Young Fiona, rider of the gold queen Talenth, has returned with the dragons and riders who fled into the past to heal their battle wounds and prepare to fight anew the menace of Thread. Now more than three years older, Fiona is no longer a child but a woman—thrust into authority by a shocking tragedy. But leading weyrfolk who are distrustful of a young outsider will be only one of her challenges. Despite gaining reinforcements from the past, too few dragons have survived the recent plague to stem the tide of the intensifying Threadfall. As a senior Weyrwoman, Fiona must take decisive action. With the aid of Lorana, the rider who sacrificed her dragon for others, and Fiona’s true love, the harper Kindan, she proposes a daring, nearly impossible plan. But if it succeeds, it just might save them all.
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Heart, give voice to sing Of life on dragon wings!
Fort Weyr, AL 508.2.2
It was still snowing, and cold. Fiona shivered, wishing she hadn't outgrown her warm fur-lined leathers. Back in hot Igen, heavy clothing had been out of place, but here, at Fort Weyr, it was invaluable.
Her nose and lungs froze as she took another breath. Frantically, she pulled a portion of her thin scarf up to cover her nose; the air was easier to breathe that way, but her breath fogged her vision.
It had been an age for her since that timeonly days ago herewhen the strange gold rider had come:
"Get dressed," the rider had said. "We must be quick. We can't wake the others."
Fiona had had only an instant to decide: a rash plunge into the unknown. Why had she taken it?
But she had; and for three Turns she'd been Weyrwoman of Igen Weyr, which had been abandoned until she and the other Fort dragonriders had gone back ten Turns in time to use it as a place to grow and heal . . . She'd learned to trade, learned to fly, andlearned what it meant to be a Weyrwoman.
She had nearly seventeen Turns now, but here, back in her own time, they still thought her not yet fourteen. A part of her longed for that, longed to give the responsibility for decisions to others, to rest and relax and just focus on raising her queen.
Her queen. Beautiful Talenth had grown, had become a queen in all her glory, ready for her first mating flight, ready to add her hatchlings to the dragons of Pern.
When Fiona had realized that, had really understood, she had turned to T'mar. The bronze rider had been her mentor, her trainer, and the Weyrleader of the small group of injured and immature riders who had accompanied her back in time. He had been theone person who could help her take that next step in becoming a queen rider. There was a bond between them, she knew it. More than shared peril, more than shared times. He had a piece of her heart, freely given. But, she thought with a breath of the cold air,he didn't have it all.
Kindan. He was also there, on her horizon. As a child, she had loved him, while he had loved her older sister, Koriana. During her time at Igen, in the past, she had met him again, but she'd been older, and he hadn't recognized her. Now, as a grown woman,she had discovered that her feelings for him were no less than they'd been when she was a girl. Did she love him, she challenged herself, or did she just want to prove that she was as good as Koriana, whom he'd held in his arms as she died?
"Are you ready?" Terin asked, from her perch in front of Fiona.
"I'm ready," Fiona said, moving her scarf away and glancing down to the Weyr Bowl below.
The older riders had already landed. T'mar was being embraced by Weyrleader K'lior, and there, to one side, stood dark-haired, quiet Xhinna.
"Oh, please, let's land by Xhinna!" Terin said, as she spotted the weyrgirl. "Wait until she sees that I'm taller than her now!"
Three Turns. Three days. Xhinna had been her best friend before she'd left for Igen, but much had happened since, and Fiona realized that Xhinna had become a memory, nearly lost in all that time. Now Xhinna was only three days older, while Fiona had agedthree Turns. Could they just pick up where they had left off? Or start anew?
Seeing Cisca, Fort's Weyrwoman, walking toward her as she leaped down from Talenth aroused further apprehension. At Igen, Fiona had been a Weyrwoman among boys and injured riders. Could she now return to her junior role under Cisca? It would be safe, sheknew. It would be easy, too. But the part of her that stored and cherished the images of her father and Kindan, both so strong and determined, urged her to do more. And then Fiona wondered: Were leaders always scared?
If it was any warmer down in the Weyr Bowl, Fiona couldn't tell it from the cold stares she received. She couldn't place the reaction at first, until she realized: They didn't recognize her.
Terin's hand slipped into hers and Fiona guessed that the younger girl was coming to the same realization. Terin waved her free hand at Xhinna. "Xhinna, it's me!"
The weyrgirl turned in their direction, her blue eyes sad and careworn.
"She looks like she lost her best friend," Terin said to Fiona.
