow – and another slightly older man with light curls, both of whom seemed to be interested more by Allison than Stiles. “I missed you so much,” he added, voice breaking. “I never should have—“
“I missed you too, I have so much to tell you,” Allison said hugging him tightly. Stiles glanced up at the young man she had been standing with, a kid about his own age with dark hair and a strong jaw.
“I’ll bet,” Stiles laughed, “And I want to hear all about it.”
“This -- oh gosh, this is a terrible time for introductions, but -- Stiles, this is Scott, he’s the senior weyrling wingleader, and Scott, this is Stiles, my best friend.”
“Wingleader?” Stiles asked. The kid looked awfully young to have any kind of rank, but then again--
The wiry-haired weyrlingmaster had taken up Laura’s place at the entrance to the sands and quickly launched himself into another spate of shouting. “What the hell are you lot waiting for? These dragons aren’t going to Impress themselves!”
“He’s right, Allison,” Scott said eagerly, giving her shoulder a squeeze. “I’ll make sure Stiles gets up to the stands -- we’ll both be rooting for you!”
“Absolutely,” Stiles agreed, grinning at them both. Several other riders around Scott’s age were fanning out, ensuring the candidates had their satchels of meat and shooing them onto the floor. One or two lingered, nervously mulling over Laura’s speech and working up the courage to Stand.
Stiles hated that -- to have the opportunity to Impress and just throw it away was--
“Stiles,” Allison’s eyes were wide as the candidates ranged out onto the sands, forming loose circles around the dragon eggs. The eggs themselves were already twitching and trembling as their contents struggled to break free. “I can’t go out there. If I Impress a dragon my dad is going to kill me!”
“No,” Stiles corrected, gently. “If you Impress a dragon you’re going to broker peace between hold and weyr and be the best freaking weyrwoman since Moreta.”
Behind Allison Scott was nodding furiously.
“But my dad--”
“Did you see him in the crowd?”
Allison’s face lit up. “He’s here? He came?”
“Rider Hale brought him up with my dad. Allison, he’s here to cheer you on no matter what happens, and so am I.”
One of the other female riders broke into their conversation, favoring both Scott Stiles with a withering look. Her long red hair was tied back into a plait, stray curls framing her face. “Allison, are you Standing or not?”
“I am, Lydia.”
“If you are uncertain…”
“No, no,” Allison flashed them both a brave smile. “I will stand. If she is meant to be mine, she is meant to be mine.”
Stiles’ cheers were cut off as a hand came down on the back of Stiles’ collar, jerking him backwards hard enough to make the air gust out of his lungs in a sharp burst.
“I’ve got this,” the man behind Stiles growled at Lydia. “Assemble the healers, Faranth knows some of this lot’s going to need them.”
Rider Lydia snorted but nodded, turning her back on Stiles and the – ugh, iron-gripped – guard still gripping Stiles too tightly to be comfortable. At least he’d found Allison -- he caught a glimpse of her jogging across the hot sands towards the golden egg as his captor turned him in place.
Stiles froze as he found himself staring up into the handsome, heavily-eyebrowed face he recognized instantly. “You’re... my uncle’s boy,” Rider Hale snapped, squinting as he scanned Stiles’ face. If he recognized him as the skinny boy standing next to his chosen female candidate at the Beacon Hold gathering he made no sign of it.
“I’m not your Uncle’s anything,” Stiles snapped. “I came to watch Allison Impress.” Hale’s grip on his tunic was strong, pulling his collar uncomfortably tight across his throat. Hale’s eyes were a myriad of colors, all swirled together -- oddly reminiscent of the opalescent dragon eggs on the sands behind them.
“You’re a trespasser on these sands. I should have Lycanth rip your throat out,” Hale growled. “With his teeth.”
“Dragons don’t eat manflesh,” Stiles said archly, just as an ear-splitting crack broke across the cavern and the first of the baby dragons pierced its shell, a soft brown nose poking through the dark gap in the pale white egg. He felt Hale’s attention divert and tugged himself away, straightening his tunic. “Do with me what you will,” he said, cheeks flushing pink as a flash of what he’d like Hale to do with him zipped through his mind, “but wait until I’ve seen Allison stand.”
Hale shifted beside him -- a sideways glance told Stiles he was once again communicating silently with his bronze Lycanth. “Very well,” he said, tone gentling slightly. “But you must take to the stands -- it’s not safe for you here. The hatchlings are all tooth and claw before they Impress.”
