Authors: Anne McCaffrey
Illustrations by Edwin Herder
A Del Rey
BALLANTINE BOOKS • NEW YORK
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|Nerilka||daughter of Lord Holder Tolocamp and Lady Pendra|
|Her brothers and sisters in order of birth:||Campen, Pendora (married), Mostar, Doral, Theskin, Silma, Nerilka, Gallen, Jess, Peth, Amilla, Mercia & Merin (twins), Kista, Gabin, Mara, Nia, and Lilla|
|Munchaun||Nerilka’s favorite uncle and Tolocamp’s elder brother|
|Sira||aunt in charge of Weaving|
|Lucil||aunt in charge of Nursery|
|Sim||Nerilka’s personal drudge|
|Garben||a minor holder, Nerilka’s suitor|
|Anella||Tolocamp’s second wife|
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|Harper and Healer Halls|
|Desdra||journeywoman healer studying for her mastery|
|Master Fortine||Capiam’s second in command|
|Master Brace||Tirone’s second in command|
|Macabir||healer in internment camp|
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|High Hill Hold|
|Bestrum||minor holder on Fort/Ruathan border|
|Trelbin||High Hill’s healer, believed dead|
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|Alessan||newly confirmed Lord Holder of Ruatha|
|Oklina||his young sister|
|Tuero||journeyman harper stranded at Ruatha during the plague|
|Dag||Alessan’s chief beasthandler|
|Lord Leef||Alessan’s father, deceased|
|Suriana||Alessan’s wife, deceased, had been Nerilka’s foster sister at Misty Hold|
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|Dragonriders at Various Weyrs|
|Moreta||Weyrwoman of Fort, Orlith’s rider|
|Len||retired Weyrwoman at Fort, Holth’s rider|
|Falga||Weyrwoman at High Reaches, Tamianth’s rider|
|Bessera||Weyrwoman at High Reaches, Odioth’s rider|
|Kamiana||Weyrwoman at Fort, Pelianth’s rider|
|G’drel||dragonrider at Fort Weyr, bronze Dorianth|
|B’lerion||dragonrider at High Reaches Weyr, bronze Nabeth|
|Sh’gall||Weyrleader of Fort Weyr, bronze Kadith|
|M’tani||Weyrleader of Telgar Weyr, bronze Hogarth|
|S’peren||dragonrider at Fort Weyr, bronze Clioth|
|K’lon||dragonrider at Fort Weyr, blue Rogeth|
|M’barak||dragonrider at Fort Weyr, blue Arith|
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|Ratoshigan||Lord Holder, South Boll|
|Balfor||Beastcraftmaster elect, Keroon Hold|
a harper, so do not expect the polished tale. This is a personal history, though, and as accurate as memory can make it: my memory, so the perceptions will be one-sided. No one can challenge the fact that I have lived through a momentous time in Pern’s history, a tragic time. I survived the Great Plague, though my heart still grieves for those lost to its virulence, and ever will.
I have, I think, finally adjusted my thinking to a positive attitude toward death. Not even the most abject self-recriminations will breathe life back into the dead long enough to give absolution to the living. Like many another, what I grieve for is what I did
do or say to my sisters, now beyond speech or sight or the receipt of my charitable farewell on that day which was the last I saw them.
On that balmy morning, when my father, Lord Tolocamp, my mother, Lady Pendra, and four of my younger sisters set off on their journey to Ruatha Hold and its Gather four days hence, I did not bid them farewell and safe journey. Until common sense reasserted itself, I did, I admit, worry that my lack of charity on that occasion caused their misadventure. But there were plenty of well-wishers that morning, and surely my brother Campen’s exhortations would have been a more powerful farewell than any grudgingly given sentiment of mine. For he, at long last, had been left in charge of Fort Hold during my father’s absence and he meant to make the most of opportunity. Campen is a fine fellow, despite a lack of any vestige of humor and little sensitivity. There is not a devious bone in his body. As his entire plan was to amaze my father with his industry and efficiency in managing the Hold, it also required my parent’s safe return. I could have told poor Campen that all the approval he was likely to receive was a grunt from Father, who would have expected industry and efficiency from his son and heir. With the entire guard complement of Fort Hold, all the cottagers, and the Harper Hall apprentices adding their exuberant presences to the send-off, there were sufficient good wishes to have pleased any wayfarer. No one would have noticed my defection. Except, perhaps, my sharp-eyed sister Amilla, who missed nothing that she might use to her advantage at a later date.
In truth, while I certainly wished them no harm, since Threadfall had been endured the day before with no infestations to ravage the winter fields, I couldn’t have wished them merry on their way. For I had been left behind on purpose, and it had been hard indeed to listen to my sisters’ prattling about their vain hopes for conquests at the Ruatha Gather and know that the festivities would not include me.
