Authors: Anne McCaffrey
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 Ere 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 Crafthall; 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…”