|“||Echoing up from the south, the message drums of River Hold could be heard plainly. Those who could not understand the code caught the fear generated by those who did. Drums were a fine method of communication but too bloody public, Alessan thought savagely.||”|
With this book, McCaffrey jumped 1000 years back in Pern history from the setting of the first book, Dragonflight, to a time memorialized in song and rendered legendary from the standpoint of the previous books.
An air of pleasant anticipation hung so thickly over the Halls, Holds, and Weyrs of Pern that it had affected even the businesslike ways of Moreta, the Weyrwoman of Fort Weyr. Her dragon, Queen Orlith, would soon clutch; spring had made a glorious debut; the Gather at Ruatha Hold was extremely merry; and Moreta was enjoying the attentions of Alessan, the new Lord Holder of Ruatha Hold.
With only eight Turns remaining before the deadly Thread would cease to Fall, all seemed well on Pern.
Then, without warning, a runnerbeast fell ill. Soon myriads of holders, craftsmen, and dragonriders were dying; and the mysterious ailment had spread to all but the most inaccessible holds. Pern was in mortal danger. For, if dragonriders did not rise to char Thread, the parasite would devour any and all organic life it encountered.
The future of the planet rested in the hands of Moreta and the other dedicated, selfless Pern leaders. But of all their problems, the most difficult to overcome was time…
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Towards the end of the Sixth Pass, Moreta, the recently-made Senior Weyrwoman of Fort Weyr, travels with her heavily pregnant queen dragon Orlith to a Gather at Ruatha Hold, held by the new Lord Holder, Alessan — avoiding the Headwoman's complaints about, Fort's Weyrleader, Sh'gall, has gone to convey Lord Ratoshigan of Southern Boll to the Gather at Ista, which is exhibiting a strange animal that was found at sea.
At Ruatha, Lord Alessan helps her down from Orlith, and they decide to be partners for the evening — avoiding the visiting Lord Tolocamp of Fort Hold, who is attempting to introduce the recently-widowed Alessan to one of his daughters. Both Moreta and Alessan — who spent several years breeding runners — go to watch the races. A runner unexpectedly collapses as the second race begins; when it does not rise, Moreta — who studied healing — and Alessan go to check on it, only for it to die — Orlith informs them that its lungs were full of liquid. The runner's corpse is cleared from the field, and Moreta and Alessan go to see Squealer, the specially-bred runner Alessan has entered in the races. As they do, the pair are accidentally doused with dirty water by a handler, forcing Moreta to wash and don temporary clothing in the racemaster's tent.
After watching several more races — and being called away to prove Squealer isn't a sport — Moreta and Alessan head inside the Hold, where Moreta is given a dress to replace the gown that was ruined — apparently to entice her to stay — and guided by Oklina, Alessan's younger sister, to the Dancing Square, where she dances with Alessan — before his mother, Oma, forces him to dance with the visiting ladies, hoping he will find a new wife — and later B'lerion — an old friend from High Reaches Weyr — who later goes off with Oklina. Afterwards, Moreta talks with S'peren, a Fort rider who was attending Ista's Gather, who tells her the people there were unhappy due to a fever spreading across Igen, Keroon and Telgar. Moreta eventually ducks away from the others as food is served, only for Alessan to join her, and the pair later participate in a sprightly dance, in time becoming the only two still dancing. Eventually, Orlith comes to take Moreta back to Fort Weyr.
Meanwhile, at Southern Boll Hold, Masterhealer Capiam diagnoses two men who have abruptly fallen ill, and announces to Lord Ratoshigan and Sh'gall that an epidemic is spreading across Pern — originating from the animal exhibited at several locations including the Istan Gather, infecting human and runner alike. He orders a quarantine at Southern Boll, and gets Sh'gall to convey him to the Harper Hall so he can search the records there and send word to the Western Holds — the Eastern Holds being handled by Talpan, an animal healer. Upon reaching the Harper Hall, Capiam finds himself too tired to work, and thus leaves a note, for 'quarantine order' for the Drummaster before heading to his rooms.
