Put this on,” D’vin said to Cristov as they rushed to the Hatching Grounds. The white robe was the traditional garb for candidates, as every child on Pern knew from the Teaching Ballads.
Cristov suddenly realized that his heart was racing, his throat dry. In not much longer than it took D’vin’s bronze dragon to go between—no more time than it took to cough three times—Cristov went from being a miner recovering from an injury to being a candidate for a Hatching.
This can’t be happening, he thought. It should have been Pellar.
Pellar was the mute Harper who had rescued Cristov when his mine had collapsed, had saved Cristov when Tenim had purposely exploded the old firestone mine, and who had had a fire-lizard before Tenim’s hunting bird had killed it—and had nearly killed Pellar, as well.
Pellar deserved to be a candidate . . . but Pellar had insisted upon remaining at the newly named Fire Hold to help the young holdless girl, Halla, manage the Shunned of Pern to redeem their honor by mining the firestone of Pern.
“Cristov!” The voice, close by his ear, startled him. “You’re here! Excellent!”
Cristov’s eyes widened as he recognized Kindan. Turns back, he and Kindan had been enemies. Back then, Cristov had despised watch-whers, just as he’d been taught by his father. Kindan’s father had been a wherhandler, a person bonded to the ugly night-loving creatures who were only distant cousins to the great dragons that protected Pern. Infected by his father’s attitudes, Cristov had despised Kindan, and they’d fought many times as youngsters. In the end, however, Cristov had realized that it was Kindan who had been right and his father who had been wrong—and Cristov had found himself, at an early age, making a grown man’s choice and doing what was right instead of what was expected. He’d even come to regard the ugly watch-whers with respect bordering on awe. And now he greeted Kindan with a huge grin.
Kindan saw the robe clasped in Cristov’s hand and his eyebrows rose. He held up his hand and showed Cristov that he, too, had the white robe of a candidate.
“Great, we can go together,” he said to Cristov, as he pulled his robe over his head and tied it with the white belt.
“I thought you wanted to be a harper,” Cristov said in surprise.
“Harpers can be dragonriders, too,” Kindan replied with a big grin.
“You’ll be certain to Impress, after your watch-wher,” Cristov said. “Probably a bronze, too!”
Kindan shook his head. “I’ll just be happy to Impress,” he replied. “I’ll leave the bronzes to you.”
“Cristov, Kindan, hurry!”
They both turned and saw Sonia, the healer’s daughter, also dressed in white robes. “Oh, I do hope that egg’s a queen!”
Cristov knew that Sonia had been eyeing the funnily marked egg on the Hatching Grounds for some time. Traditionally, though, the queen dragon would carefully push aside any queen eggs, and Jessala’s Garirth hadn’t done so.
In fact, the egg looked so odd that the Weyr’s healer, Sonia’s father S’son, had been asked to examine it to be sure it was whole.
Garirth was so old that her gold hide was a mere pale yellow, and Jessala, her rider, was so pained with age that she rarely moved from her quarters. It was entirely possible that age had caused this egg to have come out wrong somehow. But S’son had declared it fine.
D’vin gestured for them to go forward, saying, “I’ll watch from the stands!”
Together the three moved to join the other candidates on the Hatching Grounds.
There were only twenty-three eggs on the Grounds. Cristov had learned that traditionally a queen would lay as few as thirty and as many as forty or more eggs. That Garirth had lain so few was a further indication of her extreme age.
Sonia, who had been examining the other candidates carefully, groaned. “There aren’t enough candidates! There are only twenty boys and twenty-two eggs. And there are no other girls, either.”
A rush of cold air from dragon wings startled them and they turned to see a smattering of boys and girls rush forward, dressed in white robes.
“Those are Benden colors,” Sonia said, pointing to a dragonrider waving in the distance. “B’ralar must have sent for them.”
“It’s M’tal!” Kindan exclaimed, waving excitedly to the Benden Weyrleader. M’tal waved back and gave him a thumbs-up for good luck.
“What if one of the Benden girls Impresses the queen?” Cristov asked.
“She’ll stay here,” Sonia said. “But I wouldn’t be surprised if she found herself Weyrwoman at the moment of Hatching.” She cast a worried look at Garirth, whose head lolled listlessly on the ground beyond them. “I think Garirth and Jessala are only waiting for the hatchlings before they go between forever; they’re both so tired with age.”
From the Hardcover edition.