[AN: This chapter first appeared on this site a number of years ago, but it has since been substantially revised.]
Green winged as the grasses
that Thread would devour
I hear my love call out my name.
Green wings take them skyward
as Threadfall draws nearer
I watch my love's dragon a-flame
Green wings, yes, so many
with Thread seared and over.
I see my love never again.
Early morning, 22.10.34
The High Reaches
The assembled Wings of High Reaches Weyr appeared from between as one, high above the rolling hills south of Pars Hold. The sun had only recently crested the Western Mountains, and the eastern sky was streaked by haphazard bands of cirrus, tinged with pink and orange in the morning light. It was an undeniably beautiful sight. On any other day, it would have been enough to lift F'ren's spirits...but with Threadfall imminent, the skies of Pern held little power to delight.
Far to the west, a thicker bank of clouds loomed darkly on the horizon. F'ren had – inevitably – been one of the sweepriders sent out in the hours before dawn, and he knew full well that the clouds extended all the way to the coast. They'd be fighting in it from the Fall's midway point right until its very end, and he wasn't looking forward to it one bit.
The last anxious minutes spent waiting for Threadfall to start were never pleasant. Some riders filled the time with final checks and adjustments of their harness; others with messages passed back and forth amongst the dragons, ranging from heartfelt encouragement to the most mundane gossip from the Weyr's Lower Caverns. F'ren had never seen much point to all the mental chatter. His bronze was as fit and healthy as ever, and they made a more than capable team. Patting yourself on the back wouldn't make Thread fall any faster, nor get the job of flaming it finished any quicker or better. He tucked a stray wisp of dark hair back beneath his helmet before stretching down to double-check the tension in Trath's primary strap, and then his own safety line. Everything was in order...or, more accurately, everything he had any control over. When it came to fighting Thread, that amounted to very little.
Trath was busy making subtle adjustments to the trim of his wings, adapting his flight as Flamestrike Wing's turn brought its dragons fully into the path of the strong wind blowing down from the mountains. Leaving his dragon to it, F'ren looked up at the sky, which was already showing the first signs of falling thread. Even half obscured by clouds, there was no mistaking that dark haze high in the east, nor the pale glow that preceded its passage westwards across the heavens. That was where the falling Threads first lengthened into bright, hot strands of death, up in the thinnest reaches of the atmosphere, where a dragon couldn't breathe enough to fly, let alone fight. That was where the shape of the day's fall would be decided, as the fast currents of air twisted the falling ribbons unpredictably, sometimes clumping them awkwardly, and sometimes barely affecting them at all, leaving them to drop as steadily as rain. You couldn't tell for sure what you were in for until the leading edge was upon you, but the weather conditions alone wouldn't make the coming Fall an easy one.
Ormaith chides the Wing for our sloppy formation, Trath warned his rider.
F'ren quickly double-checked their own position, and found nothing amiss with it. The Weyrleader had chosen the lower south-east quadrant for Flamestrike, directing the action from the central point of the Wing's inverted vee while his two Wingseconds led the attack from either end. Trath's assigned place in the formation was midway down the inner arm, just where the Wing was most vulnerable to losing shape when tiring blues and greens started bunching together. Any mistakes they made today would be glaringly obvious.
F'ren had no intention of making any more than he already had.
Bracing himself against his straps, he leaned out sideways and checked the line of dragons to Trath's left. Tell Oth she needs to ease back a little, he asked his bronze.
Then, out of a habit that he couldn't bring himself to shake off, he looked up and behind him to inspect the other Wings. Today, the Weyr was flying inverted vees on both the upper and lower Flights, with each of the fighting Wings marking one corner of a cube. The individual formations themselves looked good, but Thunderclap Wing's position in the awkward north-east quadrant was visibly off. Each Wing was to hold its station throughout the fall, ascending or descending as one unit. Occasionally, they'd change direction for a tangential sweep, the two arms of the vee peeling away dragon by dragon and reforming again in a smooth, well-practised manoeuvre. Standard stuff, really, keeping the Wing within a fixed volume of sky that kept pace with either the leading edge or trailing edge. It wasn't the choice F'ren would've made, given the chance...but then again, it had been his own choices that had got him where he was today.
He'd had more than three turns of this now.
Oh, there was no pleasing some people – F'ren had figured that out a very long time ago – but some days, he felt himself losing sight of the reasons he even tried. What was the point of competing with Sh'vek's sycophants for rank, only to lose it again for the most specious of reasons? If merit alone was enough to earn his Wingleader's knots back, he'd have done so thrice over by now. Instead, he'd spent the last three turns as just another wingrider, denied any rank or responsibility and always, always, under the Weyrleader's watchful eyes. Three turns too many. Three sharding turns of Sh'vek always appearing at precisely the right moment to make an example out of them, like that very morning, when F'ren's sacks of firestone had – quite mysteriously – all been filled with rocks of the wrong size and quality, making it well nigh impossible for Trath to build up a decent flame. F'ren worried that one day something would go wrong and he wouldn't have time to set it right. You'd think the man really did have eyes in the back of his head...or something.
