Even though Lorana cured the plague that was killing the dragons of Pern, sacrificing her queen dragon in the process, the effects of the disease were so devastating that there are no longer enough dragons available to fight the fall of deadly Thread. And as the situation grows more dire, a pregnant Lorana decides that she must take drastic steps in the quest for help.
Meanwhile, back at Telgar Weyr, Weyrwoman Fiona, herself pregnant, and the harper Kindan must somehow keep morale from fading altogether in the face of the steadily mounting losses of dragons and their riders. But time weighs heavily against them until Lorana finds a way to use time itself in their favor.
It’s a plan fraught with risk, however. For attempting time travel means tampering with the natural laws of the universe, which could drastically alter history and destiny forever. Or so it has always been thought. But Lorana discovers that if the laws of time can’t be broken without consequences, it may still be possible to bend them. To ensure the future of Pern, she’s willing to take the fateful chance even if it demands another, even greater, sacrifice.
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The way forward is dark and long. A dragon gold is only the first price you’ll pay for Pern.
Cold. Black. Silent.
Between. That strange nothingness where dragons can go that can only be described as “between one place and another.”
“Between only lasts as long as it takes to cough three times.” For a short journey, yes. For a journey from one place to another, anywhere on Pernyes, three coughs is enough. But when traveling between one time and anotherit takes longer. A cold, silent, freezing longer that saps life.
Lorana felt nothing, not the warmth of the queen dragon beneath her, not even the tiny, tender presence that warmed her womb.
I’m sorry! Lorana cried, her hand going to her belly. There was no other way!
Pern was dying, there were too few dragons and riders to protect it from Thread. Slowly, steadily, inexorably, the protection of Pern was being eroded, was dying out. The dragonriders, including Weyrleader T’mar, Weyrwoman Fiona, and all the Weyrleaders of the four other Weyrs, had tried their best, had developed new tactics, had kept adapting, kept striving, kept searching for some way out of their trap. But the problem was that there were too few dragons, less than a third the number required, and more were being lost each Fall.
The dragons’ numbers were so few because of the strange sickness that had come upon them just before the start of this new Pass of the Red Star. Lorana, with Kindan’s stout aid, had succeeded in finding help from the distant past and that help had led them to a cure for the sickness. In the meantime, however, too many dragons had succumbed to the sicknessand more to Threadleaving too few dragons to protect the planet. In desperation, because no one could conceive of getting further help from the past, Lorana had decided to jump forward in time, to jump ahead to a time after the Third Pass and beg for aid from the future.
She was the only one with a sure sense of time and placea gift, she thought, from her special link with all the dragons of Pernand only she could make the journey forward to such an unknown, unseen time. She used the Red Star to guide her, picturing it and the stars in their stations where they would be fifty Turns from her present.
Using her gift came at a price, however. A jump of this length would be a terrible strain on her and gold Minith. But it would be fatal to the life stirring inside her.
Lorana wailed silently. Go back! she urged herself. Go back before it’s too late.
I can’t, she decided a moment later. It’s too late. I’m all alone.
I’m here! Minith called to her feebly, her touch full of support. You are not alone.
Lorana made no reply. She knew she couldn’t explain herself to the gold dragon, to a queen who laid eggs.
Everything I’ve loved, I’ve lost, Lorana thought to herself, letting her hand slip, unfelt, unfeeling, from her belly.
I’ve lost my own queen, my beloved fire-lizards, and now . . . She couldn’t finish the thought.
Tears froze on her cheeks, her heart beat at a slow, glacial pace, as the cold of between sapped her strength, her life.
And stilled the life of the other inside her.
A dragon gold is only the first price . . .
The cold between gripped her and she knew no more.
Lorana closed her eyes in a spasm of pain. She was in a bed, in a nightgown. Fearful, her hands went to her bellyit was flat, lifeless.
“You lost the baby,” a voice said. It was old, hoarse with age, but somehow familiar. “But you knew that. You planned on it.”
Tullea. Benden’s Weyrwoman, Minith’s rightful rider.
Minith? Lorana called.
I am here, the queen responded quickly. There was no echo to her voice: no sign that an older Minitha Minith of this future timehad heard her call.
“Don’t,” Tullea warned harshly. “You are still too weak. I wasn’t sure that you wanted to live yourself.” She paused for a moment, then added, “Perhaps you didn’t, really.”
“Where am I? Is the Pass over?” Lorana asked, her eyes still closed. Her mouth was dry; her voice was slurred and felt awkward.
“The Pass is over,” Tullea affirmed. “That much I’ll tell you and no more.”
“Help?” Lorana said. She realized that word wasn’t enough and, after another breath, asked, “Will you send help?”
