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Fifty Years After The Fair

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What will you do when the war is over, tender comrade
When we lay down our weary guns

M'hall sat on the fire-heights and watched the tithing wagons make their way down the coast road from Longwood - although there had been some talk lately of renaming the new Hold, which also had quite a contingent from the Orkney region of Ierne Island, in the same way as the Weyr had been named.

You are sad, questioned Brianth. Is something not right with the tithes?

No, they look fine, conceded M'hall. I just wonder... how long will they continue?

What do you mean? asked Brianth, confused.

The astronomers say that Thread will be coming to an end in our lifetimes, explained M'hall. And you know it, too, don't you?

Yes, admitted Brianth. But... it will come again.

In two hundred years. That's a long time, even for men, to remember. M'hall kicked a small fragment of firestone back into place, frustrated. And dragons need a lot of feeding and care.

They'll understand, Brianth reassured his rider, but there was doubt creeping into the dragon's tone. Won't they?

We can only hope, replied M'hall. Come on, enough of this maundering. Let's go down and make sure the storerooms are ready.

In one of the storerooms, Sarah looked at the remains of the flamethrower wand in dismay.

"You don't think you can fix it, then?" asked Torene, already knowing the answer from Sarah's expression. "There are more in stores, right?"

"Oh yes, we can get you another one by next Fall," replied the engineer, "but... ugh, we're running out of spare parts. I mean, there's plenty to get us through for now..."

"We can make more, right?" said Torene, with more hope than warranted by her knowledge of these things. "Or... is there some kind of simpler design?"

"We're working on it," replied Sarah, tiredly. "It's actually the goggles and gloves that are giving us the most trouble. Once the plas-glass is all gone, and the plastic coatings..." she shrugged helplessly.

"Isn't there some kind of native material that might do the job?" asked Torene, acutely aware that she was well out of her field here. She knew just enough about engineering to do minor repairs on her flamethrower tanks, and nothing about materials science save when it was a good idea to get her gloves re-coated.

"I said, we're working on it," explained Sarah, her weary expression telling Torene just how many well-meaning riders had been asking her that question. Torene wondered if she was becoming shrill in her old age, unable to see the realities of the future bearing down on them, just like some of her parents' generation had seemed in her youth.

"I'm sorry," she apologised, genuinely. "I'll leave you to it."

"Thanks," replied Sarah gratefully, accepting the bent and melted wreckage of the flamethrower wand. "We'll make it work. I promise."

Torene tried to give a parting smile to the engineer, but the intended reassurance didn't quite reach the Weyrwoman's worried eyes.

When we return home to our wives and families

Flying the first half of a Fall was always the worst. If you were doing the second half, there was so much preparation to be done, checking and re-checking all the riding gear, sorting firestone for the outbound cadets... but after the first half of a Fall, exhausted from your dragon's exertions, there was little to do but carry bandages and watch the wounded being brought in. Hoping that none of them would be him, this time.

But in a way, Amy was ashamed to admit, she secretly was hoping that it was Paul, whenever another rider came down to the klah station trying desperately to calm their dragon. Not that she wanted him to be injured - but as much as she knew it would hurt him, she couldn't help but have this small scrap of hope whenever his dragon was injured.

He would feel it too, Marath cautioned her. You can't come between them, dearest. Not even for the children.

I know, dear heart, replied Amy, sorrowfully. I know that I shouldn't wish that on anyone. It's just... they'll be grown, by the time we're done with Thread, and he's so busy as a Wingsecond...

He'll have another three decades to enjoy them, her dragon tried to reassure her. And it's not as if they aren't cared for. You do more than many riders, and they have foster parents, and the whole Weyr behind them. There's no need to worry.

I wish I could be as sure as you, dear heart.

Then there were dragons brought in creeling with pain after a bad clump, and riders whose wounds needed dressing, and Jessica and Jamie carrying bandages and numbweed as fast as their little legs could carry them, her eldest two, making her so proud. Surely she should not wish terrible things to happen on their behalf! They knew their duty to the Weyr, and they would not thank her for it, even though they loved their father dearly and enjoyed what time they got to spend with him.

Anyway, you must be careful not to let my Kallenth get damaged. Then who would fly me? her dragon contributed sleepily.

And look into the eyes of our sons

Every Hatching brought Amy's heart into her mouth, now that her children were finally old enough to Stand, and this would be the first where she had not one, but two on the Sands. Jamie had been very philosophical about his first few Hatchings, pointing out that it was only recently that twelve-year-olds had been Standing at all, and now the clutch sizes were going down again it was even being considered that maybe they didn't need to let children that young into the dangerous vicinity of hatching dragons.

She abandoned her riding gear repairs as soon as she heard the dragons begin to hum, which amused Marath no end.

The eggs aren't going to break any faster for your hurrying, her dragon informed her.

No, but I'll get a better seat this way, explained Amy, as she rushed through the corridors and up into the Stands. Some dignitaries had already taken their places, Torene, M'hall, and the local Holders, but the rest of the seating was empty. Amy picked a seat about halfway up, a good compromise between being close to the Sands and having a view across the whole expanse, and settled down to wait.

Soon the first Candidates started appearing in the doorway, dressed in the wide range of styles affected by the Weyr's youth. She was pleased to see Jamie and Jessica amongst the promptest arrivals, and in sensible clothing, smaller versions of Amy's own riding leathers. After all, you wanted to have something sturdy between yourself and young, confused claws attached to dragonets trying to make their way to their new partners. There seemed to be a fashion this year for the kids whose parents could afford it to have clothes made up in the colour they were looking to Impress, and as Amy squinted at the passage she could make out a green sash that she was sure she hadn't bought her around Jessica's waist.

Amy supposed it was a fairly harmless superstition, certainly less dangerous than the persistent rumour that you could improve your chances by interfering somehow with the clutch while they were hardening on the Sands.

If her dragon is here, it will recognise her without caring about her clothing, contributed Marath.

In some ways, Amy hoped that her daughter didn't Impress quite yet. Obviously, Jessica was hungry to find a companion as close as her parents' dragons obviously were to them, but she was so helpful with the younger children. The next two, Jacob and Jason, looked unlikely to take up Jessica's position in the family. Not that maybe it would be relevant for that long - Amy hadn't become pregnant since Jennifer, who was four years old now.

These thoughts were swiftly forgotten as the first eggs began to rock, and the candidates were allowed out onto the Sands. Some were fearless, rampaging around in small groups, heading to 'their' eggs, which they had no doubt snuck onto the Hatching Grounds to examine and maybe even try to bond with, attempting to Impress the hatchling before it was even out of the shell. Others hung back around the edges of the cavern, eyeing the rocking eggs fearfully. Everyone knew the gruesome stories of candidates being trampled by over-eager hatchlings, and there was a particularly grisly one doing the rounds at the moment about a boy in Telgar Weyr who had been eaten by one of the young dragons, or at least had his guts snacked on before the new rider and those supervising could pull the hatchling off the unlucky candidate.

