Authors: Anne McCaffrey
BALLANTINE BOOKS ♦ NEW YORK
TABLE OF CONTENTS
To my brother, Kevin McCaffrey,
aka “The Smallest Dragonboy”
To Ceara Rose McCaffrey—of course!
When men first came to Rukbat, a G-type star in the Sagittarian Sector, they settled upon its third planet and named it Pern. They had set out to create an idyllic, low-tech farmers’ paradise, escaping the ravages of the late Nathi Wars. They paid little attention to Pern’s neighbors, as the entire solar system had been previously surveyed and declared safe for colonization.
Less than eight years—or “Turns” as the Pernese began calling them—after their arrival, Pern’s erratic sister planet, the Red Star, came wheeling in from the outer edges of the solar system.
And then Thread fell from the sky. The thin, silvery wisps looked like no threat at all—until they touched flesh, or foliage, or anything living, including the bare earth. Then the Thread would grow, sucking the nutrients out of anything it could, turning soil into lifeless dirt, searing through flesh to leave nothing more than charred bone. Only metal, bare rock, and water—where Thread drowned—were safe.
The first Threadfall, catching the colonists by complete surprise, was devastating. Thousands died, many more were maimed, and countless herds of imported animals were lost.
Worse, the near approach of the Red Star not only brought Thread but also increased the stress on Pern’s tectonic plates, producing earthquakes, tsunamis, and volcanoes.
The surviving colonists reorganized. They abandoned the richer but seismically active Southern Continent in favor of the more stable Northern Continent. There they built a “fort” out of an east-facing cliffside in which they could “hold” all the remaining colonists.
It was not enough. With their technology failing, they could not hope to get the ground clear of Thread long enough to harvest the food they needed for their survival. They needed another solution, a Pern-based system to rid the skies of Thread.
The colonists’ biologists, led by the Eridani-trained Kitti Ping, turned to the indigenous fire lizards, small flying creatures that looked like miniature dragons. Using genetic engineering, the Pernese bred the fire-lizards into huge “dragons” that, by chewing a phosphene-bearing rock, could breathe fire on Thread, charring it right out of the sky before it could touch the ground.
These dragons, linked telepathically with their human riders, would form the mainstay of the colonists’ defense against Thread.
In what was regarded as a mistake, Kitti Ping’s daughter, Wind Blossom, created smaller, overmuscled, ugly creatures with great photosensitive eyes. Called watch-whers, they were useless fighting Thread in the daylight. But the resourceful Pernese discovered that the watch-whers were ideal for seeing in dark places, like the caves that became the Holds for the Holders and mines for miners.
As the colonists quickly outgrew their Fort Hold, the dragonriders found a new living space in an old volcanic basin. This, they called Fort Weyr.
The population continued to grow, and the colonists spread out across the Northern Continent. The dragonriders formed new Weyrs in the high mountains; the farmers and herders settled in new Holds on the plains below.
Under the leadership of the Lord Holders and the Weyrleaders, a new society developed, based on specialties and skills. Some specialties, particularly those requiring many years of training, became recognized as separate Crafts: Smith, Miner, Farmer, Fisher, Healer, and Harper. Levels of skill in a craft were recognized with the old guild appellations: Apprentice, Journeyman, and Master. Each Craft had one Master elected to preside over all Craft affairs: MasterSmith, MasterMiner, MasterFarmer, MasterFisher, MasterHealer, and MasterHarper.
Given the nature of celestial mechanics, after fifty Turns the Red Star moved too far from Pern for Thread to fall, and the threat faded away—until two hundred Turns later when the Red Star repeated its orbit, beginning a second Pass.
Again the dragons and their dragonriders rose into the sky to flame the Thread into harmless char. And again, as the Red Star receded fifty Turns later, the colonists returned to easier times and spread out to explore the abundance of Pern.
After another “Interval” of two hundred Turns, the pattern repeated and Thread fell again.
Toward the end of the Second Interval, with only sixteen Turns before the return of the Red Star, Thread, and the beginning of the Third Pass, a problem arose for the miners. The people relied on coal. Without coal, particularly the hot-burning anthracite, the Mastersmith would not be able to forge the steel that made the plows the farmers used, rimmed the wheels the traders used, and joined the leather riding gear the dragonriders used to fly against Thread. But by now, the easily acquired coal—the coal that came to the surface in huge, open seams—was nearly all mined out.
