A/N: For the background behind this alternate timeline, please see "Can Do No Wrong." Reviews are always welcomed and appreciated.
Anne McCaffrey owns and operates Pern, not me.
Bigger and Better Things
The weyrlings all stood at attention, in ranks. The Weyrleader read off the names of weyrlings who were being tapped into fighting wings. J'fren stood in the third row, watching the entire process, wondering which Wing would tap him. He didn't much care, as long as he was tapped.
The Weyrleader came to stand in front of him. "J'fren, rider of brown Shimuth, you have been tapped into Center Watch Wing. Clear skies to you, brownrider."
"Thank you, Weyrleader," J'fren calmly answered, although flits were wheeling madly in his stomach. G'tun, Wingleader for Center Watch, removed J'fren's Weyrling knots and fastened new shoulder knots in their place. J'fren's chin lifted with pride.
"Glad to have you in the Wing, J'fren. I know you and Shimuth will be happy with us."
"I'm sure we will be, Wingleader G'tun. Shimuth and I are honored to be tapped into your Wing."
G'tun grinned at the youngster. J'fren's aplomb was impressive, especially since G'tun knew the lad had to be nervous as a queen with eggs on the Sands. He turned to sneak a glance at Sl'tren and R'mef, J'fren's Weyrlingmasters. They were shaking hands and R'mef looked heavenward in relief. G'tun chuckled. He really didn't have too many worries about the lad. He had matured a great deal while flying in the Weyrling Wing. But he had led his WMs a merry hell his first few months, for sure.
J'fren was wearing his new wherhide, a gift from his grandparents, with the jacket dyed in Harper blue. He wasn't in Saldia's Wing, but that was all right. He didn't mind. He had moved into her weyr that morning and they were considered official weyrmates now that he was in a fighting Wing. His row moved to the side of the training field and he could see Saldia sitting in the stands, grinning at him. He returned her smile.
As often happened after adolescent boys Impressed, J'fren had actually grown a fingerlength or so. Saldia was surprised to see him on eye level with her, where before, she had been a little taller. And she was not a tall woman, by any means. He was still head and shoulders shorter than most of the other male riders, but at least he didn't look quite so much like a child, any longer. She chuckled, remembering the day he had the novel experience of finding his pants were actually too short for him. He was one happy dragonrider that morning.
That was when his grandmother had the Weyr tailor take his new measurements and send them to her, and she had his wherhide made, as well as other clothing. The rider of the Rainy Shades watchdragon had grumbled good-naturedly about the weight of the bundle he carried for J'fren. His grandparents were wonderful people. A bolt of lovely, sky-blue fabric was included for Saldia, along with a note. "I didn't have your measurements or preferences, but perhaps you will accept this gift for a Gather dress. Docena." And she had never even met his Nana! But apparently, Jeff had described her coloring, and the thoughtful woman had sent a fabric she thought would compliment her. It did, too, and the Gather dress was beautiful.
The Weyrleader dismissed the new Wing members and J'fren fairly flew across the field to his weyrmate. He hugged and kissed her soundly as she congratulated him.
"Congratulations, Jeff! Center Watch is a fine Wing and G'tun is a good leader. You'll do well under him. I'm so happy for you!" she exclaimed, although it wasn't easy to talk, he was kissing her so. She finally held him away from her. "What are you going to do first?" she asked.
"Get permission from my Wingleader and go home! It's been a long, long time since I've seen Nana and Pops! Do you want to come with me?"
"Well, he'll probably give you four or five days. I'll give you today to catch up with them and maybe come in tomorrow. How about that?"
"All right. But they want to meet you," he said.
"And I want to meet them and thank your Nana in person for that beautiful fabric."
He nodded. "Got to catch G'tun!" and ran off. Saldia sighed. All that young energy, and he chose to spend it with her. She was lucky.
G'tun was happy to give J'fren a few days with his folks, and the new Wing fighter flew up to his weyr and stuffed some clothing in a carisak and hopped on his dragon's back, hardly waiting to put his helmet, gloves and goggles on. Shimuth dropped off the ledge and blinked between over the Star Stones.
They came out of between over Rainy Shades Hold, and Shimuth wheeled around to the cot where Nana and Pops made their home. A field made a convenient landing space, although, true to its name, the rain was pouring at the Hold. J'fren showed Shimuth the big stone barn, where he could rest comfortably, although he grumbled a bit about the musty withie odor. "It's dry," was Jeff's short answer. "Don't gripe."
With that, he ran full tilt to the cot, and was soaking wet by the time he bounded up the steps. But, he burst through the front door, yelling, "Nana! Pops! I'm home!!" He had just enough time to take off helmet, goggles and gloves when Docena emerged from the kitchen at what passed for a dead run for her and all but tackled her grandson.
