Pern and its Dragonriders belong to Anne McCaffrey who's so kind to allow us to play in her world a while.
I fly over storm-racked ocean, my wings battling against deceptive wind currents as I stay close to the water's turbulent surface. I can't be certain, but I'm almost convinced that I saw a pair of dragons riding sweep not too long ago. Before I go between I must make sure… Just a few more dragonlengths…
Shaya lurched upright, sure that this dream she'd just had was her actual reality. She had dreamt, once again, of flying low across the sea, of hunting, of worry. Since her recovery and subsequent placement as T'lenek's assistant, a nasty suspicion had been growing in her mind. What if Suteth had not died? Shaya already knew that her dragon had not been like the others.
"Suteth?" she queried quietly, a lone tear tracing down her cheek. If the dragon was at least alive somewhere, then why hadn't she come to fetch Shaya? Her arms ached in sympathy to her vivid recollection of fighting a strong side-wind. What if they knew that Suteth still lived and were now trying to keep that knowledge of a rogue queen from her? The implications of her connection to such a dragon began to sink in. Of course they wouldn't want her with the dragon, not with her past. And, they would try and keep her under eye as much as possible.
A welter of emotions filled Shaya, including an impotent fury that almost resulted in her punching the wall. Shards! This was unfair! If Suteth even came within a day of Benden, they would probably send the entire Weyr armed with firestone against Suteth. As long as Shaya remained trapped here, there would be no chance for her to be reunited with her dragon.
What if Suteth didn't want her anymore? Surely she would have bespoken Shaya by now? But then, the dragon displayed an uncanny mind. What if Suteth feared that Shaya would inadvertently give away knowledge of her survival or, be used as a pawn to bait a trap for the black dragon? She had to know for herself and the only way that that would happen would be if Shaya could somehow contrive to escape Benden without being followed.
Over the next sevenday, Shaya tested out her theory that she was indeed being carefully watched. To her dismay, she came to the conclusion that her suspicions were correct. Through careful observance, even when she found herself alone, she almost always saw one of the blue or brown riders resting not far away, almost too casually. Timing them, she figured out that each rider watched her for about two or three candlemarks. T'lenek locked his quarters at night and she doubted she could sneak past brown Farneth. Something would have to be done, for at night her dreams became so vivid that she'd wake up two or three times in a cold sweat, choking back a cry.
"You have to help me," Shaya whispered fervently to Fredal as she helped her friend mend her riding harness.
"I daren't!" Fredal hissed back, looking over her shoulder towards a small knot of riders who leant against the wall opposite where the girls sat out near the barracks.
"What if I'm right? What if Suteth lives and they're trying to hide this from me?"
"You're only saying that because you want it to be true!" Fredal exclaimed.
"Then how do I explain the dreams? I keep seeing the same beach. There's no sand, only round pebbles of black stone, high cliffs and a cave. I think it's an island. I dream of this place every night. I know that I can give you the visuals and you and Kushoth can take us there. They needn't know we were ever gone! Please Fredal! It's almost spring! I cannot live like this anymore!"
By now Fredal's face shone wet with tears. "Shaya. All right. Very well. At the next Gather we'll figure this out by then. Just please. I have some very real fears that this ill-considered venture will have you and I disappearing between for good. Let's not talk about this anymore. Nothing good can come of this."
"But you know that it is not right with V'ton lording it over us as if he's going to become Weyrleader when Sulath rises. As if a young queen will let a mere brown catch her? He's poisoning this Weyr and I intend removing myself from this situation, once I can reach Suteth."
Fredal nodded and Shaya knew triumph. Many sevenday of playing T'lenek's dumb charade of the obedient semi-drudge would pay off. She would be free of Benden. She needed supplies, however, and she needed to keep her timing right. With Fredal sworn to secrecy it was simply a case of waiting for the Gather day, when the Weyr's attention would be focused on festivities rather than a young woman slipping like a shadow through its service tunnels.
