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Authors: Anne McCaffrey

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BOOK: Dragon's Kin
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Zenor jumped up. “I don’t know what you’re talking about! There’s no one here but us.”

“Who are you talking to?” a voice called loudly from outside the shed. It was Kaylek. “Kindan, if you’ve got someone helping you, Dad’ll skin you alive!”

Zenor vanished into the shadows as Kaylek entered, looking suspicious.

“What are you talking about, Kaylek?” Kindan demanded coyly. “Can’t you see I’m just finishing?”

“In about half the time I’d’ve expected of you,” Kaylek muttered, peering into the corners of the shed. Behind him, Kindan could see Zenor carefully move the brush he had been using out of sight.

“I’m a fast worker,” Kindan said.

“Since when?” Kaylek retorted. “I’m sure you had help. Dad’ll lynch you—you know how he feels about people spooking his watch-wher.” Kindan noticed that Kaylek never called Dask by his name.

“Whoever it is has to be nearby,” Kaylek said, eyes darting this way and that in the dark shed. “I’ll find him and then—”

A loud rattle of stones outside interrupted him.

“Aha!” Kaylek yelled and charged off in the direction of the sound.

Kindan waited until Kaylek’s steps had faded into the distance before speaking again. “I think it’s all right now,” he said to Zenor at last. “But you’d better leave.”

“Yeah, I guess I’d better,” Zenor agreed.

“And thank your friend for making that diversion. I was sure that Kaylek was going to find you.”

Zenor drew a breath as if to argue but let it out again in a sigh and left, shaking his head. Kindan listened to Zenor’s footsteps as they faded in the distance, heading back toward the square. Then he bowed to Dask, said good-bye, and closed the shed.

Outside he paused. He turned his head in the direction he had heard the rattle come from. It was from a spot just a bit off the regular track between the mines and the square. For a long while he stood, trying to pierce the dark with his eyes. If he were bonded with a watch-wher, like his father was with Dask, he could have asked his watch-wher to see who was out there. Finally, Kindan gave up and made a guess.

“Thank you, Dalor,” he said toward the darkness, as he headed back toward his bed.

Not long after he had left, a soft voice giggled.

CHAPTER II

Its skin is bronze, its eyes are green;
It’s the loveliest dragon I’ve ever seen.

“Wake up, sleepyhead!” Sis shouted at Kindan. Kindan squirmed further into the warm blankets. Abruptly his pillow was pulled out from under his head. He groaned, startled by the sudden movement.

“You heard Sis, get up!” Kaylek said, roughly turning his youngest brother out of the bed.

“I’m up! I’m up!” Kindan snarled. He wished he had just a bit more time to remember his dream. Momma was in it, he was sure.

Kindan never told anyone about his dreams of his mother, not after the first time. He knew that his mother had died giving birth to him; he couldn’t help knowing, because his brothers and sisters practically blamed him for it. But Sis—and his father, who spoke so rarely—both said that it wasn’t his fault. Sis told Kindan how big a smile his mother had had when she held him in her arms. “He’s beautiful!” his mother had said to his father. And then she had died.

“Your mother wanted you,” Danil had told him once after Kindan had come home crying because his big brothers had told him that no one had wanted him. “She knew the risks, but she said you’d be worth it.”

“Ma said you wouldn’t need much looking after,” Sis had said another time, “but you’d be worth it.”

This morning Kindan didn’t feel worth much of anything. He scrambled to get his clothes on, washed his face in cold water in the basin, and rushed to the breakfast table.

“Throw the water out and clean the basin,” Jakris growled, grabbing him by the ear and spinning him back toward their room. “You’re the last one who used it.”

“I’ll get it later!” Kindan yelped.

Jakris turned and blocked the exit. “You will not—you’ll get it now or Sis’ll give it to you later.”

Kindan frowned and turned back to the washbasin. With his back to Jakris he stuck out his tongue. His bigger brother would have decked him if he had seen him.

Taking care of the washbasin ensured that Kindan was the last in to breakfast. He looked around for something to eat. There was
klah
to drink—cold. Some cereal, but not much, and no milk to go with it. The others hurried away, but Sis turned them back with either a growl or a frown, so they couldn’t get away with leaving their dishes for him.

“You’ll eat well tonight, Kindan,” Sis said to him as he mournfully spooned his breakfast. Her eyes were particularly bright.

Kindan was confused for a moment, but then he remembered—there was a wedding tonight. Sis’s wedding.

“Now, get out of here, you’ve chores to do,” she said, shoving him affectionately out of the kitchen.

         

First thing out the door, Kindan stopped. Sis hadn’t assigned chores like she usually did. He turned back just as she came charging out.

