Mine! Thread falls north of the Weyr!
Willow sat bolt upright in bed. Thread? Now? But it wasn't supposed to fall until this afternoon!
Weather changes brought it on early. Hurry, Mine. We must join the wing...
Yes, yes of course. Willow threw herself out of bed, grabbing her riding gear from where she laid it out the previous night, on the chair near the entrance. Quickly, she tugged on the thick, protective leathers. Rayenth was already perched outside, waiting for Willow to finish dressing and fly down to the Bowl.
Love, tell the older Weyrlings to assemble, and they'd better all be there before I am. Tell the younger ones to gather at the eastern end of the Bowl, that's where the injured dragons will go. They'll be helping the Weyrhealer and Dragonhealer.
Rayenth made a smug noise. I've already done it, Mine.
Tearing out of her weyr, Willow launched herself astride Rayenth, riding straps in hand. He dropped off the ledge, carrying them quickly down to the waiting fighting wings.
Tara sat perfectly still. She was perched on the edge of her bed, staring in Naliath's direction without really seeing the gold. Ilirrie, Shannen and the rest of the female weyrlings were clustered around her, trying to get her attention.
She'd been standing when the news came, imminent Threadfall near the Weyr. She'd frozen, her features the picture of shock. And then the news came that the leading edge was north of the Weyr and moving south, towards the water. It didn't look like it would fall right over the Weyr itself, passing a little to the east. Tara had... collapsed, onto the edge of her bed. That was fifteen minutes ago, and she hadn't moved since, not even to blink. Only the slight rise and fall of her chest indicated that she was alive at all.
Her thoughts were moving too quickly to comprehend anything outside of her mind. Threadfall, Tara's worst fear, and so close. Since Winnie's death, she'd been terrified of the thin white filaments. Strange, they appeared so innocuous, and were so incredibly deadly. Tara was a fool to ever think she could handle living in a Weyr, the pain... How could she be expected to fight Thread? She was only a Holder's daughter, granted a prominent Holder, but she herself had been little more than a drudge!
Mine... mine... mine... mine... mine... Naliath's insistent words finally broke through Tara's catatonia.
Shannen smiled, reaching out and hugging her briefly. Then, taking hold of the bewildered Tara's hand, pulled her to her feet. "Come on, we've got to get ready. We're helping the Weyr- and Dragonhealers. She patted Tara softly on the back. "It's all right. They know what they're doing, and don't get injured very often anyway."
"R-really? How do you know?"
Illirie looked over at her and, her own hand held tightly in Lianne's, addressed her with wide, fake-wise eyes. "We're Weyrbred. We know stuff."
Tara giggled, following the girls out.
Willow took her place in the A-formation wing, third from the point, right behind the wingleader's best friend. He was a bulky brownrider, who particularly enjoyed belittling Willow for Rayenth's apparent inability to fly so much as a green. He wasn't one of the best trained either, and had only achieved his position in the formation due to his close relationship with the wingleader. Willow fumed inwardly, she despised being placed behind the man.
He tended to make mistakes. Slipping out of formation, just a little, coming out of between just a little too close to someone. Luckily the rest of them had paid close attention during their fighting lessons, and so could duck between in time to avoid a collision, which could be disastrous.
The leading edge of Thread glistened on the horizon. It was awfully close to the Weyr this time. Willow hated it when that happened, if someone got injured, the new weyrlings would be able to hear it. Some of them would never get over that, for a threadscored person's scream was pure agony.
The wingleader, J'net, flung his arm forwards, giving the signal to rise. In perfect sync with the rest of the wing, save S'rith, the brownrider in front of Willow who was just a split second ahead of everyone else, the wing as a whole rose from the earth of the Bowl.
In a unit, they turned and hovered for a moment, waiting for the other eight active wings to meet them. They would be the highest elevated wing, since they had all the best trained fighters - save one - and therefore would be the ones to flame the most Thread. Willow frowned at S'rith's back. He wasn't holding his position, moving back and forth like a faintly swaying pendulum. That kind of lack of discipline could kill an entire fighting wing.
Then the signal came, and Willow abandoned all thought of S'rith, flying determinedly towards the leading edge with the rest of her wing.