F'ren, I don't like the look of this Threadfall. I think we'll need eyes like that today.
Not liking the unease he could feel in his dragon's mind, F'ren squinted towards the leading edge with a sigh. There was an intervening band of cirrus, painfully bright in the sun's glare, and he couldn't really make out much detail. Sorry. Lend me your eyes?
I can do better than that. Azalath is sharing what she sees with me.
F'ren closed his eyes. They were watering badly in the fiercely cold wind, and he didn't need the added disorientation of seeing two viewpoints at once. The image from the distant green quickly came into focus: F'ren ignored the brown and the blue flying beside her, and concentrated on the rapidly approaching leading edge of Threadfall, and the shifting patterns in the looming grey mass beyond it. Trath was right, F'ren decided as he let the image slip away: it did look like a bad one. You couldn't always tell, but you did learn to trust your own instincts, and those of your dragon especially. Like a flash of lightning before a thunderclap, sometimes the dragons just knew when things were going to go badly. The dread was infectious – perhaps even strong enough to be a cause in itself – but it wasn't something you could ignore. F'ren could feel that dread in Trath's mind today and, if he was honest with himself, it scared him a little.
This would be a bad Fall.
You're remembering something you read, aren't you?
Trath had picked up on a thought that F'ren hadn't even realised he was thinking. The memory of a long day, two and a half turns ago – one of the few he'd spent in Ista Weyr's records room until Weyrwoman Vallenka had put a stop to his visits. The other riders of Sh'vek's Wing had been enjoying the varied delights of Tillek Hold's spring Gather. Denied that particular privilege, F'ren had instead spent the day exploring Ista's archives, poring over the chilling descriptions of Threadfalls from centuries past.
Just some good advice, he told his bronze. It might not be as bad as it looks. 'Threadfall can never be predicted,' he quoted from memory. 'Each fall is inherently unique; the natural pattern laid down from Pass to Pass by time and terrain is inevitably spoiled by the slightest movements of the air, making the whole an unknowable challenge until the very moment you meet it in the air.'
I could have told you that, you know. The bronze made a few more minor adjustments to his wings, steadying their passage through the air; in his eagerness to fight, they'd started to drift out of position after all.
F'ren hoped they'd caught their error quickly enough; giving the Weyrleader more stone to flame them with was the last thing they needed right now. I learned more than just that. Different ways of fighting, how best to re-stack and layer the Wings in difficult conditions, all sorts of things. He'd had more faith in his dreams, back then. Dreams that next time, Trath would catch the right queen. Dreams of making a difference, of all the injustices in his life being flamed away. But dreams were flighty things, as unreliable as firelizards. You couldn't make them real simply by wishing for them
We were good Wingleaders, weren't we?
F'ren sighed. Could've done better I suppose, but I always thought so. And now here they were, back amongst the rank and file, with only the most cursory briefing from Sh'vek immediately prior to departing the Weyr: stock formations for each Wing; every dragon put in his or her place. Knowing which Wing would start out where was all very well, but it barely scratched the surface of Sh'vek's deeper strategy for the Fall, whatever it was: the Wingleaders and their seconds met behind the closed doors of the council chamber these days. There was no time to properly prepare: to talk over the likely problems raised by weather and terrain; to go over the likely response of their nearest wingmates to different patterns of strands or clumps; to fine-tune fall-back formations and shift-patterns for the smaller greens and blues. The rest of the Weyr might place too much trust in Sh'vek's leadership to care about – or even see – what they were missing, but that didn't make it any less an abuse of that trust in F'ren's eyes.
That was what F'ren missed most about his former rank: being involved, knowing what was going on, and having some hope of influencing the way the Weyr fought thread for the better. Now, his only power in that respect was no more and no less than that of every other dragonpair in the Weyr: to fly where they were told and char as much Thread as they could. Even there, Sh'vek had allowed Flamestrike Wing to develop worrying levels of competitiveness, and it had quickly spilled over into the rest of the Weyr's fighting Wings. Shard it, it shouldn't be about what an individual dragon could do, who had the broadest or longest flames! All that truly mattered was how many dragons were still fit to fly by the end of the fall, and how much thread you'd let through. But F'ren wasn't really in a position to argue the point. Increased competition supposedly meant that every dragon tried to excel himself, and the Weyr and Pern would both prosper accordingly. Huh. Competition and prosperity. Sh'vek certainly had very clear cut ideas about how far he'd let that particular idea fly.
