The Dragonriders of Pern and all related information is trademark and copyright © of Anne McCaffery.
It is only with the permission of the legal restrictions Anne McCaffery has set up (listed on her webpage), that I post this piece of free, non-commercial, fan-fiction.
On The Wings Of Silence
- Doug Lanford -
She watched the other drudges from her habitual place at the back of the lukewarm pool, distantly wondering what it would feel like to be part of their conversations. They gossiped and gestured as they bathed, a complex yet casual dance she could observe but only distantly comprehend. It was a mild and familiar curiosity, however… she had long ago learned not to dwell on the impossible.
As usual, she was the first one out of the bathing pool, slipping out silently and quickly hiding behind the closest drying cloth. By the time the rest of the female drudges began to filter out of the water, she was already dropping a worn pullover on her shoulders and slipping out into the pre-dawn twilight.
With most of the Hold’s population still asleep, she felt safe running across the walkways between the scattered buildings. She silently but quickly moved through the public areas, opening shutters and setting glowbaskets in the dark corners that would not get sunlight until later in the day. She enjoyed this part of the day…she didn’t have to deal with the press of other people, the need to hide herself in the background.
If anyone had seen her that morning, they would have seen a different girl than they usually saw moving through the backdrop of their lives. Her long hair, normally half covering her face, was a dark stream behind her. Her thin form showed a lithe grace as she raced across the Hold. For a little while, she could lose the shuffling wariness of a simple-minded drudge who desperately wished to remain unnoticed.
As usual, she saved the Main Hall for last. The first rays of Rukbat were just appearing over the valley hills as she was finishing in the library. This was her favorite place, the reason why she sped through her morning chores. A glance at the morning sun out the window told her she had a little time to herself before she would be expected in the kitchens.
She ran her gaze across the familiar shelves of books and scrolls… she was in her haven, the one place where life made sense. This was the place where she could still see her mother and father.
Turns before, her parents had brought her to Kimmen Hold, harpers come to study a recently discovered treasure trove… a crate of ancient but hardy books, found buried near the sturdy ruins the settlement had been built upon. She had just begun to learn to read, with her parents’ patient guidance. For the first time in her silent life, she had started to learn how to communicate, how to express ideas… for the first time, she had the beginnings of a way to speak to her mother and father.
It was an exciting time for her… some of the first books she ever read were children’s books found alongside the ancient volumes. Though the stories and pictures were bizarre by the standards of normal Pernese, they fired her imagination and drove her onwards in her desire to read about the things the universe had denied her at birth. As her parents tried to catalog the collection, she was often reading alongside them. They quickly realized that the majority of the long-lost tomes were stories… novels of far-off places and strange events beyond the experience of anyone living on Pern.
For half a turn, a lifetime in the world of a child, she devoured everything she could find, her parents joyfully encouraging her at every step.
Then a southern fever struck the Hold. Though more than a dozen people would eventually die of the illness, she had room in her realm for only her mother and father, sweating and coughing their lives out. Then the only two people she had any connection to, the only ones she had any sense of communication with, left her forever.
She found herself at the mercy of a Hold filled with people dealing with their own losses, far too immersed in their own pain to know what to do with an orphaned ten turn old girl who could not hear or speak. For nearly a turn she was shuffled from one old auntie to another, none with the interest or intelligence to see beyond her handicap. She learned to stay out of the way, to remain unseen. Eventually, an elderly drudge taught her how to do simple tasks around the Hold, and she faded into the shadows of the community.
Every day, she stole secret moments here… in this library. Once, many turns before, she had been beaten when caught with the priceless books, so she had learned to be careful. She checked every corner of the room before walking towards the back, to the special section.
She unshielded a small glow, quickly finding Farsea in its accustomed place on the shelves. This was her favorite novel, read many times over the turns. It was a tale of a distance planet, where humans lived alongside a beautiful and intelligent race of sea creatures. She quickly paged to where she had left off the night before, and sat down on the wooden floor for a few minutes of joy.
* * * *
Jaltow finally caught sight of Kimmen Hold just as the sun began to filter into the river valley. It was a medium sized Southern hold of about four hundred people, established about thirty turns ago, near the end of the final pass of thread, on the sturdy ruins of a long lost ancient settlement.
For nine turns, he had been trying to get here, to continue the work of his friends and fellow harpers. Holder Kellus tended to be extremely stubborn, resisting all attempts at study of the precious books. More concerned with the propriety of the ancients who had created the books and the day-to-day running of a sizable minor Hold, Kellus had little interest in the flights of fancy contained in his library, and no understanding of how they could be useful to anyone.
It had eventually taken the intervention of the Master Harper and the Logres Weyrleaders, but Jaltow was finally on his way to complete the studies halted turns before by the deaths of his good friends.
He could still remember the excitement in Pallis and Lynna as they told him about the Harper Hall assignment that led them to Kimmen Hold, nearly equal to the joy a few turns earlier when Lynna had told him she was with child. Jaltow could still remember their young daughter, born deaf at birth but infinitely curious about the world around her. It was her death during the local fever plague that haunted him most, after hearing in letters from Pallis that the girl was finally learning to read and write… to speak to them in words and ideas rather than just vague gestures.
As his runnerbeast entered the borders of the Hold, Foxtrot took flight from his perch on Jaltow’s shoulder. The fire-lizard was a small blue blur as he headed up to join the swooping flights of the Hold’s local swarm. Jaltow smiled, knowing he wouldn’t see the little beast again until later in the day, when he got hungry. Moments later, he was dismounting in front of the stables, leaving his runnerbeast in the care of an early rising animal handler.
The short walk to the Main Hall gave the harper a chance to work out a few of the muscle aches the all-night ride had given him. As he entered the main room, he could feel the excitement build in him… he hoped the introductions would be short. He wanted to get to the library as quickly as possible.
There were a few drudges preparing the room for the day, but he saw no one he could announce his arrival to until a hefty lad of about seventeen turns walked into the room. His rotund form was dressed in fine clothes, and the harper had a hunch that this was the son of Holder Kellus… Rufus, if Jaltow recalled correctly. The boy was obviously on an errand of some sort, but he stopped when he noticed the dusty stranger in harper blue standing in the main room.
The arrogance of the boy’s step as he walked over to Jaltow all but confirmed his hunch. The boy had the air of someone who was overly convinced of his importance to the people around him. He gave the harper a frank once-over with his gaze, taking in the wind-weathered features of this middle-aged stranger before speaking.
“You must be the harper we were told about.” A disapproving tone crept in to the boy’s voice. “We weren’t expecting you till this evening.”
Jaltow set a pleasant smile on his face. “I decided to ride through the night. I’ve been waiting a long time to begin my studies.”
“My father is not available yet this morning. I’ll take you to the library, where you can wait for him.” With that, the boy turned around and stalked off down a hallway, leaving Jaltow to quickly pick up his bags and follow.
* * * *
Alert to the slightest changes in the light streaming through the windows at the front of the library, she knew instantly that someone was entering the room. She quickly stood up, slipping Farsea back onto the shelves. She then moved about the room, unshielding the last few glowbaskets, finishing her normal morning chores. As she shuffled into the front of the room, heading for the door, she noticed a stranger dropping his baggage on the floor, his overcoat a deep harper blue. There was something vaguely familiar about him.
Her gaze was still locked on the harper when she walked right into someone. With horror, she backed into the nearest wall as the Holder’s son began to yell at her. It was the first time he had so much as looked at her, but she knew from watching him over the turns that the young man had a temper. For someone who had designed her life so that she was rarely noticed by anyone, to be the focus of the anger of the Holder’s own son was a nightmare.
Jaltow hardly noticed the drudge slipping out of the room until Rufus yelled. He turned to find the poor girl cowering against the wall, her long dark hair covering much of her face as the Holder’s son screamed at her for her clumsiness. When she failed to respond to his demands for an apology, the boy began to shake her… Jaltow could see the girl was nearly faint from fear.
“She is nothing but a simple drudge, young master.” He put a calming hand on the boy’s shoulder. “You’re just frightening her.”
Rufus glared at Jaltow a moment before imperiously waving the girl out of the room. She scurried away, disappearing around the corner as fast as she could. The boy turned and stared at the harper for another moment.
“My father will call for you later,” he spat out before stalking off.
Finally alone in the room he had been dreaming about for turns, Jaltow immediately headed for the back of the library, searching for the objects of his desire. He quickly found the precious ancient books, comfortably lit by glows. He ran his gaze across the shelves holding them. The collection was obviously carefully maintained… every book was dust free and perfectly aligned with the next. As he ran his gaze lovingly across them, Jaltow noticed one book was off-kilter, as if it had been hurriedly shoved back into its place.
He reached out and carefully pulled the book off the shelf, his breath briefly catching as he caught sight of the vibrant and fanciful seascape on its cover. The image showed a long stretch of beach at the bottom of seaside cliffs; huge crumbling stone figures stood like sentinels looking out to sea, with the small figures of children playing on the closest. Labeled in bright letters was what he assumed must be the story’s title: Farsea.
* * * *
She leaned against the outer wall of a building near the Main Hall, trying to stop shaking. The one time she had been caught reading in the library, about a turn after the death of her parents, she had been severely beaten. When the Holder’s son had begun shaking her, she had been sure that her illicit time with the books was about to come to a painful end. She knew she would then lose her mind.
As she calmed down, however, she realized that the boy must have simply been angry at her clumsiness… if she had been discovered he certainly would not have dismissed her so casually. She took a few more deep breaths, and then forced herself towards the Hold’s main kitchen. Like every other morning, she would spend the next few hours chopping vegetables for the day’s meals.
Mid-afternoon, she once again moved across the Hold on glowbasket duty, the energetic dash of the early morning replaced with the expected shuffling pace of a common drudge. Once she reached the Main Hall, she quickly moved from room to room, adjusting the window shutters and shielding unneeded glowbaskets. As she entered the Lord Holder’s outer office, however, she faltered in surprise… the Lord Holder’s son was squatting near the hearth, lovingly turning a fire-lizard egg in a clay pot near the fire. He looked up and noticed her.
Her heart pounding, she dropped her eyes back to the floor, and walked over to the window, hoping desperately that he ignored her. She adjusted the shutters, and then quickly headed across the room to shield a glowbasket. When she turned around, she found the Holder’s son now standing, still staring at her. She could tell from the look in his eyes that he recognized her. He strode over and once again began spitting words at her, his gaze turning furious as she didn’t respond.
Finally, she timidly looked him in the eyes… she brought her hands up to her ears, slowly covering them and shaking her head. He pulled back a touch, a confused expression briefly overlaying his anger. She covered her mouth and once again shook her head slowly. The entire time, she kept her eyes on his, willing him to understand.
His eyes narrowed… he stared at her for a moment, before imperiously waving her out of the room. She felt his gaze on her back the entire way.
* * * *
After a less than pleasant introduction to the Kimmen Holder, Jaltow was back in the library. The meeting had lasted a brief five minutes, and had consisted almost entirely of Holder Kellus telling him that he was not pleased the harper was there and admonishing him not to disrupt the running of the Hold. Jaltow had then been brusquely dismissed.
He took it in stride… in his years as a harper he had often encountered people so caught up in the daily problems of life that they hated any disruption, any situation that might be out of their control. At least it meant he could get back to the ancient books quickly.
After running a quick inventory of the collection, he then spent half the morning reading the first few chapters of Farsea. It was filled with ideas he had never thought of before… people flying between the stars on massive ships, finding and communicating with new forms of life. After jotting a quick message he would send to the Harper Hall with Foxtrot later, he once again returned to the story, eager to see what new ideas he might find next.
A shuffled footstep caused him to look up from the book, noticing a drudge in the library doorway. Surprisingly, he noticed a brief look of anger or frustration flicker across her half-hidden face before she shuffled into the room and started adjusting the window shutters. She then disappeared into the back of the library. It was the same drudge he had saved from the Holder’s boy that morning....
When she came back out from behind the shelves, he couldn’t help but notice that she seemed anxious, even through the fall of dark hair covering her face. As she lingered over several glowbaskets around the room, she furtively glanced towards him. She then caught sight of the cover of the book in his hands… through the mask of hair covering most of her face he saw one eye go wide, then flick up to his. She then scurried for the door.
Jaltow called after her, but she didn’t seem to hear him. There was something vaguely familiar about the girl, something in the exotic cast of her eyes he couldn’t pin down. In any case, instinct told him she was the one who had pulled Farsea off the shelf that morning… she seemed frightened that he had it.
* * * *
Soon after sunset, she was sprinting across the hold grounds again. She wanted to get to the library as quickly as possible. Had she been found out? She desperately hoped it was just a coincidence, but her fears drove her through the evening glowbasket routine as fast as she could manage.
By the time she finally reached the library, she knew most of the hold was asleep or soon to be. She slipped into the room, and immediately found Farsea sitting on the library desk. She quickly finished the glowbaskets in the room, and stole back to the front of the room. She looked around, grabbed the novel, and quickly padded back to her corner behind the shelves. By the light of a single nearly spent glowbasket, she once again immersed herself in the waters of a far-off imaginary world.
Moments later, she saw movement out of the corner of her eye. A glance up showed her the shadowed form of the Holder’s son, staring down at her. She started in fright, dropping the book and scrambling backwards. She saw a slight smile appear on his face, which frightened her even more. She watched wide-eyed as he stepped two paces forward, now towering over her as she tried to bury herself into the shelves behind her back.
He then grabbed at her, pulling at the simple shift she wore. She felt more terrified than she had ever been in her life… she didn’t know what to do. Instinctively, she brought her feet up and kicked him away.
