Last chapter, we re-interleaved a bit with the previous book, as Kisk-Nuelsk hatched and Cristov and Pellar had a bonding moment over making sure that the watch-wher was safely brought into the world.
Also, Pellar’s return to the watch-wher camp resulted in both Pellar and Aleesk getting shot, because everyone assumed his return on dragonback wearing Harper Blue meant he had sold them all out to the people they hated the most, even though that wasn’t the actual case. But nobody sent any word ahead informing the camp of this, which is excusable for Pellar, because he’s still at most fourteen, but much less so for the adults around him who would presumably know better.
Dragon’s Fire: Book I: Chapter 6: Content Notes: Child Death, Murder Most Foul, Attempted Murder, The Consequences of Bad Decisions
(Camp Natalon, 493.10-494.1)
Pipes for playing, pipes for song,
Pipes to help the day along.
Pipes for laughter, pipes for joy,
Pipes for sorrow, pipes for boys.
Well, this looks familiar. The first couplet seems to be very related to the “Harper, Harper” snippet from the last book. The second part seems to be something to add on to it, although I am looking askance about the idea that pipes are a gendered instrument for boys. Because this has a long potential call-back from the idea that “tuning isn’t for girls” that caused so much of Menolly’s grief in her duology. Of course, since it’s boys all around, there isn’t going to be that particular type of issue, but it’s still grating how much women are prevented from doing things that should be doable by all of the people in the world.
The action starts with Cristov asking for pipe lessons, as Pellar told him to. Zist is initially hostile to the idea until Cristov presents the pipe that Pellar gave him, and Zist realizes who it’s from and immediately defrosts. It’s also here that we learn that a “pipe” is a recorder by the names of the Ancients, which means that musical instruction on Pern is much the same as it is on Terra, because recorders are one of the beginning instruments to teach to very small children, given that it requires no special embrochure or technique to play, and it’s small enough for small hands to make music with it. Cristov asks for secrecy from Zist about the lessons themselves, and Zist agrees to this, then says that the first lesson Cristov will have to go through is breathing. Which Cristov knows will be a beast because Kindan and Zenor both complained about breathing lessons from their time with Zist.
The narrative flips us back to Tenim…
…who is talking with Tarik about the egg that was purchased from Alessa. The problem being that since it’s a hatched egg and bonded to Kindan, there’s no value any more in the watch-wher. Tenim is significantly displeased about this.
Tenim’s journey had taken two more days than he had planned: profitable days, to be sure, considering the increased bulk of his well-hidden purse, but perhaps not profitable enough to make up for missing a chance at the egg.
“Hmmph,” Tenim snorted in disgust. “It’s no good to me now.”
Tarik then puts a bug in Tenim’s ear that finding a gold egg would be worth a significant amount more, and manages to get Tenim set to try and find the gold watch-wher. Tarik fervently hopes it’s a mission that Tenim won’t come back from.
Moran, for his part, has rounded up the children and is attempting to get away before Tenim can come back, although he doesn’t say as much. Halla, however, can read him well enough to know the truth, although she thinks she’s assigning her own feelings about getting away to Moran. And she can tell when the kids are going to need food. The narrative calls it “a sign of Halla’s forced maturity that she thought the way she did.” Halla is, after all, less than ten and in a leadership role for these kids.
At a sound from behind them, Moran stopped and turned.
“Perri,” Moran says in a tone that was equal parts exhaustion and worry.
Halla half turned and warned, “There’s no more feverroot.”
Moran rushed back to the fallen youngster. Perri had been bitten by a tunnel snake when he was playing at the outskirts of Hold Balan–or that’s what Halla guessed, for the toddler had never been much of a talker and refused to say anything about his injury. The wound had festered in the past several days, and he’d walked through the night in a half-fever.
Some noise or sigh caused Halla to stop and turn all the way back to the others. Instead of trudging after her, they were grouped in a semicircle. Moran was kneeling in the center.
As soon as Moran lifted his head up and looked at Halla, she knew. She sighed, too tired for anything else, wordlessly passed Nalli back to Moran, and grabbed at the handle of the shovel that hung down from her backpack. She was getting too good at digging graves.
A half hour later they trudged on, Halla more grimy than she liked, and only a few withered yellow flowers for the mound she left behind. She’d liked Perri, he’d just started to smile.
