Ever the Twain (© 2002 by Anne McCaffrey, from “A Gift of Dragons”) Anne McCaffrey Ru was tired from helping his father load the fishing nets they had repaired the previous night, so he was lagging a bit behind his sister when a fresh breeze came up and stung him in the face. Immediately he was back on his dragon, at altitude above Ista Island — high enough to see the silvery haze on the horizon that marked the incoming fall of Thread. That's the leading edge, Nerith, he told his dragon telepathically, as he checked that his safety straps were secure on the broad belt all dragonriders wore during Threadfall. The clump of Thread had been overlooked by the other riders in his Wing and Neru knew no one else would be able to sear it before the silvery Threads fell to the ground and devoured every living thing in their path. Fly faster, Nerith! Neru urged his lifelong partner, his beloved dragon. We must climb up higher and try to sear it as we draw near. I will reach it; my wings are strong, Nerith replied, and his wings beat down sending them higher and faster than they'd ever flown before. As they closed in on the leading edge of Thread, Nerith belched a long steady stream of flame, charring the silvery clump to harmless ash. Scanning the skies around them closely, Neru saw one single long Thread that had escaped Nerith's flame. Wheel and spin, Nerith, we've missed one! I see it! his dragon replied. Abruptly, Nerith dropped his right wing to make the turn, and with one powerful stroke, he pivoted into position to flame the lone strand of Thread with a burst of fire. It was a very dangerous maneuver, but nothing Neru and Nerith hadn't done before. You are the strongest, wisest, and fastest dragon on Pern, Nerith. Good flying, my friend. Well done! Neru said, as he caressed the soft hide of his dragon's neck. Nerith turned his head toward Neru, his many-faceted eyes whirling blue with pride. "Here comes the Ninny and her wannabe dragonrider brother," a baritone voice said nearby, cracking in adolescent fashion. Suddenly Neru was back in the present, on the road to the Harper's hall, and out of his daydream. Mostly the kids at Lado Hold on Ista Island called him Ru and his sister Ninny. Neru didn't mind "Ru" but he took extravagant exception whenever he heard people call his twin sister, Nian, by that nickname. "Flamel, do you want yet another bloody nose?" Neru asked, as he focused on Flamel, son of the Hold's smith. Nian, who was very self-conscious and hated confrontation of any sort, moved slightly behind her twin brother. "Sure," Flamel said, putting up his hands. But just then Orla, daughter of the Hold's weaver, intervened. "You really are tiresome, Flamel. Just drop it for the day, huh? Give us all a break," she said in a cajoling tone of voice. "Why should I? It's fun," Flamel said, raising his fists again. "Let's see how the dragonrider defends himself and his ninny of a sister." "Oh, that's so old, Flamel. Can't you strive to be just a little creative?" Orla said with a bored sigh. Just then two adults strode onto the road, talking together in low voices. The taller man glanced at the scene, then paused. "You all better hurry on to the Harper's now, or you'll be late," he said with a flick of his hand. But as he passed he gave Flamel a hard stare. It was enough for the bully to move on, while Orla took her place beside Nian. "Thanks, Orla," Neru said with one of his charming smiles. "And you're right. Flamel is boring." "Just so long as you don't let him get to you again. Master Lado was not best pleased over your last fight with Flamel." "But he didn't do anything to stop Flamel bullying my sister," Ru commented sourly. " 'Childish bickering,' he called it," Nian said. "When Flamel's apprenticed, it'll be knocked out of him," Orla replied tartly. "Oh, if it would only happen soon." The three friends continued on their way down the road that led to the Harper's Hall and their morning lessons. "Soon all of us will have to move on," Orla said, kicking a pebble out of the way. Her curly hair bounced with every step she took. "How will you manage being apart?" she asked Nian. "Nian's tougher than she looks, Orla," Ru said, his twin's champion and supporter. If only that were true, Nian thought. She was scared of the mere idea of being alone, day in and day out. She knew she would have to stand on her own two feet one day, but the thought of doing it without her other half nearby was frightening. Being the more reserved twin, she couldn't imagine life without her brother at her side, even if she could always sense him. When her parents had moved Neru to a bedroom in the lean-to, she had spent many wakeful nights without his comforting presence beside her, even though she was well aware that boys and girls were always separated when they got to a certain age. But being in totally different places... She gave herself a mental shake. It would do no good to worry now. "Has Master Ruart recommended you to the Healer and Harper Halls?" Orla asked. "I get to go to Fort Hold, as apprentice to Master Elaine. But not until the leaves turn. Master Elaine designed that gorgeous brocade pattern our family's working on right now." "Father wants to marry Nian off to a farmer on the North Shore," Neru said with some perturbation. He glanced at his sister to see her reaction. She shrugged. Her mother had been making remarks lately about how good it was to start a new life in one's own place, but Nian tried not to listen. "We're keeping an eye open for fire lizard clutches," she said. "So we can be apart without really being separated." The fire lizards, distant cousins to the much larger dragons, were good companions and useful for delivering messages. It had been Neru's idea that if they both had fire lizards, they would at least be able to communicate with each other over distance, thus making their imminent physical separation more bearable. "How soon will Clidith's clutch be ready for Impression?" Orla asked. "This could be your big chance, Ru." "First I have to be Searched, you know," Ru said with a diffident shrug. "Don't try to fool me, Ru," Orla said firmly. "Not that every lad doesn't hope to be a dragonrider. I think you'd make a good one. Especially since you are so good a brother. And I hear that one of the eggs is a queen egg." She turned excitedly to Nian. "You could become a dragonrider, too, Nian!" "Who would want a Ninny for a rider?" Nian asked scornfully. "You shouldn't call yourself that, Ni," Ru said with a fierce scowl. "A ninny you're not. Don't even think it of yourself." Nian glanced gratefully at her brother. "You can't let the teasing of a dimwit like Flamel get to you," Orla said with equal severity. "As we used to say, 'Sticks and stones may break your bones, but names can never hurt you.' " Nian gave a snort and wished she could shake off such jibes as easily, but she didn't have that kind of confidence. No one ever teased Orla. Orla was self-assured and pretty, with very curly black hair that framed her oval face. Her nose was straight and small, her mouth wide and friendly. Orla had all the feminine qualities that Nian did not see in herself. She didn't consider herself even marginally attractive. While Nian, Neru, and Orla had been strolling in a leisurely way as they talked, the rest of the children of Lado Hold were making their way down the hill toward the Harper's small Hall. Their nemesis, Flamel, tall for his age yet still carrying some baby flab, was visible in the group. He immediately edged closer to the twins to begin teasing. "You been Searched yet, Ru?" was Flamel's snide query. Singling out her brother was unfair, anyway, Nian thought, because so many of the other boys in the Hold desperately wished to become dragonriders and escape the less glamorous adult occupations waiting for them. But Neru's dream was well known, and she thought that Flamel chose his targets carefully, knowing exactly how to insult and injure. Ru ignored the question and Nian was proud of him. Her mother had constantly told them to ignore such taunts. "Well, you're still here, aren't you. Neru? We're all waiting for the dragons to come take you away." Neru shook his shoulders as if he could dislodge the verbal darts sent his way. But Nian was provoked into angry responses. "He will be Searched, you just wait and see!" Nian brandished her fist at the flabby son of the Journeyman Smith, who merely snorted at her. "They sure won't give you even a sniff, Flamel." "You scare me," Flamel said, pretending to quiver and knocking his knees together. "Stop it, Flamel," said Orla. "You really are pathetic, you know. Leave the twins alone. Just for a change." "Or?" Flamel replied. "Or I might just tell everyone here the real reasons why you pick on the twins so much. I might just tell them all that you're really—" "Really what?" Flamel interrupted her quickly. Orla was not the only one to notice that the color in his cheeks was rising to a pinkish blush. "Shall we see?" Orla asked in her sweetest tone. Flamel gave her a long stare, but he began to walk faster, putting distance between him and Orla, as well as Nian and Neru. Nian smiled her thanks at Orla, who sketched an airy salute. "My pleasure. He gives me a headache with his nonsense. I hope his father does send him to the Smithhold at Telgar. They'll sort him out soon enough." That reminded Nian — again — all too forcefully that there were changes in the air for all the youngsters in their age group. She didn't like her father's talk of marrying her to a farmer on the north coast of Ista. She had met the man at Gathers, and she was not