Stay still while I oil that patch,H’rekchided his dragon.
Sorry,she sighed.It tickles under there.
You are one twitchy dragon.He slathered some more oil on the underside ofRioth’sneck and began rubbing it in.Just try to stay still, otherwise we’ll get told off. You know the saying, “Patchy hide cracks between”. If you’re patchy we won’t be allowed to carry on with our training.
I know. But it is hard to keep still.
Theday’sheat was fading now as the sun slowly sank in the west. The sea was dead calm, reflecting the cloudless blue sky. Further down the beach several of hisclutchmateswere still bathing their dragons - well, to be more accurate, the dragons were playing in the sea and their riders, armed with brushes and mops, were having a mock battle while pretending to clean the dragons. The occasional yell or laugh drifted up the beach. AsSolarthsurfaced, he noticed hercolourseemed more intense than usual; like those flowers whose blossoms seem to turn a shade more vivid toward twilight. She glowed.
Solarthlooks like she’s going to rise soon.
Riothlooked in the same direction and observed her clutch sister.Tomorrow, probably,she said.It is too late now.
Who do you think will catch her?
Well, she likesKurmianthbest of all. But he’ll need to be quick and agile to catch her and…
He’s a bit clumsy, isn’t he?Like many of the bronzes,Kurmianthwas still growing, albeit not so fast now. Like a teenage lad who’s had a recent growth spurt, he hadn’t quite becomeaccustomedto his size. His gawkiness had meant a few rough landings forM’shol.
Unlike you, my beautifulRioth.She had reached her full size a few months ago and while she was still filling out as her muscles and wings grew stronger, she had perfect proportions.H’rekhad been told that the green and blue dragons did tend to reach maturity earlier than their larger brothers. HenceSolarthbeing ready to mate within a Turn of her hatching.
Not for the first time,H’rekwondered whenRiothwould rise. The prospect filled him with a mixed sense of anticipation - for it would mean she was an adult dragon in every sense of the word - and dread. He’d been in Southern just over a Turn now; long enough to witness quite a few greens fromRamoth’sclutch rise. He’d graduallyrealisedthat the dragons’ passion was mirrored to their riders. It was something he’d already half understood through feelingRioth’shunger pangs when she was a hatchling and the ache in his own shoulder that time she was caught unawares by a gust of wind and strained a wing muscle. When she rose to mate, he would feel everything she did and when she was caught, that dragon’s rider would do with him exactly the same as his dragon was doing withRioth.
None of theWeyrbredlads found this at all worrying or unusual. It was just what dragons did. “The dragon decides, the rider complies,” was another one of those old sayings he’d heard a thousand times but hadn’t really appreciated the meaning of until now. He had to keep reminding himself that he was adragonridernow, not back on the farm where the moral compass was very different. If he’d not been Searched and ImpressedRioth, he might - no, more likely would - have been married by now. His older brother had been married off at seventeen; no reason to suppose he would have been treated any differently. And that would have been… difficult, to say the least. He’d known from a fairly early age that while he enjoyed the company of girls and they liked him as someone they could gossip with and share confidences, he’d never felt attracted to them in that way. A pretty face or the curve of a hip or breast just didn’t catch his eye or imagination in the same way as a well-muscled chest, broad shoulders or the outline of a bulge in someone’s trousers (which he tried not to look at, but…) Back home, anyone thought you were looking at them like that, you’d probably end up getting a kicking. It was only when he was taken to theWeyrhe’d started to notice riders holding hands or kissing in the more private corners of the dining hall andrealisedthat he didn’t need to hide his feelings any more.
Except then, he’d been packed off south with a group of lads he didn’t know well and who were mostly Craft orFarmbredthemselves and he’d decided it was probably safest not to give anything away. It had been fine during the first couple of months afterRiothhatched. Young dragons were perpetually hungry and grew fast. Keeping her fed and oiled took all of his time and energy. All of hisclutchmateswere in the same situation; the bronze and brown riders even more so as their dragons began to bulk out, growing even faster than their blue and green brothers and sisters. Each night, they all collapsed into their beds and slept, exhausted. Mind you, everyone in Southern did a lot of sleeping. The tiredness affected everyone, although some worse than others. It must be a combination of the heat and the generally soporific air of the place, he reckoned. In any case, it made for a far more relaxed and casual atmosphere than he’d sensed atBenden, even during the short time he’d been there.