At Fort Weyr, Orlith wakes Moreta; Sh'gall has returned. Moreta goes to see him, and he tells her of the epidemic — he thinks K'lon, who has recently recovered, has brought the sickness to the Weyr. Sh'gall orders Moreta to tell the others, and she gets Orlith to inform the watchrider to isolate the Weyr, before going to talk with Leri, the previous Senior Weyrwoman. Afterwards, she goes to check on K'lon, who is asleep, then to F'neldril, the Weyrlingmaster, to ensure none of the Weyrlings attended the Istan Gather, and finally is conveyed to Berchar, the Weyr Healer by Malth, his weyrmate's dragon, only to find he has fallen ill with the sickness.
At Ruatha, Alessan is informed by his runnerbeast handler, Dag, that a number of runners shipped to Ruatha for the races have fallen ill, and he plans to isolate Alessan's runners. He goes inside to sleep, and is woken by Oma, who informs him more people and runners are sick. Alessan gets up and finds Tolocamp discussing matters with the race manager, and they begin to take precautions, when Capiam's order of quarantine is announced via drums. Alessan immediately starts planning how they will deal with things — such as housing those quarantined at Ruatha Hold, dealing with the sickly and the dead, and sending word to those outside the drum tower network. Tolocamp protests that he must return to Fort to safeguard it, but Alessan orders him to stay another day in case he falls ill.
Meanwhile, at the Healer Hall, Capiam is woken by the sound of drum messages asking about the quarantine, and realises that he has fallen ill with the sickness. Journeywoman Desdra arrives, but he warns her not to enter, and they discuss a possible herbal treatment — based on his observations — before Capiam attempts to sleep.
At Fort Weyr, Sh'gall attempts to prevent the elderly Leri from flying an upcoming Fall in the Queens Wing, only for Moreta to stand up for her. After Sh'gall leaves, Moreta tells Leri to spread the news of the sickness to the ground crews she talks with during the Fall. Moreta then goes to get ready for the fall — over Crom and Nabol Holds — and joins the queenriders in the Lower Caverns, where she answers questions about the sickness — and is informed that Capiam has fallen ill.
The next day, Moreta checks on those preparing to deal with injured dragons and riders, before heading to the Lower Caverns, where the sweeprider reports clear skies for fighting Thread — although Sh’gall berates him for breaking quarantine by talking with a High Reaches rider. The Wings are assembled, and they go Between to Crom, where they fight Thread all the way to Nabol — where Moreta is forced to discipline a weyrling for failing to envision their destination properly. Moreta then returns to Fort Weyr to deal with the injured, where she finds a blue dragon, Dilenth, has obtained a serious wing injury. With the help of his rider's weyrmate, Moreta manages to fix Dilenth's wing.
Following this, Moreta realises K'lon is up and about, and she talks with Nesso, the Headwoman, who reveals that Tolocamp broke quarantine and returned to Fort Hold — which she later discusses with K'lon, who conveyed him — and that the sickness is spreading across Igen, Ista and Telgar. Sh'gall returns in anger, as the holders at Crom and Nabol provided weak ground crews. Drum messages abruptly report the deaths of seven dragonriders, prompting Sh'gall to enquire about a treatment from the Healer Hall. Moreta begins feeling ill, and realises she has the sickness, so she goes to her weyr to sleep — finding that Orlith informed Leri, who has prepared the treatment for her.
Two days later, the Weyrleaders — save Sh'gall, who has fallen ill; S'peren has been sent by Leri in his stead — meet at the Red Butte, to discuss the impact of the sickness — there are sickly people in every Weyr — and what their next move will be. To compensate for their weakened Wings, it is decided to consolidate their forces; each Weyrleader gives a list of the bronzeriders they feel can take control, and they decide the queens will handle communications between the Weyrs, and their riders act as ground crews with the weyrlings. In addition to this, they decide against exploring the uninhabited Southern Continent once the Sixth Pass ends, since the animal responsible for the sickness came from there.
Following the meeting, S'peren returns to Fort Weyr — being run by Leri — and they discuss the decisions, before K'lon returns from his conveyance errands — really an excuse to see his sickly lover A'murry at Igen Weyr. K'lon reports that Capiam has discerned the sickness isn't killing people; infections contracted while they are sick are causing the deaths. After they drug him with fellis so he can rest, Leri and S'peren decide to get weyrlings to do K'lon's work.
The next day, Capiam recovers at the Healer Hall — having spent the time while he was ill musing about the sickness and how to deal with it, while being treated by Desdra, who kept him informed of recent events on Pern — and talks with Masterharper Tirone, noting that knowledge is being lost all over Pern as a result of the deaths. Musing about one of Tirone's words, and remembering a lecture given by a Healer when he was studying, Capiam realises that the blood of those who have recovered from the sickness — including himself — can be turned into a serum.