"She has," Cisca said, having gotten close enough to overhear. Fiona looked at her, surprised that she was nearly eye level with the Weyrwoman. "Three days ago the weyrlings and"
Even Cisca didn't know who she was. Fiona felt a lump in her throat. It was hard to speak. "Me, Weyrwoman." "The gold rider brought us," Terin said, glancing up to Cisca and then quickly away, her eyes drifting back to Xhinna.
Cisca was staring intently at Fiona, studying her face. Then she let out a sob. "Fiona?" She grabbed Fiona and clutched her tightly, bruisingly, and Fiona felt guilty as the Weyrwoman's hot tears rained down on her. "We thought" She pushed away fromFiona, her face clouding as anger replaced relief.
"I brought them back, Cisca," Fiona said hurriedly, waving an arm to the riders and dragons behind her, hoping to avoid the Weyrwoman's wrath. "They're ready to fight. All of them."
Cisca looked beyond her to the riders and dragons in the Weyr Bowl. "The weyrlings?"
"Trained and ready," Fiona said, letting justifiable pride creep into her voice. This much she had done. She had fought, she had succeeded, she had overcome her own fears and kept them hidden from all: She had been a Weyrwoman.
Fiona stirred slowly to wakefulness, feeling surprised at the warmth around her. She vaguely remembered crawling out of her bed with her blankets draped over her and curling up against Talenth, but now she felt another body lying against her, pressingher more tightly against her queen.
As tired as she'd been, she'd made her full report to Cisca and then had carefully explained to Terin that she needed to make amends with Xhinna and would it be all right if Terin found some other place to sleep that night?
Terin had been too quick to agree; Fiona suspected that her request had been used as an excuse by the strawberry-haired teen to seek out the handsome F'jian.
The other body shifted away quickly and Fiona groaned.
"I'm sorry," a voice spoke as the other person jumped to her feet. It was Xhinna.
"Don't be," Fiona replied, turning to look up at her and gesturing invitingly for Xhinna to rejoin her. "I'm certain that I was freezing until you came." She made a face. "I don't know how I'll adjust to this cold again."
Only slightly relieved, Xhinna sat back down beside her. With an irritated sigh, Fiona pulled her close. "There," she murmured, "warmer."
Xhinna remained tense beside her. Fiona opened one eye and saw that the younger girl was eyeing her with a mixture of trepidation, assessment, and fear. Fiona opened both eyes, turned, drew Xhinna's head toward hers and laid a sisterly kiss on the girl'sforehead.
"I'm sorry that I couldn't bring you with us," Fiona murmured in her ear. She pulled back enough to stare Xhinna in the eyes. "I love you, you are a dear friend, and I missed you."
"But you're so old now!"
Fiona could feel the many levels on which Xhinna made the comment and nodded slightly.
"I am," Fiona agreed with a twist of her lips. "Do you still want to be friends?"
Xhinna pursed her lips but said nothing, instead closing her eyes and leaning back against Fiona. A small sound escaped her lips, perhaps a sob, perhaps a sigh of contentment . . . or acceptance.
Melanwy, the aged ex-headwoman who had gone between forever with Weyrwoman Tannaz only a short time ago for Xhinna, and that same short time plus three whole Turns for Fiona's time-jumping self, had scorned and loathed Xhinna because of the young girl'snature. That same nature which had made certain that she would never Impress a queen dragon. But Fiona had accepted Xhinna for who she wasjust as she had accepted blue rider F'dan for who he was. Everyone had a heart; just because different things set thembeating didn't mean that there wasn't something for Fiona to love in all of them.
She knew that if she were to continue to be Xhinna's friend, she had to make Xhinna comfortable in the knowledge that she would never be her lover but also make it clear that she would always accept Xhinna's love. The two things were different, somethingFiona grasped at a level beneath conscious thought even though, until very recently, she had never experienced the difference between loving and having a lover.
"Friends?" Fiona repeated when Xhinna made no reply.
"Promise me this," Xhinna said. She waited for Fiona to nod before continuing, "Promise me that you'll never leave me again."
"I swear by the egg of Talenth that, if it's in my power, I'll never leave you again, Xhinna," Fiona said, hugging her tightly. She whispered into her ear, "I missed you."
"But you didn't think I was dead," Xhinna said, not entirely mollified.
"The gold rider" Fiona began, but Xhinna cut her off.
"Wasn't it you, from the future?"
Fiona pursed her lips thoughtfully. "I don't know." She saw Xhinna's look and said, "Really, I don't know. I could have been but . . ." She broke off, shaking her head. "The gold rider said you weren't to come, and I knew that I had to go."
