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Dragonheart
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Dragonheart

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Author: Todd McCaffrey
Publisher: Bantam UK, 2008
Del Rey / Ballantine, 2008
Series: Pern: Book 16
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

The specter of sickness looms over the Weyrs of Pern, felling fire-lizards and threatening their dragon cousins, Pern's sole defense against the deadly phenomenon that is Thread. Fiona, the young rider of queen dragon Talenth, is about to assume the duties of a Weyrwoman when word spreads that dragons have begun succumbing to the new contagion. As more dragons sicken and die, Weyrleader B'Nik and queen rider Lorana comb Fort Weyr's archives in a desperate search for clues from the past that may hold the solution to the plague. But could the past itself prove the pathway to salvation for Pern's imperiled dragons? Guided by a mysterious ally from a wholly unexpected place, and trusting in the dragon gift for transcending time, Fiona will join a risky expedition with far-reaching consequences for both Pern's future and her personal destiny.


Excerpt

Chapter One

Heart, give voice to sing
Of life on dragonwings!

Fort Weyr, AL 507.11.17, Second Interval

"...and you wouldn't believe how many holders they've saved over the last ten Turns," Benden Weyrleader M'tal said, continuing to press his case for the watch- whers.

The three remaining Weyrleaders had adjourned to Fort Weyr's Council Room to await the Hatching and confer.

C'rion of Ista Weyr snorted and shook his head. "I'm sorry, M'tal, but the time's all wrong," he said. "Threads will be falling all too soon and here you are with this radical notion of training dragons and watch- whers to ?y Threads together at night."

M'tal took a slow, calming breath to sti?e the hot retort he wanted to make. He looked expectantly to K'lior.

The youngest Weyrleader of Pern shifted uneasily under the gray- haired man's gaze. Well aware that M'tal had been a Weyrleader since before K'lior was born, he found it hard to refute such a length of experience. Of course, C'rion was even older still and had made his feelings well- known.

"Look," M'tal began again, his hands outstretched in a placating gesture, "just think--"

He broke off as his ears detected the unmistakable hum of dragons at Hatching. He smiled and gestured at K'lior. "Weyrleader?"

K'lior was already on his feet and heading for the doorway that led to the Hatching Grounds.

Kindan and Kentai, Fort Weyr's harper, were waiting on the stairs to the viewing stands in the Hatching Grounds, ready to escort the more feeble or overly- excited holders up to a good perch. Kindan nodded to M'tal as the Weyrleader passed by, still engrossed in fervent conversation with the Istan and Fort Weyrleaders.

"I see D'gan has departed," Kentai murmured to Kindan as the Weyrleaders climbed out of earshot.

Kindan shrugged. He knew that M'tal had not been counting on D'gan's support anyway. He was less pleased at the looks he'd seen on C'rion's and K'lior's faces--neither looked very thrilled with what M'tal was saying to them. Kindan, who was familiar with M'tal's plan, shook his head. Couldn't the other Weyrleaders see that watch- whers, with their night- seeing eyes, were supposed to ?y the night Threadfalls?

"Lord Itaral, Lady Nelyssa," Kentai called as he spotted the Lord and Lady Holders of Ruatha Hold. He smiled as he spotted the third person in their party. "I see that you've convinced Lady Ilyssa to join you this time." He nodded to their young daughter and raised an elbow invitingly. "May I escort you to your seats?"

Ilyssa blushed, but, overcoming her embarrassed smile, curtsied most elegantly and took his arm.

"This is Kindan," Kentai said with a nod toward the other harper. "He's come with Lord M'tal from Benden Weyr."

Lady Nelyssa started at his name and peered at him more closely. "Aren't you the one--" She caught herself and rapidly switched her comment. "--I mean, aren't you the young man who gave up his watch- wher to Nuella, the WherMaster?"

"Among other things, I am known for that," Kindan agreed, inclining his head politely and giving her a slight smile. He knew what she'd started to say, and wondered if he would ever live down the stigma of the ?re in the Harper Hall's Archive rooms. He hadn't been solely responsible, after all, and he'd fought the hardest to put the blaze out, preserving countless other Records...

"Kindan!"

Before he could even react to the sound of his name, the speaker pummeled into him, clutching him tightly about the waist and trying her best to squeeze the breath out of him. Brilliant sea- blue eyes looked out from behind a lock of rebellious honey- blond hair as the youngster turned her head and called back accusingly to the well- dressed Lord Holder behind her, "You didn't tell me he'd be here!"

