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Authors: Anne McCaffrey

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And no wonder—regardless of what the miners knew about bad air, not even Milla the baker could be coaxed back into the kitchen that morning to make her dainties. Natalon’s lady, Jenella, was still suffering from the combined effects of the bad air and her pregnancy and was confined to bed.

The absence of others was easier to understand—Zenor had four little sisters and his mother to look after. And, because of the cave-in that fall, it was still necessary to work two solid shifts, so the second shift was still in the mine. A third “air” shift had been organized to keep the air pumps going through the night, but that consisted of only four people working in two pairs and they were mostly the youngest, the oldest, or the least skilled.

Kindan was so lost in his thoughts that he didn’t realize that Master Zist had stopped playing until the Master was speaking in his ear, having gotten up from his chair and walked over to where Kindan was seated. “Keep up that beat, lad, while I go mix with the crowd.”

Kindan nodded without breaking beat and watched as the MasterHarper climbed down from the table and made his way over to the refreshments. Kindan beat a bit harder as the Harper approached that table, and his hint must have been taken, for Master Zist tossed a backward wave at him—he would bring Kindan back some refreshments on his return.

Still playing instinctively, Kindan scanned the small crowd to pick up snippets of conversation.

“Caravan coming in to pick up our coal—” It was true: With the snow melting, there should be a trader caravan in any day now to take the last six months’ worth of mined coal.

“—hope they bring some apprentices—” Natalon had sent a drum message to the MasterMiner in Crom asking for more apprentices.

“—no use, they’ll be the worst, or who’d let them go?”

Kindan sighed, as that last comment made too much sense. Any apprentices that could be freed to go to a new mine would never be the best apprentices—they’d be kept on by their Masters at the current mines. Some of them would just be young and eager, but others might even be more trouble than they were worth: lazy or shiftless.

“—without a watch-wher, how are we going to be safe?” Kindan’s ears pricked up at that snippet of conversation, trying to identify the speaker.

“—there’s been too many accidents, especially since—” Kindan guessed that the speaker was about to say “the cave-in,” but the voice had slipped away from him in the general noise of the hall. Kindan agreed with whoever had said that; there’d been minor accidents once or twice a week since the cave-in that had killed his father and Dask. Partly, as Kindan had heard Natalon tell Zist one late evening when they both thought him asleep, because they were working hard with few people, and partly because it was just the nature of working underground where any carelessness could easily result in an injury.

Kindan searched the crowd and spotted Panit, one of Tarik’s old cronies, stumping about with a cast on his foot. The old miner had not been paying attention and had let a trolley get away from him and run over his foot.

“At the end of the day, it’s the head miner who’s to blame, isn’t it?” Panit asked a small knot of worried-looking miners gathered around him. Kindan stiffened. “Maybe the problem’s not watch-whers, but leadership.”

Kindan strained to see the reactions of the other miners but only succeeded in losing his beat. With a quick flourish, he jumped back into it, but not before several heads turned in his direction, Panit’s being one of them.

“When you’re listening in,” Master Zist murmured in Kindan’s ear, appearing suddenly at his side, “it’s important not to be noticed.”

Kindan managed a sickly smile in return. “Sorry,” he muttered back.

Master Zist nodded. He thrust a mug and a plate of snacks at Kindan and said, “Take a break.”

Not long after that, the Gather broke up. Kindan and the Harper were the last to leave, bowed under the weight of their instruments and the length of their day.

Kindan could never remember how he got into his bed that night.

         

“Master Zist! Master Zist!” Dalor’s cry woke Kindan far too soon. He stirred groggily, frightened by the tone of Dalor’s voice.

“Eh? What is it?” Master Zist called out from his room as Kindan tumbled into the kitchen.

“It’s my mother,” Dalor said, face pale with fright. “The baby’s coming early.”

The Harper emerged from his room, still in his bedclothes. He took one look at Dalor and turned decisively to Kindan. “Go run to Margit’s and get her up here.” He turned back to Dalor, “I’ll be along as soon as I get some clothes on. You get on back. Start the cook boiling water, if she hasn’t already.” His tone turned softer as he took in the look on Dalor’s face. “It’ll be all right, lad. Now off with you!”

The moment Dalor was out of earshot, Kindan told the Harper, “Margit’s not much at midwifery. Silstra did most of that, and Harper Jofri.”

“Journeyman Jofri learned his healing after I’d thrown him out of my singing class,” Master Zist said. Then he sighed. “And I learned my singing after the MasterHealer threw me out of his healing class.”

