Author's note: Hi everyone! Sorry to have been gone for so long. Work has been crazy busy, and I've been working massive amounts of overtime as a result. I've also been busy working on rewriting the story again - not a major rewrite, but just some tweaking here and there - so I definitely recommend rereading everything. Plus, I have a Beta now (thank you PrettyLilah) who has read through everything and given her approval.
(I own nothing in this story except my own characters. Pern and everything else belongs to Anne McCaffrey)
(Nine Years after Avias)
Southern Boll Hold was dressed out in its best finery for the first gather of the summer season. Brightly colored flags emblazoned with the hold crest hung from the hold windows, flapping in the light breeze, while ships bobbed in the harbor. Gather stalls decorated a field with round tables framing a wooden square floor for dancing. Dragons watched from the fireheights, their whirling multicolored eyes adding to the gaiety as their riders mingled with the holders below.
N'kar paused as he stepped away from the traders' booth, listening to the harper music drifting through the air. He had come to the gather so he could visit with his family, and his mother and sisters had insisted that he accompany them while they shopped. Now the brownrider's arms were piled high with boxes and he was annoyed with himself for not escaping with his brother in law to the races. Even though he could barely stand the man, it would have been better than this! Thankfully the women took pity on him and led him to one of the tables surrounding the dancing square. He set the boxes in the middle of the table, and sat down heavily on one of the benches surrounding it.
Out of shape? Elanth questioned drowsily from his spot on the cliffs above the hold.
You try carrying around that many boxes for that long. Weren't dragons supposed to be supportive of their riders? He shook his head, absently pushing back the locks of hair that fell into his eyes.
"Your hair's getting shaggy again; you really should let me cut it before you leave." His mother reached over and finger combed his hair for a minute, before patting him on his shoulder. "You haven't talked about Nelladwyn at all today! How is my grandson doing?"
N'kar winced, "Nelladwyn is good. He's learning all his teaching ballads perfectly and says hello." It wasn't completely a lie; the boy's foster mother said he was doing well enough.
"Oh, how sweet!" His mother cooed, totally oblivious to her son's discomfort. "You should have brought him with you; it would do the boy some good to get outside of the weyr for a bit."
"I wish I could've... but he had chores to do." Another lie. However, Nelladwyn was old enough that the Headwoman, Manora, had probably started assigning him chores.
"Ah, here comes Bayhon with some food." She stood and rushed off with her eldest daughter to great her son-in-law.
"Nelladwyn's still not speaking to you, is he?" Sakina, his youngest sister, asked.
"No." N'kar sighed. "He speaks to me only when his foster mother or the weyrharper forces him too, otherwise..." The brownrider shrugged trailing off.
"Still blames you for his mother?" She probed her voice caring and gentle. He nodded, thinking of Llydwen, his former weyrmate. The holder girl had never been able to adjust to weyrlife and had left without a trace when their son was three turns old. Nelladwyn had been immediately fostered with a lower caverns woman, but apparently the boy had heard stories, and now refused to acknowledge his father.
"It wasn't your fault," Sakina started in an attempt to soothe her brother.
"That's not an excuse." He had been warned against taking Llydwen as a weyrmate multiple times. Dragonriders were hardly known for being monogamous and his wingmates had reminded him of that, and had pointed out that she may not be able to cope with mating flights. However he had been young, and had thought he could do it all; be a good rider for Elanth and have a normal relationship like his father and mother.
"What's not an excuse, N'kar?" Bayhon asked suddenly, dropping a tray of tubers and wherrymeat above on the table in front of them. His wife, N'kar's oldest sister, stood nearby carrying extra plates and cups. The tall holder grinned at Sakina, and then turned his attention to the brownrider. N'kar knew that the holder did not approve of some of the activities that went on in the Weyrs during mating flights, so he was already prepared to ignore any veiled insult or insinuations. "Having a heart to heart with your brother? How touching. Given him any advice on women? Y'know if a holder or hall girl just won't do it, maybe a greenrider will? I heard that more and more girls are beginning to impress greens, or maybe you prefer..."
