“Don’t ask me to do this,” Derek mumbled in exasperation, words muffled by the hands he’d smashed against his face. He dragged them downwards, casting his eyes up at the ceiling. “Laura. Please.”
“Der, it has to be you.”
’Aconith is very insistent,’ Lycanth chimed in, his telepathic voice heavy with something Derek thought of as a ‘mental frown’. The stalwart bronze was much less capable of resisting the wiles of their respective siblings than Derek.
He sent a silent huff in the dragon’s direction and got a flash of wordless what-can-you-do in return.
Derek’s last view of Laura prior to his double face-palm had shown a weyrwoman in the throes of stubborn determination – steely expression and hips canted, arms akimbo. By the time he prised his face from his fingers she’d moved away, arms wrapped around her torso as she stared out the massive, dragon-sized cavemouth of her enormous residential weyr.
Laura’s chamber was traditionally reserved for Beacon Weyr’s leadership, which meant it had served as their parents home for the entirety of Derek’s childhood. Watching her gaze pensively into the distance he found it as difficult as ever to see her standing where, by all rights, their mother should have been. Nothing about the chamber felt right any more – Laura’s clothing filling the chests, her favorite wall hangings in shades of blue and brown, her weyrmate’s spare boots tossed by the door.
The weyr had only fallen into Laura’s hands with Aconith’s most recent flight, having stood empty since Talia’s death. Derek wondered silently if she felt as uncomfortable there as he did.
“We must consider peace with Beacon Hold,” Laura said, her back still to him though her voice carried well throughout the cave. It had the smooth walls and perfect acoustics of the weyr’s oldest rooms, cut from the heart of the mountains with the technology of the ancients.
“None have been more outspoken against the rekindling of relations than you, sister.”
“Derek,” Laura’s turned a sharp expression on him. “You must know I speak to you not as sister, but as your Weyrwoman. Now that I lead all of Beacon Weyr formally I cannot--”
“You are no more or less the leader of this weyr now than you were last turn, or the turn before that -- or before that,” Derek said, firmly.
The death of their mother, Talia, left Beacon Weyr without leadership. Only a goldrider could lead the weyr, and Laura’s Aconith was the last of Beacon Weyr’s long, proud heritage of queens.
The power vacuum left Laura as Weyrwoman de facto while the bickering, power-hungry wingleaders formed a council, one in which each had a voice equal to that of the others. As a bronzerider and wingleader Derek had been granted the “privilege” of sitting with them.
“I no longer have a council of wingleaders to mediate and temper me when my moods run foul,” she said, sighing. “It ... it might be possible that I allowed my temper to… affect my judgement, shall we say.”
“Have you grown more conservative with the dissolution of your minders?” Derek asked, barely managing to swallow back a laugh.
“It’s put our position into a sharp focus,” Laura admitted. “I could afford to be young and angry when the council was there to vote me down and the Red Star a far-off threat. Now Jordan and I are responsible for the safety of all the holders within our boundaries, and that includes Beacon Hold.”
She looked away from Derek, expression going dark. “Condemning an entire settlement to death by threadfall won’t bring Talia back.”
Beacon Hold’s offense to the Weyr had been dire -- a double murder, in fact. Derek and Laura’s mother and her weyrmate burned to death in a firestone mine, the double-suicide of their grief-riddled dragons following moments afterwards. Talia’s children – who had stayed remarkably close despite the weyrfolks’ general disregard for bloodlines – were scattered in the wake of the deaths, Cora and his cousins forced to stand as candidates on the hatching grounds of other weyrs, Impressing far from home when they should have flown proudly on Beacon dragons.
“I can’t help but feel that your presence would be a more meaningful gesture,” he groused, giving in. Lycanth suggested silently he might have done that an hour ago and spared them all the grumbling, but Derek steadfastly ignored him.
That, at last, had Laura turning to face him once again. Her expression had grown peculiar -- a little half-smile on her lips. Derek furrowed his brows suspiciously.
“I can’t,” she repeated. “I can’t go. It has to be you.”
Afterwards Derek would not be certain where the sudden, absolute certainty had come from – whether he’d pulled it from her face, or from the faint twitch of her hands towards her navel, or whether Aconith had let something slip to Lycanth in that exact moment – but he suddenly knew without a doubt why she would not go.
“Laura,” he said, throat tightening until his voice was a croak. He stared at her, disbelieving, until her face crumbled into a teary smile.
He crossed the room in a few long strides and wrapped her up in his arms. She mashed her face into the side of his head – their heights having been equal since they were very small — and laughed against his ear.
“You mean it?” he asked, pulling away to stare her up and down, pursing his lips at her belly. It didn’t look any bigger than normal, but then, she had been wearing more clothing than the previous summer, and he hadn’t really been paying attention –
“Yes, Derek,” Laura dabbed at her eyes with the heel of her hand. “You’re to be an uncle, Faranth help us all.”
The odds against a pregnancy in their family were astronomical. Laura was immensely active, training and flying Aconith with the determination of a person with something to prove.
Every dragonrider knew the risks – and sacrifices -- associated with their calling. The dragons of Pern were capable of traveling great distances in the span of mere seconds, teleporting between places almost instantaneously; however, while the intense cold of between was uncomfortable for any grown person, it meant a swift end to the unborn. Accidental or unwanted pregnancies were not an issue in the weyr, leading to the at times promiscuous physical relations between its inhabitants.
The Weyr’s healers, anxiety heightened by the unnaturally long gap in Aconith’s mating cycles, had ordered Laura weyrbound since Aconith rose to mate. No physical or emotional stress, no training, no nothing.
Laura should have, by all rights, been carrying out her duties as Weyrwoman until Aconith took to the sands in Clutch, and even then might have been carried between by other riders had the uncertain state of the gold’s fertility not resulted in the healers rendering her Weyrbound. Though she’d spent much of those immobile months ranting and railing at Derek over the unfairness of it all, the coincidence of it now felt miraculous. Derek silently resolved to deliver gifts to each and every one of the healers who had so determinedly stood up to Laura’s displeasure.
He was still riding the crest of his happy mood when Beacon Hold appeared beneath Lycanth’s enormous wings. The chosen members of his wing winked into existence behind him, still in a perfect V formation.
Derek grinned against the wind.
His searching party consisted of Erica and her green, Isaac on his blue, and Boyd -- his wingsecond -- with his enormous brown. Derek asked Lycanth to order them off on firestone mine inspection, a duty he managed on good days but never under stress. Once the command was relayed he allowed Lycanth to drop down to the Hold’s Gather alone in long, lazy loops.
Even from the air he could tell that Beacon Hold was in compliance with the ordinances and recommendations of the weyr regarding safety and greenery. There were no grasses growing from clogged gutters, nor windows devoid of the massive metal shutters meant to keep tendrils of thread from finding their way into the subterranean realm. Chris Argent might be of dismal stock, but no one could accuse him of doing his residents a disservice when it came to protection and security.
The Gather was large, and as all the scents Derek associated with thronged humanity floated upwards – stink from the herdbeasts, the smell of smoke and roasting meats and wafting incense, sweat and piss and beer – he felt Lycanth’s heart uptick with anticipation. The dragon was as friendly as Derek was withdrawn, tempering his misanthropic nature with a genuinely easygoing sociability. He liked crowds, shell it, and he was already enjoying the cries of awe and amazement that curled up from the crowd below.
Any chance of his high spirits being dampened by the promise of another tiresome Search in a hold with which relations were frigid, Lycanth’s gentle pleasure helped buoy him. Derek clung to their connection, letting the tight cinch of his riding harness anchor him in their descent and eventually graceful landing.
After a brief, shameless stretch of his towering figure, Lycanth lowered his neck to the ground as Derek unstrapped his riding leathers from the harness’ heavy iron rings. He then slid down the neck, landing easily on the paving stones with a thump of heavy boots. He righted himself, all too aware of the hundreds of eyes staring him down.
’Lycanth,’ he thought helplessly, all his practiced words dying in his throat.
’We’ve rehearsed this,’ the dragon thought, love and certainty washing into Derek. ’You are perfect.’
The harpers ended their tune as a single man – Holdmaster Chris, Derek guessed by the fine clothing and air of confidence hanging about him – strode to the center of the stair and bowed formally. He bowed first to Derek and then to Lycanth, a formal gesture that pleased the dragon greatly and Derek just a little bit.
“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.”
Derek smiled a rictus smile before realizing shamefacedly that his expression would still be hidden by his gear. He threw his hood back and pulled his lenses off entirely.
’Better not to smile,’ Lycanth teased. ’You might scare him.’
Before Derek could scold him for the poor timing of the jab, he felt the dragon’s attention dart away completely, focused on something across the courtyard. Still, the comfort of it was enough to loosen his fool tongue.
“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,” Derek said, projecting much as he did when speaking to his wing.
“Well then,” Chris clapped his hands together, looking surprisingly eager -- but then again, he had failed to host a single dragonrider in nearly a decade. Maybe his excitement was genuine. “Do me the honor of joining me inside?”
Derek nodded, but raised one hand simultaneously. “Before I do so, may I share the news of the Weyr with your hold?”
“By all mean.” Ah, there was a taste of what Derek had expected – Chris did not look pleased to have his invitation delayed.
The Hold deserved to know the news of the Search – Derek had no doubt most knew anyway, as Beacon Hold was dead last on his list and the riders had been searching for several sevendays. Even so, he raised his hands to his mouth, determined to share the joy of the clutch with all that would listen. “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.”
Lycanth’s triumphant bugle nearly drowned out the excited volume of the crowd.
Derek turned to face Chris again. “I, Derek Hale, humbly request your permission to search Beacon Hold for suitable candidates to stand on the sands.”
Chris nodded, expression tight, as the crowd began to jostle and teem with energy – some of it excited, some nervous, some angry. Lycanth nearly swayed with the force of their seething emotion, though some part of him still remained distant and distracted.
’You’ve found someone,’ Derek observed, struggled to keep his face neutral even as he faced Chris. To be a dragonrider was to master the art of holding two conversations at once.
’Two someones – many someones,’ the dragon corrected him, gently. ’This hold is ripe with those who might stand – far more than we have seen in the others.’
’No dragonrider has Searched here in eight turns,’ Derek reminded him, though he had been far too preoccupied with the politics of the visit to spare much thought for the hold’s candidate potential.’