However, once the young dragons began to mature; once they were able to catch their own food and their rapid initial growth slowed, there was more time to notice all the other things that went on. The green flights, for one thing.Ramoth’sclutch werenow nearly three Turns old and fully mature fighting dragons. Not that they had anything to fight here. Back atBenden, he remembered the frantic preparations for the imminentThreadfall. Here, although the Red Star was clearly visible each dawn, no Thread came. Did it not fall in this part of the planet, he wondered? And if that was the case, why didn’t everyone move here? It wasn’t as if the soil was poor. Trees herecognisedfrom home grew to twice the size and the fruit they produced was the best he’d ever tasted. The weather meant that crops could be grown all Turn round too. Another puzzle to add to his list of questions none of hisclutchmatesseemed interested in and no one who might know would deign to answer. He’d already learned the hard way that to persist in asking generally led to him being given some task that was either physically exhausting (such as breaking firestone) or downright unpleasant (removing dragon dung to the steadily growing pile).
Ramoth’sclutch had hatched twelve green dragons. Given that they tended to rise three or four times a Turn, it meant that mostsevendaysbrought at least one mating flight. They’d all become used to the sight of a green dragon blooding her kill and trumpeting a challenge to her suitors, who tended to cluster on top of the rocky cliffs at one end of the main beach. The flights themselves more often than not went out to sea; a jumble of bright dragoncolourswheeling and climbing against the backdrop of an azure sky. Meanwhile, their riders would rush in to thesmall hut provided for the purpose (although it had a secondary use as an overflow storeroom). He’d had a look inside once, out of curiosity and found it a third full of barrels of salt fish and sacks of grain, all piled around the edge of the room, leaving a limitedfloorspacein thecentrewith a grubby mattress on the floor. It wasn’t even as spacious ashis ownweyrand not at all romantic.
When he dared to think about such things, he imagined meeting the man of his dreams and finding an instant rapport similar to when he’d ImpressedRioth. There’d be physical attraction too, of course, but that wouldn’t necessarily be the reason why they fell for each other. Obviously, he thought about sex - what young man of seventeen Turns didn’t - but he’d always hoped that it would be an overpowering emotional connection that would inevitably lead to the physical expression of their love and desire.
He talked about love quite a lot withBavi, his friend who worked in the laundry. She fell in love almost as often as a green dragon rose.
‘Oh,H’rek, I’m smitten,’ she’d say. ‘Every time...’ and she would go on to name whoever was her latest crush, ‘...looks at me my legs go all weak and my heart starts pounding.’
‘Does he like you?’
‘I’ve not dared to speak to him yet. Do you think you could have a word with him for me?’
Stupidly, he often did, finding himself the go-between toBavi’slatest romantic fixation. Worse still, he had a crush on some of them himself, but they were that couple of years older and he didn’t dare to say for himself the things he said by proxy for her. Sometimes, her fancies were just too far out of reach to even do that.
‘T’bor’slovely, but you can see his heart belongs toKylara. And she’s so horrible to him most of the time. I mean, I know their dragons mated, but he shouldn’t have to put up with the way she carries on.’
Kylarawas a law unto herself. It wasrumouredthat she’d slept with at least half the lads from the clutch that had producedPrideth, her own queen dragon and several of the other men about the place. Lately, she’d started to flirt quite openly withF’nor. He was always polite in his refusals, which seemed to both infuriate her and spur her on to greater efforts. Most people found this a great source of amusement and gossip. WhenF’nor’sCanthflew greenMiluth,Kylarawent out of her way to be particularly nasty toMiluth’srider for a good foursevendays.
MaybeCanthwould flyRioth? At leastF’norwould know what to do and although he must be at least thirty, he was still good looking. But no, that wouldn’t happen. It was customary to close a green’s first mating flight to all but herclutchmates. Apparently, it was better that way as both the dragons and their riders knew each other well. From what he saw of the aftermath ofSolarth’sflight it also led to extreme embarrassment. WhileSolarthandFarimithspent the next few days curling up together and neck twining whenever they had the opportunity, their riders could barely look at each other and made point of sitting at opposite ends of the communal table at meal times.
Bavioften came over during the meal times to chat withH’rek. She’d lean over the table in such a way as to best display her ample charms and whisper in his ear, as if they were lovers exchanging confidences. Sometimes, as she left, she’d give him a quick kiss, too. All of this led to envy and speculation among the other lads.
