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Menolly sat up in bed, roused from a half-sleep by a drum cadence carried in on the cool spring breeze. In the Turn she'd been at the Harper Craft Hall, she had learned how to decode the drum messages that came in at all hours, and also how to tune them out. But something in this one grabbed at her attention.

The message had faded to an echo by the time she was alert enough to really listen, so she leaned toward her window, ignoring the irritable rustling of her nine sleeping fire lizards, to catch the repeat. The message itself was ordinary enough: HARPER INJURED. REPLACEMENT REQUIRED. MORE TO FOLLOW. Self-explanatory, and not particularly alarming – if the injury were a serious threat to life or limb, the message would have said so.

What really caught Menolly's attention was the origin code: Half-Circle Sea Hold, relayed by Benden Weyr. Half-Circle was too isolated to have its own message drums, so few Harpers knew the code from memory, even in the Hall's drum heights. Menolly had only learned it because Half-Circle was the place she was born.

She worried immediately for Harper Elgion, who had taken over as Harper after old Petiron had died just over a Turn ago – just before Menolly ran away from the Hold to live on her own. An injury serious enough to require a replacement harper would be quite a setback, and Elgion had a difficult job at Half-Circle.

Sea Holder Yanus was a fine leader, presiding over a growing, prosperous Hold and fleet, but he was exceedingly traditional and rather dour. Like all journeyman harpers, it was Elgion's responsibility to instill respect for tradition but also to broaden horizons and provoke change. Change was not something Yanus was keen on.

“Nothing to be done about it tonight, I guess,” Menolly said to herself, and she settled back in to sleep. The rest of her night was fretful, filled with dreams of ships smashing against submerged rocks.

~~~

The next morning, in rehearsal with Sebell, Talmor, and Master Domick, Menolly was not at her best. She played six false notes in as many measures.

“Menolly?” Domick asked with his sourest expression, the one usually reserved for misbehaving apprentices.

“Sorry,” Menolly replied. “I guess my mind is somewhere else this morning.”

“If you’d care to join us here…” he said, with a marked emphasis on the last word, and he signaled for them to start again from the top. Menolly took a deep breath and dove into the music. She was a little unsteady at first, but she soon lost herself in the thrill of playing with such skilled musicians.

The score was mostly her own composition. It had begun as an exercise, with Menolly supplying the main theme and then fleshing out the variations and supporting parts in collaboration with Domick. The composition Master had liked the piece so much that he had chosen it for performance at a big festival at Ista for the Lord Holder in the fall. Menolly was both pleased and intimidated by the prospect – though she had written dozens of songs, this was her first big instrumental composition. She and Domick had been working on it for months; this was their first rehearsal with the whole thing together and in the proper order.

After playing through once and spending some time on the third and fourth variations, Domick called a halt. “Good, good,” he said, staring down at the score before him with a contemplative scowl. “Some elaboration on the second gitar part, I think, and it needs polish throughout, but the piece is more or less finished.”

The dinner bell rang then, precluding further conversation. The four harpers made their way to the dining hall, where Domick sat next to Masterharper Robinton at the circular masters' table while the other three sat together at one of the oval journeymen's tables. Menolly was quiet during the meal, absorbed in the music rather than the problems of an injured harper in a far-off Sea Hold. Sebell had to nudge her to stand at the end of the meal.

“Ah, Menolly,” Robinton said, catching her on the way out of the dining hall, “just the person I wanted to see. A word if you please.”

“Of course,” Menolly replied, and she fell in beside the Harper as they walked up the stairs together to his study. Beauty, Menolly’s golden fire lizard queen, materialized above her head and took up her customary spot on Menolly’s shoulder, followed a moment later by Robinton’s bronze Zair. The two chittered contentedly back and forth as their humans walked together.

“I overheard a bit of your rehearsal this morning,” Robinton said. “Lovely piece. Domick tells me it’s nearly finished. I can see why he’s so excited to perform it this summer.”

“Excited?” Menolly asked, raising a skeptical eyebrow. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen Master Domick excited about anything.”

“All right, then,” Robinton replied, chuckling, “if not excited then at least pleased, which is more than most harpers ever manage. I think you’ve been as positive an influence on Domick this past Turn as he has on you.”

Menolly looked up questioningly at the tall Masterharper.

“I doubt you can appreciate it, Menolly, spending as much time under his stern gaze as you do,” Robinton said, “but Domick has profited a great deal from having another first-rate composer in the Hall. You have challenged him to find anew the freshness and beauty that he can sometimes lack in his intricate technical arrangements.”

Menolly could not respond to that. She had worked so hard over the past Turn to earn Master Domick’s gruff approval that she hadn’t considered what he might be gaining in return. Her throat tightened at the Masterharper’s unexpected praise.

They reached the Harper’s study, and Menolly closed the door behind her as she followed him inside.

“That may well be,” Menolly said, regaining her composure as she pulled out a stool and sat across from the Harper, “but I don’t suppose I’m here just to discuss my composition.”

“No,” Robinton replied with a sad little smile. “You heard the drum message last night?”

“I did,” Menolly replied. “How is Elgion? Has there been any further news?”

“There has,” Robinton replied, fishing a scrap of worn, ink-stained hide from his pocket. “A bronze fire lizard dropped this off with Silvina this morning, and she relayed it to me during the meal. The short of it is that Elgion was injured by a falling net full of fish. His hand was damaged badly enough that he was flown to Benden Weyr, where he’s resting now.”

Menolly cringed, both at the injury and at Sea Holder Yanus’s likely displeasure over the accident. “Is he going to be all right? Will he be able to play?”

“Manora expects a full recovery in ten or twelve sevendays, barring any complications,” Robinton replied with a reassuring smile. “We’ll know more this evening, when T’gellan arrives to collect his replacement.”

“Have you decided who you’re going to send?” Menolly asked. “I think Forstal is ready for his first posting, and he has the patience and independence required. An isolated Sea Hold isn’t for everyone. Deemas and Silbern could also manage, I think.”

“Good choices all,” Robinton said, “but in this unusual circumstance, I want to take a different tack, as the Sea Holder would say. Elgion has been fairly successful at giving the people of the Sea Hold a gentle push toward a more modern, open attitude, but the Sea Holder himself has been quite obstinate, as I am sure you can imagine.”

Menolly had no trouble imagining. As well as Sea Holder, Yanus was also her father.

“We have a unique opportunity in these next ten or twelve sevendays to provide a rather firm shove,” Robinton continued, “and I know just the person to do that.”

Menolly leaned forward in her seat, intrigued.

“As well, with such a short posting, I’d prefer a harper who knows the Hold, so everyone can make the transition with a minimum of fuss.”

Menolly’s heart fell into her stomach. Aside from Elgion and the departed Petiron, no harper had even visited Half-Circle in ten Turns or more, let alone spent any time there. Robinton could not possibly mean to send anyone but her.

The thought of leaving the Hall for such a long time made her uneasy, let alone going back to Half-Circle. Most journeyman harpers have two or three Turns in the Hall after they’ve walked the tables before they’re posted somewhere on their own, and few are younger than eighteen or twenty. Menolly was just sixteen, and she wasn’t remotely ready to take on the duties of Hold Harper, or to face her parents again for the first time since she ran away from the Hold.

“Master, please…” she said.

“You’re a Journeyman Harper now Menolly,” said the Harper, “or rather a Journeywoman. It’s time you did some journeying.”

“I go out all the time…” she protested weakly.

“Day trips, two or three at most,” the Harper replied, dismissing her argument, “and always with Sebell or with me. It’s time for you to spread your own wings for a while. No harper ever feels ready for his first posting, but they all manage, and so will you. Your very presence will force Yanus to open his eyes to a changing world, in a way that no one else in this Crafthall could accomplish in twice the time.”

He spoke with the same combination of certainty, authority, and entreaty that had convinced Menolly to come to the Hall in the first place. Menolly knew from long experience that he would not be easily dissuaded.

“Master Robinton, I don’t know if I can do this,” she said, squaring her shoulders and looking him in the eye, difficult though that was. “When I left Half-Circle, I swore that no matter what happened, I’d never go back there. I had too much taken from me before I ran away to ever go back without feeling like a cornered watchwher.”

“I know, dear child,” Robinton said, his voice suddenly full of compassion, “and that’s why you have to go.”

He reached across he sandtable to take her hand, and Menolly felt tears gathering behind her eyes in a way they rarely had since her first difficult sevenday in the Hall.

“You’ve come such a long way this past Turn that even I can scarcely believe it,” the Harper said, “but there’s still something holding you back, inhibiting you, both musically and personally. You need to stand up to the worst of your past before you can make the most of your future.”

A tear leaked out the corner of Menolly’s eye, but she held the Harper’s gaze, making no move to hide it.

“As Craftmaster of this Hall,” Robinton said, “it is within my prerogative to assign a journeyman anywhere the Craft has a need, regardless of that journeyman’s feelings in the matter.”

Menolly opened her mouth to protest, but Robinton raised a hand to shush her. “I won’t do so in this instance,” he said, “but I will ask you to go, both as a personal favor to me and as something you need to do for yourself.”

Menolly looked into his eyes and saw that he was right, as he was about so much else. It would be the hardest thing she would ever do, but she would do it, and she would be a better Harper and a better person for having done it.

“All right,” she said, “I’ll go.”

“Splendid,” Master Robinton replied, his face breaking into the broadest of grins. “Just splendid.”

“But Master,” Menolly said, “what if Elgion’s injury is worse than we think? What if he can’t play again?”

“In that case,” Robinton replied with a smile, “young Forstal will have to get used to a diet of fish.”

~~~

Menolly spent the afternoon getting ready to embark on her first long-term absence from the Hall. She had to visit Master Jerint for travelling cases for her harp and pipes, Master Arnor for a sheaf of new songs and writing supplies, and Silvina for a couple of new skirts, more fitting attire for a female Harper than the trousers she usually wore in the Hall.

After that, she said her goodbyes. The first was Camo, the kind-hearted but slow-witted kitchen drudge who faithfully helped her feed her fair of fire lizards every morning and evening. “I’ll be back before you know it,” she told him, and his sad face brightened when blue Uncle, the smallest of Menolly’s fire lizards, affectionately nuzzled Camo’s shoulder.

“Pretties come back soon!” he said, grinning with the same undimmed delight he had the first time they met.

She sought out the close friends she’d made among the apprentices and journeymen of the Hall, particularly Piemur, her first and best friend, and journeymen Sebell and Talmor, with whom she played Domick’s majestic compositions and now her own first attempts at proper occasional music. She found Master Domick after his afternoon composition class with the senior apprentices, which had done nothing good for his mood.

“Robinton told me just now,” Domick said to her as he scowled after the four young men filing out of his study, three of them older than herself. “Can’t say I’m pleased, but we all have to make sacrifices for the Craft. I’ll expect your revisions on the new piece every Firstday afternoon. Just because you’re posted outside the hall doesn’t mean you’re excused from our work together.”

“Of course,” Menolly said, laughing because Domick sounded so exactly like himself.

“Send them to Silvina, and she’ll pass them along,” he said, eyeing Beauty, who was perched on Menolly’s shoulder. “I don’t think you’ll lack for willing messengers.”

Beauty chirped at Domick, recognizing the attention being paid to her.

“No, I suppose not,” Menolly replied, reaching up to scratch Beauty’s head knob. She left Domick’s study with a good heart, knowing how much he would miss her even if he didn’t show it.

Menolly’s last and most difficult goodbye was Audiva, because the Craft girl would be gone from the Hall by the time Menolly returned. Most of the girls who studied at the Harper Hall stayed for a season, maybe two: enough to learn some basic gitar and develop their voices sufficiently to sing the women’s parts in the big epics and to entertain in the evenings. Audiva’s father had been more indulgent, paying for her studies for more than a full Turn, and Audiva had made the most of her time in the Hall. She’d never have the ability to play as well as a trained Harper, but she could competently accompany all of the traditional Ballads and Teaching Songs on gitar, harp, or pipe, and she could even play some of the more complex occasional pieces. She had also developed her throaty contralto voice into a strong, confident instrument, capable of singing any women’s part in her rather impressive range, as well as quite a few men’s songs.

“You’ll come to my wedding?” Audiva asked when Menolly gave her the news. “It’ll be this summer, but Viderian’s family is still negotiating with mine about the when and the where.”

“I wouldn’t miss it,” Menolly replied. “I know a dragonrider or two who owe me a favor, so I won’t have any trouble getting there, and Master Robinton won’t mind me taking a day off from whatever I’m doing.”

