Authors: Anne McCaffrey
Kindan ran all the way back out to where the injury station had been set up. He was surprised to see that the sun was past noon.
“Please, let me have some bandage rolls, Margit,” he said to the woman who was setting out the supplies.
“Have they found anyone alive?” she asked, and he had to disappoint her with a negative shake of his head. He knew that her spouse was in his father’s shift.
“Why would you want bandages then, Kindan?” she asked.
“Dask was hurt bringing out those he rescued,” he said, gesturing toward the three men being cared for by the camp’s healers.
“You want my good bandages for the watch-wher?” she demanded, affronted.
“If he bleeds to death before he finds your mate, it’ll be your fault!”
“Why, you impertinent little scut!” Margit responded, swiping at him with the towel she had in one hand. He neatly sidestepped and, in doing so, scooped two rolls off the table and raced back to the mine entrance, avoiding the two men who were pushing laden barrels out to be emptied.
Kindan was panting with exertion when he reached the cave-in site. Splotches of greenish watch-wher ichor were visible in the light from the glows, but Dask continued to claw at the barrier. Kindan pushed in beside Dask, hearing the laboring gasp of the watch-wher’s breath. When a sudden movement caused more dirt and stone to shower the creature, Kindan pushed up beside him and tried to bandage the deep neck wound that was pumping ichor out at much too fast a rate.
Muttering reassurances, he tried to get the watch-wher to slow down. Dask turned his head slightly, his eyes gleaming with irritation, and hissed at Kindan. Then he turned back to his task with renewed vigor. Ichor dripped faster.
“He has to stop, Natalon, or he’ll bleed to death!”
Just then, they heard shouts from beyond the cave-in, urging them on. Frantically, Dask dug harder, with less control, showering the anxious Kindan with stones and mud. He shouldered deeper into the tunnel he was digging and renewed his efforts.
There was a loud cry as his heavy claws broke through the last of the obstacle; the encouraging shouts from the freed miners were clearly audible.
“Run back to the entrance, Kindan,” Natalon said, “and tell them to bring in stretchers.”
Kindan did not want to leave Dask’s side, but Natalon pulled him from the watch-wher and pushed him on his way. As he ran, Kindan began shouting the good news, as well as Natalon’s request for stretchers, to those waiting outside at the top of the shaft. They came pushing past him in their eagerness to see who had been saved, and Kindan followed more slowly, trying to get his breath back.
Back in the shaft, Dask was lying in a lump, his big eyes fitfully gleaming. He didn’t even pick up his head as Kindan knelt beside him. The first of the rescued men was being hauled out on a stretcher as Kindan tried to staunch the ichor that streamed out of the neck gash.
“Oh, Dask, what have you done to yourself?” he keened as he felt the unsteady neck pulse.
Dask curled his neck, placing his head on Kindan’s lap and sighing sadly. Kindan began to scratch behind Dask’s ears, soothing the beast as well as he could. And so, having led the rescuers to the trapped men, Dask finished his life.
The boy had kept watching for the sight of his father’s face or one of his brothers among those led out and up to the surface. It was when Natalon remarked that the last of the live miners had been rescued, that Kindan gave up hope.
“We’ll get the dead ones out now,” Natalon said. He paused beside Kindan, patting his head kindly. “Your father’s neck was broken, lad. And your brothers are half buried under the rubble. We’ll get their bodies before night falls.”
Kindan sat there a long time, holding the heavy head of the watch-wher, absently scratching ears that were turning stiff, his lap covered in green ichor, until Natalon returned for a final inspection.
“Still here, boy? Come, it’s nearly dark.”
“But Dask is dead, Natalon.”
Natalon crouched down beside the boy and saw his tear-streaked face. He mopped some of the tears from the coal-dust-smeared face and touched Kindan tenderly on the head.
“There’s a big hole not far from here where I will see he is buried, Kindan, but you must come with me now. It’s all over down here.”
Natalon had to help the grieving boy to his feet, ignoring Kindan’s repeated request to stay by the watch-wher.
“He made a good end, Kindan. He was a fine beast.”
Kindan found himself wandering among the wounded, looking for any of his brothers, his throat tight and tears streaming freely down his face. He went from stretcher to stretcher, fighting his way among the crowds, ignoring the calls of the women who were acting as nurses.