Lycanth swung his massive head out over the crowd, prompting screams and shrieks that he ignored entirely. His gaze singled out a pair of teens, the woman petite and lovely with hair tumbling in masses of dark waves -- she had a bronze firelizard draped around her shoulders like a fancy stole. The young man a collection of sharp angles, unkempt hair, and spattered moles. Dark eyes met Derek's, brows quirking slightly as though daring him to speak.
’Perfect,’ Lycanth rumbled, pleasure and certainty surging through them both.
’Indeed, Derek agreed.
It was only when the dragon snorted at him that he realized their attentions differed – the dragon still sizing up the girl while Derek stared at her companion.
Lycanth continued. ’Her little bronze one tells me she is everything a dragon might want, and that she is the daughter of your Holdmaster.
“Really?” Derek asked aloud, unable to help glancing at the dragon in dismay. When Lycanth snorted at his dismay he rolled his eyes and moved in, forcing himself to study the girl rather than her eye-catching escort. “An Argent,” he muttered. “You had to pick an Argent.”
’Her name is of no concern to me,’ Lycanth said, sounding almost amused by this turn of events. ’Only her merit.’
'And the boy?' Derek asked silently, watching those dark, intelligent eyes flash between Allison and Lycanth.
'Kind, according to my little friend. Intelligent. He has the makings of a strong wing-rider, though he'll hardly Impress a Queen.'
Derek snorted, raising a hand.
The little firelizard ruffled his wings excitedly as Allison took a step forward. Before Derek could open his mouth to speak, however, her bright-eyed friend stepped back, reeling as though struck. His eyes went wide and wild, his expression pinching and then shuttering entirely. He turned and threw himself into the crowd, shoving and sliding between bodies until he vanished amongst the throng.
Derek’s good humor melted away for the first time in days, a wave of anger and frustration cooling his pleasant mood.
“Allison Argent,” he made himself say, angrily. This was no time to moon over some pretty-faced stranger – especially not one who in all likelihood was the Argent girl’s date. He tried fervently to focus the intensity of his disappointment into concentration on the hellish negotiations he’d certainly navigate if he hoped for Chris Argent’s permission to Search his only daughter. “I am Rider Hale, of Beacon Weyr. “Perhaps you might join your father and I once we have opened our negotiations.”
’Friendlier!’ Lycanth urged insistently. Derek considered trying to smile again but suspected it would send the wrong message -- the crowd was already parting quickly, a few suspicious stares trained on his smile.
Allison, at least, was not intimidated. That was good. As she neared Derek and Lycanth she pursed her pretty lips and raised one hand to calm the little bronze firelizard – who was only growing more excited at the close proximity of his massive gleaming cousin.
“If that is your wish,” Allison said politely, though her face was very pale. She was quick, then, to understand the gravity of his request.
“It is,” Derek inclined his head. Lycanth’s urges ringing in his ears made him offer her an arm, which she graciously accepted, allowing him to escort her back to her father.
The eyes of the audience felt much less important now that the strange brown-eyed boy was gone.
The sun was hung low over the courtyard walls when he finally emerged from the dim interior of the hold. His wing had identified ten potential candidates, though the Argent girl remained the only likely female. It should have been eleven candidates, but the brown-eyed boy standing next to Allison during the Gather hadn’t reappeared all afternoon.
Annoyance surged within Derek at the very thought of the missing young man. What kind of wherheaded child looked into the face of a dragon and ran away? It was an utter offense. The men and women of the Holds ought to line up for the opportunity to Impress, should be shattered with heartbreak if they were found lacking... to see a teenaged brat run from the noble creatures tasked with protecting them and all they held dear --
‘Derek,’ Lycanth prodded him. Up on the ridge he stood and stretched, wings translucent and enormous against the sky. He was supposedly supervising as Isaac and Erica ferried the chosen candidates and their small satchels of personal possessions back to Beacon Weyr, but Derek knew he’d just been sneaking a nap.
Lycanth had singled out the boy, which meant he was certainly of age. Derek recalled a face of high cheekbones and a slightly upturned nose, features devoid of the remnants of childhood pudge. He had been fit, tall, and reasonably dressed. He’d even worn a wineskin, which suggested he might be closer to Derek’s age than Allison’s.
He could have been a coward, or pretty yet simple – or he might he one of those misguided Holders who considered the weyrs dens of sin and inequity simply because they followed a different social structure...
'You’re brooding,’ Lycanth interrupted again, his tone suggesting it wasn’t the first time he’d attempted to drag Derek from his thoughts.
'So?’ Derek thought back, scowling. ‘He ran from you, Lycanth. From you.’
'I can be quite scary,’ the dragon groused, yawning. ’But nothing good comes of your black moods, and we have much to celebrate this sevenday. Ten candidates for one that refused to be Searched is nothing to be ashamed of.’
‘I am not ashamed -- Allison Argent will Impress the golden egg,’ Derek thought, determinedly. He hadn't gone through such rigorous and uncomfortable negotiations for nothing. ‘She is a strong candidate, raised for leadership, clearly willing to listen to her father’s counsel but capable of making her own choices. She and Laura would get on well.’
'Perhaps too well,’ Lycanth rumbled.
‘Perhaps,’ Derek agreed. He could feel the dragon hesitating, vague hints of worried emotion roiling about at the back of his mind and slowly coalescing into words.
’'She is well suited and yet… You do not want her.’
“What does that have to do with anything?” Derek answered aloud, momentarily forgetting himself. A few holders still milling amongst the gathering stalls moved to give him wide berth.
'If I had selected more wisely I would have chosen someone you preferred…’
Derek sighed. ‘You know I have no wish to rise in the ranks of the weyr. I’m Laura’s second and content to remain so indefinitely.’
’You would be happier with a weyrmate,’ the dragon said, simply. 'And you deserve the best possible match.'
“Hmph.” Derek sighed. There was no point attempting to hide anything from Lycanth when the creature could read his thoughts -- in fact, even the simple idea of keeping something from his dragon made his stomach churn. ‘You did select someone I found pleasing. The fact that it was not a goldrider candidate makes no difference.’
’Perhaps the brown-eyed boy might be brought to his senses,’ the dragon suggested, gently. ’Laura would understand if we stayed the night.’
‘That I will not do,’ Derek said, sharply. ‘Any reason he might have for running invalidates whatever merit you sense there. Cowardice does not a dragonrider make.’
’No,’ Lycanth agreed reluctantly. ’I suppose not.
“The word on the wing is that Derek did well at Beacon Hold,” she was saying, tone cajoling.
Laura for her part sounded unimpressed. “Naturally -- and yet, that changes nothing.”
“You have a full contingent of goldrider candidates, then,” Lydia continued, casual tone belying the seriousness of her comment.
“Derek was sent to nominally to Search, but more importantly to fulfill a diplomatic role that he was perfectly suited for. Any candidates Searched were an added bonus, one that I wasn’t counting on when charting up the numbers.”
Tired of hearing them speak of him, Derek chose that moment to press through the curtain of ceramic beads shielding the front chamber of Laura’s weyr from the hallway beyond. Laura and Lydia looked up, both nonplussed by his appearance.
“Derek,” Laura greeted, moving in and kissing him on the cheek. The hour was late enough that she was wearing her gauzy white sleeping garb, while Lydia wore a delicately woven silky shift, belted simply at the waist, and strappy, impractical sandals. A long golden pendent swung from her shoulders, falling to her breasts.
Lydia did not offer Derek a kiss, but did nod her greeting before launching into the most important matter at hand. She had never been fond of beating around the bush.
“People are saying that you Searched an Argent -- and a good one.”
“Are there any good ones?” Laura asked, voice dripping with skepticism. She gave Derek a long, searching look. “Brother, some days I have no idea what goes on in that head of yours.”
“There’s some hope for me yet, then,” Derek said with a snort.
Lydia was darkly amused by the exchange, dropping her elbow to her knee and cupping her chin in her hand. “Laura, whatever happened to forgive and forget? Derek’s bridged the divide between Weyr and Hold in a most cunning fashion.”
“I didn’t require cunning, I merely required diplomacy,” Laura grimaced. “Searching Chris Argent’s only daughter only complicates--”
“You sent me on a Search,” Derek growled, frustrated. “I Searched. Lycanth is certain she is the best the Hold had to offer, I would not ignore his judgement.”
In the back of his mind he could feel Lycanth rumble appreciatively at his faith.
“I didn’t need an Argent in the weyr,” Laura snapped. “She may be a suitable candidate, but where will her loyalties stand? If I wanted a junior weyrwoman I’d have to watch every second of every day I would have allowed Deucalion to transfer Kali and Clawth from Southern. At least then Lycanth might have flown the bloody gold and I could rely on you to temper her attitudes.”
Derek shuddered at the thought. “There are many reasons that idea was terrible.”
“If she can’t be trusted to put the weyr’s best interests first I imagine the dragonet will pass her over,” Lydia observed, already bored with the interrogation. “They will not Impress upon the unwilling. How else could I have stood seven times and yet never Impressed?”
Laura groaned. “Eighth time’s the charm?”
Lydia actually stamped her foot. “No!”
“You would make an incredible weyrwoman--”
“I have listed my reasons for you a thousand times over,” Lydia said with a roll of her eyes.
“I am a scientist, Laura. I came to this weyr to study your star-stones and take the final calculations I require. I am this close,” she held her hand up with her fingers a fraction of an inch apart, “this close to an algorithm that I believe will help us predict the patterns of threadfall based on atmospheric conditions and planetary rotation. That is far, far more important to the people of Pern than --”
“You could do both,” Laura insisted, urgently. “You have a gift, Lydia. You should use it.”
“I have many gifts -- I prefer those I have cultivated to those I was born with,” Lydia informed her matter-of-factly, folding her arms.
Derek watched her, curiousy. Lydia was a rarity amongst the Pernese -- some strange anomaly allowed her to hear and speak to every dragon she met. It was a talent every weyr longed to count amongst their ranks. “I can’t say I understand your priorities,” he admitted, though he had no real desire to see her as Laura's second. She was too sharp, too hard for the power of rank to suit her -- and Derek knew she was smart enough to know it.
“What, because I don’t wish to live my life tied to one place and one purpose?” Lydia asked, standing and flicking imaginary dust from the translucent bell-sleeves of her shift. “That must seem strange to you -- the pair of you have been sitting on top of your manifest destiny since birth. I would be miserable trapped in a role defined by a millennium of tradition -- ask any dragon if I am suitable -- they at least trust me to know my own heart.”
