Another Turn, and the deadly silver Threads began falling again. So the bold dragonriders took to the air once more and their magnificent flying dragons swirled and swooped, belching flames that destroyed the shimmering strands before they reach the ground.
But F'lar knew he had to find a better way to protect his beloved Pern, and he had to find it before the rebellious Oldtimers could breed anymore dissent... before his brother F'nor would be foolhardy enough to launch another suicide mission... and before those dratted fire-lizards could stir up any more trouble!
About the Author
Anne McCaffrey, the Hugo Award-winning author of the bestselling Dragonriders of Pern® novels, is one of science fiction’s most popular authors. With Elizabeth Ann Scarborough she co-authored Changelings and Maelstrom, Books One and Two of The Twins of Petaybee. McCaffrey lives in a house of her own design, Dragonhold-Underhill, in County Wicklow, Ireland.
Read an Excerpt
Morning at Mastercrafthall, Fort Hold
Several Afternoons Later at Benden Weyr
Midmorning (Telgar Time) at Mastersmithcrafthall, Telgar Hold
How to begin? mused Robinton, the Masterharper of Pern.
He frowned thoughtfully down at the smoothed, moist sand in the shallow trays of his workdesk. His long face settled into deepgrooved lines and creases, and his eyes, usually snapping blue with inner amusement, were grayshadowed with unusual gravity.
He fancied the sand begged to be violated with words and notes while he, Pern’s repository and glib dispenser of any ballad, saga or ditty, was inarticulate. Yet he had to construct a ballad for the upcoming wedding of Lord Asgenar of Lemos Hold to the halfsister of Lord Larad of Telgar Hold. Because of recent reports of unrest from his network of drummers and Harper journeymen, Robinton had decided to remind the guests on this auspicious occasion—-for every Lord Holder and Craftmaster would be invited—-of the debt they owed the dragonmen of Pern. As the subject of his ballad, he had decided to tell of the fantastic ride, between time itself, of Lessa, Weyrwoman of Benden Weyr on her great golden queen, Ramoth. The Lords and Craftsmen of Pern had been glad enough then for the arrival of dragonriders from the five ancient Weyrs from four hundred Turns in the past.
Yet how to reduce those fascinating, frantic days, those braveries, to a rhyme? Even the most stirring chords could not recapture the beat of the blood, the catch of breath, the chill of fear and the hopeless surge of hope of that first morning after Thread had fallen over Nerat Hold; when F’lar had rallied all the frightened Lords and Craftmasters at Benden Weyr and enlisted their enthusiastic aid.
It had not been just a sudden resurgence of forgotten loyalties that had prompted the Lords, but the all too real sense of disaster as they envisioned their prosperous acres blackened with the Thread they had dismissed as myth, of the thought of burrows of the lightning propagating parasites, of themselves walled up in the cliffHolds behind thick metal doors and shutters. They’d been ready to promise F’lar their souls that day if he could protect them from Thread. And it was Lessa who had bought them that protection, almost with her life.
Robinton looked up from the sandtrays, his expression suddenly bleak.
“The sand of memory dries quickly,” he said softly, looking out across the settled valley toward the precipice that housed Fort Hold. There was one watchman on the fire ridges. There ought to be six, but it was planting time; Lord Holder Groghe of Fort Hold had everyone who could walk upright in the fields, even the gangs of children who were supposed to weed spring grass from stone interstices and pull moss from the walls. Last spring, Lord Groghe would not have neglected that duty no matter how many dragonlengths of land he wanted to put under seed.
Lord Groghe was undoubtedly out in the fields right now, prowling from one tract of land to another on one of those longlegged running beasts which the Masterherdsman Sograny was developing. Groghe of Fort Hold was indefatigable, his slightly protuberant blue eyes never missing an unpruned tree or a badly harrowed row. He was a burly man, with grizzled hair which he wore tied in a neat band. His complexion was florid, with a temper to match. But, if he pushed his holders, he pushed himself as well, demanding nothing of his people, his children nor his fosterlings that he was not able to do himself. If he was conservative in his thinking, it was because he knew his own limitations and felt secure in that knowledge.