He heard a voice croak out his name and turned quickly.
“Zenor!” Abashed to realize that he had completely forgotten that Zenor had gone into the mine that shift, Kindan was at his friend’s side in a second. Zenor was cut, bruised, and in shock. Kindan grabbed the hand Zenor had raised to him and held it with more force than he realized.
“Did—did they get out?” Zenor asked. A look at Kindan’s face told him the answer. “My father?” Kindan shook his head. “Your father?” Kindan’s tears answered that question, too. “Dask did, though, didn’t he? I heard him clawing through to us.”
Zenor looked right into Kindan’s eyes. “Kindan, he saved me. I would never have thought—”
“Dask was a good watch-wher,” Kindan said over the lump in his throat.
Zenor shook his head. “Not Dask—I meant Kaylek. He and my Dad pushed me back as the mine caved in. He knew what he was doing, Kindan. They both did. But they pushed me back. They pushed me back . . .” Zenor’s voice faded into sleep as the fellis juice he’d been given earlier took effect.
Kindan held his hand until Margit noticed him, hours later, sprawled beside his friend in sleep. Wiping away more tears from her own face, she fetched a blanket and draped it over him.
I am too big to cry
And my voice is too shy
To sing my sad, sad song
Or say the words I long
To say to you—good-bye, good-bye.
The air was cold and the wind swept it through Kindan’s clothes with a sharp bite. Winter was driving out fall, but Kindan was sure that it was always cold in the graveyard. The last words had been said, the rest of the Hold was drifting back down to the main Hall for a toast to the dead but Kindan held back, a small shape at the edge of the new graves.
His father had never said too much to him. As the youngest of nine children, Kindan had been one face among many. His elder brothers had always been remote, larger than life—nearly like Master Natalon.
All the same, Kindan felt that he should have said something more, should have left some remembrance. Jakris had made a carving, and Tofir had left a drawing, before they had both gone off with their new families.
Terra and her husband, Riterin, already had four children of their own and all of them young, so they had been willing to take Jakris, the eldest. Besides, Riterin was a woodworker, so Jakris’s gift of carving would be well-appreciated in their household.
Tofir had been fostered to Crom Hold itself, where his gift with drawing would be encouraged and he might even take up mapping, a skill that was always needed in the mines.
Kindan turned his head toward the caller. It was Dalor. He ran up to Kindan.
“Father said you’d still be up here. He told me that you’re to come down before you catch your death of cold.”
Kindan nodded solemnly and set off behind the younger boy. Kindan had seen more of Dalor in the past sevenday than he had in many months, but he suspected it was Natalon’s way of looking out for those beholden to him. Not that Kindan minded; Dalor was okay in a distracted sort of way.
Dalor cast a backward look at Kindan, partly to see if he was really following and partly out of sympathy for the youngest of Danil’s sons.
“There’s some mulled wine down at the hold”—only Dalor and his family called their large cottage “the hold”—“and father said we’d get some as soon as we got in.”
“Nine, can you believe it?” Milla was saying to Jenella, Dalor’s mother, as they made their way into the hold kitchen. “Most of them Danil and his sons, more’s the pity. And what’s going to happen to poor Kindan now? They’ve placed the other two, and I don’t see why they haven’t placed him, too. It must be spooky sleeping in his place all by himself, poor lad.”
Jenella, Dalor’s mother, saw the boys and coughed pointedly at Milla. But Milla, who had her back to them rolling dough, didn’t pick up on the hint. “Is that your cough come back? It’s got chill enough now, but you don’t want it what with you finally expecting another,” she said.
She went on blithely: “Nine dead, three injured, and poor Zenor demanding his place in the mines for his father, not that I blame him, the way Norla, his mother, is dealing so poorly with it all.” She placed the dough in rising tins. “And a shift leader short—what are they going to do?”
“Dalor, Kindan, you look chilled to the bone,” Jenella said loudly, cutting across anything more that Milla might think to say. “Milla, could you be a dear and pour them some of the mulled wine that’s on the stove? Getting up’s so tiring for me right now.”
Jenella was seven months pregnant. Kindan had heard that she’d been pregnant before but had lost the baby. Silstra had gone to help that night and had come back so distraught that her father had had to put her to bed.
