Last chapter, Pellar went to try and find the camp where the Shunned are, so he could learn more about the people stealing coal from Camp Natalon. Along the way, he watched a young girl get caught in a snare, and then threatened with sexual assault as repayment for the “favor” Tenim had done her of getting her down by using his bird to cut the rope.
Dragon’s Fire, Book 1, Chapter 4: Content Notes: Children required to fight, ablism (mental health variety), underage non-consensual sex
Camp Natalon, 493.4, and this:
Fire-lizard dance on wing
To the raucous song I sing.
Fire-lizard wheel and turn
Show me how the dragons learn.
The narrative first shows is how Chitter gets Zist to find and bring Pellar in after he’s been choked out, Tenim presumably having to leave from the presence of Zist or Chitter before he can finish the job. Zist has significant rage about the idea that Pellar might have been killed, and Kindan returns, screaming “Fire!” from the blocked chimney right after Zist gets Pellar settled.
The narrative spends time with Pellar as he recovers, but much of it is with him asleep, so we only get the highlights of the piper at the festivities, and the birth of Nuella and Dalor’s sister, and the trader caravan that was supposed to have a wher apprentice but doesn’t (Pellar speculates Tenim scared him off, or that Moran did, but Zist isn’t really ready to entertain the idea that the two of them are working together), and then Pellar goes for a walk, sees Cristov, and follows him after Cristov visits Kaylek’s grave. He’s not quiet enough to be unnoticed, though, and Cristov and Pellar manage to have a conversion about recent events together as they keep watch on the chimney to see if someone else will try again. Cristov is fascinated by Chitter, and mentions that Tarik thinks fire-lizards will be more useful in the mines than watch-whers will, and is working on getting another egg (the first one apparently disappeared after being frightened by Dask) so that he can train the lizard inside. Eventually, Cristov heads off, promising to keep Pellar a secret.
The narrative is humanizing Tarik a bit here. He’s not wrong that fire-lizards will be useful in the mines, if properly trained. And if they can also detect bad air, they’ll be much more portable than the watch-wher, and possibly better free to communicate, as well.
Zist dresses Pellar down the next morning for leaving without permission and giving Zist a fright. And also for being caught and falling asleep on his watch. And also takes care to ascribe different motives to why Tarik hates watch-whers (scaring the fire-lizard and being awake when he’s embezzling) and suggesting that Tarik’s stolen coal might be getting traded for a fire-lizard egg. At the suggestion that perhaps someone should go find a watch-wher egg for the camp, Pellar gets sent off with the Traders to do exactly that, helping patch the road on the way to the camp, and then eventually telling Pellar to find Aleesa when he reveals what he’s looking for.
Which takes Pellar three months to do, one to research and two to find, and there:’s a story of travelogue part of the story here, where Pellar goes various places, traveling with either the traders or the Shunned, whom he finds mostly alike, except for the status that separates them. Having a fire-lizard is a benefit in his favor for finding groups to travel with. And, by exposure, he stops being afraid of them because they stop being stories and start being people again. The narrative isn’t quite willing to go far enough to make the Shunned a group of unfairly maligned people, though.
Still, with the Shunned, Pellar found himself called upon more often to prove himself, either by providing for the communal pot, prescribing the sick, or, more often than he liked, proving his strength.
His fights were always with those near his own age who looked upon him as an easy challenge and a good way to improve their standing in the community. After painfully losing his first several encounters, Pellar got quite adept at seeking quick solutions and less concerned about any bruises he gave his assailants.
Even though food was not plentiful and he was expected to share, Pellar thrived, filling out and growing tall. So tall, in fact, that as time progressed he found himself challenged by older, taller lads, many Turns older than his own Thirteen.
