Other people, all younger than her but wearing the same white robes of candidacy, flooded onto the sands. Dragons flew into the upper levels, carrying passengers from prestigious Holds and Halls. Tara couldn't see her father, and she wasn't surprised. She backed up a hundred paces from the eggs and watched, dumbstruck, as all the other candidates formed a loose semicircle around the eggs.
They waited. Two eggs were rocking, now three, but no more. The entirety of the cavern was silent as they waited with bated breath for the first dragonet to emerge, wet, weak and hungry, into the world of Pern. The silence began to grow oppressive, even through the dull humming that faded so easily into the background. Tara felt her earlier awareness double, then triple, and soon it had grown tenfold to immerse the whole of the Hatching Ground in a bubble of sensation that pressed against her.
Smells, sounds, everything took on a unique and oddly intimidating quality. Though her eyes were trained upon the gold tinted egg near the center of the clutch, she could see all of them peripherally. Abruptly, the humming stopped, leaving an empty quiet. Then, with a sound that would have been almost unheard anywhere else, the first dragon broke it's shell.
It spilled out onto the hot sand, creeling piteously. Even through the dampness, a bronzy shimmer could be seen. A great cheer went up from the watching crowd, and the silence was well and truly broken.
Whatever spell was on Tara seemed to shatter too. Though she remained hyperaware, she found herself able to break her gaze from the glistening queen egg. Another cracked, and another, and then there were three dragonets stumbling around, trying to find the one who should be theirs.
The first, the bronze, stumbled forwards and landed on the feet of a little boy who appeared to be about fourteen or so. With a gasp, he knelt before the young dragon, smiling joyously. "His name is Gulineth!" Ecstatic, he threw his arms around the creature and led it outside, never taking his eyes from the young bronze's.
Tara turned her head to her right and saw another small dragonet, a green, reach up with one clawed finger and paw at the robes of one of the girls. "Sapphith! Her name's Sapphith!" She too led the young one out, off the Hatching Grounds and into the Weyr Bowl where platters of meat awaited the hungry hatchlings.
Dragonet and rider were paired off, one by one, amidst raucous cheers and screams of new names and tears of joy. Rieundoth, one was called, and there was another named Cearth. "Kitteth!" one young boy called. "Smuth!" was another. "Netesath!" "Seboreth!" Soon, even the names were lost in the entrancing power of the moment.
Then the queen egg shook. Once, twice, then it violently rocked, so hard it nearly fell from the pile of sand it rested on. With an iridescent sparkle, it shattered, revealing a sparkling, damp queen dragonet. Tara bit her lip, hard, fighting not to fall to her knees from the sheer beauty of the moment. Tears seeped from the corners of her eyes, but she paid them no heed.
The little queen stumbled awkwardly forwards with a heartwrenching keen. One toe caught on the edge of her wing, causing the crowd to take in a collective gasp, hardly daring to breathe. Everyone seemed too petrified to do anything as the gold sat there, mewing and bleating in pain and fear.
Finally, it was too much for Tara. She broke the circle, throwing herself forwards. Carefully, unaware of the outright stares from the candidates and spectators, she made her way around broken shells to the side of the little queen. The small creature looked up at her, eyes whirling an agitated shade of yellow-orange, and let out another anxious sound, something Tara would almost have described as a draconic sob.
Tara tutted in her throat. "Shh... come on little one, I'm not going to hurt you." She kept her tone low and soothing as she reached slowly towards the miniscule dragonet. Gingerly, she lifted the little gold's toe from the tiny snag in her wing, resting one hand lightly, comfortingly on her back as she did so.
A tiny voice, clear and bell like, sounded within Tara's mind. Thank you. With those two simple words came a flood of emotions. Everything was suddenly bright and new again; the heat was twice as intense, the light was harsh and yet somehow thrilling instead of painful. She felt a stab of pain in a wing that was not hers, a sense of deep hunger and a raw sort of joy at finding the one she was meant to be connected to.
Through it all one feeling reigned supreme; that she would never be alone. Tara felt utterly complete and content in that moment, in spite of the pain and hunger she felt from the little dragonet at her side. The perfection of their unity was blinding. Tara hadn't been aware how alone, how empty she was before finding this beautiful creature. She felt a dozen or more of her insecurities fall away as she basked in the glow of faultless Impression.