overjoyed by the thought of closer ties. Nothing had been said about Neru, though she knew that her parents had decided a long time ago that he was to be trained at something other than fishing. There were quite enough in that profession already at Lado Hold, and Neru had shown no aptitude for a life at sea. Their mother wanted the Harper, Ruart, to recommend Neru for harper training, since he performed very well on the flute and the horn. His voice had changed into a good enough tenor range that he was always asked to sing at Gathers. The children had reached the lean-to porch of the Harper's so-called Hall and were all busy scraping mud off their boots. They would not bring any mud into the Hall and have to clean it up later. Ruart insisted on high standards of tidiness. The porch, which was broad enough to accommodate the Hold's children during fair weather, was their favorite place for lessons, but as today was raw and cold, with a clammy mist in the air, they'd have to remain inside. Inside, the "Hall" had been enlarged from the original limestone cave. A ledge against one wall provided a bench, all too often as cold as the rock behind it, for the smaller children to sit on. Another alcove was Harper Ruart's private quarters, screened from the main room by one of Orla's beautiful screens, its panels woven of fragrant reeds and grasses, which still faintly scented the stone room. The screen also doubled as a wall on which to hang the drawings of Ruart's students. Everyone in Lado Hold was certain that Orla was going to be a fine artist — probably the only one ever to go forward from Lado to an Artist's Hall. Her skillful drawings stood out vividly, compared to the scrawls and scenes by the other students. The youngest children sat on their ledge; niches had been carved out below the seating to shelve their books and slates. Two fine wooden tables allowed the older students a proper surface for writing and figuring. Ruart had a splendid desk made of the local woods, with a series of drawers on each side in which he kept records and texts that were rare, and thus too valuable to be left out. Behind him, a slab of black slate had been cleverly attached to the smoothest part of the limestone wall. On this he could write and display whatever the day's lessons might be. At sixteen Turns old and soon to be apprenticed to learn a trade, Neru, Nian, Orla, Flamel, and Chaum were the oldest, if not the most advanced, students. Journeyman Ruart had high hopes for the twins and Orla, but the other two boys would undoubtedly perfect adult skills in the plantations and fields that surrounded Lado Hold. The journeyman harper was about to take the roll call when wild shrieks and yells interrupted. "Dragons, dragons!" Journeyman Ruart was as startled as his class. Someone pounded up the steps and rapped on his door, shouting urgently. "The dragons come on Search!" The room erupted with noise as the children jostled for the door and a closer look at the magnificent dragons. Almost every child on Pern, at one time or another, dreamed of flying a-dragonback. Ruart clapped his hands together and shouted at the children. "Settle! Settle now, children! You'll all be allowed out to see the dragons on Search, but not a one of you will do so in an unfitting manner!" He lowered his voice when this threat had the desired effect. "Of course, you all know that there is an age requirement for being Searched," he continuted slowly and deliberately. "You little ones will have to stay at the back." His hands made a shooing gesture. "Now let us all proceed outside in a quiet and orderly fashion. No pushing." Two green dragons and one beautifully sea-blue dragon had fitted themselves on Lado's little Gather clearing in front of the main Hold. Lord Lado and his lady, Cirine, hastily smoothing her apron, were already outside to greet the arrivals. Ruart skillfully motioned his class to form ranks across the roadway. "We come on Search," the blue rider said formally, dismounting with an athletic grace that Neru admired. Nian glanced nervously at her twin. Would his dream come true today? Would he be Searched by the dragons? Was this the last she'd see of her "other half" until who knew when? "I am R'dik, blue Shalanth's rider, and here are Sarty, green Ledith's rider and Conna, who rides Oswith." Beside her Ru shuffled his feet, swung his arms, and all but nominated himself out of hand as a candidate. She pinched his sleeve to remind him of his manners. Giving her a cross look, he nevertheless subsided. Just as he protected her against physical danger, she protected him from making social errors. "Search, and be welcome, R'dik," Lord Lado replied, equally formally. "The youngsters of our Hold are all available to you and your dragons." He gestured to those ranked in front of him, all breathless with suspense. "The Hold is greatly honored by your Search. I hear that Clidith clutched thirty-two eggs." "Yes. They are near to being Hatched, and we would like to provide the Weyr with plenty of choices," he said, with a bow that swept from Lado around to the children, who bowed back. He smiled encouragingly at them. "We are looking for those who are fourteen Turns or older," he announced. "For, as you all know, we are in a Pass and need to have riders who are fit and able to join the fighting wings as soon as the hatchlings grow strong enough to fly." Ruart adroitly directed his disappointed younger students to sit out of the way, on the Hold steps, while the older ones ranked beside him to brave the Search. While he thought Chaum might make a good, if unimaginative, rider, he devoutly hoped that the bullying Flamel, who had straightened up as if he was certain of being chosen, would be totally ignored. Neru, he knew, wanted desperately to be a dragonrider; perhaps both twins might be selected. Ruart had never heard of twins being made riders at the same Hatching, but oh, how that would solve the problem of separating Neru and Nian! He caught a glimpse of Palla, the twins' mother, among the crowd now assembling outside the Hold to watch the dragons on Search. Her youngest child, Niall, was in her arms, waving at his older brother and sister. After a thorough inspection of the waiting teenagers, Ledith and Oswith picked Orla and Chaum out of the crowd. Then they approached Nian, sniffing at her and giving her little prods with their noses. She was made a little nervous by this close inspection, and she grabbed her brother's hand. The dragons didn't seem one bit interested in Neru. Nian heard her mother gasp as she, too, saw the dragons overlook her eager, would-be dragonrider son. How could this be happening? Neru thought of nothing but dragons and fighting Thread. How could they overlook him and show such interest in her, when Nian had never once entertained the thought of dragons except for her brother's sake? This is a bad situation, she thought. If they take me on Search and leave Ru behind, I'll have deserted him and stolen his dream all in the same moment. I can't let this happen! Unconsciously Nian shifted her weight toward her brother, changing her stance from that of protected to protector. She had to make them take Ru with her — but how? The green dragon, Ledith, turned to Oswith as if in consultation. Then Conna stepped to her dragon as if summoned to her side. She is very strong! Oswith told her rider. I can hear her, Conna. But she will not go without him. Remaining at Oswith's side, Conna looked at the twins. "What is your name?" she asked Nian. "Neru and Nian," the twins chorused in unison. "It's certainly unanimous," the blue rider said, a wide smile on his tanned face. He slapped his riding gauntlets against his thigh. "Ah, I see that you are twins." "Yes, blue rider, we are, though my sister is the elder," Neru said as Nian still gripped his hand tightly. By the First Egg! Neru hoped that the dragons would select him, too. But what if it were Nian, not he, Neru, who was taken on Search? What if he never had the chance to fulfill his dream? He simply couldn't — wouldn't — think about it. Neru decided that his best plan was no plan at all. He'd just have to wait and see what happened to him. "Have you ever been separated from each other?" Sarty asked, startling everyone. "No, rider Sarty," Neru replied. "We're just better together at everything," Nian added stoutly. Which, as the holders and Ruart knew, was true enough. Conna gave a little sniff. "Well, we'll see what the dragons decide," she said. "Are your parents here?" "I am their mother, Palla. Their father has not yet returned from the morning's fishing," Palla said, moving through the crowd toward the dragonriders and the possible candidates. "It is customary to seek the permission of the Holder and at least one parent of any Searched candidate," Conna said, turning expectantly to Lado. "The dragons have chosen Nian." "But my son has shown more interest in becoming a dragonrider, while Nian never has. How can such a choice be made?" "It sometimes happens. The green dragons know these things and, despite riding Oswith nearly thirty Turns now, I have never figured out how she discerns rider potential." "But they would be separated so soon, too soon!" said Palla, tears starting to form in her eyes. "Oh, Mother," Neru mumbled in embarrassed exasperation, hoping that only his twin heard him. Nian squeezed his fingers. "They would soon be separated anyway, would they not?" asked Conna kindly. At that moment Nian made up her mind. She had never thought of being a dragonrider, but now that she had been Searched, and the possibility existed, she would certainly