"Have you found any land yet?" Sakina asked quickly cutting the man off.
"No, not yet." The brownrider smiled gratefully at her.
"You could stay with us at the hold once thread ends." His elder sister, Selema, offered. "There's always room for family."
"I'd rather find my own place."
We will not be indebted to holders again. Elanth said, echoing the now popular sentiment among weyrfolk.
I thought you were going to sleep.
I was, but then more dragons arrived and I had to move. There are two very pretty greens here now but they won't talk to me. There's a small bronze and a blue that keep watch on them constantly. The dragon sounded annoyed, They're very nervous.
Maybe they're coming into heat? The brownrider suggested in an attempt to soothe the dragon.
No, I would know. And no one else has seen them before. The large green isn't right, she's nearly as big as me, but she isn't a green.
How can a green not be a green?
I don't know, I don't understand. She's green, but she isn't a green.
I give up. N'kar's brain hurt from trying to understand Elanth's logic. Try to ignore them and go to sleep.
"Bayhon, do you have the wine?" Selema asked her husband.
"I thought you had it." For once Bayhon was at a loss for words as she glared at him.
"I'll get it." N'kar offered and stood up, checking his mark pouch to make sure he had enough.
His mother frowned at him, "I thought you wanted to visit with us?"
"I'm just going to get some wine. I'll be right back." He kissed her on the cheek, and started off through the maze of gather tables. Sakina tagged along as well, and he led her in the direction of where the food was being sold; figuring that the wine stand would be nearby.
They found a spot at the back of the line for the vintner, and chatted while they waited. N'kar relaxed, listening to his sister's easy voice. Unlike his mother, she knew not to ask uncomfortable questions about Nelladwyn and weyrlife. Instead she told him about life in the hold; he heard tales about the people she met daily, about the time the chains for Bayhon's cart broke, and the time Selema had overcooked the hold bread.
The line in front of them soon became shorter and then they were one away from the front. The brownrider studied the skins of chilled wine sitting on shelves, in buckets of snow from the barrier range, and hanging from their straps on pegs. He should be loyal to his Weyr and get the Benden red, but he tended to prefer a good Southern wine more. Unfortunately the Vintner didn't seem to have either.
Beside him Sakina sighed. "I wish they'd hurry up, I'm hungry."
"What?" N'kar gave her a confused look and she nodded her head towards the runner in front of them. The journeywoman deftly balanced a platter of food on one arm and shoulder, her simply braided hair bobbing as she tried to haggle a cheaper price for an already inexpensive skin of wine.
"… The price stays 9 marks, that's the lowest I go."
"But surely vintnermarks are just as good as fishermarks, or harper, or printer for that matter either." The runner protested, shifting the platter to ease the stress on her wrist.
"Girl, need I repeat myself?" The master running the stall said becoming annoyed quickly. "I am a vintner; I have no need for vintnermarks. Now show some fishermarks or another type or move!"
"But…" The journeywoman started again.
"No marks, no wine. Now move so I can help another customer."
"How much is the wine?" N'kar asked stepping forward and gaining both the Vintner and the journeywoman's undivided attention.
"N-nine marks, brownrider." The master stammered noticing the dragonrider's shoulder knots almost immediately. The journeywoman, barely more than a girl N'kar noticed absently, quickly stepped away from him and shot him a nervous look.
"Hmmm." N'kar pursed his lips in thought and pulled out a handful of marks from his mark pouch. He counted out several of the worn wooden rounds then let out a heavy sigh. "I'm afraid all I have are vintnermarks…"
"That's fine, brownrider, very fine." The master held out his hand to take them not wanting to upset a dragonrider.
N'kar raised his eyebrows. "But I thought you just said that you didn't take vintnermarks."
"Benden marks of any type are welcome here." The master stammered, "Even vintners."
"Then you should have no objection to her marks." N'kar nodded at the journeywoman next to him before placing a couple of marks onto the table. "Two chilled skins of your best Istan."
