Chapter 1 Chapter 1
The rumble-thud-boom of the big drums answering a message from the east roused Piemur. In his five Turns at the Harper Craft Hall, he had never become accustomed to that bone-throbbing noise. Perhaps, he thought, sleepily turning over, if the drums beat every dawn, or in the same sequence, he’d get accustomed enough to sleep through it. But he doubted that. He was naturally a light sleeper, a talent picked up when he’d been a herder’s boy and had to keep an ear awake for night alarms among the runner beasts. The facility had often been to his advantage since the other apprentices in his dormitory couldn’t sneak up on him with vengeance in mind. And he was often awakened by discreet, dragon-borne visitors coming to see the Masterharper of Pern, or the arrivals and departures of Master Robinton himself, for he was surely one of the most important men on Pern; almost as influential as F’lar and Lessa, the Weyrleaders of Benden. Occasionally, too, on warm summer nights, when the shutters of the main hall were thrown back, the masters and journeymen assuming all the apprentices slept, he’d hear fascinating and uninhibited talk drifting on the night air. A small fellow like himself had to keep ahead of everyone else, and listening often showed him how.
As he tried to get back to sleep for just a little longer in the gray dawn, the drum sequence echoed in his mind. The message had originated from Ista Hold’s harper: he had caught the identifying signature. He couldn’t be sure of the rest of the message: something about a ship. Maybe he ought to learn message-drum beats. Not that they came in with such frequency now that more and more people owned little fire lizards to take messages round and about Pern.
He wondered when he’d get his hands on a fire lizard egg. Menolly had promised him one when her queen, Beauty, mated. A nice thought on her part, Piemur reflected, realistically aware that Menolly might not be able to distribute Beauty’s eggs as she wished. Master Robinton would want them placed to the Harper Hall’s advantage. And Piemur couldn’t fault Master Robinton. One day, though, he’d have his fire lizard. A queen, or, at least, a bronze.
Piemur folded his hands behind his head, musing on such a delightful prospect. From having helped Menolly feed her nine, he knew a fair bit about them now. More than some people who had fire lizards, the same people who’d been claiming for Turns that fire lizards were boy’s sun-dreams. That is, until F’nor, brown Canth’s rider, had Impressed a little queen on a beach in the southern continent. Then Menolly, halfway across Pern, had saved a fire lizard queen’s eggs from being drowned in the unusually high tides of that Turn. Now everyone wanted a fire lizard, and admitted that they must be tiny cousins to the great dragons of Pern.
Piemur shivered with delighted terror. Thread had fallen over Fort Hold yesterday. They’d been rehearsing Master Domick’s new saga about the search for Lessa and how she’d become Weyrwoman at Benden just before the new Pass of the Red Star, but Piemur had been much more aware of the silvery Threads dropping through the skies above the tightly shuttered and sealed Harper Hall. He’d imagined, as he always did during Threadfall, the graceful passages of the great dragons as their fiery breath charred Thread before it could fall to the ground and devour anything living, before it could burrow into the ground and multiply. Even thinking of that phenomenon made Piemur quiver fearfully again.
Before Master Robinton had discovered Menolly’s talent at songmaking, she’d actually lived outside her hold, caring for the nine fire lizards she had Impressed from the rescued clutch. If only, thought Piemur with a sigh, he wasn’t immured in the Craft Hall; if only he had a chance to search seashores and find his own clutch…. Of course, as a mere apprentice, he’d have to give the eggs to his Craft Master, but surely, if he found a whole clutch, Master Robinton would let him keep one.
The sudden raucous call of a fire lizard startled him, and he sat up in alarm. The sun was now streaming across the outer side of the Harper Hall rectangle. He had fallen asleep again. If Rocky was screaming, he was late to help feed. With deft movements, he dressed, except for his boots, and thudded down the steps, emerging into the courtyard just as he heard the second, more urgent summons from a hungry Rocky.
When he saw that Camo was only just trudging up the steps outside the kitchen, clutching his bowl of scraps, Piemur drew a sigh of relief. He wasn’t all that late! He thrust his feet into his boots, stuffed the laces inside to save time, and clomped across the court just as Menolly came down the steps from the Main Hall. Rocky, Mimic and Lazy whirled above Piemur’s head, chittering hungrily at him to move faster.
Piemur glanced up, looking for Beauty. Menolly had told him that when the little queen was close to mating time she’d seem to be more golden than ever. She was now circling to land on Menolly’s shoulder, but she seemed the same color as ever.