Jamie and Jessica were in neither category, striding out onto the Sands confidently, but hanging back from the feuding groups who were willing to head right up to the eggs. Jessica looked a little nervous, but Jamie was holding her hand, boldly surveying the clutch for the first arrivals.

Over there, look, it's a blue! Marath informed Amy, and she turned to look at the small blue dragon shaking off the remnants of its shell. The poor creature was immediately beset by two boys who had been 'claiming' that egg, but shrugged off both of them and headed for one standing a little further back.

Used his wings, very considerate of him, commented Marath, as several other eggs took their cue to start exploding like firecrackers, revealing more blue, brown and now a bronze standing proudly in the remnants of his shell. Some of the smaller eggs were rocking, too, and one managed to roll entirely over before scrabbling green claws broke through and left the dazed hatchling at the end of a trail of eggshell.

Jamie started picking his way cautiously towards the section which seemed to be hatching more of the larger colours, offering to drop hands with his sister, but at her balking he began to drag her after him, her hand still tightly clasped in his. A brown hatchling was making his way determinedly over to where a boy was standing with a group of girls, and Jamie dropped hands for a moment to whisk his sister out of harm's way. She continued to stare blindly at the chaos unfolding around her, mesmerised by the colours and the creeling of hungry and distressed hatchling dragons.

Oh well, thought Amy, it is her first time, after all.

You were quite surprised yourself, I remember, Marath reassured her.

Continuing in the direction of the larger dragons, Jamie had fixed his eyes on a bronze who was calmly surveying the assembled candidates, occasionally batting at ones who were too desperate to get his attention and got too close.

Look where you're going! thought Amy as she saw a tiny green dragonet, limping slightly from her ungainly entrance into the world, dragging herself into Jamie's way. Jessica dropped hands with her brother again to scoop the little thing up, but it squeaked and fought, sending Jessica over on her back with a soft thump that was practically inaudible in the chaos.

What will you say of the bond we had, tender comrade?

"No... what? Stop panicking, Tellath, she's only... oh..."

Jamie dropped to his knees to comfort the hatchling as his sister picked herself up and dusted herself off, wincing a little. The poor thing had somehow got its wing tangled in one foot and was holding it at a very awkward-looking angle.

"Jamie!" exclaimed his sister, finally taking in what was happening. "Jamie, give her back! She's mine! I found her first!"

Who is that angry girl? asked Tellath, letting Jamie carefully unhook the wing from where it was caught. Why is she shouting at me?

"It's okay, Tellath, it's not your fault," Jamie reassured his dragon - his dragon! - as he looked up to deal with his sister.

"It's not fair!" insisted Jessica. "There are lots of blues and browns and I rescued her! You were about to step on her, trying to get to that bronze over there!" Jessica sniffled, gradually understanding that there was no chance of her getting her way here, but wanting to make Jamie feel guilty about it anyway. "Well, it... it serves you right! I hope you enjoy having a... a useless dragon that can't even walk without breaking itself!"

And with that, she stormed off towards the few remaining shells, looking for another little green hatchling.

I'm hungry, complained Tellath. And my wing hurts.

"It's okay," repeated Jamie... or J'mie, now, he guessed. "Let's get you over to the food, and I'm sure someone will come and take a look at that wing when you're done eating."

Amy watched from the Stands as Jessica stumbled through the wreckage of broken shells and occasional medical emergencies. Her daughter found nothing but abandoned eggshell, and Amy saw her kick one of the half-intact remnants viciously before collapsing down on the hot sands, her leathers protecting her from the heat for the moment, and having a good heartbroken cry.

I wish I could tell her it's okay, Amy mourned. Can you get through to her, Marath? Tell her there'll be another Hatching, that her dragon just hasn't been born yet?

She isn't listening, Marath replied. It would be cruel to speak to her, Amy. She might think one had found her.

I suppose, conceded Amy. I'm going down there, anyway.

When Jessica was led off the Hatching Grounds by the Weyrlingmaster, Amy was there waiting. The girl collapsed into her mother's arms and sobbed, like she would never stop crying again.

"He took her," she complained in a muffled voice, "he took her from me."

And nothing that either of them could say would convince her.

Will you say that we were brave
As the Thread fell all around us

"I've already checked them three times, mother," said J'mie, still fondly despite the slight exasperation around the edges. "Don't you have your own riding gear to look over?"

"Got the whole first half to check it, too," Amy reminded him. "You're on your way first, although I doubt they'll keep you up there for long."

"Mother!" complained J'mie. "There's nothing wrong with Tellath. The medics have given her a clean bill of health. She's just as capable as any other green."

"And many other greens also injure themselves from trying to stay out in Thread too long," cautioned Amy.

"Especially those with male riders," put in the Weyrlingmaster as he headed past. "Not that you'd have any truck with such competition, I don't doubt, but bear it in mind."

"Yes, sir," replied J'mie smartly. "Now can I have my riding straps back now?" he asked his mother, a little impatiently.

I know my limits, Tellath reassured him. We shall be fine.

Amy was finally parted from J'mie by the Weyrlingmaster, who informed her that he had to learn to check his own straps some day, and led her away while J'mie finished getting everything together and Tellath paced out to join the other cadets.

"Good luck," said the ground crew member as she tossed him another sack of firestone. J'mie just grinned in response. Finally, he was doing something worthwhile! He had joked to his mother that Thread would be over by the time he got into the skies, and from the look in her eyes she had almost wished that was the case, but she warned him instead that there was another ten years and to keep hold of that enthusiasm as long as he could.

Tellath took off gently and spiralled upwards, gaining some height so that she was well in the air and into her stride before heading out towards the crowded airspace where the wings were assembling. Their cohort had been waiting for this Fall, because it came in from the sea practically right over the Weyr, so the fresh weyrlings could fly straight for the first part of the Fall and get used to the dangerous task before they had to combine it with multiple trips /between/.

The leading edge had just been met when Tellath made it over to the main body of the wing they had been temporarily assigned to, and the wingleader had them wait a little, circling in a holding pattern under the wing's main formation and watching for stray Thread to report down to the Queen's Wing below them.

Okay, Jaranth's almost out, come up slowly under the left centre flank and he'll duck down to make the transfer, the Wingsecond's dragon informed them. Tellath rose gently into position as J'mie unhooked the firestone sack and gave it an experimental swing. As they saw the other dragon dropping out of formation, J'mie took aim and flung the sack into the intervening space, to be caught neatly by the grey-haired rider. In one smooth motion the other rider hooked the sack onto their straps, handed a morsel to their dragon, and waved their thanks to J'mie with their other hand, as Jaranth took them back up into position.

The four sacks that they had been given were soon handed out, and Tellath glided out from under the flaming formation, back inland to the Weyr for another load. Amy was hovering anxiously with the ground crew, sorting firestone into sacks.