But now wasn't the best time to dwell on such things. F'ren rolled his shoulders and shook his head, loosening up both mind and body, and took a few last welcome breaths of clean, fresh, freezing air. Soon, the Weyr's dragons would all be flaming hard, and the air would thicken with fumes and ash. The upper Wings were close now; contact surely only seconds away. Just enough time for one final check of his fighting straps and the hang of their spare sacks of firestone against Trath's neck. All around them, other riders were doing the same things. F'ren could feel Trath's readiness in his mind, and a faint rumbling in the dragon's body. The whole Weyr seemed to fall still and silent in instinctive anticipation of Ormaith's bellow, and then, hearing it, surged forward.
Steady now, Trath, F'ren warned. The blues and greens to either side of them were enthusiastically matching Trath's pace, but it was several beats a minute faster than the rest of the Wing were flying. You really don't want to outfly Ormaith today.
Ahead, the Threads were almost upon them. First contact was always made on the upper levels. Trath supplied one last image from Azalath as the green flamed her first Thread of the fall, and then at last it was their own turn.
Once the leading edge had passed overhead, the fighting was all that mattered. All thoughts of tactics disappeared from F'ren's mind, because the fall was a bad one, right from the start, with no chance for any respite. The first tangle he saw up close was too big for the smaller dragons flying several places ahead of Trath in the Wing's vee to manage. Tundreth tried to flame it first, catching only the lower third before his momentum carried him past. Denchath was next in line, but the weather wasn't cooperating today at all, and before she could flame it she was blown off course by a gust. The green had barely enough room to blink between before she risked hitting another falling Thread.
Let Oth take the singleton; the clump's ours, F'ren decided.
She agrees, Trath said, slipping out of formation. Three heavy wingbeats were enough to catch up with the partially charred tangle. Trath belched flame enthusiastically, burning the rest of it to harmless ash. That done, they blinked between to rejoin the Wing a little behind their usual position. That usually gave them enough space to spot their next target, but the smaller dragons to either side were already becoming too overworked to take out every Thread that fell between them.
Oth warns us! Trath shrieked, frantically skipping between for a second time, attempting to avoid the Thread that threatened the crucial trailing edge of one of his wings.
F'ren anxiously waited out the darkness; he couldn't be certain that his dragon had avoided a score until their senses returned. But there was no burst of pain from Trath as they emerged, so they must have escaped unharmed this time. He craned his head round to check on the Thread they'd nearly flown into, watching it flutter perilously down towards the ground. That's one for Kiath and Linnebith to handle.
And this one's ours!
The usual pattern of threadfighting gradually settled F'ren's nerves. Trath's flame was good and steady, and they soon had enough clear air around them to start thinking properly again. In a fall like this, you needed fluid reactions, adapting not only to the abilities of your own dragon, but also those to either side. Surreptitiously at first, and then more overtly, Trath laid claim to the larger clumps falling in Oth's and Ribbath's vicinity, allowing the smaller dragons to use their greater agility to weave around him to pick off the Threads he'd missed. It was F'ren's preferred approach, and while it wasn't precisely how they'd been ordered to fly, he doubted that anyone would have a chance to notice it. So long as his nearest neighbours kept good track of where each other dragon was at any given time, there was no real risk of getting lost between when you skipped to avoid a patch of thread or another dragon's flame. It was all a balance, like most of life. Slightly greater risk, but much more effective results. Today's fall would be over four hours long, and you needed to keep yourself as fresh as possible...particularly when the Wings were taking as much damage as they seemed to be today.
As a wingrider, you never got as good a sense of how everyone else was fighting as the Wingleaders and Wingseconds did. No reports at regular intervals, no knowledge of who'd been scored, or how badly, unless it was one of your neighbours in the Wing, or worse, a death. Everyone noticed the deaths. But every now and then, Trath would pass on a snippet of gossip, either from their own Wing, or one of the others. Enough to tell how things were going, in an abstract sense. Then there was the chatter between levels, warnings being sent down to the dragons who'd need to backtrack for a missed clump, messages passed back from the leading edge about changes in the conditions, and the usual mixture of praises and jibes between one dragon and another. Today, the atmosphere remained depressingly tense, and even the usual warnings petered out as every dragon concentrated on his or her own flying. Was there any need for specific warnings when the whole Weyr was well aware of the peril, with every dragon and rider doing their utmost to stay alive?
Inevitably, it wasn't enough.
The first major incident occurred within the first half hour. The forward Wings had just finished their fifth transverse sweep, and had reversed direction to fight back towards the leading edge again – just enough repetition of the pattern for dragons and riders to start to become blasé about the manoeuvre. But as the Wings reformed, some manner of miscommunication occurred between Flamestrike's H'ersh and the Wingsecond of V'tin's adjacent Wing. It was a simple mistake, the kind of error of judgement anyone from a weyrling to a Wingleader could make, but although it was rapidly rectified it still left a gap in the Weyr's coverage of the fall. It wasn't as bad as it could have been had the mistake been made on the upper level, but even so, a dense mass of Thread slipped through between the two Wings of dragons. In the confusion, men and dragons hesitated, or rushed in rashly... Trath had closed his mind to the mental bursts of pain, but they were still close enough for F'ren to hear the bellows of argument, anguish and alarm from the dragons at the extremities of each Wing. He tried to stay focused on their own aerial battle, and waited anxiously for new orders.
