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Drummer, beat, and piper, blow,
Harper, strike, and soldier, go.
Free the flame and sear the grasses
Till the dawning Red Star passes.
Lessa woke, cold. Cold with more than the chill of the everlastingly clammy stone walls. Cold with the prescience of a danger stronger than the one ten full Turns ago that had then sent her, whimpering with terror, to hide in the watch-wher’s odorous lair.
Rigid with concentration, Lessa lay in the straw of the redolent cheeseroom she shared as sleeping quarters with the other kitchen drudges. There was an urgency in the ominous portent unlike any other forewarning. She touched the awareness of the watch-wher, slithering on its rounds in the courtyard. It circled at the choke limit of its chain. It was restless, but oblivious to anything unusual in the predawn darkness.
Lessa curled into a tight knot of bones, hugging herself to ease the strain across her tense shoulders. Then, forcing herself to relax, muscle by muscle, joint by joint, she tried to feel what subtle menace it might be that could rouse her, yet not distress the sensitive watch-wher.
The danger was definitely not within the walls of Ruatha Hold. Nor approaching the paved perimeter without the Hold where relentless grass had forced new growth through the ancient mortar, green witness to the deterioration of the once stone-clean Hold. The danger was not advancing up the now little-used causeway from the valley, nor lurking in the craftsmen’s stony holdings at the foot of the Hold’s cliff. It did not scent the wind that blew from Tillek’s cold shores. But still it twanged sharply through her senses, vibrating every nerve in Lessa’s slender frame. Fully roused, she sought to identify it before the prescient mood dissolved. She cast outward, toward the Pass, farther than she had ever pressed. Whatever threatened was not in Ruatha . . . yet. Nor did it have a familiar flavor. It was not, then, Fax.
Lessa had been cautiously pleased that Fax had not shown himself at Ruatha Hold in three full Turns. The apathy of the craftsmen, the decaying farmholds, even the green-etched stones of the Hold infuriated Fax, self-styled Lord of the High Reaches, to the point where he preferred to forget the reason he had subjugated the once proud and profitable Hold.
Relentlessly compelled to identify this oppressing menace, Lessa groped in the straw for her sandals. She rose, mechanically brushing straw from matted hair, which she then twisted quickly into a rude knot at her neck.
She picked her way among the sleeping drudges, huddled together for warmth, and glided up the worn steps to the kitchen proper. The cook and his assistant lay on the long table before the great hearth, wide backs to the warmth of the banked fire, discordantly snoring. Lessa slipped across the cavernous kitchen to the stable-yard door. She opened the door just enough to permit her slight body to pass. The cobbles of the yard were icy through the thin soles of her sandals, and she shivered as the predawn air penetrated her patched garment.
The watch-wher slithered across the yard to greet her, pleading, as it always did, for release. Comfortingly, she fondled the creases of the sharp-tipped ears as it matched her stride. Glancing fondly down at the awesome head, she promised it a good rub presently. It crouched, groaning, at the end of its chain as she continued to the grooved steps that led to the rampart over the Hold’s massive gate. Atop the tower, Lessa stared toward the east where the stony breasts of the Pass rose in black relief against the gathering day.
Indecisively she swung to her left, for the sense of danger issued from that direction as well. She glanced upward, her eyes drawn to the Red Star that had recently begun to dominate the dawn sky. As she stared, the star radiated a final ruby pulsation before its magnificence was lost in the brightness of Pern’s rising sun. Incoherent fragments of tales and ballads about the dawn appearance of the Red Star flashed through her mind, too quickly to make sense. Moreover, her instinct told her that, though danger might come from the northeast, too, there was a greater peril to contend with from due east. Straining her eyes as if vision would bridge the gap between peril and person, she stared intently eastward. The watch-wher’s thin, whistled question reached her just as the prescience waned.
Lessa sighed. She had found no answer in the dawn, only discrepant portents. She must wait. The warning had come and she had accepted it. She was used to waiting. Perversity, endurance, and guile were her other weapons, loaded with the inexhaustible patience of vengeful dedication.
Dawnlight illumined the tumbled landscape, the unplowed fields in the valley below. Dawnlight fell on twisted orchards, where the sparse herds of milchbeasts hunted stray blades of spring grass. Grass in Ruatha, Lessa mused, grew where it should not, died where it should flourish. Lessa could hardly remember now how Ruatha Valley had once looked, sweetly happy, amply productive. Before Fax came. An odd brooding smile curved lips unused to such exercise. Fax realized no profit from his conquest of Ruatha . . . nor would he while she, Lessa, lived. And he had not the slightest suspicion of the source of this undoing.