"Oh my Jeff! My son!" she exclaimed, as she embraced him, wetting herself thoroughly, but not caring in the least. He actually picked Nana up and swung her around in his excitement, causing her to squeal like a girl.
"Put me down, you daft child!" she said, then standing back from him, "Oh, let me look at you, Son. Not another sight in this whole world could make me as happy as seeing you standing there! And with your fighting Wing knots! When was the tapping ceremony, and what Wing are you in?" She said all this in a rush.
"The ceremony was this morning, and I'm in Center Watch Wing, with G'tun as Wingleader. And I'm so happy to be home!!"
"And I'm so happy to have you here. It's home again with you here, Son. I've missed you so very much."
"I've missed you and Pops too, Nana. More than I ever thought possible," he answered.
"Well, go on to your room and get out of those wet things and come into the kitchen," she ordered.
"Yes ma'am," he said and did as she asked. He padded barefoot into the kitchen, and Nana seated him at the table and put a pitcher of klah in front of him, a mug and a plate of cookies. "I was baking them for the youngsters for the Gather tomorrow. I hope the sun shines," she said. She looked at him again, hugged him once more and kissed him soundly, for good measure.
"Where's Pops?" Jeff asked, not easy to do with three cookies in one's mouth at one time, but he managed.
"Oh, he's up at the Hold. The Hold Harper has been sick these two sevendays and your Pops has been filling in for him."
Jeff nodded, and popped two more cookies in his mouth. He finally swallowed and took a long pull at the klah. "Nana, I've missed those cookies fresh out of the oven," he said.
"Why, I've sent you dozens!" she exclaimed.
"I know, but they weren't right out of the oven, like these are," he answered.
The back door opened at that moment. It was Tarel, and he was scraping mud off his boots and hadn't looked up. "The children saw a brown dragon landing in this direction. I know it's silly, but I thought it might be..." his voice trailed off as Jeff stood to face him.
"Hi, Pops," he said.
The older man's eyes filled with tears as he took in his grandson-- a little taller, a little broader in the chest, and with a dignity that bespoke a new maturity. He no longer looked like a boy, but like a man. The Weyr had obviously been good for him. Tarel's lip trembled as he said, brokenly, "My son. My own son," and embraced Jeff as though he might blink between any moment. Jeff returned the hug, tears running down his own face. Tarel finally let him go and looked keenly at him. "You've gained a bit of height, Son."
"I have. I'm as tall as my weyrmate, now," he laughed. "My head actually comes up to your shoulder."
"It does, but what have I told you these Turns?"
"Height does not make a man. Character does."
Tarel nodded in satisfaction.
Nana was wiping her eyes with the hem of her apron. "He was tapped into the fighting Wings today, Tarel. He's in Center Watch. G'tun is his Wingleader," she informed her spouse.
Pops put his hands on Jeff's shoulders. "We're proud of you, Son. We're proud that you're in a fighting Wing, but more important, of the man you've become. I sometimes wondered if I did the right thing, agreeing with your decision to go on to the Weyr, but I obviously did. Oh!" he said, remembering. "Where's Shimuth? You didn't leave him in the rain, did you?"
Jeff laughed. "No, Pops. He's in the barn. It's snug and dry, even if he did complain about the smell."
"Just where I was going to suggest you make him comfortable. Let's go see him, shall we? I've not seen him since he was a wet-winged dragonet."
"All right, Pops. Looks like the rain has stopped. I'll just go put on my boots."
Jeff, Tarel and Docena walked across the wet field to the barn. Jeff opened the door. "Shimuth? Come and meet Pops and Nana. They haven't seen you since you were Hatched."
The brown dragon turned and came through the door, to Tarel's and Docena's delight.
"He's a beauty, Jeff," said Docena. She walked to the dragon's head. He regarded her with a shining eye. "My duty to you, Shimuth. You're a handsome dragon. Bring your big head down here and I'll give you a scratch." The dragon lowered his head and Docena scratched his eye ridge. The dragon thrummed happily and touched Docena's shoulder very lightly with his muzzle.
Pops got the other eye ridge, and received the same caress.
"It is good to see you, Nana and Pops," he said to them, to their absolute joy.
Jeff sent a thought of thanks to his dragon, for honoring his grandparents by speaking directly to them and for using his names for them.
"Your dragon has excellent manners, Jeff," Tarel said.
"Well," Jeff laughed. "I knew I wouldn't be faithful to my upbringing, if my dragon didn't have good manners. Can you have someone put a fire on the hearth in here? And a couple of glowbaskets? It's fine now, but it's dark in there, and will be chilly tonight, and Shimuth will want to stay inside if it keeps raining."