We are very well, thank you, he heard Tellath reassure her dragon. The winds are calm and I can ride a thermal all the way back up. We will be fine.

Back in the air again, and Tellath had to bank sharply to avoid a rescue in progress. One of Alaranth's recent grand-daughters, the largest queen in the Weyr, was struggling to support a brown dragon who had lost most of their right wing-sail.

Was that... asked J'mie, looking out for any further dangers, especially loose Thread coming through the disrupted formation above them. Was that my father's dragon?

Kallenth, confirmed Tellath. Do not fear, he will live, and his rider is still with us too. Now, we have our duty to attend to.

J'mie couldn't help but watch the scene behind them, until the four dragons involved - two smaller queens practically touching wings to be ready to grab something on the twisting, writhing brown if panic got the better of him - disappeared into the darkness of /between/.

Take us back down, pleaded J'mie. I need to be sure he's okay...

No, replied Tellath firmly. We have firestone to deliver. Then, maybe. My wings are a little tired.

So they continued into the air, to their assigned position, to do their duty; but for all his paranoia, even stirred as it was by the sight of that terrible injury, J'mie still could not help it as his vision become clouded with tears.

Or that we wept and cried for our mothers

As he pulled off his riding helmet and stowed his gear as quickly as he was able, Tellath was already asking around.

Lalenth says you should bathe me, but I think it can wait, she advised him. He's been taken to the infirmary. Marath's rider is with them, but she has to go soon.

One of the medics attempted to hold J'mie up as he turned the corner into the ward, but then he recognised the boy and stepped aside. "Your sister's there already," noted the medic as J'mie brushed past him.

The nurse looked slightly irritated as J'mie barged in, almost bowling over Amy, who met his eyes with a mixture of desperate pity and gladness that her boy, at least, was safe.

"Good luck up there," croaked J'mie, as he watched her go. Steeling himself, he stepped over to his father's bedside.

"About time you showed up," Jessica told him. The bitterness that was always present between them was choked and muffled by the sorrow that they shared, at seeing what was left of their father.

He's alive, Tellath reassured him. He will probably stay that way, too. At least from this.

Sure, he was alive - but would he ever ride again? The medic had amputated his right arm, and that whole side was an open wound dressed with copious quantities of numbweed.

"The Thread had got too deep for /between/ to finish it," explained Jessica, softly. "They had to take his arm to save his life. There wasn't much left but Thread anyway. And... then they... they scraped it out of his side..."

Jessica had not let her brother see her cry since the day of that Hatching, and he couldn't remember the last time they had been such genuine, heartfelt tears. She buried her face in his chest and clung to him, as if he might dissolve in front of her at any moment.

"It's okay," he tried to reassure her, feeling desperately inadequate. Of course it wasn't okay! And this might happen to him some day, he couldn't help but remember. This might happen to Amy, it might happen to Jessica if she finally managed to realise her dream of Impressing.

"I was just thinking," she managed through the sobbing, "that I hadn't spoken to you, not really, not since... that Hatching. And that you were up there, and I didn't know if I would ever see you again," she trailed off for a moment to catch her breath. "I wanted to say... to say I'm sorry. I'm sorry for how I've treated you. I'm sorry for how I've treated Tellath. I didn't have any right to her. She was always yours."

"Oh, Jess," he said, ruffling her hair, "I've missed you, sister. It's just luck, that's all it is, it's just fortune that meant she was looking for me, it wasn't anything you did or said. You'll find your dragon soon enough, your dragon will find you."

Jessica sniffled a little more, then came up for air, drying her eyes on her sleeve. "I don't think he's going to wake up any time soon," she observed, "not with all the fellis they were pouring down him."

"I guess not."

"And I'll be here, anyway," she continued. "But don't you have a dragon to wash?"

The dust is kind of itchy, contributed Tellath. And I think you're done now, right?

"Of course," he said, as much to his dragon as his sister, and he favoured the latter with half a smile, weak but sincere. "You take care of him while I'm gone?"

"Of course," echoed Jessica, also with the ghost of a smile. "Now run along, or the weyrlingmaster will have your hide..."

Will you say that we were heroes

"J'mie," called Weyrlingmaster M'vin as he saw the youngster heading for the Dining Caverns, "could I have a moment, please?"

"Sure," replied J'mie, turning to face the weyrlingmaster. "What is it?"

"You might want to step into my office a moment." M'vin saw the youngster's face fall. "No, no, it's nothing to worry about."

"If it's about my father," started J'mie, but he shut up and followed M'vin meekly as the older man shushed him.

"In my office," he said, leading the younger boy there.

They navigated the twisty inner passages of the Weyr until they found M'vin's office, where there were comfortable chairs and a door that the weyrlingmaster closed behind them.

"Did you want to talk about your father, then?" asked M'vin.

"Not really," said J'mie, flatly. "He's doing as well as can be expected, the medics are hopeful that his dragon might fly again, and Amy's quite sure that Kellanth will let her come and feed him firestone for half a Fall if necessary."

"Sounds like you have things in hand, then," said M'vin, trying to sound encouraging. It was obvious from the tone of J'mie's recitation that he'd been speaking to a lot of people about his father lately, and he probably didn't need the Weyrlingmaster to get involved. "No, I've just been trying to have a chat with all of the weyrlings of your cohort. You do know that Tellath will probably start rising to mate soon?"

J'mie was aware of this, of course, at some level, but he hadn't been admitting it to himself. He'd listened to all of the advice in Weyrling classes, but despite his usual diligence, their 'assignment' regarding mating flights was one that he hadn't undertaken. He didn't really want to think about it until he had to. He hadn't really associated the lessons with something that he might actually do, much less something he might want to do.

M'vin, of course, could read all of this straight off the boy's face. It wasn't the first case he'd seen and it wasn't likely to be the last. He'd know that J'mie was from a surprisingly traditionalist background given the circumstances of his parents' meeting, but he had hoped the young man would use his customary good sense in the matter. After all, his foster parents were no traditionalists themselves.

"I'm sorry, sir," apologised J'mie, to break the uncomfortable silence. "I know that we're meant to have, uh, had experience, before the flight. I just... haven't got around to it."

"If there's something we can talk about," offered M'vin. "I can't see that you'd have had trouble finding someone, have you?"

"No, sir," replied J'mie, awkwardly. Several of the other boys, blue and green riders both, and even a couple of candidates and one brownrider, had kindly offered to assist him, or been obviously sounding him out for a potential liaison. He didn't have the most striking good looks, but he had so far avoided the worst of the acne and awkwardly unbalanced growth that often plagued youths of his age, and the training had left him with a satisfactorily athletic build.

"Have you ever been interested in girls?" asked M'vin, taking another tack.

"Not really," admitted J'mie. "Well, kind of," he continued. "I mean. Shells, it's awkward. That's what I think about, you know. When I... you know. But I'm not meant to, am I?"

