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    Mawgrim
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Recognized characters/events/plots from Dragonriders of Pern belong to Ann McCaffrey

Canon-typical violence, character deaths

Threadfall - 12. The Thick of It

D'gar and S'brin settle in to their new Wing. D'gar worries about S'brin's recklessness.

Herebeth chased P’goll’s Taronenth on a golden summer evening, the heat radiating from the warmed stone surrounding the Bowl. Dragons had basked all day on the heights, as their riders basked on the lake shore. Two greens had taken flight earlier, with much shrieking and posturing. Herebeth hadn’t even stirred for them. But as the sun began to sink behind the western rim of the Bowl, Taronenth rose from her slumber, killed a small herdbeast and blooded it, then set off on a mating flight that some said was the longest on record for any green at Fort. D’gar didn’t remember much of it; at least not from his point of view. He was with Herebeth, flying into the setting sun with a pack of other male dragons. Taronenth flew far from the Weyr, tiring out a few of her potential mates before she even began her usual dance, taunting them all with her aerobatics. He stayed with her longer than many other dragons, defeated at last when she wheeled and turned as only a green could, forcing both him and another brown to give up their pursuit as three dogged blues carried on with the chase.

Herebeth was exhausted as he flew slowly back to the Weyr. D’gar, separate from him once more, was left with the same sense of disorientation and failure as after his first mating flight. Thankfully, this time, S’brin was waiting outside the flight cave.

‘Fancy a ride?’ he said, almost throwing D’gar onto Zemianth’s neck. Back in their weyr, S’brin made sure his frustration at losing was well worked out. ‘That was pretty good,’ he said as they lay together on the rumpled bed afterwards. ‘Be even better the day Herebeth finally catches Zemianth.’

‘In about ten Turns, you mean?’

‘Nah. He’ll get the hang of it before then. Most dragons learn how to catch on their third or fourth attempt. Besides, me and Zemianth will want him to catch us. It helps, you know.’

‘Sure she won’t prefer Tiriorth again?’

‘Well, she might, but I prefer you to I’grast any day. And Zemianth and I are coming to a sort of understanding. I tolerate her choices, but she’ll take my preferences into account too.’

That was a relief. ‘I still don’t remember much about the flight. At least, not what I was doing during it.’ Even his memories of flying with Herebeth were fading rapidly, like a dream.

‘You will. Another few flights and you’ll be able to keep yourself more detached. Ask any of the other riders. The more used to it you get, the easier it is.’

At dinner, the talk was mostly about the mating flight. The eventual winner had been one of the blue dragons, Regath.

‘Might have known,’ T’garrin said. ‘He catches most times he chases.’ Various riders came up to ‘C’ Wing’s table during the evening to collect their winnings for guessing correctly. P’goll and F’gil, Regath’s rider arrived later on and went for a drink with F’gil’s wingmates as was traditional.

‘At least now he’s got that over with for another couple of months he’ll be in a better temper,’ R’xel said. ‘He’s been a nightmare to work with, knowing that she was about to rise again.’

D’gar knew that R’xel was most often paired with the taciturn P’goll during Fall.

‘Well, you can’t blame him for that.’ Another green rider spoke up. ‘I’m the same when I know Hollath’s getting close to it.’

‘H’kail,’ S’brin whispered, supplying the name. ‘One of those who definitely shouldn’t have Impressed green.’

D’gar took it that H’kail’s natural preference was for women. Unfortunately, when your dragon rose, individual likes counted for nothing. Not all of the bronze riders preferred a female partner, but if their dragons decided to chase a queen, or if they wanted to be Weyrleader, they had no choice in the matter. It was only later he learned - from B’thun - that H’kail didn’t seem to be attracted to anyone, male or female and looked on his dragon rising with dread.

