Disclaimer; I own none of Anne McCaffery's characters nor her world I'm just borrowing them.
This was the very first full length novel I had ever written. I was suffering from Pern withdrawal symptoms because of the long gap between the publication of 'The White Dragon' and – actually I can't remember what came next because IMHO they weren't on the whole up to standard. I was also doing a combined maths/technology/science experimental course – sort of 2 ½ A levels in one course – and some of it seeped in by way of consolidation. I apologise in advance to anyone who hates maths. You can always skip those bits. It was never meant to be read by anyone but my husband and myself in any case; but as I enjoyed writing it, I hope some of you might also enjoy reading it. Thanks for taking the time to read my maunderings before getting stuck in. And please forgive the lack of sophistication to the writing.
CHAPTER 1 Endings and Beginnings
"She can't have gone far. I saw her less than an hour ago." Cotholder Sarel's voice was placating, pleading with the angry Lord Meron. Talana smiled grimly to herself. Neither her father nor Meron would ever guess that she was within a few yards of them – not after having heard from the gate guard that she had left.
The day had started happily enough, as she and her father left to go to the gather. Talana fully anticipated earning enough to enjoy herself, by selling the rush baskets she had made, but her father had taken her first to the Hold. Puzzled, Talana wondered what business he had, for whilst Sarel was a reasonably prosperous farmer, he was not one of the more important Holders. Her natural curiosity aroused, Talana had pressed forward what she called her 'inner ear' when her father went to speak to the Nabolese Lord Holder. What she heard had shocked and terrified her – that Lord Meron had seen her working in the fields, and desired her to be brought to him!
Talana twisted her mouth in a sneer. Nowadays the Lord Holder could scarcely get out by himself. It was rumoured that he was dying slowly, of some disease said to be fit punishment, whatever people meant by that.
Her first instinct had been to run, to leave the hold and make for home; but common sense prevailed. That would be what they would expect. The guard, with no orders then to the contrary had let her out; but he was bound to remember a girl with flaming red hair in a plait almost to her knees. With a pang of regret Talana realised that the hair had to go.
The autumnal day was warm and several boys who had travelled for the gather had taken advantage of the weather to wash the dust of travel from themselves in the river. Choosing an item of clothing from each pile and leaving her few marks in compensation while they splashed, Talana reclothed herself. Her braid she cut with her belt knife, a workman like tool she used for cutting rushes, then she muddied the rest of her hair. She rubbed dirt into her face and hands and roughened her nails on a stone which she then used to weight down the bundle of her old clothes and plait as she hurled them into the river.
Her old life sank quickly to the bottom, and she made her way back to the gather, hands in her pockets and whistling jauntily, a natural target for suspicions from the stallholders convinced they "knew his sort"! It had been an easy matter to mingle with locally drafted labour going into the Hold to prepare the feast.
Thus it was that Talana was dressed in a drudge's overall and scrubbing floors not a dozen paces from the hated Meron.
It was only at this point that the sudden, uncomfortable thought struck Talana.
How was she going to get out later?
Cursing herself for a fool – for she dared not leave so soon as the rest of the temporary labour – Talana bent over her scrubbing brush as Meron strode past her, calling to his frightened minions to ride out and search. The stench of his foul illness almost made her retch, and she cowered back in repugnance. Meron ignored her. He stopped by the door, smiling unpleasantly.
"I think I may go out after all." His sneering voice made Talana shiver. "To chase down a recalcitrant girl may prove – interesting."
Talana's father downed in one gulp the wine he had been holding; his hand shook as he put it down, empty on the table.
" I had no choice, Talana." He murmured. Talana stiffened, looking up, apprehensive; but Sarel had his back to her. He must be speaking to himself, she concluded,trying to quiet his own conscience. Well he could talk to himself, thought Talana, suppressing a snort as she returned to her scrubbing; for she had no intention of ever being around for him to talk to ever again.