They exchanged one last tearful hug, then Audiva was off to the cottage to change before supper, and Menolly was left to finish packing.

~~~

Despite the drum message’s obscure origin code, the rumor mill in the Hall had identified the injured Harper by the afternoon, though his injuries were often exaggerated - Somebody told me he’s lost his whole arm! I’ve heard he’s on his deathbed! But nobody had yet managed to ferret out the identity of Elgion’s replacement. Only Silvina, the Masters, and Menolly’s close friends knew she was the one leaving to take his place, and they all held their tongues.

Master Robinton announced the news at supper, to widespread surprise and approval, and T’gellan arrived from Benden Weyr just afterward to carry her off. Menolly rushed to the Hall’s great metal doors to greet the bronze rider, along with about half of the Harpers in the Hall.

“How is Elgion?” asked Silvina, Menolly, and Robinton, all at once, as T’gellan stepped inside.

“He’s resting comfortably, but he’s not in the best of shape,” T’gellan replied. “He has four or five broken bones in his left hand, all simple fractures. Manora set them herself, and I dare say she’s seen as many broken bones as any healer on Pern, so they should all heal cleanly. The bigger worry is that he’s had half a dozen deep cuts on his arm, and some of them have gotten infected, despite our best efforts. Manora is asking for Master Oldive.”

Menolly swallowed hard against the lump of fear rising in her throat. A request for the Master Healer did not bode well. Silvina found the nearest apprentice and sent him to track down Master Oldive, who was thought to be somewhere in the surrounding Fort Hold complex.

While they waited, Robinton invited T’gellan to sit and enjoy Menolly’s farewell toast – with Benden wine, of course – joined by the assembled Masters and journeymen, and Silvina, who was headwoman for the Crafthall. Menolly sat at Master Robinton’s side, but she said little in response to all the well-wishes beyond what courtesy required. She was much too nervous for conversation. The mood was anyway rather subdued because of the news about Elgion.

After a short wait – though to Menolly it seemed to take forever – the apprentice Silvina had sent to fetch Master Oldive returned to report that the Master Healer was in his office gathering supplies, and that he would be at the Hall doors presently.

“Right, then,” T’gellan said, rising and stifling a yawn. Though it was early evening at the Hall, it was the middle of the night at Benden Weyr, all the way on the other side of the continent.

“Ready to go?” he asked Menolly. She managed a weak smile and mumbled something affirmative, earning a laugh from everyone present. She hefted her backsack onto her back and handed T’gellan an instrument case, and they walked together to the main Hall doors. Master Oldive was there waiting, bag in hand.

“Don’t fret so, Menolly,” T’gellan said to her as they walked out to the field where Monarth waited. “You’re a journeyman harper now. You’ll do a fine job at Half-Circle.”

“Somehow I can’t imagine Yanus is going to think so,” Menolly replied.

“Then you’ll just have to show him why Master Robinton put that badge on your shoulder,” T’gellan said, smiling. “When Elgion’s back to full health, they’ll be sorry to see you go.”

Menolly just shook her head, but T’gellan’s reassurance and Monarth’s rumbled greeting heartened her.

T’gellan secured Menolly’s cargo to bronze Monarth’s back and then helped first Oldive and then Menolly to mount. He climbed up himself, and they were off. Monarth relayed their destination to Menolly’s nine fire lizards, who were swirling about his head in excitement, so that they could follow.

Though Menolly had long since gotten used to the cold between, it seemed worse this time. It seeped into her bones and made the scar on her left palm ache. Just when she began to panic, though, the ordeal was over and they were there, materializing high above the Star Stones of Benden Weyr into the inky darkness of a moonless night.

After landing, T’gellan led Menolly and Oldive straight to the guest room where Elgion was resting. Menolly had to fight down an attack of nerves at seeing Elgion again. He was a Journeyman Harper, her equal in rank, and she had briefly spoken with him on two or three occasions over the past Turn, but the Half-Circle Harper still held a special, exalted place in her world. He was the Harper at Half-Circle Sea Hold after old Petiron died, and only the second Harper Menolly had ever seen. He was also the person who had brought her to the attention of the Masterharper and made it possible for her to become a Harper in her own right, so she felt she owed him a debt of gratitude.

Beauty appeared in the corridor and took up her usual perch on Menolly’s shoulder, alternating between encouraging croons for Menolly and happy chirps for herself. The rest of her fair were no doubt making a nuisance of themselves, excited to be back in this place that was once, briefly, their home.

Manora met the three of them just outside Elgion’s room, and T’gellan took his leave, excusing himself to get some much-needed rest after a very long day.

“He’s awake and in good spirits,” Manora told Oldive in a low voice as she pulled aside the curtain that served as a door, “but he broke into a fever this evening. The infection seems to be spreading.”

When the three entered the room, Elgion’s eyes went wide in surprise, and his face cracked into a broad grin.

“Menolly?” he said. “You’re my replacement?”

Menolly smiled weakly and nodded in acknowledgement, and Elgion let out a hearty laugh, followed by a rumbling cough as his fevered body shook with chills.

“Try not to move too much,” Oldive told him. Elgion rolled his eyes.

“What I wouldn’t give to be there when Yanus sees your face,” Elgion said to Menolly, smiling through his discomfort. “The Masterharper’s an absolute genius.”

“I’m not so sure about that,” Menolly replied.

“Nonsense,” Elgion said. “Yanus is a solid, respectable Sea Holder, but he’s also the most frustrating, hidebound, headstrong man I’ve ever had the privilege to meet. The very fact of your presence will do more in an evening than all my prodding has done over the past Turn.”

“Ahem,” Master Oldive said, firmly cutting off any further conversation.

“All right, all right,” Elgion said to the Master Healer, “do what you need to do.”

Master Oldive approached Harper Elgion to examine the man’s injuries. The harper’s left arm was splinted to a smooth wooden board, with his hand stretched out flat, fingers together, thumb pointing out at an odd angle. Menolly thought it looked quite uncomfortable, but that was apparently the best position for the bones to knit properly. A generous slathering of numbweed would have taken away any pain he felt. The hand was neatly and tightly bound to the splint, but further down the arm the wrappings looked looser and more haphazard, mostly because of the need to avoid putting pressure on the deep cuts in Elgion’s forearm. The one Menolly could see from her spot behind the healers was an angry red around the edges and crusted over with yellowish gunk.

Master Oldive had to bend rather awkwardly at the waist to examine Elgion’s arm because his malformed spine limited the mobility of his neck, but he managed well enough. First he loosened the hand wrappings and lightly poked and prodded at the broken bones, pronouncing them expertly set, not that he expected any less from Manora, headwoman at Benden and an excellent healer in her own right. After carefully re-tightening the hand wrappings, he took a long, close look at the largest of the cuts on Elgion’s arm.

“Hmmmmm,” Oldive said after a long while. “Most interesting. You’ll find all manner of filth on the docks, growing in abundance in the damp, as well a wide assortment of strange bugs in sea water, but the washing and dressing of the wounds should have cleaned all of that away. As well, this doesn’t look like a normal infection from dirt in the wound. The way it’s crusting over is most unusual. A more exotic infectious agent, obviously, but what?”

Manora, standing beside him, silently echoed his frustration.

“What kind of fish?” Menolly asked, startling Elgion and the two healers, who seemed to have forgotten she was in the room.

“Excuse me?” Elgion said.

“What kind of fish were in that net?” Menolly asked again.

“Oh, uh,” Elgion replied, pausing for a moment to think. “The catch was a deep-water haul, from way off the Nerat coast. A few yellowstripe, but mostly those big ugly ones with all the spines. Packtail.”

“Of course,” Master Oldive said, nodding. “Packtail slime. Awful stuff. Even a tiny bit can cause a pernicious infection. Some of it must have gotten into the bloodstream as well, since you’re running a fever.”

Menolly’s left hand clenched involuntarily, her fingertips digging into the thick scar on her palm. She had injured her own hand gutting a packtail, and the resulting infection had laid her out for the better part of a sevenday and nearly taken her whole arm. Menolly also suspected that her mother, whether out of negligence or malice, had allowed the wound to heal with drawn flesh, so that her scar would prevent her from using her hand properly, and in particular prevent her from playing any but the simplest instruments. It had taken months of painful stretching to fully regain the use of her hand, and she’d never be able to make the full octave stretches required by the great harp without pain. Of all the injustices she had suffered at the Sea Hold after Petiron’s death, that one rankled most. Beauty, still perched on Menolly’s shoulder, let out a plaintive chirp and stroked Menolly’s cheek with her head.

On hearing Oldive’s assessment, Elgion’s face contorted into something like fear. He was newly arrived at Half-Circle at the time of Menolly’s injury, and he knew how much it had cost her.

“How bad is it really?” he asked.

“Not life-threatening,” Master Oldive replied, giving the Harper a reassuring smile. “The cuts are deep, but they didn’t breach any major blood vessels, so you’re not at risk for a systemic infection. The fever should remain mild. Your body will take a while to fight off the invasion, and we’ll need to drain the wounds several times daily, which will be unpleasant, but you should recover in a sevenday.”

Elgion’s face turned ghostly pale upon realizing just how dangerous the infection could be. Manora put a comforting hand on his shoulder.

“And the worst of the wounds are on your forearm, not your hand,” Oldive continued, “so there’s little chance of impairment. The only lasting impact will likely be a collection of nasty scars. So as long as the bones heal correctly – and they should – you’ll suffer no loss of function.”

“I’ll be able to play again?” Elgion asked.

“I’m confident you will,” Oldive replied, in a firm enough voice that Elgion let out a huge sigh of relief.

“An antipyretic at your discretion,” Oldive added to Manora, who nodded. “And an antiseptic in the wounds daily if he can manage the pain.”

“Not to worry,” Manora replied. “We’ll take good care of him.”

“I have no doubt,” Oldive said.

At that point Menolly left. Oldive and Manora had begun to scrub the gunk out Elgion’s wounds to allow them to drain, and Menolly did not want to watch.

She wandered down to the kitchens, which were mostly empty given the late hour. Felena was tending the small overnight hearth, keeping a pot of klah and a kettle of soup warm for those whose duties kept them up through the night. When she saw Menolly, she greeted the harper girl with a wave and a warm smile.

“What a nice surprise,” she said as Menolly sat down next to her. “I knew the Masterharper was sending somebody tonight, but I certainly didn’t expect it to be you.”

“Neither did I,” Menolly replied, with rather more asperity than she intended. Felena laughed.

“It’s good to see you again, child,” Felena said, “though I suppose you’re not really a child anymore.”

“Thanks,” Menolly replied, “but I’m not feeling very grown-up right now.”

“A little food and a good night’s sleep,” Felena said, putting together a small plate of bread, fruit, and cheese for Menolly, “and it’ll all seem simpler. You’ll see.”

Menolly gratefully accepted the snack, though she drank wine with her food rather than klah. Getting to sleep would be hard enough as it was. After the light meal and some easy conversation, Felena showed Menolly to her room, not far from Elgion’s.

Menolly knew she should go to bed, but she was much too wound up to sleep. Besides, it was still evening in her part of the world, not even full dark. Instead, she pulled out a copy of her composition, unshielded a glow basket, and went to work.

She spent an hour or so on the second gitar part, which was indeed rather spare in a few sections, as Domick had commented. By the time she had worked through it three or four times, she had a good idea of how she wanted to build on it, though she couldn’t play any of her ideas out loud at this late hour to be sure they sounded right. There’d be time enough for that later. Beauty stayed with her while she worked, flitting about the room, and her eight other fire lizards popped in one by one, chittering with disappointment that there was so little activity in the Weyr.

“It’s the middle of the night here, you silly things,” Menolly said indulgently, raising a hand to stroke the head knob of brown Mimic, who had taken up a perch on the corner of the room’s work table. He crooned in appreciation. Three other fire lizards then vied for her attention, and she dutifully fussed over each one in turn until their eyes were first-lidded, ready for sleep.

Menolly rose, readied herself for bed, and shielded the glow basket. As she settled into the soft sleeping furs with her fire lizards around her, she expected to find sleep difficult, but she was suddenly exhausted from the stressful day. She quickly fell into a peaceful, dreamless slumber.

~~~

Menolly woke at an hour that would have been early at the Harper Hall, even by her usual schedule, but at Benden Weyr it was well into morning. Fortunately, she had nowhere in particular to be until evening, when a dragonrider would transport her on to Half-Circle Sea Hold. A new Harper’s welcome was a very serious occasion, and it wouldn’t do to arrive in the middle of the day.

She walked down to the kitchen cavern to find some breakfast, first for her fire lizards and then for herself, and she wound up sitting at a table with B’lent and S’del, a green and a blue rider, both close in age to herself. The two riders had been assigned to night watch duty for the previous sevenday, so they were as tired and out of sorts as she was. The three managed to hold a pleasant if leisurely conversation between their stifled yawns. Like all young adults, they mostly complained about the stuffiness of their elders. Menolly could utter no word against the Masterharper, but Master Domick was an easier target. She had the deepest respect for the composition Master as both a musician and a person, but he was never easy to work with, as anyone in the Harper Hall would acknowledge, not least Domick himself. She had plenty of stories about him.

“Sounds just like old D’manad,” replied B’lent at the end of the meal, after a particularly good one about Domick, a couple of mischievous apprentices, and a Cotholder’s daughter.

“To hear him tell it,” S’del said, “you’d think D’manad was the only dragonrider who ever flew firestone resupply in a fall, or at least the only one who ever did it right.”

They all shared a hearty laugh over that, and then the two dragonriders left to care for their beasts.

As Menolly stood to clear her place at the table, she spotted Elgion walking into the cavern, with a hand on Manora’s shoulder for support. The fever had left him quite weak, but he was much too restless to stay abed. Menolly took over for Manora, who as headwoman for the whole Weyr had much more to do than just nursing sick harpers.

The two spent the remainder of the morning together, taking short walks around the kitchen caverns when Elgion was up to it and sitting down to rest when he tired, which happened more often than he was willing to admit.

At first, Elgion used the time to fill Menolly in on the doings at Half-Circle: shuffles in the crews of the fishing fleet and the living arrangements within the Hold; marriages and fosterings; births and deaths. The most recent of those was Old Uncle, who had died just three nights before. The old man’s funeral was actually the circumstance that precipitated Elgion’s injury – on any other day, he’d have been leading the children in the Teaching at that hour instead of helping offload the catch from the fishing fleet.

Menolly could not quite decide how she felt about Old Uncle’s death. She had never really liked the man, especially since she was often the one to attend him in the evenings. He complained constantly, he smelled, and he had an alarming tendency to speak up at the most inappropriate times, drawing mortified glances from the scandalized adults of the Sea Hold for both Old Uncle and whatever poor girl was assigned to mind him that day. Menolly’s failure to control his outbursts had earned her more than one sharp rebuke from her mother Mavi.

Still, the old man’s ramblings had injected some life into the otherwise stultifying atmosphere of the Sea Hold, something she could appreciate when she was not the one attending him. And though he mostly ranted about the good old days, he could, on occasion, cut through the polite fictions and hypocrisies of the adults of the Hold and expose the truth of a matter, particularly when everyone else preferred it stay hidden. It was a quality Menolly would miss when she went back to Half-Circle.

“He’d have been your great-grandfather, I suppose,” Elgion was saying, though Menolly only half-heard. She nodded absently in agreement.

“You’ll have to sing the Death Song tomorrow, you know,” Elgion said. “It’s not an easy ballad, especially out on the sea.”

“I can manage,” Menolly replied. “I’ve sung it before … for Petiron.”

“Oh, I’m sorry,” Elgion said, laying a hand on her shoulder. “I didn’t know.”

“You were meant not to know,” Menolly replied, with enough sharpness to close the discussion.

The sound of children laughing filled the uncomfortable silence that followed, punctuated by a few loud, far-off splashes. It was much too intriguing not to investigate. With Menolly’s shoulder to lean on, Elgion managed to walk out of the kitchen caverns and around the edge of the weyr bowl, to a spot where they had a perfect view of four bathing dragons – a brown, two greens, and a blue. Menolly also noticed a wing of fire lizards sporting about in the lake along with the dragons, including several of her own. The whole scene was a delight to watch.

Walking back in the kitchen caverns, Elgion turned the discussion to other topics. “I’ve duly informed you of everything you need to know about Half-Circle, so I’ve discharged my duty to Hold and Hall,” Elgion said. “Now I want to know what’s going on outside my little corner of Pern, especially in the Harper Hall. Tell me everything.”

Menolly obliged him, relating all the stories and gossip she could summon up and responding to his endless questions. She talked with Elgion all through the midday meal, and he listened greedily to everything she had to say.

Menolly was glad of the time they spent together. She had never been close enough to Elgion to know him as anything more than the Hold Harper. By the end of the meal, she had formed a picture of Elgion the man, and she decided she liked him. He had a difficult job at Half-Circle, and he was doing the best he could to serve the both the Sea Hold and the Harper Craft. Menolly admired his patience and forbearance – she couldn’t imagine how he had gotten through a full Turn at the Sea Hold. The ten or twelve sevendays she would be there were going to be hard enough.

After the meal, Manora sent one of the kitchen women to find Elgion and urge him back to bed, for how was he to recover if he didn’t allow his weakened body the rest it needed? She even threatened to dose him with fellis juice if he didn’t cooperate, to which Elgion responded with a sour, pained expression.

“All right, all right,” he said. “I’m going. And Menolly, good luck.”

Fortified by the meal and steadier on his feet, Elgion made it back to his room, without help, and fell into bed.

Menolly spent the afternoon with Oharan, the Weyr Harper. Like most Harpers, Oharan’s primary duty was to instruct the young through the traditional Ballads and Teaching Songs, but he was also a keen and talented instrumentalist, especially with his lap harp, and he happily seized on the opportunity to play with Menolly, who was an exceptional musician even by the demanding standards of the Harper Craft.

They began with several of the new occasional pieces Menolly was taking with her to Half-Circle. She privately doubted she’d have the opportunity to play them there: Sea Holders usually prefer simpler music they can sing along to, and Yanus even more than most. The pieces were new to Oharan as well, and he delighted in learning something he hadn’t seen before. When Menolly ran out of new music to play, they switched to old favorites, with one Harper taking a turn providing the melody and the other improvising around it, on whatever instrument was best suited to the piece. Beauty added her voice from time to time, though the rest of Menolly’s fire lizards seemed to be finding other things to do.

The two harpers were mostly playing for themselves, but they attracted a small audience in their corner of the kitchen cavern, with people drifting in and out according to their interest and their other duties.

As afternoon eased into evening, the Weyrleader himself sat down to listen as the harpers played a lively gitar duet, and when it ended he broke into applause, along with just about everyone else in the area.

“Well done, both of you,” he said, approaching the musicians. “Well done indeed. That was a delightful end to a taxing afternoon.”

Menolly felt a ridiculous flood of nerves at the attention. Though she had met and spoken to F’lar, rider of bronze Mnementh, on several occasions, she still held him in a kind of awe. He and his weyrmate Lessa, Weyrwoman to golden Ramoth, were the two most important people on Pern, the lynchpin upon which all of Pernese society depended. Without their heroism at the start of the present Pass of the Red Star, nine Turns back, every living thing on the surface of Pern would be gone, devoured by silver Thread. Even the Masterharper, who deferred to no one, looked up to them.

“Thank you, Weyrleader,” Menolly managed to stammer. “We were really just tuning to amuse ourselves.”

“Well done anyway,” F’lar said, “but I’m here for more than the music. I’m to take you to Half-Circle.”

“Oh,” Menolly replied, shocked. “I thought T’gran, or perhaps T’gellan…”

“I’m not normally in the habit of delivering Harpers to remote Sea Holds,” F’lar agreed, “but your situation is … unusual. I suspect Yanus will take the news better coming from me.”

Menolly nodded gratefully.

“Also, I have two other things to send along with you,” F’lar continued. “The first is a set of new Threadfall timetables, and the second is a fire lizard egg. It’s just as well you’re going to be Harper there for a while; you can help Yanus through the first few sevendays with his hatchling.”

“That I can do,” Menolly agreed. She had Impressed and raised nine fire lizards on her own, while nobody else on Pern, including trained dragonriders, had managed more than three.

“Good,” F’lar said. “You wouldn’t believe the troubles these Holders and Craftsmen can get into when they Impress a hatchling and there’s nobody around to guide them. I can’t count the times we’ve had panicked calls for help over nothing more than an empty fire lizard belly.”

“I think I can imagine,” Menolly replied, laughing. She had seen sensible grown men, including Master Robinton, fall into hapless panic in their first few days with their new companions.

“Do you know how the timetables work?” F’lar asked, changing the subject.

“I’ve been taught,” Menolly replied. All Harpers had. “But I’ve never actually had to use them.”

“The Sea Holder has the primary responsibility,” F’lar said, “but we like to make sure the Hold Harper can also read them, just to be safe.”

“That makes good sense,” Menolly replied. “Can I ask how accurate they are? Back when I was still at Half-Circle, it seemed like Threadfall sometimes came on days when it wasn’t expected.”

“It did,” F’lar said. “There was a shift in the pattern a few Turns back, and we never could figure out why. Lost quite a few men and dragons to the change. But things have settled back down; it’s been nearly a full Turn now since the timetables have been off by as much as an hour, at least in the North.”

“Good to know,” Menolly replied.

“Are you ready to leave?” F’lar asked.

“Almost,” Menolly replied. “I have to pack my instruments and have a word with Manora, and then I can go.”

“Very well,” F’lar said. “I’ll just go get those charts and the egg. Meet me in the Bowl when you’re ready.”

Menolly did just that, and she found Mnementh outside waiting for her, but F’lar had not yet arrived. Though she had ridden a dozen dragons in her life, it was always a thrill. Feeling she should acknowledge the great beast, she made a little bow toward him – a curtsy would have felt silly, as she preferred to travel in trousers rather than a skirt – and he turned his great head toward her, his multifaceted eyes whirling with the blue and green of contentment. Much like her own little fire lizards, yet impossibly large.

In her mind Menolly heard a low, pleased rumbling, Mnementh’s wordless response to her courtesy. Whether it came directly from the dragon’s mind into her own or echoed through her fire lizards Menolly did not know, but she was surprised and gratified by the gesture. Dragons rarely spoke to anyone but their riders.

