This was inspired by a thread over at the New Kitchen Table, where a group of us are disagreeing over which aspects of Pernese life are/are not interesting to write/read about. The example given was that of a watch rider on a dark night, for whom nothing much happens. So, I decided to see what I could make of it. It's just a one-shot, but I hope you enjoy it anyway. Feedback is always appreciated.
In the dark watches of the night.
The bitter wind rushed past F'ren's face, as Trath's strong wingbeats raised them higher and higher into the air, up towards the ragged heights of High Reaches Weyr. There was still a good four hours until dawn, and if the cold did nothing else, at least it managed to sting man and dragon into wakefulness. No, the tiredness wouldn't come straight away, but several hours later, after all the usual means of passing the time had been exhausted. And later in the day, when their duties kept them active into the evening, well, the tiredness would be with them then too. F'ren felt tired all the time these days, his mind sluggish, relying on Klah and icy water to keep himself alert.
This late at night, Trath contacted V'nir's Shelbrith mentally rather than with his usual strident bugle. There was no need to make a noisy fuss over a change in the watch, and dragon voices carried far too well at night.
Shelbrith, it is I, Trath, here with F'ren to take the watch.
Having had his announcement acknowledged, the
dragon gave a mental chuckle.
Shelbrith's rider wants to know if you bring Klah?
"He can damn well get his own!" F'ren muttered, as Trath adjusted the trailing edges of his wings in an effortless landing on the widest part of the ridge. V'nir was waiting as he dismounted, the bluerider chaffing his gloved hands together in a vain effort to get more feeling into his fingertips. F'ren expected he'd spend much of his watch doing just the same thing, and in a moment of sympathy, decided to share his Klah after all, and passed V'nir the kettle. It'd save the bluerider a trip to the kitchens, and Shelbrith would probably want to return straight to his own weyr anyway.
"Hope you've got a mug on you."
"Thanks, F'ren. 'Preciate it, really," the blue rider said, pouring himself a full mug of Klah with more dexterity than F'ren would have thought possible. "Shall I pour for you too?"
"Please," F'ren answered, pulling a cup out of his shoulderbag. "So, what excitement have I missed during the small hours?"
"Oh, the usual. Had to help I'vik with a clear visual of the bowl; he was pissed out of his mind from the Telgar gather! Few others stopped by on their way to their beds, but that was all done with hours ago. Oh, and the tithe train from the Hold is still late, but W'modden got a firelizard from them last watch. They lost a wheel, and've bedded down in one of the Thread-shelter caves to wait for morning. Just pass it on to the dawn watch, whoever it is."
"Oh? Didn't realise he was on that duty again."
"Mmm. Yeah, he's on dawns for the next three falls." Placing the smaller colours on watch was pretty common; they often lacked the stamina for a full five-hour fall in these mid-pass turns, and could make up their work-time with less strenuous duties. The news over the tithe train wasn't really unexpected, as they frequently arrived late during the winter time. But at least it was just a faulty wagon, rather than something more worrying, like a landslide. That was another common task for the greens and blues, and for the weyrling wings; keeping the approach road to the weyr clear of drifted snow or fallen rocks. Pern couldn't survive without its draconic defence, but the dragons needed their supply lines fully functional at all times. At least the tithe would reach them before the next fall; stocks of numbweed were getting a little low, but more importantly to F'ren, they were nearly completely out of sweetener! With his growing reliance on Klah, the bronze rider dreaded having to drink the bitter drink without it.
"So, how much longer have you got?"
F'ren cast his mind back over the major events of the last year. Kiath's latest clutch had hatched mid-summer, which meant, oh... "Probably at least another three of four sevendays, or thereabouts." Hard to be certain exactly; it all depended on when Sh'vek decided the bronze wingsecond needed his sleep more than the weyr needed him on watch. Or whatever the excuse was this time.
"Never did figure out how exactly you managed to piss off Sh'vek."
"Past's past, and I'm not dwelling on it," F'ren snapped sharply.
"Suit yourself," the bluerider said, drawing away.