That was when he first hit her. He lunged up and rocked her head sideways with a sloppily held fist. She fell to the floor, curling up into a ball as more blows rained down on her. Pain exploded at random around her, and she thrashed to try to get away from it. Finally it stopped. Once again he grabbed her.
Terrified of getting hurt more, she tried to stand and get away, but her bruised body betrayed her, her leg collapsing underneath her. The Holder’s son threw her back to the floor.
What followed was much worse than another beating.
* * * *
She had little memory of her plunging flight back to the drudge quarters through the night. She huddled on her lonely sleeping palette, shaking. The shadowed darkness of the small storage room she had always slept in now seemed to reflect violent images back to her. Her thoughts were caught up in a repeating cycle… seeing, feeling, the same awful scenes, the same violation.
One thought finally caught in her brain… a quick connection that brought her mind back into focus with a crash. The Holder’s son knew she couldn’t make a sound, couldn’t speak to anyone. She had shown him herself. There was no way for her to stop him.
She had to leave Kimmen Hold.
The idea left her breathless. She had no idea where to go, how to survive. She had read every book and scroll she could find in the library, so she had some basic idea of what was out there in the world, but she had not been out of the Hold since she was a child. She took in a shuddering breath, and then forced herself to stand up, wiping tears from her face.
She thought of the bathing pool on the other side of the building… she desperately needed to feel clean, to wash his smell off her, but caution got the best of her. She slipped out of the lonely storage room that had been her quiet home for so many turns, grabbing a large shoulder sack as she left. Once she made it outside, she raced through the darkness towards the Main Hall… she knew it was a big risk, but she couldn’t leave without stopping in the library first.
She grabbed half a dozen of the tomes from the shelves… it was hard to choose, but she couldn’t easily carry more. She found Farsea lying on the floor where she had dropped it. She slowly picked it up, holding it for a moment. It felt tainted now… she knew she would never be able to read it again without remembering what had happened here. She started to put it back in its accustomed place on the shelves, but in the end stuffed it in the canvas sack.
She looked around the room… she had spent so many private moments here. Until tonight, it had been her sanctuary, her home. Now she hoped she would never see it again, and that thought tore at her. She slung the bag over her shoulder and walked out.
As she padded down the hallway towards the back doorway, however, she noticed that the door to the Holder’s outer office was open. She stopped, carefully looking around. She then had an idea… it brought a tiny, nasty smile to her face. When she finally slipped out of Kimmen Hold, she was also carrying a small clay pot.
* * * *
The next morning, Jaltow immediately noticed that Farsea was not on the desk where he had left it. He walked back to the shelves, expecting to find that someone had placed it back in the collection, but instead found that six more of the precious books were gone. He sighed. He had just gotten to a good part of the story before bed last night.
He headed out of the library, turning down the hallway towards the Hold offices. Before he got there, though, he heard a commotion… arguing voices. He followed them into the Holder’s outer office, where Kellus, his son, and several others were gathered.
“We have a thief, harper,” the Holder growled. His look obviously implied that Jaltow was a suspect. He pointed to the empty hearth. “My son’s rather expensive fire-lizard egg is gone. Do you know anything about this?”
Jaltow ignored the insinuation, replying instead “I was coming to say something similar, Holder Kellus. Several of the ancient books are missing.”
There was a pause, a brief moment of quiet before the office was again filled with angry voices. Kellus finally used his booming voice to yell everyone else to silence. “We aren’t getting anywhere like this! I need information!”
“If I may, Holder… I may have an idea.” Everyone turned towards Jaltow. “Yesterday, a girl, a drudge, came into the library to change the glowbaskets. She seemed very interested in the books.” Jaltow’s trained eye picked up a slight flush appear on the son’s face, a trace of anxiety.
Holder Kellus looked thoughtful. “I think I know the drudge you mean. She does all the glowbaskets around the Hold.” He motioned for one of the Hold Stewards to begin a search for the girl.
A few minutes later, an elderly drudge was guided into the room, obviously awed by the company she found herself in. The Kimmen Holder wasted no time on pleasantries, but immediately demanded that she tell him about the glowbasket drudge.
“Ah… sir… no one has seen her today,” she stammered out. “She’s not all there in the head, sir… um, she don’t talk.”
Jaltow felt a chill run down his spine. “She can’t hear or speak?” The old woman nodded. Jaltow looked around the room, speaking to everyone there. “Does anyone know where this girl came from… who her parents are?” Most in the room looked blank at the question, though Jaltow noticed that the Holder’s son was looking even more uncomfortable.
“She was the harper’s little one, sirs. Them harpers that came to see the books and then died in the fever.” The elderly drudge glanced at Jaltow, unaware of the effect her words had on the Him.
“Shells… she’s still alive” Jaltow mumbled, a unique feeling building in him… part elation, part severe guilt. He should have realized it earlier… the exotic folds in the drudge’s eyes, the delicate shape of her face hidden beneath the fall of black tresses… it was the same as Lynna, his long lost friend.
He quickly excused himself from the room, heading back to the library where he could be alone with his thoughts for a few minutes. He called Foxtrot with a whistle and a thought out the window, jotted a short note for the Harper Hall and attached it to the little blue’s leg. The fire-lizard, used to such tasks, blinked once and then launched back out the window, going between quickly.
Sitting at the desk, staring out the window at the sunlit valley hills, he silently apologized to a small girl who he had failed long ago, and wondered where she was now.
* * * *
Except for short rest stops, she had run through till mid-morning. She was following the river… from her memory of the library map she thought she could reach the seashore in a few days.
She finally stopped when she found a sunny sandbar sticking out into the river. She carefully pulled the clay pot out of her bag, slowly dumping its contents onto the ground. She buried the egg in the warm sand, and then stood up. Within seconds, she was plunging naked into freezing water. She scrubbed her skin raw with river sand, trying to get the stink of the Holder’s son off her. Finally, she forced herself out of the water… his smell was gone, but she still didn’t feel clean. His taint lingered on her, in her bruises and memories.
Shivering, she slipped the torn shift back over her shoulders. She then looked around, seeing the view with fresh eyes… she ran her eyes across the hills on the other side of the river valley, watched as a distant flight of wild fire-lizards danced through the air before disappearing one by one. She was standing someplace she had never been before… it was a nice feeling. With a fresh batch of warm sand, she repacked the precious egg and once again began walking. For the moment, she was free.
* * * *
A’day looked down on Kimmen Hold, taking in the cluster of buildings assembled below him. At the entrance to the Hold, he could see a dozen or so runnerbeasts being saddled, people milling about them.
Land downwind of the runners, Flipith… we don’t want to scare them. A’day knew that Kimmen Hold preferred to exist without dragonrider interference. He felt it was best not to antagonize the place right from the beginning by starting a stampede.
The blue dragon landed gracefully at the far end of the field outside the Hold, A’day sliding down off his neck even before the blue dragon settled. He was a young rider of twenty turns, with a tall and lanky form, dirty blond hair in disarray from the flight helmet he held in one hand. A thick braid of hair fell down below his shoulders, an affection becoming more common among some dragonriders now that they no longer needed to fight thread. After giving the dragon a quick pat on his massive shoulder, he strode forward with a smile and a youthful bounce to greet the people assembled at the Hold entrance.
“Greetings, Holder Kellus. Heading out for an afternoon ride?”
The Holder glanced down at the smiling young man from his perch on his runner. “We are in a bit of a hurry, blue rider. We have a thief to catch.”
A’day’s smile didn’t falter. “Then I won’t keep you, sir. Could you direct me to Journeyman Harper Jaltow?”
“The harper is probably in the library, in the Main Hall.” Kellus paused as he settled himself into his saddle, before adding a gruff afterthought. “As always, the hospitality of my Hold is available to a dragonrider.” With that, he kicked his runner, and the entire group headed out at a trot, heading down the river path in a cloud of dust.
A’day found Harper Jaltow exactly where he had been told… the harper was sitting in the library, several books scattered across the desk in front of him. The man looked pre-occupied, though he perked up once he caught sight of the rider entering the room.
A’day crossed the room, shaking hands with the harper as he introduced himself. Then he got a better look at the covers of the books on the desk… Jaltow noticed the direction of his gaze, picking up one of the novels and handing it to the young man. A’day turned it over in his hands, the image wrapping the book standing out at him. It showed a sea of endless sand dunes, a massive worm-like creature towering out of the sand in front of two tiny human figures. He slowly opened the book, finding clear and vibrant pages of tightly printed text.
“It seems that most of the ancient books here are fanciful stories. I’ve only begun to study them, but I’m already amazed at the imagination our ancestors had.”
A’day smiled back at Jaltow. “I’d love to read some of them someday.” He reluctantly handed the book back to the harper.
Jaltow couldn’t help but return the smile. “What can I do for you, rider A’day?”
“Actually, I’m here to ask what I can do for you.” At Jaltow’s curious look, A’day continued. “The Harper Hall asked the Weyr to send someone over to assist you. Does this have something to do with that party of riders that just left?”
Jaltow nodded. “There’s someone I’d like to find before Kellus and his riders run her down. I’ll explain on the way.”
* * * *
Jaltow quickly grew to like the young rider… the young man had a quick smile and a quiet wit that made him feel immediately at ease. A’day was filled with questions about the ancient books, and Jaltow enjoyed feeding his curiosity. Of course, spending the day floating above the trees on the back of a dragon helped his mood a bit as well.
Hours later, however, the excitement had worn off. Despite flying over every square meter of the river valley within a day’s walk of the Hold, the girl was still missing. Jaltow felt a sense of worry he had never felt before… he had no family of his own, so the desperate feeling of protectiveness growing in him was new. He should have replaced the family the girl had lost, but instead he had accepted the brief note of her death sent to the Harper Hall nine turns ago. She could have been a daughter to him, but he had failed her.
A’day eagerly agreed to return the next day. The young dragonrider seemed almost as crestfallen as Jaltow. The harper slowly walked in the early evening air, wandering back towards the Main Hall and library as his thoughts drifted.
When he entered the Hall, he immediately noticed Rufus, the Holder’s portly son. The boy was sitting at one end of the room, occasionally barking useless orders at drudges as they passed through on their duties. The instant Rufus caught sight of the harper he got to his feet and stomped across the Hall towards him.
He stopped so close that Jaltow almost took a step backward… the boy’s eyes glared into the harper’s. “Well? Did you find her?”
Jaltow paused, annoyed at the pretentious teenager puffing before him. “No, Master Rufus, we did not find the drudge, though I expect your father is still looking.”
Harper trained senses caught the slight change in expression on the boy’s face. Jaltow had been expecting another explosion of temper, but instead what he saw was a brief flash of relief pass across the boy’s features. As he watched young Master Rufus stomp from the Hall, that newly protective side of his mind began offering explanations Jaltow didn’t like.
* * * *
She finally stopped walking soon after the sun dipped behind the valley hills. For the most part, the day’s journey had been wondrous. Every step she took led her to new vistas, views that were not part of the Hold that had been her entire world for so long. She couldn’t help but glance behind constantly, though… the fear of being dragged back to the Holder’s son drove her onward.
Mid-day, she had been lucky enough to spot a blue dragon flying a ways down the river. She managed to hide in the underbrush before it flew over, and from then on she kept a constant watch on the skies. She was forced to hide twice more during the afternoon, but both times the dragon and its riders had passed without spotting her.
She was exhausted… she had been awake for almost two days without sleep. She once again buried the egg in the still sun-baked sand next to the river, and collapsed under some bushes nearby. Sleep came quickly.
* * * *
Fear and pain chased her... she could see him from the corner of her eye when she looked behind. She ran down the familiar corridor, fleeing into the library, the safest place she knew… trying to hide from him. She could see his shadow in the steady light of the glowbaskets, which she had just refreshed as usual. The shadow grew, and then she saw his grinning face appear around the edge of the shelves. He reached for her, throwing her to the wood floor. She could feel Farsea digging into her back as he dropped on top of her, forcing himself under her simple, torn pullover. Then, like a miracle, the library shutters broke open, flooding the room with light.
She woke with a start, bright sunlight shining into her face. She sat up quickly, her heart racing. It took her a moment to realize where she was, adrenaline from the nightmare fogging her awareness. She then managed to get a good look around her… she was no longer at Kimmen Hold.
She stood up, slipping out from the screen of bushes onto the river beach. She gazed around her, taking a few deep breaths before uncontrollably yawning. Rukbat hung just above the valley hills… it was early morning, that time of day she was usually stealing a few minutes in the library.
She stretched, wondering if anyone had noticed her absence at the Hold yet. Of course, the Holder’s son must have found that his fire-lizard egg was missing by now. She suspected they were searching for her… the blue dragon in the skies the previous day showed her she needed to be careful.
She shook off the lethargy of the morning, and forced herself towards the shore of the river. The fire-lizard egg was buried exactly where she expected, in the soft sand a bit above the water line. At first, she was afraid the sand had cooled too much overnight, but once she dug the egg out it still felt warm and hard.
In fact, the egg felt very hard… a scroll in the library mentioned that the eggs hardened before hatching. She had no way of knowing how hard it would get, but it did seem firmer than when she stopped for a bath the previous day. It might hatch any time, as far as she knew.
Her reading had given her some other clues as to what to expect… when the fire-lizard hatched, she knew she needed to feed it. A quick check of her supplies told her that she had enough food for herself for a few days, but if she planned to take care of a newly born fire-lizard she would need a lot more. The question was how to find food a fire-lizard would eat… she had no idea how to hunt for her needs.
She tried to recall the map she had seen so many times on the Kimmen Hold library wall… if she was correct, there was a small cothold a little further down the river. She didn’t have a clear idea about what she would do when she found it, but it was a landmark to watch for. She carefully repacked the egg pot with the warmest sand she could find, and then once again headed downriver.