The next few days passed in a nightmare haze of unaccustomed hard work. Talana's hands were toughened by farm work, but blisters rubbed by different tools hardened painfully into calluses Ash from grates ingrained itself into her skin until Talana became so used to being dirty she scarcely noticed it. She listened constantly with her 'inner ear' to catch the rudiments of surface thoughts in the hopes of staying out of trouble; soon it became second nature. Talana soon learned who to avoid, and who could be trusted to ignore a drudge boy sneaking an extra morsel of food. At every spare moment she explored the lower caverns of the Hold, seeking hiding places in case Meron realised what she had done and decided to search his own hold. As time elapsed she considered it less and less likely that he would take the trouble; but she still felt the urge to keep her options open by knowing every dark nook and cranny in the place.. So each day she went further often on the pretext of running messages; in roving about the hall with a legitimate excuse she was able to purloin and secrete enough glow baskets for her clandestine trips.
Warm autumn slipped quickly into winter, the frost biting hard into young and old bones alike. Unprepared for a sudden cold snap, Talana went about her tasks shivering in her scant garments, hoping to spend the day turning the spit by the roaring kitchen fire.
It was not to be.
One of Talana's least favourite undercooks bellowed, and she ran to him, eyes cast down as expected.
"Take this across to the guard. Hurry now!"
Talana grabbed the plate of hot stew and steaming jug of klah and ran out into the courtyard, wincing as the sharp cold struck through her thin, broken sandals.
She was about halfway across the courtyard when her foot slid from beneath her as she put it down on a patch of black ice. Unable to save her footing, Talana flailed instinctively, then screamed as near-boiling klah poured down her arm. Then she hit the ground and the world spun in a maze of black brightness.
The sudden pain in Talana's ribs brought her back to herself as the undercook kicked her. Roughly she was hauled to her feet and blows rained on her.
"Clumsy brat! Do you think I prepare food for you to ruin?"
"My arm – it's scalded!" gasped Talana, retching.
"Then stay outside and cool it off!" snapped her tormentor, aiming a last savage kick at her. "You needn't bother to come back in as you're so fardling useless!"
He turned and stamped back into the warm.
Talana shrank against the cliff wall of the kitchen, her arm burning the rest of her body shivering uncontrollably with shock and cold.. She hoped some of the heat from the great hearth might seep through the rock as she examined her burned arm. She winced as she rolled up her sleeve, the cloth pulling layers of scalt skin with it. Only fear of becoming the butt of the guards' cruelty kept her from crying out loud.
As a country girl, Talana knew the rudiments of first aid; to find a clean white cloth as a dressing was a priority. But where could such be found? Glancing around the courtyard for inspiration she gasped in relief as she realised that the laxity prevalent in Nabol Hold had led to some drudge having left clean linen on the line over night.. She knew it would be stiff with frost, but at least the cold of it might ease the throbbing in her arm. Quickly Talana walked across the yard, trying not to look furtive, and unpegged a pillowslip.
It was as stiff as a board. Talana crumpled it between her hands, biting her lip as the cold burned her fingers. Eventually it gave enough and she slapped it onto her arm, her breath hissing out with the shock of it. She was still shivering, her teeth chattering in her head. She had to get warm somehow . The ashpit was tempting – but Talana well knew the dangers of getting dirt in a wound. It did not bear thinking about.
But the window over the ashpit led to a storeroom.
Talana ran to the ashpit and scrambled onto the surrounding wall, trying not to touch her arm against anything.. She reached up – but the windowsill was too high. She could barely brush it with her fingertips. Not for the first time, Talana cursed her small stature, for she was barely the size of a child of ten or so turns. At least, she reflected there was some heat by the ashpit , from the ash that had been emptied that morning. She thought scornfully of Meron that he'd never do without his creature comforts. He never went hungry; in fact there was to be a feast that day, with old Rot-Rear trying to impress the dragonmen. Impress, huh? Talana smiled grimly through the pain at her unintentional pun. He'd be the last person to do any sort of impressing where dragons and their riders were concerned. Yet – this feast could prove her saving. There'd be a lot of traffic in and out of the hold with food being carried, people milling about. Indeed if she was not mistaken her came the first load…..
