Chapter 19

If the humming of the dragons had seemed loud out in the Weyrbowl, it was as nothing to the noise that waited for the Candidates inside the Hatching Cavern. Thrumming and echoing, the reverberations of the dragons' welcome felt almost like a drum message being relayed right through Martonal's body. It was a deep sound, even from the throats of the greens, layered with higher overtones that somehow seemed to caress the spirit. A wordless, tuneless melody, that nonetheless perfectly conveyed the simple joy at new life that every dragon present was exulting in. There were perhaps forty or fifty of them perching on every inch of the ledges that lined the upper part of the cavern, with many more gathered just outside.

Lower down the cavern interior, dragon ledges gave way to tiered seating for the human spectators. The first four rows were packed solid, but even the more shadowed rows further back seemed to be fairly well filled. Wickerwork baskets of glows were suspended in a central cluster from the cavern's ceiling - less of a hazard to flying dragons than the more even distribution of ceiling lighting used in most Holds - and more glows lined the edges of the cavern's sandy floor, casting strong shadows from the nearer eggs and Saerlith's gleaming bulk, and more subtle patterns where the weyrwoman had raked her designs into the sands. The morning sunlight entering through the Cavern's upper entrance illuminated the gold egg perfectly, as well as those nearest to it, and would creep across the sands to warm the rest before too long. As for the eggs themselves, every single one of them was twitching wildly, and some were already covered in crazing and slowly growing cracks. Stepping slightly out of the line, Martonal paused for a moment simply to watch them move and to compose his thoughts. Which would be the first egg to hatch? He found himself thinking back to the Weyrlingmaster's parting words. His dragon was waiting for him. Willing the eggs on, he stood a little straighter, and started walking forwards again.

The leading Candidates were already forming loose groups in various spots on the Sands, and as if reluctant to disturb Erris's work, none strayed too close to the eggs themselves, instead standing at either the centre point or one of the spots lying directly between two groups of eggs. Had Erris meant them to do that? Martonal wondered.

Sildea came up beside him. "Oh, wow, Mar. I never thought they'd be so beautiful. All swirly, and shimmery, and flecked like Lexa's opal."

"They are, aren't they? Are there any you like the look of?"

"I like them all. How could I possibly choose?"

"We're not meant to!" Albadril said. "Come on. Somewhere central's best, my Da says. Look, Campen and Gerrit are already heading over there."

While the boys were fairly evenly spread around the Sands, most of the girls who hadn't been Searched specifically for the new queen seemed to be hedging their bets, standing between the gold egg's slightly raised mound and the group of eggs closest to it near the back wall of the cavern. The runner girl Fru took one look at them and headed for the opposite side, close to the tiered Stands, and was soon joined by the three remaining Weyr lads. The last Candidates in were the drudge girl Bennecka and another girl from the Weyr. Bennecka stopped beside the group of eggs closest to the cavern entrance, the ones Martonal had looked at with Erris, while the other girl was eagerly welcomed by her friends from the Weyr. Martonal reached over to squeeze Sildea around the shoulders. "Good luck, Sil."

She smiled back at him. "You too, Mar."

Barely a moment later, the humming of the dragons seemed to throb and peak, and Saerlith gave voice to a low croon. The splitting of the first egg was a soft sound, and almost lost in the noise of the dragons' welcome - but in spite of that, the dragonet that hatched held every eye in the cavern as she emerged from her shell. She was a deep green in hue, and her motions were as awkward and fumbling as any newborn animal. But as she swung her head to and fro, searching for her lifelong partner, Martonal could see that there was also a fierce intelligence in her eyes. Her tongue poked out beyond her teeth, almost as if she was tasting the air, and she creeled loudly, distressed by her own hunger. Saerlith rumbled, and the dragonet's head tilted first one way, then the next, as if listening - and then she was lurching into motion, a motion mirrored by Albadril as he rushed forward to meet her. He slid to a heap in the sand at her feet, one arm reaching up to wrap itself around her long neck.

"Sath, Sath!" he cried.

There was a collective sigh of relief, and then cheering erupted from every mouth in the cavern, B'dril the loudest of all. He'd been holding his breath too, Martonal realised, waiting for that all important first Impression to occur.

"Huh," Gerrit said, "He was right about getting a green then!"

Sath's Impression seemed to be the cue for all the other eggs to start breaking. From one of the eggs behind Albadril - A'dril? A'bil? - another green poked her nose through her shell, and then the cheers and pointing of the audience made him turn to see the first bronze of the clutch bursting free of one of the eggs in the group nearest the queen egg. The queen egg itself was rocking violently. With each movement, the largest of the cracks in the queen egg's shell steadily grew, and then with a slow grace half the egg tumbled over, the golden occupant rolling onto the hot sand on her side. She straightened up, her serene reclined pose a mirror of Saerlith's, putting Martonal in mind of a feline he'd once seen trying to mask its embarrassment after falling off a wall.

"Oh Mar..."

