Smallest Dragonboy              


        by Anne McCaffrey      


Although Keevan lengthened his walking stride as far as his legs would stretch, he couldn't quite keep up with the other candidates. He knew he would be teased again.

 Just as he knew many other things that his foster mother told him he ought not to know, Keevan knew that Beterii, the most senior of the boys, set that spank-ing pace just to embarrass him, the smallest dragonboy.  Keevan would arrive, tail fork-end of the group, breathless, chest heaving, and maybe get a stem look from the instructing wing-second.

 Dragonriders, even if they were still only hopeful candidates for the glowing eggs which were hardening on the hot sands of the Hatching Ground cavern, were expected to be punctual and prepared. Sloth was not tolerated by the Weyrleader of Benden Weyr. A good record was especially important now. It was very near hatching time, when the baby dragons would crack their mottled shells, and stagger forth to choose their lifetime companions. The very thought of that glorious moment made Keevan's breath catch in his throat.  To be chosen-to be a dragonrider! To sit astride the neck of a winged beast with jeweled eyes: to be his friend, in telepathic communion with him for life; to be his companion in good times and fighting extremes; to fly effortlessly over the lands of Pem! Or, thrillingly, between to any point anywhere on the world! Flying between was done on dragonback or not at all, and it was dangerous.

 Keevan glanced upward, past the black mouths of the weyr caves in which grown dragons and their chosen riders lived, toward the Star Stones that crowned the ridge of the old volcano that was Benden Weyr. On the height, the blue watch dragon, his rider mounted on his neck, stretched the great transparent pinions that carried him on the winds of Pern to fight the evil Thread that fell at certain times from the skies. The many-faceted rainbow jewels of his eyes glistened fleet-ingly in the greeny sun. He folded his great wings to his back, and the watch pair resumed their statuelike pose of alertness.

Then the enticing view was obscured as Keevan passed into the Hatching Ground cavern. The sands underfoot were hot, even through heavy wher-hide boots. How the bootmaker had protested having to sew so small! Keeven was forced to wonder why being small was reprehensible. People were always calling him "babe" and shooing him away as being "too small" or "too young" for this or that. Keevan was constantly working, twice as hard as any other boy his age, to prove himself capable. What if his muscles weren't as big as Beterli's? They were just as hard. And if he couldn't overpower anyone in a wrestling match, he could outdistance everyone in a footrace.

 "Maybe if you run fast enough," Beterii had jeered on the occasion when Keevan had been goaded to boast of his swiftness, "you could catch a dragon.  That's the only way you'll make a dragonrider!"

 "You just wait and see, Beterii, you just wait," Kee-van had replied. He would have liked to wipe the con-temptuous smile from Beterli's face, but the guy didn't fight fair even when a wingsecond was watching. "No one knows what Impresses a dragon!"

 "They've got to be able to find you first, babe!"

 Yes, being the smallest candidate was not an en-viable position. It was therefore imperative that Kee-van Impress a dragon in his first hatching. That would wipe the smile off every face in the cavern, and accord him the respect due any dragonrider, even the small-est one.

 Besides, no one knew exactly what Impressed the baby dragons as they struggled from their shells in search of their lifetime partners.

 "I like to believe that dragons see into a man's heart," Keevan's foster mother, Mende, told him. "If they find goodness, honesty, a flexible mind, patience, courage-and you've got that in quantity, dear Keevan -that's what dragons look for. I've seen many a well-grown lad left standing on the sands. Hatching Day, in favor of someone not so strong or tall or hand-some. And if my memory serves me"-which it usually did: Mende knew every word of every Harper's tale worth telling, although Keevan did not interrupt her to say so-"I don't believe that F'lar, our Weyr-leader, was all that tall when bronze Mnementh chose him. And Mnementh was the only bronze dragon of that hatching."

 Dreams of Impressing a bronze were beyond Kee-van's boldest reflections, although that goal dominated the thoughts of every other hopeful candidate. Green dragons were small and fast and more numerous.  There was more prestige to Impressing a blue or brown than a green. Being practical, Keevan seldom dreamed as high as a big fighting brown, like Canth, F'nor's fine fellow, the biggest brown on all Pem. But to fly a bronze? Bronzes were almost as big as the queen, and only they took the air when a queen flew at mating time. A bronze rider could aspire to become Weyr-leader! Well, Keevan would console himself, brown rid-ers could aspire to become wingseconds, and that wasn't bad. He'd even settle for a green dragon: they were small, but so was he. No matter! He simply had to Impress a dragon his first time in the Hatching Ground.  Then no one in the Weyr would taunt him anymore for being so small.