“You done pissing all over your territory, sir?” Scott asked Derek, stepping up to Stiles’ side.
Derek’s eyebrows furrowed further. “Friend of yours, McCall?”
“A friend of Allison’s, which really should be enough,” Scott grouched. “C’mon, Hale. Don’t make this a big deal.”
They glared at one another, though the staring match was quickly broken by the shocked gasp of the crowd. The first little brown dragonet had finally broke free of his shell and spilled forth into the world.
Stiles could barely breathe, eyes glued to the gangly brown creature snuffling in the sand. It had fallen sideways, half its membrane-damp face covered in sand. Rider Hale pressed a guiding hand to Stiles’ shoulder, a touch much less gentle than his Uncle’s.
“I’ll deal with you once the Hatching has finished,” he muttered, evidently keen on remaining close.
“McCall!” The weyrlingmaster shouted from too-short a distance away. “I see you over there, don’t think I don’t -- You’re on escort duty! Get your backside to the far entrance!”
Scott gave Stiles an apologetic glance and a small smile. “Don’t worry, Rider Hale’s bark is worse than his bite.”
Stiles smiled weakly, giving in to the incessant press of Rider Hale’s firm hand.
They started moving towards the stands that ringed the chamber; the upper tiers were clearly only accessible via dragon, but the lower levels were connecting by a weblike network of narrow stairs. The first rows of the first story had been cordoned off for the highest ranking guests, while the highest reaches of the room were dragon-sized perches, all packed to the edges with colorful, massive beasts.
Stiles paused the moment Derek escorting hand relaxed. He leaned against the stone wall dividing the stands from the sands, wondering if the candidates had chosen which egg they wanted -- or were they assigned? The larger eggs might be more likely to yield the bronze and brown dragons whose size and strength meant they might achieve greater rank within the weyr.
There must have been a hundred souls standing for the thirty three eggs, including some eight women ranged as far from Aconith as they could without abandoning the glittering golden prize.
A few women had chosen smaller eggs -- those likely to house the blues or greens, colors known to favor riders of either gender. Stiles stared at the panorama of rattling eggs and eager/frightened faces, wondering which egg he might have chosen
Even a green would soar through the skies, spitting flame and scouring thread -- he wasn't sure he’d have cared at all, provided he’d had the chance to stand.
The first dragonet on the sands found its way into the outstretched arms of a tousle-headed candidate. The boy threw his arms around its neck with a cry, tears streaking down his cheeks. An appreciative sigh went up from the crowd, the dragons above allowing their hum to swell, satisfied, at the first bonding. A blue followed, then a green and three bronzes -- already a strong showing for a clutch of thirty-odd.
With that the Hatching had begun in earnest. There was so much going on that it was hard to know where to look -- the first blue found its lifemate, the queen egg gave a shudder, Aconith tipped her head back and trumpeted with pleasure as her brood entered the world. Beside Stiles, Rider Hale leaned against the waist-high wall as well, letting out something close to a moan as the palpable happiness of the matched pairs rolled over them.
Stiles let his eyes dark across the scene, quickly losing count of the successful matches and the frustrated failures. He watched one unlucky soul take a claw-swipe to the side and fall to the ground in a bloody heap, half-trampled by a hatchling eager to find its rider -- then watched a second go down hard, only to be roused by the loving snuffle from a different direction altogether, Impressing a handsome bronze.
Someone let out a cry and Stiles jerked his eyes over to the small group of women encircling the future queen. As the luminous egg egg began to tremble and crack the draconic hum grew so thunderously loud that Stiles glanced upwards, fearing a cave in.
There could be no doubt the hatchling within would be a dragon queen, a mother, a leader. When the shell split it was with a decisive crack so loud it seemed to reverberate through every corner of the cavern.
“Oh,” Stiles breathed. He heard Derek echo his cry, soft and pleased as the queen was born.
The little gold was perfectly proportioned, already bigger than her brothers and sisters but every bit as awkward. She hooked her tiny claws along the edge of her shell and began tearing it away piece by piece, methodical and determined. A handful of the more ambitious girls standing before her rushed in, tearing away eggshells in a bid to curry favor, but the golden dragonet ignored them.
Stiles’ eyes flew to Allison where she stood opposite the egg, her hair tumbled wild around her shoulders, her mouth half-open in shock.
When the dragonet found her feet at last, she spared not even a glance for the eager girls that had chipped away at her shell, instead taking three wobbly steps forward and opening her mouth to emit a gentle, uncertain squeak.
