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Authors: Anne McCaffrey

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“All right,” she said at last, standing up and dusting herself off determinedly. “Meet me at the hold this evening after my classes with Master Zist.”

“This evening?” Kindan was surprised. Nuella, despite her eagerness, had had to postpone their sojourn the past three nights.

“Yes,” she said. “Dalor will meet you and bring you upstairs.”

“Ah, so you convinced him, eh?” Kindan muttered.

“Not so much convinced as blackmailed,” she admitted. “I happen to know who he’s sweet on, you see.”

Kindan’s eyes widened in surprise, then narrowed again thoughtfully. Dalor was growing steadily and thickening out into a strong-muscled young man. Kindan himself was in that awkward stage of adolescence where his voice was neither fish nor fowl. In some ways it was a relief that he had Kisk to train; he would have hated the disappointment his breaking voice would doubtless have given Master Zist.

“And he’s gotten taller than me,” Nuella added in an aggrieved tone. “I can’t use him as a double anymore.”

“You’ve changed, too,” Kindan countered. “You couldn’t pass as Dalor even if he hadn’t gotten taller.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” Nuella demanded. “Oh, I suppose his voice is different, but if he kept silent, no one could tell.”

“Nuella, we’re all growing up,” Kindan responded. “I’ve noticed it, you’ve noticed it, and I’m sure Zenor’s noticed it.”

“Oh.” Nuella paused. “Do you think so?” she asked, her tone wistful.

“Yes,” he replied firmly, relieved that he’d managed not to burst out laughing at her response. It seemed he knew who Nuella was sweet on, too!

“Don’t you dare tell him,” she warned him icily.

         

This time, Nuella made a point of letting Kindan lead the way through the secret passageway from the hold to the mine. He had to reassure Kisk that he would be right back before the watch-wher would let him leave them. Quickly he scouted out the area around the pumps, making certain that it
was
possible to get from the secret door to the lifts. Then he came back for Nuella and Kisk.

He led them to the lifts without alarm, although his heart raced as they clambered onto the platform and he began to lower them down. The mine lifts were built to operate in parallel: When one was lowered, the other was raised, so that there was always a lift at the top and the bottom of the mine shaft. Kindan was sure that the noise of the lifts would be heard throughout the mine on such a still night.

As soon as they reached the bottom, he hustled them off the lift and over into a spot unlit by glows. When his pulse had slowed enough for him to think, he peered around to see the lay of the land.

“Come on,” Nuella said impatiently, pushing past Kindan and turning to the left.

“We’re heading south,” Kindan observed quietly.

“I know,” Nuella replied testily. “South is where Father’s shift is digging the new street.”

Natalon had adopted the convention of calling tunnels dug through the length of the coal seam “streets,” and the tunnels dug through the width of the coal seam were called “avenues.” In Natalon’s mine, “streets” ran east-west, while “avenues” ran north-south.

There were already two streets dug into the coal seam, both north of the main mine shaft. Natalon’s new street was being dug one-third of the way between the current mine shaft and the newly dug shaft that Toldur’s crew had just finished. What the miners called “main avenue” had been dug following the edge of the coal seam north and south of the first mine shaft. It met and went beyond the new mine shaft toward the very edges of the coal seam. Natalon had ordered the tunneling southward to stop short of the end of the seam as he wanted to avoid the chance of tunneling into water under the lake.

The coal seam was thick, nearly two and a half meters. In making the streets, the miners had to dig out coal. As they progressed in their mining, they would divide the huge coal seam into “rooms,” leaving pillars of coal to support the rock above the seam. Now that the surface seams were all depleted on Pern, this “room and pillar” mining was the only method practical with the tools and manpower available.

Each of the east-west running streets followed the sloping coal seam as it angled deeper into the mountain range. Kindan knew that there were several north-south avenues cut between the older streets, but the miners had not yet started on a connecting avenue to Natalon’s newest east-west street.

“The glows are dim around here,” he said, looking at one flickering glow mounted on a joist.

“Really? I’d hardly noticed,” Nuella replied with a grin. Kindan snorted.

“How come you’re in front?” he asked a few paces later.

Nuella raised her arms slowly to either side. She shook her head. “I don’t know, the tunnel’s wide enough for all of us.”

Kindan bit back a tart reply, shook his head ruefully, and caught up to Nuella’s left side. Kisk poked her head between the two of them.

“Here’s the turn,” he said when they reached the new street.

“I know,” Nuella said.

Kindan didn’t bother to ask her how she knew; he had been around her long enough to guess that she’d either heard the difference in the sound of their footsteps or felt a breeze, or smelled new air, or something. There were times, he admitted to himself, when he had a hard time believing that she was blind.