"Surely, Son. I'll have it seen to immediately," Tarel promised.
Jeff ushered his dragon back in where it was dry but left a door ajar.
Nana took Jeff's elbow as they walked back across the yard to the stone house. "Now, where's Saldia, Jeff?" she asked.
"She said she'd let us have today to catch up, but she may come in tomorrow." He stopped. "Well, she'll just have to with the Gather being tomorrow! I'll have Shimuth bespeak Fralmith to tell her to bring her Gather dress. It's the one she had made with the fabric you sent her. It's really lovely, and looks so nice on her." Jeff's eyes went unfocused for a moment, as he spoke to his dragon. "There. Message sent."
"I'm looking forward to meeting her," Nana said. "Now then, Tarel, go up to the Hold and find out if the Headwoman has any fresh wherry breast portions. I know Jeff will want wherry and dumplings and skillet bread for supper. I've plenty of meal. Oh, and see if you can roust up a couple of fresh eggs. Legumes we have, and I'll fix mashed tubers, as well. Come to the garden with me, Jeff, and we'll cut some fresh squash and I'll bake it with onion and garlic. Then, you can help me peel tubers."
"Yes, Nana," Jeff answered, with a grin at his grandfather, who returned it. They were accustomed to Nana giving orders like a Weyrlingmaster.
Jeff was at his usual post at the table, having peeled and sliced a bowl of tubers for Nana. This had been his job since he was old enough to wield a knife without cutting himself. Nana was rolling out and slicing dumplings and tossing them in the large cast-iron pot where the wherry and broth were bubbling away. He walked over to the stove to check on the dumplings. They were cooking in their milky gravy and set his mouth to watering. Taking a spoon, he scooped up some of the broth and tasted it. Delicious.
"Jeff!" Nana said.
He pulled his hand back guiltily and looked to see Nana grinning at him.
"Does it have enough salt?" she asked, mildly. He nodded. "Good. Now stay out of it so there'll be enough for supper."
"Yes ma'am," he answered and started to slink out of the kitchen.
"Where are you going?" she asked.
"Just out to see what Pops is doing," he answered.
"Well, as soon as I get the skillet bread out of the oven, everything will be ready. Go tell him to come in and clean up."
Docena turned back to her cooking. Oh, but it was good to have her Jeff home!
The first thing Jeff did was peek into the barn to check on his dragon. The drudge had built a good fire, and the glows lit the old structure invitingly. Shimuth was fast asleep in the warm barn. Satisfied that his beast was comfortable, Jeff walked behind the house, where Tarel was sitting on the stone bench, looking at the vegetable garden. He seated himself beside his grandfather. "Looks like everything is growing well this season, Pops."
Tarel chewed contentedly on a grass stem. "I think so," he said. "Everything has come up real well this year. The berries are in season, too, so there should be plenty of bubbly pies for sale at the Gather. Do you still like them?" he asked.
"Of course. They're sweet, aren't they?" Jeff chuckled. Sweets were undeniably his weakness.
Tarel nodded. "I remember when you were just a wee lad, in first classes. Your Nana had made a batch of cookies for your class and they disappeared, as did you. We looked all over for you, and finally found you, behind the pink rosebush. You had scooped every last cookie into a dishtowel and were sitting there eating them, calm as anything. Your Nana was annoyed and asked you why you had taken all the cookies." Here, Tarel chuckled. "You said, plain as day, 'But Nana, I was just tasting them.' 'Tasting them?' said Nana. 'Yes,' you said. 'To make sure they all taste good.' What could we do but laugh?"
Jeff made a pained sound and twisted his face up. "Oh mercy, Pops. I was such a brat."
"No, no," Tarel protested. "You were a bright and inquisitive lad. Mayhap a little spoiled... well, a lot spoiled. We should have been better disciplinarians, but it was difficult. You were such a funny little coot, we couldn't stay angry with you for long."
Jeff just shook his head. "Nana asked me to tell you to get cleaned up. It's suppertime."
Tarel nodded. He and Jeff stood. Tarel put his hand on Jeff's shoulder. "I can't tell you how good it is to have you home, Son."
"It's so good to be here. I've missed it."
They walked into the kitchen, where Nana was dishing up the food.
As they ate, Jeff looked over at the stove. They weren't very common any longer. "How old is that stove, Nana?"
Docena paused, thinking. She looked at Tarel and shook her head. "I'm not quite certain. Let's see. It belonged to my great-grand-dam's grand-dam. The Smithcraft turned them out regularly before the Second Pass was over. It's cast iron so it doesn't wear out." She chuckled. "So I really don't know how old it is. My thrice great-grand-dam might not have owned it originally. It was my dower gift when I espoused your Pops. That, a set of dishes and four goblets. Oh--and towels."
