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A Song for Ruatha

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The apprentices were practicing the Duty Song.

The music filled the hallways, echoing through the stones in a most pleasant way. The main hall was not insulated for sound, and everyone within the compound was treated to music throughout the day as the larger groups rehearsed. The music rose and fell as Brudegan experimented with dynamics, and soloists stepped forward to try new variations. Things were changing in the Harper Hall in many ways, but Menolly still recognized the song.

She felt the music through her entire body, and found herself timing her steps to the beat of the percussion. She smiled as Piemur improvised a particularly lovely descant, unable to do anything but be awed by the pure tones of his voice. Shonagar had been teaching her, but while her voice was rich and expressive, she would never be able to equal the supernal quality that made Piemur the finest treble in the Hall.

While she wished she had time to pause to listen more intently, she had other things to do. Master Robinton had asked to see her after her morning session with Master Domick, and she never kept any master waiting, especially the Masterharper.

Beauty chirped, but Menolly silenced her with a quick reminder that this was not one of the fire lizard chorus rehearsals. Teaching her fire lizards to be appreciative audience members rather than active participants was an ongoing process. Menolly would have liked to hum along with the tenors as they took up the main melody, but it would be a poor example for her lizard fair.

As she reached the top of the stairs, she paused to catch her breath and brush her hair back from her face. It wouldn’t do to arrive all flustered. Harpers had to be composed under duress, and she wouldn’t be a credit to the Hall if she didn’t act like a respectable journeywoman.

Menolly knocked on Master Robinton’s door, unconsciously beating out the rhythm of ‘The Duty Song.’

“Come in!” he called, and Menolly swung the door open and stepped through. She immediately recognized that her master’s welcome had been a reflex, and he wasn’t paying attention. Instead, his eyes were fixed on a scroll that was the pristine white of the ancient-made records spread over his desk.

Master Robinton was seated in his good chair with Zair wrapped around his neck in his now accustomed perch. The fire lizard was almost fully grown, and was one of the smartest Menolly had met. Rocky and Diver were older, but as Pern was discovering, as more and more of the charming beasts Impressed, fire lizards came to resemble their masters. Master Robinton wasn't renowned as the quickest wit in the world for nothing, and Zair benefitted from being the sole focus of his adoration.

Menolly privately thought Zair bordered on the wrong side of spoiled. Zair was well-behaved when he was out in public, but Master Robinton was twisted around his talons – and the fire lizard knew it.

Zair watched her for a moment before leaning over to chirp in his friend's ear. Master Robinton started, blinking as he tried to think what she was doing there. “Ah, Menolly,” he said, his voice warm and beautiful.

“You sent for me, sir?” she asked. Sebell had taught her that framing her questions in an informative way could remind people (particularly their overworked Master) of what she wanted to discuss. It helped avoid awkwardness for both sides.

“I did,” he said, nodding to himself. He set aside the ancient record to focus on her instead. “I've got news. How would you like to visit Ruatha?”

“Ruatha?” she echoed.

Master Robinton’s smile was slow and pleased. “Master Shonagar informs me that he believes you are ready for a performance outside of these halls, and I thought it might be appropriate for the upcoming Ruatha Gather to serve as your official debut.”

For a moment, she wondered if she was hearing him correctly. Traveling was expensive if not done a-dragonback, so usually the smaller Gathers would be limited to the local Harper and casual performers. Arrangements would be made for Harpers to attend major Gathers to perform, but the Hall only sent its best.

Master Robinton chuckled at her dumbstruck expression. “Close your mouth, child, you wouldn’t want anything to crawl in.”

Menolly obediently shut her mouth with a click of her teeth. “But, Master…”

“You’ll do fine,” he said, and his amusement transformed into reassuring warmth. “You’re our most promising young composer, and it’s time you travelled to other parts of Pern. Master Shonagar will help you develop a program, and if you can get his approval, you’ll be more than ready for the less stringent audience of a happy Gather crowd.”

“Thank you,” she said, knowing that protesting any further would get her nowhere.

He leaned back in his seat so that he could hold up a hand. “You have two sevendays to prepare. Tell Master Shonagar I would like you to sing ‘Brekke’s Song,’ ‘The Fire Lizard Song’ and that sea song you do so well,” he said, counting on his fingers as he listed his selections. “Master Shonagar can help you pick out other songs to round out your set, but I would also like you to work on a new composition for this Gather. Something fresh, that no one’s heard before!”

“About what?” she asked, surprised at the assignment.

“That’s for you to decide.”

Her Master’s faith in her was flattering, but the meatrolls and klah she’d had for breakfast turned into a lump in her stomach. She had always simply written what came into her head, and had no idea where to start with such vague instructions.

“Yes, sir,” she said, forcing herself to keep her back straight and face him squarely. Master Robinton wasn’t the type of person to make impossible demands, and he wouldn’t have requested a new song if he didn’t think she was capable. It was up to her to prove to him that she was worthy of his confidence in her.

Master Robinton was quiet for a moment as he looked into her eyes. Apparently seeing what he wanted, He nodded before continuing, “I could arrange for you to go a-dragonback, but I’d rather you take a runnerbeast. The Ritecamp caravan is leaving in a sevenday, and Sebell will make arrangements for you both to accompany it. I’ll meet you at Ruatha the day before the Gather to approve your new song.”

Now she wondered if she could keep her breakfast down. Seaholders rarely used runnerbeasts, so she had never had the chance to learn how to ride until coming to Harper Hall. Over the past couple of months, she had been taking casual lessons, but a couple of pleasure trips was nothing compared to days in the saddle.

Robinton, perceptive as ever, detected her unease. “The Fort Hold Beastmaster is used to obliging Harpers. He’ll assign a journeyman to help you practice you go down after luncheon,” he assured her.

“I’ll do that,” she promised, forcing herself to breathe normally. A Harper had to be calm despite adversity.

“I think you’ll like the experience, once you learn how.”

Menolly wasn’t able to think of any reply that wouldn’t draw a reproof for her lack of self-confidence. “Yes, sir.”

“And before I get distracted, I want to make sure you have some spending money for the Gather.” Master Robinton dug through his desk, producing a small purse that jingled as he tossed it to her. “It’s funds for both your travel. You should also make sure to get something nice for yourself at the Gather stalls. Ruatha boasts different craftmasters and some unique goods, and it can be beneficial to make friends outside of the Hall.”

Master Robinton was trying to tell her something, but she couldn’t figure out what. “Yes, sir,” she agreed.

“Just remember not to get in any fights, and to keep your friends calm,” he told her, teasing gently. Her first Gather at Fort Hold had become a part of Hall legend. “Now be off with you, since I’ve just given you a month’s worth of work to be done, and I have a Turn’s worth of message scrolls to go through before I go to Benden tonight.”

Normally she would have smiled at her Master’s put-upon act, but she was too concerned about the task which she had been set. Menolly was proud that she managed to keep her composure as she went back in the hallway with only Beauty for company.

Menolly didn't know if she was ever going to feel comfortable within her own skin. She had been a harper for several months, but sometimes she wasn't convinced that it wasn't a fellis dream. If so, it was a dream she never wanted to awaken from, despite her current aches and pains.

As she worked on packing for her trip to Ruatha, she reminded herself that she should be glad that Beasthold Journeyman Kalen was such a strict taskmaster. Riding a runnerbeast was nothing like riding a-dragonback, and she would be glad for the experience once she got into the saddle for the trip. The planned four-day trek would probably be excruciating without the instruction.

Menolly just had to keep reminding herself of her gratitude every time a movement sent an ache through her muscles. She plopped down gracelessly on the bed, nudging her gear aside as she elevated her sore legs. Her friends (with the exception of the ever-present Beauty) were outside sunning themselves in their favorite spots on the roof, so she could steal a quiet moment to shut her eyes.

The past five days had been a blur of activity as she prepared to make her first journey as a harper. Masters Domick and Shonagar had dropped their lesson plans in favor of preparing her for the trip. Domick had selected music for her to bring to the Ruathan Harper (“and make sure you get that fumble-fingered idiot to actually practice with you before performing it at the Gather!”), while Shonagar had added three songs to her set, two of which she had written herself.

Since Sebell had been out of the Hall on a journey of his own to Tillek, Talmor had taken her aside to provide information on the essentials of travel and tricks for instrument maintenance in case the weather proved to be poor. She had thought Talmor’s lesson sufficient until Silvina checked her gear, tutting and adding a Gather Dress and other essentials none of the male harpers even considered.

All in all, Menolly was dazed, worried, and convinced she was missing something.

Aside from the still unwritten song Master Robinton had commissioned.

It wasn’t that she couldn’t think of a tune or melody. Melody lived in a world full of music, finding a tempo or melody in every sound, and every action could transform into lyrics. She could have written a dozen songs, but she didn’t know how to find “something fresh” for Ruatha. Master Robinton didn’t want her to compose a song; he wanted her to compose the right song.

Someone knocked on her door, preventing her from sinking worrying herself sick.

The man who had fast become one of her closest friends leaned on the doorframe, his arms neatly folded over his lean chest. Unlike her, Sebell didn’t favor Harper Blue, instead sticking to the more mundane (and much cheaper) shades of natural brown hide. The clothing suited him, bringing out the richness of his dark eyes. The subdued clothing also served as a good backdrop for Kimi’s golden beauty.

“Sebell!” she exclaimed, pleased to see him. She started to swing her feet down to greet him properly, but he gestured for her to remain where she was. Since they were supposed to be peers now, Menolly compromised her instinctive deference by sitting on the edge of the bed. Beauty chirped a greeting to Kimi, who replied with a happy sound of her own.

“I have just returned from my journeyings,” he told her, coming into the room before carefully shutting the door behind himself. “I hoped you could spare a moment for me.”

“Always! How was Tillek?”

“Wet,” Sebell said, giving a mock shudder. He glanced around the room, taking the chair by her desk. While the desk wasn’t embarrassingly messy, it was full of drying copies of scores Domick had ordered for the Gather. Sebell didn’t comment as he sat down with a relieved sigh, glad to be off his feet. “I spent a sevenday on the Bay Rain, and there was a night or two I wished I’d never left land.”

Menolly blinked. The Bay Rain was the personal vessel of Tillek’s Lord. The name went back in time as far as anyone knew, and any seaholder would instantly recognize the name as indicating the premier ship on Pern. “Really?”

“Lord Oterel wanted entertainment for his annual cruise along his coastlines,” he said. “He asked Robinton to send someone, and I was tapped for the job. You will be proud to know that I didn’t embarrass the Hall by getting seasick, although it was a close thing that second night.”

Sebell’s explanation of why he had just spent a week at sea was a good one, but Menolly hadn’t forgotten the lessons she’d given to Sebell about life in a seahold. Traveling aboard the Bay Rain would be a safe way for Sebell to experience a longer voyage. He would need to have his sea legs before undertaking a long journey south.

“Anyone can get ill on choppy waters,” she said consolingly. “The best thing to do is to go again so you get used to the way the ocean moves,”

“So I’m told,” Sebell said. “It turns out Lord Oterel and I share some kind of family connection, so I’ve been invited to come back to his Turn’s End celebration.”

“You’re related to a Lord Holder?”

“Distantly,” Sebell said. “Lord Holders are good at figuring out bloodline connections when they want something. I’d wager you have a Lord or two in your family tree as well.”

“I hadn’t thought of it that way,” she said. Her hands absently stroked Beauty’s soft skin as she thought of what she knew of her family. It wasn’t uncommon for sons to find wives from other Seaholds to make sure the bloodlines didn’t breed too close. If memory served her, Yanus’s grandmother had been a younger daughter of the Nerat line. “So Lord Oterel finds a connection, and claims you as kin?”

“It has advantages both ways. He’s been a good friend to Master Robinton because of a similar claim, despite his hidebound tendencies. But both he and the Master know that the Harper will always be impartial if a dispute arises, so there’s certain lines Oterel doesn’t even consider crossing.”

“It sounds complicated.” Off to her right side, Rocky and Diver appeared, both chirping greetings before taking perches next to Kimi on the very edge of the desk. Their eyes were whirling with lazy pleasure, and Menolly suspected they had managed to con some extra tidbits out of the kitchen staff.

“Politics usually are. Thankfully, smarter minds than ours are in charge,” Sebell said, giving her a playful wink. “Speaking of smarter brains, has my friend Kalen been teaching you everything he knows?”

“He’s been teaching me the importance of letting my runner come first,” she said. The muscles in her legs and backside ached at the thought of the strict journeyman. “I think I could groom a runner in my sleep.”

“It’s as important as oiling a fire lizard,” Sebell agreed. “We take care of them, and they’ll take care of us.”

“I know,” Menolly said, “but it would be easier if I wasn’t so sore from riding.”

“You’ll get used to it. Thankfully Fort to Ruatha is an easy ride, and four days isn’t a trying pace. We’ll have a break during Threadfall, so we’ll have time to rest.” He shifted as Kimi turned her head, demanding that his fingers apply their attention to under her chin. “You should plan on doing a set of harpering at Welles Hold. It’s a good chance to try out a couple of new songs since the audience will be small.”

“I don’t have any new songs worth trying right now.” And because Sebell had always been honest with her, she decided to share her worries. “Master Robinton asked me to write something for the Gather, and I don’t have any idea what to do!”

Sebell didn’t laugh or chide her not to be a silly clutch. Instead, he thought it over in his quiet fashion before speaking. “We’ll have a sevenday at Ruatha before the Gather. I’m sure you’ll find something worth tuning about there.”

She opened her mouth to point out that the timeframe was looming over her like Thread waiting to fall, but Sebell forestalled her by reaching out to take her hand in his own.

“Stay calm, and breathe with me for a second,” he said. “Like Master Shonagar taught you.”

As she filled her chest, she focused on the way the air moved through her throat and down to her chest, expanding her diaphragm. Strangely, as she focused on her breathing, her anxiety started to ebb.

