As they spiraled lazily down to the great Weyr bowl, Willow began to introduce Tara to the basics of Weyr life. "First Lanora will take you to the candidate barracks. She's the headwoman of the Lower Caverns, and our candidate master. Today all you'll really be doing is wandering around and familiarizing yourself with the Weyr. It can be a little intimidating at first, but the people here are really friendly, and everyone understands that you'll be a little freaked. Though, you might want a bath and to change your clothes. If that's the case, just tell Lanora and she'll take you to the bath and sweetsand."
Tara looked down between them at her own still damp, dusty and work-worn outfit, biting her lip at the sharp contrast between her dirty self and Willow's nearly immaculate garb. She sighed, knowing she wouldn't be able to spend much time with the bronzerider. Willow would certainly have duties to perform, as would she. "W-what about you?"
"Hmm? Oh, I'll be drilling. Practicing with firestone. After I drop you off, I've got to go Search again. There might be a couple of other holds with people who might make decent candidates."
Swallowing her disappointment, Tara nodded. "I g-guess I'll have some c-chores to do?"
"Yep. You'll be on rotation with the rest of the candidates; kitchen duty, caring for the dragons of the riders who are sick or injured enough so they can't do it themselves, stuff like that. It's really not that hard, you just have to get into the rhythm."
They touched down. Willow slid artfully off of Rayenth's back and extended her hand towards Tara as the dragon again bent his leg to give her a step. She smiled and scratched his side again, receiving an appreciative croon from the large bronze as she jumped from his back with far less grace than the practiced rider. All too soon, it seemed, Willow released Tara's hand, making her wonder at the empty feeling in her palm.
"Lanora! I've brought you another candidate to beat around!" Tara's eyes widened and she seemed to shrink in on herself, dropping her head and letting her hair fall delicately over her face, blurring her image.
The headwoman walked up, smiling jovially, until her gaze lighted on the demure woman. "Well now. She's a bit on the shy side, isn't she? And old for a candidate. Why Willow, she's almost your age!"
Willow nodded ruefully. "Yes, she's almost twenty one Turns. But she's a good candidate, at least according to Rayenth, and… I don't know. She was out of place there." Lanora quirked an eyebrow, and Willow continued, shrugging. "I couldn't leave her there. Call it dragonrider's intuition. Can't imagine how she was overlooked so many times."
She shook her head, smiling amiably, and held out one hand to Tara. "Come on then dear. Looks like you could use a nice hot bath. Dragonriders aren't known for their patience when it comes to getting ready to leave the hold. They like to just grab you and go." She chuckled, a bright, cheery sound that pulled the corners of Tara's mouth up into a half-smile. She looked up a little and slipped her hand into the headwoman's. "Well there you are. Oh, you're a pretty one too. Be careful, those bronze and brownriders are only after one thing!" Lanora chuckled again.
Tara just looked confused. Lanora blanched. "What, twenty one turns and you've never…? Gathers? Visitations? Fosterlings?" When Tara shook her head, she sighed. "Well, I suppose that'll make it easier on you if you Impress. Can't sleep with anyone, you know, until your dragon's a full Turn old. It can damage them, because of your connection."
Tara just looked even more confused. "C-connection?"
"She speaks too!" Lanora smiled. "Yes, connection. You have a mental link with the dragon, you know. But you don't only talk to them through it, you share feelings, basic impressions, everything. That's why, when dragons rise in Flight, the riders get caught up in it too."
Tara's eyes widened in apprehension, and Lanora shook her head. "My my, you have been sheltered, haven't you? Well, no matter. We'll soon set you straight there." She smiled. "Come on now, we'll head off to the baths, and then I'll take you to see the eggs. They're quite hard now, should be hatching any day." She sighed bitterly. "Means we'll be losing Faith though. As soon as the Hatching's over, she'll between. Would have already, but Willow's Rayenth and J'net's Hearth kept her here. Now she's listless, poor thing."
"W-why? Why will the old q-queen go b-between?" Tara was shocked that the riders would simply let it happen.
Lanora eyed her curiously. "Kendra, her rider, died three days ago. Killed in a mine collapse." She waved a hand around at the people scurrying about their chores. "That's why everyone's a bit subdued. There's no fit queen at Fort now, just old Lanoth, and she's past clutching. We'll be having no clutches until the gold that shells from that queen egg out on the sands is mature enough to Rise."
Tara bit her lip and swallowed hard.
Willow slipped her fingers around the riding straps and heaved herself up onto Rayenth's outstretched neck. Come on, love. Let's go back to the weyr. Heavy wingbeats carried them up and away from the wide terrace of Half-Circleseahold, after another unsuccessful Search. She had three or four more Holds to Search tomorrow, but though the day was relatively young in the area around Fort Weyr, she was tired from betweening so much. Clearly in her mind she visualized the deep bowl and rocky cliffs that made up Fort Weyr and popped into the cold dark of between.