You are meant to be exactly as you are, insisted Tellath, sensing her rider's distress. It will not be so bad. There are many fine dragons with very considerate riders. I shall try to keep it in mind for you when I am choosing one.

J'mie chuckled. "Tellath says she'll find me a 'considerate' one."

"Your dragon is very sweet," replied M'vin amusedly, "but unfortunately there are rarely 'considerate ones' during a mating flight. I don't want to see you in the Infirmary after what should be a happy and pleasant experience for all concerned."

"I suppose," conceded J'mie, unconvinced.

"Now, is there anyone that you like? Someone you might have had your eye on, but haven't quite admitted to yourself that's what you were doing?"

J'mie thought for some moments, mentally running through his fellow weyrlings and the others who'd approached him. Maybe... maybe he did feel that way about some of them. Maybe he'd just been keeping it from himself. But mostly... mostly he was thinking of C'tor. Torene's son. And, as a bronzerider, completely inaccessible to him.

"There..." he began, but cut off, not wanting to incriminate himself.

"Spit it out, boy," commanded M'vin, "don't worry, it won't go any further than this office. You're not the only one who's made embarrassing revelations in here, don't you fret."

"I haven't really been looking," confessed J'mie, "because none of them are C'tor."

"Ah." Now this was a different problem, but also a common issue among the male greenriders. On the other hand - it was M'hall's son. While the Weyrleader had always been the faithful sort while in his current position, there were all manner of tales about his previous conduct. "Have you tried talking to him?"

"Ghereleth's a bronze," J'mie pointed out, as if everything else should be obvious from that.

"And do you think bronzeriders are somehow immune to flight lust when their dragon catches a green?" asked M'vin. "They have to learn, just like you, remember? They can't go into it thinking that male greenriders are just another kind of woman..."

"But - don't they always use stand-ins?" asked J'mie, confused. "It's just how bronzeriders are. They wouldn't want the rider of the actual dragon, not if they were a man."

"You'd think that, wouldn't you?" said the weyrlingmaster. "But whatever their preferences in the normal course of things - mating flights are different. And they can't be expected to suddenly learn self-control when their dragon's wired right into their libido like it will be."

"No," said J'mie, decisively. "I shouldn't. I should find someone else. Even if he would, just for practice, it would be... it would be unfair if it meant more to me than it did to him."

"Good lad," nodded M'vin approvingly. "So. Who else?"

"I'll ask W'lam," concluded J'mie. "He's got a different guy in his weyr every night. It won't matter to him. And he'll have had lots of practice."

"And you're sure you're okay with that?" asked M'vin.

"What else can I do?" asked J'mie, all matter-of-fact now. "As you said, I've got to be ready."

Or that fear of dying among strangers

"Hey, Will," called J'mie, spotting the other weyrling sitting at a table with his riding straps out, trying to replace a buckle.

"J'mie!" called W'lam back, pleased to see him. "Take a seat, tell me what's wrong with this goddamn piece of metal."

J'mie sat down opposite W'lam, trying not to let his nerves show.

"Or, hey," said W'lam, looking at J'mie again, "tell me what's got you so hot and bothered."

"You know how..." J'mie waved his hand vaguely, and looked embarrassed. "The dragons."

"Worried about going up in Fall again?" asked W'lam, totally misreading the other boy's concern. "Guess I would be, too, if it was my old man in the med bay with half a torso missing. It's just firestone duty again, though, there's no way they'd let a clump that size through to get you."

"No, no, that's not it," J'mie said, his heart sinking with every moment. How was he going to bring this up?

You don't have to go through with this, you know, Tellath told him. I'll make sure it's okay. You just wait and see.

No, the weyrlingmaster's right, J'mie replied, resignedly. If I'm this worked up about it, then it's not going to go well, whoever it is. I should get it over and done with when it's not going to upset you when you should be enjoying yourself.

If it's going to upset you, then it's going to upset me, whenever you try it, Tellath tried to explain. You don't have to put yourself through this for me. You obviously don't want him, so why would you let him catch you? Narrath's nothing to write home about, anyway. I can be sure not to let him catch me.

But someone's going to, replied J'mie, and I have to be ready.

If you're really sure, conceded Tellath sadly. If you want to do this, for yourself, not for me, not for M'vin, not for anybody else...

No, but what choice do I have? asked J'min wretchedly.

"Well, you don't have to say if you don't want to," replied W'lam, turning back to his riding straps. "Here, can you hold this bit?"

You always have a choice, Tellath instructed him. If you don't trust me, then find yourself a stand-in.

Tellath talked sense. Just because most male greenriders would let their dragons decide, it didn't mean he had to. There was no reason why he had to have anyone that he didn't want. But... there weren't really any girls, were there? Sure, he'd thought about girls in the abstract, but when he thought about them in particular, about asking them - even the cute little candidate with the freckles that he knew wouldn't say no to a dragonrider - there was just something not quite right about it.

Then don't, Tellath told him. Trust me.

Of course I trust you, he had thought before he had even really absorbed the context. But it made sense, didn't it? He trusted his dragon with his life, every time they took to the skies together. Why shouldn't he trust her with this?

"W'lam," he began, more confidently this time. "If it was important, if I asked you to, would you lie to the Weyrlingmaster for me?"

Tore our innocence and false shame away

Come on, rider mine, said the voice inside his head, more urgent than he had ever heard her before. Wake up, sleepyhead! I'm not leaving you in your weyr!

Reluctantly, J'mie opened his eyes and rolled over, to see that his dragon had poked her head right into his half of the weyr and was nudging him with her nose. Which was a more brilliant, grassy green than he had ever seen it before.

Honestly, if you weren't my rider I would eat you right now, she scolded, only half-joking. Now get out of bed - find your straps, your pajamas will do just fine, we're not going between - and come on out, unless you want a terrible crush when they all try to come pouring down the corridor?

Deliberately not thinking too hard, J'mie boarded Tellath and had barely started buckling himself in as she darted out of the weyr and started circling down to the weyrlake, calling out to the challengers who were already starting to assemble. Reluctantly, she landed briefly to let him scramble off at the traditional clearing.

I hope you know what you're doing, he thought, anxiously watching the other riders converging on him. There were some he recognised, some he didn't, some his age, some that were old enough to be his father, maybe even his grandfather.

Of course I do, replied Tellath distantly, talons striking out at one of the cattle. Now be brave, stand your ground, and watch and learn.

She drained her herdbeast like a gold, for she was determined this flight would be done well, even if there were no eggs to be had at the end of it. Her challenge rang out across the Weyrlake as she surveyed the competition.

If you want me, you'll have to come and get me, she told them, spreading her wings and catching the wind.

He knew that he was meant to let himself get caught up in it, and indeed the feeling of soaring high above the Weyr was very present and very comforting, but he couldn't shake the impression that he was also down on the ground and had just shoved someone quite hard away from him. He hissed like a dragon at the suitors who he could only characterise for the moment as assailants. None of them was worthy of him - of her - of them!