At Fort Weyr, Moreta recovers — Orlith having shared her pain to ease her sickness — and is told by Orlith that a cure has been discovered for the sickness — identified by Capiam as «Influenza». Leri arrives, and tells her of recent events, and reveals that they've figured out what caused the dragonriders to die — while holders were dying from diseases contracted due to overcrowding, the riders were failing to recover as their dragons were panicking instead of supporting them. Leri then gives Moreta a drugged drink so she'll sleep, and reveals that her family's hold in Keroon has been completely wiped out by the sickness. She also reveals that Ruatha has been hit hard by the sickness, but notes that a number of other Holds are sending aid.
Meanwhile, K'lon delivers serum from Southern Boll to Ruatha, some of which is used to vaccinate Alessan and Oklina — the only survivors of their family — before going to fetch helpers from Benden. When he returns, Follen, the Journeyman Healer, tells him of the death toll — Lord Tolocamp's wife and daughters are dead, and more runners are alive than humans. Alessan — tending the sick — and K'lon discuss the situation and how it's been handled — Alessan also asks about the sickly at Fort Weyr, and K'lon reveals Moreta has recovered — before K'lon heads to Igen Weyr to be with A'murry.
At Fort Weyr, Sh'gall — having recovered — faints while giving blood to make serum from, although he quickly recovers. He then continues to complain to Moreta about every decision that was made during his sickness, until Moreta leaves and goes to Leri, in an unsuccessful attempt to stop the exhausted weyrwoman from flying Fall, where the two end up discussing K'lon, who is retrieving supplies. K'lon arrives with aid from Nerat, and Leri realises he's been timing it — travelling through time, a secret only told to bronze and gold riders — to be with A'murry. K'lon reveals he discovered the method by accident, and Leri and Moreta state they will ensure he has time to visit A'murry from now on so he doesn't have to time it.
Thread falls, and Moreta remains at Fort Weyr since Orlith is so close to clutching. Midway through the Fall, Leri returns to inform Moreta that Falga, the Weyrwoman of High Reaches Weyr, and her dragon Tamianth have become seriously injured — the Healers at High Reaches Weyr who would normally have dealt with such injuries died from the sickness. Leri tells Moreta to ride on Holth to High Reaches Weyr — although Moreta thinks this is a betrayal of Orlith, neither Orlith or Holth think so — so she can treat Tamianth. At High Reaches Weyr, Moreta hastily mends Tamianth's wing and tells those present that it will need subsequent treating, before Holth urgently takes her back to Fort Weyr; Orlith is ready to clutch.
At Fort Hold, Capiam and Tirone fail to convince Lord Tolocamp — who has taken a new wife since the death of Lady Pendra — to open his medicine stores to those outside Fort, or to shift the sickly holders to better quarters. In response, Capiam withdraws his Healers from Fort Hold. As they leave, Nerilka, one of Tolocamp's daughters, takes them to Fort Hold's stores, and allows them to take what they need, if they will take her with them and allow her to help the sick — she feels no loyalty towards her father following his abandonment of her mother. Capiam agrees, and Nerilka — wearing drudge clothing — sneaks into the internment camp as they leave.
At Fort Weyr, Leri recieves word that nobody has managed to treat Tamianth at High Reaches Weyr as Moreta instructed them, and she tells Moreta to take Holth to High Reaches Weyr and aid them. To Moreta's surprise, Holth goes Between to High Reaches Weyr almost immediately after taking flight. At the Weyr, Moreta is met by Diona, a junior weyrwoman, who reveals to Moreta's annoyance that she hasn't conducted the treatment — which involves taking ichor from the wing of a healthy dragon — out of fear of hurting her own dragon. Moreta tends to Tamianth, first realising she's dying of thirst — the delerious Falga is begging for water; those tending her don't realise it's for Tamianth — and later seeing she's bleeding through a wound that wasn't checked. Moreta and several of the new healers deal with these problems, and treat Tamianth's wing using ichor from Kilanath, before leaving the much improved Tamianth in their care, and returning to Fort Weyr — again noticing Holth going Between when barely airborne.
