Early Autumn. The Fourth Year of the First Pass.
A hundred metres beneath the ascending dragons, a small girl, one of the watching Holdfolk, raised an arm and vigorously began waving the dragons goodbye. It was rare for any first-time passenger to dare to return a wave during the steep climb out of the Hold's valley, despite being securely strapped in place. But a few wingbeats later, Sorka felt one of the hands clasped tightly around her waist loosen, then disappear completely. She smiled, glad that Genny had summoned up enough confidence to let go and return her sister's wave; it boded well for the girl's first trip between. Sorka looked downwards again, judging the altitude by eye, and then turned to check on the positions of the other dragons, and the state of their passengers. Thankfully, none of them looked too terrified... yet.
Faranth, tell the others they're free to go as soon as their passengers are ready.
Sorka twisted between Faranth's ridges until she could see their own two passengers, Genevieve Messurier and Imran Raghir.
"Is it time?" Imran shouted over the rushing of the wind.
Sorka nodded. "Yes. I'll raise my arm, like this, and drop it when we're about to make the jump. You've been told what to expect, but until you've experienced between, you don't really know. Just don't panic. You may not feel anything, but we're all there, together, and it'll soon be over. Are you ready?"
Satisfied with their answers, Sorka nodded, and began to visualise the view of the Weyrbowl from the south. The solid weyrling barracks, the new excavations on the north face above Faranth's own weyr, and the first snow of the year coating the Tooth Crag in white.
Porth and Chereth are on the heights south of the Crag, Faranth told her.
Sorka added the two golds to her image, and raised her right arm. She waited a few second to let the candidates compose themselves, then let the arm drop. Let's go home.
Blackness enveloped them, cutting off Genny's shriek before it had properly started. Sorka counted down through the silence, hoping the girl would have given up by the time they re-emerged. She'd been almost deafened by frightened passengers several times in the past, and hoped this wouldn't be another one of those occasions. Luckily, as Faranth burst back out into the air above the Weyr, Genevieve was merely gasping for breath. Sorka reached back to give the girl a reassuring pat on the thigh, and looked round for the others. Catherine and Siglath had arrived before them, and were circling a few dragonlengths away. Jerry and Manooth arrived next, followed by Arna and gold Shallarth. Sorka smothered a laugh; from the sounds of it, poor Arna had got today's screamer.
"Faranth will land us as gently as possible," Sorka shouted back over her shoulder, "but it can still give you a bit of a jolt if you're too tense. Try and relax."
Once on the ground, the candidates were soon dismounted. As this was their first visit to the Weyr, they'd be starting with a full tour. The candidate barracks were the first stop, giving the eight young people a chance to drop their belongings by a bed, and put on a change of trousers if necessary. They'd meet their fellow candidates later in the day, once everyone had completed their assigned chores. While the new candidates sorted themselves out, Sorka stopped by each of the doorways to the dormitories and scanned the rooms, counting the spare beds. There was enough room to accommodate another thirty or so female candidates, with maybe half that many spare beds in the boy's dorms. She tallied up the eggs which were now hardening on the sands; sixty-three candidates plus the eight new arrivals would be more than ample for the fourteen eggs of Venvaith's clutch... but Elliath's twenty-three and Ukith's fifteen would also be hatching before the month was out.
Without a reliable means of knowing who would actually Impress, it was absolutely essential that the hatchling dragons had a large pool of candidates from which to select their riders. When Amalath's and Faranth's clutches had hatched within hours of each other, they'd had to split the candidates into two groups, sending one group down to the southern peninsula while the other half remained at the Weyr. There'd been barely half a dozen 'spare' candidates for each hatching, but they'd thought that would be enough... at least until the first dragon died, going between in hungry anguish, having failed to find a suitable rider. They'd lost a bronze and a blue from Amalath's clutch, and a green from Faranth's. That had been the final straw; Sean had sworn he'd never allow a dragon to die that way again. Ever since, the Weyr had presented a minimum of fifty candidates at every hatching, taking their pick from the young people of the Hold. Only the most essential workers could deny the Weyr's Search, with the candidates only having their position reviewed if they didn't Impress within a year, or, in the case of female candidates, if they fell pregnant. And if some girls were throwing themselves into that duty with suspicious haste, well, the Hold always needed new babies.