He was gradually getting to know the other riders in the Wing, or at least their names and those of their dragons. In a Wing of thirty, it was inevitable that people formed smaller cliques; friends, lovers, those who were most often placed together in formations, or those whom you’d already known prior to joining the Wing. At meals, he sat either at the top end of the table, meaning he ended up talking to M’rell, T’garrin, G’reden and A’ren, or if he went with S’brin to the green end, he tended to mix with R’xel, J’rud, Is’ish and B’thun, whom he had learned was R’xel’s drinking and frequent bed partner, although they weren’t weyrmates. He’d noticed that the older riders grouped together, as did the ones who loved scandal and gossip. I’grast and N’rir always sat at the top end, either side of R’feem and chatted to anyone close by. R’feem himself was never very talkative during or after meals and generally left most of the day to day operation of the Wing to his Wingseconds, apart from the pre-Fall briefing, which he always conducted personally.

‘He wasn’t always like that,’ T’garrin told D’gar. ‘He used to be a lot more fun when A’til was still alive.’ R’feem’s long-time weyrmate had died over a Turn ago and it was clear from what the other wingriders said that he’d never really got over it. He was still an efficient Wingleader though and his good judgement made D’gar grateful that he and S’brin had ended up in ‘C’ Wing.

Each Fall that D’gar rode was a new learning experience. Thread sometimes fell thickly, in large clumps, other times in smaller bundles, or as wickedly hard-to-spot single strands. The weather made a huge difference too. Windy conditions usually led to more injuries, as dragons tired more quickly, flame wasn’t as accurate and Thread blew erratically. Rain was good, as long as it was heavy enough to drown Thread. Low cloud was a menace due to poor visibility.

Just as they had on deliveries, D’gar and Herebeth settled into their new roles. D’gar wasn’t one of those over-confident riders who thought they knew everything once they’d flown a couple of Falls successfully. He reckoned that he was probably a little over-cautious if anything. Combined with Herebeth’s unusually thoughtful demeanour it kept them safe, even if it meant no one really noticed them.

S’brin was the opposite, when he was fighting. Both he and Zemianth enjoyed showing off and their flying style often pushed them to their limits. He soon made friends with the other daredevils in the Wing; H’fra and Gr’thol among the green riders, R’xel and N’dru who both rode blues.

D’gar worried about him. ‘You shouldn’t try to push yourself so much. We’ve got nothing to prove to anyone.’

‘Well, you might not. Browns are different. You’re meant to be sensible and reliable. Greens have to work harder to get noticed. Anyway, Zemianth loves it.’

‘Just be careful, all right. I don’t want anything to happen to either of you.’

‘Says the man who’s already got himself scored,’ S’brin joked. ‘Both our hides will stay intact, don’t you worry.’

It was hard not to, when the evidence of how dangerous fighting Thread could be sat with them at dinner each night. Is’ish had apparently been notorious for the wildly aerobatic moves he and Panruth used to pull during a Fall. He boasted about riding down Thread no one else could have got to. D’gar often wondered how his accident had happened, but didn’t like to ask directly. Panruth was still recovering from her own wounds; the Thread that had got Is’ish had scored down her flank as well. Like many of the riders who had lost limbs, he’d been promised a visit to the Smithcrafthall to be fitted with an artificial leg once his stump had healed sufficiently.

The evenings became noticeably shorter and the first cooler nights started to turn the foliage in Fort Hold’s orchards. Grain had been harvested and fields ploughed, ready for the next season’s crops to be sown. It was colder in the air, too. D’gar had always suffered from cold feet when they’d been out on long flights as weyrlings. He now found that any Fall longer than two hours left him suffering, especially when it came to dismounting from Herebeth. Landing on hard ground when your feet were almost numb really hurt. He dreaded to think how much worse it would get when winter brought far colder weather.

‘Bad weather report today, lads.’ R’feem announced at the Wing meeting prior to a Fall over the northern part of Boll well into the ninth month. ‘Low cloud, intermittent showers and strong easterlies.’

‘It isn’t going to be fun up there,’ M’rell muttered. ‘Last time we had conditions like this was when we lost Sh’dral. Three other pairs went that day, too.’

You could feel the atmosphere in the Bowl as the riders and dragons began to assemble. D’gar noticed that the usual rituals were performed a little more fervently. It also reminded him of a couple of Falls when he’d still been on deliveries He’d wondered at the time how the wingriders and their dragons managed to sear Thread effectively when visibility was so poor.

G’reden evidently noticed his nervousness. ‘Don’t worry too much. They can see much better than we do in conditions like this.’