‘Have you and her slept together?’J’tirasked with interest.
‘If we had, you think I’m going to tell you? No, we’re just good friends.’
‘Friends with benefits,’M’sholsmirked.
Why couldn’t he just put an end to it by telling them the truth? Maybe because he still had that instinct for self-preservation he’d acquired at home, or just because it was fun to have them all thinking there was something going on.Plus,Baviliked to play along with the subterfuge too, for reasons of her own which he didn’t figure out until one day in the laundry’s steamy heat when she kissed him properly. It was nice, but…
‘You really aren’t interested in girls at all, are you?’
‘I thought you already knew that?’
‘Well, I just wanted to be sure. And if that’s the case, you need to find yourself someone before that dragon of yours decides the matter for you. You don’t want a mating flight for your first time.’
‘Because it’s totally out of control is why. Get some experience first and at least you won’t be taken by surprise.’
He thought for a moment. ‘Trouble is, I don’t really think of anyone in my clutch that way. And they all assume we’re a pair, thanks to you.’
‘Well, how about one of the older lads, then. How aboutSh’ran? He’s a friend of yours, isn’t he?’
H’reknodded.‘Friend, yes.Lover, no.Anyway, he really does like girls.’
‘I know.’ She gave a little smile.
‘Oh no,’ he groaned. ‘You didn’t?’
‘We did. That’s why I figure he’d be a good one for you. He was lovely, really gentle and considerate. And for your information, he doesn’tjustlike girls. He flies both ways.’
‘I really didn’t need to hear that.’Sh’ranwas often (too often) a willing partner in his fantasies.
‘I think you did. So, maybe you won’t love him forever like in all those silly romantic ballads, but he’d treat you right. Think about it.’
And he did.Quite a lot.But before he had a chance (or the nerve) to put his plans into action,Riothrose.
He’d been unaccountably irritable for a day or so before; snapping at people for no good reason and finding himself getting annoyed over things that wouldn’t usually bother him. Plus, he’d found himself looking at other riders in a certain way and gettinghimselfall worked up over absurd details such as whetherS’rin’sbeard would tickle when they kissed or how smoothM’shol’sklah-colouredskin might feel under his fingers. He should haverealised, but everyone has blind spots; things which you see in others but ignore (or subconsciously suppress) in yourself. If any of his greenclutchmateshad been behaving like that, he’d have said, ‘proddy,’ as quickly as anyone else.
By the time he noticed that glow inRioth’shide, it was far too late to do anything about it. “The dragon decides…” Maybe it was best this way, not letting any of his own fanciescolourRioth’schoices. She’d never done this before and neither had he; there seemed something right and proper about that. Very rational, he thought, until that morning when she woke with her usually placid thoughts a roiling mass of lust and desire and launched herself toward the feeding ground. As he raced after her, pulling on clothes he wasn’t going to keep on for very long, he recalled the few things they’d been told about this part of dragon care. Don’t let her gorge or she’ll be too heavy to fly high. Most importantly, stay withher anddon’t let your mental link break or very bad things might happen. He was already feeling more like her than himself, eager to kill the panickedherdbeastsin the pens, wanting to rend the flesh so much that willing himself - her - not to was the biggest battle he’d ever had. He tasted the hot blood in his own mouth as she sucked the animal dry and felt how that heat and energy surged through his body. He/she looked up toward the cliff to see the inevitable crowd of male dragons, waiting in anticipation even as their riders clustered around him on the ground. When she launched herself into the sky, his heart (and his mind) went with her. He was only marginally aware of his humanself rushingalong with the others toward the hut. He wasRiothin every way that mattered, flying fast and high, taunting her potential mates with dizzying turns and dives, forcing them to try and follow until some gave up, exhausted, two collided and spun out of contention and only the strongest remained. Far below, the sea sparkled like gems and above, the clear blue of the sky was her domain. She glanced back at her followers, her instinct to couple overcoming her wish to taunt them further. Any of them would be a worthy mate but first they had to catch her. She dropped into aspirallingdive (his body contorting in mimicry of her aerobatics) and they followed. But only one matched her every move and stayed with her, forestalling her clever evasions. He was above her, grabbing her wing joints firmly and pinioning her until…
Sudden shock and pain dropped him back into his own body, losing mental contact at the moment when it should have been strongest. He couldn’t find her again! If he couldn’t find her, what would happen? He struggled, panicking, unable to reach her through his own turmoil. Then a very soft, gentle voice in his head (almost like a dragon’s voice) said, ‘Relax. Don’t be afraid. Stay with her,’ and all of a sudden he was there again, with her, falling through the endless sky under the heat of the southern sun.