When Gather day dawned and, with Fredal's words of "Be careful!" still ringing in her ears, Shaya tried to appear casual as she entered those familiar passages that honeycombed the lower caverns. It had been half a Turn ago that she had walked these stone tunnels and the experience evoked peculiar emotions in her. Shaya reminded herself that she needed to keep her objective in mind. She'd already given the greenrider – her tail – the slip and now only had a small window of opportunity to steal into the stores, help herself to supplies and make good her escape.
Whenever seeing other people became unavoidable, Shaya walked straight, with a purpose – as if T'lenek had sent her on an important errand. Otherwise, she purposefully avoided drudges, crafters and any other folk still about.
She couldn't help feeling nervy and, also, Shaya noted, the fear of discovery actually excited her. It felt almost like the days that she'd gone out to some of the smaller, outlying holds to appropriate supplies. Of course stealing wasn't particularly nice but sometimes circumstances such as this could not be avoided, she reflected. She did not want to remain at the beck and call of her elders for the rest of her life. Besides, what price was so bad to pay for her freedom? Everyone would be far happier once she'd gone.
Only a handful of drudges and one or two apprentices still scoured pots in the kitchen and they appeared too immersed in their duties to notice Shaya slip by. She sighed with relief when she entered the relative safety of the storerooms, where few glowbaskets dispelled the gloom. Into her sling bag she packed enough dried meat for five days, some tubers and a few packets of nuts. She expected to catch fish and had already appropriated tackle and hooks. She also discovered dried fruit and took some of that as well. She didn't want to bog herself down with pots, so she could not take any oats. Her missing belt knife still presented a problem, however, but she'd convinced F'dar to part with an old one of his. It would do, for now.
Pausing once to look around at the assortment of wooden storage boxes and barrels, Shaya hefted her now heavy slingbag and slipped out the door. The best thing to do in a situation such as this was to walk with confidence, as if she'd a right to swagger through the passages with a bag bulging suspiciously. Shaya boldly stared down one or two of the drudges that she encountered and happened to look askance of her.
She'd almost exited the service tunnels leading to the Weyr proper when a figure stepped out of a side tunnel to block her path. Shaya's blood turned to ice at the sight of Jeram, who regarded her coolly, a slight sneer playing across his lips. He flicked back his long, white-blond fringe and laughed chilly.
"My, my, my, look at what I've trapped here."
He'd shot up in the intervening months and now stood at eye-level with Shaya.
"I've trapped me the bastard get of a thieving tunnel snake and we all know what we do when we capture them, don't we?"
He eyed her full sling bag speculatively. Shaya considered her options. If she turned and ran, chances were good that Jeram would raise the alarm and have her trapped in one of the side tunnels. Also, she did not like the fact that she could not see Benno, or one of Jeram's other cronies. But then, what was he doing here in the first place? Her eyes flicked nervously from side to side. An object strapped to Jeram's belt caught her eye – her father's knife!
All indecision fled as she looked him straight in the eye. He carried on talking, oblivious to her sizing him up.
"Well, I guess I'd better call the guys, since I think this little snake will put up a bit of a fight. It's a good thing that I decided to follow you when I saw you enter the…"
Jeram's words were cut short as Shaya punched him, throwing her bodyweight into the blow, the way her father had taught her. The boy did not expect this move and collapsed like a pole-axed herdbeast, his limbs twitching slightly. Shaya knew that he'd have the headache to crown all headaches when he awoke but, by then, if her plans worked, she'd be long gone from Benden or, at least past caring. She hoped it was the former rather than the latter.
She shook her fist to dispel some of the pain – yes – and she'd have bruised knuckles to prove her success. Right now she did not have much time. Her watchers would be suspicious of her long absence. Trying not to draw too much attention to herself by hurrying, Shaya nonetheless stepped up her pace. What if Fredal could not meet her at the practice field? What if F'dar could not arrange their planned diversion?
Breathing hard, she tried not to think of these things as she hastened to her destination. What if the co-ordinates that now seemed etched in her mind were just a delusion? Some surreptitious searching on the Weyrlingmaster's wall-mounted maps had indeed confirmed that the islands in the southeast were of a volcanic nature, as she'd dreamed. What if Kushoth went between and they didn't come through on the other side?