Cocowhat by depizan
I can’t quite wrap my head around this idea. Pellar can hunt, trap, forage, and bring in game, and having a fire-lizard is seen as a good thing, but more often than not, for the Shunned, he has to fight his way in to acceptance of the community? As a child of not actually thirteen? Exactly what kind of purpose does this serve? Are we supposed to be thinking of the Shunned as analogous to street gangs, where Pellar has to be initiated each time by fighting? And again, these are children fighting. I don’t know many adults who we would think of as responsible condoning the idea of someone needing to get or give hurt to someone so that they can be part of the group. Admittedly, many stories that I have been told (by those more in the know about being, essentially, homeless as a child) talk about fighting for what’s yours from a horde of others also trying to get ahead for themselves, but that’s essentially working on the idea that there’s nobody who is actually banding together to better themselves, or making temporary alliances to make things better for their group against other groups. It’s Rand’s almighty individualism triumphing again, perhaps, even in a situation where it really shouldn’t, and where it really isn’t, given that every time we’ve encountered the Shunned, they’re traveling in a group, instead of each individually. It just seems like the narrative can’t conceive of the idea that perhaps the people who see the Shunned as street gangs and thugs could be wrong about that, and that the truly terrible people, like Tenim, are a small terrifying minority of the group. It can’t even get to the halfway position that a lot of people in the States have about how some people are the “deserving poor” (i.e. they look like us and they willingly abase themselves and tell lies about how terrible they are so that we can feel superior to them) and some people deserve to be poor (because they don’t look like us, they ask us to confront the terrible truths of how complicit we are in their situation, and they don’t give a damn about looking pathetic in front of us to feed our sense of superiority).
If the narrative could show us that the perceptions of the Holders and Harpers and others about the Shunned are wrong, it would make for better narrative tension. They started to do it with Zist, but they haven’t stuck with it, and instead we get these groups of Shunned that think it’s an entirely acceptable initiation ritual to have their own children fight this strange child that wants to travel with them until someone gives up. Even if they’re not the ones arranging the fights, it’s strange to me that they would allow them to continue, willingly sacrificing resources or a working body or something else so that someone can get their jollies pounding on the new guy. People are strange, I understand, and so it’s realistic in that regard, but it doesn’t seem to have a narrative point, other than “the Shunned might look civilized, but they’re not.” (And we can re-paste the blisteringly angry rant from a few chapters ago about that here, since it keeps coming up.)
Pellar gets sent on what ends up being a lead that takes him more a month’s travel in the wrong direction, only to find a fragment that suggests he should go back the direction he came from, and then strike out in a new direction, in a place that is definitely well away from the holds, Holds, and halls. He’s about to give up on finding the right space, until Pellar remembers that whers fly at night (which is a rather bold conclusion based on seeing it happen exactly once), beds down early, and then sends Chitter to follow the flying watch-wher that happens to conveniently just barely appear within his sight in the middle of the night. Chitter leads him to the camp of the Whermaster.
Pellar hadn’t known what sort of reaction to expect, but he didn’t count on having an arrow whiz toward him to strike the ground just in front of his foot.
“That’s far enough!” a voice in the distance shouted in warning. “State your business.”
[…Pellar’s not exactly equipped to handle that request, but uses gestures to indicate his lack of ability to speak…]
“Maybe we shouldn’t take any chances,” the man replied. “If he’s one of the Shunned and he reports back–”
Pellar’s eyes widened. They were talking about killing him.
Hang on, why is that important? Up to this point, the Shunned have been portrayed as brutish thugs not too much more concerned with anything above mob violence. Are we supposed to assume the Shunned would kill any remaining whers and their handlers for food, and that’s the important part to think about?
As things are, Pellar gets into the camp, after Jaythen, the guard, trips Pellar and thumps him soundly on his back to test whether or not he really can’t talk. Aleesa believes him then, but it broke the slate that Pellar uses to communicate. Alessa apparently has plenty, though, so that’s less of an issue. We also find out that Pellar has a nickname and a reputation — “The Silent Harper” — and that the traders at least have been telling stories about him and his tracking abilities. After a demonstration of his manners that has Aleesa laughing about the fact that he has them, Pellar is led into the camp, and we learn the real reason why everyone in her camp is so on edge about being discovered.
“You found our old camp over by Campbell’s Field?”
Pellar shook his head, his surprise obvious.
“I told Jaythen no one would find it,” she [Aleesa] said with a bitter laugh. Her look turned sour. “Except maybe the dragonriders.”
Pellar carefully schooled his expression to be neutral but he didn’t fool the old woman.
