Willow sighed darkly. There was a clutch on the sands, with a queen egg, and all the candidates were... well, if Willow were that gold, she certainly wouldn't have picked any of them. She leaned against the cool, sparkling bronze hide beside her, feeling intimately the connection between herself and Rayenth. The dragon curled around his wedge shaped head and nudged her arm. She smiled and reached up, scratching his neck ridges underneath the thick, sturdy riding straps.
She was a bronzerider. The highest ranking male dragon, the highest ranking rider except the queen. Well, type of rider, the Weyrleader and his Wingleaders had higher ranks than she, the only female bronzerider in recorded history. They were making her go out on Search. There was a clutch on the sands, barely a female candidate of quality to be found, and they said no one could be spared... but Ellira and Beth could have gone. The blonde was forever ditching her chores around the Weyr; she even avoided flying Fall when she could. Green Beth was just as bad, bullying the firelizards and drudges into bringing her meat when she couldn't be bothered to go kill a wherry or two herself.
Not only that, but she'd had Rayenth for three Turns now, and still he hadn't flown a single female, not even a green. Not even lazy Beth. Willow had mixed feelings about that. Part of her was relieved that she didn't have to wake up next to Ellira or any other post-proddy woman. But her bronze's reputation had suffered, he was known as the weakest bronze, even a brown had outflown him last time for Kishandra's Narenth.
With a bitter sigh, Willow gripped the straps around Rayenth's broad neck and swing herself up to settle between his last two neck ridges. Her first stop on Search - the chore of finding Candidates to stand on the sands while the dragons were hatching, usually relegated to blues and greens, and the occasional low ranking brownrider - was Fort Hold, the main hold beholden to Fort Weyr.
Come on, Rayenth. I don't want to do this any more than you do, be swamped by foolish Holders and hero worshipped... but the sooner we go, the sooner it's over. Maybe we'll find someone halfway decent this time.
Rayenth grunted in his draconic way, almost seeming to nod. Yes, Mine. Sooner done, sooner sunning on my ledge.
Willow giggled. Is that all you ever think about, love? Sunning and wherries?
No. I also think about that nice cool lake just down the mountain.
I stand corrected. Willow smiled as Rayenth pushed himself off the ledge in front of their weyr, powerful wing muscles carrying them out and up to soar above Fort Weyr. She reveled in this feeling of weightlessness, the whole world stretched before her and reachable within minutes, seconds even. She could go anywhere, do anything, free from the responsibilities and constraints of Weyr life. But then, if not for Weyr life, she couldn't have Rayenth, and she wouldn't give him up for anything in the world.
She shook her head, clearing it of extraneous thought and feeling. Clearly, she pictured the noon sky above Fort Hold, and directed Rayenth to take them between.
Willow would have gasped as the deep, bone-chilling cold of between made itself known, but the dark not-place was also airless. There was no sun, no light, no warmth, and though it was only where they were traveling between destinations, no longer than three heartbeats at any time, it felt like an eternity. Willow clung to the clear image in her mind and the leather straps in her hands, even though she couldn't feel them. If she lost the image for even a moment, she and Rayenth could be lost in the cold dark of between forever. She counted off the heartbeats, one, two, three, and then they were out. Together, she and her lifemate, her bonded Rayenth, burst out of between over Fort Hold. The dragon beneath her let out a loud bugle, announcing their arrival and identifying them to the watchdragon, an old blue by the name of Zuralth. Extending his wings, Rayenth caught the updraft with his sails, using it to glide slowly down to the great, grassless courtyard in front of the hold.
Tara winced as the heavy pot fell, splashing hot, but luckily not boiling, water all over the floor. She sighed and bent, picking it up carefully with now lightly scalded hands and righted it, setting it gingerly on the floor as she reached for the waterskin to refill and reboil the water for the evening's stew.
You would have thought she was a drudge. She worked in the kitchens, carried herself hunched over and looking at the ground, trying to remain inconspicuous. In actuality, she was the second daughter of Lord Holder Malleck, the man in charge of running Fort Hold. She remembered the day her elder sister, Yanna, had gotten married. She'd married well, as everyone knew she would. She was beautiful, long silky dark hair and matching eyes, pale skin unblemished from a drudge's work.
