Well, more that we’ve resolved that Limbo, and possibly heaven, exist for dragonriders, we’re finally getting all the way back to the Ninth Pass that we left so long ago, with Jaxom having taken control of Sharra and stuck Toric in the eye.
Thankfully (maybe), we’re getting none of that, and instead, we get a view of what life is like for people who aren’t Holders or dragonriders.
The Girl Who Heard Dragons: Content Notes: Child Abuse, Animal Cruelty
Aramina was roused by the urgency of her parents’ voices. Dowell’s fierce whisper of persuasion and her mother’s fearful rejoinder. She lay still, at first thinking that her mother had had another of her “seeings,” but on such occasions Barla’s voice was totally devoid of emotion. Straining her ears to pick up only her parents’ words, Aramina ignored the myriad nocturnal noises of the enormous Igen cavern that sheltered some of the hundreds of holdless folk on Pern.
That’s a good opening paragraph, in terms of writing craft. A couple good hooks to draw in the reader, and an action sequence to start, as it turns out Aramina’s family is getting ready to flee their cavern to avoid the designs of the self-styled “Lady Holdless Thella” that wants to exploit Aramina’s abilities with the help of Giron, a dragonless man.
That said, I take issue with the idea that there are only “hundreds” of holdless throughout the planet, unless “hundreds” is used here as an uncounted, but probably large, number. In a vassalage operation as large as Pern is, there would have to be thousands of people employed only as farmers or laborers, without a permanent dwelling or land to call their own, basically at the mercy of whatever Lord’s territory they were on. Given how the drudges have been treated, it’s probably not that much of a stretch to say that the peasants probably fluctuate in and out of holdless status on a regular and migratory basis. There have to be more of the holdless than simple hundreds.
Plus, in earlier books, being holdless gave the weight of being an untouchable in Pern society, shunned completely by the world and left to basically die by Thread whenever it should happen to get you. That there’s an entire society in this underbelly seems like they appeared for this story, for it certainly seems like they would have an effect on characters already mentioned. Menolly, for example, would probably not be so “I can go it alone!” as much as “I heard rumors that the holdless live in these nearby caves. I should probably go see them to band together.” Later additions are messing with the already-established world in ways that are pretty unfriendly to that world.
In any case, the flight is because a member of the family bragged to Thella about what Aramina can do, and Aramina subsequently turned down Thella’s offer of benefits for her family if Aramina joined, and was unpersuaded by Thella’s philosophical argument that the holdless needed to band together and share their possessions to survive. I might note the philosophical argument could have more weight coming from someone who did not self-style themselves as part of the aristocracy that is likely explicitly responsible for the situations of the people in the cavern. And that is offering favors to those that cooperate. If this is supposed to be a socialist on Pern, it’s more like a Stalinist or a strawperson than someone actually interested in shared means of production and an egalitarian governance structure. Which is weird, because if the holdless really are the untouchables of society, they definitely need to band together, both in their own caves and across the planet. But instead, the narrative wants us to see them more like a homeless encampment, with people just there and not really caring.
Having no hold to be proud of, the holdless residing in Igen cavern had no pride of place either, and any accommodation, transient or semipermanent, was marked by mute evidence of their occupancy.
Well, we already know this family is special in some way, but I don’t particularly like the implications that our protagonist family is somehow better than the others around them or otherwise exceptional, because it reinforces bad narrative decisions made in earlier books about creating Exceptional People as a way of not having to fix the underlying structural problems. And if I go a few paragraphs after this, past an illustration of the dual moonrise of Pern, I find out that these are indeed, Exceptional People.
“We are not holdless by choice, Aramina,” Barla had often abjured her daughter, “for your father held well under Lord Kale of Ruatha Hold. Oh,” and Barla would bow her head and press her hands to her mouth in anguish over terrible memories, “the perfidy, the treachery of that terrible, ruthless man! To murder all of Ruatha blood in one pitiless hour!” Barla would gather herself then, lifting her head proudly. “Nor would your father serve Lord Fax of the High Reaches.”
[…Fax continues to be painted as irredeemably evil…]
“But we are not like the others, children. We chose to retain our honor and would not submit to the incarnate evil of Fax.”
Damn. I was hoping for a story where we might get to see why someone would choose to live outside the feudal structure, or a story of someone who turns out to be special coming from the ranks of the very lowest, but alas, no, instead we have a story of merchants / nobles in exile. Which justifies their special status.
