AN: This is another oneshot. It's basically backstory for some of the characters you've met in "In the dark watches of the night" and "Paying the price" (see my profile for links to those, if you're interested) but it stands alone okay, I think. And I'll apologise in advance for all the angst, but hey, we're dealing with weyrlings here...
The Long Winter
F'ren looks off into space blindly, remembering. "We were just weyrlings, Trath and I, when it all began. Fifteen turns ago, just after Turnover. " It was a long winter, that one, and cold.''
"Ah, where to begin?''
F'ren looks off into space blindly, remembering.
"We were just weyrlings, Trath and I, when it all began. Fifteen turns ago, just after Turnover.
" It was a long winter, that one, and cold.''
The fifth day after Turnover dawned dark and miserable, much like every other day that week. Heavy grey clouds shielded the peaks of the Weyr, and the steady fall of sleet showed no signs of easing. Shivering, F'ren dug his hands deeper into his pockets. He'd had enough of these mornings this winter, but at least they'd be escaping from this one soon.
Ahead of him on the steps, A'minek waited impatiently. F'ren wiped the weather out of his eyes, and waved him on.
"You go on, I'll catch up.''
The tall weyrbred lad grinned, and started jogging up the steps again, taking them two at a time. Any other time, F'ren would have given him a race, but not in the depths of winter, with snow and ice on the steps, and sleet in the air. A'minek had been born to conditions like this... let him fall on his arse, or worse. Not that he ever would, of course - A'minek was the very image of what a bronze rider should be, even if he was still just a weyrling.
The steps levelled out just as sleet turned to hail, and F'ren ducked beneath a rocky overhang to take shelter at the edge of the entrance to Seenth's weyr. The Weyr Queen was awake, gazing sadly out into the gloom. He gave her a polite nod and wished her a good morning, amazed as always that he was addressing the gold dragon on such familiar terms. Sometimes, she'd bespeak Trath with a reply - but not today. F'ren felt awkward, standing on her ledge uninvited, and found himself blurting out an explanation.
"A'minek and I, we were just coming to find Audrealle and Dilvith. We're drilling formations again today, and thought we could suggest somewhere warm... the Weyrlingmaster's more likely to listen to her ideas than either of us.''
The queen turned to give him an expressionless stare, and F'ren felt stupider than ever. What would she think of all his mindless chatter, when her rider was so ill?
"Ah... I hope the Weyrwoman is feeling...''
He broke off, as a wheezing cough echoed through the air of the weyr.
"Oh, do come all the way in, boy, don't just stand there freezing on the ledge!''
F'ren stared as Perelane emerged from the other side of her dragon's body. She was dressed for riding, in thick layers of wherhide, which normally wouldn't have been at all unusual... except that she'd been bed-ridden for the last two months, and so sick that nearly every healer on Pern had visited her at some point this winter. The Weyrwoman's illness was the main reason that F'ren, A'minek and the rest of their clutchmates were still weyrlings rather than full riders, so Sh'vek claimed. They should have graduated to the fighting wings weeks before, but Weyrleader J'bick had wanted to wait until Perelane was better. No-one minded too much - Perelane was a kind Weyrwoman, and most of the other weyrlings were happy to wait. Their dragons had come from one of Seenth's clutches, after all. Besides, there wasn't much pressure on the wings at this time of the turn, not with thread freezing to dust in the cold winter air. So, they'd all waited while the winter deepened, a muted Turnover came and went, and Perelane just got sicker and sicker. Yet now, here she was, dressed for flying of all things!
"You look well, Weyrwoman,'' F'ren said, as he stepped in to the slightly warmer weyr. In truth, she looked thin and drawn, her face pale, but no-one looked their best after being ill for so long. He hadn't liked the sound of that cough either... but he was certainly no healer, and she was on her feet again. That had to mean she was getting better.
Perelane sighed, and gave Seenth a fond pat on her neck. "Never lie to a woman in front of her own dragon, boy. I look quite dreadful.'' She leaned back to rest against Seenth's foreleg, and adjusted her scarf. "So. More drills for the weyrlings. You're a Boll lad, aren't you? Never did quite work out how you ended up here, but Seenth tells me you and Trath are doing well, and I can't argue with that.''
F'ren didn't know quite what to say to the Weyrwoman's ramblings. He opened his mouth to thank her for the compliment, but with a brusque motion she waved him to silence.
"Well. I don't think you need worry about convincing Sh'vek - I've just had Seenth bespeak Ormaith. Boll's a good spot for you Weyrlings today, about as far from this nasty weather as you can get. Seenth and I, we're off to--'' Perelane paused, pulled a hanky out of a pocket, and started coughing into it. Glints of red started to appear in Seenth's whirling blue eyes, and F'ren hurriedly asked if he could fetch the Weyrwoman some water. Or a healer, he wanted to add.