F’lar appeared, holding out a tube with the timetables rolled up safely and a furred sack with the fire lizard egg. Menolly tucked the sack under her tunic, directly against her skin for protection against the cold between, and together she and F’lar secured her baggage to Mnementh’s riding straps. As Menolly and the Weyrleader mounted the great bronze dragon, all nine of Menolly’s fire lizards burst into the air over Mnementh’s head. They had mostly spent the afternoon exploring the Weyr and sporting about with Benden’s dragons and fire lizards, but now they sensed it was time to leave.

A deep, brassy bugle from inside the weyr startled Menolly.

“That’s just Arith,” F’lar said with a laugh. “She’s laid her first clutch, and Ramoth is brooding over the eggs like they were her own. Arith is not pleased, as you can imagine.”

Menolly laughed.

“The Hatching will be in six sevendays, give or take,” the Weyrleader added once Menolly was securely strapped in. “You’ll have to come back for that. Anyway, I’ll just have Mnementh tell your fair where we’re going, and then we’ll be off.”

With a powerful downstroke of his immense wings, Mnementh was aloft, and as soon as he had climbed to a sufficient height, he winked between.

~~~

Yanus stood outside the Hold doors at Half-Circle, with his lady Mavi and his oldest son Alemi by his side and the senior men of the Hold arrayed behind him, awaiting the arrival of the dragon bearing the replacement Harper. The men were still in their boat clothes, smelling of sweat and fish and seawater, but there had been no time to wash and change. Being absent entirely would be the greater discourtesy. Surely the dragonrider, who labored mightily with his beast to keep the skies free of Thread, would understand the necessity of hard work. And if the new Harper could not, well then he was ill suited to life in a Sea Hold.

The fleet had set out before dawn to trawl the Nerat Deep, with plenty of time to return before the Harper's arrival, but an unexpected wind shift had drawn them into the Southern Current, and they’d had to spend the whole afternoon fighting wind and tide to get home. Yanus felt rather unsettled by the experience. He had never liked the unexpected.

Alemi was the first to spot the bronze dragon winking into the sky above the hold. Yanus’s breath caught, for though the dragon was high in the sky, it could be none other than Mnementh, ridden by the Weyrleader himself. No other bronze was so large, and Yanus recognized the distinctive scar along the great dragon’s foreleg.

As the bronze circled in to land, Yanus fretted. The Weyrleader wouldn’t be coming himself just to deliver the new Harper; that was a task for a blue or green rider, perhaps a brown. The arrival of the Weyrleader meant there was something more than just a new Harper. Yanus noticed his fingers tapping against his leg, and he willed himself still. It would not do to display his inner agitation in front of the men.

The great bronze landed and his rider and passenger dismounted. The rider was indeed F’lar, the Benden Weyrleader, as Yanus had suspected. The passenger, though he wore a Harper-blue tunic and trousers, did not look at all like a proper Harper or a proper man. The lad was tall enough, but he was very slight of build, and much too young. And that hair – down almost to his shoulders. Was that how the land-bred were wearing it these days? Yanus thought it most unmanly.

A jubilant whoop from Alemi, standing to his right, startled Yanus out of his thoughts. He wondered for a moment what had caused Alemi to react so, and then he saw it too. The Harper lad was no lad at all, but a girl. And not just any girl: she was the spitting image of his own youngest daughter, who had gone missing over a Turn ago and was presumed dead.

“Begging your pardon, Weyrleader,” Yanus said as deferentially as he could when the dragonrider and the girl approached, “but what’s the meaning of this? We were promised a new Harper.”

“So you were,” F’lar replied, “and here she is.”

“There must be some mistake,” Yanus said. “Girls can’t be Harpers.”

“Well this one is,” the girl replied, with a surprising amount of heat in her voice. Yanus knew as soon as she opened her mouth that the girl was indeed his lost daughter, though how she could be standing there in front of him, with a Journeyman Harper’s badge on her tunic, he could not possibly imagine.

While Yanus stood dumbstruck, the air was suddenly full of fire lizards, swooping over the assembled crowd and chittering to each other in their excitement. He worried for a moment that he was seeing things, but all the men had reacted as well, which meant the creatures must be real.

With a few more swoops and dives, the tiny dragon-like creatures settled down, most of them alighting over the Hold doors, above and behind the Sea Holder and his people. The largest of the bunch, a little golden queen, landed on the girl’s shoulder.

“With all due respect, Weyrleader, I think an explanation is in order,” Yanus said, deliberately ignoring the girl and looking straight at the dragonrider. “What is she doing here, and where has she been this last Turn? Why are there suddenly so many fire lizards? And where is the Harper?”

F’lar looked toward the girl, as if asking permission to speak for her, and she nodded in response. Yanus did not know what to make of the exchange; he did not expect the Weyrleader to defer to anyone, least of all a runaway girl.

“It’s quite simple really,” F’lar said, in a tone that Yanus would have thought condescending coming from a lesser man, and he proceeded to tell an incredible tale of how the girl Menolly – his own daughter, Yanus had to remind himself – had run away from the Sea Hold to live holdless, Impressed nine fire lizards, been rescued from Threadfall and brought to Benden Weyr, and finally been discovered by the Masterharper, invited to the Harper Hall, and made a Journeyman Harper. Had the story not come from the Weyrleader himself, Yanus would not have believed a word of it.

“Does that about cover it?” F’lar asked the girl when he finished.

“It does,” she replied. “Thank you, Weyrleader.”

Alemi, who had been standing quietly beside Yanus, rushed over to embrace his younger sister.

“It’s so good to see you,” he said. “I had a hunch the Masterharper might send you after Harper Elgion was injured so badly.”

“Wait,” Yanus said, rounding on his oldest son. “You knew about this?”

“About Menolly being a Harper, yes I did,” Alemi replied. “But I didn’t know she was coming here until I saw her climbing off the dragon.”

“And you didn’t think to tell me?” Yanus asked.

“I did think to tell you,” Alemi replied, without even a hint of contrition, “but any time I even mentioned Menolly’s name, you and Mavi would go stone still and pretend I hadn’t said a word. No point in telling a man something he won’t hear.”

Yanus grumbled at Alemi, but there would be time to upbraid the young man later, in private. Everything about this situation was most irregular. He had a Hold to run, and a Hold needed a Harper, not some runaway girl. He summoned up another protest, but the Weyrleader cut him off before he could speak.

“Menolly is your new Harper, Sea Holder Yanus,” F’lar said. “She’ll be here for the next ten or twelve sevendays, unless you can convince the Masterharper otherwise, and I wouldn’t lay my marks on that if I were you.”

Yanus could make no reply. The Weyrleader seemed to approve of this peculiar arrangement that went so completely against Tradition, and Yanus had far too much respect for the dragonrider to contradict him. If the Weyrleader said it, it was so. Yanus bowed his head and did his best to accept the situation with some grace.

“Will you stay for supper, Weyrleader?” he asked. The invitation was sincere, for Yanus believed in the duty of extending hospitality to visitors, and most especially to dragonriders, but it was also a formality: no dragonrider had ever chosen to spend more time at the Sea Hold than was necessary to conduct the business that had brought him there. So Yanus could scarcely believe what he heard next.

“I believe I will,” the Weyrleader replied, sounding a bit surprised at this notion himself. It took Mavi’s elbow in his ribs to prompt Yanus remember his manners.

“This way, Weyrleader,” he said, gesturing for the dragonrider to precede him into the Hold. The Weyrleader walked in through the amazed crowd, which parted before him. So did the girl.

Inside the Sea Hold, Alemi led the Weyrleader on a tour, and the dragonrider listened attentively and said the right things at the right times, so that courtesy was satisfied, though Yanus doubted the dragonrider had any particular interest in the size of the smoke cave or the arrangement of the drydock. Ending the tour at the Records Room, which Yanus also used as an office, the Weyrleader handed Yanus a tube of rolled paper sheets.

“New Threadfall timetables,” he said. “The old ones run out in ten days or so.”

“Thank you, Weyrleader,” Yanus replied. “These charts have been most helpful.”

“As Hold Harper, Menolly also has a set,” F’lar added. Yanus grunted something affirmative, the briefest response he could make without being discourteous. If the dragonrider took offense, he did not show it.

“I’ve something else for you as well,” F’lar added with a mischievous grin. “A surprise Menolly will reveal after supper.”

To that, Yanus did not respond at all; he simply turned and walked out of the room and into the Great Hall. The Weyrleader’s grin broadened into something Yanus could best describe as a smirk.

As soon as Yanus and the honored guests entered the Great Hall, the assembled population of the Sea Hold erupted into excited whisperings. Yanus couldn’t fault their gossiping – the presence of the Weyrleader was the most notable thing to happen at the Sea Hold in a great many Turns, and the girl was bound to be recognized and the mystery of her disappearance and reappearance wondered over. The murmurings grew louder as the girl’s nine fire lizards streamed in behind them.

The Weyrleader was given the place of honor at the head table; the Hold could scarcely do otherwise. Yanus made polite conversation with the dragonrider through the meal, but he ignored the Harper girl entirely, and Mavi seemed content to follow his lead. Alemi, seated next to Menolly, did not share Yanus’s reticence, and he patently ignored Yanus’s disapproving gaze.

Though Alemi and Yanus had their share of disagreements, the Sea Holder valued his oldest son’s sound, independent judgement. The young man had proven himself a capable sailor and captain, and he would make a fine Sea Holder when the time came for Yanus to step aside. He only hoped that Alemi’s soft spot for his youngest sister would not lead him break further with Tradition and endanger the safety of his crew or his Hold; otherwise he might have to reconsider his succession.

When the meal was done, F’lar stood and called for attention, and the hall went instantly and completely silent. The Weyrleader introduced Menolly to the assembled population as both the new Hold Harper and as the long lost daughter of the Hold, miraculously returned. A fitful, confused cheer broke out before blooming into a full welcome.

Menolly stood, strummed a few tuning chords on her gitar, and, without a word of introduction, launched into a stirring rendition of one of the newer heroic ballads. Elgion had played it once or twice to generally positive effect, but Menolly increased the tempo and varied the harmony, playing with such driving intensity that every listener was transported out of the Great Hall and up into the song’s flaming, Thread-filled sky.

Halfway through, Menolly’s fire lizards joined in, first the two bronzes, then the queen and two of the browns. The effect was dramatic. Yanus had no idea the creatures could sing at all, let alone with such magnificent voices. The gasps and cries around the Hall told Yanus he was not the only one so surprised.

Yanus was also struck by the girl’s voice – it had always been sweet, back when she used to sing with Petiron in the evenings, but it had gained a new depth, a new confidence, a new authority, that was quite unsettling. Though she was still a mere girl, she sounded like a Harper.

The ballad’s rushing, dramatic finale left everyone breathless, and when the last echoes of fire lizard voices finally died away, the Hall was left in an eerie silence.

“Right, then,” Menolly said, her brisk words breaking the spell she had woven with her gitar, her voice, and her fire lizards. The Hall broke back into excited whispering.

“I’m sure you all have plenty of questions,” Menolly said, projecting her voice to command everyone’s attention, “and I’ll be pleased to answer each and every one of them in the coming days. But the short of it is that Harper Elgion is resting comfortably at Benden Weyr while his damaged hand heals, and he’ll be back here, good as new, in ten or twelve sevendays. Until then, I’ll be standing in as Hold Harper.”

The Hall erupted into a cacophony of overlapping conversations and questions and exclamations, which startled the fire lizards, whose antics only set off more commotion.

A girl harper, eh? Why, I’ve never heard of… How bad is he, really? How’d she get so many? Where’d they all come from?

Menolly let the people of the Sea Hold talk themselves out, responding where she could and enduring the chaos with grace and good humor. After the crowd quieted, she played again, this time a new variation on an old sea song, one that had been sung in Sea Holds across Pern in one form or another as long as anyone could remember.

After she’d finished singing, she provided a few more answers to a few more questions, using all the tricks of speech and voice that the Harper Hall had taught her in order to establish her own authority within the Hold and to reinforce that of her Craft. It was not so different from what Elgion had done a Turn before, and Petiron so many Turns before that.

The whole scene was very disorienting for Yanus – at once so familiar, yet also completely alien to everything he believed. Girls couldn’t be Harpers, any more than they could captain a ship or lead a Hold. It went against all Tradition, and it was a slap in the face to every man who raised his sons and daughters knowing what their roles in life were to be. Knowing what was right.

What surprised Yanus most was the Weyrleader’s obvious approval of this unnatural arrangement. Yanus tried, charitably, to remember that the customs and morals of the Weyr differed from those of Hold and Craft, because of the needs the dragons imposed on their riders. The dragonman might not understand how deeply upsetting such a radical break would be, any more than Yanus understood the complex bonds between the dragonriders, their beasts, and the rest of the weyrfolk.

The girl ended her presentation with another surprise, presenting Yanus with a sand-filled metal pot. Yanus could not imagine what its significance could be until both the girl and the Weyrleader indicated he should push aside the top layer of sand. Underneath, he found a hard oval object. An egg, a fire lizard egg. It could not be anything else.

“With Half-Circle being so isolated,” Menolly was saying to the assembled crowd, “the Weyr has decided the Sea Hold should have a fire lizard. They can be excellent messengers, and they’re also delightful companions.” Four or five of the Harper girl’s pets, who were arrayed along the window ledges behind her, cheeped in agreement, and the Hall erupted into laughter.

A fire lizard, Yanus thought. That’s the last thing I need.

~~~

Menolly woke early the next morning, still tired but otherwise adjusted to the six hour time shift between the Harper Craft Hall and the Sea Hold. Though she had never slept in the tidy corner bed, the room in which she was staying was as familiar to her as any place on Pern. Menolly had spent much of her childhood in the Harper’s room, first as Harper Petiron’s favorite student, then later as Petiron’s caregiver when old age and disease robbed him of his ability to care for himself.

Now the Harper’s Room was hers, at least for a little while. A flood of memories brought tears to her eyes, and she let them flow. Wherever he was, Menolly was sure Petiron was proud of her. Her parents were another matter, but she wouldn’t think about that until she had to.

Her fire lizards were still asleep, but she could sense them stirring, and that would mean feeding them, right soon. They were no longer the hungry hatchlings of a Turn ago, but they still had voracious appetites when they first woke in the morning.

By the time Menolly had washed and dressed herself, all nine of her fire lizards were awake and broadcasting hunger. Menolly allowed Beauty to take her usual perch on her shoulder, but she told the rest to stay where they were until she called them. Her presence in the kitchen would cause enough of a stir; adding a whole wing of hungry fire lizards would only invite more chaos.

Menolly had gotten a grudging agreement from Mavi the night before to have the cooks save scraps from the evening meal for the next morning, much as Silvina did for the Harper Hall’s fire lizards. One of the old aunties was put in charge of collecting the scraps and fetching the bowl out of cold storage when Menolly appeared in the morning.

“Well look at you,” the auntie said to Menolly as she entered the kitchen cavern. “Back here safe and sound after all this time, when half the Sea Hold thought you drowned or Thread-scored or goodness knows what. And a Harper to boot. Never knew there could be girl harpers, I can tell you. Can’t say I see the harm in it, though, so long as the men still get fed and the babies still get birthed. Puts me in mind of my mother’s sister, who married a Sea Holder’s son from Ista. She had the sweetest voice…”

Menolly let the old auntie natter on and on, mostly about people who had died long before Menolly was born, while they walked to the cold room together to fetch breakfast for her fire lizards. When the auntie handed the bowl to Menolly, Beauty let out a rather insistent chirp, startling the old woman into silence. Menolly took the break in the auntie’s steady chatter as an opportunity to excuse herself, and she found a quiet corner of the Great Hall where she could feed her fire lizards in peace.

Beauty was already with her, and the other eight materialized above her head and landed around the bowl. Without Piemur and Camo to help feed them, Menolly had to watch them all herself, so there was more than the usual amount of pecking and flapping as each fire lizard tussled to secure a fair share.

The men of the fleet had already had their breakfast and taken the fleet out for a pre-dawn trawl, and the rest of the Hold would not breakfast for perhaps another half-hour, so the place was quiet. The only other occupants were Preela, the young woman who minded the Sea Hold’s youngest children, and a dozen-odd of her charges. The boldest of these was a little girl of three or four Turns, with a bright round face and an unruly mop of brown hair, who broke away from the group and approached Menolly and her fire lizards.

“Are those baby dragons?” the child asked, her face bright with wonder.

“No, they’re not baby dragons,” Menolly replied, “but they are a lot like dragons, only much, much smaller. They’re called fire lizards. This one is Beauty.”

The golden queen looked up from her breakfast long enough to take stock of the child, and she issued an approving chirp. Menolly’s fire lizards had never really spent any time around very young children: the youngest apprentices at the Harper Hall being about ten Turns old. Beauty seemed pleased to meet a person closer to her own size.

“Would you like to feed her?” Menolly asked, and the child nodded her head without taking her eyes off the fire lizard.

“Just take this and hold it out for her,” Menolly said to the little girl, handing her a small piece of fish. The girl extended her hand, palm up, to accept the morsel and offer it to the fire lizard.

She’s only a child, so be nice, Menolly projected to Beauty in her mind. Fire lizards don’t really understand the complexities of language the way that dragons do, but with a little reinforcement, Menolly was able to get her message across to Beauty and the others. Beauty daintily accepted the offering, and the little girl’s already bright eyes sparkled with glee.