Tarel laughed as well. "And we've hauled that thing over the whole South. But it hasn't failed us yet."
"And I simply will never become accustomed to cooking exclusively over a hearth. Oh, it works well enough -- but perhaps I'll send word to the Mastersmith to come and look at this stove so the Smithcraft can start making them again. Coal-fired or wood-fired, they're good stoves."
"That's why the cooking at the Weyr isn't as good. Well, they have the large wall ovens for baking, but not a stovetop," Jeff said.
"My point exactly. You simply cannot make a decent sauce or a frosting or any such thing as well over an open fire. It just doesn't work. The heat is too uneven." Docena dismissed the lack of cooking conveniences with a snort.
"They still have the big stoves in the Bakercrafthall," Jeff said. "Shimuth and I were on courier duty there for a couple of sevendays and I saw them."
"I'm glad to hear it," Nana said. "Now come and help me with the dishes."
Jeff was in his spot on the porch swing that evening, reclined and dozing. He was full to his ears with dumplings and skillet bread. No one could cook like Nana. The Lower Caverns had some good cooks, but none like his grandmother.
"Jeffren," came Nana's voice. "You're worn out. Go to bed, love. I've made it up for you."
He opened his eyes lazily and nodded. "All right, Nana. I'll go." He rolled out of the swing and made his way to bed. It was a chilly evening and the bedfurs felt wonderful as he burrowed into their depths. And it was his own, comfortable bed.
Jeff was almost asleep when he heard the door open. Nana slipped in his room and as she always had, kissed his cheek. "Good night, dear," she said. She stroked his black hair and murmured, "My only dear son. I love you, sweeting."
Jeff smiled in the darkness. "I love you too, Nana." As she left the room and closed the door, a deep sense of utter contentment enveloped Jeff and he slept.
The day dawned sunny, for a wonder, and Nana was up with the birds, as usual. The Gather wouldn't be well started until on into the morning, so she did her washing and hung it out in the sun. The clothesline was near the barn and she saw the door open and Shimuth appeared. He appeared to be looking around him.
"Good morning, Shimuth," Nana greeted the dragon. "Are you looking for Jeff? He's still sleeping. He was that tired. I'm sure he'll be up in a while. I know you'll want to bathe before he goes to the Gather. I'll send Jeff out to you as soon as he's awake and has eaten. I wonder if you've been fed recently?" She didn't expect an answer, and so, was surprised when one came.
"Good morning, Nana. I am not hungry today. But I do want to bathe. I can wake Jeff up now."
Nana smiled at the dragon. "No, no, Shimuth. Let him sleep. He is very tired. Come here and I'll give you a good scratch, if that's what you're wanting."
This surprised Shimuth. He was not accustomed to anyone but Jeff, his Wingleader and his queen giving him orders. But Nana had the same tone in her voice that Jeff had when you weren't to argue. So, Shimuth gave an approximation of a shrug and lowered his head to Jeff's grandmother. She scratched both eye ridges, stroked his muzzle and scratched his blunt chin. "You're a grand beast," she crooned to him as she scratched. "A fine, brown dragon. And so good for Jeff. You've changed his life, you know that? Now be a patient lad and he'll be up in a while."
"All right, Nana," he said. "Thank you for the scratching."
"You're welcome, dear." She continued hanging out clothes, Shimuth nearby, lying with his head on his forefeet.
Tarel came around the barn and saw the picture they made. He laughed and walked to the dragon, giving him several affectionate pats. "I see you're supervising the laundry. Good for you! Make sure she doesn't drop anything, now," he said to Shimuth.
"Good morning, Pops. She hasn't dropped anything, yet," the dragon replied. Tarel laughed out loud.
"Ah, you have a sense of humor, too! Well, like rider, like dragon," he said and disappeared behind the house.
Jeff finally woke, and was disoriented for a moment, without Saldia next to him, and his own room surrounding him. He threw on some clothes and went to the kitchen. It was a Gather day, he remembered, which explained why breakfast was bread, butter, fruit preserves and klah. They would all eat a lot more later on.
He ate and wondered if Shimuth was awake.
"Yes, I'm awake," came the answer.
"Well, why didn't you wake me up?" he asked the dragon.
"Nana told me not to. She said you were tired and I was to let you sleep," the dragon replied.
Jeff laughed at the thought of his diminutive grandmother issuing orders to his big dragon. Well, well. And Shimuth obeyed! Even funnier.
He walked outside to see Nana hanging laundry, and Shimuth waiting on him by the barn. The dragon looked a little reproachfully at his rider, but Jeff couldn't keep from grinning.
"It isn't funny, Nana ordering me around like that. You are my rider," the dragon said.