For the first part of the day, she walked without seeing anything other than the constantly changing landscape in front of her. The hills around her slowly moved apart, broadening the river valley around her. Mid-morning, she was forced to hide once again from the blue dragon, but by noon she found herself crouched in the bushes on the outskirts of the small cothold. It was a tiny community, consisting of only a few small buildings… she could see a couple of people moving around outside, but none were near the storage building she had her eye on.
She carefully chose her timing, and then slipped towards the largest building in the hold. A moment’s work allowed her to dart inside, closing the door behind her. She hoped no one had heard her… she knew from years of reading that many of the things she did must be creating noises, but she had long ago learned to move carefully and smoothly, watching everything around her to avoid anything she might bump against or step on. She always imagined sound as a bright glowbasket in a dark room… it drew a person’s attention to it.
She looked around, seeing in the narrow beams of sunlight several stacks of supplies, as well as shelves filled with what looked like folded clothing. It took her only moments to find some racks of drying wherry meat, which she quickly stuffed into her sack. She then headed towards the clothes, quickly picking out pants, a shirt, and some undergarments she thought would come close to fitting. She couldn’t find any shoes, however… her ragged sandals would have to do for now. She was about to leave when another thought stopped her… she searched around the shed until she found a small vat of wherry oil. She remembered from the library scrolls that she would need it once the fire-lizard hatched and was growing.
As she headed finally for the door, constantly worrying about being discovered, she saw a clipboard hanging from the wall, a pencil hanging from it on a piece of string. She stopped, thinking… she felt ashamed stealing from these hard working people.
She grabbed the clipboard from the wall, and then stared at it for a while. She had not tried to write since her parents died, but she knew the letters and words she needed to create. She grabbed the pencil, and slowly tried to scrawl a short note on the rough paper. It took her several tries, and she had trouble figuring out how to hold the writing stick, but she managed to shakily write “Sorry. I need the food.”
From the books she had read, she knew she should sign the note. She had no name, however. She had never needed one before. She dimly remembered her parents drawing out her name many turns before… a series of symbols that had little practical meaning to her at the time. Now, suddenly, it seemed very important. She desperately tried to call forth the letters from so long ago, but in the end only came up with a few. She found she wanted a name, even if she could never hear it spoken.
She slowly wrote three letters at the bottom of her note… “KAT.” She hoped it would be enough. Writing these brief words was an epiphany for her… for the first time she began to think that she might be able to communicate with other people after all.
She then snuck back out the storage room door, looking around before quickly slipping back out into the brush at the edge of the hold.
* * * *
Once again, Jaltow returned to Kimmen Hold without success. The Lord Holder was still off with his troops, trying to find the thief, and the harper’s hopes of finding the girl first were starting to fade. His rear hurt from so many hours sitting astride the back of a dragon, though he would never admit that to A’day. The young rider was so cheerily supportive that Jaltow couldn’t tell the rider of his disappointment. He had even allowed the dragonrider to borrow one of the books, Kellus be damned… the ancient stories were meant to be shared, not buried in the lackluster library of a minor Hold. It turned out that A’day had a habit of telling stories to some of the children at Logres Weyr, and he had been particularly excited over some of the ancient children’s books found at Kimmen.
Once again he found Rufus waiting in the Main Hall, waiting for any news on the search. The boy’s surly response to the day’s lack of discovery did nothing to ease the harper’s burdens.
* * * *
Kat walked through the early evening sunlight, keeping a constant watch on the skies for pursuers on dragonback. She had yet to see the blue dragon that had forced her to hide earlier in the day, but she still glanced skyward frequently. At least she now had some sturdier clothes than the torn shift she had run out of Kimmen with.
She was worried, though… the fire-lizard egg felt even harder when she gathered warmer sand for it mid-day. She wished she knew when it would hatch.
The terrain around her was slowly changing as she followed the river. The valley hills had disappeared, giving way to a huge flat plain the water meandered through. She tried to keep herself traveling downriver, but the constantly changing course of the river made that difficult. Every time she thought she was heading in the right direction, she would stumble into another river bog, where the water pooled into stillness, filled with reeds and thick mud she could not cross.
It took her a few moments to realize that something was wrong… at first the subtle shaking of her carrysack failed to register on her. Then she stopped, waiting until she felt the movement again before the import of the motion wormed its way into her thoughts.
It took her a couple of anxious seconds to dump the contents of the sack onto the riverbank sand… wherry meat and half a dozen books scattered around a clay pot gently rocking back and forth. Breathing heavily, she carefully dumped the egg out, spilling it to roll across the bound tome of Farsea before coming to rest on the ground nearby.
It didn’t take long… within moments cracks were appearing across the surface of the little egg. A sudden jerk and the top of the egg popped off, a tiny golden head forcing its way out. Another spasm, and the shell broke apart lengthwise, spilling a tiny form onto the sands. With a sense of amazement, Kat realized she could feel the creature’s immense hunger. She immediately broke off a small piece of her purloined wherry meat and dropped it in front of the little fire-lizard, who snatched it up greedily. The next few minutes were a blur of action, as she quickly tore off more to feed the ravenous stomach in front of her.
Soon, however, the tiny being was gobbling strips of meat directly from her hands. She had it in the palm of one hand, quickly feeding it with the other while trying not to let it choke. Its tail curled tightly around her arm. For a long while it seemed to gobble as much as she could feed it, but finally it slowed down, curling into her hand with a sigh of contentment. She could feel it falling asleep, an impression of simple safety and trust flowing outward. A small smile of happiness and wonder flitted across Kat’s face, before she remembered to look to the skies once again for pursuers. She slowly stood up, holding the tiny beast to her chest with an unexpected emotion of protectiveness. She looked down at the tiny golden form for a moment before awkwardly repacking the sack with her free hand. She then plunged once again into the brush, a small pocket of warmth cradled against her chest.
A couple of hours later, as darkness dropped across the plain around her, she found a stretch of mostly solid land that led her through the marshes. She continued into the trees on the other side, finally stopping at the edge of a small clearing barely seen in the twilight. The tiny gold was once again awake and demanding food. She quickly built a little nest from the fallen leaves around her, and then stuffed the creature with dried wherry meat, dealing with her own hunger at the same time. She curled up in the underbrush, her body folded around the fire-lizard. As she drifted down into sleep, she briefly worried about the previous night’s frightening dreams, but in the end she spent the night in peace.
* * * *
Holder Kellus was already awake when Rukbat crested the hills around the small camp. He stood near the small cooking fire, sipping at a cup of strong klah. He was eager to get back on the trail… that thieving drudge had already managed to elude him far longer than he had expected.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a brown fire-lizard pop out of between. Based on the color bands painted on the creature’s neck, it came from a small weaver cothold a bit further down the river. Though Kellus personally considered the little beasts to be an annoyance, he was practical enough to make use of their abilities. When he became Holder after his father’s death, he had made sure that all the settlements that looked to Kimmen had several fire-lizards trained to carry messages. Over the past two days, Kellus had kept in contact with his Hold using the bronze one of his guards carried. That same guard was also one of the people the messenger dragonettes were trained to find… seconds after the brown launched back homeward, the guard handed Kellus a small roll of parchment.
The words on the paper scrap sent a charge of energy through him… the weaverhold had just discovered the theft of some wherry meat and other supplies. Within fifteen minutes, the entire troop of riders was briskly clomping down the dirt trail.
A bit over an hour later, Kellus pulled his runnerbeast to a halt at the edge of the cothold. He had not been to this tiny hold in more than half a turn, but he knew that it was a reasonably successful textile farm under his charge. Six families lived here, weaving simple but sturdy work clothing from the plant fibers they grew in nearby fields. He swung down off the runner, striding forward to gruffly greet the weathered farmer who ran the hold.
Several minutes later, Kellus was standing in the cothold’s storage shed, holding the almost unreadable note left by the thief. He felt a rush of anger… how could a simple drudge, especially a retarded slip of a girl barely capable of changing glowbaskets, manage to keep stealing from his Hold? With a growl, he ripped the note into pieces, dropping them to the ground before turning and walking from the building. Though the cotholder offered them breakfast, Kellus and his team of men were riding downriver within minutes.
* * * *
About the same time Kellus was entering the textile farm, Jaltow also got the news about the new theft.
He was reading in the Hold library when he heard a commotion. It took only seconds to track down the noise to the Main Hall, where Rufus was cursing at one of the Hold guards. The man stood stiffly formal, though Jaltow could see that he was barely keeping himself from throttling the petulant boy. Jaltow recognized the guard from the frequent stream of messages Kellus had been sending to the Hold… he was one of Kellus’ fire-lizard messengers. The instant the boy caught sight of the harper he turned and stomped over, giving the grateful guard a chance to escape through the main entryway.
“That sharding girl!” the red-faced boy bellowed. “I hope when my father catches her they cut her up and feed her to a watch-wher!” Jaltow saw that the Holder’s son clutched a scrap of paper in one thick-fingered hand.
Jaltow noticed that underneath the angry bluster, Rufus looked rather pale. He’s afraid of something. The harper felt a cold twist in his soul, but he suppressed the feeling. Projecting a calm and mature tone of voice, Jaltow asked, “Has there been news, young Holder?”
The harper had to listen to several more minutes of ranting before Rufus allowed him to read the message. Jaltow finally managed to break away when the boy headed off to terrorize a pair of drudges that happened to walk through the Hall. He immediately headed back down the hallway, calling Foxtrot the instant he reached the library. Soon after, the little blue was winging out the window, a small piece of paper clutched in its tiny forepaws and the image of A’day and Flipith in its head.
Less than half an hour later, A’day strode into the library, looking a little bleary-eyed. Foxtrot had caught him at the Weyr still asleep. He hadn’t planned to show up at Kimmen for the day’s search for a couple more hours.
“What’s up, friend harper? What’s the emergency?”
Jaltow took pity on the dragonrider, getting him a hot cup of strong klah before telling him of the theft at the cothold. It wasn’t long before the two of them where striding out towards Flipith, the half-drunk cup left behind on the library desk.
A quick but chilling trip between brought them out above the cothold. Jaltow could see the cultivated fields along the river on either side of the small cluster of buildings, as well as the tiny figures of people moving below. Flipith deftly landed on the road outside the cothold, lifting his leg to help Jaltow and A’day dismount. Several small children peeked out in wonder at the blue dragon… Jaltow got the impression that Flipith was amused at the attention. The rider and harper headed into the cothold to find out what they could.
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much to see. Other than the missing items, the only evidence of the crime was several torn pieces of paper. Jaltow carefully laid out the scraps on the top of a crate, reassembling the writing like a simple jigsaw puzzle. The words nearly broke his heart.
A’day, reading over his shoulder, spoke up. “Is that her name? Kat?”
Jaltow sighed. “I expect that is all she remembers of her name… she was just learning to read when she was orphaned, and probably only saw it written a few times.”
A’day gave the harper a brief, understanding touch on his shoulder. “What was her name?”
Jaltow closed his eyes, thinking painfully about his lost friends and the life their daughter could have had with him, had he only known. “Katalie. Her parents named her Katalie.”
* * * *
For several hours, Kat had noticed a subtle change in the air, a hint of salt and ozone carried on the breeze coming from downriver. She got the impression from the little gold form now awkwardly riding on her shoulder that it felt the difference as well. Mid-afternoon, they broke out of the trees, and stopped in wonder.
Stretched out before them was a vast expanse of beach sand, the waves of the sea rolling up and back again. Kat had often imagined what the ocean looked like, but she had never seen it. She looked to each side, her eyes walking down the beach. She could almost see the massive crumbling stone sentinels from the cover of Farsea marching off into the distance along the seashore, could almost see herself sitting on top of one, gazing out to the watery horizon.
The fire-lizard broke the mood when she suddenly launched herself into the air. For a second Kat panicked, thinking that the little gold was leaving her. However, she then caught a touch of playful excitement from the clumsily gliding critter. The fire-lizard dropped into the surf, splashing around comically. Seconds later, Kat was out of her stolen clothes and plunging into the waves herself.
Later she sat in the warmth of the sun, holding Farsea in her lap. At first, she was afraid her memories would taint the book for her, but she quickly fell back into the familiar story. It was a singular glory for her… for the first time since her mother and father died, she could just sit and read as long as she wanted. She didn’t need to snatch a few hidden moments here and there during the day. Kat spent the rest of the day just paging through the story, enjoying the ability to spend uninterrupted time with her favorite characters.
That evening, she carefully oiled her new friend, after once again stuffing it with pieces of dried wherry meat. The little creature preened in pleasure as Kat rubbed the smelly wherry oil into several dry spots on its already growing form. She realized that she had started to think of herself by that name… for most of her life she had never really thought about needing a title, but ever since the note she wrote at the cothold, she had been seeing that short written word in her thoughts. “Kat” was an image that resonated inside her, a label that was hers alone. It made her feel a little like a normal person.
They dropped off to sleep in the middle of a patch of tall reeds growing along the upper beach, both moons of Pern shining down on them.
* * * *
He was huge, a demonically grinning giant towering over her. Panic... desperation. She tried to fight him off, but he was too heavy. His body was smothering as it came down on top of her. With horror, she felt him tear into her with a burst of pain. Drops of his sweat dripped onto her exposed breast, burning her with its awful heat. Then something exploded inside her head... something disturbing and strange, unlike anything she had experienced before. It filled her mind, blocking out everything else, an overload she couldn’t find any way to get away from....
She woke in a sweat, adrenaline snapping her awake instantly. The nightmare was already vanishing, leaving behind a feeling of infinite strangeness and a panicky fluttering of anxiety.