“Camo feed pretties?” The kitchen drudge smiled brightly as Menolly and Piemur reached him.
“Camo feed pretties!” Menolly and Piemur spoke the customary reassurance in chorus, grinning at each other as they reached for handfuls of meat scraps. Rocky and Mimic took their accustomed perches on Piemur’s shoulders, while Lazy clung with far from indolent strength to his left forearm.
Once the fire lizards settled to the business of eating, Piemur glanced at Menolly, wondering if she’d heard the drum message. She looked more awake than she usually did at this hour, and slightly detached from her immediate task. Of course, she might just be thinking up a new song, but writing tunes was not Menolly’s only duty in the Harper Hall.
As they fed the fire lizards, the rest of the Hall began to stir: the drudges in the kitchen were roused to breakfast efforts by Silvina and Abuna; in the junior and senior dormitories, occasional shouts punctuated random noises; and shutters on the journeyman’s quarters were being opened to let in the fresh morning air.
Once the fire lizards had wheeled up for their morning stretch of wings, Piemur, Menolly and Camo separated. Camo, with a push from Menolly, was sent back to the kitchen; then she and Piemur went up the main steps of the Harper Hall to the dining room.
Piemur’s first class that morning was chorus, for they were, as usual at this time of the Turn, rehearsing the spring music for Lord Groghe’s feast. Master Domick had collaborated with Menolly this year and produced an uncommonly singable score for his ballad about Lessa and her golden queen dragon, Ramoth.
Piemur was to sing the part of Lessa. For once, he didn’t object to having to sing a female role. In fact, that morning he waited eagerly for the chorus to finish the passage before his first entrance. The moment came, he opened his mouth, and to his amazement no sound emerged.
“Wake up, Piemur,” said Master Domick, irritably rapping his stick on the music stand. He alerted the chorus. “We’ll repeat the measure before the entrance… if you’re now ready, Piemur?”
Usually Piemur could ignore Master Domick’s sarcasm but since he had been ready to sing, he flushed uncertainly. He took a breath and hummed against his closed teeth as the chorus began again. He had tone, and his throat wasn’t sore, so he wasn’t coming down with a stuffed head.
The chorus gave him his entrance again, and he opened his mouth. The sound that emerged ranged from one octave to another, neither of which were in the score he held.
A complete and awed silence fell. Master Domick frowned at Piemur, who was now swallowing against a fear that froze his feet to one spot and crept up his bones to his heart.
“Piemur, sing a scale in C.”
Piemur attempted to, and on the fourth note, though he had hardened his middle to iron for support, his voice again broke. Master Domick put down his stick and regarded Piemur. If there was any expression in the Composition Master’s face, it was compassion, tinged with resigned irritation.
“Piemur, I think you had best see Master Shonagar. Tilgin, you’ve been understudying the role?”
“Me, sir? I haven’t so much as glanced at it. Not with Piemur…” The startled apprentice’s voice trailed off as Piemur, slowly and with feet he could barely force to move, left the chorus hall and walked across the court toward Master Shonagar’s room.
He tried to close his ears to the sound of Tilgin’s tentative voice. Scorn gave him momentary relief from his cold fear. His had been a much better voice than Tilgin’s would ever be. Had been? Maybe he was just coming down with a cold. Piemur coughed experimentally, but knew even as he did so that no phlegm congested his lungs and throat. He trudged on to Master Shonagar, knowing the verdict and hoping against vain hope that somehow the flaw in his voice was transitory, that he’d manage to keep his soprano range long enough to sing Master Domick’s music. Scuffing up the steps, he paused briefly in the threshold to accustom his eyes to the gloom within.
Master Shonagar would only just have arisen and breakfasted. Piemur knew his master’s habits intimately. But Shonagar was already in his customary position, one elbow on the wide table, propping up his massive head, the other arm cocked against the columnar thigh.
“Well, it’s sooner than we might have expected, young Piemur,” the Master said in a quiet tone, which nonetheless seemed to fill the room. “But the change was bound to come sometime.” A wealth of sympathy tinged the Master’s rich, mellow bass voice. The propping hand came away from the head and brushed aside the tones now issuing from the chorus hall. “Tilgin will never come up to your measure.”
“Oh, sir, what do I do now my voice is gone? It’s all I had!”