Allison’s face shifted from an expression of shock to one of utter awe. She met the dragonet halfway and fell to her knees, sliding a hand down the golden neck and burying her face against damp scales.
Stiles threw his hands up as the crowd roared its approval. “YES!” He shrieked into the tumultuous cacophony, impulsively throwing his arms around Derek and squeezing the startled near-stranger in a bone-cracking hug. “I knew it! I knew it, I knew you could do it! Allison!! Allison!”
“She did it,” Derek’s face was alight with excitement, years falling away beneath his grin. He turned his face upwards towards his own bronze and shouted, unnecessarily, “Lycanth, you son of a watchwher! We’ll never get out of another Searching, now!”
The Impression of the queen was not the end of of the Hatching, but it certainly was the peak. Almost all of the dragonets had Impressed by now, a few of the smaller eggs just beginning to rock and pulse. He watched Allison escorting her golden lifemate towards the exit where her friend Scott was still leaping with excitement. She moved past a lovely blue-golden egg currently spilling forth a finely boned green, her eyes never leaving her new charge.
Stiles tore himself away from the scene, scanned the first few rows of the crowd. It didn’t take long to spot his father, who was shouting and stamping his feet. Beside him Chris was teary-eyed, though whether from joy or rage it was difficult to say. Stiles began to move towards them instinctively when a sharp wave of feeling washed through his mind, so agonized and lonely that it brought him to his knees right there on the stone stands.
’Where are you going?’ the feeling asked, piteous.
A wave of despair crashed over Stiles, evaporating the joy/exhilaration/pleasure of the past few moments with neck-breaking speed. Stiles was suddenly adrift, drowning in loneliness/bright discomfort/fear that was not his own. He was leaving, he was widening the distance, he was so so so far away.
Stiles staggered to his feet, whirling to stare at the sands, his blood pounding in his ears. He had to -- had to reach the ground, had to--
He didn’t realize he was running until he’d bowled straight into Derek, who staggered and snatched at his shoulders, furiously. “Where in Faranth’s name do you think you’re--”
“Let me go,” Stiles gasped, the crest of emotions bringing tears to his eyes. “She’s waiting, she needs me, she--”
Derek’s hand closed on his pack and he quickly slid free of it, babbling as he left Derek standing, bewildered, with the backpack in one hand.
Rider Hale’s gorgeous eyes widened, though Stiles could barely see them through his swimming vision. “She--? What do you--”
Stiles watched himself barreled past Derek, nearly stumbling down the stairs as he wedged past the onlookers collecting there. He jumped down the last five steps and charged onto the sands, which were hot enough to heat his feet even through his wherhide boots.
’Stiles!’ the voice echoed in his brain, tumultuous and inexorable and perfect.
Sprinting around one of the massive dunes, Stiles pulled up short as the bottom fell out of his world.
Staggering through the crushed shell of her brothers’ discarded eggs wobbled the most perfect creature he’d ever seen. She was delicate pale shade of green that mottled to a blueish teal towards her hindquarters, her jaws were round and her egg-tooth jagged, shards of shell still clinging to her damp scales.
Her eyes were a bright gold, incandescent and fathomless.
She was perfect.
Stiles stumbled to her side, sweeping his hand along her eye ridge in silent apology for keeping her waiting.
’You did not leave me,’ Syleth exalted, butting her head into his palm and letting out a quiet, needy vocalisation. Her relief made every muscle in Stiles’ body release a tension he hadn’t realized he was holding.
“I would never leave you,” Stiles swore, fervently. He would never -- he would sooner die, sooner burn to ash than turn his back on this tiny, hopeful dragonet.
He could feel the sting of sand in her eyes and gently set about brushing the granules away, pressing his mouth to the stretch of forehead between her glittering eyes. Once her vision was clear and the edge of pain had retreated from her mental voice he felt her huff in hunger, smelling the meat the other candidates had carried onto the sand.
“We’ll find something for you --” Stiles tore his gaze away from the dragonet to find the weyrlingmaster charging across the sands towards him, fist wrapped around a satchel of meat.
“Here,” he grunted, shoving the bag into Stiles’ hand. His expression was gruffly resigned, as though he didn’t appreciate some guardsman’s son interloping on territory meant for his carefully trained candidates. “Take this, lead her from the sands before you burn your toes off, and for Faranth’s sake don’t let her drag her wings -- they’re not made of stone!”
