Nerilka’s Story: Rehashing Older Ground

Last time, Nerilka fled Fort Hold, changed her name, and helped nurse the sick, before being shipped on to Ruatha to help out with the runnerbeast vaccination plan. After a thorough sterilization, we are go for serum creation.

Nerilka’s Story: Chapters VIII and IX: Content Notes: Sexism, judgment based on appearances, low self-esteem


Chapter VIII starts with Rill and the two from her previous location working with Alessan, Desdra, and some other men to get all the runners in place and draw off their blood (Sal is a bit squeamish about this), package it into the transports, and then use the makeshift centrifuges to spin out the appropriate serum for collection. Oklina passes through with food at lunch time, where Desdra explains the necessity of nigh-simultaneous inoculation as the way the disease gets stopped from spreading further. After some care of the donor beasts (and a narrative suggestion that Fergal, Dag’s grandson, has feelings for Oklina based on Fergal doing whatever she asks without any of his normal backtalk), Rill, along with everyone else, gets pressed into helping draw off the serum after seeing how Desdra does it once or twice, before being sent back out to run runnerbeasts back and forth to the bloodletting. She keeps her time occupied by figuring out how she would restore Ruatha once everything is done with the plague, a subtle nod to the end of Moreta, where we know that Alessan and Nerilka have gotten married, but that hasn’t happened yet in this story.

As the drums roll in with orders for serum, Alessan explains he needs someone that can accurately list the orders, but Tuero is occupied and can’t be spared.

“Then have Rill do it.” Desdra said bluntly.
“Can you understand drum messages, Rill?” Alessan asked, somewhat surprised. I had been taken so unaware that I couldn’t answer. I had even begun to think that Desdra had not recognized Tolocamp’s daughter in grimy, sweaty, short-haired Rill.
“And probably the codes as well, isn’t that right, Rill?” Desdra was quite ruthless, but at least she did not explain to anyone how she knew so much about my unmentioned skills. “She can fill serum bottles between messages. She needs a bit of sit-down time. She’s been going full pelt for some days now.”

There’s another one of those fun idiomatic phrases, but since there have been mention of sleeping furs, presumably there are pelts from which those furs are made. (Although the origins of how full pelt came to be are interesting and this may have been another choice of language that doesn’t actually synchronize with the society presented.)

Despite having been basically outed, Alessan has too much on his mind to question how Rill, a “drudge who had risen to volunteer healer” knows such things, or why Rill takes over certain duties, like ordering other drudges and explaining things for maximum efficiency, that she had back in Fort out of familiarity. Nerilka admires Alessan’s ceaseless drive and energies, and tries to help Oklina out as much as possible, seeing how much responsibility is falling on her shoulders. This is how Rill describes Oklina:

She wasn’t a pretty girl, which the uncharitable might say was one reason I related to her so easily, for the fair complexion and strong features that became a man suited her no better than my family resemblance suited me. But she was an exceptionally graceful young woman, with a charming smile and great, dark, expressive eyes in which lurked a sort of secret bemusement. I often caught her gazing toward the northwest and wondered if she had fallen in love with some young man. She would make an excellent holder’s wife, young though she was, and I devoutly hoped that Alessan would not require her to remain at Ruatha, but would settle her with a kind and generous man.

She also notes that the work in creating the serum and the prestige of the Ruathan Bloodline won’t hurt, either.

This description is much different than the one that Moreta gave us of Oklina, which told about relationships and her eyes, but not much else, which B’lerion, the shameless flirt, was making eyes at her. If she is as plain as Nerilka claims, then B’lerion is just being a flirt…or he’s trying to find someone who may not have that great of esteem and trying to butter them up for other activities. I’d love to say that this darker interpretation is far-fetched, but this is Pern.

I’m also giving a bit of a side-eye at Nerilka saying that the Ruathan Bloodline will be a benefit, considering her own Bloodline hasn’t apparently been all that helpful in securing suitors, despite being the oldest daughter of Tolocamp. Plus, Pern seems to be all about the prettiness of the ladies, based on Jaxom and others. Although all of the women mentioned so far that haven’t died have all had something preventing them from being declared beautiful. Seems like a bit of an authorial tick, like they didn’t want to write a woman that was both beautiful and talented for fear of the Sue Spectre.