Master Shonagar’s surprised contempt startled Piemur. “All you had? Perhaps, my dear Piemur, but by no means all you have! Not after five Turns as my apprentice. You probably know more about vocal production than any journeyman in the Craft.”
“But who would want to learn from me?” Piemur gestured to his slight adolescent frame, his voice cracking dramatically. “And how could I teach when I’ve no voice to demonstrate?”
“Ah, but the distressing condition of your singing voice heralds other alterations that will remedy those minor considerations.” Master Shonagar waved aside that argument, and then regarded Piemur through narrowed eyelids. “This occasion has not caught me…” the thick fingers tapped against the bulging chest “… unprepared.” Now a gusty sigh escaped Master Shonagar’s full lips. “You have been without doubt or contradiction the most troublesome and ingenious, the laziest, the most audacious and mendacious of the hundreds of apprentices and voice students it has been my tiresome task to train to some standard. Despite yourself, you have achieved some measure of success. You ought to have achieved even more.” Master Shonagar affected a point. “I find it altogether too perverse, if completely in character, for you to decide on puberty before singing Domick’s latest choral work. Undoubtedly one of his best, and written with your abilities in mind. Do not hang your head in my presence, young man!” The Master’s bellow startled Piemur out of his self-pitiful reflections. “Young man! Yes, that’s the crux. You are becoming a young man. Young men must have young-manly tasks.”
“What?” In the single word, Piemur expressed his disbelief and distress.
“That, my young man, is for the Harper to tell you!” Master Shonagar’s thick forefinger pointed first at Piemur and then swung toward the front of the building, indicating Master Robinton’s window.
Piemur did not dare permit the hope that began to revive in him to blossom. Yet, Master Shonagar wouldn’t lie for any reason, certainly not to give him false hope.
Then they both winced as Tilgin erred in his sight reading. Instinctively glancing at his Master, Piemur saw the pained expression on Master Shonagar’s face.
“Were I you, young Piemur, I’d stay out of Domick’s sight as much as possible.”
Despite his depression, Piemur grinned, wryly aware that the brilliant Composition Master might well decide that Piemur had elected to thwart his musical ambition in this untimely voice change.
Master Shonagar sighed heavily. “I do wish you’d have waited a trifle longer, Piemur.” His groan was wistful as well as resigned. “Tilgin is going to require much coaching to perform creditably. Now, don’t you repeat that, young Piemur!” The thick forefinger pointed unwaveringly at Piemur, who affected innocent shock that such an admonition might be needed. “Away with you!”
Obediently, Piemur turned, but he’d gone no more than a few paces to the door when a second shock stopped him. He whirled toward the Voice Master.
“You mean, just now, sir, don’t you?”
“?‘Just now, sir?’ Of course, I mean now, not this afternoon or tomorrow, but now.”
“Now… and always?” asked Piemur uncertainly. If he could no longer sing, Master Shonagar would take on another special apprentice to perform those personal and private duties for him that Piemur had been undertaking in the past Turns. Not only was Piemur reluctant to lose the privilege of being Master Shonagar’s special lad, he honestly didn’t wish to end the very rewarding association with the Master. He liked Shonagar, and those services he had performed for his Master had stemmed from that liking rather than a sense of duty. He had enjoyed above all the droll humor and florid speech of his Master, of being teased for his bold behavior and called to task by a man he had never managed to deceive for an instant with any of his stratagems or ploys.
“Now, yes,” and there was a rumble of regret in Shonagar’s expressive voice that eased Piemur’s sense of loss, “but assuredly not always,” and the Master’s tone was brisker with only a hint of resigned irritation that he was not going to be forever rid of this small nuisance. “How can we escape each other, immured as we are in the Harper Hall?”
Though Piemur knew perfectly well that Master Shonagar rarely left his hall, he was obscurely reassured. He made a half turn and then came slowly back.
“This afternoon, you’ll need some errands done?”
“You may not be available,” said Master Shonagar, his face expressionless, his voice almost as neutral.
“But, sir, who will come to you?” and again, Piemur’s voice broke. “You know you’re always busy after the midday meal…”
“If you mean,” and Shonagar spoke with real amusement crinkling his eye folds, “do I plan to appoint Tilgin to the vacancy? Sssssh! I shall, of course, have to devote a great deal of time to improving his voice and musicality, but to have him lurking about on tap…” The thick fingers wiggled with distaste. “Away with you. The choice of your successor requires considerable thought. Not, mind you, that there are not hundreds of likely lads who would undoubtedly suit my small requirements to perfection…”
Piemur caught his breath in hurt and then saw the twitch of Master Shonagar’s expressive brows and realized that this moment was no easier on the older man.