Before long, Menolly was surrounded by a ring of small children, each one standing still as a statue while one of Menolly’s fire lizards took a piece of fish from the child’s hand, then collapsing into a fit of giggles and wonderment when the fire lizard pulled away to eat the offering. Menolly apologized several times to Preela for the disruption, but the other woman took it in stride.

“Anything that keeps their attention for more than a minute at a time is fine by me,” Preela told Menolly, smiling and picking out a morsel to feed to Uncle, the solitary little blue, who had not gotten quite as much food as the others. The children were apparently not the only ones intrigued by Menolly’s companions.

“Well, they do need to be fed every morning,” Menolly replied. “If the children would like to help…”

“I’m sure they’d love to,” Preela said, and the two children who were paying any attention at all to the adults nodded in agreement. The rest were enthralled with the fire lizards, who had finished their breakfast and were now licking their talons, rubbing under their chins, and otherwise preening themselves.

The doors of the Great Hall opened, and the land-bound population of the Sea Hold began to pour in for breakfast. Preela herded her charges off to the children’s table, and Menolly suggested to Beauty that she and her friends find a nice warm rock nearby and take a nap. Her morning would be complicated enough without having to manage her fire lizards as well.

The whole wing of them erupted into a cacophony of chirps and other assorted noises, then they all took wing together and disappeared. Menolly got the impression that they were excited to have a real ocean to bathe in again; the placid lakes above Fort Hold were not nearly as much fun.

Menolly ate her own breakfast along with the women of the Hold, for nearly all of the working-age men were out at sea, and she had a pleasant chat with Soreel, the First Holder’s wife, and a group of her friends. Afterward, she fetched her gitar and went to the Little Hall, where the children would soon be assembling for the Teaching.

She strummed a tuning chord, tuned her E string a tad higher, and played the first few bars of one of her new songs, letting the sound reverberate throughout the stone room. The gitar was an instrument of her own making, not borrowed, and Menolly marveled again at the pure, mellow sound she had coaxed out of this assembly of wood and glue and gut. She had finished building it just a few months before, to Master Jerint’s considered approval. It lacked the beautiful inlay of her previous gitar – one made by Master Robinton himself – but it sounded just as sweet, and it could fill even a large room with sound when strummed with energy. All things considered, Menolly was quite proud of her construction.

The children soon began to file in for the Teaching. There would be questions, Menolly expected. She had done the Teaching before, when Petiron was ill and then after he died. She was just a girl then, not a proper Harper, and Yanus had found fault (quite unfairly, Menolly thought) and removed her from the Teaching. The children had been told afterward not to talk about Menolly with Harper Elgion. They would want to know why.

Best not to make too much of it, Menolly thought, and she answered the first few questions as truthfully and openly as she could without compromising Yanus or Elgion, then ended the discussion by playing a rousing ballad about dragonriders to start the lesson.

There was only one right way to do the Teaching, Petiron had told Menolly, and she had followed the rules he had set out for her. What Petiron had not told her, and may not have even remembered himself in his later years, was they why of it. Why the Teaching proceeded in a certain order, with one ballad following another, depending on the season and the type of Hold or Crafthall and the progress of the students. In her Turn at the Harper Craft Hall, Menolly had learned the reasons behind the rules, and with the blue journeyman’s badge on her shoulder, she had also earned the license to bend those rules when needed to suit her purposes.

So between the traditional Ballads and Teaching Songs, Menolly sang other, shorter songs, many of which she herself had written. The songs were easy and fun, so they grabbed the children’s attention when it wandered during the longer ballads, but they also served a deeper purpose. The songs she sang were of farmers and herders, of weavers and tanners, of miners and smiths, songs about ways of life the children of this isolated Sea Hold would likely never experience on their own. The songs were the Harper Craft’s way of binding the people of Pern together, making the world a little smaller.

Yanus would not approve, she was certain. Elgion had introduced some of those same songs, he had told her, to considerable grumbling among the adults of the Hold, Yanus first among them. But nobody questioned a Harper, so Elgion had pushed ahead. Menolly would do the same.

Toward the end of the lesson, Menolly heard the thudding of heavy boots outside in the hallway, approaching from the Dock Cavern. She closed with a silly little tune about a runner beast who wanted desperately to race but was just too small to ever win. She smiled to herself at Yanus’s probable reaction to such frivolity, though the children loved it. After the song, she dismissed the children to their families. Soon the Sea Hold would be assembling in the Dock Cavern to send Old Uncle to his rest.

~~~

The old man had once been Sea Holder, so everyone in the Sea Hold who was able turned out for the funeral. It was easier for Menolly, this time. When she sang the Death Song for Petiron, she was singing for the only person in the entire Sea Hold who had understood what was in her. He had been mentor, teacher, father, and friend to her all at once, and she had cried the heaviest tears of her life at his passing.

Old Uncle, though he was a blood relation and, on a good day, a bright spark of life in a dreary Sea Hold, was not Petiron, and Menolly could sing the Death Song for him without so heavy a heart.

The oarsmen chanted the descant, and from the second verse the fire lizards joined in. The usual singers – Beauty and the bronzes and browns – opened their throats to emit the sweet pure sounds that could only come from fire lizard throats, and then, much to Menolly’s surprise, little blue Uncle joined in as well. He and the two green Aunties had never really been singers, preferring to hum quietly to themselves instead, but Uncle, perhaps recognizing that the song was for his namesake, finally found his voice. The fire lizards’ combined voices produced such a mournful beauty that she encouraged them on, even after she and the oarsmen had fallen silent.

Old Uncle’s body was committed to the deep on the final beat, and the fleet turned around and returned to the Hold. Back safely in the Dock Cavern, Menolly accepted the kind thanks of the Sea Hold for properly singing the old man away.

“Old Uncle would have been proud,” one of the aunties declared, misty-eyed, as Menolly stepped off the burial barge, and then she fell to chattering with her companions about other burials long past.

Though she shivered in the cold of the harbor, Menolly stood and waited, chatting with anyone who wanted a word with the Harper as they disembarked from the fleet. That meant about half of the population of the Hold, and most of the oldsters. They all seemed pleased to have her back, and pleased with the honor she had done for the old man, and sorry for poor Harper Elgion, wasn’t that such a pity, and when would he be back in the Sea Hold again?

~~~

Over the next sevenday, Menolly settled into a comfortable routine. She spent her mornings in the Little Hall with the children for the Teaching and her evenings leading the singing in the Great Hall. If anyone took issue with Menolly’s deviations from the traditional way of doing things, they had the courtesy to limit their complaints to inaudible grumbles, at least within earshot. Girl though she was, she was still the Hold Harper, and anyway Harper Elgion had sung many of the same songs, so they couldn’t be all bad.

She spent the afternoons getting to know the people of the Sea Hold, in a way that was never possible when she was just the Sea Holder’s youngest daughter. She spoke at length with someone from every family unit – usually the wives, since they were in the Hold when their husbands were at sea, and because they didn’t seem to resent her presence like some of the men did.

One person Menolly tried to avoid was Sella, her older sister. They had never gotten along all that well growing up, and Menolly suspected that Sella was still angry with her for running away from the Sea Hold: Mavi would have dumped the most unpleasant of Menolly’s chores on Sella as a result. So when Menolly sat across the table from Sella for one midday meal, she wasn’t surprised at Sella’s stony silence toward her. She was surprised, however, at the vicious tongue-lashing Sella unleashed on her later, when the two met in a corridor with no one else around. Sella was extremely resentful of Menolly, and she was not shy about saying so.

Menolly had known, from Elgion, that Sella had been engaged to a fosterling from another Sea Hold, but the young man was gone by the time she arrived. She later discovered, through gossip among the women, that the fosterling had been sent back to his home Hold the day after Elgion was injured, without any explanation and without Sella. Though Menolly couldn’t quite make herself feel sorry for Sella, she could at least understand her sister’s bitterness a little better.

Given the timing of the dismissal, Menolly suspected it had something to do with the accident, but none of the men from Yanus’s crew were talking. The one thing she knew for certain was that an older seaman named Sidnal had been the one tending the line that slipped. Yanus had punished the man by grounding him for two full sevendays, subject to whatever chores Mavi could find for an able-bodied hand not allowed at sea. Menolly made a point of seeking him out.

“Surprised to see you, I can say,” Sidnal said when Menolly approached him after the midday meal. “Didn’t expect you Harpers to be very happy with me.”

“Oh, Elgion’s still mad,” Menolly said, laughing to take the sting out of her words. “If he were here, I think he’d probably want to punch you in the face with his good hand.”

“Can’t say as I’d blame him, with what happened and all,” Sidnal replied with quiet dignity. “I made a right mess of things, and I’m sorry my dereliction of duty had to fall on the Harper.”

“I know,” Menolly told Sidnal, “and so does Elgion. He may not be all that charitably inclined toward you right now, but he does recognize that it was just one mistake in all your many Turns at sea. That shouldn’t invalidate everything else you’ve done.”

“Tell Yanus that,” Sidnal replied, a trifle cross.

“I’ll try,” Menolly said, “but he doesn’t seem disposed to listen right now.”

Sidnal let out a bark of laughter, because Yanus’s stubborn streak was as strong and as constant as the tides.

And indeed, Menolly had not even spoken to Yanus since the night of her arrival. She sat near him at head table every night for supper, and he usually sat up front for the evening singing, but somehow he never managed to converse with Menolly. He was never overtly rude; he just made a point of having somebody else to talk to whenever she was around. Menolly soon gave up trying. Her mother Mavi wasn’t much better, responding to Menolly with the minimum required to maintain courtesy and satisfy the Harper’s needs.

The one thing that forced the issue was the fire lizard egg. It would be hatching soon, and Yanus would have to make considerable adjustments to accommodate the needs of the tiny creature for the first few sevendays. Menolly was not at all sure he appreciated this fact, so she sought him out in the Records Room one night after supper, when the egg was maybe three days from hatching.

“I never asked for it, and I don’t want it,” Yanus snapped. “I don’t see the point in carting pets about, even if they do sing pretty in the evenings. I’ve plenty to worry about as it is without the added distraction.”

“Well, you can’t give it back now,” Menolly replied with some heat, “and you’ll do the Weyr a great discourtesy if it hatches with nobody to Impress it. Besides, they can be very useful companions, beyond their voices in a choir. Properly trained, they can carry messages from ship to shore and back, and I expect they can learn to scout ahead of a ship on the lookout for fish or for sunken rock, even in a fog.”

“I’ll believe that when I see it,” Yanus retorted, then leaned back in his chair. Menolly waited.

“Fine,” he said after a while. “Fine. Alemi can have the egg. He’ll be Sea Holder one day, and if the creature really is that useful, he should be the one to have it. Only fitting, seeing as he was the one who saw the silly things in the wild those few Turns back.”

“All right,” Menolly said, carefully suppressing the jubilation in her voice. This was exactly the outcome she had hoped for. “He’ll have to stay in the Hold from the day after tomorrow until about two sevendays after the Hatching, give or take a few days.”

“That’s a lot of time,” Yanus grumbled. “It had better be worth it.”

“It will,” Menolly replied. “I’ll let Alemi know.”

Yanus gave a curt nod and returned to whatever he had been working on before Menolly arrived. She took that as an implicit dismissal and left to find her older brother.

~~~

“Really?” Alemi asked, looking like a boy of fourteen.

“Yes, really,” Menolly replied, all smiles. “Yanus doesn’t want the egg for himself, and you’re the next logical person. It’s not all that surprising.”

“I suppose,” Alemi said, sounding skeptical. “I can’t imagine anyone not wanting a fire lizard. Though this is Yanus we’re talking about…”

Menolly smiled. “You’ll have to stay Hold-bound for a while,” she said. “Just until the hatchling grows out of its eating and sleeping all the time phase. Two sevendays, maybe.”

“I don’t suppose Yanus was happy about that,” Alemi said.

“No,” Menolly replied, “but he agreed to it.”

“It’s actually for the best,” Alemi said. “I can oversee the construction of the new sloop. Mander’s not really up to the task.”

Menolly looked at Alemi inquiringly, one eyebrow raised.

“Oh, he was a fine seaman in his day,” Alemi said, “but he’s old enough now that he can’t get through the afternoon without a nap. I bugged Yanus months ago to let Tilsit manage the project – the ship is going to be his, and a captain should know every plank and nail in his vessel. He should be there when she’s put together. But Yanus wouldn’t hear of it.”

“Can’t spare a man from the fishing,” Menolly said, in deft imitation of Yanus’s brusque manner.

“Exactly what he said, word for word,” Alemi replied, laughing. “It would have been easy enough to work short-handed for a few months. No real problem with my crew. But Yanus has to have the last word…”

“Just be ready, whatever you do,” Menolly said. “The egg pot is in the Great Hall, by the hearth, and you won’t have a lot of warning to get there once it starts rocking.”

“I’ll be there in a flash,” Alemi replied, that fourteen-Turn-old look returning to his eye. “Do you have any idea what color it will be?”

“Too small for a queen,” Menolly replied. “Probably too big for a green or blue. Brown, most likely, or bronze. Though you can never tell for sure.”

“I’ll be thrilled whatever color,” Alemi said. “A fire lizard of my own…”

Menolly left him then, returning to the Harper’s room to get some work done on her composition before bed. She owed Domick a new draft in three days, and she had no intention of disappointing him.

~~~

The egg hatched right on time, in the middle of the morning. Menolly was in the Little Hall, teaching the children one of the longer Sagas, and Beauty was perched on a stool in the corner, sulking because she wasn’t allowed to sing along while the children were practicing. For a moment Menolly thought Beauty’s loud humming was a rebuke, but she soon realized that the humming had nothing to do with the music. Beauty took wing, let out a piercing squawk, and disappeared. Menolly had the impression that all nine of her fire lizards were assembling in the Great Hall around the egg pot. She called the lesson to a close.

“You, Santer,” she said to the tallest lad of the group, “run to the Dock Cavern and tell Alemi to come to the Great Hall. The rest of you, follow me. You remember what you’re supposed to do?”

“Yes, Harper Menolly,” they said in unison. She had drilled it into their heads that if they wanted to watch the Hatching, they would have to stay well out of Menolly and Alemi’s way. Menolly led them down the corridor to the Great Hall.

The children assembled in a loose semi-circle around the hearth, some sitting at the benches along the oldsters’ table and some on the floor. Alemi came running a moment later, short of breath, with Santer following close on his heels. Another lad was dispatched to the kitchen for a bowl of raw fish to feed the hatchling.

Menolly upended the egg pot, pouring the sand onto the hearth and placing the egg on top of the pile, and she then had Alemi kneel in front of it. The egg was rocking violently by that point, with the first cracks starting to show.

The tip of a beak broke through the shell, then a talon, and suddenly the egg split in half, spilling the tiny brown creature into Alemi’s waiting hands.

Alemi’s eyes opened wide in delight, and the children all let out a little cheer, though Menolly had schooled them not to be too loud.

“Feed it,” Menolly said, shoving a handful of fish at her older brother. Alemi managed, awkwardly, to disentangle his right hand, and he was able to get a scrap of raw fish into the little fire lizard’s mouth before the creature grew too agitated. Another piece followed, and another, until the hatchling had eaten nearly his own weight in fish, at which point he let out a mighty belch and collapsed into a ball in the crook of Alemi’s arm. The children all laughed at the belch.

“It’s the most amazing thing,” Alemi said, looking up at Menolly. “I mean, I always wanted one, like anybody, but I had no idea…”

Menolly returned the look with a warm smile and a hand on her brother’s shoulder.

Now that Impression had occurred and the hatchling was settled in for his first nap, the children crowded around to get a closer look. They had all seen and touched Menolly’s nine fire lizards, but there is always something special about babies, of any species.

The women of the Hold, too, gathered around, first the kitchen workers preparing for the midday meal, and then those who were sweeping or washing or mending or working at all the other tedious tasks that needed doing in order to keep the Sea Hold running.

Mavi broke up the fun, scolding everyone back to work, though not, Menolly noticed, before taking a good long look at the baby fire lizard herself.

“You can have a proper gawk at mealtime,” she said to the assembled crowd. “But for now there’s work to do, and if you don’t get back to it, there won’t be a meal…”

After some good-natured grumbling, the women dispersed and returned to their tasks, and Mavi’s gaze turned toward Menolly and the children.

“If you’re finished with the Teaching for today, Menolly,” Mavi said, “the children can gather seaweed from the beaches.”

Just ‘Menolly’, not ‘Harper Menolly’, as Mavi would have addressed Harper Elgion. Menolly filed the slight away in her mind; it would do no good to press it now.

“No, I think we can fit in another song or two,” Menolly replied, and the children erupted into sighs and giggles of relief, promptly silenced by Mavi’s admonitory glare. She gathered the children to return to the Little Hall, and Alemi headed back to the Dock Cavern.

“Keep a few fishrolls on you,” Menolly said to Alemi as they walked out of the Great Hall together. “He’ll be starving again as soon as he wakes up, and a fishroll in your hand is better than a bowl in the kitchens.”

“Got it,” Alemi replied, holding up a full belt pouch.

“Have you picked out a name?” Menolly asked.