After several days of difficult work, where Rill loses her sense of time, Alessan is able to declare enough serum created to cover everything needed, plus some overage for breaking. He tosses Oklina the cellar key and tells her to take Rill and collect wine for a celebration. There’s mystical Benden white to be had, which Rill had never had, and Oklina asks her to stay on and help rebuild Ruatha, since she’s pretty good at managing the Hold, and Alessan wants some trustworthy people on board. So the trusted few sit down to a celebratory meal, and Nerilka gets flirted at by Alessan, although she tells us that she’s affected pretty heavily by the wine and the happiness of being able to stay at Ruatha.

After dinner, Nerilka goes out with Dag and Fergal to see if one of the mares is going to give birth. After some pleasant conversation about possible marriages and proper assistants, the mare gives birth. Nerilka is now in the right place to rejoin the narrative that Moreta provided, by delivering the news to Tuero and helping both him and Alessan get to bed, while Tuero tries to remember why he knows “Rill”.

Chapter IX begins the next day, with Nerilka continuing to attempt cleanup and organizing others to do the same, before dragons arrive.

As Oklina rushed out to B’lerion with his supplies, I could not help but notice the way the bronze rider’s face lit up as he slipped down his dragon’s side. When she reached him, she halted abruptly to gaze lovingly up at him until, smiling a trifle foolishly himself, he took the serum from her.
I felt a touch on my arm. Desdra stood there with the brace of packaged serum bottles for me to deliver to a rider. “Don’t stare, Rill. It has been sanctioned.”
“I wasn’t staring – not exactly. But she’s so young, and B’lerion has quite a reputation.”
“There’s a queen egg hardening at Fort Weyr.”
“But Oklina’s needed here.”

But Oklina is clearly star-struck by the dragon, and Alessan is willing to send her off. Because he’s not willing to condemn her to a life of rebuilding and getting no excitement or suitors.

This is an interesting insight – Nerilka is leery about this possible situation because she sees the possibility of things going bad for Oklina. We still don’t know what happens to queen candidates that don’t Impress. Maybe she knows more than we do when she says

I chided myself for criticizing my new Lord Holder. What right had I, save that of a concerned friend? But then I was good at seeing the bad side in everything.

After worrying for Oklina’s innocence, Rill tries to calculate the speed at which the dragonriders are delivering serum, and realizes that it’s not physically possible. Desdra knows why, but isn’t telling. After everything is delivered (with the problems raised in Moreta), dinner is delivered – several wherries for the table. And Desdra apologizes.

“You were right to come here, Rill. You were never appreciated at your former Hold. And I’d like to apologize for misconstruing your motive in offering your assistance at the Hall. Youd’ve been a rare, fine help to us there.”
“No, I would not have been allowed,” I said, relieved that Oklina had moved out of earshot. “Here I am my own person, accepted on the strength of my own endeavors. I can be of use here, especially if Oklina-” I paused, not certain what I meant to say.

A neat double meaning on being allowed there. Tolocamp wouldn’t have permitted it, but the Healers also wouldn’t have believed that she had the necessary skill – which makes me wonder whether other professions have the paid students in the same way that the Harper Hall did. And whether those paid students would be looked down on similarly by those in the Craft. Clearly there’s a market for Holder daughters to pick up useful feminine-coded skills so that they become more eligible to men. Who teaches accounting and running the household, though, I wonder. (Assuming it’s not a thing one learns at Mother’s knee while the boys are out learning…whatever they’re learning.) So if Nerilka were to get in to the Craft as an apprentice (which she could, presumably, since Desdra exists), would she have had a Menolly-like journey through the rampant sexism that was present with the Harpers?

We’ll never know. We learn that Campen and Theskin were out looking for Nerilka after she disappeared. Not Tolocamp or Anella, of course, because they still have to stay unredeemably evil.

Next, though, is the tragedy of Moreta and Holth, which Oklina and Alessan both feel happen in their very selves, despite neither being a rider (but both having been Searched, which suggests they have the telepathic gift that riders develop, and both are attuned to Moreta through frequent contact – Alessan through having actually had sex with her on their future trip). The grief is sufficient for Oklina to pass out and Alessan goes basically into a grief rage, while Nerilka tries to stop him from hurting himself during his emotional outburst. And to rekindle her own silent rage against Tolocamp, living in comfort while the world had problems around him.