Tara sat, off to the side but near the rest of the weyrlings. She could see the older group over near the firestone room, quickly bagging the rock and tossing the bags along a line to a few green and blue riders who were perched on their dragons, waiting to ferry the stone up to the fighters.
They weren't exactly busy. One or two of the riders from the wings had betweened down to get brief treatment for a slight score, and then gone up again, but that was all. Shannen had been right, it seemed. They didn't get seriously injured often, no one had been hurt so badly it would leave a scar yet.
She stood and turned, scanning the horizon. The leading edge was closer now, practically on top of the Weyr, save that it was over to the east and moving south. Unless the wind made a sharp change very suddenly, they wouldn't be struck by it.
Tara could see the dragons flying amongst the silvery storm, they all appeared to be about an eighth their actual size and flying in an incredibly disorganized way. She knew that wasn't the case though, she simply couldn't see all of each wing due to the amount of Thread. She sighed, hoping everyone was all right.
Her eyes narrowed. What was going on? That uppermost wing, she could see almost all of them through a gap in the Thread. Someone near the point of the formation was bobbing and weaving around, contrary to what everyone else was doing. He popped in and out of between repeatedly, each time seeming to fall further and further out of formation.
He almost crashed into the rider behind him, who ducked between to avoid a collision. Then he burst back out, out of formation. Of course, the stupid rider hadn't moved and was now occupying two positions. Her eyes widened as she saw a clump of Thread blow towards the indistinct out-of-formation rider.
A hoarse, piercing scream rent the air. The very weight of the sound alone nearly brought Tara to her knees, but the sight that soon followed completed it. She hit the ground with a thud that seemed to resound in the sudden, oppressive silence.
Most of the dragons remained in the air; the battle against Thread could not be put on hold. Four riders, however, descended from the sky. Two of them supported an injured dragon, one carried his rider. The fourth was S'rith, trailing the other three with his head down, looking thoroughly chastened and more than a little afraid.
J'net, the wingleader, carried the injured rider draped over his arms. Facedown, as the rider's back was red and raw, all the thick wherhide eaten away. Blood ran in sinuous rivulets over charred edges of leather and muscular arms.
The injured dragon was almost as bad; the edge of one of his sails had been seared, leaving it rough and uneven. A gridlike pattern of burnt lines crossed his back, just below the rider's seat. Both rider and dragon were unconscious.
Having regained use of her legs, Tara lunged forwards, dreading the worst. The riders of the two blues who'd carried the injured dragon looked on soberly for a moment before remounting and taking off to rejoin the fight. If she could have spared a thought for them, Tara would have marveled at their willingness to go back. As it was, her entire attention was focused on the helmet and goggles obscuring the face of the petite injured rider. Who was it? She feared she already knew.
As J'net lay the rider on one of the pallets set up for those who were injured, Tara reached shaking hands forwards. Nervously, she eased the helmet from the rider's head. The dragonhealer was already tending to the injured dragon, and the weyrhealer was gathering fellis juice, numbweed and bandages. Tara gasped at what she saw when the leather and straps came away, revealing the identity of the injured rider.
Tears flowed freely down her cheeks as she focused on the rider's face, the voices of J'net berating a shameful S'rith.
Red hair was plastered to Willow's face by copious amounts of sweat. Helmet tucked under one arm, she ran her hand through her hair, trying to wring some of the liquid out. Threadfall had ended about an hour ago, and she'd escaped with little more than a slight score on her left forearm. It would leave a scar, certainly, but not a large one, and not a particularly ugly one.
It could have been her who was injured like that. The wind was gusty, and they had different arrangements for those conditions. If they hadn't given the order to rearrange the wings, it would have been her who was stuck behind S'rith. It would have been her who's back got half eaten by the parasite.
She sighed, striding into the Lower Caverns and down to the healers' hall. They'd sent C'ten, one of the riders who'd brought down the injured, to Masterhealer Menael. Hopefully they would arrive soon. Willow dropped to her knees beside Tara, who sat hunched over the cot.
"How is he?"