Robinton pulled at his lower lip, wondering if Lord Groghe was an exception in his disregard for this traditional Hold duty of removing all greenery near habitations. Or was this Lord Groghe’s answer to Fort Weyr’s growing agitation over the immense forest lands of Fort Hold which the dragonriders ought to protect? The Weyrleader of Fort Weyr, T’ron, and his Weyrwoman, Mardra, had become less scrupulous about checking to see that no Thread burrows had escaped their wing riders to fall on the lush forests. Yet Lord Groghe had been scrupulous in the matter of ground crews and flamethrowing equipment when Thread fell over his forests. He had a stable of runners spread out through the Hold in an efficient network so that if dragonriders were competent in flight, there was adequate ground coverage for any Thread that might elude the flaming breath of the airborne beasts.
But Robinton had heard ugly rumors of late, and not just from Fort Hold. Since he eventually heard every derogatory whisper and accusation uttered in Pern, he had learned to separate fact from spite, calumny from crime. Not basically an alarmist, because he’d found much sifted itself out in the course of time, Robinton was beginning to feel the stirrings of alarm in his soul.
The Masterharper slumped in his chair, staring out on the bright day, the fresh new green of the fields, the yellow blossoms on the fruit trees, the neat stone Holds that lined the road up to the main Hold, the cluster of artisans’ cotholds below the wide ramp up to the Great Outer Court of Fort Hold.
And if his suspicions were valid, what could he do? Write a scolding song? A satire? Robinton snorted. Lord Groghe was too literal a man to interpret satire and too righteous to take a scold. Furthermore, and Robinton pushed himself upright on his elbows, if Lord Groghe was neglectful, it was in protest at Weyr neglect of far greater magnitude. Robinton shuddered to think of Thread burrowing in the great stands of softwoods to the south.
He ought to sing his remonstrances to Mardra and T’ron as Weyrleaders—-but that, too, would be vain effort. Mardra had soured lately. She ought to have sense enough to retire gracefully to a chair and let men seek her favors if T’ron no longer attracted her. To hear the Hold girls talk, T’ron was lusty enough. In fact, T’ron had better restrain himself. Lord Groghe didn’t take kindly to too many of his chattels bearing dragonseed.
Another impasse, thought Robinton with a wry smile. Hold customs differed so from Weyr morals. Maybe a word to F’lar of Benden Weyr? Useless, again. In the first place there was really nothing the bronze rider could do. Weyrs were autonomous and not only could T’ron take umbrage for any advice F’lar might see fit to offer, but Robinton was sure that F’lar might tend to take the Lord Holders’ side.
This was not the first time in recent months that Robinton regretted that F’lar of Benden Weyr had been so eager to relinquish his leadership after Lessa had gone back between to bring the five lost Weyrs forward in time. For a brief few months then, seven Turns ago, Pern had been united under F’lar and Lessa against the ancient menace of Thread. Every holder, Craftmaster, landsman, crafter, all had been of one mind. That unity had dissipated as the Oldtime Weyrleaders had reasserted their traditional domination over the Holds bound to their Weyr for protection, and a grateful Pern had ceded them those rights. But in four hundred Turns the interpretation of that old hegemony had altered, with neither party sure of the translation.
Perhaps now was the time to remind Lord Holders of those perilous days seven Turns ago when all their hopes hung on fragile dragon wings and the dedication of a scant two hundred men.
Well, the Harper has a duty, too, by the Egg, Robinton thought, needlessly smoothing the wet sand. And the obligation to broadcast it.
In twelve days, Larad, Lord of Telgar, was giving his halfsister, Famira, to Asgenar, Lord of Lemos Hold. The Masterharper had been enjoined to appear with appropriate new songs to enliven the festivities. F’lar and Lessa were invited as Lemos Hold was weyrbound to Benden Weyr. There’d be other notables among Weyr, Lord and Craft to signalize so auspicious an occasion.
