The Weyrwoman stood on sands of Benden Hatching Grounds, barely noticing the scorching heat that rose up in waves beneath her boot-clad feet. Her whole attention was focused on the great golden dragon before her, and the eggs half-buried in the warm sand. The queen was the largest Benden had ever seen, her graceful proportions magnificent in their sheer magnitude. But despite the large clutch of sizeable eggs nestled carefully about her body, the queen's color seemed dull, her great wedge-shaped head lowered and her tail still, not twitching restlessly as it usually did.
Narenth, said the Weyrwoman. Narenth, my love, look at me.
With great reluctance and an enormous amount of effort, the queen dragon looked at her rider, her eyes spinning grey and a soft, sad blue.
There are almost fifty, the woman said, sending waves of pride and love toward her dragon, her Narenth.
But no queen, Narenth replied softly. My daughters are all green.
"Are you sure, dearest?" murmured the woman aloud, stroking the great head just below one whirling eye. "I cannot see any colors on these yet. And some of the newest are large enough…"
No, the dragon said. I know. She crooned softly as her rider's shoulders slumped. The movement was almost imperceptible, and the woman was trying to shield her dragon from her disappointment and sadness, but they both felt it nonetheless. I am sorry, Narenth said in a pleading tone, bunting her rider in the chest softly. I am so sorry, Linnara-mine.
"Oh, it's not your fault, dearest!" Linnara cried, throwing her arms about her dragon's neck. "You're magnificent, forty-eight in a clutch, that's even larger than your last."
But Benden needs a queen. Another young queen.
"You are young," Linnara said defensively. "And you will clutch again."
Benden needs a queen, Narenth repeated again. Linnara sighed and rested her forehead against her dragon's neck. She noticed that her feet were beginning to burn, but ignored it. However, Narenth sensed it and with a huff of warm air swept her rider up onto her foreleg. Linnara made herself comfortable and looked over her dragon's eggs once again. They were a spectacular size, they really were…she could just imagine the size of the bronze that would come from the egg just by Narenth's tail….and the dragonets from Narenth's last clutch were the best Benden had seen in years. Young I'rath's bronze Emarth was as large as a full-grown green, and not yet a full Turn old. Thinking this over, Linnara felt a warm glow of pride in her lovely queen. Despite the absence of a golden egg, the clutch was enough to prove that Narenth would leave her mark upon Benden for Turns to come, just like her ancestor the great Ramoth. Linnara remembered when they had measured Narenth and declared her to be a hand's length longer than the golden legend. "You are simply lovely," she murmured, beginning to doze. Caring for a clutching dragon was strenuous and stressful, not to mention the fact that M'ran had been fussing over her constantly, worried that Narenth's hasty second rising would take too great a toll on her. People always underestimated her. In sharp contrast to her dragon's prodigious size, she was so slender that everyone tended to forget that she was taller than some of the male dragonriders. Males can be silly like that , Narenth agreed amicably through her half-doze. Orinth has been ridiculously annoying in the past week.
Linnara smiled through a stifled yawn. M'ran's bronze Orinth was certainly a force to be reckoned with in the sky fighting Thread, but when it came to Narenth he was as dumb as a moonstruck wherry, especially when mysterious works such as clutching were occurring. Narenth stirred. What is it, love? Linnara asked, almost asleep. She could feel her dragon reaching out, talking to someone…probably a bronzerider, maybe M'ran. Who knew. Narenth had always been adept at handling the social aspect of her status, mediating disputes between her bronzes, talking strategy with her browns, socializing girlishly with her greens and trading hunting tips with her blues. The Weyr loved her, no doubt—Benden's dragons were certainly the most loyal to their queen. But the annoying problem of that golden egg was beginning to irk a few, though it hadn't reached the point where it was openly discussed, especially around any bronzeriders. She smirked when she thought of what M'ran and Orinth would do to someone caught badmouthing their queen…
"How long, do you think, dearest? Until they hatch?" she asked lazily.