Then she noticed her little gold. It stood on its haunches, its eyes whirling red in alarm. An image flitted into her thoughts, a surprising touch from the fire-lizard of distant movement on the beach. She carefully glanced up out of the sea grass, another surge of adrenaline flooding through her as she saw the focus of the dragonette’s fear. Several men were walking around a ways down the beach. She recognized several of them from Kimmen Hold. Then the broad and muscled form of the Holder himself came out of the trees, leading a runnerbeast.
The dream now totally forgotten, she quickly scooped up her sack and wormed her way under the reeds in the opposite direction, her heart pounding the entire time. Looking behind her constantly, she chanced a quick dash across an open stretch of beach and back into the trees. Once hidden behind the foliage, she ran as hard as she could.
An hour later, one of Kellus’ men found it… an indestructible book of the ancients lying among a field of sea grass. It had a colorful image on the cover, of massive ruined stone statues standing on a beach, looking out to sea.
* * * *
By the fourth day of the search, Jaltow was becoming desperate. The tantalizing evidence from the textile cothold the previous day had briefly given him hope that he might find Katalie, but in the end they were forced to return to Kimmen empty handed.
Mid-morning found the harper again straddling the neck of blue Flipith, gliding over the coastal trees. Ahead to the north, he could see the ocean, a slight but noticeable curve bending the horizon from the height they flew. The dragon floated over the beach and then made a lazy turn to the west.
“Flip says he sees people a ways up the coast,” A’day yelled over the rush of flowing air. “I told him we should check it out!”
Jaltow just nodded, saving his voice for when he might need it. Minutes later, he could see the figures milling on the beach. It didn’t take long for the harper’s sharp eyes to pick out Holder Kellus. Jaltow was about to tell A’day to land when he felt the blue dragon beneath him shift, starting a spiral down towards the ground.
The first thing Jaltow noticed upon climbing off the dragon was that Kellus was furious. Apparently, he had once again failed to catch his quarry, though he seemed sure that she had recently been here. With a start of recognition, the harper recognized the book the Holder was waving about in one hand. It was Farsea, the wonderful story that Katalie had seemed so worried about his first day at Kimmen Hold. Kellus was in no mood to give out concessions to an interloping harper, but Jaltow eventually managed to walk away with the precious book, promising to return it to the safety of the Hold library.
Jaltow walked back to the dragon with a sense of growing fear… he couldn’t let the Holder find Katalie first! It was obvious from Kellus’ rage that the girl had become a personal frustration to the man. If he caught her, she would likely be punished severely. More uncomfortable than that, though, was the idea of Katalie near the Holder’s son….
As Flipith bounded off the sand and back into the air, Jaltow stared at the now familiar book a moment before slipping it into the supply bag strapped to the dragon.
* * * *
She plunged through the jungle, constantly looking behind. She was sure that at any moment the Hold men would burst out of the trees, overtaking her on their runnerbeasts. Then they would drag her back to Kimmen Hold. The thought of being a prisoner to the Holder’s son drove her onward in panic.
The fire-lizard clung to her shoulder with a death grip, her thin tail wrapped around Kat’s neck in a stranglehold. She could feel its fear, a mirror of her own. She drove herself forward, ignoring her exhaustion, stopping only once in the middle of the day to quickly feed the newborn fire-lizard before plunging into the trees again.
As Rukbat finally began to slide towards the horizon, she stumbled across a trader road. She was ready to collapse, the day’s terror and flight having drained all of her energy. However, she understood the danger of staying near the road… it was the most likely path for the Holder and his men to travel while searching for her. She forced herself to walk a little ways further, eventually dropping into the brush a hundred meters beyond the edge of the travelway. She hoped she would be hidden from anyone searching for her, but she couldn’t go any further. She was asleep the instant she put her head down into the underbrush.
She woke several times during the night, the victim of familiar nightmares. Each time, she could feel the little dragonette stirring as well, echoing if not understanding the anxieties she felt. Once, in the glow of one of the Pernese moons, she caught sight of a figure jogging down the nearby pathway… after a surge of panic, she realized it was a passing runner carrying messages between the local holds, and forced herself back to sleep.
After days of nightmares, it was a bit strange to wake out of a playful and energetic dream of flying. The morning sun slipped in patches down through the overhanging trees. It took her a moment to notice that the little gold was not at her side… the newborn creature was flitting through the air, obviously enjoying the company of several other fire-lizards. Her first thought was that the unknown flight were wild, but she then noticed the bands of color painted on their necks.
She sat up suddenly, a pulse of fear passing through her. Off through the trees, she could see a caravan of trader wagons parked on the road. She glimpsed several people working their way through the trees towards her… the fear turned to full-blown panic, and she jumped to her feet, intending to dash off into the forest. Her sleep-dulled reflexes failed her, however, and she tripped over herself, falling back to the ground. By the time she could stand again, the people were all around her.
Breathing heavily, she stared up at them. A middle-aged woman with a pleasant face knelt down next to her. She could tell that the woman was speaking to her, a friendly smile on her face. After getting no response, she held out a hand to Kat, helping her up out of the bushes. Kat began to realize that the people surrounding her were not the ones searching for her… seeing that she had little choice, she allowed herself to be led towards the trader wagons. The woman kept a calm and pleasant expression on her face, her lips moving in continued speech.
As they reached the wagon train, the woman stopped Kat. Her expression changed subtly as she continued to talk… Kat realized the trader was asking questions she had no way of understanding or responding to. Kat stared at her a moment before slowly bringing her hands to her ears, shaking her head. She had a moment’s shiver, thinking about the last time she had used this bit of gesture language and the eventual consequences it had led to. As she saw understanding blossom across the trader woman’s face, though, her little gold came to a prim landing on Kat’s shoulder, a clear impression of joy and friendliness exuding from it, as well as a quick flood of playful images about the other fire-lizards. That, more than anything, helped settle Kat’s anxiety. The fire-lizard had been terrified by the Kimmen Hold riders, but seemed happy at being around these people. Kat was beginning to trust the instincts of her newborn friend.
Minutes later, Kat was sitting inside one of the wagons as the trader train started into motion once again.
* * * *
Saria had been a trader for her entire life. Her parents had helped establish this trading caravan in the Southern continent, primarily working along the extended coastal route between Rubicon Weyrhold and Paradise River Hold. She had traveled with the group for most of her forty-four turns, and now helped run the business. She was a mildly portly woman, her face beginning to show the wrinkles of years in the sun and her shoulder-cropped brown hair just starting to show hints of gray. When the outriders of the train had noticed the newborn gold cavorting with their own, they had immediately stopped… a newly impressionable wild fire-lizard, especially a gold, would have been a useful bonus to this trip.
Finding the young woman huddled in the bushes near the road had been unexpected, but Saria was always willing to help anyone they found along their travels.
Saria had immediately noticed the anxiety in this girl, though. She had tried to run when she first caught sight of the traders, and even as she was being led to wagons, she had kept a constant furtive watch on the forest around her. Discovering that the girl was deaf was a shock, but the fact that the young woman had the presence of mind to try to explain her problem with gestures proved that the girl was intelligent. Saria realized she would have to tread carefully with this one.
As the trader train got moving again, Saria watched from the corner of her eye as the girl carefully fed the little gold with meat from her sack, and then lovingly oiled the tiny beast’s hide. That small bit of compassion told her all she needed to know about the heart of the girl, but she couldn’t help but wonder what she was running from. Without the ability to speak, she knew there was little chance she would get any answers to her many questions.
* * * *
At first, Kat busied herself by feeding her new golden friend, once again wondering at the perceptiveness of the newborn fire-lizard, who feared her pursuers but seemed to know when friends were about. She allowed herself to enjoy the task of smoothing the dragonette’s hide, sensing the pleasure the gold got from having its mild itches soothed by the moisturizing effects of the oil. She never allowed herself to drop her defenses, but something told her she might be safe here among the traders for a little while.
She kept a furtive eye on the trader woman, sitting at the front of the wagon with a young man who was guiding the beasts pulling the cart. After a while, though, she decided to relax a bit. She was alone in the back of the wagon, so she felt secure enough to perhaps do a little reading. She could always shove the book back into her bag before anyone saw. She pulled open the sack, intending to pull out Farsea… she was, once again, nearly at the end of the wondrous story.
Her feelings of security vanished quickly, though… Farsea was no longer in her sack. She desperately searched among the books in her bag, but that favorite story was gone. With a rush of pain, she realized she must have left it behind on the beach. A feeling of profound loss filled her, strong enough to wake the gold lump in her lap briefly. She forced herself to sooth the tiny creature back to sleep, trying to accept the fact that she would likely never see the beautiful book again. A few tears dropped down her cheek, but in the end she pulled out one of the other novels.
She spent an hour reading the beginning of another familiar story, of a young slave boy caught in a land filled with magic and dangerous dragons that were very different from the ones that filled the skies of Pern. She kept the book hidden from view from the front of the wagon, using her body as a shield, and twice she had to slip it back into her carrysack when the trader woman moved into the back of the cart.
The second time, Kat was sure the woman had seen the book before she managed to hide it, and she felt a moment of anxiety that the woman would demand to see the contents of the carrysack. Instead, however, the woman sat down next to her with a curious expression on her face. She then rummaged around in a nearby bundle of supplies, and pulled out a pad of paper, backed by a thin plank of wood and bound with tiny rings of reed through holes drilled in the paper sheets. The woman produced a small charcoal pencil from a pocket and scribbled on the top piece of paper. She then held out the pad to Kat, who slowly took it.
Kat read the single word written on it, looking up at the trader woman, who pointed to herself. “Saria.” The woman then pointed at Kat, handing her the pencil. She stared at the woman a moment before awkwardly trying to write her own name on the paper. The woman, Saria, smiled… it was a beaming ray of friendliness that showed her joy at the communication. Saria reached out, slowly cupping Kat’s hand and shifting the writing tool in her hand… the woman showed her how to hold the pencil between her thumb and first finger. Kat couldn’t help but smile back.
The next couple of hours were magic for Kat… for the first time since her parents had died, she was speaking to another person. They passed back and forth the pad of paper, Saria quickly writing questions and thoughts on the rough parchment, and Kat slowly scribbling in return. Kat admitted to the trader woman that she was a drudge that had run away from her hold, though she fudged the truth by saying that she had wanted to see more of the world than she could see in her hold, and had slipped out one night. Saria seemed to accept that, though Kat could tell from her expression that she knew there was more to the story.
Perhaps the most thought provoking moment of the written conversation, though, was the moment when Saria asked Kat the name of her newborn gold fire-lizard. It sent a small shock though the girl, who up until then had never considered giving the dragonette a title. She had only recently discovered her own need for a name…. She tried, in her awkward scrawl, to explain her feelings to Saria, and was amazed when the woman seemed to understand. Kat then promised to think of a name for the little gold, an idea that grew larger to her the more she thought of it.
The ability to communicate with someone in a form other than primitive gestures left Kat excited and breathless… it was the most amazing experience of her life. When Saria finally noted that she needed to return to guiding the wagon, Kat tried to hide her disappointment. Then Saria handed her the notepad, writing quickly that Kat could keep the pad and pencil. It was the greatest gift anyone had ever given her… she couldn’t help the tears that appeared. Saria gave her a quick hug before she headed back to the front of the cart.
Kat spent the rest of the day’s ride fingering the pad, practicing writing and constantly bringing her thoughts forward to Saria to continue the connection she had built as the woman controlled the beasts pulling the carriage.
As twilight approached, the trader train pulled into a large cothold along the road. The merchants spilled outward, settling the beasts and readying themselves for an evening of trading and merriment. Kat noticed among the travelers a group of harpers stepping down from one of the wagons forward of Saria’s, gathering their instruments and heading in towards the main hall of the small village. The people of the hold came out to meet them, obviously excited over the prospect of some entertainment.
Saria pulled Kat from the wagon, guiding her towards the central building of the hold with a smile of assurance on her face. Kat allowed herself to be led forward, wondering what the night would hold, the small and excited presence of her fire-lizard helping to comfort her anxiety.
* * * *
Jaltow once again returned to Kimmen Hold in failure. He managed to avoid young Rufus, but he did find the daily reports from Holder Kellus, brought by fire-lizard message. The Holder planned to berth his troops for the night at a cothold along the main trade road at the entrance to the Kimmen river valley. Jaltow allowed himself to be comforted by the knowledge that the man had not yet stumbled across the thief that had so stymied him.
Upon reaching the library, the harper pulled Farsea from the bag he had carried from Flipith, and sat down to continue reading. When he was forced by the darkness to unshield a basket to continue reading, he wondered how often Katalie had sat in this room, reading this same book by glowlight. It gave him a comforting connection to the girl he so much wanted to find. He read far into the night, lost in the pages of the wonderful and strange story.
* * * *
Kat sat at a large communal table in the main hall of the cothold, amidst dozens of other people. It was an interesting experience for her… she had spent most of her life on the periphery of settings such as this, hiding in the kitchen instead of being a part of the events. She noticed that the harpers had started to play, though it had little meaning for her. She saw Saria sitting beside her, seeming to enjoy the music. For the first time, she realized that the trader woman had a fire-lizard of her own, a bronze that spent a moment nibbling bites of food in front of the woman before launching for the rafters of the building, where it joined a number of others.
Kat slowly fed her newborn gold, allowing it to eat strips of meat their hosts had provided for this purpose even as she herself ate from a platter of roasted herdbeast and tubers. It was a far better meal than she usually had from the leftover scraps in the Kimmen Hold kitchen. After filling the little creature, she slowly dabbed drops of oil onto a new spot of flaky hide, an event that she could feel the gold enjoyed. She looked up briefly when she noticed movement from the corner of her eye… the audience around her was clapping and stomping their feet, showing their appreciation for the song the harpers had just finished. With a small pang of regret that she could not participate in their enjoyment, Kat returned to her administrations to the small stuffed friend in front of her.