Come on, waste your energy darting about, she taunted her pursuers as she dived perilously close to the treetops, then caught another thermal current and rose out of the pack, narrowly ahead of Narrath, snatching her tail out of his way as he made one last attempt to foul her in flight. He stalled from the unusual movement and nearly ploughed straight into the treeline, only his superb agility keeping him out of harm's way.

But Tellath was beginning to fret. Where was he? I did what you said, she called plaintively. You can have me, just tell me where you are?

And then she felt a great shadow fall across her, and in a moment there was a tail twining with hers, a neck gently scooping down out of the clouds.

Waiting for you, replied Ghereleth.

On the ground, C'tor began to shoulder his way through the crowd. J'mie's eyes widened in disbelief as the bronzerider swept the other boy off his feet, acting like he was the stronger even though both were about evenly matched, and swept him into the little hut that was maintained for this purpose.

And from that moment on deep in my heart I knew

"Am I dreaming?" mumbled J'mie, shrugging off the arms around him and turning over. "Was I dreaming?"

"No, silly boy," said C'tor fondly, propping himself up on the pillow. "Though I think you're quite addled - what would you have done if one of the others had caught her?"

"Suffered?" hazarded J'mie. "I mean, what?"

"You do realise that dragons talk to each other, right?" said C'tor, grinning. "You don't think this is just some fairytale chance, that it happened to be me and I happened to know that some bits of you might not be quite ready to stick it in, huh?"

J'mie looked terribly embarrassed for a moment, but it was soon replaced again by a kind of sleepy satisfied look. "Mmm, well..."

"You thought I was out of your league, because I'm a bronzerider?" teased C'tor.

"I mean... they say..." J'mie was beginning to regain his senses, and his memories. Tellath and Ghereleth were still happily sleeping. "Do you... do you do this often?"

"Not very," admitted C'tor. "I had to ask a few people for advice, actually. Normally I'm just like the stories, I'm afraid. There's this girl who works in the Lower Caverns - freckles, brown hair in bunches, blue eyes..."

"But you did this for me?"

"And thoroughly enjoyed it, I'll have you know. You have a very pretty mouth, and I'm not sure I still believe you've had no practice! And you didn't seem to be having a terrible time, either..."

"No. No, it was good," replied J'mie, wistfully.

"Is something wrong?" asked C'tor.

"I just..." J'mie looked helpless. "I should have told her not to. I should have known what she was planning."

"And why ever should you have done that?"

"Because... because it's not fair on you, is it?" said J'mie, questioningly. "You don't really want this awkward little greenrider hanging around after you? And believe me, I will, if I get half a chance. She did warn you, right? That..."

"That your family has a history of getting attached?" said C'tor, smiling. "Didn't you think that maybe," and he reached out to gently caress the other rider, who realized for the first time that they were both still naked, "maybe that wouldn't be so terrible? That maybe I wouldn't mind, all that much?"

"But..." objected J'mie, distracted a moment by C'tor's hand on his skin. "But you said yourself, you don't... you're... I mean, Ghereleth will want to chase other dragons, right? Gold dragons. And there's your girl."

"Half the Weyr's girl, I wouldn't be surprised," C'tor replied, with a self-deprecating snort. "She's nothing special. And I don't really know you, J'mie. There are what, twenty greenriders in our cohort? And you've been avoiding me. I saw you watching Ghereleth before you tripped over your Tellath."

"I..." attempted J'mie.

"Now," said C'tor seriously, "of course Ghereleth will want to chase queens. Every bronze wants to be a father, after all. And I'm not saying that it will work forever. I might decide I prefer girls after all. Tellath - or you - might want some variety from time to time. I know your mother and father have stayed together for a long time, but Kellanth's a brown and they have children. But..."

And now it was C'tor's turn to trail off, as he drags his fingertips down J'mie's side thoughtfully.

"Aren't you afraid the others will mock you?" asked J'mie, wonderingly.

"Hah!" exclaimed C'tor. "Let them. I'm the Weyrleader's son. I think I can survive the damage to my ego. Unless you're too embarrassed?"

"No," replied J'mie, firmly. "I..."

But C'tor put his finger over the other boy's lips before he could say it. "Ssh now," he said. "You don't even know me yet. You're still getting the overspill from Tellath, even though she's sleeping now."

"I guess," admitted J'mie.

"Here," said C'tor, fishing out some underwear from under the mostly discarded bedclothes. "I think it's time we put our pants on and went and got some breakfast."

"I guess," repeated J'mie, reluctantly.

"Unless..." C'tor began, and this time he sounded kind of unsure himself. "Unless you wanted another go? While we're not tied up with dragons? While we're properly aware of it?"

"I..." stuttered J'mie, not having expected the other boy to offer. "I... would like that. If you would. I don't know how..."

"Then be quiet," said C'tor with a growing smile, "and I'll teach you."

That I would only give my life for love

She had seen the flight gathering outside, and excused herself from breakfast preparations for a moment. Marcia would cover for her, she was sure of it. She'd done the same for her freckled friend, plenty of times.

Positioning herself on the edge of the clearing, she scanned the crowd for the one she wanted. Maybe he wasn't here, and she could go back to frying eggs and tending ovens, no-one the wiser. But no - there he was, over the other side of the crowd. She began to make her way round, as she heard the sound of the dragons behind them taking wing. Instinctively glancing at the source of the noise, she froze for a moment as she saw the green who was the cause of this impromptu gathering. She'd recognise Tellath anywhere. This was her brother's first Flight.

She looked for Ghereleth amongst the chasers, but she couldn't spot him. C'tor hadn't got far through the crowd though. She picked her way through the edges of the clearing, trying to avoid embarrassingly tripping over the other girls who were doing the same thing.

Hiding herself in the bushes, she tried not to catch anyone's eye.

A muffled thump from the circling riders made her look up for a moment. Was the flight over so soon? But no - a small break in the circle had formed around one of the blueriders from J'mie's cohort, a young man named W'lam. Apparently J'mie had shoved him back on his rear, and from what she heard of W'lam, she didn't entirely blame the boy. In and out of every pair of legs he could lay his hands on, or so the rumours said. It didn't look like he'd be winning this flight, though - he dusted himself off and limped out of the circle, defeated.

It was not long after that, though. The other boys and men stayed at a healthy distance after the shove, but she was dismayed to see that C'tor was making his way steadily through the crowd, after having hung around on the outskirts for so long.

But he was a bronzerider! She had expected that he might have another girl waiting for him, although Marcia had sworn that he normally went for her, and she was back in the kitchens today. She had certainly not expected him to actually embrace the Flight, but she supposed it got to all of them, sometimes.

Come on, Tellath, she thought, you're better than that - you won't let an unwieldy bronze catch up with you, surely?