And the terrible things about this is that all of this poverty and misery is preventable. It’s deft writing to pull at the heart like this, with children dying from what is presumably preventable injuries and infections, if the people with the ridiculous amounts of wealth had even the slightest shred of empathy for the plight of others. If the new author was looking for a way to write an indictment of the world set up by the old one, the last two books have been stellar at doing so. I doubt that’s the intent, because that tends to mean less successful collaborations, but the effect is quite good.
Moran himself is suffering from what probably sounds familiar to anyone who is battling an impossible structural problem but themselves and without resources.
They look to you, Moran thought to himself as he led the group of children away from yet another grave, and you let them down.
How many graves did that make? He wondered idly and realized with dull relief that he couldn’t remember. This isn’t how things were supposed to be, Moran told himself. I was to find the Shunned, to set up meetings, to help them, Moran recalled. He had always wanted to make a difference, have ballads composed about him, make up for his unknown origins. Instead, somehow, he’d found himself only surviving one crisis to fall into another, never seeming to find the right place, the right answers, and always coming up with more complications. Every time he’d sworn that he’d locate the next harper, report in to the Harper Hall, something had happened to change his mind. He wanted to report his success; he could not bring himself to report failure. And so the Turns had passed. Turns, and Moran’s dreams had gone from saving the Shunned to simply finding food enough for those waifs he’d found along the way. Worse still, at times he’d squandered their spare marks for drink, or an evening’s comfort. Always, at the time, Moran had told himself that he deserved it–the drink or the warm company–and after, seeing the mute looks of the hungry children, had sworn never again. But again and again, he would give in to his base desires. With such dismal failures, how could he face Murenny or Zist?
He shifted Nalli on his back, looking hopefully back at Halla in hope of a trade. Her face was streaked with tears.
Moran swore at himself for his selfishness and trudged on.
If I were looking for a good description of what burnout mixed with depression was like, this passage might be my candidate for ur-example. Moran, like many missionaries, went out with the confidence of a simple reconciliation and returning of the Shunned, or at least setting up a way of taking care of them, and then, like all battle plans do, it all fell apart when reality ensued. Crushing poverty has long since had its effects on him, and he’s been in it long enough that he’s thinking like someone who is in poverty, prioritizing short-term benefits over long-term thinking, and then getting mad at himself because he’s still human and occasionally, creature comforts are what keep us from losing our grip on sanity. (Also, I note confirmation that the oldest profession continues to be so on Pern, so it’s likely that sex work is also operating under the threat of being Shunned if found out…or for refusing someone they can’t actually afford to.) Moran feels bad about it, because he’s still looking after children and the money could have fed them, but every parent needs a day off here and there, or a night out to remind themselves that they’re not just taking care of children.
It seems easy to shout at Moran and tell him to just go to the Harpers and have them take him and his children back, but that requires admitting that he can’t do it on his own, and that’s one of the hardest things to admit to anyone, including yourself, when you’ve gotten into a terrible situation. Plus, all the stuff he’s already done and would have to admit to is getting in the way. Whether he’s going to have to admit to himself that he’s a victim of systemic abuse or a perpetrator of a million petty and not so petty crimes that would sully his reputation as a Harper, he going to have to admit to failure. (He was set up to fail, and that he’s gone on this long is a miracle by itself.)
The first step, as some person named Bill said, is to admit that you have a problem. Whether that problem is “someone is abusing me,” “this relationship has come to an end,” or “I can’t save everyone,” it’s still a hard first step to get there, and there’s a lot of recrimination that happens afterward once that step gets made. And then the next step, and the next step after that, until you’ve finally come to terms with what the problem is and what can be done about it. In Moran’s case, there might be a lot, but he’s going to have to enlist the help of the Harpers to do it.
The plot continues on with a short interlude of Pellar returning back to the watch-wher camp, where Pellar continues to develop into his adult self as he spends time there, which strains certain relationships with the people around him. Arella and he are sleeping in separate beds, but close to each other. Polla is described as flirting with him, but also that she has a “grin more gap than teeth.”
Polla had flirted with him, but he’d ignored the offer woman, just as he and Arella found themselves ignoring each other–although with increasing difficulty. Some of the older girls Pellar had been teaching started flirting with him, too. Pellar politely redirected their attention, while he worried about what might occur the next time Aleesk rose to mate. His best hope was to be far away before then.