The master scooped up the marks deftly and turned, yelling at his apprentices rapidly. Two skins were soon produced from underneath the table along with some earthenware mugs to drink from. N'kar slipped the straps of the skins over his shoulder like it was a firestone sack. His sister grabbed the other skin and the mugs they needed.
"Well …" The brownrider turned, expecting to find the journeywoman still waiting by the stall. She had already left with her wine though, the only testimony to her existence a small pile of marks on the counter. N'kar shook his head, strangely disappointed that the girl hadn't stayed around; at the very least she could have stayed to say thank you. Sakina started back towards the table and he followed her.
Looking over at the dance square N'kar saw that the dancing had started. The harpers were playing a lively little reel that had the dancers changing partners every few minutes and he paused to watch for a moment, tapping his foot to the beat. He missed dancing; Llydwen had been a horrible dancer and extremely jealous of anyone else he partnered with. Sighing, he turned back, not wanting to lose his sister in the ever-thickening crowds around the square.
The edge of a heavy platter slammed into his stomach, nearly knocking the wind out of him and making him stagger backwards. He smothered a curse and grabbed the platter in an attempt to steady himself and to keep it from spilling its contents all over him. The person carrying the platter gasped and N'kar found himself looking at the runner from the wine stand.
"By Faranth!" Her eyes were wide with shock, and N'kar had a feeling that she would have dropped the platter if he hadn't been holding on to it. "I am so sorry, brownrider. The music - it distracted me! Are you allright? Nothing spilled on you, did it? I'm so sorry!"
"I'm fine." He managed to say after a brief moment of sharp agony. He was surprised when a little blue firelizard stuck his head in the gap where the runner's ear joined her head. It regarded him silently, apparently too lazy to make a fuss at the distraction while his owner continued to apologize profusely.
"N'kar! C'mon, everyone's waiting!" Sakina appeared next to them. She glanced at the runner and immediately narrowed her eyes. "Oh."
He turned to look at his sister, noticing out of the corner of his eye that the blue fire lizard mirrored his actions. "What?"
"Everyone's waiting for the wine."
"Oh," He had forgotten about that during the commotion.
The runner stammered and then apologized again, "I'm... I'm very sorry."
"Yes, well, you should be. Maybe next time you should watch where you're going" Sakina's tone was acid and N'kar stared at his sister, wondering where this vicious tunnel snake had come from. He looked back at the runner, half expecting to find her still cowering – instead her expression had gone very cold and her eyes flashed with anger. She glanced up at him, as if she knew that he was watching her, and suddenly she was shaking so badly again that N'kar began to wonder if he had imagined things.
"Sakina, please calm down." N'kar closed his eyes for a moment, wondering how a simple accident could be blown so out of proportion.
"Sakina!" The brownrider barked again, "Please. I'm sure the runner here will be more careful in the future."
The girl nodded, and Sakina rolled her eyes skyward, turning her back on them while she grumbled to herself.
"I'm really very sorry about that." N'kar murmured, and let go of the platter.
"Don't be," The runner gulped. "I ran into you." She repositioned her grip on the tray, and held it over head so she wouldn't hit someone else with it. The brownrider could see it wobble slightly as the runner's arms trembled from the stress of keeping it aloft, and he doubted she would be able to make it very far before the whole thing spilled.
Making a sudden decision, he grabbed the edge of the platter and took it from her hands. "Why don't I just help you carry this?"
"You really don't have to do that," The runner protested. She stepped forward and reached up to take it back from him. "I'm quite capable of carrying it myself."
He snorted and shot her a look, easily keeping the food away from her. "And let you go and run into someone else?"
She flinched at his words but stopped trying to take the tray back.
"Good," N'kar smiled apologetically at his sister, and handed her the skins of wine he was carrying. "Here, take this back to the table and tell mother that I'll try to find you after…"
"This," Sakina finished for him, acting sulky. "I'll tell her."