There were only the sounds of their breathing and the pleasant crooning of their queens for several long moments. “Feel better?” Sebell asked.

“Why… yes!” she replied, surprised.

“It’s an old Harper trick. When you start getting overwhelmed, take a moment to breathe. The ones who are prone to getting nerves before performing use it most, but it’s a good technique for any situation causing you stress,” he said. “Once you have your breathing under control, everything else is manageable.”

“Thank you,” she said. She hadn’t thought such a simple thing could make such a huge difference. Beauty rubbed her face against Menolly’s cheek with approval as Menolly’s mood improved.

“Instead of thinking about the song you’re going to write, let’s tidy up our last bit of business. I need to check on your packing,” Sebell said, rising to his feet. He shifted Kimi from his shoulder to the nearby desk, an unwelcome movement at which the little queen chirped reprovingly.

“Silvina checked last night, but you can look if you want to,” she said, pointing to the bags.

“There’s no one at the hall better at packing than Silvina,” Sebell agreed readily, coming to sit on the other end of her bed in order to unwrap the first bag. “Senior’s check is a hall tradition. We usually have the pleasure of ordering multiple attempts, just to remind our new peers they have plenty to learn.”

She had packed two bags at Silvana’s insistence, and planned on taking the gitar she had inherited from Robinton as well. Ruatha would have instruments for guest performers, but she felt more comfortable tuning on a familiar instrument.

Sebell was efficient as he went through the first pack, which contained her writing supplies and miscellany like the oils she used on her fire lizards and hands. The scar on her palm was well-healed, but Oldive insisted that she needed to be extra vigilant to keep her fingers limber. The pack also contained a small sleeping roll and a heavy jacket, since the caravan would spend several nights camping outside.

“This is fine,” he said, before selecting the second pack, the one that contained her clothing.

Just in time for her to remember the “extras” Silvina had insisted on. She shut her eyes, wishing she could go between.

To his credit, Sebell only paused when his fingers encountered the multiple breastbands, before hastily closing the bag. “If Silvina approved your clothing, it should be fine as well,” he said, his voice still even.

Menolly chanced a look at him, and was stunned to see his eyes roaming around the room, trying to find something else to focus on. He was just as embarrassed as she was, but was hiding it much better.

“Thank you,” she said, shoving the pack off to the side. “Piemur said there’s a contest among the journeymen to see how many times they were ordered to repack on their first trip.”

“Piemur is a gossip,” Sebell said, rolling his eyes. Some of the tenseness in his shoulders retreated, and he was back to being the assured young man that she respected so. “You didn’t have to repack, even if you had Silvina’s help to get there. Accepting good advice isn’t a weakness.”

“I guess I did fine,” she admitted.

Sebell reached over the packs to place a warm hand on hers. “Menolly, you always do fine. You just need to have as much faith in yourself as we do in you, Harper Girl.”

Unlike many holds, which relied on mountain chains for safety, Welles Hold stood in the middle of flat land. It rose like a small mound amidst the flat, arable land that surrounded it like a wide lady’s dress. The farmcraft holding was best known as one of the main grain producers for Fort Hold, and protecting its verdant fields was one of the chief headaches of Fort Weyr.

By the time the caravan pulled into sight of the hold’s stone walls on the second day, Menolly was more than ready to get out of the saddle. Sebell had assured her the caravan was keeping a moderate pace, but her backside begged to differ. Kalen had found her an agreeable mare as a mount, but a good-tempered runner was not enough to compensate for her lack of experience. Her fire lizards had been popping in and out the whole ride, making use of the convenience of between in order to check on her and offer her encouraging chirps.

Except Lazybones, but that was a given. Camo and Piemur were still feeding her fair back at the Hall, so the brown lizard saw no need to stir himself. Only Beauty was a constant, and Menolly was grateful for that, because she couldn’t imagine trying to deal with all nine on the road.

Despite her renewed aches, the ride had been pleasant enough, since the traders were old friends of Sebell’s. One of them, a middle-aged man named Tuck, had spent most of the journey riding beside them, sharing gossip from across the holds. The stories he told weren’t about the major goings on, but rather the regular daily lives of different crafts. The man seemed to know people everywhere, and it took little prompting for him to unreel tale after tale.

Tuck was full of fresh stories, and she hadn’t been hatched yesterday. Menolly kept her mouth shut, listened and learned. Several of the stories were well worth a tune or two.

Along with enjoying Tuck’s tales, Menolly took time to learn what life was like among the caravan folk. Unlike most Pernese, the very mention of Thread didn’t send them scrambling for caves. Rather, their leaders pragmatically planned for the Falls, timing their travels in order to make the best time possible without taking foolish risks.

Between Tuck’s chatter about his last visit to High Reaches Hold, and the rhythm made from the runner’s hooves, she had three different songs brewing in her head. She’d written down a couple of bars of melody last night as they had sat around the fire. Even as she had scribbled, she knew the tune wasn’t the right one for the Ruathan Gather.

But it was a song she would finish anyway. The melody wouldn’t leave her alone until she found the right lyrics.

As they drew nearer to Welles Hold, Sebell pulled his gelding up next to her so they could speak. “Are you doing all right?”

“I’m just a little tired,” she responded, looking at the loose reins in her hand. The mare was so well trained that Menolly hadn’t needed to provided her with any direction, since the mare automatically followed the leaders of the caravan’s beasts.

“Traveling can take a lot out of a person. Don’t forget the runner needs to be curried before you can rest. And we have to do our duty to our hosts after dinner.”

She groaned, earning a chuckle from Sebell. The memory of Kalen’s stern lectures her about attending to her mount was still vivid in her mind. “I know.”

“However, since I am a very nice person, I will point out that we have funds for this trip and you can pay to have an beastcraft apprentice take care of the stabling.”


“Really. The usual price is a quartermark, so make sure you dicker if they ask for more.”

Knowing she could get away from the runner and onto solid ground sooner rather than later made her want to weep with relief. “I’d pay twice that.”

“They know that, so don’t let them take advantage. Frugality is a virtue worth cultivating,” Sebell said, and he was teasing her again. “If you can keep them under a quartermark, you’ll have enough left over to afford a hot bath.”

The thought of soaking her aches in hot water sounded better than going to a Hatching. She examined Welles Hold dubiously, trying to figure out where the bathing rooms might be. The holds she knew had tapped the thermals lying deep in the underground cave system, but this hold looked like it was a stack of bricks.

It took longer to get to the hold than she had expected, a visual trick caused by the sheer flatness of the terrain. It took almost an hour for the caravan to reach the structure once spotted, but it wasn’t until they were close that she could see how unusual the construction was.

Welles Hold, unlike any place she’d heard of, was made of individual stones, piles and mortared together in an interesting arrangement.

The stones were a mishmash of colors, primarily composed of the white limestone found in Fort’s southern quarry and the black and white swirl of Ruathan marble. There were other colors of stone, appearing at random intervals, but most special of all were the pure white Crom marble accents around the openings and lining the paved walkway with statuary. The Crom marble had been elaborately worked, forming intricate images of farming and dragons flying through the sky. There was so much detail that her eyes didn’t know where to start, afraid they might miss something.

“It’s so pretty!” she exclaimed, her fingers coming to her lips as she gazed in rapt fascination as they made the final approach at a particularly amazing statue of a nude man holding a pitchfork. The statue was so well done that it looked like he might just step from his place in the wall, ready to use his well-defined muscles to start on a day’s labor. Moved, she found she had to brush tears from her eyes before looking at the next carving, this one of a lovely woman holding a fire lizard.

“It’s one of the most marvelous sights of Pern,” Tuck said, slowing his runnerbeast down so that they could keep pace together. “One family spent several lifetimes working on the initial construction, and their descendants are here still, keeping it in prime shape and adding more during the colder seasons.”

“I know there’s several stone walls in Fort’s pastures, but I didn’t think stone could be used to make something this beautiful! Wherever did they get the stone from? How big is the building? How did they do it?” The questions tumbled out of her mouth so quickly that she forgot to breathe.

“The stone comes from all over. Caravans have been bringing stones with them for as long as it’s been here. It’s a bit of a contest to bring the best piece, since the hold offers discounts depending on the quality and uniqueness,” Tuck said. “As for the how, you’ll need to ask Holder Serik. I doubt he’ll tell you, but he does like a pretty face.”

Menolly couldn’t remember ever being called pretty before. Instead of thinking on that, she decided to divert her attention. “Why haven’t I heard about this place?” she asked Sebell, who had been listening to their conversation attentively. “Isn’t there a Teaching Song?”

“Many, usually written by new journeymen who come here. Remind me not to sing you ‘The Farmer and The Lady,’” he said.

“It’s that bad?”

“No, it’s a very catchy tune and will get stuck in your head. The subject matter, however, is not appropriate for anyone not deep in their cups.” Sebell’s grin made him look much younger, like an apprentice planning mischief. Kimi flapped her wings and let out a reproving squeak, at which Sebell averted his eyes.

“Oh,” Menolly said. She had known the sailors liked bawdy songs, and other rough and tumble trades were said to delight in low humor. No one had ever thought them appropriate for a girl, so she had never had an opportunity to learn. “I see.”

There was an uncomfortable silence, which Tuck broke into. “Harpers need to know many types of songs, even if they’re tasteless. If this young man is too shy to teach you, I wager I can remember a couple you might find amusing,” he suggested, waggling his eyebrows.

Menolly glanced at Sebell, who was definitely redder than the sun exposure would account for. “That would be nice,” she said to Tuck.

Sebell shifted in his saddle and still wouldn’t look at her directly.

“You’ll want to wait until after the Gather to take up that study, since the music style can be infectious and might influence your work,” Sebell said, almost like he intended on addressing his runner’s mane instead of Menolly. “I don’t enjoy singing those ballads unless I’ve had a couple of cups of wine. Silvina might actually be the best person to teach you. She’s made a habit of collecting them over the turns.”


“Can you think of anyone with more exposure to drunken Harpers?”

Sebell finally relaxed as they passed through a stone archway and entered a courtyard. The caravan pulled up to the right side, and people came out from the nearby stables. There would be plenty of room to stable the runners away from Threadfall.

Tuck bid them a quick farewell with a brief salute of his hand in order to attend to his duties.

The two harpers were left to their own devices. Sebell dismounted first, holding onto the gelding’s reins as he tried to avoid jostling Kimi. Disgusted, the little queen flew into the air to find a place to sit on the warm stones of the nearest wall.

He came around to Menolly’s side, offering a hand as she swung her stiff leg over the saddle and slid to the ground. It wasn’t graceful, but at least she didn’t collapse as her muscles reminded her how unhappy they were.

Sebell took pity on her, pointing at the main doors. “There will be people waiting inside to see to the travelers. Go have a bath and take a brief nap. You’ll feel like a new person at dinner.”

“But I need to handle the dickering,” she reminded him, even though the thought of walking made her cringe inside.

“I’ll handle it, journeywoman,” Sebell said. “Just this once.”

Menolly’s independent streak was overruled by the temptation of a hot bath. “Thank you,” she said, giving him a grateful smile.

He smiled back, then trotted off to find someone to see to their animals.

Threadfall was due at sunrise, so Welles Holding was keeping an early night to ensure their flamethrower crews were up and ready.

Menolly had been unsure of what her welcome would be like. Despite Master Robinton’s efforts to shield her, she knew there were many people unhappy about the existence a girl harper. Piemur made sure she knew all the current gossip, since only a dimglow could pretend that words didn’t matter. For a harper, words were all that mattered.

To her surprise, Berehan, the wife of the Holder, had greeted her on the threshold. Berehan was about the age of Menolly’s mother, but had nothing else in common with Mavi. She was friendly and chattered a mile a minute as she escorted Menolly directly to the bathing room. Menolly only had to nod every now and then as the woman monologued about the hold architecture and the upcoming Ruathan Gather that of course her family would be attending, and how it was amazing that such a young girl had written so many wonderful songs, and how she hoped that Menolly would be able to sing for them if she wasn’t too tired, and of course the Hold would be providing her with a hot bath since they knew their duty to the Harper Hall…

Thankfully, the hot bath and quick nap rejuvenated Menolly enough that she was ready to face the woman’s enthusiasm at the evening meal.

Menolly was surprised to find herself seated on the dais at the head table on Berehan’s right as an honored guest. Sebell winked before taking the seat next to Holder Serik.

Her other tablemate was introduced as Pelimen, the master farmer for the hold. He nodded at her after giving Beauty a long, considering look, and then spent the entire meal applying himself to his food with myopic focus. Menolly was left to Berehan’s friendly mercies.

Berehan was as interesting as Tuck in her own way. Welles Holding was frequently visited by travelers, and Berehan was proud of how well-informed she was. She also admitted to having learned a few of the more common drum codes in order to know what messages were being conveyed.

The big news that Menolly had missed on the road was that Ramoth had clutched thirty-eight eggs from her latest mating flight, but no queen. Bets were being paid out, and Berehan glumly admitted to losing a half-mark to her oldest son. Berehan pronounced it was all in good timing, since the Weyrwoman would now be able to attend the Ruathan Gather.

Menolly hadn’t thought of that possibility. It was true Lessa was Ruathan, but it hadn’t occurred to her that she would be there… and Menolly’s new song would debut before her.

Master’s Shonagar’s relaxing breathing exercises were coming in very handy.

After the sweet course (a delicious pastry filled with spiced redfruit) was served, Menolly stretched, wondering if she should bring her gitar out. At Half-Circle, the music began as the tables were being cleared. If she had been sitting next to him, she would have asked Sebell. Menolly decided it couldn’t hurt to at least begin tuning the gitar.

She reached under the table to grab her instrument case, but Berehan waved a finger playfully. “We’ll ask for a song or two later, but tonight we’re in for a treat,” Berehan said, gesturing to the table located to the far right. A group of six men and women wearing the marks of the Weavercraft Hall rose, and began to stretch their bodies, limbering up for movement. “We’re going to get a taste of Boll Clog.”