“Oh!” Milla exclaimed, turning around. “I’m sorry, boys, I didn’t see you. The mugs are there in the cupboard. Why don’t you help yourselves so I can get these dainties into the oven?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Dalor said politely. He was taller than Kindan and reached the mugs easily—Kindan realized that he would have had to get a stool or something to reach them and once again cursed his late growth. He was six months older than Dalor and still a whole hand shorter.
With mugs full of hot spiced wine in their hands—the spirit had left the wine when it was heated or Kindan would not have been allowed to drink it—the two boys found a clear spot at the bench and sat quietly, not trusting that their luck would last.
“Natalon will be sending for you shortly,” Jenella told Kindan.
“Yes, ma’am—” At a sharp nudge and a glare from Dalor, Kindan corrected himself. “—my Lady.”
Kindan had never been quite sure how to address Dalor’s mother. Jenella had always seemed so less able than his own sister, but then again, if Natalon could prove Camp Natalon, it’d be Mine Natalon someday and Jenella would be the wife of a minor Holder.
But to prove Camp Natalon, they would have to mine the coal—and no one, aside from the investigating team, had been in the mines for the past sevenday.
It was normal, Kindan had heard the grown-ups say, not to go back to the mines until after all the bodies were recovered and the funerals had taken place.
“I heard Zenor’s been put on father’s shift,” Dalor commented to Kindan. “With his father gone, there’s no one else to provide for his family.”
“How will he do his studies?” Kindan wondered aloud.
Dalor looked at him thoughtfully and then shrugged. “I guess he won’t,” he said. “Perhaps that’s just as well, with Master Zist giving classes.”
“Like you’d know,” Kindan shot back, forgetting who else was in the room. He looked abashedly at Dalor’s mother before muttering to Dalor, “Sorry.”
Fortunately for him, Master Zist arrived at that moment. “Kindan, please come with me.”
Master Zist led Kindan to the same great room that was normally used by the resident Harper for classes in the mornings. There were three tables in the room, two long ones running the length of the hall and another smaller one set perpendicular to the other two. Master Zist usually sat at that table, with the hearth behind him.
Natalon and Tarik were seated at the nearer of the two long tables. At a gesture from Natalon, Master Zist and Kindan approached and took seats opposite them.
“Kindan,” Natalon began, “I’m told that you wish to stay here in the camp.”
Kindan nodded. He hadn’t really thought much about what that meant until now. He’d have to be fostered. That, and he had heard enough whispered words by the adults to realize that he would never be allowed to stay in his cottage by himself. A quick look at Tarik made it clear who was hoping to move in. With Jenella expecting, Kindan could imagine that Tarik, his wife, and three older children would probably be grateful to escape the noise of a newborn.
Kindan felt a flush of anger come over him at the thought of Tarik moving into the cottage that his father had built for his family. Then another thought burned brighter in his mind.
“Sir,” Kindan said, “what did the investigation find?”
Natalon cast a sidelong glance at Tarik, who stiffened and gave Kindan a sour look.
“As often happens when there are accidents like these,” Natalon said, “the results are not conclusive.”
Kindan sat up straighter in his seat, preparing to argue, but Natalon restrained him with an upraised hand.
,” Natalon said carefully, “that your father’s shift had the bad luck to dig into some loose rock and that it caused a slide both over and behind them.”
“But there was a smell,” Kindan protested. “Dask told me there was a smell. I smelled it, too.”
Natalon and Tarik exchanged looks. Tarik shook his head. “None of the men I spoke with talked of a smell,” he said.
“Are you sure you understood Dask correctly?” Natalon asked.
“I thought it took years of training to understand a watch-wher,” Tarik said sourly. “And the beast must have been in a lot of pain.”
“It doesn’t take years to learn the sounds for ‘bad air,’ ” Kindan protested. “It and the other danger signals were the first I was taught.” He did not bother to mention that his teaching in watch-wher lore had come from Silstra, and there had been a very little of it at that.
Tarik shook his head. “I saw no sign of fire.”
“Could have been a small pocket,” Natalon suggested, stroking his chin thoughtfully. “The blast would have started the cave-in.”
“A pocket a watch-wher couldn’t detect?” Tarik sneered. “The way Danil boasted, I thought they were supposed to have magic noses.”
Kindan glowered at the older man, but Master Zist moved quickly to block Tarik’s sight of him. He reached over and placed a hand on Kindan’s arm and squeezed it warningly.
