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Authors: Anne McCaffrey

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BOOK: Dragon's Kin
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Now, it would be someone else’s job. Rubbing his face to get the sleep out of it and some warmth into himself, Kindan decided that at least for this morning it would be him. He loaded the hearth with kindling and struck a fire. Soon he had the kitchen warm and breakfast cooking. The smell of
klah
filled the room.

“Morning,” Dakin, Kindan’s eldest brother, called as he strode into the kitchen. He poured himself a cup of
klah
. “Ah, I’m glad you were up first,” he said, savoring the aroma of the
klah
while warming his hands around the cup.

“There’ll be a hard day’s work in the mines,” he continued conversationally. “I’m sure that Natalon will want to make up for all the time lost frolicking last night.”

“I wanted to say good-bye to Sis,” Kindan said.

Dakin shrugged, glancing out the window to judge the time. “Well, you’d best hurry, then. The traders like to be on the road early.”

Kindan started for the door, but Dakin called after him, “Wait up, Kindan. We’ll fill some of the covered cups with
klah
and bring them down to them.” His eyes lit as he added, “They might be a bit slow getting started this morning.”

Kindan wanted to run down to the caravan, but Dakin slowed him to a more sedate walk. “If they’re gone, Kindan, they’re gone. But if they’re not and we’ve spilt all the
klah
, we’ll get no welcome.”

The traders were just stirring as Kindan and Dakin entered their camp. Caravans were being packed up, and workbeasts rounded up and hitched into harnesses. Kindan looked around, wondering idly if he’d spot Nuella’s wagon. His look grew quizzical as he noticed that there were no children at the trader’s camp.

“Look, that must be theirs!” Dakin said, pointing to a wildly decorated caravan set off from the others.

Kindan trailed behind Dakin, his gaze everywhere as he took in the camp. Still he saw no signs of children.

“Hello the wagon!” Dakin shouted as they approached the wedding caravan. “We bring hot
klah
.”

Dakin grinned as he heard sounds of movement inside the wagon. Terregar’s head poked out from between the curtains.

“Hot
klah
?” he repeated wistfully.

“Well,” Dakin responded consideringly as he handed the mugs up, “maybe just warm. It was a long walk from our cottage.”

Terregar looked suspiciously at the first mug, but a slender hand reached out and snatched it from him before he could react.

“And a good morning to you, too, Sister,” Dakin boomed jovially. His smile widened as he heard Silstra’s answering groan.

Terregar shot him a reproving look, his free hand massaging his head. “Go easy, Dakin. You’ll be married too someday, and you’ll appreciate soft voices the morning after.”

Dakin shook his head, still smiling. “I’ll mine that seam when I find it. ’Til then, I’ll go on as I always do.”

Terregar shook his head ruefully but said nothing. Kindan tugged at Dakin’s sleeve.

“Would you tell our sister that some of her brothers—the ones who know there’ll be work today—have come to say our good-byes?” Dakin said to Terregar.

Terregar nodded and turned to listen to Silstra’s voice from inside the wagon. He nodded at what she said, then turned back to Dakin. “She’ll be out in a bit. First she’s got to finish her
klah
.”

“I don’t blame her,” Dakin replied judiciously. He spotted Trader Veran moving toward them with mugs in either hand. “Unless I miss my guess, your trader friends are starting out late this morning,” he said to Terregar.

Veran arrived in time to hear this comment and nodded his head slowly. “Aye, with a night like last, we’re not too quick to be on our way. I imagine that’s the same in the mines, isn’t it?”

Dakin pursed his lips consideringly and, finally, shook his head. “Hard to say. Miner Natalon has some fairly rigid ideas about a good day’s work. On the other hand, I expect he knows—firsthand—that the miners are feeling their late night a bit more than usual and he’s wary of anything that could cause an accident.”

Veran nodded. “And there’s nothing like a woolly head to cause accidents,” he agreed.

Kindan ventured a comment of his own. “Are your children all asleep, too?”

