Last chapter, we took a look at how the author marginalized Nerilka in the prologue, then made hay about the presence of year markers, indicating some form of calendar system and long-term memory not previously present, and closed out with the beginning of the story, with Nerilka missing out on the Gather by aggravating her mother.
Nerilka’s Story: Chapters II and III: Content Notes: Verbal abuse, classism
Chapter II opens with Capiam’s quarantine booming out across the land. Those that understand assemble with the Harper and Healer staff of the Hold to get instruction and explanation from Fortine and Desdra, representing the Healers, and Brace and Dunegrine, representing the Harpers. Fortine asks anyone who has been to either Gather to present themselves for examination to Desdra, after which he will address all the Healers while Brace briefs the Harpers. The entire sequence makes Nerilka suspicious, as Capiam doesn’t usually delegate.
On her way to check on the supplies in the storeroom, Nerilka is stopped by Campen, who asks a few questions about what’s going on before catching himself.
“Rill, what’s abroad? Did I hear quarantine? Does that mean Father is stuck at Ruatha? What do we do now?” He recalled that if he was acting Lord Holder, he ought not to be requesting advice from any lesser entities, especially his sister. He cleared his throat noisily and poked his chest forward, assuming a stern expression that I found ludicrous. “Have we sufficient fresh herbs for our people?”
“Indeed we do.”
“Don’t be flippant, Rill. Not at a time like this.” He frowned ponderously at me.
“I’m on my way to assess the situation, brother, but I can say without fear of contradiction that our supplies will prove more than adequate for the present emergency.”
“Very good, but be sure to give me a written report of supplies on hand.” He patted my shoulder as he would his favorite canine and bustled off, huffling as he went. To my jaundiced eye, he appeared unsure as to what he should be doing in this catastrophe.
(Jaundice? That word survives? Does that mean the condition does, too? It’s an interesting exercise trying to figure out why certain words remain in Pern…)
Nerilka sounds like there’s some schadenfreude involved in seeing Campen realizing that he might actually have to run the place, instead of just supervise. Campen isn’t helping himself much by puffing himself up, but he probably doesn’t have many coping mechanisms and he’s likely been taught, both implicitly and explicitly, that the person in charge cannot ever appear to be unsure or seek advice in the running of the Hold, let they appear weak and lose the respect of the people.
Here, also, we’re getting the Rill nickname out of the way quickly – since the secret is already out, as of the last book, the nickname can be freely used. Earlier books inform later ones.
Nerilka’s visit to the storeroom reveals a lot about the people running Fort and what’s going on in the world.
Sometimes I am appalled at the waste in our storerooms. In spring, summer, and autumn, we gather, preserve, salt, dry, pickle, and store more food than ever [sic] Fort Hold could need. Each Turn, despite Mother’s conscientious efforts, the oldest is not used first, and gradually the backlog grows. The tunnel snakes and insects take care of that in the darker recesses of the supply caves. We girls often make judicious withdrawals to be smuggled out to needy families, as neither Father nor Mother condone charity, even when harvests have failed through no fault of the holder. Father and Mother are always saying that it is their ancient duty to supply the entire Hold in time of crisis, but somehow they have never defined “crisis.” And we keep increasing the unused and unusable stores.
Of course herbs, properly dried and stored, keep their efficacy for many Turns. The shelves of neat bags and bound stalks, the jars of seeds and salves bulged. Sweatroot, featherfern, all the febrifuges, that had been traditional remedies since Records began. Comfrey, aconite, thymus, hissop, ezob: I touched each in turn, knowing we had it in such quantities that Fort Hold could treat every one of the nearly ten thousand inhabitants if necessary. Fellis had been a bumper crop this Turn. Had the land known its future needs? Aconite, too, was in generous supply.
I think I can say confidently at this point that Tolocamp and Pendra suck at being Lord Holders. Not because they try to preserve and store food and medicines away in case of a future crisis (after all, dragonriders still demand tribute, regardless of how your harvest went, and it’s quite possible that Thread will keep you indoors for a very long time), but because they store too much and then refuse to get rid of it before it spoils. If they disapprove of charity, then they fail at converting their excess into mark pieces or other, more durable, goods. They also fail at winning goodwill and strengthening ties by refusing to use their excess to keep vassals with poor harvests healthy and fed. Unhappy vassals start trouble. So one must wonder whether Tolocamp has had to fight off unhappy Holders coming at him with knives. And perhaps we have part of the reason why other Holders aren’t so willing to attach themselves to Tolocamp.
In any case, in addition to the supplies, there are some very old bound tomes that constitute the medical Records – recipes for medicine and the notes of Healers. The oldest Records, supposedly dating to the flight of the Ancients, are crumbling in Nerilka’s hands, with their ink already faded away. In the Ninth Pass, Harper archivists are busily copying and recopying old Records – do they not exist in Sixth Pass? (And what about Fandarel’s ink recovery process?) It seems that people so very concerned with hoarding everything would not be so lax as to let old knowledge die. As Nerilka looks through more recent records, she realizes that everyone could be affected by the disease. Which induces panic mode until a drudge comes to fetch her to the kitchens and talk to the cook.