‘I know.’

‘Just keep a good distance, eh. We don’t want any collisions up there.’

He nodded weakly, trying to keep his stomach under control. He didn’t want to throw up in front of the others. They might think he was scared. Well, to be honest, he was but no one else needed to know about that. Did dragons ever feel like that? Probably not. There were advantages to living in the here and now.

We know that it can be dangerous, Herebeth offered, having picked up on his thoughts. But we do not worry as you do. We must fight Thread whatever the weather. Worrying does not help us to do our job.

You’re lucky. I worry for you, for me, for S’brin and Zemianth. For everyone in the Wing, really.

A weyrling brought sacks of firestone round. Dragons chewed, the noise of their teeth crunching the rock loud and purposeful. D’gar kept himself busy, hanging the spare sacks on the straps, checking the fixings. Once he was up in the air, he’d be fine. There was no time to think about anything else when your life depended on being alert.

The Wing left the Weyr in a tight V formation. D’gar glanced across to the other arm, where S’brin and Zemianth were taking their places on the first shift. J’rud and T’kes had recently been given their own positions, although both were due to ride the second half of the Fall today. It was a pity they’d not had a chance to get more experience before having to cope with a bad one.

Over Fort Weyr, the weather was heavily overcast, but dry. As soon as they came out of between, rain lashed D’gar’s face. They’d emerged in the midst of a heavy shower. Instantly, visibility was reduced to just three dragon lengths. Zemianth was somewhere out there, but he couldn’t see her anymore. The wind was strong, too, forcing the dragons to constantly correct their course against the squally gusts. The lighter, smaller dragons suffered worse in conditions like this. Greens would tire faster and need to be swapped out. Even blue Jekkoth was finding it hard going, his wings straining as he fought against the sidewinds.

They circled for what seemed like an age, going in and out of the downpour. Already, D’gar could feel water seeping down his neck. Although the wherhide he wore was well oiled, it wasn’t totally waterproof, especially at the seams. He knew he’d be soaked through by the end of this one.

Leading edge is in sight, Herebeth announced, as he always did. How anyone could see a thing amazed him, but soon Thread was upon them. The first few clumps they encountered had drowned on their way through the clouds. Dead Thread fell faster and instead of that dangerous glitter, looked dull and inert. But then the rain eased off and live, lethal filaments sank through the cloud layer. Bright flames flared against the grey background and the fight was on.

As Fall progressed, so did the showers, interspersed by lighter cloud and occasional, brief glimpses of blue sky. D’gar dropped a lump of firestone and just saved a couple of others as they slipped from his wet gloves. He hoped no one got hit by it on the way down.

There were two deaths during the first part of the Fall; one fairly soon after it began and another just as the weyrlings began to bring replacement sacks. Halerth went back to the Weyr early following a score to her tail, to be replaced by Zerlath and H’fra. D’gar had a close call, when Thread slithered past close to Herebeth’s right side and they blinked between swiftly.

Are you hit? he asked frantically. He knew he wasn’t, because nothing hurt. In the blackness of between he couldn’t see his own hand, let alone Herebeth’s body.

I am fine. It missed us.

They returned to the fight. Green Zerlath’s usual antics were moderated by the weather conditions. D’gar hoped that Zemianth would be equally sensible. Jekkoth, who normally managed to fly a complete Fall, so long as it was under three hours, had to give up, exhausted by the constant struggle against the wind. M’ta and Zath came in as replacements.

D’gar felt exhausted himself; buffeted by cold rain and worn out with the constant strain of trying to spot Thread against the grey murk. He could feel, even without asking, that Herebeth was far more tired than he would usually be at this stage, too. Thankfully, they didn’t have to go on for much longer. Fall would continue for a good hour or more, but it would be over the mountains, where no one lived and nothing grew. In those last few minutes of fighting, he felt the shock of another fatality; another pair hadn’t quite made it to the end. He wondered if fatigue was what had done for them.

At last they received the command to stop fighting and return to the Weyr. The sun was shining brightly over Fort, making the wet dragons and riders look even more bedraggled. Char had stuck to the dragons’ hides and to the soaked wherhide. Faces were darkened with the residue.