“I have,” Alemi replied. “I think I’ll call him Marn.”

~~~

Like all hatchlings, little Marn grew quickly in his first few days. The morning ritual of the Feeding of the Fire Lizards was established firmly enough, with the older children as well as the young ones, that adding one more was no trouble, though Marn’s sharp talons and greedy table manners did cause a few tears.

Menolly spent much of her free time with Alemi during his enforced shore leave, mostly guiding him in caring for and training his new companion, but also because she was quite fond of her oldest brother. He was as diligent and as skilled at the Sea Man’s craft as was Yanus, but without his father’s sour moods and single-minded inflexibility. Menolly was glad of the opportunity to get to know him again.

“You had nine of these bottomless pits to feed every day, and you had to catch it all yourself?” Alemi said to Menolly one morning. “I don’t know how you did it.”

Menolly only smiled in response, for Alemi was echoing the words of just about every fire lizard owner Menolly had ever met.

Even with Menolly there to guide him, Alemi had his share of panicked moments when Marn acted out at the wrong time or woke from a nap with flaming red eyes and a ravenous appetite, but he managed, mostly, to get through his enforced shore leave with his sanity and dignity intact.

When he returned to the fishing fleet, Alemi put his foot down with Yanus and insisted that Tilsit oversee the final construction phase of the new sloop, and Yanus reluctantly agreed.

~~~

Between the Teaching in the mornings and the evening singing, as well helping Alemi to raise his little fire lizard, Menolly was quite satisfied with the way she was executing her formal responsibilities as Hold Harper. She was less satisfied, however, with how she handled the looser, less formal aspects of the job.

As well as teaching the young and entertaining, Harpers were expected to offer comfort and counsel to those in need, to mediate disputes, to facilitate arrangements for marriage, fostering, and the like, and to advise the Holder. Menolly was called upon to do almost none of these things.

She put much of the trouble down to her temporary status – why get somebody new involved in a long-running dispute when the regular Harper would be back in a month or two? Then, too, there was the issue of her youth and her sex – she couldn’t see an older woman or a man of any age coming to her for advice as they would to Harper Elgion, no matter the badge on her shoulder. She had a bit more luck with the girls of the Sea Hold, though they were mostly concerned with Harper Elgion, and when would he be returning, and how could they get to know him better when he did?

So Menolly was quite surprised when Perrin, the Harbormaster’s wife, came to her one morning, entering the Little Hall as the children were filing out after the Teaching, and shut the door behind her.

“What can I do for you?” Menolly asked, keeping her tone light though Perrin’s face was heavy.

Perrin paced about the room for a bit, looking like she might say something three or four times but deciding against it. Menolly waited.

“It’s Debella, my daughter,” she finally said, and her face softened, just a little, as a memory struck her. “You and she used to play together as little girls. Do you remember?”

Menolly did remember, though she hadn’t spoken to the girl since she’d returned to the Sea Hold. Debella was older than Menolly by a Turn or two, Menolly thought. A pretty girl, with long rose gold hair, and a pleasant one as well, though Menolly could think of little they had in common beyond their age and sex.

“I remember,” Menolly replied, wondering what could be distressing Perrin so. She searched her memory, and she came up with a hazy recollection of something Elgion had mentioned at Benden, though she hadn’t heard a word about it from anyone else at Half-Circle, which seemed strange. Debella was pledged in marriage, she thought, to one of the Sea Hold’s fosterlings, though Menolly couldn’t remember which one.

“She’s to be married, if I recall correctly,” Menolly said, watching Perrin’s face closely for her reaction.

“Aye,” Perrin replied. “She’ll be wed to Nestur next month. It’s a good match, and she’s been a good girl. Accepted her father’s decision with the grace befitting a young lady.”

Menolly could sense that there was more to the story. Perrin’s cautious, formal phrasing and the way her face tightened when she said Nestur’s name told Menolly that she supported her husband’s decision regarding the betrothal but did not entirely agree with it.

“But these past two sevendays,” Perrin continued, “she’s been a different person. She weeps all the time, for no reason anyone can get out of her, and she hides herself away any chance she gets.”

Menolly had to suppress a laugh. She had done much the same in her last days at the Sea Hold, before she ran away, though she had never wept so much. Debella, however, was not the type to run away.

“What can I do?” Menolly asked.

“Will you speak to her?” Perrin asked. “I’ve tried, and so has her father, but I’m afraid we’re the last ones she’d open up to at a time like this. Perhaps she’ll speak to you.”

“All right,” Menolly replied. “I’ll do what I can.”

“Thank you, Harper Menolly,” Perrin said.

“It’s just wedding jitters,” Perrin added, mostly to herself, as she followed Menolly out the door of the Little Hall. “She’ll be all right.”

The tone of Perrin’s voice left Menolly in no doubt that the problem, whatever it was, was much more than a simple case of wedding jitters.

~~~

Menolly found Debella in one of the unused inner rooms. The people of the Sea Hold rarely ventured back there, but Menolly knew them well. They were among her own preferred hiding spots growing up.

“I was just sweeping up,” the girl said when she heard Menolly walking up behind her, snatching up her discarded broom. “You can tell Mavi I’ll be finished with this last room presently.”

“Relax,” Menolly said, flashing a reassuring smile as she slid into the room and sat on an empty crate. “I’m not here to scold you back to work.”

“Oh. All right,” Debella said, blinking with perplexity. “What is it then? Did my mother send you?”

“She’s worried about you,” Menolly replied.

“Little does she care,” Debella said, with a bitterness that caught Menolly off guard. “I could die, for all it matters to her and my father, just as long as I marry Nestur first.”

Debella squeezed her broom handle tight enough to turn her knuckles white. Though Menolly remembered Debella has a pretty girl, she showed little sign of it at that moment – her long rose-gold hair was limp and dirty, her cheeks were puffed and blotchy with weeping, and her eyes were burned holes in her head. The way she was closing in on herself, she looked ready to break into tears again.

“Why don’t you tell me what’s wrong?” Menolly suggested, as gently as she could.

“And have you run off to my parents just as soon as I do?” Debella snapped back. “No thank you.”

“Listen to me, Debella,” Menolly said, putting a hand on the girl’s shoulder. Debella initially flinched at Menolly’s touch, but she did not pull away.

“You can tell me anything,” Menolly said, “and I won’t tell another soul without your permission. You have my word as a Harper.”

“You promise you won’t say anything?” Debella asked.

“I promise,” Menolly replied. “And as a Harper, I’m also the only person at Half-Circle not beholden to the Sea Holder. You can trust me.”

A faint light of hope flickered in the girl’s face, and Menolly knew she had won her confidence. It would take a while for Debella to unburden herself, but she would tell Menolly whatever secrets were eating at her, and then, perhaps, Menolly could do something to help.

“Not here, though,” Menolly said. “It’s dark and stuffy, and the walls sometimes have ears. Let’s take a walk.”

~~~

In the fresh air outside the Sea Hold, Debella was calmer.

“What is it that’s distressing you so?” Menolly asked Debella once they were a comfortable distance from the Sea Hold. The marshes to the south were empty, desolate places, far from curious ears.

Debella just walked on, as if Menolly had not spoken. A while later, Menolly tried again. “Is it to do with getting married?” she asked. “Don’t you like Nestur?”

“He’s all right,” Debella replied, without enthusiasm.

Menolly didn’t blame her. Nestur was a tall, dark, handsome young man, and judging by the word among the seamen, he was an excellent sailor and fisherman, but Menolly found him to be quite dull. He seemed to have little interest in anything beyond fishing and the sea. Perhaps that was why Yanus liked him so much.

Nestur was also the son of the harbormaster at Tillek Sea Hold, as well as the oldest nephew of the Sea Holder, and Yanus was keen on forming a deeper relationship with Tillek. He would also be, Menolly thought, the older brother of Briala, one of the girls who had been studying at the Harper Hall when Menolly arrived. The relationship did nothing to improve Menolly’s opinion of the young man.

Menolly wanted to tell Debella that everything would be all right, that she didn’t have to marry Nestur if she didn’t want to, but she couldn’t do that. The reality was that Debella would have to marry the man her father had chosen for her, unless someone – most likely Menolly – could convince him otherwise. And to do that, she would need a better argument than Nestur’s dull personality.

“Maybe he’s not the most exciting man,” Menolly said, “but do you think you can learn to like him?”

“It’s not that,” Debella replied. Menolly felt like there was more to say, but Debella was having trouble getting it out. Menolly decided to wait.

They walked quietly together a long way down the coast, fire lizards circling overhead. In time, they were past the familiar landmarks, though not as far as the cave that Menolly had made her home after running away. Finally, just before Menolly suggested they turn around and walk back to the Sea Hold, Debella stopped at the top of a low, rocky hump hill, looked out over the sea, and drew breath to speak.

“I’ve missed my monthly bleeding.”

Menolly’s heartbeat sped up, and her face felt hot. She was not at all ready for this kind of discussion. She supposed the young men who were assigned as Hold Harpers had some experience with sex and its consequences, but she had none at all.

She took a deep breath to calm herself. She could do this. She was a girl, after all, so she could put herself in Debella’s place, in a way that a male Harper could not. She could help Debella.

And anyway, Menolly had been around long enough to know the signs weren’t always reliable. “It could be just—”

“It’s not,” Debella replied, cutting her off. “My cycle’s as regular as the tide. At least, it used to be.”

“Well, you’d hardly be the first girl to turn up pregnant at her own wedding,” Menolly said. “Nobody will say anything if the baby comes a few sevendays early.”

Debella let out a soft laugh and looked out over the sea with a kind of sad longing that made Menolly’s heart ache. She looked, Menolly thought, like she wanted wade out into the water and swim away until she could no longer keep her head above the waves.

“It’s not Nestur’s,” Debella said in a soft voice. “It’s Baldren’s.”

“Oh,” was all Menolly could manage to say in response. Baldren, a fosterling who had recently gone home to Igen River Sea Hold, was as fair as Nestur was dark.

“Everyone will know,” Debella wailed. “As soon as they see the baby, with the hair and the eyes, they’ll just know. And if it’s a boy, what’s going to happen then? Nestur might be Sea Holder one day, and if his son is not really his son…”

Menolly sighed. Debella was right – Tillek Sea Hold was not the backwater that Half-Circle was, but the whispers about the child’s father would still undermine her place there, perhaps fatally. Bad enough if she were marrying a simple seaman, without rank, but Nestur was a plausible candidate for the current Sea Holder’s successor – the man had six daughters and no sons. Debella would lack legitimacy as the Sea Holder’s lady, or whatever other position her husband’s rank afforded her, and the entire Hold would suffer the consequences.

Menolly put a comforting arm around Debella’s shoulder, and Beauty, who had been silently observing from her perch on Menolly’s shoulder, nuzzled the girl’s cheek.

“It was just the one time,” Debella said, her voice a little calmer. “Baldren was leaving in the morning, going back home to Igen, and Nestur was just being so … so … well you know how he is sometimes.”

Menolly smiled. She did know.

“Baldren was so good to me,” Debella said, managing a weak smile at the memory. “He was funny and kind, and he was actually interested in what I wanted for my life. I never thought…”

For a moment, Menolly was annoyed with the girl, precisely because she didn’t think. But only for a moment. It was an easy mistake to make, and the consequences for Debella were out of all proportion to the indiscretion. Circumstances varied quite a bit across Pernese society, but Menolly could think of few situations where an unexpected pregnancy would be more damaging. And, as usual, the burden was falling entirely on the girl.

But the situation need not be a total disaster. Debella clearly could not marry Nestur, but what about Baldren? He was, arguably, as good a match, and Debella obviously liked him a great deal more. With time, that liking could grow into love.

“I may have an idea,” Menolly said. “I’ll need to speak to your parents, and I’m not making any promises, but I think I can work something out.”

“You won’t tell them about the baby, will you?” Debella pleaded. “I couldn’t bear that.”

“I gave you my word,” Menolly replied. “I’ll find another way to convince them.”

“Oh thank you! Thank you!” the girl cried, wrapping Menolly in a fierce embrace. Beauty, startled by the gesture, pecked at Debella’s ear, though not hard enough to hurt. Both girls laughed.

“We should get home,” Menolly said. “If we’re out here much longer, we’ll be late for supper.”

~~~

Menolly needed to speak with Debella’s parents, and right soon – Debella wasn’t getting any less pregnant – but the harbormaster had, infuriatingly, chosen to sail out with a trade ship, and he wouldn’t be back for days, so that was that. Before he returned, all she could do was gather information, which she set out to do the next day.

She and her fire lizards had been to Tillek Sea Hold a few times with Sebell, so scouting out the situation there wasn’t particularly difficult. She sent Rocky off with a short note for Harper Falmur, an older journeyman who’d been at the Sea Hold for a dozen Turns or more, and she got a detailed response later that afternoon. There were no real surprises, but Falmur did give her plenty to think about.

More important was Baldren’s home, Igen River Sea Hold. Neither Menolly nor her fire lizards had ever been there. A fire lizard can’t deliver a message if she doesn’t know where she’s going. But Menolly did, barely, know the Harper there – Journeyman Strud. He was posted to the Sea Hold a Turn ago, just a sevenday after Menolly arrived at the Harper Craft Hall, so her memory of the man was somewhat hazy.

Menolly coaxed Beauty, who had been in her usual perch on Menolly’s shoulder, to her forearm, looked into the little queen’s jeweled eyes, lazily whirling blue and green, and tried to picture the journeyman harper in her mind. Beauty’s eyes whirled a little faster, and she chirped inquiringly.

“Do you think you could find Strud?” Menolly asked. “You may not remember him very well, but—”

Beauty chirped back at Menolly with enough force to interrupt her, making it quite clear that she remembered Journeyman Strud just fine, and that she would have no trouble finding him, even in an unfamiliar Sea Hold.

“Oh, you clever darling!” Menolly said. Beauty extended and then folded her wings, and she climbed from Menolly’s arm onto the desk to wait while Menolly composed her message. Menolly laughed.

Beauty was gone less than an hour when Menolly first sent her to find the Igen Harper, returning with a short note telling her to send Beauty again later that evening. She did so, and this time Harper Strud sent back a long letter telling Menolly everything she needed to know.

~~~

Debella’s mood improved somewhat after her talk with Menolly, enough that Perrin no longer seemed quite so worried about her daughter. Debella spent much of her free time in Menolly’s company – enough for Menolly to wish her father would come home soon so they could all have an end of the matter.

And, anyway, Menolly had a more pressing problem. Yanus’s and Mavi’s refusal to speak to her was starting to get in the way of her responsibilities as Harper.

Menolly didn’t expect Yanus to ask for her counsel, as he did of Harper Elgion. She expected the little slights, the information that should have been shared with the Harper but somehow fell through the cracks. She knew the people of the Sea Hold well enough to ferret out what she needed to know in other ways.

But then Yanus reassigned two dozen men to different ships within the fleet, and at the same time, Mavi arranged a big shuffle of the living of the living quarters to accommodate the younger, growing families, moving eight family units in all. Menolly was told none of this; she found out in bits and pieces over the next few days from the children in the Teaching and from the women of the Hold.

This lack of information was more than just an insult; it undermined Menolly’s authority as Harper and hampered her ability to serve the people of the Hold. She felt she had no choice but to say something.

Menolly found Yanus, as usual, in the Records Room after supper. She knocked, waited for Yanus’s gruff acknowledgement, and entered. She fought down a ridiculous surge of nerves – she was a Journeyman Harper, not the Sea Holder’s youngest daughter. She was entitled to the respect her position afforded her.

“Yanus,” she began, carefully controlling her breathing and keeping her voice neutral and professional. “I have recently become aware of a number of changes in household accommodations and crew assignments. As Hold Harper, I would like to be informed in advance of such changes in the future. I have no wish to intrude into the management of the Sea Hold, where you and Mavi do an admirable job, but as Harper, I also have a responsibility to the people of this Hold, and in order to fulfill my responsibilities, I need to know things like this.”

While she spoke, and for a long while after, Yanus just sat there, leaning back in his chair, regarding her with the same blank, implacable expression he seemed to wear whenever she saw him.

“I’ve been Sea Holder longer than you’ve been alive, girl,” Yanus finally said in a quiet, stubborn voice. “And I don’t answer to anyone, least of all a runaway girl playing at being a Harper.”

“I don’t expect you to!” Menolly snapped back. “All I expect is the courtesy you’d extend to any other Harper.”

Yanus had nothing to say in response, just a dismissive grunt.

“Look, Yanus,” Menolly said, “I don’t want to be here any more than you want to have me. But I am the Hold Harper, chosen by the Masterharper himself, and until Elgion is able to return, the best thing for both of us is to just accept that and get along. I’ll be out of your hair before you know it.”

Again Yanus said nothing. Menolly wanted to scream, or pound her fist on his desk, or pull out her hair, but she got control of herself, mostly. In her frustration, though, she let something slip out that she hadn’t meant to say out loud. “And anyway, we wouldn’t be in this mess if your man Sidnal had been paying attention to his line.”

As soon as the words were out of her mouth, Menolly knew she had made matters much, much worse. By criticizing a man of the Hold, and especially a member of Yanus’s own crew, however accurately, she had called into question Yanus’s fitness as a seaman, as a ship captain, and as Sea Holder. For Yanus, there could be no greater insult.

The Sea Holder’s face closed in on itself, and he bent to his desk to pick up whatever he had been working on, as if Menolly were not even there.