"It is funny, Shimuth," Jeff chuckled, then explained, "When you're here, you'll just have to get used to it. When Nana tells you to do something, or not do something concerning her ideas of my comfort and well-being, you'll just have to mind her. She considers herself in ultimate authority over what's good for me, and she will brook no dispute in that area, even from my dragon. It's like arguing with a herdbeast--does you no good, and annoys the herdbeast. So, just go along with her and everyone will be happier."
"She doesn't understand--you are my rider!" Shimuth was getting indignant. Jeff waved to his grandmother. They were walking to the river for his bath by this time.
"No, maybe she doesn't completely understand. But she raised me and always thinks she knows what's best for me. Just mind her and we'll be fine. Do you understand me on this?"
"Yes, Jeff. But I don't have to like it".
"No, you don't. But let's get you bathed. Gather starts soon, and I imagine Fralmith and Saldia will be here before long."
Shimuth was bathed and oiled and they were walking back to the cot when Jeff heard Fralmith's bugles of greeting. He looked up and saw his weyrmate, wheeling in to land. He waved at her and ran out to the field. Saldia was dismounting and smiled at him as he met her. She dragged off her helmet, goggles and gloves and tossed them on the ground as Jeff caught her and embraced her, kissing her.
"Good morning, sweet Sally," he said. "I'm glad you're here. Did you remember your Gather dress?" he asked.
"Good morning to you," she replied. " Not only did I remember my Gather clothes, but yours, too!"
He winced. "Shards. I didn't even think before I left. I forgot to ask you to bring them yesterday, but you thought of it! You're the best!"
Saldia chuckled, "Thank you. But let's go get these things hauled in and get you dressed. You're wet, so I suppose you're clean?"
"Yes, I bathed when Shimuth did. Figured I might as well."
Saldia nodded understandingly and started unpacking parcels from Fralmith's back. She handed her weyrmate a bundle and took one herself. They walked toward the cot.
"I suppose I don't have to ask if your grandparents were glad to see you. I know they were," Saldia said.
"You can't imagine how good it was to see them after so long. I never knew how much I missed them both," Jeff replied.
"I know you've missed them." She shaded her eyes. "Is that your grandmother out by that rosebush?" she asked.
Jeff looked in that direction. "Oh, yeah. She's always grubbing around those flowers. She loves it."
"How did your grandparents meet?"
"Pops was at his first posting as a junior journeyman, assisting the Harper at Dragon's Gate Hold. Nana was only 19 and Pops was, I think about 23. It was love at first sight, from what they tell me," he answered.
She nodded. "Sounds like it. I have to tell you though: I'm a little nervous about meeting them. What if they think I'm not good enough for their precious grandson?"
Jeff shook his head. "Not them. They know the dragons choose, and if I thought enough of you to stay around after the flight, well, you're good enough. You already have Nana's approval since she likes the way you cut my hair. Although she wishes it were shorter." He laughed.
His weyrmate smiled and ruffled his thick hair. "It's too pretty to be real short. But I'm glad she likes the cut. I was pleased with it."
They had reached the cot and Docena came out of the flower garden. "Jeff! There you are! I've been looking... Oh! Well, you must be Saldia. I'm so pleased to finally meet you!" Nana held out her hand and took Saldia's graciously. "Come in. Come in. You'll want to get out of that wherhide and freshen up for the Gather. I'll have something cool for you to drink when you are finished." She showed Saldia into the cot, Jeff following behind. They went to his room to deposit their things and dress.
"Come on, love. I suggest you put something nice on to wear for the day and then put that new dress on for the dancing. That's what I'm planning on doing," Jeff said, as he searched through his clothes in the bundle Saldia had brought.
"Where can I put my good dress? I don't want to have to come all the way back to the cot for it," she answered.
"You can put it in the women's dressing room at the Hold. They always have one for guests who don't want to wear their very best until the dancing starts." He found what he was looking for: his Gather best and extra pants and a shirt. He carefully folded up the best clothes into a carisak and then went to the mirror. His hair was nearly dry, and he brushed it neatly. He donned shirt and pants and turned to see Saldia, tying her wraparound skirt into an attractive knot and tucking her top in. She brushed her hair, then, using the brush to curl it under at her chin, into the style she liked best.
She was a pretty woman, Jeff thought, looking at her honey-blonde hair and summer blue eyes. A very pretty woman. She didn't look anywhere close to her age, in spite of having mothered three children.
"What is it?" she asked as she fastened on her earrings.
"Nothing. Just admiring my lovely weyrmate," Jeff said, with a roguish grin.
She pinkened a bit. "Oh you. You're just telling me that." She paused. "But keep on telling me. I like to hear it."