Sim, our second named drudge of this entire series, takes a message from Nerilka to be delivered “into the hand of Journeywoman Desdra only!”, to which “Sim bobbed his head up and down, smiling his vapid smile and murmuring reassurances.” So both of our named drudges appear to have mental issues. I’m not really liking this trend, as well as the indeterminate status of the other drudges.
Felim, the cook, has been told to prepare for for an undetermined number of guests, which makes him nervous because he “had been so often chastised by my mother for ‘wastefulness’ that his only defense was showing her the records of how many ate at which meal and what was served them.” Another strike against Pendra, who seems to have a sadistic steak in stark contrast to her busybody matchmaker characterization in Moreta.
After promising to find out how many are coming to dinner, Nerilka has to talk sense into Campen about how many people would actually be coming to Fort to dine, considering Capiam’s quarantine order is still in effect. Nerilka then makes an executive decision to increase the normal meal only by a quarter portion and add more cheese and biscuits, and then gets the older relatives to start converting spare rooms into infirmary units, while her favorite uncle, the one she thinks should have been Lord Holder, goes into the Records to see if something can be found to help the Healers figure it out. (He’s referred to as a pensioner, too, which is another one of those odd vocabulary choices, since I don’t think the concept of the pension works on a works like Pern.) Before he does so, the uncle relays that Capiam is ill with the disease.
The chapter ends with the dinner, whose guests included more minor Holders than expected and all the Crafthall Masters, save the Healers and the Harpers. There’s still more than enough food and drink to cover everyone, and logistics without breaking quarantine is the topic for the Masters and Holders to talk about long into the night, while Nerilka pours klah, and then goes to study old Records afterward.
Chapter III picks up the next day, with a pair of drum messages, one just “terrifying”, and one more from Ratoshigan requesting assistance from the Healers. As Nerilka heads to the Harper Hall, more drum messages roll in, with the casualties, the fatalities, and the requests for Healers. And offers of assistance from those places not affected yet.
Then come the reports from the Weyrs, and at this point, Nerilka’s image of dragonriders as invincible gods (or their avatars) crumbles swiftly.
Why I had thought that dragonriders would be immune from this disease, I do not know, except that they seemed so invulnerable astride their great beasts, seemingly untouched by the ravages of Thread – though I knew well enough that dragons and riders were badly scored – and impervious to minor ailments and anxieties that were visited on lesser folk.
Nerilka’s not wrong here, though – dragonriders don’t till land or make craft things that have to be sold or otherwise do anything other than what relates to the care and feeding of dragons and the destruction of Thread. Plus, dragonriders don’t interact with the average Holder, or even big Holders, on a daily basis. Their rituals are secret and mysterious, and their sexual practices are clearly more freewheeling that the system of tightly guarded female sexuality that the Holds use. A mythology about them was bound to develop, because dragonriders hit all the high points of myths and legends. To see them exposed as mortal beings after all is a confidence-shaking blow. Further eroding confidence is the knowledge that Capiam, the Masterhealer, is down with the flu and Fortine is on the drums. So, dragonriders are affected by this, the Masterhealer is down, and thus everyone could be engaged in a full panic.
But they’re not visibly doing so, possibly because Thread has basically made them need a higher grade of disaster to start panic. Nerilka can see the signs of strain on Desdra’s face, even as Nerilka offers the stores of Fort to the Healer. When Desdra attempts to placate her, Nerilka informs her that she knows “every drum code but the Masterharper’s, and can guess at that.” as a way of telling Desdra to cut the bullshit. (Although, “every drum code” still makes me wonder how the Harpers manage to fit the language into, essentially, drumbeat measures.)
Before Nerilka can convince Desdra to grab what she can, Tolocamp returns on the dragon he commandeered from Ruatha and demands the immediate dispersal of all the Holders, Crafters, and others who had gathered at Fort, because of the quarantine order from Capiam. As Tolocamp shoves people around for emphasis (demonstrating his contempt for others), the courtyard clears and Tolocamp turns his baleful eyes on his family.
Father turned on us all, for my brothers had come to investigate the unexpected arrival of a dragon.
“Have you run mad to assemble folk? Did none of you pay heed to Capiam’s warning? They’re dying like flies at Ruatha!”
“Then why are you here, sir?” my rather stupid brother Campen had the gall to ask.
“What did you say?” Father drew himself up like a dragon about to flame, and even Campen drew back from the contained fury in his stance. How Campen escaped a clout I did not then understand.
“But-but-but Capiam said quarantine…”
That’s the thing with abusers, Campen. They don’t follow logic when others use it, only when they do it, and their logic doesn’t have to follow actual logic. If your logic contradicts their worldview, you are wrong, regardless of what reality says.