"I don't know," Fiona said, shaking her head, "I just did." She paused a moment. "Maybe I was wrong." "The weyrlings are grown, the riders healed, we've got more fighting strength than we did three days ago," Xhinna said then. "What you did was important."
"Thanks." "Friends," Xhinna said solemnly. "Good," Fiona replied, snuggling up against her. "I can't stand sleeping alone."
Short Fall, Watch all. Winds change Dragon's bane.
Fort Weyr, AL 508.2.5
"It's time," Fiona said three days later, nudging Xhinna as she forced herself out of the bed and into the cold night air. She put on her slippers and pulled a warmer nightgown around her shoulders, allowed herself a moment's memory of the hideously hotIgen summer nights, then squared her shoulders determinedly and set off to the necessary. Xhinna joined her not long after Fiona had dressed in her riding gear, yawning widely.
"Why are you wearing that?"
"It's warm," Fiona said feelingly. Xhinna snorted and shook her head at the weyrwoman's affectation. Feelingly, Fiona responded, "You try living in Igen for three Turns!"
Wisely, Xhinna said nothing, but her eyes danced mischievously as she waved the weyrwoman out with a promise to follow along shortly.
Fiona greeted Talenth cheerfully and her queen warbled a greeting in response. Out in the Weyr Bowl the dragonriders were already gathering, checking riding straps and firestone hooks carefully before patting their dragons and proceeding to the KitchenCavern for a last bit of warm food or klah.
Thread would fall today at Benden and over Keroon, south of Nuella's wherhold. The sun would be rising as the Thread started to fall, so the watch-whers would not be able to help.
The sun rose three hours earlier over Keroon than over Fort Weyr, which was why Fiona and the rest had woken in the still of night.
She grabbed a spare mug and poured it full of klah, gulping the liquid as quickly as she could in spite of the heat. "Good morning, weyrwoman," Ellor, Fort Weyr's headwoman greeted her. Fiona nodded. "Everything ready?"
Ellor smiled. "We'll be setting up the tables out in the Bowl as soon as it's light." A cough, sickly and huge in the night air, reverberated around the Weyr, followed by another and another.
"We've eighteen for certain with the cough," Cisca said as she entered the Bowl and spotted Fiona.
"Didn't we have more?" Fiona asked in surprise. For three Turns back in time, Fiona had been able to forget about the sickness that had been killing the dragons. She hadn't realized until now how much of a relief that had been for her.
"We did; they went between or died," Cisca told her bleakly. "And more took their place."
Without the dragons, Pern would be defenseless against Thread. With nothing to flame the Thread into char before it reached the surface, the live Thread would suck the life out of everything that grew, including humans. If the sickness couldn't be curedsoon, they would all die.
"I think we've got more," Tintoval, the new Weyr Healer added as she entered the Kitchen and repeated Fiona's action of grabbing a mug and filling it with steaming klah. She nodded to Fiona and Cisca in greeting, before continuing grimly, "I haven't beenable to identify them, nor have I heard anything more from Benden about a cure."
"We're set for firestone," Fiona reported. She had directed a work party the day before in filling the sacks in preparation for the Fall. "They'll fly out with three sacks each."
Cisca nodded. "K'lior said that he'd detail a wing to bring more when needed."
"I've got Terin and some of the younger weyrfolk assigned to help with the loading."
"Good," Cisca said. She turned to the Weyr Bowl, downed her klah, refilled the mug, and headed out. Fiona followed her.
The dark chill air absorbed most sounds and added an eeriness to the preparations.
Cisca found K'lior and passed the mug to him. He took it with a grateful look, downed it, and continued on his way, stopping to converse with one rider, patting another on the back, checking the harness of yet a third, passing up firestone sacks to a fourth.
Without prompting, Fiona followed suit, cheerfully greeting those she knew from Igen Weyr and politely encouraging those she knew only barely.
Even with the dragons of Igen, there were so few. F'jian led a wing of his own, J'gerd and J'keran flew as wingseconds in older wings.
H'nez flew with K'rall as his wingsecond. "I can always use an experienced hand, particularly with these young hotshots," K'rall had declared when K'lior had made the announcement.
"Good luck, bronze rider," Fiona called to H'nez as she passed quickly by. She might not like him, but she didn't wish him ill; Pern needed all its riders.
H'nez was surprised by her kindness and returned with stiff awkwardness, "Thank you, weyrwoman."
"Fly safe, old man!" Fiona called more cheerfully to K'rall when she spotted him.
"I will, weyrwoman, count on it!" K'rall's bass voice boomed across the Bowl. No less loudly, he added, "I've been promising Seyorth a mating flight soon, and I wouldn't want to let him down!"