MasterMiner Britell in his CraftHall at Crom Hold realized that in order to dig deep into the mountains to get new coal, his miners would have to learn anew the old ways of tunneling and shaft mining. Working from ancient survey maps, the MasterMiner identified several promising subterranean coal seams, selected his most promising journeymen, and set them to the task of “proving” new mines. Those that succeeded would be made Masters and their Camps would become permanent Mines—with all the rank and prosperity associated with a minor Holder.
Although he admitted it to no one, MasterMiner Britell held his highest hopes for Journeyman Natalon and the group of hardworking miners he had inspired to join him.
Natalon had shown a willingness to experiment, which would be required to successfully master the new art of deep shaft mining.
He had enlisted watch-whers, hoping to use their abilities to detect tunnel-snakes and bad air—both the explosive gases and the odorless, deadly carbon monoxide which could suffocate the unwary.
From what Britell had heard, the watch-whers were something of a mystery—their abilities ignored as commonplace.
Britell planned on watching that Camp carefully, particularly keeping an eye on the work of the watch-whers and their bonded wherhandlers.
In early morning light I see,
A distant dragon come to me.
Kindan was so excited that he practically bounced as he ran up to the heights where Camp Natalon kept its drum, fire beacon, and watch.
“They’re here! They’re here!” Zenor shouted down at him. Needing no further urging, Kindan put on an extra burst of speed.
Breathless, he joined his friend on the peak where they kept the watch. Looking down at the valley, he could plainly see the large drays rolling ponderously up toward the main Camp. Leading them were the smaller, but bright and cheerfully painted domicile wagons owned by the caravanners.
From the watch-heights, not only could he see all the way across the lake to the bend where the trail turned out of sight, but he could also see the fields on the far side of the lake, which had just been cleared, ready for their first planting of crops. Closer in, he could see where the trail forked, the more heavily traveled way heading up to the depot where the mined and bagged coal was stored, the lighter way leading toward the miners’ houses on the near side of the lake.
Most of the houses were in three rows arranged in a U shape around a central square. The open, northern end of the U faced the road. It was there that smaller spice gardens had been planted. And it was in front of those, closer to the main square, that wedding preparations were in progress—for Kindan’s own sister’s wedding.
None of those houses were “proper” houses, built to withstand Threadfall. But Threadfall was a long way off—another sixteen Turns—and the miners were glad to have the temporary comfort of their own housing, convenient to the new mine.
Midway from the square to the hill was a separate house and a large shed. The house was Kindan’s home and the shed housed Dask, the camp’s sole remaining watch-wher. Dask was bonded to Kindan’s father, Danil.
Hidden from the watch point by the bend of the hill was a much larger and sturdier dwelling—the full stone hold of Natalon, the head Miner in the Camp. North of it, separated by a walled-in herb garden, was a smaller but almost as well-built dwelling, the home of the Camp’s Harper.
Just beyond the Harper’s dwelling—the edge of which was visible from the lookout—the hillside, a spur from the western mountain, turned abruptly and the plain in front of it rose toward the peak of the mountain, with another spur about two kilometers distant forming a valley. Two hundred meters from the bend and a hundred meters west of the lookout was the entrance to the mine.
The boys knew the valley like the backs of their hands, even though it was changing daily and Kindan had been there only six months himself. They paid no attention to the view. Today, not even the novelty of the wedding preparations interested them: The two boys had eyes only for the trader caravan winding its way around the lake below them.
“Where’s Terregar?” Zenor asked. “Can you see him?”
Kindan squinted and shaded his eyes against the sun with his hand, but mostly for show. The distance was far too great to make out one person in the whole caravan.
“I don’t know,” he answered irritably. “I’m sure he’s down there somewhere.”
Zenor laughed. “Well, he’d better be, or your Sis will kill him.”
Kindan favored this comment with a glare. “Hadn’t you better get back on down and tell Natalon?” he asked.
“Me?” Zenor replied. “I’m on watch, not a runner.”
“Shards!” Kindan groaned. “I’m all out of breath, Zenor.” He added in a lower tone, “And besides, you know how much Natalon wants to hear this news.”
Zenor’s eyes widened. “Oh, yeah, I do! Everyone knows that he was hoping your Sis would stay at the Camp.”
“Right,” Kindan agreed. “So just imagine how mad he’ll be at hearing about it from me.”
“Ah, come on, Kindan,” Zenor replied. “There’s good news with the bad—that’s a whole caravan approaching, not just a wedding.”