Sildea's face when he turned to her was as wistful as he'd ever seen it. For the briefest of moments he allowed himself the small hope that B'dril had been wrong, that the gold might head her way, but resignation was already growing on her features. Martonal looked back to see one of the girls who'd been Searched for the queen egg helping the young gold onto four feet again.

"Nadille, Nadille!" Across the Sands, Ithabod was chanting the girl's name in delight. "What's her name?"

"Ferranth!"

Other names were called out in quick succession as more of the dragonets Impressed. The bronze, Juth, chose a beastcrafter from Keroon. Two more greens hatched from the group nearest the entrance, choosing Ithabod and Bennecka, while the one that had hatched after Albadril's Sath finally found her partner in one of the weyrbred girls standing near the remnants of the queen egg.

The next dragonet to hatch was the clutch's first blue. He shook his wings free of a few fragments of clinging eggshell, and lurched haltingly towards the central group of Candidates. Martonal couldn't help feeling a slight twinge of trepidation as the dragonet came towards him. Was this his dragon? It didn't have to be, but oh, he wanted so much to see it Impress safely. For a moment, the dragonet seemed to look right at him. Find someone, Martonal willed at him. If you want me, I'm here, but please just find someone!

The dragonet looked away, clearly not interested in him after all. But there was purpose in his movements, and as he drew closer it soon became obvious who he wanted for his rider. Tears streamed down from Gerrit's eyes as he came face to face with his dragon. "He's Tegroth. Tegroth!"

As Martonal watched the new pair move slowly away towards the exit, the noise of the crowd changed, murmurs of concern joining the intermittent cheers. What had happened? He looked round, trying to figure out what the problem was.

"Over there!" Sildea said. "She got a blue!"

Martonal followed Sildea's pointing finger towards the Weyr girl who'd been standing beside Fru. "Dragons choose. Guess he wanted a girl for a rider."

Campen laughed, but couldn't quite keep a hint of envy from colouring his voice. "It's half-half so far, you know. And not just greens! Maybe we need even moregirls on the Sands."

"Maybe you should have worn a dress?" Sildea joked back, before suddenly stumbling forward onto hands and knees as something nudged her from behind. "Ow! What did you do that for, Mar?"

Martonal grinned down at the little something who'd set his cousin tumbling. "Not me, Sil. Not me. I think you should take a look."

"What do you me... Mazlith!"

He watched her face transform as Impression was made, happier than he'd ever felt before at her good fortune, and aching with the hope that he'd soon know it for himself. Watching her walk away, everything forgotten except for Mazlith, he knew there was nothing he wanted more. When he turned back to the eggs again, another green and two browns had hatched and begun their search for riders - no, one of the browns had already chosen Porrigor. How many eggs were left? Ten? Twelve? There was no time to count, because they were hatching all over now, another brown bursting free from his shell as Martonal watched. The egg he'd noticed the other day was still there, along with another two in the group closest to the entrance. Cheers from the crowd made him turn around in time to see one of the rejected queen candidates Impressing the green, and a weyrbred boy one of the browns.

Beside him, Campen cupped his hands to his mouth. "Well done, T'it!" he yelled. "Hooray for Brownrider T'it!" The other Candidates remaining picked up the chant, and it was soon echoed all around the Sands.

"What's his name, T'it?" the Weyrleader prompted over the shouting. "Dagath? Splendid!"

"I promisedAlby after dinner yesterday that I'd do that, if he wasn't here to do it himself," Campen whispered to Martonal. "Timolit was bragging all evening yesterday that he'd go down in the records as the great T'mo... but he'll have to live this down first!"

Martonal was about to reply when he saw another brown dragon, this one heading their way. "Campen, look!"

"Ohhh..."

The dragon stumbled closer, but Martonal closed his eyes, a wild sense of certainty filling him. That dragon was Campen's, not his. He turned, slowly, feeling the warmth of the rising sun moving across his skin. There were cheers from the crowds as Campen Impressed, and cries of hunger from the young brown dragonet beside him, but Martonal shut them all out.

He'd heard another egg cracking.

He opened his eyes again, using one hand to shield them as well as he could from the bright sunlight. It didn't make much of a difference. He could tell that there were two eggs left from that group, and that it was the one on the left that was breaking apart as he watched, but very little more than that. It might be the egg he'd noticed when Erris had shown him the clutch, but could just as likely be one of the others. There was so much debris on the sands that even his memory was of no help to him there. Martonal laughed in sudden delight as a large chunk of egg-shell flaked away, and the dark shape of a wet snout poked free. What did a shell matter? It was the dragon inside that counted, and this dragon was his.

The dragonet's snout briefly withdrew, then surged upwards again, the motion setting the entire shell crumbling into the sand. Standing shakily amidst the ruins of its egg, the dragonet formed a perfect silhouette - and then wings were spread for balance, the dawn light streaming through the gossamer-fine skin like stained glass. Martonal's heart lifted. He'd already thought the dragon perfect, but there'd never be another to match that stunning, impeccable colour. Just looking at the dragon made his whole hoped-for future seem almost inevitable... but what if he was wrong? What if he was just deluding himself?