Shells, Keevan thought now, but the sands are hot!

 "Impression time is imminent, candidates," the wing-second was saying as everyone crowded respectfully close to him. "See the extent of the striations on this promising egg." The stretch marks were larger than yesterday.

 Everyone leaned forward and nodded thoughtfully.
That particular egg was the one Beterii had marked as his own, and no other candidate dared, on pain of being beaten by Beterii at his first opportunity, to approach it. The egg was marked by a large yellowish splotch in the shape of a dragon backwinging to land, talons outstretched to grasp rock. Everyone knew that bronze eggs bore distinctive markings. And naturally, Beterii, who'd been presented at eight Impressions al-ready and was the biggest of the candidates, had chosen it.

 "I'd say that the great opening day is almost upon us," the wingsecond went on, and then his face assumed a grave expression. "As we well know, there are only forty eggs and seventy-two candidates. Some of you may be disappointed on the great day. That doesn't necessarily mean you aren't dragonrider material, just that the dragon for you hasn't been shelled. You'll have other hatchings, and it's no disgrace to be left behind an Impression or two. Or more."

 Keevan was positive that the wingsecond's eyes rested on Beterii, who'd been stood off at so many Impressions already. Keevan tried to squinch down so the wingsecond wouldn't notice him. Keevan had been reminded too often that he was eligible to be a candi-date by one day only. He, of all the hopefuls, was most likely to be left standing on the great day. One more reason why he simply had to Impress at his first hatching.

 "Now move about among the eggs," the wingsecond said. "Touch them. We don't know that it does any good, but it certainly doesn't do any harm."

 Some of the boys laughed nervously, but everyone immediately began to circulate among the eggs. Berterli stepped up officiously to "his" egg, daring anyone to come near it. Keevan smiled, because he had al-ready touched it-every inspection day, when the oth-ers were leaving the Hatching Ground and no one could see him crouch to stroke it.

 Keevan had an egg he concentrated on, too, one drawn slightly to the far side of the others. The shell had a soft greenish-blue tinge with a faint creamy swirl design. The consensus was that this egg contained a mere green, so Keevan was rarely bothered by rivals.  He was somewhat perturbed then to see Beterii wan-dering over to him.

 "I don't know why you're allowed in this Impression, Keevan. There are enough of us without a babe," Beterii said, shaking his head.

 "I'm of age." Keevan kept his voice level, telling himself not to be bothered by mere words.

 "Yah!" Beterli made a show of standing in his toe-tips. "You can't even see over an egg; Hatching Day, you better get in front or the dragons won't see you at all. 'Course, you could get run down that way in the mad scramble. Oh, I forget, you can run fast, can't you?"

 "You'd better make sure a dragon sees you, this time, Beterli," Keevan replied. "You're almost overage, aren't you?"

 Beterli flushed and took a step forward, hand half-raised. Keevan stood his ground, but if Beterli advanced one more step, he would call the wingsecond.  No one fought on the Hatching Ground. Surely Beterii knew that much.
Fortunately, at that moment, the wingsecond called the boys together and led them from the Hatching Ground to start on evening chores.

There were "glows" to be replenished in the main kitchen caverns and sleeping cubicles, the major hallways, and the queen's apartment. Firestone sacks had to be filled against Thread attack, and black rock brought to the kitchen hearths. The boys fell to their chores, tantalized by the odors of roasting meat. The population of the Weyr began to assemble for the evening meal, and the drag-onriders came in from the Feeding Ground on their sweep checks.

 It was the time of day Keevan liked best: once the chores were done but before dinner was served, a fel-low could often get close enough to the dragonriders to hear their talk. Tonight, Keevan's father, K'last, was at the main dragonrider table. It puzzled Keevan how his father, a brown rider and a tall man, could be his father-because he, Keevan, was so small. It obviously puzzled K'last, too, when he deigned to notice his small son: "In a few more Turns, you'll be as tall as I am or taller!"

