This is an alternate possible ending for a significant event of 9th-Pass Pern.

"The littlest egg hasn't cracked yet," Jaxom said, nudging Felessan and pointing. "Shouldn't it be hatching?"

Lytol frowned, roused by the anxiety in his ward's voice.

"They were saying it probably wouldn't hatch," Felessan reminded Jaxom, far more interested in seeing what dragons his friends had Impressed.

"But what if it doesn't hatch? Can't someone break it and help the poor dragon out? The way a birthing woman does when the baby won't come?"

Lytol whirled on Jaxom, his face suffused with anger.

"What would a boy your age know of birthing?"

"I know about mine," Jaxom replied stoutly, jerking his chin up. "I nearly died. Lessa told me so and she was there. Can a dragonet die?"

"Yes," Lytol admitted heavily because he never lied to the boy. "They can die and better so if the embryo is misformed."

Jaxom looked at his body quickly although he knew perfectly well he was as he should be; in fact, more developed than some of the other Hold boys.

"I've seen eggs that never hatched. Who needs to live – crippled?"

"Well, that egg's alive," Jaxom said. "Look at it rocking right now."

"You're right. It's moving. But it isn't cracking," Felessan said.

"Then why is everyone leaving?" Jaxom demanded suddenly, jumping to his feet. For there was no one anywhere near the wobbling small egg.

The Ground was busy with riders urging their beasts down to help the weyrlings, or to escort guests of the Weyr back to their Holds. Most of the bronzes, of course, had gone with the new queen. Vast as the Hatching Ground was, its volume shrank with so many huge beasts around. Yet not even the disappointed candidates spared any interest for that one small remaining egg.

"There's F'lar. He ought to be told, Lytol. Please!"

"He knows," Lytol said, for F'lar had beckoned several of the brown riders to him and they were looking toward the little egg.

"Go, Lytol. Make them help it!"

"Small eggs can occur in any queen's laying life," Lytol said. "If anything can be done, you may be sure the Weyrleader will do it. This is not my concern. Nor yours!"

He turned and began to make his way toward the steps, plainly certain that the boys would follow.

"But they're not doing anything," Jaxom muttered rebelliously.

Felessan gave him a helpless shrug. "Then there must not be anything they can do. The dragons would know – look, it's not moving anymore."

Jaxom looked and saw that the rocking had all but ceased, with only an occasional wobble.

"C'mon, Jaxom. We'll be eating soon at this rate. And there's all sorts of special things tonight." Felessan trotted after Lytol. With one more long look at the little egg, Jaxom followed.

The dragons were returning, landing in the hatching ground so that their riders could help the weyrlings, or to escort guests outside. The tiers were emptying. Soon there was only a man in holder colors on the first tier with two boys. The man looked as tired as Menolly felt. Then one of the boys rose, pointing to the little egg still on the sand that wasn't even rocking anymore.

Idly Menolly thought that it might not hatch, remembering the uncracked egg left in the fire lizard's sand nest the morning after her fire lizards had hatched. She'd shaken it and something hard had rattled within. Sometimes hold babies were born dead, so she'd supposed that it could happen to other creatures, too.

The boy was arguing with the man now, gesturing toward the egg, but he seemed to be losing. Menolly was amazed that he would get away with such disrespect of an older man. Finally the man was provoked into raising his voice, loud enough that she could hear it: "This is not my concern. Nor yours!" The man turned and began walking toward the exit; the boys, after a long look at the egg, followed. Menolly averted her gaze, embarrassed at having witnessed their private quarrel.

When it became obvious to Menolly that T'gellan had forgotten his promise to return, she slowly climbed down from the tiers and began making her way across the hot sands to the entrance of the Hatching Ground. She was halfway there when Beauty and the other fire lizards swooped in, chittering in relief that Ramoth was no longer there. As they darted around exploring the big cavern, their inquisitive sounds suddenly switched to a tone of urgency. Menolly turned around to see that they had discovered the unhatched egg and were hovering agitatedly over it. Beauty began flying back and forth between the egg and her mistress, screeching in alarm.