Instead of stopping there and talking about the modest life and means they had, though, the narrative continues on to explain just why this is a special family – as it turns out, they have the Ruathan bloodline. Which is hinted at first by Aramina pointing out that despite the multiple pregnancies and spending fourteen Turns holdless, Barla is still objectively prettier than most of the other women who are holdless, and that in a new place, Barla often hides her hair. (Which, if she’s one of Red’s descendants, probably means that it’s very red and noticeable.) The reason why they hate Fax so much, other than his genocide, is because Fax’s men first noticed that bloodline when they announced the change in Lord, and then Fax came much later, when Barla was pregnant, with the intention of having her as one of his many concubines after she gave birth. Thus began the family’s journey in exile to Keroon, where Dowell, the father (also a woodcrafter, because names are important, you know) found work until the news of Fax’s death put them moving back toward their own land, a journey interrupted by the return of Thread after so long away.
This…seems cushy, at the moment. Like it’s not real poverty, but migration, but not migration like it is for Terrans that have to abandon everything and go somewhere else. It’s not particularly raw or violent at this point. The arrival of Thread makes the narrative tell us that things get rougher, but it hasn’t shown us anything yet.
Within those sanctuaries there was little room for those without legitimate claim on leadership, supplies, and refuge. A new terror was visited on the unfortunate, deprived for any number of reasons of their right to hold or craft affiliation.
For Dowell and Barla, the terror was slightly abated by Aramina’s unexpected ability to hear dragons. When she first naively reported such conversations, she had been soundly spanked for telling lies. Then came the day when she persisted in warning them that her dragons said Threadfall was imminent. Threatened with a second thrashing and a supperless night, she had tearfully refused to retract her report. It was only when Dowell saw the leading edge of Thread, a silver smudging in the sky, dotted with the fiery blossoms of dragon breath, that he had apologized.
Cocowhat by depizan
With as much as the bloodline of Ruatha has been touted as the greatest ever, why are the parents have trouble believing their daughter can hear dragons? There’s a handwave at it about how nobody in the family was Searched by the dragonriders, but there’s a whole history of the Hold there to contend with. Plus, I have real trouble with a family that believes their daughter is lying when she says something like that at first. There’s no reason to believe she’s a fibber, according to the narrative, and it’s not something that she’s in a situation where she would need to lie about something, either. Children are both smart and generally honest if there’s no reason for them to need to lie. Abusive parents are just… blech. That’s one part of this society that really can go die in Threadfall. And speaking of…
Since the advent of Threadfall, the holdless had suffered more than the usual indignities at the hands of the holders, large and small. Having no right of affiliation, they could be cheated of the ordinary rights of hospitality; overcharged for any goods their infrequent marks could purchase; forced to work unnatural hours for the mere privilege of shelter from Thread; deprived of dignity and honor; and, above all else, required to express gratitude for even the least condescension shown by holders and crafters.
That’s what I expected, and expected it to apply to this family, too. This should sound a lot more familiar to the reading audience, as it combines the attitudes that contribute to the exploitation of migrant labor and the attitudes that the homeless should be grateful for whatever scraps get thrown their way by their betters. There’s probably also a pretty healthy dose of insistence that the holdless are lazy and don’t care about proper hygiene as justification of their poor treatment.
As things are, the family (and the pack animals, Nudge and Shove) head up into the Lemos mountains to avoid Thella and Giron, with the occasional commentary by Aramina about the dragons. She’s tuned into Path on more than one occasion before, and there’s a time signature here, saying Lamanth has clutched thirty eggs, but no queens, and Monarth is upset about it. Which is used as a way of Aramina telling everyone that Thread is coming tomorrow afternoon. And then, to compound the issue, the next morning has the wagon crack a cotter pin, adding urgency to the need to find somewhere. Pell, the brother, finds one, splitting a seam of his pants in the process of reporting back. Aramina goes back to inform their parents about the cave that’s been found, but the wagon hasn’t moved and Aramina sees her father underneath it, with her mother trying to lift the burden off. Thankfully, her father isn’t crushed, because one of the block stones is still holding the wagon up some, but they’re definitely trapped and the only thing Aramina can think of is to go get the rest of the family and hope they can lift it off.
She couldn’t consider any other problems then, only the most immediate ones, and she almost ignored the sight of the dragon gliding overhead. She stopped so fast that she almost fell.
Dragon, dragon, hear me! Help me! HELP ME! Aramina had never attempted to communicate with the dragons, but a dragonrider would be strong enough to help her. Surely a dragonrider would not ignore her need.
Who calls a dragon? She recognized the voice of Heth.
It is Aramina. Down on the logging trace, above the river in the forest. Please help me. My father is trapped beneath our wagon. And Thread will fall soon! She jumped up and down in the middle of the trace, waving frantically. Oh, please help me!
No need to shout. I heard you the first time. My rider wants to know who you are.