“Dragons from the future?” Tullea said. “Simple, quick, efficient! Oh, yes, no worries for those left behind.” She snorted and added viciously, “Oh, no! No, dragon-stealer, you won’t find any dragons in the future.”
“None?” Lorana opened her eyes only to find the room completely dark.
“None for you,” Tullea snapped back. “You were always meddling when you should have left things alone.”
“Where’s B’nik?” Lorana asked.
“Where’s his jacket?” Tullea retorted. She barked a bitter laugh. “Between, that’s where! Where you left it!”
Lorana wondered for a moment if the old queen rider had gone insane.
“Where you must go, now!” Tullea went on, and Lorana gasped as, abruptly, the blankets were pulled off her. “Get up, your things are over there!”
“ButI want to talk”
“You’ve talked enough!” Tullea snapped, grabbing Lorana’s hand and feebly pulling on it. “You’re well enough to travel; it’s timelong timeyou were gone.” Tullea seemed to think her last comment funny and let out another bitter laugh.
The faintest of glows, smaller than any Lorana had ever seen, was turned. It provided only a dim light, which revealed bare stone walls, the rude blanket thrown over her, and the rough, reed bed beneath her. And Tulleaold, bent, white-haired, almost unrecognizable.
“Take my dragon with you, dragon-stealer!” Tullea said, throwing clothes toward her.
“Can’t I talk to anyone?”
“What makes you think there’s anyone to talk to?” Tullea asked sharply.
Lorana started to answer, then stretched her senses, searching for someone, for a dragon or even a watch-wher, but
Slap! Her cheek was suddenly aflame with stinging pain.
“Don’t do that!” Tullea barked. “Don’t make me remember!” She shoved Lorana. “Get dressed, get going! Now!”
Shocked and depressed, Lorana wordlessly slipped back into her riding clothes. Her undergarments were unwashed; they smelled of sweat and the fear she’d felt when she’d made this journey to the future.
So far. She’d come so far. She’d given so much.
“Get moving!” Tullea hustled her along. “Time enough to think later.”
“Please, we need help,” Lorana said even as Tullea nudged her. They walked down a slope on a cloudy, starless night. She heard more then saw Minith in the distance.
“You’ll have to fly high and south to get above the clouds and see the Red Star,” Tullea told her as she tried to push Lorana up onto the gold dragon. “Be quick about it! I want to have as much time with my dragon as I can!”
Lorana found herself perched on Minith, wondering if the poor gold queen had been wearing the riding harness the whole time Lorana had been a babbling wreck in bed. Had she even been fed?
“Of course she was fed!” Tullea declared irritably. “Now, go! Go back where you belong!” She barked another dry laugh. “The Red Star will guide you, just as it did when you came here!”
Without another word, Tullea turned away, heading back up toward the cave from which they’d emerged. Lorana watched her in the dim light, frowning. Wasn’t there anything she could do?
“Go!” Tullea wailed.
Come on, Minith, let’s go, Lorana said sadly to the queen. In a moment they were airborne, climbing toward the clouds. As they rose higher, the clouds thinned and she could see the Red Star faintly through the breaks.
She brought the image of Red Butte into her mind with stars, moons, and the Red Star to mark the time, thankful for the very small favor of Tullea’s, and gave Minith the coordinates.
All this way, she thought to herself as they entered the cold of between. Involuntarily her hands went to her belly. Her cold, flat, lifeless belly. All for nothing!
Tullea turned back when she heard the sound of Minith going between. Her shoulders slumped and she let out a deep, regretful sigh.
Minith, tell her it’s done, Tullea thought, stretching her mind into between in the special way she’d been taught.
A moment later the air was full of the sound of dragon wings. A pale yellow specter, a ghost of the young fertile queen who’d been here just moments before, landed daintily in front of her with the grace of long years.
Beside her, another queen landed. And another.
“Stay there!” Tullea called up to the two queen riders. “I want to get back to the Weyr and feel some warmth in my bones.”
“How did she take it?” the older of the two riders asked, her face bleak with sorrow.
“Just like you said she would,” Tullea snapped waspishly. For a moment her habitual mask slipped and she asked, “Why couldn’t I have told her? Why did I have to be a monster to her?”
“Because that’s what she said,” the woman replied. Her hair was mostly white with only a few streaks of blond left in it, but her eyes were still the sea green blue they’d always been. “She said that you were horrible to her, gave her not one moment’s kindness.” She paused and added, “Nor one clue.”
“So she’ll never know,” Tullea mused to herself. “She never found out.”