do her best to try and make her brother's dream come true. "Em, pardon me, dragonriders," she squawked, and had to pause to clear the little frog that had crept up into her throat and made her croak. She continued. "If I may? No one else from my family will be able to attend the Hatching and, should I Impress a dragon, I’d like to have a family member nearby. Could my brother not come with me now?" Squeezing Ru's hand tighdy, she looked at the dragons and their riders beseechingly, and willed it to happen with all her might. Neru squeezed her hand back and held his breath. He knew that dragonriders' families were allowed to visit the Weyr, particularly on special occasions. But would they let him come now? Conna paused a moment and looked at her dragon, lost in a telepathic conversation. The boy is strong but his twin shields him from me, Oswith said to her rider. I cannot see his potential clearly. It is strange. Perhaps he should come along as a candidate, too. "Oswith is undecided about Neru as a candidate, but we will bring him with us regardless," Conna said finally. Both twins let out their breath in a rush. "Never fear, Nian, your brother will remain with you until the Hatching. There is, however, no guarantee that any of those selected on Search will Impress; the hatchlings make that decision." "Oh!" Palla clasped both her hands to her throat. "But the dragons seemed so interested in Nian." Her eyes were wide with concern. Ledith seemed to sneeze. "We can never guarantee," Sarty repeated equably, "but Ledith is rarely wrong." "Whichever," Holder Lado said brusquely. Kind as he was, he was not fond of long, drawn-out farewells. "Now, run along and pack what you need to take with you. Don't keep these dragonriders waiting — they may have other places to Search." Looking pleased that Lado Hold could offer the Weyr four possible dragonriders, he flapped his hands at those selected — Neru and Nian, Orla and Chaum — to be off to their holds, and then gestured to Ruart to take his charges back to the Hall for their lessons. Then a holder woman appeared with hot mugs of klah and the best wineglasses full of a red that Lado had imported from Benden especially for such occasions. The two women riders reached for the klah, but R'dik took a glass of wine and, sipping respectfully, made approving noises as he swallowed, nodding with appreciation to the Holder. At their family hold, Palla stuffed clean underclothes and socks into a worn leather carryall for Neru and tossed Nian a canvas bag made from old sail, all the while protesting that they really had nothing suitable to be seen in a Weyr. Nian neatly folded her Gather dress, and Neru's fine Gather shirt, which she had embroidered for him, and reached for their worn winter jackets. Everyone knew that going between was very cold. She found her knitted cap, but not Ru's, and then saw the bobble of it extruding from one of his jacket pockets. They had only their heavy boots, since once the weather was warm enough, everyone on Ista Island usually went about barefoot. All too quickly they were ready and Palla hugged them both, tears streaming down her face. "We're not going to our deaths, Mother," Neru said, embarrassed though there was only family to see her make such a display. "Will you let me ride your dragon, Ni?" Niall asked his older sister. "If I Impress I surely will," Nian replied kindly. "Dragonriders are always very generous about giving rides, but not by yourself," Ru added. They heard a most unusual sound outside, almost a growl. Niall ran to the window. "There're two dragons waiting outside!" he announced excitedly. Nian kissed her mother several times, carefully blotting the tears on her face. "We will be back, you know," she said. "It'd be no trouble at all to drop in any time we can." Though she was not at all sure she'd be a dragonrider, she was determined to think positively. Especially about Ru. No matter how things turned out for her, Neru must Impress. Palla followed them to the door, saw them being shown how to mount the green dragons, and ended up waving and weeping as the dragons flung themselves into the sky and disappeared with her children. It was very cold, Nian thought, daring to press back against Conna for warmth. "Don't be afraid, Nian," the dragonrider said in her ear. "Now, we are going between, so take a deep breath, and by the time you have counted to eight we will be back in the sunshine and circling over Ista Weyr. Ready? Start counting now!" Between was cold; colder than anything Nian had ever experienced. It was also very dark between, which she should have remembered from the ballads Ruart had so diligently taught his students. The song came to her mind — "Black, blacker, blackest" — and then, just as Conna had said, they were suddenly warmed by the bright morning sun and circling down to land at Ista Weyr.The last time the twins had come for a Gather here, they had sailed in her father's boat. From above, Ista didn't look as big as Nian had remembered, but it was still bigger than Lado Hold. There were people to welcome them and Nian tried to maintain her newly found confidence and not hide behind Ru who, as ever, spoke for both of them. "I'm Kilpie, in charge of the Lower Caverns," announced an older, slightly stout lady whose sun-streaked blond hair was neatly braided and coiled around her head. She had a stern mouth, but her eyes were welcoming and alight with good humor. "Come, I shall show you candidates where you will be staying. And you can meet the others whom the dragons have Searched for the Hatching. Which, I might add, won't be long now. Come along. When I've shown you around," she added, shooing them all in front of her, "you are to come back here for a snack. There's always something to eat for hungry riders. We keep klah, soup, or porridge warm all day and all night." She pointed to a small hearth at the far end of the cavern where, indeed, pots sat at the back, keeping warm. "And fresh bread when it's ready." Ru grinned at his sister. He was always hungry, now that he was growing tall and filling out his bones. Pretty soon he'd be taller than Nian. The main kitchen cavern of Ista Weyr was immense, and some of the stalactites had been left in place as if holding up its stony roof. Along the outside wall, with chimneys built in to take cooking odors out of the huge room, were the hearths and ovens, just like the kitchen in Lado's much smaller hold. But here some of the hearths were enormous, and the heat they gave off would be intolerable in full summer, Nian thought. Would she and Neru both be there in full summer? Tables and chairs were placed around the main dining area, with a platform for the head table where the Weyrleaders would dine with guests. She hoped candidates were not considered "guests." Everyone would be looking at them, and Nian did not like to be the object of scrutiny. It made her conscious of herself and her plain looks. Kilpie led them down a broad corridor and into another wide cavern. This was on two levels, a passage leading to curtained alcoves and steps down to a living area filled with comfortable chairs, tables, and storage chests. She pointed to the curtained passage that led to the baths and necessaries. "And we expect everyone living in the Weyr to be clean for breakfast and dinner every day. Now, there will be empty sleeping alcoves along here, unless people have been changing about, but pick one that doesn't look occupied and you'll be all right if your bags are displayed. I've put a white candidate's robe in every alcove, so that you'll all have them to hand." "Are there many of us candidates?" Orla asked. "Forty, so far," Kilpie said. "And more coming in, as we have thirty-two eggs and wish to give the hatchlings ample choice." "But how will we know when the Hatching starts?" Neru asked, wondering how quickly he could get his robe on and make it to the Hatching Ground on time. Thirty-two eggs and more than forty candidates to stand. Well, even if the dragons hadn't picked him outright, he would remain positive. He just had to Impress his very own dragon! Kilpie regarded him a long moment. "The dragons begin to hum a welcome to the hatchlings. As soon as you hear them, drop everything and change into the white robe and present yourself at the Hatching Ground." She pointed to the opening at the far end of the living area. Crouching down a bit and looking in that direction, Nian could see the great arch of the Hatching Ground entrance directly across the Bowl of Ista Weyr. "There will also be a lot of coming and going as guests are brought in. And your parents, if they have chosen to come to the Hatching." She made a noise halfway between a snort and a sigh. "So, go along now," she said, gesturing to the alcoves, "and settle yourselves in. Then come back to the main cavern. I believe there're sweet buns and cool fruit juice or klah waiting for you." The promise of food had the newly selected candidates immediately rushing toward the curtains, peeking past them to find the untaken alcoves. Neru and Nian, with an unspoken thought, moved to the far end and chose alcoves side by side. Orla and Chaum followed their lead; Orla's eyes were bright with curiosity, and Chaum, who was rarely excited by anything, still kept close to those he knew. Nian's alcove included a bed, a chest, and several pegs on the wall. The white candidate's robe hung on one of the pegs. She held it up against her. The straight lines would fit anyone, covering all but the tallest to the knees, and the sleeves were not too long. The fabric was very soft from much use and careful