 K'last was pouring Benden drink all around the table.
The dragonriders were relaxing. There'd be no Thread attack for three more days, and they'd be in the mood to tell tall tales, better than Harper yams, about im-possible maneuvers they'd done a-dragonback. When Thread attack was closer, their talk would change to a discussion of tactics of evasion, of going between, how long to suspend there until the burning but fragile Thread would freeze and crack and fall harmlessly off dragon and man. They would dispute the exact moment to feed firestone to the dragon so he'd have the best flame ready to sear Thread midair and render it harmless to ground-and man-below. There was such a lot to know and understand about being a drag-onrider that sometimes Keevan was overwhelmed. How would he ever be able to remember everything he ought to know at the right moment? He couldn't dare ask such a question; this would only have given ad-ditional weight to the notion that he was too young yet to be a dragonrider.

 "Having older candidates makes good sense," L'vel was saying, as Keevan settled down near the table.  "Why waste four to five years of a dragon's fighting prime until his rider grows up enough to stand the rigors?" L'vel had Impressed a blue of Ramoth's first clutch. Most of the candidates thought L'vel was mar-velous because he spoke up in front of the older riders, who awed them. "That was well enough in the Interval when you didn't need to mount the full Weyr comple-ment to fight Thread. But not now. Not with more eligible candidates than ever. Let the babes wait."

 "Any boy who is over twelve Turns has the right to stand in the Hatching Ground," K'last replied, a slight smile on his face. He never argued or got angry. Kee-van wished he were more like his father. And oh, how he wished he were a brown rider! "Only a dragon -each particular dragon-knows what he wants in a rider. We certainly can't tell. Time and again the theorists," K'last's smile deepened as his eyes swept those at the table, "are surprised by dragon choice.  They never seem to make mistakes, however."

 "Now, K'last, just look at the roster this Impression.
Seventy-two boys and only forty eggs. Drop off the twelve youngest, and there's still a good field for the hatchlings to choose from. Shells! There are a couple of weyrlings unable to see over a egg much less a dragon! And years before they can ride Thread."

 "True enough, but the Weyr is scarcely under fighting strength, and if the youngest Impress, they'll be old enough to fight when the oldest of our current dragons go between from senility."

 "Half the Weyr-bred lads have already been through several Impressions," one of the bronze riders said then. "I'd say drop some of them off this time. Give the untried a chance."

 "There's nothing wrong in presenting a clutch with as wide a choice as possible," said the Weyrleader, who had joined the table with Lessa, the Weyrwoman.

 "Has there ever been a case," she said, smiling in her odd way at the riders, "where a hatchling didn't choose?"

 Her suggestion was almost heretical and drew astonished gasps from everyone, including the boys.

 F'lar laughed. "You say the most outrageous things, Lessa."

 "Well, has there ever been a case where a dragon didn't choose?"

 "Can't say as I recall one," K'last replied.

 "Then we continue in this tradition," Lessa said firmly, as if that ended the matter.

But it didn't. The argument ranged from one table to the other all through dinner, with some favoring a weeding out of the candidates to the most likely, lopping off those who were very young or who had had multiple opportunities to Impress. All the candi-dates were in a swivet, though such a departure from tradition would be to the advantage of many. As the evening progressed, more riders were favoring eliminating the youngest and those who'd passed four or more Impressions unchosen. Keevan felt he could bear such a dictum only if Beterii were also eliminated. But this seemed less likely than that Keevan would be turfed out, since the Weyr's need was for fighting dragons and riders.

 By the time the evening meal was over, no decision had been reached, although the Weyrleader had promised to give the matter due consideration.

 He might have slept on the problem, but few of the candidates did. Tempers were uncertain in the sleeping caverns next morning as the boys were routed out of their beds to carry water and black rock and cover the "glows." Twice Mende had to call Keevan to order for clumsiness.

 "Whatever is the matter with you, boy?" she demanded in exasperation when he tipped blackrock short of the bin and sooted up the hearth.

 "They're going to keep me from this Impression."

 "What?" Mende stared at him. "Who?"

 "You heard them talking at dinner last night. They're going to tuff the babes from the hatching."

 Mende regarded him a moment longer before touch-ing his arm gently. "There's lots of talk around a supper table, Keevan. And it cools as soon as the supper.
I've heard the same nonsense before every hatching, but nothing is ever changed."

 "There's always a first time," Keevan answered, copying one of her own phrases.

 "That'll be enough of that, Keevan. Finish your job. If the clutch does hatch today, we'll need full rock bins for the feast, and you won't be around to do the filling. All my fosterlings make dragonriders."

 "The first time?" Keevan was bold enough to ask as he scooted off with the rockbarrow.