“And among my jolly songs, I’ll have stronger meat.”
Chuckling to himself at the prospect, Robinton picked up his stylus.
“I must have a tender but intricate theme for Lessa. She’s legend already.” Unconsciously the Harper smiled as he pictured the dainty, childsized Weyrwoman, with her white skin, her cloud of dark hair, the flash of her gray eyes, heard the acerbity of her clever tongue. No man of Pern failed of respect for her, or braved her displeasure, with the exception of F’lar.
Now a wellstated martial theme would do for Benden’s Weyrleader, with his keen amber eyes, his unconscious superiority, the intense energy of his lean fighter’s frame. Could he, Robinton, rouse F’lar from his detachment? Or was he perhaps unnecessarily worried about these minor irritations between Lord Holder and Weyrleader? But without the dragonriders of Pern, the land would be sucked dry of any sustenance by Thread, even if every man, woman and child of the planet were armed with flame throwers. One burrow, well established, could race across plain and forest as fast as a dragon could fly it, consuming everything that grew or lived, save solid rock, water or metal. Robinton shook his head, annoyed with his own fancies. As if dragonmen would ever desert Pern and their ancient obligation.
Now—-a solid beat on the biggest drum for Fandarel, the Mastersmith, with his endless curiosity, the great hands with their delicate skill, the ranging mind in its eternal quest for efficiency. Somehow one expected such an immense man to be as slow of wit as he was deliberate of physical movement.
A sad note, well sustained, for Lytol who had once ridden a Benden dragon and lost his Larth in an accident in the Spring Games—-had it been fourteen or fifteen Turns ago? Lytol had left the Weyr—-to be among dragonfolk only exacerbated his tremendous loss—-and taken to the craft of weaving. He’d been Crafthall Master in the High Reaches Hold when F’lar had discovered Lessa on Search. F’lar had appointed Lytol to be Lord Warder of Ruatha Hold when Lessa had abdicated her claim to the Hold to young Jaxom.
And how did a man signify the dragons of Pern? No theme was grand enough for those huge, winged beasts, as gentle as they were great, Impressed at Hatching by the men who rode them, flaming against Thread, who tended them, loved them, who were linked, mind to mind, in an unbreakable bond that transcended speech! (What was that really like? Robinton wondered, remembering that his youthful ambition had been to be a dragonman.) The dragons of Pern who could transfer themselves in some mysterious fashion between one place and another in the blink of an eye. Between even one Time and another!
The Harper’s sigh came from his soul but his hand moved to the sand and pressed out the first note, wrote the first word, wondering if he would find some answer himself in the song.
He had barely filled the completed score with clay to preserve the text, when he heard the first throb of the drum. He strode quickly to the small outer court of the Crafthall, bending his head to catch the summons; it was his sequence all right, in urgent tempo. He concentrated so closely on the drum-roll that he did not realize that every other sound common to the Harper’s Hall had ceased.
“Thread?” His throat dried instantly. Robinton didn’t need to consult the timetable to realize that the Threads were falling on the shores of Tillek Hold prematurely.
Across the valley on Fort Hold’s ramparts, the single watchman made his monotonous round, oblivious to disaster.
There was a soft spring warmth to the afternoon air as F’nor and his big, brown Canth emerged from their weyr in Benden Weyr. F’nor yawned slightly and stretched until he heard his spine crack. He’d been on the western coast all the previous day, Searching for likely lads—-and girls, since there was a golden egg hardening on the Benden Weyr Hatching Grounds—-for the next Impression. Benden Weyr certainly produced more dragons, and more queens, than the five Oldtimers’ Weyrs, F’nor thought.
“Hungry?” he asked courteously of his dragon, glancing down the Weyr Bowl to the Feeding Grounds. No dragons were dining and the herdbeasts stood in their fenced pasture, legs spraddled, heads level with their bony knees as they drowsed in the sunlight.