“They dance that way in Southern Boll’s Weavercraft Halls. They’ll probably dance at the Gather, too, but any chance you get to see cloggers is a rare one worth taking.”

“Don’t they need music?”

“They’ll make their own,” Berehan assured her. “They say they learn to dance to the beat of the large looms in the main crafthall.”

Menolly reached into her belt pouch to produce a stale meatroll to shove into Beauty’s mouth. She gave a firm admonishment for Beauty to stay quiet since it would be rude to interrupt the performance.

There were two women in the group, and one of them seemed to be the leader, gesturing quickly as she instructed the group. Menolly presumed she was creating the program, although she had never heard of dance being the main entertainment. People liked to dance to music, but it was always the Harper who decided what the performance would be.

The group stepped into the clear space directly below the head table. Their shoes were strange, with wooden soles that clacked along the stone of the great hall’s floors. Menolly held her breath, understanding that this would be something she would want to remember.

They hardly moved their arms, but their legs flew as their shoes tapped out intricate patterns. The dancers balanced on the balls of their feet, shuffling and stomping to creating a rhythm as compelling as any drumline. It was fantastic how they moved as a unit, occasionally pausing for either the men or women to step forward or backwards for solos or duets. Menolly found herself grinning and clapping along with the other spectators as the dancers shifted patterns.

They danced for about ten minutes, keeping high levels of energy and never losing the beat. Watching them uplifted Menolly’s spirits, and she began to mentally search for lyrics to describe their unique style. When the group finished with a resounding stomp and lowered their heels to the floor, Menolly wanted to beg for an encore.

The holders applauded, and several of the younger girls came out to offer the dancers fresh juice. They were perspiring lightly, but all of them were grinning at the well-deserved praise.

A touch to her shoulder made Menolly turn around. Sebell gestured for her to collect her gitar. Kimi and Beauty both grudgingly accepted perches on the table’s edge, since the harpers would shift about during the performance and the fire lizards might get in the way.

He led her out from behind the table and sat on the right corner of the raised dais, his body angled so that he could see everyone in the hall and has his back placed to no one. He patted to his left for where Menolly was to sit, and then began tuning his gitar.

“It’s a hard act to follow, but nothing can silence a Harper,” Sebell said, speaking up in a voice that filled the Great Hall. It was a surprise to hear the usually soft-spoken man take the hold’s attention on himself. “Unless he’s parched from a lack of wine.”

Two of the girls hurriedly brought out a skin of Tillek and two fine goblets. Tillek wines had a sharpness to them - Menolly had heard Robinton disparage Tillek's vintages many times - but a small farm hold would find Benden’s prices prohibitive. Sebell gave them a bow in thanks, before filling both cups and handing one to Menolly.

“Welles Hold maintains its reputation for fine hospitality!” Sebell said, raising his own cup in toast to Serik and Berehan, who both smiled at the praise.

Menolly took a small sip, not really wanting the wine but knowing it would be rude to refuse. She still couldn’t forget how mortified she’d been to fall asleep in Benden after overindulging.

Sebell set his glass aside on the table, right next to Kimi, who responded by rearing up on her legs and fluttering. The hold laughed, for the sight of a fire lizard was still a novelty, even on the well-traveled trade route.

Sebell waited for the fire lizard to settle down before continuing.

“I’m always pleased to visit, but tonight I have the pleasure of introducing a talented friend to you. You may have heard some of the songs she’s written,” he said, playing the couple of bars of ‘The Fire Lizard Song’ and provoking some more good-natured laughter. “I think she can be convinced to play a couple of her favorites tonight.”

Every eye on the hold obediently focused on Menolly. There were over two hundred people gathered in the Great Hall, and she was certain they were judging her. Instead of letting her anxiety take control, Menolly breathed and lifted her shoulders so her posture was that of a harper ready to perform.

“I’d be happy to,” she assured them, earning some hoots of encouragement. “But first let’s start by remembering what we are grateful for,” she added, and struck the first chords to ‘The Duty Song.’ Master Shonagar had told her that traveling harpers should begin every performance with that ballad to make sure people didn’t forget what was owed to the Weyrs.

Sebell began the second gitar part, and Menolly knew she’d made the right decision. “Drummer, beat, and piper, blow…

The crowd eagerly applauded every song. She played ‘The Fire Lizard Song’ twice, the first immediately after they finished with the opening number, and a second time towards the end of the set, this time accompanied by the willing Kimi and Beauty.

With Sebell to pace her, she had chances sip the wine to keep her throat from getting dry. Sebell alternated between teaching songs and crowd pleasers, including one Menolly hadn’t heard before about a miner and his lady. It wasn’t exactly bawdy, but she would wager that there were other variations that had much more explicit lyrics.

She had never thought of Sebell as a performer, but he led with easy charisma that reminded her of their master. He told jokes (mostly of the self-deprecating kind, often flattering the hold) and talked about how glad he was to be on firm ground after his last journey to Tillek. He accepted the playful quips from the audience with good grace, zinging off a couple of quick-witted rejoinders that made the entire audience laugh.

Menolly found herself relaxing into music, and was disappointed when Sebell swirled a finger to show it was time to wrap up the performance. He met her eyes with a nod, indicating that she should select the final song.

She pretended to tune her gitar as she thought of options. It was time to soothe the buoyant mood, but not to spoil it. She thought of a song Robinton had written about the beginning of the Pass. It wasn’t the famous one that had immediately circulated following Lessa’s Ride, but a more detailed version had been recently added to the set Teaching Ballads. This close to Ruatha, people would be especially connected to Lessa’s tale.

Four hundred Turns in the black of night
Four hundred of Rukbat's sun bright,
Four hundred Turns never a Thread
Dropped on Pern from the wand'ring Red Star…

It was one of the longer ballads in the Harper Hall’s repertoire, but Menolly loved it for both the melody and the message. It ended on a stern reminder to honor the dragonriders, which neatly reinforced ‘The Duty Song’ opener.

The applause made her glow when she and Sebell took their bows.

She was feeling too happy to want to immediately sleep. It was so rewarding to perform before an appreciative audience. Menolly loved music, but sharing that love with other people just made the music even more amazing. She felt jittery, like too much klah was running through her veins.

It took several minutes to bid the Serik and Berehan a good night (most of which were filled by Berehan’s gushing praise and demands that Menolly stop by anytime she was in the area, because they’d love to hear her again, and Welles Hold would always offer her a fine meal and a good bed in exchange, and of course Sebell knew he was always welcome since he was a fine journeyman…).

Once they had made their escape, Sebell led her down the hallway to the courtyard outside. This time of night, Belior had risen to the right of the Red Star. Sebell didn’t spare either a glance, instead almost collapsing into a seat on the lowest stair. The playful entertainer vanished, replaced by the thoughtful man Menolly had come to know.

“I’m glad that went well. I don’t relish this kind of evening.”

“But you do it so well!” Menolly exclaimed. She shifted her gitar case in her grasp so she could sit beside him, apologizing to Beauty after unintentionally jostling the fire lizard.

“That’s Harper-taught, not natural. Some people, like the Master and our friend Piemur, thrive on being the center of attention, but performing for crowds is tiring for me.” Kimi made a crooning sound, and he brushed a hand over the little queen’s head.

“It’s so much fun, though,” she said, confused. “Isn’t being a Harper about playing music?”

“I guess you’re one of their ilk,” Sebell said, chuckling. “Being a harper isn’t just about music. It’s a small part of what we do. I like performing for small groups or teaching an enthusiastic student, but what I really love is the journeying.”

Sebell was a wonderful musician, and the idea that he didn’t enjoy playing for a crowd made no sense to Menolly. Music was what made her feel alive. She bit her lip, unable to think of anything to say. Sebell gave her a sidelong look, understanding.

“There’s more to Pern than what you see at the major Holds and Crafthalls, or even the Weyrs. Each hold has its own way of life. The best thing about being a journeyman harper is the chance to see it,” Sebell told her. “I’ve learned how to perform in front of a large audience because that’s part of being a good Harper, but learning everything you can is what makes a great one.” He paused, before adding, “If you want to know the people of Pern, you have to spend time with them, and try to understand what they love, and what they fear.”

“The Red Star,” she said automatically, shuddering as her eyes immediately went to the sickly pulsing light in the sky. Beauty and Kimi hissed at the very mention of Pern’s ancient foe, so Menolly forced herself to look away and not think about how dreadful it was. F’nor and Canth’s jump was too recent a memory.

The light coming from Belior reflected oddly off Sebell’s face as he turned to face her squarely. “People have individual fears that can be more pressing. Our entire society has revolved around the need to fight Thread for so long that we don’t always think of the little things. Crop failure, losing a parent, having a bad lord, not being loved by those we love… those can have more impact on a person than the Thread which most people will never see Fall in their lifetimes.”

She had been afraid that she would never have music. She found herself rubbing the scarred skin of her palm, a concrete reminder that there were fates worse than Threadfall. She could still be back at Half-Circle, scuttling along as she tried to avoid her parents’ disapproval.

Or maybe she would have been married off. She’d just marked her sixteenth Turn, old enough to be taken as a wife by holder standards.

“I sometimes wonder if I’m not just dreaming this life. I feel like an imposter,” she murmured. “A Turn ago, I wasn’t even allowed to sing, but now I’m leading the songs.”

“I think we all feel like that when things are going well,” Sebell said. “My grandsire was a woodsman, and I’d be in Southern Boll still if he hadn’t brought me to the Hall.”

“You’re not Harper-born?” she asked. Sebell was so good at all the instruments that she’d assumed he’d been raised in the Hall. It was a silly assumption since she hadn’t seen him with any family members, nor had he mentioned it. In her head, Sebell belonged in the Hall, just as much as Master Domick and Master Robinton did.

“I’ve got some harper kin. My grandfather pulled a couple of strings with a cousin to get me an apprenticeship,” Sebell said. Kimi gave another croon, and Menolly wondered why that bothered him.

“But surely he didn’t need to! You’re so good!”

“Rationally, I recognize that I have a combination of talents that would have made me a good candidate, but…” Sebell trailed off. “It’s not worth dwelling on. I just work hard to prove that little bit of nepotism wasn’t a mistake.”

“It wasn’t!” she rushed to reassure him.

“I know. I just wanted to you to know you’re not the only one who’s had good luck on their side. Whenever you start feeling that someone made a mistake, the best thing to do is prove to yourself that you could have earned it if given a chance.”

Two days later, Menolly was keenly aware of the road dust on her clothing and the wind-strewn state of her hair. She should be used to meeting the great personages of Pern by now, especially after having given so many of them fire lizard eggs, but it was still a surprise to be met in Ruatha’s courtyard by Lord Warder Lytol and his ward, Lord Jaxom.

If Sebell hadn’t placed his hand on her shoulder to steer her towards Ruatha’s rulers, she might have tried to disappear amidst the chaos of the unpacking caravan in order to have a chance to pull herself together.

Beauty’s eyes were glowing orange, and Menolly forced herself to calm down. The last thing she wanted was for her queen to call the rest of the fair. If her lizards attacked the Ruathan Warder…

Take deep breaths, Menolly reminded herself. She had survived a meal with Lord Groghe. She could handle a brief meeting with the Lord Warder and his charge.

The Lord Warder of Ruatha was just as stern as Menolly remembered, hard lines burrowed into an uncompromising face. Being a dragonless man marked him, and Menolly wondered if he ever smiled.

Standing stiffly beside him was the young Lord whom Menolly had only seen at a distance before. She remembered a boy who had stubbornly cracked an egg that wouldn’t have hatched on its own, defying the commands of his guardian. Up close, it was hard to see that boy.

Jaxom was dressed in the red and brown of Ruatha with a rank badge displayed prominently on his left shoulder. His dark brown hair was combed neatly, with the ends curling in a fashion that hinted at a recent washing that hadn’t had time to dry. What was most notable was his polite expression and composure, holding himself straight-backed like a man instead of a boy not technically old enough to stand upon the Hatching grounds.

“Our greetings, Lord Lytol and Lord Jaxom,” Sebell said, his hand falling away from Menolly so he could make a bow. Menolly hastily copied him. “I’d like to introduce you to my colleague, Journeywoman Menolly.”

Lytol offered her a hand clasp. “I’ve heard about you, young lady,” he said, and while a bit flat, his voice wasn’t unkind. “You’re here to perform at our Gather.”

It was not a question, but she replied to him anyway.

“Yes, my lord – lords,” she said, turning her body slightly to include Jaxom in the conversation. Beauty echoed her with an encouraging chirp, and her eyes shifted to a blue hue.

“I’m sure we’ll enjoy it,” Jaxom agreed.

He held out a hand for her to clasp. His grip was strong in hers, and bore calluses from hard work.

Menolly blushed, unable to find anything to say. “I saw you impress your dragon” would be uncouth, but it was the only thing she could think about.

Sebell, thankfully, cut through the budding silence. “I’m very grateful that you’ve come out to meet us, but I usually meet you in your office.”

“Normally I wouldn’t be so impatient, since I know riding can be exhausting, but I wanted to bend your ear a moment in private, Journeyman Sebell. Our hold has the pleasure of hosting Lord Sigomal, and I didn’t want to have to be ungracious about sharing your time.”

Sigomal had just been confirmed as the new Lord Holder of Bitra. Master Robinton had shrugged about the Conclave’s decision, stating there was no reason not to confirm him, but he hadn’t been enthusiastic about the appointment. Menolly wondered what the man was doing in Ruatha instead of seeing to his own domain.

“Has he been here long?” Sebell asked.

“Long enough,” Jaxom interjected, before biting down on his lip as he realized he was being out of place.