“Undoubtedly…” Piemur tried to turn away on that light note but found he could not, wishing that Master Shonagar might just this once…
“Go, my son. You will ever know where to find me, should the need arise.”
This time the dismissal was final because the Master slanted his head against his fist and closed his eyes, shamming weariness.
Quickly Piemur walked to the entrance, blinking at the bright sunlight after the darker hall. He paused on the bottom step, reluctant to take the final one that severed his association with Master Shonagar. There was a sudden hard lump in his throat that had nothing to do with his voice change. He swallowed, but the sensation of constriction remained. He rubbed at his eyes with knuckles that came away moist and stood, fists clenched at his thighs, trying not to blubber.
Master Robinton had something to tell him about new duties? So his voice change had been discussed by the Masters. To be sure, he wouldn’t have been callously thrown out of the Harper Hall and sent in some obscure disgrace back to his herdsman father and the dreary life of a beast farmer simply because he no longer had his soprano voice. No, that wouldn’t be his fate, despite the fact that singing was his one undeniable harper skill. As Talmor said of his gitar and harp playing, he could accompany so long as his playing was drowned out by loud singing or other instruments. The drums and pipes he made under Master Jerint’s guidance were only passable and never got stamped for sale at Gathers. He copied scores accurately enough when he put his mind to it, but he always found so many more interesting things to do than spending hours cramping his fingers, to renew Records someone else could do more neatly and in half the time. Yet, when pushed to it, Piemur didn’t actually mind scribing, if he were allowed to add his own embellishments. Which he wasn’t. Not with Master Arnor looking over his shoulder and muttering about wasted ink and hide.
Piemur sighed deeply. The only thing he was really adept at was singing, and that was no longer possible. Forever? No, not forever! He spread his fingers in rejection of that prospect and then closed them into tighter fists. He’d be able to sing all right: he’d learned too much from Master Shonagar about voice production and phrasing and interpretation, but he might not have a voice as an adult. And he wasn’t going to sing unless he did! He had his reputation. Better if he never opened his mouth to sing another note….
Tilgin flubbed another phrase. Piemur grinned, listening to Tilgin repeating the phrase correctly. They’d miss Piemur all right! He could sight-read any score, even one of Domick’s, without missing a beat or an awkward interval, or those florid embellishments Domick insisted on writing for the treble parts. Yes, they’d miss Piemur in the chorus!
That knowledge fortified him, and he took the final step onto the flagstones of the court. Clipping his thumbs over his belt, he began to saunter toward the main entrance of the Harper Hall. Not, he reminded himself, that a lowly apprentice who has just lost his privileged position, should saunter when sent to the Masterharper of Pern. Piemur squinted into the sunlight at the fire lizards on the roof opposite. He didn’t spot Master Robinton’s bronze fire lizard, Zair, among those sunning themselves with Menolly’s nine. So the Masterharper wasn’t with the day as yet. Come to think of it, Piemur reflected, he’d heard the clear baritone voice of the Harper in the Court late last night and the noise of a dragon landing and departing. These days the Harper spent more time away from the Hall than in it.
Startled, he glanced up and saw Menolly standing on the top step of the Main Hall. She’d spoken quietly, and when he peered at her, he knew that she knew what had happened to him.
“It was rather audible,” she said, again in that gentle tone, which both irritated and appeased Piemur. Menolly, of all within the Harper Hall, would sympathize with him most acutely. She knew what it was to be without the ability to make music. “Is that Tilgin singing?”
“Yes, and it’s all my fault,” Piemur said.
“All your fault?” Menolly stared at him in surprised amusement.
“Why did I have to pick now to break my voice?”
“Why indeed? I’m sure you did it only to annoy Domick!” Menolly grinned broadly at him, for they both had experience with Domick’s whimsical temper.
Piemur had reached the top step and experienced another shock on this morning of surprises: he could almost look Menolly squarely in the eye, and she was tall for a girl! She reached out and ruffled his hair, laughing as he indignantly swatted her hand away.
“C’mon, Master Robinton wants to see you.”
“Why? What’m I going to be doing now? D’you know?”
“Not for me to tell you, scamp,” she said, striding on her long legs across the hall and forcing him to a jog pace to keep beside her.
“Menolly, that’s not fair!”