Sleepy, said Canth, although he had slept as long and deeply as his rider. The brown dragon proceeded to settle himself on the sunwarmed ledge, sighing as he sank down.
“Slothful wretch,” F’nor said, grinning affectionately at his beast.
The sun was full on the other side of the enormous mountain cup that formed the dragonman’s habitation on the eastern coast of Pern. The cliffside was patterned with the black mouths of the individual dragon weyrs, starred where sun flashed off mica in the rocks. The waters of the Weyr’s springfed lake glistened around the two green dragons bathing as their riders lounged on the grass verge. Beyond, in front of the weyrling barracks, young riders formed a semicircle around the Weyrlingmaster.
F’nor’s grin broadened. He stretched his lean body indolently, remembering his own weary hours in such a semicircle, twenty odd Turns ago. The rote lessons which he had echoed as a weyrling had far more significance to this present group of dragonriders. In his Turn, the Silver Thread of those teaching songs had not dropped from the Red Star for over four hundred Turns, to sear the flesh of man and beast and devour anything living which grew on Pern. Of all the dragonmen in Pern’s lone Weyr, only F’nor’s halfbrother, F’lar, bronze Mnementh’s rider, had believed that there might be truth in those old legends. Now Thread was an inescapable fact, falling to Pern from the skies with diurnal regularity. Once more, its destruction was a way of life for dragonriders. The lessons these lads learned would save their skins, their lives and, more important, their dragons.
The weyrlings are promising, Canth remarked as he locked his wings to his back and curled his tail against his hind legs. He settled his great head to his forelegs, the manyfaceted eye nearest F’nor gleaming softly on his rider.
Responding to the tacit plea, F’nor scratched the eye ridge until Canth began to hum softly with pleasure.
When I work, I work, Canth replied. Without my help, how would you know which holdbred lad would make a good dragonrider? And do I not find girls who make good queen riders, too?
F’nor laughed indulgently, but it was true that Canth’s ability to spot likely candidates for fighting dragons and breeding queens was much vaunted by Benden Weyr dragonmen.
Then F’nor frowned, remembering the odd hostility of the small holders and crafters he’d encountered in Southern Boll’s Holds and Crafts. Yes, the people had been hostile until—-until he’d identified himself as a Benden Weyr dragonrider. He’d have thought it’d be the other way round. Southern Boll was weyrbound to Fort Weyr. Traditionally—-and F’nor grinned wryly since the Fort Weyrleader, T’ron, was so adamant in upholding all that was traditional, customary . . . and static—-traditionally, the Weyr which protected a territory had first claim on any possible riders. But the five Oldtime Weyrs rarely sought beyond their own Lower Caverns for candidates. Of course, thought F’nor, the Oldtime queens didn’t produce large clutches like the modern queens, nor many golden queen eggs. Come to think on it, only three queens had been Hatched in the Oldtime Weyrs in the seven Turns since Lessa brought them forward.
Well, let the Oldtimers stick to their ways if that made them feel superior. But F’nor agreed with F’lar. It was only common sense to give your dragonets as wide a choice as possible. Though the women in the Lower Caverns of Benden Weyr were certainly agreeable, there simply weren’t enough weyrborn lads to match up the quantity of dragons hatched.
Now, if one of the other Weyrleaders, maybe G’narish of Igen Weyr or R’mart of Telgar Weyr, would throw open their junior queens’ mating flights, the Oldtimers might notice an improvement in size of clutch and the dragons that hatched. A man was a fool to breed only to his own Bloodlines all the time.