At Ruatha Hold, Alessan struggles to plow the fields with several of the surviving runners. Tuero, a Journeyman Harper who attended Ruatha Hold for the Gather — and later fell ill after delivering quarantine warnings to Ruatha's minor holdings — travels to the northern holds, in an attempt to get the fearful holders to send aid to Ruatha Hold proper. As he returns, Tuero realises they could potentially use the blood of the runners who survived the sickness to vaccinate the runners. Alessan is shocked he didn't think of it sooner, and they send a message to Fort Weyr so they can request Moreta's opinion as a healer — and then consider tracking down and returning Dag and the runners he saved back to Ruatha.
Upon hearing of this, Moreta invites Alessan and Tuero to Fort Weyr — conveyed by M'barak, a weyrling — where they discuss the possiblity of vaccinating runners, which she is also shocked to find nobody has tried. Since Ruatha is waiting for supplies to arrive from Fort, Moreta sends M'barak and Tuero to the store room to get what they need. Alone, Alessan returns Moreta's Gather dress, and the two embrace, weeping at the memory of the Gather, before kissing — to Orlith's approval. They separate before M'barak and Tuero return, and Alessan reveals he fears Squealer may be the last full male runner in Ruatha.
Meanwhile, at the Healer Hall, Capiam reveals that the records show a second wave of sickness will strike Pern in the next few days, and proposes a mass vaccination to protect everyone — starting with the holds in affected areas, and moving to the areas that have escaped the sickness at a later date. Tirone also reveals that he received the log of the ship that found the animal responsible for the sickness, and it states that the animal wasn't found at sea; instead it was captured by the crew of the ship on the Southern Continent, as they attempted to stake a premature claim there. As a result, it is decided to abandon the plan to recolonise the Southern Continent — which would have begun at the end of the Sixth Pass — and Capiam plans to travel to Fort Weyr to recruit dragonriders.
At the same time, Alessan and Tuero return to Ruatha Hold with M'barak, whose dragon Arith becomes interested in Oklina, prompting Tuero to suggest to Alessan that Oklina could Impress Orlith's queen egg. After M'barak leaves, Alessan and Tuero go to create and test their runner vaccine. It seems to work, and Alessan travels north to locate Dag (and his grandson Fergal), who he finds in a nursery field with a large number of surviving runners, many of whom are pregnant mares.
At Fort Weyr, Capiam — having travelled with Desdra and M'barak — tells Moreta about the likelihood of a second wave of sickness, and reveals he has a plan to recruit dragonriders to spread the vaccine to minor holds, the riders timing it — which Capiam knows about from an old Healer record — so that it can be done without requiring too many of them. They decide to travel to Ruatha — despite Moreta's fear of seeing it in ruins — to see if Alessan has come up with a runner vaccine — although they note Moreta will need to be returned to the Weyr soon so she can treat the injured in the upcoming Fall.
Moreta, Capiam and Desdra travel with M'barak to Ruatha, where Alessan confirms they have a runner vaccine, and also that Dag protected enough stock to save Ruatha's runners. Desdra reveals a problem: they don't have enough needlethorn to vaccinate people with, and the plant they flower from, located in Ista and Nerat, doesn't bloom until autumn. Noting the recent arrival of B'lerion- who has come to visit Oklina — Moreta comes up with a plan; they will time it forward in time to Ista — which she is familiar with, having lived at Ista Weyr prior to her transfer to Fort Weyr — and harvest the needlethorns.
B'lerion takes a small group — himself, Moreta, Alessan, Oklina, Capiam and Desdra — forward in time to an uninhabited part of Ista so as to keep their trip secret. Upon arrival, Moreta feels a strange sense of weightlessness and euphoria, but ignores it. The group splits into three — Alessan & Moreta, B'lerion & Oklina, Capiam & Desdra — and begins harvesting needlethorns; Alessan and Moreta use this time to reveal their new-found love for one another. In time, the six regroup to eat, before going to rest in the shade. Alessan tells Moreta of Arith's interest in Oklina, and how he would allow her to stand as a Hatching candidate if her future children were allowed to return to Ruatha as holders, before the two consummate their relationship.
The harvest is soon completed — with plans made to visit Nerat at the same point in time if more needlethorn are needed — but B'lerion forces them all to sleep before they return to Ruatha, lest people guess where they've been from tired expressions and sunburns. As Moreta goes to rest against Nabeth, B'lerion's dragon, she realises the reason behind the strange feelings she had upon arrival in Ista: she's been separated from Orlith for an entire day.