Perelane straightened up, and shook her head. "What? Oh no, none of that. Igen warmth is what we need, and what we'll get. Anyway, what are you still doing here with an old lady like me, while A'minek does all the flirting with the delightful Audrealle? You can't let him have all the fun, can you?''
F'ren had a horrid feeling he was blushing. He wouldn't have dreamed of flirting with Audrealle... Well, he had dreamed it - who wouldn't? But A'minek was his first friend in the Weyr, almost more like a brother, and F'ren knew how he felt about the young woman. Besides, there were all sorts of rules for weyrlings about things like that. Even this close to graduation, no-one wanted to risk Weyrlingmaster Sh'vek's displeasure, not even A'minek.
Perelane winked, and cracked a cheeky smile. The sight was so incongruous that F'ren forgot whatever it was that he was about to say.
"A'minek may have set his eyes on the silly flipskirt, but queen dragons do gossip, and that one'll do as she pleases. Don't worry about the rules today, boy. Now get on with you, before you make me feel even older.''
Feeling rather confused, but clearly dismissed, F'ren nodded and walked back out into the cold. He couldn't quite decide whether the Weyrwoman was acting more like her normal self, or if she was just a little bit delirious. Still, at least he had some good news to share with A'minek and Audrealle.
Ormaith instructs us that the next jump is to the coast.
F'ren adjusted his mental image of the Boll peninsula far beneath them, and waited for Cassonth to pass on the coordinates for the jump. A'minek was leading the weyrling wing as usual, but as they weren't using any firestone today, gold Dilvith was also part of the wing, stationed just behind Cassonth and to Trath's left. He added their positions to his visual, and looked over his shoulder to the south-east, squinting in the bright sunlight. The other weyrlings were holding their positions in the formation perfectly, watched over by the keen eyes of Sh'vek's Ormaith and L'gin's blue Felhith. As they should be, really - they'd been drilling non-stop for several hours now, and this would be the fourth change in location of the morning. Once they'd reached the skies above the coast, it'd be back to thread-fighting drills again, skipping several dragonlengths out of the wing in any direction, sometimes alone, other times in pairs or in groups of three or four.
It was really very tedious.
I have Cassonth's visual... see?
F'ren double checked it against his own image... not a bad match, except for being closer to his old home of Hold Gar than he'd expected. A few seconds later, A'minek dropped his arm in the signal to jump between, and darkness enveloped them.
The transition back into daylight was as strange as ever - not like waking up from a deep sleep, with some senses working again earlier than others. One moment you were nowhere, feeling nothing except your own consciousness... the next, you were alive and breathing again. That was another reason for the never-ending weyrling drills: to make the whole thing as banal as possible. The wing settled into a steady glide northwards above the coastline, and awaited further instructions.
What next, Trath? F'ren asked his dragon.
Felhith was here before us, but Sh'vek and Ormaith will not join us. They have returned to the Weyr. Cassonth seems confused. Felhith tells us to break formation and go between to the Hold, and to land on the shore south to the south; we will have our instructions there.
F'ren looked around for the blue, and sure enough, L'gin was gesturing for the wing to break formation. Trath banked into a wide spiral, and spoke again.
Dilvith tells Cassonth and I that Audrealle was expecting Ormaith to leave earlier.
What? How does she know?
She says... she insults us! She says we must still be weyrlings if we hadn't noticed that Kiath would rise today.
F'ren felt annoyance surging through Trath's mind, almost matching his own sense of stupidity. Of course Kiath was rising - why else would Weyrwoman Perelane and Seenth be leaving, risking a journey between when she was still so ill? And wanting the weyrlings, Audrealle included, to be as far away as possible? He really should have put two and two together before now, even if Trath hadn't noticed anything. Ahead, he saw A'minek twist around between Cassonth's neck ridges to stare at Audrealle, and shout something... F'ren couldn't hear what was said, but even at this distance, the young man's anger was plain. A'minek was one of the older weyrlings, and although he had borne the long wait for graduation to the fighting wings with good humour, he'd been growing increasingly impatient beneath the surface. It didn't help that Sh'vek was near impossible to please, and even harder on his own son than on the rest of the weyrlings. If F'ren had to guess, he'd say that A'minek was torn between his own confidence in himself, and the sense that until he graduated, Sh'vek wouldn't consider him good enough. It was even less of a leap to see that A'minek valued Audrealle's approval just as much as Sh'vek's.