A week more. Perhaps longer, perhaps shorter. They will hatch when they are ready, replied Narenth with her usual laconic tone. Garlith has returned with two more candidates. And Plenneth, she added, naming a feisty green that was her particular companion. She cocked her head slightly. Plenneth says to tell you that they have brought back a girl. She thinks we should see if one of my daughters is like Path.
"Not a bad idea," agreed Linnara, ignoring the twinge of sadness that ignited in her stomach at the mention of the girl candidate. What would it be like, she wondered, to stand out on the sands and not be circled eagerly around a golden egg…to look at all the boys Impressing and simply standing, not focusing on the queen that could be yours…
Stop thinking about it like that, Narenth said with a hint of annoyance in her voice. Greens are worth no less than any other color. My daughters will all be strong and fierce.
And beautiful, Linnara agreed, hastening to calm the irritated queen. I am sorry, love, I meant no insult, you know that. It's just that I couldn't imagine life without you…and to think if I'd been told I was to try to Impress a green rather than you…
I am me, Narenth said simply. That is why you think of it like that. I understand. Just like Plenneth's rider would balk if it was suggested he should have Impressed a bronze or brown or blue. I am me.
Yes, Linnara agreed, and you are wonderful. She shook off a jaw-cracking yawn, blinking wearily.
Sleep, Narenth said, rumbling low in her chest.
You should…too…Linnara was fighting to keep her eyes open.
I am watching over my children.
All right, love… Linnara sent a last thought of affection towards Narenth and then gave herself up to sleep.
Arryn awoke to the excited screeching of the watch-wher. She could hear it rattling its chain about in the courtyard—visitors. Strangers, by the frenzied sound of it. She began to slide out of bed, suppressing a shiver as the cool morning air enveloped her bare legs. The wher's gabbling reached a new intensity. She paused—she'd never quite heard that pitch before, not even when the most important dignitaries arrived. Then the bottom dropped out of her stomach as she heard the clear brazen bugle of a dragon.
A real dragon! Here in Ruatha! Her mind raced as she flew about the room, pulling on a long-sleeved dress and leggings and well-worn but respectable boots. Just before flying out the door, she considered herself in the mirror and hurredly twisted her hair up into a knot at the back of her head.
She arrived breathlessly in the courtyard and promptly gaped in wonder at the sight of the dragon towering over the knot of men and women gathered near the main gates. The dragon was a magnificent, glowing green, its eyes whirling emerald as it inspected the growing crowd. The watch-wher was gibbering in fear. Without a second thought she reached out and it instantly calmed, retreating into its dark den. When she released her concentration, she gave a little gasp, finding herself locked in a gaze with the green dragon, which was staring at her intently. Her body shook with equal parts fear and excitement as the dragon took three steps toward her, enough to silence the crowd of onlookers and hopeful young people. The dragon's rider, a tall man with chestnut hair, ended his conversation politely and turned to his dragon. What is it, Plenneth?
Arryn started. She heard the voice faintly, garbled as if through water, but she heard it, and immediately she blushed, feeling as though she was eavesdropping on the most private of conversations.
I felt this one when we landed, the dragon—Plenneth—replied. The dragon's voice was stronger in her head, almost clear—feminine, Arryn realized, with a hint of sauciness. She hadn't known that greens were female; everyone knew about golds, but she'd assumed greens were just the smallest dragons. Plenneth cocked her head bemusedly.
Bigger is not better, boomed the dragon's voice in her head, so loud her ears rang. And if I were a male I would be immeasurably sillier and immensely less sensible, so you should be thankful I'm not. A male would probably be very annoyed at you right now, the dragon lowered her head so that it was scant feet away from Arryn's face, for being so rude.
"I—I'm sorry," stammered Arryn, looking at her feet shamefacedly. "I—didn't know."
"Didn't know what?" The dragonrider placed a hand on his green's neck and considered her.
Arryn hesitated. She knew what was happening; she'd grown up with stories of Lessa—she was from Ruatha, after all, and a distant descendant of the famous Weyrwoman. Should she tell the dragonrider? As soon as she asked herself the question she knew the answer and she thought she would be sick as she opened her mouth to answer him. Her voice came out as little more than a whisper. "I didn't know I could hear dragons."
