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Clouds of warm, dust-laden air billowed down around Piemur and whipped off his floppy hat as hundreds of dragons and their riders lifted off from the ground, steadily filling the sky overhead. Hastily he pulled his tunic over his head to protect his face from flying grit, clamping his mouth shut tight in the process. All the trees and vegetation around the Weyr bucked and buffeted under the huge downdraft generated by the wings of the bronze, brown, blue, and green dragons. Through the protective fabric, Piemur heard the comments the dragonriders called to one another as they took flight; heard, too, the muffled sound of dragons coughing as they rose higher off the ground. Listening, he wondered—not for the first time—what pernicious ailment still afflicted so many of the dragons of Southern Weyr, and why the Weyr Healer couldn’t find a remedy to shift it from their lungs. Only when the sounds receded to almost nothing and he could feel the air settling did he risk uncovering his eyes to look skyward.
Piemur watched as the sun shimmered off their soft hides and made their jewel-like, faceted eyes sparkle. There was nothing like the sight of a sky full of dragons, he fancied—even dragons who were not in the full of their health. The fine membrane that made up the sails of the dragons’ wings looked nearly transparent, and he wondered how wings that appeared so delicate could bear the weight of such massive creatures.
Today the Oldtimer dragonriders were traveling to harvest a fresh crop of numbweed, which they would later pound and boil into the noxious unction that, once set, would be used as a hallowed salve. Only twoscore riders and their dragons remained behind in the Weyr with the queens, the most senior of whom had just returned from a lone sojourn. A brown dragon was curled up in a wallow, coughing desultorily as if to dislodge a tiny irritant nestled deep inside his vast lungs. His rider rested with him, in the curve of his forelegs.
A few other dragons basked in their wallows or relaxed under the ministrations of their riders, while the rest simply slept, their old bones soaking up the plentiful sunshine. Numerous weyrfolk—men and women who lived at the Weyr but were not dragonriders—went about the compound, washing or tending to clothing, preparing food, or assisting the older dragonriders with the task of bathing and oiling their dragon’s soft hides. Nothing was more important than caring for the dragons. With their abilities to fly, teleport, and breathe fire, the dragons were the best and most effective weapon the world had against its mindless enemy, Thread—an insatiable organism that, when the orbit of its host planet was close enough to Pern, would shower down in a fifty-Turn cycle, devouring anything organic in its path. And if the dragons couldn’t char every last Thread from the skies before they touched ground, the deadly strands would burrow underground to continue their terrible course of destruction. The dragons were truly the most precious things on the planet, and supporting them and their riders was the job—either directly or indirectly—of every person in or outside of the Weyrs.
But Southern Weyr no longer had that kind of support. The Oldtimer dragonriders had cut ties with Benden, the premier Weyr in the northern hemisphere, effectively alienating themselves from their peers and, ultimately, everyone else. Never in living memory had any group broken free, seeking to go it alone in the hostile environment of Pern without the support of the other elements of their social structure.
Piemur was here at the behest of his mentor, Masterharper Robinton. He hadn’t started out as a spy. Three Turns earlier, Piemur had been virtually wrenched from his comfortable position in the Harper Hall and sent to the Southern Hold to teach the resident harper the new drum measures, vital for maintaining communications with neighboring smallholdings. But it hadn’t taken long for Saneter to memorize the new measures . . . and for the Masterharper to task Piemur with a seemingly endless stream of structureless chores, almost all of which were completely outside his training as a singer. If not for his deep-rooted sense of loyalty to his craft and his mentor, Piemur would have gladly forgone the exhausting and never-ending job of mapping Southern, a vast continent far larger than anyone had ever imagined and, in many areas, actually impassable.
He didn’t mind standing in to teach the local children when Saneter was away or indisposed. In fact, he quite enjoyed passing on the information contained in the teaching ballads, imperative for every child to know in order to survive. And the mapping, while often monotonous, hot, and uncomfortable, sometimes had its moments of discovery and adventure. Piemur’s most unsatisfying task by far, and the one he found so disturbing to perform, was as a spy: observing and assessing the demeanor and welfare of the dragonriders of Southern Weyr. He gleaned no joy in snooping around the noble dragons and their riders, pretending to be someone he was not, visiting the Weyr on one pretense or another while trying to catch every snippet of conversation or grievance he could. It felt grossly wrong to Piemur to behave so duplicitously toward a group of dragons and riders who had spent a lifetime defending the planet. But the Masterharper, in his role as Pern’s custodian of culture and heritage, and the discreet harmonizer of her interconnected social relationships, was anxious to know how the outcasts were faring. He regularly stressed how important it was for Piemur to take note of any little details in the Weyr’s daily life that might be the slightest bit out of the ordinary, and report these. The most trivial snippet could be what helped to reunite Southern Weyr with the rest of dragonkind—and as a harper, Piemur was trained to observe details.