Desdra manages to get Alessan dosed with fellis to knock him out after Nerilka works out that Alessan and Moreta had been lovers, despite having only been gone an hour of elapsed time. Nerilka asks about it and gets confirmation from Desdra after getting Alessan into his bed (undressing him, no less, before doing so).

Here’s a rather telling element, though, about the world she lives in, right at the end of the chapter.

In all of Pern’s history, no Weyrwoman had become a Lady Holder, though many Lady Holders had become Weyrwoman. Moreta had been nearly to the end of safe childbearing, but Alessan could have taken a wife as well. A Lord Holder could make his own laws within his Hold, especially to secure his Bloodline. Hold girls were raised with that precept firmly implanted in their brains and hearts.
“Oklina’s children were to be fostered here,” Desdra said.
“But that’s not enough with all his losses.”
“You must tell him who you are, Lady Nerilka.”
I shook my head even as I grasped firmly at the thought, at that utterly impossible possibility. He needed someone pretty and appealing, clever and charming, who could rouse him from all the grief he had endured.

Everything flows only one way – Holds to Weyrs. Never the other way. Lessa ran afoul of this particular taboo in trying to control Ruatha after being taken by the Benden Weyrleader. It’s still not clear why there couldn’t be someone as Holder after Weyrleader. Maybe the Holders are afraid they’ll all be taken over by dragonriders? Or that same attitude that shamed Kylara is a more pervasive one about how Weyrpeople shouldn’t mix with Holders.

Also, “safe childbearing age”? The Healers know something about the difficulties of birth and the increased risk of certain conditions if a woman is older than a certain age? How is it that this has survived and other things haven’t?

Also also, Rill continues to remind us of her non-pretty status, because we might make judgments about her based on appearances alone with regard to what we know already happens. Because we haven’t been along for the ride with her this whole time, seeing her do the things she does, the intelligence on display, and the skills she has. All of that would apparently be instantly gone at the merest suggestion that Nerilka had gotten by on her looks. Which shows how little Holders think of women, but that isn’t really being hidden. After all, those in charge of a Hold have absolute power to rule everyone however they like (like Meron saying everyone has to buy and burn coal), and super-absolute power when it comes to boinking by the Lord Holder. (This explains so, so much about Jaxom, Corana, and Sharra.) That every woman has it in their hearts probably means there’s widespread beating going on to ensure that those women don’t question their Lords.

I would like to know the rate in which Lords Holder die under deniable circumstances after they take a woman, get married, or “discipline” a woman for whatever offense. Whether by the woman or by a man who thinks his claim on the woman has been usurped. Fax cannot have been unique, nor Meron.

Chapter IX ends on the immediate aftermath of the Moreta disaster.

9 thoughts on “Nerilka’s Story: Rehashing Older Ground

  1. genesistrine May 12, 2016 at 3:01 am

    Re Oklina’s attractiveness, you may be being suckered by the first-person narrative – there’s no hint that anyone outside Nerilka’s head thinks Oklina’s unattractive, and Nerilka’s been thoroughly messed up by her father (and mother?)’s “you girls are all far far too repulsive for anyone to ever want to marry” attitude. (Also Oklina’s “unattractiveness” in Nerilka’s eyes seems to boil down to “pale-skinned and has cheekbones”, well, beauty standards can change dramatically of course, but that hardly sounds diagnostic of ugliness to me…)

    Not to say that Pernese women aren’t judged on attractiveness of course, but in this case I think we’re seeing it from the POV of someone who’s internalised all the most toxic messages and standards.

    Nerilka, you need therapy. Lots of it. Now.

  2. WanderingUndine May 12, 2016 at 8:53 pm

    The fact that childbearing has greater health risks after a certain age doesn’t seem to me like something Healers would forget. Unlike, say, influenza, it’s an ever-present issue (no pun intended).

  3. beappleby May 12, 2016 at 9:12 pm

    I would think the risks to older women bearing children would become obvious in a culture with no birth control other than dragons.