"Look at me. Please look at me," he whispered, tears stinging in his eyes.

And the dragonet did.

It felt like gravity, like sunlight, like the gentle breezes blowing across the lake at dawn. The dragonet's eyes were whirling, like sun on the water, blue and green and gold all rippling together, and he was within it all, deep underwater, ascending fast, faster. Breaking the surface, breathing again, breathing for the first time in his life, blinded by the intensity of all that light and love and life. He could feel every nerve in his body in sudden overwhelming awareness, the aches in his nose and gums and hands and knees, the heat of the sands on the soles of his feet, the tickling as each grain slid uncomfortably between his still-damp toes and crusted on his feet with every step, the wetness of tears running freely down his face, of egg fluids sliding away from his newborn body, the pure physical relief of stretching wings and legs to their full extent for the first time in his life... but most of all, the gnawing hungriness within him. Well, that at least he'd expected.

M'tal slid to a halt in front of his dragon. His dragon, his dragon!

You are M'tal? Then I am Rhynath.

"Rhynath..."

The name suited his dragon perfectly. M'tal reached out, caressing the right spot behind Rhynath's headknobs almost instinctively, while the dragon nuzzled his shoulder. Two halves of a whole, the Harpers sang, or, one spirit, ne'er divided, but that barely scratched the surface. They were more than mere mirrors of each other: they were contrast, complement, completion... and more than that, too. He could scarcely make sense of it all, but there was no rush; they had Turns and Turns ahead of them for that. So much newness and confusion for them both, but Rhynath was coping with it all so admirably! And in spite of the newborn simplicity of the dragon's thoughts, there were depths to Rhynath's mind that M'tal could almost feel, depths that sang within his heart and mind. Rhynath was the best of him, and oh, how could he have lived so long never knowing that this, this was what love really was? How could he ever possibly have wanted to notwalk this path, to live the life that had brought him to Rhynath, and Rhynath to him?

There's a path there too, M'tal. I think it has food at the end of it.

"Food, yes. That first." And I'm sorry, Rhynath. We can hurry if you like.

Please, yes!

Right. Then let's go.

Man and dragon left the Hatching Sands together, just as they and their fellows were always meant to be.


A/N - yes, that's all you're going to get, at least as far as this part of the story goes. Thank you very much for sticking with me, and for putting up with my apalling penchant for cliffhangers. ;-) As for the rest of the author's note, you only need to read on if you're one of those interested in...

A little bit of something vaguely resembling an epilogue

This story ends where it does, but life, as always, goes on.

Except when it stops, abruptly and unexpectedly.

But I'm getting ahead of myself there, aren't I?

So, what happens next? And what happens further down the line?

First of all, Gallogren and his cronies. Well, they get booted out of the Weyr and back to their homes right after the hatching - Gallogren too, who is fostered with relatives at South Telgar Hold. Nothing much is heard of them for quite some time, but it's fair to say that Gallogren's character is not improved by his change in circumstances.

How about E'gall? Weyrleader T'ray wasn't sure what to do about him, but he acceded to B'dril's request to transfer the young man into his own wing. So much for B'dril not being E'gall's wingleader, eh? It takes a couple of years, but he gets some sense hammered into him, and turns out to be quite a decent underneath. The potential was always there, just rather deeply buried. E'gall and M'tal eventually become very good friends.

B'dril becomes Weyrleader the next time Ackla's queen rises. T'ray is one of the few who are unhappy about it. Fru is another, but she soon turns her attentions elsewhere.

Saerlith never rises again, but she and Erris remain a much loved and respected part of the Igen Weyr community for the rest of their days. They have many Turns of being wise and/or exasperating ahead of them, depending on who you ask. Erris passes on her knowledge of 'leaning' on others (did you catch her doing it? she and I both tried to be subtle about it...) to an Istan queenrider who spends a Turn at Igen for just that training.

What about the Weyrlings, then? What's in store for them? The next ten years are packed full with lots of hard work, laughs, love, learning and more hard work again. Good times! M'tal falls in love. Sildea thrives. C'pen adjusts to Weyr morals quicker than he'd have thought possible. Sath turns out to be even more incorrigible than A'bil. G'rit will one day be Weyrlingmaster. Oh, you wanted to know what colour Rhynath is, do you? Tough luck. I didn't work so hard at avoiding even gendered pronouns to let it slip here... Put it down to artistic choice on my part, and rest assured, YOU know the answer to that question anyway. It's part of why I wrote this story in the first place - to show my own take on what it takes to be Searched, and that there's a heck of a lot more to Impression itself than merely the colour of your dragon's hide.

If I ever write the sequel, it'll take place about 14 years after Rhynath's hatching. The Conclave has just confirmed a new Lord Holder, and trouble is brewing in the Holds. With Threadfall a fading memory, what need have the autonomous Weyrs for heroics? And a broken rider who's already learned the ultimate price of heroism will look for answers in a dragon's dying words.

Yes, you know exactly what I mean to have happened by that, don't you? And no, I'm not a nice author, am I? But I do love reviews, even if half of you probably want to hit me with something right now...