Nuella turned right, into the new street.

“Wait!” Kindan called.

“Why?” she demanded.

“These supports,” he said. “There are an awful lot of them.” He ran a critical eye up and down the thick timbers that held the huge supporting beam overhead. There were three such joists in close succession, spaced within a meter. He walked past the opening to the new street and saw that there was a matching set of three joists on the far side of the new tunnel. “There are three joists on either side of the entrance.”

“I heard Father say he always puts in extra support when he starts a new tunnel,” Nuella said. She added, “He and Uncle Tarik were arguing at the time, actually. Uncle Tarik said that Father was being too worried and that a single joist would do just as well, but Father said you can never be too careful. Uncle Tarik said that there was no point in taking in all the extra time and effort so it was a waste.”

“I’ll bet he did! Him and his talk of people being ‘lazy’!”

Kindan noted as they went down the new street that there were three more joists on it, too, about two meters beyond the entrance. The glows were slightly brighter there, no doubt because Natalon and his shift would have wanted fresh glows to work with.

Kindan kept pace as he walked down the new street. Just as on the main avenue, tracks ran down the center for the coal carts. Nuella stumbled once on a poorly driven stake but recovered quickly. Her look dared Kindan to say something. He kept quiet.

The tracks ended when they had gone forty-eight meters down the new road. Kindan could clearly see the pick marks in the wall facing them just a few meters beyond.

Nuella continued forward, her right hand held up, palm out. She stopped when her fingertips stroked the still-trapped coal. She felt the entire length of the wall, grimacing when she couldn’t reach the top.

She turned toward Kindan. “I always wanted to know what it was like where my father works,” she told him shyly. Then she grinned. “It’s not bad!”

Kindan, looking at the dimming light and the dirty coal of the walls, shook his head in disbelief.

Nuella took in deep lungfuls of air. “Smell anything?” she asked after a moment.

Kindan sniffed. “Nope. The air’s a bit stale, maybe.”

“Well, Father said that part of the reason he wanted to make this new road was to see if there might be more of that bad smell Dask mentioned,” she told him. “He was afraid that if there was, it would show that the mine was too dangerous to work. Uncle Tarik said that’s what happened to his mine.” Nuella’s tone clearly showed that she didn’t believe him.

“But the accident was on Second Street,” Kindan protested. Second Street was the northernmost tunnel through the coal seam.

Nuella nodded. “That’s what Uncle Tarik said. But Father said that if the problem was at the west end of the field, it would probably stretch the whole way. If it was only at the northwest end of the field, then we could still work the southern part, unless we got too close to the lake.”

“Well, I don’t smell anything,” Kindan repeated.

“What about Kisk?” Nuella asked.

“What about her?”

“Well, isn’t she supposed to notice those sorts of things?” Nuella suggested.

“I suppose.”

“So,” she replied testily, “why don’t you ask her what she smells?”

Kindan finally understood that Nuella planned to start the watch-wher’s education there and then. With smelling.

“What can you smell, Kisk?”

The watch-wher made an inquiring noise.

“Come on, smell the air. See what you can smell. I smell coal and stale air, how about you?”

“Less talking, Kindan, more thinking,” Nuella snapped.

“What do you know about it?” he snapped back.

“I know just as much about training a watch-wher as you,” she responded. “More, in fact.”

“More?”

“Yes,” she replied, raising her head. “I’ve been playing with Larissa, teaching her.”

“What can you learn from a baby that you can teach a watch-wher?” Kindan demanded angrily.

“Manners, for one thing,” she said bitingly. “And it seems to me that Master Zist needs to work on yours.”

The two traded more barbed comments before Kindan cooled off. He paused, looking shyly at Nuella, whose nostrils were still flaring in anger—until he realized that his breathing was labored.

“Nuella, the air!” Kindan said. “It’s bad. Really bad, not just stale. We need to get out of here.”

Nuella looked up at him, took a deep breath, and nodded. “You’re right. I’ve got this terrible headache and it’s not just from your shouting.” She grinned. “Talk to Kisk.”

“What?”

“Tell her about the air—get her to remember what it smells like,” she said. “I’d been hoping this would happen.”

“Hoping?”

“Yes, so we can teach Kisk,” Nuella said. “Oh, do talk to her. Or must I do that, too?”

Kindan patted the watch-wher on the neck. “Do you smell the air, Kisk?” He took a deep breath by way of example. “It smells stale, doesn’t it?” He took another breath. “Stale.”

The watch-wher took a breath and let it out with a rasp. She looked up thoughtfully at Kindan and chirped,
Errwll.