Not like Tara. Her hair was a nondescript shade of light, ashy brown, her skin too dark from being out in the heat of the sun, her eyes pale, almost colourless, not dark and vibrant like her sisters', and her hands were roughened from the work she immersed herself in to get away from her father.
He wasn't a cruel man, nor a heartless one. But something in Tara was too gentle for him. She wanted to do ridiculous things like take care of the watchwher when it was ill, despite knowing that it would attack her. It hadn't, much to everyone's surprise. Still, Malleck had thrashed her for it.
"Tara, Tara! Come see this! There's a dragon out on Search, and it's a bronze! With a female rider!" A little girl, Malleck's sixth and youngest child, came tearing into the kitchens.
Tara blanched. She'd heard of the mysterious redheaded woman who'd Impressed a bronze. No one knew why she was on the stands that day, she wasn't a queen candidate, but all of the dragons had insisted she be there. She remained an enigma, and most people resented her for usurping the rank that should have belonged to a man. "Nimme, you mean Willow?"
Nimme nodded. "She just landed. She's searching for candidates for the queen egg! Come on, maybe you'll get Searched!" Nimme may have been just ten, but she was no fool. She knew that Tara, her most beloved sister, didn't belong in the Hold. As a Holder's daughter, she should have been harsh, ruling those under her with an iron fist. But she showed no interest in that, instead spending what free time she had either roaming outside or hiding away in the kitchens.
With an indulgent smile, Tara slipped the waterskin back onto it's peg and followed the little whirlwind of a girl out of the kitchens and up through the maze of tunnels into the great dining hall, where the bronzerider, easily picked out from the others by her wherhide riding gear, was striding confidently around in a manner no hold woman would ever take on. She was looking around at the people assembled in the hall, trying to ascertain who would be worthy of standing on the sands during a Hatching.
Bright, sparkling green eyes danced with merriment as Willow scanned the crowd of holders and drudges, half of them hoping to be chosen, the rest of them afraid of it. Tara sighed wearily, not allowing herself to hope that she might be taken away from the drudgery of hold life. She'd hoped before, only to be sorely disappointed.
Tara closed her eyes, drifting into fantasy for a moment. She was in the world she always placed herself in at night, in that half awake period just before slumber. Tara could feel the wind throwing her long hair back, feel the powerful muscles rolling between her thighs as she rode a dragon, her own lifemate, soaring through a cloudless sky. There were others, other riders, scattered around her, flecking the sky with drops of colour. She could look down and run her hands over the smooth, shining golden hide... she gasped; the sound echoed through the hall.
Wincing, Tara looked down and shuffled her feet. Her emotions battled within her, somewhere between shock at the strange way her fantasy had gone - her dragon had always been blue or green before, one of the smaller, more modest colours - and embarrassment at disturbing everyone. When she heard footsteps approaching, a stride she didn't recognize and so therefore must be Willow, the bronzerider, she kicked herself inwardly. Now she'd get raked over the coals in front of everyone, as well as the thrashing she was sure to get later from her father.
Two fingers reached out and lifted her head. Green eyes bored into her own crystalline blue. An age of silence reigned over the crowd in the hall. Moments passed, and then Willow nodded, seemingly to herself. Her eyes glazed over for a moment, and then she shook the look free. "Yes, Rayenth agrees. You'll do." Willow turned to face the holders that had backed off several paces. "I'm afraid I've found just one person suitable for this Hatching. She'll be coming with me. Send a couple of drudges to get her things - just a change of clothes, maybe a gather dress, she won't need much. And warm blankets."
Malleck's face clouded over with something between rage and wonder. He nodded to a woman on his left who whispered to two drudges of indistinct gender, or any real description aside from 'dusty', shuffled off. Then the Lord Holder's powerful voice boomed through the hall.
"Everyone who has not been Searched, return to your duties!" He didn't wait to see if the holders followed his command; he knew they would. Quickly, he stalked over to where Willow and Tara stood. "You will take my daughter from me?"