The afternoon breeze shifted and brought with it the pungent fumes of numbweed aboil. F’nor groaned. He’d forgotten that the women were making numbweed for salve that was the universal remedy for the burn of Thread and other painful afflictions. That had been one main reason for going on Search yesterday. The odor of numbweed was pervasive. Yesterday’s breakfast had tasted medicinal instead of cereal. Since the preparation of numbweed salve was a tedious as well as smelly process, most dragonmen made themselves scarce during its manufacture. F’nor glanced across the Weyr Bowl to the queen’s weyr. Ramoth, of course, was in the Hatching Ground, hovering over her latest clutch of eggs, but bronze Mnementh was absent from his accustomed perch on the ledge. F’lar and he were off somewhere, no doubt escaping the smell of numbweed as well as Lessa’s uncertain temper. She conscientiously took part in even the most onerous duties of Weyrwoman, but that didn’t mean she had to like them.
Numbweed stink notwithstanding, F’nor was hungry. He hadn’t eaten since late afternoon yesterday, and, since there was a good six hours’ time difference between Southern Boll on the western coast and Benden Weyr in the east, he’d missed the dinner hour at Benden Weyr completely.
With a parting scratch, F’nor told Canth that he’d get some food, and started down the stone ramp from his ledge. One of the privileges of being Wingsecond was choice of quarters. Since Ramoth as senior queen would permit only two junior queens in Benden Weyr, there were two unoccupied Weyrwoman quarters. F’nor had appropriated one and did not need to disturb Canth when he wished to descend to a lower level.
As he approached the entrance of the Lower Caverns, the aroma of boiling numbweed made his eyes smart. He’d grab some klah, bread and fruit and go listen to the Weyrlingmaster. They were upwind. As Wingsecond, F’nor liked to take every opportunity to measure up the new riders, particularly those who were not weyrbred. Life in a Weyr required certain adjustments for the craft and holdbred. The freedom and privileges sometimes went to a boy’s head, particularly after he was able to take his dragon between—-anywhere on Pern—-in the space it takes to count to three. Again, F’nor agreed with F’lar’s preference in presenting older lads at Impression though the Oldtimers deplored that practice at Benden Weyr, too. But, by the Shell, a lad in his late teens recognized the responsibility of his position (even if he were holdbred) as a dragonrider. He was more emotionally mature and, while there was no lessening of the impact of Impression with his dragon, he could absorb and understand the implications of a lifelong link, of an inthesoul contact, the total empathy between himself and his dragon. An older boy didn’t get carried away. He knew enough to compensate until his dragonet’s instinctive sensibility unfolded. A baby dragon had precious little sense and, if some silly weyrling let his beast eat too much, the whole Weyr suffered through its torment. Even an older beast lived for the here and now, with little thought for the future and not all that much recollection—-except on the instinctive level—-for the past. That was just as well, F’nor thought. For dragons bore the brunt of Threadscore. Perhaps if their memories were more acute or associative, they’d refuse to fight.
F’nor took a deep breath and, blinking furiously against the fumes, entered the huge kitchen Cavern. It was seething with activity. Half the female population of the Weyr must be involved in this operation, F’nor thought, for great cauldrons monopolized all the large hearths set in the outside wall of the Cavern. Women were seated at the broad tables, washing and cutting the roots from which the salve was extracted. Some were ladling the boiling product into great earthenware pots. Those who stirred the concoction with longhandled paddles wore masks over nose and mouth and bent frequently to blot eyes watering from the acrid fumes. Older children were fetching and carrying, fuelrock from the store caves for the fires, pots to the cooling caves. Everyone was busy.
Fortunately the nighthearth, nearest the entrance, was operating for normal use, the huge klah pot and stew kettle swinging from their hooks, keeping warm over the coals. Just as F’nor had filled his cup, he heard his name called. Glancing around, he saw his blood mother, Manora, beckon to him. Her usually serene face wore a look of puzzled concern.
Obediently F’nor crossed to the hearth where she, Lessa, and another young woman who looked familiar though F’nor couldn’t place her, were examining a small kettle.
“My duty to you, Lessa, Manora—-” and he paused, groping for the third name.
“You ought to remember Brekke, F’nor,” Lessa said, raising her eyebrows at his lapse.