laundering, and Nian wondered how many successful candidates had worn this particular robe over the Turns. Would their luck rub off on her and Neru, too? Just then Neru entered her sleeping alcove. "You can't have unpacked already," she accused him. "No, I put my carryall smack in the middle of the bed so anyone would see that the room is occupied. But I'm hungry and could sure use some sweet buns to tide me over until supper." He picked her carryall up where she had dropped it to the floor and plopped it on her bed. "I'm going to look silly wearing something like that. It's nearly a dress." "It's a candidate's robe, and who would ever have expected this morning that we'd be chosen to wear one?" "Not me," her twin said staunchly. "And the same back at you, Ru." "They were smart to pick Chaum and Orla, too," her brother said, pleased. She heard his stomach growling and grinned at him. She carefully hung the robe back on its peg. "Let's go eat." No one was late for the snack, Kilpie remarked when the lot of them arrived back to the kitchen cavern and took seats at the table she designated. The juice was cool and tart, while the sweet breads were dotted with nuts and dried berries and were so tender that Nian and Neru hoped there'd be more than one apiece. They were joined by a white-haired older man who introduced himself as H'ran, Weyrlingmaster, rider of bronze Prinith. He looked them over one by one and smiled. "Now, I've a few words of advice for you candidates. First, the new hatchling is invariably starving. There will be bowls of meat for you to feed him or her to the stuffing point. Hatchlings can be a little unnerving as they stagger around looking for their riders, so don't be surprised or fearful of such antics and be quick on your feet to get out of their way. If you're the one they want to Impress, you'll know it." "How?" asked a very pretty girl who was dressed in the finest blue robe Nian had ever seen. "That dress of hers was expensive," Orla murmured in Nian's ear. "That blue dye is hard to get." Orla knew about such things. "How?" H'ran grinned. It was an unexpectedly soft and loving expression, which Nian thought remarkable in an older man. "It's unmistakable. You'll immediately know their name. Added to that, they act as if they owned you, keeping any other hatchling from getting near you. They may be wet-winged and newly hatched, but they can move fairly fast once they've discovered their rider. Watch out for their claws. They're sharp and dangerous, even if they don't mean to hurt anyone. They're as anxious to Impress as you are to be Impressed. But don't worry. The Weyrleaders and I will be on the Hatching Ground with you to organize the stampede. And there'll be plenty of food to stuff their guts. Bring any questions you have about your hatchling to me. That's what me and Prinith are here for." If anyone had questions, they weren't bold enough to voice them and so, when all the sweet breads were eaten, H'ran suggested that they follow him to the weyrling barracks so they'd know which direction to take with their dragons when Impression had been made. The barracks were exactly that — not nearly as homey or comfortable as the alcoves. There was a broad wooden bed for the hatchling, well marked by generations of dragon claws, and above it, a narrow shelf with bedding on it for the rider. "Once you get your dragon settled here, you can return to the main living quarters if you wish. It's up to yourselves." The way he said it gave Nian the feeling that all new riders chose to stay with their dragons. Well, if Ru were here, she'd want to be, too. That is, if they both Impressed. "You'll always know if your dragon needs you, I promise you that much," H'ran added, and brushed his thick hair back in a nervous gesture. "Now, if you'll follow me across the Bowl, I'll show you the eggs." Dutifully, but with murmurs of excitement, they followed him through the arches onto the Hatching Ground. In groups of two or three, the eggs reposed on the warm sands. Nian was glad she had on heavy boots, because those with lighter footwear were obviously feeling the heat, imitating the stalk of river birds searching shallow waters for tiny edibles. "It's called the Hatching dance," H ran said, trying to keep his face solemn as he also stepped quickly and carefully. "Move among the eggs, if you wish. They're not quite hard enough, but will be very soon. Getting used to them in advance seems to help when the moment comes." "Can we touch them?" Chaum asked. "Never known it to do any harm," H'ran said indulgently. Chaum instantly stretched his hand out and touched the egg he was standing by. And yanked his fingers away. "It should feel warm," H'ran said, shifting his sandaled feet more quickly now. "Go on. I'll be right outside," he added, and made his way back to the main arch. Tugging Nian by the hand, Neru trotted over to the nearest eggs with his sister in tow. One, the biggest one Nian was sure, lay just beyond on a slight rise. It had light tan mottles on its golden shell and Nian thought it was the prettiest of the eggs. Neru hauled her to the one he fancied, with mottles of a slightly darker tan. Boldly he ran both hands over the top of the shell. "It is warm, Nian, just feel it." "I like that one," she said, pointing, and broke his grasp to go examine her pretty egg more closely. "It's the biggest one, too. Could it be the queen?" "Hmmm, possibly, Ni," he allowed, but he was more interested in his egg than hers. "D'you think they can tell which color the dragon will be from its shell?" Nian asked pensively, running her hand along the widest part of the egg. Nearby, Orla was investigating another egg, while Chaum still stood apart, surveying the entire clutch. The very pretty girl in blue sauntered over toward Nian, a stern expression on her face, as if warning Nian away from her chosen egg. Nian gave her a quick glance and moved away to join Orla. "She's the Masterfarmer's daughter, and her name is Robina," Orla said softly to Nian. "She told us —" Orla paused to wink at Nian. " — that she's been promised the queen egg." "You heard what the Searchers said. No one can guarantee Impression. It's up to the hatchlings." "Well, you'd make a much better queen rider than that snotty stuck-up old wherry." "It's not me that must Impress. It's Neru," Nian said firmly. "It's still up to the hatchlings," Orla repeated. The two girls wandered over to Neru, who was reciting to some others what he knew about dragons. Nian realized her twin was not happy that he had been a final addition to those Searched. Knowing that he tended to keep his feelings to himself, Nian peered at him intently and reached for the connection she always felt with him. He most certainly was putting up a brave front, and she wondered how long he would be able to maintain it. Nian knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that her twin would be gutted if she Impressed a dragon and he did not. She wished she could find the words to reassure him. "There're some who think they can predict colors, but from what I've heard, no one ever gets all the colors right in a Hatching from just looking at the shell," Neru said. His glance followed the pretty girl who was now circling Nian's egg. "Except maybe the queen," he added. ' Well, this shell is sort of bronzy. Maybe you'd better make up to it, too," Nian said with a little laugh. "You have to be a bronze rider." He gave a shrug and looked around him. "I think you're right about yours being bigger than any of the others," he told her. "But if it's the queen, it won't help me." And he continued to stroke his chosen egg. From the entrance, H'ran gestured with his arm to gather them all together. "All right now, candidates, we have some evening chores we could use some help with." The word "chores" evoked a groan from some candidates, but everyone followed H'ran as he led them into another cavern where five dragons lay, their wings or other parts of their bodies covered with towels of some sort. There was a flooring of fine, warm sand — not as hot as the Hatching Ground, but comfortable for the dragons as a bed. "Not the nicest of jobs, but you will have to learn how to tend your own dragons, so you might as well start today. These were casualties in the last Threadfall, two days ago." Neru thought of his mornings daydream and then paid close attention to what H'ran was saying. "We soothed their wounds with numbweed, and right now the compresses have to be changed. Ah, here come their riders. "You can assist them in the task and gain some experience in the bargain. Being a dragonrider is not just about being able to fly anywhere you want to.” H'ran gestured to several of the candidates to go to certain dragons, and although Neru and Nian would have been separated, she tagged after her brother as he was signaled to the bronze whose neck was festooned with towels. "I'm C'tic," the bronze rider said amiably," and poor old Brith here got badly tangled up in a clump of Thread." He began carefully peeling off the first towel. "What's your name?" he asked, glancing up at Neru, and the twins replied in unison as they usually did. "Well, then, Neru, get a towel, dunk it in the numbweed keg over there, wring it out, but not too thoroughly, and bring it over here." While Brith had lowered his head and neck to permit the dressing, Nian saw the skin quivering as C'tic carefully inserted a fingernail under the towel and began to roll it back, revealing such raw-looking flesh that Nian shivered at the sight of it. "Poor brave Brith," she said in the croon she used when one of her