Nothing the queens can't manage, Trath told him, not sounding entirely convinced. The trailing edge is light today, and three of V'tin's riders are staying behind to catch what they can. There were some bad scores, but none fatal, or likely to be.
F'ren nodded grimly, glad that the skies beneath them were still cloudless enough to make the queens' job possible, and reached into one of the sacks for more firestone. They had a bit of space, and besides, it was best to keep Trath's flame high until things settled down again. The bronze twisted his head to snatch the thrown rock out of the air, and quickly chewed and swallowed. F'ren took the spare moment of time to eye the sacks slung over Oth's neck; old habits died hard. The green had been flaming almost constantly, and would probably finish her first sack at about the same time Trath did. It made sense to share a weyrling sooner rather than later, as soon as they hit the next clear patch of sky. Not right now, the way the Threads were falling, but certainly well before their second sacks ran too low. F'ren directed his bronze towards the largest clump, bracing himself as Trath banked sharply in the air, the dragon losing enough momentum to drop down beside the falling Threads.
That one was longer than it looked, the bronze apologised.
F'ren slapped his dragon lightly on the neck. But you seared it very well!
Trath's powerful wingstrokes had them ascending once more, angling slightly in the sky to pick off another falling strand. The bronze's passage had carried him beneath the blue fighting alongside them, and he banked again in order to resume his place in the formation. The sky tilted, the land swung into view, and F'ren caught a brief glimpse of the younger of the two High Reaches queens, close to the ground and right at the edge of the fall's corridor, where a stray clump of threads threatened the dense orchards on the south facing slopes of the Riverbend Valley. Linnebith had turned her head away from the Threads her rider was flaming, already searching for their next target. The queens were easily working as hard as the rest of the Weyr today, but perhaps enough of the Hold's groundcrews would witness their heroism for Riverbend to improve the quality of their tithe goods in response. Trath straightened in the air, and F'ren craned his neck to check the air above the dragon. All was well, and they'd caught up with their allotted position in the Wing again. The upper levels were doing better, it seemed, because the remaining threads weren't too awkwardly clumped.
Trath, tell Oth I suggest we call a weyrling for...oh, no! No!
Right above them, a pale blue dragon had blinked in from between, howling in pain. The dragon was badly scored at the juncture of wing and torso, his rider clinging to the straps white-knuckled, blood flowing from a deep wound on one leg. It was all Trath could do to get out of the way, as the blue tumbled past. S'nell and Eshpith, F'ren realised, catching a glimpse of the man's contorted features. Eshpith had hatched from the same clutch as Trath and, at one point, S'nell had been one of F'ren's wingmen in Cloudburst. A special case, courtesy of Sh'vek's regular shuffles. S'nell had been grieving back then, unsettled by the loss of a weyrmate, and it had been almost a turn before F'ren had felt that he could truly trust the pair in Fall. But by then, there wasn't much he wouldn't have trusted them with. Eshpith was a good dragon, S'nell a good rider. When he'd lost the Wing, S'nell had even been one of the riders that F'ren's replacement, C'nir, had insisted on keeping.
I've told Ormaith and the queens of their injury, Trath said, his orange-red eyes whirling even faster with concern. They knew, but Jolth's rider thought he'd gone to the Weyr already.
F'ren peered over Trath's shoulder, hesitant about spending too much time inactive, but also determined to watch the blue until he either blinked between again, or one of the queens arrived to break his fall. It didn't look like Eshpith was going anywhere himself, not unless S'nell could get better control of things. Keeping your dragon from panicking was the first issue; you couldn't jump between safely when distracted by pain or confusion. Oh no, never like that. Ever. But eventually, someone had to act. You broke through, made a decision, jumped home to safety before your dragon lost his nerve...or you held those nerves tight while waiting for a rescue that you could only hope would come.
Linnebith can't catch him, F'ren realised. The younger queen was nearest, but too busy mopping up more Threads above the orchards. Where was the senior queen, Kiath? Stretched thin, far away...then there she was, a sudden blaze of rosy gold in the morning light.
She has him, Trath reported.
Back to work then. We've Thread to burn.