As she continued to run her fingers across the dragonette’s skin, she pondered what she should name the little creature. She considered and discarded several names pulled from the books she had read… many favorite characters came to mind, but none seemed to fit the newborn gold. She wanted to give her a name that fit what she had come to mean to Kat, a name that matched the tiny pet’s budding personality. For now, the gold’s naming would have to wait for future inspiration.
Something caught the eye of the fire-lizard, its little head looking up into the roof beams. Kat could see that most of the fire-lizards perched above were watching the harpers as intently as the people below. The gold looked back into Kat’s eyes, and something smashed into her mind.
It was incomprehensible… alien, overloading her ability to think. Under the shock, impending panic built up. Then it cut off, leaving behind an emptiness she had never noticed before. She took a shaky, deep breath, and then caught the flash of emotion from her little gold friend. She was still staring into Kat’s eyes, but now its tiny jewel-like gaze was tinted orange, whirling fast. Kat clearly got an impression of guilt, of sorrow, from the gold. Sitting there in the profound silence, she finally understood. Sound! Just as the little creature had occasionally sent her images, the dragonette was now somehow passing on what it was hearing!
She felt a tap on her shoulder, and turned in startlement. Saria looked at her, obviously concerned, but Kat concentrated on the dragonette, giving it soothing thoughts, feelings of gratitude and reassurance. The tiny eyes slowly shifted back towards green, and the noise faded back in.
This time she was ready for it. She knew it couldn’t hurt her, no matter how chaotic it seemed. A lifetime of curiosity was far stronger than her fear. Then she saw the tiny gold head turn towards the front of the room. She looked up, and suddenly realized there were patterns in the noise! She realized she could hear the beats of the drummer, concentrating on his hands hitting the drum and picking out a deep pulse in the chaos that matched. She shifted her gaze to the guitar player, and was mesmerized by the play of his hands. She realized that the sounds that matched his movements were constantly changing, and yet there was a basic sameness about the sound as well. She could hear the notes he played, all the same feel, but flickering from deep to airy as his hands moved across the fret board. The music seemed to speed up, the sound of all the instruments combining in a complex weave that suddenly cut off with a flourish from the harpers that left her breathless. For a second, she heard near silence, though she could still faintly hear something.
Then huge noise exploded around her again… a short breath escaped her, but she quickly noticed that everyone around her was clapping. She forced herself to calm down, looking over at Saria. The trader woman had her mouth slightly open, a stunned look on her face. Saria quickly grabbed the pad sitting between them on the table. The noise faded back to total silence.
“You heard the music? “
Kat nodded, a faint, lost smile on her face. Saria gave her an amazed smile, and then pointed to the harpers. Kat could see they were ready to start a new song. With a sense of excitement, she sent another wave of encouragement to her gold, and once again sound wrapped around her. It was different this time… the last song had been fast and lively, the instruments bounding around and mixing with each other. This song, however, was slower, simpler, and somehow, to her amazement, sadder. Then she saw the guitar player open his mouth, and once again she was mesmerized by a new experience. She was, for the first time in her life, hearing a human voice! It changed tone, dancing up and down, and the details of the voice were constantly changing, forming patterns too complex to possibly understand. She was hearing language!
For a timeless while, she hardly noticed the tears running down her face.
* * * *
Malay ended the final song of the evening with a flair, the other harpers around him hitting their last notes in perfect time with his. They had been traveling together for half a turn now, moving at random among the holds in this part of southern Pern and playing both traditional songs as well as their own creations. He loved to play, to connect with an audience… however, his fingers were finally getting tired, and he knew the rest of the harpers also felt the pleasant exhaustion of a well-played evening of music.
He was about to pack his guitar in its case when he noticed a frightened young woman walking skittishly towards him, dodging around the hold population now scattering into the evening. She had a newborn gold fire-lizard clutched in her arms and a fall of dark hair coving half her face. Malay gave her a smile.
The girl took a deep breath, and then strode forward the rest of the way. She held out a pad of paper to him, which he took in his hand. On the top page was a roughly written question: Will you play another? Please?
Malay looked up at the young woman, and then caught sight of Saria coming up behind her. He glanced a silent question at her. He and his fellow harpers had been traveling with Saria’s train since they left Rubicon Weyrhold two months back, and he recalled the commotion that morning when they found the girl.
“She’s deaf… at least she was until that fire-lizard began to enjoy your songs.” Malay caught the implications instantly, his eyes going wide. He then nodded to the girl, stood up, and moved to a nearby bench, motioning her to sit next to him. At first hesitant, the girl eventually sat down, and he began to play.
It was an amazing experience… he could tell the instant the little beast began to enjoy the little instrumental piece, could see it in the look that came over the girl, the tight and furtive gaze relaxing into awe. He began to play around with different melodies, catching her attention and showing her how the sounds changed on the different strings and finger positions. He played chords, so she could hear how notes combined, and finger runs up the fret-board to show her the range of the guitar.
Malay lost all track of time, until the main door to the hall swung open with a loud bang. He saw several dusty riders entering, calling for drink. The girl started violently at the sound, looking around in all directions. Then she was gone, leaping to her feet and dashing through a servant’s entry before he or Saria could stop her. Saria immediately ran after her, but by the time Malay had his guitar carefully packed away, the trader woman was back, a worried expression on her face. Kat had disappeared.
* * * *
It was almost too much for her… the events of the evening had been too shocking, too overloading. To see her pursuers entering the room had sent her into an instant panic. She had dashed through the kitchen, heading out the nearest door into the night. Within moments the jungle trees once again surrounded her, terror driving her forward. It was only luck that she still had her carrysack… if it had not been on her shoulder while she was listening to the harper, she had no doubt she would have left it behind.
Finally, she stumbled across a root hidden in the shadows, and sprawled forward. She couldn’t make herself stand up again. She crawled under a nearby thicket of bushes, and curled up in fatigue.
As her mind drifted into unconsciousness, a stray thought popped into her mind. She had the perfect name for her wondrous newborn friend, a word she had seen a few times in books, but never really understood… a word for a beautiful piece of music. She would name the gold Aria. Someday, she might even be able to hear the name spoken.
* * * *
He stood over her, a fearful grin spread across his face. She knew exactly what would happen next, but she couldn’t move... she was frozen by the terror born in her from the look in his eyes. Then he opened his mouth, and a terrible roar filled her mind. It hammered at her, shattering her ability to think…
Kat started awake, her heart racing. She felt the faint morning breeze cooling the sweat on her face. Slowly, the nightmare lost its hold, as her thoughts caught up with the reality of the bushes around her. Sound. She had been dreaming about sound.
She suddenly looked around her, trying to find Aria… the now familiar form of the fire-lizard was missing. A flash of intense emotion caught her mind, and she glanced up to the branches of a small tree above her… Aria was perched on a limb, its neck outstretched and rigid, its eyes glowing red. Noise suddenly but briefly flooded her, a shifting, scratchy thing that echoed from her dream. She looked in the direction Aria was looking, and saw distant bushes shaking, a sudden glimpse of a uniform sending her already racing heart beating faster.
Kat grabbed her sack and scurried out of her hiding place. She ran in the opposite direction from the hunters, trying to keep low so they might not see her. With a burst of panic, she wondered if they could hear her crashing through the bushes… she stumbled, but forced herself forward.
* * * *
The caravan was busy around Jaltow, the traders preparing for the day’s journey east to the next hold on their route to Paradise River. Rukbat had been up for two hours already, but the harper had managed to reach the small crossroads hold before they left. He felt frazzled, drained by another morning of frenzied activity begun with a fire-lizard message at Kimmen Hold.
He watched as Flipith launched himself and A’day back into the air… the young rider was anxious to keep up the search while Jaltow learned what he could here. The harper knew he could quickly reach the pair with Foxtrot… the little blue lizard had a lot of practice finding the young dragonrider these days. He tried to shake his weariness off, and walked towards the wagons.
He very quickly got directed to a rather striking woman named Saria. Perhaps it was just his exhaustion, but he found himself pouring out his whole story to her… somehow he could tell that she shared some of his fears for Katalie. Despite the immediacy of their problem, Jaltow couldn’t help but be thrilled and amazed at everything Saria told him. The idea that a fire-lizard could give hearing to a deaf girl filled him with ideas! He felt an uncommon sense of joy for Katalie, despite the fear he knew she must be feeling right now.
* * * *
Flipith glided far above the trees, his sharp gaze shifting constantly in hope of catching some movement. However, despite ancestry designed to find prey in the wilderness, it was A’day who first saw her.
She broke out of the trees into a large meadow to their left, a small fleeing figure. Tuned as he was to his rider’s thoughts, A’day felt his dragon begin a turn towards her before he consciously thought of it.
I can see movement in the trees behind her. There are people following her.
A’day felt a surge of excitement. We’ve got to pick her up first!
I know. Flipith dove down toward the clearing.
He saw the girl look up, catch sight of them. Even from a distance, A’day could see the fear in her face as she redoubled her efforts to get across the field.
Shards! We’ve got to find a way to tell her we’re here to help!
I know that too. Suddenly, the girl stumbled forward, fell to the ground. She rolled over, looking up with an expression of shock as they came in for a landing.
A’day could feel the dragon’s burst of confusion. What just happened, Flipith?!
I said hello to her... why is she so frightened of us?
After a second of shock that his dragon spoke to another person, several facts came together in A’day’s mind. She can’t hear! She can’t understand your words, Flip! She’s probably never heard anything before! He thought fast. Send her images...she’ll understand those better. He formed a picture in his mind, of himself reaching out his hand in friendship, of the girl climbing aboard Flipith and escaping the riders behind her. As Flipith landed, he kept his eyes on her, desperately trying to project, through his dragon, a sense of friendship and help.
He watched as she stared back at him, blatant emotions flitting across her face: fear, awe, desperation… they all appeared one after another. Then she looked over her shoulder, toward the thrashing bushes at the edge of the meadow. When she looked back at him, he could tell that she had made the decision. She jumped up and ran to his outstretched hand.
He hauled her up, sitting her in front of him. They didn’t have time to properly strap her in… at any second the Kimmen search party could break out of the trees, and he needed to be long gone by then. He quickly flipped a belt around her waist and then wrapped his arms around her. A’day felt her stiffen in fear, and then Flipith launched into the air. She suddenly looked wildly about, but then a gold blur flew by, landing on her shoulder. She relaxed a little, but he could tell she was terrified, watching the ground drop away from them. The tiny fire-lizard’s tail wrapped itself around her neck, obviously echoing her fear.
Where should we go?
A’day thought about the dragon’s question… he could only think of one place where Kat might be safe for a few days. Take us to Logres, Flip. We better warn her about between. He pictured blackness, tried to send the girl an image of blank coldness, followed by warmth once again. She looked back at him, her fear painted across her face. She kept it tightly under control however… she gave him a quick, sharp nod.
She understands... we go! The nothingness of between wrapped around them.
A’day had time for only one thought during the brief passage though. The Weyrleaders won’t be happy about this....
* * * *
Kat forced herself to stay calm, a war she fought against panic, born in the shockingly cold nothingness of between. Then bright sunlight flooded the world again.
Kat’s first sight of Logres surprised her. She had only been to a Weyr once before; long ago she had ridden up a long winding road with her parents, through a tunnel that emptied into a massive mountainous bowl pockmarked by the caves of giant dragons. At the time, she had no words to connect to the sights around her, but the image of that wonderful place remained. Later, when she learned to read and started putting labels on the world, that view always defined for her the word Weyr.
This place, however, looked nothing like the Weyr of her memory. Fort Weyr had been tightly confined, mountainous stone ramparts surrounding the cave homes of the dragons. It had been a stark and harsh, if beautiful place… a definition of directed purpose. The sprawl below her was something very different. It spread for several kilometers along the shore of a large lake, hundreds of buildings and fields scattered among the trees. Sprinkled everywhere were the gleaming hides of hundreds of dragons, more gliding through the air above. With a surge of transmitted excitement, Aria launched from her shoulder, practicing turns and dives in the air around Flipith.
It was like a fairytale city from one of the ancient novels, though the thought didn’t occur to her until later. At that moment, she had room for only one focus for her attention: it was a long way to the ground.
* * * *
A’day caught a brief snort of amusement from Flipith as the tiny gold zipped past the dragon’s nose. The dragon made a slow bank to the east, heading for his weyr at the edge of the community.
The dragon landed lightly in front of A’day’s small cot. The girl slid down to the ground, the rider following a moment later once he freed himself from the straps. He opened the door for the girl, nearly getting knocked flat by a tiny gold blur that zipped in behind her, and then returned to his dragon to remove his riding harness.
A couple of minutes later, he hung the straps in the cabinet outside the cot entrance, and stepped into the familiar room. Katalie stood at his small table, holding the ancient children’s book he had borrowed from Jaltow to read to some of the Weyr kids last evening. He had left it on his table afterward. The way she held the book told him she knew the book, that it was something special to her. A’day walked up behind, unconsciously putting a friendly hand on her shoulder.
The result was totally unexpected. The girl leapt away like thread itself was after her, jumping into a corner with the book held to her chest like a shield. The one eye visible through the cascade of dark hair was wild and frightened.
I’m not sure, Flip. A’day backed up a bit, and then put his hands over his chest, giving her a small bow of apology. She’s very skittish, Flipith. We have to be careful with her... I don’t want to scare her off.
She’ll figure out we are friends soon enough. The little one with her has already decided to trust us.
A’day looked at her a second more, pressed back into the corner, waiting for his next move. He sighed. Flipith, can you give her an image of me leaving and coming back with food?