F'ren grinned wryly at his unexpected temper, not that V'nir would see it in the near-darkness. The man had hit a nerve, that was all. "Sorry, these early starts really don't agree with me. Never thought I'd have a reason to look forward to the next threadfall, or curse the fact that they're so far apart so far up north."
"You complain about early starts, and expect me to keep up with THAT logic? After freezing my balls off for the last four hours?"
F'ren grinned again, and set about explaining. "Can't have a wingsecond and his dragon tired out of his mind when Fall's due. Two more nights of this, then Trath and I get at least one proper nights sleep. Anyway, off with the pair of you. Get some sleep. After a night like this, you've more than earned it."
F'ren gave Trath a light slap on the side, and the bronze took off for a spot perched above the starstones, allowing Shelbrith to take his vacated space. V'nir quickly hauled himself up between Shelbrith's neck ridges, and raised a hand in farewell. All too soon the pair were gone, dropping out of sight back into the weyrbowl. In the darkness, there was very little to see. Just a dim glow from the entrance to the lower caverns, shadows of the weyr rim cast by Timor's weak gleam, and a few scattered stars poking through the gaps in the clouds. Trath's eyes still sparkled in what little light there was; a heartening blue flickering, the only brightness on these miserable heights.
F'ren pulled his scarf out from around his collar, and tried to cover his ears a little better before raising his hood over his head. It was windy, cold, and drearily dark. Still, it wasn't snowing, which was something to be thankful for. Freezing cold, all the same. The bronze rider kicked at the ground beneath his feet, testing the surface for the tell-tale smoothness of ice. The path was rough enough to be safe, most of the time, but any rainfall or melted snow could quickly cause a hazard. An accident up here, alone on watch, could happen all too easily. Risking life and limb during fall was one thing; risking it on a pointless, tedious watch duty was quite another. Pretty soon he found a suspicious patch of ground, and he tugged off a glove to test. Yes, that was a bad patch. He straightened up, and started digging at the edge with his boot heel, knocking the dangerous material off the path piece by piece. He'd have to ask a weyrling to bring some grit up if there were more patches like this; if he still had months of this duty, he didn't want to put himself at risk.
F'ren almost envied the tithe train. Sure, they were all stuck in the middle of nowhere, holdless, halfway between the sanctuaries of Weyr and Hold. But they were safe enough in their thread-shelter, probably with a roaring fire. And fresh Klah, rather than the dregs of the lower caverns kettles that had been F'ren's only option. Good company, cheery conversation, sound sleep in warm furs. Huh. Holders didn't know how lucky they were at times. He hunched his way deeper into his fur-lined wherhide, as much as that was possible.
Do you mind the cold, Trath?
I don't really notice it too much. This is better than between. But could we visit that cousin of yours in Boll soon?
Soon, yes. Maybe in a few weeks, when it really gets cold round here. That particular cousin, Nedreny, had died fighting thread as groundcrew several turns before. He'd been searched for the same clutch at which F'ren had impressed Trath, but hadn't been lucky himself, and had soon returned to his home Hold. Not that F'ren expected Trath to remember things like that, and besides, he had other contacts in the south. He clamped down on that line of thought. The past WAS past, and it was far to easy for ones mind to drift off into useless reveries on watch. Better to concentrate on the here and now. His watch. His boring, pointless watch. Nothing happened in these dark hours of the night. But all the same, he had to be here, alert, doing this job as well as he could.
It didn't mean he had to like it though.
F'ren looked around, trying to make out something, anything, in the darkness of the weyrbowl. The wind carried a thick wisp of cloud across Timor, and F'ren found his vision fading further. Belior wouldn't rise for another two hours, and that close to dawn would be a feeble crescent.
My eyes see better, Trath suggested, and offered the insight of his own vision as a complement to F'ren's own.
F'ren found things making a little more sense. That twitching shape was the restless bulk of brown Horoth. There was their own weyr, and further to the east, F'ren felt his dragon's concentration being drawn to one of the larger openings at ground level. Kiath's weyr. Nothing to see there, move along. Reluctantly, Trath obliged. The bronze dragon's mind finally touched on a few wakeful dragons: Shelbrith and his weyrmate, Louth, still not settled.