siblings suffered injuries. "He's sure he's hurting much more than he really is," C'tic said amiably, beginning to loosen another towel. Neru carefully held a damp towel out by its corners, trying to hold his breath from the acrid smell of the numbweed-soaked fabric. C'tic chuckled. "You get used to the smell of numbweed quickly," he said, taking the corners of the towel from Neru. Keeping it carefully stretched, he placed it flat on the raw-looking flesh. Brith gave a moan that was more relief at the coolness of the potion than pain. "How long does it take him to heal?" Nian asked. "Actually, they heal very quickly," C'tic replied. "You can see here on the shallower parts of the burn when the new skin is already forming after just a few days. Are you really interested?" "Oh yes," Nian said. "My sister is good at nursing," Neru said, staunchly. "Well, if you aren't upset by such things, you can peel off that next towel while your brother gets a replacement. Easy now." He watched her as she carefully slid her long index finger nail under the edge of the towel and began rolling it back as she had seen him do. He nodded approval. Brith's neck flesh quivered briefly, and then Ru was holding out a replacement dressing. Nian managed to get it neatly into place. "Couldn't have done it better myself," C'tic said. "Hey, Brith, this is going to be a snap today," he said encouragingly to his dragon. To one side of the infirmary, one of the other riders exclaimed in dismay, "Shards. We've got another fainter. Someone get me a cold compress while I brush all the sand off her; she certainly hit the dirt with a bang!" Neru peered around those gathered to assist the fainter and he chuckled. "It's the girl in blue, Ni," he said with a little smirk. "The one who fancied your egg." "There's usually one who's not good with wounds," C'tic said. "Has someone brought the restorative? That one will make a fine rider!" His tone was sarcastic. "You'd think she'd be used to injured animals, being the Masterfarmer's daughter," Nian murmured to her brother. "Now, she can't help the way she is," Neru said with considerably more charity than his sister expressed, "even if she was promised the gold." "I'd pity the gold," Nian replied. Brith carefully turned his head back to eye Nian and Neru. The blue of his faceted eyes was shot through with orange. "We're not hurting you, are we?" Ru asked apologetically. No. The twins gasped as the dragon's mind seemed to fill theirs. The fresh numbweed is so soothing. "Did I really truly hear him speaking to me?" Ru asked C'tic, who grinned at them. The question Nian sensed in her brother was that, to him, being bespoken by a dragon meant that he had a right to be a candidate. "Dragons speak to anyone they want to," C'tic said, reaching to remove another old dressing. Ru scooted off immediately to provide a new one. "Will it be like that in the Impression?" Nian asked. "We will hear a dragon's voice in our heads?" "Yes, that's how it happens," and C'tic had the same soft expression on his face as H'ran had had. "And you can always hear them?" Nian asked. "I can usually hear my twin brother — especially if he's in trouble." "Ah, I thought you two looked alike." "Oh, we're not completely alike," Nian said. "Neru's much smarter and stronger. He'll make a splendid dragonrider." "You both will," C'tic surprised her by saying. "How do you know that?" "My dragon told me so," C'tic said, and his smile was kind, not teasing. Two more dressings were needed and then C'tic thanked them for their assistance. "Can we help again?" Nian asked. That will depend on what happens at the Hatching, Brith replied himself. But I would he glad of such light fingers. Maybe you should train to be a dragon healer. Nian blinked, startled by his remark. "Well, you could, you know," Ru said, regarding his sister with some pride. "You're always tending the injured at the Hold." "Come along, now, candidates," H'ran said. "It is nearly dinnertime." "Oh, good," Ru said, rubbing his hands together. "I'm hungry." "Wash your hands well," C'tic said, pointing to a sink to one side of the infirmary. "Remember, you've been handling numbweed. If you don't scrub your hands thoroughly now, some of the numbweed may rub off on your lips when you start eating. Believe me, I know, it's no fun trying to eat your food when your lips are completely numb. Added to that, you'll slobber all over yourself and not even realize it. Not a pretty sight!" While their laughter subsided, the candidates used the scrubbing brushes at the sink and lathered their hands with sweetsand until their skin was rubbed red. As they washed, aromatic odors wafted in their direction and promised a fine meal. By the time they reached the Lower Cavern, weyrfolk were setting generous platters and bowls on the table for them to serve themselves. "Hey, this is great food," Neru said after he took his first heaping forkful. "It's meat, you mean," Nian said, teasing her brother. "Makes a great change from all that fish," Neru replied, selecting yet another slice from the platter in the center of the table. "Just don't make a pig of yourself here," she added in a low tone so no one else would hear her. "We've never gone hungry, you know, and we must uphold the honor of Lado Hold." "Humph," Neru grunted and gestured around the table where the other candidates were equally as diligent in reducing the contents of the various serving dishes. "Tell that to the others." "I wouldn't dream of it," Nian said with great dignity. After some of the young weyrfolk cleared the table, the Weyrleader at the head table got to his feet. "As I'm sure you've noticed, we have candidates as our guests. The Hatching may even come tonight," he added, and the candidates gasped as one. He grinned at them. "We are ever at our dragons' pleasure. But all is ready for their arrival. Thank you all for coming at such short notice. If you have any questions, please ask the dragonrider nearest you or our good H’ran. Remember, they were once candidates just like you. And just as nervous!" "He's nice. Just like our Holder," Nian murmured to her brother. "But Hatching in the middle of the night?" Ru said. "That's awkward." She sniffed and then saw a man in harper blue, carrying a gitar, place a stool on the platform and settle himself. He strummed a chord, and people from the audience began shouting for the songs they wanted to hear. "Oh, I could get used to this," Nian said, settling back. The evenings when Harper Ruart entertained the Hold and everyone was allowed to listen were special to her. Briefly she wondered if the harper played every evening for the Weyr. He struck up some melody she'd never heard before, and suddenly the air was full of fire lizards. They either went to sit on the shoulders of the people they were beholden to, or found themselves a perch somewhere in the kitchen cavern. They picked up the tune and sang a descant, and the singing was magical. Even Nian was bold enough to join in the choruses, while Ru, once he had listened to the melody all the way through, sang a tenor harmony to it. He had such a nice voice. To Nian's mind, he was as good as any harper student, but he would be best, she added firmly in her heart and mind, as a dragonrider. Then, when the last note had ended, the harper descended and weyrfolk began to rise and circulate among the tables. "It's been an exciting day for all you candidates," Kilpie said, coming over to their table. "And there will be more chores in the morning — just to keep you busy, of course, till the eggs are ready to hatch. So we will excuse you to your quarters." "What if they Hatch tonight?" Robina asked. "In that case, you'll know about it," Kilpie assured her, giving her what Nian thought was a dismissive look. Nian almost felt sorry for the Masterfarmer's daughter, but Robina did not look at all unsettled. Actually, Nian was quite willing to have an early night. So much had happened today, and she was tired. She wanted a bath, too, and thought that if she hurried, she’d be able to be first to claim one of the few bathing cubicles in the girls' necessary. She told Neru her wish and he grinned. "Yeah, I heard there's always hot water here," he said. "I may just have a bath, too. Can't Impress a dragon stinking of fish, you know." "We do not stink of fish," she said, sniffing at him, although she could catch a tiny whiff of fish oil and sea. "It's marvelous not to have to wait to heat up enough for a decent bath just this once." So they walked on ahead of the other candidates, grabbing washing things and the towels their mother had packed, to get to a bath before anyone else thought of it. Nian was lounging in the tub of deliciously hot water by the time other girls thought of bathing. She smiled to herself that she'd been first. She washed her hair, too, in the special shampoo her mother made. "To keep it silky and sweet-smelling," her mother had said. "I can't abide the smell of fish on everything," she invariably added with a long-suffering sigh. Once, Nian had asked her mother why she had chosen her father, if she didn't like the smell of fish. "Well, I married him for several reasons. The first is because I love him and he asked me. The second is that he had inherited his father's holding and I didn't know that the place reeked of fish oil and that it's hard to wash scales off a plank floor. But he's a good man, your father, and we've never gone hungry even if it was only fish for supper." Then her mother added plaintively, "I do fancy a taste of beef now and then, and he's willing to spend good credits to see I have some." Someone