But no. The dream came through every night with such clarity and such insistency that Shaya had no doubt that it was not just a figment of her imagination. She felt sure that she knew what she'd find on the other side.
Kushoth, much to Shaya's relief, did wait on the practice field. In the distance, Shaya could make out the mass of brightly-coloured tents that formed the sprawl of the Gather day traders.
"It's been a Turn since you've been fostered here," Fredal said, stepping from out of her trim green dragon's shadow.
"It's an eventful Turn," replied Shaya, looking around. "Are you ready, Fredal? One day I will repay you for trusting me. You have no idea how much this means to me."
"I'm your friend, Shaya, and friends would do no less for each other," Fredal stated, taking Shaya's hand firmly in her own. "Now, let's waste no more time."
Suddenly Basteth exploded low out of between above the crowd of tents.
"That's our signal," Fredal said as she helped Shaya fasten her straps, giving her friend a grim smile.
Both knew that, if Shaya's co-ordinates were wrong, this would be the last time that they'd feel the sun on their skin. Kushoth's muscles bunched between Shaya's legs as the small dragon leapt skywards, her wings sweeping down in broad strokes as she escaped gravity's clutches. Kushoth angled away from the Weyr, veering to the east and Shaya took a deep breath, clearing her mind of the trepidation she felt at the execution of this crazy venture. Thinking of nothing else, she visualised their destination, drawing her breath sharply as the cold of between chilled away sensations she might have.
Both Shaya and Fredal let out a whoop of joy when they came out from between, their skin icy but the relief of their success pumping through their veins.
"We've made it!" Fredal cried out.
Kushoth trumpeted her triumph as she glided over white-caps. Before them a small scattering of islands rose out of the ocean's turbulence, cresting in series of pinnacles that resisted the waves' efforts at smashing them back down. Kushoth trumpeted again loudly, sharing their excitement as they glided towards the largest of the islands. They saw no sign of human habitation. The only growth that clung to the island's steep sides was a kind of low, windswept scraggly bush that appeared to be a distant cousin of the needlethorn.
The small halfmoon of the bay that had haunted Shaya's sleep for so long hove into view and rose up to meet them as Kushoth back-winged, setting them down gently on the expanse of water-scoured pebbles. As Shaya remembered, the overhang of the cave gaped above them.
"Well, we're here," Fredal stated as she, too slithered down to the ground after her friend. "What now?"
"I wait. And you return to Benden before you're missed. I've enough supplies to last me about half a sevenday, if not more. If all goes well and you return here and find me gone, then you'll know that I was right. If you return and I'm still sitting here, well then I'll appreciate a ride back to the mainland."
Just then, Kushoth raised herself onto her haunches, stretching her neck as she gazed out towards the sea.
"She says another dragon approaches!" Fredal exclaimed.
Hope flared sickeningly in Shaya's breast as she held her hands over he brow to shield her eyes from the sun's glare as she looked into the direction that held Kushoth's rapt attention.
"We weren't followed, were we?"
"Kushoth says no."
"Do you think?"
Silence. Finally, human eyes could make out the distant shape of a lone dragon's wings fighting against turbulence.
Without warning, Kushoth trumpeted her greeting and, from far away, an answering call could be heard.
"It is her!" Fredal cried out, hugging Shaya fiercely.
Shay returned her friend's embrace, tears flowing.
Little one came the reply as contact was re-established, causing Shaya to gasp, her knees buckling.
Suteth had grown much in the intervening months, dwarfing Kushoth as she back-winged, sending up huge gusts of wind as she settled down on the pebbles. Sunlight gleamed off the oily, green-gold sheen of her hide, her eyes whirling blue. Even now, for an immature queen, Suteth was massive. Muscles rippled as she folded her wings against her back, pausing to cautiously touch noses with the green dragon before dipping her head to regard the two young women.
Thank you for trusting Shaya she said to Fredal, who now, also, shared Shaya's tears.
"It's an honour," Fredal replied.
Trembling, Shaya stepped forward and reached up to scratch Suteth's eye ridges.