So he noticed when T’reb landed his green dragon and, instead of flying out again to harvest numbweed with the other members of the Weyr, headed for B’naj’s dwelling. To Piemur’s sharp eye, the subtle signs of agitation in the green rider’s posture were unmistakable. Straightening his tunic over the top of his loose leggings, then scooping up his hat and setting it firmly back on his head, Piemur moved from the shade of the trees to cross the compound in the direction T’reb had taken.
Trying to look nonchalant, Piemur circled around B’naj’s wooden cabin so he could eavesdrop from the quiet side of the building where leafy trees offered him a hiding place from which to remain unobserved. Once behind the building he dropped down onto his hands and knees, crawling quickly toward a pair of open windows. He sat on the ground, his back pressed hard to the wall of the cabin, head cocked to one side as he tried to make out what was going on inside. He could clearly hear the sound of feet pacing.
T’reb was talking hurriedly, his voice several octaves higher than was comfortable for Piemur’s trained ear. No doubt: T’reb was very upset.
“My mind is made up now, B’naj. No more dithering over what’s right or wrong. I’ve arranged to meet him and set everything in motion.”
“Calm down, T’reb.” That was B’naj’s voice, speaking in a placating tone.
“But don’t you see, B’naj? We have to do something.”
“Maybe you’re overreacting,” B’naj said.
“But you didn’t see her, B’naj. It was unbearable!”
“What exactly did you see, my friend?”
“Mardra! Trying to coax Loranth from the Hatching Grounds. She was moaning.”
“Mardra or Loranth?” B’naj asked.
“Loranth, you dolt!”
There was silence for a few moments, and Piemur could only surmise that B’naj was glaring at T’reb in response to the ill-mannered remark.
“It was like no other dragon sound I’ve heard before,” T’reb continued finally. “It put my nerves on edge.”
Not a hard thing to do, Piemur mused, knowing how volatile T’reb could be—even at the best of times.
“It wasn’t the usual keening, nor the sound dragons make while feeding; no, it was a slow, heart-wrenching rumbling that came from deep inside. And the sound kept increasing, B’naj, to a cry so pitiful I thought she was in mortal agony.”
Piemur heard B’naj murmur something indistinguishable, and then T’reb continued.
“Mardra was pleading with Loranth: ‘Come away, my love,’ she said, ‘we cannot keep revisiting this loss.’ ”
Loss? What loss? Piemur wondered. What was T’reb talking about? And why was Mardra at the Hatching Grounds when the Weyr didn’t even have a new clutch of eggs to harden? Perhaps the old queen and her rider were simply visiting the Grounds, a hallowed place for all dragonkind, to ensure that they were still, as was the custom, in perfect order?
“Such a note of despair was in her voice, B’naj. I saw her weeping, and I thought I might weep with her, too. I can’t get the image out of my head!”
No wonder T’reb appeared so edgy, Piemur mused. What could possibly be causing the Weyr’s senior queen dragon so much distress?
“But what were they doing there?” B’naj asked.
“Loranth dug up those old egg shards and was poking around at them,” T’reb replied.
Egg shards? Piemur felt a moment of confusion. Why had the queen dug up old eggshells? Hatching Grounds were revered among dragonmen and -women! Everyone knew that the Grounds were where the future riders first met the young dragons they would partner; the place where, for the very first time in their lives, the specially chosen men and women would form their unique mental bonds with the giant, fearless, and noble creatures. To make that bond, to Impress a dragon, was to make a telepathic connection so strong that it could never be broken. Piemur had often wondered what it must be like to be a dragonrider, to have the unconditional friendship, love, and support of one of those magnificent beasts, a bond so strong that it lasted for life. From what he understood, the wondrous relationship he shared with his own Farli, his little golden fire-lizard, was only a tiny fraction of the deep connection between dragon and rider.