 Perhaps, Keevan thought later, if he hadn't been on that chore just when Beterii was also fetching black rock, things might have turned out differently. But he had dutifully trundled the barrow to the outdoor bunker for another load just as Beterii arrived on a similar errand.

 "Heard the news, babe?" Beterii asked. He was grinning from ear to ear, and he put an unnecessary emphasis on the final insulting word.

 "The eggs are cracking?" Keevan all but dropped the loaded shovel. Several anxieties flicked through his mind then: he was black with rock dust-would he have time to wash before donning the white tunic of candidacy? And if the eggs were hatching, why hadn't the candidates been recalled by the wingsecond?

 "Naw! Guess again!" Beterli was much too pleased with himself.

 With a sinking heart, Keevan knew what the news must be, and he could only stare with intense desolation at the older boy.

 "C'mon! Guess, babe!"

 "I've no time for guessing games," Keevan managed to say with indifference. He began to shovel black rock into the barrow as fast as he could.

 "I said, guess." Beterli grabbed the shovel.

 "And I said I have no time for guessing games."

 Beterli wrenched the shovel from Keevan's hands.

 "I'll have that shovel back, Beterli." Keevan straightened up, but he didn't come to Beterii's bulky shoulder.  From somewhere, other boys appeared, some with barrows, some mysteriously alerted to the prospect of a confrontation among their numbers.

 "Babes don't give orders to candidates around here, babe!"
Someone sniggered and Keevan, incredulous, knew that he must've been dropped from the candidacy.

 He yanked the shovel from Beterli's loosened grasp.  Snarling, the older boy tried to regain possession, but Keevan clung with all his strength to the handle, dragged back and forth as the stronger boy jerked the shovel about.

 With a sudden, unexpected movement, Beterli rammed the handle into Keevan's chest, knocking him over the barrow handles. Keevan felt a sharp, painful jab behind his left ear, an unbearable pain in his left shin, and then a painless nothingness.

Mende's angry voice roused him, and startled, he tried to throw back the covers, thinking he'd over-slept. But he couldn't move, so firmly was he tucked into his bed. And then the constriction of a bandage on his head and the dull sickishness in his leg brought back recent occurrences.

 "Hatching?" he cried.

 "No, lovey," Mende said in a kind voice. Her hand was cool and gentle on his forehead. "Though there's some as won't be at any hatching again." Her voice took on a stern edge.
Keevan looked beyond her to see the Weyrwoman, who was frowning with irritation.

 "Keevan, will you tell me what occurred at the black-rock bunker?" asked Lessa in an even voice.

 He remembered Beterli now and the quarrel over the shovel and . . . what had Mende said about some not being at any hatching? Much as he hated Beterli, he couldn't bring himself to tattle on Beterli and force him out of candidacy.

 "Come, lad," and a note of impatience crept into the Weyrwoman's voice. "I merely want to know what happened from you, too. Mende said she sent you for black rock. Beterli-and every WeyrUng in the cavern-seems to have been on the same errand. What happened?"

 "Beterli took my shovel. I hadn't finished with it."

 "There's more than one shovel. What did he say to you?"

 "He'd heard the news."

 "What news?" The Weyrwoman was suddenly amused.

 "That... that... there'd been changes."

 "Is that what he said?"

 "Not exactly"

 "What did he say? C'mon, lad, I've heard from everyone else, you know."

 "He said for me to guess the news."

 "And you fell for that old gag?" The Weyrwoman's irritation returned.

 "Consider all the talk last night at supper, Lessa," Mende said. "Of course the boy would think he'd been eliminated."

 "In effect, he is, with a broken skull and leg." Lessa touched his arm in a rare gesture of sympathy. "Be that as it may, Keevan, you'll have other Impressions.  Beterli will not. There are certain rules that must be observed by all candidates, and his conduct proves him unacceptable to the Weyr."

 She smiled at Mende and then left.

 "I'm still a candidate?" Keevan asked urgently.

 "Well, you are and you aren't, lovey," his foster mother said. "Is the numbweed working?" she asked, and when he nodded, she said, "You just rest. I'll bring you some nice broth."

 At any other time in his life, Keevan would have relished such cosseting, but now he just lay there wor-rying. Beterli had been dismissed. Would the others think it was his fault? But everyone was there! Beterli provoked that fight. His worry increased, because al-though he heard excited comings and goings in the passageway, no one tweaked back the curtain across the sleeping alcove he shared with five other boys.  Surely one of them would have to come in sometime.  No, they were all avoiding him. And something else was wrong. Only he didn't know what.

