Authors: Anne McCaffrey
“How far?” Kindan wondered.
“Not more than half a meter, probably less,” she answered promptly. “I heard Father talking. I’m sure he had it made that way on purpose, so that this passage could be connected to the two shafts before the next Pass.”
That made sense. When Thread started to fall again it wouldn’t be safe to have people going outside to get into the mines; with the passage, people would be able to go straight from the Hold to the mine without venturing outside at all. Perhaps, Kindan mused, Natalon had also thought of building a special enclosure so that all the mined coal could be safely stored without worrying about Thread.
Thread was voracious—Kindan knew that as well as any child in the camp. The Teaching Ballads said it would eat anything organic—flesh
coal. He was glad that the next Pass, when the Red Star drew Thread down on the planet, would not be for another fourteen Turns. Kindan realized that he’d be really old by then—twenty-six Turns.
“That’ll be a good thing for the next Pass,” Kindan said aloud.
“Only if the Camp is proved,” Nuella responded. “Otherwise it’ll all be a waste, like Uncle Tarik’s Camp.”
“What do you know about that?” he asked, intensely curious.
“Shh!” Nuella hissed. She added, in a whisper, “We’re getting near the end of the passage. I’ll tell you later.”
Nuella had explained, when she had first shown Kindan the entrance to the passage, that the exit was in a pocket toward the back of the mine entrance, close to where the shaft’s huge pumps were placed.
“Father had it built to look like part of the supports,” she had said.
Kindan could well imagine that no one would guess about the existence of the passage: It had been expertly concealed at the back of the upstairs hall closet in Natalon’s hold. What had looked like simple round trim at the top and bottom of the back wall had turned out to hide carefully crafted latches that slid back top and bottom on one corner when Nuella moved them. Only someone who had known how they worked would have had a chance of discovering them.
On the other side were protruding dowels: When pushed in, they caused the door to close neatly, so that no one, even someone who knew about the secret passage, would know they had entered.
The doorway to the exit was much the same. Kindan guessed that Cannehir, Crom’s itinerant woodsmith, must have made the doors. Kindan wondered how many other people knew about the “secret” passageway. He made a mental note to ask Nuella later.
He felt a change in the air in front of him, and a lighter spot showed ahead.
“What are you doing?” he whispered.
“Opening the door,” she answered. “You didn’t think we’d come all the way here without going into the mines, did you?”
“Are you mad?” Kindan shot back, thinking that it was becoming the most common question he asked this uncommon girl. “We’ll be seen.”
“By who? Toldur’s crew are still working on the other shaft,” she replied, unperturbed. “Dalor told me that you can’t see here from the pumps, and that’s the only place people would be.”
“Dalor told you?” Kindan whispered back, eyes wide.
“Sure,” Nuella said. “You don’t think this is the first time I’ve come here, do you?”
“Of course not—you were here at least once before, with Master Zist.”
“Exactly,” she agreed in a tone that told Kindan she had been here many more times than just that once. “How is Kisk here going to learn the mines if she doesn’t explore them?”
“But we might get caught,” he responded, sweat beading on his forehead. “And no one’s supposed to go into the mines without the shift leader knowing. What if there were a cave-in? We’d be trapped.”
“I suppose you’re right about that,” she admitted after a moment’s silence. “I hadn’t thought about it before.”
Kindan snorted, remembering how he had had to remind Nuella to put on a hard hat—there was a shelf of them behind the secret door into the passageway. Everyone who ever went into the mines was taught to wear a hard hat as a matter of reflex.
“Well,” she said reluctantly, “I suppose we could turn back.”
Kindan sighed. He was as reluctant as Nuella to turn back, but he had heard too often about the dangers in the mines—and he could still remember the cave-in and Dask’s bleeding body—to be willing to take such a grave risk. “Yes. Next time we can tell someone—maybe Dalor?”
“Dalor would be perfect,” Nuella agreed. “Maybe Zenor. I don’t know about Master Zist.”
“Seeing as you’re in front,” Nuella said after they’d retreated through the door and closed it, “why don’t you lead us back? It’ll be good practice for you.”
It was. When they came across the gentle turn a quarter of the way back, he walked right into the wall.
“I told you to count your paces,” Nuella commented unsympathetically when she realized what he’d done.