To her relief, Aramina saw the dragon change directions, circling down toward the track.
I told you, I’m Aramina.
May I tell him?
Such consideration rarely came Aramina’s way.
Yes, yes, of course. Are you Heth?
I am Heth. My rider is K’van.
How do you do?
I’d be better if we could see you.
But I’m right here. In the middle of the trace. And the wagon is large… Oh, my father painted it green. If you’ll just fly lower…
I’m a dragon, not a wherry… K’van sees the wagon.
Okay, dragon annoyance is a thing I haven’t seen yet, and so it’s a nice touch that makes them seem more three-dimensional. Too bad it’s in a short story instead of a main novel.
Also, K’van! Also known as the smallest dragonboy. That explains why these two stories are together in the collection I’m pulling them from – it’s a nice little throughline connecting the two stories.
In any case, Aramina and the dragon arrive about the same time, and Aramina does something cruel to keep the oxen [orig. horses] from panicking.
Then Aramina realized that Shove and Nudge were taking great exception to the proximity of a dragon. She tied them tightly down by their nose rings to the tether stone, giving them more immediate pain to occupy their stupid brains.
The next thing that happens is that the dragon lands behind the oxen [orig. horses], calming them significantly.
Aramina seems disappointed in seeing a dragon up close, realizing that both dragon and rider aren’t fully mature. K’van picks up on her disapproval and points out that even weyrlings can be helpful. And then proves it by having Heth lift the wagon so that everyone can get out from underneath, and then supporting it until the blocks can be reset and the wagon repaired. K’van offers help and clues them in to a band of runners coming toward them, which Aramina (correctly) identifies as Holdless raiders and asks K’van to get them to the cave to wait out Threadfall.
The narrative says that Aramina lies here, but this is what happens:
“Have you far to go?” K’van asked then. “Thread falls soon and, as I recall, the foresters’ hold is a long way up the track.”
Barla stifled a sound in her throat, but Aramina had an answer ready.
“I know,” Aramina lied calmly, “but this accident delayed us. However, there’s a cave not far up the track where we can wait out Threadfall.”
I don’t see where Aramina lies, unless it’s about knowing where the forester hold is. Otherwise, K’van gave information and made an assumption. Aramina neglected to correct his assumption. Yet the narrative insists this is a lie. Probably because it’s a woman doing it. It’s been a big thing, even in Pern history, since Sorka got disapproved at for making deals all the way back in Dragonsdawn. And Lessa and Brekke and Menolly and all the women who are telling the truth and getting hurt for it. Later on, when Aramina settles to bed, the narrative reveals what it thinks her lie was – she let K’van believe they had a proper Hold. Which, well, K’van didn’t ask, he assumed, and nobody corrected him. That doesn’t seem like it even should qualify as even a lie of omission, unless there’s a weird cultural thing that demands everyone identify themselves with name, rank, and serial number upon meeting anyone else. I still can’t see where Aramina lied.
In any case, the family, now with a repaired wagon, makes for the cave, assisted by the fact that runnerbeasts hate the smell of dragons and the assistance of more than a few strong bodies to move Dowell. We find out that K’van called reinforcements in against the raiders, so T’gellan and Mirrim arrive on scene. Since Mirrim is the experienced nurse, she takes charge on diagnosing the unconscious Dowell. And then shows off some innovative technique where Path glides down without actually using her wings or walking.
Now that Aramina’s talent is known, Path speaks directly to her about the silliness of the runnerbeasts, before taking Dowell and Nexa directly to the cave. Aramina has to ride the runners up, with the dragons helping goad them to the right place. It’s a nice big cave system, a place that might hold a Hold on the future. With everyone ensconced, the kids settle in to watch the dragonriders fight Thread…
Only then did the dragons break the temporary suspension, swooping up to meet the deadly rain, sending blossoms of fiery breath to char the parasitic Thread. Pell didn’t breathe with the wonder of the smaller dragons, exclaiming as he saw a long tongue of flame reach out to char a mass of Thread. Silver mist turned to black smoke and then dissipated lazily. Fire blooms traced the dragons’ progress after their ancient enemy until the hills and trees covered the distant sight from the watchers’ searching eyes.
“It didn’t last long enough,” Pell said dejectedly.
“It’ll last long enough for the dragonriders, I’m sure,” Aramina said with mild rebuke for his callousness. “Did you remember to bring the roots with you?”