He came back to himself more slowly next time, still aware (with the lightest of touches) that she and her mate had safely landed on a rocky island, far from the shore. He was lying on the stained and somewhat smelly mattress withR’ganwho met his eyes cautiously, then smirked before saying, ‘Woh.Never thought a mating flight was going to be quite like that.’Good food and physical exercise had filled him out a bit; he was no longer the scrawny boy who had been brought in on Search, but he certainly wasn’t anyoneH’rekwould have chosen to bed, if he’d had any choice in the matter. He couldn’t recall much about the actual sex. His mind had been withRiothat that point, so her perceptions and his had merged together into a muddled blur.
‘Can you remember any of it?’ he asked, wondering ifR’ganhad the same problem.
R’ganthought for a moment, screwing up his eyes. ‘Sort of, I suppose…’ he paused for a while. ‘I can’t be surewhat’s my memoryand what’sVazalth’s.’
‘Me neither.’ One thing was certain.Riothwas blissfully happy, satisfied and fulfilled and he was, well, none of those things. He hurt, and not just where he’d expected. It felt as if he’dstrained all the muscles down the right side of his back. As he cautiously tried to move, he felt a twinge in his ribs, too.
Beside him,R’gansat up and started fumbling around for his clothes, which wasn’t so easy in the dim interior of the hut.H’rekthought it was probably for the best, as despite having seen each other naked lots of times when swimming with the dragons, he didn’t really want to look atR’ganright now and guessed the other lad felt much the same.
‘Well, I’d best get going,’R’gansaid, pulling his shirt over his head. ‘Er, see you at lunch?’
The door opened, letting in the bright morning light, which made the place look evenmore shabby.R’ganshut it behind him, leavingH’rek’seyes dark-blind after the sudden glare. He suddenly felt terribly alone and almost as if he was going to start crying or something stupid like that. He longed for the comfort ofRioth’spresence in his mind, but it would be selfish to disturb her when she was so full of enjoyment at being together withVazalth. He lay down again until his eyes cleared enough to make out the roof beams from the surrounding darkness, trying not to think too much about the experience he’d just had and failing miserably. After a while, he gave up trying to make sense of anything and began looking around for his own clothes. When he found them, he dressedslowly.Everything was starting to hurt a lot more. By the time he left the hut, he felt nearer to seventy than seventeen andrealisedhe should probably go and get somenumbweedbefore crawling back to his ownweyr. That should have been easy enough except thatBavifound him and insisted on getting him a strong mug ofklah, then sat with him as he drank it.
‘So, who was it, then?’
‘Him?He’s just a kid. Did he even know what to do?’
‘Can’t really remember.’He cupped theklahbetween his hands. Although the morning was fast warming up, he felt shivery.
‘Bits and pieces, but…’ How could he make her understand when she didn’t have a dragon of her own?
‘So, was it good?’
She kept pushing for details. He was afraid that if she persisted, he might end up being rude to her, but thankfully he had a good excuse to avoid that.
‘Look,Rioth’sgoing to come back soon. I should be at myweyrfor her.’
‘Of course.We can have a chat later.’ She took his empty mug. ‘Actually, you look awful. Maybe you should have a sleep?’
‘Think I will.’
He made it back to his ownweyr, applied as muchnumbweedas he dared, then lay in the shade. All of a sudden, it hit him that this was going to happen three, maybe four times a Turn for the rest of his life. Even if he met someone he liked in the meantime, there was no guarantee their dragon would catchRiothevery time she mated. Could any relationship survive that? There was only one good thing about today and that was that he still hadRioth. And that, said the nagging little voice of doubt in his mind, was very nearly not the case. What’s going to happen next time? What if you freeze up and lose her? It didn’t bear thinking about.
He stared up at the branches swaying softly in the warm breeze, to the calm blue sky beyond. One thing was certain.Riothmust never, never know how he felt about this. He pushed all the negative thoughts to the back of his mind and buried them deep.