Jeff embraced her. "I will. Don't worry."
Nana had cold redfruit juice and a plate of cheeses and crisp bread on the table in the kitchen when they walked in. "I thought you might not have had time for much this morning," she said, shooting a glare at Jeff as he reached for the plate. Guiltily, he dropped his hand and waited for Saldia to make her selection. She grinned at him and pushed the plate over.
"My heavens, Jeffren!" Nana exclaimed. "You ate half that bread loaf this morning and you want something else? Is your appetite ever going to level off?"
Jeff shrugged in mid-chew. Saldia smiled. "Well, Docena, we can eat about anytime in the Weyr -- there's always stew on the fire -- and with Jeff training so much, I guess I haven't noticed how much he eats."
"I can tell you this: he consumed over half a kettle of wherry and dumplings last night at supper. I thought he never was going to get full. But watch him today at the Gather. He has a sweet tooth and I have no doubt he'll make a dent in anything the folk with the Bakercraft stall have today."
"I'll keep an eye on him," Saldia promised.
"Tarel said that Harper Partal told him you could take a turn at the music tonight anytime you felt like it. They'll pay you Harper scale for it. He's still sick, so they're glad to have anyone who will play a set, and your Pops said you were welcome to use his gitar," Docena informed her grandson.
"All right. That sounds good. I can always use the marks," Jeff replied.
"You'll take a Harper's turn?" Saldia asked.
"Absolutely. It's been a while and I enjoy it. They pay four marks a turn, so it's worth my while to do it."
"Sounds like it," Saldia said.
"Tell me about how your grandparents got the cot," Saldia said, as the walked up the hill to the Hold.
"Well, when Pops retired as the Hold Harper, he offered to give up the place to the new Harper, but Fernal had, oh, seven children, I think, when he was posted here, and they needed a bigger place. So Lursin, who was the Holder then, built him a new cot. Looks more like a hall," Jeff chuckled. "Anyway, Pops paid Lursin something for the cot and it's his, by the Charter. And mine, by Pops' designation, if I ever choose to leave the Weyr for any reason."
"You'd leave the Weyr?" Saldia asked, puzzled.
"Well, if the Teaching Songs are right, the next Pass will probably begin in my lifetime. You never know. Things happen."
Saldia nodded. "They do, but I'd rather not think about that now," she said.
"Me either," Jeff replied. "Especially not on Gather day!"
The Gather had just started when Jeff and Saldia arrived. They stowed their things in the dressing rooms and Jeff left his gitar and pipes in the Hold Harper's office. Gathers at Rainy Shades usually waited until mid-morning to begin, to be more sure of the weather.
Jeff and Saldia walked among the stalls, looking at all the wares for sale.
"There are so many pretty things here, Jeff! It's good I didn't bring all my marks with me!" Saldia exclaimed.
He chuckled. "I know it. I always feel the same way. There are quite a number of artisans who live around here, so most of these things are locally made. Oh! Pola's here with her jewelry stall. I want to have a word with her about making a couple of things."
"Something for me and something for you. So go on and look at something else for about five minutes, how about it?" he replied, steering her in another direction.
"Five minutes is all you get, brownrider," she said.
"All I need. Now scoot." He went to the stall, where a woman about Saldia's age was twisting wire into a necklace. "Good morning, Pola. How's business?"
The woman looked up, "Fine, thanks. Can I help..." her voice trailed off. "No. It's not... not Tarel's Jeffren, is it?"
Jeff grinned and nodded. "Well, officially, it's J'fren, but call me what you always have."
"I'm not calling a dragonrider a snot-nosed, spoiled rotten brat to his face," Pola said, causing Jeff to nearly double over with mirth.
"Even if that is what you've always called me? I know I deserved it. I never did apologize to you for the trouble I caused you at the last Gather I came to before I was Searched."
"No, you didn't, but it blew over, and that's been Turns ago. So what color did you get?" she asked.
"Brown. His name is Shimuth. He's over at the cot. We just walked up here."
"Congratulations. What can I do for you, then?"
"Do you still do those enameled pins for dragonriders of their Wing emblem?" he asked.
"Sure." She turned to a box with several folders. "What's your Wing?"
Pola rummaged in a folder until she found the appropriate design and showed it to Jeff. "Is this it?" she asked.
"That's the one. Well, while you're at it, do two. My weyrmate is in Clear Flight Wing."
"All right. You remember, I back the badge with the color of your dragon."
"I do. And I want something else for her, when you've finished with that order."
"Fine." Pola grabbed a work request form. "What else?"
"Do you remember the filigree necklace you did in gold for Holder Ganty's daughter, several Turns ago?"
"Mmm, yes. It was a betrothal gift, wasn't it?"