The rider looked at Plenneth. That true, love?
Of course, Plenneth replied, giving her rider an affectionate bunt. It is good you told him, she addressed Arryn with a hint of pride in her voice. You are a brave little one. Arryn flushed with pleasure, too tongue-tied even to give her thanks.
"What's all this?"
Arryn turned to see her uncle emerge from the hold, his eyes still bleary from sleep. He stopped when he saw the dragon and his face slowly colored. Arryn cringed. Her uncle was well-known throughout the surrounding Holdings for his antipathy toward dragon-riders. She braced herself.
"What's all this?" Yenar repeated louder, his face growing redder with every passing moment of silence. The dragon-rider considered him as he had considered Arryn, this time with a cold, impassive air. Finally the rider stepped forward and broke the deathly quiet.
"I am H'rath, rider of green Plenneth," he said in way of introduction, and sketched a stiff bow with one shoulder. Arryn almost gasped: her uncle should be bowing to the dragon-rider, not the opposite. Her face burned in shame.
"And who gave you permission to come to my Hold, rider?" Yenar said, his voice just short of a sneer. Arryn could feel her muscles tightening with every word he spoke.
"I am on Search, Holder," the rider said with controlled courtesy. Arryn could feel him talking to Plenneth, but she was too upset to focus on his words.
"I do not give you permission to take any of my people back to your cursed Weyr," spat Yenar, not bothering to hide his loathing anymore. "I have already lost too much to you." Plenneth rumbled a warning.
"I do not need your permission, Holder," replied H'rath. Arryn could feel the cold fury in his voice, and Plenneth's eyes spun red—a dangerous color. But Yenar took no notice.
"You are not welcome here, dragon-rider. Go back to your filthy caves," growled Yenar.
"Uncle!" Arryn cried in shock and dismay; she felt Plenneth's anger and it was making her dizzy. "Show some respect, please!" she half-scolded, half-pleaded. Yenar turned to her, livid.
"Do not speak of matters you do not understand," he hissed, "and do not presume to give me orders, girl."
"Dragon-riders deserve respect!" she said vehemently.
"Go inside—now!" her uncle commanded, breathing heavily. She was conscious of H'rath watching, and knew her behavior wasn't ladylike in the least but she was beyond the point of caring.
"No," she said. "I will not." She felt a warm wave of support from Plenneth and stood straighter.
"Disobedient child!" growled Yenar. "You are a shame to my house! Now go inside!"
Arryn trembled. Despite her anger and the surge of shock at his behavior toward the dragon-rider, Yenar was still her uncle, and she barely knew the man standing beside her. She remembered when the first Threadfall of the Pass had fallen—the great uproar that had erupted! Just as the dragon-riders had warned, some folk had forgotten about the dangers of Thread; it had been countless Turns since the Red Star had last passed near enough to Pern for its deadly spores to seek the earth. There was the lore and the legend, yes, especially here in Ruatha of Lessa and her great Ramoth. As a small girl Arryn had taken a broomstick and pretended it to be Ramoth, and she Lessa, despite the fact that her wild chestnut hair and bright, cat-like green eyes immediately disqualified her from looking the part. Uncle Yenar had laughed with her father and mother when he found out…she had taken that broomstick everywhere with her, for almost half a Turn, and many a night she could be found out on the roof watching for dragons on Search. They seldom Searched Holds, in the time before thread…the riders mostly preferred their own kin, Weyrbred, for the fewer numbers of dragons that hatched in such Threadless Turns. Then, when she was six—just barely old enough to be kept from running wild in the fields and set to learn her letters—it had Fallen. No-one was prepared, not even her father, who was the most particular and fastidious Holder when it came to the safety of those on his land. Many had been out in the fields…and the dragons had suffered terrible losses, blinking in and out—she had watched with horrified fascination from the window as villagers fled to the shelter of the stone Holding, bleeding and burned from Threadscores. The next day she had found out that her parents were dead. Yenar took her as his own, being childless himself—of course, that had changed, but he had doted upon her until the years had hardened him into a bitter, cynical man. The dragon-riders were honored and lauded again, but he remained silent when others praised them, remembering his brother. Now Arryn trembled under his gaze, willing herself to be strong, but as memories of that day flooded her she became less and less certain of her stance.