He saw her stiffen a touch as the image hit her, and nodded a smile at her as he walked out the still open door.
It took A’day only a few minutes to run over to the nearest communal kitchen and grab a platter of bread, cheese, and meatrolls. He slung a skin of fruit juice over his shoulder, and headed back.
When he walked back in, Kat looked up sharply at him, her eyes still hinting at the anxiety behind them. Well, at least she’s not huddled in the corner anymore.
A’day placed the tray on the table, and gathered a couple of cups. He poured the juice, and then sat down on the opposite side of the table from her. He gave her a smile and motioned to the food, but it was the little gold that decided the matter. A flutter of wings brought the critter to the table, where it grabbed a meatroll off the platter, looking up at the rider with an expression of happy contentment as she stuffed half of it into her tiny muzzle. The tiny head turned to Kat and chirped at her… A’day couldn’t help but smile. Katalie took in a slow breath and then sat down.
It was a strange meal for A’day. When dining with others, he was used to conversation, or at the very least, an occasional “pass the klah pitcher.” This meal proceeded in utter silence. In fact, as A’day dwelt on it more, he realized that even the usual clink of dishes, the subtle noises of movement were largely missing. He found himself watching the girl… she ate methodically, every movement careful and precise. It told him much about her; given that she was deaf, she must have spent years schooling herself to be so quiet, watching the effects of her actions on others to guide her.
Eventually, Kat noticed his scrutiny. She stared back at him with an inscrutable look on her face before reaching down into the carrysack at her feet. He watched as she lifted a small pad, writing on it laboriously before sliding it across the table to him. He couldn’t help but notice that she pulled her hand back the instant he reached for the note.
A’day turned the pad so he could read it, finding several words in a difficult to read scrawl. “Thank you for the food. My name is Kat.” The rider looked back up at her with a small smile, and reached out a hand, pointing at the pencil she still held. After another enigmatic look, she slowly handed the writing instrument over.
He quickly wrote on the pad and slid it back over to her. She glanced at it, and then looked up sharply at him, her eyes going wide. He beamed a smile at her and nodded. She then looked back down at the shocking words. “Your name is Katalie.”
A moment later, a blue fire-lizard swept into the room through one of the open windows, startling them both. A’day gave himself a mental whack to the forehead… he had completely forgot about Jaltow. He gestured to Kat, once again asking for the pad. He quickly wrote, telling her that he needed to leave, but he would be back soon. After reading the message, Kat looked over at him, and gave a small, uncertain nod. With a smile, A’day stood up and headed out the door, Foxtrot gliding out behind him.
* * * *
Kat continued to sit at the table for a few more minutes, her eyes studying the name written on the paper. It didn’t seem possible, and yet somehow the name felt right. She had only seen her full name written a few times, so long ago when she was first learning to read with her parents. Somehow, though, she knew that Katalie was that name.
She looked up, a dozen thoughts chasing each other in her mind. She noticed Aria, curled up on the table, contentedly digesting several meatrolls, and then began studying the room around her. It was small but comfortable, the wooden walls and large windows giving the cot interior a much airier feeling than its size would suggest. A faint scent of wood varnish mixed with the earthy smells coming in through the windows. It was sparsely furnished… beyond the small table against one wall, there was only the bed in the corner and a set of shelves containing various knick-knacks. A narrow door against one wall probably led to a small closet.
As she stood up and began to wander around the room, she tried to bring her thoughts back into order. She had no idea what to do next… a part of her wanted to flee out the door while she had the chance, to try to lose herself once again in the wilderness. She knew that was only a temporary solution, though… she couldn’t spend the rest of her life running.
The problem that most worried her, though, was whether she could trust the rider. Dragonriders were supposed to be paragons of fairness and justice, at least according to the histories she had read over the years at Kimmen. Of course, the same was supposed to be true for the leaders of the Holds. The reality could be much different, though… a fact she had recently and violently learned.
The dragonrider had saved her from the Kimmen hunters and Aria seemed to like him… she decided that was worth a little trust, at least for now. She sat back down at the table, slowly paging through the familiar children’s book. She occasionally glanced out the window, wondering when the rider and his dragon would return, and worrying about what would happen then.
An hour later, Kat still sat at the table, now back to reading the ancient novel of the young magician fighting his way through dungeons towards his inevitable meeting with the evil master mage. A flash of movement caught her eye, and she once again glanced out the window, just in time to watch the blue dragon settle to the ground outside. She hurriedly shoved the book back into her sack, only then noticing that A’day was not alone on the back of the giant beast. A closer look sent a flood of panic through her… she recognized the man now sliding down from the riding straps. He had appeared at Kimmen the same day her life fell apart.
There was nowhere to run… the only exit was through the door or out a window, all of which led out to the rider and his passenger. She slowly backed herself into the corner behind her chair, her sack clutched in her hand. She was just steeling herself to make a dash for the door, hoping to slip past them, when the door opened.
The man with the weathered face came to an abrupt stop in the doorway, staring at her. She was about to bolt when something curious caught her eye… there were tears on the man’s face! He slowly reached into a bag strapped over his shoulder and held something out to her... a book. With a leap of her heart, she recognized it. Farsea! The sight of the sorely missed novel completely derailed her anxiety, flipping her fear back into confusion. She could easily see some of the emotions on his face… excitement, worry, and sadness, as he slowly stepped forward and handed the book to her. Katalie stared at it for a moment before collapsing back into her chair at the table.
The next hour was the most illuminating of her life. Jaltow wrote to her of her parents, of himself. The sense of familiarity she had felt when first encountering him at Kimmen came back, now joined with vague and nearly forgotten memories from the years before she had words to define the world around her.
Most of all, he apologized. She found this the most curious of all the things Jaltow wrote to her. After so many years alone at Kimmen, she had a difficult time imagining how life could have been different. The idea that she could have lived with this man, led a totally different life, was strange to her… the thought that someone could be this emotional about her and her life was almost unimaginable. Once again, her entire view of the world had been shifted somehow, leaving her floundering in a sea of new ideas.
By the time Rukbat began to sink below the local hills, they had gone through most of her remaining pages of paper. Her head was spinning with stories of her parents… stories she could never have understood while they were alive. It built a long-missing bridge to her past, gave her an anchor to where she came from. She watched as A’day and Jaltow spoke briefly, and then Jaltow wrote one last note. He told her he had to return to Kimmen, but he would not tell anyone she was here. He would come back the next day, but until then she would be safe with A’day. She looked up at him and nodded. Jaltow gave her a melancholy smile, and with a glance at the rider, he stood up.
A’day added a note of his own, telling her she could sleep in his bed. The thought gave her a flush of worry, but as the two men headed out the door, the rider stopped by the closet, pulling out several pillows and blankets that he spread on the floor for himself. Then they disappeared into the growing darkness.
She managed to find her way to the outdoor privy next door, and then curled up on the bed, Aria snuggled against her. She tried to force herself to stay awake, to make sure she would be safe from the rider when he got back, but the events of the day caught up to her first.
* * * *
She was running across a field, the safety of the trees ahead of her elusive. No matter how fast she ran, the foliage ahead never came any closer. She glanced behind her, the beady face of the Holder’s son leading the charge of the hunters as they leaped among the low grasses of the meadow. She noticed with growing horror that he held something in his hand, a flapping piece of ripped cloth she recognized as the remains of the old shift she had worn at Kimmen. She realized she was naked... she could feel his greedy eyes burning into her bare back as she struggled to run faster.
Then her foot caught on something, and the ground swept up to meet her…
Katalie’s eyes popped open, a mist of fear coloring her thoughts as she struggled to remember where she was. Then she felt Aria curled up within the curve of her body. Her breathing slowly relaxed, even as she noted the coolness of the drying sweat on her face.
Early morning light was streaming through the windows. She sat up, looking around the room and noticing A’day bundled under a sleeping fur on the floor. She stared at him for a moment… he had one arm flung out to the side, his mouth hanging open in the mildly undignified manner only the truly unconscious can manage. There was a calm innocence to him now… she found that she wasn’t quite as afraid of him as she had been the day before.
Kat slid out of the bed, moving slowly from long habit to not wake the rider. Slipping out the door, she confronted an unexpected sight… filling the small clearing in front of the cot was the huge body of the dragon. The giant blue beast was as asleep as its rider, its head pooled on top of crossed forearms. As she stood on the door threshold, the dragon’s eyes opened, and the head ponderously lifted off the ground on its sinuous neck to turn towards her. For a moment Kat stood, her feelings balanced between awe and fear.
Then an image popped into her mind. She saw the same dragon, but it now had a ludicrous human smile spread across its muzzle. It was a goofy grin, totally impossible for the true dragon in front of her, but exuding such friendliness that she couldn’t help but smile. Without completely realizing it, she found herself walking up to the massive head, scratching the blue above its eye ridges. The mental image of the dragon smile grew into a decidedly contented smirk, even as the actual eyelid slid half-closed in enjoyment.
After a moment of wonder with the dragon, she headed for the outhouse and took care of nature’s call. Kat then followed her nose to a nearby kitchen down the trail that wound its way among the cots. She felt very brave walking in, but stopped once inside, taking in the familiar confusion of a large kitchen preparing for the day. She moved to a serving table to try and grab some food before anyone caught her.
She was noticed immediately. A frumpy old matriarch walked up and began speaking to her. Kat realized her writing pad was still on the rider’s table from the evening before, but a few shyly offered hand gestures got the point across. Before she knew it, she was struggling back out into the early sunshine with an overloaded tray of biscuits and fruit, as well as a full pitcher of hot klah slung over her shoulder.
She slid back into the cot, setting the tray down on the table. She realized she must have made some noise doing so, as A’day was struggling to sit up when she turned around, one hand scrubbing the side of his face as he tried to bring his eyes into focus. She wondered what the sound had been like… even a few days ago, the thought would have never occurred to her, but after the crossroads she couldn’t help but be curious.
A’day looked up at her, and then saw the food. With a smile, he pulled himself to his feet, and then gave her a somewhat silly mock-formal bow of thanks before crossing to the table and pouring himself a cup of klah. She found, to her surprise, that she couldn’t help but return his smile, if faintly, especially given the scraggly mess of his hair. She sat down opposite him, and dug in to breakfast.
* * * *
The morning was a singular glory for A’day. He had no illusions about how he looked when crawling out of bed, but he managed to use it to get a tiny smile out of Katalie. Somehow he knew that she rarely smiled, and seeing the timid uplifting of her mouth, even half-hidden by her hair, made the silly bow worth the impulse that drove him to it. Sitting at the table, he found that the silence didn’t bother him as it had the previous day. Instead, it gave him a chance to quietly study his unique companion.
Soon the little gold fire-lizard was awake, demanding food. The tiny critter was even bold enough to take food from A’day’s hand, a fact that earned him a look of gratitude from Katalie as she tried to eat her own meal.
As they finished, she once again picked up the pencil she had left on the table the previous night. As she struggled to write something, however, A’day immediately noticed the problem. With a gesture to the girl, he stood up and strode across the room, finding a small whittling knife on his bookshelves. Returning to the table, he held out his hand for the writing stick, quickly sharpening the end of it with the knife. He then handed the pencil back to Katalie, who once again graced him with a hint of a smile.
When she handed him the pad, there was but a single word added… “Names?” She pointed to him and then out the window, where he could see Flipith lounging in the dusty clearing in front of his cot.
He nodded in understanding, and quickly wrote “I’m A’day… he’s Flipith, though I usually just call him Flip.” Kat glanced at the pad and then looked back, not quite meeting his eye. A’day wrote a bit more, and upon reading, he saw a hint of curiosity break through her habitually neutral expression. They were then heading out the door, A’day wondering how he was going to play tour guide to a girl he couldn’t speak to.
Once outside, A’day gave Flipith a quick scratch as he passed. As he did so, he caught a hint of an image… a thought not directed at him. He saw a brief mental image of the dragon sticking its tongue out, and looking at Katalie he saw her mouth again turn up slightly.
What are you playing at, Flip?
I like her.
From long experience, A’day knew he wouldn’t get a more detailed explanation out the dragon. For a moment he pondered, thoughts slowly spinning in the back of his mind. He then shrugged it off, walking over to collect Kat as they headed off across the Weyr.
Their first stop was the Logres Harper Hall. A’day managed to convince one of the apprentices to help them find some cheap paper they could cut up into pad sized leaves. Soon, A’day had a pad and charcoal stick of his own, and Kat’s pad was now filled with fresh pages.
Then the tour began… first to the Main Hall, and then around among the abodes of the Weyr leaders. He allowed her to stop and stare at the giant gold and bronze forms sunning themselves among the central weyrs of the community. Though he noticed that she always kept some physical distance between them, their pads filled with questions and answers, observations that began to tell him how very intelligent this limited girl was.
Eventually, A’day led the girl on to the Hatching Grounds. They could both feel the heat oozing up from the sand inside, but she suddenly stopped when she caught sight of the huge golden hide filling a large portion of the floor. The dragon was stretched out on its belly, its head gently curving around one side of a nest of a couple dozen massive eggs.
“They will be hatching soon,” A’day wrote.
“Probably 2 or 3 days. You can watch, if you want,” he replied.
Kat looked around for a moment before roughly scribbling on her pad. He noticed in passing that her writing was getting faster, if not exactly neater.
”What’s going to happen to me here?”
He wasn’t very sure about that himself. “I don’t know… nobody will hurt you here.” For an instant, her eyes met his before sliding away. In that glimpse, he saw fear buried under the carefully hidden face.
A few seconds later, a familiar blue form zipped in above the sands. Foxtrot cheeped at them in passing as he curved around and back out the Hatching Ground entrance. Kat’s gold launched from Katalie’s shoulder in good-natured pursuit.