To be excluded in such a peremptory fashion, a flick of my sire’s hand to strike me from the travel list, was another insensitive act of judgment. Typical of him when human feelings are concerned—at least typical of his attitudes and judgments until he came back from Ruatha and immured himself in his apartments all those long weeks.
There was no real reason to have excluded me. One more traveler would have made no difference to any of my father’s arrangements or discommoded the expedition. Even when I approached my mother and pleaded with her, reminding her that I had undertaken all the disagreeable tasks allotted us girls in the hope of attending Alessan’s first Gather, she had been unresponsive. In the throes of that cruel disappointment, I know I lost my case when I blurted out that I had, after all, been fostered with Suriana, Alessan’s wife, dead of an unfortunate fall from her wild runnerbeast.
“Then Lord Alessan will scarcely wish to see your face and be reminded of his loss on such an occasion.”
“He has never seen my face,” I had protested. “But Suriana was my friend. You know that she wrote me many letters from Ruatha. Had she lived to become Lady Holder, I would have been her guest. I know it.”
“She is a full Turn in her grave, Nerilka,” my mother had reminded me in her coolest voice. “Lord Alessan must choose a new bride.”
“You cannot possibly think that my sisters have the slightest chance of attracting Alessan’s attention . . .” I began.
“Have some pride, Nerilka. If not for yourself, for your Bloodline,” my mother had replied angrily. “Fort is the first Hold, and there isn’t a family on Pern that—”
“Wants any of the ugly Fort daughters of this generation. Too bad you married Silma off so quickly. She was the only pretty one of the lot of us.”
“Nerilka! I’m shocked! If you were younger, I’d . . .”
Even holding herself erect in anger, Mother still had to look up at me, an attitude which did not endear me further in her eyes.
“Since I’m not, I suppose I shall have to supervise the drudges’ bathing once again.”
I took a savage satisfaction from the expression on her face, for that had obviously been the very thought in her head for discipline.
“At this time of the cold season, they always benefit from warm water and soapsand. And when you’ve done that, you will clear the snake traps on the lowest level!” She had waggled her finger under my nose. “I find that lately your attitude leaves much to be desired in a daughter, Nerilka. You are to study a more congenial manner for my return, or I warn you, you will find your privileges curtailed and your duties increased. If you will not abide my authority, I will have no option but to apply to your father for disciplinary action.” She dismissed me then, her face still ruddy with controlled anger at my impertinence.
I left her apartments with my head high, but the threat of applying to my father’s judgment was not one I wished to challenge. His hand weighed as heavy on the oldest and biggest of us as it did on the youngest.
When I had had a chance to review that interview with my mother, as I ruthlessly sent the drudges into the warm pools and sanded the backs of those whose ablutions were not energetic enough to suit my frame of mind, I regretted my hasty words on several counts. I had probably prejudiced my chance of getting to another Gather for the entire Turn, and I had unnecessarily wounded my mother.
It could not be considered her fault that her daughters were plain. She was a handsome enough woman even now in her fiftieth Turn and despite almost continuous pregnancies which had resulted in nineteen living offspring. Lord Tolocamp was considered a fine-looking man, too, tall and vigorous, certainly virile, for the Fort Hold Horde, as the harper apprentices had nicknamed us, were not his only issue. What galled me excessively was that most of my half-blood half sisters were far prettier than any of the full blood, with the exception of Silma, my next-oldest sister.
Half or full blood, we were all tall and sturdy, an adjective more complimentary to boys than girls, but there it was. I might be a trifle hasty, for my youngest sister, Lilla, at ten Turns had daintier features than we other girls and might well improve. It was positively wasteful that Cam-pen, Mostar, Doral, Theskin, Gallen, and Jess should have black, thick eyelashes where ours were sparse; huge dark eyes while ours were lighter-colored, almost washy; straight fine noses while no one could call mine anything but a beak. They had masses of curly hair. We girls had thick hair; mine reached below my waist when unbraided and was remorselessly black, but it made my skin look sallow. My nearest sisters were cursed with midbrown hair that no herb could brighten. The injustice of our heritage was catastrophic, for plain males would still marry well now that the Pass was ending and Fort’s Holder was extending his settlements. But there would be no husbands for plain females.
