|“|| Drummer, beat, and piper, blow,|
Harper, strike, and soldier, go.
Free the flame and sear the grasses
Till the dawning Red Star passes.
Dragonflight includes the novellas Weyr Search, which won the 1968 Hugo Award for Best Novella (voted by members of the annual World Science Fiction Convention) and Dragonrider which won the Nebula Award for Best Novella (voted annually by the Science Fiction Writers of America) in 1969. McCaffrey was the first woman writer to win either award.
Two components of Dragonflight were award-winning novellas published by Analog science fiction magazine. The first segment, Weyr Search, illustrated by John Schoenherr, had been the cover story for the October 1967 issue. The second segment, Dragonrider, appeared in two parts, beginning in December 1967.
Weyr Search features a young woman named Lessa being recruited to establish a telepathic bond with a queen dragon at its hatching, thus becoming a dragonrider, and the leader of a Weyr community on the fictional planet Pern. Dragonrider features the growth of Lessa's queen dragon, Ramoth, and their training together. Analog editor John W. Campbell asked «to see dragons fighting Thread», Pern's menace from space, and he also suggested time travel. In response, McCaffrey wrote a third story titled «Crack Dust, Black Dust», which was not published separately, but provided crucial material for the novel.
On a beautiful world called Pern, an ancient way of life is about to come under attack from a myth that is all too real. Lessa is an outcast survivor—her parents murdered, her birthright stolen—a strong young woman who has never stopped dreaming of revenge. But when an ancient threat to Pern reemerges, Lessa will rise—upon the back of a great dragon with whom she shares a telepathic bond more intimate than any human connection. Together, dragon and rider will fly… and Pern will be changed forever.
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Dragonflight opens three years before the Ninth Pass is set to begin. At Ruatha Hold, Lessa is the only surviving child of the previous Lord Holders, who were killed when Lord Fax of High Reaches Hold invaded and claimed Ruatha through his marriage to Lady Gemma, a distant relative. Lessa escaped the attack when she had a premonition of danger and sought shelter in the watch-wher's den, and has escaped detection by masquerading as a drudge ever since.
At this time, Wingleader F'lar of Benden Weyr travels to High Reaches Hold with his Wing in the hopes of finding a suitable candidate for «Weyrwoman» in the upcoming Hatching. The previous Weyrwoman, Jora, has recently died, and her dragon Nemorth has laid one final clutch with a queen egg — the egg-layers of the dragons. If the queen does not Impress at the Hatching, it will die, and the dragons will go extinct.
At High Reaches Hold, Fax greets them with subtle insults, before they begin searching his Holds unsuccessfully for candidates. Lytol — an ex-dragonrider — living at the Hold tells F'lar and his brother F'nor that they are unlikely to find a candidate here, and adds that Fax doesn't believe Thread — the threat that dragonriders exist to battle — will return to endanger Pern. The authority of Benden Weyr has decayed vastly over time, and many people believe it is now useless.
With no success at High Reaches Hold, Fax journeys with F'lar and his wing to his other holds, ultimately arriving at Ruatha Hold, where the dragons sense a potential candidate. Inside Ruatha Hold, Lessa hears of the arrival of Fax, and plans to sabotage the food and bedrooms, to make Fax embarrassed enough that he will renounce his claim to Ruatha.
When confronted with the damage at Ruatha Hold, Fax announces «the day one of my Holds cannot support itself or the visit of its rightful owner, I shall renounce it». F'lar — unknowingly manipulated by Lessa — urges Fax to renounce it, when Lady Gemma, heavily pregnant, goes into labor. Fax states he will renounce it for the child «if it is male…and lives!»
Lessa is sent to retrieve a birthing-woman for Gemma, who dies before giving birth. Despite this, she heads downstairs and informs Fax a male child was born. In anger, Fax strikes her, knocking her out. A duel breaks out between F'lar, who calls for Fax to honour his oath, and Fax, who insults F'lar and the dragonriders. F'lar succeeds in killing Fax, and when Lessa recovers, she reveals her status, intending to become Lady Holder of Ruatha Hold. However, F'lar has since discovered that Gemma's child survived — being cut from the womb — and is now the rightful Lord Holder.