Menolly hesitated. Could something really be wrong? Beauty, Rocky and Diver dug their talons into her tunic and began pulling determinedly. Sighing in resignation, she allowed herself to be pulled back into the Hatching Ground, despite the painful heat of the sands.

When they realized she was coming back, the fire lizards flew back to the egg. Beauty landed on top of it and, to Menolly's surprise, began pecking at the shell. So they did think the dragon inside was still alive! She looked back toward the entrance; there was no one in sight. She'd never be able to go for help in time with her injured feet. Kneeling, she laid her hand on the egg. It was warm, with faint vibrations pulsing through the shell.

Menolly's lips tightened. Just like in the cave by the Dragon Stones all that time ago, she could not let a dragon – of any kind – die. She pounded her fist on the shell, with barely any effect; it was as hard as stone. She drew her belt knife and began pounding with the hilt. A few cracks formed, and the vibrations increased as she banged. Thick pieces of shell began falling off, far heavier than the discarded shells of the other hatchlings, and suddenly the fire lizards were humming loudly.

"Might I come in, Weyrwoman?"

"Is that you, Master Robinton? Come on in."

"I don't mean to intrude," Robinton said as he stepped into the Weyrwoman's quarters, "but I wanted to talk to you before all the hubbub of the feast."

"Of course. I have some time before I have to make my duty to all the lucky pairs… and the unlucky ones… and their families…" Lessa smiled at the Masterharper from where she stood caressing Ramoth's eye ridges. The immense gold dragon was resting, with all but one pair of lids closed; hatchings were emotionally draining for both dragon and rider. "What is it you wished to talk about?"

"Well, first of all I wanted to ask about Brekke. How does she fare? I know she didn't impress but she certainly looked better…"

"Oh, she is much better," Lessa assured him with obvious relief. "She's aware of here surroundings again, and she spoke to F'nor and Mirrim… she hasn't spoken in such a long time." She sighed. "But she is terrified of being left alone. She must feel so alone…" Lessa's voice trailed off, unable to even speak her sympathy. Ramoth roused, crooning softly, and Lessa smiled gratefully at her.

"It appeared to me," Robinton said carefully, "that it was her little fire lizard that snapped her out of her stupor back there."

"Yes," Lessa said, smiling wryly, "that little thing has been the saving of her. I could almost grow to like the creatures if they were all like that."

"And yet it didn't seem to want her to Impress the queen."

"No, that's true. Much as I hate to admit it." She sighed. "And I don't suppose we'll ever know why. At least she's recovering now. That Talina will make a good Weyrwoman; she reacted quickly in the crisis and her first thought was for the dragon, even before she Impressed."

"And another Ruathan as well, hey?" Robinton winked.

"Oh, you!" Lessa laughed, then sighed. Robinton could detect a hint of sadness.

"Is there something else bothering you, Weyrwoman?"

"I don't suppose you noticed – but you notice everything, don't you," Lessa said in a resigned tone. She paced from Ramoth to the table and back. "One of the eggs didn't hatch."

"Ah, yes, I had noticed that. Has it happened before?"

"Yes, but only twice. They were both very small, too. It's just so sad… they die without ever living."

"And yet, would it be any kind of life if they were damaged in some way?" Robinton's voice was full of understanding. "But one must always wonder; it is certain tragedy, compared to possible joy."

Lessa smiled gratefully. "That's it, exactly. You don't know for sure that it would have been worse for them to hatch – " She was interrupted by Ramoth, who suddenly lurched upright, bellowing in surprise. Lessa and Robinton backed away.

"Lessa, what's the matter? What's wrong?" Robinton shouted over the noise of the distraught dragon.

"She says – " Lessa's face wore an expression of shock and dismay. "She says the egg is hatching!"

Guests were still flowing in, but the Impression Feast was already going full swing, and Harper Elgion was thoroughly enjoying it. He hadn't realized how dour Half-Circle Sea Hold was until this evening. Yanus was a good man, a fine Sea Holder to judge by the respect his holders accorded them, but he certainly knew how to take the joy out of living.