Veran laughed. “Ah, no! I expect they’re all up and about, back at Crom Hold.” He leaned down toward Kindan and added conspiratorially, “After a night like the last, they’d be so wound up they’d never settle—and their parents would never forgive them!”

Dakin joined Veran in his laughter. “Well, we would have left our youngsters in bed if we could have.”

Kindan glowered up at him, but Dakin merely tousled his hair in response. “We might have let one or two come to the party,” he said to placate his youngest brother.

“And here’s the lovely couple now,” Veran said, spying Terregar and Silstra stepping down from the caravan. He raised his voice to a shout, “Did you have a pleasant evening?” He chuckled when he saw Terregar wince. “A bit too much wine, eh?”

Terregar grinned and, grabbing Silstra’s hand, joined the rest of the group. Silstra broke free of his grip long enough to hug Dakin and Kindan.

“Old endings, new beginnings,” Jofri’s voice intoned cheerfully from behind them. Kindan turned to see that the Harper had all his gear wrapped in a bedroll, except his guitar, which was slung from his shoulder.

Dakin grinned and extended a hand to him and clasped him on the shoulder. “We’ll miss you, Harper.”

“I’m leaving you in good hands with Master Zist,” Jofri replied. He looked down at Kindan and added, “As this one can attest.”

Kindan was certain that he preferred Journeyman Jofri’s easygoing ways to Master Zist’s demanding discipline any day, regardless of the results.

His face must have shown it, for Jofri laughed. “Don’t worry, you’ll do fine with Master Zist. He was my vocal teacher, you know.”

“But you never sing,” Kindan protested.

Jofri laughed again. “And he’s the reason.” He shook his head, chuckling anew at Kindan’s reaction. “I’ve no voice for singing—you must know that even at your tender years. Master Zist helped me to see it, even before my voice broke when I teened.

“He’s got a gift to know how a voice will break,” the harper continued. “I’ve never seen him wrong with it. If he says fine tenor, then it’s a fine tenor you’ll be. If he says lousy baritone—well, then, he’ll help you find a different way to beat your own drum.”

He leaned forward to Kindan. “He’s been through hard times.” Kindan had the feeling that Jofri was entrusting him with a secret and his eyes grew large. “But he’s one of the best. You listen and learn, okay?

“You won’t get away with the tricks you played on me,” Jofri added. He winked. “Okay?”

Kindan nodded his head dubiously. Jofri straightened up, grinned again, and tousled Kindan’s hair. Kindan wondered to himself why everyone had chosen that day to tousle his hair. Perhaps it was because it was one of the rare days when it was obviously clean and they wanted to find out what it really felt like.

“Oh, and here’s the rest of the sending-off party,” Jofri said as he spied another group descending on them.

He was right. Kindan found himself sidling toward Sis as he saw not only his father and his six other brothers but also Natalon, his wife, his son, Dalor, and his uncle Tarik and nephew, Cristov, approaching.

Jakris and Tofir were still so sleepy that they couldn’t hide their yawns, but Kaylek frowned at Kindan.

“We’ve come to say good-bye,” Danil said, holding out his hand to Terregar.

Terregar wrapped an arm around Silstra’s waist and drew her close to him. “I’ll take good care of her, sir,” he promised.

“I’m sure of it,” Danil said feelingly. He started to say something more but closed his mouth and gestured to the rest of the family to make their good-byes.

Then it was the turn of Natalon and his family. Silstra hugged Jenella tight and wished her the best. Natalon gave Silstra a brief hug and muttered a few words to her that Kindan couldn’t hear, and then it was time for Tarik and his son. Kindan wasn’t surprised to see that neither Silstra nor Tarik were particularly sincere in their good-byes; Silstra had never had time for the surly miner.

And finally, the caravan was assembled. Veran waved farewell to the miners and a “move-out” to the traders, and the caravan began its slow way down the path curving down the hillside and around the lake on the way to Crom Hold.

Kindan watched until the caravans were lost to sight and only the dust marked their passage.

