We left Halla last time with a sackful of money and a large group of children, with no direction of where to go or what to do, because the responsible adult in their lives just decided he had to go stop his wayward adoptive son from doing something truly terrible and stupid. As one might suspect, Halla is going to do her best to turn this lemon shower into lemonade, but she’s probably going to need help.
Dragon’s Fire, Book 2: Chapters 6 and 7: Content Notes: Fatphobia, Trauma-Causing Obliviousness
Halla, for her part, does the first thing she can think of – she heads for shelter with the children, and the night watchman who spots them and hears their plea to be let in is pissed that they’re out so late without their parents. (Since none of them have the S on them, and the guard checks, which is more of the fractal wrong that children can be Shunned and are supposed to be treated that way, they make it inside.) Sufficiently pissed off that Halla finds herself before Lord Holder Fenner, who has been woken up to deal with this problem. He’s not too happy about the situation, but before he lays into Halla, he recognizes that he’s seen her before. Which adjusts his behavior…a little.
“Wait a minute,” Fenner said, kneeling beside her and peering at her dirt-stained face. “You’re that girl Cristov pointed out. The one that found the bubbly pies.”
He looked past her to the sobbing youngsters. He raised a hand and told his guards, “Get someone to settle them in a guest room.”
The children’s wails rose as the guards tried to remove them from Halla, and Halla grabbed at them impulsively.
“No, no, no,” Fenner told her irritably. “No one’s going to hurt them.”
[…Halla demands to know where they’re going, but Fenner ignores her and then remembers her name…]
He noticed that Halla was still resisting the guards’ attempts to pick up the other children.
“No, no, leave off that!” he scolded her. “They’re only taking them to bed. You’d think they were going to be Shunned, the way you’re–” Fenner abruptly stopped speaking, his gaze intent on Halla’s forehead. Slowly, almost apologetically, he reached out and parted her hair. He grunted to himself when he saw that she was unmarked.
Fenner’s still clueless about how he’s coming across, and also the fact that he’s checking her for the mark is even more fractal wrong. If she had it, what would he do to her? Toss her out the window? Send her packing back into the cold? What sort of monstrosity do you have to be capable of to send a child away?
Plot-wise, Fenner pegs Halla as being present at the incident earlier when the mob wanted to shun her for something she didn’t do. Halla begs for the children’s lives with him, figuring that she’s going to get Shunned all the same.
Halla startled as Fenner’s strong hands grabbed her. Would the Lord Holder strangle her here and now? she wondered frantically, clawing at him with all her might. Maybe if she could break free, she could rescue the others.
“Stop struggling!” Fenner’s voice boomed over her. Halla went limp, sobs wracking her small body, eyes scrunched tightly closed. She felt herself being lifted. Huge arms wrapped around her and hugged her tight. Was he going to crush her in his arms? Halla wondered anxiously. She squirmed once more.
“I said, stop,” Fenner growled. “By the First Egg,” he continued, “it’s as though you expected me to Shun you on sight.”
The impact of his words registered in his ears and he peered down at the figure shaking in his arms.
DING-DING-DING! Lord Fenner finally gets it!
This entire book seems to be predicated on making sure the action happens and the conflict is over people who should know better acting cluelessly. Pellar, Fenner, Tarik, Moran, just about everybody here is creating the conflict of the story by seemingly deliberately avoiding using the knowledge they have in their brains and then continuing to charge ahead in that same manner instead of stopping and reassessing once they encounter an unexpected response. Gaaaah.
Having realized what it looked like to Halla, Fenner changes to be softer and more gentle, and after missing Halla’s age by three Turns because of her gaunt structure, he asks Halla’s permission to hug her, and shows her significant comfort before putting her to bed. That ends Chapter 6. I can’t really see why Halla would let her guard down so readily and easily, but there’s also the possibility that she’s just really fucking tired, and in the captivity of someone who can destroy her at a word, so she’s decided the best way to survive is to play along and give no resistance. And there’s warm and fuzzies and a soft blanket and such.
So here’s what Chapter 7 tells us:
Lord Holder, your role is assured.
Lead the hold, help all endure.
Set the pace and show no slacking;
Let the lazy ones go packing.
And, of course, to be a true Lord Holder, he’ll need to be out front leading the way, right? He certainly wouldn’t do something like stay in his Hold and just give orders on how everyone else is supposed to do the work. Because if all the lazy ones are supposed to be Shunned and sent packing (and who determines lazy, anyway?), then clearly the Lord Holder should set a good example.
We all know that doesn’t happen everywhere.