Another hour in, and it seemed that no-one would return to the Weyr unscathed. Trath had caught a minor lacing from an incompletely burned Thread, and F'ren had picked up a few char burns on his face. Eshpith hadn't been the worst injury by then either; they'd lost a brown and two of the weyrlings only minutes later, one of the latter to a shoddy jump, and the queens had had to make a further three rescues after that. The smaller dragons were noticeably tiring now, and Wing by Wing the reserves were called in from the Weyr. The Wings had travelled a considerable distance westwards by that time, and they were at last approaching the bank of thick clouds blown in from the coast. Sh'vek had his second-shift greens and blues keep pace with the fall just behind the trailing edge, and as the Wing's circuit took them past, the dragons exchanged places as necessary. It was an awkward time, but it meant that everyone kept on fighting, with no breaks in the now well-established pattern. Puteth and Graslath had taken up position either side of Trath now. Puteth was an old dragon, able enough, but she lacked imagination. Graslath was younger, but her rider was hopelessly in love with H'ersh, and the pair were unlikely to budge from their assigned flight pattern. F'ren sighed, and resigned himself to an awkward second half to the fall.
They'll be exhausted by the end, Trath noted, and belched out another tongue of flame.
F'ren tossed him the remaining rocks from their third sack, and told him to call the Weyrlingmaster for another sack. No rush, just let Earith add us to the queue.
Trath rumbled his agreement, and flamed again. Mannifeth will join us, as soon as I give them word. After this clump?
Sounds good! At this rate, we'll need another before too long.
Trath followed the falling Thread downwards into the safer zone beneath the fighting Wings, taking the extra space to flame it more economically. F'ren felt his dragon match images with his own eyes, then shift the perspective slightly before passing it on to the weyrling. Seconds later, a younger bronze materialised, his rider already fumbling at the straps holding the sacks in place. The lad's throw was clean, and F'ren had no trouble catching it; he made a note to mention him in passing to one of the other Wingleaders. Probably S'kloss, the youngest current Wingleader. Not Sh'vek, though. Faranth knew, he didn't want to curse a promising lad with that kind of attention! The weyrling blinked away again to true safety, and Trath and F'ren rejoined their Wing. The rest of the fall looked to be about as bloody as the first half had, but hopefully the Wings hadn't let through any more Thread than the groundcrews could deal with. It was hard to tell with the thickening cloud cover, and eventually Sh'vek had to order the lower Wings beneath them. It didn't give you much chance to see what was falling towards you through the clouds, but at least your dragon was spared the awkward updrafts, or the temptation to use the unreliable cloud forms as landmarks when skipping between to dodge Thread. Flaming, skipping between, heeding and giving warnings...it was still a bad fall, but F'ren thought it was starting to look as though they'd escape the disasters of the first half.
As it turned out, F'ren soon found himself proved right, but not in the way he'd been hoping for. The Wings didn't have anything like the disasters of the first half of the fall.
Instead, everything went from bad to worse.
They'd been approaching a tangle of Thread, and Trath had just opened his jaws wide in readiness to flame it when the dragon suddenly twisted away and began climbing frantically through the air towards the clouds. Confused and concerned,F'ren reached out for Trath's mind. What the sharding...?
Ormaith's orders, Trath snapped. Someone's needed up top, and we're closest. I've a visual from Klewth.
F'ren's heart sank as the image appeared in his mind. Another sorely injured dragon needing rescue was falling towards the cloud layer. F'ren dragged their viewpoint closer to the clouds, and passed it back to Trath. I have it. Go. Go! We're guiding one of the queens in?
Trath confirmed his thoughts as the blackness of between enveloped them.
The Weyr never risked one of its queens on a higher level unless absolutely necessary. Someone must have made the call that the scored brown needed assistance sooner rather than later if he was to be saved, but before the queen arrived, someone else had to get in close enough to ensure that Thread wouldn't threaten her rescue, and to assist if necessary. It was a dangerous role, particularly during conditions such as those they were fighting in today. F'ren wondered how close they really were...though it was true, as far as bronze dragons went, Trath was a good choice for the job.
They reappeared above the clouds in exactly F'ren's expected position, just in time to see the brown spiral sharply past. He'd managed to gain some control of his descent, certainly not enough to manage a safe landing, but surely enough to jump between on his own? Trath banked into a spiral of his own, surveying their surrounds at the same time as keeping pace with the falling dragon. Miraculously, they'd emerged directly between two clumps, either of which could have grounded Trath for months, or worse. The bronze flamed one, then the other, all the while pulling together a visual for the queen.
Kiath makes the rescue, he told his rider shortly before the senior queen appeared. She slid beneath the brown, taking his weight across her back barely more than a dragonlength above the clouds.
Just in time, F'ren remarked, relieved.
Trath flamed another stray Thread before following Kiath at a safe distance into the blankness of the clouds. Gryth's rider cannot see, he said, else they'd have risked returning to the Weyr themselves.
Well, they'll have got back safely now, won't they?
Trath paused to think, and abruptly his mind filled with confusion. But Kiath is still here, down in the clouds.
The Weyrwoman cannot give Kiath a visual. She struggles, and is in pain!
F'ren felt Trath's mind reach out in several different directions... to the queen, the injured brown, and down to Sh'vek's Ormaith beneath the clouds. The brown, Gryth, called out in confused pain, and the chilling noise was shortly followed by a second shriek that could only have come from Kiath herself. F'ren slammed an image of the heights well above the Weyr into Trath's head, as the dragon tried to figure out where Kiath was, and what was happening.