Flipping her long red hair over one shoulder, Lydia swept out of Laura’s weyr with finality.
“That went well,” Derek said, watching the dangling beaded curtain swish slowly to a stop. Beside him Laura dragged a hand through her hair, exasperated.
“She would be perfect,” Laura lamented, throwing herself across her bed. When she lay flat, staring at her ceiling he could just make out the still-small swell of her belly.
“Perfect is irrelevant if she’s unwilling,” Derek reminded her, thinking again of the brown-eyed boy.
“Willing as your Argent girl is willing?” Laura asked, testily.
“She’s here, isn’t she?” Derek said, casting his eyes skyward and seeking strength in the stones overhead. “You know I have no love for that family, but Allison’s a natural choice. I couldn’t pass up a Candidate like that -- strong family, raised for leadership, firm connections with many holds in the area....”
“It’s not that I doubt Lycanth’s senses. And I know the more candidates available, the better the odds for everyone,” Laura said, clearly were trying to convince herself of the wisdom in the words. “It’s just...an Argent. In Beacon Weyr.”
Derek joined her on the bed, propping himself up on one elbow and obnoxiously ruffling her hair back and forth. “If she stands and Impresses, you will have a capable goldrider as a junior weyrwoman and a new diplomat for all things related to Beacon Hold. If she stands and is overlooked, she will have spent six weeks learning the ways of the wear and will return home with a greater understanding of our ways than any Argent before her. How can it go wrong?”
Laura swatted at his hands, a small smile breaking through the worry writ large on her face. “Have you met Finstock?”
Finstock, the wiry brownrider weyrlingmaster Talia had appointed so many years ago had clearly spent the vast majority of the eight years between clutches thinking up appropriate exercises for the day he finally had candidates and weyrlings to oversee once again. In the first sevenday alone he had the entire pack of them out in the gravel attempting to throw hard leather balls at one another with long, awkward branches -- another day they were responsible for mucking out all of the herdbeast stalls, a task Derek knew normally fell to one of Finstock’s half-siblings in the lower caverns. Privately he suspected that Finstock had lost a bet.
As the date of the Hatching neared, however, the candidates’ excitement grew. One afternoon Derek’s wing flew in over the lip of the crater to find them enthusiastically washing dragons in the southern lake.
It was a ridiculous sight -- nearly a hundred candidates out in the hot summer sun, clustered around a handful of languidly lounging dragons.
Derek recognized Finstock’s stringy brown sprawled languidly in the lake alongside a handful of other, younger dragons -- creatures he recognized from the meagerly populated senior weyrling wing.
‘I could do with a bath,’ Lycanth observed, utter longing in his tone. ’They might need help learning to oil scales, too. Every dragonet needs proper oiling.’
‘Are you volunteering?’ Derek asked, his laugh torn from his mouth by the hot summer wind.
'It’s a public service,’ the dragon corrected smugly, angling down towards the lake.
Beacon Weyr had been clutchless for the last eight years, long enough that the presence of eggs on the sands was dramatic and exciting. The weyr felt alive, flush as an ancient hardwood crowned with baby green leaves. It inspired a playful sense of joy in Derek that he hadn’t felt in years -- new babies, new dragons, new faces. Lycanth found the mood contagious as well, forcing Derek to cling tightly to his neck as he landed in the lake itself, sending a wave of water rushing past the dragons and sweeping more than one candidate beneath the surface.
Derek watched them splutter and bob about, laughing uproariously at the sight.
The weyrling wing (lead by Finstock himself) was tiny, consisting only of young riders who had transferred to Beacon in the intervening years. Many of them were of an age with the candidates and already forming fast friendships with the newcomers.
Derek knew a few of their stories, but not many -- they were the bottom rung of rider society at present, relegated to simple tasks around the weyr and Finstock’s increasingly rigorous training programs. In another turn or two they would age into the ranks and be distributed amongst the wings according to need and ability. Derek needed to get to know them -- to better pick and choose when the time came to add to his own small contingent.
Derek slid off Lycanth’s back and into the shallows, sloshing towards the lakeshore with his pack over one shoulder.
The normally calm lakeshore resembled a kicked mound of ants as candidates swarmed the beach bearing buckets, brushes, and sweetsand. Some candidates appeared genuinely eager to interact with dragons up close and personally, though by Derek’s measure a good half of them were more concerned with splashing one another than learning proper scale-cleaning techniques. Finstock barked orders over the splashing and shouting, hands cupped around his mouth.
’Was I this bad as a candidate?’ Derek lamented, exhausted just watching the antics.
’So he’s a little rusty,’ Lycanth rumbled. ’He means well, and Lacroth keeps him in line well enough.
A few candidates grouped near the shore were giving Lycanth hopefull looks, so Derek waved them on. “Go on, he’s a big baby. Scratch him under the chin, he loves that.”
Derek moved along the lakeshore as Lycanth had his spines scrubbed. He scanned the faces for Allison, barely recognizing her with her wet hair plastered to her face and neck. She was standing quite close to bronze Geneth, allowing his dark-haired rider to show her just how he liked his hide scratched.
McCall had been an accidental candidate some years back -- his mother, Melissa, was a fine journeyman healer who had worked at a handful of weyrs. They’d been stationed at Fort when Scott was selected as a candidate and Impressed a handsome bronze.
The mother and son were close enough that she’d made his transfer from Fort a stipulation of her own move to Beacon… Derek could appreciate the family connection better than most.
The average weyrbrat was no closer to his parents than to any other rider; the tradition of turning your children over to be raised communally was as old as the weyr itself. Talia always said that the distance combatted favoritism -- for rank in the weyr was not based on lineage but on dragon color and earned rank -- but it also guaranteed that the weyr’s children would have support in the event of their birth parents being burned to death during threadfall.
Derek’s family had been closer than most, his mother leaving her door open to them even once they had been released to the care of the Headwoman, but such closeness was unusual. Despite that, any of Talia’s children who failed to Impress on the hatching sands would have likely left the weyr once they reached twenty or so years of age, as was typical for those passed over by dragonets.
Laura, Derek and Cora had all ultimately Impressed -- and two of the cousins on their father's side had as well. Propensity towards the life of a rider had never been proven to be genetic, but in their family's case a connection to bloodline seemed likely enough.
“If it isn’t my very favorite nephew,” a voice oozed from just to his left.
Derek startled -- speaking of bloodlines. His jumpiness simply left his uncle smiling his most pale, unnerving smile.
“You’re up early,” Derek observed. His wet boots squished against the stones as he shifted, uncomfortable in such close proximity to Peter's grim countenance. “I can’t remember the last time I saw you out and about in the daylight hours.”
“Hard to have a proper nap with this kind of carrying on outside your window,” Peter observed, sliding his eyes away from Derek and giving the lake a thoughtful look.
Peter was every weyrman’s worst nightmare. He was a dragonless rider, half a person, half a man. The death of one’s dragon was akin to the death of the soul -- most riders who survived would end their lives one way or another rather than continue on as a broken shadow of their former selves -- but Peter had never been like most men.
Having somehow survived the emotional devastation that was losing half of his mind, Peter’s face and torso bore outward reminders of his experience in the form of weblike white scars. They gave even his friendliest expressions a cynical, discomfiting appearance.
As uncommon as it was for half of a pair to die without taking the other half with them, most riders who lost their dragons found the mere presence of the creatures overwhelming. Peter, somehow, seemed to find a sort of comfort in their proximity. He stared at Lycanth like a dying man might stare at a water skin after half a year in the deserts of Ista.
The sheer naked desire made Derek want to step between Peter and the bronze, remind him that Lycanth was not his for the taking. He wondered, not for the first time, if it wouldn’t be best to send the man away for good, despite their familiar connection.
“Not a bad crop, this,” Peter said, eyes roving over the young, half-dressed candidates in the lake.
Derek pursed his lips. “There are a few strong candidates ... and a few that I believe Lycanth would have passed over, but… there are enough.”
“I assume Lydia has refused to stand,” Peter asked, arching his one extant eyebrow.
“She and Laura had words over it again -- I haven’t heard differently. I can’t imagine her mucking out the stables, though,” Derek admitted with a slight smile. Chris Argent would have Finstock strung up by his toes over that one.
Peter inclined his head thoughtfully, unsurprised by the answer. Without a formal role in the weyr Peter was essentially a charity case -- albeit one who spent most of his time loitering around the tavern. Lydia enlisted him from time to time when her heavy equipment needed hauling and there were no riders available for the job.
(Derek suspected she did it just for the fun of watching Peter struggling up the steps to the star-stones with full hands -- but it likely did the man good. Finstock would have called it “character building”.)
Peter took his pause as permission to turn the conversation sideways. “Laura informed me that she is with child.”
Derek felt his stupid grin break out again. “She is,” he said, cheerfully. “Melissa says all is going well, though she refused to let me take Laura down to the seaside and have the dolphins tell us more.”
“I can’t imagine Laura letting dolphins sing at her stomach,” Peter said with a snort. “But then, I never thought of Laura as the mothering type at all.” He scratched thoughtfully at the ridge of scarring below his chin. Before Derek could leap to her defense, Peter raised a hand. “In fairness, she grows more and more like Talia with every passing day. She’ll do well enough.”
Derek agreed -- it startled him, at times, how much of Talia lived on in her eldest daughter.
Laura would be a strong mother, though as per the Weyr’s rules her role in its upbringing would be minimal. Laura would only have the child onhand for a matter of weeks before it was handed off to a wetnurse in the lower caverns and raised as one of the pack of weyrbrats constantly underfoot.
Besides, the child would have Derek… and Peter, though that might not be such a great thing. He glanced over at his uncle to find Peter’s eyes tracking the figure of a dripping, pale boy. The teen threw his arms around another’s shoulders, and they tussled and shouted until one went under with a splash and a curse. “We are long overdue for new blood,” Peter said, thoughtfully.
“Have you considered settling down?” Derek asked abruptly, skin crawling at the degree of Peter’s interest. “Taking up a trade, perhaps a craft... ”
Preferably one far, far from the Weyr.
“I’d make a fine vinter,” Peter snorted, hand falling to the small skin at his waist. He pulled its tethers free and brought it to his mouth to take a long pull before offering his Derek a sip.