Lytol narrowed his eyes, but didn’t correct his charge. “He’s interested in seeing how Jaxom is coming in his studies, and how Ruatha fares. I have a couple of things to discuss with you, since your master has informed me he will be at Ista Weyr over the next couple of days.” He turned his head to Menolly, and added, “Journeywoman, I look forward to hearing your songs. Jaxom, please escort Menolly to Jala.”

Menolly mumbled a thank you, but Sebell was already being drawn away by the Lord Warder, leaving her and Jaxom alone on the steps.

“Jala is our Headwoman,” Jaxom said, his eyes focused where Lytol had just vanished. “She’ll set you up right.”

He offered her his arm, and Menolly almost laughed as she accepted it. The uncharitable thought, Sella would be so jealous if she knew, was hard to squash. Menolly, on the arm of a Lord Holder!

Albeit one who was a head shorter and almost five turns younger. That wouldn’t have mattered to her rank-conscious sister.

Jaxom made no effort at conversation, and Menolly worried about saying the wrong thing, so they made a silent pair. Instead of leading her through Ruatha’s famous doors, Jaxom took her down the steps into the inner courtyard which served the kitchen area. Menolly noted the fresh construction lying directly in their path, and inhaled the rich, spicy smell that immediately triggered memories of dragons.

This, then, was the recently constructed weyr for Ruth.

It would be rude to gawk, despite how tempted she was to catch sight of the white dragon. Jaxom didn’t remark on the weyr or mention Ruth, and Menolly didn’t know how to ask without being rude. So instead of heading straight, they took an abrupt right turn into the kitchen area.

The kitchen was much like Harper Hall’s, albeit on a much larger scale. Off to their left were the spits, which were currently being tended to by a middle-aged man in drudge’s clothing. The scent of wherry was delicious, and Menolly’s mouth started to water. To a girl raised primarily on fish, wherry remained a treat.

The clanging of pots in the sinks and the chatter of women made the large room too loud for conversation. There was no reaction to the appearance of the Lord of the Hold in the kitchen. Menolly thought that odd: while Jaxom was still a boy, people would have to know that he would be in charge in just a few turns. Treating him with respect made more sense than not acknowledging his presence.

Menolly would have loved to explore the kitchens where Lessa had spent so much time hiding, but she had an uneasy feeling about Ruatha. She couldn’t figure out why, but there was an undercurrent in the atmosphere that didn’t feel right.

She didn’t have time to consider the matter since Jaxom was knocking on the doorway. A voice bid them enter.

Behind the household office desk sat a thin, rangy woman dressed in fine-woven russet cotton. She was of middling turns, possessing the kind of features that didn’t change much between thirty and sixty. She looked up from the accounts she was working on, setting aside the ink pot to study them.

“What do you need, Jaxom?” she asked, her voice neither hostile or friendly. It was a surprisingly light soprano, and Menolly thought she would have a pleasant singing voice.

“Lord Lytol would like you to assist Journeywoman Menolly with her accommodations.”

The woman nodded, pulling a page from her book. “I’ll have her escorted to her quarters,” she agreed, before gesturing a finger at Jaxom. “I’ll take care of the journeywoman from here.”

Jaxom stepped away from Menolly to offer a bow. “It was a pleasure to meet you, journeywoman,” he said.

Menolly opened her mouth to return his courtesy, but he was already darting out the door. His steps had a slight bounce they had been lacking before. For just a second, she could believe he was just eleven Turns old instead of an adult trapped in a child’s body.

She knew without asking that he was going to see his dragon.

The woman watched him go before shaking her head. “That child,” she murmured, before rising to her feet. She was almost a hand taller than Menolly, which was an unusual experience for a girl whose own height marked her. “I’m Jala, the headwoman of this hold.”

“Menolly, journeywoman harper,” Menolly said. This woman didn’t seem the type to clasp hands. She raised a hand to stroke Beauty’s side to keep her queen from reacting to the tense environment.

“I know.” The ensuing silence stretched passed the point of awkward and into downright discomfort. The woman was studying her with dark eyes that too closely resembled Dunca’s for comfort. “I’ve assigned you and Journeyman Sebell adjoining chambers. If you would like, I can have a tray sent to your rooms since you’ve just missed the mid-day meal. If you need anything else, please come to see me between meal times.”

Menolly nodded. “A tray would be nice. Sebell might also like something to eat.”

“I’ll have one sent to the inevitable meeting he will be trapped in for the afternoon.” The woman reached over to pick up a bell, and with a ring, summoned another worker. The woman introduced herself as Senita, and promptly escorted Menolly away.

In less than five minutes, Menolly was deposited in an interior room that contained nice, but not ostentatious, furnishings. Her bags had already been brought and placed at the foot of her bed. The room was perfect for a journeyman, especially since it contained a sand table and desk which weren’t part of the usual furnishings of a guest room. It was an excellent set up for composing.

Senita requested that Menolly find her should anything be wrong with her rooms before reminding her there would be a warning bell fifteen minutes before evening meal. Then the woman left Menolly alone with a tray of fruit slices, runnerbeast cheese, meatrolls and a cup of fresh cider.

Menolly forced herself to stretch, making herself think the sudden turn of events through. Sebell had intended to introduce her to his friends among the Ruathans, but there was no way he could have declined Lytol’s request. She wasn’t offended by the deliberate exclusion, since she was only a new journeywoman.

It was strange to be on her own again, but Menolly would use the time well. She would enjoy the light meal and take a nap, rejuvenating her energy. She was sore from all of the runner riding, and she wanted to be professional and energetic if they were asked to play after dinner. Ruatha had a permanent master-level harper, but journeymen customarily performed the Harper Hall’s latest songs wherever they stopped. She didn’t know much about Master Cerio, but she hoped he wasn’t the type to take offense at sharing his stage.

Menolly mentally decided to gauge the mood of the Hold for inspiration to complete the piece she was to write for the Gather. She could also spend the next couple of days exploring the hold and meeting its inhabitants. And if she got really desperate, she could always compose another version of Lessa’s Ride, which was always a popular topic.

She didn’t think it would be the right song, though. Master Robinton would be disappointed if she took the easy way out.

As she sat down on the bed to pull off her boots, a slight popping indicating that her other fire lizards had arrived. Even Lazybones had made the trip, which could only mean one thing.

Menolly looked at the meatrolls, shaking her head as she began to split the food among the gluttonous creatures. She would need to stop by the kitchen before dinner and request additional provisions for her friends be made available.

She dressed carefully for dinner, arranging her journeywoman’s badge on her shoulder. Silvina had packed her two dresses, informing her that it would be appropriate to wear one for supper and save the fancier one for the gather.

Menolly preferred trousers, but she saw the point. She wasn’t ashamed of being a girl, and wearing a dress would show that. Besides, the dress was Harper blue.

Sebell still hadn’t returned by the time the warning bell sounded, so she collected her gitar. Beauty was the only one of her friends who had remained after devouring all of the meatrolls. The queen flew up to settle herself on Menolly’s shoulder, her tiny claws digging into the extra padding. Menolly was miffed that the rest of the fair hadn’t wanted to spend the afternoon with her, since it had been the first opportunity they’d had in a week. She would have to make time to oil them tomorrow.

She entered the main hall through the stairway, smiling a bit as she descended. This was the place where F’lar had killed Fax, and marked the beginning of modern Pern. She paused at the top of the stairway, trying to surreptitiously take everything in without gaping like a dimwit.

Ruatha was much grander than any Hall she had seen, with the sole exception of Fort. The space was massive, more than two levels tall. The walls were the smooth-cut stone of the ancients and covered with both new and old tapestries. This place contained a feeling of history that that thrilled her. This place fit the legend of the Ruathan bloodline, and she could imagine it serving as the backdrop of songs like “Moreta’s Ride.”

This was a place where great things happened.

Menolly walked down the well-worn stairs toward the bustling servants below. While large, the great hall couldn’t contain the entire hold’s population at once, but it looked like it did at the moment. There were servitors hustling around to arrange table places, and someone was setting the hearth gate in place. Menolly smiled as she saw Jala overseeing three drudges with her hands firmly placed on her hips as she issued orders. She looked just like the aunties back at Half-Circle.

She was spared the uncomfortable task of figuring out where to sit when she heard someone call her name.

A middle-aged man with light blond hair and muddy green eyes came directly toward her. He wore a master’s badge that proclaimed him as a Harper, bordered by the red and brown of Ruatha. A pretty blue sapphire caught the light and twinkled on the badge as he held out a callused hand for her to clasp.

“You’d be Menolly,” he said. “I’m Cerio, and it’s my privilege to call Ruatha my home.”

She smiled and shook hands gratefully. “Master Domick sent me some new music to give to you, Master Cerio.”

He snorted. “I’m sure he was happy to perform such a service. We’ll have to schedule some time to rehearse. If I know Domick, I’ll want to weep when I see the sheets. If you’re willing, it might be easier for you to teach me rather than me to try to make sense of Domick’s annotations.”

The idea of teaching a Master made her feel queasy. It had been one thing to help with the fire lizards, since she was the nearest thing to an expert. It was another thing entirely to teach a senior harper a lesson in their craft.

Her unease must have showed in her expression, because Cerio rolled his eyes. “We work to our strengths, journeyman… woman… whatever,” he said, waving off the issue without another thought. “We’re colleagues, so you can call me Cerio, and I’ll call you Menolly. Musically speaking, I can accompany a group, but I’m not a wonderful performer. I’m a teaching harper, and I’m here because that’s what Ruatha needs most.”

Menolly had believed the great holds would have the best harpers in the land. The conversation she’d had with Sebell in Welles Holding came to mind. Ruatha, unlike Half-Circle, was not an isolated hold.

“Can you explain what you mean?” she asked.

“How about we take our seats and we can talk about the joys of our craft,” Cerio said. “Since Sebell is here, I don’t have to sit on that sharding dais. We’ll get a good place by the hearth instead.”

The seats, as promised, were right below the dais, comfortably close to the fire. Behind them was Ruatha’s now famous tapestry of the final fall of the Eighth Pass. Menolly would have to make time to study it.

Cerio noticed her attention, and chuckled. “There’s plenty to learn from these walls,” he said.

“I’m sorry,” Menolly apologized. “You’re being so kind, and I’m letting my mind wander.”

“It happens to all harpers who come here,” Cerio said. “It’s inspiring to see a place where songs come from. I think the only better place would be Benden Weyr. Someday I’ll get there to compare.”

“I’ve been there,” Menolly admitted shyly. “It’s really wonderful.”

“Oh? You’ll have to tell me about it this sevenday. Assuming you have some free time.”

“I’ll make it,” she promised. Beauty chirped agreement, and Cerio’s eyes went to the queen fire lizard.

His fingers twitched. “May I? We still haven’t had any eggs given to Ruatha.”

“Certainly,” Menolly said, mentally encouraging Beauty to be friendly. The tiny queen untangled herself from Menolly’s hair, and leaned toward the other harper. She was soon crooning approval as the man’s hand took up a rhythmic stroking.

“She’s a lovely creature,” he said approvingly. “I’ll have to convince Lytol to accept the next eggs offered to Ruatha. Having them around might make things a bit easier for certain people. It’s hard to be jealous when you’ve got a treasure of your own.”

She wanted to ask for more information, since he was clearly hinting something about Ruth and Jaxom. The main hall was not a good place for a sensitive conversation, so she would have to wait. Instead, she found a safe topic. “Why are you sitting down here? You’re the master, not Sebell.”

Cerio leaned a bit closer to her so he could lower his voice. “One day he’ll be my master,” he told her. “I’ll make a far merrier meal away from the politics, and no one’s offended for my lack of attention.”

Your master?” Menolly squeaked incredulously.

“It’s not a big secret if you look at the way the music’s heading. He’s been Robinton’s protégé for Turns now, and he has the mix of skills that the Masterharper needs. Everyone knows that he’s the Master’s right hand, and people respect him for it. Unless something changes, he’ll be the next Masterharper.”

Beauty made a trilling sound, and Menolly traced her forefinger along the queen’s back as she thought of what news had just Fallen on her. She had known Sebell was talented, but… well, Master Robinton was a vigorous man. She couldn’t imagine a time coming when Master Robinton wouldn’t be the Masterharper.

Beauty’s eyes started to whirl with yellow, and Menolly hastened to reassure the gold fire lizard with a judicious use of head scratching. Master Robinton was going to see the Hall through the end of the Pass, so Menolly wouldn’t worry about it.

“I understand that you will be writing a new song for the Gather,” said Cerio, possessing a harper’s ability to change topics when the subject became uncomfortable.

“Yes,” she said. “I haven’t found the lyrics yet.”

“Too many choices, right?” Cerio asked sympathetically. “Ruatha lends itself to storytelling, and we’re living in momentous times.”

Beauty was calming down. Menolly was grateful that they wouldn’t be the pre-meal entertainment by making a scene. “Do you know of a story in need of a song?” she asked.

“I know of several which are oversung,” Cerio replied. “I’ve heard every variation of Lessa’s story and the Oldtimers coming between times to save Pern that exists. Every journeyman I know has done their own variation.” He paused, before giving her a slightly wicked grin. “If you can get Sebell to perform his at the Gather, I’ll get you a skin of Benden white.”

Cerio was teasing her curiosity, but a rustling of skirts off to her left announced the presence of other diners. To her delight, she recognized the weavers who had performed Boll clog back at Welles Holding. The two nearest – both men roughly ten turns older than Menolly – introduced themselves as Journeymen Zashel and Rashtivan.

Menolly only had time to greet them before the sound of chairs scraping on the dais indicated that the Lords had arrived. Around them, drudges started to distribute mugs of fruit juice and water, and slap down trenchers of bread filled with an appealing mix of tubers, wherry and sweetroots in a thick gravy. The smell made her salivate.