Or had he, Lessa wondered, her mind still reverberating from the savage prescience of danger. West lay Fax’s ancestral and only legitimate Hold. Northeast lay little but bare and stony mountains and the Weyr that protected Pern.
Lessa stretched, arching her back, inhaling the sweet, untainted wind of morning.
A cock crowed in the stable yard. Lessa whirled, her face alert, eyes darting around the outer Hold lest she be observed in such an uncharacteristic pose. She unbound her hair, letting the rank mass fall about her face concealingly. Her body drooped into the sloppy posture she affected. Quickly she thudded down the stairs, crossing to the watch-wher. It cried piteously, its great eyes blinking against the growing daylight. Oblivious to the stench of its rank breath, she hugged the scaly head to her, scratching its ears and eye ridges. The watch-wher was ecstatic with pleasure, its long body trembling, its clipped wings rustling. It alone knew who she was or cared. And it was the only creature in all Pern she had trusted since the dawn she had blindly sought refuge in its dark, stinking lair to escape the thirsty swords that had drunk so deeply of Ruathan blood.
Slowly she rose, cautioning it to remember to be as vicious to her as to all, should anyone be near. It promised to obey her, swaying back and forth to emphasize its reluctance.a
The first rays of the sun glanced over the Hold’s outer wall, and, crying out, the watch-wher darted into its dark nest. Lessa crept swiftly back to the kitchen and into the cheeseroom.
From the Weyr and from the Bowl,
Bronze and brown and blue and green,
Rise the dragonmen of Pern,
Aloft, on wing, seen, then unseen.
F’lar, on bronze Mnementh’s great neck, appeared first in the skies above the chief Hold of Fax, so-called Lord of the High Reaches. Behind him, in proper wedge formation, the wingmen came into sight. F’lar checked the formation automatically; it was as precise as on the moment of their entry to between.
As Mnementh curved in an arc that would bring them to the perimeter of the Hold, consonant with the friendly nature of this visitation, F’lar surveyed with mounting aversion the disrepair of the ridge defenses. The firestone pits were empty, and the rock-cut gutters radiating from the pits were green-tinged with a mossy growth.
Was there even one Lord in Pern who maintained his rocky Hold in observance of the ancient Laws? F’lar’s lips tightened to a thinner line. When this Search was over and the Impression made, there would have to be a solemn, punitive Council held at the Weyr. And by the golden shell of the queen, he, F’lar, meant to be its moderator. He would replace lethargy with industry. He would scour the green and dangerous scum from the heights of Pern, the grass blades from its stoneworks. No verdant skirt would be condoned in any farmhold. And the tithings that had been so miserly, so grudgingly presented, would, under pain of firestoning, flow with decent generosity into the Dragonweyr.
Mnementh rumbled approvingly as he vaned his pinions to land lightly on the grass-etched flagstones of Fax’s Hold. The bronze dragon furled his great wings, and F’lar heard the warning claxon in the Hold’s Great Tower. Mnementh dropped to his knees as F’lar indicated he wished to dismount. The bronze rider stood by Mnementh’s huge wedge-shaped head, politely awaiting the arrival of the Hold Lord. F’lar idly gazed down the valley, hazy with warm spring sunlight. He ignored the furtive heads that peered at the dragonman from the parapet slits and the cliff windows.
F’lar did not turn as the rush of air past him announced the arrival of the rest of the wing. He knew, however, when F’nor, the brown rider who was coincidentally his half brother, took the customary position on his left, a dragon length to the rear. From the corner of his eye, F’lar glimpsed F’nor twisting to death with his boot heel the grass that crowded up between the stones.
An order, muffled to an intense whisper, issued from within the great Court, beyond the open gates. Almost immediately a group of men marched into sight, led by a heavy-set man of medium height.
Mnementh arched his neck, angling his head so that his chin rested on the ground. Mnementh’s many-faceted eyes, on a level with F’lar’s head, fastened with disconcerting interest on the approaching party. The dragons could never understand why they generated such abject fear in common folk. At only one point in his life span would a dragon attack a human, and that could be excused on the grounds of simple ignorance. F’lar could not explain to the dragon the politics behind the necessity of inspiring awe in the holders, Lord and craftsman alike. He could only observe that the fear and apprehension showing in the faces of the advancing squad which troubled Mnementh was oddly pleasing to him, F’lar.