“No,” Fiona replied sadly. “She never had a chance to learn how you’d changed.” She smiled at the older woman. “But I did.”
Tullea snorted in disbelief.
“Why do you think I insisted on that glow?” Fiona asked.
“Because Lorana said that’s what there was,” Tullea said.
“Because if there’d been more light, she would have seen your face clearly,” Fiona told her.
“So?” Tullea barked. “It’s old, it’s creased.” Her tone changed as the feeble spark of anger in her dimmed. “I’ve lived a long life; I’m ready for my rest. We go back to the Weyr, I say my farewells, and you keep your part of the bargain.”
“Of course,” Fiona agreed.
Tullea mounted, moving slowly with care for her old bones even as she cursed her age. It was time, she thought to herself. She’d seen enough, lived enough. It was time.
Before she urged Minith back to the Weyr, she turned to Fiona. “What about the light?”
“The lines in your face,” Fiona said by way of explanation. “They’re not lines of sorrow. If she’d seen them, she’d have known.”
“Oh,” Tullea replied. Her face grew brighter and she shot the younger woman a smile as she added more emphatically, “Oh!”
It was only when they were back in the Weyr, when Fiona was helping Tullea down off the aged Minith, that the older Weyrwoman had time again to think of what she’d done.
“Will you ever tell her?” she asked without hope.
“About you?” Fiona asked sadly. At the old woman’s nod, she shook her head. “No, I never knew. Never knew until it was too late.”
“Pity,” Tullea said. She glanced toward the clouds and the night sky, which threatened rain later. “I would have liked for her to know.” She snorted. “It’s the least I could do, for all that she’s done.”
Above them, the sky was torn open as wing after wing of dragons appeared overhead and spiraled down gracefully into the Weyr below.
“Don’t tell him at least,” Tullea pleaded as she glanced upward at the returning dragons, with Benden’s Weyrleader in the vanguard.
“That his mother was here tonight?” Fiona asked, looking over toward the Benden Weyrleader. “Or how surprised she’d be to know that he’s partnered with your daughter?”
A streak of light burst from the Dining Cavern and a young form raced into sight, stopping with sudden concern for Tullea’s old bones.
The dark-haired little boy looked up at Tullea and she knelt down.
“I’m too old to pick you up, you know,” she said as she drew him into a great hug. “I think I’ll miss you most of all.”
The boy looked at her in confusion, his dark brown eyes were deep and thoughtful, slanted just slightly and shrouded by the thick dark hair that made him the near-twin of his great-grandmother.
“He’d be proud, you know,” Fiona spoke up quietly from Tullea’s side, with a brief tilt of her head toward Benden’s Weyrleader.
“I’ll have to be proud enough for all of them,” Tullea replied, her eyes spangled with tears.
Again Lorana was numb, voiceless, shocked by the length of the cold between. She had followed Tullea’s image blindly, and so it came as a shock to realize that she and Minith seemed to be between for even longer than on their jump forward. Where was Tullea sending her?
Suddenly, as if in a clear instant, Lorana froze, thinking that she heard voices. She strained her senses, reached out, and caughtpanic, fear, despair!
A man’s voice cried out. And a woman’s, too. Fiona?
Lorana started to worry that she had jumped blindly between forever, like D’gan and the Telgar riders, and that perhaps she was hearing Fiona’s voice calling for her. She tried to reach out, to touch Fiona, to find her and then
She burst forth into a cold night sky. It felt as cold as between, and as darkexcept she could see a spattering of stars in the sky and a small light below.
She realized suddenly where she wasshe had drawn a picture of it once long agoRed Butte, the massive uprising of rock in the center of the Keroon Plains. Minith, without urging, began a slow, steady spiral down toward the light.
It was a campfire, warm and inviting. Lorana saw one figure rise from beside it before exhaustion overtook her once more and even that small light went dark.
“The soup is warm, you should sip it slowly,” a young man’s voice said. A hand covered her eyes briefly as he added quickly, “Don’t open your eyes until you’ve sat up, or you’ll stare straight into the sun!”
Lorana was lying on the ground, its rock-hardness eased by a layer of soft cushions, perhaps a pile of reeds. She sat up slowly and opened her eyes.
An earnest young man smiled at her, proffering a steaming bowl of soup.
Thirsty, cold, and fatigued, Lorana took the bowl and drank a quick, small sip.
“It’s good!” she said, taking a longer drink.
“Finish it, I’ll get more,” the young man offered, pointing at a large cauldron resting on the side of a neat ring of rocks.
Lorana gladly complied. At the man’s gesture, she handed him the bowl and he scooted over to the cauldron to dip out another serving. He coughed once and shook his head with a frown.