rattling the bath door startled Nian out of her memories. "You were the first in," she heard Robina's sour voice accusing her. "When are you going to finish?" "When I'm clean enough," Nian replied firmly. "Oh, the twinling from the fish hold. I suppose it's as well if we let you get really clean." Robina's nasty comment irritated Nian no end. She was really tired of being teased. "I'll hurry, since I know you'd like to get all the sand out of your hair," she said in her sweetest tone of voice, recalling the sight of the unconscious Robina on the sandy floor of the infirmary. "I'll thank you not to refer to that," Robina said angrily. "Oh, dear me, I didn't meant to upset you," Nian said without a trace of apology. "Just give others a turn at a bath!" "Oh, stop nagging, Master's daughter," someone else called, and Nian could hear Robina stamping away from her door. "Who said that?" she demanded. "Another fisherman's daughter," and Nian smiled because she recognized the voice as Orla's. However, she was clean enough, her hair sufficiently rinsed, so she pulled the plug. As the water audibly swirled out of her tub, she dried herself slowly, then used the towel to wrap her hair up on her head. It would take time to dry, but it really wasn't fair for her to monopolize a bathing cubicle. As she exited, she saw there were six or seven girls waiting. Robina was pacing down at the far end of the facility, so Nian gestured for the nearest girl to quickly claim the bathing cubicle. "What the— I was next!" she heard Robina yell as she left the necessary. "You were down at the other end of the room," one of the girls replied ingenuously. "I should have been next," Nian heard Robina complain, and then Nian was too far away to hear what answer the farmer's daughter got to that protest. She was still toweling her hair when she heard her name called outside the curtain of her alcove. "May I come in, Nian?" asked Orla. "Yes, certainly," she said and her friend slipped in. Orla's curls were still damp from her bath and her face was shiny from washing. "That Robina's something, isn't she?" "Did someone finally give her a chance to bathe?" Orla rolled her brown eyes. "Finally. I think her remark about fish smells made her enormously unpopular. How did she get to be so arrogant? I've never met another Master's daughter like her." "She's very pretty," Nian said wistfully. "And she thinks that she's going to Impress a queen dragon. Huh!" Orla commented. "I doubt that," Nian said bluntly. "You heard what R'dik said about not guaranteeing anything. And being squeamish enough to faint while dressing those wounds surely must act against her." "It was Robina who fainted? I couldn't quite see from where I was in the infirmary. But I'll say frankly enough that the wounds I saw were stomach-churning." "Brith's, too." Nian shuddered. "But you didn't faint, did you? Nor did I," Orla said. "It'll be interesting to see whom the queen does choose. Can I help you dry your hair, Nian? I'd give anything for straight hair." "If you had it, you wouldn't want it. But yes, I'd appreciate the help immensely," Nian replied and, finding the second towel in her sack, handed it to her friend. She was tired and her arms ached from rubbing her thick, heavy hair. The next morning Nian heard a pleasant gong being struck enthusiastically and had a time trying to remember where she was. Lado Hold had a siren that went off each morning, or in stormy times, to assemble people to help in emergencies. She hoped that her chore that morning would involve helping Brith and C'tic. She wanted to ask if it was possible for a candidate to be preselected. She didn't care which kind of dragon she Impressed, or even if she Impressed at all, just as long as Neru succeeded. She'd be grateful no matter what color dragon fancied her brother as his rider. But she saw him as a bronze rider, leading his own wing at Threadfall as he had always daydreamed. When the candidates were seated and bowls of porridge were being passed to them, H'ran came around with a list, checking names off as he told each person what chore they would have that morning. Nian had a chance to look around the half-filled dining area, wondering where the others were, for last night the cavern had been full. "Nian?" H'ran had reached her and she smiled up at him. "C'tic asked for you and your brother to assist him with Brith. You have such deft hands." "Thank you, H'ran," she said, turning with a happy grin to her brother. Neru went back to spooning porridge into his mouth, seemingly not upset that his sister was the object of special attention. "Good porridge." "Yes, it is." Nian looked fondly at the brother who hadn't an ounce of jealousy in him. The candidates were all offered second helpings of the porridge and then served toasted bread with redberry jam. "So we're both on infirmary duty," Neru said. "We do work well as a team, Ni." Then he cocked his head to one side as if he were trying to hear something barely audible. Nian gave him a querying look, which he simply shrugged off. Then Nian caught what must have alerted him — a definite humming noise, soft but growing louder. She shifted on her chair, planting her feet firmly on the ground, and felt the sound reverberate through the soles of her feet to the top of her head. It was a lovely sound, reassuring, loving, full of eager anticipation: an anticipation that began to vibrate in her body in time with its immediacy. She cocked her head at her brother and he grinned. As one they rose to their feet just as H'ran approached their table. I can see that some of you have already heard the dragons humming. It is time!" he exclaimed. "Their timing is good," he added, a broad smile on his face as he turned toward the candidates' table. "We've all been able to finish our breakfast. All right, candidates please go to your alcoves and change into your white robes. Then come to the Hatching Ground as quickly as possible. You may move among the eggs, if you wish, or just stand still, waiting to see which egg holds the hatchling that wants you as its rider. This is a big moment in the Weyr's life and a bigger one in yours. Go, change. Now!" And with a loud clap of his hands, he dismissed them from the dining hall. Nian had to wait for Ru to change. He must still be wondering if he should proceed with the deception. He also spent time fussing with his robe, using his own old leather to belt it. Nian did not tell him that that made the robe look even more like a dress. She'd rushed off to the necessary as anxiety made her feel the need. The trip gave her time to wash her face and hands, too, slightly sticky from the redberry jam. Her stomach was roiling with apprehension, too full of all the food she had consumed to be comfortable. Robina was also in the washroom, vigorously brushing her blond hair with her fingers. "I don't think the dragons will notice your hair, Robina," Nian said encouragingly, but the girl glared at her. "That's all you know, twinling," she snapped back, a petulant expression on her face. Her brushing increased in vigor, and she swore when she saw that sand still fell from her locks. "Let me alone," she added nastily. Nian was quite willing to and went to join her twin. Then, side by side, Nian and Neru rushed across the Bowl to the Hatching Ground. The sight of the eggs lying on the hot sands stopped them in their tracks at the arch and then, as they entered, the hot sands made them shift their feet in discomfort. Nian got her first sight of the two dragon parents, standing to the back of the Hatching Ground, watching the candidates making their way among the scattered eggs. The golden queen was huge, and her bronze mate was not much smaller. Nian eased herself behind her brother's sturdy figure, suddenly awed by the sight of such immense dragons. Nian glanced anxiously at the egg she had liked and was relieved that no one else was near it. Maybe Robina would be too disturbed about her sanded hair to hover nearby. No one was near the egg Ru had singled out. Together they walked across the sands and saw that the other candidates, in their white robes, had spread out on the Hatching Ground. Nian still wondered how the dragons would know which person they should Impress — the Hatching Ground was so big, and the candidates were numerous. She looked around for Orla and Chaum and saw them standing to her right. Around the Hatching Ground, the spectator area was filling up with those invited to share this magical moment. Nian was disappointed that her mother and father weren't among those seated in the gallery; she knew they'd have attended if they could. But at least she had gotten Neru onto the Hatching Ground. Now a hatchling simply must see what a splendid rider Neru would be! Nian's boots were heating up and she hoped it wouldn't be long before the eggs actually started to hatch. Definitely, she should not have filled up on breakfast. Her stomach felt sour with her building anxiety. She would die of shame if she spewed up all that porridge and redberry jam. She moved closer to Ru, hoping that no one was staring at her. The hum of the dragons was intensifying. "Look!" Neru said, pointing to the nearest egg. It was rocking in its little depression of sand. A stir in the gallery suggested that others had seen the movement. There was also a cracking sound that echoed in the vaulted Hatching Ground, and the queen swung her head to stare at the egg. It wasn't far from Neru and Nian, and they could see the crack splitting the eggshell. They held their breaths as the crack girdled the egg and something — a wingtip, Nian thought — protruded from the shell. It split neatly in half and its occupant began to emerge. When the glistening little bronze finally exited its shell, she wondered that it had been able to cram so much body into such a small space. "A bronze first is a good sign," she heard H'ran murmur as applause came from the gallery. The queen spread her wings and, lifting herself high on her powerful hindquarters, bugled a welcome to the little bronze. Several other eggs were either rocking or cracking, and Nian didn't know where to look first. "Nian!" Her brother's startled cry swung her gaze back to him and he pointed to her favorite among the eggs. It was splitting along its axis, and suddenly the top half splintered into shards that were scattered all over as a moist golden head emerged. Robina was already hastening toward the little queen, though she was clutching at her stomach as she approached. It amused Nian that the snotty Robina was also subject to nausea and nervousness. "Go after the bronze, Ru," Nian said, pushing him toward the wandering hatchling. "He knows where he's going," Ru said, pointing, and it became obvious to Nian that the hatchling was heading as straight as an arrow toward a tall boy who had sat next to Ru at breakfast. Greens and blues were now making their choices among the candidates, and weyrfolk were handing out bowls of food, instructing the newly Impressed on how to feed the starving hatchlings. I'm hungry! Very hungry, a voice said clearly in Nian's head. But she paid no attention to that, since all the hatchlings around her were being fed. There were several eggs toward the back of the Hatching Ground that were rocking and splitting. She tugged on the sleeve of her brother's tunic. "Let's go over there. No one else is nearby." He tried to struggle free. "If one of them wants me, it can find me." "You have got to Impress, Ru," she said, reestablishing her hold on him and hauling him to where he stood the best chance of doing so. "Maybe the hatchlings know I shouldn't be here as a candidate," was his gloomy reply. "Nonsense!" Suddenly, she tripped, or rather was tripped, and sprawled facedown in the hot sands, as something quite heavy seemed to be scratching its way up her exposed back. What's the matter with you? Can't you hear me? the same voice said petulantly. I'm hungry. I need to be fed. Are you listening in there? Something hard tapped on her head. "Nian, it's the queen. That's the queen on your back, Ni, the queen!" she heard Neru exclaim excitedly. "But it's you who must Impress, Neru," she said querulously. Oh, her family would never forgive her. Ru would never forgive her. I will forgive you, if you'll feed me, Nian, the voice said. My name is Quinth. Why are you avoiding me? I love you. You are mine. "Here, help me, H'ran," the Weyrwoman said. "The poor child won't able to get up. Quinth, now get off your rider before you flatten her." Nian felt the weight being lifted off her, but her nose had started to bleed and she had to spit blood out of her mouth and shake sand out of her hair. Hands under her armpits assisted her to her feet and then a bowl was thrust into her hands and she looked around and saw golden Quinth, struggling to be free of the hands that held her from going to her chosen rider. Nian felt two distinct emotions — immense surprise and total dismay. You don't like me? the dragon asked, her head drooping with disappointment and her wings sagging to the sand. It's not a question of liking you, Quinth, Nian replied, reaching out her free hand to run her fingers down the little dragon's head to the chin, which she then lifted up. The dragon's eyes, golden with love, met hers and a shiver of absolute delight went down Nian's back. It's just that I shouldn't Impress unless my brother does, too. While we wait for that to happen, the little queen said imperiously, you may feed me, Nian. I'm starving. Remembering the bowl in her hand, Nian grabbed a handful of the meat cubes and offered them to Quinth, who bolted them down so quickly that Nian could see the outline of the mass slide down her neck. Then Quinth opened her mouth again, and again, and again. Nian was forced to sniff in the blood that was oozing from her nose and blot the stream on her sleeve, leaving a red smear behind it. "Someone bring a cold towel and some numbweed," the Weyrwoman was calling. "Nian, Quinth's rider, has a bloody nose. How very awkward, my dear." The Weyrwoman offered Nian her clean handkerchief. "They don't really mean to hurt anyone in an Impression," she said, "but it was obvious Quinth wanted you and you simply didn't realize that she was headed toward you the moment her shell cracked." She gave a little laugh. "Queens are very determined." That seemed to be a good trait, judging by the indulgence in the Weyrwoman's voice. "How did it happen that she was chosen by the queen and not me?" demanded Robina, standing in front of them, pointing an accusatory finger at Nian. I didn't choose her, Quinth said to Nian, flicking a wingtip at Robina in dismissal. "Well, this is outrageous!" Robina retorted, as she dodged Quinth's wing tip for fear of being pushed onto the hot sands. When she regained her balance, Robina placed her hands on her hips while tapping one toe in the sands. "There are green dragons hatching, Robina," the Weyrwoman said pleasantly, pointing to the right. As Nian glanced in that direction, she saw Orla patting a green dragon with one hand and shoving meat toward it with the other. "They are the most valuable dragons in Threadfall," the Weyrwoman said. "And far more difficult to train. Take a challenge once in your lifetime, Robina. It would do you good." Eyes wide with outrage, Robina stamped toward the exit, head high. Amazingly enough, a shiny wet green dragonet was stumbling after her as fast as it could make its legs go. "Oh, no! Almost all the hatchlings have Impressed. Neru must be a dragonrider — it shouldn't have been me!" Nian protested in an undertone. Looking around for her twin, she found him standing back by his favorite egg. She could see the thin line of a crack on the side bulge of the egg and Neru was crouched beside it, hands balled in fists as he verbally encouraged its occupant. "Come on now, that last crack was a good one. Another one and you'll be out." Nian stuffed another handful of meat into Quinth's mouth and then headed toward her brother. The Weyrwoman held her back, shaking her head. "We have discovered that if an egg doesn't crack on its own, the occupant is probably damaged and it is best to leave nature to take her course." "And let the dragon die?" Nian was appalled. A weyrperson approached them proffering damp towels, one of which the Weyrwoman pressed to the nape of Nian's neck. Nian gasped at the cold feel of it. With her other hand, the Weyrwoman used the other cloth to mop the blood off Nian's face and smeared some numbweed on the bridge of her nose. Embarrassed at being tended by the Weyrwoman herself, Nian gently took the cloth and finished mopping her nose and face. And someone else handed her a second bowl of meat. I am still hungry, Nian, if you don't mind, Quinth told her in no uncertain tones, crossing in front of her. I am sorry I made your nose bleed. A wave of love washed over Nian and she turned adoring eyes on her new lifelong partner. Oh, sorry my love, I forgot! And she shoved a larger than usual handful at her queen. Quinth butted Nian, a nudge that would have been strong enough to make the girl lose her balance if Quinth had not immediately stepped in front of her to prevent her from falling. A Hatchling must break his own shell? she asked her dragon. It shows the strength of the dragon within, Quinth informed her. How do you know that? You're only just hatched yourself. There are things dragons know instinctively about other dragons, Quinth replied with a faint reproof in her mental tone. But my brother has to Impress, Nian said in almost a moan, her eyes on the shell of the egg beside her brother, who was stroking the casing and urging its occupant to try again. It is as hungry as I was, Quinth told Nian. It only needs food. Tell the Weyrwoman so we can break its shell for Neru. There are some things one must do for one's self, Quinth replied. I made it and I was hungry. I am still hungry. As Nian scraped another handful of meat out of the bowl, nearly the last, she had a sudden, decisive idea. "Well, I'll need more food for you then, you splendid bottomless pit," she said aloud and saw that their way to the entrance of the Hatching Ground lay past Neru and the cracked but as yet unbroken shell. "Let's go that way," and she nudged Quinth slightly to one side so they would pass right by the egg in a few steps. As they drew closer, Nian turned to her dragon with beseeching eyes. Now, Quinth dear queen, can you trip me up again as we pass by? Trip you up? Why should I do that? You bleed! Just trip me, Nian repeated, slowing her steps so that she would not pass by her objective. What a strange thing you ask me to do, Quinth replied. You had no trouble doing it before. Do it now! Quinth did so with such energy and precision that Nian fell right across the top of the egg, the heavy bowl in her hands smashing through the eggshell. Immediately a moist bronze head pushed through the opening and, as the hatchling also pushed its shoulders against the front of the shell, he was able to make his way out and onto the sands, peering around him. Then as Neru held his hand out to touch the hatchling's head, the creature looked up, its multi-faceted eyes whirling orange with excitement and its tongue came