When Elgion had sat in the Hatching Ground, watching the young boys impress, he'd determined that he'd find a fire lizard clutch of his own. That would alleviate the gloom at Half-Circle. And he'd see that Alemi got an egg, too. He'd heard from his neighbors in the tiers that the clutch being distributed this evening had been found down the coast from Half-Circle Sea Hold by T'gellan. Elgion had promised himself a chat with the bronze dragonrider; but T'gellan had had two passengers aboard Monarth when he'd collected Elgion at Half-Circle so there'd been no opportunity to talk. Elgion had been looking for the man since the Hatching.

Just as he finished his first portion of roast herdbeast (red meat tasted good after nothing but fish!) Elgion spotted T'gellan talking to one of the lucky candidates. He hurried over and intercepted T'gellan as he was moving on to the next new rider. "T'gellan!"

The bronzerider grinned. "Harper Elgion! Did you enjoy the Hatching?"

"Oh, yes. It was amazing. Indescribable.

"Speaking of Hatchings," Elgion rushed on, "that fire lizard clutch you've got. Did you find it in that cave by the Dragon Stones?"

"No, it was quite a long way down the coast, actually."

"Then there wasn't anything there?" Elgion was so bitterly disappointed that T'gellan gave him a long look.

"What were you expecting, if there were no fire lizard eggs?"

Elgion wondered briefly if he would be betraying Alemi's confidence. But it had become a matter of his professional honor to know if the sounds he had heard from the cave had been made by pipes.

"The day Alemi and I saw the cave from the boat, I could have sworn I heard pipes. Alemi insisted it was wind over blowholes in the cliffs, but there wasn't that much wind that day."

"No," T'gellan said, seeing a chance to tease the harper, "you heard pipes. I saw 'em myself when I searched the place."

"You found pipes? Where was the player?"

"The player?" T'gellan started to grin, but his eyes widened as if he had suddenly remembered something. "Shards!" he exclaimed, smacking his forehead. "I forgot Menolly!"

"What?" Elgion grabbed T'gellan's arm. "Menolly's here? Safe?"

"Yes, yes – T'gran brought her in last Threadfall, same as you, only she'd injured her feet – I was supposed to bring her back from the Hatching Ground! I've got to go!"

"Wait!" Elgion hurried after him. "I've got to find the Masterharper! Do you know where he went?"

"Last I saw he was heading for the Weyrwoman's quarters," T'gellan called back over his shoulder as he rushed out into the Bowl. Elgion followed, apologizing to Lord Warder Lytol, who was just entering.

"Ramoth!" Lessa shouted. "Calm down! It's all right!"

The egg hatches! No one is there! There will be no one to Impress!

"We'll find someone! I promise!"

Soon! Ramoth pleaded. It will be too late!

"Master Robinton!" Lessa was still shouting to be heard. "We've got to find some candidates for the egg!"

The Masterharper did not hesitate. "I'll go down to the feast – but the original candidates may not be in any condition to Impress…" Unlucky candidates, overcome by rejection, often chose not to attend the Feast at all; the older ones usually got drunk as soon as possible.

"That's all right! Just find someone, some young people – I don't care who!"

I should be in the Hatching Ground! I must go! Ramoth lurched out of the weyr and launched into the air, gliding toward the opening across the Bowl. Lessa ran after her; Robinton, torn by curiosity, nonetheless hurried in the opposite direction.

With a final pound, the heavy shell split down the middle. The thick inner membrane was visible now, and this was what had impeded the dragonet's emergence. Menolly's hands trembled in her haste as she used her belt knife to rip the slippery stuff open. From the sac fell a tiny white body, no larger than her own torso. Instinctively Menolly grabbed at it, helping the backstranded creature to its feet; lost in the rainbow eyes, she was unaware of Ramoth landing behind her until she heard the queen's triumphant bugling.

Hurrying toward the dining cavern, Robinton was surprised to see Elgion hurrying towards him. He was vaguely aware of one of the bronze riders – T'gellan, wasn't it? – running toward the Hatching Ground. Had his dragon told him what was happening?