Halla starts Chapter 7 with a series of successive revelations. She’s in a bed with clean sheets (which she believes she’s way to dirty to be part of), the children she had with her are all sleeping in the same bed that she is (so it’s a really big bed), and, as soon as she hops out of the bed, she realizes she’s in her underthings and has a moment of embarrassment at the thought of Lord Holder Fenner having stripped her tunic off to get her into bed. Trying to get the drop on anybody outside (after wrapping herself up in a towel) meas that Halla gets to meet Nerra, Fenner’s daughter, who has been instructed to make sure Halla gets fed before she gets her bath. (Fresh bread, with butter, and dried fruit.)
“I can have a bath?” Halla repeated, her skin crawling with excitement at the very notion. She turned her head to peer around the hallway. “Where is the bucket?”
“Bucket!” Nerra snorted. “We don’t have a bucket, we have a bath room.”
“A whole room?” Halla exclaimed, eyes wide.
“Certainly,” Nerra replied in a surprised tone. She gestured back to the room. “But first we should eat.”
This is one of the few places where someone being surprised at the way a person has been used to doing things makes sense. Because Nerra has never had a whiff of what Halla has experienced, and the reverse is also true. And both of them are so used to their world that they can’t really conceive of the other one’s.
Halla has a good soak, but ends up having to help restore order (clad only in a couple of thick, plush towels, the narrative tells us) and gets some of the younger kids into the bath to enjoy as well. Which has the side effect of soaking the captain of the guard, since he’s been assigned to make sure everyone’s safe.
And then we get another example of the bad kind of obliviousness, even though it’s less obliviousness and more making sure the formalities are handled. The only warning Halla gets about what’s to happen is Nerra telling her that Fenner’s not the growler he pretends to be.
“Greetings, my lord,” she said, doing nothing to ease Halla’s fears. “I bring the prisoner for your judgement.”
Prisoner? Halla’s eyes widened and she found herself once again seaching for the best exit from the Great Hall.
“What are her crimes?” Fenner called from his seat at the end of the hall.
“Complicity in theft, flight from a crime,” Nerra replied formally. Quietly, in a totally different tone, she confided to Halla, “But I told him you didn’t do it.”
“Lady Nerra, please stick to the forms,” Fenner growled in exasperation.
Nerra gave her father a grumpy look but nodded. “What is your pleasure, my lord?”
“The rule of Crom rests with the Lord of Crom,” Fenner intoned severely. He crooked a finger at Halla, beckoning her forward. With a slight push from Nerra, Halla found herself walking down the long way to the Lord Holder’s chair.
When she was directly in front of him, Fenner held up a hand for her to stop.
“What is your hold?” he asked her, his tone still formal.
Halla shook her head in silence.
“What is your craft?”
Again Halla shook her head.
“So you claim no hold or craft?” Fenner asked, his tone full of solemn disapproval.
“None, my lord,” Halla said honestly, her arms hanging limply at her side. He had seemed so nice, too.
“And did you steal as accused?”
“No,” Halla answered honestly.
“Were you not identified as a thief and nearly Shunned?” Fenner asked, leaning forward to gaze directly into her eyes.
“How plead you?” Fenner asked solemnly.
Plead? Halla looked at him questioningly. She shifted on her foot nervously. Was she supposed to beg for her life? Or did he expect her to tell him that Milera was the thief? If Milera ever found out–and Halla wondered where she’d been so long–she’d choke her for sure.
“Not guilty,” Nerra whispered stridently to her. Halla turned to face her with a questioning look. “Say ‘not guilty,’ ” Nerra whispered again.
“Not guilty,” Halla said. Hastily she added, “My lord.”
“Good,” Nerra murmured approvingly. “Now demand justice.”
Halla nodded and swallowed. “My lord, I demand justice.”
“In what name?”
“My name. Halla.”
“Very well,” Fenner replied. “Justice is asked and will be given.”
He closed his eyes for a moment in thought. When he opened them again he looked straight at Halla.
“The issues against Halla of no hold are dropped,” he declared. “The judgment is that the children traveling with you will become fosterlings of Crom Hold, under my protection until they come of age.”
And there you have it. This whole thing would have been a lot less traumatic if Halla had an inkling of idea of what was about to happen and how it would turn out. Nerra clearly knew what was going on. Fenner squashed her attempts to make it less terrifying. I don’t know how many witnesses there are in the room with those three, because if there aren’t any others, someone for whom the necessary formality is for the scribes or some other records, this could have been done a lot less horrifically for Halla.
And also, Nerra is acting as Halla’s lawyer. Which I think it great, given the tradition of women as judges and legists in the colony world, but it once again gives the lie to the idea that Pern doesn’t need lawyers. There was a specific formal process that had to be done, and Halla needed someone who knew that process as her advocate! And Fenner will ask her in a few paragraphs why she didn’t ask for the mercy of the Lord Holder, and Halla’s truthful answer will be “I didn’t know.” Because she didn’t know! Nerra was the person closest to her who might have had a clue, and she didn’t say anything about that. It sounds like an assumption that someone would be taught, wherever they came from, that asking the mercy of the Lord Holder was part of the process. But Halla’s been traveling with the Shunned since she was little. There’s nobody there who has any reason to teach about the mercy of a Lord Holder, since plenty of them are out there because of them. It’s the bad kind of ignorance, of being unable to conceive that someone might exist in this world without what you consider to be basic knowledge, even when you know that the universal schooling provided by the Harpers only extends to the people who haven’t been Shunned and their descendants.