"Best I remember. Well, I want something like it in white gold. For my weyrmate. She has a beautiful Gather dress in sky blue with silver braid on it. I'd like something to compliment it. Saldia's a wonderful woman and I'd like something special for her." Here he produced a sample of the braid from his pocket. "This is the braid on her dress. Can you do something that looks like this pattern?"
Pola studied the braid. "I think so. How do you want it to fall?"
Jeff grinned. "I don't know. The neck on the dress sort of goes like this," he said, illustrating with his hands.
Pola thought. She took her pencil and a leaf of paper. She tapped the pencil a moment and then drew a rough outline. "How about I do it wider at the top, and have it narrow to a soft point at the bottom? That will fill in the neckline nicely, I think." She showed Jeff what she had.
"Oh, I like that a lot. That's perfect. Now how much for my order?"
The woman smiled. "Well, the pins are my gift. I've got all the materials here. I keep some for each Wing at StarStorm on hand all the time. So, I'll just back them for you right now and you can take them with you. The necklace? Well, that's going to take some time. Gold doesn't grow on trees, you know," she said.
"Oh, I know. But there's not a rush on it. I'll even come and pick it up, if you'll send word when it's done. What's your price?"
"I ought to charge you double for being the torment to me you used to be. But I won't. How about this?" She wrote a figure on the paper and passed it to Jeff. He looked at it and pondered a moment.
"I won't even haggle with you, Pola. You do beautiful work and that's a fair price for what I'm asking. Done. And thanks for the pins." He fished the marks out of his pocket. "Paid in full, in advance," he said.
She took the marks. "You've turned into a good young man, J'fren. I'm glad to see it. I know your grandparents are. Just a tick, and I'll have your pins." She turned to her supply box, and took out the requisite Wing emblems she had ready and two backs of appropriate colors. She fastened them onto the backs and presented them to the brownrider. "Clear skies to you, J'fren, and I'll let you know when I have the necklace finished. It may be a month or six sevendays."
"Good enough, Pola. It's good to see you again. I'll look forward to getting the necklace." He shook hands with the woman and turned to find his werymate. She was looking at harness in the tanner's stall and he took her hand and placed the Wing pin in it.
"What's this?" she said as she opened her hand. Her eyes widened when she saw the pin. "Jeff, this is beautiful! My Wing emblem! How did you get it so quickly?"
"Pola keeps them around all the time. She just backs it with the dragon's color and it's done. She makes them up in the winter when she has the time. They usually sell well wherever she goes."
"I can see why. She's talented. Pin mine on for me, will you?"
"Sure. I'm glad you like it." He placed the pin up near the neck of her top. "There you are."
She felt where he placed it. "Wonderful. You're so sweet! Where shall I put yours?"
"Oh, on my shirt collar. That's where most of the male riders who have one wear them."
Saldia fastened the pin. "It looks grand. Now what will we do?"
"What were you looking at here?" he asked.
"Harness. And maybe some new gloves. He has some that aren't fur-lined I was looking at," she said.
"And fine gloves they are, dragonriders," said the tanner, coming over to them. "Sueded on the inside, with a fabric liner, to wick away the perspiration from your hands. Good for warm weather and lower-altitude flying, where the air is warmer, or for any manual work, either. They have adjustable snaps on the wrist, so they'll either go over or under a wherhide jacket, depending on your preference."
Jeff was looking over a pair. "Soft as butter, too."
"Aye, they are. Made from the hide of herdbeast calf. Not Thread-proof, but you'll wear these out before Thread falls again and you need wherhide ones. I make every pair custom-fitted to your hands.
Both were impressed with the quality of the gloves and each ordered a couple of pairs. The tanner took their measurements and promised them in a couple of sevendays. They paid the man and walked on.
Docena was quite correct about Jeff and his sweet tooth. Any stall selling anything sweet was a target. Three bubbly pies disappeared in record time, as did pastries topped with a klah-flavored frosting. He was still licking his fingers when Saldia pulled him away from another stall.
"Honestly, Jeff! You're going to be sick if you keep on eating that way!"
He laughed at her. "I haven't had a good time at a Gather if I don't go home with a bellyache."
"Not this go-'round you don't! I'm not staying up with you, holding your head while you turn yourself inside out all night long."
"All right, all right. Whatever you say. I'll do my best to behave myself. I could use a mug of klah to wash that last pastry down, though."
"Jeff, sometimes, I don't know what to do with you. One minute you're a mature rider. The next? An adolescent."
"Don't do anything with me, Sally. Except love me," he said.
"Well, you know I do," she replied.
"And I love you, beautiful," he said, kissing her on her cheek.
"Eeww! You left frosting on my face," Saldia replied, scrubbing her cheek with the heel of her hand.