“Ha!” She was pleased by his discomfiture. “You’ve not long to wait. I will tell you this: Domick may not be pleased that your voice changed, but the Master was.”
“Aw, Menolly, one little hint? Please? You know you owe me a favor or two!”
“I do?” Menolly savored her advantage.
“You do. And you know it. You could pay me back right now!” Piemur was irritated. Why did she have to pick now to be difficult?
“Why waste a favor when a little patience on your part will bring the answer?” They had reached the second level and were striding down the corridor toward the Harper’s quarters. “You’d better learn patience, too, my friend!”
Piemur halted in disgust.
“Oh, c’mon Piemur,” she said, with a broad swing of her arm. “You’re not a little ’un anymore to wheedle news out of me. And wasn’t it you who warned me that you don’t keep a Master waiting?”
“I’ve had enough surprises today,” he said sourly, but he closed the distance between them just as she tapped politely on the door.
The Masterharper of Pern, his silvering hair glinting in the sun streaming in his windows, was seated at the worktable, a tray before him, the steam of hot klah rising unnoticed as he offered pieces of meat to the fire lizard clinging to his left forearm.
“Glutton! Greedy maw! Don’t claw me, that’s bare skin, not padding! I’m feeding you as fast as I can! Zair! Behave yourself! I’m perishing for a taste of my klah, but I’m feeding you first. Good morning, Piemur. You’re adept at feeding fire lizards. Pop sustenance into Zair’s mouth so I can get some in mine!” The Harper shot a look of desperate entreaty to Piemur.
He whipped around the long worktable and, grabbing up several chunks of meat, attracted Zair’s gaze.
“Ah, that’s more the thing!” exclaimed Master Robinton after he’d had a long gulp of his klah.
Absorbed in his task, Piemur wasn’t at first aware of the Harper’s scrutiny, for the man was applying himself to his own food with his free right hand. Then Piemur saw the keen eyes on him, lids narrowed as if weighty from sleep. He could tell nothing from the Harper’s expression, for the long face was quiescent, slightly puffy about the eyes from sleep, the grooves from the corners of the mobile mouth pulled down with age and accumulated fatigue rather than displeasure.
“I shall miss your young voice,” said the Harper with a gentle emphasis on “young.” “But, while we’re waiting for you to settle into an adult placement, I’ve asked Shonagar to release you to me. I’ve a suspicion that you won’t mind too much”—and a smile twitched the Harper’s lips—“doing the odd job for me and Menolly and my good Sebell.”
“Menolly and Sebell?” Piemur gawked.
“I’m not sure I care for that emphasis,” said Menolly in a mock growl, subsiding as the Harper threw her a quieting glance.
“I’d be your apprentice?” Piemur asked the Harper, holding his breath for the answer.
“Indeed, you’d have to be my apprentice at that,” said Master Robinton, his voice and face turning droll.
“Oh, sir!” Piemur was stunned at such good fortune.
Zair squawked petulantly in the little silence, for Piemur had paused in his feeding.
“Sorry, Zair,” and Piemur hastily resumed the task.
“However,” and the Harper cleared his throat while Piemur wondered what disadvantage to this envious status was about to be disclosed (there had to be one, he knew), “you will have to improve your skill in scribing—”
“We must be able to read what you write,” said Menolly, sternly.
“—learn to send and receive message drum accurately and rapidly…” He looked at Menolly. “I know that Master Fandarel is very keen to have his new message-sender installed in every hall and craft, but it’s going to take far too long to be useful to me. Then, too, there are some messages that should remain privy to the Craft!” He paused, staring long at Piemur. “You were bred on a runner beast hold, weren’t you?”
“Yes, sir. And I can ride any runner anywhere!”
Menolly’s expression indicated disbelief.
“I can, too.”
“You’ll have ample chance to prove it, I fear,” said the Harper, smiling at his new apprentice’s stout claim. “What you will also have to prove, young Piemur, is your discretion.” Now the Harper was in solemn earnest, and with equal solemnity, Piemur nodded assurance. “Menolly tells me that despite your incorrigibility on many other counts, you’re not given to indiscriminate babbling. Rather,” and the Harper held up his hand as Piemur opened his mouth to reassure him, “that you keep close about incidental information until you can use it to your benefit.”