Audrealle shook her head, shouted something back, and then she and Dilvith vanished between. Cassonth twisted in the air and glided down towards Trath, as their other wingmates blinked out one by one.
"She knew all along!'' A'minek shouted once he was close enough to be heard.
"I guessed! Did she say why she didn't tell us?''
"She said we'd be bound to do something stupid, and make fools of ourselves. And that we'd better sharding stay here, and not go back!''
Go back? Back to the Weyr, where the bronzes were blooding? Oh, F'ren had had his share of fantasies about when Trath would start chasing queens, but he'd never thought they'd become real as soon as this. No, he'd always thought it would be Dilvith first. Definitely not Seenth, of course, but even challenging Ormaith for Kiath was unthinkable. Even if they weren't still weyrlings, Sh'vek would probably cripple them for trying...
"I'm not going to be treated as a weyrling any more, F'ren. I've had enough of it!''
"But Audrealle - she doesn't want you to go.'' F'ren tried to think of something that would make A'minek see sense. "She's probably jealous, can't bear the thought of you winning!''
Apparently, that was the wrong thing to say.
A'minek's face twisted into a grimace. "Jealous? Audrea? Fat chance of that! I used to think she liked me that way, but she proved that wrong after Turnover.'' He looked around, spotting Felhith flying towards them. "I'm going, F'ren. Back me up, make something up, I don't care. So long as he doesn't know I'm not with the others until its too late.''
Cassonth vanished, and F'ren decided that he and Trath had better do the same, before L'gin started asking awkward questions.
"Where is he?''
F'ren sighed, and turned to face Audrealle. He'd just had L'gin asking him the exact same question, and didn't really relish being interrogated about it all over again. Besides, Audrealle knew very well where A'minek would be.
"Where d'you think? Back at the Weyr. L'gin's probably found him by now, but I doubt they'll be back any time soon.''
Audrealle clenched her fists, and rolled her eyes. "I know where he is. Sorry. I should have asked what in Faranth's name he thinks he's doing!'' She reached over and grabbed F'ren's arm, and started hauling him down the stony path away from the Hold and the rest of the weyrlings, now grounded and abandoned for the foreseeable future.
F'ren shook his arm free, and picked up the pace. Let her catch up, if she had something sensible to say. As if she didn't know the answer to that question too!
Pebbles clattered across the path as Audrealle jogged a few steps to catch up with him. F'ren stopped, and turned to face her, feeling oddly tense.
"You're asking me? You practically drove him to it, and now you're acting all confused? Or was that a real question?''
"I thought you were acting jealous, at first. Maybe I was wrong. Maybe you weren't interested in him at Turnover because you were afraid. Maybe you don't even know what to do, and that's why you're so, so...'' F'ren's voice died away as he realised that Audrealle was trying hard not to laugh. "What?''
She looked him up and down brazenly, and then couldn't contain her laughter any more.
"Seriously, F'ren? Is that what you think?'' Audrealle took a step nearer, and lifted a hand to his face. She pulled his head down gently, sending his mouth suddenly dry, and whispered in his ear, "I was waiting for today, stupid.''
Ah. Unsure of what to say or do, F'ren swallowed nervously. "He's not here though.''
Audrealle laughed again, more gently this time. "More fool him. So, F'ren. Do you know what to do?''
F'ren knew enough, he supposed. Enough to know that A'minek would hate him for the betrayal, and that he really, really wasn't going to deny Audrealle anything today. "I know... somewhere quieter than the path,'' he offered.
"That's a start,'' she said, and kissed him for the first time.
Some time later, F'ren decided that he still had a lot more to learn, and that Audrealle was a damn fine teacher. She gave him a coy grin, hardly in keeping with her earlier actions, and reached behind her head to tie her long hair back into its customary plait. He was wondering whether they'd ever do it all again, and if he might start falling in love with her, when a crunching of leaves announced the presence of someone moving along the narrow trail to the clearing.
It was inevitable, really, that it was A'minek who'd found them.
For a moment, A'minek just stood there staring, pale faced. He shook his head, took one step closer, then another.
"You... thread-bait tunnelsnake!'' he hissed.
F'ren barely had time to scramble to his feet before A'minek was on him, fists flying. Dazed, he was pretty sure that a few of his own punches were connecting, but A'minek was older and stronger, and it was pretty clear that F'ren was losing the fight. Through the pain and darkening vision, vaguely conscious of Audrealle's shrieks and Trath's bellowing as the dragon tried to find a way through the dense foliage, he lashed out again, and was rewarded by a grunt of pain from his friend. Audrealle was shouting, but the words didn't seem to make any sense... and then the weight eased and blows stopped falling as A'minek rolled aside.