I had long since discarded the romantic notions of all young girls, or even the hope that my father’s position would acquire for me what appearance could not, but I did like to travel. I adored the bustle and uninhibited atmosphere of a Gather. I would so love to have gone to Alessan’s first Gather as Lord Holder of Ruatha. I wanted to see, from whatever distance, the man who had captured the love and adoration of Suriana of Misty Hold—Suriana, whose parents had fostered me; Suriana, my dearest friend, who had been effortlessly all that I was not and who had shared the wealth of her friendship unstintingly with me. Alessan could not have grieved more than I for her death, for that event had taken from my life the one life I had valued above my own. To say that part of me had died with Suriana was no exaggeration. We had understood each other as effortlessly as if we had been dragon and rider, would often laugh as one, uttered the observation the other had been about to make, could instantly fathom each other’s mood, and shared the same cycle to the minute no matter what distance separated us.
In those happy Turns at Misty Hold, I had even managed to appear prettier in a contentment reflecting Suriana’s vividness. Certainly I was braver in her company, urging my runnerbeast after hers on the most dangerous of trails. And I was able to sail in the fiercest wind in the little sloop we took upon the river and sea. Suriana had other attainments, too. She had the sweetest light soprano to which my alto was always in tune. In Fort, my voice goes flat. She could sketch a scene in bold sure strokes; her embroidery was so finely stitched that her mother never feared to give her the gossamer fabrics, and with her to advise me quietly, my stitches improved to the point where later my mother gave me grudging compliments. In one talent only did I surpass Suriana, but not even my healing arts could have mended her broken back. Nor could I, the daughter of Fort Hold, enter the Healer Hall for training. Not when my skills could be employed, free-marked, in the murky stillrooms of Fort Hold.
Now I am appalled at the heedless, uncharitable girl I was that day, unable to swallow disappointment and pride to bid her luckier sisters farewell. For it proved that their luck had run out when they were chosen to attend Ruatha’s Gather. But who could have foreseen that, much less the plague, on the bright cold-season day?
We had heard tell of the strange beast rescued by seaholders, for my father had insisted that all his children understand drummer codes. Living so close to the Harper Hall, there was little we did not know of major events occurring across the Northern Continent. Oddly, we were not supposed to talk about the drum messages we heard, lest the information that we could not avoid understanding be indiscreetly repeated. So we all knew about the discovery of the unusual feline at Keroon. It is not surprising, then, that I failed to connect the significance of that message with the later one requiring Master Capiam to diagnose a strange disease afflicting those at Igen. But I anticipate.
And so my parents and my four sisters—Amilla, Mercia, Merin, and Kista—started on their journey through the northern portion of our Hold, where Father meant to check on several holders, to the fateful Ruatha Gather. I who felt she deserved to go remained at home.
Fortunately, I could also remain out of Campen’s way, for I was certain he would have special duties for me to perform that would ensure our father’s approbation of him. Campen adored delegating duty and thus managed to avoid its tedium, saving his energies to criticize results and expound weighty advices. He is much like our father. Indeed, when Father dies, there will be no skip in the smooth operation of Fort Hold and likely no change ever in the duty roster for me, Nerilka.
The gathering of herbs, roots, and other medicinal plants was a frequent occupation for myself and my sisters, and this duty took precedence over any Campen might have had for me that day. What Campen never twigged was that one did not gather medicinal plants in the cold season, but no one was likely to tell on me. I elected to take Lilla, Nia, Mara, and Gaby with me on my so-called expedition. We did return with early cress and wild onion, and Gaby surprised himself by bringing down a wild wherry with a well-thrown lance. The obvious rewards of our afternoon forced commendation from Campen, who spent the evening meal complaining about the fecklessness of drudges who worked well only under supervision. This was such a frequent complaint of our father’s that I raised my eyes from the leg bone I was gnawing to be sure that it was Campen who had spoken.
I do not now recall with what occupation I passed the next few days. Nothing memorable occurred—excepting the summons for Master Capiam, which I heard and so totally disregarded. But knowing would have changed nothing. The fifth day dawned bright and clear, and I had recovered enough from my disappointment by then to hope that the weather at Ruatha was as clement. I knew that my sisters stood no chance of attracting Alessan, but with so many gathering, perhaps some other family might meet my father’s requirements for his daughters, and they’d make suitable matches. Particularly now that the Pass was nearly over and Holders could plan expansions. Lord Tolocamp was not the only one to wish to extend his holdings and increase his arable land. If only my father would not be quite so particular in his standard for alliances.
There had been one offer for me, I’m pleased to say. I should not have minded starting a new hold, even if it had meant chipping it out of the cliffside, for I should have been my own mistress. Garben came from the Tillek Bloodline, respectable enough in its lateral descent. I even liked the man, but he and his prospects had not met Father’s requirements. Although Garben had flattered me by returning two Turns in a row to repeat his offer—each time with the report of yet another chamber completed in his modest hold—my father had turned him off. Had my opinion been sought, I would have accepted. Amilla had unkindly remarked that I would have accepted anything at that point. She was quite correct, but only because I liked Garben anyway. He was half a head taller than I. That had been five Turns ago.