Despite the assurance from before that mating flight things were not relationship contracts, we note, because Arella turned out not to be only casually interested. If there were more proof that the mating flights didn’t end up in romantic entanglements, it seems like a mating flight orgy would be the appropriate way to satisfy all of those flirtatious requests without actually getting attached to anyone. Assuming that Pellar made it much closer to adulthood and consent by that next time.
As it is, the narrative settles into a longer chunk following Halla, who has immediate suspicions about two women who have joined their merry band of children.
Halla didn’t need for Conni to part her hair to guess at the big blue “S” that had been painted there with bluebush ink. Young as she was, Halla had a good idea of what had caused Conni to be Shunned by her Lord Holder, and liked neither the way that Conni looked at Moran–like a tunnel snake ready to pounce on its prey–nor, worse, the way Milera slavishly emulated her mother. And while Conni might be a few Turns past her prime, Milera had just gone from child to woman.
Halla had been around Moran too long not to guess that there was more to the harper’s acceptance of the two than just the kindness of his heart.
And so here begins the story of CinderHalla, as Conni and Milera manage to get into the group by offering to share their food…and apparently their bodies as well, much to Halla’s disapproval. But the food only lasts a meal, and Conni and Milera start to treat Halla as if she were their personal slave girl without losing any of their noses-in-the-air attitude about running the place.
I find this juxtaposition of the death of one of the children, Moran’s admission of his various vices and faults, and then the appearance of these two characters who are essentially there to be sexy and have their otherwise terrible selves ignored in favor of the fact they’re willing to put out extremely fascinating. The narrative is doing some pretty serious groundwork here to immediately run back any sympathy we might have for Moran from his self-confession of faults. It’s treating him the same way that it’s been treating Tenim — think terribly of this person for the actions they have committed, even as we demonstrate in their backstories that they’re basically human beings caught up in a terrible system and weren’t really given that many options to do actual good in their lives. From another angle, we could easily dismiss all of that under the rubric of “intent isn’t magic” and focus solely on the actions being taken by both men, and we would be justified in doing so. I think that ignores the institutional and systemic problems with Pern that give rise to these scenarios in the first place (and that Moran is essentially trying to deal with grief and depression), but it’s a legitimate take to have.
Halla has no illusions that neither Conni or Milera want the children around, but tolerate them for their food-gathering ability while the two women secure passage and other favors by doing sex work. There’s an entire “nice for the person they’re sleeping with, entirely mean and icy to Halla” segment with Milera while Halla’s fishing that ends in Halla having to gut much of her catch (of three fish) to feed Milera, because Milera’s the one in good graces at the moment. It’s basically a wicked stepsister routine, and there’s no point in quoting any of it. The end of the partnership is essentially that Milera steals their houseboat captain’s purse while he’s asleep, except he wakes up and raises the alarm not too soon after, and Halla ends up in the middle of a mob that wants to brand her with the S of the Shunned, despite the protestations from the actual victim of the crime that she didn’t do anything at all, until someone in Harper blue rescues her from the crowd. It’s not Moran. It’s Tenim.
Tenim very much wants to know where Moran is. Moran has essentially hidden Conni and escapes with her from the angry mob, but Conni wants to ditch the children as soon as possible. Moran doesn’t, and manages to convince Conni not to do so long enough to get through this particular segment, with Moran regretting that he let himself be fooled by a “voracious talker, stalker, and menace to all.” The action kicks back to Halla, who announces proudly that she’s found the missing kids and Moran. Tenim has found Milera.
Halla nodded, keeping her expression neutral. It was obvious that Tenim valued the pretty girl more highly than he did the missing youngsters–or herself.
During the day’s searching, Halla had found herself several times looking in a still pool of water or a shiny pot. Her reflection did not displease her.
She was still young and the features of her face were not fully formed, but they were serviceable. Probing brown eyes looked out from behind dark brown hair that could do with a wash. Her nose was straight and thin, her teeth were mostly white and strong, her lips were thin–perhaps they were too thin and that was the trouble, but she liked her smile. She had to admit that her eyes danced mischievously when she smiled, but she didn’t think that was such a horrible thing.