Zemianth is scored, Herebeth told him, just after they’d landed. So is Neyrenth. He didn’t seem overly concerned, so D’gar carried on with his usual post-Fall routine, walking around his dragon as he removed the straps to make sure he had no scores. Like people, dragons often didn’t notice minor injuries in the heat of battle, so it was as well to check. S’brin would have come back early, having been on the first shift, so Zemianth must have already been numbed and treated. Still, it was as well to know the details.

Can you ask Zemianth if she’s comfortable?

Herebeth took a few seconds to reply. She is fine. But her rider is in the infirmary.

What? Shit! He’d no idea S’brin had been hurt too. Why didn’t you say anything?

You did not ask. Herebeth seemed surprised. And Zemianth is not worried about him.

I’m going there now. Tell her to tell S’brin I’m on the way. He dragged the filthy, soaked straps off and left them next to the empty sacks before hurrying across the Bowl.

‘Wait for me!’

He turned to see J’rud running after him. ’S’brin’s been hurt. Herebeth just told me.’ It reminded him horribly of their trip to the infirmary when B’rol had been fatally injured. The common sense part of his mind kept trying to reassure him that if Zemianth wasn’t worried, then nothing too bad could have happened. But dragons only tended to get distressed if their riders were unconscious or delirious. A lot could still be wrong.

J’rud had a look on his face that didn’t exactly reassure him. ‘Neyrenth’s bad,’ he said. ‘I saw him get hit. He screamed in pain when it happened, then they went between. Just glad they made it back.’

They ran across the uneven ground. D’gar almost tripped a few times. The soaked wherhide was heavy and his legs were tired, but he didn’t care.

Over by the infirmary, there was a long queue of riders waiting for minor scores to be treated and several injured dragons. D’gar spotted Neyrenth’s distinctive dark blue colour almost right away. T’kes stood by his head as a couple of dragon healers assessed the damage. Neyrenth’s right wing was a mess; hardly any hide left at all on the spar and secondary mainsail. It looked as if part of the bone had gone too.

‘I’ll stay with T’kes,’ J’rud said, obviously aware of D’gar’s main concern. ‘You go and check on S’brin.’

‘Thanks. I’ll be out as soon as I can.’ He pushed his way through the usual crowds around the doorway.

‘Oy. Get in the queue.’ An older rider tried to stop him from getting past.

‘It’s not me that’s hurt,’ he protested. ‘It’s my weyrmate. I need to find him.’

Having got inside, he looked around. Most of the nearby pallets were occupied. Healers and their assistants went busily and fro. Several riders - the walking wounded - were crammed together on a bench, waiting for treatment. S’brin wasn’t among them. He hadn’t seen Zemianth outside either. What if… what if he’d died and she’d gone between? No, that couldn’t have happened. Herebeth had talked to her. Still, he couldn’t quash the rising panic as he made his way down the main aisle. It didn’t help that he wasn’t the only person trying to find their friends or relatives. A woman he recognised from the kitchen was checking each bed in turn, her expression strangely blank as she tried to shut out the sights and sounds of the post-Fall infirmary.

He spotted the healer he’d talked with on the day B’rol died. ‘I’m sorry to bother you, but I’m looking for my weyrmate, S’brin. Tall, green rider, about my age…’

She scanned him briefly, recognition dawning slowly. ‘Ah, yes. He’s through there.’ She pointed to another opening that led to a side cavern. ‘He had a lucky escape.’

D’gar wasn’t sure if that was bad or good. ‘Thanks,’ he said, before she had a chance to say any more. He steeled himself for what he might see; S’brin missing an arm, or a leg maybe.

It was quieter in here. Most of the patients had already been treated and were either drugged and sleeping, or lying quietly. S’brin was sitting on the edge of the third bed along, his bandaged head bowed. Numbweed residue covered scores along the left side of his body and arm.

‘Hey,’ D’gar said gently, not wanting to startle him.

S’brin looked up. The bandages covered his left eye. D’gar didn’t like to think of the damage that might be beneath them. ‘Are you all right?’ Bit of a stupid question, but he had to say something.

‘I’ve been better.’ He seemed very subdued.

‘What happened?’