Shelbrith says V'nir is not sleeping.
Is that not sleeping, or not-sleeping? F'ren wondered, amused.
I didn't want to ask!
Hmph. Surprised he's got any feeling left at all, after being out here.
Being on watch regularly, one did make up certain rituals and routines. As the moon re-emerged, giving F'ren the little light he needed, the man began his usual trek. Pacing the length of this stretch of the ridge only took about a few minutes, but he was happy to take his time in the near-total darkness. From eye rock, past the finger rock, across the flattened space on the ridge where riders could dismount with guests in relative safety. F'ren checked the quality of the path as he went, shifting a few more patches of ice here and there, and looking for signs of erosion. He'd just finished gouging out another patch of ice on the open landing patch when he was alerted by Trath to a new arrival above the weyr.
Just a rider returning from Benden. Green Azalath.
F'ren wracked his memory for the rider's name.
Ah. Just another faceless member of G'dil's wing, a recent transfer that F'ren had not had a chance to meet yet.
Visting friends at Benden, was he? F'ren didn't entirely approve; keeping in touch was one thing, but spending every night with your old wing- or weyr-mates was quite another.
Azalath's rider was visiting with a weyrmate. He wanted them to return to Benden. Azalath says her rider did not want a reconciliation, and has collected the last of his things. She says her rider does not wish to return to Benden again, and she is sad. She misses Selth, and Foggath.
Quite a bit of gossip. I thought you bronzes were above all this!
tone was almost scandalised.
We are! But Ruarnoth will want to know, when she arrives at dawn.
Curiosity picqued, F'ren
queried his dragon.
Why do you care what Ruarnoth thinks?
She is a pretty green.
I thought your interests lay... elsewhere.
You're always trying to keep our options open, you say. We train, we drill, we talk to the other riders and dragons. What harm in practising for something else?
Well, Trath certainly had a point there. What about Ulleth? Truth be told, F'ren wouldn't mind encouraging Trath's interests in that direction. Denna was a much more attractive prospect than H'koll, not that it mattered at all as far as a single flight went.
I would prefer Ruarnoth.
Well, that answered that question. C'mon. Time to stretch those wings of yours.
F'ren waited for Trath to scramble down towards him, and swiftly mounted his dragon. Trath spun round on his hind legs, and easily launched himself into the wind, almost dropping off into the updraft. As they flew, the pair scanned every inch of the weyrbowl, looking out for anything untoward. Everything was still, and silent, except where the strong winds pulled anything unsecured into noisy disarray. Just like the rest of their watch, this was another boring formality. But there was certainly nothing wrong with knowing the weyr better than the back of your hand, every updraft, every thermal. And these regular sweeps were part of the job description, and couldn't be avoided.
Night flying took a lot more care than a similar pass in the daylight... it would be too easy to make a mistake, wrench a muscle. And with the encroaching winter weather, especially now. Oh, yes, too easy.
"Count three months or more..." F'ren muttered the words of the age-old teaching song under his breath. Oh, he was counting the days, sure enough. Only another few weeks of this at worst. Even so, for all his hopes, F'ren could see himself doing this exact same chore in, oh, about another turn's time. But not every turn, oh no. His wingleader, L'sard, saw no trouble with the way his wingsecond was being disciplined, but the man was little more than Sh'vek's lackey. And he was old, and getting slow in the air. Treating a young wingsecond this way was one thing, but F'ren didn't intend to stay that way forever. M'wer couldn't exactly take over when the time came, not a brownrider! Though there were other bronzes in the weyr that could easily be shifted sideways. Promoting another bronze, even a wingsecond from another wing, wouldn't be well received... but who could complain if an established wingleader took over? T'plos, F'ass... both had able seconds themselves, and seemed settled enough in their roles that they'd be unlikely to be bothered at maintaining the status quo. Hmmm. It might be wise to keep an eye on them, and pay close attention to the contacts they two men had with Cloudburst wing.