Kindan groaned, rubbing his sore nose.
Nuella smothered a laugh. “Well, maybe it hurts enough to keep you from making that mistake again. Clearly, my telling you isn’t enough.”
Kindan started counting his paces. His pace was shorter than Nuella’s, who was still taller than him, but he corrected for the difference and was delighted when he accurately made the sharp right turn two-thirds of the way back to the hold’s entrance.
“I think we’re at the door,” he said not long after, when his pacing told him they should be there.
“Yup, I can smell it,” Nuella confirmed.
Kindan felt for the dowels at the top and bottom of the door, and slid them back.
“Wait!” Nuella whispered cautiously. “Listen first. You never know when someone might be out there.”
A sudden rush of fear and anger at his own foolishness swept through him, and for a moment he could not hear anything but the sound of his blood pounding in his ears.
Nuella laid a comforting hand on his shoulder. “I just don’t think it’d be easy to explain you and a watch-wher suddenly appearing from our closet.” She listened some more and then said, “All clear.”
Kindan slowly opened the door to reveal the still-dark closet. He cautiously opened the closet door and peered around before beckoning Kisk to come through. Nuella followed behind and they closed the door.
“I’ll lead you down to the kitchen door,” she said.
“Is this light too bright for you, Kisk?” Kindan anxiously asked the watch-wher, wondering if he could shield her eyes with his hands.
Nuella flicked open the closet door and pulled something out. “How about this?” she asked, handing him a robe.
Kindan, who had been watching Kisk closely, shook his head. “She seems okay. Glows don’t seem to bother her all that much.”
“Well, I’ll bring it anyway,” Nuella said. “It might be cold outside.”
But they needed it before they got outside. In the kitchen, Kisk skittered away from the open hearth and its roaring fire, making anxious noises in the back of her throat. Kindan quickly grabbed the robe from Nuella and shielded Kisk’s eyes from the fire. Her anxiety diminished immediately, and she gave Kindan a thankful noise.
“You know,” Kindan said thoughtfully, “we’d never get away with this in a proper Hold. There’d be a guard or something.”
“Well, this is more like a house, isn’t it?” Nuella said. “And Milla only comes down to feed the fire when she gets chills.”
Coming outside into the cold evening air, Kindan felt as though he’d awoken from a dream.
“Well, thanks,” he said to Nuella as she stood in the doorway. “We’ll be going back to the shed now.”
“You’re welcome,” Nuella returned with a small smile. Shyly, she asked, “Do you want to try again tomorrow night?”
“Maybe,” Kindan said. “We’re hoping M’tal might come tomorrow.”
“Could I meet him, do you think?” Nuella asked.
“I don’t know,” Kindan said hesitantly. “What would your father say?”
Nuella dismissed his objection with a wave of her hand. “Who cares? It’s not like the Weyrleader of Benden is going to tell on me, is it?”
Kindan was still not sure. “Master Zist says that the more a secret is shared, the less it is a secret. Soon everyone knows.”
“ ‘Secrets like to be free,’ ” Nuella quoted in agreement. “My mother always says that.”
“That sounds right,” Kindan agreed. “Why don’t we talk about this tomorrow?”
“All right,” Nuella said. But she sounded as if she expected to be disappointed.
As Kindan drifted off to sleep that night, he couldn’t help wondering which would disappoint Nuella more—not being able to meet a dragonrider or not going into the mine. As he considered the question, he imagined that Nuella rarely had a chance to stretch her legs or get out and about, until he realized that she’d probably spent a lot of time navigating around the hold. She’d certainly done enough exploring to find and memorize the secret passageway. He fell asleep wistfully remembering the ease with which Nuella had navigated the dark corridor.
“She’s really grown,” M’tal said as he examined Kisk in the darkened shed. The Weyrleader had come the third day after Kindan drummed out his message. They were lucky to catch him, as the snows had settled in on the high mountains, including Benden Weyr. While snow was no deterrent to dragons and dragonriders—M’tal told an envious Kindan that the Weyr was naturally warm during winter—it could cause problems for holders and crafters caught unawares. M’tal and his Weyr had spent the first sevenday after the snowfall rescuing people trapped by the cold or isolated without needed supplies.