Her words had obviously fallen on deaf ears, however, as to her horror she saw C'tor lift her brother effortlessly, like he weighed nothing. The other men began to return to their senses and turn their attention to the various girls - and boys - waiting around the clearing's edge, as she watched her brother being carried into the Flight hut by the man she'd hoped to snare.

No - she was not going to let herself become bitter about it. There were plenty of other young men, and she'd seen at least one other bronze dragon. She stepped out and made her presence known, scanning the crowd for someone she wanted.

"Watching your brother?" said a voice beside her, almost making her jump out of her skin. She hadn't heard the man approach, and when she looked around, she blinked several times to convince herself she wasn't just seeing things.

"Were you competing?" she asked, caught rather off-balance. She had seen a couple of older faces, and been rather glad that none of them had won, even though she couldn't say she was exactly pleased with the actual winner.

"You know, dragons, sometimes they just get caught up in it," said the older man. No, her eyes weren't decieving her - it had to be M'hall, the Weyrleader, who was supposedly quite faithful to Torene these days! "So what's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?"

Jessica realised, with mounting terror, that he was attempting to chat her up. And why wouldn't he, she supposed? She was the one who'd walked up to a flight circle, just like Marcia did all the time, and there was no indication that she was waiting for someone in particular.

"Looking for someone," she said, noncommittally.

"And you don't think you've found them yet?" he asked. She watched his hands very subtly gravitating towards her body, but stopping short, unsure of her permission yet.

She looked at him appraisingly. He wasn't half bad, actually. Most riders kept themselves well, and... and she didn't want to go back to Marcia and tell her about the total failure she'd experienced. And older just meant more experienced, right?

"Maybe," she allowed. "Maybe I have."

Brothers in arms in each other arms

"Hey," said Jessica, spotting her brother lining up for lunch. "Can we have a word, when you've got your tray?"

"Sure," he replied. "Where are you sitting?"

A few moments later, he brought her tray over to her table, an unpopular and sparsely populated place in the far corner of the Caverns.

"What did you want?" he asked, curious. She didn't normally flag him down at meals, although they'd spoken a few times since they'd reconciled at their father's bedside. Mostly about her fears of being left Standing, what it was like to be a dragonrider, what their siblings had been getting up to. Amy hadn't had any children since Jennifer, but none of the others had Impressed yet.

"Jamie," she said, making sure he was looking at her before continuing. He put his fork down for the moment and met her eyes. Something was serious. "Jamie... I'm pregnant."

This came as something of a surprise to J'mie, who hadn't even known his sister was seeing anyone, and he couldn't keep it out of his face. "That's great, Jess," he tried, encouragingly. "Whose is it?"

"I don't think he knows yet," she said, in a conspiratorial tone. "But I'm pretty sure it's... keep your voice down... it's M'hall."

J'mie almost dropped his fork. "You slept with the Weyrleader?" he asked in shock, hoping that he had heard it wrong, that she would laugh at him and tell him no, it was some other M'hall.

"Don't get all righteous about it," pleaded Jessica. "It just... happened, okay? It's not like, I mean, I don't think he'd even recognise me..."

"That's meant to make it better?" As soon as the words came out, J'mie felt bad about saying them. "No, no, that's not what I mean, that's not important. So you're pregnant, and you don't know who the father is."

"I really am quite sure," Jessica corrected him.

"But you don't want it talked about, which is the same thing, right?"

"I suppose." Jessica didn't sound entirely convinced.

"Well, either you do want to talk about it, and you'll go and tell him the news, or you don't, in which case it's best to treat it as if you don't know?"

"Just because I don't want to talk to him about it doesn't mean I want to... to steal his child from him!" exclaimed Jessica. "I just... can't face giving him the news."

"Why don't you ask mother about it?" suggested J'mie. "I mean. I want to help you. But I don't think a guy barely out of Weyrlinghood going up to him and saying, by the way, you got my sister pregnant - I don't think that's going to improve his day, somehow."

"I haven't told mother yet, either." Jessica pushed some of her half-eaten lunch around the plate. "I don't think she'll approve."

"Why wouldn't she?" asked J'mie. He seemed genuinely confused. "She picked up Dad in a flight, didn't she? That's not exactly forward planning. And she loves children. She's planning to be a foster mother when Thread is over, didn't you hear? She'll adore having a grandchild to fuss over, she's never been quite herself since the miscarriage after Jennifer."

"I guess."

"Look, if you don't want to tell her on your own, I'll stand with you. She's out on a sweepride today, but she'll be back at dinner. We'll catch her then. Okay?"

"Okay," said Jessica, in a small, defeated voice. She seemed to be on the brink of tears. J'mie reached over cautiously and ruffled her hair.

"C'mon, sis," he said, "this should be a happy occasion. Mother will be overjoyed, I'm sure of it."

The only time that I was not afraid

Twelve years, thought J'mie. Twelve years, and this is how it ends.

We're not done yet, Tellath cautioned him, as they blinked back into existence, south of Benden and just off the coast. Leading Edge was just visible in the distance, a silvery shimmer falling harmlessly into the water, for now.

But this is it. This is the last, he replied. Or at least, the last that Benden Weyr will fly.

Don't lose track, warned Tellath, taking her assigned position. We can celebrate later, when it really is over.

The awareness of the imminent end of Threadfall was in the air, an infectious optimism that spread from dragon to dragon. For some, it was seen as a last chance to show off their Thread-fighting prowess. Distinctly more acrobatics than was strictly necessary was on display as dragons darted out to meet the leading edge of Thread rather further from the coast than usual. Weyrlings snuck pieces of firestone to their mounts, hoping to get a chance to flame just one Thread before it was over.

To your left, cautioned another dragon as Tellath almost lost a wingtip to a larger clump than they could take out on their own. A brown swung past and brought their long furnace to bear on the problem, leaving Tellath to snipe at a few wispy strands that would otherwise have caused very unpleasant wounds on the other dragon. Then she swept back into formation and took out a small tangle blowing in Petrath's direction.

J'mie caught firestone, fed Tellath, and scanned the skies for trouble, knowing that while his dragon's eyes were better than his at this game, a second viewpoint could be invaluable. Looking out into another wing's sector for a moment, he saw a great shadow falling on the centre of their formation.

What's causing that, Tellath? he asked, curiously. He'd never been able to listen in on the dragons' general chatter like some riders could, even when it was directed at his dragon.

Heavy patch... oh, that doesn't look good, replied Tellath nervously. She continued gliding in formation, but this area was surprisingly clear. Probably because all the Thread was over there, in the largest tangle either of them had seen.

Yalith, Moranth, Haschith, Fennith, Jacinth. You're not doing anything useful here, rise and assist B'ris, called Petrath.

Tellath looked worriedly in the same direction as her rider. The faster greens and blues from several other wings, and even a couple of the brown lynchpins, were heading in to assist, but it didn't look like it was going to be enough. Under the great mass, the smaller dragons were scattering, leaving the bronzes and browns blowing huge gouts of flame into the writhing tangle.