“Well,” Danil said softly, “that’s that.”

Natalon clapped him on the shoulder. “It is.”

Danil turned to him and said solemnly, “Miner Natalon, I want to thank you for the magnificent way you provided for the wedding of my daughter.”

Natalon nodded, equally full of the formality of the moment. “Danil, it was my pleasure.” He paused a moment, then added, “And now, we’ve got coal to mine.”

CHAPTER III

Watch-wher, watch-wher in the night,
Guard our Hold, keep it right.
When the morning sun does come,
Watch-wher, then your job is done.

As the days turned into months, it seemed to Kindan that nothing much had changed. He still had chores to do. He still had to attend classes with the Harper. He still was bullied by Kaylek. His turns on watch or as runner for the camp were the same as always.

But in truth things
had
changed. He was now the first up in the morning and was always sure to have
klah
and breakfast ready for his family. His father asked him to check in on Dask in the mornings, and that was new, too.

In class with the Harper, Kindan started to notice that he saw less of Zenor in class and more of Dalor. In times past, it had always seemed that Dalor was either a very sickly child or that he was being overworked by his father. Either way, he used to miss at least two classes every sevenday, sometimes more.

Now it seemed like Dalor was in classes every day but one each sevenday.

Perhaps that change was explained by the other change: Master Zist. If Kindan had thought that Master Zist was a hard taskmaster when it came to singing, it was nothing compared to how hard he was when it came to teaching. No one could ever do anything well enough for the Master.

“Look at that! Do you call those letters?” Zist growled at little Sula one day. “How are you going to write a new recipe and share it with anyone, hmm?”

Sula had wilted under the interrogation. Everyone knew that she was hoping to join her mother, Milla, as a baker.

Another day, the Master reduced Kaylek to a red-faced gibbering wreck just by a series of probing questions on multiplication. “And how, young Kaylek, are you going to calculate the load a mine’s supports must bear if you can’t even figure out the area of the ceiling?”

Dalor got off no easier because he was the head miner’s son. All the same, Kindan noticed that whenever the Master had been hard on Dalor before the lunch break, he would take special care to soothe Dalor’s nervousness in the afternoon.

Kindan was the most obvious exception to Master Zist’s hard teachings. When Cristov and Kaylek began to notice it, Kindan started to wish that the Harper would treat him as roughly as the rest of the camp’s children.

“What is it with you?” Cristov sneered at him one day at break time. “Is it just because you can sing so well?”

“Can’t be for much else,” Kaylek decided.

But Kindan knew exactly why Master Zist never bore down too harshly on him. Early on, not long after Silstra’s wedding, Master Zist and he had had another contest of wills similar to the heated exchange they’d had on the day they’d met. As before, neither had truly won the argument, but Kindan had recognized something in Master Zist’s stubborn insistence that his students try their hardest and not be afraid to ask for help—and Kindan had decided to accept the challenge.

It had been difficult at first, but soon Kindan found himself relishing his time with the surly Master. He discovered that, by exercising a level of diplomacy that he had never attained before, he could survive the Harper’s harshness and give back as good as he got without ever being branded as “disrespectful.”

Kindan found, as he approached his eleventh birthday, that he could even work with Kaylek. His elder brother, plagued by Master Zist’s remonstrations about his class work, had actually turned to Kindan for help.

Kaylek was smart enough to realize that work in the mines was dangerous and required more wits than temper. So he had swallowed his pride—as best he could—and had learned from his littler brother.

The morning of Kaylek’s first day in the mines with his father and his brothers, Kindan was surprised to be awoken by a warm cup of
klah
thrust into his hands.

“I thought you might want to see us off,” Kaylek said shyly.

Recognizing Kaylek’s actions as a peace offering, Kindan quickly pulled himself out of bed. “Sure.”

It was the dark of night. Kaylek and the rest would be going down in the shift that ran from just after nightfall to just before dawn, rightly called the “watch-wher” shift because that was when watch-whers were awake.