‘It blew into us, out of nowhere. Got me down this side. Zemianth too. We went between almost right away. Shards, but that stuff eats through wherhide fast.’

‘I know.’

‘It doesn’t hurt, now. They want me to stay here for a while in case of shock, but I’d prefer to be with Zemianth.’

‘I couldn’t see her outside.’

‘No. She’s flown back to our weyr.’

‘Can’t be too bad, then.’

‘It caught her flank and belly. Her wings are fine.’

‘Not like Neyrenth, then. He’s out there now. Looks a mess.’

‘Shit.’ S’brin looked down at the floor again. ‘I feel so bad about her getting hurt. I think it was my fault.’

‘I doubt it. There were loads of injured today. Old and young.’ He sat next to S’brin, not wanting to ask about his eye.

‘I pushed us too hard. She was getting tired. We should have come back early.’ He sounded really down.

D’gar put an arm around him, being careful not to touch any of his wounds. ‘Don’t blame yourself. Although the rider was supposed to moderate their dragon’s instincts with human foresight, it was all too easy to get caught up in their emotions. Dragons wanted to keep fighting Thread, however tired they became.

S’brin sighed. ‘I can’t help it.’

‘I know.’ He’d feel the same if it was Herebeth. He didn’t know what else to say. They sat close together for a while.

‘You said Neyrenth was hurt, too.’

‘Yeah. J’rud’s with T’kes now. They’ll probably be starting to repair it soon.’ Although there hadn’t been much to repair, as he remembered. Would Neyrenth ever fly again? There were a couple of dragons with wing damage in the Weyr, living at ground level. Some could take to the air for short hops around the Bowl, others found even that impossible. They couldn’t fly to mate, or to catch their own food. It must be a miserable existence.

‘You were right,’ S’brin said at last.

‘About what?’

‘Not trying too hard to prove what we could do.’

‘Well…’ He didn’t want to rub it in. Although if this made S’brin a bit more careful it might not be a bad thing.

‘Can you give me a lift back to our weyr?’

‘When they say it’s all right for you to leave, sure.’

S’brin gave him a kiss. ‘I like it that you’re responsible sometimes.’

‘Well, someone has to be.’

On the way out, he met J’rud. ’S’brin’s all right,’ he said, before J’rud started to worry. ‘They just want him to rest a while before they let him go. How’s Neyrenth doing?’

J’rud shook his head. ‘R’feem’s just got here. The healers are with him. They’re going to try and mend what’s left but it’s not looking good. T’kes isn’t hurt, but he’s in a state.’

‘Maybe I should talk to him…’

J’rud put a hand on his arm. ‘It’s best to leave him right now. We can’t say anything to make it any better. It’s probably best if we get ourselves cleaned up, then come back later.’

‘I suppose so.’

By the time they got to the baths, there weren’t many riders left in the pools. The water was cleaned and filtered as it circulated but the dirt left behind after a wet, mucky Fall would take a while to clear. Eventually they found a smaller pool that wasn’t too bad and got in. D’gar kept wondering about S’brin’s eye. He should have asked, while he was with him. Although, if S’brin had wanted to, surely he’d have said something.

J’rud obviously noticed he was quieter than usual. ‘We were lucky today,’ he said, after a while. ‘Me and Zurinth had a couple of near misses.’

‘Us too.’ He sighed. ‘I really hope S’brin calms down now.’

‘It’s his first score, isn’t it?’

D’gar nodded.

‘It sobers you up a bit. Makes you realise you aren’t invincible.’

‘I know.’ He rubbed at the scar on his shoulder. Sometimes it burned briefly, despite being long healed. Scores always left a reminder. ‘It’s his eye,’ he said. ‘It was bandaged. What if… what if he’s blind?’

‘What if he is?’ J’rud said. ‘Plenty of riders manage with just one eye.’

‘I know. It’s just…’ The thought of being blind scared him. If you lost the use of one eye, you were that bit closer to losing both. He remembered seeing a blind man being led around at a Gather. You’d be totally helpless, lost in the darkness. Like being between.

‘If he didn’t say anything, then there are two options. Either it’s not important to him whether he’s lost the use of that eye, or it’s fine. It might just be that the score came close to it and they bandaged over his eye ‘cos that was the easiest way.’