Derek lifted a hand and waved the skin away. “You’d never make a halfmark with the way you drink,” he half-teased. It was impossible to completely conceal the critical edge to his words.
“Mm,” Peter said, not disagreeing. “I do enjoy my vices.”
“Don’t we all,” Derek muttered. But then, who could deny the man a drink after what he’d been through?
A short ways across the lake, McCall had taken Allison Argent’s hand and was gently teaching her how to rub along Geneth's spines. Derek felt a surge of protective annoyance rise within him -- he had only known the girl for a few weeks, but she was Cora’s age and had no business getting tangled up in a whirlwind romance before the Hatching.
Allison giggled and Scott settled a damp hand at her waist.
Derek knelt swiftly, unlacing his damp boots and hauling his tunic over his head before heading into the water to break up the little party of two.
“I was concerned,” Derek said, piously. “The mating habits of dragons are shrouded in mystery and rumor. It’s only fair that hold-born candidates understand the immutable facts of relationships in the weyr before committing to candidacy.”
“But -- by his mother?!”
Derek sipped smugly from his tankard. “Who better than the weyr’s finest healer? If it’s good enough for the weyrbrats...”
“That’s… traumatizing.” Boyd shook his head.
“No,” Derek countered, feeling quite generous. “If I’d wanted to traumatize them I’d have had Finstock do it.”
“Scott’s gonna be so pissed with you,” Isaac groaned, dropping his face into one palm. “He’s been trying to ‘just bump into’ Allison for days.”
“Scott needs to focus on weyrling drills and not seducing our prime candidate,” Derek said, primly, and ordered another round of drinks.
As skin-crawling as the sentiment had been on Peter’s lips, Derek had to admit that he had been right -- the weyr needed new blood. They had been isolated and underestimated for years due to their single gold dragon and a lack of clutches. The infusion of journeymen, crafters, and traders passing through for the Hatching festivities did nothing but strengthen and rally the weyr’s residents.
Derek took to checking in on the candidates once or twice a day. Melissa’s talk about draconic mating flights seemed to have tempered the blossoming romance between Allison and Scott, though more than once Derek had spotted them sharing a table in the lower caverns, laughing and talking with plenty of space between their bodies.
Less satisfying was the way he caught Peter lingering near the group again and again, until Derek could stand it no longer. He drew Peter aside by the shoulder and warned him off on pain of Laura.
After all, the vast majority of those candidates would return to their birthholds without Impressing -- Derek was determined that they would go on their way without horror stories about his creepy uncle.
While Derek’s spirits continued to rise, Laura’s were tempered by persistently sour stomachs, food cravings, and a body that seemed incapable of cooling itself in the heat of summer. Derek and Jordan were often sent criss-crossing the weyr in search of just the right fruit, the perfect draught, the precise cut of meat. It was much easier for Laura to send her minions to do her bidding than to navigate the spiraling staircases with her shifting center of gravity.
Thus it was that on a late summer day, when the eggs were rumbling with near-life on the sands and the sun was boiling outside that Derek and Erica each nursed a glass of cool sweetwine while the sweaty barkeep hunted down the weyr’s last jar of Laura’s favorite fleshy, out-of-season pickled olives.
“If Jared is out are you going all the way to Southern to restock?” Erica asked, grinning at him over the curve of her mug. It was early to be drinking, but they were both sweaty and sore from a morning running wing-drills and Derek reckoned he deserved the break.
He swallowed his mouthful of wine and shrugged. “There might be a few left at Fort…”
“By Faranth! You would! You’re utterly spoiling her.”
Derek felt the tips of his ears turn red. “It’s not…”
“Not for her.” He went in for another gulp of wine just for an excuse to tear his eyes away from Erica’s knowing expression.
“Oh,” Erica said, softly. “The kiddo, huh.”
The first Hale born in years. The kid that might or might not be named after Derek’s mother.
“Give me a break, Reyes,” Derek muttered. “Did you ever think Laura’d go for pregnancy?”
“Not really,” Erica admitted, snorting at the very thought.
“And can you imagine her going for round two after how hot this summer has been?”
“I see your point.”
Derek was making the most of it.
They ordered a second round as half of another wing filtered in, sweaty and grinning, and soon Erica was lured into a game of cards by the promise of free drinks to the winner. Derek declined but watched them with satisfaction, noticing his own unnaturally good mood reflected in their expressions.
The proximity of the hatching meant the festive atmosphere was catching. He was surprised Peter wasn’t anywhere to be seen, but then, it was probably better this way.
When the barkeep’s apprentice turned up a candlemark later with three whole jars of olives Derek tipped him too-generously, slung the bag over his shoulder, and waved his goodbyes to Erica.
He was halfway to the door when he caught Peter’s voice drifting on the breeze and saw his uncle step into the tavern’s cool interior, a lanky boy on his arm.
“Those men who Impress dragons, who fight Thread – they’re a breed all of their own,” Peter was saying, face turned conspiratorially towards the teen. “Perhaps you could convince one that you have the makings of a proper candidate. Then you could stand beside your friend, Impress in your own right rather than watching others seize the glory of—“
Derek bowed up, scarcely feeling Lycanth’s rumble of displeasure as a wave of bitter unhappiness washed away his pleasant mood. This, again. Peter, again, with a lanky boy easily half his age, public and shameless and -- he grit his teeth. “What. Is this.”
“Derek,” Peter said, sweetly, as though Derek hadn’t just had this conversation with him. “This is Stiles, a visitor from Beacon Hold. We were just about to—”
’Stiles,’ Lycanth murmured thoughtfully.
“I can guess at your intentions,” Derek snapped quickly, not wanting to hear more. “We've spoken on this, Peter.”
Peter didn’t even attempt to look contrite.
Derek kept his uncle pinned with a glare, nearly snarling as Peter actually rolled his eyes. “What did he offer you, boy?”
“What?” the kid repeated, brows arching.
“Money? A flit or two? My uncle does so love promising that which is not his to give,” Derek added, snidely.
“Conversation!” he answered bluntly, stance daring Derek to contradict him.
Something about the tilt of his chin made Derek glance his way, and--
Derek recognized that face even here, miles away from anywhere it had any right to appear. Dark hair and constellations of freckles and wide brown eyes, pupils dilated in the dim glowlight. Arms folded across his chest and body canted away from Peter, uncomfortable with the proprietary closeness his uncle was so good at exuding.
Derek had a mad flash of inspiration, thought about stepping in to take him by the arm and draw him away, thought about dragging him back to his quarters for a lecture or into the bar for a drink, but -- No. This kid wasn’t his problem.
He was just a kid, a child who fled when dragons and destiny came knocking.
'Stiles,’ Lycanth corrected him. ’His name is Stiles.’
'No one asked you,’ Derek thought back, irritated. Then he realized he’d been staring at the kid and swallowed another wave of embarassment. Stiles was giving him an odd look, now. Did he remember Derek?
All he managed was three short words, his ears heating up again. “You look familiar.”
“I’m of Beacon hold – I arrived this morning with the tithing train.” Curse it, even his voice was pleasant. Derek could feel Peter studying him thoughtfully and tensed all over under the unwanted scrutiny.
He had to say something else. He could. “Perhaps…”
'Tell him he can still stand,’ Lycanth interrupted, eagerly. ’He could still stand. He can’t have come all this way by accident.
‘I can’t just…’
’Laura would let him! You know she would. He’d be a good rider, I can feel it. I felt it then and I feel it now.
Derek took a steadying breath, reaching deep within himself for the proper words. “Lycanth tells me—“
Just then the candlemark bell sounded somewhere in the great basin of the weyr, echoing across the stony surfaces.
Stiles jerked at the sound of it, taking a quick step away from both Derek and his uncle. “Ah, the time! I’m afraid that duty calls,” he said quickly, glancing away from Derek to flash Peter a smirk, one just smug enough to make Derek’s chest twinge with jealousy. “A measly little holder can’t spend all of his time gallivanting about the Weyr when there’s work enough to be done.”
Stiles turned on one foot and hurried through the tavern door before Derek could even open his mouth again.
“Hate to see you leave, love to watch you go,” Peter called after him.
Derek punched his shoulder, hard, but found the act extremely unsatisfying. He trailed towards the door as though drawn on a leash, but Stiles was sprinting full-tilt towards the hustle and bustle of the stables.
“You know him,” Peter said, rubbing at his shoulder as he favored Derek with a thoughtful look.
“He’s one of Allison’s friends,” Derek muttered, folding his arms over his chest. “We tried to Search him, but he refused.”
“He seemed eager enough today,” Peter leered, and Derek shoved past him much harder than necessary as he stalked out of the tavern.
He couldn’t help glancing back towards the stables -- but Stiles was gone.
Even dropping the three jars of olives into Laura’s ecstatic, outstretched hands didn’t cheer him up.
Though he’d spent half the night pacing his weyr and cursing his uncle, the sound of the draconic hum set his nerves alight.
Throwing off his thin blanket Derek ran nude and grinning in the dark to where his most formal gear lay neatly pressed across a trunk. He shimmied into his leathers, laced his boots, and pinned the three-spiralled knot that signaled his wing and rank to his left shoulder.
It was simply impossible to be depressed on a Hatching day -- and really, why should he be depressed? This was the day they’d spent eight years waiting for. Beacon Weyr was about to hatch a second gold, they would no longer be a dying branch of the Pernese weyrs, but a strong, fruited tree in their own right.
Laura’s authority was solidified, there would be new blood in the wings just in time for thread to return -- all was as it should be.
He and Lycanth had a job to do.
’So dramatic,’ Lycanth huffed at him from the enormous, sandy-bottomed cavern that made up his half of their living quarters. Despite his grumbles, when Derek burst through the doorway he was already sticking his massive neck out, shifting impatiently with excitement. They’d need the passenger gear, which was heavier than Derek’s usual light tack, if they were going to carry more than two guests at once.
“As though you’re not every inch as excited as I,” Derek laughed, pressing his face to the warm bronze hide. Safe in the dark, warm weyr with Lycanth he felt capable of facing down anything -- even the prospect of Chris Argent’s face when Allison impressed, even Stiles’ eyes and Peter’s smug, knowing looks.
It took Derek a bit longer than usual to secure the oversized seat and drape the rails with the festive colored livery of the weyr. Lycanth’s body was wonderfully warm and trembling ever so slightly with the thrumming of his hum.
