Training and Fighting Dragons
by Todd Johnson
Dragon and rider start their destiny inauspiciously: as creeling, frightened dragonet and timorous, white-robed Candidate. Confused, dazed, and finally fused
in the bonding of Impression, the pair are just barely capable of locomotion—often one has to carry the other off the Hatching Grounds. Yet in little more than a year the dragonpair can be expected
to form part of a Fighting Wing. Preparing the Weyrlings is the responsibility of the Weyrlingmaster.
The Weyrlingmaster's importance is awesome: At any time he may have up to ninety Weyrlings in his charge. The Weyrlingmaster is chosen by the Weyrleader as the
dragonrider best able to train new riders to fight Thread. Normally the Weyrleader consults with his Wingleaders before making his selection. Once chosen, a Weyrlingmaster remains in the position
until he stands down or dies. Historically, Weyrlingmasters often stand down after only a few years of service, many returning to duty with the Wings.
The bemused, newly Impressed dragonpairs are led from the Hatching Grounds to the Weyrling Barracks, a place set off from the rest of the Weyr. Young dragons,
and occasionally young riders, are given to excesses (emotional, culinary, even sexual) that often result in a distressed dragon and rider. Inflicting such emotions
upon the rest of a Fighting Weyr could have disastrous consequences, so the young Weyrlings live apart.
Confused, often overwhelmed by the intensity of the Impressment, and distressed by the ravenous hunger of their new partners, the human half of the dragonpairs
look to the Weyrlingmaster and his helpers to provide them with food for their hungry dragons. Once they have eaten, the helpers then guide them into the Weyrling Barracks. Here, finally sated, the
newly Hatched dragons promptly fall asleep. This common first surge of eating and sleeping is usually accompanied by the stretching and itching of the dragonets' skin. From then on the young humans
must oil their dragon partners daily.
Each Weyrling's name has already been shortened into the dragonrider's honorific, by which he will be known for the rest of his life: Felessan to F'lessan,
Naton to N'ton. The shorter name is not only a signal that the boy has Impressed a dragon, but also a time-saver for the Wingleaders, who must shout orders across dragonlengths while the dragons fly
While their dragons are maturing, the Weyrlingmaster assigns duties and drills to the young riders. These duties include most of the standard duties that
everyone in the Weyr must perform: making clothes, casting cookware, collecting medicinal herbs, tending Weyr flocks, or even cleaning latrines. The drills, while tiresome and boring, are designed to
turn dragon and rider into a fighting team capable of becoming part of the larger team that is the Wing.
Many of the first and most arduous experiences a Weyrling rider faces are drills combined with the chore of selecting, sizing, and bagging firestone. All
Weyrlings must have a good understanding of firestone. This includes knowing reflexively the standard issue for a fighting dragon and its rate of consumption in Threadfall. The Weyrlingmaster, while
teaching the Weyrlings how to bag the firestone, also points out the proper sizes and look of good firestone. It is not uncommon for a representative of the Minecrafthall to assist during this part of
the Weyrling's training.
During Threadfalls, young Weyrlings are charged with the duty of bagging fire-stone and passing the bags on to older riders, who will take them to fighting
dragons at the site of the Fall. The Weyrlingmaster forms the young riders into groups of “Weyrling's chains.” These are teams of Weyrlings working to fill empty firestone bags and pass them
through a chain of waiting team members to the supply dragons. It is here that the Weyrlings learn the “dragon toss”: how to toss (and catch) full bags of firestone the distance of one dragon to
another. It is a technique that requires a lot of skill, practice, and well-developed muscles.
When Thread is not falling, and there is more than enough firestone bagged and ready, the Weyrlingmaster will exercise the young Weyrlings in a Ground Drill.
These are very precise, exacting marching drills requiring the young riders to perform intricate maneuvers in teams. During these drills, the Weyrlingmaster starts selecting those whom he thinks need special
training and those whose potential merits their learning additional skills. The first group receive extra training in close drill; the second group receive extra training in conducting the close
drills, as is befitting future Wingseconds and Wingleaders. The training lasts for all the daylight hours and is fatiguing.