 Mende returned with broth and beachberry bread.  "Why doesn't anyone come see me, Mende? I haven't done anything wrong, have I? I didn't ask to have Beterli tuffed out."

 Mende soothed him, saying everyone was busy with noontime chores and no one was angry with him. They were giving him a chance to rest in quiet. The numbweed made him drowsy, and her words were fair enough. He permitted his fears to dissipate. Until he heard a hum. Actually, he felt it first, in the broken shin bone and his sore head. The hum began to grow.  Two things registered suddenly in Keevan's groggy mind: the only white candidate's robe still on the pegs in the chamber was his; and the dragons hummed when a clutch was being laid or being hatched. Impres-sion! And he was flat abed.
Bitter, bitter disappointment turned the warm broth sour in his belly. Even the small voice telling him that he'd have other opportunities failed to alleviate his crushing depression. This was the Impression that mattered! This was his chance to show everyone, from Mende to K'last to L'vel and even the Weyrieader that he, Keevan, was worthy of being a dragonrider.

He twisted in bed, fighting against the tears that threatened to choke him. Dragonmen don't cry! Dragonmen learn to live with pain.

 Pain? The leg didn't actually pain him as he rolled about on his bedding. His head felt sort of stiff from the tightness of the bandage. He sat up, an effort in itself since the numbweed made exertion difficult. He touched the splinted leg; the knee was unhampered.  He had no feeling in his bone, really. He swung himself carefully to the side of his bed and stood slowly.

 The room wanted to swim about him. He closed his eyes, which made the dizziness worse, and he had to clutch the wall.

 Gingerly, he took a step. The broken leg dragged. It hurt in spite of the numbweed, but what was pain to a dragonman?
No one had said he couldn't go to the Impression. "You are and you aren't," were Mende's exact words.

 Clinging to the wall, he jerked off his bedshirt.  Stretching his arm to the utmost, he jerked his white candidate's tunic from the peg. Jamming first one arm and then the other into the holes, he pulled it over his head. Too bad about the belt. He couldn't wait. He hobbled to the door, hung on to the curtain to steady himself. The weight on his leg was unwieldy. He wouldn't get very far without something to lean on.  Down by the bathing pool was one of the long crooknecked poles used to retrieve clothes from the hot washing troughs. But it was down there, and he was on the level above. And there was no one nearby to come to his aid: everyone would be in the Hatching Ground right now, eagerly waiting for the first egg to crack.

 The humming increased in volume and tempo, an urgency to which Keevan responded, knowing that his time was all too limited if he was to join the ranks of the hopeful boys standing around the cracking eggs.  But if he hurried down the ramp, he'd fall flat on his face.

 He could, of course, go flat on his rear end, the way crawling children did. He sat down, sending a jarring stab of pain through his leg and up to the wound on the back of his head. Gritting his teeth and blinking away tears, Keevan scrabbled down the ramp. He had to wait a moment at the bottom to catch his breath.  He got to one knee, the injured leg straight out in front of him. Somehow, he managed to push himself erect, though the room seemed about to tip over his ears. It wasn't far to the crooked stick, but it seemed an age before he had it in his hand.

 Then the humming stopped!

 Keevan cried out and began to hobble frantically across the cavern, out to the bowl of the Weyr. Never had the distance between living caverns and the Hatching Ground seemed so great. Never had the Weyr been so breathlessly silent. It was as if the multitude of peo-ple and dragons watching the hatching held every breath in suspense. Not even the wind muttered down the steep sides of the bowl. The only sounds to break the stillness were Keevan's ragged gasps and the thump-thud of his stick on the hard-packed ground. 

Sometimes he had to hop twice on his good leg to maintain his balance. Twice he fell into the sand and had to pull himself up on the stick, his white tunic no longer spotless. Once he jarred himself so badly he couldn't get up immediately.

 Then he heard the first exhalation of the crowd, the oohs, the muted cheer, the susurrus of excited whispers.  An egg had cracked, and the dragon had chosen his rider. Desperation increased Keevan's hobble. Would he never reach the arching mouth of the Hatching Ground?