There were a few exceptions to the one-year rule, of course. Poor Betsy had been utterly distraught when the green had suicided in front of her, refusing to Impress to either her or any of the other women present. Having been rejected once in such a manner, Betsy had refused to stand again, claiming that merely by the fact of being a candidate she was giving the dragons less choice rather than more. She'd moved back to her family's stakehold on Ierne Island, as far from the Weyr as possible, where they still fought Thread only with fire lizards and flamethrowers. Apparently she was very happy there, newly married to Andy Kiersey... but Sorka still missed her friend.
Of the remaining original candidates, only Betsy and Dean Rado had failed to Impress. Most of the youngsters on Kitti's reserve-list had also Impressed, but the volunteers hadn't done quite so well on average. As Jerry and Arna gathered the new candidates together again, Sorka decided that she'd have to go back to the Hold sooner rather than later. She had a fairly good idea of who the Weyr's next sixteen candidates would be, but they were in desperate need of a better way of selecting them. Hopefully, Sorka was close to finding one, and the next few clutches would prove her theory one way or the other.
Jerry and Arna's tour would probably take several hours, but it was only really the next stop that Sorka was interested in - the Weyrling barracks. Lucas and blue Kurath were waiting beside the heavy metal doors, with Claire and Liseth behind them; the candidates didn't need to know that these two pairs were no longer resident in the barracks, having already graduated to one of the ground-level weyrs on the far side of the bowl due to lack of space for the younger dragons. No, the important thing was giving the candidates the chance to meet some of the smaller green and blue dragons up close... and giving Kurath the chance to meet them.
"Gather round, candidates, and take a good look at Kurath and Liseth," Jerry began. "You'll see some of the younger weyrling dragons inside, sleeping off their last meal, but we want you to see what the greens and blues look like when they're almost fully grown. Lucas, would you ask Kurath to stand up and extend his wings?"
"Sure thing, Jerry." Lucas gave his dragon an affectionate rub on the headknobs and stood to one side, giving Kurath the space to stand up and stretch out. The blue was significantly smaller than the browns and bronzes, only about sixteen hands at the shoulder, but his body was far longer than that of a horse of the same height. Stocky hind limbs would give him the strength to leap skywards, and his heavily muscled barrel chest gave him the lungs and wingpower to fly with. Sean didn't think that the blues and greens would have the same staying power as the larger dragons, but that was something they'd only find out for certain once they started flying properly.
With Lucas' permission, Jerry invited the candidates to take a closer look, and even to feel the blue's soft hide. Kurath turned his whirling blue-green eyes on each of them, head cocked to one side in interest. Green Liseth was then asked to perform the same demonstration, and after that, Claire showed the candidates how much easier it was to mount and dismount from one of the smaller dragons. All the while, Kurath kept his attention on the candidates, looking to nd fro between them. As the candidates were led by Jerry and Arna inside the barracks, Sorka walked over to speak to Lucas.
"Well?" she asked.
Lucas grinned sheepishly. "I still can't believe you're taking us seriously, but we did as you asked. Kurath's an amiable lad, and... I guess he likes people."
"Not all of them."
"No, guess not. But..."
"No 'buts', Lucas," Sorka insisted. "There isn't a single candidate he's shown an interest in that didn't Impress within two or three clutches, you know that. Montse Cervantes and Nick Gomez from Faranth's clutch, and about a dozen since. And the reverse, too - he couldn't stand Euan Evans, could he?"
"Lucas, really I think you two are on to something."
Lucas shook his head and shrugged. "I don't want you to choose the wrong people, just because Kurath takes a shine to them."
Sorka grimaced, sharing some of the same doubts herself. But if it worked... "We've got to narrow the field somehow, and I think this is a risk worth taking," she said. "Venvaith's clutch hatches tomorrow, and I know which of the current candidates he favours. If they do better on average than the other candidates, Sean and I will insist you join our Search team."
Lucas nodded, and turned to his dragon. "Kurath, what do you think?" Seconds later, he looked back at Sorka. "I think you're right. He says he likes them, and that they're people that any dragon should like."
"Well, that's good enough for now. What about the new ones?"
The bluerider's eyes glazed briefly. "The Messurier girl, he liked, and the two brothers. Oh, and the short pretty one who couldn't stop giggling."
Sorka pulled a stub of pencil and paper out of her pocket, and scribbled down the names to be added to her list. "Thank him for me, would you?"
