|“||His [Jaxom] birth had been as bizarre as Ruth’s Hatching—he from a dead mother’s body, Ruth from an eggshell too hard for the half-sized beak to break. Ruth was a dragon, but not weyrbred. He was Lord Holder, but not confirmed so.||”|
The first part of the novel was published three years earlier as A Time When, a special publication by the New England Science Fiction Association for its annual convention Boskone in 1975, where McCaffrey was Guest of Honor.
The White Dragon placed third for the annual Locus Award for Best Novel and it was one of five nominees for the annual Hugo Award for Best Novel. It won the Gandalf Award for Book-Length Fantasy and the Australian Ditmar Award for international fiction.
The American Library Association in 1999 cited the two early Pern trilogies (Dragonriders and Harper Hall), along with The Ship Who Sang, when McCaffrey received the annual Margaret A. Edwards Award for her «lifetime contribution in writing for teens».
Never had there been as close a bonding as the one that existed between the young Lord Jaxom and his extraordinary white dragon, Ruth. Pure white and incredibly agile, Ruth possessed remarkable qualities. Not only could he communicate with the iridescent, fluttering fire lizards, but he could fly. Back in time to any WHEN with unfailing accuracy. Nearly everyone else on Pern thought Ruth was a runt who would never amount to anything, but Jaxom knew his dragon was special. In secret they trained to fight against the burning threads from the Red Planet, to fly Back in time as well as Between, and finally their close and special union was to result in the most startling and breathtaking discovery of all…
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Several turns after the events of Dragonquest, young Lord Jaxom of Ruatha Hold is allowed to fly for the first time on his white Dragon, Ruth, who, despite his small size, is believed to have reached his full growth. He does so — under close supervision — and plans are made for him to receive additional training with Ruth, although he won't be allowed to fly Thread, lest he perish young and create chaos over the succession of Ruatha. In the aftermath, those assembled to watch discuss a new problem on Pern: that of Lord Holders with sons who have no holds to take leadership of. The Lord Holders desire to expand into the Southern Continent, but that's not possible at present, as F'lar effectively ceded control of it to the banished Oldtimers. As a temporary fix, Masterharper Robinton proposes a group be formed of young people from Hold and Craft which would allow them to teach one another their skills. They decide that Jaxom will join these people when is more skilled at flying Ruth, but in the meantime, more people his age will be fostered at Ruatha Hold.
A few turns later, Robinton and Toric of Southern Hold travel to Benden Weyr to report on the situation in the Southern Continent; Toric reveals his people are slowly expanding their lands, and Robinton notes he and Menolly inadvertantly discovered the Southern Continent was much bigger than they thought after being blown off course into a cove to the east. As Toric needs more men to help him expand, Robinton manages to convince him to take the aforementions young people. As they discuss how they'll be sent south, F'lar tells Toric that his hold's borders will be set once the Oldtimers are gone from Southern Weyr.
Two turns later, during the Fifteenth Turn of the Ninth Pass, Jaxom storms out of Ruatha Hold in anger at the way people treat Ruth. He and Ruth retreat to the Ice Lake above Ruatha Hold, and Jaxom realises his anger comes from the fact that he isn't being allowed to be a Dragonrider or a Holder — as Lytol still rules in his place. Ruth soon reveals that N'ton is waiting for them at the Smithcrafthall — where Jaxom is to attend classes with others his age from Hold, Hall and Weyr — and he times it back to meet with him — using the image from N'ton's fire lizard Tris. At the Smithcrafthall, Jaxom voices his complaints to N'ton, prompting the Fort Weyrleader to offer to talk with Lytol, F'lar and Lessa about the possiblity of letting Jaxom train with the weyrlings at Fort Weyr. Before he leaves, N'ton warns Jaxom not to get caught feeding Ruth firestone and to be careful if he flies between time. After this, Jaxom attends the class, a presentation by Starsmith Wansor about how stars can be used to predict Thread. During a break with Menolly, Jaxom ends up talking about fire lizards, who are fascinated by Ruth and often hang around him, telling him stories and giving him images. Menolly reveals that a number of fire lizards are giving images of a single egg outside of a Weyr in the Southern Continent.