F'ren reached out to Trath, to try to settle his dragon's concern. I'm okay, I'm okay...
You're not. Guilt and worry filled his dragon's mind. I should never have told Cassonth where you were, but the others were getting ready to leave, and Cassonth's rider seemed worried.
No, you weren't to know. F'ren blinked, and tentatively reached up to touch his nose. Pain and darkness filled his head again. He rapidly sent a reassuring apology to Trath as the dragon bellowed in sympathy. Slowly, F'ren rolled over, and carefully pulled himself to his feet using the nearest tree for support. On the far side of the clearing, Audrealle and A'minek were still arguing.
"...what I was doing? What about you?''
"What's wrong with wanting to prove myself? To you? To everyone?''
"What's wrong?'' Audrealle asked coldly. "You left me here, to go chasing after Kiath.''
"Oh, so you are jealous.''
"Of what? You and Cassonth making idiots of yourselves in front of the whole Weyr?''
A'minek laughed. "We nearly did it. We were that close.''
"And if you'd been here, you'd have had your chance to prove yourself. You'd not be saying nearly', either, would you?'' She suddenly looked round, as if she'd just remembered that F'ren was still there.
Seeing the look of pity and regret on her face, F'ren felt sick. Used. Unwanted. Angry. "No wonder we're all still weyrlings,'' he spat out, and started walking back towards the path. "Can't get anything right, can we?''
Behind him, he heard A'minek grunt. "Speak for yourself,'' he said.
Someone took a few footsteps after him, then stopped. "F'ren, you're hurt,'' Audrealle said. "I'm sorry...''
F'ren couldn't care less if she was sorry or not, and he doubted she was. Frankly, he wouldn't mind if he never saw either of them again, he told Trath. A'minek, Audrealle... he'd never seen either of them act that way before... not that he could really blame them, he supposed. But he didn't have to keep on liking them, or forgive them, oh no.
Trath was waiting for him beside the main path along the shoreline. The dragon's eyes were still more red than green, and he crouched low to the ground to let F'ren mount up as easily as possible.
Felhith has returned. He ordered all the weyrlings back to the Weyr,
Trath informed him. The dragon launched himself into the air as soon as F'ren had secured his straps, but surprised F'ren by refusing the offered visual of the Weyrbowl.
No. You're too angry, and too hurt. I didn't know how bad until I saw you, but we're going to the Hold first. Felhith gives us permission.
F'ren closed his eyes, feeling strangely relieved. "Thanks.''
A few more wingbeats, and the bronze dragon had gained all the altitude he needed for a simple glide back to Gar Hold's central courtyard. The sight of a dragon within the low walls elicited the usual swarms of youngsters, some of whom F'ren knew to be reliable. He sent the first off to fetch the Hold's healer, and asked another to bring a pail of water. A'minek and Audrealle... he wondered if they were still arguing, or worse, drooling over each other. Well, they were welcome to each other, that was for sure.
They're leaving now, Trath said, craning his head to watch the two dragons gain altitude.
F'ren slumped to a crouch on the ground, uncaring, and leaned back against Trath's flank. As he waited for the runners to return, he suddenly felt Trath stiffen.
"What is it?''
Trath's mind felt cold, almost panicked.
The keening that erupted from the dragon's throat almost broke F'ren's heart.
Brother and sister. Rival and queen.
Friend, and lover.
They were between, they were lost, they were... they simply weren't, any more.
This couldn't be happening, it couldn't... but the grief echoing through Trath's mind and body allowed no denial. F'ren closed his eyes, and joined his dragon's keen with a scream of his own.
"Sh'vek... he blamed you for their deaths?''
"A queen dragon dead, and his own son. Blame us? Of course he did. Still does. He's not the forgiving sort, you know.''
"If he's anything like his sister, I'd be surprised if he was.''
F'ren laughs quietly, and goes on. "Anyway, it was years before Trath and I grew up enough to stop doing the same thing. Blaming ourselves. Hating Sh'vek helped us there, I think. Probably explains my irreverant attitude towards Weyrleaders, anyway.''
He turns towards Rahnis, with a look of regret on his face. She looks at him questioningly, sensing that there's more left to be said. About the long winter when she was just a child, when the weyrling queen died. Therewas more.
"Perelane, and Seenth... that was the turn they died, wasn't it?''
"Perelane died of her pneumonia just a few days later. What happened, all the grief, it didn't help. I can't help wondering if she might have made it through, if things had been different. But I'll never know.''
He shrugs, and smiles.
"None of us ever do, do we?''