"Of course. Will you be around to watch us fly later?"
After nine months of intensive training and hours of solo flights on the part of the dragons, today was the day that the Weyrlings from Porth's and Chereth's clutches would be flying with their riders for the first time. Sorka folded her arms across her chest, and smiled in mock exasperation. "You need to ask? Lucas Trury, almost the whole Weyr will be watching. Sean and I wouldn't miss it for the world."
Peter Semling watched the weyrlings lead their dragons out the shallow water at the edge of the Weyr's lake, shaking his head in dismay. Despite the waders they'd all been given, and the oilskin waterproofs, almost half the class were soaked to the skin, and shivering. It hadn't mattered so much during the hot summer, when the new dragonriders had appreciated their dragons' exuberance in the water... but now that the weather had started to turn, the lake had become a far less pleasant place to bathe.
He nodded to Gilgath, and the sturdy bronze bellowed loudly enough to get the Weyrlings' attention, startling several of the watching candidates in the process.
"Weyrlings! What's the first rule?"
A few hands were raised, but Pete was looking for one of the wetter weyrlings from Faranth's and Amalath's clutches to answer. Ah, Jamie Duff would do.
"My dragon's needs come first, sir," he said, teeth chattering.
Pete forced a stern frown onto his face. "And who's responsible for your dragon?"
"I am, sir."
"So what happens if you become ill, or incapacitated?"
Jamie stuffed his hands under his armpits, attempting to warm them up. "Err... I mean..." He trailed off, and began to look genuinely concerned. "Sir, what does happen if we fall ill?"
Pete looked round the class, making sure that all of the weyrlings were paying attention. "You don't fall ill. Not if you can help it. You and your dragon need to look out for each other. There's not a lot either of you can do about a winter virus, but you can make sure you're fit, healthy, and don't do stupid things like getting drenched in the lake on a cold day. Is that understood?"
"Yes, sir," the class chorused back immediately.
Pete smiled again. "Good. Now let's get these dragons oiled. You'll soon warm up if you do the job properly..." He looked over his shoulder towards Gilgath and the waiting group of candidates. "Candidates, each of you pair up with a weyrling. Do as they say, and remind yourself of your anatomy lessons as you work. You'll be tested on your knowledge of dragon muscles tomorrow, so if there're any you don't remember, ask your weyrling."
Stepping carefully over the many puddles of spilled oil, Pete took his time inspecting the weyrlings. By and large, this was a chore the weyrlings greatly enjoyed; any amount of time spent together in close contact was generally a good bonding experience for dragon and rider. But there were always exceptions, weyrlings with feelings of doubt or inadequacy, or just overwhelmed by the strength of the Impression bond. Oiling had proved to be a good opportunity for Pete to spot those problems... a doubtful rider wouldn't pick up on her dragon's needs as swiftly, while a strong-minded dragon would have his rider focus on whatever parts of his hide felt best, rather than letting the rider do the job properly. Subtleties, yes, but Pete was finally beginning to feel experienced enough to trust his instincts.
Don't forget my help, Pete, Gilgath drawled.
Couldn't do it without you, oh dragon-mine! Gilgath was quite right; only another dragon could hear some of the complaints that were either ignored or misunderstood by the new dragonriders. A weyrling would feel discomfort from a constipated dragon, but often neither would know what it meant. Emotions were another problem area; the young dragons were simple souls, and were often confused by their rider's behaviour... and sometimes the single-mindedness of the dragons would lead to a failure of the riders' better judgement, in any number of different ways. Yes, Gilgath was indeed a boon when it came to nipping some of those problems in the bud.
Pete's circuit of the weyrlings eventually brought him alongside Sasha de Poer, Nicholas Gomez and their dragons. Petrath was one of the three bronzes from Faranth's clutch; the dragons all hatched about the same size, but it was the bronzes and browns that grew most rapidly and, because of that, needed special attention when it came to oiling.
"Well, Nicholas, how are you doing with Petrath?"
Nicholas bent down to dip his sponge in the bucket of oil sitting between Petrath and green Zunelth, and then moved back to continue oiling his dragon. "Pretty well, sir, I think. But there's just so much of him!"
"And more every day," Sasha joked from beside her own dragon.
Pete gave her a smile. "Bet you're glad you didn't Impress one of the golds now, aren't you?"