Talana slipped into the kitchen with the second wave of provisions, hoping that the rest of the drudges would be so busy sorting the first load that she would pass unnoticed.
Luck and her size were on Talana's side; and she slipped down the passage that led deep into the bowels of the hold, further than ever she had been before. It was not warm in the quiet stone passageways; but it was not gut-wrenchingly cold as it was outside where the biting cold wind seemed to cut right through the body of a skinny, ill-fed girl. Gradually her shivering subsided, especially after she had grabbed a blanket from one of the storerooms and pulled it about her narrow shoulders. Talana plunged on recklessly into a 'new' passageway, blocked it was said by a rockfall. No-one came here, and she longed for seclusion.
The sound of bustle from the kitchen receded, faded to silence. Though Talana's steps were soft in her light sandals they seemed to her to ring hollowly in the deserted passageway; the noise, she thought, matched only by the beating of her heart. Old, old stone led her to hope for a secret passage made by the Ancients where she could hide and be safe forever, raiding for food at night.
The dark mass of the rockfall loomed ahead, an untidy pile of fallen stone straying down the passage, shining black where they had broken away; concentric ring patterns showed where they had collided one with another, the concussion fracturing them. Talana put down the glow on a large rock and began tapping the walls systematically, more with the intent of taking her mind off the pain in her arm than with any real hope of finding any thing. At last, disheartened, she flopped onto the floor and flung a small rock at the pile of rubble.
The CRACK! As stone hit stone startled her in the quiet of the passage as it echoed - but not as much as the sight of the stone she had hit falling backwards! Talana jumped up and started forward to look closer at the rocks. The one that had fallen appeared to be in a place where they were piled but thinly – and Talana thought that if she could move just one more….
The rock shifted, falling suddenly and bringing more rubble with it. Talana found herself looking at a black crevice, just large enough to take her slight body.
"It might make a large enough nest to sleep in at least" she whispered to herself, fetching the glow basket. She held it up to the hole. To her amazement, after a short tunnel, she could see through to the passageway on the other side of the rockfall! Pushing the glow ahead, Talana scrambled through the hole. There was just enough room to avoid scraping her injured arm if she was careful; and she soon stood on the other side. Quickly she crammed small rocks into the hole behind her to avoid risk of detection – and safe at last curled up in the blanket on the floor. Her arm throbbed and she felt sick after her efforts; but she was so tired. Healing sleep overcame her.
When Talana awoke, the glow had almost gone out. Cursing, she scrambled to her feet, afraid to be caught in the dark in an unknown place. She was surprised to see a glimmer of light ahead of her as she got up, and fear struck her sleep–clouded brain; were they looking for her? Common sense soon told her that not only was this an unknown part of the hold, but also no-one would waste time searching for a drudge lad. Moreover, any searchers would come from the direction of the rockfall; and as Talana woke up sufficiently to gauge her bearings she realised that the light came from the end of the passage she had not yet searched!
"It might be a spyhole into a different part of the Hold" she mused. Gathering her courage she walked forward cautiously. The light grew brighter as she drew nearer, and as the passage turned she saw that it issued from a room opening off the end of the passage. Warily, Talana peered into the room, curiosity overcoming fear.
It was unlike any room she had ever seen before.
There was a table in the centre of the room, and chairs around it; and this was ordinary enough. It was the walls however which caught Talana's interest. They were covered with pictures. Strange, wonderful pictures and patterns, many of them meaningless to her, but vibrantly coloured. Strange animals she had never seen before mingled with familiar beasts like wherries and tunnel snakes. Centrally from the ceiling was hung a strange sculpture consisting of two spirals held together by rungs like some fantastic ladder. Talana could not even begin to guess whether this was purely decorative or whether it had some strange, unfathomable function.