Fenner also has ulterior motives for pardoning Halla. He wants her to make contact with as many Shunned as possible so they can start hammering out an arrangement where the Shunned start getting reintegrated into society because the alternative is dying horribly from Thread. As Fenner puts it,
“When Thread comes, we will all need everything we can get–shorting one man makes no sense.”
Halla nodded, wondering why Moran hadn’t told her this. Of course, she thought sourly, he was a fat man.
And here’s another brick built on the idea that Moran’s self-image is divorced significantly from the reality of who he is. Moran being “fat” suggests that he’s doing a lot more of the eating than the children he is nominally looking after, which suggests his priorities are backward about who should be taken care of first. (Halla has already mentioned by this point that not all the children she was taking care of made it to this point.) It’s also a shame that we’re using fatness as shorthand for poor decision-making, but fatphobia isn’t even on the radar at this point in our history, much less being taken seriously.
If this was an intentional decision on the writing team to portray the Harpers, who are supposed to be the all-loved, always-good even when their methods suck, as deluding themselves about their virtue, it’s brilliant and I am there for it. But I have the sneaking suspicious that before we’re done, it’s going to be deflected in some way or papered over what Moran did in the name of his ideals, and so this scathing denunciation of Harpers, Holders, and the entire social system, in the person of Halla, is going to be nothing more than an accidental truth.
Halla agrees to the plan. And the narrative shifts away again to Cristov and Toldur, trying to find a suitable vein to tap into for their firestone mine. Cristov is surprised that the speed of logistics goes a lot faster when you have hyperspace transport at your side, but the two of them are able to find a suitable spot for mining. They do have to test their stones, which they do by finding rocks that look like firestone and then throwing them into a cooking pot of water to see if the stones emit gas that explodes on contact with the air. After that, they hollow out and build a mine entrance, making sure that the moisture in the air and any water above their entrance is redirected away so that it doesn’t ignite the firestone they will be exposing by dripping or raining inside.
D’vin returns the next day with Hurth to test and see if there is firestone involved. Hurth chews it and burps fire, so it’s high-quality stuff, but there’s a second reason now to wonder whether this firestone is the same one that we’ve been seeing in the Ninth (the extreme volatility being the first):
“Is he okay?” Cristov asked, looking up at Hurth worriedly.
“Have you ever heard of the hot peppers from Southern Boll?” D’vin asked. Cristov nodded. “Imagine that you’d eaten a whole mouthful of the ripest, hottest of those peppers.”
“That bad?” Toldur asked, shaking his head in awe at Hurth’s constitution.
They talk a bit about what sort of designers make an essential part of being a dragon so painful, and Toldur and Cristov talk about what they’ll need to stand the mine up as quickly as possible. D’vin title-drops getting the Mastersmith to help out in the possibility of getting the mine air pumps to run by water power, promises help in making good boards to help shore up the mine, and asks about other supply needs. After Cristov figures out that the Weyrs will need about two hundred forty long tons (tonnes) total of firestone each week during Threadfall. Which is way more than two miners can do.
D’vin laughed, shaking his head. The two miners looked at him in surprise. “Weren’t you planning on sleeping?”
“Well, yes,” Toldur said, wondering why the dragonrider had brought up the issue.
The two miners nodded.
“Then I suppose you’d like a place to live and perhaps a cook to take that burden off of you.”
“We can sleep in our camp,” Toldur said, surprised at D’vin’s generous offer. “And we cook well enough.”
D’vin shook his head, holding up a hand to forestall further comments from the miners. “The least the Weyr can do is to provide you with a warm place to sleep, hot meals, and hot water with which to bathe.”
A look of joy and amazement flashed across Cristov’s face only to be replaced by bemusement as he wondered why the Weyr would consider treating two mere miners so well.
“It’s the least we can do,” D’vin said in answer to his unasked question. “And, if you think about it, it’s for the most selfish reasons–every waking moment you’re not mining firestone means less practice time for us.”
So Cristov gets a lesson on what you can do when you have actual clout and a logistics brigade behind you and supporting you.
And while that’s going on, we switch back to Tarik, and get an object lesson in why he should have gone into WitSec. Because Tenim is back, and still alive, and he almost chokes Tarik to death as his way of saying he means business before explaining that Tarik is going to mine him firestone to sell in the night with a second crew that Tenim will provide to mine and move the stone. Tenim demands Tarik provide him with two tonnes of firestone in two days, and then gives Tarik a crew of small children to help him move the firestone into Tenim’s dray. All the whole casually threatening Tarik’s life and being sociopathic about the whole thing.