Master Robinton smiled at his wide-eyed innocent expression. “You, sir, young Piemur. Although it does strike me that you’ve exactly the sort of guile—” He broke off, then continued more briskly, leaving unsaid words to tantalize Piemur. “We’ll see how you get on. I fear you may find your new role not as exciting as you think, but you will be serving your Craft, and me, very well indeed.”
If he couldn’t sing for a while, thought Piemur, being the Master’s apprentice was the next best thing. Wait’ll he told Bonz and Timiny; wouldn’t they just choke!
“Ever sailed?” asked Menolly with such a piercing look that Piemur wondered if she’d read his thoughts.
“Sailed? In a boat?”
“That’s the general method,” she said. “With my luck you’ll be a seasicker.”
“You mean, I might get to the Southern Continent, too?” asked Piemur, having rapidly added up assorted pieces of information and come to a conclusion; all too hastily spoken, he realized belatedly.
The Harper lost all semblance of lassitude and sat bolt upright in his chair, causing his fire lizard to protest vehemently.
Menolly burst out laughing.
“I told you, Master,” she said, throwing up her hands.
“And what makes you mention the Southern Continent?” asked the Harper.
Piemur was rather sorry now that he had.
“Well, sir, nothing special,” he said, wondering himself. “Just things like Sebell being gone for a couple of sevendays midwinter and coming back with a tanned face. Only I’d known he’d not been in Nerat or Southern Boll or Ista. There’s been talk, too, at the Gathers that even if dragonriders from the north aren’t supposed to go south, some of the Oldtimers have been seen here in the north. Now, if I was F’lar, I’d sort of wonder what those Oldtimers were doing north. And I’d try to keep them south, where they’re supposed to be. And there’re all these holdless men, looking for someplace to live, and no one seems to know how big the Southern Continent is and if…” Piemur trailed off, daunted by the keen scrutiny of the Master Harper.
“And if…?” Master Robinton urged him to continue.
“Well, I’ve had to copy that map F’nor made of the Southern Hold and Weyr, and it’s small. No bigger’n Crom or Nabol, but I’ve heard from weyrfolk at High Reaches who were in the south before F’lar exiled the worst of the Oldtimers, and they said they were sure the Southern Continent must be pretty big.” Piemur gestured broadly.
“And…?” The Harper’s encouragement was firm.
“Well, sir, if it were me, I’d want to know, ’cause sure as eggs hatch, there’s going to be trouble with those Oldtimers south”—he jerked his thumb in that direction—“and trouble with the holdless men in the north,” he turned his thumb back. “So when Menolly talks about sailing, I know how Sebell got south without being taken by a dragon. Which Benden Weyr wouldn’t permit ’cause they promised that northern dragons wouldn’t go south, and I don’t think Sebell could swim that far. If he can swim.”
Master Robinton began to laugh, a soft chuckle, and he slowly swung his head from side to side.
“I wonder how many more people have put the same pieces together, Menolly?” he asked, frowning. When his journeywoman shrugged, he added to Piemur, “You’ve kept such notions to yourself, young man?”
Piemur gave a snort, realized he must be more circumspect with the Master of his Craft and said quickly, “Who pays any attention to what apprentices think or say?”
“Have you mentioned these notions to anyone?” The Harper was insistent.
“Of course not, sir.” Piemur tried to keep indignation from his tone. “It’s Benden’s business, or Hold business, or Harper business. Not mine.”
“A chance spoken word, even by an apprentice, can sift through a man’s thoughts till he forgets the source and remembers the intent. And repeats it inadvisedly.”
“I know my loyalty to my Craft Hall, Master Robinton,” said Piemur.
“I’m sure of your loyalty,” the Harper said, nodding his head slowly, his eyes still holding Piemur’s. “I want to be certain of your discretion.”
“Menolly’ll tell you; I’m not a babblemouth.” He looked at Menolly for her support.
“Not normally, I’m sure. But you might be tempted to speak when taunted by others.”
“Me, sir?” Piemur’s indignation was genuine. “Not me, sir! I may be small, but I’m not stupid.”
“No, one could not accuse you of that, my young friend, but as you’ve already pointed out, we are living in an uncertain Turn. I think…”
The Harper broke off, staring out the window, frowning absently. Abruptly he made a decision and regarded Piemur for a long moment. “Menolly told me you were quick-witted. Let’s see if you comprehend the reason behind this: you will not be known as my apprentice…” and Master Robinton smiled understandingly at Piemur’s sharp intake of breath. Then he nodded with approval as Piemur promptly schooled his expression to polite acceptance. “You will be told off as apprentice to the Drummaster, Olodkey, who will know that you are under my orders as well. Yes”—and the crispness of Master Robinton’s tone told Piemur that he was pleased by this solution, and Piemur had better be—“that will serve. The drummers must, of course, keep irregular hours. No one would note your absences or think anything of your taking messages.”