  4. Silver Adept May 13, 2016 at 8:16 pm

    @genesistrine –

    If we’re being subjected to Nerilka’s perspective here, I would have expected her pronouncements to be that Oklina is exceedingly pretty, not like her plain self at all, instead of it being that Oklina is not so pretty, like herself. But I can also see it being that both Nerilka and Oklina are very pretty, and Nerilka is judging by impossible standards drilled her into by Tolocamp. That might also be why nobody really believes Rill is a drudge – she’s too well-fed and developed to have been starved and beaten from the moment she came into existence.

    Nerilka needs lots and lots of therapy. Therapy forever.

    As for childbirth issues, it just seems weird that this is the bit that survived, when it seems like there are enough women permanently pregnant that midwifery and ob/gyn would never have had an opportunity to fall into disuse enough to become forgotten, such that this knowledge about advanced birth age wouldn’t need to be called out.

  5. genesistrine May 14, 2016 at 4:50 am

    Nerilka comes across as a pretty judgemental person. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, there’s plenty going on on Pern that needs a good dose of judgementalism, but damn, girl, you need to pick better targets than other women’s looks.

    I can also see her thinking, on an unconscious level, that Oklina’s plain to avoid feeling jealousy – she likes Oklina, and thinking “ugly like me” may be a sympathetic thing for her, instead of “she’s pretty so everyone will love her WHY NOT ME NOT FAIR I HATE HER”. (OK, she crushed on Suriana because pretty and talented and BFF and brings out the best in her, but she was younger then and may only do that when she’s in love. [Headcanon, true, but I can’t read her description of her relationship with Suriana without seeing it as a – platonic? – same-sex crush.])

    We don’t know how much other ob/gyn might have survived – we see a Ninth Pass midwife who’s apparently capable of performing a Caesarean (or a forceps birth?) on a dead woman and possibly even resuscitating the baby. Interestingly, though, she’s never referred to as a Healer, and I don’t remember any mention of a Healer ever attending a birth – is this knowledge the Healers share, or is there an underground birthing-woman-training thing going on that Healers ignore because icky woman stuff?

  6. WanderingUndine May 14, 2016 at 9:53 am

    Rill is such a pretty name. With a pretty meaning on Earth, which might or might not exist on Pern:

  7. WanderingUndine May 14, 2016 at 4:52 pm

    How, exactly, could therapy have eased Nerilka’s appearance-related low self-esteem? Therapy has helped me with many things, but not with that. I’m physically “attractive” by my culture’s ideas, but haven’t noticeably attracted anyone since middle school, and have indirectly been given the idea by society at large that “if nobody wanted me when I was young and prettiest, my prospects will go from zero to negative as I get older and less pretty.” For Nerilka, who has always and regularly been told that she’s too plain to ever attract a husband and thus has little worth as a woman…it must be so much worse, and I don’t know what anyone could say to counter that (aside from “Will you marry me?”)

  8. beappleby May 14, 2016 at 7:02 pm

    It seems pretty obvious to me that in a culture where many women are going to be bearing children throughout their childbearing years, it would be noticed that the older the woman, the more likely that there will be complications. In DF Lytol basically stated outright that Fax kept getting Gemma pregnant in hopes she would die in childbirth.

    (I wonder whatever happened to all of those siblings of Jaxom?)

  9. Silver Adept May 18, 2016 at 7:51 am

    @ beappleby –

    I wonder, too, about Jaxom’s siblings. Fax letting his women permanently pregnant until they die didn’t necessarily mean much about older women, as the setting for Pern strongly suggests that childbearing is dangerous for women of any age. Unless genesistrine is right and there’s an entire midwife craft that gets no mention because it’s all women and therefore unimportant to both Healers and Harpers.

    @ WanderingUndine –

    Therapy probably won’t do a lot for Nerilka’s self-perception of pretty, but it probably could do a lot for helping her build a self-worth judgment that is based in her skill set as Healer and household manager, instead of her pretty or not pretty judgment. It would be way tough, because the messaging from Pern is as relentless as the one from Terra about women’s bodies being the only important thing, but therapy could help there.

    @ genesistrine –

    I think Nerilka had a crush on Suriana, too, with the way that she’s described, and it might have gone some way toward building her current self-preception of how beautiful she is. I can see what you mean now about Oklina and how “plain like me” would be something to generate sympathy for her instead of jealousy.

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