She glanced at the head table, knowing that it was improper to begin before the Lord Holder. Lord Lytol and another man wearing the muted red of Bitra Hold were in the middle seats. Lord Sigomal was a man of middle turns with a doughy face and body, obviously one of those Lords who enjoyed the fruits of his hold’s labors. Next to him sat a woman of less than twenty turns, a pretty woman trussed up in gauzes that were far too formal for a regular hold dinner. Menolly took a strong dislike to her on sight, and it only took a second to figure out why.

Although her hair was reddish and her eyes a bright green, the Lady of Bitra strongly resembled Pona. She oozed self-satisfaction and entitlement.

Jaxom must have been displaced by Lord Sigomal’s presence, because he was seated further down the table. Instead of taking the seat next to Lytol, a man wearing the good clothes of the hold’s steward had been seated, likely in his accustomed spot. Next to him was Sebell, and finally Jaxom was seated at the end of the high table, in the least prestigious place. While Menolly privately thought rank wasn’t everything, seeing the Lord Holder displaced in his own great hall was startling.

She opened her mouth to ask Cerio for an explanation, but the man gave a slight shake of his head.

“Don’t forget you promised to meet me tomorrow to help with the teaching,” he told her, before picking up the spoon to attack his meal.

Menolly blushed, realizing she had almost been indiscreet. Cerio would explain, and maybe she could speak to Sebell later to ask if he had noticed.

Something wasn’t right in Ruatha, and she would find out. A harper had a duty to point out wrongs whenever or wherever they arose.

The next morning, she let the sound of a clear, well-trained tenor lead her to Ruatha’s classroom. Beauty tilted her head, humming with approval at the pure sound of Cerio’s voice.

She had spent the early part of the morning oiling her fire lizards, reminding them to stay put until she finished. They were all restless with curiosity, and Menolly reminded them that guests needed to have good manners. She didn’t want them to make a nuisance of themselves around Ruatha. As soon as she finished, the fire lizard went immediately between.

She had the nagging feeling they were up to something. Thankfully, Beauty didn’t seem worried. Menolly was glad her queen wasn’t rushing off to join the rest because having company in a new hold gave her confidence.

She was surprised by both the size of the room and of the class. There must have been forty students there, ranging in age from eight to forty Turns. At first she thought the other adults were there to help Cerio control the horde of children, but that thought was dispelled by the sight of wax slates and writing exercises in front of them.

As she came into the room, about half of the students turned to look at her. The others were too intent on the problems that had been laid before them. Menolly had spent so long hiding that it was difficult for her not to hunch her shoulders at being the center of attention of so many people.

But she was a harper now, and the badge on her shoulder proved it.

So instead, she smiled and walked across the room, feigning confidence she didn’t feel. Though Beauty’s eyes were whirling yellow with mild agitation, none of the students were close enough to see and even if they did, it was unlikely they would understand the nuance of fire lizard behavior.

“Menolly!” Cerio called, waving her over to him. At his feet sat a mixed group, several with percussion instruments, and a sole middle-aged woman holding a lap harp was seated in a chair next to him. He smiled at his group, before counting off to three.

The students broke into an arrangement of “The Fire Lizard Song.” Hearing other people play her music thrilled her, and she listened with rapt attention as they went through the entire song. Some of the voices were good, others were not, but all were enthusiastic. When they finished the final chorus, she broke into applause, with Beauty trilling approvingly to the students.

“How wonderful!” she exclaimed. “That’s a lovely welcome.”

“Nothing but the best for one of our favorite composers,” Cerio said, bowing where he sat. “We have another hour before class is done. A couple of our singers plan to perform at the Gather, and I was hoping you could spend some time this week helping them prepare.”

“Of course!” Menolly agreed. It was an excellent opportunity to get to know people of the hold. Cerio was deftly setting her up, and she appreciated his subtlety.

Cerio nodded to the woman with the lap harp. “Liliya is one of my star students. It will be her first time on the Gather stage.”

The woman was a well into her middle turns. She had been attractive once, with rich russet hair starting to grey and fine, even features. Life had marked her with stress lines and made her eyes hard, but there were still echoes of the beauty she must have been.

“The first time is always daunting,” Menolly said expertly, even though she had only attended four Fort Gathers since coming to Harper Hall. “Do you have time to begin now?”

The woman nodded, setting the lap harp aside. “I’m only going to be singing, so if you could accompany me?”

“Of course.”

Liliya led her to the far corner of the room, which had been arranged with two pieces of furniture for intimate conversation. Menolly unslung her gitar and settled Beauty on the nearby windowsill. The queen, uncharacteristically, didn’t indicate any annoyance at being displaced.

“What are you performing?” Menolly asked. She hoped the women had already made a selection.

“’The Golden Egg of Faranth,’” Liliya said. “I like the lyrics and Cerio says the melody suits my voice.”

“That’s an old one,” Menolly said, plucking a couple of strings to tune her gitar into a minor key. “Do you have someone singing the descant?”

“Cerio said I can make it a solo.”

“Okay. How about I play it through, and you can let me listen to what you have so far.”

Menolly played the slow, opening notes, and then Liliya started to sing. It was only turns of training that kept her fingers moving, because she had not expected such a sound to emerge from this woman.

Liliya had a sublime voice. She had rearranged the old teaching song into something different, making it sound entirely new to Menolly without losing the spirit of the song.

Liliya’s voice was a soprano that easily covered three octaves, a coloratura mezzo-soprano that stayed on key. It was a rich voice that was superbly controlled, switching registers effortless and managing complex runs with a bright, warm tone that made Menolly want to listen to her forever.

She was the best female singer Menolly had ever heard.

As the song came to its end, Menolly could only stare. Glancing over her shoulder, she saw that half the room was smiling with satisfaction, and Cerio was waggling his eyebrows. “That was amazing,” she said, unable to think of anything else to say.

Liliya smiled, her grey eyes lighting up. “Thank you, Journeywoman,” she said. “I’ve always liked to sing, but I never really had a chance to…” she trailed off, shaking her head, dismissing it. “It’s nice to hear a harper aside from Cerio approve of my efforts.”

The next thing that happened was shocking to Menolly. Beauty took to the air, her delicate wings fluttering as she flew over to Liliya. The little queen crooned, and Liliya went rigid as the fire lizard settled down on her knee. Menolly had never seen her closest friend be so forward to an acquaintance recently met.

“Can I touch her?” Liliya asked, her voice breaking slightly.

“She loves to have her head knob stroked,” Menolly replied, giving permission. She felt taken aback, but it wasn’t her place to tell Beauty not to be friendly. The queen had a mind of her own. “I think she loved your performance, too.”

Liliya’s hand moved tentatively, barely brushing against Beauty’s head. The queen hummed approval, before leaning closer to encourage a firmer touch. The woman’s face softened, and Menolly was shocked to see tears begin to roll down her cheeks.

Liliya cried silently as Beauty offered reassurance, humming the melody of ‘The Golden Egg of Faranth.’ Menolly sat like a lump, unable to figure out how to handle this. She had never had a grown woman break down on her before.

She kept quiet, and eventually Liliya brushed her tears away using her sleeve. “My apologies, journeywoman,” she said. “I’m usually not such a mess.”

“It’s okay,” Menolly reassured her. “Everyone needs to cry now and then. It’s nothing to be ashamed of.”

Beauty reinforced Menolly with another low croon.

Although Liliya’s face was blotchy from crying, Menolly thought the woman looked better. Something had happened, and tension had been eased around her mouth.

“But crying doesn’t do a singer any good,” Liliya said. “Will you have time to rehearse with me tomorrow?”

“Certainly!” Menolly said. “You did a wonderful job, but we can experiment with phrasing and dynamics.” Then she paused. “I’d love to accompany you on stage if you are willing.”

“I’d like that, too.”

And then Liliya smiled, and Menolly realized she’d just made her first Ruathan friend.

It took more than an hour for Cerio to wrap up with his morning lessons. After her tears, Liliya had made hurried excuses before returning to the kitchens to help prepare the midday meal. Menolly was left with the opportunity to observe Cerio.

It only took a couple of moments to realize how deftly he was controlling the classroom. The students were spread across the large room in clusters, all of them a mix of ages. Several of the groups appeared to be working collaboratively through figures that had been set, while lone students were working on transcribing old scrolls onto slates in shaky handwriting. Cerio floated between the groups, teaching a song or two and offering both praise and correction when warranted. She never would have thought that such a large, mixed group could function so well.

An hour before lunch, Cerio dismissed his pupils. The crowd gradually flowed out of the room, leaving the two harpers alone.

“You have a lot of students,” Menolly said.

“I have five similar groups, and then there’s the littles in the nursery who get their preliminary schooling from the aunties. There’s a whole lost generation of Ruathans out here. Fax was in control for almost ten turns, and he didn’t teach any of the essentials. I’ve had a lot of those people want instruction, so I had to develop a curriculum that best fits this hold.”

“Don’t you have any help?” she asked, the sheer scope of the task raising her respect for Cerio immensely.

“I’ve got two journeymen who look to me, but they’re all out visiting the smaller holds right now. They will be back in time for the Gather, so you can meet them then.”

“I would like that.”

Cerio stood up, swinging his arms behind his back and contorting to stretch. “It’s a lifetime’s worth of work, and I like the challenge. There’s still over a third of the Ruathans who grew up under Fax that haven’t had any instruction. Their suspicion of harpers hasn’t been erased just because Benden intervened.”

“Can’t they see that things are getting better?”

“Hope is a tenuous thing, as fragile as dragon wings,” Cerio replied. “Over the last couple of Turns, people have been wandering in now that they have children old enough for teaching, but I don’t think we’ll ever reach everyone in my lifetime.”

“Was Liliya one of those who wandered in?”

“Her I persuaded particularly. I usually let people make their own decisions, but when I heard her sing in the kitchen….” Cerio gave his wicked grin, and Menolly had to smile in return. “Not training that voice is a crime. If she’d been at a more open hold growing up, she’d be the Mastersinger right now.”

From what Menolly had gleaned, there hadn’t been a Mastersinger in almost thirty turns. The last one had been Robinton’s mother, Merelan, and the Hall still spoke about how glorious her voice had been. It was hard not to be jealous of the last “acceptable” female performer to call Harper Hall home. Menolly had a decent voice, but she couldn’t have become a harper without her other musical talents.

“She already sounds like one,” Menolly said. “I’ve never heard anything like her voice.”

“Mastersinger Merelan was better, but that was due to training,” Cerio said. “I heard her when I was an apprentice, right before she died. I think Liliya might have more natural ability, but it’s hard to judge. Truthfully, there’s not much else I can teach her after three turns, but I want to keep her singing.”

“You want Master Robinton to hear her perform at the Gather,” Menolly stated, figuring out what Cerio was up to.

“She may be old, but she has several turns left of being able to sing very well. I’d like to make her my official assistant, since her talent is wasted in the kitchen. But it is an unusual situation, so I need the Master’s support rather than acting alone,” Cerio replied. “Lord Lytol will agree if Master Robinton asks.”

The mention of the Lord Warder reminded Menolly why she had originally come to see Cerio in his classroom. “He wouldn’t want a female musician?” she asked, hoping to angle the topic to Lord Jaxom.

“There’s a dearth of good workers in Ruatha. Lord Lytol respects the Harpercraft, but losing a good worker to a craft is a touchy subject. He’ll come around.” Cerio glanced around, before gesturing to the seats Menolly and Liliya had used. They were at the farthest edge of the room, away from windows and potential eavesdroppers. “Though I suspect that isn’t what you wanted to ask me about.”

“The dais last night was wrong. Shouldn’t Jaxom have been in the center or next to Lytol?”

“You’re a quick girl,” Cerio said. “I am sure Jaxom enjoyed the meal far more with Sebell for company than he would have as Lord Sigomal’s host, but it is worrisome to see all the slights he receives. Lytol does the best he can, but sometimes it’s not worth the fight that asserting Jaxom’s prerogatives might cause. People have never really liked Jaxom, and since Impressing that white dragon….”

“Is Ruth healthy?” There were so many rumors about the little dragon’s condition, and she knew most people believed it likely to die.

“Lytol says so. I don’t know much about dragons,” Cerio confessed. “All I know is that there’s many people who are convinced that Jaxom should resign his claim to Ruatha since he does have a dragon. He’s never been very popular, and the only thing that’s stopping some ambitious Lord Holder from forcing the issue is the fear of Lessa’s wrath.”

“He’s just a boy!” Menolly exclaimed. “Why don’t people like him?”

“Some will say it’s because of how thin his Ruathan blood is, but it’s because of who his father was. F’lar and Lessa may approve of him, but the Ruathans lived with a tyrant for over a decade.”

Menolly leaned back into her seat, feeling a headache come on. “It’s so complicated.”

“Life usually is,” Cerio said. “I wanted to speak with you privately to make sure you understood. I know Ruth would make a great topic for a song, but now is not the time. Sometimes a harper does the most good by knowing what not to sing.”

Mentally, Menolly scrapped the song about the wonder of a white dragon that she had been composing.

It took three days before she was invited to sit on the dais with Sebell. Neither of them had been asked to perform for the Hold, and there were enough people with rank that the prestigious seating was being rotated. Lords Lytol, Sigomal, and Jaxom were constants, along with Sigomal’s lady, Rikka, and Sebell himself. The other three places were filled by different individuals each night.

Menolly knew it was an honor to be invited, since she was only a newly made journeyman. She hadn’t seen Sebell for any stretch of time, since he was closeted with either Brand, Lord Warder Lytol or Lord Sigomal. Sebell had apologized when their paths crossed on their second day, but Menolly had assured him that Cerio was offering her plenty to do. When Senita arrived at the classroom to inform her of the seating arrangements for evening meal, Menolly had been optimistic.

She’d been hoping to sit next to Sebell or Lord Jaxom.

She got Lord Sigomal instead.

The Bitran Lord looked at her as she stood by the chair she had been granted, his eyes fixated on the journeywoman’s badge she wore. His lips pursed, and Menolly instantly recognized that this man would never like her.