J’rud could be so practical at times. ‘You’re probably right. I didn’t dare ask him.’

‘Well, do, when you pick him up. It’s clear you’re worrying about it.’

‘Thanks. Sometimes I get too wrapped up in my own thoughts.’

‘I’ve noticed.’ J’rud ducked his head under the water to wash the ash from his short-cropped hair. ’S’brin’s lucky to have someone who cares about him like you do. Wish I could find someone like that.’

Herebeth ferried him back to his weyr. Zemianth was curled on her couch. Her scores looked nasty, but they weren’t too deep.

She is not in pain, Herebeth offered. She went between very fast. And the healers have numbed it for her.

D’gar hung up the filthy straps. He’d clean them later. He’d picked up Zemianth’s too, so S’brin didn’t have to. Back inside, he draped his wet wherhide in front of the ventilation duct, then dug out a clean shirt. This was the closest either of them had come to serious injury. They were both still alive when three other pairs weren’t. Maybe he should just be thankful for that.

Zemianth says her rider has been released. Shall we pick him up? She would like to continue resting.

Of course. Just a minute and I’ll be ready.

Neyrenth was still being treated. The healers had put up a scaffold and were carefully mending what was left of his wing. D’gar thought he’d better go and speak to T’kes while he waited for S’brin. Herebeth settled himself next to Neyrenth, his eyes whirling with the yellow shades indicating concern.

‘J’rud told me you’d been hit.’

‘I wish I had been. I’m fine. Not a scratch. Look at him.’ T’kes looked as if he’d been crying and that he might start again at any time.

‘They’ll do their best for him, I’m sure.’ It felt like empty platitudes but what else were you supposed to say?

‘You don’t need to be nice, you know. You’ll be thinking the same as I did when I saw that mess. Gemalth had to bring us in for a safe landing.’

‘I’m sorry,’ D’gar said. ‘Really. It could have been any of us, the way things were today. I’m just picking up S’brin. Him and Zemianth were scored too.’

Just then, S’brin strolled out of the infirmary, carrying a covered pot that presumably contained all the numbweed he and Zemianth would need for a couple of days. He took in the scene and Neyrenth’s state, then gave T’kes a quick hug. ‘Shitty day, wasn’t it.’

T’kes nodded. ‘What about you? What’s happened to your eye?’

‘Oh, that.’ S’brin lifted a hand to his bandage. ‘This is mostly to keep the dirt off. I got scored just to the side of my eye. It’s weird having one eye covered up. Makes it hard to judge distances.’

D’gar felt grateful T’kes had mentioned it. At least now he knew. ‘I was worried to ask,’ he admitted.

‘And here was me thinking you just didn’t care.’ S’brin smiled. ‘It’s all right. I know you’re squeamish about some things.’ He spoke to T’kes again. ‘If there’s anything we can do to help, just ask.’

‘Well, you could get me some things from my weyr. We’ll be staying down here for a while.’

‘Just let D’gar know. He’s the one with the uninjured dragon, so he can fetch them. Think I’m going to enjoy lying around getting him to wait on me.’

D’gar aimed a cuff at his good shoulder. ‘You wish.’

‘Pass me up some of those splints, lad,’ the dragon healer called down. ‘The longer ones.’

They watched for a while. It seemed to D’gar that the main aim was to strengthen and support the remaining part of Neyrenth’s wing. There wasn’t much fabric used in this case, because there was insufficient hide to stretch over it. What wasn’t there, couldn’t knit together.

Tiriorth asks where you are. Herebeth said, nudging him gently at the same time. The Wing meeting is about to begin.

‘We have to go,’ he said to S’brin. ‘Wing meeting.’ No matter what else happened, life at the Weyr went on as usual.

Copyright © 2020 Mawgrim; All Rights Reserved.
Recognized characters/events/plots from Dragonriders of Pern belong to Ann McCaffrey

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D'gar worries so much because S'brin doesn't seem to worry at all.  Great chapter, flowed really well, can't wait for the next update.

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Maybe S'brin will be a bit more careful after this. But I guess he cannot suppress his true nature for long.

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