This is a work in progress nearing completion, so for once I'm expecting to manage semi-regular updates! All comments are very welcome.
Those the dragons heed
As the three dragons appeared from between, high above the fields of Green Lake Hold, Martonal was already staring upwards into the pale sky, one hand shielding his eyes from the glare of the sun.
Aside from water breaks, this was the first time he'd stopped working all morning. Not that he'd had much choice—the new vegetables for his family cothold's kitchen garden wouldn't plant themselves, after all, and there was a lot more work to be done if his team of young siblings and cousins were to finish all their chores before evening. He could barely remember when they'd last had a proper rest-day at all. Certainly not since Nickor, the Journeyman Harper from South Telgar, had last visited Green Lake Hold to check on the children's education. They hadn't even had a decent Gather since the last trader caravan passed through earlier in the spring, but with things as they were all across Pern, that was hardly surprising. Too many people had been left half crippled by the plague seven turns back and able bodies were at a premium, especially with so many helpless mouths to feed. If you could walk, you worked; that was the law of Green Lake Hold.
Some things were different elsewhere. Nickor had told him that a few months back. In the first turn after the plague, some Holders had chosen to turn out their crippled, carting them to the borders of their Holds and leaving them there, Holdless and helpless. News of the crime had travelled slowly, with the Weyrs still holding themselves under quarantine, but even once the Conclave of Lords Holder had ruled against it the practise still continued in some out of the way spots. As distant as it was from South Telgar, Martonal was glad that Green Lake wasn't one of those Holds; his father and three of his siblings were amongst the Hold's crippled. But Holder Garrent was a good man, as well as one who worked harder than anyone else. 'No-one starves before I do,' he'd once said, according to Martonal's father. Oh, they'd had some lean winters on half rations, that was for sure, but the Hold would survive and prosper again eventually. All the more reason to get today's seedlings safely in the ground and well watered before they wilted in the hot sun.
As the oldest lad in his team Martonal had been doing the hardest work, shovelling over the dark, clay-rich earth that had held the turn's first roots until the last of them had been harvested just last month. One of his cousins followed him with her rake, and behind her came the younger kids: pushing wheelbarrows, transplanting the seedlings, and watering them from buckets hauled up from the lake. With so much to do, he didn't have time to pause for breath very often, but some sixth sense had made him straighten his back, lean on his shovel and gaze into the sky at just the right time.
It had happened just like that the last time dragons had come on Search, and the time before.
Sighing, Martonal tore his attention away from the three dark silhouettes flying overhead and back to the stiffened soil in front of him. He set to work with his shovel and had turned over a whole foot of ground before the first shrieks from the kids behind him broke the hot day's silence. Well, they were entitled to a bit of excitement, he supposed. As for himself, he'd learned better.
Wedging his shovel firmly into the ground with his foot, Martonal turned round to hear what his cousin Sildea wanted. "Yeah?"
She shrugged apologetically, and gestured at the eager faces glued to the sky behind her. "Think we should head on down to the Hold, or wait to see if they ring the bell for us? It's nearly lunchtime anyway."
Smiling sadly, Martonal shook his head and weighed up his options. They really should stay out here and finish the job. And the dragons might not even be on Search. That would get them all in trouble, if they raced back to the Hold for no cause at all! On the other hand, there were only five plants left in the emptiest of the three barrows, and he doubted the kids would be gentle enough with the rest of them if he kept them out here waiting. "I dunno…" He wiped a line of sweat from his cheek, and stared over the garden's low wall at the path that led to the Hold. The dragons would be nearly there, and when they landed their riders would be offered cool drinks and shade. If they were on Search… well, even if Martonal couldn't bring himself to get excited about that idea any more, a break in the shade during the heat of the day was a very tempting thought indeed. "Oh, why not? Let's get that barrow emptied first, and then head down. I'll make up some excuse to your Da if we're not wanted."
Sildea grinned broadly, her own excitement clearly showing. There hadn't been a queen egg at either Igen or Telgar Weyr for many turns now, but you never knew when one would turn up, especially in an Interval. "Thanks, Mar."
He left her to spread the news to the other kids, and pulled his shovel out of the ground again. It'd still be a while before they'd finish, and even though he didn't really need to keep digging, the more he did now, the less there'd be for him to do later.
Besides, it kept his mind off the dragons.
He'd been barely twelve turns old the first time dragons had come on Search.
It had been the middle of winter: one of the hard, hungry winters two and a half turns after the plague had ended. The lads from the Hold and its three outlying cotholds had been assembled in the snow-covered courtyard in front of an enormous green dragon. Well, it had seemed enormous at the time. After what had seemed like hours but had probably only been a few minutes, the dragonrider, a tall man with bright orange hair, had stepped away from his dragon's side and walked straight towards one of Garrent's sons. No-one expected the rider to Search more than one lad from the Hold, least of all Martonal, and he might have begrudged his friend's luck if he'd had the time to do so. But no sooner had the dragonrider invited Yorrent to step forward than he was pacing briskly down the line towards where Martonal was standing. "You too," he'd said softly, gesturing for Martonal to join his friend. Martonal had been so elated, he hadn't realised that the rider had Searched one of the fish-hold boys as well until all three of them were being helped up onto the dragon's back.
Looking back, as happy as he, Yorrent and Drindaron had been to be found worthy, he suspected Holder Garrent had been just as pleased to see them leave for Telgar Weyr with the dragonriders. Three less mouths to feed, after all, even if one of them was his own son. But there'd been a full forty candidates for the eighteen eggs on the sands, most of them below the age of fifteen, and, of the three of them, only Drindaron had Impressed.
Poor Yorrent had had even worse luck than Martonal. His legs still weakened from the plague, he hadn't been able to move fast enough to avoid a confused blue hatchling as it stumbled towards its soon-to-be rider. Martonal had been on the other side of the hatching grounds at the time—they'd decided to spread out to maximise their chances for bringing glory to their Hold—but had seen the whole thing. From a distance, the wound in his friend's thigh hadn't looked too bad, and as the Healers had reached him almost straight away. Martonal had waited until the last three dragonets had Impressed before rushing over to see him. But by the time he'd got there, Yorrent was unconscious, a dark pool of his own blood slowly seeping into the sands around him. He'd died right there on the sands a few minutes later, the Healers helpless in the face of a badly torn artery.
Martonal had returned to Green Lake the following morning, alone.