“Right,” Stiles muttered, focusing on untying the bag and feeding Syleth her first bite. Her pleasure coursed through him and he gave her a second just for another wave of her simple, pure appreciation. Once she’d had a snack Stiles stood and flicked stray shell from her wings and tail, then helped her pick her way across the sands.
Stiles had never had much of an attention span, but with Syleth by his side he felt completely and utterly focused -- on her satiety, on the shell fragment that grew stuck in the webbing between her front claws, on keeping her wingtips out of the sand.
With that focus came a swell of confidence the likes of which Stiles had never felt. All of those insecurities that lead him to believe he was a failure, unworthy of being a candidate -- they vanished. To doubt himself now was to doubt Syleth’s judgement, and that was something he was no longer capable of.
They were ushered through an archway on the eastern side of the sands, the one guarded by Allison’s friend, Scott. Scott whooped and cheered and asked Syleth’s name before leading them into the room beyond, significantly dimmer and quieter, with more baskets of meat and soft rushes scattered across the floor.
Syleth was tired already, the trek from her fractured eggshell to the chamber beyond the Hatching cavern having sapped what strength was left after the herculean task of breaking free. Her hunger made Stiles’ stomach growl, so when Scott ordered them to settle themselves and eat their fill he couldn’t protest.
They settled with seven or so other hatchlings amidst a flurry of drudges filling bowls with meat as quickly as the dragonets gulped them down, and Stiles caught the reflection of his own joy on their faces -- wonder, excitement, awe.
Syleth ate her fill, strip after strip of bloody meat until her round, viridescent belly was distended with the volume of her meal. Stiles grinned as he ran a hand along it, marveling at the tender softness of her leathery scales, the whorls of color along her neck, the translucent lightness of her claws. His dragonet, his dragon, his most perfect companion -- the darling girl who had picked him from a crowd of thousands.
'Of course I picked you,' Syleth observed, her mental voice muzzy with sleep. ‘You are mine.’
“So I am,” Stiles murmured, watching her eyelids slide shut as she slipped away into sleep.
Though Syleth slept, Stiles’ day was far from finished. Much to his joy, Allison found her way to their little cluster and cried into his shoulder, just as overcome with emotion as he was. “Her name is Lustreth,” she said of her gold, her voice going wobbly and soft when she spoke of the dragon. “Oh, Stiles. How could I have ever doubted--”
“The dragons know. Have you been presented to the weyrwoman yet?” Stiles asked, brushing a strand of hair from her face. “Allison, you’re going to be a Weyrwoman!”
Allison laughed, teary-eyed. “Bet dad wishes he’d let me sit in on those flamethrower lessons now,” she said, scrubbing at her eyes with the heel of her palm.
“I have a feeling we’re going to get lots of practice,” Stiles admitted, grinning. “By the way, this Scott fellow…”
Allison’s cheeks pinked, her mouth twitching up into a smirk. “What about him?”
“Anything I should know?” he teased. “He’d better be a bronzerider if he plans to keep up with you...”
“Oh, he is,” Allison told him, sweetly, before waving cheerily and heading back to her sleeping dragonet.
Not ten minutes later the Beacon Hold entourage appeared in the doorway -- Chris Argent and Guardcaptain Stilinski in all their formal finery and escorted by a handful of riders Stiles didn’t recognize. Chris had eyes only for Allison, ignoring the rest of the room entirely as he bee-lined towards his daughter. John, on the other hand, stood in the doorway rolling his hat between his hands, eyes picking through the crowd in search of his son.
Stiles’ voice caught in his throat. It had only been four days since they’d last spoken, and yet … his world had tilted sideways and would never be the same again. How could he possibly--
“Son,” John’s voice cut through the low murmur of conversation, his expression clearing like the sky after a storm. He rushed through the crowd, Stiles only just managing to scramble to his feet before being engulfed in his father’s embrace.
When the hug broke apart Stiles looked up at his father, noticing the fine lines at the corners of his eyes and the firm press of his mouth. His excitement ratcheted down a few degrees and he stood straighter, steeling himself for the dressing-down he deserved.
His resolve must have bled into his expression because John merely huffed out a low laugh, reaching out for him again.
“You stubborn brat,” John half-laughed, half-sobbed. “Oh shells, Stiles, there’s so much of your -- you’re just like her, you know that? It kills me.”
Stiles let himself be hauled in, pressing his head into his father’s neck. It didn’t seem right to see his father so close to tears -- and he hardly wanted his own to be obvious.
“Dad,” he said hoarsely, closing his eyes.