Not that long after, Pellar arrives at the camp, although he’s not named as such, but instead described as a last who doesn’t speak but can write and work as a scribe to help Tarik keep records. Tenim looks at him but doesn’t recognize him, and then ups his demand to four tonnes in two days so as to build his stockpile to sell with.
Of course, that’s not going so well.
It has surprised him to discover how difficult it was to find a buyer for his firestone, given how ask the other Weyrs had complained about D’gan’s stinginess. Tenim had been convinced that it would be easy, and profitable, to sell firestone, ah he was much surprised to discover that neither was the case.
[…he’ll keep trying, though…]
“Firestone?” Sidar repeated with a horrified look on his face. “You’ve got firestone?”
Tenim didn’t move a muscle. He’d come to Sidar after exhausting all his other resources. The man was known to cheat, steal, and murder for his profit–methods Tenim preferred to reserve to himself–but when he paid, he paid well.
Sidar explains to Tenim why nobody wants to touch firestone; in addition to its volatility, anyone caught with the stuff who isn’t a dragonrider is going to be Shunned, no questions asked. Sidar has no interest in commerce with Tenim and throws him out before their meeting erupts into violence.
Then the narrative shifts to Halla, who is explaining to Veran, of Tarri’s group, that Tenim is the one that stole his dray, and to request supplies to follow Tenim and retrieve it. It goes back to Tarik, who gets an extra tonne required from D’gan because his mine isn’t blown up and his people aren’t dead and then a visit from Tenim, where Tarik lets slip that his new assistant can’t talk, making Tenim suspicious.
Later that night, Tenim puts into action what he thinks is his best plan yet. Since he can’t find a buyer, he thinks it will be a good idea of he can cut off the supply so that everyone has to come to him to buy whatever firestone he has in stock. So he uses some of his firestone supply to firebomb the dam and release all the water to go into the mine area and destroy it explosively. Pellar tries to stop him, but still can’t actually beat Tenim in a straight up fistfight. Tenim thinks about killing him, but when the mine goes up, he decides it is better to pin the blame on Pellar than kill him and disappears,
firm in the belief that he had just made himself the richest, most powerful man on Pern.
This is a monumentally bad plan, Tenim, unless you essentially plan on trekking to every firestone mine that gets put into existence and blowing it up. Pern is a pretty big place, Tenim can’t travel faster than the dragonriders, and he probably also can’t evade them when they start stationing guards, either with dragons or fire lizards, at the mines with orders to kill anyone who gets close that isn’t riding in on a dragon.
Like, becoming a well-known terrorist of firestone mines and trying to corner the market you’re creating by being that terrorist, when the forces you’re pissing off are the most powerful social and military class on the planet is…hubris of fine order.
Then again, for some reason the narrative seems to be giving Tenim a lot of luck and success at his hubris, at least so long as he has been defrauding the Lords Holder and other lower classes. Now that he’s put his sights on the dragonriders, his end is likely to be swift.
The rest of the chapter is Halla chasing the explosion, Pellar managing to survive it all and call Hurth for help before deciding to track Tenim, D’gan getting in D’vin’s grill about intruding on his lands, before leaving him to tracking Tenim and his dray, and Halla deciding she’s going to track Tenim and knife the son of a bitch before he can hurt anybody else.
Okay, Halla doesn’t use that exact phrasing, but it’s pretty clear she’s going to find him so she can stop him.
The only thing that’s of any interest in this, other than advancing the plot, is in a segment where Pellar remembers how he survived the first time Tenim tried to kill him and Grief got Chitter. Mikal apparently taught more than just what plants are useful and what creatures are edible.
He’d sought out the healing rocks from the streambed, looking for quartz above all. Carefully, he placed the crystals as he’d been trained by Mikal, aligning their vibrations to help his healing.
Which is an entirely curious thing to appear here, given that up to this point, while Healers have been dealing in roots, plants, and other herbology and botany based on the plants’ demonstrated effects on the human body, there’s nary a whiff of anything about energies and vibrations or other metaphysical anything attached to them, and they’ve been desperately trying to reconstruct the scientific processes lost.
At least not until the anti-AI faction started showing grisly rumors and pamphlets about how unnatural that science was and that its aim was to create grotesqueries and enslave humans under the control of the AI, but even then, the appeals were to tradition and “natural” things that didn’t have metaphysical implications.
So, where, exactly, is this spiritual component coming from all of a sudden? Unless we’re supposed to take as a fact of Pern that crystal work is scientifically accurate and mainstream practice. Despite not being mentioned until now.
Next week, Tenim gets to find out how terrible his plan is, and how much it’s already gone wrong.