No, Halla decided, where she was most lacking was in the curves that Milera and, more so, Conni so proudly displayed. Halla couldn’t quite remember if she had ten or eleven Turns–Moran had insisted on teaching her to read and count, while Tenim had insisted on teaching her to hunt and track–but she was certain she’d have to be older and better fed before she’d develop any curves of her own. Anyway, she wasn’t even sure that she wanted such curves; it seemed to her that they would make running more awkward.
And she’s ten. Or eleven. But this jealousy makes a certain sort of sense, given that Halla is seeing what the boys are paying attention to, and it’s not her. At least, not right now, since we remember that Tenim still hasn’t tried to make good on his threat. Given what Halla seems to want to do with her life, she’s probably not going to develop the hourglass figure that everyone seems to want, because the athletic build doesn’t generally do a whole lot with the reserves of fat needed for curves. Older, yes, better fed, yes, but also a lot more idle than Halla is ever really going to be. Plus, with as food-insecure as she’s been for her entire life, there’s a good chance her puberty is going to be awkward at best.
As things go, the Tenim-led crew comes across a caravan of traders and hitches a ride with them. Since they’re all kids, and Halla managed to avoid the mob, when they’re checked for the mark of the Shunned, they all pass. (Halla knows for the truth that if she had been marked, Tenim would have thrown her out to make sure that he could get on the trader transport.) It turns out the trader caravan is Tarri’s, who we have seen a few times before in these books, and Halla warms up to Tarri almost instantly, and not just because Tarri understands that Milera is trading on something that won’t stay with her forever.
“You might even be trader blood. I’ve seen your features before. Or Boll blood–they get swarthy down there.”
Swarthy? Halla thought to herself. She’d never heard the word before.
“Your skin tans faster than the others, Tarri continued. “Some find your dark hair and eyes very attractive. When you get older, your features will sharpen and you’ll be glad you’ve got strong legs to run from all the men chasing you.”
Tarri shook her head and patted Halla consolingly. “And when you’re old, you’ll still have that great skin, lithe figure, and flashing eyes, while Milera will be a sagging, toothless, lardy mess.”
Halla could never imagine herself as old, but she could easily imagine Milera as toothless and lardy.
Because one of the standard things to get women to bond is to be catty about other women and their looks over time, clearly. Also, swarthy to me means someone of darker skin and complexion, suggesting yet again that there might be a better diversity of skin tone on Pern than even the authors were intending.
Halla has a minor BSOD when Tarri offers her half of her bed, which includes sheets, and gets a big enough pan to serve as a bath for Halla when Halla protests she’s not nearly clean enough for sheets. Tarri even offers to let Halla sleep in. In the company of such luxuries as towels, baths, Tarri washing and styling Halla’s hair, and a whole half bed to herself, Halla has her best night sleep ever, sleeping in until well after noon. She wakes up to an argument, where it becomes clear that Tenim and company have stolen from the traders and disappeared in the night. Tarri is trying to convince Veran, one of the other traders, that Halla had nothing to do with it.
“For the last time, Veran, she didn’t have anything to do with it,” Halla heard Tarri say. “She was asleep here with me.”
“If you say so,” Veran replied. “But what’s to say that she wasn’t hoping to steal from you, too?”
“And what makes you so sure?”
“Because I asked if she’d like bangs,” Tarri replied.
“You know, hair cut across her forehead,” Tarri said with a hint of exacerbation.
“But she didn’t have the mark of the Shunned,” Veran replied. “Why would it worry her?”
“That’s not the point,” Tarri said. “If she were living with people who were Shunned she would have known immediately what I meant and would have reacted differently.”
“So you’ve reached your judgment on a hunch,” Veran declared.
“As have you,” Tarri responded, her time gently chiding.
First, no, Tarri did not ask about bangs. We’ve skipped that section for quoting, but at no point did Tarri mention bangs. She just said “do your hair” to Halla. So that’s a thing the editor should have caught, or the author made explicit, or mentioned that Tarri knew she was fibbing slightly. The second bit, about both of them making assumptions, is entirely true. Halla has been traveling with the Shunned, and just had a giant scare about getting marked and before that, knowing how plenty of women hid their marks behind their hair. It just happens to be that Halla knows she’s not marked and has the same “weakness” for comforts that Moran does. Which is why Halla volunteers to go find the group that stole from the traders. “Because I don’t like walking, I like running even less, and I hate the thought of spending an me time worrying that someone might brand me Shunned,” she says.