F'ren was still feeling unsettled by this new thought when Trath delicately landed on the ridge at the end of their circuit. Uneasy, he dismounted, and paused to stroke Trath's headknobs. The dragon's eyes were whirling green with contentment, completely oblivious to his rider's concerns. F'ren almost laughed at himself; not even sure of what happens in your own wing, and you have ambitions for a whole weyr? Deep inside, he knew he wasn't ready for that ultimate reward; he didn't have the experience, and arrogance aside, he didn't have the self confidence to carry it off. Yet. But if Sh'vek was going to see him as a threat, by Faranth, he and Trath were going to BE one!
As Trath returned to his post by the starstones, F'ren wandered over to the discarded kettle of klah. It'd cooled, but far enough that it wasn't in that dreadful, undrinkable in-between state. Still, it was a good stimulant, and he felt the need to choke some down regardless of the taste or temperature. The bronze rider poured himself a second cup, and ran over his wingmates in his mind, using the silence as an opportunity to review their skills and best use in different types of fall, as well as pondering their varied social links. He was conscious of Trath pacing around the ridge, the dragon almost as bored but with a better attention span for the task in hand. His dragon was content to be protecting the weyr, in whatever way he could. With surprise, he looked up to see Belior rising in the east. Half way through his duty already. Still, the stiffness of his limbs were a sure sign that plenty of time had passed. A warming sight indeed, that sign that time was passing, and his shift wouldn't be never-ending. There'd been some dark, cold nights when he'd wondered if he'd ever see the dawn, or if they'd shifted between without warning.
Anyway, it was finally time for Trath to find the mind of Julan's lizard, and make sure that the assistant cook was up and awake. Failed candidates didn't always stay failed, even those searched for the rarer queen eggs. It never hurt for a bronze rider to have good contacts, and even if they didn't pay off in the way you hoped, he still got a decent breakfast out of this one. And more, hopefully, once his nights were his own again. But for now, the thought of the young woman baking the weyr's morning bread would do. Standig by a warm oven, or kneading dough with arms floured to the elbow, or adding just the right amount of sweetener to the Klah... F'ren had come along way from the hold kitchen lad he'd once been, but there was still something instinctively reassuring about seeing her working on chores like those, even in his imagination.
All this thought of food is making me hungry, Trath complained.
Maybe it was time to feed Trath again. Just a single beast, perhaps two, depending on how the diets of the other bronzes were right now.
I'm not dreaming of food, just... comfort, he answered his dragon. Anything to get my mind off this miserable ridge.
The herdbeasts are all sleeping in their weyrs. I couldn't hunt, even if we were able to leave our post. I can't even see them to choose which I'd eat.
Here, have a look at this. With a smile, F'ren conjured up a mental image of the weyrbowl in springtime, bulls, cows and calves grazing by the lake. Which would you like?
I would choose that one, there, drinking... but they are not real.
No, they're not real. Just a dream. Do dragons dream?
I think I do, but I do not remember. Maybe I just share your dreams.
That was probably the
truth of it, F'ren decided. Certainly they were of one mind in so
many things, why not dreams?
The two chatted idly and waited for the dawn to start lightening the eastern sky. Fat Timor had set, and Belior in its current phase gave too little light for F'ren to feel safe walking the ridgeline. Once it got lighter, he'd head out again, try shifting some more of those icy patches. Feeling a little warmer, he stripped his gloves off his hands and working by touch, carefully trimmed the tips off the longer nails with his belt-knife. His hands were callused from life as a dragonrider, not really soft at all, but saved from the drying air of the cold High Reaches by regular oiling of his dragon and his riding straps. In the winter time, the weyrlings and riders of larger dragons rarely lacked volunteers for assisting with the oiling of their dragons, particularly from the weyr women. F'ren reached over to his pack, and pulled out a small jar. Before putting his gloves back on, he might as well see to those few spots on Trath's gleaming hide that always seemed most in need of attention.