“Jaltow,” A’day scrawled. Kat nodded with an almost hidden smile, and he followed her back out into the cooler morning sunshine. A’day found himself slowing his pace, secretly enjoying watching the enigmatic girl on their walk back to his cot.
When A’day returned with the harper a while later, Jaltow carried a surprise. From the back of the dragon, he unstrapped a couple of large items, carrying them into the cot. The harper gave the girl a happy smile, and then opened up the cases, pulling forth a guitar and a set of small hand drums. The drums he set in the middle of the table, motioning A’day to sit across from Kat.
As Katalie eagerly watched, Jaltow began playing the guitar. Kat opened herself to Aria, trying to will the creature to enjoy the sounds. As did the harper at the crossroads, Jaltow and A’day instantly noticed the moment the music began filtering to her. The warily neutral expression constantly fixed on her face melted away, leaving nothing but naked wonder.
As he continued to strum chords, Jaltow nodded to A’day, using his eyes to indicate the drums. A’day picked up the clue, and began tapping a beat on the stretched skins with his palms, a sound Kat immediately responded to. After a moment more of demonstration, A’day pushed the drums over to her. For a second, Kat stared at the instrument as if it would bite her, but A’day motioned again, and she finally succumbed to her curiosity. At first her hand barely touched the drum, but soon she was pounding on it enough to make a respectable noise, even managing to keep time with the beats of the guitar, which Jaltow was keeping purposely simple. A’day finally saw an unabashedly genuine smile flower across her face.
* * * *
“I think we need to talk to the Weyrleaders.”
A’day looked back at the harper. “Is that a good idea? They might turn her back over to Kimmen Hold. I think that might kill her.”
Jaltow thought for a moment before replying. “That’s exactly why we need to talk to them. If we are going to find a way to save her from Kellus and his son, we need their influence.”
The rider sighed and then nodded. They left Katalie catching up with Farsea and headed for the heart of the Weyr.
With a little help from Flipith, they finally tracked R’tarel to the Main Hall, where he was eating a late lunch. After introducing the harper, A’day and Jaltow sipped klah as the bronze rider finish his meal, giving the Weyrleader a brief overview of their problem.
Oh boy. This was the part of being a Weyrleader that annoyed R’tarel… everyone looking to him for solutions. Kelmaith, can you have Hapeth tell Sivea to meet me in the office in a few minutes? He then dabbed at his mouth with a napkin, and stood up.
By the time they reached the meeting room off the Weyrleader quarters, Sivea was already there. As the newcomers settled themselves around one end of the large table, Jaltow once again launched into his story. He explained how Katalie had come to be left behind at Kimmen Hold, and why the Kimmen Holder was chasing her. He then talked of the events at the crossroads cothold, watching the queen and bronze riders as the implications sunk in. A’day finished up with how the girl ended up at Logres.
There was silence for a moment before Sivea spoke up. “Harper Jaltow… I understand why you want to help this girl, but if she has stolen valuable ancient books and a fire-lizard egg, there’s little we can do. With the problems in the Azov coastal holds, this isn’t a good time to be antagonizing the Holders, especially if this girl has been thieving.”
“I think there’s more going on here,” Jaltow replied. “I think something happened to her to drive her away from Kimmen. I’m suspicious of the Holder’s eldest son, a lad by the name of Rufus… even as his father chased after to girl, I’ve been getting the impression that the boy is very nervous about her being found. I think he may have done something to her.”
A’day spoke up. “I think you’re right.” He briefly told them about her reaction the previous evening when he put a friendly hand on her shoulder. “I’ve noticed that she tends to keep a lot of distance between herself and other people, especially men.”
Jaltow’s face crumpled a bit, his fears beginning to crystallize. “He couldn’t have…” he mumbled angrily.
“Well, we definitely need to talk to the girl,” R’tarel said. “If it’s true, there may be something we can do. Where is Kellus now?”
“We got a fire-lizard message this morning,” said Jaltow. “He’s heading back to Kimmen. He needs to get back to running his Hold, though he’s leaving some of his men behind to continue searching for her. He should be back at Kimmen within a day or two.”
“Another, more personal thought,” the harper interjected before anyone could speak. “Katalie has spent the last ten turns immersed in that library of ancient books. She would be invaluable in my studies of the collection.”
Sivea spoke to the heart of the problem. “What is it you want for her?”
“Well, just the knowledge that fire-lizards can help people hear must be worth something,” Jaltow replied. “There are plenty of people out there who have lost some or all of their hearing, due to age or accident of birth.”
R’tarel picked up the idea immediately. “If we could give some of them fire-lizards… help them train the beasts, it could help the standing of the Weyr among some of the more difficult Holds.”
A’day pondered for a few seconds before interjecting his own thoughts. “I’ve been thinking a lot about what to do since I brought Kat here. I’ve discovered that Flipith has been sending her images, trying to amuse her. Every time I ask him about it, he just tells me that he likes her.” The young rider looked around the table before continuing. “Flipith has never shown the blue tendency for sniffing out rider candidates, but he is still young….”
R’tarel’s eyes lit up. “Shards! You want her to stand for impression!”
Jaltow looked at A’day in surprise. “Of course! If a fire-lizard can help Katalie hear, think what a true dragon could do for her! If she impresses, that changes everything in favor of the Weyr!”
As R’tarel shook his head at the audacity of the idea, Sivea sighed and spoke up. “All right. This may be a bad idea, but for now I think its best if we pretend we never had this conversation. As far as Ratti and I know, you have simply searched another candidate for the hatching. We’ll deal with the repercussions if and when they appear. We’ll need to tell the weyrlingmaster. It’s going to be interesting giving a deaf girl the proper training.”
R’tarel was still chuckling as the harper and rider strode out the door.
* * * *
When the rider and harper returned to the cot, Kat could tell that something had changed. Both were practically dancing with nervous energy. Her first impulse was fear, but A’day quickly dispelled that thought.
“It’s official,” A’day wrote on his pad. ”You’ve been searched.”
She stared at the note for a moment, before looking up at them in confusion.
He wrote more. “You’ll stand for impression.”
If Kat had been capable of it in the first place, she would now have been speechless. The concept was so far beyond anything she had ever dared to imagine that she had no way of fitting the idea into her world. She simply sat for several minutes, staring at the pad, her thoughts trying to wrap around the possibility. She then bolted up out of the chair and raced out of the cot, much to the surprise of A’day and Jaltow.
They found her standing in front of Flipith, seemingly rooted to the spot. A’day once again got the impression that his dragon was communicating without him. This time it did not bother him… he simply stood there, allowing her a moment to absorb the idea. When she finally strode forward to rest her hand on the dragon’s neck, he smiled.
She understands, he heard from Flipith. She needs one of us in her life.
I know. Thanks Flip. I think you convinced her more than I ever could have.
Katalie looked back at them, a look of fear and wonder on her face. For once, A’day realized he knew exactly what she was feeling… he had felt the same way both times he was told he would stand for impression. He hoped she would not go through the disappointment he felt when he had failed during his first chance at a hatching… he was afraid it would destroy her.
* * * *
The next few days were a whirlwind for Kat… she spent much of her time with the other impression candidates, A’day always at her side translating the weyrlingmaster’s instructions on his pad. Though it was tradition for the candidates to stay in the weyrling quarters, Kat continued to stay with A’day… the master was clearly dubious of the situation, but he agreed to allow it once Weyrleader R’tarel spoke to him.
On the day the candidates were led into the hatching grounds to wander among the eggs, A’day could tell that Katalie was feeling overwhelmed. As the others were moving around the eggs, running their hands over the molted objects scatted around the hot sands, Kat just stood there, her eyes wide, her breathing coming in shallow gasps. Without really thinking about it, A’day once again put his hand on her shoulder in a gesture of comfort.
He immediately felt her stiffen, and he jerked back, feeling guilty. This time, however, she didn’t leap away… instead she turned to look at him, and he could see in her eyes the effort it took for her to not move. He found himself torn in two… on the one hand, he felt warmth fill him that she had allowed the small gesture, but at the same time, a surge of anger boiled up in him that someone had made her so afraid of such a simple touch. Impulses warred within him as she gazed back at him, but she then forced herself forward among the eggs, following the example of the other candidates. A sense of pride finally won out over his conflicted thoughts.
* * * *
The morning broke bright and clear. As had become her habit, she slipped out of the cot and returned with breakfast for A’day and herself. She had a pleasant morning nibbling at the food and feeding Aria, who had recently begun to be a bit less ravenous upon waking. The little gold had gotten noticeably larger during the days in the Weyr.
She had the morning off from weyrling training, but A’day wrote her a note that he would be busy… she felt a bit guilty that she had kept him from his usual duties lately. After he slipped out the cot, she realized that she was not particularly interested in reading today… she wanted to find a more useful way to spend her time.
She left Aria sleeping in the sun and headed over to the local kitchen… after taking so much food from it every day, she decided to repay the favor. After all, one of the few tasks she was trained for was preparing meals….
After a few moments of confusion, she got the point across to the old matriarch who ran the kitchen, and she found herself chopping vegetables for the day’s lunch. Strangely, the task gave her a sense of comfort. As a drudge at Kimmen Hold she had spent many turns doing this very task, but this time she was using her skills by choice… for once in her life, she was helping the people around her because she wanted to, rather than being compelled to as a simple drudge. It gave her a sense of satisfaction she had never felt before. The workers around her seemed to appreciate her skills, and she quickly and quietly fitted in to the flow.
As she worked, she found her thoughts turning to her own situation. She still had trouble accepting that a lowly drudge such as herself could stand for impression… despite days of training with the other candidates, she couldn’t quite accept that she could be included among their numbers. She finally decided that she had little choice... she felt like her life was no longer in her control, if it ever had been. She forced herself to keep focused on the simple tasks she could accomplish around her… she had few options at this point but to wait and see how the rest of her life would carry itself out.
She had been at the job for several hours when a glance up caught her attention… the people around her had all stopped in their duties, a sense of tension building in their attitudes. Then, with a burst of excitement, everyone shifted into high gear. The larders were suddenly raided for everything they contained… the kitchen became a frenzy of activity. She was confused, but her skills were more needed now than before, so she bent back to her work.
Soon after, a gold blur streaked in from outside. Aria settled herself on Kat’s shoulder, and she could feel the excitement pouring out of the tiny creature. The now familiar, yet still strange and wondrous sense of sound once again wrapped around her, causing her to halt in mid-chop.
This time was different, however… in the past, there had always been music when the noises wrapped around her. Now, all she heard was a steady hum, which seemed to be coming from Aria herself… Kat could feel the vibration of the little creature’s voice through her shoulder and the tail wrapped around her neck. It gave her a unique connection to the noise… the sound grounded through the physical connection of the fire-lizard’s body. As she listened, though, she realized that there was more to the resonance filling her mind… she could hear the clangs of pots and pans around her, and a faint but deeper hum coming from somewhere else.
The people around her needed her help, however, so she forced herself back to work, constantly wondering what was happening.
It wasn’t till nearly an hour later that A’day found her. He ran in to the kitchen, a mass of white cloth clutched in one arm. She looked up at him in startlement, and the look of anxiety she saw in his face finally connected everything in her mind. The sudden frenzy around her in the kitchen, the hum Aria echoed from outside, the white robe A’day carried….
The hatching was beginning.
* * * *
Getting her to the hatching ground ended up being one of the most difficult tasks of A’day’s young life. Katalie was obviously afraid of what was coming, and she kept falling behind as they hurried towards the center of the Weyr. With any one else, he would have simply grabbed an arm and dragged her forward, breaking the spell of indecision… of course, that was exactly the problem. With Kat, he was afraid that if he tried to touch her it would spawn the opposite reaction….
In the end, he forced himself to push down his own anxieties and stop. He thought of trying to use his writing pad to convince her, but he knew she already understood what was at stake. Instead, he simply stood there, looking into her eyes with a pleading expression. It took her a moment, but she finally looked back at him. Even under the black fall of hair covering her face, he could see the fear boiling under the surface of her thoughts. He could feel time passing around them, but he forced himself to patience.
Eventually she closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and then strode forward. He jerked into motion beside her, once again feeling a sense of pride in the courage and strength in this battered slip of a girl.
When they reached the hatching grounds, he almost lost her again. The stands were filled with people, a mass of humanity watching the white-robed candidates standing out on the hot sands. Several of the eggs were already rocking. She came to a stop at the entrance, and seemed fixed to the spot.
It had taken all of her willpower to reach the hatching grounds… she had nothing left to force her forward further. Her gaze walked up among the stands, finding more people than she had ever seen in one place before in her life….
A’day finally managed to break the spell. This time, he used her own reactions against her… he put both hands on her back and gave her a shove forwards. Her instincts propelled her forwards onto the sands… it was now too late to stop. She glared back at the young rider, but then forced herself towards the other candidates. Aria launched herself away, to join the mass of fire-lizards flitting through the air above.
As she walked gingerly across the hot sands, she constantly found herself glancing over at the stands from the corner of her eye. A number of people were beginning to notice her late arrival, and she could feel their attention crawling across her skin.
She found Jaltow sitting in a middle row… he was looking toward her, an anxious smile on his weathered face. For a second, it gave Kat a tiny surge of confidence. Then she saw sudden movement near him, and her nightmares suddenly became reality. The Kimmen Holder propelled himself to his feet, a murderous expression focused on her. Sitting next to the burly man was him… the boy who chased her in her dreams. Their eyes locked for a moment, her feet stumbling to a stop.