“Which he has to host,” Kindan snapped back. He sighed. “Well, if you insist, I’ll go back down.” He paused dramatically, eyeing his smaller friend. “But Sis said that I’ve got to wash Dask tonight.”
Zenor’s eyes narrowed as he considered this. “You mean, if I do the running, you’ll let me help wash the watch-wher?”
Kindan grinned. “Exactly!”
“You would?” Zenor repeated hopefully. “Your dad won’t mind?”
Kindan shook his head. “Not if he doesn’t find out, he won’t.”
The added enticement of doing something unsanctioned brought a gleam to Zenor’s eyes. “All right, I’ll do it.”
“Of course, washing a watch-wher’s not the same as oiling a dragon,” Zenor went on. The thought of Impressing a dragon, of becoming telepathically linked with one of Pern’s great fire-breathing defenders, was the secret wish of every child on Pern. But dragons seemed to prefer the children of the Weyr: Only a few riders were chosen from the Holds and Crafts. And no dragon had ever visited Camp Natalon.
“You know,” Zenor continued, “I saw them.”
Everyone in Camp Natalon knew that Zenor had seen dragons; it was his favorite tale. Kindan suppressed a groan. Instead, he made encouraging noises while hoping that Zenor wouldn’t dawdle too much longer or Natalon would be wondering at the speed of his runner—and might remember who it was.
“They were so beautiful! A perfect V formation. Way up high. You could see them: bronze, brown, blue, green . . .” Zenor’s voice faded as he recalled the memory. “And they looked so soft—”
“Soft?” Kindan interrupted, his tone full of disbelief. “How could they look soft?”
“Well, they did! Not like your father’s watch-wher.”
Kindan, feeling anger on Dask’s behalf, stomped firmly on his emotion, remembering that he still wanted Zenor to run for him.
“Is the caravan getting closer?” he asked, hinting broadly.
Zenor looked, nodded, and sprinted away from the watch point. “You won’t forget, will you?” he called back over his shoulder.
“Never!” Kindan replied. He was delighted at the thought of help with what he was certain was going to be a particularly thorough bathing of the coal mine’s only watch-wher, the night before a major wedding.
At the bottom of the hillside, after his long, warm scramble down, Zenor paused and looked back up to where Kindan was now standing watch. It was warmer in the valley and the air was thicker, partly from the moisture in the fields, and partly from the smoke already beginning to rise from the Camp’s fires. Catching his breath, he turned to search for Miner Natalon. He steered for the largest knot of people he could find, figuring that the Camp’s leader would be there. He was right.
Natalon was a rangy sort of a man who stood taller than the average man. Zenor’s father, Talmaric, had called Natalon a “youngster” once, but only in a low voice. After hearing that, Zenor had tried to imagine Natalon as young but couldn’t. Even though Talmaric was five Turns older than Natalon, Natalon’s twenty-six Turns might have been a full hundred when compared to Zenor’s meager ten.
Zenor considered calling out, but there was still a lot of confusion over the right title for Natalon. He’d be “Lord Natalon” if the Camp proved itself and became a proper Mine but that was still to happen and no one quite knew how to address him now. Zenor opted for worming through the crowd and grabbing at Natalon’s sleeve.
Miner Natalon was not pleased to have someone yank on his sleeve in the middle of an argument. He looked down and saw the sweat-stained face of Talmaric’s son but couldn’t remember the child’s name. It had been so much easier six months earlier, when there’d only been himself and a few other miners seeking out a new seam of coal. But finding that seam, and still others after it, had been exactly what Natalon had hoped for—to start a Camp and prove it into a Mine.
Talmaric’s son yanked again. “Yes?” Natalon said.
“The caravan’s approaching, sir,” Zenor said, hoping that “sir” would not affront the Camp’s head miner.
“How soon, lad? Don’t you know how to make a proper report?” a querulous voice barked above Zenor’s ears. He turned and saw that the speaker was Tarik, Natalon’s uncle. Zenor had had several encounters with Tarik’s son, Cristov, and still bore bruises from the last meeting.
Rumor had it that Tarik was furious that Crom Hold’s MasterMiner hadn’t put him in charge of seeking out new coal. Another rumor, whispered quietly among only a few of the Camp’s boys, was that Tarik was doing everything in his power to prove that Natalon was unsuited to run the Camp and that he, Tarik, should be placed in charge. The last set of bruises Zenor had gotten from Cristov were the result of an ill-placed comment about Cristov’s father.