Bemin of Fort Hold smiled indulgently at his daughter. "There are such things as surprises, Fiona," he said with a wink.

"Oh, Kindan, it's so good to see you!" Fiona exclaimed, burying her face once more in Kindan's chest.

"It's good to see you, too," Kindan replied. He held out a hand to Fort Hold's Lord Holder. The older man, face lined with age and sad memories, took it in his own and gripped it tightly.

"Good to see you again, lad," Bemin said. He looked up the stairs. "I think we'd better get up there or the dragons will all have hatched."

Fiona turned toward the steps, ?rmly locking her arms around Kindan's elbow. "Harper Kindan," she said, sounding every inch a Lord Holder's daughter, "would you do me the honor of escorting me?"

"It would be my pleasure, Lady Fiona," Kindan replied with equal aplomb. A bronze ?re- lizard darted down from the heights, alighted for a moment on Kindan's shoulder, chirped happily to him, then rose again in the air.

Lord Bemin chuckled. "I see that Valla followed you."

"I can't keep him away from a Hatching," Kindan confessed. He craned his neck up and scanned the swarm of ?re- lizards overhead. "Where are Jokester and Fire?"

"We left them behind," Bemin said. "I doubt either of them is as well- trained as yours."

"Well, they've barely two Turns out of the shell," Kindan allowed. "Give them time."

"Like all youngsters, they are impetuous and brash," Bemin agreed with a twinkle in his eyes. "Why, you would not believe where I found my daughter--"

"Father!" Fiona protested, a warm blush highlighting her freckles. Bemin laughed.

"Chasing tunnel snakes again?" Kindan asked her in a voice pitched for her ears alone.

He was not successful, as Bemin snorted, saying, "I cannot teach her any decorum at all!" He continued, "She was hours in the bath and I'm sure there's still dirt on her."

Kindan felt Fiona grab him tighter and heard her groan, but when he glanced down he saw the smile in her eyes.

"He's sounding much happier," he said quietly.

"He deserves it," Fiona replied.

Kindan nodded in agreement. Lord Holder Bemin had kept his Hold together twelve Turns before when the Plague had struck and killed nearly one in four of his Holders, including his wife and all his children, save for the youngest, Fiona.

Kindan, sent from the Harper Hall to Fort Hold in disgrace after the ?re, had helped Fort's old Healer, Kilti, to do everything possible for the sick and dying. In the end, Kilti had succumbed to the Plague himself, leaving Kindan, at fourteen, in charge.

Fiona cocked her head at a change in the sound and then leapt up the steps, dragging Kindan along. "Come on, they're hatching!"

Indeed they were. Kindan, Fiona, and Bemin found seats saved for them next to Lord Itaral and his family.

"Just some greens," Ilyssa assured Fiona as she patted the empty seat she'd saved for her friend. Fiona relinquished her grip on Kindan with an apologetic look and happily took her place beside Ilyssa. The two leaned toward each other and began to speak in low voices.

The hot sands rapidly ?lled with white- robed candidates, ?own in by Fort Weyr's bronze dragons. The rest of Fort's dragons, perched high above, hummed in welcome, the sound growing louder as the eggs began to rock and crack.

Suddenly there was a hush as the ?rst egg cracked open. A brown dragonet ?opped out, awkward and creeling. A group of candidates darted anxiously around it--some moving toward it, some away. And then--one candidate reached out to the baby dragon and Impressed. The dragons hummed approvingly.


Another dragonet burst forth from its egg, and another, and another. From the stands, it seemed as though of tide of white- robed candidates ?owed and ebbed around the blue, green, brown, and bronze dragonets until, ?nally, one white- robed ?gure stood protectively beside each dragonet as the miracle of Impression was repeated.

"Look there!" Fiona called, pointing toward one of the larger eggs. "Is that a queen?"

"It could be," Kindan said. A great rent appeared in the shell, followed moments later by a golden head. "It is!"

The little queen made quick work of extricating herself from her egg while all around the bronzes crooned excitedly. Freed at last, the little gold queen walked around, looking from one candidate to another.

"What would happen if there wasn't a suitable candidate?" Fiona muttered to Kindan, who shrugged in response. The girls were trying; one bold girl just barely dodged the dragonet's awkward movements, pulled aside at the last moment by a shorter, younger, dark- haired girl.

Kentai had overheard the exchange. "There are Records," he said, looking uncomfortable.

"Well, she's coming this way," Ilyssa noted with excitement.

"We're near the exit to the Bowl," Kentai remarked. "Maybe she's looking for someone out there."