I'm heading over too, Tellath reported, rising out of formation and heading into the chaos.

Tellath, hold your position, instructed Petrath. We don't have enough cover here if something goes down...

That's Ghereleth down there! exclaimed J'mie, watching the formation under the tangle as Tellath rose into a position with a better view.

Petrath says... began Tellath, but she could feel her rider's determination and could not bring herself to countermand him. Okay, we're going in.

They're getting... they're not getting all of it! reported J'mie. Look, over there, between Ghereleth and the brown. Can you get us in there, Tellath?

The sudden cold of /between/ was J'mie's only answer, as Tellath took them the intervening distance as quickly as she knew how. He held his breath for three long moments, and then they emerged.

Jays, it's coming right for him, swore J'mie, helplessly watching the clump detach itself from the tangle. Can you warn him?

He won't leave the tangle he's flaming, Tellath replied desperately. J'mie - rider mine - do you love him? Truly?

We'll never flame it in time, thought J'mie in quiet despair. I can't... I don't want to... over ten years, and only him... to end like this...

Tellath did not waste a moment replying. Instead, she flew hard and strong, sweeping low over the back of the great bronze dragon, right into the path of the descending Thread.

When we cast off these khaki clothes

It was hard to remember that Thread was over, while dealing with the aftermath of that last Fall. So many dragons were injured, so many people were dead, or would never be the same again even if they did recover from their injuries. It seemed so unfair, that people had been taken away just as their lives should be starting, their lives without the constant shadow of Thread hanging over them all.

Amy was almost late to the wing meeting. She had been crying again. She'd spent a few extra minutes in her weyr trying to hide the signs, but she was sure it was as obvious as it was on the faces of many of her wingmates. Too many had lost those dear to them, between the showing off, the clowning about and the strange deviations from Thread's normal pattern that it had shown in that one final Fall.

"Now that Thread is over," B'ris was saying, "we must turn our attention to other duties. The Halls and the Holds owe us much, but we will not do ourselves any good to sit in our Weyrs and pretend the outside world does not exist, training incessantly for a threat which is in our pasts, although still very much in the future of our children's children."

She pretended to listen, but her mind was back in the air, as Marath screamed those words which had torn her heart in two - Tellath has fallen! Her rider is gone! She had seen the terrible remnant, gently brought to earth by Ghereleth, his lover's dragon. He had killed the Thread that was consuming the bodies by taking them /between/, but there was nothing left of her son, just the destroyed corpse of Tellath, taken so fast that she could not drop them out of existence like most of the draconic dead.

"A variety of professionals from Benden Hold are interested in talking to anyone who is interested in taking up a career in a diverse range of fields, from animal husbandry to the study of mathematics. There are many people interested in hiring dragons for transport and security work, and of course there will be opportunities for patrol riding..."

"Security work?" asked Paul, who had looked like he had fallen asleep during the speech, but now was wide awake and drawing on the authority of all of his seventy years. "Surely we can't be considering deploying dragons in situations where they might come into conflict?"

"It is just an option," B'ris attempted to explain, "and one which is unlikely to come to any actual violence. Who would challenge a dragon? But mostly I mean the kind of thing our watchdragons have been doing for decades in any case."

"Men will become used to dragons," cautioned Paul, "if we deploy them too widely. Our lifemates are strong, and imposing, but they are certainly not indestructible. Every one of us here knows that, and Thread is not the only thing which can hurt them. There must not be any possibility of a dragon being 'hired' to be some kind of enforcer! The very thought of one of ours chasing after people - people, whatever they've done, however intolerably criminal their actions... it would be the beginning of the end."

There were many murmurs of support from around the room.

"Perhaps security was the wrong word," admitted B'ris. "Surveillance, perhaps. Keeping an eye on things. I'm sure that's all they meant by it - but I will be checking any contract that is presented to me, you may be sure of that."

Lists were drawn up, expressions of interest proffered, and at the end B'ris circulated and approached most of his riders individually.

"Amy," he said, coming up to her at last. "There's an interesting position I thought I would offer to you first, given your previous indications of interest. A lady from Benden, Tracey Mercer, has come to us with a very interesting proposition. She's looking for a rider who would be willing to provide a kind of... educational dragon showcase? To visit outlying holdings, the ones who might not be in much contact with the messenger dragons and the freight dragons, and demonstrate that, as Paul was so rightly saying, there's nothing to be afraid of - that dragons are safe and useful creatures, not some force which is extorting the Holders of their rightful produce or anything like that. It's so easy for superstitions to spread in such places, you see..."

"Thank you," replied Amy, rather dazed. "I'll... I'll talk to her. Will there be a meeting arranged?"

"I'll see to it," confirmed B'ris cheerfully. "If you haven't any questions?"

"Oh, no, don't let me keep you," Amy insisted.

And B'ris headed on to the other members of his wing, as Amy sat and contemplated her future, and the future of all Pern's dragons and their riders.

And go our separate ways

"I remember when she'd be down on the Sands with them," gushed Amy, as Jessica led Anna up to the seats her mother had picked out.

"Oh, don't get her started," warned Jessica. "She'd be down there like a shot, wouldn't you, Anna?"

"If they'd let me," admitted Anna, with the sense of injustice that only a twelve year old can properly muster. "Apparently it's not the done thing any more, though."

"There'll be plenty of time when you're older," Jessica reassured her. This time, Anna managed to bite back the obvious rejoinder. There wasn't for you, mother, was there?

It was an old argument that Jessica expected to have several times in the next four years, until Anna was old enough to Stand under the new, post-Thread rules. The clutches had reduced to a size where there were more youngsters in the Weyr, brought up on tales of flight and watching the obvious bond between their parents and the dragons they rode, than could possibly be needed, so it was felt there was no longer any need to expose the younger ones to the danger of a Hatching.

"If your dragon is waiting for you in one of those shells, she won't think the Stands much of an obstacle," Amy observed. "There's been all sorts of gymnastics displayed by hatchlings looking for their true partner, they know how to deal with that sort of thing now. If a little girl starts creeling for you, the weyrlingstaff will spot it straight away, and I'll march you down there myself, how about that?"

This seemed to mollify Anna slightly, or maybe she just didn't want to start an argument with her grandmother. She settled down in her seat, brushed her unruly red hair out of her eyes again, and peered across the expanse of the Sands. The eggs were still, looking exactly like the clutch had looked for several days now.

"You know that your grandmother always likes to get here early for the good seats," Jessica admonished her. "It'll be a while yet."

Anna fidgeted as the candidates fanned out across the Sands, but she brightened up a little as she recognised Auntie Jennifer and her uncles Jacob and Jason filing onto the Sands.

"Jacob must be almost too old by now," she pointed out, in that tactless way that children have.

"Another year," Jessica explained, "and he will be. But that's plenty of time for his dragon to arrive. And if it doesn't, he's already practically qualified as an engineer."