Give it to her, the bronzerider insisted. Linnebith too.
The sickening sense of dread was back in Trath's mind. Kiath is confused, but she jumps. Linnebith follows. No!
Immense pressure bore down on the minds of both dragon and rider. Trath's flight faltered under the onslaught of conflicting demands from the Weyrleader's bronze and the junior queen, Linnebith, and his own instinctive sense of what was necessary. Gryth still falls, Trath said, clearly confused.
How? Kiath had him, surely.
I don't know. Linnebith demands to know what we did, and to assist getting Kiath to the ground. Ormaith demands to know what we did, and insists we return to the Wing with a damned good explanation. But we're going after Gryth.
F'ren would have made the same decision himself, and applauded Trath's clear thinking. Agreed. And Kiath?
The bronze was silent on that score, his concentration fixed on finding Gryth. They broke through the clouds back into clear skies again, and the bronze looked around vainly for the injured brown.
Gryth was nowhere to be seen.
Descending sharply down to the level of the lower Wings, and still searching for sign of the other dragon, both Trath and F'ren found themselves startled by the unexpected appearance from between of another dragon. Ormaith, and Sh'vek. The Weyrleader leaned across his bronze's neck towards them, his features contorted as he shouted. "They jumped, you deadglow!"
F'ren shook his head, unwilling to believe it. Trath had been almost on top of them, and Kiath had definitely left the brown behind. But then...if that's what had happened, where in Faranth's name had they got to? "Not with Kiath," he shouted back, "and they're still falling!"
The stare he received in reply from Sh'vek was chilling, and F'ren soon knew the reason why. A dragon had just died. Not Kiath, surely, please! he whispered mentally to Trath.
No, the dragon answered in heartbroken relief. Gryth. I understand now. Kiath cast them aside. They jumped to find Linnebith, when it happened, but she was gone. We'd just called her away!
F'ren felt bile rise in his throat, suddenly understanding the fate to which they'd condemned Gryth and his rider. Oh, they'd still been falling through the air above Riverbend, but so much lower than F'ren and Trath had thought. Did they...
Gryth jumped before they hit ground. He would not have survived the impact.
F'ren swallowed bitterly. Shard it. He twisted his head round to look at the Weyrleader; this wouldn't be good. Ask Ormaith what our orders are.
Sh'vek shook his head and raised two gloved fingers in the air, a clear reminder of the number of times F'ren had managed to displease him that day, and then proved that Ormaith, too, could force a strong visual on another dragon. Trath accepted the offered image meekly, and slipped between.
Ormaith says his rider will deal with you later, Trath relayed while they hung senseless in the dark, assuming we choose to survive the rest of this fall. You may wish otherwise. Until then, we're to get back to the Wing. Ormaith returns to the Weyr with M'arsen and Pellenth. H'ersh and Fith lead the Wing, and you take his place as Wingsecond.
F'ren matched and held his dragon's mental image of their new Wing position until it became reality. Back in the air, the dragon immediately erupted into flames, his reactions even quicker than F'ren had thought possible. Someone might have warned us to hang back a little!
The fall has worsened down here, Trath said.
His dragon was right, as usual. Visibility was down about as far as it got, with a humid mass of low cloud extending almost all the way down to the hilltops. The air was nowhere near damp enough to defeat Thread on its own and save the dragonriders the trouble, but the falling Threads were now darkened by the moisture in places, making them much harder to spot as they fell. Even worse, some looked to be safely dead, and weren't. Oh, there'd be burrows a plenty from this fall, that was certain. But for the first time in three turns, F'ren had the chance to make a real difference. He threw Trath a few more chunks of rock, and inspected the Wing while his dragon chewed noisily. "H'ersh is sticking to Sh'vek's pattern then," F'ren muttered to himself. He'd have favoured a wedge at this point, and asked Trath to suggest it to the Wingsecond's dragon. In the distance, the other man looked round towards them, and raised an arm.
Fith says his rider concurs. We reform the-
Trath broke off mid-thought and grunted a bellyful of flame at nothing. He wasn't alone. All the way across the sky, dragons were losing focus: checking their flight in confusion or blundering ahead blindly; mistiming their flames or failing to flame at all. The unlucky immediately suffered for it.
Kiath needs help! The Weyrwoman...
Everything seemed to shrink in the face of Trath's...no, Kiath's panic. There was pain, and F'ren's thoughts became fogged, but somehow so, so intense as well. Every bit of his strength seemed to be draining away into numbness, except for the scalding echoes of loss and pain reverberating through his bronze's mind, as dragon after dragon encountered disaster. Trath twisted his head from side to side in indecision.