Sasha rolled her eyes. "Shards, yes! Besides, Zunelth's the only dragon for me, aren't you dear?" She turned to her green, and her face took on the familiar blankness of a rider in total rapport with her dragon "Yes of course I'll do that rough patch next, but I need to finish your leg first," she muttered absently.
Sasha, like many of the weyrlings, was still easily distracted by her dragon. Knowing that he was unlikely to get any more conversation out of her unless he insisted, Pete shook his head, and turned back to Nicholas. "Where's his skin stretched the most then?"
Nicholas directed his assistant to continue rubbing oil into Petrath's flank, and asked his dragon to spread his wings. He stepped beneath the bronze's right wing, and ran a hand over the dragon's full belly. "Belly, but the skin's more supple there now, and he's not growing as much in that direction any more." He pointed up at the undersurface of Petrath's wing. "Here though, where the wingbones are growing fastest. The membrane's pretty thin anyway."
"Good. Hind legs are another problem area; you'll notice them more once he starts bulking out with more muscle."
"You're doing a good job though Nicholas."
Sorka's voice came as quite a surprise to Pete; although she often checked on the progress of Faranth's and Carenath's offspring, he'd thought she'd be too busy to drop by today.
"Sorka! Finished with the candidates already?"
The Weyrwoman nodded. "I only wanted to see what they made of Kurath and Liseth."
The other reason went unstated; Pete was well aware of Sorka's theory about the blue, but it wouldn't be wise to mention it in front of the candidates until they were certain. "And did they... did they like Kurath? And Liseth?" he added hurriedly.
Sorka winked at him. "I'll tell you all about it later."
"How's Anne doing?" Pete asked, as they resumed his circuit of the Weyrlings. "Is she speaking yet?"
Sorka's new daughter was always a favourite subject. Now that she'd been weaned, she was fostered with her brother back at the Hold, living with Sorka's mother Mairi. Both Sean and Sorka spent as much time with their family as their duties would allow, but the Weyr's Search for candidates provided some very welcome extra opportunities for visits.
"Not yet, but she's growing like a dragon. That reminds me, I've brought back a bag of outfits she's outgrown for Alianne's girls."
"Have you spoken to Alianne today?" he said, trying to remember whether Sorka had left before or after Alianne came down to breakfast.
"No, not yet. Why?"
Pete grinned broadly. "Then you won't have seen what Sam's bought for her!"
"You know that sapphire Artur Gneiss has spent the last few months working on? Turns out, Sam commissioned it for Alianne."
Sorka's eyes widened in amazement, and she shook her head "No! Well, I can't say she doesn't deserve it. Sam's besotted with those twins of theirs, and I've never seen them happier."
"Yeah, it wasn't easy, last year. Good to see things working out for them again."
"It is, isn't it. You know, I think I'll go and find her now."
Sorka said goodbye, leaving Pete with his weyrlings. They were doing a good job, overall; by the time he'd completed his circuit, he'd only had to berate five of them for missing dry patches of skin. As the weyrlings finished their oiling, Pete's attention returned to the hardening eggs on the hatching sands. Carenath hadn't sired as many eggs on Venvaith as he had on Faranth, but that was hardly surprising given the circumstances. If you didn't get your dragon away in time, a mating queen was simply too insistent to ignore... but the rider did have some measure of control over how long the flight lasted. Sorka had taken it pretty well, as far as Pete could tell. If anyone wanted what was best for the dragons it was the two Weyrleaders, and with more breeding queens than browns and bronzes put together... well, it was both inevitable, and good for the gene pool. Of course, Pete had to admit that he didn't like the idea of any dragon other than Gilgath flying Tenneth.
I could catch a different queen, Gilgath said slyly. Would you mind all that much?
Pete sighed, and dismissed the class, giving the damper weyrlings strict instructions to dry off with some hot soup in the kitchens. Tease! You'd have to find one that'd let you catch her first.
The bronze gave a mental chuckle, and, as they walked back across the Weyrbowl, jokingly began comparing the merits of the various queen dragons. Pete tried not to laugh, and failed miserably, causing a few of the candidates to stare at him in confusion. Well, some of them would soon understand.
It was a great life, being a dragonrider!
Turning her back on the weyrlings, Tarrie looked up at the perfect blue sky above the Weyrbowl. It was such a beautiful sight when it was like this, free of the threat of Thread. A few months from now, a day like this would be even more welcome, with the cold, high-pressure air freezing Thread to dust before it had a chance to fall to land.