"All right, Uncle," she said softly, and brushed past him, lowering her head. She heard Plenneth trying to say something but she kept her mind blank as new sand, resisting the urge to run back to the green dragon and her rider. The watch-wher creeled at her. She paused to lay a hand on its ugly head and it clacked with pleasure. Then it looked at her with a gleam in its eye she had never seen before. Gogo, squawked a voice in her head. Oh, not again, she thought. She was making too many discoveries about herself for one day. But she calmed herself and said patiently, Why should I go?
Gold, muttered the watch-wher, beginning to lose focus on the conversation. Arryn frowned.
What? she asked. But the watch-wher rattled its chain and snuffled in its straw for a morsel. She sighed. Plenneth was still at the back of her mind, persisting. Fine, she thought, letting the channel of communication open.
Why are you going, little one? Are you afraid?
I am not afraid, Arryn replied indignantly. This is my home.
But you are not truly happy here.
Arryn didn't know how to respond, so she said, My uncle is good to me. I owe my life to him.
But you do not owe him your dreams as well.
H'rath's voice came from behind her. "No, Holder, you shame your own house. Your commands have no authority over me and you show me disrespect when I come with all courtesy. I will leave, as you wish. However, with all courtesy I ask to bring the young woman to Benden."
She stopped, knowing he had gestured to her.
"My niece!" spluttered Yenar, sounding shaken. "You would dare steal my own flesh and blood from me—!"
Arryn turned to watch the scene, the dragon-rider focused intently on her uncle. "No, I will not take her against your wishes. But I ask you. She has the makings of a fine dragon-rider."
Plenneth bugled her approval and the watch-wher shrieked. Arryn felt a small stab of sadness for the ugly creature and sent it her warmest affections, but couldn't help glowing at H'rath's remark. Yenar seemed speechless.
"Why do you not ask her what it is she wants?" H'rath asked almost gently.
To her surprise, her uncle turned to her, all the anger drained from him. He looked like a different man. "Arryn?" He drew a shuddering breath. "Do you want to go—with this man?"
"I…" Arryn was overwhelmed. Leave Ruatha? Leave her room and her weaving, her bow and her mare and the thousand little things that made her life hers? It was an enormous question that left her head pounding. "I don't know," she said finally. She turned to the rider. "If I don't…become a rider, will I be able to come back?"
He nodded. "If you don't Impress, you may choose to stay at the Weyr until another Hatching, or you may choose to return to Ruatha."
She took a large breath. "May I speak to my uncle in private?"
"Of course. Plenneth and I will be here when you return." He bowed to her, making her blush, and turned to his dragon.
She followed Yenar into the closest room—it happened to be a storage room. So this is the place where I make the most important decision of my life, she thought wryly. "Uncle," she started, but he held up a hand.
"I am sorry for the way I treated you. And the way I spoke to our visitor," he added almost grudgingly. "But you must understand…"
"I know," Arryn said. "And I do understand, Uncle."
"So, do you want to become one of them?"
"Please don't make it sound as if I'm joining the enemy," she admonished.
He sighed. "It is simply habit, I think. The boy is courteous enough."
"Yes," she agreed. After a moment of thought, she said, "I think I need to do this. Just to see if..."
"If you are good enough for a dragon?" her uncle smiled humorlessly.
She shrugged. "You know it has been my dream. I will be homesick, and I will miss you, but this is something I must do." She gave a little laugh. "After all, I'm a distant descendant of Lessa, yes?"
"Through your mother's side," Yenar acknowledged with a shake of his head. "That does not mean it will hurt any less when you do not become a rider."
She sighed. "Doubt me all you please, Uncle. I have made my decision."
He nodded curtly. "Very well. Go get your things."
Arryn nodded and gathered a small pack, changing into clothes more suitable for traveling. She took only her most precious possessions, supposing that the Weyr would supply her with anything else she should need. She looked around the room one last time before shutting the door behind her.