Careful not to disturb Jakris and Tofir, Kindan pulled on his clothes and followed Kaylek into the kitchen.

“Dad said nothing about you,” Dakin said when he noticed Kindan.

“I’m just going to see you off,” Kindan answered.

Dakin shrugged. “All right,” he said. “You know Sis used to do that.”

“Where’s Dad?” Kaylek asked, looking around the room.

“In the shed with Dask, of course,” Jaran, the second eldest, replied matter-of-factly.

“Let’s go out and see if he needs any help,” Kaylek suggested to Kindan.

“Only if you want Dask to snap at you, you will,” Kenil said. Kaylek glanced at Jaran and Dakin for confirmation and saw that both older boys were nodding their heads.

“He’s been a bit proddy recently,” Dakin explained. He frowned. “I don’t like it, nor does Dad.”

“He’s been like that before, though,” Jaran said, apparently continuing a conversation that Kindan hadn’t heard the start of.

“Come on, lads, time’s a-wasting,” Danil’s voice called from outside.

They all put their mugs in the sink and started out the door, Kindan trailing.

He followed them all the way up to the mine entrance, where a group of miners waited. Kindan recognized one of the smaller ones.

“What are you doing here?” he demanded.

“I’m going down to help—my father said I could,” Zenor answered, his voice full of pride. Talmaric, his father, nodded.

“It’s only for today,” Zenor added when he noticed Kindan’s concerned look. Kindan brightened immediately.

“Wish me luck,” Kaylek called to Kindan as he started into the mine.

“Good luck.”

“What are you talking about luck for?” Kenil asked. “Miners don’t need luck, they need caution.”

“Sorry,” Kaylek mumbled.

They swept from view, and Kindan went back to the cottage and his bed.

         

It started with a silence. The children noticed it and gathered around the windows. Master Zist noticed only that the children were not paying attention to him.

“Get back here, now!” he shouted. He had just gotten them settled for the first lesson of the morning. One child turned his head toward him but quickly turned back.

Zist growled and strode over to the window, ready to bodily return his students to their seats. The tension in their small bodies unhinged his plan. He followed their gaze—they were all looking at the northern mine shaft.

“What is it?” he asked.

“Dunno,” a girl replied, “something’s wrong.”

“How do you know?” Zist demanded.

One of the children shook his head and made a shushing motion. “Can’t you hear? It’s too quiet.”

The sky outside darkened. Master Zist looked up and saw a thin raft of dark powder drifting down toward the lake from the direction of the mine shaft. Not smoke—coal dust.

“My father’s down there!” one child wailed.

“And my brother!”

“Shh!” said an older child, cocking his head and listening very hard, his eyes never moving from the cloud exuding from the adit.

“There’s been an accident?” Zist asked, catching Kindan’s expression of open-mouthed horror, the look in his wide, shocked eyes.

Just then someone started cranking the mine alarm and abruptly, as if spilled out, people turned out of their houses and made for the entrance to the mine.

Kindan sat down hard on the edge of his desk.

“Are your father and brothers on this shift, Kindan?” Master Zist asked. Kindan shook his head, not as a negative but as a way to throw off the paralysis that had momentarily overtaken him.

“Yes, they are, Master. Dad is a shift leader and he has Dask with him today,” Kindan managed to say. “We all have to go and help,” he added after a moment. “There is a lot we can do, even if it’s only carrying baskets to open a cave-in.”

He stood up, and joined the older children as they began to file out, heading toward the shaft opening. Even as Master Zist tried to prioritize what he should do now, he saw Natalon, shoving his arms in his jacket, coming out of his house to take charge of the situation. Men and women were bringing equipment of all sorts—picks, shovels, baskets, stretchers—to the mine entrance. The thin soot that had first tinted the sky had grown to clouds of black coal dust.