Kindan looked alarmed. The Harper made shooing motions with his hands. “Get off, now! We’ll cope.”

Kindan chivvied Margit along as fast as he could when he woke her but she was not to be hurried. They reached Jenella’s room in time to hear Milla, who was standing in the doorway, wail, “It’s too soon, it’s too soon!”

“No, it’s not,” Margit said matter-of-factly. “It’s a month before normal time, and that’s close enough.” She drew herself closer to the baker and said harshly, “And if you can’t get yourself under control, you’ll go back to the kitchen.”

Milla, who wouldn’t miss the excitement for gold, sniffed and drew herself up, but closed her mouth.

Kindan, carrying Margit’s work things, followed her into the room. Natalon was holding Jenella’s hand. Master Zist had arranged sheets and blankets discreetly and placed himself to receive the baby.

Margit shouldered the Harper aside to make her own inspection. Satisfied, she went to Jenella’s side. “You’re fine, dear, just fine,” she assured her. “When the next contraction comes, just bear on down. You know the drill.”

Dalor stirred uncomfortably from his spot in the room. Master Zist glanced at him, eyes narrowed, and then turned to Kindan. “Lad, get Swanee to cook some towels in boiling water. We’ll need to clean the baby when it arrives. Take Dalor to help you.”

Kindan gave the Harper a quizzical look, then enlightenment dawned and he grinned. Dragging a reluctant Dalor after him, he left the room.

Out of earshot, Kindan said to the other boy, “If we work it right, we can get your sister in to substitute for you some of the time.”

“Oh, please,” said a figure appearing out of the shadows. It was Nuella. “I’d like to be there; Mother will want me.”

“But if Margit or Milla—” Dalor protested.

“They won’t know if there’s only one of you in the room at a time and you wear the same clothes,” Kindan said. “Not in all the excitement.”

“That will only work if you wear my cap,” Dalor said, pulling the cap he usually wore off himself and stuffing it on Nuella’s head.

“And put your hair under it,” Kindan said. Nuella took the cap off, twirled her hair up into a bun and stuffed the cap back on.

“Perfect!” Dalor said. “You look just like me.”

“But if you forget the cap or it falls off, you’ll be caught out,” Kindan warned. Dalor looked frightened.

Nuella settled the matter, telling Kindan, “When you go down, be sure to have the cook sterilize the sharpest knife she has—she’ll moan, but don’t listen—that’ll be to cut the cord. Have her put it on one of the boiled rags so it stays sterile.”

Kindan started down to the kitchen wondering just when Dalor’s sister had taken charge.

All the same, his plan worked perfectly. Kindan deftly managed it so that Dalor and Nuella switched off every quarter hour. After Jenella’s first wide-eyed recognition of her daughter and Nuella’s subtle nod in Kindan’s direction, Jenella calmed down with a grateful smile and clasped Nuella’s hand tightly.

When the baby came, Margit deliberately stepped away to let Master Zist receive it. Kindan got the distinct impression that she wanted to place the burden—figuratively and literally—in the Harper’s big hands. And that’s how it turned out. One moment the Harper was leaning in, calling soothing words to Jenella, and the next moment there was a little snuffle and a slight mewing sound.

“Kindan, come here with that knife,” Master Zist ordered. When Kindan came around, he saw the small newborn still attached by its umbilical cord.

“Make a loop with the cord,” Master Zist instructed. As Kindan complied, the Harper said to Natalon, “Come cut the cord and welcome your new daughter into the world.”

Natalon, with a proud look at his wife and a big smile on his face, cut the cord. Margit took the baby from Master Zist, quickly wiped it off with the sterile towels, and looked up for blankets to wrap the baby in.

“I’ll get them,” Nuella offered, hastily leaving the room.

Margit followed her departure with a penetrating look, saying to Jenella, “You’ve got a good lad there. Usually it’s only the daughters that know where the baby things are kept.”

“Dalor’s been talking about this for a while,” Kindan said, improvising quickly. “Although I think he was hoping for a brother.”

“He’ll be pleased with a sister, I’m sure,” Natalon said. He gazed happily at Jenella. “I know I am.”

Dalor returned, sweating visibly, with the baby things and passed them on to Margit, who wrapped up the newborn and passed her to Jenella.

“I don’t know what the Harper thinks,” Margit said with a nod to Master Zist, “but I think she’s perfect.”

Kindan was surprised to see that Master Zist’s face was flowing with tears.