“Go ask Jenella,” Sis said scoldingly before Kindan could even open his mouth.

Jenella was Natalon’s wife. As she was very pregnant, Sis had stood in for her ever since the families had moved up to the Camp, six months ago.

Kindan knew that there was no one worse than his own sister in a temper so he scuttled off immediately. He concentrated so hard on avoiding his sister’s temper that his legs took him up to the mine entrance before he realized it. Rather than turning straight back, Kindan paused, eyeing the mine entrance thoughtfully.

Usually, one of the first tasks of the day for the Camp’s youngsters was to change the glowbaskets in the mines. Today, because of the wedding, the mines were closed—except for those unlucky enough to have the job of working the pumps—so Kindan found himself in front of the mine shaft wondering whether the task had been canceled for the day. Even though no one would be mining that day and that night, Kindan decided that surely it made sense to change the glows so that the miners wouldn’t have to go down into a dark mine the next day.

Kindan heard voices coming from inside the mine. He couldn’t make out what was being said, but he could tell that one was a man’s deep voice and the other a young girl’s voice.

“Hello!” he called into the mine, thinking that perhaps some of the caravanners had gone for a look at the mine.

The voices stopped. Kindan cupped an ear with his hand, straining to hear any sounds. Late at night, when the Camp’s cook fire had burned down to mere embers and the chill winds from the mountains howled through the Camp’s square, the older boys told all sorts of scary stories about ghosts in the mine. Kindan was
sure
that these weren’t ghosts, but all the same, he wasn’t too interested in going into a dark cave by himself.

“Hello?” he called again, hesitantly. He certainly wouldn’t want to invite any ghosts to him.

There was no answer. Presently Kindan heard the steady sound of one pair of boots on the dirt floor of the cave. He stepped back from the entrance. A darker shadow appeared, then resolved itself into human form.

It was an old, silver-haired man whom Kindan had never seen before. The man looked haggard and his eyes were bleak, as though all the laughter had been leached from them and all the life had seeped away. Kindan took another step back and prepared to run. The child in the mine—the one with the girl’s voice. Had this specter eaten it?

“You there!” the man called out.

As soon as he heard the deep, rich voice, Kindan knew that the man was no ghost. The accent was clearly from Fort Hold, and it held the cultured overtones of the Harper Hall.

“Yes, Master?” Kindan answered, not knowing what rank the man held and guessing that it was best to err on the side of caution. Was this Harper Crom’s MasterHarper come to check on Journeyman Jofri? Or was he a Harper with the traders?

“What are you doing here?” the old man barked.

“I was here to see if the glows needed changing,” Kindan said.

The old man frowned, brows furrowed tightly. His head swung around to look over his shoulder, but he stopped the movement almost immediately. “I was told,” he said, “that no one was going to be up here today.”

“Yes, there’s a wedding,” Kindan told him. “But I wasn’t sure if Natalon wanted the glows changed.”

“Well, they certainly could do with it,” the old man said. The sound of a small rock falling behind him made him turn around and back again. “It can be quite dangerous down there. But I think—wait a minute!—are you Kindan?”

“Yes, sir,” Kindan replied, wondering why the old man knew his name. He couldn’t have known about . . . Kindan compiled a far too lengthy list of possible misdeeds before the old man made his next response.

“You are supposed to be at the Harper’s quarters in about fifteen minutes, young man,” the old man said. As Kindan turned to run back down to Jofri’s cottage, the old man added, “Ready to sing and not breathless!”

“I will be!” Kindan shouted back over his shoulder, running as fast as his feet could carry him.

As soon as Kindan was out of earshot, the old man turned back to the mine entrance. “You can come out now, he’s gone.”

He heard the sound of light feet approaching the cave’s entrance, but they stopped before their owner came into view.

“I know a shortcut, if you’d like.”

“Through the mountain?” he asked.

“Of course.” After a moment’s silence, sensing the old man’s reticence, the girl added, “I’ve used it loads of times. I’ll show you.”

The old man smiled and started back into the cave. “Well, with your guidance, I’ll be happy to take your shortcut,” he said, making a short bow to the figure in the dark. “Would I be right in guessing that it will get us there before the lad?”

The girl’s answer was a mischievous giggle.

         

Kindan arrived outside the Harper’s cottage completely breathless. Zenor was already waiting.

“Kindan, you’re just in time,” Zenor said. “If you’d’ve been a few more minutes late—” He broke off, his eyes full of dark foreboding.

“What is it?”

“The Master wants to hear us sing,” Zenor said. “He’s already told Kaylek that he can’t sing at the wedding.”