out and licked Neru's hand. Like a blaze in her head, Nian felt the force of a new personality come between her and the long-term bond with her brother. It was almost as if that bond was being erased and she cried out as she clung weakly to Quinth. But Neru's Impression to the little bronze had been completed. "My dragon's name is Larinth!" Neru shouted loudly for all to hear as tears of joy ran down his cheeks. I'm starving! I'm starving, the little dragon said piteously, butting at Neru to succor him. Do not worry, my brave dragon, I will feed you until you're stuffed full, Neru said as he stroked the ridges above his dragons eyes. "Neru, grab some of this meat and feed your dragon," Nian said, struggling to help her brother and grateful that there was still some meat in her bowl. Quinth roared with anger that her own rider would feed her food to another's dragon. But three riders instantly leaped to help and Nian stuffed Quinth until her mouth was so full that the little queen had to start chewing or choke. Neru was given a full bowl and Nian's was replaced so that very shortly both the gold and the little bronze were contented. H'ran and the Weyrwoman began examining the bronze dragon, opening and closing its wet wing membranes, tapping its chest, checking its legs and tail to be sure it was healthy. "He keeps saying that he was so weak with hunger, it was hard to make the shell crack, but see, he had almost broken through when Nian tripped," Neru was saying, stroking his dragon. "He's wonderful, isn't he?" "He certainly seems whole and healthy," was H'ran's decision, although he looked to the Weyrwoman to see if she agreed. Oh, he is, he is, Quinth said to Nian. "So, was your stumble accidental?" the Weyrwoman asked, looking from Nian to Quinth. "After what I had just told you?" "She was trying to get the last of the meat in the bowl," Nian said, boldly staring back at the Weyrwoman. I am still hungry, Quinth said as if that justified everything. Dutifully, Nian held out another handful, careful to see that every piece went into the queen's mouth. It was sheer luck that I had enough strength to break my own shell, Quinth added, swallowing the last mouthful before she pointed her head at Nian. And then you kept walking away from me! I am sorry, dearling, Nian said as contritely as she could, holding out another handful of meat. I simply never thought that I'd Impress a dragon. "Well, we're all here now, and together," Nian said, "and Larinth looks like a fine fellow." Thank you, Larinth said, his eyes glowing as he regarded Nian and Quinth intently. Beside her, Quinth said quite distincty, You're welcome. Obviously, she didn't like Nian to have much to do with Larinth. But then that's what H’ran had said about newly Impressed dragons. They were jealous of their new partners. "Let us help you toward the barracks then, Nian and Neru, and settle your dragons," the Weyrwoman suggested. "No more staggering into me either, please, Quinth," Nian said, passing her the last of the food in this latest bowl. "Can she have more?" she queried the Weyrwoman dubiously. "She'll probably need it," the Weyrwoman said. "After all, it's a long walk for a newly hatched dragonet." Somehow, Nian did not think she had fooled the Weyrwoman with her desperate ploy but Neru had Impressed a bronze and that was justification enough. Sometimes things just needed a little push to come right. One small detail, Quinth said in a firm mental tone, I am your dragon. And Larinth is your brother's. Let us keep that in order. Of course, dear Quinth, of course. I am all yours. Yes, you are, and Quinth moved as close to Nian as she could. "Hey, watch it, Quinth, you can't sit on my lap, you know," Nian spoke out loud to her dragon. "I've already got a bloody nose and sore ribs from you knocking me about. Can we please make it back to our weyr in an orderly fashion?" And a gentle note crept into Nian's voice that took the sting out of her words. Of course, Quinth replied in a suspiciously demure tone. As they passed H'ran, he put yet another bowl of meat cubes into Nian's hand and gave her the barest smile and a wink that Nian decided to ignore. After all, her plan had worked. Just then, Conna came forward to congratulate Nian. She saw Neru with Larinth and raised her shoulders in a shrug. Nian held her breath. Would Conna tell the Weyrwoman that her twin's candidacy was dubious? At last Conna's eyes met hers. The green rider merely grinned. "It is always what the hatchling decides, my dear," she said kindly. "And I'm very pleased for all your sakes." Nian leaned weakly against her queen for support. And Quinth graciously supported her. She kept a hand on her dragon's neck as they proceeded on their way to the weyrling barracks. Halfway across the Hatching Ground, they saw Robina patiently feeding the little green dragon that had pursued her half across the Bowl to succeed in making Impression. Robina's expression was that of a love-struck young woman, and her little green dragon looked ecstatic. "Well," H'ran said, "I think those two are well suited. And our little queen has done the best for herself. Now I must busy myself to ensure that all my new weyrlings are securely settled in their weyrs; they'll need to sleep. Follow me as you will, young dragonriders. Or should I say follow me, Nian, rider of golden Quinth and, N'ru, rider of bronze Larinth?" H'ran's kindly tone was not lost on the twins and they smiled in unison at the man who would teach them all they'd need to know about dragons. Neru stood all the taller when he heard the Weyrlingmaster use his newly contracted name, the sign to all on Pern that he was, indeed, a dragonrider. As Nian and Neru walked together off the hot sands and toward the weyrs, each closely escorting their dragons, they saw the crowd who had witnessed their Impressions slowly take their leave of the gallery around Ista Weyr's Hatching Ground. Life was returning to normal for those spectators, but it had just begun for Nian and Neru. A pensive air settled over the twins as they encouraged their dragons onward to the weyrling barracks. Both Quinth and Larinth were exhausted as their riders gently steered them toward the nearest unoccupied beds. Quinth settled herself in, and as soon as her head lay on her forelegs, she fell immediately and deeply asleep. With a deep, satisfied sigh, Nian clambered up next to her golden dragon, and rested her head on Quinth's right foreleg, curling her body up close to her dragons. Nian inhaled the dragon's scent; spicy, like the kitchen at Lado before a big Gather. Spicy and slightly meaty, as the little queen breathed down on her rider. And comforting as if they had known each other forever, just as Nian and Neru had known each other all their lives. "Ni?" Nian heard Ru's voice gently calling to her from her left. "Larinth is fast asleep and I just wanted to..." Ru's voice faltered and Nian immediately rose from her perch and found her brother in the passageway. Most of the other new riders were already asleep and several were snoring. "What is it, Ru?" Nian asked, concern coloring her voice. "I... I just wanted to tell you. Oh, Shards! Thanks Ni, for everything you—" "Hush," Nian interrupted her brother. "You don't ever have to thank me. You are my twin." "But I want to, Ni." And he raked a hand through his thick hair before continuing. "Back at Lado, when the dragons came on Search, I was so gobsmacked that the dragons didn't select me right away, I couldn't do or say anything. I..." It was obvious to Nian that her younger brother was struggling to say something of great importance to him. She reached out and clasped his hand tightly, he responded but then gently shook his hand free of her grip. Straightening his shoulders, Neru stood resolutely and looked his sister squarely in the eyes. "I've never felt this before, Ni, but back at Lado I was jealous that the dragons Searched you first and only took me along as an afterthought. I'm sorry, Ni, I've never been jealous of you before in all my life. But when I thought you were going to Impress a dragon and I wouldn't, I — I felt gutted." He lowered his head then, mumbling, "I thought you were stealing my dream." Nian took a step closer to her brother and gently tilted his chin upward until his eyes were forced to meet hers. "But, Ru," Nian exclaimed, "I felt the same way too! I was afraid that I'd steal your dream and leave you — all in the same day! I didn't want our separation to be that way." They looked at each other in silence for a time, and then Ru spoke gently to his twin. "You know, Ni, even though we both have dragons, the moment we Impressed our separation began." "But what do you mean? We're both here in the same weyr," Nian said, suddenly remembering the strange jolt of emotion she felt when Neru Impressed Larinth. "You are a queen rider now, Nian, and I a bronze. You and Quinth may be sent to another Weyr, and I will remain here at Ista. And, as a queen rider, your duties will be far different from mine." He gave a little laugh and then grinned warmly at his sister. "Being dragonriders has more effectively separated us than if we'd been sent to opposite ends of Pern. It's ironic, isn't it?" From Quinth's sleeping ledge, and beyond, where Larinth slept, the twins heard their dragons rumbling. Two large dragon eyes opened, whirling in blue, and peered at them from the darkness of Quinth's bed. Separate you may be, but Larinth and I, your dragons, will always keep you together. You'll never be more than a thought apart — and you'll never be alone, golden Quinth assured the twin dragonriders.