The Drudge's Story 1

Disclaimer: The Dragonriders of Pern and all characters you recognise belong to the McCaffreys. I can only claim little Nelka.

Sharra turned to Lessa with a sigh.

"Now that's taken care of, I suppose I have to check on that child who served Robinton and Zair."

"Agreed." Lessa snorted. "Stupid girl! Did she really think she could get away with poisoning the MasterHarper?"

"Lessa," Menolly joined them after one last glance in the direction of Jaxom and Sharra's room, where her beloved Master lay. "You don't know what really happened."

"What do you think happened?" The tiny woman rounded on the newcomer, her body vibrating with suppressed emotion. "Menolly! That child almost killed them both, and Robinton is still –" she broke off, gritting her teeth. Sharra glanced between them, noting the unshed tears glistening in both women's eyes. She too, was still shaken by the image of the normally so active and vibrant MasterHarper lying in her bed, frail, shrunken, his skin tinged with grey.

Last night Ruatha had hosted a splendid Gather, at the height of which MasterHarper Robinton had been drugged and spirited away by a group of dissidents who thought to force Lord Jaxom and the Benden Weyrleaders to destroy the last link they all had to their amazing ancestors. It had been some time before his friends noticed that the man sitting where they'd left him was not the MasterHarper; was indeed unknown to them, and was dead. A panicky search of the entire Hold as well as its outlying environs had revealed nothing, and it had been early morning by the time the little firelizards had discovered Robinton in a cart travelling hurriedly across the fields in direction of the sea.

Sharra compressed her lips to contain her anger. She had been the first to attend him when Jaxom and his dragon Ruth had brought the still unconscious man directly to her bedchamber. She had seen the bruises he'd sustained from the wild cross-country flight, stuffed as he was into a narrow wooden compartment. She had also seen how blue his lips were, how grey his skin, and felt the faint beat of his weak heart. Too much fellis could kill a man, not to mention a man with the Harper's heart trouble. She had done all she could, and the MasterHealer Oldive was with him now. Time alone would tell if the man loved by the whole planet would recover.

"Weyrwoman Lessa, MasterHarper Menolly, would you accompany me and be witnesses of this interrogation?" Sharra asked formally, giving all three of them time to regain their composure. After a short pause, her companions both nodded; Lessa sharply, decisively, while Menolly's was slower but no less determined. Sharra relaxed slightly and allowed herself a brief smile. "I assure you, Jaxom and I intend to get to the bottom of this matter once and for all. I will question this girl – thoroughly – and find out all she is hiding." She turned and led the way, trusting the other two to follow.

She hesitated before the heavy door and then turned to Menolly.

"Menolly, please remember you're a Harper first of all. Maybe I should have asked someone else, more distanced from Robinton…" Her voice trailed off. "I need you to be impartial in this." Menolly flushed.

"I know my duty, Lady Sharra, as well as you know yours. We are all close to my Master," she waved an elegant hand at Lessa and Sharra. "But I, as you both, intend to keep my emotions in check. I am, as you say, Harper first, Robinton's protégée second." She smiled sadly at Sharra, who nodded assent before turning to Lessa.

"Would you be so kind as to…" Sharra paused, groping for the right words. "Use your full abilities?"

The Weyrwoman gazed up at her and quirked the corner of her lips. Whether it was meant to be a smile or a grimace, Sharra could not tell.

"Of course. I will see what I can hear from her."

Sharra hated this part of her duties. She was kind-hearted and disliked meting out judgement, and interrogating those caught misbehaving was the worst part of the process. However, as Lady of Ruatha Hold, she had to see justice done. And in such a matter as vital as this, it definitely fell to her to question the little drudge who had given Robinton and Zair fellis-laced food. Raising her chin, she gestured for the door to be opened by the guard.

Wide eyes blinked at them out of a smudged face, startled and half-blinded by the light flooding through the open door. The girl had spent the night in a dark room lighted only by an almost-spent glow, supplied with bread and water. As the women approached, her eyes grew wide and she cringed, trying to hide in the shadows thrown by the narrow cot. The serviceable Gather clothes she was wearing were soiled and one shoulder seam was torn. Her tangled hair fell over her face as she hunched her shoulders.

Sharra snapped her fingers for more glows and regarded the child as dispassionately as she could. She seemed young, maybe 12, already growing into womanhood, but undernourished and lanky, too thin.

"What is your name, age and rank?" Her voice sounded too sharp in the silence. The girl's only reaction was to snuffle and huddle even closer to the wall, trying to wrap her arms around herself. Sharra tried again, moderating her voice to a quieter tone.

"Your name? Age? What hold are you from?" A whimper was her answer.

A touch on her arm startled Sharra and she turned her head sharply.

"She's scared almost witless, Sharra. Her mind is in turmoil." Lessa directed her attention to the girl again. "Let me calm her first." At Sharra's nod, Lessa approached the huddled figure and spoke softly to her. She stretched out a hand and gently smoothed the rough hair, murmuring all the while. It always amazed Sharra how Lessa could be bitingly acerbic one moment and extremely gentle the next. To Sharra's astonishment, Lessa had convinced the girl to uncurl and sit up within a few minutes, and soon she was calm enough to answer questions. The darting of her eyes showed she was still afraid, but the terror had receded.

"Who did this to you?" was Sharra's first query, gesturing at the girl's face, where a dark bruise was beginning to mottle her cheek and brow. At first she had thought it was only a shadow, but when the child's head was raised to face the full light of the glow, she could see she had been hit, and brutally at that. After a frightened glance at Lessa, the girl answered softly, "The men who brought me here hit me."

Sharra inhaled sharply through her nose. The guards of the Hold ought to know better than to use such brute force against a child like this. However, perhaps she had struggled; and with emotions running as high as they had last night, it was no real surprise the men had taken what revenge they could on someone involved in the plot to harm the MasterHarper. Nevertheless, she would have to speak to them about this. Sharra disliked violence, especially unnecessary violence, being directed against children. She sat down on one of the stools which had been brought in and leaned forward.

"I'll see to that later. Now, child, we will begin again. Tell me your name, age and rank, if you have any. Name the hold you are from. Tell me everything you know."