The day promised, even in the pre-dawn half-light, to be scorchingly hot -- and the Hatching feast would be more of a breakfast than a dinner, but those problems were not Derek’s to solve. His duty was simple -- he would fly to Beacon Hold, collect Chris Argent, and ferry him to the hatching.
Where, hopefully, he would watch the greatest moment of his daughter’s life.
“Tell Aconith to tell Laura --”
'Already done,’ Lycanth told him, smugly.
“Then let’s fly,” Derek said, slinging his thigh over the ridge of the dragon’s back and sliding his riding goggles over his eyes.
Lycanth launched himself from their sleeping cavern in a sleek ripple of muscle and sinew. Derek luxuriated in the exhilarating sensation of their fall until Lycanth’s wings snapped out and they swept into a steep glide.
Derek let himself whoop excitedly. The bronze -- great bloody showoff that he was -- rolled his lithe body sideways once, twice, three times before Derek gave him the command to go between.
Beacon Hold was close enough to the weyr that Derek barely had time to count to three in the deep, dark blackness. When they re-emerged into the light they were hanging in midair over Beacon Hold. Next to the frenetic motion of the Weyr preparing for the day’s festivities Beacon Hold felt silent as the grave and almost eerily motionless. Derek squinted down at the walls.
’A guardsman spotted us,’ Lycanth told him.
‘Let’s hope they’re quick with the news...’
Derek allowed Lycanth two lazy loops over the Hold, buying time for Chris to ready himself. Sure enough, when they swept in for a landing there was a small knot of people standing at the great iron doors of the hold, all in various states of sleep deprivation.
Chris stepped forwards, a familiar-looking firelizard coiled around his shoulders. “Holdmaster,” Derek said in greeting. “I see that your invitation found its way.”
“Allison’s little monster, in its excitement, chose to alert me to the imminent event by landing on my face,” Chris grumbled. If the grip on his mug of klah was any indication, he was clearly not a morning person. The firelizard at his throat was absolutely trembling with glee, adding a shrill note to the deep thrumming hum emanating from Lycanth’s chest. “I will be glad when this is over.”
“It will be a memorable day no matter how it ends,” The guardcaptain said, thwacking Chris on the arm. “Let’s enjoy it.”
Derek studied the small group and then directed his attention back to Chris. “Lycanth’s tack will allow us to transport you two at a time,” he said carefully, not wanting to cause offense.
Chris merely waved a hand. “Come back for them,” he ordered dismissively, with the air of a man used to being obeyed. Derek forced down his irritation at the order by looking at the anxious faces of the others -- they were likely the parents of other candidates, just as invested as Chris in the outcome of the day.
Chris downed the remainder of his klah and thrust the mug into a pair of outstretched hands
“We’ll return shortly, please be prepared for departure,” Derek told the rest of the crowd before turning back to Lycanth without a glance to spare for Chris. “Come, then. Dragonets wait for no man -- or woman.”
The holders’ necks craned as they approached, staring up at the dragon’s impressive stature -- even after all these years, Derek still felt a note of pride at the general awe Lycanth’s lithe figure induced. Unfortunately, Lycanth noticed it as well and set about stretching out his wings just for show.
As if his ego needed any more inflation...
Derek slid two fingers under the girth strap, giving it a tug to test its soundness. Surprisingly fit for his age, Chris clambered up Lycanth’s back with a grunt and settled in on the cushioned perch behind Derek. The guardcaptain, however, hesitated on the ground.
“He won’t shake you off, and there are belts in the back if that would leave you feeling more secure,” Derek offered, suppressing the urge to just shove the man at the harness. He needed to be back at the weyr -- there was much to do, others who would need transport -- for all he knew the eggs could be cracking at this very moment.
“I’m sure it’s perfectly safe. It just feels rude to climb all over someone without making introductions. You said his name was …”
“Can I touch him?”
'Tell him he’ll need to buy me a drink first,’ the dragon said, wryly.
Derek had no idea where he came up with this stuff.
“He says yes.”
The guardcaptain reached out hesitantly and ran his hand along the scales next to the harness much in the way one would stroke a runnerbeast. “It’s nice to meet you, Lycanth. I’m John. Thank you for your services this morning.”
Lycanth curled his massive head around, amused, and huffed a breath of hot air over their bodies.
“That’s as close as he gets to ‘you’re welcome’,” Derek admitted.
“Fair enough,” John said, settling his right foot into the stirrup-like strap at the base of the harness. “Listen, son. I realize this is a long shot, but -- has Beacon’s herdbeast tithe arrived at the weyr?”
“I hope so, given how many mouths we have to feed,” Derek deadpanned.
The man’s face fell. “My son is traveling with them. He’ll be … very upset if he misses the hatching, he and Allison are--”
“John,” Chris called down, scowling over the edge of the harness at them. “That boy never does anything by halves, he’ll be there. Now let’s get this show on the road -- the sooner we reach the weyr, the sooner I can have my second cup of klah and get this over with.”
John rolled his eyes at the holdmaster, apparently used to such brusque treatment, and obeyed.
Lycanth’s head tilted inquisitively at Derek and leaned faintly to counterbalance John’s weight against his left side. The big man hauled himself up into the seats above without any help from Derek. ’His son?’
‘Not now,’ Derek thought desperately, trying not to think about Stiles. Whose name he knew, whose name had been circling his head since he’d first heard it. ‘No distractions, Lycanth. Please.’
He was answered with a wave of agreement/acceptance and just and tinge of sadness.
Not three minutes later they were spiraling up over the hold and winking into the space between.
Even so, they had every right to watch their family members stand, and Derek appreciated the fact that they cared enough to brave the unknown to be there.
Derek escorted the group into the Hatching cavern, feeling the pitch and intensity of the hum grow as they neared the massive cave. He waved them up the steps to the lower tiers of stone benches and caught sight of Lydia’s bright red hair amidst the candidates packed along the edge of the sands.
For a moment he thought she was there to stand herself -- but no. She was wearing a formal gown rather than the plain white shift of the candidates, her hair tied into a long plait instead of loose and free. What’s more, she was clearly urging Allison onto the stands, the dark haired girl’s face an odd mixture of reluctance and ... fear?
There was a knot of candidates and unkempt kitchen drudges between Allison and the stands, and that was simply unacceptable.
Derek was on his way over before he could stop himself. Allison had to stand. She was to be their next goldrider. He’d never felt so certain of anything in his life.
“If you are uncertain,” Lydia was saying, hands on her hips. The words were gently scolding, something only Lydia seemed able to pull off.
Allison seemed to steel herself. “No, no. I will stand. If she is meant to be mine, she is meant to be mine.”
Derek slowed, relief flooding through him, until the drudge next to Allison let out a cheerful whoop and shard it, Derek would recognize that voice anywhere.
The familiar annoyance from the evening before flooding back through Derek. He adjusted his trajectory slightly, reaching out to drop a hand on the back of Stiles’ collar and haul him roughly backwards. Derek had no doubt that this was the son Guardscaptain John had inquired about, and given that he was neither a candidate nor an invited guest he had absolutely no business on the sacred sands of the Hatching cavern.
“I’ve got this,” he informed Lydia, whose brows shot skywards at his broody expression. He couldn’t have her just standing there, staring. “Assemble the healers, Faranth knows some of this lot’s going to need them.”
He gave Stiles a little shake of emphasis and the teen let out a yelp, gangly arms flailing.
Stiles twisted to look up at Derek, face going a little slack at the sight of Derek’s irritated scowl. “You’re my uncle’s boy,” Derek observed, as though he didn’t know exactly who Stiles was.
“I’m not your Uncle’s anything,” Stiles snapped back, equally irritated. “I came to watch Allison Impress.”
Derek knew he should let go, knew Stiles’ father could very well be watching them from the spectator stands, knew there were a thousand things he should be doing at this moment that weren’t bullying a teenager present only to support a friend, but he couldn’t make his fingers uncurl from the kid’s collar.
“You’re a trespasser on these sands. I should have Lycanth rip your throat out,” Hale growled. “With his teeth.”
’Ew,’ Lycanth grumbled. ’He’d be all gamey.’
“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. Derek’s eyes snapped away from the kid and out towards the sands, heart twinging at the sight of the dragonet’s wet-soft clawas struggling with the shell. He barely noticed when Stiles twisted away and stood, chin tilting up in a defiant manner that was rapidly becoming familiar.
“Do with me what you will,” the kid demanded, as though he were in any place to make demands. “But wait until I’ve seen Allison stand.”
’Derek, it is a Hatching. Leave him be. No coward would come all this way for a friend.’
It was impossible to argue with Lycanth’s gentle certainty.
“Very well,” Derek managed. “But you must take to the stands -- it’s not safe for you here. The hatchlings are all tooth and claw before they Impress.”
He turned towards the stand and then froze. Scott McCall, of all bloody riders, stepped up to Stiles and flashed Derek an unpleasantly toothy grin.
“You done pissing all over your territory, sir?”
Did Scott know Stiles? Derek’s eyebrows furrowed. “Friend of yours, McCall?”
“A friend of Allison’s, which really should be enough,” Scott grouched, though even as he said her name his eyes glanced out towards the sands where she would, at this very moment, be facing down her destiny. “C’mon, Hale. Don’t make this a big deal.”
They glared at one another, though the staring match was quickly broken by a shocked gasp from the crowd. Derek knew the first little brown dragonet had finally broke free of his shell and spilled forth into the world -- he was about to choose his human companion and change forever the course of two lives.
Suddenly Stiles’ presence seemed -- almost pleasant. Like this was something they might share, even if he would be leaving that afternoon and likely never setting foot in the weyr again.
Derek pressed a firm hand to Stiles’ shoulder. “I’ll deal with you once the Hatching has finished,” he said quietly, unwilling to move away.
“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 -- a smile that annoyed Derek simply by virtue of its casual familiarity. “Don’t worry, Rider Hale’s bark is worse than his bite.”
Stiles smiled weakly and let Derek move him towards the stands.
As they reached the onlooking crowd Derek paused to watch the little brown press its face into the arms of a straw-haired boy, smiling to himself.
’A weyrbrat,’ Lycanth offered, recognizing the teen. That was a good sign, Derek thought. There wasn’t a weyrbrat alive who wanted anything but a dragon of their own, and they took quickly and neatly to life in the wings.