Lessa attempts to flee, but is captured by Mnementh, F'lar's dragon, in the courtyard. Having realised she was the person the dragons sensed, he convinces her to come to Benden Weyr to attend the Hatching — and sends for Lytol to care for Gemma's child until he is of age. As they go to leave, the watch-wher attempts to attack F'lar, only for it to fall and break its neck when Lessa tries to stop it. The dragons honour it as they would a dead dragon, keening in sorrow.
At Benden Weyr, Lessa is taken to F'lar's weyr, where she washes and dresses, before helping F'lar dress the wound he obtained fighting Fax. The dragons abruptly signal the dragon eggs are hatching, prompting F'lar to take Lessa to the Hatching Grounds with the other candidates.
On the Hatching Grounds, the eggs begin hatching, and some candidates Impress — bonding telepathically with the hatchlings — while others are injured by the young dragons. Lessa successfully Impresses the queen hatchling, Ramoth.
Two turns (years) have passed since Lessa impressed Ramoth. Ramoth is now full-grown, but Lessa is forbidden from flying with her, instead restricted to learning teaching ballads. The Weyrleader, R'gul, claims that queen dragons don't fly — except to mate — stating this is tradition. Lessa disbelieves him — noting that a Weyrwoman and her queen were not forbidden from flying in the historical Ballad of «Moreta's Ride».
Lessa shares F'lar's opinion that R'gul's policies towards the Lord Holders are bad — resentment of Benden Weyr by the Lord Holders has continued after Fax's death, despite R'gul's attempts to avoid aggravating them. A tithe — the Weyr survives on tithes, being too busy to farm their own food — arrives from Ruatha Hold alone of the western Holds, which Lessa knows will not be enough to feed the Weyr, and she plans to get several dragonriders to raid in secret. A message from Lytol warns that several Lord Holders are preparing to take action against the holds.
While Lessa talks with F'nor about the Weyr and its leaders, Ramoth begins to rise for her mating flight — the rider of the dragon who mates with Ramoth will become the new Weyrleader. F'lar is absent, but Lessa — who has the ability to hear and speak to all dragons, instead of just her own — calls to Mnementh, who returns with F'lar promptly. In the mating flight, Ramoth is «flown» by Mnementh — narrowly beating Orth, T'bor's dragon — and Lessa finds herself in bed with F'lar, both riders having been overcome by their dragons' emotions.
The next day, as Lytol warned, a thousand men led by several Lord Holders march against the Weyr. Realising they will have left their home holds undefended, F'lar, taking control as Weyrleader, sends riders to abduct the wives of the Lord Holders, and force the Lord Holders to leave and continue their duty to the Weyr, as well as prepare for the return of Thread. As he gives these orders, Lessa flies overhead on Ramoth, proving once and for all that queens do fly — «that's why they have wings!»
At Benden Weyr, F'lar prepares for the return of Thread — despite the deposed R'gul refusing to believe it will return, having failed to appear previously and resulting in the Second Long Interval — before going to teach Ramoth how to go Between — seemingly «teleporting» to distant locations by envisioning a location and travelling there through a void known as Between — lest she attempts it on her own and endangers herself.
Lessa and Ramoth pick up the skill quickly, and after their lesson ends, Lessa decides to use the ability to visit Ruatha Hold. However, the Ruatha she envisions is it as it appeared before Fax invaded, resulting in Ramoth going back in time to the day Fax invaded. Lessa sees a younger version of herself fleeing to the watch-wher's den, and realises to her horror that she was the source of her own premonition of danger — as well as the reason the watch-wher failed to sound a warning.
Lessa and Ramoth eventually manage to get back to Benden Weyr in their own time, where F'lar is furious at her «disappearance», until she explains the new-found ability to him, and he wonders how the ability to travel through time could be used to their advantage — testing it himself by briefly travelling back to the day R'gul became Weyrleader, and inadvertantly giving his younger self the knowledge that he would become Weyrleader soon.
As time goes on, Lessa and F'lar examine Records taken from the abandoned Ista Weyr, hoping to find information that will help them when Thread begins falling. Ramoth lays a clutch of forty-one eggs, and it is decided to let the candidates walk amongst the eggs before they hatch — as well as invite their families to attend the Hatching — in the hopes that this will prevent an outbreak of injuries and chaos such as that which happened at the last Hatching.