Arryn avoided her acquaintances as she made her way down to the courtyard again; this would be easier without any silly emotional farewells. H'rath and Plenneth were waiting.
"I am coming with you," she said to H'rath, and he grinned broadly. Her stomach hurt as she realized the impact of her decision, yet there was an excitement mixed into her nervousness as well.
"Are you ready?" the rider asked.
She nodded, unable to say more, suddenly feeling very sick and scared. Yenar was not a horrible man—harsh sometimes, yes, but life changed people, hardened them through no fault of their own. And Ruatha was her home.
Do not fear, little one, said Plenneth reassuringly. We will take care of you.
"Thank you," she whispered, to both of them, feeling tears prick the back of her eyes. Not here, not now, she told herself. Her head was still swimming but she registered the unrestricted joy that welled up within her as H'rath lifted her onto Plenneth's neck. She knew without a doubt that this was her.
You are truly a rider-to-be, little one, came Plenneth's amused voice.
H'rath mounted behind her. "I apologize for the improper position—usually candidates ride in the back, but we can't have you fainting and falling off between, eh?"
She allowed herself a weak smile despite the fact that her uncle looked ready to murder someone—namely, H'rath. "I suppose not."
Hold on, warned Plenneth. Arryn jolted as the dragon leapt off the ground and with a mighty sweep of her wings bore them aloft. She watched as the courtyard and the figures within it dwindled until she could blot them out with a finger. She had time to look out over the hills of Ruatha one last time before Plenna bugled and they blinked into the breathtaking cold of between.
Between was terrifying—utterly and completely, cold and alone—she screamed and desperately reached out for something, anything to tell herself she was alive—and Plenneth was there, soothing her: I am here, I am here, do not be afraid, little one, it will be over soon.
They burst out into sunlight, the land below them awash with the colors of sunset. Plenneth descended in lazy circles as Arryn took in the magnificent sight below her, mouth hanging open in sheer awe. "The dragons," she whispered. "There's so many of them!" Blue and green and brown and shimmering bronze, dipping through the sky and sunning on the rocks and splashing in the lake, coming and going, bugling and trumpeting and crooning. A green sunning on the rocks lifted her head and a brown being scrubbed by his rider in the lake turned toward them. She heard them greet Plenneth, and then, miraculously, they greeted her as well! H'rath's amused chuckle rumbled through her. Plenneth turned her head and fixed her with an eye whirling in excitement.
Be polite, little one, was all she said before Arryn was aware of a great golden presence—her entire body gave a great shiver. "Cold?" asked H'rath, but she couldn't answer him. All her attention was focused on that magnificent presence.
Welcome to Benden Weyr, small one, said the great golden voice.
Th-thank you—What does one call a queen dragon? she panicked mentally—thank you, Great One. She felt the golden voice shift, and thought she had said something wrong, her heart plummeting. Then she realized the queen was amused, and she was hearing the dragon equivalent of laughter.
You will come meet my rider soon, the queen said. Plenneth has told me you are very special.
She felt herself blush and couldn't reply. The queen paused and seemed distracted.
I must see to my children. Until we meet, small one.
And she was gone. Arryn relaxed. She realized H'rath had been holding his breath. He let it out in a low whistle as they neared the ground. "Shards," he said, "you start at the top, don't you? Talking to Narenth herself. You'll be the toast of the Weyr soon enough."
She shook her head, feeling another blush coming on. What was it with her today? Then she tensed as she saw the ground approach with alarming speed, but Plenneth landed daintily with a flourish of her wings.
I am a good flyer, little one, she said smugly.
Arryn laughed and accepted H'rath's offered hand. He lifted her down from Plenneth's neck.
"Come on now," he said, "let's get you settled." He paused. "By Faranth's egg, I don't believe I know your name." He gave a little laugh of incredulity.
"Arryn," she smiled shakily, overwhelmed by the splendor and awe of the Weyr.
"Well, Arryn, you'll be riding soon enough. Come on, now."
With one last glance at the dragons wheeling in the sunset, Arryn followed H'rath into the Weyr.