As the Weyrlings' first year progresses and their dragons grow large enough to carry them, the young riders make their first set of fighting straps and any
other equipment necessary for the care of a dragon and for the job of fighting Thread.
Once or twice a year, fighting straps have to be replaced entirely. Some splicing is done on the leather gear, using sailor's palms and waxed gut, but it is
safer to make a new set than to rely on old, stretched straps. The hide is always well oiled and worked supple so that it will not chafe the dragon's neck, and lined with a smooth piece of suede to
pad the girth. The straps hold a rider in that space between those neck ridges better than one could ever be held by saddle and stirrups. When learning the thermals in the Bowl, Weyrlings will convey
passengers, who sit behind them in the dorsal fins and hang on. As the dragon gets older, the pair's duties change to the more serious adult pursuits.
Once the straps are made to the satisfaction of the Weyrlingmaster and his assistants, the Weyrlings begin flight training. A dragon instinctively knows the
principles of flight; young riders, few of whom have ever been dragonback more than once, have no understanding at all. During times when there is no Threadfall, lectures by the more experienced
riders, often Wingleaders, teach the youngsters the rudiments. Ground Drill follows, with both dragon and rider anxious to get airborne. Finally, often reluctantly, the Weyrlingmaster announces the dates of the first flights.
Even formation flying on a dragon is a solitary experience, a feeling shared only by dragon and rider. There is also an understandable exuberance during those
first flights. The rider, joined to his or her dragon, actually
is flying: The air rushes over their wings; they fly through clouds.
A dragonrider must learn to fly alone; no one rides with him. The first flight is made under the watchful eye of the Weyrlingmaster and one of his assistants.
Usually one is on the ground and the other is airborne. The first flight is no more impressive than that made at Kitty Hawk by the Wright brothers: a few wingbeats into the air and a shallow glide to
To the young rider the rush of air, the jolt of being flung upward by his dragon's strong hind legs, the beat of leathery dragon wings, and the shallow glide
followed by an often jarring descent to the ground is a time of pure magic. The Weyrlingmaster now has the young dragonpair repeat the short flight three times.
“So you won't think it's a fluke!” he explains to the anxious Weyrling.
The pace of flight training is very light for the first month, until all Weyrlings of a particular Hatching have become familiarized with the sensations of
flight. At this early stage in the relationship, it is possible for an overly compliant dragon to accede to his partners dangerous whims—occasionally fatally.
After the first months limited flights, the pace intensifies. At this time the Weyrlings move out of barracks and into free weyrs. They start flying in teams
of three. In these trios they begin the flying drills that they will need when fighting Thread. The firestone drills on the ground are transferred to the air, with riders flinging sacks from one to another while the Weyrlingmaster orders the trio to turn left, turn right, climb left, climb right, dive, and so on, until the riders are seasoned in all
the standard maneuvers. Next the Weyrlingmaster combines groups and repeats the drills.
When all the Weyrlings of a Hatching are flying well in formation, the Weyrlingmaster starts training the Weyrlings to go
between. This training starts with drilling of terrain recognition, as the Weyrlingmaster instructs the dragonriders on how best to visualize their destination. When he is satisfied with the
progress of a particular dragonpair, the Weyrlingmaster flies with the pair and takes them
between — the rider playing the role of passenger as his dragon takes visual reference from the Weyrlingmaster. The first jump
between is always startling; the Weyrlingmaster will jump
between with a pair several times before letting them visualize the destination and make the jump unaided.
Again, even with the greatest precautions, a few new Weyrling pairs go
between and never reappear. During the more hurried training that has to be conducted during a Threadfall, it is not uncommon at this point to lose one or more Weyrling pairs per Hatching. This
often occurs in bunches, with several Hatchings all passing through this training safely and then as many as a half dozen failing to reappear from one group.
As each Weyrling pair progresses beyond this point, they join to form their threes into nines and to practice precision jumps
between under the careful eye of the Weyrlingmaster or his assistants. The drill is the aerial version of the Ground Drills the young Weyrlings practiced before their dragons could fly. Losses
are rare at this point, though injuries (mostly from collisions) are common.