“Welcome, bronze rider, to the Hold of Fax, Lord of the High Reaches. He is at your service,” and the man made an adequately respectful salute.
The use of the third person pronoun could be construed by the meticulous to be a veiled insult. This fit in with the information F’lar had on Fax, so he ignored it. His information was also correct in describing Fax as a greedy man. It showed in the restless eyes that flicked at every detail of F’lar’s clothing, at the slight frown when the intricately etched sword hilt was noticed.
F’lar noticed, in his own turn, the several rich rings that flashed on Fax’s left hand. The overlord’s right hand remained slightly cocked after the habit of the professional swordsman. His tunic, of rich fabric, was stained and none too fresh. The man’s feet, in heavy wher-hide boots, were solidly planted, weight balanced forward on his toes. A man to be treated cautiously, F’lar decided, as one should the conqueror of five neighboring Holds. Such greedy audacity was in itself a revelation. Fax had married into a sixth . . . and had legally inherited, however unusual the circumstances, the seventh. He was a lecherous man by reputation. Within these seven Holds, F’lar anticipated a profitable Search. Let R’gul go southerly to pursue Search among the indolent if lovely women there. The Weyr needed a strong woman this time; Jora had been worse than useless with Nemorth. Adversity, uncertainty: those were the conditions that bred the qualities F’lar wanted in a Weyrwoman.
“We ride in Search,” F’lar drawled softly, “and request the hospitality of your Hold, Lord Fax.”
Fax’s eyes widened imperceptibly at mention of a Search.
“I had heard Jora was dead,” Fax replied, dropping the third person abruptly as if F’lar had passed some sort of test by ignoring it. “So Nemorth has laid a queen, hmmm?” he continued, his eyes darting across the rank of the wing, noting the disciplined stance of the riders, the healthy color of the dragons.
F’lar did not dignify the obvious with an answer.
“And, my Lord—” Fax hesitated, expectantly inclining his head slightly toward the dragonman.
For a pulse beat, F’lar wondered if the man was deliberately provoking him with such subtle insults. The name of the bronze riders should be as well-known throughout Pern as the name of the dragon queen and her Weyrwoman. F’lar kept his face composed, his eyes on Fax’s.
Leisurely, with the proper touch of arrogance, F’nor stepped forward, stopping slightly behind Mnementh’s head, one hand negligently touching the jaw hinge of the huge beast.
“The bronze rider of Mnementh, Lord F’lar, will require quarters for himself. I, F’nor, brown rider, prefer to be lodged with the wingmen. We are, in number, twelve.”
F’lar liked that touch of F’nor’s, totting up the wing strength, as if Fax were incapable of counting. F’nor had phrased it so adroitly as to make it impossible for Fax to protest the return insult.
“Lord F’lar,” Fax said through teeth fixed in a smile, “the High Reaches are honored with your Search.”
“It will be to the credit of the High Reaches,” F’lar replied smoothly, “if one of its own supplies the Weyr.”
“To our everlasting credit,” Fax replied as suavely. “In the old days many notable Weyrwomen came from my Holds.”
“Your Holds?” asked F’lar, politely smiling as he emphasized the plural. “Ah, yes, you are now overlord of Ruatha, are you not? There have been many from that Hold.”
A strange, tense look crossed Fax’s face, quickly supplanted by a determinedly affable grin. Fax stepped aside, gesturing F’lar to enter the Hold.
Fax’s troop leader barked a hasty order, and the men formed two lines, their metal-edged boots flicking sparks from the stones.
At unspoken orders, all the dragons rose with a great churning of air and dust. F’lar strode nonchalantly past the welcoming files. The men were rolling their eyes in alarm as the beasts glided above to the inner courts. Someone on the high Tower uttered a frightened yelp as Mnementh took his position on that vantage point. His great wings drove phosphoric-scented air across the inner court as he maneuvered his great frame onto the inadequate landing space.
Outwardly oblivious to the consternation, fear, and awe the dragons inspired, F’lar was secretly amused and rather pleased by the effect. Lords of the Holds needed this reminder that they still must deal with dragons, not just with riders, who were men, mortal and murderable.