That said, I do wonder how Tolocamp has managed not to get a knife in the back, or the front, with the way he manhandles others, on top of the abuse of his children. That kind of attitude would surely put him on the wrong end of dragonriders somewhere, because Tolocamp surely couldn’t contain his rage and would strike one of his betters. Or that they would decide he needed to go for one reason or another. Or maybe I’m being optimistic and Tolocamp knows exactly where the line is and endeavors to make sure he’s always on the right side of it while he perpetuates his abuses. Worked pretty well for Yanus.
Tolocamp declares himself in quarantine (in person, to his family), and then rushes off, leaving the kids to pick up the pieces. A muffled sob is the only clue Nerilka needs to realize that Tolocamp is the only person coming back from Ruatha, and so she turns her attention to making sure none of the siblings panic about the quarantine by referencing their hardiness. Mostar points out they all had chicken pox or smallpox (“the spotted fever”) and it seems to help break tension as Theskin points out the danger of breaking quarantine.
After uneasy sleep, Nerilka wakes up in the middle of the night and goes to check on Tolocamp. The instruction list is for wine, food, febrifuges, and for his mistress, Anella, and her children. After assuring us that Lady Pendra knew about it, and was sometimes glad for it, Nerilka tells us what she really thinks about Anella:
But I didn’t like Anella. She simpered, she clung, and if Father couldn’t pretend interest in her, she was quite happy on Mostar’s arm. Indeed, I think she hoped to be wed to my brother. I longed to tell her that Mostar had other ideas. Still, I wondered if her last son was my father’s issue or Mostar’s.
I chided myself for such snide thoughts.
Because, of course, what this story really, really needs right now is one woman calling another a gold digger. If we recall from The White Dragon and how Jaxom had his way with Corana, and with consideration to Tolocamp’s (and Mostar’s) position, who wants to lay bets against the idea that some form of coercion, stated or unstated, is part of the relationship, and that Anella has probably adopted this persona so that she can continue to be in favor with Tolocamp instead of trying to figure out how to feed the extra mouths thanks to her miserly Lords?
On the plot, Nerilka runs the instructions for supplies and foodstuffs herself, leaving Campen with he duty of figuring out how to sneak Anella and family in. When he complains to her about it, she points out how little Tolocamp cares about their preferences and goes over to the nurseries. Her tactical eye points out that they could seal themselves off if needed, so she makes a note to send up more supplies before going over to the Wash Aunt (despite having referenced Aunt Lucil as in charge of the nursery just a paragraph before, and Aunt Sira, in charge of the weavers, this aunt apparently doesn’t warrant a name, just a job title) to suggest today is a really good day to wash a lot of things.
She was a good person, but tended to procrastinate out of a mistaken motion that her drudges were woefully overworked. I knew Mother always had to give her a push to get started. I didn’t like to think that I was usurping any of my mother’s duties, even in a temporary basis, but we might be in need of every length of clean linen ever woven in the Hold.
And again we have this Hold narrative that drudges are idle or underworked characters. In this particular case, we’re supposed to believe that those who do the washing aren’t being worked hard enough.
Which, um, no. Laundry has always been an arduous task, and the technological innovations that have happened on Terra have not mitigated that reality, so a place like Pern, which is deliberately trying to avoid electricity, is never going to have a time where the drudges that do laundry are somehow underworked. What would the Wash Aunt know, though, compared to Nerilka, since the unnamed Wash Aunt only sees the work done every day by the drudges.
Nerilka has a perfectly good reason to request a big wash, because of the need for clean linen, but she doesn’t need to color it with more of the bullshit idea that drudges are fundamentally lazy.
After the wash, Nerilka checks in with the weavers and takes a short breakfast in the nook her mother users. Then she has to deal with finding quarters for Anella and her family – two babies, parents, three brothers, and six elders.
Anella pouted a bit at being assigned rooms so far from Tolocamp, but neither Campen nor I paid any attention to her remarks or to those of her shrewish mother. I was just relieved the entire hold had not descended on us. I suspected the older two brothers had more sense than to chance their arms on their pert sister’s prospects. Although I felt Anella ought to be well able to care for her children, I did assign her two servants, one from the Nursery level and a general. I wished to have no complaints from my father about her reception or quarters. Any guest would have had as much courtesy from me. But I didn’t have to like it.
Do tell us how you feel, Nerilka, about all of this, and how you’ve been inculcated with cultural values that set women against each other.
In the evening, Nerilka notes errors in the drums as the drummers get tired, and greater pleas for healers and relief from the disease. Even though Nerilka uses earplugs, pulses echo through her brain in the form of the bad news of the day. And that’s how Chapter Three ends.
I might note that Nerilka is a competent administrator of the household right from the beginning, as she starts the rounds, makes decisions to handle situations, and basically keeps the place running, while Campen flounders on everything and has no crisis management skills. So Nerilka is basically the perfect wife for someone, except that she’s not pretty, which means her talents are taken for granted and only one man is interested in having her as his wife. Nerilka will probably not receive any sort of acknowledgement or thanks for her skills from anyone, not even Campen. He will likely get all the praise that is rightly hers, even though she’s much more likely to be doing the things that keep everyone alive and healthy. Not every part of Latin Christendom has to be replicated in a story like this.