Margit’s face fell when she noticed. “Oh, Master Zist, I’m sorry, I’d forgotten you’d had one of your own.”

Master Zist nodded, wiping his eyes. “I did,” he said after clearing his throat. He looked to Jenella. “I’m sorry, but your lass looks the same as mine did when she was born.”

“What was her name?” Kindan asked softly.

“Carissa,” the Harper murmured. He forced a smile on his face and looked toward the proud parents. “And what are you going to name this bouncy one?”

Natalon and Jenella exchanged glances. “We don’t know yet.”

“There’ll be plenty of time for that,” Margit agreed. “Now why don’t you leave while I help Jenella and her babe get settled in.” And she backed up her words with determined shooing motions with her hands. “Milla, you can stay and help.”

By the time the others had collected downstairs, the early morning light was showing. Natalon bit back a curse. “I’m late for my own shift!”

“I think they’ll understand,” Master Zist told him.

“I had Swanee send word, Father,” Dalor added.

Natalon gave him a grateful look and let out a big sigh of relief.

         

“It’ll be a long day for all of us,” Master Zist said to Kindan as they made their way back to the Harper’s cothold. “But that’s the way things go, sometimes.”

Kindan nodded in agreement but was robbed of words by a huge yawn.

“Some
klah
will help you start the day,” Master Zist said.

Kindan had a great tale to tell as he set the watch. It was still bitterly cold in the watch-heights so he stayed on to gather kindling and firewood as the first watcher got settled in. He was back down the hill in time for classes with Master Zist and back up again at lunchtime, when the morning mist was finally lifting, to spell Renna, Zenor’s eldest sister, while she got her lunch.

So it was he who first saw the trader caravan approaching.

CHAPTER V

A baby’s cry, a mother’s sigh,
Sweet things make a day go by.

Being the first to spot the trader caravan, Kindan quickly sought out the Harper who was handling, between yawns, a class of busy younglings.

“Natalon’s in the mines,” Master Zist said when Kindan told him. “You’ll need to send someone to let him know.” He paused consideringly. “Do you know what else to do when a caravan arrives?” Kindan nodded. “Well, you’d best get it done, then.”

“But I’ve only Turned eleven,” Kindan complained, wondering how he would get such oldsters as Swanee and Ima to do his bidding.

Master Zist looked down his nose at him. “Then it will be an interesting challenge for you.”

“Right,” Kindan said, catching on at once. “I’ll figure something.”

By the time he met Ima, the camp’s butcher, Kindan knew what to say. “There’s a caravan coming in. Master Zist sends his compliments and asks if you could prepare enough extra meat to feed another twenty.”

He used the same strategy with Milla and Swanee. It worked every time. Finally, having set everything in train, he decided that he was the right one to deliver the message to Natalon in the mines.

He had kept Kaylek’s second set of coveralls, but as he hurriedly put them on, he discovered that he was still a bit too small and had to roll up both the sleeves and the legs. Kaylek’s hard hat fit once he adjusted the headband—perhaps, he thought ruefully, Kaylek’s teasing about his big head had had some measure of truth in it. Properly attired, though without good work gloves, Kindan made his way to the mine entrance.

Inside the mine, he was pleased to recognize Zenor. Zenor was tired and grumpy. “All I ever do is work topside,” he groused. “Honestly, Kindan, I saw more of the mines when you and I had to change the glows.”

“Natalon has you working the pumps?” Kindan asked rhetorically. When Zenor nodded miserably, Kindan clapped him on the shoulder. “Well, he must trust you a lot, putting his life in your hands like that.”

Zenor brightened a bit at the thought. “Really?”

“Really,” Kindan replied. “You’re what keeps him breathing.”

“And it’s hard work, too,” Zenor agreed. He was on a rotation, resting from the constant work of the pumps but on call for running the lifts. “I hadn’t thought of it that way.”

“I’ve got to deliver a message from Master Zist,” Kindan said. “Can you lower me down?”

“A message?” Zenor repeated, leaning in toward Kindan, curiosity shining in his eyes.

“There’s a trader caravan approaching,” Kindan told him confidentially.

Zenor’s eyes widened as he turned to look at the other five working the top of the mine on his shift, contemplating how this inside bit of gossip would go over with them. “I hope they brought apprentices,” he said fervently. “I could trade places and get down the mines myself.”

Kindan grinned. “There’s an idea,” he said. “But Natalon needs to hear this, too. Can you lower me down?”

“Sure,” Zenor said, heading to the lift controls. “Hop in.”