Prompted by N'ton's words, Jaxom later decides to train Ruth in using firestone, and gets Brand — the Hold Steward — to stop people sending fire lizards to check on him and Ruth at all times, suggesting they may end up spreading gossip about any of his actions. Later that day, Jaxom and Lytol — and Tordril, one of the fosterlings — travel across Ruatha to deliver seeds to the holders. At one stop, Plateau Hold, Jaxom meets Corana, the sister of the resident holder, who he realises he could pretend to be spending time with to cover his excursions. The next day, he returns to Plateau Hold with more seed, before taking Ruth aside and teaching him to to chew firestone. After this, he spends some time with Corana, and then returns to Ruatha Hold. In the evening, Ruth complains of stomach pains, and Jaxom realises he forgot to get Ruth to expel the firestone ash. Ruth ultimately disgorges it in their chambers, but Jaxom is able to clean up the mess before anyone can catch him.
After this, Jaxom continues training Ruth — this time in an empty region of Keroon Hold — and spending time with Corana. Some time later, while on an errand to the Harper Hall, Jaxom finds the area in chaos and learns from Menolly that Oldtimer dragonriders from Southern Weyr — assisted by fire lizards keeping watch have entered the Hatching Grounds at Benden Weyr and stolen the queen egg of Ramoth's latest clutch. Attempts to retrieve it from Southern Weyr fail when the location is found to be deserted, but a mysterious figure returns it to Benden Weyr not long afterwards, unharmed, but at least ten days older. Lessa demands retaliation, but Robinton talks her out of it by mentioning that this would set Dragon against Dragon. In the aftermath, the Weyrleaders meet and decide to take no action against the Oldtimers, and Menolly comes up with a way to prevent a repeat of this, having all fire lizards — who have since become fearful after one of their number was supposedly flamed by an Oldtimer Dragon — marked with the colours of their holds, and requiring them to check in with Brekke at Benden Weyr.
A few days later, Jaxom finds Ruth angry at the fire lizards lingering around him, and learns that they supposedly saw him taking Ramoth's egg. After pressing Ruth for more information from the fire lizards, Jaxom concludes that the fire lizards actually saw Ruth returning the egg. After first traveling to the Great Dunto River to disguise themselves with the mud from the river, Jaxom and Ruth use the fire lizards' images to time it back to where the Oldtimers are keeping the egg. They retrieve it and make their way through time to their training point in Keroon, only to realise Thread is falling. In their rush to leave, both Jaxom and Ruth get minor Threadscores, but they manage to return the egg to Benden Weyr. After traveling to the Ice Lake and washing off their mud disguise, Jaxom and Ruth return to Ruatha Hold to get numbweed. Lytol arrives not long afterwards and quickly recognises the injuries for what they are, but simply says he needs to learn how to avoid Thread in future before taking him upstairs to meet with Robinton, Menolly and N'ton, where Lytol requests Jaxom be allowed to join the weyrlings at Fort Weyr. Following this, Robinton talks with them about a number of issues, including the impending death of Fanna, the Oldtimer Weyrwoman of Ista Weyr, and the discovery of ancient artifacts in the Southern Continent.
The next day, Jaxom begins training at Fort Weyr, while still studying at the Smithcrafthall — and taking time to visit Corana. Eventually, he takes Menolly to attend the Hatching of Ramoth's clutch, and in the aftermath, he ends up attending a meeting between the assembled Lord Holders, Craftmasters and Weyrleaders, where Ista Weyrleader D'ram reveals he is planning to step down as Weyrleader when Fanna dies, and will invoke an old custom to choose his successor, the riders involved in the next queen Dragon mating flight will replace him. Although he opens the flight to residents of any Weyr, he expects his son G'dened — technically an Oldtimer — will succeed him, with Cosira becoming the next Weyrwoman.