 Another cheer and an excited spate of applause spurred Keevan to greater effort. If he didn't get there in moments, there'd be no unpaired hatchling left.  Then he was actually staggering into the Hatchling Ground, the sands hot on his bare feet.

 No one noticed his entrance or his halting progress.  And Keevan could see nothing but the backs of the white-robed candidates, seventy of them ringing the area around the eggs. Then one side would surge for-ward or back and there'd be a cheer. Another dragon had been Impressed. Suddenly a large gap appeared in the white human wall, and Keevan had his first sight of the eggs. There didn't seem to be any left uncracked, and he could see the lucky boys standing beside wobble-legged dragons. He could hear the unmistak-able plaintive crooning of hatchlings and their squawks of protest as they'd fall awkwardly in the sand.

 Suddenly he wished that he hadn't left his bed, that he'd stayed away from the Hatching Ground. Now everyone would see his ignominious failure. So he scrambled as desperately to reach the shadowy walls of the Hatching Ground as he had struggled to cross the bowl. He mustn't be seen.
He didn't notice, therefore, that the shifting group of boys remaining had begun to drift in his direction.

 The hard pace he had set himself and his cruel disap-pointment took their double toll of Keevan. He tripped and collapsed sobbing to the warm sands. He didn't see the consternation in the watching Weyrfolk above the Hatching Ground, nor did he hear the excited whis-pers of speculation. He didn't know that the Weyr-leader and Weyrwoman had dropped to the arena and were making their way toward the knot of boys slowly moving in the direction of the entrance.

"Never seen anything like it," the Weyrleader was saying. "Only thirty-nine riders chosen. And the bronze trying to leave the Hatching Ground without making Impression."

 "A case in point of what I said last night," the Weyrwoman replied, "where a hatchling makes no choice because the right boy isn't there."

 "There's only Beterli and K'last's young one missing.  And there's a full wing of likely boys to choose from. . ."

 "None acceptable, apparently. Where is the creature going? He's not heading for the entrance after all.  Oh, what have we there, in the shadows?"

 Keevan heard with dismay the sound of voices nearing him. He tried to burrow into the sand. The mere thought of how he would be teased and taunted now was unbearable.

 Don't worry! Please don't worry! The thought was urgent, but not his own.

 Someone kicked sand over Keevan and butted roughly against him.

 "Go away. Leave me alone!" he cried.

 Why? was the injured-sounding question inserted into his mind. There was no voice, no tone, but the question was there, perfectly clear, in his head.

 Incredulous, Keevan lifted his head and stared into the glowing jeweled eyes of a small bronze dragon. His wings were wet, the tips drooping in the sand. And he sagged in the middle on his unsteady legs, al-though he was making a great effort to keep erect.

 Keevan dragged himself to his knees, oblivious of the pain in his leg. He wasn't even aware that he was ringed by the boys passed over, while thirty-one pairs of resentful eyes watched him Impress the dragon.

 The Weynnen looked on, amused, and surprised at the draconic choice, which could not be forced. Could not be questioned. Could not be changed.

 Why? asked the dragon again. Don't you like me?  His eyes whirled with anxiety, and his tone was so piteous that Keevan staggered forward and threw his arms around the dragon's neck, stroking his eye ridges, patting the damp, soft hide, opening the fragile-looking wings to dry them, and wordlessly assuring the hatch-ling over and over again that he was the most perfect, most beautiful, most beloved dragon in the Weyr, in all the Weyrs of Pem.

 "What's his name, K'van?" asked Lessa, smiling warmly at the new dragonrider. K'van stared up at her for a long moment. Lessa would know as soon as he did. Lessa was the only person who could "receive" from all dragons, not only her own Ramoth. Then he gave her a radiant smile, recognizing the traditional shortening of his name that raised him forever to the rank of dragonrider.

 My name is Heth, the dragon thought mildly, then hiccuped in sudden urgency. I'm hungry.

 "Dragons are born hungry," said Lessa, laughing.  "F'lar, give the boy a hand. He can barely manage his own legs, much less a dragon's."

 K'van remembered his stick and drew himself up.
"We'll be Just fine, thank you."

 "You may be the smallest dragonrider ever, young K'van," Flar said, "but you're one of the bravest!"

 And Heath agreed! Pride and joy so leaped in both chests that K'van wondered if his heart would burst right out of his body. He looped an arm around Heth's neck and the pair, the smallest dragonboy and the hatchling who wouldn't choose anybody else, walked out of the Hatching Ground together forever.