Kindan’s eyes had widened when he heard that—for he’d never heard of any Telgar dragonrider bothering to check up on the holders or crafters during foul weather. And, after his encounter with D’gan, Weyrleader of Telgar, he could understand why. The two Weyrleaders were clearly cut from very different cloth.
“And you say she sees in the dark?” M’tal mused now. “Dragons can’t, you know.”
“Yes, she’s—” Kindan stopped, not wanting to break Nuella’s secret about the passageways. “I think she’s almost ready to go in the mines,” he added hastily.
M’tal patted Kisk gently and rubbed his hands over her body. “Not quite a dragon in miniature,” he commented. “She’s got more muscles—at least that I can feel. She feels well grown. And you say her skin never itched or cracked?”
Both Kindan and Master Zist shook their heads and said in unison, “Never a bit.”
M’tal sighed feelingly. “I wish I could say the same with Gaminth.”
“What we were wondering, old friend,” Master Zist said to the dragonrider, “is whether there is any lore gathered in the Weyrs that might help us in training Kisk, here.”
M’tal stroked his chin thoughtfully. Then he grimaced. “Not at Benden, as far as I know. What about the Harper Hall?”
Master Zist shook his head ruefully. “My request to the Harper Hall for any information on watch-whers crossed
request for all the information I had on watch-whers.”
“Apparently watch-whers have become forgotten on Pern.” M’tal frowned. “I don’t like that. They were clearly bred from the same source as dragons, so there must have been a need for them. We shouldn’t have lost that lore.” Gently he extended Kisk’s vestigial wings. “I can’t imagine how she could fly with these.”
“My father once flew Dask,” Kindan reported.
M’tal looked up. “Really? How?”
“It was late at night,” Kindan replied. “I don’t think they went up too high,” he added. “I think my father was afraid of heights.”
“They fly at night?” M’tal mused. He continued thoughtfully. “And they see in the dark, don’t they? Perhaps they were bred for night.”
“So it would seem,” Master Zist agreed. “Kisk is much more active during the night—definitely nocturnal and not just light sensitive.”
“She’s certainly smarter than a fire-lizard,” M’tal noted. “I wonder . . .” He trailed off, frowning.
Suddenly, Kisk’s body jerked, and she gave a questioning chirp.
M’tal patted her soothingly. “That’s just Gaminth, my dragon,” he reassured her. He turned to the others, eyes alight with excitement. “Gaminth can speak to her!”
“Really?” Master Zist said.
“Wow!” Kindan exclaimed, glancing at Kisk admiringly. Then he asked her, “Can you talk to Gaminth, too?”
M’tal’s eyes widened with the possibilities. “That is certainly worth exploring, Kindan.”
“If watch-whers could talk to dragons, send messages . . .” Master Zist murmured, imagining all the ways in which such communication could benefit people, dragons, and watch-whers.
“I must think about this,” the Weyrleader said, still lost in thought. He slapped his hand against his thigh decisively. “Zist, if you don’t mind—and you, too, Kindan—I’d like to mention this to some acquaintances of mine. Perhaps we can help each other in learning more about watch-whers.”
M’tal nodded his thanks. “In that case, I must be off. I shall return as soon as I can, maybe in company.”
And with that, he departed.
“And you didn’t even tell me!” Nuella shrieked at Kindan the next morning. Kindan was still groggy from the late night—Kisk had remained excited for most of the evening and it was only when the first light of dawn could be seen that she became even remotely tired.
“It was all so sudden,” he protested. “Lord M’tal arrived and came straight into the shed, examined Kisk, and then—he was gone.”
“Hmmph!” Nuella was not in the least comforted. “And now you want me to help you into the mines? Why should I?”
“Because you offered,” he replied, wishing that somehow Nuella would retreat from her anger.
Kindan’s wish was granted. The head miner’s daughter drummed her fingers on her leg for a moment, flared her nostrils in one last spat of anger, and sighed. “All right,” she agreed. “But only because Kisk needs the training. And only if you tell me
that dragonrider M’tal said last night.”
Kindan did so, his narration interrupted constantly by Nuella’s questions. Kindan realized as he answered her that Nuella was very good at illuminating every detail of a conversation. Her questions reminded him of things he’d forgotten and brought nuances of the conversation to light for him that he otherwise wouldn’t have seen.