Fanna dies not long afterwards, and Jaxom tries to soothe Lytol — remembering the loss of his own Larth — by getting him drunk. The next day, F'lar discovers that D'ram is missing, and rushes to the Harper Hall to retrieve Robinton. F'lar guesses that D'ram hasn't suicided, but has instead timed it back to a location, and Robinton remembers that he once described in detail the cove he and Menolly discovered to D'ram, and they assume that may be his location. Robinton notes that they could see if the fire lizards «remember» seeing D'ram at a certain point in time, and they decide to recruit Jaxom and Menolly to investigate. Travelling to the cove a day later, Ruth makes contact with a group of wild fire lizards, and learns they saw D'ram — in addition to this, the fire lizards cryptically report that they once saw «men». Jaxom and Ruth quickly travel between times and locate a sleeping D'ram, so they return to their own time to retrieve Menolly and report to Benden Weyr.
At Benden Weyr, Jaxom suddenly becomes exhausted from the effort of timing it, and they decide to make him and Ruth spend the night at the Weyr. Lessa briefly becomes alarmed when she recognises Jaxom's Threadscore injury, but F'lar manages to calm her down, and ensure that Jaxom won't repeat the feat that caused it. After reporting on D'ram's location, Jaxom tells F'lar and Lessa about the «men» seen by the fire lizards. Not long afterwards, F'lar reveals to Jaxom that they have a secret plan to settle the Southern Continent with dragonriders before anybody else, so that they'll be able to support the Weyrs without having to resort to tithing.
The next day, Menolly and Mirrim wake Jaxom so that F'lar and Lessa can get D'ram's location from Ruth. Jaxom and Mirrim end up insulting each other — Mirrim calling Ruth a «white runt» — and Mirrim leaves, and not long afterwards F'lar and Lessa return with D'ram. Robinton arrives with Sebell — his own apprentice — and Jaxom discovers that he and Menolly are in a relationship. Jaxom prepares to return to Ruatha Hold, but instead goes to Plateau Hold, where he and Corana make love; Ruth sharing their feelings. Some time afterwards, Jaxom becomes concerned about Ruth's sexual maturity, as he doesn't appear to be interested in mating, having misunderstood a remark about Mirrim's Dragon Path being «ready to fly», and also not responding to two green mating flights at Fort Weyr. During the latter of these, Jaxom becomes affected by the emotions of the green Dragon, and the Weyrlingmaster lets him leave, but Ruth takes him to Corana and the two — unexpectedly, in Corana's case — make love again. The next day, Jaxom is remorseful at his act, and isn't sure if he wants to continue being Corana's lover, although Ruth abruptly reveals that he knows Corana enjoyed their love-making; he could sense her thoughts while they were together.
Later that day, while drawing an image of the cove on the Southern Continent, Jaxom is told by Lytol that he's been invited to fight Thread with Fort Weyr. Lytol notices the image before leaving, and obliquely gives Jaxom permission to return to the cove to improve the image, so Jaxom decides to head there after the fall. Despite having developed what seems to be a cold, Jaxom heads to Fort Weyr, and ends up flying with the Queens' Wing. In the aftermath, despite feeling sick, he decides to take Ruth back to the cove on the Southern Continent.
A long time later, Jaxom wakes and finds himself being treated by Brekke and Sharra, a sister of Toric. Jaxom learns that he and Menolly both contracted «fire-head fever» — a disease unique to the Southern Continent — during their initial trip to the cove. As he recovers, he learns that he was sick for sixteen days and nearly died, but Ruth saved him by calling for help when he initially collapsed at the cove. In addition to this, he begins falling in love with Sharra. Lytol is eventually brought to see him, and he hugs Jaxom when he sees he's alive.