When they reemerged over the Weyr, she sat archly upon her lifemate. She was lost in thought he carried her down to the rock ledge before their weyr. Rayenth had never flown a green because he couldn't be bothered to try, and he had never flown a queen because… she wasn't sure why. Was it a fault of her beloved bronze, or was it simply that the queens always wanted to be caught by someone else? If the latter were the case, she would have a decent chance when the little dragonet in the gold-tinted egg hardening on the sands reached maturity. Could she entice Rayenth to go after a green in the meantime with more vigour? She was confident in his flying skills; he was one of the most agile of the larger dragons in her entire Wing of thirty-four, and better than most in the other Fighting Wings as well.
A sigh bubbled from her lips as Rayenth lighted on the stone terrace and she slipped down from him. Why did she have to be the only female bronzerider in all of Pern? No one took her seriously, even now that she was Weyrlingmaster. She knew she was capable of all the things other bronzeriders were; if she wasn't, she wouldn't have impressed Rayenth.
She let out a sigh, stripping off her riding gear and pulling on instead her everyday wear: thin-weave bell sleeved shirt, tight leather pants and matching short vest, and heavy boots. Most of the female riders wore skirts when not flying, but Willow couldn't stand them. Flopping backwards onto her bed, she stared at the faint rock formations in the ceiling of her weyr. Before long, however, she felt her tummy begin to rumble and she headed downstairs to grab herself a cup of klah before dinner. Maybe she'd see Tara at dinner, she seemed nice, and enough of the riders were out on sweeps that the meal would be an informal occasion at best.
Freshly clean and in dressed in a plain white, belted candidate's robe, the garb they were required to wear for visiting the eggs, Tara shuffled across the Weyrbowl behind Lanora. The great cavern that housed the hardening clutch loomed ahead of her, making her drag her feet. Without a doubt, she knew, when she stepped inside, there would be no turning back. She was torn; behind her was a life that, while not particularly happy or joyful, was decent enough and was familiar. Ahead of her was a life that was full of possibilities, most of which terrified and exhilarated her at the same time.
They approached the yawning entrance to the well-lit Hatching Ground and Lanora stepped aside, smiling kindly. "You go on from here, dear. Non candidates aren't allowed onto the sands until the Hatching."
Tara swallowed nervously, compulsively, staring at the gaping maw that threatened to gulp her into some wild, militaristic lifestyle that she wasn't entirely sure she was ready to accept. Nevertheless, she gathered her courage and stepped over the threshold, half expecting for the great gold dragon to rear up and lunge at her for daring to intrude upon her nest.
As soon as she was inside, the light seemed to open up the whole of the cavern to her. She could see clearly, straight across the sands to where the behemoth queen lay curled around her eggs, seeming to hover protectively over the largest, the one tinted gold, even though she lay quite firmly upon the hot sand. The dragon's hide was dull and flaking in what Tara imagined must be an incredibly itchy way, but she made no move to scratch. If she hadn't seen the faint blinking of the gold's - what was her name? Faith? - eyelids and the subtle movement of her chest that marked the draw of breath, she would have sworn she was a statue, or dead.
Gingerly placing one foot in front of the other, she slowly approached the eggs. All of Tara's senses seemed hyperaware, and her feet burned from the heat of the sands. They seemed to be getting warmer and warmer every moment, heating up faster than she approached the eggs. Then she was there. Smiling nervously up at Faith, she reached out and lightly ran her finger along one of the large oblongs.
Growing bolder from her movement, she stepped forwards, carefully approaching the queen egg. Faith turned her head sharply and stared at her, and Tara inhaled sharply. She fought the urge to look down and away, instead meeting the dragon's eyes and attempting to communicate her desire, just to caress, not to harm, the egg cradled near the queen. A dull vibration thrummed quietly in her ears; Tara barely noticed it as Faith turned away in acquiescence and she reached out to lightly brush her fingertips against the shining shell.
The humming sound grew louder, lulling Tara into a quiet sort of complaisance as well as moving her into some sort of action. She looked around confusedly as the sound pulsed and throbbed around her, becoming more and more insistent. Her eye lighted on one of the smaller eggs, near the outside of the cluster in the middle of the hot sands. It rocked, hard.
Mine. Mine, it is starting. The Hatching is starting.Rayenth's voice in Willow's mind was quiet, but insistent. She slammed down her half-empty mug of klah and stood up sharply, turning and dashing out of the kitchens.
She tore up the long stone steps to her weyr, questioning the bronze all the way. How long until the first shell cracks?
Not long. Fifteen, twenty minutes, perhaps. People are slow; they are only now becoming aware of the Hatching. It was true; from her vantage point halfway up the steps, Willow could see candidates scurrying off to their barracks, changing swiftly into plain white candidate's robes and rushing off to the Hatching Sands. Soon, Willow reached the top of the stair and her weyr. Dashing inside, she tore her shoulder knot, denoting her as Fort's Weyrlingmaster, from her riding gear and fastened it to her left shoulder. Then she tied her hair back and, trusting the gathering of the plates of meat for hungry hatchlings to the drudges, mounted Rayenth. It was time for a Hatching.