“They don’t like us,” Aleesa continued bitterly. “They say that watch-whers steal food meant for their dragons.” She snorted in disgust. “That D’gan! Him with his high airs. He got it in his mind that the watch-whers ate him out of Igen Weyr.”
Pellar looked surprised. He knew that D’gan was the Weyrleader of Telgar Weyr, and that Igen Weyr had been combined with Telgar a number of Turns back, but he hadn’t heard anything about watch-whers being involved.
“He says they are abominations and shouldn’t exist,” Aleesa said with a sniff. She looked at Pellar. “I know they’re no beauties on the outside, but they’ve hearts of gold when you get to know them. Hearts of gold.” Her eyes turned involuntarily toward the entrance to the cave and the crevice beyond.
“And there are so few left,” she added softly.
“So few,” she repeated, nodding to herself, her gaze turned inward. After a moment, she glanced back up at Pellar and told him conspiratorially, “I think she’s the last one, you know.”
Then her tone changed abruptly and she demanded, “”So what do you want and why should I let you live?”
It was then that Pellar realized the Whermaster as quite insane.
Casual ablism is not a good look on anyone, but also, I have reason to doubt the factual claim itself that Aleesa is insane. She may be factually wrong about having the last watch-wher on the planet, but she might also be right if her watch-wher is the only breeding one on the planet. And also, she still doesn’t trust Pellar enough to believe that he’s not going to bring D’gan down on their heads. Because that asshole has already been established as the kind of person who would call a watch-wher an abomination and demand they be driven from “his” lands. And that kind of persecution might make someone react very differently to outside people coming into their camp, no matter what their stated reasons are. Pellar figures this out almost immediately, although the narrative shades his thoughts to continue with this idea that Aleesa and her crew are not mentally competent. This, for example, is the paragraph immediately following where we broke the quote.
In the course of the next few days, Pellar discovered that Aleesa’s camp was a desperate place full of desperate people. It took all of Pellar’s tact, winsome ways, and hard work to earn their grudging acceptance–and his continued existence. For, unlike the Shunned, these people were not only desperate, they were fanatics dedicated to the continued existence of the watch-whers.
That still doesn’t qualify them as insane, although we’re supposed to believe that the fanaticism, in addition to the continued threat of death for Pellar, is proof that they’re all crazy there. Cultish, you could probably go for, and that does present possible issues about believing someone else’s reality over the consensus, but there’s still nothing necessarily insane about that when you take into account their circumstances and the fact that they’re essentially existing on hostile ground, and possibly with one of the few remaining watch-whers in existence.
Plus, Aleesa has a perfectly good reason to detest the dragonriders and anyone who might be working with them.
“Dragonriders care nothing for us,” Aleesa continued in a bitter voice. “It was D’gan himself, Weyrleader of Telgar, who sent us packing from our last camp.”
” ‘Your beasts will eat all the herdbeasts and leave nothing for the fighting dragons,’ ” she quoted. She shook her head, her eyes shining bright with unshed tears.
“Fighting dragons!” she snorted. “No Thread has fallen any time in over a hundred Turns! What do they fight?” She shook her head dolefully.
“And he turfed us out, just like that, like we were Shunned.” She sniffed. “One of the babies died on the way here, for want of food.” She shook her head again. “Anything the watch-whers ate, they earned. They kept watch at night for nightbeasts eager to devour the herds, they caught and killed tunnel snakes, frightened away wherries–even the herders were glad to have us–but he sent us packing.
“No,” she said, looking at Pellar, “I’ll hear nothing of dragonriders in my camp. They sent us out to die, and the last queen watch-wher with us.”
The look of shock on Pellar’s face was so obvious that Aleesa, when she saw it, gave him a sour laugh. “You think all dragonriders are perfect and can do no harm?” She shook her head derisively. “You have a lot to learn, little one, a lot to learn.”