…and are a bit disappointed. It feels much like kids watching a firework show on Terra. Which makes me wonder – we have flame throwers with nitric acid in them. Presumably, even a low technology world such as Pern could build counterweighted rock throwers. I wonder what Thread fighting would look like if you shot the leading edge with devices that would detonate themselves in contact (perhaps by having the Thread day through them) and send sparks or showers of the acid everywhere. We know dragons are supposed to be able to protect the entire world, but bombards and fireworks seem like a thing that would happen on the planet if enough engineering talent could be concentrated in the right place.
Speaking of engineering…
“It [moving everything] was really very simple, Father. You keep telling us that if they’re was a lever long enough, we could even more Pern away from the Red Star,” Aramima said with a smile.
“This is no time for levity,” Barla said severely.
“Whyever not? Father’s conscious, we’ve got this huge big cave all to ourselves, and Pell’s gone out for more of these delicious nuts.” Expertly Aramina positioned two in her palm and cracked them. “See?” She held out the meats to Briala.
So, I see Archimedes has survived the many Turns in some form, into an engineer and his daughter. Who has a very strong grip. (Unless there are edible nuts that can be cracked with ordinary effort and good technique.)
Aramina has trouble sleeping, because she “deceived” (air quotes here) K’van and didn’t give her father the full truth of how they kept him safe so as not to worry him, and now her secret is out and the Benden riders know she exists, so…they’re going to take her, most likely, as a candidate for the Search.
We are again stuck with the problem of that not seeming like a bad deal at all. Perhaps for the sons and daughters of high-ranking Holders, being taken away on a Search is a problem, since it messes up plans for alliances and inheritances and the like, but for everyone else, especially a Holdless family, having a daughter that’s going to go for a Search should seem like a Golden Ticket. But this entire story has hinged around the ability to hear dragons as a horrible thing to be hidden away. There has to be a reason why going to live with the dragons is a bad thing. Yet, we still haven’t heard it, because that might make the dragonriders something other than heroic, which the narrative is very much invested in. Rumors about the dragonrider bacchanals would be good. Or the high prospects that their child will fight war for nearly fifty years and most likely die before getting to see the end of a Pass. There aren’t any dragonriders around. Or even Harpers who might whisper who is being disloyal. We’ve been in the company of the Holdless, who should be the group most likely and willing to let loose about all the evils of the current system, but even they don’t talk about why the dragons are a bad idea. Even then, there aren’t rumors around about how the dragons can read your mind and any stay thought will be reported. The dragons and their riders could very easily be pegged as the Thought Police, but that hasn’t happened.
The next morning has the dragonriders return, along with a cadre of soldiers, because the raiders are back in the area. This makes Aramina nervous because they’re going to exact justice on her for lying yesterday, but the martial display is for the raiders, not her.
We get a little bit of information about what dragon voices sound like – “a surprised, richly mellow voice” and “deep and dark, like the pools of blackwater that Aramina had seen in Igen.”
Also, there are armored soldiers here “dressed in gleaming mail.” Considering that Pern is supposed to be a resource-poor world, and I assume nobody has been able to make flamethrowers of wood, I would have assumed Mastersmith Fandarel would have confiscated every scrap of metal ore dug up or found, in partnership with Masterminer Nicat, so that there’s enough to keep the Thread-fighting equipment in good repair worldwide. I would expect the armor to be lacquered wood, and the weapons to be something other than steel – bronze, maybe? Or maybe I’m overestimating the amount of metal it takes to maintain things, and there’s actually plenty of steel to go around and be forged into weapons and armor. There were certainly enough mounted men at the beginning of the series to be scared off by the dragons. Maybe I’m overreacting. But it still seems weird that a resource-poor works still happens to have enough iron for steel and oil reserves.
In any case, there’s a plan here.
“How is your father today?” F’lar asked with a sympathetic smile.
“Badly bruised but sleeping, Lord F’lar,” Aramina managed to stammer. That was the correct form of address for the Weyrleader of Pern, wasn’t it? Aramina braced herself for the worst.
“We’ll hope not to disturb him, but those holdless marauders did not disperse after Threadfall.” F’lar’s slight frown indicated his annoyance with that intransigence.
“So,” F’nor took up the explanation. “Lord Asgenar plans to disperse them.” He grinned as he gestured to the tall man.
It was all Aramina could do to stand straight as she stared, appalled to be in the company of the Lord Holder whose land had been invaded by impudent holdless in pursuit of a trespassing holdless family. In a daze she heard Lord Asgenar wondering why the raiders were pressing so far into his forestry.
That’s a really good question – what form of address would you use for a dragonrider, much less the leader of them all? Too bad the narrative didn’t tell us what it is, and hasn’t really done a whole lot of explaining on it. I would have thought that would be part of the Harper curriculum.