It was a never ending task, tending a bronze. Certainly, the bronze weyrlings learnt a little humility pretty quickly, though it rarely lasted long out of weyrlinghood. Getting up earlier to clean a larger dragon, feeding it more meat, butchering more animals, shovelling the necessary waste out of the barracks until they were able to do make that use of between... oh yes, any false illusions of superiority were rubbed out pretty quickly. And even later in those early years, when they started riding, flying and going between... it was a common source of amusement for a whole wing to watch when a group of weyrlings mounted their dragons for the first time. What was easy for a fit weyrling with a green dragon was made a lot more awkward for a bronze weyrling desperate to show off to his peers. They never learned. Every clutch, it'd be the same: the new bronze riders lying red-faced on their behinds, or clinging in futility half-way up their riding straps, while blue and green weyrlings and whatever other spectators were present tried to smother their laughter. Well, the natural order would re-assert itself eventually, once they'd grown up a bit, and once a few smug greens and blues got taken to task for over-flying their smaller dragons... So much of weyr life was like that. A balance of skills, of opportunities. Every dragon was valued, certainly, but adjusting to the range of options that was available to you and your dragon didn't always come easily. But at the core of things, life always came down to just you and your dragon in the end. Especially when it came to fighting thread. Everyone in their place in the wing, flame, firestone or flamethrower at the ready, ready to destroy the killing threads. You were never more alone with your dragon than then, with your lives and Pern's future on the line. All rivalries disappeared, all those idle thoughts and dreams, friends, lovers, enemies... just the fear, exhilaration, pain and glory of threadfall.
Do not think of threadfall. I do not like to think of it now, with the weyr asleep and unready. I have no firestone, and I could not fight thread on my own!
Easy, Trath. Next fall's still days away, and the weyr will be ready for when it arrives. Besides, thread rarely fell this early in the day. Maybe once a year they'd get a fall in semi-darkness, relying on the moonlight, dragonflame and natural luminescence of thread to meet it succesfully (albeit rarely very safely) in the air. No, twilight falls were the last thing to dwell on right now.
So, hear any more gossip? F'ren wondered.
I thought you disapproved?
Oh, it passes the time. Well?
There are few dragons yet awake, and they have little to say. A weyrling is in distress over something or other, but Earith is awake and dealing with the problem. Garlenth's scoring itches, but he doesn't wish to disturb his rider, as it's the first night he's not woken in pain. Kiath soothes him, and tells him how brave he is.
Is her rider awake? And Sh'vek? Oh, it would be quite amusing if Sh'vek too had had a disturbed night!
No, just Kiath. She returns to her couch, and intends to sleep some more.
Ah well. He squinted in the dim half-light, and could just about make out a moving shape in the entrance of the shadowed weyr. Still, up here by the starstones the light was getting much better, good enough for another trek along the footpath. He mentally signalled his intent to Trath, and began walking. The path was getting pretty worn in places, and there was one large icy patch he couldn't believe he'd not come to grief on earlier in the night. Maybe he should ask Trath to bespeak Ruarnoth a little early, ask her to get H'koll to bring up another sack of gravel. Yes, that'd be appropriate, and it'd give the greenrider something more to do on his watch. Of course, the morning's watch was always much less tedious, with riders and dragons heading out first thing on whatever task they'd been assigned. Not like this last watch of the night. Even V'nir had had more excitement, dealing with the aftermaths of the Telgar gather. Not that F'ren really minded this watch ,out of the many he could've been saddled with. Time to be alone, time to think, and at least this subtle degradation hadn't made him a public spectacle. Yes, there were worse things Sh'vek could have done. And who knew? An early start might be useful one day soon...
His route eventually returned him to Trath's side. The dragon's hide had lost the washed-out grey shade which had been all F'ren's eyes could make out in the dimmer light. Now it was gleaming, more of a soft green-gold, close to his natural shade. Twilight was drawing to a close, and dawn was near. The new day would probably be just as grey as the last, but changes would come in time.
F'ren settled his back against his dragon's foreleg, and waited for Trath to bugle a greeting to a small green shape which would soon be winging her way up to the heights; H'koll and Ruarnoth, who would soon come to take their turn at watch. He waited, thinking of the duties that would come after breakfast, of the falls in the days to come, and of all the future paths his and Trath's lives might take.
F'ren waited, for the dawn that would signal the end to this long, dark watch.
He waited, for the first sign of gold rising in the east.