Twenty-four dragons had been engineered from the genetic material of the firelizards, a renewable airforce bred by the greatest minds that Pern would ever know. Oh, Wind Blossom had had her doubters, but the clutches now hardening on the hatching sands more than proved her competence as her mother's successor. For the past three years, those two dozen dragons had been all that stood between the colonists and utter disaster. They'd lost Marco and Duluth right at the start, but somehow everyone else had survived, in spite of many dreadful injuries. It had been a struggle to cope at times, but they'd managed, and Pern had thrived.
Today, another twenty-four dragons would take to the skies with their riders for the very first time.
How many more would follow them in the years ahead? Tarrie wondered. She tried to picture the Weyr's skies filled with hundreds of dragons, the ranks of browns, bronzes and golds joined by deep sapphire blues and rich emerald greens. Oh, it would be quite a sight, though it was still a long way off. But with each new clutch that hatched, Pern's hopes grew a little brighter. By springtime, this class of Weyrlings would be experienced enough to begin their integration into the fighting wings. With twice as many dragons fighting Thread in the air, the Weyr could defend a wider corridor of land during 'fall, and the Hold's fields could finally be enlarged.
But the first step was to get them in the air with their riders. Tarrie grinned, remembering her own first flight on Porth.
Did you really bruise my neck, Tarrie? Porth asked, picking up on Tarrie's thoughts.
Shards, Porth, I was terrified I'd fall off, even with Sean's straps! It certainly taught me not to pull on them too hard.
Tarrie reached up to take hold of Porth's neck-strap and stepped onto the dragon's bent foreleg. From there, she could swing herself into position between Porth's neck ridges, ready to take to the air. Tarrie clipped herself onto her flying straps, and looked back over her shoulder to check on the weyrlings. Dave was giving them a final briefing, but he hadn't gone over to speak to Lia and Tegwenth alone
Porth, would you tell Polenth to tell Dave that we're ready?
Although the dragons had all flown short distances within the Weyrbowl already, adding a passenger for the first time could potentially be very confusing for a young dragon. Conflicting thoughts, different dynamics in the air, all the excitement of the occasion... Tarrie and Porth would stay in the air throughout today's class, nominally to check the technique of the inexperienced dragons and riders, but in reality ready to assist any pairs that got into difficulty.
He knows, Porth answered a few seconds later. Shall we fly?
The gold dragon took to the air, and settled into an easy circle not too far above the weyrlings. David was talking to Lia now, and her green had sat back on her haunches, gathering her energy for her leap into the air. Moments later, the green enthusiastically launched herself skywards, seemingly catching her rider unaware. Aside from Lia's flailing arms, from Tarrie's vantage the dragon's take-off was textbook perfect.
Polenth has told them to circle the Weyrbowl once anticlockwise, then to turn, ascend, and repeat in the opposite direction above the peaks.
Tarrie nodded, already familiar with the planned drill. Good. Stay a few dragonlengths behind and above on this loop, then let her climb above us for the next. The switch would give Tarrie a good chance to check the workings of the green's wings both from above and below, all the better to assess how well the small dragon was managing. At the end of the first loop, the green dipped a wing and changed direction remarkably quickly. Tarrie decided she shouldn't have been too surprised by that; Lia knew her aerodynamics, and the small dragon had easily proved herself nimble enough to impress Sean and Sorka, watching from the ground.
We might have to watch them on that turn, she suggested to Porth. I can see some of that class getting a bit competetive over how tightly they take it.
The rest of Tegwenth's flight passed without incident, as did those of the next handful of dragons. Tarrie and David swapped roles before the seventh pair were sent aloft, this time Jens and blue Sineath. As Tarrie watched the blue fly, she realised that Porth was spending more time watching Polenth than the weyrling.
You were thinking about David again yesterday. Polenth flies well; I was wondering if he might manage to catch me, the next time I mate.