F'ren clamped down on his dragon's emotions as firmly as he dared, blocking the litany of newly deceased dragons and riders from their thoughts. This whole day was impossible, an unthinkable nightmare! The Weyrwoman isn't dead yet, or Kiath would have suicided, but we can't do a thing for Maenida while there's Thread to be fought. Kiath endangers the Weyr, and everyone living between here and Balen. Why in Faranth's name hadn't Ormaith and Linnebith got control over Kiath already? He gently eased the bronze's mind away from the panicking queen, and back towards the danger of the Threadfall; hopefully, the other riders would be doing the same for their own dragons. Abashed, Trath quickly pulled himself together and renewed his fight with more fervour than he'd shown all day. F'ren let his bronze flame a clump to ash, then nudged him to get back into contact with the Wingsecond. We still need to reform the Wing. He looked back over his shoulder to check on H'ersh and Fith, but the centre of the Wing held only greens and blues. Had they hopped between, or been injured?
The bronzerider's heart sank, and he found himself laughing coldly. Shard it. We've got no choice now, Trath. Flamestrike Wing's our problem until Thread stops or we hear otherwise. Get them organised, insist as strongly as you have to. I want us in a proper wedge five minutes ago.
Trath took up a central position, and most of the Wing quickly obliged in forming up around him. The exceptions were entirely predictable – three of the Wing's browns and two of its greens, whose riders were even less inclined to trust him than the rest of their Wingmates – but he wasn't going to waste Trath's efforts on enforcing things now. Time would tell...and yes, the new formation was working better already, F'ren decided, as they cut a clean swathe through the falling Thread. Let the others fly as they will, but they'll have more protection in formation. If they don't figure that out for themselves, it's their own problem, not ours.
Trath silently agreed, and called for the first change in direction. The reluctant pairs joined the formation before the Wing had finished its second sweep of the threadfall corridor, and F'ren was pleased to see Deluge and Icestorm Wings follow suit. Each of them was on their own until Sh'vek returned to take charge. But with so many injuries, they were flying wing-light.
Call back half of the first shift, F'ren asked his dragon. If Sh'vek disagreed, he could always stop them at the Weyr. While he waited to see if the extra dragons would be joining them, the bronzerider caught sight of the Weyrlingmaster and his Wing of youngsters far below. He'd obviously elected to allow his senior weyrlings to flame any Thread that escaped the Wings; probably a wise act. But they'd be better use on the upper levels, F'ren realised. Talk to Earith, too. It's the Weyrlingmaster's decision, but we could use a few he trusts on the mop-up line behind our wedge.
A handful of greens and blues returned to rejoin the Wing from the Weyr, and a few minutes later F'ren had an answer from the Weyrling Wing, in the form of a bronze and two blues. Mannifeth was the bronze, a pleasing result in F'ren's eyes. Trath directed them into place, and then resumed flaming Threads in earnest, periodically checking on the other dragons and the inexperienced youngsters.
They fly well, he said after watching one of the blues successfully char, skip and reappear.
They were close to graduating anyway, F'ren agreed. Keep a close watch on them though; they don't deserve a first fall like this.
Time passed slowly, every second stretching out into minutes, but at last F'ren tasted something other than rancid ash in the air...the tang of the ocean air. Beneath the fighting Wings, the coastline slowly emerged from its misty shroud, and F'ren realised the leading edge had already passed above it. They had barely ten more minutes left to fight! Other Wings had already noticed the same thing, he realised...why else the sudden sound of cheers, and the sense of optimism? Of course, there was no cause to relax yet – the last Threads to fall above the land were just as dangerous as the first. Trath was long familiar with his rider's caution, and the dragon immediately slipped back from the wedge in order to maintain a better perspective of the Wing as it fought, and to chivvy anyone who was celebrating too soon.
And then it was over.
The trailing edge was ahead of them, heading out to sea, watched by over two hundred utterly exhausted dragons. F'ren let his arms drop down to his sides and stretched the tension out of his neck and shoulders. By the First Egg, things couldn't have got much worse than that! He let out a loud sigh, and found it turning half into a laugh, or maybe an exhausted sob. Too much had happened today; he could scarcely think! One by one, the other Wings began to blink out to return to the Weyr, and F'ren turned his thoughts back to the job at hand Dismiss the weyrlings first, he told his bronze, while I think about what to tell the Wing.
And what could he tell them? Thank them for listening to his orders when there was no-one else left, only to be undermined as soon as they returned? Praise them for not letting too much Thread through, when there were bound to be burrows scattered across the landscape from here right the way...
Oh fardling, flaming balls of...who was dealing with the burrows?
He grabbed his head in his hands and growled in frustration. Linnebith would be taking on Kiath's role with the injured dragons, keeping them calm enough to be treated...and Faranth knew, she'd be sorely pushed just coping with that task, let alone thinking of anything else. Delene certainly didn't have the sense to delegate, Maenida was in who knew what condition, Sh'vek, well, F'ren wasn't in a hurry to ask the man anything at this point.
The Wing ask us why we wait, Trath informed him softly. We cannot leave yet, can we?