As it is, Aramina knows the raiders are after her and her talent, so she owns up to it. Once Aramina gets all the way through the family history, including mentioning Ruatha, the Brown Rider Rapist suggests that Lessa should be present after all, since it means Fax was likely involved. And the Benden Weyrleader is in proper form of indignation about a holdless person trying to take what is his by right.
In any case, Asgenar leaves protection, the Benden boys and the dragons disappear so as to not spook Thella, and everyone retreats to the cave, K’van carrying medicine, food, and klah, which rouses Barla, and she has a very firm mindset about not being obligated to anybody. K’van manages a good sweet talk, drawing on his own experience of everybody begrudging the Weyr for everything, but Aramina eventually brokers a trade, exchanging a spoon for the food and drinks, so as to get past Barla’s distrust of gifts. Aramina gets a scolding as a formality, and is then sent to gather nuts to make flour and flatbread, as behooves hospitality rules. The guards and her go out, but Giron and Thella find her and gag her add she mentally screams for help from Heth, the only dragon she knows is nearby.
Giron growled at Aramina as he began to manhandle her across the grove. “Don’t struggle, girl, or I’ll knock you senseless. Maybe I ought to, Thella,” he added, cocking his big fist in preparation. “If she can hear dragons, they can hear her.”
“She’s never been near a Weyr!” Thella’s reply was contemptuous, but the notion, now [that] Giron had planted it, gave her a moment’s pause. Her face contorted with anger, she gave Aramina’s hair another jerk. “Don’t even think of calling a dragon.”
Aramina couldn’t have stopped her mind’s chant, but she frantically rolled her eyes as if complying with Thella’s order. Anything to relieve the pain of her scalp.
“Too late!” Giron threw Aramina from him, a heave that left a hunk of her hair and scalp in Thella’s hand and Aramina teetering on the brink of a drop. A drop that was blocked by Heth, his eyes whirling red and orange in anger.
Points to Giron for competence with the Villain Ball! A slight deduction for Thella, but overall, well done. They also decide, correctly, to book it through the trees when confronted with an angry dragon, so extra points for competence. Aramina focuses on what she can – not having the nuts Barla wants – while everyone else hustles her back to the cave. Not too soon after, Lessa arrives and wants to talk to both Aramina and Barla.
“is she angry with me?” Aramina asked timorously.
“Why would she be angry with you?” K’van asked, puzzled.
We would not be angry with you, Aramina, said the most beautiful dragon voice that Aramina has yet heard.
“C’mon.” K’van took Aramina firmly by the arm to haul her out of the cave. “You don’t keep Lessa waiting.”
I am amused that K’van doesn’t see the dissonance between why Lessa would be mad and the clear fact that one did not keep her waiting. Lessa has a reputation at this point in time for being the drudge that got Fax killed, raising herself to the Weyrwoman position, and then going on a campaign of terror with the Benden Weyrleader to get everyone in line with the new reality. And also may or may not have Sith powers. For someone of Aramina’s station to have been noticed by Lessa, there are very few things that could have gone well.
Aramina sees Lessa, notes that she’s short and is then bowled over by Lessa’s aura, as everyone is, and realizes it’s both Benden Weyrleaders and Asgenar present. They apologize for letting Thella get away, and Lessa gets Barla to agree to come back to their Hold, to let Dowell get paid to build a Gather wagon for Asgenar, and for Aramina to be sent to the Weyr on Search. Although, there is a bit of a darker undertone for those that want to read into it.
“There are eggs hardening on Benden Hatching Ground right now,” Lessa went on, her voice persuasive. “Benden needs a girl who can hear dragons.”
“More than my family needs me?” asked Aramina perversely.
“Far more, as you’ll discover,” said Lessa, holding her hand out to Aramina. “Coming?”
“I don’t have a choice, do I?” But Aramina smiled.
“Not when Lessa, and Benden’s dragons, have made up your mind for you,” said F’lar with a laugh.
From the track, dragons bellowed an emphatic agreement.
No, dear, you don’t really have a choice. Lessa could be using her abilities on you, but if that didn’t work, well, there are all the dragons and the dragonriders that can find you basically anywhere and take you with them if they so choose. If this was supposed to be a horror story, we could call it the ending where the attempt to get away from one bad end has only resulted in the potentially worse one coming to pass. Or that the reveal would be that Thella and Giron are actually the good people, the plucky resistance fighters against the control of Big Brother. Instead, the story ends and we’re supposed to see this as Aramina taking her rightful place in the Weyr, where she will no doubt Impress a gold dragon and become a Weyrwoman in her own right.
And we still don’t know why dragonriders have such an ambiguous reputation among the Holders.
Next up, another opportunity to figure it out as we go for the Renegades of Pern.