“Stale,” Kindan repeated, taking another breath.

Kisk took another breath.
Errwll.

“You’ve learned a word!” Nuella exclaimed.

Kindan gave her a look and was glad that she couldn’t catch it. “I can’t see how you can say that
errwll
sounds like stale.”

“I didn’t say that. I said that
you’ve
learned a word. Now you know that when Kisk chirps ‘errwll’ she’s telling you that the air is stale.”

A look of comprehension dawned on Kindan’s face. “You mean, she’s teaching me her language?”

“I doubt watch-whers have a language. Even the dragons don’t have a language—they make noise for emphasis but they don’t speak. They don’t need to, they use telepathy,” Nuella said. “But that doesn’t mean that the two of you can’t work out ways to communicate together.” She stretched a probing hand out toward the watch-wher and, when she found it, gently rubbed Kisk’s nose. “What a good little girl.”

“We’d better go,” Kindan said. “My head is killing me.”

“See? And you’ve learned that your head aches when the air gets stale,” Nuella added triumphantly.

“I knew that already,” he replied. “My head ached for days after I pulled you guys out of your house.”

“Oh,” Nuella said, crestfallen, “right. I’d forgotten.”

Silently, Kindan turned back down the street. A moment later Nuella’s hand crept shyly into his and squeezed it. “Thank you,” she said softly.

Kindan could think of nothing to say.

CHAPTER X

Hot air rises, cold air falls;
These are thermodynamic laws.

Zenor was furious with them when he found out two days later. “You went down there by yourselves! You could have been killed. What if something had happened to you?”

“Dalor knew,” Nuella replied just as hotly.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Zenor said to her.

“Well, I was talking to you,” Nuella snapped back.

Kisk gave a worried
cheep
and nudged Kindan.

“Stop it, both of you,” Kindan said, his voice quiet, his pitch—thankfully—deep, and his tone firm. It had, he realized as Nuella and Zenor both gave him startled looks, the tone of command to it. He suppressed a smile and continued with his momentum, saying, “Zenor, we were as safe as we could be, maybe even safer because we had Kisk with us.”

“An untrained watch-wher makes you safe?” Zenor cried in disbelief.

“And how do you expect her to
get
trained?” Nuella inquired in a tight voice. Her hands were balled into fists at her sides.

Kindan started to say something, to try his “command voice” again, but Kisk nudged him with her head, stood up off her front legs, and flapped her tiny wings at him, making a throaty
chirp
. Kindan cocked an eyebrow at her. Kisk repeated herself, complete with
chirp
.

“You two, we’re going to have company,” Kindan said.

“What?” Zenor said. “How do you know?”

Kindan gestured. “Kisk told me. A dragonrider.” The watch-wher shook her head firmly, unmistakably. “Two dragonriders?” Kisk nodded vigorously.

“You’ve been practicing!” Nuella exclaimed delightedly. “What’s it like?”

“Well,” Kindan said, consideringly, “it’s
almost
like I get images from her—but it’s not. And I guess it’s more like communicating with a fire-lizard than with a dragon. Or maybe somewhere in between. Whichever way it is, she
tells
me until I understand her.

“Zenor, would you run and warn Master Zist?”

Zenor glanced at Nuella. “What about her? Shouldn’t I get her back to her room?”

“No way!” Nuella cried. “I’m staying right here.” She stalked over to Kisk and wrapped her arms around the watch-wher’s neck.

Zenor flushed with anger, but Kindan gave him a quick calm-down gesture. “Please, Zenor, I’m sure the Harper will want to know.”

Zenor’s mouth worked angrily. “Well at least hide, Nuella. Don’t let them see you.” Nuella’s response was to bury her head in the watch-wher’s shoulder with an audible
hmpph
. Zenor grimaced again but left.

“It’s not my secret anyway,” Nuella muttered softly into Kisk’s tough hide.

“What?” Kindan had been distracted, wondering what
two
dragonriders could want.

“I said, it’s not my secret,” Nuella repeated. “It’s Father’s. He’s the one who doesn’t want anyone to know about me.

“His mother was blind too, you know. He’s afraid it’s passed on, that any daughter we kids have will be blind, too.
And
he’s afraid that it makes him look weak—as if anyone would care. It’s not like he’s the one who’s blind.”

Kindan sensed that Nuella was telling him because she just
had
to tell someone. He also guessed that she felt she couldn’t tell Zenor—or was afraid.

He tried to say something comforting. “But Larissa—”

“It’s too early to tell, still,” Nuella interjected. “I could see just fine until my third Turn and then, over the course of a year, everything got blurry and dim.”