The final phase of the Weyrlings' training begins when they are taught how to chew
firestone to make flame. The introduction takes one long day and must be handled with extreme care. Again the Weyrlingmaster trains each dragonpair
Although the ability to chew firestone is instinctive in dragons, the exercise must be supervised. The Weyrlingmaster normally starts the pair out on a soft
stone (not Firestone), to get the dragon used to the concept of thinking of its “other stomach” and the young rider Familiar with the procedures.
Once the dragon is used to chewing and processing
the rock, the Weyrlingmaster gives the pair true Firestone. At First this is low-grade ore, and the dragon produces only a small flame. By the end of the day, the pair will have trained up to
producing Full flame. Once all Weyrlings are able to flame, the Weyrlingmaster continues to train the new riders, using ever more challenging drills and recognition points farther from the Weyr.
At this point the Weyrlings tend to spend as much time as possible with the “real” riders. They begin to join the more experienced dragons and riders on
recreational flights and visits to Holds. During this period the experienced pairs and Wingleaders get to know the Weyrlings.
Now the time approaches when the young riders will be drafted into Fighting Wings. Their First assignment is to the Weyrlings' Wing—the Wing of young
dragonriders and older injured dragonriders who bring Fresh sacks of firestone to riders as they Fight Thread.
Flying Firestone to riders in Threadfall is dangerous. In some ways this is more dangerous than flying in a Fighting Wing, because riders coming From
between into the Threadfall area may not have a clear idea of the Leading Edge of the Fall. Also, the rider must depend more on his own initiative than he would if he were flying in Formation
with a group of his Fellows. So the inexperienced pairs are more prone to extending themselves, and there is no one to cover For mistakes. But it is in flying Firestone during Threadfall that new riders First
get “blooded"—and often fatally.
There is no way around that expedient: There comes a time when a rider and his dragon must Face Thread on Pern For the First time. Most riders prefer to Face
this alone rather than endanger others. In hard times, Weyrlings have no choice but to be placed directly into understrength or overfatigued Fighting Wings; understandably, this course results in more
injuries and Fatalities.
It is the many losses that occur during this “blooding” that most often make a Weyrlingmaster resign. Too often in Full Fall a Weyrlingmaster will have to
watch a young Weyrling emerge From
between at the wrong time—to be engulfed in roiling Thread and, in screaming agony, wink back into
between and out of existence.
“It's bad enough to see my wingmen and mates die, but to see a flock of my boys and dragons come back scored, dazed, and forever haunted, some never come
back at all…” one ex-Weyrlingmaster said to explain his unexpected retirement.
THE FIGHTING WINGS
There is no real choice as to whether or not the Thread must be fought. Most young riders recover from their exposure to the first horrors of fighting Thread.
Weyrlingmasters accept the price of their teachings or stand down. Weyrlings so blooded are marked as ready to move into the ranks of the Fighting Wings. The fighting strength of the Weyr varies, with
the high being some 330 fighting dragons, not counting the queens, invalids, or Weyrlings in training. Rarely is a Weyr able to boast of being at full strength (although in olden times, before the
founding of the Benden Weyr and again before the founding of the remaining Weyrs, there were at least five hundred dragons in a Weyr). A Weyrleader counts himself lucky to have nine good Wings of reasonable strength and some spare riders to make up for losses; his worries begin only when he
reaches the inevitable point when he cannot make nine Wings with a scant twelve dragons each.