She wasn't. Still ignoring the girls clustered around her, even the bold dark- haired one that Fiona would have thought she'd like, the dragonet lurched over to the visitor stands. She looked up into the stands and creeled desperately. Kindan and Bemin exchanged alarmed looks as the little gold gazed toward Fiona. Fiona's eyes grew wide with shock and she glanced worriedly at Lord Bemin. Bemin seemed to wilt in despair--Fiona was his last surviving child--but he recovered and nodded weakly.

"What's her name?" he asked his daughter, gesturing to the gold below and forcing his lips into a smile.

The dragonet creeled again piteously and Fiona turned back to her, her face glowing in pure joy as she declared, "She says her name is Talenth!"

Kindan picked out K'lior and Cisca climbing down the stairs toward them. It was obvious from the look on her face that Cisca had taken in the full import of the event. She would handle things from here. Kindan, who, after all, was beholden to Benden not Fort Weyr, turned away for a last look at the now empty Hatching Grounds.

For a moment, a very brief moment, before the egg had proved to be a gold, Kindan had imagined what might have happened if he had Impressed. A chirp from above distracted him as his ?re-lizard, Valla, swooped down from his perch above, pleased with himself for locating Kindan and thrilled to have seen the Hatching.

Kindan shook himself from his reverie. He had been a miner, had bonded with a watch- wher, the dragons' kin, and now he was a harper who had Impressed a ?re- lizard. The Red Star was approaching, bringing the deadly Threads, and everything would change when the dragons began the ?fty- Turn battle to save Pern from extinction. Vaguely Kindan wondered if he would live to see the end of the Pass and the return of the less trying times he had been born into.

The beating of a drum, the call to dinner, and a personal plea from Kentai for help in entertaining the revelers spurred Kindan up and out of the Hatching Grounds. At the entrance, he turned back once more, unable to contain his longing.

Kindan couldn't remember who waved him toward the sleeping quarters or quite how he got himself into bed. The evening had been a raucous celebration at which he had sung much, danced much, and drank much--far more than his usual. He had no idea why he'd drunk so much, nor why he'd worked so hard that evening... until he woke in the middle of the night in a cold sweat.

The Weyr was silent, but the silence seemed more oppressive than comforting. The sound of his labored breathing came harshly to his ears and he sat up in his cot, glancing around nervously to check if his nightmare had disturbed anyone else to whom he'd have to make a quick apology.

He heard no one.

In the distance a dragonet creeled uneasily. Then silence.

Kindan sighed and swung his legs over the side of the cot.

It wasn't as if he was the only one who had nightmares of the Plague, but he hadn't had many in the past several Turns, so he was surprised that he'd had one now. Something about the day before must have reminded him subconsciously, so that he sang so hard and drank so much to keep away the pain. Not that it had worked, obviously.

The Plague that had swept across Pern and then--just as quickly--disappeared, had struck when he had only fourteen Turns, leaving him solely in charge of Fort Hold's sick when the aged healer had himself succumbed to the disease. So many had died.

So many, including Koriana, Lord Bemin's daughter and Fiona's older sister.

"Koriana," Kindan whispered. The sound of her name brought both joy and pain, like a rose: pretty smell, prickly thorns. He shook his head. "I'm sorry."

I tried, he thought. But he wondered, as he always wondered: Did I try hard enough?

Resolutely, Kindan lay back in the cot and closed his eyes. Presently, his breathing eased and he relaxed, but he did not sleep. And in that space between sleeping and waking, he heard the sound of a dragon departing between.

Talenth's creel woke Fiona instantly.

What is it? she asked, jumping out of her bed and rushing to the young queen's lair.

He hurts, Talenth whimpered. Fiona knelt and pulled the young queen's head into her lap.

I'm sorry, she thought to her dragon, gently caressing the leathery hide.

He hurts and you feel it, Talenth said. How is it that you feel it?

Fiona furrowed her brow in surprise. At ?rst she thought that Talenth was referring to her father, but then she forced herself to be honest. She had wheedled and whined her very best to convince her father to bring her to this Hatching, all because she knew that Kindan would be here.

I don't know, she confessed. I just do. I'm sorry that it hurts you, too.

Can you help him?

Fiona bent to cradle Talenth's head with her whole body. I'm not sure, she said. But deep inside her, Fiona knew that was a lie. As she considered it, she heard a noise--a dragon going between.

We've been here long enough, let's go, the rider thought to the dragon under her.

As you wish, the dragon responded. With a great heave of its hind legs, the dragon leapt into the air and went between.

Copyright © 2008 by Todd McCaffrey


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