Her elevation hadn't gone unnoticed by the holds and crafts. While Robinton was Master within the walls of the Harpercrafthall, that didn't keep others from having opinions about what went on. A bold move like approving a journeywoman when there had not been one in living memory was worth talking about, and not all of the talk was good.

Piemur kept her informed, and she hated what the conservative purists said. It was like listening to her parents. It stung, even though Sebell told her that she shouldn't worry about the hidebound idiots.

Good manners would have encouraged Sigomal to assist her in taking her seat, but he didn’t even rise. Luckily Menolly was a strong girl and was able to handle the very heavy decorative chair on her own. The man didn’t bother to greet her.

She was being snubbed.

It made for an uncomfortable meal, since Lord Sigomal made a point of leaning around her to address the man who was seated on her other side. Her other tablemate was Runess, one of Nessel’s sons, and he wasn’t that bright. He leaned so close to Menolly in order to hear Sigomal that he actually dropped food crumbs into her lap as he chewed messily. She stared at the mess, all appetite fleeing.

She looked longingly at the place next to Cerio, which was filled by one of the Boll weavers. They seemed to be enjoying themselves.

She understood now why he hated sitting on the dais. While most people were applying themselves to their food, several spent most of the time staring up at the high table. Menolly knew they were witnessing her humiliation, and it would be the subject of the hold’s gossip for days to come.

Menolly couldn’t think of a way to handle the situation aside from ignoring it. It was hard to, especially considering the topic of Sigomal’s conversation.

“Sometimes I think we’re letting go of too many of our traditions. True, the Oldtimers took things too far, but they did have a point about needing to keep order,” Sigomal said. “There’s no reasons to change the ways of the crafts that have worked so long.” He paused, lifting his goblet to sip at the wine.

The insult wasn’t at all subtle, and Menolly gritted her teeth to avoid arguing. Losing her temper would not reflect well on the Hall. She was convinced that Sigomal was baiting her, trying to make her disgrace herself and prove unworthy of her rank.

“That’s a good point,” Runess agreed, encouraging the Lord Holder. Runess was the ideal audience for Lord Sigomal, since he had many brothers and cousins and there was only one hold for them. The appeal of a major hold being without a designated heir was too great a temptation to the land-hungry bloodlines.

Beauty’s eyes started to whirl with red glints, reflecting her mistress’s mood. Menolly mentally told Beauty to go away, recognizing her queen was not going to stand for this rudeness. Beauty gave a soft hiss, but then leapt up into the air and went between. Menolly knew the gold would scold her as soon as they were alone, but preferred that to having her friends leap to her defense in front of all Ruatha.

She would rather be left for Thread than prove Lord Sigomal right.

Lord Sigomal watched the display without batting an eye. He continued, as though nothing had happened, “So many things are being tossed aside unnecessarily. For example, I’m sure your father agrees with me that a dragonrider cannot be a holder.”

“You are very right,” Runess said. “It’s not like there aren’t plenty men of good blood – maybe even better blood. I’ve got Crom blood, just like Lady Gemma. I don’t understand why Benden doesn’t look for other candidates.”

Menolly decided against pointing out that it was Lady Gemma’s Ruathan connection that had secured Lord Jaxom’s place. There was no point in arguing with idiots.

For a moment, Menolly let herself wonder if she had offended Jala by existing, since this seating assignment had to have come from somewhere. Lord Warder Lytol would have made the invitation, but it was the headwoman’s job to arrange the places.

Menolly told herself not to get upset, since it might cause a fair of fire lizards to come from between. From what she had seen, Jala was an efficient woman who wouldn’t think of offending Harper Hall with such a slight. It was merely bad luck that it hadn’t occurred to Jala that Lord Sigomal would be so rude.

Thankfully, someone stepped in to save her the temptation of reminding both of the men of a few key facts.

“The Weyrwoman has made her opinion quite clear,” an icy voice cut through, and Lord Warder Lytol was staring them both down. “Lord Jaxom is her choice to continue the Ruathan bloodline, and he will remain so. As you are both aware, Ruth will never fight Thread, and will likely never be able to fly him, so the traditional objections to a dragonrider as Holder are moot.”

Lytol’s level tones were somehow more frightening than yelling would have been. His sharp, pointed defense of his ward’s rights made some of Menolly’s concerns about the way Jaxom was treated at the hold ease.

The rest of the meal was quiet, for which Menolly was grateful.

After the dessert was served, Sebell nodded at her in order to begin preparations to play. She didn’t think it was chance that her first performance before Ruatha was on the night when she’d been forced to sit next to Sigomal.

After singing ‘The Duty Song,’ Sebell took charge of the program. The evening was much more somber than their night at Welles Hold had been, full of songs about duty of hall, hold and weyr. As he broke out the third song about Lessa’s Ride, she understood was he was doing.

Sebell was performing for an audience of one. Lord Sigomal was too thick to catch on, applauding as the “traditional” songs were rolled out one after another.

The people of Ruatha were a less boisterous crowd. Their reserve might have been because of the size of the hall, which contained many more people than a minor holding like Welles, but Menolly thought it was the character of the Ruathans themselves.

She was in a thoughtful mood that night as she walked back to her rooms with Sebell at her side. The sound of young voices lifting the choruses gave her hope, but she felt badly for the survivors of Pern’s darkest days.

Ruatha still remembered the scars of Fax’s tyranny. Cerio’s “lost generation” would never be completely reclaimed.

She asked Sebell to come in, needing to hear his thoughts. He took the seat by her sandtable, which was distressingly empty for a composer due to perform at a Gather in four day’s times.

Beauty and her friends appeared in the air, scolding Menolly. Menolly took it calmly, knowing her queen had a point. Rocky and Diver curled up on her lap, and the other fire lizards pressed close against her. Beauty finally settled back onto her shoulder, and Menolly felt better for having the queen back in her regular place.

“That was different,” Menolly said as she soothed her friends. “Did you hear Lord Sigomal at dinner?”

Sebell leaned back against the chair, resting his hands behind him. Kimi fluttered down to sit on his knees, her eyes whirling a soft green. “It’s nothing I haven’t heard before.”

“It was so rude! Lord Jaxom was right there. If you heard, there’s no way he didn’t.”

“It’s nothing he hasn’t heard before, either,” Sebell said, his face sad. “Jaxom knows he is not popular with many people. Ever since he Impressed, people feel have become bolder about objecting to him taking hold.”

“What’s the chance of them winning?”

“Nonexistence if Benden gets its way. No one will dare to challenge Lessa when it comes to Ruatha,” Sebell said. “Jaxom would probably be better off in a weyr, but he’s the only safe option, since Ruatha cannot become a contested hold.”

She thought of the feuding the Lords and prospective claimants might go through to claim an ancient hold. Ruatha’s prestige combined with its recent history made for a volatile mix. The idea of another Fax was just too threatening, and people would not sit back apathetically now that the weyrs were again involved with the rest of Pern’s affairs.

“Listening to him tonight was horrible, but I couldn’t think of anything to do. What can I do when people aren’t open to hearing me?”

Sebell was quiet as he thought. She liked how he always took time to consider before speaking. She wished she could be as controlled instead of letting her emotions carry her away.

“You take the slow approach,” Sebell said. “There was nothing you could have done at dinner, but you can work on changing the underlying attitude. Make friends,” Sebell advised her. “I know you’re talented, but you’re going to have to keep proving yourself over and over again. Some people will never change their minds, but you can’t let that weigh you down.”

She couldn’t help but think of her home hold, and the conservative, rigid thought that had nearly killed her.

“He sounded like my parents,” she admitted. She stared down at bronzes in her lap, unable to meet Sebell's eyes. She knew they couldn’t get to her now, not now that she was an official harper, but it was hard to truly believe that.

Sebell rose, dislodging Kimi, and came to sit next to her on the bed. Brownie and the Aunties moved out of his way, fluttering over to her other side. Sebell wrapped an arm around her shoulder, pressing her close to the reassuring warmth of his side.

“They’re not the future of Pern,” Sebell said. “Blood may make kin, but it doesn’t make family. Your family is me, and Master Robinton, and Piemur… and how about Camo? And Silvina? Whenever you start thinking about Half Circle, remember the family that has chosen you.”

“My parents were horrible people,” Menolly said. She had been thinking about it ever since leaving Half Circle, and was finally able to admit the truth. “I don’t know if they loved me or not. But I did have Alemi, so it wasn’t all bad.”

“Life rarely is,” Sebell said.

Menolly listened to the sound of his steady, evening breathing, and found herself matching it. “I noticed a distinct trend in the performance toward exulting Lessa,” she said, changing the topic before she could start wallowing.

“The Ruathans love her, so it’s always a safe choice. It’s also a good way to remind even the Lord of one of ‘Benden’s Faithful Three Holds’ that duty is never completely discharged.”

“I suppose another song about Lessa wouldn’t be a bad choice for the Gather,” she said. “I could use it to remind to people like Lord Sigomal that they owe her much more than they can ever repay. It doesn’t need to be about her Ride,” she added, thinking of how Cerio had asked her not to choose that topic.

Sebell gave another of his lingering pauses before saying, “People like Lessa deserve the songs they get, but I wonder about the people who continue to struggle to survive.”

Sebell wasn’t outright telling her not to use that theme, but Menolly was learning to listen for clues. She stared over at the empty sand table, wondering what music she could fill it with.

The next day Menolly literally ran into Jaxom as the young lord entered the kitchen at a dash.

She had been standing right inside the entrance to the kitchen courtyard, having just come in from feeding her fair outside. The daily spectacle of her fair swarming was still a novel form of entertainment for the Ruathans, and she knew the kitchen staff didn’t get any work done while she was stuffing the greedy gullets. Handling all nine on her own was challenging, and she missed Piemur’s and the stalwart Camo’s assistance.

She was probably the only one missing them. Menolly had the suspicion that several of her fire lizards were visiting Harper Hall as well as coming to her at Ruatha.

Menolly had just returned the bowl to the drudge who had prepared its contents when something – someone - slammed into her side. She almost fell over, a bit stunned by the sudden impact. She caught her balance and avoided an unfortunate tumble to the floor, before turning to see what had happened.

Beauty chittered angrily at Lord Jaxom, chiding him for being so clumsy. Work in the kitchen stopped as people stared at the unfolding drama, but a sharp command from Jala ordered people to mind their own business.

Menolly felt her cheeks flame at her friend’s poor manners. The accident may have been Lord Jaxom’s fault, but this was his hold.

“It was an accident, you silly thing,” she said, tapping the queen’s head and encouraging her to just settle down.

Lord Jaxom looked horrified, his hair falling in messy curls around a face dominated by wide eyes. He set his shoulders back and rose to his full height, tugging at the bottom of his tunic to straighten the wrinkles.

“My apologies,” he said, becoming the composed young lordling she had met on the steps. “I should have been watching where I was going.”

“Accidents happen,” she said, waving it off. Thankfully she hadn’t been carrying her gitar, so the worst that could have happened was a couple of bruises. “It seems you were in a hurry.”

“I need to see the hold healer,” he said, his face pained.

Menolly’s heart dropped into her boots. “Is something wrong?”

Lord Jaxom looked a bit sheepish, a shy smile curving his lips. “I’m out of oil for Ruth, and he has some itchy spots.”

Menolly couldn’t help but laugh, able to breathe again. “Oiling is a never-ending task,” she said. “My fire lizards are much smaller, but I always seem to be running out myself.”

He perked up, grinning a bit at her friendliness. “I’ve only seen the one on you, but you have nine, right?”

“That’s right,” Menolly said. “Most of my fair spends their days sunning, but my Beauty stays with me.”

Mentally she told Beauty to come to her hand so she could make introductions. The queen obediently moved to her wrist so Menolly could let Jaxom examine her.

“She really is beautiful,” he said. He looked into the queen’s eyes, before addressing her directly. “It’s nice to meet you, Beauty. I’m sorry I almost knocked your friend over. I’ll be more careful.”

Beauty, mollified, gave an approving chirp. Then she leaned in close, encouraging Lord Jaxom to scratch.

“She feels lovely,” he said, deftly finding the place under Beauty’s chin. “You’re the one who wrote the song about the fire lizard queen, right?”

“Yes,” she said. Once she might have made excuses or pointed out that Master Robinton had overhauled it, but now she accepted ownership of the song.

He grinned boyishly. “I really liked it,” he complimented her. Then his eyes went unfocused.

Menolly recognized the expression. It was the one T’gellan wore whenever he was talking with Monarth.

“Ruth likes that song, too,” he said. Then, sounding shy, he added, “He’d like to meet you.”

Menolly was a mature professional. She would not start dancing at getting the invitation to do exactly what she wanted to!

“I’d like to meet him, too. How about we fetch the oil, and I can help you?” Menolly offered. “I know dragons are much bigger than my fire lizards, so I’m sure an extra set of hands would come in handy.”

“That would be great!” he said enthusiastically, bouncing a bit on his feet. “Maybe we could even give him a full bath?”

“I would be happy to, Lord Jaxom,” she said, grinning at him.

“Call me Jaxom,” he said. “You can do that if I invite you to first, and harpers are often confidants of lords, right?”

“Of course, Jaxom,” she said. He was a very lonely boy, Menolly thought. All she had offered was a bit of kindness, and he was ready to invite her to be his friend.

She thought about the way the people in the hold pretended he wasn’t around, and the way he’d been casually displaced on the dais. Cerio had explained the why, but that didn’t make things any easier for a child orphan.

Menolly wished she could make people see how unfair they were being, but knew that was a ridiculous hope. She was just a journeywoman, and one who was unpopular with people Jaxom would need to win over. Jaxom didn’t need more reasons for the conservatives like Lord Sigomal to dispute his claim.