Kindan’s face lit up at the thought of Kaylek’s reaction. Kindan wasn’t surprised: Kaylek’s singing voice sounded like a gravel slide, and he had no ability whatsoever to stay in tune. Whenever pressed about it by his friends, Kaylek would swear that he didn’t like singing and that, anyway, he’d been a perfect singer until his voice had changed. But Kindan knew from tales he heard from his other brothers and Sis that neither of those statements were true; Kaylek loved to sing but had not one jot of musical ability.

Silstra had tried to figure ways to get all her siblings involved in her wedding, and her choice of Kaylek to sing was probably no more than a combination of nerves and running out of ideas.

Zenor nudged Kindan in the ribs. “Don’t you get it? If Kaylek can’t sing, who’s going to do all his songs at the wedding?”

Kindan’s eyes went round and his mouth opened in a big “O” of dreadful realization.

Just then, the door opened.

“Come in, come in, I can’t stand dawdling,” a voice growled from inside the cottage. It wasn’t Journeyman Jofri’s voice. It was the voice of the old man that Kindan had met up at the mine entrance.

Enraged, Kindan burst into the room.

“What are you doing here? It was bad enough that you went down the mines without Miner Natalon’s permission, but to barge into a Harper’s quarters—” Kindan cut himself short and a horrified look came over him. Kindan could feel his whole face burning in embarrassment.
Oh no!
Kindan thought to himself with a sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach, he’s
the new Harper
! Our
new Harper
!

The old man did not take Kindan’s outburst lightly.

“What do you think
you
are doing?” his voice boomed, filling the room not just with its volume but also with its intensity.

“Sorry,” Kindan muttered, trying with the tip of his foot to dig his way into the floorboards of the cottage in a vain hope of escaping both his embarrassment and the Harper’s anger. “I didn’t realize that you were the new Harper.”

“You didn’t
think
, you mean,” the old man roared back irritably.

Kindan hung his head. “Yes, sir.” If there was one thing Kindan was good at, it was at being bawled out—he’d had
lots
of practice.

“You seem to have a knack for that, don’t you?” the Harper noted tetchily.

“Yes, sir,” Kindan agreed, his head on his chest and his answer going to the floor.

The new Harper eyed Kindan. “You’re not related to that oaf I just sent out of here this morning, are you?”

Kindan glanced up at that, his fists clenched. It was enough to be in the wrong and caught out twice by the stranger, but only a family member had the right to call Kaylek an oaf!

“Hmm,” the old man murmured. “You say nothing, but your body shows its support for your clan.”

He stood up and strode over to Kindan. Putting a hand under Kindan’s chin, he lifted the boy’s head until Kindan was looking in the Harper’s eyes. Kindan could not keep the anger off his face, and he refused to utter an apology. He matched looks with the Harper for as long as the Harper stared at him.

Finally, the Harper stood back. “Stubborn. But I’ve managed worse.”

Kindan’s nostrils flared.

The Harper ignored him, flicking his gaze to Zenor. “Well, come in, lad, I won’t bite you!”

Zenor looked as though he were completely torn between the obvious fallacy of the Harper’s statement and the blasphemy that a Harper could lie. He gave Kindan an inquiring look and, receiving no hints from his friend, stood dazed like a smallbeast stalked by a wherry until the Harper cleared his throat warningly. Zenor jumped into the room as though stung.

“Harper Jofri tells me that you sing well,” the Harper said to them, dividing his gaze between the two boys. “But Harper Jofri is a journeyman who specializes in ballads and drums.

“I”—and here the Harper deepened his voice and increased his volume, so that his words echoed resoundingly through the room—“am a Master and specialize in the voice. So, naturally, I have been asked to oversee the evening’s vocal arrangements.”

Kindan looked up at that, amazed. Harper Jofri had often admonished the boys and girls of Camp Natalon that if they didn’t behave he’d use the tricks that had been used on him by the Harper Hall’s vocal master. “Be good, or I’ll treat you like Master Zist treated me,” Jofri would warn them.

And here, standing in front of them, true to life and full of horrors, was that very same Master Zist.

Zenor’s jaw dropped. Out of the corner of his eye, Kindan could see Zenor trying to get words out of his mouth, but it was obvious that all the air in him had gone into his eyes, for they looked ready to pop straight out of his face.

“You’re—” Kindan realized that he was not immune from terror, either. “You’re Master Zist?”

Beside him, Zenor had managed to close his mouth.

“Ah,” Master Zist replied in satisfied tones, “you’ve heard of me. I am pleased to learn that Harper Jofri remembered my lessons.

“It remains to be seen how much he has taught you,” he continued, raising a finger warningly. “I will not let my first day here—and this Camp’s very first wedding—be marred by voices that are not in proper form.”

BOOK: Dragon's Kin
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