A panicked Orlith calls to Moreta as B'lerion returns the group to Ruatha Hold, revealing that she and Holth had no idea where she had gone — Moreta had told Orlith she was going to Ista, but Orlith was unable to feel her presence there. Having seen the state of Ruatha from above, Alessan plans to get holders to do maintenance work, while he continues to manufacture the vaccine for the runners. B'lerion conveys Capiam and Desdra to the Healer Hall, and M'barak — after unloading from an errand — returns Moreta to Fort Weyr, where she comforts Orlith, and reveals the true nature of the Istan trip to Leri — who requests that Capiam «lose» the records regarding the dragons' ability to travel through time — before they discuss Moreta's planned visit to the other Weyrs — under the pretext of Search for Orlith's eggs, Moreta will travel to the other Weyrs and get their assistance in spreading the vaccine to the holds they protect from Threadfall.
Conveyed by M'barak, Moreta travels first to Benden Weyr where the Weyrleaders offer to help — listing several bronzeriders — then to Ista Weyr, where M'ray, a former weyrmate, speaks with her on behalf of the Weyrleaders, and promises to get them to help. Moreta next stops at Igen Weyr, where the Weyrwoman alone meets her — the Weyrleader is sunken in apathy since his riders transported the animal, and two of his sons died from the sickness — and says she and the other queenriders will help — plus a bronzerider. Moreta next goes to Telgar Weyr, and is stopped at the Rim by the watchrider, who informs her that the Weyrleader, M'tani, has ordered that none are to enter the Weyr. Moreta angrily heads to High Reaches Weyr, where a recovering Falga talks with her, and offers their support — noting that they can cover part of Telgar Weyr's territories, although she is informed that T'grel, a bronzerider from Telgar Weyr, has snuck to Fort Weyr to arrange things with Leri in secret.
At Ruatha Hold, Alessan and his «Loyal Crew» drink wine to congratulate themselves for manufacturing large amounts of vaccine. Tuero is offered a position as Ruatha Hold's Harper, before Alessan falls asleep, and is helped to bed by «Rill», who Tuero is sure he recognises — she is Nerilka, who has made her way to Ruatha Hold.
The next day, the mass vaccination begins. Remaining at Fort Weyr, Moreta makes a number of plans — to force Leri to at last retire to Ista Weyr, to get riders to restock the feeding grounds, and to conduct a proper Search — before Orlith suddenly reports a problem: M'tani has discovered T'grel's plan, and his senior queen is preventing the dragonriders from leaving the Weyr. Levalla, the Weyrwoman at Benden Weyr, arrives — her dragon Oribeth makes Orlith act protective of her eggs — and informs Moreta that riders have been found to deliver vaccine to the minor holds of Telgar, but none have been found to deliver to Keroon. Since Moreta grew up in Keroon, Levalla asks her to deliver the vaccine, Leri abruptly returning to the Weyr as she says so, and telling Moreta to take Holth. Travelling to Keroon Beasthold, Moreta obtains the vaccine and makes a number of runs to the minor holds on the Keroon Plains, timing it all the while. At the conclusion of these runs, the exhausted Moreta and Holth go Between.
At Fort Weyr, K'lon waits for Moreta and Holth's return with Leri and Orlith on the Hatching Grounds. Unexpectedly, Orlith shrieks, and Leri attempts to strangle herself; horrified, K'lon shakes her, stopping her. K'lon's dragon Rogeth tells him Moreta and Holth failed to envision their destination properly due to exhaustion, and have died Between as a result. The dragonriders at Fort Weyr rush in to take care of Leri, and suggest she be taken to her room, but she and Orlith protest — they will remain together until Orlith's eggs hatch, and then they will go Between together.
A month later, K'lon arrives at Fort Hold to convey Capiam and Desdra to the Hatching. He informs them that Leri and Orlith went Between together at dawn. He takes them to Fort Weyr, where a large number of dragons from other Weyrs are sitting on the Rim — many have come to watch the Hatching, including Tirone, who has composed a Ballad about Moreta's Ride, and Alessan, who has since married Nerilka. The dragons signal the beginning of the Hatching by humming, the sheer number of them causing the whole Weyr to vibrate, and Sh'gall leads the candidates — including Oklina — to the Hatching Grounds. The eggs being hatching, and Oklina ultimately Impresses the queen egg, Hannath.