Tarrie sighed; her brief relationship with David had fizzled out a few months ago, but every now and then Porth forgot that they were no longer any more than good friends. Oh, he was a lovely man, a considerate lover, and he certainly understood the strength of the bond between dragon and rider. Too well, perhaps. Polenth was the most important thing in Dave's life, probably the only important thing. It made him a safe choice, someone who'd be understanding if things didn't work out... but you couldn't go into a relationship trusting in an easy ending, not if you wanted more out of it than mere company. If Porth was going to rise again soon... well, Tarrie had some thinking to do, that was for sure. There was at least one man who seemed to want more from her than that, perhaps as much as Sean and Sorka shared, or Pete and Nora. And maybe that was what she wanted, too. Maybe.
Do you think you'll rise soon? she asked the gold.
Porth smirked. Firth and Gilgath seem to think so.
Well, we'll just have to wait and see which dragon is good enough for you, won't we?
Sineath descended back towards the floor of the bowl, and misjudged his landing slightly, sending Jens toppling sideways over his dragon's neck.
"And that's why you always use your straps!" Tarrie told the class.
Jens hauled himself back into place, fair skin blushing furiously.
Tarrie laughed, and smiled kindly. "Don't worry, Jens, you did far better than Nya did on her first flight. Dismount when you're ready, and give him a good rub down. Claire, you and Liseth are up next."
Liseth was followed by another green, then bronze Auvreth and blue Kurath. The last pair in the second batch were Simon Keating and his brown, Luruth.
Sure enough, the mistake that Tarrie had been anticipating finally occured. Luruth tried to take the turn as sharply as the smallest greens, and compounded his error by turning towards the inner face of the crater rather than away. Lurching in panic, the brown suddenly shrieked, desperate to find enough room in the air, and lacking the strength to do so. Porth was airborne again almost before Tarrie could think, stretching her mind out towards the faltering brown.
He's hurt, Porth told her, powering upwards. I've told Polenth to grab him.
Polenth soon had the brown grasped firmly across the back, enough to steady their flight for long enough for Porth to slip beneath them. Tarrie twisted round to check their position, and gave the okay for Polenth to lower the smaller dragon across Porth's back. It was an awkward maneouvre, but at least it worked. Together, they deposited the weyrling pair in front of Sean and Sorka. The Weyrleaders quickly diagnosed which muscle groups had been strained, and soon Luruth's pains were being eased by numbweed. With the dragon tended, they turned their attention to Simon, and took considerably longer tearing strips out of his hide.
Tarrie was glad to find the weyrlings greatly subdued by Luruth's mistake, and the remainder of the day's flights went reasonably well. Not perfectly, or even close to perfect in most cases, but good enough for a first attempt. Before the month was out, the weyrlings' drills would all be airborne. Longer flights would build endurance, and teach them the landmarks they'd need to know in order to travel safely between. Going between would be the last thing they learned; Tarrie hoped the weyrlings would figure out that they couldn't afford to make any mistakes by then. Mistakes during 'fall could be deadly. But Threadfall was still months away for the weyrlings; they could only get there one step at a time.
The sun was setting by the time the last of the weyrlings dismounted, bringing the day to a close. No doubt they'd do better tomorrow, especially without the excitement of half the Weyr watching them. One step at a time, one day at a time. Tarrie leaned back against Porth's flank, marvelling at the progress they'd already made. They'd kept enough of Pern Thread-free to ensure survival, and turned a barren crater into a thriving Weyr. Porth's offspring would soon join the fighting wings, and the dragonriders' endless struggle would at last become slightly easier. With all of the new clutches, the dragon population was growing explosively, and it was surely only a matter of time before the first new queen was clutched, and the dragons' future as a species assured for good. Yes, the dragon experiment had undoubtedly been a success, giving Pern the hope it needed for the future.
Nothing was certain, of course, especially not these days, with Thread falling with increasing frequency. But whatever the future held for Porth and herself, and for all the other dragons and riders, perhaps one thing was certain.
They'd spend those days together.
Well, after almost two years of work, the story finally comes to an end. Well, this part of it; life goes on, and if you've read First Fall and the other early pass stories, you'll know how things turn for them all. But I hope you've all enjoyed this little snapshot of the first pass, because I've certainly enjoyed writing it. If you like it enough to want to print it out, drop me a line - I'm putting together a nicely formatted pdf file and making a few last tweaks to the earlier chapters, and as soon as I'm happy with it, I'll let people know where it can be found on request.
Anyway, even though this story's now finished, I'd still love to know what you thought of it - any comments, as critical as you like, would be very, very welcome.
Lastly, a brief dedication.
In memory of you, and all the babies lost too soon.
15th October 2007