"Master Robinton!" Elgion had reached the Masterharper, who did not reduce his pace; he turned and jogged after him, wondering why Benden's senior queen would be flying anywhere. He did not see Lessa running toward the Hatching Ground. "Master Robinton, I've found Petiron's lost apprentice!"

The unexpected good news caused the Masterharper to check his pace momentarily, then he hurried on. "Really? That's wonderful! Where is the lad?"
"It's not a lad, it's a girl, Menolly, and T'gellan says she's in the Hatching Ground – "

"The Hatching Ground! " Robinton stopped short and turned to stare at his Journeyman. The sudden silence was split by Ramoth's triumphant bugling. Without another word both harpers began running toward the Hatching Ground.

Almost to the entrance of the Hatching Ground, T'gellan was nearly knocked down by the draft as Ramoth flew just overhead. Gaping in astonishment, he doubled his speed. What was going on? He could hear others running behind him but he did not wait, and flung himself into the Ground. The great queen dragon bugled triumphantly, and he was nearly deafened by the echoes as he made his way around her to see Menolly kneeling in the sand. He gasped as he realized what she was holding. Lessa came running up, with Master Robinton and Elgion right behind her. All stared at the pair on the sands before them: the tall, gawky girl and the tiny white dragon, with a fair of fire lizards swirling overhead. As if barely aware of the incredible noise in the cavern, she turned slowly, carefully supporting the hatchling. Her eyes widened as she saw the Weyrwoman standing there.

T'gellan spoke first. "Menolly! Are you all right – "

"You – you broke the egg open!" Lessa interrupted, her voice filled with shock. "The hatchling – "

The hatchling has Impressed! Ramoth stated joyously.

Menolly stood up carefully, her fingers lingering on the frail white wingtips. There was no feeling of intimidation as there had been when she first met the Weyrwoman. The unconditional love she was experiencing filled her with a new confidence; she stood quite straight and faced her.

"Yes, I broke the egg." Her voice was trembling but clear. "My fire lizards were flying around it; they were worried about it. When I touched it I could feel it moving. I couldn't let the dragon die!" The little white hatchling made an anxious sound, and Menolly knelt back down beside it, stroking it reassuringly. She stared defiantly at the Weyrwoman.

"Whether it was the right thing to do or not, it is done," Robinton spoke up. "We should look to the hatchling."

"Oh, yes, please!" Menolly said. "She's so hungry… she's been so good but I can't walk fast at all! Could someone please bring some food for her?"

Lessa shook her head, collecting her thoughts. "Of course. T'gellan – "

"I'll be right back." With a last stare at the unlikely pair, T'gellan dashed back toward the Kitchen Cavern.

"Well, – Menolly? – what is its, her, name?" the Masterharper asked kindly.

Menolly beamed, embracing the little dragon lovingly. "Her name is Ruath!"

"Ruath!" Lessa started at the name that was so close to that of her own ancestral Hold. She shook herself again as Ramoth told her to take care of the hatchling. "Let me look at her, then." She knelt down next to Menolly, who reassured her friend as Lessa carefully inspected her.

"Well," the Weyrwoman said at last, "there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with her – she's just so small… and that color! Has there – I don't think there has ever been a white dragon, but we were always told not to interfere when eggs didn't hatch on their own…" Menolly flushed but was spared from having to defend her actions by the arrival of T'gellan and a large pail of meat. The rejoicing between the two of them as she fed Ruath her first meal blocked that nervous thought completely.

Menolly emerged from the small weyr next to the Weyrling Barracks. It had been decided that they should stay near the other Weyrlings for now. Menolly smiled to herself at the thought of the sleeping white ball she had left in the weyr; she was confident that there was nothing Ruath couldn't do. Her confidence wavered as she approached the Weyrleaders. Standing with them, Menolly recognized with dismay, was Harper Elgion from Half-Circle Sea Hold. She took some comfort from the presence of Manora and the kind man who had asked Ruath's name.

Weyrleader F'lar spoke first; his voice was stern but kind. "Well, Menolly," he began, "I should chastise you for breaking Weyr protocol… but you are not of the Weyr." He nodded toward Elgion, who nodded back gravely but with a ghost of a smile about his lips.