“Yanus…” she began to say, but she could tell from his stony expression that he wasn’t listening. Knowing there was nothing she could do to retrieve the situation, Menolly left.

~~~

The next day, Menolly’s life got much more difficult. She led the children in the Teaching as usual, but none of the adults of the Hold would say a word to her beyond the barest necessity. The women, who had mostly been friendly with her, flashed apologetic smiles before moving on; some of the men refused to even acknowledge her presence.

Even Alemi, who had been Menolly’s staunchest ally since she arrived, wouldn’t have much to do with her. “Whatever’s happened between you and Yanus is poisoning the entire Hold,” he told her, “and you need to fix it, right soon.”

For a while, Menolly tried to stay out of the way, hoping things would blow over. She took her meals in the kitchen rather than the Great Hall, and she spent her afternoons outdoors, wandering the paths she used to follow in search of greens, berries, and the like when she lived in the Hold. There was no evening singing, even after long days of net-mending or longline-baiting.

The one good thing that happened was that Harbormaster Starc was back, so she could finally get Debella settled. With Menolly so out of favor, it wouldn’t be easy to persuade Starc, but what else could she do?

~~~

Menolly arrived at Starc and Perrin’s rooms just before they turned in for the night. Perrin met Menolly at the door and invited her in, but Starc was not pleased to see her.

“I shouldn’t even be speaking to you,” he said. “I don’t know what you did to set Yanus off, but he’s been as dark as a winter storm ever since I got back.”

“Please, Harbormaster,” Menolly said, “I just—”

“I suppose this is about my daughter,” Starc replied, cutting her off. “Perrin tells me you’ve been able to talk some sense into her. At least it seems that way – she doesn’t fall to weeping for no reason the way she used to.”

“I’ve spoken to Debella,” Menolly said.

“And?” Starc replied testily. “Have you straightened her out or not? Is she going to make trouble about marrying Nestur?”

“You’re her father,” Menolly said. “Debella will do her duty to you and to the Sea Hold. She’ll marry Nestur if that’s what you tell her to do. But I don’t think you should.”

“Not you too,” Starc growled. “Everything’s been arranged for months now. I don’t understand what the problem is all of a sudden.”

“The problem,” Menolly replied, keeping her voice calm and even, “is that Debella can’t get along with Nestur.”

“Whatever it is, she’ll get over it,” Starc said. “Plenty of girls marry men they don’t know well or don’t like, but they get over it with time.”

“I don’t think that will happen with Debella,” Menolly said firmly.

“And why not?” Starc shot back.

Menolly felt the walls closing in on her. She had given Debella her word not to mention the baby, but Starc would not budge without a good reason. Would she have to break her promise to Debella in order to help her? Menolly hoped it wouldn’t come to that.

“I wish I could tell you,” Menolly said, shrugging, “but I think that shell is too hard for any of us to crack. Don’t you want your daughter to be happy?”

“Of course I do,” Starc replied, perplexed. “I thought she wanted to marry Nestur.”

Perrin, who had been quietly watching the conversation, gave her husband a look of pure scorn for his obtuseness.

“What?” Starc protested, addressing his wife. “We set her down, the both of us, and asked her did she want to marry Nestur. And she said yes.”

“What did you expect her to say?” Perrin shot back. “Debella doesn’t have a disobedient bone in her body. If you asked her to marry a watchwher, she’d do it. And you know how she’s been lately, with all her friends married and gone away. Nestur was her chance to get out of this place and start a new life, but she barely knew the boy. And now that she does, it doesn’t seem like such a good match, now does it?”

Starc grumbled to himself for a moment. He had honestly thought he was doing the best he could for his daughter. This was most unsettling.

“Think of the insult we’d be giving to Tillek,” he finally said. “Cancelling a wedding that’s barely a month away. It’d take half that time to even get a letter there, and by then there may well already be a ship on the way here. There’s just not enough time.”

“My queen Beauty can deliver a letter to Tillek tonight, so there’s no problem there,” Menolly replied. “And think of the insult we’d be giving Tillek by sending an unbiddable girl home with Nestur. Whatever alliance Half-Circle gained from the marriage would unravel right quick.”

Starc shook his head and laughed softly to himself. “You Harpers,” he said. “Always one step ahead of the rest of us. But Debella’s got to marry someone. Who’s she going to marry if not Nestur? I suppose you have an alternative suggestion.”

“I do,” Menolly replied. “Baldren.”

“That lad from Igen River?” Perrin asked. Starc nodded, and Perrin smiled.

“I’d argue he’s as good a match as Nestur,” Menolly said, “and Debella actually likes him.”

“Igen River’s a small Hold,” Starc replied. “An alliance with Tillek holds a lot more promise. Yanus has been trying to forge a bond with them for Turns and Turns.”

“Igen River may be small,” Menolly countered, “but it’s prosperous, and it’s close. Half-Circle could benefit handsomely from the additional trade. And Baldren is the Sea Holder’s son and confirmed heir, not his nephew.”

“True enough,” Starc said, “but Nestur will be Sea Holder in time as well. His uncle has no sons.”

“Nestur may be the leading candidate,” Menolly replied, “but I have it from Harper Falmur that the Sea Holder has made a point of not naming an heir. Wants to keep the lads on their toes, I guess.”

Starc was taken aback. Everyone at Half-Circle had just assumed that Nestur would succeed his uncle. Though the only source of information they really had was Nestur himself…

“All right, it’s as good a match,” Starc allowed. “But Yanus will be disappointed.”

“And whose daughter is she then?” Menolly asked Starc. “Yanus’s or yours?”

When Starc laughed, Menolly knew she had him. “Fine, fine, Harper girl. You’ve made your case,” Starc said. “If you can handle the arrangements, they’ll have my blessing.”

“Thank you, Harbormaster,” Menolly said. “And you know, Debella isn’t the only girl from Half-Circle who could marry Nestur…”

“Oh?” Starc replied, his interest piqued. “Not a lot of girls that age with any rank around here. Who else is there?”

“What about Sella?” Menolly said.

“I’d clean forgot about her,” Starc replied, his weathered face cracking into a smile. “But I suppose after that whole business with the accident and Harper Elgion, she won’t be marrying that fosterling of hers. Maybe Yanus will get his alliance with Tillek after all.”

~~~

Menolly found Debella before breakfast the next morning.

“Have you spoken to your parents?” Menolly asked.

“Aye,” Debella replied. “Mother said I’m to marry Baldren instead of Nestur. Is that really true?”

“Indeed it is,” Menolly replied. “I’ve already made all the arrangements for you. Fill your backsack with whatever you can, and your parents will forward anything that’s left. You and your mother should meet me at the Hold doors after the midday meal.”

Debella thanked Menolly and dashed off to her room to pack. She had no wish to run into Mavi and get pressed into some dirty, unpleasant task on the day she was leaving the Sea Hold.

The three women met after dinner and walked out of the Hold, heading south through the marshes. Beauty was in her usual perch on Menolly’s shoulder, and Diver and Brownie circled overhead, but the rest of Menolly’s fire lizards were elsewhere. Probably curled up on a nice warm rock somewhere.

“Where are we going?” asked both Debella and Perrin, almost at the same time, as Menolly led them down the faint track.

“Just follow me,” Menolly replied. “We’ll be there soon.”

They crested one low ridge and another higher one, then both Perrin and Debella stopped in their tracks. There was a blue dragon perched on the low hump hill before them, stretching out to catch the afternoon sun. His rider was leaning against his foreleg.

“You’re late,” the rider called out to Menolly, though the corners of his mouth twitched with amusement.

“No, we’re right on time,” Menolly replied, approaching dragon and rider. “You’re early, S’del.”

“So what if I am?” the dragonrider asked. “We finished our sweep with time to spare, and Veleth wanted some sun. Can’t say I blame him, though I’d rather stretch out on a beach myself.”

The dragon let out something that sounded like a snort, and both Menolly and S’del laughed.

“And you must be Debella,” S’del said, addressing the young woman who was still standing at the top of the ridge, staring. “Are you ready to go?”

Debella’s eyes nearly popped out of their sockets. “I … I’m to ride a dragon?” she asked.

“I called in a favor with T’gellan, and he agreed to send S’del,” Menolly replied. “He’s to transport you to Igen River Sea Hold, so you and Baldren can be married tomorrow.”

“I … I … I don’t know what to say,” Debella stammered.

“Say yes,” Menolly replied, smiling at Debella. The girl stood there stunned for another long moment, then recovered her composure and approached Menolly.

“Is it … safe?” she asked, leaning in close to Menolly and whispering, so that neither her mother nor the dragonrider could hear. “You know, for the baby? I’ve heard that the Weyrwomen…”

“You’ll be fine,” Menolly replied, keeping her voice low. “It’s true that too much time between can be harmful to an unborn child, but one short jump won’t do any harm. The only other choices are a sea voyage or a very long overland journey, and both of those have their own hazards.”

“All right, then,” Debella replied, looking dubious, but she allowed Menolly to take her hand and lead her to the dragon. Perrin gave her daughter one last hug before S’del helped her mount, hopping up himself after her. They were soon away, rising up into the afternoon sun, and then, as soon as Veleth had climbed to a sufficient height, they disappeared. Perrin let out a little gasp of fear, and Menolly put a hand on her shoulder to reassure her.

“She’ll be all right,” Menolly said, and Perrin nodded, though Menolly could tell she wasn’t entirely sure. The two women turned around and walked back to the Sea Hold together, neither saying a word.

Just before they arrived, Perrin stopped, put a hand on Menolly’s arm, and looked her in the eye.

“Thank you, Harper Menolly,” Perrin said. “Thank you for making all the arrangements, and thank you for saving my daughter’s dignity.”

“Not at all,” Menolly replied, smiling to herself at a job well done. “I’m just glad I could help.”

Back inside the Sea Hold, though, after she and Perrin went their separate ways, Menolly remembered the trouble she was in with Yanus, and how badly it was affecting her work as Hold Harper. The Masterharper had entrusted her with a great responsibility for these few sevendays, and she was failing, badly. In some ways, the Sea Hold was worse off than if they’d had no Harper at all. The disrespect Yanus had shown her would do lasting damage, undermining trust in both Harper Elgion when he returned and in Yanus himself. And the mood in the evenings, which should be merry with singing, was downright wretched.

The only way out Menolly could see was an apology. She doubted Yanus would even listen, let alone accept it, but she had to at least try. It galled her to do so, because Yanus had given her far greater insult by his refusal to acknowledge her position, but it would be a snowy day in Igen before Yanus would admit to any wrongdoing.

~~~

Again, she found him in the Records Room after supper. She was careful, this time, not to show her face before knocking; he was likely as not to ignore her completely if she had.

“I’m sorry, Yanus,” she said upon entering. “It was wrong of me to criticize a member of your crew the way I did.”

Yanus glared at her, his eyes boring through her, for long enough that Menolly nearly gave up and left. Eventually, he leaned forward and took a deep breath, preparing himself to speak.

“I see what your Masterharper’s doing,” he said. “Don’t think I don’t see it, just because I’m a poor provincial Sea Holder who’s never been anywhere beyond the shores of Keroon Bay.”

Menolly bowed her head, gesturing respectfully for Yanus to continue.

“First it was Harper Elgion, pushing us this way and that, with all his little Harper tricks,” Yanus said. “And then the Masterharper sends you, just to rub our noses in it.”

Though Menolly had some idea what he was getting at, there was no possible response she could make to help her cause, so she remained silent. He was not entirely wrong.

“Tradition,” Yanus said. “Tradition’s what keeps us safe at sea in a storm. Tradition kept Benden Weyr going for all those long Turns during the Interval, and Tradition told the dragonriders how to fight Thread when it finally arrived. Without Tradition, we’d be nowhere at all, devoured by a mass of Thread. And then along comes your Masterharper, upending Tradition as he pleases, with no regard for simple folk like us who rely on the old ways. Today it’s a girl Harper; what will it be tomorrow?”

Menolly began to laugh inside, though she was careful not to show it, because Yanus’s view of the world was so distorted it bore little resemblance to reality. The Harper Craft, more than any other institution on Pern, was charged with preserving Tradition, and none of the changes that she, Elgion, or the Masterharper had pursued had been taken lightly or without consideration. And F’lar and Lessa, the Weyrleaders of Benden, had never been shy about abandoning tradition when it got in the way of their mission to save Pern.

But Menolly could say none of this. Yanus would not listen, especially to her. She and Elgion were sent here to broaden his horizons, to make him see beyond his blinkered view of the world that would admit no ideas from beyond the bounds of the Sea Hold. They had made some progress with the rest of the populace, but Yanus himself was adamant in his refusal to change.

“Yanus, I never meant—” Menolly began.

“Of course you didn’t,” Yanus said, cutting her off, “but you’re a Harper, or so it seems, so you meddle. That’s what you Harpers do. Hard enough to stomach coming from Elgion, but the young man’s worked hard to prove himself over this past Turn. Then you come striding in, without so much as a word since you disappeared, and a whole wing of those pesky fire lizards to boot, and you expect me to treat you like a Harper instead of the barely-grown runaway girl you are? It’s too much, Menolly. It’s just too much.”

Menolly bowed her head. This was not going the way she had hoped, and she could see no way of retrieving the situation.

“I don’t like your being here,” Yanus said. “I don’t like it one bit. I’ve spoken to the men, and they all feel the same way. At least the older ones do.”

Menolly opened her mouth to defend herself, but Yanus held up his hand to silence her.

“But none of them will say a word against the job you’ve been doing,” he continued. “Not one. The children know their ballads and sagas word for word, the evening singing’s lively, and I don’t mind telling you how relieved I am to have that awkward matter with young Debella settled.”

Menolly mumbled her thanks for the apparent praise, which Yanus acknowledged with a curt nod.

“And anyway it’s not really up to me, now is it?” Yanus asked, “If the Masterharper says there can be girl Harpers, in defiance of all Tradition, it’s not my place to contradict him, any more than it’s his place, or yours, to tell me how to manage my crew and fleet and Hold.”

“I never intended to do so,” Menolly replied.

“Then I accept your apology. I’ll pass word among the men that you’re to be extended every courtesy due to the Harper,” Yanus said. “You won’t have any further trouble from me. But when Harper Elgion returns, I won’t be at all sad to see the back of you.”

Menolly breathed a huge sigh of relief and took her leave. Perhaps her time at Half-Circle wouldn’t be a complete failure after all.

~~~

Yanus was true to his word. The next morning, when Menolly walked into the Great Hall to feed her fire lizards, the men were pouring out after their breakfast to set sail for a morning trawl. Every one of them acknowledged her with a nod or a tip of his cap, and some of those she passed even ventured a spoken “Harper” or “Menolly”. Most of the greetings were heartfelt, if brusque, though Menolly could see that a few were begrudged.

Throughout her day, Menolly noticed people treating her with a newfound respect. The women, who had generally been friendly with her anyway, made an extra effort to be courteous. The older children were more attentive in the Teaching, and Menolly could tell their parents had reminded them to address her as Harper Menolly, though the little ones didn’t seem to behave any differently.

Yanus even deigned to speak to Menolly that night at supper.

“Starc was telling me about the arrangements you made for Debella,” he said. “Don’t know what happened to the girl to cause such a fuss, but I’m glad it’s over.”

“Just trying to help,” Menolly said.

“Well done, anyway,” Yanus replied. “Pity we couldn’t forge a closer bond with Tillek, but these things happen.”

“Indeed,” Menolly agreed. She was suspicious of where this conversation was going. It almost sounded like Yanus was in a good mood.

“But there might be an alternative,” Yanus said. “Starc pointed out to me that your sister Sella is no longer betrothed and suggested she would be an excellent match for Nestur. I had planned to wait another month or two before making any new commitments, to give her time to get over her attachment to her previous lad, but the wedding’s half-planned already. Seems like a waste not to take advantage.”

Starc, seated across from Yanus and down a few places, flashed Menolly an apologetic smile. It didn’t really matter to her, though, who got credit for the idea, as long as things worked out.

“I take it you’d like me to contact Nestur’s family,” Menolly said. Without her fire lizards, there’d be no time to make the arrangements.

“Aye,” Yanus replied.

“And have you spoken to Sella about this?” Menolly asked. She felt no particular guilt for her part in rushing Sella into marriage, even to a man as dull as Nestur. Sella’s first and only ambition in life was to marry well, and Menolly was helping her do that. But she didn’t feel good about it either.

“Mavi and I will sit her down and tell her once the arrangements have been made,” Yanus replied. Mavi, who was seated just past Yanus, heard the conversation but said nothing.

Menolly considered a reply but thought better of it.

“Sella’s a good girl, and she’ll do what she’s told,” Yanus said, with just a hint of a smile. “At least one of my daughters knows her duty.”

Menolly shook her head and finished her supper.

The next morning, she sent Beauty off with a message for Harper Falmur, and within a day Nestur’s parents had agreed to the match. The wedding would go on; only the bride would be different.

~~~

Yanus had to admit, privately, that the mood around the Sea Hold had brightened since the Harper girl made her apology. Elgion was as good a man as Yanus could wish for, and he very much wanted the young Harper’s wisdom and patience back in the Hold, but until he returned, Menolly was not a bad stand-in, even if she was a girl. The children learned well enough from her in the Teaching, and she was a joy to listen to in the evenings. Her voice was sweet and strong, and her fingers could shape even the most familiar songs into something fresh and new. Elgion, fine musician though he was, couldn’t match her.