She looked at the side walls next. Triangles, their sides and corners lettered and surrounded by symbols, adorned one wall in a dance frozen in time, the symbols and letters seeming to spell the instructions for long-forgotten step sequences, thought Talana whimsically. The final wall was bare shiny white, but there were traces of a sprawling hand rubbed off, smearing what must have been still wet paint. Talana could not make out what had been written; but it was while she was trying that it impinged upon her consciousness that the room was not lit with glows. In her initial excitement she had not noticed the source of the illumination; now she noticed that the soft yet powerful light came from the ceiling, almost like the light from the sky! However the room was far underground, and windows were out of the question. Marvelling at the wonders, Talana moved further into the room. By the door was a set of shelves, and on them a solitary box – like object. The top was decorated with triangles; and like the walls was brightly coloured though no brushstrokes could be seen. Talana wondered what it could be made of and attempted to lift the lid. It came up -–revealing a flat, white surface immediately below it. Disappointed, Talana picked the object up – and almost dropped it when it seemed to come apart in her hands! It appeared to have only one side, at the back, and what she had taken as sides were the edges of tightly packed fine leaves with writing on. Carefully Talana turned the pages, recognising as she did so some of the symbols from the triangle wall. The writing was so small yet so precise – surely the work of a master copyist! Talana had been taught to read by her mother before she died; and had quickly learned to reckon as well as any trader, and she had taught herself a neat and economical hand, but this writing amazed her for all that it did not have the flowing beauty of that which she had seen on scrolls.
Cross-legged on the floor, Talana became lost in the study of this amazing work, gradually understanding some of the concepts therein. She found that the sign which she privately described to herself as 'two sticks and a piece of string' was named 'pi' and meant a number which was "taken for most practical purposes to be 3.14 and could be approximated by 22/7". Talana frowned.
"That's three and a seventh." She muttered. "Why not write that?" she added "Then the other way of writing it, I suppose the bit after the dot means one seventh. Well, fourteen is two sevens, but I don't really see…"
Puzzling over her find, Talana forgot the time until her belly gurgled painfully, reminding her of her hunger. Without being quite sure why she did it, Talana pushed the book inside her loose tunic before leaving the wonderful room.
The dark seemed oppressive after the lighted room, for the glow had long since failed. Talana felt her way along the smooth wall to the rockfall. A brief moment of panic assailed her as she scrabbled at the rocks, frantically trying to clear the hole, terrified that more rock had fallen and trapped her.
Then her hand felt emptiness, and Talana wriggled through the hole with more speed than caution, being careful only of her still painful arm. Soon she was feeling her way back to the rest of the lower caverns. It was with some relief when she saw the first glimmers of light of glows which had been set further into the storerooms than was customary; for in her absence the dragonmen had arrived and they must not be kept waiting whilst drudges scrabbled for stores in the half dark! All was in chaos, and Talana was able to grab a chunk of wherry meat unnoticed. The warmth of the kitchen was welcome as she satisfied her stomach's cravings; but comfort was not to last long. The vindictive undercook, Callon, spotted Talana trying to look busy by the fire.
"Hey boy! Do you think you can laze about somewhere all day and then slip into the warm to steal food whenever you like? Go and draw water from the well!"
Cheated of Talana begging him to let her back in he threw the heavy bucket roughly at her. Talana dodged it with practised ease, and picked it up, sighing, She trudged out into the courtyard, grateful that there had at least been some respite, but got no further than halfway to the well. For there in the centre of the courtyard was a large blue dragon lying on the frosty ground, gazing at her unwinkingly from thoughtful rainbow eyes.
"Aren't you cold lying down there?" asked Talana conversationally, though her heart beat faster in her chest. In all truth though the unexpected sight of a dragon this close to was unnerving her first thought was that such a magnificent being must not catch cold!
"The cold does not worry me"
Talana started, briefly wondering if she had imagined the dragon's reply. She said,
"I – I beg your pardon. I didn't know that dragons spoke to anyone but their riders."
The dragon merely looked amused. Talana added
"I – is there anything I can get you?"
How beautiful he was, hide glistening in the clear air! Never mind cruel Callon, she thought, this wonderful dragon must be served first.
"I have eaten, thank you, but I have an itch on my shoulder" The dragon's tone was hopeful. Talana came up to him.