Before lowering the lift, Zenor made a careful check of Kindan’s gear and changed the glow that was strapped to the front of his hard hat. He thrust a heavy sack at him, too. “Bring these glows on down with you; they’ll be calling for them soon enough anyways.”

At the bottom of the shaft, Kindan climbed off. He was met by Toldur, one of the miners.

“I was just about to go for those,” Toldur told him, nodding approvingly at the sack of glows Kindan had brought.

“I’ve a message for Natalon from the Harper,” Kindan said.

“I’m going back to him,” Toldur replied, throwing the sack over his back with the ease of long practice. He double-checked Kindan’s gear, muttered about the too-long coveralls, and motioned for Kindan to follow him.

The solid rock of the mine shaft immediately gave way to the soot black of coal. Kindan had been in the mines before, but he always took the chance to examine the changes and take in more detail. And this was the first time he’d been in the mine since the cave-in.

“We’re taking a different road from the one your father was on,” Toldur commented.

Kindan studied the shoring along the way. The trees nearest the campsite would have to be cleared long before Thread came again, so there was no shortage of timber to support the roof of the mine, but there
was
a shortage of labor to cut the trees. Kindan had been on many work parties that had trimmed the branches off felled trees, or had helped to cart the finished beams and planks to the supply shed up by the mine entrance.

He measured distance by counting glows along the way. Toldur paused a few times to replace dim glows with new ones from the sack Kindan had brought. Glows were placed every three meters, Kindan knew, so he knew that they’d gone sixty meters before they saw Natalon’s work party.

Toldur had to shoulder his way into the group to carve a path for Kindan. The rest of the crew took the opportunity to take a quick break from their labors. There was a line of carts on the track that they’d filled with coal.

“What is it, Kindan?” Natalon asked cheerfully.

“There’s a trader caravan approaching,” Kindan told him. The other miners perked up at that and began talking happily among themselves, hoping that there were new apprentices in the caravan or wondering whether the traders brought some of the things they’d been missing, such as new fabrics—“for the wife”—or pickaxes—“never can have enough.”

“When do you think it’ll arrive at the camp?” Natalon asked.

Kindan pursed his lips thoughtfully. “Probably just as your shift ends.” The other miners, who had gone quiet to hear their conversation, raised a cheer over the news. Kindan could see the weary acceptance in Natalon’s face.

“Master Zist’s got all the welcoming preparations under way,” Kindan assured him. “He wanted to know if you would let him host another evening in the hold’s great room.”

Natalon nodded his assent. “And, if there’re new apprentices, they’ll need to be assigned shifts and lodging,” he added, diving into the administrative side of his job with a deep sigh.

“Master Zist asked if he and Swanee couldn’t consider that,” Kindan said, happily stuffing words into the Harper’s and the camp’s supplier’s mouths. He knew how tired
he
was from all the excitement of the past day, and he hadn’t been working shifts, nor was it his wife who’d given birth that morning. He worked up a smile. “I believe Master Zist said that it would be an interesting challenge for him.”

Natalon gave in with a wave of his hands. “I’ll leave it to him then.” He turned to his crew. “You lot get back to work. You’ve had enough of a break.”

He put a fatherly hand on Kindan’s shoulder. “I’ll walk you back to the shaft,” he said. As soon as they were out of earshot of the others, he asked, “Did you see how many coal drays they had with them?”

Kindan frowned, trying to remember. He had only just seen the head of the caravan in the rising fog. “It was still foggy,” he admitted. “I think there were four.”

Natalon looked puzzled. “We’ve enough bagged coal for five, I think, nearly six. If they’ve only brought four it’ll be months before we sell all our bagged coal. If they’ve brought six . . .”

Kindan had learned a lot in his months with the Harper. The camp could supply many of its own needs—lumber, coal, meat, some herbs and greens—but they needed flour, fabric, finished metal goods like pickaxes, spices, and all the little incidentals that made living more than just drudgery. Those goods had to be paid for, and coal was the way the camp paid for them. Traders preferred bagged coal, dry and ready to sell. They charged a penalty for wet coal, and another penalty for loose coal.

If the caravan had only brought four coal drays, then the camp could only buy goods equal to that amount. But if the caravan brought six coal drays and Natalon had only enough for slightly more than five, there might be a bigger problem: No trader made a profit hauling half-filled wagons or, worse, empty ones. The trader could well decide to move on to another Camp in hopes of getting a full load. There’d be another caravan along soon that’d take what bagged coal Camp Natalon had, but it’d be at least another month.