Not long afterwards, F'nor returns from a patrol over Tillek covered in black dust, which F'lar realises is Thread, frozen and destroyed by the cold air. Realising Thread was scheduled to fall two hours back over Nerat, F'lar plans to send Wings back in time to fight the Thread. Many dragons and their riders — including F'nor — are injured, and C'gan, the elderly Weyrsinger, is fatally Threadscored when attempting to deliver firestone.
After the Threadfall ends, F'lar and Lessa discuss ways to fight Thread with only Benden Weyr active — six Weyrs existed in Pern's past, but now Benden alone is occupied. They soon come up with a plan: to send Prideth — the queen dragon recently hatched — and the other hatchlings, along with several older riders, back in time ten turns to the uninhabited Southern Continent, where they can grow and breed more dragons to aid them. Without warning, F'nor quickly arrives to tell them their plan isn't working; everybody is too strained by the effort of being in «two places at once». As he leaves, they realise that this was a future F'nor, warning them about their plan before they'd even begun it.
The Cold Between
Despite this warning, F'lar and Lessa decide to proceed with the plan anyway, in the hope that they'll get at least one clutch out of Prideth — plus, it ensures that her Weyrwoman, Kylara, who Lessa dislikes due to her coveting F'lar, is out of the Weyr.
The next day, F'lar summons the Lord Holders and Craftmasters of Pern to Benden Weyr to discuss the return of Thread. While there, the Masterharper, Robinton, criticises the Lord Holders who disregarded the teachings of his Harpers and ignored the warnings of Thread. While discussing how they deal with Thread that lands, Masterweaver Zurg notes a tapestry he once saw at Ruatha Hold depicting people using flamethrowers. The Mastersmith, Fandarel, plans to reconstruct the flamethrowers, and they decide to find the tapestry.
As the meeting comes to a close, a future F'nor arrives to tell F'lar that Prideth laid thirty-two eggs. F'lar then talks with Robinton, telling him the Weyrs are drastically undermanned. Robinton tells him of an old song, the Question Song, which cryptically refers to the empty Weyrs, whose inhabitants disappeared at the beginning of the Second Long Interval. After the meeting, Lessa and F'nor fly to the Southern Continent to find a site to send Prideth and the other dragons back to — the dragons are content with settling in the open, as there are no caves.
Later on, after using Fandarel's Agenothree flamethrowers to destroy Threadburrows in Nerat, F'lar and Robinton discuss the Question Song, and Lessa realises what happened: the dragonriders of the other Weyrs must have been brought forwards in time. F'lar forbids her from attempting to travel to the end of the Eighth Pass and back, fearful for her life. Lytol arrives shortly afterwards with the tapestry mentioned by Zurg, and Lessa notices that Ruatha Hold's buildings are different from how they appear in the present day.
Lessa returns the tapestry to Ruatha Hold, and stares at it for hours, before realising that she can use the image of Ruatha Hold as it appears on the tapestry to go back to that time. She and Ramoth travel Between four hundred turns (really four hundred and fifty, see below), but remain Between for so long that Lessa faints. Robinton, F'lar and Lytol realise she has left, and guess that she used the tapestry as her guide, before assuming she has died, and planning to send for Kylara and Prideth to become the new Weyrwoman at Benden Weyr.
However, Lessa is alive at the beginning of the Second Long Interval, having been nursed back to health by T'ton and Mardra, the Weyrleaders of Fort Weyr. When she recovers, she tells them of the events in the Ninth Pass, convincing them when she describes the tapestry, which she learns has just been commissioned by Mardra's father, the Ruathan Lord Holder.
T'ton calls a Council with the Weyrleaders of the other Weyrs (save Benden) and the Masterharper, and a decision is made to go forward in time in small leaps, using the position of the Red Star as it appeared over the Weyrs as their guide. Lessa and some eighteen hundred dragons and their riders soon arrive in the Ninth Pass — despite mistakenly going two days too far ahead at one point — and she introduces F'lar to them at Ruatha Hold.
With eighteen hundred dragon and their riders, and the necessary equipment to deal with Thread, Pern is at last prepared. It is decided to keep using the «Southern Weyr» that was established on the Southern Continent. T'ton remarks upon the custom of queen dragons being kept from flying; in his time, there were multiple queen dragons in the Weyrs, and they fought Thread with Agenothree flamethrowers. Lessa is thus to join the dragonriders in fighting Thread over Telgar Hold. As they prepare to fight it, F'lar makes a promise to one day pursue Thread to the Red Star itself.