Tara brought up one bloody hand, wiping the back of it under her eye in a vain attempt to stop up the tears. "He's... I don't know. I've never s-seen an injury like this one. He... he just won't stop b-bleeding." Her hands fell futilely into her lap. Her work clothes were stained with so much blood now. "Oh, Willow, I just... I don't know what to do. I want to know, but I... I don't..."
Willow wrapped her arms around Tara's shoulders and pulled her close. "Shh, shh. Hey, it's okay. He's a strong guy, he'll make it through this. The Masterhealer is coming too. You've done all you can."
Leaning into Willow, Tara squeezed her eyes shut. "Have I? Have I really?"
Sighing, Willow wrapped her hand around Tara's upper arm and tugged her to her feet. "Come on, you need to get out of here." As two more young riders scrabbled over to the man's pallet, Willow nodded. "See? He'll be plenty cared for. Come on, we're going for a walk."
Tara sat down on a large boulder beside the road out of the Weyr. Willow crouched in front of her, hands resting on Tara's knees. She sighed, looking down at her lap and letting her hair curtain around her.
Willow reached out and lifted her chin to look into her eyes. "Hey, hey. You okay?"
"The Weyrleader, Willow! He could die, and then... then... what? What would we do then?" Tara's voice edged on panic. Willow furrowed her brow.
"We'd deal with it. The next ranking bronze rider - J'net, in this case - would take over until the Queen flew. We don't have an active queen, right now the old goldrider is acting as Weyrwoman, so..." She trailed off. "Well... I guess if G'dor did die, then J'net would take over for the next year and a half, until Naliath matures... and then whoever flies her would be Weyrleader, like usual."
Tara nodded slowly. "What does that even mean?"
"Flying? Um... mating flight. And the rider of the dragon that flies Naliath will also... sleep with you. Sort of the way it works." Willow's voice toughened. "And that person will then be in charge of the Weyr. Theory is the rider of the strongest dragon takes over. Strongest dragon means strongest rider, but that's not always true."
"O-oh." Tara looked down and to the side, her eyes looking through the entrance to the Weyr and beyond, towards the gaping hole that was the tunnel into the Lower Caverns. "The Weyrleader. I've never seen... I mean, Thread, it's... bad, but..."
Willow reached up and placed one hand on Tara's shoulder. "Hey. Have you... you haven't... lost anyone to Thread, have you? It's just, your reaction... most people don't react the way you did. It's bad, yeah, but it's not so... personal."
Eyes squeezed shut, Tara looked away from Willow again and bit her lip. "Winnie."
"When I was a girl, my father took me on a trading trip to Garren hold. We were there for a few days only, maybe a sevenday at the most. I don't really remember. I met Winnie there. She was... she was really nice. First person that was ever really nice to me. I was... awkward, you see. Big and clumsy. No one liked me at Fort Hold. We left... I never saw her again. A little after that she got caught out in it. The dragons stopped flaming, thought it was fully over the water, but some of it gusted back... when the ground crews went out, they found her knife and the buckles from her boots."
Willow opened her mouth to speak, but found that she couldn't say a thing. Moments passed, and a faint shadow was cast over the two. It disappeared as quickly as it came, trailed by the eyes of both girls.
Mine. The Masterhealer is here.
All right, thank you, Rayenth. Tara and I will be right in.
Tara wrapped her arms tightly around herself, smiling softly. The Weyrleader was going to live. His back would be badly scarred, but both he and Tarnith, his dragon, would survive. The Masterhealer's visit had been short. She'd left one of her apprentices here, someone by the name of Anya who, though an exceptional healer, had a terrible bedside manner. She didn't seem to understand that talking about 'imminent death' and 'mortal wounds' weren't comforting in the least.
She lay back on her bed, Naliath asleep beside her. She was nervous now, in a year and a half someone would... some complete stranger. She understood that it would likely be a bronze rider who flew Naliath and therefore bedded her... she frowned. It would be her first time. Part of her hoped that someone would come here to fly their dragon. Maybe if she watched what happened - at least at first, she wouldn't be allowed to watch... later activities - she would be a little more prepared.
The rest of her just hoped it would be Rayenth who flew Naliath.