"We have always disposed of eggs that did not hatch on their own," F'lar continued. "There are records which state that these eggs often contain malformed or undeveloped corpses."

Menolly stared at him in alarm. "But – but Weyrwoman Lessa said that there was nothing wrong with Ruath!" she blurted out.

"That is true, there is nothing we can see. But she is different from the other hatchlings; she is a foreign color, she is much smaller – and she was unable to hatch on her own." He sighed. "We don't know what other differences there may be – she may not develop the right way, or she may not live – " Menolly gasped, pale at the thought.

"We will take care of her as long as she is with us," Lessa said. Menolly could feel her sympathy, and thought of Brekke. She shivered.

"Then – then I can stay?"

"Of course you can stay!" Lessa was surprised. "There's no way to unImpress! Any dragon will do better in a Weyr."

Menolly let out a silent sigh of relief. She had not realized how worried she was that they would punish her for interfering with the egg.

"Now that that's settled, I have a matter I'd like to discuss with Menolly," said the tall kind man.

"Of course, Master Robinton. Would you like us to leave?"

"No, you can stay if you like."

"I must be off," F'lar said. "I need to speak with Masterfarmer Andemon." He set off across the Bowl, walking as if it pained him. Lessa hesitated, then followed.

"Now, Menolly – why, what's the matter?" She was staring at him in disbelief.

"You're the Masterharper?"

He smiled. "Yes, I am, and I've been looking for you this last half Turn!"

"Looking – for me?" she said numbly.

"I believe so. Am I correct in believing that you were Petiron's apprentice?"

She was quick to explain. "Oh, no, I wasn't his apprentice. He told me girls couldn't be harpers."

"That wasn't what he told me," Robinton said, looking at her intently. "He wrote that he had a student who was incredibly talented. And he sent me as well two wonderful songs written by that student. Do you deny that you wrote those songs?"

Menolly caught her breath. "He – he did send them?" She had wondered, when his mind was getting so vague…

"He did." Robinton smiled. "And furthermore…" he nodded at Elgion.

"Furthermore," Elgion said, "I found some other songs, stuck way back in the records at Half-Circle. A few snippets, and several complete songs. I sent them on to Master Robinton.

"I also," he went on, "got your brother Alemi to admit that it was you who wrote those songs and taught the children so well after Petiron's death."

Menolly's head was spinning. They knew she had taught the children? "There – there was nobody else – I had to do it – "

"But you did it well," Elgion said earnestly. "I was asking everyone who taught the children so well, but your father said it was a fosterling who had been dismissed. That was after you'd run away."

She blushed with shame, staring at the ground. "What – what do you want with me?"

"Well," the Masterharper said slowly, "I was going to ask you to come back to the Harper Hall with me."

She stared in disbelief. "The Harper Hall! Really? You mean I – " Her sudden elation evaporated as she turned toward the weyr where Ruath was sleeping. "But I can't!"

He nodded. "That won't be an option now," he said with regret. "But once Ruath gets a little older, and won't need constant care, you can take up your studies again. Oharan tells me you have a lovely singing voice – and that you've taught your fire lizards to sing!" His eyes sparkled with excitement. "I'll be getting an egg from that clutch you found, and I hope I can teach it to sing when it hatches!

"But most important," he continued, "I want you to keep writing songs. Whatever comes into your head. Your songs are some of the best I've seen in Turns." She was shaking her head in disbelief; how could he think her "twiddles" were worth anything? She realized her hands were shaking too. "Yes, they are!" he insisted. "That fire lizard song - the tune fits them so perfectly, and I received it from Elgion just when people were wanting to know more about them!"

"Why, Menolly!" exclaimed Manora, who had been listening to all of this. "You mean to say you're the one who wrote that lovely song about the fire lizards? Everyone has been singing that one!"

Menolly was still shaking her head in denial. Manora had heard her song? But she'd only jotted down the tune and a few verses… she stared at Elgion, who nodded.