Piemur gave himself a mental shake; he couldn’t let his thoughts distract him, or he might miss a crucial exchange between T’reb and B’naj.
“The Hatching Grounds should’ve been thoroughly cleared ages ago. It’s not proper for the queen to do that, nor to leave the place in such a state.”
“Yes, but Mardra wouldn’t have it, would she?” The pitch of T’reb’s voice was rising again.
“And no amount of weeping or moaning will change the fact that Loranth won’t produce any new clutches of eggs. She’s just too old.” Piemur thought he heard a note of sadness in B’naj’s voice.
“It’s more than that, B’naj.”
“You’re right. Loranth has been off color ever since that shaft collapsed when the Weyr was mining firestone. I’m glad I didn’t go with you and the others.”
“We should never have gone on that cursed venture—over half the Weyr was exposed to those noxious fumes.”
“Yes, yes, we’ve spoken about this already. And we still cannot change what is done, T’reb!” B’naj was growing impatient.
“But we can’t just sit by as the Weyr falls apart. That’s why we have to do something now!”
“That’s a matter for our Weyrleader, T’reb, not us.”
“Ha! You still think T’ron will do something? He’s no more use to us now than a spent glow in a basket!”
“Shh, keep your voice down!” B’naj hissed.
“I’m not going to stand by anymore, B’naj. We have a duty to our queen and our Weyr!”
“What are you up to?” B’naj asked.
“There’s this plan—half-cocked at that—but perhaps we can use it to our advantage.”
“What plan, T’reb? You can’t go behind our Weyrleader’s back, my friend.” B’naj sounded alarmed.
“During my sojourns north, I traded with a group of men from Nabol. One of them pointed out similarities between us.”
“Similarities? What are you talking about, T’reb? They aren’t dragonfolk!”
“No, they aren’t, but just like us they’ve fallen afoul of Benden!”
“I don’t understand,” B’naj said.
“When they sought help over a family feud, Benden said they couldn’t interfere in Hold matters. Benden—F’lar and Lessa so high and mighty, as if their Weyr rules all the rest! Some leaders, yeah? Left those Nabolese out in the cold just like those other meddlers, the harpers. Honestly, B’naj, I hardly listened to all the details of their silly feud. The nub of it is that they want us to help secure a holding promised to their father by Lord Meron.”
“Meron,” B’naj said, enunciating the two syllables slowly and with so much distaste in his voice that Piemur had little difficulty imagining the dragonrider’s facial expression. And no surprise there: The late Lord Meron had been cruel and uncaring; even Piemur had fallen afoul of the Lord Holder. “He always was a sneaky lick of a man. We never should’ve traded with him.”
“But we did, and strange as it now seems, his kin may actually have thought of an idea that will benefit our Weyr. We just have to assist them in securing lands to hold.”
“They can have plenty of land down here—as much as they like.”
“They won’t travel south.”
“They say they can’t stomach the sea crossing. And anyway, they want lands in the north—just as was promised to them.”
“And what would we get in return?”
“Exactly what we need, B’naj. New blood.”
“How in the name of the First Egg—” B’naj’s response increased in volume until T’reb cut him short.
“Shh!” T’reb said.
A long silence followed.
“What?” B’naj asked at last, and Piemur guessed that T’reb must have whispered something. He tried to press his ear even closer to the cabin wall. There was the sound of movement inside and a low murmuring, but Piemur couldn’t make out what was said. He held his breath, straining harder to hear the two dragonriders. Suddenly a chair scraped against the floor and Piemur heard what sounded like a hand slapping bare flesh.
“You cannot stop me, B’naj!” T’reb said heatedly. “It’s obvious to me now, the less you know the better.”
What had T’reb said? Shards and fire blast! Piemur wished he’d been able to hear. It felt like all the hair on his body was standing on end, warning him of some ominous event in the offing, as sure as the dreaded Thread fell from the sky.
Footsteps marched purposefully inside the cabin, and then there was the sound of the door opening. Piemur crouch-crawled quickly to the end of the cabin and then ducked around the corner. From his new hiding place, he could see T’reb marching across the compound toward his dragon, Beth.
Without a backward glance, T’reb approached Beth and grabbed her flying harness. The green dragon turned toward her rider, and Piemur saw the color of her many-faceted eyes change from a soft green to a darker hue that was flecked with amber. Beth’s not a happy dragon, he observed in silence.