Not long after a Threadfall over the cove — flown by a group of fire lizards, F'nor, D'ram and Ruth, who does a running commentary — D'ram recieves word that Cosira's queen Caylith is about to rise at Ista Weyr. He rushes to attend, and at the same time, Robinton is woken at the Harper Hall and taken to Ista Weyr by D'fio — with whom he makes a secret bet that G'dened's Barnath will fly Caylith. At Ista Weyr, Southern Weyrleader T'kul and B'zon arrive from Southern Weyr, claiming that they have the right to participate as D'ram threw the flight open. The others warn him that his Dragon Salth is too old and will likely die trying to catch Caylith, but he isn't concerned. He then reveals that the situation at Southern Weyr is bad; all the female dragons are either dead or too old to rise, and the males are suffering as a result.
During the flight, Salth overexerts himself and dies, and in his grief, T'kul turns on F'lar with a skinning knife — which Robinton soon realises was his plan from the start. Mnementh briefly bars access to their fight, but Robinton manages to get past, and watches F'lar eventually overpower and kill T'kul. Immediately afterwards, Robinton has a heart attack — having had chest pains as far back as the meeting with Toric at Benden Weyr — and collapses; the others notice and rush to get help, but the combined Dragons of Pern speak to him and prevent him from losing conciousness until Oldive can arrive and treat him. In the aftermath, D'ram decides to travel to the Southern Continent, take over Southern Weyr, and bring things back to normal. Sebell is also set to replace Robinton as Masterharper of Pern. At the same time, Ruth reports the news to those at the cove, and Brekke decides to travel to Ista to help. Jaxom offers to take her, but learns that the cold of between can cause blindness and death to those who have — or have been recently infected with — «fire-head». Brekke travels alone on Ruth, and not long after she leaves, Jaxom and Sharra encounter Piemur, who reveals he's been secretly exploring and mapping the Southern Continent coastline for the last few Turns.
A few days later, a plan is made to build a minor hold at the cove for Robinton to live in, and a number of craftsmen and dragonriders come to help, resulting in «Cove Hold» being completed after fourteen days work. While this work is going on, Lord Groghe of Fort Hold meets with N'ton and Sebell to discuss setting up holdings in the Southern Continent. Ultimately, he is willing to wait for permission from Benden Weyr, so N'ton and Sebell travel there to report this. After examining a map made by residents of Southern Hold, they note that the western half of the Southern Continent — west of the «Black Rock River» — would be enough for holders, while the dragonriders could take the land to the east, which is reportedly the best part of the Southern Continent. With this in mind, N'ton, Sebell and F'lar begin overseeing an influx of holders' sons to Southern Hold. During this time, Robinton is brought south on the Dawn Sister, Masterfisherman Idarolan's fastest vessel. Menolly accompanies him, and the two almost share a moment together — Robinton and Menolly both love each other, but Robinton knew he was too old for her, and thus ensured she fell in love with Sebell instead.
Robinton soon arrives at Cove Hold, and is shown around his new home. At the same time, Jaxom learns he's now well enough to fly between again, and the next day, Robinton recruits him and the others to begin exploring the surrounding area for evidence of sites established by their distant ancestors. Robinton also brings attention to a problem with a series of stars known as «The Dawn Sisters» — something he noticed while travelling south, and which was even mentioned to Wansor during his presentation at the Smithcrafthall — which don't seem to behave like normal stars. Fandarel and Wansor arrive with a newly-constructed distance-viewer to inspect the Dawn Sisters with, and they soon discover that they are artificial objects.
The next day, Jaxom wakes early from a dream of a volcanic eruption. Having had similar dreams beforehand, Jaxom wonders if he's actually seeing memories passed down from the fire lizards who rest nearby, and he decides to explore the mountain that corresponds with the one in his dream. Sharra, Menolly and Piemur end up joining him, and after some time in the air, they reach the other side of the mountain, and find evidence of a vast buried settlement on the side of a plateau. Thread begins to fall, prompting them to make a hasty return to Cove Hold, where they end up in trouble for their trip. Despite this, the others decide to investigate, and they begin surveying the various mounds that indicate buried buildings, and they begin making plans for excavation.