“If someone had driven a pick right into a pocket and made a spark, it’d all be over before the watch-wher could react,” Natalon argued.
“See?” Tarik demanded, seeming satisfied. “What’s the use of them, then? I say we’re lucky to be rid of the last of them. We’ll mine faster on our own.”
Natalon prepared a hot retort, but Master Zist broke in. “What about Kindan?”
Natalon and Tarik looked startled, as though they had forgotten that Kindan was in the room with them.
“That house is too big for him,” Tarik said. “There’s plenty of others who could use the space better.”
“And there’s the memories,” Master Zist said softly, as if to himself. “It’s not good to linger where there are too many memories.”
“Well . . .” Natalon said, consideringly.
“I could use the house,” Tarik spoke into the silence. He looked at Natalon and said, “You’ve got a new one coming, and me and mine would just be too many underfoot.”
“Well,” Natalon said slowly, “if Kindan doesn’t mind.”
“It’s not his house to give,” Tarik said sourly. “The house will have to be emptied when Thread comes, anyway.”
Kindan flushed at Tarik’s brusque manner.
“That still doesn’t answer where the boy will live,” Master Zist noted, ignoring Tarik’s response.
“He should foster with those who can handle an extra mouth,” Tarik grumbled. “Maybe Norla could take him in.”
Norla was Zenor’s mother. Kindan liked her, even though she had always seemed a little overwhelmed by all her daughters. He’d be with Zenor, too, and that would be good. Or would it? Kindan wondered soberly. It would be awkward to have Zenor in the mines while Kindan was still in classes with Master Zist. No, maybe that wasn’t a good idea. And Kindan wasn’t sure he’d like to suddenly become big brother to four little girls, one of them still in diapers.
“He should go to the one with the least children,” Natalon said, quoting the old, long-established rules regarding fostering. “Someone who’s had some knowledge of raising children but won’t be too heavily burdened by it.”
He raised his head to gaze directly at Master Zist.
The Harper sat bolt upright, astonished. Clearly he hadn’t anticipated this turn of events.
Tarik’s eyes gleamed. “You know something of grief, too, Master Zist.”
Master Zist glowered at him. Kindan had followed the exchange with growing alarm, but even so he could see how Tarik was trying to profit from others’ loss and matched the Harper in his glower at the older miner. Tarik sat back and ignored their looks, a hint of a smirk on his lips.
“I don’t—” Master Zist and Kindan said in unison and stopped in shock, looking at each other.
Natalon stood up, ending the discussion. “I think this will work out well, Master Zist. Kindan, you may ask anyone for a hand to haul up your things and an extra bed for you to the Master’s cottage.”
“I’ll be glad to find someone for the job,” Tarik added, a satisfied smile undisguised on his face. “If it’s all right with you, Natalon, I would like to begin moving today.”
In the end Swanee, the camp supply man, and Ima, the camp’s butcher, gave Kindan a hand moving his stuff.
“If you take the frame apart, you can carry it up in pieces,” Swanee said to Kindan while he rolled the mattress up and heaved it over his shoulders. He tapped the empty frame. “There’s good wood there,” he said approvingly. “Get the slats first and then come back for the rest.”
Under Master Zist’s directions, they took two chests of drawers and a smaller clothes chest out of Danil’s cottage.
“Your sisters will doubtless want these when they hear the news,” Master Zist said. “I’m sure you’ll do well with just the chest, but set all of them up in your room.”
“My room?” Kindan echoed. He’d never had a room of his own; he’d always shared with Tofir and Jakris.
“Well, you won’t be sleeping with me,” Master Zist said with a wry look.
“I’d best bring lots of blankets, then,” Kindan said thoughtfully. For all their trouble, Tofir and Jakris had been enough to keep Kindan warm on the coldest nights—when they hadn’t pulled the blankets off.
“If it’s all the same with you, Kindan,” Swanee said after taking a careful look around the cottage, “I’d like to take anything you don’t need and give it to those that don’t have. The rest I’d like to put up in storage. Tarik has enough stuff of his own.”
Kindan heartily agreed to the request, and all three nodded in approval.
“Just a moment,” Master Zist said, raising a hand. Everyone looked at him. “Kindan, is there anything special you’d like for yourself?”
Kindan thought about that for a moment. “Anything?”