"Here?" she asked, scratching.
"A little higher – if you climb on my leg – yes, that's just right!" The dragon rumbled in pleasure, his breath almost strong enough to knock Talana off as he turned his head towards her!
M'kel was not in a good mood. He had spent the entire afternoon reviewing Meron's obnoxious brats and his holders' brats, all of them spoiled and arrogant like the one already at the weyr. There was a source of power here somewhere, he'd swear it, but he was damned if he could find it. Shards, and was this wherry tough! It tasted, he thought , as though it had been born in the same time as the Oldtimers and had seen all the intervening turns!
Vorth's mind-voice spoke softly, driving the discontent from his mind.
"I have found what you were looking for"
"The power source? Where is he?" M'kel framed the thought carefully, so as not to subliminate and give any inkling of his exultation away to Lord Meron. Vorth spoke again.
"The child is here. And a very polite child too." M'kel sensed the ecstasy his dragon felt as Talana, over her initial shyness, rubbed his sensitive eyebrow ridges. Vorth was almost humming with pleasure, a sound which was just audible in the banquet hall, and which was causing some concealed disquiet to the nervous holders!
M'kel grinned inwardly.
"Keep him there. I'll get away as soon as I can."
"What do you mean, you have found what he – your rider – was looking for?"
"You will be a dragonrider. We come on search."
"You sound very sure."
"I am sure. You feel right. But you have stopped rubbing" – the last accusingly. Talana resumed her caress, thinking furiously. They thought she was a boy. She might have been a suitable candidate for a Queen egg had there been one, but she knew there was no great gold egg at High Reaches this clutch. The Queen Segrith was an Oldtimer Queen – one of those who had stayed behind since the stubborn Oldtimers had been banished to Southern. Oldtimer dragons they said laid fewer Queens. Yet – it was a way out of Nabol Hold. Her mother may have returned from Benden Weyr, but there was nothing to stop her, Talana, from remaining in some capacity, or even go – well, anywhere – from there!
"Are you sure?" she asked again. "I do want to leave so very much."
"You will come with us."
"Then – if you don't mind – may I play a joke first?"
Quickly she whispered her intentions to the dragon; and Vorth, who perhaps heard more than she said of her reasons, rumbled in amused agreement.
Talana ran to the well and filled the bucket with water. Carefully she took it to the kitchen.
"Hey, Callon!" she called
The undercook turned, glowering.
"You took your time! Like it out in the cold, do you? Well you can stay there until after the feast and then….."
He broke off gasping and spluttering as the icy water hit him. Talana was out of the doorway and running. Callon swore. He would not tolerate this outrage. He was after Talana immediately with a broom in his hand to administer punishment. The cheeky boy had gone too far this time.
Callon rounded the corner – and pulled up short.
A few feet away was the grinning, toothy mouth of a dragon. Only a blue dragon to be sure, but still plenty big enough to bite him in two. The dragon yawned, displaying those fiercely efficient teeth to full advantage. He ran his tongue over those incredible teeth and grinned.
Callon let out one terrified screech and fled.
Talana leaned against her new friend and laughed until tears ran down her cheeks. Vorth thought her laughter bordered on the hysterical; and informed her,
Talana's laughter stopped dead. Suddenly her belly was tight. Suppose the dragonrider rejected her? She'd have to live with Callon's revenge.
Thus it was that M'kel was met with an apprehensive, big-eyed child shrinking back as he approached. Shrinking back towards the dragon. M'kel grinned..
"Well shortstuff, I get plenty of people clinging to me in fear of Vorth…"
"Especially young women"interposed the dragon. M'kel continued,
"…..But I've never known anyone to shrink from me to the comfort of a dragon before! Come lad, I shan't eat you!"
He was surprised to find himself being surveyed warily.
"I want to come with you to try to be a dragonrider." Talana raised her chin and spoke firmly. Somehow she felt unwilling to tell him that Vorth had suggested it, as though talking with the dragon had been an intrusion into the special relationship between dragon and rider. "I'm not afraid of dragons." She added.