He hustled Stiles along the steps until they were safely amongst the onlookers, by which point Derek’s attention was entirely consumed by the hatching. He counted the emerging flashes of color, heart swelling with pride in Aconith as not one, not two, but three bronzes appeared amongst the first seven eggs. Strong numbers -- especially for a first clutch.
Aconith was clearly proud as well -- she tilted her head back and roared out her joy with volume enough to momentarily drown out the cheering of the crowd.
There were flashes of red here and there amongst the sands, too, sharp and bright on the white candidates’ robes -- those who were overeager or just plain unlucky falling beneath the claws and tails of awkward, stumbling dragons. Derek could feel, beneath the current of his own pity, the tense way Lycanth reacted to the sight of dragons spilling human blood. It was a startlingly, violent act amongst moments of pure beauty, jarring and visceral.
The healers were there, of course. Derek watched Melissa dash over and kneel at the side of a downed candidate, feeling a sense of profound relief.
’The queen,’ Lycanth intoned, drawing Derek’s eyes up and away.
He felt the deep, reverberating crack of the shattering golden egg deep within himself. The crowd let out a swell of sound, one that Derek’s voice joined unconsciously, pride and pleasure and awe coursing between his own mind and Lycanth’s. A dragon queen was a powerful creature, and every particle of Derek’s body wanted to bow, to cry, to welcome her into the world.
The little gold was healthy at first glance, forearms strong though just as uncoordinated as her brothers’ and sisters’. Derek held his breath as she began knocking the shell away piece by piece, her mother’s broad, triangular head weaving back and forth over the scene.
Two of the more enterprising candidates stepped in to help, making Derek’s hands tighten into fists. Finstock must have told them that was how candidates got hurt -- the dragons knew, the moment they emerged. No amount of pleading or cajoling or assistance would change their minds.
Sure enough, the creature ignored them utterly.
Derek forced himself to inhale as a hush fell over the crowd.
When the dragonet found her feet at last, she straightened and inhaled, chest puffing determinedly as she faced the humans before her. Intent, 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 that echoed in the silent chamber despite its soft timber.
Derek felt a broad grin split his face.
Allison’s dazed expression instantly shifted from a look of stunned uncertainty to one of utter love, disbelief, and sheer joy. Derek remembered in a rush of sense-memory the pure pleasure of that moment, of first contact, the way the connection of minds enhanced and opened parts of his mind he had never used before. It had felt like being born again with a second pair of eyes, a second set of senses, into a world where loneliness and silence would never be his burdens to bear.
His eyes prickled with tears and he felt Lycanth’s wordless assurance shore him up -- he was remembering, too. 'You were like a light. I could feel you, before I knew what light was, and each piece of shell I tore away, I tore away to be closer to you.'
Derek tipped his head up to where he sensed the bronze dragon perched in the upper cavern, heart swelling with affection.
'I have never regretted my choice.'
Allison met the dragonet and fell to her knees, sliding a hand down the golden neck and burying her face against damp scales. That was it, then -- she was no longer just an Argent, but a de-facto junior weyrwoman, second in command of Beacon Weyr, youngest goldrider on Pern.
Beside Derek, Stiles exploded in a whirl of cheering, outstretched limbs and noisy exclamations of glee. “YES!” He shouted, stamping his feet and suddenly, inexplicably throwing his long, lean arms around Derek. He squeezed Derek tight and Derek couldn’t even bring himself to care, just pressed his face into Stiles’ hair and felt the huff of his breath in his ear as the exuberant teen continued on, too-loud. “I knew it! I knew it, I knew you could do it! Allison!! Allison!”
“She did it,” Derek’s heart was pounding with excitement, beaming at Stiles. When Stiles -- suddenly realizing where his body was-- dropped his hands, Derek only grinned at him in a daze and then tipped his face upwards towards Lycanth again, already preening with smugness. “Lycanth, you son of a watchwher! We’ll never get out of another Searching, now!”
’My taste in humans has always been impeccable,’ Lycanth gloated, stretching his wings and rumbling in approval at the birth of the new Queen.
The Hatching wasn’t over -- there were still five, maybe six eggs still emerging and even one or two dragons still traipsing across the sands, looking from huddle of candidates to huddle of candidates for the perfect human partner. Derek watched Allison and the golden dragonet pick their way through the sands, nodding approvingly as the dragonet’s wing snagged on a shard of broken shell and Allison stopped to untangle it with gentle, patient hands. He spotted Scott next to the secondary chamber where the dragonets would be fed and oiled and laughed outloud at the expression of ecstatic glee on his face.
Derek might have to rethink standing between those two -- a weyrling and a candidate was one thing, but a bronze and goldrider had potential, and a strong match could only strengthen the weyr.
Besides, Allison now officially outranked him.
Next to Derek Stiles drew away, scanning the crowd around them, and then suddenly jerked and doubled over as though he’d received an invisible punch, face contorting, one hand flying out to brace himself on the stone wall lining the stands.
“Stiles?” Derek asked, moving quickly into his space.
Even as Derek reached for him, Stiles staggered to his feet and stared vacantly out at the sands, mouth slack and stunned. Then, all at once, he threw himself into Derek with the strength of a man possessed.
Derek’s breath gasped out of him and he grabbed at Stiles’ shoulders, wrestling with the teen for a long moment. “Where in Faranth’s name do you think you’re--”
“Let me go,” Stiles hissed, twisting away from Derek with a frenetic strength that belied his scrawny frame. “She’s waiting, she needs me, she--”
“She--?” Derek grunted, catching an elbow to the sternum. He closed his hand firmly on the kid’s satchel. “What do you--”
Stiles growled at him, shimmied sideways and dashed towards the stairs, leaving Derek with a heavy backpack and a sudden, dawning realization.
Lycanth, shard him, was laughing in his ears.
Derek turned towards the sands and watched Stiles fall in love.
He remembered the first moment Lycanth’s mind had touched his, remembered the nights afters his parents’ death when Lycanth’s gentle prodding was all that made him get out of bed.
Derek had watched Lycanth’s claws first punch through the semi-translucent eggshell, and inhaled alongside Lycanth’s then-tiny lungs as they took their first breath of clean winter air. He’d staggered forward, grinning madly, and thrust his hands into the gap in the shell, tearing away the fragile barrier between them, feeling Lycanth press his damp egg-tooth into his palm, ecstatic at the touch.
’It was a good day,’ Lycanth said simply, a wave of pure adoration emanating from his mind.
Derek thought of his mother’s face, tear-streaked and pleased in the stands overhead as she’d met his eyes over the curve of Lycanth’s neck, and for once the memory brought him no pain.
“Today’s a good day, too,” he admitted, lifting his eyes to scan the crowd for Laura.
The moment shattered.
In one breath Derek was clutching the satchel to his chest, awash in nostalgia and hope as Stiles led a gorgeous teal-and-green dragonet from the sands; the next he was knocking people left and right as he struggled through the crowd. Chris Argent was stalking rigidly towards Laura, one hand clenched at his side, his face a roiling mixture of emotion.
Overhead he heard Lycanth rumbling, a note of discontent in a sea of happy chords.
It was not unusual for the tension and drama of a hatching -- especially one with unexpected amounts of audience participation -- to rub off on the audience. Tempers were high, disappointment rife, and anything from fistfights to semi public trysts was a possibility. Whatever Chris had to say to Laura, Derek would be there for it.
He caught up with Argent just as John did, and thank Faranth for that. John was much gentler than Derek would have been, insinuating himself between Chris and the weyrleaders and clasping a hand to his shoulder.
“Let me pass, John, this is --”
Derek pulled up short, slinging the bag over his shoulder and letting his hands clench and unclench at his sides.
“Chris, we talked about this,” John said, voice calm and even though his own face was flushed red, sweat trickling down his brow.
“This is absurd. They show up, take seven of our young people--”
“It’s an honor to have seven riders from Beacon Hold,” John said, sounding sincere despite the unexpected turn his day had taken. “Seven riders who won’t let the weyr abandon your holdings when thread returns --” The guardcaptain dropped his voice, so low that Derek could barely make it out. “Chris, this guarantees the safety of Beacon. It’s not ideal, but they’ll just be a dragonride away.”
Something in Derek loosened at those words, at the look on John’s face. He supposed that holders must anticipate a lifetime of growing old together -- and given how long it had been since Beacon Holders were searched, Chris couldn’t have anticipated his only child being selected. The natural emotions of a parent underscored by the tense excitement of three hundred plus psychic, empathetic dragons, for a man unused to parsing his emotions from those of that were not his own...
Derek stepped into their line of sight, though neither man appeared particularly happy to see him.
Weyrborn children who were deemed likely candidates were often shuffled from weyr to weyr when eggs stood, just like his own cousins had been. Distance was no matter for the dragons, who could travel for hundreds of miles in the space a man’s breath. Impression, and all that came with it, was the ultimate ambition for children of the weyr.
“Sir,” Derek said, as politely as he could. “It was never my intention to divide your family, only -- only to give Allison the opportunity to--”
Chris’ face was flushed, making his blue eyes look pale and watery. There was a bit of Peter in those eyes, a shade of the loss and pain his uncle wore so permanently.
“She’s my only daughter,” he said, looking away.
Derek knew that. He also knew that Chris had lost his wife.
’Tell him what it’s like,’ Lycanth prodded him gently.
“I -- I cannot explain what it feels like, to match minds with a dragon. But Allison will never be alone,” Derek said, awkwardly. “Never be lonely again.”
“Alone,” Chris scoffed, running a hand through his close-cropped hair.
Shells, Laura was so much better at finding soft, sympathetic words -- but Laura was on the raised dais, formally greeting and thanking the most important guests for their attendance despite the early hour.
Derek licked his lips and tried again. “Thread will rain across Pern but she will never be without protection. Walls will never contain her. From today until the moment she dies she will know the constant warmth and companionship of a creature who knows and loves her completely.” He swallowed, throat tight. “This is a gift nothing could match.”
Chris turned away from Derek, glaring at Aconith’s enormous form where she stretched and nosed at the eggshells and bloodied sands. She huffed, every inch of her great form pleased and satisfied, and unfurled her wings, head swiveling towards the three of them.
And then she spoke to Chris.