They went to the hold healer’s office, a small room located next to the dispensary. The man was young and vigorous, handing Jaxom a demijohn full of oil without Jaxom having to say a word. Jaxom gave a slight bow of thanks, but the man had already turned back to his ledgers.

Jaxom didn’t even notice the lack of attention. Instead, as they made their way back to through the hold, he talked about Ruth, and how proud he was of the dragon’s improving size, and what a clever friend he was. Menolly knew all dragonriders believed their dragons to be the best, but she had spent enough time at Benden to be struck by how often Jaxom mentioned Ruth saying something insightful. Whatever the white dragon was, he was not just “an overgrown fire lizard.”

Instead of going back through the kitchens, Jaxom led her out the grand doors and into the main courtyard. From there, they went through the kitchen courtyard toward his chambers. It felt like repeating their first official meeting, although the Jaxom who led her now was amazingly different from the stiff child whom she had originally seen.

Ruth’s weyr was located off of Jaxom’s quarters. Menolly inhaled the pleasant dragonish aroma as Jaxom opened the door.

“We’re here, Ruth!” Jaxom said cheerfully, speaking aloud for her benefit since he’d certainly been conversing privately with Ruth during the entire walk.

Menolly stepped into the darker area, her eyes adjusting to the glow-lit area quickly. Her attention immediately fixed on the small white dragon lying curled up within.

Ruth was beautiful. She gasped in appreciation, a smile of awe splitting her lips. The pure color of his skin shone, and the bright blue of his whirling eyes reflected in gleaming facets. The white dragon had grown to the size of a small runnerbeast, much larger than he had been when he had first cracked shell.

“Hello, Ruth,” she said, addressing the dragon directly. It seemed rude not to, even though he couldn’t bespeak her in return. “I’m really happy to meet you.”

“He’s happy to meet you as well,” Jaxom said, his voice bursting with pride before he walked over to scratch behind his ears. “Especially since you’re going to help with a bath.”

“It seems like a good way to make a new friend,” she said, winking at Ruth. Then she heard some familiar chirps, and gasped as she saw most of her fair perched around the weyr.

“What are you doing here?” she demanded. Menolly glared at her bronzes, who were smart enough to know better. The memory of their first encounter with Lessa threatened to overwhelm her with mortification.

Jaxom didn’t seem to be annoyed, instead surveying the weyr with idle curiosity. “Some of them are yours? Fire lizards have been coming to see Ruth ever since he was hatched.”

A quick fire lizard head-count showed there were thirteen present. Beauty, sitting on Menolly’s shoulder, gave a chirp which indicated her belief Menolly was being silly again.

“Have they been pests? I can keep them away,” she offered, looking back and forth between rider and dragon.

She should have wondered more at her fair’s eagerness to depart after feedings while at Ruatha. They were usually more possessive of her. She had been too relieved at their good manners to question their behavior.

Jaxom paused, listening to Ruth. “Ruth likes the company,” he said. “They tell him all sorts of interesting things.”

Ruth nodded, tilting his head in an encouraging fashion.

“Just let me know if they become nuisances,” she said, before glaring at her fair. “You all need to be on your best behavior.”

Ruth’s jaw dropped, and Jaxom started to laugh. She was struck at how Jaxom suddenly seemed to expand, filling the room with his confidence. His happiness at being next to his dragon radiated like a warm fire. As much as she loved Beauty and her other friends, their bond was only a shadow of what a dragonrider felt.

Anyone who tried to claim Ruth was “not a real dragon” in her presence was going to get an earful.

“Thank you, both,” she said, before making an impulsive offer. “If my fire lizards and Ruth are going to be friends, I think we should be friends, too.”

Jaxom’s laughter faded, but his eyes remained bright. “Really?”

“Really! Every lord needs a couple of harper friends,” Menolly said. “I think the first white rider and the first girl harper make us fit together pretty well, don’t you?”

“We have to!” Jaxom agreed, his smile turning sly. “Maybe the horror of us being friends will give Lord Sigomal a heart attack so neither of us has to listen to him!”

Menolly started to laugh, and found that she couldn’t stop. Let the hidebound conservatives take that!

Her new friendship with Jaxom put her in a good mood. That afternoon, she went to meet Liliya in order to work on her song for the Gather.

Liliya had been gradually relaxing around her as they worked on the ‘The Golden Egg of Faranth.’ Truthfully, the woman’s performance didn’t need much, so Menolly spent time sharing what Master Shonagar had taught her about breathing and experimenting with phrasing. By teaching, Menolly realized how far she had come as a singer herself since joining Harper Hall.

As they worked, Liliya spoke casually about her life at the hold. She had five children, most of them older than Menolly. Two of the girls worked in the kitchen, while the boys were being apprenticed to the Ruathan Herdcraft Master.

“They have a way with runners,” she said. “And Ruatha always needs good handlers. One of them should earn his journeyman’s knot by the end of the turn.”

“That’s wonderful,” she said, because that was the truth. A journeyman’s credentials would mean a secure future.

Because they had time, they started toying with other songs. Liliya was unaware of Cerio’s plans for her, but Menolly was doing her best to train her up as a performer. Cerio was not an entertainer, and having Liliya’s voice to assist him would make the long winter months in Ruatha much more pleasant for the entire hold. Even if Liliya didn’t accept the offer, she would still be able to contribute.

Menolly could see the older woman loved music, and suspected she would agree to the assistant’s position. Simply having the option of pursuing music more in depth would do wonders for Liliya’s self-confidence.

After they finished practicing the shortened version of ‘Moreta’s Ride,’ Menolly decided to ask her new friend for advice. She had less than three days to finish writing, since Robinton wanted to review the song before she performed.

“I’ve been assigned a commission to write a new piece for the Gather,” Menolly said. “About Ruatha.”

“Oh,” Liliya said, before blinking as she realized why Menolly was bringing it up. “You want my opinion?”

“Who better to ask than a Ruathan?” she asked. “Cerio said I shouldn’t do another version of Lessa’s Ride, so I’ve been struggling for a topic.”

“There’s a lot more to Ruatha than Lady Lessa. I was in the kitchens with her that night, and I don’t want to relive it all over again,” Liliya said. “I think about Fax every day, even though I wish I didn’t.”

Menolly didn’t answer, instead strumming her gitar softly as she adjusted the key at random. Liliya was going to say something, and her instincts said it would be important.

“One of my children is sister to Lord Jaxom,” she said finally.

Menolly hadn’t thought that possible. “Sister?” she echoed. “I thought Jaxom was an only child.”

Liliya shook her head. “Our Lord has plenty of half-sisters since Fax was fond of women to his bed, willing or not. Lady Gemma herself gave birth to four legitimate daughters, but they’re all in Crom.”

There were tales about how lascivious Fax had been, but Menolly had never realized that the women might have been pressured. Liliya had obviously been one of the unwilling ones.

“He’s not a bad boy,” Liliya said. “But I can’t stand to look at him. Of course, I’ll do my duty to him and hold, but I don’t think I can ever like him.”

Menolly wanted to argue how unfair that was, but doing so would minimize what Liliya had suffered through. Liliya loved her daughter, or so Menolly had gathered from the stories she had shared, but she had no such affection for Ruatha’s young lord. Seeing Jaxom’s face would be a reminder of what she had suffered.

“I met Ruth today,” Menolly said. “I thought about writing a song about the first white dragon, but I don’t think it would be well received.

“No, probably not,” Liliya agreed. “Maybe someday, but it’s still an open wound for many of us. Life at Ruatha is much better since Lord Lytol took over, but I don’t think the hold will ever be entirely fixed in my lifetime.”

“I’m so sorry,” Menolly said awkwardly. “Ruatha looks strong to me, but I can’t know what it was like for you.”

Liliya shrugged, dismissing Menolly’s concern. “I could be wrong about how much things will improve. I never thought I would get a chance to sing, and Cerio chose me of everyone in the hold. I guess we just have to keep trying.”

Liliya’s words rang through Menolly’s body, echoing in that part of her soul that heard music in everything. Liliya had spoken the essential truth of Ruathan life – beyond the tales of their favorite daughter, Lessa, or the cruelties of a man over ten turns in the grave. Ruatha might have a wondrous future led by a lord on a white dragon, but none of that was a guarantee. Despite the uncertainty, Liliya was opening herself to hope again.

Menolly knew the song she had to sing. She could hear the melody in her head, and several lyrical phrases were taking shape.

“Liliya, would you be willing to help me with something?” she asked.

As promised, Master Robinton arrived the day before the Gather, ostensibly to meet with Lytol. Menolly suspected he had made the trip early in order to check on her song. Six months ago, the idea of the Masterharper going out of his way to help her would have been unthinkable, but she now knew Master Robinton was that kind of man. He made time for people, and did his best to help them.

She and Sebell met him in the main courtyard, but only had time to offer greetings before Robinton was led away by Lord Sigomal, who immediately began giving him an earful about a girl harper, and how this was just another sign that Pern was on the wrong path.

Menolly tuned him out. She had been thinking ever since her single night seated at the dais, and decided that Sebell was right. Lord Sigomal’s opinion of her shouldn’t hurt her, not when she was secure in Robinton’s favor and had the friendship of people like Sebell and Jaxom.

Sebell, left behind now that the Masterharper was present, rolled his eyes up toward the skies. “I think Master Robinton is going to have a headache very soon. Better him than me,” he said, before throwing his arms wide with mock exaltation. “I’m free!”

“I thought you liked meeting people,” she said, careful to sound innocent.

“Usually, but that doesn’t mean I like them all. I will not be in a hurry to go to Bitra anytime soon,” Sebell replied. “Are you all ready for the Gather? I’m sorry I haven’t been able to help you more with your song.”

“That’s okay. I think doing it myself made me write more confidently,” she said. “I’ve been thinking about what I’ve seen here, and I think it’s the right song for this Gather.”

“That’s good,” Sebell said, his eyes glinting. “Do you want me to go over it with you?”

She shook her head. “I’d like it to be a surprise when it debuts tomorrow. I’m sure Master Robinton will help me tweak it if there’s something wrong. I feel good about it.”

“I can’t wait to hear it,” Sebell said. “So how about telling me what you’ve been up to since we arrived?”

“I’ve been spending some time with Jaxom,” Menolly said, grinning, as they started to walk to Cerio’s classroom together. “I like him and Ruth, both. And Ruth really likes my fire lizards.”

It was far too late in the evening when Master Robinton arrived at her door. She had remained up, knowing that he would keep his promise, but as the hours passed, she had had time to worry about what would happen if her song wasn’t as good as she thought. Her fire lizards all crowded around as Menolly practiced the fingering for her new song.

She was relieved as he bid her hello, coming through the open door and sitting down at her sandtable. To his credit, he didn’t immediately look at the music, but instead focused on her.

Robinton smelled like wine, but his sharp eyes showed he wasn’t a bit intoxicated. Silvina and Sebell had told her it took strong men to keep up with him.

Lord Sigomal hadn’t been up to the task.

“How have you enjoyed your first journey?” Robinton asked.

His question made her think of all she had seen, and the people she had met.

“I have so much to learn,” she admitted.

“That’s the most important thing to learn,” Robinton said. “It’s what every harper has to keep in mind. No matter how skilled or senior we get in our craft, there’s always something new to see or do or learn. We have to keep people’s minds open to the possibilities.”

“It’s more than just music,” Menolly agreed. “But I think the music will always be my favorite thing.”

“That’s good, because our craft needs music like yours. Were you able to write me a new song?”

“Yes, Masterharper,” Menolly said, coming to stand by the sand table so he could discuss what she had done. “It’s a duet.”

“Oh?” Robinton asked, finally turning to examine the notations. “Did Sebell… well, now,” he murmured, recognizing the range of the two vocal parts. “Do you have someone in mind to sing the lead? As much as I love your voice, I don’t think you have the range to hit some of those high notes.”

Instead of feeling censured, Menolly felt emboldened. “I think the best song for Ruatha should come from a Ruathan,” Menolly said. “There’s a woman here whose voice is the best I’ve ever heard.”

“Liliya?” Robinton asked. “Cerio was talking her up.”

“That’s her. She’s something really special, and I wanted to write something with her voice in mind. I don’t think the song will be much use to the Hall since it’s specific to the people of Ruatha.”

She paused to catch her breath before glancing at her master. He had been so vague about the commission that she didn’t know if she had done correctly or not. She had written the song she wanted to sing, and she might be a bit heartbroken if he decided it was a mistake.

But Robinton smiled, and Menolly knew her instincts had been right.

She was woken before the first bell by a knock on the door. Without thinking, she called for whoever it was to enter.

Sebell, looking neatly dressed in brown leathers and a harper blue tunic, came in. He raised the lid of the glow basket, assaulting Menolly’s eyes with unwelcome light.

“Get up and get dressed, Harper Girl,” he said. “You’ve got a big day.”

“Can’t I get up at a more reasonable hour?” she grumbled, tempted to burrow back into her furs. She was comfortably surrounded by her fire lizard fair, and didn’t want to move.

“No,” Sebell replied cheerfully, disgustingly alert for someone who had stayed up late the night before. “You’ve got a friend who would like a visit, and it’s rude to keep them waiting.”

“A friend?”

“Someone you will be glad to see,” Sebell promised.

“Who?” Menolly asked. The only friends she could think of were Jaxom and Liliya, but Sebell wouldn’t be making a big deal of that.

“It’s a surprise. They’ll meet you in the kitchen courtyard and you can feed your fire lizards.”

Sebell knew her too well, deliberately playing on her curiosity. She started to sit up, before realizing what she wasn’t wearing. She’d stripped down to her underthings before climbing into bed. Instead of panicking, she decided to be mature about her state of undress since she didn’t deserve to be ashamed.

“Thank you, I’ll be right out,” she said, before pointedly looking at the door. “Will you be meeting us in the courtyard?”