This is another one of those things that I like about the new author’s influence. Both of these books so far have been willing to go and talk about the things that have to exist in the world that’s been built, but have been ignored or actively quashed by the people in power, and the narrative with them, since it was portraying them as the heroes and commoners as usurpers against the preordained way that had been established. We’ve been reading the accounts of the lords and the generals and the merchants and propagandists, and now we’ve finally decided to try and treat the things that happen to the commoners seriously enough to give them time and space to show where the flaws and the violence is that goes into propping up the system as it currently exists. I can’t imagine this kind of text happening with the original author solely at the helm, not ever. Because the dragonriders were perfect and could do no harm, at least so long as they were aligned with Benden and their Weyrleaders’ vision of what the future and the society should be.
We saw how D’gan treated those in Camp Natalon, and now we know about a certain amount of extra distaste he would have had for being asked to convey someone to get a watch-wher egg. And a reason why he would have refused outright, even in the face of charm and people asking nicely. The narrative continues with Pellar, having drawn a watch, recalling conversations that he had with herders and others who were quite grateful for the watch-whers, but would only say so after Pellar had convinced them he wasn’t working with D’gan. The narrative also then points out that Pellar had already formed an opinion of D’gan based on how much of a sore winner he was with repeated victories at the All-Weyr Games. This suggests that Pellar’s surprise wasn’t that someone disrespecting D’gan, but that he had never heard anyone be so brazen about it, which seems to have been Piemur’s problem, if I recall correctly — a willingness to speak open defiance in closed and friendly quarters that everyone else thought might lead to him acting on that same idea and getting himself killed.
As things go, Pellar gets bumped from behind by the queen wher, who wants him to move so that she can get out. Chitter provides the necessary interface, and the wher queen looks at him and nods when he thinks his you’re welcome to her after moving, but of course, we already knew that whers could understand thoughts from Kindan and Nuella’s experimentation. What Pellar doesn’t understand is when the second wher comes barreling out after the queen, but Aleesa is there to explain immediately — it’s a mating flight for the whers.
Aaand… there’s some quoting to do here, but I should mention before we get into this section that given what we know about mating flights right now, I should probably warn for discussions of underage sex while under the influence of watch-wher emotions, in case this is a section you want to skip.
“Have you ever seen a mating flight?” Aleesa asked, her voice filled with a reverence that made Pellar uneasy.
Pellar shook his head.
“Have you ever felt a mating flight?” Aleesa asked with a hint of a leer in her voice.
Reluctantly Pellar nodded.
[…mating flights are common enough in this camp that there’s a procedure in place…]
He found Polla, one of the older women, already organizing the children into groups. He was surprised to see some of the younger women eyeing him consideringly.
“It would only be for the duration of the flight,” the woman said when she caught his gaze. “Nothing more than that.”
Pellar nodded, not sure of his own feelings, and wondered how many of the children were the results of previous mating flights–he’d heard enough about them during his time at the Harper Hall.
[…more logistics get discussed…]
“How many Turns have you, anyway?” Polla asked, regarding Pellar carefully.
Pellar hastily pulled out his slate and wrote 13.
Polla read it and laughed, nodding toward the younger woman. “Arella’s near your age, she’s only three Turns older.”
Pellar found it hard to believe that the other woman had only sixteen Turns; he would have guessed her nearer to thirty. Life with the watch-whers was clearly very demanding.
“Come sit by me, then,” Arella called, patting a spot near her.
Pellar crossed around the fire and had just sat, nervously, when the watch-whers mated.
Much later, Arella whispered in his ear, “Now you are one of us.”
Small mercies, I suppose, that we’re not subjected to the details of the actual act happening while Pellar, at 13, is going through with sex while not under the control of his own body. And that he’s not looking around and describing what’s going on around, either, as there’s the distinct possibility that children even younger than he is might be doing the same. There’s never been any sort of narrative insistence anywhere that, say, prepubescent children don’t have their wills and emotions overpowered because they don’t understand what’s going on enough to be struck with the desire to mate when the dragons, whers, or fire-lizards are engaged in the mating process.
Just an understanding that, because of the circumstances, and the lack of consent, nothing permanent happens while under the influence of the mating flight. And also that people’s vows of fidelity aren’t broken if one or the other ends up in a mating flight situation. That’s one of the bright spots of this entire setup — because it happens often enough in the world, the people who experience it on the regular are well-equipped to understand what’s going to happen, and can help walk someone who is inexperienced through the entire thing. In terms of who Pellar could have been with for a respectful and effective first time, this qualifies pretty well. The explanations given so that Pellar isn’t thrust into this situation unaware and the fact that everyone understands that mating flights aren’t conscious decisions are the bright spots in this otherwise dim section.