Kindan knew how the miners would feel to see a caravan leave without trading, even if the Camp had enough goods to carry it through until another caravan arrived. He could only guess at the unease the new apprentices would feel to arrive at a Camp that couldn’t buy the goods the traders had brought.

Except for the coal bagged and set aside in a dry cave, all the coal that had been mined in the fall and winter was in a huge pile covered with melting snow. The warmer weather would easily see it dried out, but that couldn’t be expected for at least another three sevendays or more—far longer than any trader would be willing to wait.

“How long would it take to mine enough coal to fill a sixth dray?” Kindan asked.

Natalon raised his eyebrows in surprise, then nodded in comprehension. “Master Zist asked you to consider all possibilities, then?”

Kindan shrugged. “I’m certain of four drays . . . but if there were more out of sight, then there might be six altogether. It never hurts to be prepared, does it?”

“No, it doesn’t,” Natalon agreed heartily, looking at the sturdy supports he’d placed along this tunnel. “Although,” he said with a stern look at Kindan, “it’s better to be accurate than to guess.”

“I know,” Kindan agreed mournfully. “Next time I’ll stay until I’m certain that I’ve seen the end of the caravan.”

Natalon looked at Kindan and noted the set of his jaw and the slump in his shoulders. It was obvious to him that Kindan had really thought through all the implications of his mistake and would not repeat it.

“Good,” Natalon said firmly. “So how much to fill a sixth dray, eh?” He pursed his lips thoughtfully. “If we worked three shifts, maybe two or three days.” He sighed. “But we can’t work three shifts. I’ve no one trained to be a shift leader for the third shift.”

“So it’d take four days with two shifts?” Kindan guessed. Natalon agreed. “But how long will it take to fill the drays?”

“Usually we take the working shift and have them fill the drays,” Natalon said. “With ten men in two shifts, we can fill the drays in a day or two.”

“So, what if we could form a third shift to fill the drays while the other two kept on mining?” Kindan wondered. “They’d fill the drays in about three days, wouldn’t they?”

Natalon considered the question and finally nodded. “Yes.”

“So all we have to do is convince the trader to stay on an extra day,” Kindan said.

“Maybe,” Natalon allowed. Then he shook his head. “But traders don’t make profits sitting around. They’re just as likely to decide to go to another Camp for their coal.”

“They’d lose time with that, too.” Kindan shook his head. “Why don’t I ask the Harper to help out? I’m sure he’ll enjoy the challenge.”

Natalon chuckled. “You’ve used that phrase twice now, lad,” he noted. “Is it one dear to the Harper?”

“Yes,” Kindan agreed, suppressing a grin. They had arrived at the mine shaft. “Let Master Zist take care of it, please. He managed the birthing—I’m sure this will be nothing for him.”

Natalon laughed aloud at the comparison. “All right, Kindan, you may tell Master Zist that I leave it all in his capable hands.”

“I will,” Kindan said, tugging on the lift ropes to signal his ascent.

         

Master Zist was amused at Kindan’s creative solutions to his challenge but not at all amused that Kindan had managed to dump Natalon’s problems squarely in
his
lap.

“Well,” he said when he’d digested all the news, “if I’m to play the Holder while Natalon’s resting and Tarik’s working his shift, you’ll have to play the Harper.” He ignored Kindan’s horrified expression and continued blithely, “I’m sure that Swanee has got his lists together and can talk all that’s necessary about supplies and payments, but he strikes me as an
honest
man, and that’s not the best sort of person to deal with traders.”

Kindan stoutly declaimed Swanee’s honesty. “Well then,” the Harper said, “there you go. Traders are honest in their own way, too: They’ll always give you what you pay for, but they don’t go out of their way to be sure to give you their best price. That takes bargaining. Traders love to bargain.”

From the glint in Master Zist’s eyes, Kindan got the impression that the Harper enjoyed bargaining himself.

“Bargaining,” the Harper continued, “takes lots of talk. And talk is what a Harper does best.” He wagged a warning finger at Kindan and added, “Although you’d never find a Trader willing to admit that a Harper could out-bargain him.

“So,” he concluded, “it’ll be up to you to provide the entertainment while I provide the bargaining.”

“But I only really know how to drum!” Kindan protested.

Master Zist snorted. “And what were you doing at the wedding?”

“I thought you didn’t want me to sing,” Kindan said.

“Except when I tell you to, or there’s no choice,” Master Zist corrected. “And I’m telling you
and
there’s no choice.”

“Oh.” Kindan’s forehead puckered in thought.

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