WING AND FLIGHTS
A Wing is the smallest cohesive group of riders. Each Wing is led by a Wingleader, who is aided by Wingseconds. Most often the Wingleader is a bronze rider,
the Wingseconds riding browns, but circumstances may put any rider in any position. In good times a Wing contains thirty dragons. Twelve is the smallest working Wing a Weyrleader will normally permit
Three Wings are considered the smallest number that can successfully fight a Threadfall. This grouping of three Wings is referred to by some as a Flight. As
three Wings (up to ninety dragons) forms a fairly large and cumbersome grouping of dragons, it is the largest unit treated as a permanent group, with the exception of the Weyr itself. The Weyrleader
often uses the Flight as the administrative unit. This gives him additional flexibility when assigning new riders or promoting riders to new positions. The Wings are grouped into Flights on the basis of
fitness and compatibility, which means that the groupings are not static: a Weyrleader may group two tired but veteran Wings with a young but enthusiastic Wing, or spread out his new riders into three
Wings and use the resulting Flight sparingly until the Wings have settled in. It's a balancing act based upon intangible factors and in which each false judgment potentially means scored riders or
dragons at least, and burrowed Thread at worst.
In addition to the simpler task of integrating a new green or blue dragonrider into the Fighting Wings, the Weyrleader must resolve the more difficult problem of bringing in new brown and bronze riders—the traditional Wingseconds and Wingleaders. Where misplacing a blue or green rider within a Wing could cause disaster for the Wing, misplacing an
inexperienced brown or bronze rider could cause disaster for the Flight or Weyr. Most young bronze riders serve time first as regular Wing riders and then as Wing-seconds before being permitted to
lead a Wing against Thread. Brown riders receive similar treatment.
Riders who fail to win the Weyrleader's respect may continue to ride as Wing riders. A bronze rider has the recourse of flying the senior queen dragon and becoming Weyr-leader himself; a brown rider
can merely strive harder and hope for a change of leadership. In a society where cooperation is the highest value, voluntary transfers are rare and considered a sign of failure.
In placing brown and bronze riders within the Wings, whether as Wingleaders, Wingseconds, or mere Wing riders, the wise Weyrleader consults with his
Wingleaders beforehand. One option the Weyrleaders often exercise is to allow certain riders to spend time as assistants to the Weyrlingmaster, allowing them as much as a full Turn to relax, giving the Weyrlingmaster an aide with a bright new perspective, and providing the Weyrleader with a ready pool of
proven leaders in case of trouble. It is also a Weyrleader prerogative, in those rare cases of over-strength Flights, to assign riders as guides for the Weyrlings' Wing.
A Weyrling becomes a true dragonrider when assigned to a Fighting Wing. Every Weyrling yearns to hear the traditional “The Weyrleader has allowed me to ride
with you” from some Wingleader and to move from the Weyrling tables to the tables of his Fighting Wing. If the Weyrling expects anything more or an aura to appear, he is sadly mistaken: The next
day he finds himself sent on chores much like those he was given before. Only now everything is very much for real. When Thread is due to fall, no shirking is allowed— the dragonrider is up hours
beforehand, stoking his dragon with firestone, checking his gear, and awaiting his Wingleader's call to fly.
Practice is conducted with greater fervor; mistakes that other Weyrlings might have guffawed at now draw stern reproval from wingmates. Practice includes
special drill for those duties that particular Wing might be called upon to perform: left Wing, right Wing, or forward Wing all have different maneuvers. The Wing maneuvers are worked out by the
Weyrleader and the Wingleaders.
Every Threadfall is different—there is always one best way to fly against it—and a Weyr-leader is lax if he is not always striving to perfect his Weyr's
ability to meet each Threadfall with as much flame and as few casualties as
possible. Wind and the time through the Pass have the greatest effects on
Threadfall; rain has the next greatest effect.
“Rain! Let it rain thick and heavy and drown the Thread while we drink in the Weyr!” dragonriders often wish.
The severe winds and rain of a cold front are the dragonriders' greatest weather threat: With turbulent air low down and unknown up-and-down-drafts, only the
most experienced of riders can hope to fight well, and only the foolhardy can expect to return unscathed. As the Pass of the Red Star comes closer, the frequency of Threadfalls increases until they
occur at the rate of once every fourteen hours in bands across the planet, giving weary dragonriders no rest.
To meet the threat of Thread combined with foul weather, the Weyrleader must use planning, teamwork, and long-practiced formations. Casualties play a role in
how a Weyr weathers the Pass, but training is decisive. Training is carried out at all times, by individual pairs, as Wings, as Flights, and by the full Weyr.