“You weren’t even a candidate,” John said, more to himself than to Stiles. “'Go on up to the weyr,' I thought. 'It’ll be good for you to get out of the Hold,' I thought. 'How much trouble can he possibly get into,' I thought!”
Stiles laughed, pulling away again and blinking furiously.
“So this is your… what’s her name?” John asked, hunkering down next to the sleeping dragon. She was half his height despite her young age, and Stiles could see the way his father’s fingers twitched, though he made no move to touch her. That was probably best, Stiles decided -- he wouldn’t want someone he didn’t know prodding him in his sleep.
“Syleth,” he said, knowing his own voice went as mushy as Allison’s when he spoke her name aloud. Syleth twitched faintly, her snout edging closer to Stiles, seeking his comforting warmth even in sleep. “I’ll introduce you properly once everyone is conscious,” Stiles promised wryly. “You’ll love her, dad. She’s -- she’s …”
His face must have said what his mouth couldn’t, because his father merely squeezed his arm and reached out to ruffle his hair.
“Your mother would be so proud of you,” John admitted, quietly. “Our little dragonrider.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Stiles groused. “Now go on. I’m exhausted, Allison’s exhausted -- and you and Chris ought to enjoy the feast for the pack of us,” Stiles ordered before his emotions could get the better of him.
He would be skipping the meal, unwilling to move from his place at Syleth’s side. She’d curled the very tip of her tail around his ankle and the touch anchored him, keeping him calm and determined despite his excitement.
John ruffled his hair again, hugged him again, and then dutifully went to tear Chris away from Allison’s side.
Stiles leaned back against Syleth and closed his eyes, curling his fingers around Syleth’s scaled tail.
When Stiles woke again, he found a fresh bucket of meat at his feet along with a basin of water. When he reached out to Syleth he felt her still asleep, though her rest was shallow and already tinged again with the insatiable hunger of the young and growing. The hall around them was slowly emptying, only half the dragonets still in sight. Most of those remaining were still asleep, curled around their new partners or stretched out against the warm floor.
Stiles realized for the first time that the ground below was heated, likely from the same endless heat source deep within the mountain that warmed the Hatching sands. Now that he thought of it, Stiles really ought to check his feet for burns... The candidates had been wearing sturdy boots to protect against the heat, but he’d run out of the great hall entirely barefoot.
The thought of his burned toes invoked a wave of anguish from the creature beside him, pulling her up from sleep. Syleth’s voice was still groggy when she turned to him, her concern was bright and immediate. ’You are hurt?!’
“No, no,” Stiles told her quickly, reaching out automatically to stroke his hands against her skin. He couldn’t help but suspend any concern for himself when she was awake.
This, he realized, was why he’d seen those moments of uncharacteristic softness on Rider Hale’s face -- it was an echo of what he was feeling now.
’Are you certain?’
“I am,” Stiles laughed, closing his eyes and pressing his face against her.
‘Well then, I’m famished,’ Syleth observed, turning one eye on him and licking her draconic chops. ’I might waste away. Starve. Wither and--
“Puh-lease,” Stiles rolled his eyes, sinking his hand into the bucket of meat scraps. Hours ago touching the bloody strips would have disgusted him -- but Syleth’s snout wouldn't fit in the bucket, and the still-warm meat had somehow come to look less disturbing. Not appetizing by any stretch of the imagination, but some measure of his squeamishness had certainly evaporated on the sands.
He fed Syleth piece by piece, enjoying the quiet moment.
What would have happened if he hadn’t been there at the Hatching -- would Syleth have chosen differently? Would she have chosen at all, or would she have--
’You are wasting your thoughts -- that’s not how it happened,’ the dragonet said calmly, butting her head against his hand and shaking him from his thoughts. He could feel the haze of her sleepiness through the connection and nudged her back, urging her to rest once again.
Stiles washed his hands in the basin, dried them on his sweat-stained trousers, and then leaned back against Syleth once again. She shifted to accommodate his weight, her warm, soft side rising and falling as her breathing calmed him. He was drifting pleasantly in his thoughts, enjoying the warm confidence Syleth exuded when a new arrival interrupted his thoughts.
“There you are.”
Stiles blinked sleepily up through his eyelashes at Rider Hale – because of course it was Hale, standing there cool as you pleased with one hand tucked into the pocket of his leathers. He had a pack slung over one shoulder -- oh. That was Stiles’ pack.
“Rider Hale,” Stiles greeted, stomach clenching at the sight of him. He straightened and began to stand -- as was only appropriate when greeting a Rider.