Master Robinton put his hand on Piemur’s shoulder and gave him a little shake, smiling kindly.
“No one will miss your boyish treble more than I, lad, except possibly Domick, but here in the Harper Hall, some of us listen to other tunes and drum a different beat.” He gave Piemur another shake, then cuffed him on the shoulder encouragingly. “I don’t want you to stop listening, Piemur, not if you can take isolated facts and put them together as well as you just did. But I also want you to notice the way things are said, the tone and inflection, the emphasis.”
Piemur mustered a grin. “What a harper hears is for the Harper’s ears, sir?”
Master Robinton laughed. “Good lad! Now, take this tray back to Silvina and ask her to fit you out with wherhide. A drummer has to be at his post in all weathers!”
“You don’t need wherhide on the drumheight!” exclaimed Piemur. Then he grinned as he cocked his head at his master. “You do need it if you’re riding a dragonback, though.”
“I told you he was quick,” said Menolly, grinning at the Harper’s consternation.
“Scamp! Rascal! Impertinent snip!” cried the Harper, dismissing him with a vigorous wave of his hand that set Zair squawking. “Do as you’re told and keep your notions to yourself!”
“Then I will be riding dragons!” said Piemur, and when he saw Master Robinton rise half out of his chair, he quickly slipped out of the room.
“What did I tell you, Master,” said Menolly, laughing. “He’s quick enough to be very useful.”
Though the glint of amusement remained in his eyes, the Harper stared thoughtfully at the closed door, his fingers tapping idly on his chair arm.
“Quick yes, but a shade young…”
“Young? Piemur? He was never young, that one. Don’t let that innocent, wide-eyed stare of his fool you. Besides, he’d got fourteen Turns, almost as old as I was when I left Half-Circle Sea Hold to live in the Dragon Stones’ cave with my fire lizards. And what else can be done with all his energy and mischief? He’s simply not suited for any other section of this Craft. Master Shonagar was the only person who had half a chance of keeping him out of trouble. Old Arnor couldn’t, nor Jerint. It’s got to be Olodkey and the drums.”
“I could almost see the merit of the Oldtimers’ attitudes,” said the Harper on the end of a heavy sigh.
“Sir?” Menolly stared at him, startled as much by the abrupt change of subject as the sense of what he said.
“I wish we hadn’t changed so in this last long Interval.”
“But, sir, you’ve been supporting all the changes F’lar and Lessa have advocated. And Benden’s been right to make those changes. They’re united Hall and Hold behind the Weyrs. Furthermore,” and Menolly took a deep breath, “Sebell told me not so long ago that before this Pass of the Red Star began, harpers were nearly as discredited as dragon riders. You’ve made this Hall into the most prestigious craft on Pern. Everyone respects Masterharper Robinton. Even Piemur,” she added with a laugh trembling in her voice as she struggled to relieve her master’s melancholy.
“Ah, now, there’s the real accomplishment!”
“Indeed it is,” she said, ignoring his facetiousness. “For he’s very hard to impress, I assure you. Believe me, too, that he won’t be in the least distressed to do for you what he does naturally for himself. He’s always heard the gossip at Gathers and told me, knowing I’d tell you. ‘What a harper hears is for the Harper’s ears.’?” She laughed to find Piemur’s saucy quip so applicable.
“It was easier during the Interval….” Robinton said, with another long sigh. Zair, who’d been cleaning himself, chirped in a querying way, tilting his head and peering with earnestly whirling eyes at his friend. The Harper smiled as he stroked the little creature. “Boring, too, to be completely candid. Still, it won’t be that long an assignment for Piemur, will it? His voice ought to settle within the Turn, and he can resume his place as a soloist. If his adult voice is half as good as his treble, he’ll be a better singer than Tagetarl.”
Seeing that that prospect cheered her Master, Menolly smiled.
“The drum message was from Ista Hold. Sebell’s on his way back with those herbal medicines Master Oldive wanted. He’ll be at Fort Sea Hold by late afternoon tomorrow if the wind holds.”
“Indeed? I’ll be very interested to hear what our good Sebell has for his Harper’s ears.”