People might argue in this mostly-medieval world, that thirteen is not actually underage, and that young children in that world were being married and expected to act as adults in society, as the period we now know as “adolescence” didn’t exist and wasn’t on the radar. I’m guessing the authors are taking this particular attitude as justification to why their thirteen year-old character and a sixteen year-old character are having mating-influenced sex. And that’s still assuming that Pellar and Arella are only having sex with each other for the entirety of the mating flight’s influence. Which is not at all necessarily true, given the way that the one flight we saw in a Weyr looked like it was going to be an orgy of everyone with everyone.
I don’t even know if Pellar has been given any sort of useful sex ed. It’s possible, given that he’s heard about mating flights in the Harper Hall, but…yeah. There’s a good chance this is his first time, and he doesn’t even get the benefit of consenting to it. This is one of the more disturbing aspects of Pern, every time it comes up and we realize that it’s not just the dragons who can do it, but the fire lizards can influence their own, and now we know the watch-whers can, too. Which means it has to be rough being a person on Pern, when just about any of the dragon life could fill your mind with a singular desire for sex with anyone around if they got close enough to you while they were in heat. (And “close” isn’t defined, either. Even if the flight path is supposed to head away from dense populations, there’s always the possibility that “close” is approximately the range of an ICBM’s warhead. Or the amount of distance that it can cover before delivering that warhead.) That has to be especially rough for the women of Pern, because, as Pellar notes, that much unprotected sex is bound to result in pregnancies a nonzero amount of the time, and without birth control that doesn’t involve having to know a dragonrider long enough for them to take you on a short jaunt through hyperspace or more effective means of safely birthing children, there’s probably a lot of women that end up dying from the child they were impregnated with during mating flight sex. Some of them can’t be all that old when this happens to them.
And I’d be surprised if either author has thought through this idea all the way to these terrible conclusions. And if they did, and decided to go through with it, that’s monstrous. Especially since we’re well into the 2000s, with the gigantic scare that was the (grudging) acknowledgement of HIV/AIDS and the ways that it could be contracted and what it would do to those infected with it not all that far in the cultural memory. (Although still significantly in denial about it, I suppose.)
Pern continues to surprise me with the ways in which it can find to horrify its readers when they go back to it with more maturity and knowledge of just what was going on. It’s not just a single Cocowhat that I can use to point at a single horrifying piece, it’s…like finding out the world you are standing in is suddenly chock-full of Cocowhat trees, and you can see Cocowhats in every direction, everywhere, and you eventually find out, as you gaze from orbit, that the entire world itself is a giant Cocowhat upon which the Cocowhat trees grow, each with their own Cocowhat harvests. I don’t know how that will affect the count, but I’m sure some useful maths will give us what the approximate number of Cocowhats would be if it were a Pern-sized forest of Cocowhat trees.
Okay, we’re done with the underage sex talk. Regular plot recommencing.
What follows afterward is Pellar still not being accepted into the community, but he bargains his way in by promising to be their Harper, that Aleesa is illiterate, and Pellar, Polla, Jaythen, and Arella (who turns out to be (one of?) Aleesa’s daughters) hammer out together the circumstances by which others will get a chance at getting a watch-wher egg, which explains why the “year’s worth of coal’ price happens to Kindan – the price of a chance at the egg is set at a year’s worth of whatever the group that wants the chance produces. Jaythen also glints his eyes a bit at the prospect of charging gold, which is apparently there and more valuable than marks. (We’re presumably talking about nuggets rather than coins, because I’m pretty sure it’s long-established that mark pieces are made of wood.)
So, at this point, with the terms ready, and Pellar set to take on the role of educating everyone in the Harper way, including having to fashion himself some instruments to teach music with, and part of the bargain also that Pellar has to arrange for his own successor if he ever wants to leave the position permanently, I’m going to stop, because we’re about halfway through this monster of a chapter, and there’s more to be done to arrange the events of the book that we’ve already seen, although from some other perspective.