The small part of her that retained coherency screamed for attention, and slowly, reluctantly, she was drawn out of the sudden joy she felt. Tara felt a smile split her tear streaked face when she realized the feeling would never fully dissipate, and she would always have her dragonet with her. She shook it off for the moment. "Numbweed! I need numbweed!" She cried out as the pain she was receiving from the little gold intensified. Someone brought a small jar of the numbing solution, which Tara applied liberally to the young queen's wound. It made her fingers tingle into unfeeling.
Thank you. That hurt. I don't like hurt. The young dragon's voice was plaintive, like a child's. Tara felt her heart swell with love for her.
What is your name, little one? Tara smiled down at her lifemate.
I am Naliath. Is there food? My stomach feels very empty. Tara nodded, laughing happily now through the residue of emotion on her face, and drew Naliath away from the crowd that was waiting for the last three eggs to hatch. Carefully cradling the gold's wing, Tara led her out into the light of the Weyr Bowl, harshly bright after the muted orange hue inside the Hatching Grounds.
As they approached the table laden with meat, Willow stalked up to them, smiling jovially. "Hello. Shells, I'm glad to see I picked the right person out to stand here!" She reached out and rested her hand on Tara's shoulder. The new rider looked at her, confused.
"What... shouldn't you be inside?" She barely heeded the fact that her stutter had disappeared.
Willow shook her head, smiling at Tara. Already she felt a vague sort of attraction to the younger woman, and was happy to hear her speak without hesitation. "No. I'm the Weyrlingmaster. You'll be under my command for the next year and a half."
Tara smiled. She didn't know Willow well at all, but she was the closest thing Tara had to a friend in the Weyr. The redhead nudged a pot of oil over to Tara, observing that her dragonet's feeding was beginning to slow. "What's her name?"
"Hmm? Oh. Naliath." Tara smiled, tasting the word on her lips for the first time. "Naliath."
Willow's grin grew wider. "Lovely name. She's a pretty one, that's for sure. Well, when Naliath is finished eating, she'll want to be oiled. That is, you take the paddle and use it to rub the oil in the jar into her hide. Then you can take her in there," she gestured across the Bowl towards the Weyrling barracks, "and claim whatever area you want that hasn't been occupied yet. You'll be living there until you've learned how to fly, probably in eight or nine months. Not for a while yet, anyway. She'll want to sleep just about right away, and you probably will too. Impression is an amazing experience, but a tiring one." With that, Willow turned away from Tara and towards the head of the group, now including two more new pairs. It was obvious that no more were coming.
Tara bent and picked up the jar of oil and the small paddle that was attached to it. Swiftly, she began to smooth it over Naliath's hide.
Willow repeated the instructions she'd given Tara to the group as a whole, and then, smilingly, added "And I'll see you all out here tomorrow. Before the base of the sun rounds the horizon. You'll find that dragons can also make very handy alarms. Whatever job of oiling you do today will be fine, but tomorrow you'll perform the task under my eye, so I can ensure you're taking proper care of your dragon. You don't want his or her hide to split while between, and proper oiling will ensure that it doesn't."
As Tara led Naliath over to the Weyrling barracks, followed by several of the other new weyrling pairs, Willow swung herself up once more onto Rayenth's back. Love, take me to the lake, would you? Rayenth made a general sound of affirmation and launched himself from the ground.
Moments later, Willow stood on a rock outcropping that jutted over a deep area near the edge of the lake, skipping stones over the otherwise serene surface. She remembered her own Impression, the shock and joy of finding that not only was she worthy of a dragon - it would have been impossible for her to Impress if she was not - but she was to be bonded with a bronze, something no other female had ever done. They barely ever even Impressed browns! Somehow, the ridicule she'd faced because of it, all of the people telling her she was a man, she'd usurped the place that should have been theirs, or their friend's, or their son's... she shook her head.
She wouldn't give up Rayenth for a thousand Threadfree worlds. Dropping the last of her stones into the water by her feet, Willow turned and walked slowly off the rocks and down to the flat, sandy beach. Rayenth... I love you. She approached her dragon slowly and knelt before him, curling herself into the crook of his forearm where he lay in a patch of sun.
He stretched out his wing just a little, hugging Willow close to him. I know, Mine. I love you too.
Rayenth gave a deep rumble and a soft keen, and Willow sighed. Faith was gone. She couldn't be sad about it, however. The poor thing had been wanting to go for days. She could only be glad that she was at peace.