No. Not all of us, at any rate. Who's freshest?
The bronze's mind was coloured by bitter humour. Better ask who can still fly.
F'ren grunted a laugh. They'll do. Send everyone else back, the rest can follow us back along the path of 'fall. As Trath tiredly began winging his way eastwards again, F'ren looked back to see who was following. A dozen dragons; better than he'd expected. Stiff-necked old Puteth was one, and for once F'ren was glad to be accompanied by that pair. Duty-driven old F'sigger would back him up, and see this final task through no matter what.
Flying low across the landscape, his riders were quick to spot the first of the burrows. The impact sight was completely bare of vegetation. A few fat tendrils of Thread lingered on the surface, flailing mindlessly for more sustenance. F'ren directed one of the blues to make a flaming pass while the other dragons landed, but before they had reached the ground, Trath spoke up with more news.
Bronze Mannifeth returns to us.
Yes. His rider brings agenothree tanks and a pump, and shovels. I give them our visual now.
He does? 'Bout time something went right round here. Truth be told, he'd not felt this exhausted in turns, and had utterly forgotten the need for more equipment than a dragon's own flames. He fell more than jumped down from Trath's neck as they landed, and eyed the burrow suspiciously. The surface Threads were clearly charred, but if a whole tangle had burrowed, very little of it would have stayed on the surface.
Instinct made him look up again as the bronze weyrling blinked in from between right above the burrow. Mannifeth quickly landed to join the other dragons, and his rider slid down from his dragon's back, arms full of equipment. "I brought the stuff you asked for, Sir!" he said cheerily.
It had been a very long time since anyone had willingly lied for him. F'ren caught the weyrling's eye with a level stare, and the lad winked conspiratorially.
"Ah, thank you..."
His name's O'reb, Trath prompted.
"...O'reb." The lad was obviously a quick thinker, but if he wanted an ally or influence in the Weyr, he was making a pretty sorry choice of it. F'ren gestured to the other riders to unload the agenothree tanks slung beneath Mannifeth's belly, and watched as the riders set to work destroying the first burrow. Tell Mannifeth that he and his rider have impressed us today. That they may make good Wingleader material in the future, so long as they don't get too cocky. Stress that last bit, he's way too enthusiastic.
I have, Trath replied. Mannifeth says his rider is very scared about the injuries back at the Weyr, and is trying to stay strong.
Well that was a good sign. F'ren walked over to O'reb, and slapped the lad across the shoulders. "Good work, lad."
The young bronzerider gave a hesitant, somewhat sickly smile in reply. "I didn't know a Fall could be this bad, Sir."
F'ren sighed and folded his arms, scuffing his feet on the denuded dirt. He looked blankly out across the landscape, trying to spot the next burrow, and quietly offered the lad a few more words of advice; he could take them or leave them as he wanted. "You kept your head, and your dragon will soon forget what you've seen today. You may not, but bad memories are their own reward. We're still alive to have them at least, and we've done the job our dragons were born for. You can be proud of that."
He turned to look back at the boy...no, definitely a man now, a full-fledged fighting rider after what he'd witnessed and done today...and found O'reb nodding soberly. "Get back to the Weyr now, or Earith will never let me hear the end of it." F'ren raised his voice, and called out to Puteth's rider, who was busily directing agenothree into the burrow. "F'sigger, when you're done there, would you accompany O'reb back to the Weyr?"
The greenrider thrust the agenothree sprayer's wand into one of his wingmate's hands with a glare. "Aye," he said, and started striding towards F'ren.
F'ren met him halfway, and hurriedly spoke first, quietly enough that no-one else could hear. "This job's too big for us, especially with only one tank. We'll be too slow."
The greenrider looked round to give F'ren a questioning stare as they approached his dragon. "Not as useless as I thought, are you sir? You want me to get help?"
"Absolutely. I don't care who, just get it done. Start back at Riverbend, with the older burrows."
"Huh." F'sigger grabbed hold of his riding straps, and hauled himself up onto his dragon. "I'm not stupid either, man. We'll get it done."
"See that you do." F'ren turned back to the burrow just in time to see a shrub several strides beyond it vanish under a rising mass of threads. Cursing loudly, he grabbed the last spare shovel and started to run.
AN: This fic wouldn't be half of what it is without the sterling work of my team of beta readers: Faye U, Amy B and Laurie H, who all went above and beyond. The remaining flaws are all mine, and probably crept in during edits. Advance warning: this fic tops out at 290k, but it's not going anywhere, so please don't let that put you off! I'll be updating on weekends and wednesdays, keeping pace with the internal timeline, here and at Archive Of Our Own - but the AO3 updates will run one chapter ahead of those here, in an attempt to encourage readers to read and comment over there so I can enjoy a proper dialogue!
I'd love to hear what you all think about this over-long, monster of a fic that ate my life...and I truly hope you enjoy it.