"No, by the First Egg, you're not." There was approval in the young man's tone. He grinned, and Talana thought cynically that many girls and young women would be more than willing to fawn upon him for 'protection'. No wonder Meron was so cross until he learned there was no Queen egg. There would have been plenty of girls willing to be taken on Search by a handsome young man with crinkly dark hair and laughing grey eyes. She had a sudden fear that if he were a ladies' man he might know a lot about women and may see through her disguise! Talana had no intention of throwing herself on anyone's mercy, especially if he was used to girls being 'grateful' to him; and she had only the attitudes of Nabol Hold as a yardstick whatever people might say of the honour of Dragonmen. She struck a boyish pose, feet apart and hands on her hips, shrugging her shoulders back in the exaggeratedly military manner she had seen the stable boys do, biting back an exclamation of pain as her burned arm protested.
"When are we going?" she asked, trying to sound nonchalant.
"Not so fast youngster – and wait until you're asked". He aimed a playful cuff at her head which she ducked away from out of ingrained habit, her heart suddenly sinking, a hollow feeling in her belly. Could Vorth be wrong? Could all the stories about Dragonmen be untrue? He had tried to hit her – though instinct suggested this was not the same as blows from the likes of Callon, yet habit had given her a wariness over the last few months. The hunted look came back into her brown eyes and she half cowered back once more. M'kel cursed himself as a fool.
"Hey, youngster – you didn't think I meant to hurt you did you? I was just fooling!" He bit his lip at the look on her face, furious with Meron's brutality that rubbed off onto his minions, furious with himself for his insensitivity. "Do they beat you?" he added gently.
Talana shrugged her good shoulder. What did it matter? Things could only improve if he took her away, and it was none of his concern if she had to stay,
"How old are you?" He asked.
"Turned fourteen long since. Why?" Talana knew she looked younger than her Turns dressed as a boy; but the Age of Choice meant that she had the right to her own life.
"You don't look it." At least the lad wasn't so cowed he didn't ask questions. "Never mind, it's the turns that count, and you're of age. Hurry up and get anything you want to take; I'll be back in a minute." Abruptly he swung off to take his leave of Lord Meron, and inform him officially that he had picked one candidate.
Talana felt as though a great load had been lifted from her, and she almost laughed aloud in relief. She had nothing to take save her own skin and the book; and both were safe within her ragged tunic.
Meron was not happy about the loss of even the least of his drudges, but there was little he could do about it. He was glad to be rid of the supercilious Dragonman and his two fellows, so proud for all that they rode only blues and greens, raged the Lord Holder inwardly. Since Kylara's dragon and the dragon of that milk-and-water girl Brekke had died, they'd treated him like dirt!
M'kel was glad to leave the Lord Holder. Most riders blamed Meron at least in part for the loss of the two Queens, something hard to forgive. Moreover, the man's sneering ways were offensive.
As, reflected M'kel was the man's smell: it had become more noticeable since the last time he had seen the Holder. Distastefully he put Meron from his mind, returning to Vorth. He helped his chosen candidate onto the blue dragon's neck in front of him, then home to good food and a relaxed atmosphere. M'kel felt warmed to think about it. Pity the smell from the boy in front of him marred it – a mixture, M'kel thought , of cinders and fish – but there was nothing a good bath couldn't cure. He hoped the lad was amenable to the idea of washing.
I remember reading somewhere a detail about the precise length of a Turn but can I find it to check? Nope! I thought it was in Karen Wynn Fonstad's excellent Atlas of Pern but I can't find it; I know that the turn is one day longer but that each day is also longer than a solar day; and I have a vague recollection of working out that every 13 turns it's another year, so a kid of 13 turns is 14 years old and a person of 26 turns is 28 years…. This makes the youngest age at which a dragonrider actually fights Thread 14 Turns or 15 years old. I have introduced the concept of the Age of Choice, 14 Turns, as a Pernese, or at least Weyr measurement of adulthood which would be in line with the old Irish Age of Choice, since so much appears to have come from Ruathan ie Irish culture. It seemed to make sense!