Sebell looked confused for a moment, before the reason for her remaining in bed dawned on him. He quickly spun around, speaking without looking at her. “No, I’ll be wandering around the Gather doing a bit of harpering in the morning. I’ll be there for your performance.”

Menolly watched as he almost tripped out of the room, amused in spite of herself.

She needed to get up and face the day in a calm and collected fashion. She and Liliya would share the first set on stage. Their performance would influence the tone for the rest of the celebrations. A bad opening at a Gather would be remembered, and Menolly didn’t want to give Lord Sigomal and his supporters any fodder for why a woman couldn’t be a harper.

She shoved the protesting fire lizards away from her in order to struggle to her feet. Stumbling over to the nearby table, she did a quick wash-up before braiding her hair to keep it out of her face. Then she slithered into the second gown Silvina had packed for her, ready for the day.

Her fair fluttered around her, chirping anxiously as she made her way to the kitchens to collect their meal. The large bowl full of chopped meat waited for her.

As she entered the courtyard, her eyes alighted on a slender figure dressed in lavender. Menolly almost dropped the bowl, but turned back to set it on the kitchen shelf so she could run to give her friend the hug she deserved.

Mirrim cried out gladly as Menolly ran into her arms. They hugged for several long moments, all of their fire lizards crying out in happiness at their reunion.

“How?” Menolly demanded, finally pulling back so she could look her friend in the eyes.

“T’gellan brought me,” Mirrim said. “I heard you would be singing a new song, and I didn’t want to miss it! I’ll have to do his mending for a month, but it’ll be worth it.”

“How do you know if my song is any good?” Menolly asked, raising an eyebrow.

“Your songs are always good,” Mirrim pronounced firmly.

“And since you have said it, that must be the truth.”

“I’m never wrong,” Mirrim said, lifting her nose haughtily.

Both girls burst into giggles, unable to control themselves any longer.

“I’ve missed you so much!” Menolly said, leaning forward to offer Mirrim another hug.

“I sometimes wish you had stayed at the Weyr, but I know you must be happy with the harpers, playing music day in, day out,” Mirrim said.

“There’s a lot more to being a harper than just music,” Menolly told her. “But let’s spend the morning wandering around the Gather. I’ve got a couple of hours before the music starts.”

“Let’s! I’ve got three marks, and there’s races to bet on! Lessa says that you should always pick the Ruathan runner, so I’m going to see if the inside advice works.”

“Three marks betting?” Menolly asked, a bit horrified.

“It’s not like I get many chances to spend it! I’ll save some for gather food, but I can get whatever else I need in Benden’s tithe.”

Menolly wasn’t sure how good an idea it was, but it wasn’t her job to criticize how her friend spent her marks.

“Is T’gellan still around?” Menolly asked, hoping to see the bronze rider.

“He’s going to be conveying the high and mighty – he lost a bet with a couple of the blue riders. He’ll make it in time for your performance, and he wanted me to tell you he’ll bring you back to Harper Hall tonight.”

The wonder of between was so much more impressive after traveling several days to get here. It might be terrifying, but it was certainly more convenient.

Between the two of them, they managed to feed twelve hungry fire lizards, though they did need to request an extra bowl to feed the new additions. Beauty spent her time chittering at Tolly, Reppa and Lok, no doubt reminding them of her authority as queen. When the bowls were both empty, Menolly sent her fair off, and all three of Mirrim’s followed. Beauty, of course, wasn’t going to be dismissed.

They arrived at the Gather as the day was beginning, with the vendor’s tables flowing over with wares. They wandered the stalls together, Menolly searching for something nice to buy with the marks Robinton had given her. The woodwork was lovely, but Menolly decided she would rather have something practical. A pair of blue wherhide gloves caught her eye, since they would be useful in protecting her fingers while traveling between.

The tanner wasn’t as fun to talk with as Ligand, but Mirrim stepped in to make sure Menolly was getting a good price. Mirrim, not surprisingly, proved to be very good at dickering.

After having her gloves wrapped up, Menolly and Mirrim headed to the courses that had been set up on flat land to watch the races. Runner racing was one of the most popular of Ruatha’s activities.

Mirrim promptly lost a mark. Lessa’s advice that Ruathan runners were the best proved true, but the problem was each race had multiple Ruathan beasts competing. Wagering was intense, and a couple of the nose-length finishes resulted in fistfights among the gamblers.

As events progressed toward midday, Menolly noticed the crowds filling out. Dragonriders swarmed the Gather, their badges proclaiming allegiance to their home weyr. There were far more of them than had attended any of the Fort Gathers she’d been at. So many riders meant people from all over Pern had wangled transportation, and Menolly was sure that she saw at least one person from every major hold and craft.

Among the gatherers, she caught sight of Lessa observing the races with F’lar. While her weyrmate was talking with several men in fine dress, Lessa’s attention didn’t deviate from the runners. As Mirrim and Menolly passed by the vintner’s stall, Menolly saw Tuck drinking with other men, already getting into his cups. Halfway through the morning, the announcement went out that Jaxom and Lytol were walking the gather together.

Menolly enjoyed the morning with Mirrim. Being around her made Menolly more confident, and her quick tongue had Menolly bursting into giggles multiple times. She was so much more cheerful than Menolly remembered. Brekke’s recovery had helped her fosterling immensely.

When it came time to part so Menolly could prepare to perform, Mirrim promised that they would meet up later for their evening meal.

“I’ll track T’gellan down, too, and we can catch up more,” Mirrim promised, and then disappeared towards the baker’s stall.

Menolly’s instruments had been brought down from her rooms by a drudge, so all she had to do was tune them. Liliya met her by the stage, wearing a maroon dress that she had borrowed from a friend. A scarf around the waist gave it a bit of style. Menolly’s russet gown complimented it nicely, and they would look good together on stage.

When Liliya began to sing softly to warm up. Menolly couldn’t resist joining in, finding the vocal exercises more pleasant with company. They went through several, before Menolly gestured to the stage. The crowd was starting to fill the gather square expectantly.

“Are you ready?” she asked Liliya.

“As I’ll ever be,” the older woman said. “I must be insane to start performing at my age.”

“I think you’re inspiring,” Menolly said. “Women should be able to do anything men can, and I am so happy you’re going to be setting a good example.”

Liliya surprised them both by picking up Menolly’s hands, squeezing them gently. “You inspire me as well. I never would have agreed to perform today if Cerio hadn’t told me a woman harper would be coming. I want to sing to show my daughters that there is more to life than the kitchens, but I didn’t have the courage until I knew the Harper Hall would support it.”

Beauty made a delighted warble, echoing Menolly’s own happiness. She hadn’t thought about being a role model, but Liliya’s words gave her hope.

Menolly would have to work even harder, knowing that someday she wouldn’t be the only girl – woman – harper. Even though Liliya would never formally join the craft, Menolly was convinced that Cerio’s idea for her to become an assistant would come to fruition.

It was never too late for life to change.

The crowd was starting to fill out, and Menolly knew it was time to open the event. Menolly told Beauty to go spend some time with Ruth, since the little queen wouldn’t like the size of the crowd. The queen, less annoyed than usual at being ordered away, went between without complaint. Ruth’s appeal was enough to at least temporarily distract the fire lizard queen from her charge.

As she and Liliya took their places on stage, she heard the sound of voices. Two women had never opened a Gather before, and Ruathans in the know were bragging to their out of town guests that this would be a performance they would never forget.

Looking around, Menolly saw that most of the Hold’s honored guests had claimed prime tables at the front. Lessa and F’lar sat at one small round with N’ton and Margatta of Fort Weyr, while Jaxom was seated with several of the other Lord Holders at a larger circle. Robinton, Sebell, Cerio and the other harpers present were scattered among several craft masters and many of the honored dragonriders, most of whom wore the rank cords of wingleaders or wingseconds. Menolly couldn’t see Mirrim, but she suspected her friend was close to T’gellan.

Menolly took one of Shonagar’s deep breaths before striking the opening chords of ‘The Gather Song,’ which traditionally began a Gather performance.

Gather! Gather! It’s a gather day!
No work for us, and Thread’s away.
Stalls are building, square’s swept clear,
Gather all from far and near.
Bring your marks and bring your wares,
Bring your family for there’s
Food and drink and fun and song.
The Hold flag flies; so gather along!

Menolly took the lead, her easy tones and enthusiasm encouraging the crowd to sing along. Liliya didn’t sing out, instead melding her voice with Menolly’s to strengthen the sound. The crowd, eager to be entertained, joined in readily, a mass of voices calling out with good cheer.

She thought of how Sebell had handled his performances before a crowd. She envied how easy he had made it look, but Menolly wasn’t up for bantering with the crowd. Maybe someday she would learn that trick, but for now she would avoid tripping over her tongue and speak in the language she knew best.

Music. As long as Menolly was singing and playing, she would be able to enjoy the audience and not worry about making stupid comments.

Liliya took the seat beside her as Menolly began to perform her Shonagar-approved set list with ‘The Fire Lizard Song.’

It was amazing that people so far from Harper Hall knew all the words. She had been told her music had traveled throughout Pern, but this was the first time she realized what that meant. People she had never met, and likely never would, had heard her words. The good feeling flowed through Menolly, and she knew she was singing better than ever in response.

Her set list flew by, and all of her songs were applauded loudly. Liliya helped by passing her instruments or offering water to soothe Menolly’s throat after each song. Menolly kept flashing smiles at her as she performed, hoping that Liliya would feel the energy as well. She wanted the older woman to share her joy in performance, something Cerio would never be able to instill since he personally hated the stage.

A couple of people called for encores, but Menolly kept moving until she started her last song, ‘Brekke’s Lament.’ She had chosen the song for last as a way to calm the crowd before Liliya’s solo. The intense subject matter settled them down, but their spirits were too high to be truly depressed. Instead, they quieted, trusting her to control the flow of music.

It was such a powerful feeling, perhaps the closest she would ever come to flying a dragon.

As the final notes drifted away, she looked at Liliya and nodded for her to rise. The woman stood, not hesitating as she took the center stage with Menolly seated behind her. Menolly played the introduction, setting a languorous pace for the singer.

When Liliya opened her mouth, the entire Gather fell silent to listen to her sing.

For the five minutes that it took to get through the whole song, there was no sound in the hold. The audience was entranced by Liliya’s singing, drinking in the lyrics as if ‘The Golden Egg of Faranth’ was brand new to them.

The resulting applause was thunderous, lasting just as long as the response to ‘The Fire Lizard Song.’ Liliya stood frozen on the stage, staring out at all the cheering faces in shock.

“Take a bow,” Menolly said in a soft undertone only audible to her student.

Liliya dipped a curtsey instead, and the applause built to another crescendo. As Liliya beamed, Menolly felt even more satisfied than she had at her own reception. From the crowd’s reaction, Liliya would be invited to perform at future gathers.

And they hadn’t even heard the closing number.

She set aside the lap harp and picked up her gitar, pulling the strap over her shoulder so she could stand and play. The crowd saw her movement, and several gave whistles of encouragement. Liliya stepped slightly to the right so Menolly could share center stage with her.

“I have enjoyed my sevenday with you, and hope it’s only the first of many,” Menolly said, raising her voice to be heard over the din. “I’ve written a special song to celebrate this Gather Day. Liliya has very kindly agreed to sing it for me, since her voice is one of the treasures of Ruatha that needs to be shared.”

Liliya had been nervous about being the first person to sing a new song in public, but none of those nerves showed as she began to sing the first chorus acapella to introduce Menolly’s ‘Song for Ruatha.’

No matter how dark the night may get
Hope’s fire will always shine
So many things I have come to regret
But never this hold of mine...

Liliya’s voice rose and fell, conveying both the pain and pride that living in the hold had brought her. Menolly’s melody and descant were simple, as she was content to rely on Liliya’s talent to carry the performance.

The song told the story of Ruatha’s rebirth, from F’lar’s duel with Fax to the coming of a dragonless man who served honorably as the Lord Warder. She sang of the hard work the residents of the hold had put in to recover from its destitute, wasted shape, and how they were right to be proud of what had been accomplished thus far. She sang of how the hold had regained the respect of all the Pernese, and how its doors were now opened to its friends – whether craft, hold or weyrbred.

Menolly wrote the song for Liliya, but also the lonely Lord Jaxom and his strict, distant Warder who watched over him. She wrote it for Cerio, whose work repairing the damage Fax had wrought would never be completed. A small part of her admitted the song was also for Lessa, who already had dozens of songs written about her, but none that reassured her that she had made the right decision for Ruatha’s sake.

Menolly looked out over the crowd to see how they were reacting. Jaxom’s eyes had a dreamy look, and she knew Ruth was listening through him. Someday, she promised herself, she would tell the story of the boy and the white dragon, but Cerio had been right. Now was not the time for that.

‘Song for Ruatha’ was for all Ruatha, reminding the hold’s inhabitants that they would not only continue to survive, but thrive.

Among the crowd, she caught faces she recognized from the kitchens, and many more Ruathans she didn’t know. She could tell they belonged to the hold, because they were straightening their backs and lifting their chins with pride as Liliya told their story. These were the people who formed the backbone of the hold, and the ones she had intended to reach with this song.

Jala was staring at Liliya with tears running down her face, shockingly vulnerable for a woman who was so efficient as headwoman.

The most famous of the Ruathans was similarly enthralled. Lessa, standing nearby, had the same distant expression Jaxom wore, and Menolly swallowed as she stole a glance at the intently listening dragons perched along Ruatha’s walls. Somewhere up there, her own fire lizard fair waited, seated next to their distant cousins.

Most importantly of all to Menolly, Robinton was beaming, and she knew she was making him proud. The lyrics weren’t Menolly’s most brilliant, and this song would never travel Pern like ‘The Fire Lizard Song,’ but she knew this was the right song for Ruatha.

It was a song of survival, and the promise that things were getting better. Most of all, the song promised that Ruatha would never have to stand alone again, since all of Pern cared about the legendary hold.