We get confirmation that Jamal (from the very beginning) died from the infection from his broken leg and that Halla has no idea who her parents are. Veran is confused as to why Jamal couldn’t get treatment. Since they were unknown, Halla explains, they couldn’t get service.
“A trader, then–”
“Traders want marks,” Halla said. “Or trade.” Her tone when she said “trade” made Tarri blush.
Veran blustered at her words. “We traders–”
“–were happy enough to see that girl yesterday,” Tarri interjected. “At least the men.”
Veran weighed her words; from his expression it was obvious that he couldn’t argue with them but he didn’t like the way they set on his mind, either.
Point, Tarri and Halla. At least Veran doesn’t try to argue over what is pretty clearly true. He tries to go after Halla on a different tack of thievery, but Halla admits up front that she has stolen, even though she doesn’t like doing it, and Tarri backs up her justification for doing so.
It turns out that Tenim and Milera were the only ones who left and did the stealing, and it finally comes out that Zist has had the word out for Moran for Turns, although it apparently wasn’t a worldwide communication, and that they are concerned for what will happen to the Shunned when Thread comes again. Halla asks for the traders to adopt the children, which they will do, and Veran admits there’s some trade between traders and Shunned. “Most of the Shunned were sent out for good cause,” he says as a caveat, because we still can’t have people complaining the system itself is wrong and needs to be fixed, not even to themselves or among sympathetic ears.
As a final gift, Tarri and Veran trade the truth (“Traders don’t trade in lies,” Tarri says as a warning) about Halla, Moran, Tenim, and her life for a pack full of provisions so that Halla can go after Tenim and Milera. We get a statement that Conni got her Shunning not for selling her body, but for the murders of her lovers that followed shortly after, and Halla is essentially bid welcome to any trader fire on Pern from Tarri.
And then, some useful wordcraft, in the form of the textual equivalent of a Gilligan Cut.
“Fair trade,” he [Veran] said, offering the pack to her.
” ‘Fair trade’ is what you say,” Tarri corrected her.
Halla smiled. “Fair trade.”
“Fair trade,” Tenim said as he left the body by the gully. Milera had been a pleasant diversion, but she’d been a fool to think she could stab him while he was sleeping. She’d gotten closer than he’d liked; his shoulder was sore and hot where the dagger had scored.
I like this juxtaposition, even if I am a little eyebrow-raising that Tenim would use that exact phrase. It’s not quite natural enough for me to think of it as anything other than a contrivance, but it accomplishes the right idea with a bit of clever wordplay. I probably would have done it myself, honestly, if given the chance.
Tenim justifies his lethal response as self-defense, proving stopped clocks are still occasionally correct, and feels good about having stolen from the traders, taken Milera’s money and supplies, and is making good time on Moran and Conni, on whom he intends to revenge himself fully.
Scene changes again, this time to Moran and Conni, and Conni is getting drunk, after having gotten them both thrown out for being rude to someone that was putting them up. That said, there’s a good chance that the kids he left behind will get adopted and fostered out, and Moran, while cursing that Conni has brought him terrible fortune, has a hope spot that he might be able to return to the Hall, once he gets free of Conni. When Conni passes out from drinking, Moran relieves her of her money and then disappears.
He chooses poorly about where to go, but he follows a pair of bright lights in the sky to a camp, but he loses his footing, slides down a hill and then cracks his head on a rock and it knocks him out. The narrative cuts again to Pellar, who has noticed a trail heading to the wherhandler camp and is busy obliterating it when Halla catches up to him. After a quick establishment of trust and names, Pellar and Halla follow an urgent message from Chitter to get back to the camp, both of them working on creating a false trail because Halla knows Tenim is coming for Moran and will do what he can to steal and hurt whatever he comes across in the process.
And there’s Chapter 6, with several of the spilt storylines reconverging on the wherhandler camp, and Tenim, who continues to evade the death that will eventually catch up to him, for plot reasons, on the way there.
It will be nice to not have these fragmentary scenes bouncing all over the planet, at least.