“Does Tarik—”

“I think that’s why Father keeps him around,” Nuella said. “He’s afraid Tarik will spread tales. He’s afraid about what’ll happen to me, if I’ll ever get married—”

“Zenor—”

“Him!” Nuella snorted. Kisk curled her neck around to butt Nuella gently on the shoulder with a soothing
mrrrgll
.

Kindan, whose ears had gotten much better under her tutelage, asked, “Nuella, are you crying?”

“No,” Nuella said, but Kindan could hear the tears in her voice. “Why should I be? I’m fine. I’ll be just fine. I don’t
need
to get married, you know. I’ll take care of myself. I have plans, you know.”

“Plans?” Kindan repeated. “What sort of plans?”

“Secret plans,” Nuella said. “I’ll be okay, don’t you worry about me.”

Kindan was rather sure that Nuella’s plans were secret even to her. He tried again to comfort her. “Nuella, I’ll always be your friend. Kisk and I will always be there for you.”

“How?” Nuella asked, turning away from Kisk’s side and wiping her eyes. “How can you say that? What happens if there’s a cave-in or something? What if you’re killed, both of you? What then? What are you going to do then?”

“We won’t be killed,” Kindan said firmly. “If there’s a cave-in, Kisk and I will dig ourselves out. And then we’ll dig the others out, too. Zenor and Dalor and everyone.”

“Don’t put yourselves out over Zenor,” Nuella said grumpily. Kindan reached out tenderly and brushed the tears off her face. She caught his hand in one of her hands and wiped her tears with the other. “Thanks,” she said softly. “I’m okay now. It’s just sometimes . . . I wish I could see.” She made a rueful face. “I wish I could see Zenor’s face when I get him angry. Oh, I can feel the heat of his blush—who couldn’t?—but I don’t know if it’s the same . . .” She trailed off and her face took on an abstracted look. “I’ve just had a thought,” she said slowly. “If I can feel the heat off Zenor’s face, I wonder if Kisk could?”

“Well, I—”

Nuella shook her head briskly. “No, I don’t mean like that. I mean like maybe her eyes
see
heat.”

“See heat?” Kindan repeated blankly.

“Well, her eyes are huge, aren’t they?”

“To see in the dark,” Kindan objected.

Nuella shook her head in disagreement. “Or maybe it’s not the light that she sees, but the heat. And everything is so much hotter during the daytime that it’d be like looking at the sun to her.”

“An interesting theory,” a man’s voice said behind her.

         

Renna was on watch duty that night. She had been so proud of herself when Kindan had had to give it up so that he could raise the watch-wher. “It’s not because you’re Zenor’s sister, you know,” he had said when he’d told her. “It’s because you’re the most responsible. I’m sure you’ll do an excellent job.”

Renna was sure that she had. It was hard being the one to set watch, and she had had to do a lot more to make sure that everyone else did their jobs. She would wake up in the middle of the night and check up on the younger watchers. Sometimes, she found one asleep. She usually had a lot of fun sneaking up on the laggard and shrieking in his—it was mostly the boys who fell asleep—ears.

Tonight she was spelling Jori, who was taking extra long over her dinner. Renna didn’t really mind, though; she liked the late evening up on the watch-heights. Her ears were good and she could hear almost every word spoken as it rose up from the valley below, echoing off the hard cliff walls. She also had a great view of the lake under the night stars.

When two dragons popped out over the lake, she jumped with delight. They were huge, larger than anything Renna had ever seen—certainly larger than Kisk, Kindan’s growing watch-wher, and far prettier. She watched in awe as they glided over the houses and landed on the hillside that led up to the mine entrance.

A man’s voice drifted up to her. “J’lantir, are you sure?”

She watched the two dragonriders dismount. The dragons rose again, flew toward the lake, and then plunged with frightening abandon into the water. Renna was afraid they’d drowned, until they popped back up again, bobbing like large wooden rafts on the water. She shivered. It was a cold night—dragons must have tough hides to like that water. Or maybe they’d just come from a hot place.

“Lolanth felt a strong presence,” the other dragonrider, J’lantir, replied. “J’trel would know for sure, M’tal, but my guess is that there is a young girl here who could ride gold . . . only—”

“What?”

“Well, Lolanth tells me that this girl is in constant darkness,” J’lantir replied in a puzzled tone.

“Trapped? Is she in danger?” M’tal pressed.

“I don’t know. Lolanth seemed to think that the girl had been that way for some time,” J’lantir replied.

“You don’t suppose she’s blind?” M’tal wondered softly.

“Maybe that’s it,” J’lantir agreed. “What a pity, to be so gifted and not able to Impress.”