Tara gasped at her father's rudeness. No one spoke to a dragonrider that way. Willow merely smiled, however. "She is your daughter? You should be proud then. She will be a candidate for the queen egg, and Rayenth believes she has a decent chance of Impressing."
Impressing. Tara couldn't believe it. She really was being taken away from the hold. Carried off to Fort Weyr. On the back of a bronze, no less. Her father had never allowed her to attend a Hatching, though all of her siblings had been in the past, even little Nimme.
The cool, measured voice of her father broke through. "You will feast with us, and spend with us this night then?"
"I am afraid we cannot. The Hatching is imminent, and the candidates need time to familiarize themselves with the Weyr before Impression. Though I do thank you for your hospitality. Another time, perhaps?"
Malleck growled. He was either angry that his offer was refused, or relieved that his wayward daughter would be taken away immediately. Even he was unsure which. "Yes. Another time, you must grace us with your presence."
Willow rolled her eyes, not so subtly, and wrapped one arm around Tara's back, who still stood there, dumbfounded. "Ah, here come the drudges with her things." Indeed they had returned, carrying a smallish trunk between them. Recognizing it, Tara smiled. In it she kept her most precious things; a lock of hair from each of her siblings and her mother, a bundle of dried flowers her mother had given her, her first Gather dress given to her on her eleventh birthday by her mother. She imagined the drudges would have filled the remaining space with spare clothing and a dress that fit her. On top of the trunk were several blankets of varying colours.
Moments later, Tara stood out in the courtyard, beside the largest dragon she'd ever seen. He was four times as tall as she at the shoulders, and fifteen or sixteen times as long if she lay down beside him. Tara wondered what his wingspan must be. She reached out tentatively and patted the smooth, shining patch of hide beside her. When Rayenth didn't move to object, she smiled and began to scratch him. He made a low crooning sound, half closing his eyes, whirling a serene blue colour.
"He likes that!" Willow laughed, smiling at Tara. She paused. "Hey, I never got your name." She held out her hand. "I'm Willow, rider of bronze Rayenth." She smiled absently, leaning against the bronze.
Tara blushed and looked down. "He's very nice. I'm T-Tara, second d-daughter of Malleck of F-Fort Hold." She clasped her hands tightly in front of her. Willow just smiled, reaching down and grabbing her trunk. Grimacing, she heaved it up onto Rayenth's back, strapping it down tightly. She pulled off the blankets and held them out to Tara.
"Here, you'll want these. It gets pretty damn cold between, and while they won't help you there, you'll warm up faster once we get out." Tara nodded and wrapped them around herself. She looked up worriedly at the back of the dragon that seemed to loom above her.
Willow slipped her hands into the straps and swung herself up to rest between Rayenth's last two neck ridges. Then she reached down to help Tara up. Rayenth, love, would you bend your foreleg for her?
Certainly, Mine. I like her, she's nice. Rayenth bent a little, turning his leg into a step up for Tara. She smiled and scratched his side again in thanks before stepping up. Willow grinned and swung her around to rest behind her.
"Hold on tight, Tara. I don't have any extra riding straps for you." Tara barely had time to slip her arms around Willow's small waist before Rayenth launched into the air. Tara was exhilarated; it was almost exactly as she'd fantasized and dreamed so many times. She could feel the dragon's muscles bunching and rolling beneath her, feel the wind tossing her hair around. She fought the temptation to let go of Willow and fling her arms out.
Rayenth carried them higher, higher, and then, between. It was a warm day, and Tara was shocked at the innate cold of between. It wasn't even cold, it was an utter lack of any sort of warmth. She couldn't feel Willow, though she knew the rider was there. She couldn't feel anything except a burning sort of frozenness. She would have shivered, but found that moving was entirely pointless in the infinity of between.
Then they were out. Rayenth bugled happily, announcing their presence and passing on the word to the other dragons that they brought a candidate. Tara moved one hand from around Willow's waist and pulled the blankets more tightly around her. With a happy smile, she looked down on Fort Weyr below her, looked forwards at the rider in front of her. Below, people were pouring out of the Lower Caverns to welcome the new candidate. There was no rejection or fear or even dislike in the atmosphere, and the skies around were dotted with dragons. Tara smiled broadly. She was home.