“How long until they arrive, Zenor?” a kinder voice asked. It was Danil, Kindan’s father, and the partner of the Camp’s only surviving watch-wher.
“I spotted them at the head of the valley,” Zenor replied. “I imagine it’ll be four, maybe six hours until they reach the Camp.”
“They’d get here faster if the roadway were properly lined,” Tarik growled, casting a reproving glare at Natalon.
“We must use our labor wisely, Uncle,” Natalon answered soothingly. “I decided that it made more sense to fell more trees to use in the mines for shorings.”
“We can’t afford any more accidents,” Danil agreed.
“Nor lose any more watch-whers,” Natalon added. Zenor hid a grin as he saw Kindan’s father nod in fierce agreement.
“Watch-whers aren’t much use,” Tarik growled. “We’ve made do without them before. And now we’ve lost two, and what’ve we got to show for it?”
“As I recall, watch-wher Wensk saved your life, Tarik,” Danil answered, his voice edged with bitterness. “Even after you refused to heed his warnings. And I believe that your abusive behavior is what decided Wenser to leave with his watch-wher.”
Tarik snorted. “If we had enough shoring, the tunnel wouldn’t have collapsed.”
“Ah!” Natalon interrupted. “I’m glad to hear that you agree with my reasoning, then, Uncle.”
Tarik glowered. Then, to change the subject, he snapped at Zenor: “How many drays were there, boy?”
Zenor screwed his eyes shut in concentration. He opened them again when he had his answer. “There were six—and four wagons.”
“Hmmph!” Tarik snarled. “Well, Natalon, if the boy’s right, then those Traders have two drays less than we’ve got coal to trade.” He fell to muttering darkly. “And all the time we’ve been spending working ourselves to the bone to get out that coal when we should have been building a proper Hold. What’ll happen when Thread comes?”
“Miner Tarik,” a new voice chimed in, “Thread’s not due to fall for another sixteen Turns. I imagine we’ll have time to correct the problem before then.”
Zenor looked behind him as a hand was laid lightly on his shoulder. It was Jofri, the Camp’s Harper. Zenor smiled up at the young man who had taught him every morning for the last six months. Harpers were the teachers on Pern—as well as the archivists, news sources, and, sometimes, judges—and Jofri was as good a teacher as he was a musician.
Jofri was a journeyman Harper. He was due to return soon to the Harper Hall to complete his Mastery. When he did, he’d probably be too senior to return to a small Camp like this one. Instead, Zenor was sure that he’d be posted to a great Hold—perhaps even Crom—there to supervise not just the major Hold’s children but all the journeyman Harpers dispatched to the small cots and Camps that spread out from the large Hold as its inhabitants expanded their territory.
Of course, maybe a new Harper would know more about Healing than Jofri, who had come to accept that in matters of Healing, Kindan’s eldest sister, Silstra, was the Master and not he. Zenor swallowed when he remembered that the caravan approaching bore Silstra’s future husband. And that, as a wife of a Smith, Silstra would leave Camp Natalon forever.
“Time or not,” Tarik replied with a sneer, “you won’t be here.”
“Uncle,” Natalon said, breaking up what he feared would be another nasty exchange of words, “whatever the result, it was my decision.”
Natalon turned his attention back to Zenor. “Run down to the women at the cookfires and inform them that our guests are approaching.”
Zenor nodded and took off gladly, not wanting to listen to more of Tarik’s snippery. As he left, he heard Danil’s voice above the others, “Do you suppose your replacement is also in the caravan, Jofri?”
Zenor wailed to himself. Not a replacement for Harper Jofri so soon!
Back up in the watch-heights, Kindan followed Zenor’s movements until he was lost in the crowd of elders. Nervously he waited until his friend exited the crowd and then he heaved a sigh of relief—Zenor wasn’t in trouble and neither was he. He watched Zenor head down from the plateau toward the buildings and fields below and guessed that he had been ordered to let the rest of the Camp know that the caravan had been sighted. Tonight there would be a welcoming feast.
Kindan saw Zenor slow down as he approached the Harper’s cottage. He was surprised to see Zenor stop and then dart around to the front of the cottage—out of Kindan’s sight—and, presumably, inside. What was Zenor doing? Kindan guessed that he had stopped because someone inside the cottage had called to him. Kindan made a mental note to find out.