Kindan’s progress toward the mine was at first slow, but then the boy started to run. Master Zist looked around his classroom, now emptied of the older children, those who could be helpful in the emergency. Jofri had not informed him what his duties would be in the event of a problem, but keeping the younger children occupied seemed a good idea, so Zist hastily called his class to order. Through the window, he saw a group of miners, with torches as well as glowbaskets, entering the shaft.

“My dad’s on this shift, Master Zist. May I go, too?”

The girl was barely eight and slight, as well, so Zist could not think what emergency task she’d be useful for.

“Do you have an assigned task?” he asked kindly.

“She’s not old enough yet,” one of the boys said authoritatively. “Nor am I. You have to be eight to be allowed to help. And bigger than Sula is.”

“I could help. My mom has taught me ever so much,” Sula replied with great dignity. “Sis taught her and I watched.”

Zist knew that Sula’s mother was one of the Camp’s healers. He went to the child and pushed her gently back into her seat. “I’m sure you’ll be a great help, once they discover what has happened. Until then, you must stay here.” He gave her thin shoulders a little reassuring squeeze before he went to the head of the schoolroom and decided to teach this part of his class one of the new ballads he had brought with him. At a time like this, music could be a great comfort. Seeing him pick up his guitar caused the children to stop chatting and sit up attentively, though some of them continued to look over their shoulders toward the mine.

Master Zist could see Natalon and Tarik arguing, even as Natalon was urgently gesturing men to enter the shaft. The miners were carrying tools or pushing the wheeled carts that brought the ore out of the mine.

He wondered if that meant there had been a cave-in. But hadn’t Kindan said that Dask was with his father? Watch-whers were supposed to have an excellent sense of smell which allowed them to detect bad air long before a person could.

When miners talked of “bad air” they were referring to either explosive gases or gases which could suffocate—either was deadly.

Strumming the opening chords to the new song, he began to sing, trying to look and sound as cheerful as he could, in order to distract the children.

He had barely succeeded in claiming the children’s rapt attention when the mine’s alarm let off three loud, sustained hoots, and everyone rushed to the window again.

         

The first thing that Kindan saw as he approached the mine entrance was Dask. His heart fell. Dask would never leave Danil unless ordered—or cut off by the cave-in.

“Where’s Danil, Dask? Where is he?” Kindan asked as he approached. The watch-wher’s flanks were gouged, deep wounds oozing the ichor that was a watch-wher’s blood. He blinked his eyes painfully in the morning light and turned back to the mine entrance. Kindan followed.

“What happened?” Kindan asked, following the watch-wher.

Dask turned his head to look at Kindan and gave him the sound for “bad air.”

“Why didn’t you warn them?” Kindan asked.

Dask made an annoyed
bleek
and then the sound for
“fast.”

“It happened too fast?” Kindan repeated. The watch-wher nodded.

Inside the mine, Kindan could smell gas, sharp and bitter in his throat. It made him cough. The cave-in must have been caused by an explosion of trapped gas, he guessed. It must have been sudden, or Dask would have warned the miners in time.

The watch-wher trotted ahead in the tunnel, leading the rescue party to the jumbled mass of the cave-in. Before the rest of the party could reach him, he had already started clawing at the barrier, using his head to batter at the loose bits. Men stepped out of the way of the debris that his claws were throwing back. One of the men positioned a wheelbarrow so that it caught the flying rocks and dirt, clearing the ground as other men began to dig next to the watch-wher.

Now that the miners knew where to work, Kindan tried to get the wounded watch-wher to stop and save his energy. But Dask ignored him, burrowing on despite the ichor that was oozing from his various wounds.

Hours passed, all the while with Dask digging and the miners carting away the fallen rock. Painfully, they excavated their way through the cave-in.

“Natalon?” Kindan said, grabbing the miner’s arm. “Let me take Dask back. He’s bleeding.”

Natalon looked over at the watch-wher. “We need him here now, especially as he seems to know where our men are.”

“But . . . he could bleed to death,” Kindan cried, tugging at Natalon’s sleeve.

“Do what you can for him but don’t stop him, lad,” Natalon said. “Your father’s on the other side.”

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