At that thought he realized that technically he was a Rider, too -- and almost laughed.
“Don’t,” Hale said as he raised a gentle hand. “You’ll wake her.”
Stiles settled again, gazing up at Derek with a lump in his throat. The rider stared right back, his eyebrows-of-disapproval dipping low. Derek was the first to look away, expression softening marginally as Syleth let out something dangerously near a snore in her sleep.
Stiles cleared his throat. “I apologize for running you down on the stands,” he said, sheepishly. He would never -- could never -- apologize for Impression, but he’d barrelled right into Derek the moment Syleth’s voice had pierced his consciousness.
“Don’t,” Derek said, looking away. “She needed you.”
“Still… it was, ah, nice of you to bring me my pack, I completely forgot...” ”
It was Derek’s turn to clear his throat. “We’ve all been there. It’s difficult not to relate when Impression is at stake.”
Stiles felt his cheeks heat slightly. “I…”
“I figured you’d would be hungry,” Derek continued awkwardly before Stiles could finish his thought, sliding the pack off his arm and fishing out a cloth-wrapped chunk of roast, several pieces of bread, a small wedge of cheese and a handful of fine, plump grapes.
Seeing the food -- even the cooked meat -- reminded Stiles’ stomach that yes, he was in fact just as hungry as Syleth had been upon waking.
He reached for the food so fast that Derek made a funny little noise that might -- might -- have been an actual chuckle.
Stiles couldn’t care less -- he dug in, tearing big chunks of bread off and nibbling at the cheese, washing it down with swigs from the water skin in his pack.
Derek settled cross-legged next to him, watching him eat quietly. Eventually he spoke, fingers finding and fiddling with the strap on one boot. “It’s not going to be easy for you. Not at, not at first.”
Stiles felt his stomach clench, recalling the way Derek had looked past him in the courtyard at Beacon Hold. “She picked me,” he said defensively, one hand falling to Syleth’s foreleg. “She--”
“That’s not what I mean,” Derek flicked his fingers dismissively. “The dragons don’t make mistakes.”
Stiles swallowed, some of the knot in his stomach disintegrating.
“I mean that… well, there are those who will be unhappy that an onlooker interrupted the ceremony. That a holder managed to Impress, when so many weyr brats didn't.” Derek pinched his lips unhappily. “And that’s just the weyr. With your parentage along that of our new goldrider, some will accuse us of using the Search only to hobble the leadership at Beacon Hold.”
Stiles rolled his eyes, thinking back to that moment only a handful of days earlier, when he’d been so certain today’s events would never come to be. “We’re just kids -- and you passed me over, Rider Hale. Quite publically.”
Derek’s eyes narrowed. “Is that what happened?”
“I think I would know,” Stiles scowled right back. “I was there.”
“You ran,” Derek muttered, shaking his head. “You-- what does it matter? You didn’t let that stand in your way.”
“That’s part of my charm,” Stiles said arily, reaching for the grapes.
Derek scowled. “I’m not threatening you, or trying to bully you. I just want you to know that -- there is great pressure amongst the weyrbrats to Impress, and any interloper they perceive to have taken a dragon away from weyrfolk won’t be liked. You’ll have to earn their respect,” he said, simply. “And that of my family.”
“And let me guess, earning your respect should be the highest of my agenda items, huh?” Stiles popped a grape into his mouth. Rider Hale’s eyes tracked the movement.
“Do you work on being so irritating?” Derek wondered, easing himself up.
“I practice in the mirror every morning,” Stiles chirped, suppressing a shiver at Derek's attentive regard.
Derek pinched the bridge of his nose. “Well. Were you a proper candidate, you would have been instructed to feed up your dragon, then select a bunk in the junior weyrling quarters. Finstock, our Weyrlingmaster, will be putting you to work first thing tomorrow, teaching you how to care for your dragon during her infancy. You will feed her, bathe her, oil her skin as it cracks with growth... Try not to alienate your clutchmates or their dragons while you do so, learn to use flamethrowers and firestone and for Faranth’s sake, stay the hell away from my uncle. Think you can handle all that?”
Stiles gulped. “Uh,” he said, feeling uncertain for the first time since his eyes had met Syleth’s... That sounded like a tall order. “I… yeah. Piece of cake.”
Derek’s expression was largely inscrutable -- but perhaps, Stiles thought, also just a tiny bit pleased. “Well then,” he said, smirking. “Welcome to Beacon Weyr.”