For a second, the entire universe narrowed to that distant boy, an unspeakable communication passing between them. She could hear a swell of noise from the crowd as she stood there, coming from Aria far overhead. She forced her gaze away, looking back towards the hatching ground entrance. A’day was still standing there… she was surprised to see his face locked on the stands, his expression a mirror of the angry visage of the Kimmen Holder. Somehow, it gave her a surge of strength… she forced herself forward to stand with the other candidates.
Then things were happening too fast for her to absorb. Eggs began breaking apart, spilling wet and fragile dragon forms on to the sand. Aria returned to her shoulder, the little fire-lizard’s weight giving her an anchor that kept her from running. Infant dragons of all colors waddled towards the figures around her, and she watched as expressions of joy flowered across young faces as they fell to wrap their arms around the newborn creatures. She was rooted to her position in the sand, a whirlwind of activity swirling around her.
A thought broke through the confusion… a faint keening cry, filled with desperation.
It seemed to come from within her own mind, in the language of her own thoughts. Without any conscious thought, she found herself running forward, her legs propelling her towards a small egg at the back of the clutch. It rocked violently, a spot of sea-green poking out of a break in the shell. A spider web of cracks grew around it, the tip of a pointed nose desperately trying to shove itself out. She skidded to a stop, and worked her fingers into the break, prying the shell apart with all her might. Suddenly, the pressure vanished, the egg flying apart into two halves, a green body spilling forward into her.
The dragon’s wet, triangular head looked up into her eyes, and sound exploded in her mind, overwhelming the insistent hum coming from Aria. She could hear the pieces of shell clattering to the sand around her, the noise of the crowd in the stands, a hundred other subtle noises flowing by. A surge of intense emotion rose up within her, and a voice spoke to her, once again in the language of her own mind, a language not of words or sounds, but of images and ideas….
I love you! I need you!
She fell to her knees, her arms slipping around the baby green’s neck. She felt the weight of its head fall on to her shoulder, mirroring Aria upon the other. Then tears burst uncontrollably from her, Katalie crying for the loss of her parents, the loss of her life, the loss of her innocence. She cried deeper than she ever imagined possible, not just for pain, but also for joy. For the first time in her life she shared all those buried emotions, pouring them out in a flood, and receiving in return compassion and happiness from the creatures resting on both her shoulders.
I love you! She didn’t know if the thought came from herself or from without… it didn’t matter in the slightest.
* * * *
Intense hunger finally stopped the tears. She sat back on her heals, once again looking into the luminous, whirling eyes of the dragon. I really am hungry! A brief snort of laughter caught in her throat in a wonderful collision of emotions. She then looked up, finding A’day standing beside her. His face caught her… his eyes were watery with the beginnings of tears, and yet she knew that the unabashed smile on his face echoed her own. It occurred to her that he was reliving his own impression through her….
When he reached down to give her a hand standing up, it seemed perfectly natural to take it in her own, allowing him to support her. He was then leading her and her clumsy green dragon off the sands, following the other newly birthed dragonriders.
They were halfway to the entrance before she thought to look up towards the stands. Jaltow was already moving off the benches, trying to work his way through the crowds toward them, but the Kimmen Holder and his son were both standing, staring back at her.
The Holder’s attitude was obvious. Hatred and anger twisted his face. The son’s expression was harder to read, though… he was red and sweating, his eyes wide as he looked back at her. He almost seemed afraid, which seemed out of place in her terrified memories of him. When her dragon’s eyes also fastened on the boy, he started and looked away.
By the time they reached the hatching ground entrance, Jaltow had caught up to them. He ran up and immediately wrapped her in a hug… for just a second she stiffened, but a new sense of confidence was filling her, and she allowed herself to relax into the embrace. It felt like a small bit of lost home.
You should tell them.
She looked into the diamond shaped head lifting up to look her in the eye, shame coloring her thoughts. I can’t... not yet.
They are your friends... they can help you.
Can I have some food now? Katalie smiled.
The feeding area was another frenzy of activity… once they got to the tables, the infant dragon tried to bury its head in a huge pile of fresh meat. Kat ended up having to physically pull the green head back from the table. Don’t be a glutton!
But I’m hungry!
Just slow down a bit! Kat picked up a hunk of flesh and thrust it into the little dragon’s mouth. She almost lost a finger in the dragon’s haste, but a stern warning finally slowed the green down a bit. Meanwhile, Aria had landed on the table, and was stuffing herself with abandon. Kat sent an annoyed thought at the fire-lizard, but all she got in return was a satisfied burp, which she heard clearly. She couldn’t help but smile again… so that’s what a burp sounds like.
Jaltow arrived with a plate of hot meatrolls… the dragon’s hunger had given Kat a ravenous appetite in sympathy, and the spicy aroma just about drove her crazy. She allowed A’day to take over long enough for her to pop a couple in her mouth. She stood there for a moment, hearing the sound of the little dragon chewing, louder than any other noise in the creature’s ears. She could hear Jaltow and A’day talking, noting the subtle differences in their voices. She wished she knew what they were saying… a symphony of noise swirled around her.
It took quite a while, but the dragon finally began to slow down, her eyes beginning to droop. Kat set the haunch of meat in her hands back on the table, and they managed to get the dragon waddling over to one of the temporary resting platforms set up on the edge of the party square. The dragon immediately flopped down and closed her eyes. She knew that the dragon wasn’t asleep, though…. Her newfound friend wanted to stay awake, so they could share the sounds of the celebration. A’day strode up, dumping a hugely stuffed gold fire-lizard onto the platform.
For a little while, Kat just sat, leaning against the warm hide of her dragon and dozing as the sounds of the night washed over her. Then she heard music.
She opened her eyes, and saw that harpers had arrived. They were beginning a sprightly tune that soon had dozens of couples spinning out on the dancing square.
Beside her, a contented eye opened and focused on her. Ideas and images moved through her mind, but she immediately understood. Flipith wants to know if A’day can have the next dance.
She looked over at A’day, who gave her a smile, and then stood up, his hand out to her.
I don’t know how to dance.
Relayed through two dragons, A’day replied That’s okay... I’m not very good at it myself.
After a brief pause, Katalie nodded and stood up.
A’day was actually surprised she agreed… impression seemed to have changed something in her. At first they both stumbled about awkwardly… Kat had trouble trying to fit her body into the rhythms of the music, but it wasn’t long before she began to get the idea. Suddenly, the young rider sent her in a spin, which she performed without an ounce of grace. She couldn’t help smiling at him… she knew they must look ridiculous. Kat clearly heard his laugh in return, even if it was buried under the mass of other sound her dragon could hear from the edge of the square.
As they came back together, A’day noticed that Katalie’s hair was now pinned back behind both ears… her face was no longer hidden, the mildly exotic folds of her eyes, the delicate shape of her nose apparent to anyone who cared to look. She no longer seemed a frightened and isolated girl… she looked beautiful.
A shout startled them both. Kat saw A’day’s eyes go wide and wary, looking over her shoulder. She turned around, and then froze. Holder Kellus was stomping towards them, his son scurrying behind. Kat saw out of the corner of her eye a green head come up off the platform with a hiss, the dragon’s eyes whirling and tinted with orange.
A’day felt a pang as Kat gave a small unconscious shake to her head, her hair falling to once again hide her from the world. The Holder’s face was red with fury. A’day stepped forward, interposing himself between Katalie and the stocky man. The young rider glared at Kellus, speaking rapidly.
A’day is saying that he won’t let anyone harm you. The nasty man is telling him to get out of the way. Flipith is angry. Kat gave the dragon a quick glance of surprise. I can understand them for you. She looked back, finding the eyes of the boy, Rufus. A wash of fear boiled up in her, but the anger and indignation pouring out of the dragon gave her the strength to put a glare on her face. To her surprise, she saw fear on his. He couldn’t seem to meet her eyes… his gaze kept darting up to see if she was still staring at him, like a trapped animal.
A’day, determined though he was, knew that he was in trouble. The muscular Holder had his hand on his belt knife, and the rider knew that if it came to a fight, Kellus had the advantage. To his relief, he caught a glimpse of R’tarel shoving his way through the dance crowd, heads turning in his wake towards the argument. Flipith had sent out the alarm the instant A’day noticed the angry Holder.
R’tarel strode up beside the young blue rider. “Holder Kellus, this must stop! I will not allow violence at my Hatching Ceremony!”
The Holder glared back at the Weyrleader. “That girl is a criminal! I have the right to punish anyone who steals from my hold!”
“Are you planning on using that knife, Holder? Who would be the criminal then?”
A snarl crossed Kellus’ face. “We don’t need you anymore, dragonman. Your job on this world is done. You aren’t immune to the laws! She must be punished!”
Sivea strode up at that moment with Jaltow in tow, her eyes flashing. “If you can prove what you say, then you are correct… she will have to be punished. But not this way! We will not let you just drag her away! She is a dragonrider now, and that means we will protect her.”
Through her new partner, Kat heard and understood all this. She felt helpless to guide her own fate… she wanted to run, to hide herself away from all this pain and torment, but now she couldn’t… she could never run away now that she had a dragon to take care of….
You must tell them.
Katalie looked sharply into the swirling, worried eyes of her dragon. I... I can’t! I just want it to go away!
If you won’t then I will.
Desperation loomed around her… No! No... please....
Then she was seeing it again. Worse than the dreams, she found herself reliving those horrible moments. She once again saw the library around her, the greedy smile on his face as he pawed at her clothes. She watched as she kicked at him and tried to get away, was forced to see in her memory the blows from his clumsy fists begin to rain down. She screamed in her mind as he once again pushed himself down on her, reaching underneath the shift.
Then, mercifully, the images stopped. Katalie gasped and collapsed to her knees, shaking.
That’s what happened. That’s why she ran away.
Kat suddenly heard dozens of dragon voices echo across the clearing. She looked up, and saw every face in the crowd frozen in shock. Many had their mouths hanging open; others were set in expressions of distaste or anger. It was too much….
Tears of humiliation ran down her face. Why... how could you do this to me?
It was the only way to save you... I love you.
She looked up at A’day. His hands were crushed into fists, and there was an almost terrifying anger flickering behind his eyes. Then she saw Holder Kellus, his face looking down on his son in shock and betrayal.
Finally her eyes fell on Rufus. His gaze was flicking back and forth in desperation, and then it met hers. For a timeless instant, the world focused down to just the two of them. Her face hardened into the lines of justified anger, and his echoed with deepening fear. Then he ran.
A’day was off in a flash, with Aria darting into the air just behind.
A’day! No! The young rider skidded to a stop, looking first at the green dragon, and then at Kat. For a moment, he stood there, then he closed his eyes. He came back to kneel next to her. Jaltow ran forward and collapsed beside her as well, wrapping his arms around her. Kat could sense the satisfaction of the little gold as the little creature harried and clawed at the fleeing boy… she found it ironic that the fire-lizard that had been bought for him was now attacking him.
Sivea walked up next to Holder Kellus. The Weyrwoman said nothing, waiting for him to notice her. R’tarel, on the other hand, decided not to wait.
“It seems we have an unusual situation here… given what we all just saw, I think that a fire-lizard egg and a few borrowed books are small payment for what happened to her.”
Kellus glanced back at the Weyrleaders, shock freezing his face to stone.
Sivea spoke up, her voice calm and carefully rational. “Under the circumstances, Holder, I think all accusations against Katalie should be dropped.”
Kellus continued to stare back at them, his face immobile.
R’tarel decided to go a step further. “This girl spent a lot of time reading in your library of ancient books. Perhaps an appropriate compensation for this awful event would be to move the collection here, where she and Harper Jaltow can continue to study it. You’ve always behaved as if they were a burden on your Hold anyway.”
For a moment, Kellus’ face flushed with anger and indignation, but then it collapsed in defeat. He simply nodded, then turned and walked out of the clearing.
Sivea turned to the newborn green dragon, reaching out a hand to scratch her eye ridges. “I don’t think any dragon has ever spoken to so many people at once before.”
She couldn’t say what had to be said. I could.
Sivea’s gold, Hapeth, spoke up. What is your name, little one?
The green dragon looked over at Katalie… She knows my name, but she doesn’t know how to say it. My name is Sharith.
From Sharith, Katalie heard the name as sound for the first time… she rolled the sound through her thoughts as she stood up and walked to the dragon, wrapping her arms tightly around the lanky neck.
Thank you, Sharith.
I love you.
* * * *
Katalie looked up at the stars. Sharith was a warm presence against her back… as the dragon slipped off into sleep, the world around Kat shrank back down to the familiar. The sounds faded down into nothingness, but she didn’t mind.
Aria had eventually returned with a satisfied cheep, a few flecks of blood on her talons. Rufus had managed to get away, but he would certainly have some nasty scratches to deal with. Katalie found it strange that he was now the one who was alone, fleeing through the trees and bushes.
She glanced over at the huge dark bulk of Flipith. Normally, a newborn dragon is weyred in the weyrling barracks, but R’tarel and Sivea had given her permission to stay with her friend A’day. The young rider stepped out of his cot, walking over to spread a blanket over her. She smiled, watching him settle down against Flipith with a blanket of his own… it was a beautiful night to sleep outside.
Tomorrow, A’day and Jaltow would return to Kimmen, begin ferrying the ancient books to Logres… they asked her if she wanted to come along, but she had decided to stay. Maybe someday she would be ready to go back there… perhaps she would eventually be able to see her parents in that library again, unclouded by violation. She hoped so, but it wasn’t time yet.
A million pinpoints of light flickered at her from above. She felt Aria stir, curled up between the girl and the dragon… a tiny tail reached out to encircle her arm. Her hair was lying in a fan across Sharith’s sea-green hide, her face open to the night breezes. Katalie let her eyes close… for the first time in a while, she wasn’t afraid of her dreams.