Their voices grew fainter as they headed down toward the watch-wher’s shed.

“This Camp looks to Telgar—and D’gan won’t Search,” M’tal said after a moment. “I think we shouldn’t mention this to anyone.”

“I think you’re right,” J’lantir agreed.

“Ah! We’re expected,” M’tal said with a laugh. “Gaminth tells me that Kisk is curious about your Lolanth and wants to come out.”

“Well, at least we know she can talk to dragons,” J’lantir replied with a chuckle. “I’ve told Lolanth to say ‘later’ to her.”

The two dragonriders ducked into the shed and their faint voices were cut off from Renna’s hearing. She ignored the sounds of the dragons splashing in the lake below as she recalled the conversation. For one thrilling moment, she’d hoped that perhaps they had been talking about her, and that she might be the one who could ride gold. Did they mean a gold dragon—a
queen
dragon? Wouldn’t that be marvelous, Renna mused. But then she’d heard M’tal saying that maybe the girl was blind. Renna ran through the list of girls in the Camp. She knew of no blind girl. Perhaps they were thinking of a baby or something. But if they were, she mused, wouldn’t their dragons be able to tell them? Maybe the girl was hidden someplace—but who would keep a person hidden away? Anyway, where could anyone hide someone here? In the mine? She shook her head. That would be too dangerous. But she couldn’t think of anywhere else, and she’d been
everywhere
in the Camp! She creased her brow in thought. Everywhere . . . except the second floor of Natalon’s hold.

Renna spent the rest of her watch in thoughtful silence. She didn’t even grumble when Jori arrived back half an hour late.

         

“Nuella, this is Lord M’tal, Weyrleader of Benden Weyr,” Kindan said as the two dragonriders entered the shed. He looked at the other one. “My Lord—”

“J’lantir, rider of Lolanth, Wingleader at Ista Weyr,” the second dragonrider supplied deftly.

“You must be Kindan,” he went on jovially, holding out his hand. Kindan shook it quickly. J’lantir turned and held out his hand to Nuella. Kindan started to sidle unobtrusively over to her, to give her a nudge but stopped when he saw J’lantir and M’tal exchange a thoughtful look.

Before the silence grew too large, Nuella raised her hand. J’lantir quickly moved to grab it.

“I’m Nuella,” she said. She quirked an eyebrow at him and then her face fell. “You moved, didn’t you?”

“I did,” J’lantir admitted. “How did you know?”

“I can feel it in the angle of your hand,” she replied. She moved closer to him, letting go of his hand and raising her own. “Would you mind if I touched your face?” she asked very nervously. “That’s the way I get to know people.”

“Not at all,” J’lantir replied gallantly.

Nuella raised her hand up, hesitantly. Her fingertips touched his chin, then traced his jaw, his lips, his nose, eyebrows, and forehead.

“You’re sunburned,” she said with surprise. “Is it still warm at Ista, my Lord?”

“Sometimes the sun can burn worse on cloudy days,” J’lantir admitted. “However, in my case it comes from flying above the clouds, where the sun is still shining. At Ista the clouds sometimes gather very low.”

“You fly above the clouds?” Nuella repeated, awed.

“I do,” J’lantir affirmed.

M’tal stepped beside him. “I am M’tal,” he said to Nuella, reaching out to her. She found his hand and shook it and, with his permission, traced his face.

“Do you have a good Harper at Benden Weyr, my Lord?” she asked when she had finished.

“A good Harper?” M’tal mused. “Why yes, we do. Why do you ask?”

“It seems to me that your face laughs a lot,” Nuella answered. “I thought maybe that was because your Harper was funny.”

“He is,” M’tal replied with a laugh. “I’ll be sure to tell him you said so; I think he’ll be very pleased.”

Nuella dipped her head in acknowledgment, only partly hiding her blush.

“Nuella,” J’lantir said after a moment, “you had an interesting theory about how watch-whers see.”

“I think they see heat, my Lord,” Nuella responded.

M’tal said to Kindan, “J’lantir has been asked by his Weyrleader, C’rion, to learn all he can about watch-whers. I suggested that it might be a good idea if you and he pooled your knowledge.”

Kindan nodded, looking at the other dragonrider with increased interest.

“How could we test it?” J’lantir wondered aloud.

“I’ve been thinking about that, my Lord,” Nuella responded. “I thought maybe if we got a hot stone and a glow—”

“What a marvelous idea!” J’lantir exclaimed. “I think I would go with more than one glow, one dim and one bright, and maybe the same thing for the stones.” Very soon he and Nuella were engrossed in designing a complete test of the watch-wher’s sight.

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