The individual rider trains best by flying his old trio and practicing with falling ropes soaked in colored dyes. The rope imitates Thread. Several riders
throw more rope than a pair of dragons could hope to catch, and it is up to the training riders to make the best of the situation. Rope that falls uncharred to the ground is counted against them,
while dye marks on their dragons or on themselves score double points in their favor. Riders trade off partners to learn techniques, as well as to invent new tactics. The rope drill is carried out in
all weather, even pouring rain, when Thread would be drowned in its Fall.
As a Wing, the riders practice formation flying. A rider at the point of a flight must maintain an awareness of those on his left and right. They are guarding
him from any Thread in those directions. So long as he maintains his position in the formation, he does not have the worry that he might be flamed from left or right.
The Wing may be arrayed in any number of different ways: in a straight line; stacked by Wingseconds into three lines; in a forward vee or backward vee; flying
upward or downward or level. Each different position and angle of flight entails different advantages and dangers. Every rider is expected to know how to fly faultlessly in every possible Wing
formation. The Wing drills until it can go
between, while climbing or diving and turning in any direction, and come out of
between in the same formation it started with.
A dragon must be allowed room in the Wing to enable him to maneuver. Because of this, the space left between the dragons is greater than a dragon's flame could
cover. Wings take turns dropping dyed rope at each other, and the whole Wing practices flaming, drilling to ensure that each dragon and rider has an instinctive knowledge of his covered area. Great
care is taken in training to avoid two dragons going after the same clump of Thread—it represents wasted effort and means that another section of the sky has been left uncovered.
After Wing training comes Flight training. The Flight is regarded as the least force required to fight a Threadfall unaided (but almost certainly with
casualties). The Weyr-leader organizes the training by Flights. When there is time for such training, it is an invaluable tool for the Weyrleader to try new riders in different positions, to juggle
tired or understrength Wings to form Flights capable of meeting Threadfall, and to practice new tactics or hone old ones.
Only occasionally during a Pass does a Weyrleader find a great enough lull to allow the luxury of pitting one Flight against the dyed ropes of another, but it
is these Great Drills which prove the most rewarding, both for the Weyrleader and the riders. Such Great Drills simulate Threadfall as closely as possible without actually getting Threadscored.
But the test and truth of a Weyrleader is in Threadfall. Weyrleaders have flown Threadfalls differently during each of the Passes of the Red Star. In the time
of Moreta, it was considered best to array the entire Weyr in three levels and fly straight from Leading Edge to end of Threadfall. F'lar, encountering difficult times only seen before by the very first
dragonriders, adopted a more chop-and-change attitude, throwing his scanty forces at Threadfall as best he could. As time went on, and the Oldtimers arrived from
between through time, F'lar's tactics were modified both by acquired knowledge and by the availability of more dragons.
The consensus among modern dragon-riders is that one must “gauge the Fall and gauge the wind.” Thread can fall thickly, in sheets, or it can fall in
splotches or in any combination of the above configurations. The wind influences the Threadfall, and worse, if there is severe turbulence, can fling Thread onto a dragon or throw a dragon into Thread.
Dragons are fantastically strong, but a thirty- to forty-knot wind will keep a dragon straining hard just to stay on station. The blues and the greens are worked over the hardest by high winds, the
browns and bronzes having more strength and stamina. However, all the dragons suffer in high winds.
In truly severe turbulence a dragon could be driven away from Thread in one instance and blown right into it in the next. In that case all that saves dragons
and their riders from complete catastrophe is the ability to go
between. In such Falls, many Weyrleaders choose to send up one Flight at a time, arrayed in three Wings flying upward or downward vee formations, and change Flights several times throughout the
Calmer weather allows the Weyrleader more latitude: he may choose to send two Flights to make a leisurely Fall, one Flight to rest his other Flights, or all
Flights with the hope of minimizing casualties. Still, trick gusts and flutters may make Fall in a calm wind dangerous, and Thread must always be gauged separate of wind. Otherwise the Weyrleader may
choose the wrong tactic, flying the tiring Wings on line formation above the looser three-vees formation.