Though Derek could not here he saw the sudden shock of it, the way Chris’ body clenched and his eyes widened, one hand flying to his temple as though he thought he might be imagining things.
John’s expression pinched further. “Chris? What’s…?”
“Aconith,” Derek said, simply. Laura’s gold had only spoken to him a handful of times in his life -- usually only when Laura was hurt or ill, once when Peter’s bronze had gone permanently between.
The Guardscaptain looked over at the dragon, expression uncertain. Chris took two steps forward until he could brace his hands on the stone wall and continued his silent conversation.
“I feel as though I should apologize for my son,” John said grimly, turning to face Derek and give Chris some semblance of privacy. “but I have a hard time feeling particularly sorry for him.”
“Stiles?” Derek asked, carefully.
“He nearly knocked you down the stairs.”
“Oh. Yes, well. We’d … met,” Derek said, unsure if congratulations would be welcome. “I hope it’s not, uh, too much of a shock.”
John’s lips quirked up in a rueful little smile. “No one on Pern longed for a dragon more than that kid. His mother stood when she was young, you know -- actually, she was passed over when your own mother Impressed.”
“Oh,” Derek said, blinking.
John cleared his throat. “She used to tell Stiles the story of her standing, she… well. She’d have been happy to see him here. I’m happy. To see him here.”
“He’ll do well,” Derek said quietly, surprised to find that he meant it. “And if you ever wish to see him, we would be honored to escort you.”
John’s eyes lit up and he reached out, clasping a hand to Derek’s shoulder and giving him a warm squeeze. “That’d be much appreciated, son. I’d also take it as a kindness if you would keep an eye on him.”
“I can do that,” Derek agreed, thinking again of Peter’s wandering hands.
Aconith abruptly tensed, wing-tendons creaking, and launched herself in the air. Wind gusted through the hall, sands swirling beneath her as she rocketed skywards for her first flight since the night the eggs were clutched. Lycanth and half the dragons in the cavern rose after her, a swirl of wings so dense and thick that it made the non-riders in the enormous room duck and gasp.
Chris turned to John and Derek and said, simply, “I’d like to see my daughter now.”
“Guess who--aaaaha! No fair!! No fair!”
Derek laughed and allowed Cora to squirm free. She made a show of fussily smoothing her hair down, then threw herself into Derek’s arms once again.
“Der,” she said happily, and he squeezed her tight.
“I’d hoped you’d hitch a ride,” he laughed, inhaling the familiar scent of leather and soap and Cora. Her own dragon was almost two, and while she would certainly be flying strong, weyrlings weren’t allowed to travel between unsupervised until their third year at the weyr.
“You think I’d miss Laura’s very first clutch?”
“I’m fairly certain Aconith did all the hard work,” Derek said with a laugh. He wondered if she knew Laura was pregnant -- but swallowed back the urge to shout out the news, knowing that it was Laura’s surprise to share. “You look good, baby sis. How’s Rianth?”
Cora beamed. “She’s massive, Der! Biggest green in the senior weyrling wing. Growing like a great green weed.”
“She’s not the only one,” Derek said, allowing her to play-punch his shoulder before slinging an arm around her and drawing her towards the feast.
The celebrations went on all day, despite the early hour. The main meat dishes still had hours to cook, so the first three courses were all hot breads and sweetfruits, the white wines of Ista cut with sweet juices of the southern woods.
The great lower hall was festooned with brightly colored swaths of cloth and the long tables piled high with food, guests of significant rank near the weyrleaders’ table, the rest of the wings mingling with happy parents and disappointed candidates. Laura broke all rank and protocol by sitting Derek and Cora at the head table, though Derek managed to sneak off halfway through the meal and slide onto a bench with Isaac, Erica and Boyd.
“So,” Erica said, a dangerous light in her eyes. “The boy from the bar.”
“That one’ll give Finstock a run for his money,” Isaac wagered, cheerily.
Boyd raised an eyebrow at Derek -- and Derek was abruptly sure Erica had told them all about the odd exchange in the bar. “He was a Beacon Holder, though. I’m surprised we missed him on search.”
Erica’s eyes were trained on Derek, gauging his reaction. “He took a green, though. Peter will be thrilled.”
“He’s not Peter’s concern.”
Isaac grinned. “Is he yours?”
“Possibly,” Derek said with a shrug. “I did promise his father I’d keep an eye on him.”
“I have a feeling it’s not your eye you’re planning on--” Erica leered, completely failing to dodge the half a roll Derek flicked in her direction. It caught her in the right shoulder and went bouncing across the table, earning them dirty looks from the older riders sitting just down the table.
Derek allowed himself to think of Stiles, then. The newly Impressed would be feeding their dragons and likely sleeping off the emotional high of the morning. Lycanth had done nothing but eat and sleep for the first month of his life, Derek his doting attendant. They would not be separated from their dragons for at least three sevendays, until the dragons were more able to manage on their own and the raw emotional connection of the bond had tempered into something strong and sweet.
He still had Stiles’ pack -- he probably should have given it to John, but the thought hadn’t occurred to him and now it sat heavy and real against his ankle, the perfect excuse to see him again.
It took another flying chunk of bread -- this one coming from Isaac -- to jerk Derek out of his reverie.
The day wore on and the lower ranking riders began ferrying guests home. Most of the local and visiting dragonriders took to the lake for a swim, including Derek and Cora. They spent the better part of two candlemarks wading and splashing until Cora's nose went pink with sun and Derek's arms ached pleasantly. They scrubbed Lycanth with sweet sand -- which went much faster with Cora’s help -- and then took turns sliding off his haunches into the cold lakewater. Afterwards they napped, woke, and went straight back to the feast.
The sun had long set when Derek thought of Stiles again and wondered, absently, if he’d managed to eat anything. It was easy in those first few days to neglect oneself in the face of the overwhelming need of a dragonet -- they were never just hungry, always starving, never just sleepy, always exhausted. He left Cora with the wing and made his way towards the weyrling quarters.
The long barrack-style rooms for the newly paired weyrlings hadn’t changed at all since Derek had slept there -- three long years of little privacy and constant companionship. The rooms were much emptier than they had been when Derek Impressed, the old queen having clutched once a year like clockwork -- but they felt much better than they had when it was simply Scott and the handful of other transfers rattling around inside.
Derek poked his head into the dormitory but found it quiet. The better part of the candidates -- weyrlings, now -- sprawled and snoring while the newly hatched dragonets curled in the sandy wallows beside each bed. He scanned the sleeping dragons for the distinct teal coloration of Stiles’ little green, heart going warm and soft at the sight of such tiny dragonets. He couldn’t help lean against the entryway, staring for a long moment and the sleeping dragons his weyr had waited eight years to meet.
Then it occurred to him that he’d seen Peter giving the now-weyrlings the same lengthy stare and turned away, scolding himself.
’Don’t be silly, you’re nowhere near as ‘creepy’ as Peter,’ Lycanth promised him, amused.
Derek just rolled his eyes, checking the next room over and then trailing out into the caldera, strolling across the short distance from the weyrling quarters to the hatching grounds and their attached chambers.
He found Stiles leaning back against his newborn dragon, torso rising and falling as they breathed in tandem. His eyes were half lidded, his long fingers tracing absent patterns across the whorled tones of green in her hide.
For a moment he contemplated simply turning around and leaving them to bask in the warm glow of a new bond, but Stiles’ satchel was heavy on his shoulder.
Derek cleared his throat and picked his way across the room. “There you are.”
Stiles licked his lips, blinking up at him. His eyelashes were very long, and his eyes caught some of the flames from the hearth, looking wet and gentle and --
“Rider Hale,” Stiles twitched upright, seeming to realize all at once just who he was looking at. When he moved to stand Derek raised a hand awkwardly.
“Don’t -- you’ll wake her.”
Stiles’ eyes flitted immediately to the dragon, but the slight movements hadn’t disturbed her in the slightest. He then looked back at Derek, staring hard as though uncertain as to why Derek was even there.
Feeling awkward, Derek broke eye contact first and glanced over at the unconscious dragonet. She let out a satisfied snort in her sleep, rear leg twitching mid-dream.
“I, uh, I apologize for running you down on the stands,” Stiles said after a moment, breaking the silence.
“Don’t,” Derek said, shrugging and not moving his eyes away from the dragonet. “She needed you.”
“Still… it was, ah, nice of you to bring me my pack, I completely forgot...”
That reminded Derek that he was still wearing the sharding thing and so he shifted his weight, sliding a thumb under the strap. “We’ve all been there. It’s difficult not to relate when Impression is at stake.”
Stiles stuttered. “I…”
“I figured you’d would be hungry,” Derek continued quickly in a transparent effort to break the uncomfortable stretches of silence between them. He tugged the pack off his shoulder and fished out the leftovers he’d snuck away from the hatching feast. There wasn’t much, just bread, grapes, cheese and a bit of meat -- he hoped Stiles liked roast on the rare side.
Stiles gave the makeshift meal the same sort of look Lycanth gave the juiciest herdbeast on the feeding grounds. He snatched at the food quick enough to startle a laugh from Derek and began ripping the bread apart with nimble fingers, eyes rolling skywards in a near-sinful expression of pleasure at the first bite.
Derek eased himself into a sitting position and watched him eat. There was more he wanted to say -- a lot more, really, but he’d never been good with words and Stiles was clearly enjoying the meal. The silence didn’t feel so awkward, now -- not comfortable by any stretch of the imagination, but at least it wasn’t stilted and unpleasant.
Stiles slowed down eventually and flashed Derek a tentative smile. Derek wanted to smile back, to ask him how he was feeling, or what the dragonet’s name was, but when he opened his mouth something else entirely came out. “It’s not going to be easy for you. Not at, not at first.”
Their peaceful moment shattered as Stiles’ eyebrows furrowed in defensive determination. “She picked me.” One hand dropped to touch the green, as though assuring himself she was real. “She--”
“That’s not what I mean,” Derek winced. “The dragons don’t make mistakes. I meant that… well, there are those who will be unhappy that an onlooker interrupted the ceremony.”
Stiles’ expression relaxed ever so slightly, so Derek continued. “That a holder managed to Impress when so many weyrbrats did not…. And that’s just the weyr.” Stiles had to know what his Impression would mean for Beacon Hold -- the children of two high ranking holders swept away overnight. Those who didn’t understand the delicacy of Impression would assume that Stiles and Allison were just privileged hostages, brought to Beacon Weyr to keep their parents in line. “Your parentage along with 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, disbelieving. “We’re just kids -- and you passed me over, Rider Hale. Quite publicly.”