"Of course," the Masterharper said, "you obviously hadn't finished writing that one…"

"No, I hadn't actually…"

"So I did." He scratched his neck, looking embarrassed. "That song was just what I needed – the tune, the story – so I just – cleaned it up a little. I left the tune as it was, though, and that is what everyone is humming."

Menolly stared at him. "You really mean it? You – you really like my songs?"

"Yes!" the Masterharper said, almost in frustration. "I know it's too late now for much formal training, but I just wanted to tell you that if you think of a song, write it down! Even if you don't think it's any good, send it to me, please! You have written some very good songs. I need good songs badly." He sighed. "I don't know if I can spare an instrument from the Harper Hall – "

"Oh no, I couldn't!"

"But if you need to I'm sure Oharan will let you borrow his gitar. T'gellan tells me you brought some pipes with you. I will certainly supply you with writing materials – just ask Oharan if you need any.

"Eventually," the Masterharper went on, "I may be able to prevail upon the Weyrleaders to transfer you to Fort Weyr, close to the Hall. Or," he said carefully, "if something does happen to Ruath…" She shook her head, denying the possibility. "Whatever happens," he finished formally, "you will always be welcome at the Harper Hall."

Menolly took a breath. "Sir – Masterharper," she said, her voice shaking, "I don't know what to say. I – I never dreamed you knew my songs. If I – if I write any more, I will send them to you." She hesitated. "I don't think I can play gitar, though. My – my hand…" she extended her scarred hand for him to see.

"I notice that you are using that hand, though," Manora put in. "I daresay, sir, that Master Oldive might be able to do something for it; I wasn't sure what could be done."

"We'll have to ask him," the Masterharper said firmly. "He attended the Hatching; he should still be here."

"That can wait," Manora informed him. "This child is practically fainting from hunger. I'm taking her in to the Feast – you helped make it, after all, Menolly – and you can go looking for Master Oldive while she eats something."

He laughed, holding up his hands in surrender. "My dear Manora, I would not dare disobey you! You two go in and eat; I'll ask Master Oldive to stop by later. I need to talk to the Weyrleader about something else. I will see you later. Good evening, Menolly, Manora," he said, bowing formally, and strode off. Elgion bowed as well and followed him.

"All right now," Manora said briskly, "let's get going. There should still be plenty of food left if we hurry. Are your feet all right?"

"Yes… I put some more numbweed on them in the weyr," Menolly said, her head still spinning at all that had happened.

"Well, let's get you something to eat before you fall over, then!" Manora began helping her toward the Dining Cavern.

Jaxom sat at the table next to Felessan, staring across the Hall at the tall girl who was just getting a plate. Felessan had told him what he knew about her: that her name was Menolly, and she had nine fire lizards and had almost outrun Thread and she told good stories. But more than that, she had done what he had not dared to do: she had broken the little egg and impressed a dragon – a white dragon!

When the commotion of Ramoth's bugling had set the Dining Hall astir, Manora had asked that everyone remain in the Hall. Jaxom had been just coming in – the last one in – and had turned around to see Ramoth at the entrance to the Hatching Ground, and Lessa and the Masterharper and several other people running towards her. He had wanted to go see what was going on, but did not want to anger Lytol further after the pain of the Hatching. He had watched from the entranceway, though, and had seen the girl come out carrying a tiny white dragon. Later, the story had spread through the Hall: her fire lizards had made her go back into the Hatching Ground, and she had felt the egg moving, broken through the shell, and impressed the sport hatchling.

Jaxom sighed. He had come so close to jumping down from the tier and breaking the egg open himself. To have a dragon! He ignored the little voice that reminded him that Lords Holder could not also be dragonriders, trying to imagine what it would have been like. Impossible, of course, with his position; and nothing could have hurt Lytol more. Still, that name – Ruath! So close to Ruatha, his own Hold! It was almost as though he, and not the girl, had been meant to impress the dragon; but it was his duty to be a Lord Holder.

He sighed again and went off to find Lytol. He needed to make his duty to Talina, the new Ruathan Weyrwoman.

Duty was hard.