To her mother's relief, Anna's next question was drowned out by an intensification of the draconic humming as the first eggs started to rock, and she subsided into her usual fascinated silence as the hatchlings began to make their way into the world. Studying, no doubt, for her own debut, on this dangerous but rewarding stage.

What will you say of the bond we had

Anna made her way out onto the Sands once again, in a crowd of mostly rather younger candidates. The Hatchings had decreased in frequency, as the years passed since Thread's last fall. Some had been alarmed, at first, and others had seized on the decline to claim that dragons had a natural obsolescence and knew that they would not be needed again. The Ping family's records had put paid to their claims. The dragons would decline in number when Thread was not in the skies, that was by design, but they would leave a remnant to rebuild the Weyrs when they were needed. And the astronomers continued to confirm that they would be needed, though a generation would pass in between.

There was still some prestige in being a dragonrider, even one who had not and never would see Thread. Most of the population had still lived through a Fall, still had the instinctive respect for dragonkind and the knowledge that they were perhaps the most valuable thing that the colony still possessed. Anna could see that changing, though. She could see the people forgetting, the holds coming to resent the support of such inefficient creatures for the tasks they were currently being put to.

She already had a good start, trained and employed as a primary school teacher, and she was finding it harder and harder to justify Standing. Every time she'd seen her grandmother's dragon, she had felt the urge again, but Amy had passed away quietly in the night - some kind of brain tumour, said the medics - and her beautiful Marath had gone /between/ to join her. For some reason Auntie Jennifer's green just didn't have the same effect on her.

Still, she could see her mother watching from the Stands, and maybe that was the reason, after all. Her mother was still just a kitchen worker and sometimes foster mother at the Weyr. All her hopes for the future seemed to have been passed on to her daughter, and Anna wasn't the sort of daughter who would disobey her mother's wishes when they were this simple and heartfelt. Jessica had wanted a dragon, and even if she couldn't have one of her own, her daughter still might bring her one, in a vicarious sense.

More females than usual, Anna noticed, among this group of candidates. She blamed the golden egg for that, sitting by itself to one side, the other girls clamouring around it. Most girls looked for nothing but a husband and a patch of land, although the latter was growing scarce nowadays. Those who didn't, like Anna herself, generally felt no need to accept Search and stand at a Weyr. If they weren't hungry for a husband and a child, why would they want to adopt a helpless, creeling creature, which would continue to need washing and oiling and care all through its life, and limit their career choices? Only a gold dragon, with its promise of an unusual chance at leadership, had enough prestige to tempt the unmarried girls out to the Sands these days.

Anna had no need of such things, and headed down to where the smallest eggs were beginning to shake. A couple of browns hatched first, picking sturdy, dependable sorts from the assembled menfolk. A cluster of blue and green hatchlings broke their shells and began to mill around, looking at their choices. There was much less desperation than there had been in the early Hatchings that Anna remembered. Nowadays they were all carefully taught how to safely conduct themselves, to keep at a distance and out of the line of anyone else's potential match, to wait for the hatchlings to come to them, and no-one considered likely to break any of the rules to claim 'their' dragonet was allowed on the Sands.

She watched the little hatchlings find their partners, always a touching moment even if she had seen it a hundred times before. Behind her, there were shrieks from the more excitable of the female candidates, which she assumed meant that the gold was out of her shell. Returning her attention to the green hatchlings, she found herself feeling unaccountably hungry. That couldn't be right - she'd eaten lunch an hour ago, and wasn't usually given to unexpected hunger pangs.

But I haven't eaten at all, bemoaned a voice she didn't recognise. Not for days.

She hadn't noticed any of the other candidates speaking, or nearby enough to sound right inside her head like that. She turned around to see if anyone was behind her, and a small golden face reached up to match her own.

I'm Heranath, it informed her. Do you think you could possibly find me some food now? Anna stood there, paralysed by confusion, for a moment. I know you're very surprised and everything, but I really do think you're the one I'm looking for, and I really don't want to starve to death right in front of you. It would be awfully embarrassing for both of us.

"Um, yes, of course it would," said Anna, rescued by the training she'd sat through several times over now. Once your dragon has spoken to you, take them over to the feeding area, and don't forget to say their name out loud for the benefit of the audience! She lifted her eyes to the Stands, where almost every pair of eyes seemed to be on her, but she was only looking for one - her mother, Jessica, who was standing and applauding with tears running freely down her cheeks. "Her name is Heranath!" she announced. "Now, look, it's just over here, I'm sure you won't starve on the way."

And so Anna led Heranath off to gorge herself on meat in a most unladylike fashion, out of Jessica's sight.

Tender comrade

Anna was almost dozing off, picking at the Hatching feast and listening to her mother rhapsodise about what she must be experiencing. Heranath was safely asleep in a cot in the weyrling barracks, and truth be told, Anna mostly just felt rather dazed. Sure, Heranath was the most wonderful thing that had ever happened to her, not to mention the most beautiful and perfect little hatchling who had ever lived. That didn't mean there weren't going to be any problems, now her day's leave from the school had turned into an indefinite excursion, and she was unlikely to be taking up the profession again any time soon. Instead she would have to learn an entirely new profession - the management of a Weyr. While she was utterly certain of Heranath's good judgement, and of the little dragon's confidence in her, it still looked like quite a daunting task for a primary school teacher to face.

"Ah, and you must be Anna," said a voice that she ought to recognise. Oh yes, that was the Weyrleader, wasn't it? C' something.

"I'm sure you're tired after your Impression," said another, which Anna recognised this time as the Weyrwoman. Marcia, of gold Yilith, having risen to her position by having the good fortune to rise just after Alaranth was officially declared to be retiring. "We just wanted to congratulate you, really."

"And reassure you that it won't be all that bad," joked C'tor, having seen Anna's expression as they approached. "And you, Jessica, you must be proud."

"Oh, I am," replied her mother. "To have a goldrider as a daughter - that was beyond my wildest dreams! Not that I have any doubts that Anna will make an excellent junior weyrwoman..."

"And maybe more than that, in time," Marcia reminded her. "Not many golds have hatched since Thread finished falling. I shouldn't think there will be more than two or three queens in each Weyr, by the time the population has settled."

"I..." tried Anna, but there wasn't really anything to say. "Thank you," she tried again.

"Don't thank us," said C'tor, "thank your little Heranath there. And take good care of her."

"Oh, I will," Anna assured them. How could she do otherwise?

"Well, we don't want to crowd you on your happy day," finished Marcia. "Congratulations, and I'm sure we'll be seeing a lot of each other as Heranath gets older."

"Thank you," repeated Anna wholeheartedly.

The Weyrleader and Weyrwoman moved on, and Anna returned her attention to her food, and from there to her mother. And back to her food, before her mother could notice the scrutiny.

She never did ask, although she often wondered, in the Turns to come.

She had done everything her mother had wanted. She had Impressed the best dragon Pern had to offer.

So why was her mother crying?