Ah, there are many things that I have missed, Shaya. We won't be parted now. There is much that needs to be done that only a human can accomplish.
"Why did you not answer me? Why did you let me believe that you were dead?"
It was too dangerous. It still is. It is better that, how do they say it? The rogue queen, that she remains unseen for a while longer. Come. We must fly.
The dragon turned to Kushoth, who dipped her head at the much larger queen. Whatever passed between the two, neither one of the girls would later find out.
"I guess this is it," Fredal said.
"For now," Shaya replied, taking her friend's hand. "Things are changing on Pern and we will be at the forefront of it."
Fredal nodded, biting her lip. "Will you be all right?"
"I don't think that Suteth will let anything happen to me."
"How will I find you again?"
"You won't. I'll find you. I'm pretty certain that we're going to surpass my father's reputation for notoriety over the next few Turns."
Suteth nudged Shaya hard from behind so that she stumbled.
"Your dragon grows impatient!" Fredal laughed. "Go on and don't do anything too wherry-headed!"
They embraced one last time. Shaya struggled to scramble onto Suteth's back, even as the dragon dropped lower. The familiar spiciness of her dragon's scent triggered so many memories.
Now, I don't have riding straps, so you'd better not let me fall.
I will never let you fall
Shaya held on for dear life as she felt the large beast's muscles bunch beneath her. The initial break with gravity threatened to unseat her, but desperation breeds tenacity and Shaya did not slip off her dragon's back as she'd feared. She marvelled at how quickly the island shrank to a small blemish in the sea and felt grateful for her wherhide jacket.
Where are we going?
It is a surprise. You'll see. Suteth replied and Shaya could sense draconic mirth in that statement as they went between.
It might be questioned how I survived that fateful evening. Is it luck? Co-incidence? As one of V'ton's cronies stabbed at me, and yes, if you look at my breastbone you will see a faint, diagonal scar etched on my hide – I took that man with me into my first jaunt between and he did not come out on the other side and I can well imagine that V'ton will wish to exact the price of this insult out of my flesh.
If you must know, it was my sire that gave me the co-ordinates. It was a grim situation. I grasped at the first help that I received.
Tarth sent me the visuals that directed me to this barren place. When I arrived here, I was hurt, lost and afraid. You must remember that we'd only barely begun our first flights, let alone going between and here I'd done everything in one fell swoop.
I won't elaborate about my time here, safe to say that I slept and attempted flying but was growing too weak from hunger, having been accustomed to two or more meals a day before this.
Imagine my surprise when, about a sevenday after my arrival, that Tarth and his rider should appear. By this stage, about all that I could do was snap weakly at the man as he ran his hands over my wasted frame.
With soothing words and fresh wherry hunted for me, S'man nursed me back to health. I will be forever in his debt. Tarth displayed his devotion time and time again and, from the minds of dragon and rider I've drawn much information of what befell my erstwhile rider.
You see, I broke my Impression of necessity, thereby buying myself the time to heal and regain my strength and, yes, to grow. As I stand here, I am not yet come into my full stature but, within a Turn or so, I know that I shall rival even my distant ancestor Ramoth.
What of Shaya? What of her indeed? You think me callous for leaving her on her own for so long. Let me remind you that the girl was in a comatose state for nigh on three months after our attack and would have been of no use to me. Tarth counselled me against blundering into the Weyr, rightly stating that that approach was mired in folly. We were all aware of V'ton's murderous intentions by then.
Ah, yes, Kiranth I mourn. Fessli was not a bad human and her loss shall be felt keenly by our kind for many Turns, but now that is the way of the world. The old gives way to the new.
Shaya and I still have a long flight ahead of us. As a human she is no worse or better than any of the others. Allow me my whims. I am fond of her. And, she may yet prove useful. It is indeed sometimes very difficult hiding a creature as large and as magnificent as I. Oh. You haven't seen the last of us, my dear little wherries. But, for now, may I suggest that my little morsel and I keep a low profile? All shall be revealed in good time. There is much growing to be done yet.