“How can you expect anyone to see in a place dense with fumes?” F’nor demanded, making much of blotting his eyes on his sleeve. “I haven’t seen much of you, Brekke, since the day Canth and I brought you from your crafthold to Impress young Wirenth.”
“F’nor, you’re as bad as F’lar,” Lessa exclaimed, somewhat testily. “You never forget a dragon’s name, but his rider’s?”
“How fares Wirenth, Brekke?” F’nor asked, ignoring Lessa’s interruption.
The girl looked startled but managed a hesitant smile, then pointedly looked towards Manora, trying to turn attention from herself. She was a shade too thin for F’nor’s tastes, not much taller than Lessa whose diminutive size in no way lessened the authority and respect she commanded. There was, however, a sweetness about Brekke’s solemn face, unexpectedly framed with dark curly hair, that F’nor did find appealing. And he liked her selfeffacing modesty. He was wondering how she got along with Kylara, the tempestuous and irresponsible senior Weyrwoman at Southern Weyr, when Lessa tapped the empty pot before her.
“Look at this, F’nor. The lining has cracked and the entire kettle of numbweed salve is discolored.”
F’nor whistled appreciatively.
“Would you know what it is the Smith uses to coat the metal?” Manora asked. “I wouldn’t dare use tainted salve, and yet I hate to discard so much if there’s no reason.”
F’nor tipped the pot to the light. The dull tan lining was seamed by fine cracks along one side.
“See what it does to the salve?” and Lessa thrust a small bowl at him.
The anesthetic ointment, normally a creamy, pale yellow, had turned a reddish tan. Rather a threatening color, F’nor thought. He smelled it, dipped his finger in and felt the skin immediately deaden.
“It works,” he said with a shrug.
“Yes, but what would happen to an open Threadscore with that foreign substance cooked into the salve?” asked Manora.
“Good point. What does F’lar say?”
“Oh, him.” Lessa screwed her fine delicate features into a grimace. “He’s off to Lemos Hold to see how that woodcraftsman of Lord Asgenar’s is doing with the wood pulp leaves.”
F’nor grinned. “Never around when you want him, huh, Lessa?”
She opened her mouth for a stinging reply, her gray eyes snapping, and then realized that F’nor was teasing.
“You’re as bad as he is,” she said, grinning up at the tall Wingsecond who resembled her Weyrmate so closely. Yet the two men, though the stamp of their mutual sire was apparent in the thick shocks of black hair, the strong features, the lean rangy bodies (F’nor had a squarer, broader frame with not enough flesh on his bones so that he appeared unfinished), the two men were different in temperament and personality. F’nor was less introspective and more easygoing than his halfbrother, F’lar, the elder by three Turns. The Weyrwoman sometimes found herself treating F’nor as if he were an extension of his halfbrother and, perhaps for this reason, could joke and tease with him. She was not on easy terms with many people.
F’nor returned her smile and gave her a mocking little bow for the compliment.
“Well, I’ve no objections to running your errand to the Mastersmithhall. I’m supposed to be Searching and I can Search in Telgar Hold as well as anywhere else. R’mart’s nowhere near as sticky as some of the other Oldtime Weyrleaders.” He took the pot off the hook, peering into it once more, then glanced around the busy room, shaking his head. “I’ll take your pot to Fandarel but it looks to me as though you’ve already got enough numbweed to coat every dragon in all six—-excuse me—-seven Weyrs.” He grinned at Brekke for the girl seemed curiously ill at ease. Lessa could be snaptempered when she was preoccupied and Ramoth was fussing over her latest clutch like a novice—-which would tend to make Lessa more irritable. Strange for a junior Weyrwoman from Southern Weyr to be involved in any brewing at Benden.
“A Weyr can’t have too much numbweed,” Manora said briskly.
“That isn’t the only pot that’s showing cracks, either,” Lessa cut in, testily. “And if we’ve got to gather more numbweed to make up what we’ve lost . . .”
“There’s the second crop at the Southern Weyr,” Brekke suggested, then looked flustered for speaking up.