F'lar's tactics, as a young, inexperienced, and hopelessly underdragoned Weyr-leader, were those of desperation. He threw what he could, where he could, and
when he could, and counted himself lucky for the casualties. Even so, had it not been for the timely arrival of the Oldtimers, there is little doubt of the fate of Pern. With six full Weyrs and spare loaned to his Weyr, F'lar could afford better tactics. Still, he was much influenced by the success of his
chop-and-change tactics and much aided by the greater stamina of his modern dragons over those from the Ancient times.
In general, except when on exhibition to Lord Holder and other Weyrleaders, F'lar tended to send one Flight to feel out the Fall, and others as needed. Most
often F'lar's Flights flew arrayed in keeping with the wind: an upward vee to meet downdrafts, or a downward vee to meet updrafts, and level for calm days. Most often F'lar's dragon-riders would rise
to meet Threadfall rather than try to descend upon it.
Sh'gall, of Moreta's time, was more stolid in his approach. Against every Fall, until the plague forced a change, Sh'gall would fly the full Weyr complete,
with the Flights arrayed as stacked Wings, and all three Flights flying side by side. He maintained this position whenever possible, with only the wind forcing him to vary it slightly: stacked
backward to meet downdrafts, forward to meet updrafts, and straight for calm air.
The doughty dragonriders of Ista Weyr are best trained in dealing with the sort of foul weather where Thread can still do damage. Their tactics are more varied
than any other Weyr's, encompassing such odd formations as “Wing low, Wing high” and “Hollow Flight” to deal with the extremes of wind and weather they commonly face.
Backing up all of these tactics are the Queen's Wing, the Wing formed of all the queen dragons of the Weyr. Queens cannot digest firestone; however, by
carrying agenothree (HNO3—nitric acid) sprayers on their backs, the queen riders are exceedingly effective as the low-flying mop-up Flight. In bad weather the aid of the Queen's Wing, with the
sturdier, stronger, steadier queens, is invaluable.
The final line of protection against Thread lies not in the hands of dragonriders but in the hands of individual holders. These carry agenothree tanks on their
backs and follow behind the Leading Edge of Fall to incinerate any Thread before it can burrow.
For an individual rider fighting Thread, the large formations are important, and he must maintain his position; once the first Thread comes into view, nothing
matters but the Thread in front of him or to his side. Life becomes a blur of weaving for this clump or rising to that clump; diving aside as a wing-mans dragon flames inward to catch a clump that was
missed; and going between to avoid that clump that suddenly rises into view or, much worse, to freeze the burning Thread that suddenly eats into human or dragon. In the “calmer” moments the rider is nabbing
the hastily thrown sack of firestone and feeding the gaping maw of his dragon.
Finally it's over, and there is a flare of exultation, the joyful awareness that rider and dragon have survived. Then the memories creep back—memories of
impossible moves, of incredibly near misses, of agonizing pain. When the sweep riding is over, and everyone is back at the Weyr and scores covered with numbweed, then the dragonriders remember the
large formation their Weyr-leader used and consider its effectiveness.
“What, only three scored? Good pattern, then.”
After a Wing has flown, the Weyr will be filled with such sounds as the melancholy keening of injured dragons and the relieved laughter of those who survived
unscored. There are riding straps to be inspected, food to eat, and children to rear. Even when no Thread falls, there are lessons to be learned, skills to be honed, and drills to be practiced.
After a big Threadfall there are too often dead to be honored. And always, always, there is going to be more Thread falling later.
People on Pern display their rank by the elaborately woven and knotted cords they wear on their shoulders. Dragonriders indicate rank within the Weyr by design
and complexity of their knots. The two colors of a dragonriders shoulder knot indicate to which Weyr he belongs and the color of the dragon the rides. Riders can also wear badges with a dragon blazoned in the
color of their mounts on a background of their Weyr color. The women and drudges of the Lower Caverns wear a simple cord of the dominant Weyr color only.