She started back towards the table, shooting yet another glare at the runner over her shoulder before disappearing into the crowd. The brownrider sighed; at least that problem was solved for now. He glanced at the runner, "I'm sorry for her behavior."
The girl snorted and gave his sister's retreating back a look that could fell trees. N'kar chuckled; maybe she wasn't a timid little thing like he originally thought. She looked up at him, but wouldn't meet his eyes, "You really don't have to do this…"
"I don't mind." The brownrider cut her off then gestured for her to lead the way. The girl blushed and started walking quickly, as if she wanted to lose him in the crowd. N'kar had to lengthen his stride to keep up with her, and gave her a bright smile when she turned to check on him. She frowned to herself, but continued to lead him on, finally stopping at a table hidden far back in the shadows near the edge of the gather square.
The glow lanterns here were placed further apart and were dimmer, making it hard to see the details of what was around them. Even so, N'kar was able to make out the figures of three men sitting around the table. Two appeared to be harpers, and another looked like a simple holder. The holder stood to welcome them and gestured for the runner to take his seat, "I thought you would only be gone for a few minutes. What happened?"
"I ran into some problems." The runner nodded at the dragonrider while the holder took the tray of food from him. "N'kar here helped me out."
One of the harpers, a journeyman based off of his shoulder knots, gave her a worried look, "Where these bad problems?"
"One of the vintner's was being stubborn, and your friend was also having a hard time carrying the tray, so I volunteered to help." N'kar spoke up, gaining their attention.
"Yes, thank you for that again. I'm sure you want to get back to your family, they must be wondering where you are…" The runner said in a rush.
"How gallant!" The apprentice harper's face was lit with excitement as he cut her off. "Hardly anyone comes to the rescue of a damsel in distress anymore…"
That seemed to wake the runner up again. She narrowed her eyes at the apprentice, "I am not a…"
"We really must repay you," He continued, ignoring the runner's outburst. "The food stalls are probably all sold out by now, and there's more than enough food here to share…"
The girl frowned as she realized where the he was going with this. "Niranyal, no…"
"So why don't you eat with us?" The harper finished quickly, ignoring the glares of his friends. He smiled up at N'kar. "It's the least we can do."
The brownrider smiled, but shook his head, "Thank you, but your friend is right: I really must be returning to my family."
Niranyal pouted, but the girl seemed to relax in relief. She smiled at him, and N'kar was shocked at how the slight change in expression seemed to alter her appearance drastically. He quickly realized that, not only was she older than he originally thought, but also fairly attractive in her own way. "I am still very sorry about earlier though, why don't you take a bubbly pie?"
"Actually, I wouldn't mind a dance or two later… if you're up for it, of course." Her smile faded as she started at him in shock, and N'kar had to duck his head to hide his embarrassment. By the egg, he felt like such a weyrling! He had become so involved in some of the programs at Landing, and in his job as a dragonrider after Llydwen had left, that he was a bit out of practice when it came to women; especially ones from outside the Weyr. Not that he was even sure why he was asking the runner to dance. Sure she was pretty but her timorous nature was unappealing. However, there was no way to take back his words now, so he forced a smile on his face and blundered on, "How about this; if you are, meet me by the Vintner's stand in an hour or so… If you don't… well… either way, it was a pleasure meeting you Runner…"
She hesitated for a minute, still looking at him like he had grown another head, before shaking the hand he offered her. "Kai, my name is Kai…"
Kai. It was a pretty name, but it was short compared to some of the other girls he knew. "Just Kai?"
"Yes. Just Kai." She jumped, and gave the holder a look. "…I haven't danced in forever, so I may not be the best partner…"
"That's alright. I haven't danced in awhile either."
"I'm sorry dragonrider, but she really can't say to dance." The holder interrupted, scowling at them both. "It's a long way back to our hold, and we must leave as soon as the gather is over with."
"Ah, well. Next time then," N'kar bowed to the runner, and then left as quickly as possible. Oh well. It wasn't as if he couldn't ask Sakina or his mother to dance a round or two.