Later, at Cove Hold, after a meeting between the various Weyrleaders, Jaxom walks with N'ton to their dragons, and remains with Ruth while N'ton continues on to find Mirrim, aiding Wansor with his stargazing. Mirrim begins complaining about being excluded from the excavation plans, and, not realising Jaxom is nearby, calls Ruth an «an unsexed runt, fit only for cavorting with fire lizards». She also reveals that N'ton never thought Ruth would mate, before realising Jaxom's presence and fleeing — later being sent back to Benden Weyr. N'ton goes to Jaxom and confirms this, and tells him he was planning to talk with him about this, but his sickness made an opportunity impossible. After N'ton leaves, Sharra approaches, having been called by Ruth. Sharra reveals that she's been able to hear him ever since Jaxom got ill, and Ruth requests that they make love to open up Jaxom's mind and undo the damage done by Mirrim's remarks.
The next day, Ruth manages to get enough images from the fire lizards for them to figure out where to start digging, and the day after that, they begin excavating three buildings, joined by F'lar and Lessa, amongst others. Toric joins their team, and Sharra reveals to Jaxom that he plans to marry her off and won't consider Jaxom due to the problems he had with the Holders' sons who've already come south. Despite this, Jaxom assures her they'll be together. Not long afterwards, their groups reorganise to excavate one mound at a time — aided by dragons — and they unearth one building that appears to have been the living quarters of one of their ancestors. After digging up another small building, they return to Cove Hold. While alone with Sharra, Jaxom finally realises his responsibilities to Ruatha — spurred by words said to him by Lessa during the excavation — and returns to the Hold — in the midst of winter — to discuss being confirmed in his rank. In addition to this, he requests that Lytol travel south so that he can aid in the excavation of the Plateau.
Following this, Jaxom returns to Cove Hold, and begins exploring again, searching for a location that the ancients could have fled to after abandoning the Plateau, and he and Ruth eventually come across a meadow with three oddly-shaped mounds. As they land, the fire lizards there give them images of men coming out of the sky in «grey cylinders», which are now buried under the mounds. After some time excavating the entrance, Jaxom and Ruth return to Cove Hold, where they get the others to help them gain access — save for Sharra, who has been recalled to Southern Hold to aid with a sickness. With Fandarel's help, they manage to enter one of the vehicles, and discover a room full of maps of Pern, and the solar system it's a part of. Jaxom is set to copy the maps while the others continue the excavation of the Plateau, and he realises that they're glad that Toric doesn't really know the full extent of the Southern Continent.
The next day, Robinton, F'lar and Lessa discuss dealing with Toric's holdings, before traveling to the Plateau. As Toric arrives, Jaxom approaches Robinton and reveals that Sharra — who spoke to Ruth — has been taken back to Southern Hold under trickery and is to be married to someone. Jaxom promptly confronts Toric, but Lessa and F'lar intervene, and take him away to formally make him a Lord Holder — and to confirm his hold borders, which at present go as far as the Great Bay in the west and the Western Barrier Ranges in the south. While they're doing this, Jaxom gets Ruth to tell Sharra to meet him at Southern Weyr's Hatching Grounds — where Ramoth's egg was hidden — and he rescues her, before returning to the Plateau. Confronting Toric again, he tells him he won't be able to keep Sharra away, and demonstrates Ruth's ability to command the other fire lizards. After Jaxom reveals he returned Ramoth's egg, Toric gives up, allowing Sharra and Jaxom to marry.
Much later, when spring comes to Ruatha, Jaxom is formally confirmed as Lord Holder. At the same time, Robinton reveals they've discovered why their ancestors abandoned the Southern Continent, one of the maps in the shuttle showed the geological stability of Pern, and the Northern Continent was much more stable than the south.
- The earlier chapters of the book have a number of dating inconsistencies; see the main «Inconsistencies» page for a full explanation.
- In an earlier chapter of the book, the Dawn Sisters are referred to by the name «the Day Sisters».