And that was before her fire lizards joined in. They were the most amazing singers, and they had also proved to be useful little creatures as well, confounding Yanus’s expectations. They were murder on tunnel snakes, and, more importantly, they had proved themselves to be excellent messengers, even beyond last-minute wedding arrangements.

A sevenday after the girl’s apology, Yanus informed her over breakfast – as he had given his word to do – that he was sending the big sloop out on a trade voyage. It was just a courtesy to the Harper, and he expected nothing further to come of it, but by evening the girl had compiled a list of all the ports within a sevenday sail that were buying preserved fish, and how much, and what they were willing to pay, and what they had to sell in return.

Thus informed, the trade ship could sell all the cargo she could carry in four or five days, instead of the usual ten to fifteen, and be certain of returning with a hold full of the most urgently needed goods, as well as turning a tidy profit. Previously, all the Sea Hold could do was fill a ship with whatever they thought would sell, send her out, and hope for the best.

Menolly further suggested that Alemi should captain the trade voyage, so that his fire lizard could get to know the various ports of call, and Yanus readily agreed. If the little creature was even half as reliable a messenger as Menolly’s pets, he’d repay the trouble of his raising many times over.

As well, the girl was a hard worker. When she wasn’t busy with her harpering, she would pitch in, without being asked, at whatever needed doing, from net-mending and longline-baiting to watching the little ones, whether the task was one for a man or a girl. Elgion had often done so as well, at least as far as he was able, but Menolly, being born in the Sea Hold, was far more capable. She even joined in the flamethrower crews after Threadfall, as she had before running away, something few girls had the strength or the grit to do.

So it was no surprise that the Harper girl was there when T’gellan, who led the Benden wings during the next Threadfall, came in to land. After the usual post-Fall update – one small Thread burrow in a nearby marsh, easily burned out – T’gellan surprised Yanus by inviting him, along with his lady Mavi and the Harper, to the Hatching at Benden Weyr in two days time.

Yanus had been invited to Hatchings three or four times in Turns past, but he had always politely declined. It would certainly be a grand occasion, but what business could Yanus Sea Holder possibly have at Benden Weyr, that majestic place of dragons and dragonmen? He’d feel uncomfortable and self-conscious the whole time. Best to give his regrets and stay home.

This time, though, T’gellan insisted. “Harper Elgion would very much like you to come,” he said, and his tone hinted that he knew the Sea Holder could not refuse the Harper’s request.

“All right then,” Yanus said to the dragonrider, head bowed respectfully. “We’ll come.”

“Excellent,” T’gellan replied, smiling broadly. “I’ll be by to collect you between late morning and early evening. Be ready.”

“And now, Harper Menolly, a word if you please…” the dragonrider added, and he and the Harper girl stepped away together for a bit of private conversation.

A Hatching, Yanus thought. What have I gotten myself into?

~~~

The morning of the Hatching, Yanus dressed in his best outfit, so that he would be ready when T’gellan arrived, and then he fretted all day about not being able to do any real work for fear of soiling his good tunic. He was greatly relieved when a bronze dragon was finally spotted circling in to land about two hour before the evening meal.

Yanus and Mavi emerged from the Sea Hold to find T’gellan chatting with Menolly and Alemi. Menolly had wheedled an additional invitation for her brother on the pretext that his fire lizard should visit Benden Weyr in order to be able to deliver messages there in the future. Yanus could not fault her stratagem – he would be glad to have his son and heir at the Weyr along with him.

The girl was dressed in a tunic and trousers, Harper blue from head to toe, with a gitar case slung across her back. Yanus grumbled at her attire – a lady, even a Harper lady, should wear a gown for such a grand occasion – but he kept his annoyance to himself. At least she wore skirts around the Sea Hold most evenings.

“Ready to go?” the dragonrider asked, and Yanus grunted an affirmative. He had never ridden a dragon before, never even thought he’d have the chance, and he found his heart beating faster at the prospect.

This would be an easy flight, he told himself. Clear skies, plenty of light, and both dragon and rider had many Turns of experience flying Threadfall. A short trip to the Weyr shouldn’t tax their abilities in the least. Still, with four passengers…

“Can he carry so many?” Yanus asked, and then felt his face flush. He fervently hoped he had not insulted dragon or rider.

“Monarth will carry half again as much weight in firestone at the start of a Fall,” T’gellan replied, giving Yanus a reassuring smile and Monarth’s neck an affectionate pat. “He’ll have no trouble with you lot.”

Menolly mounted first, with an ease that spoke of much experience riding dragons. The other three passengers all needed help to mount, and Mavi had to hike her skirt up awkwardly as she straddled the great bronze neck. Yanus could see the practical wisdom of Menolly’s outfit, even if he still disapproved.

With all the passengers mounted, T’gellan climbed up himself. Menolly’s nine fire lizards swarmed about overhead, and Marn took off from Alemi’s shoulder, with a small squawk of protest, when Alemi prodded him to do so.

“If you’re all settled, then, we’ll be off,” the dragonrider called back, without waiting for a reply. The great bronze dragon took a few steps downhill, pushed off, then dipped within a handspan of the ground before surging upward, his wings shining like sails in the evening sun. Yanus was torn between terror and awe, and he felt like he had left his stomach back on the ground.

They were soon well aloft, and T’gellan raised his right hand to signal to his passengers that they were about to transfer between. Yanus was prepared for the piercing cold, but what really shocked him was the nothingness. He could not feel Mavi in his arms before him, the dragon beneath him, even his own breath in his lungs. When they all emerged into the sky above Benden Weyr, he gasped in relief, and he heard Mavi let out a small, frightened cry.

Then suddenly they were descending, at alarming speed, toward a small opening in a very large mountain. Yanus knew, of course, that the Weyr was built inside the hollowed remains of an extinct volcano, but seeing the mammoth place, all out of human scale, took his breath away.

Then, just as suddenly, they were flying through that opening, a dragon before and another abaft, so close that Yanus thought sure they would collide. He had to close his eyes until they were on the ground, and from the way Mavi trembled in his arms, he could tell she was doing the same.

After the thrill of his first dragon flight, stepping back onto solid ground was both a relief and a disappointment for Yanus. Monarth took off again as soon as he had deposited his passengers so that other dragons could land. Yanus and his companions climbed up the two tiers to their seats.

The Hatching Ground filled quickly, with guests arriving on dragonback and weyrfolk pouring in through the entrance tunnels. Harper Elgion appeared at the edge of the warm sands and strode quickly across to sit next to Alemi. He appeared to be cured of the infection, but his arm was still bound to a wooden split and slung up against his chest. The weyr healers were apparently not taking any chances with his recovery.

“Good to see you, man,” Alemi said to the Harper with a hearty thump on his back, and Elgion responded in kind. Yanus added his greetings, as did Menolly and Mavi.

Then Arith, the golden dragon queen standing guard over her clutch, let out a brassy bugle, and the Hatching Ground fell silent. People sat, and the last arrivals scurried to their places. The eggs had begun to rock, and at least one showed signs of cracking. The candidates – all boys, for there was no queen egg in the clutch – arranged themselves in a loose semicircle around the eggs.

The first egg split and a little brown dragonet tumbled out, looking none too happy to be out of his protective shell. The creature blinked, then headed straight for the tallest lad in the group but tripped over its own wing before it got to him. The lad dashed forward to help, and that was it. Impression.

As a boy, Yanus had dreamed of Impressing a dragon, just like every other boy on Pern, but that was a long time ago. Watching the Impression, he could feel a faint echo of that boyhood yearning, nothing more. His dreams were firmly in the past.

Not so Alemi. Seated on his father’s right side, Yanus’s son was enthralled by the Hatching. He wore an expression of boyish wonder that sat awkwardly on a grown man’s face. It was the same expression, Yanus noted, that he wore for his little brown fire lizard. Yanus was, briefly, irritated at the display. Life at sea was dangerous enough without such reverie.

But, aside from that broken leg last Turn, Yanus had to admit that Alemi was as dependable a Sea Man as any at Half-Circle. Alemi was able, somehow, to keep one eye on the horizon and the other on the water under his bow. That was an ability Yanus had never mastered, and it seemed unlikely that he ever would.

By the time he was Alemi’s age, Yanus had been Sea Holder for nearly three full Turns. A heavy winter storm took his father, along with a third of the fishing fleet and half the adult men of the Sea Hold. It was only through extraordinary seamanship and a very large dollop of luck that Yanus was able to save his own ship and salvage the remains of the fleet.

The disaster devastated the Sea Hold. If not for the generosity of the Weyr and the eastern Lord Holders, most of the population would have starved. Yanus held the Sea Hold together through those awful first few Turns, and then through the many prosperous Turns afterward, with hard work, discipline, and an unceasing adherence to Tradition.

Alemi, Yanus knew, respected and understood the traditions of seamanship and holding just as much as Yanus himself, but he was also able to see beyond them, to look for possibilities that Yanus wouldn’t even consider. At times father and son disagreed about things, often quite strongly, but Alemi had never given Yanus any reason to doubt his commitment or his ability to ensure to the safety and prosperity of his ship, his crew, or the Sea Hold.

Alemi would be a fine Sea Holder when his time came. Better, perhaps, than Yanus himself. He would preserve what Yanus had built and expand on it, looking toward the future without endangering the present.

But Alemi wasn't Sea Holder yet. Yanus had no plans to step down anytime soon, and he was in good health. Life at sea was always dangerous, but Yanus was too cautious and too clever to blunder into a storm the way his father had. Barring a freak accident or illness, it would be a good long while before Alemi became Sea Holder.

Perhaps it was time to give Alemi more responsibility. Maybe have him manage trading arrangements, or take charge of crew assignments. Alemi knew the old hands at the Sea Hold almost as well as Yanus did, and he knew the younger men better. And Alemi been right to insist that Tilsit supervise construction of the sloop, though Yanus had been loth to say so at the time. He’d handle any new responsibility Yanus gave him.

A loud crack shook Yanus out of his thoughts. Two more eggs had hatched, and a third split down the middle to reveal the first bronze of the clutch. The dragonet, larger than his clutchmates, looked about expectantly for a long moment, then spied the lad he was looking for and lurched toward him. Another Impression.

The whole Hatching was over in less than half an hour. All thirty seven eggs hatched, and their occupants Impressed, without any major trauma. A few of the boys were injured by the awkward young beasts, but none suffered any permanent damage. Far better than the stories Yanus had heard from Turns past, when boys were maimed or even killed by the hatchlings.

After the Hatching came the feasting. With his damaged hand, Elgion could not yet play an instrument, but he could still sing, so he and Menolly joined the other Harpers on stage to entertain the guests, leaving Yanus, Alemi, and Mavi on their own. Yanus spotted Lord Vincet of Nerat, to whom Half-Circle was beholden, along with his lady and two sons, and they struck up a pleasant conversation. The group found a table together just as the platters began pouring out of the kitchen. There was roast herdbeast and wherry, baked breads and cakes of all kinds, and more and different varieties of vegetables than Yanus had ever seen. Not to mention the wine. Everybody at Half-Circle was well fed, in large part due to Yanus’s sound management, but the bounty on display at the Weyr was something else.

After the feasting came the dancing. Yanus had no interest, but Mavi pulled him into the dance square anyway. “How many times do we get to do something like this?” she asked. “Might as well enjoy ourselves.”

Yanus was more than a little rusty, not having danced a measure in nine Turns or more, but he picked up the steps easily enough, and he was surprised to find himself enjoying it. He would only partner with Mavi, and they stuck to the slower couples’ dances, but even so, there was a lightness in the festivities that brought back memories of earlier, happier times.

Alemi was not so reticent; he partnered with several of the weyr women, with a smallholder’s daughter, and even once with Menolly when she took a break from playing. Yanus reminded himself to have that talk with his eldest son that he’d been putting off. Harmless enough for Alemi to kick up his heels on this rare evening away from the Sea Hold, but the young man needed to settle down. The Sea Hold needed the stability of a good marriage for the Sea Holder’s heir, not to mention the question of Alemi’s succession. He suspected that Alemi had his eye on someone, but if so he hadn’t thought to confide in Yanus or in Mavi.

Before he knew it the crowd was beginning to thin, and Yanus found himself yawning. It was full dark outside, and life as Sea Holder meant early mornings at sail. He and Mavi sought out first Alemi and then Menolly so they could return home.

Menolly was at a table near the kitchen when Yanus found her, deep in conversation with a stocky older man, dressed in Harper blue with a Master’s knot on his shoulder.

“Is this Master Robinton?” Yanus asked Menolly. He had never met the Masterharper, but he’d been led to believe he would be attending the Hatching. This man didn’t match his mental picture.

“Domick,” the man said with a curt nod, “Craftmaster of music and composition. Robinton was called away, so he sent me in his stead.”

“Yanus,” the Sea Holder replied.

“I need some more time with your Harper,” Domick said, with a tilt of his head toward Menolly. “I can make arrangements to send her home later if you’re on your way.”

“That’ll be fine,” Yanus replied. He decided rather liked this Domick, with his plain manner and direct speech. Not at all what he expected from a Master Harper.

“I’d like to stay a while longer as well,” Alemi added, with a bit more enthusiasm than Yanus thought appropriate.

Yanus gave his son a quelling glare, but he said, “As long as you’re ready to sail on the morning tide, I won’t stop you.”

Alemi replied with a broad grin and a hearty goodnight.

~~~

“Yanus seems a decent enough sort,” Domick said blandly after the Sea Holder left. Menolly rolled her eyes. Domick knew quite well how difficult it had been for Menolly at Half-Circle after Petiron died, with Yanus as both Sea Holder and father.

“… aside from a few misguided notions about Tradition,” Domick added, pleased to have gotten a rise out of her. Menolly laughed.

“Now let’s take a look at this score you've brought me,” Domick said, leafing through the stack of paper Menolly had brought with her. She had thought to give it to Master Robinton to pass along. Seeing Domick in person was even better, though she was disappointed at not getting to see the Masterharper or Sebell. The two harpers went through the composition, sometimes softly humming a passage together.

“Well done,” Domick proclaimed once they’d reached the end. “Well done indeed. Such a simple theme to begin with, just fifteen notes, but by the end you’ve developed it into an unexpectedly powerful statement. Quite an extraordinary piece.”

“Thank you, Master Domick,” Menolly said, blushing at Domick’s assessment. Though she was Domick’s clear favorite among his advanced composition students, he was generally sparing with his praise.

“Don’t thank me yet,” Domick said. “We still have to play the thing, and I doubt the dynamic markings will survive as you’ve written them.”

Menolly chuckled. That was more like Domick. “Shall we play a set together before we depart?” Menolly asked. “Oharan is looking rather tired.”

“By all means,” Domick replied. “It’s been forever since I’ve performed that old pipe duet.”

Menolly and Domick took to the stage and played together for a full hour, occasionally accompanied by trilling fire lizards. Their set drew delighted but restrained applause as the last of the guests boarded dragons to go home. After one last song, Menolly took her leave of Domick, packed up her instruments, and met Alemi on the way out the weyr bowl. T’gran and Branth were there, waiting to carry them home.

“So,” Menolly said to her older brother, with his little brown fire lizard asleep on his shoulder, when they arrived back at Half-Circle, “did you enjoy the Hatching?”

“I’ll pay for it in the morning,” Alemi replied, grinning like a boy of fourteen, “but it was more than worth it. Thank you, Menolly.”

~~~

After the Hatching, the end was in sight. Manora had assured everyone that Elgion’s recovery was coming along just fine. She planned to remove the splint in ten days or so, and barring any complications, he’d be safe to fly between another sevenday after that. If all went as planned, Elgion would be home in time to officiate Sella and Nestur’s wedding.

And then Menolly could go back to the Harper Hall where she belonged. Robinton had been right – being here was necessary, for the Sea Hold, for Yanus, and for Menolly herself – but she had accomplished what she came here to do, and now it was just a matter of waiting out the days until Elgion returned.

That got Menolly to thinking – was there anything else for her to do before she left, beyond the Teaching and the evening singing? What more did the Sea Hold need of her? What could she accomplish that nobody else could in the days she had left?

Then, all of a sudden, she knew.

~~~

“A gather?” Yanus asked, blinking. “You want to have a gather?”

“Think about it, Yanus,” Menolly replied. “We’ll already have guests from Tillek for the wedding, as well as Elgion’s return from Benden. It’s the perfect occasion.”

“We haven’t had a single caravan come through these past nine Turns,” Yanus said. “Who’d trek all the way through the marshes for a gather, with Thread falling as it pleases?”

“I checked the timetables, and the entire Nerat peninsula is clear for five days before and four days after,” Menolly said. “And you know as well as I do that it’s been nearly a full Turn since Thread fell out of phase.”

“True enough,” Yanus agreed. “We’ve the word of the Weyrleader himself, and he’d be the one to know. But I still can’t imagine anyone coming all the way here for a gather.”

“I can just barely remember how things were when Thread started falling, Yanus,” Menolly said slowly, “but I do know that the world has changed since then. The trade caravans are rolling again, all the way up and down Nerat, and there are half a dozen settlements around Keroon Bay that’d consider sending a trade ship. If we have a gather, people will come.”

Yanus leaned back from his desk, looking up at Menolly. The Harper girl had such bright-eyed enthusiasm that Yanus could scarcely believe she was the same person as the sulky, rebellious child who stood in that same spot a Turn before, when he had called on her to do the Teaching after old Harper Petiron died.