Derek’s eyes narrowed, annoyance bubbling up within him. When he spoke his words absolutely dripped with sarcasm. “Is that what happened.”
“I think I would know,” Stiles scowled right back. “I was there.”
Derek could only shake his head. “You ran -- you…. what does it matter? You didn’t let that stand in your way.” He waved a hand at the little green, forcing himself to release some of that annoyance as he exhaled.
“That’s part of my charm,” Stiles muttered, reaching for the grapes again.
Derek sighed. Stiles needed to know that, needed to realize that his actions would be scrutinized by holders and weyrfolk alike. “I’m not threatening you, or trying to… 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, 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.
“Do you work on being so irritating?” Derek wondered, easing himself up.
“I practice in the mirror every morning,” Stiles smiled, grapes in his cheeks.
Derek pinched the bridge of his nose and reached out to Lycanth, touching mentally on the dragon’s wealth of patience and humor to settle himself. “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.”
Stiles gave the dragon the first properly nervous look Derek had seen on his face. It wasn’t surprising… Derek had been terrified of breaking Lycanth for months. “Try not to alienate your clutchmates or their dragons while you do so, learn to use flamethrowers and firestone …” Derek grimaced and couldn't help but add: “And for Faranth’s sake, stay the hell away from my uncle. Think you can handle all that?”
“Uh,” Stiles said, licking his lips again. “I… yeah. Piece of cake.”
Derek stuffed his hands into his pockets, tipping his head in a nod of faint approval. That…. could have gone worse, really. He would quit while he was ahead.
“Well then. Welcome to Beacon Weyr.”
Laura had long since plead exhaustion in favor or retiring to her weyr with Jordan, though Derek felt certain they were doing a little private celebrating of their own. Even Chris Argent and his guardscaptain lasted nearly as long as the ale, surprising Derek with their determination to celebrate an occasion that wasn’t entirely wanted.
Once Cora and Isaac blinked out of sight, Derek steeled himself for his final (and least pleasant) duty of the day.
‘Here goes nothing,’ he thought to himself, staring at the crowd spilling out of the tavern’s open doorway for a long moment before venturing inside.
The bar was as rowdy as Derek had ever seen it, crammed with revellers cheering and clapping and singing loudly. When he caught the barkeep’s eye the man favored him with a curious look.
Derek just raised his eyebrows. “Is Peter around?”
“Haven’t seen him since the feast ended,” the man said, flooding a set of ceramic mugs until pale foam spilled over their lips and splattered against the counter.
Derek frowned. “Did he say…”
“Something about fresh air.”
Shells, that could mean anything. Drunk and lonely, Peter could be at the bottom of a chasm my now.
In some ways that would be a kindness.
Derek waved off the offer of an ale and slipped back out into the night, reaching for Lycanth’s attention.
’Have you seen Peter anywhere?’ he asked silently, scanning the dark bowl of the crater with tired eyes. The dragons talked to one another -- gossiped like mother hens, really, but they rarely minded human activities unless those actions directly affected them.
There was a lengthy pause, one that meant Lycanth hadn’t seen Peter but was asking around.
‘Jureth saw someone climbing the steps to the star stones, but I can’t see anyone from here,’ Lycanth said, uncertainly. ’Perhaps he wished to escape the noise of the celebrations.’
Derek’s throat went tight as he looked up. The steps to the Star Stones were a jagged gash in the side of the caldera, treacherous enough that most riders elected to be dropped off. The idea of Peter navigating them drunkenly in the dark was not an encouraging one.
'I’ll fly you,’ Lycanth said immediately. Before Derek could protest the soft downbeat of wings was already gusting air through his hair.
Lycanth wasn’t wearing his harness, but Derek had never needed hardware to feel secure astride his dragon. He slipped up and settled his legs over the massive vertebra at the base of Lycanth’s neck, just where his body broadened into strong shoulders and delicate wings, leaning forward as the bronze leapt into the night sky. The cooling wind prickled his eyes and he instinctively leaned into the turns as they wheeled up towards the heights.
He angled back as they descended, Lycanth’s strong claws catching on the jagged stones of the caldera’s wall. He dropped a shoulder towards the star stones and Derek slid off, boots crunching as they met the stony outcropping.
Up close the star stones were enormous, nearly as tall as Lycanth. There were two huge clusters of rocks, a set of three spindly needle-like finger rocks and then, divided by a steep chasm easily a quarter of a mile across, a single flat slab stood on end further up the mountainside, a perfectly spherical round hole carved through its thick expanse.
Derek remembered the first morning he and Lycanth been cleared for independent flight -- they’d been so excited to go out, to go anywhere, that they’d flown up to the heights and investigated the strange rock formation simply for a lack of anything better to do. Derek had glanced up at that strange configuration of stones for every day of his life, but on that day he’d actually climbed into that oddly smooth window of open sky and run his hands along the perfect edges in wonder.
Long, long ago the riders of his weyr had the power to melt and shape stone with such meticulous, smooth detail… he’d set his palms against it and allowed himself to wonder, with Lycanth laughing at his existential curiosity, how such fantastic technology had vanished.
Peter would never have made it as far as the window rock, so Derek forced himself to check the fingerstones. The idea of peering over the ledges for any signs of a body sprawled brokenly on the rocks was too--
“Ah, Derek. My dutiful nephew, come to compound my suffering?”
Derek huffed out a sigh and felt Lycanth mirror his silent relief. He wanted to swear, wanted to shove Peter right off the edge for having the balls to climb up half a mountain in the dead of night -- but he knew Peter would only laugh at his rage.
Instead Derek walked over and settled down beside him, staring out at the black silhouettes of the Beacon mountains. Belior shone bright and half-full in the dark sky while Timor, the smaller moon, was not much more than a sliver sinking slowly out of sight.
Derek glanced over to Peter and then quickly looked away again. His uncle’s jaggedly scarred face was sallow in the moonlight, dark rings hung beneath pale eyes and a distinctly drunken tilt to his shoulders. The planes of his face were harsh, pinched and miserable.
Derek allowed himself, for a long moment, to miss the vivacious, indomitable man he’d grown up with. He missed Brynth, the lazy brown Peter had lost, the first dragon that had spoken to Derek, the first dragon he’d ridden.. Brynth had been a solid, steady creature capable of tempering Peter’s whims and moods, fiercely loyal and prone to showing off mid-air with artful dips and dives.
The thought of losing one’s dragon, even fleeting, was enough to send Derek’s heart racing.
’I am here,’ said Lycanth, soft and strong in his mind. ’I am here.’
‘We are here together,’ Derek thought back, then forced himself to look at Peter again. “Why don’t we head in? You’ll fall ill spending the night on the heights.”
“Ill? I’m already ill, nephew. Pain,” said Peter, taking another gulp from his wineskin and throwing his trembling hands out as though embracing the horizon. “In pain, pain, pain. Day in, day out, sharp and barren as the fingerstones, hot as the fire that tore my body to pieces. Were only I a harper, I could find such sweet words for this.... for this awful...”
His uncle laughed, sharply. “I am no harper. I am no rider. I’m barely a man, nephew. I’m the weyr’s human watch-wher, sitting in the darkness and shouting at star stones.” Peter closed his eyes and let his head tip back against the rock.
“You’re a Hale,” Derek said, quietly. “That’s all you need to be.”
Silence stretched out between them for a long while. Derek was wondering if Peter had fallen asleep sitting up when the man turned his head and opened his eyes, giving Derek a long, tired look.
“Tell me then. How went the day?”
Derek looked back at him, then rattled off the numbers, beginning with the seven greens and moving through blue and brown quickly, so as not to dwell on the numbers closest to Peter’s heart. The clutch had been bronze-heavy, perhaps less surprising considering the imminent arrival of thread, but still unusual for a first clutch. “Allison took the queen.”
Peter just nodded, wordless, and closed his eyes again. When he began to snore Derek tugged his wineskin out of his hands and poured the contents over the edge of the chasm, standing and staring out over the windswept scene. He'd been awake for an entire day, save a brief afternoon nap, and this body still managed to thrum with barely contained energy.
The night sky slowly lightened, the deep black/blue melting into slate gray and then streaking gently with long fingers of pale blue and pink. At moments it reminded Derek of the eggshells on the sands, breaking open to reveal something bright and beautiful within.
And then, across the way, the red star slipped into view. Derek stared at its baleful winking light almost perfectly framed by the window rock. He knew that down in the crater below, that shimmering celestial pinprick was only a breath away from appearing just at the tip of the star stones, signaling the beginning of the first turn of the Pass. Sometime after the winter solstice, when the days were short and the nights interminably long, the first strands of thread would shower across Pern.
He stared at the Red Star, wishing his mother was alive and sleeping soundly in the weyr below, wishing Peter and Brynth were whole, wishing Stiles had Impressed at any time but now, when danger and Thread were all the weyr could promise him.
Derek reached out and let his mind brush Lycanth’s very gently. The bronze was sleeping lightly, no shimmery image of dragondreams greeting Derek’s silent inquiry. He and Lycanth had been training for the rising of the Red Star all their lives; as a child it had all seemed exciting and fulfilling, but now...
“A fleck of red in a cold night sky, a drop of blood to guide them by. Turn away, Turn away, turn, be gone - a Red Star beckons the travelers on,” Peter recited behind him -- not asleep, then. It was an old poem, taught by the harpers in the early years of schooling.
Derek wondered if the Red Star beckoned to Peter, too.
“If you’re awake enough to recite the old ballads you’re aware enough to navigate the stairs,” he decided.
“Pain,” Peter muttered in reply, though when Derek looked sharply to him he was just clutching his temples, the surest sign of a hangover Derek knew.
“C’mon, uncle Peter,” Derek sighed, reaching down to hook an arm through Peter’s. “Let’s get you to bed.”
Thread -- the old enemy was returning to scour the surface of Pern for the first time in countless hundreds of years. Derek felt the tug of the Red Star's malevolent pulsing and turned away, supportive arm warm around his uncle's back. 'Let it come,' he thought, quietly.
Let it come. Beacon Weyr would stand strong, dragons and riders burning their enemy to ash in the winds, wings full and strong, until the Red Star faded into memory once again.