The memory of that lapse still stung. The Sea Hold had to rely on a child, and a girl child at that, to fulfill one its basic responsibilities. That the Sea Hold had suffered no permanent disgrace was beside the point.

And though Menolly now had a Journeyman Harper’s badge on her shoulder, that same rebellious streak still shone through her. Yanus resented being manipulated by his own daughter.

“I'm not sure a gather's what the Sea Hold needs at this point,” he said, “what with the Harper's injuries and all that's been going on.”

“A gather is exactly what the Sea Hold needs,” Menolly replied. “People need an afternoon to get outside and enjoy themselves. There's more to life than fishing.”

Yanus grumbled.

“Look, Yanus,” Menolly said, “everyone in the Sea Hold works hard, day in and day out, just to keep themselves fed and clothed and sheltered. But Half-Circle's not the poor, desperate place it used to be. The storage caves are full to bursting, and every shipmaster I've spoken to has a purse full of marks and nowhere to spend them.”

“It's true we've done well these past few Turns,” Yanus admitted. “And the people here could do with some more contact with the outside world. But I still don’t think a gather’s the best idea.”

“Well, then what?” Menolly asked, exasperated. “This place is too remote for anyone to get away, except for the odd trade ship. A gather is our one chance to bring a little bit of the wider world here, if only for a day.”

Yanus acknowledged the truth of that with a grunt.

“And besides,” Menolly said, “my sources tell me the fishing's been poor on the Igen side of Keroon Bay. You'd make a tidy profit selling smoked and salted fish.” A broad smile bloomed across her face, knowing that last argument would win Yanus over.

“All right, all right,” Yanus said, still irritable but a touch less so. “You've made your case. If you can convince the traders to come, we'll have a gather.”

“I'm already working on it,” Menolly replied, then she left.

Yanus waited until Menolly was out the door, then he leaned back and smiled. A gather, an actual gather, at Half-Circle, the first in nine Turns. Spring was finally dawning, after a very long winter.

~~~

Menolly was good to her word. The traders she contacted all agreed to come, eager to exploit a long-untapped market, and they passed the word along to others. As well, there would be folk from Benden Weyr. Elgion would be back, of course, and Oharan had accepted Menolly's invitation to come and provide entertainment. The women of the lower caverns would be making their annual trip to Half-Circle for a few days before to harvest berries, withies, and the like, and a dozen dragons and riders would be along to transport them there and back.

~~~

A thick fog greeted the dawn of the gather day; the sloop from Tillek and the trade ships from around the Bay had to drop anchor far out at sea to keep from running aground. Menolly was so sick about it she couldn't eat breakfast. She had put so much effort into organizing everything, and now it could all come to naught because of the weather.

But the fog began to thin with the rising sun, and by midmorning it had burned off completely. When the first trade caravan rolled up over the humpy hills separating the Sea Hold from the inland marshes, Menolly finally allowed herself to breathe.

After the midday meal, Menolly organized a group of youngsters to catch spiderclaws for the evening feast. “You've volunteered us all for extra work having to feed all the visitors this evening,” Mavi had said to Menolly in the kitchens that morning, though she had smiled as she said it. “You can at least make a contribution.”

The children were excited to go: of all the chores in the Sea Hold, catching spiderclaws was the most fun. Rounding up the youngsters to go home took longer than organizing them to leave. Menolly’s fire lizards came along as well, though they ate most of what they caught.

By the time Menolly returned with her young charges, the gather had begun. Without a large, flat field on which to form a regular gather square, the traders had arranged themselves in loose rows along the holdway and the marsh road. Nobody seemed to mind.

Though nowhere as large as the gathers at the Fort Hold complex, this one was just as lively. There were over a dozen trade stalls selling wares of all sorts, from tanners, weavers, potters, smiths, and winemakers all across the continent. One of the caravan traders had even assembled a portable oven, to bake breads and cakes and, best of all, marshberry bubbly pies.

Menolly made use of the afternoon to wander through gather, for she’d be busy later. She bought a small shell comb to wear in her hair, wound with copper wire and decorated with river pearls. She kept her hair on the short side these days, for ease when traveling, and a little ornamentation would help her to present a softer image. It was hard enough being the only female Harper on Pern without looking boyish.

One of the trade ships had come from Igen River Hold, and the shipmaster made a point of talking to Menolly when she stopped by their trade booth. “Young Debella is settling in just fine, Harper Menolly, and our thanks to you for making the arrangements,” he said, shaking her hand. Leaning in close, he added, “Our Hold healer tells me the bride is already with child, and so soon after the wedding. Such a blessing for the Hold and the happy couple.”

“I’m just glad everything worked out,” Menolly replied, allowing herself a smile of satisfaction for having helped the girl.

~~~

Menolly’s stroll through the gather was ended when a brown dragon materialized above the hold midafternoon. Menolly hurried to greet Branth as he landed at the edge of the gather, along with his rider T’gran and passengers Elgion and Oharan. Half a wing of dragonriders followed, arriving to enjoy the gather and carry the weyr women home afterward.

The wedding was to be Elgion’s public return to the Sea Hold, and Menolly needed some time beforehand to catch him up on the state of things. She led both harpers quietly through the great metal Sea Hold doors and to the Harper’s room, where they could talk in private.

“You actually got Yanus to hold a gather…” Elgion was incredulous. “I never thought I’d see the day.”

“It did take some convincing…” Menolly said. Elgion just shook his head.

Menolly spent the next half hour catching Elgion up on the doings at the Sea Hold and discussing plans for the wedding and the evening entertainment with both Harpers.

“The Masterharper was right about sending you,” Elgion told Menolly after she’d finished briefing him. “I feel like I’m coming back to a completely different Sea Hold.”

“I wasn’t so sure at first,” Menolly replied, thinking of her feud with Yanus, “but the Sea Hold hasn’t fallen completely apart on my watch, so I suppose I haven’t done too bad a job.”

Elgion responded with such a laugh that Menolly couldn’t help smiling herself.

~~~

After meeting with Elgion and Oharan, Menolly went to wash and change into the red gown she planned to wear for the evening, and then she had to face the one part of the day she wasn’t looking forward to.

Sella needed somebody to help her into her gown and sit with her until the wedding. Mavi was busy supervising the kitchen, Sella had no other sisters, and all her close friends were married and gone, so the task fell to Menolly.

“I know you two don’t get along,” Mavi had said to Menolly earlier, “but she is still your sister. I’d really appreciate it if you could be there for her, Menolly.”

Much as Menolly would have liked to refuse, she really couldn’t, so made her way to the guest room where Sella was waiting and knocked on the door.

“Come in,” Sella said, and Menolly did.

“How are you, Sella?” Menolly asked tentatively. She had no idea what to expect.

“It’s my wedding day, so I’m happy,” Sella replied, not looking happy at all.

“What’s wrong?” Menolly asked. “Is there anything I can do to help?”

“I think you’ve done quite enough already, thank you,” Sella replied. “You must be pretty proud of yourself, stitching everything up with Yanus and Nestur and his father and his uncle. Did you come here to gloat?”

“Sella, I—” Menolly began, but Sella cut her off.

“We can’t all be special like you, Menolly,” Sella said, with such venom that Menolly took a step back. “My only chance in life is to marry well.”

“And you’re doing that,” Menolly replied. “The Sea Holder has confirmed Nestur as his heir, in large part because of you. You’re going to be a Sea Holder’s lady. Isn’t that what you wanted?”

“Aye, I do at least have that,” Sella said. “Yanus wanted this all along, you know, but Mavi talked him out of it. Said I wasn’t up to the responsibility.”

“I’m sorry,” Menolly said, reaching out to put a hand on her sister’s shoulder. Mavi had been hard enough on Menolly as a child; she hadn’t realized their mother had been so dismissive of Sella as well.

“But then Debella went and got herself into trouble—” Sella said.

“Wait, you knew about that?” Menolly asked.

“I saw her fighting with Nestur one night, and flirting with Baldren. Then a few sevendays later she was crying as she came out of the necessary,” Sella said. “It wasn’t too hard to guess why, and then when she left in such a hurry to get married, I knew for sure. You Harpers don’t have a monopoly on figuring people out, you know.”

“I suppose not,” Menolly said with a rueful smile. “Who else knows?”

“Her mother, probably,” Sella replied, “but I don’t think anyone else. Nobody pays any attention to girls in this Sea Hold.”

Menolly’s sad little laugh acknowledged the truth of that. “So now you’re the one marrying Nestur…”

“Indeed I am,” Sella replied.

“And how do you feel about it?” Menolly asked.

“You know, you’re the first person to ask me that, or anything else really,” Sella replied. “Though it would have been nice if you’d asked before making all the arrangements…”

“I’m sorry, Sella, but you know how Yanus is,” Menolly said.

Sella replied with a dismissive snort.

“It won’t be so bad,” Menolly said. “Tillek Sea Hold isn’t halfway to nowhere like Half-Circle; it’s actually a pretty nice place. And Nestur isn’t such a bad man.”

“No, he’s not bad,” Sella said. “He’ll be a fine Sea Holder when the time comes, and he’ll be a good husband. But he’s just so dull.

Menolly laughed, because of the feeling in Sella’s voice, and Sella couldn’t help laughing herself.

“I suppose there’s one good thing about being married to a Sea Man,” Sella said with a twinkle in her eye.

“What’s that?” Menolly asked.

“He’ll be at sea for days at a time,” Sella replied. “How do you think Mavi put up with Yanus all these years?”

“Well there you go,” Menolly said, giggling. “Now let’s get you all prettied up for tonight.”

Sella pulled on the elaborate blue wedding gown she’d been working on, in one way or another, for the past five Turns, and Menolly helped fasten all the buttons and tie off the stays.

“One last thing you should know,” Menolly said. “Nestur has a sister, I believe, named Briala. She was studying at the Harper Crafthall when I first arrived, and we really didn’t get along. She might not take too kindly to having you for a sister-in-law.”

“I think I can manage,” Sella replied, smiling conspiratorially. “I’ll just tell her I don’t like you either.”

“That should work,” Menolly said, smiling back. “I do hope you’re happy in your new life, Sella. I really do.”

“So do I, Menolly,” Sella replied, giving Menolly’s hand a little squeeze. “So do I.”

~~~

The Great Hall at Half-Circle was packed for the wedding, but nobody seemed to mind. Elgion presided, with Menolly and Oharan behind him to provide the music. Sella put on a good face, and Nestur managed to muster up a rare bout of enthusiasm, so the two looked, to anyone who didn’t know better, like a couple in love.

Everyone was in a good mood at the feast afterward, because of the wedding, because of the new alliance it enabled, because they’d done good business during the afternoon, and just because it was a rare and beautiful spring gather day.

Menolly, Elgion, and Oharan ate early and then played to entertain the diners in the Great Hall during the feast. Menolly was gratified at finally having an occasion to play the new occasional pieces she had brought with her from the Harper Hall.

Elgion, though, couldn’t get through a full set without needing to rest. His wounds were healed, but months of inactivity had left his arm and hand badly weakened. He was mortified at his inability, but Menolly and Oharan deflected his apologies and switched to a duet whenever Elgion needed a break. With two extremely talented Harpers and a choir of fire lizards, there were no complaints.

After the feast, everyone moved outside for more music and dancing. One of the Sea Hold lads was pretty good with a drum, and one of the traders had brought a traveling harp, so between them they had a full band. Menolly even got to take a couple of breaks from playing herself, dancing once with Alemi and once with Nestur.

They played well into the evening, but an hour or two after full dark settled on the Sea Hold the traders returned to their caravans, the weyrfolk to the Weyr, and the folk of Half-Circle to the Sea Hold.

The only real fuss of the night came from Mavi, who was upset over sleeping arrangements. With Elgion returned and all the guest rooms filled with the visitors from Tillek, she had no place to put Menolly.

“Normally, I’d put another bed in the Harper’s room, but you really can’t sleep with Elgion…” Mavi said.

“What about the girls’ dormitory?” Menolly asked. “Sella’s had a cubicle to herself this past Turn, and she won’t be needing it anymore.”

Mavi was mortified at the idea of a Harper, even Menolly, reduced to sleeping in the dormitory. “Well, it’ll have to do,” she said. “There’s really no other option.”

“I don’t mind, Mavi,” Menolly said, for once not resenting her mother’s fussing. “It’s no problem at all.”

 

~~~

The tides were unfavorable the next morning, so the fishing fleet did not sail out before dawn to catch the schools at their morning feeding as usual. As a result, almost the entire Sea Hold was in the Great Hall for breakfast the next morning, along with the newlyweds and the guests from Tillek, who would be leaving mid-morning.

After breakfast, Yanus stopped Menolly on the way out of the Great Hall. “A word before the Teaching if you don’t mind, Harper Menolly.”

“Of course,” she replied, following him to the Records Room.

“You’ll be leaving soon, I suppose, now Elgion’s back,” Yanus said.

“I’m going to stay another few days,” Menolly replied. “Elgion needs some time to get adjusted and strengthen his arm. Get his sea legs back.”

“Aye, I suppose he does,” Yanus said. “Anyway, I wanted to tell you how much yesterday meant to the Sea Hold. The treasury’s got more marks now than the day before, and everybody’s the better for a day of fun. You did well, Harper Menolly.”

“Thank you Yanus,” Menolly replied, a little surprised at the unexpected praise. That might have been first genuinely nice thing he had ever said to her.

“I’m thinking of setting up another one. Late summer, maybe,” Yanus said. “Alemi can make the arrangements with that little messenger of his. If it works out, and we can find a break in Threadfall, we could hold one or two every Turn.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Menolly replied.

“And what about you?” Yanus asked. “Once you’ve washed your hands of this place and you’re back to the Harper Hall.”

“Well, despite this journeyman badge, I’ve still got plenty of learning to do,” Menolly replied, touching her shoulder. “I’ve discovered there’s a lot more to being a Harper than just singing and playing gitar.”

“Aye, I suppose there is,” Yanus agreed. “You’ll be going for your Master’s knot, then?”

Menolly just stood there for a moment, mouth half-open. After all the tongue-lashings she’d taken from Yanus in this very room, that was something she never expected to hear. “The Masterharper keeps telling me I’ll get there someday,” Menolly finally said, “but it’ll be Turns and Turns.”

“Then you’ll be the first from Half-Circle,” Yanus said. “Nobody from this Sea Hold’s ever made Craftmaster, outside the Fisherman’s Craft that is. We sent a lad to the Smith Craft Hall when I was just a boy, but he never got past journeyman.”

“I’ll do my best, Yanus,” Menolly said.

“A girl Craftmaster,” Yanus said, shaking his head. “What’s this world coming to?”

Menolly laughed.

“Much as I hate to admit it, Harper Menolly,” Yanus said, “it’s been good having you here. Brought some life to the Sea Hold, and maybe opened some eyes. Including mine.”

“Thank you, Yanus,” Menolly replied.

~~~

In the end, Menolly stayed five more days. Elgion settled back into his role as Hold Harper easily enough, and Menolly was content to stand back and support him. But he still couldn’t play for long without tiring, and the Ballads and Teaching Songs require precision and endurance.

“You don’t have to stay just for me,” Elgion told her that first afternoon, shaking his left hand out after his arm cramped up from playing too long. “I can manage.”

“I won’t lie,” Menolly said. “I really do want to get back to the Harper Hall. But I can’t just leave you like this.”

“Then I’m grateful for your help,” Elgion replied.

At the end of the week, once Elgion could get through the morning Teaching more or less on his own, Menolly sent Beauty to Benden to ask a dragonrider to take her back home. While she waited, she took her leave of Soreel, Perrin, and the other women she knew at the Sea Hold. From her mother Mavi, Menolly got only a brief acknowledgement of her service and a rushed farewell. Menolly didn’t get a chance to say goodbye to Alemi at all, because the fishing fleet was at sea on a long trawl. She’d write him later, and now she’d be able to have Beauty deliver her letters directly rather than having to post them by ship.

T’gellan arrived late in the afternoon, an hour or so before supper. Menolly, who had been playing quietly in the Great Hall while she waited, packed up her instruments, collected her things, summoned her fire lizards, and made her way outside.

“You look good,” T’gellan said to her when she emerged from the Hold doors. “I know how nervous you were about coming back here. It seems to have worked out.”

“It did,” Menolly agreed, “though there were times I wasn’t so sure.”

“I always knew you could do this,” T’gellan told her. “Just like I knew you could make a place at the Harper Hall for yourself.”

Menolly laughed.

~~~

T’gellan dropped Menolly off at the Harper Craft Hall just after breakfast. On her way into the Hall she ran into Silvina, who told her that Master Robinton wanted to see her in his study.

“Ah, Menolly,” Robinton said, standing as she entered. “You have no idea how glad I am to see you.”

“If you missed me that much, maybe you shouldn’t have sent me away,” Menolly replied, raising an eyebrow. Robinton laughed.

“You did very well at Half-Circle, judging from what I’ve been told,” he said. “As much as I regret that necessity, you were really the only person who could do the job.”

“I tried,” Menolly replied. “It wasn’t easy.”

“No, I’m sure it wasn’t,” Robinton said. “Nothing important ever is. But we can talk about that later; for now I’m just glad you’re back.”

Menolly smiled, let out a breath, and sat.

“I’m just glad to be home.”