"Come on. It's a grand day and there's a lot to see," Jeff pulled her along.
They watched some of the Hold youngsters in wrestling matches and a couple of runner races, although Rainy Shades didn't breed runners much. The most fun contests were the loggers' competitions. Rainy Shades had a large lumber industry, and the men who cut the lumber had log-rolling competitions in the water, block-chopping contests and other demonstrations of skill and strength.
Afternoon waned into evening, and Saldia, Jeff and his grandparents gathered with the other ranking guests for the main feast. Jeff ate as though he hadn't in a sevenday, much to Saldia's amusement, and Docena's chagrin. Tarel just laughed at his spouse and assured her that eventually, Jeff's appetite would stop rivaling his dragon's.
Jeff finally pushed away from the table. "I'm full as a first-fed dragonet," he said.
"You ought to be," his weyrmate drily observed.
"Let's go get changed for the dancing. I'm anxious to see you in that dress," Jeff replied.
"All right," she agreed and they headed to the Hold.
Saldia walked outside in her new Gather dress. It did look beautiful on her. The soft material hugged her to the waist, and rippled below it to her feet. Silver braid trimmed the long, blousy sleeves at their fitted wrists, and at the neck, with elaborate patterns of it on the bodice and about the hem. Her slippers were soft black suede, trimmed with the same silver braid.
Jeff's eyes shone appreciatively as he watched her come to his side.
"Well?" she said.
He took her hand and twirled her around. "Exquisite. There's no doubt I'll have the loveliest girl at the Gather by my side."
Saldia smiled and ducked her head. "Jeff, you always know how to make me feel good."
He just grinned at her.
She inspected him in his Gather finery, which he had assured her fit well, but she had not seen on him. He had a white shirt on, whose sleeves were a little bloused, like hers. It laced up the front, but he had the neck open, with the ties hanging carelessly down his front. His vest was a deep purple suede and he wore it unbuttoned. His shirt tucked into black sueded trousers, at the side of which showed his best dagger, a silver filigree worked with a ruby in the center. It had belonged to his great-grandsire. His boots were black, as well. Saldia just looked at him, handsome in his youth, his narrow hips, muscled thighs and well-shaped rear end shown to best advantage in the trousers. He was not one whit out of proportion to himself. A little taller and broader, yes, but grown more sinewy than bulky. She'd have to watch him tonight, for sure. Every female in attendance would be after him.
"Jeff, love, I don't think you need to attend the Gather in that outfit. It's dangerous."
He raised one eyebrow. "Meaning?"
"Meaning, I'll have to find a stick to keep the women off you. Great Faranth! Did you have to grease your legs to get them in those trousers?"
"I'll take that as a compliment," he said.
"It is. You're a good-looking rogue. I know I have the handsomest man at the Gather. Has Nana mentioned the continued presence of your moustache, yet?"
"Of course. But I just patted her hand and told her I loved her."
"She hates it."
"But you like it and so do I. So, for now, it stays," Jeff replied.
He picked up his gitar bag. "Let's go on. I'd like to get a couple of dancing sets in before I take my turn."
Saldia loved to dance, and Jeff was a fine partner. After the second set, which to older eyes would look much like a polka, they were both winded and glad to sit for a few moments.
When Jeff did take his Harper's turn, he played ballads and folk songs that had been in Pernese music since the Ancients Landed and for thousands of Turns before, but still were cherished pieces of their musical history. As always, his sweet tenor made the most of them.
Jeff pulled three more friends on the stage and they conferred briefly before beginning, "Pulled into Nazareth, was feeling 'bout half-past dead..." and by the time they concluded with the final chorus, "Put the load right on me," the whole crowd was singing. The applause was enthusiastic, but Jeff quieted the audience and said, "This one is for Nana." The soft ballad was short and sad, and the crowd had grown hushed by the time he sang the last line, "Oh, I believe in Yesterday," and he strummed the chord and let it die away naturally on the air. A silence descended for a moment, then the applause broke out again. Jeff bowed to the crowd and left the stage, to find Tarel waiting on him. "Son, you've been practicing. That was wonderful."
"Thanks Pops. I'm glad you liked it."
"I did. That's an old, old song, but it's always a crowd-pleaser. I don't know anyone who doesn't love it. Your Nana especially."
"You know that's why I did it. I couldn't take a turn without singing Nana's favorite, now could I?" Jeff answered.
"Not hardly. And she does so love to hear you sing it. I swear I don't know where you came up with that tenor, with your father and me both being true baritones."
Jeff chuckled. "And how strange would it look for someone my height to sing baritone? A tenor suits me all over."
"It does. It does. And you have a versatile voice. It's gaining depth and bottom. You can sing all the old songs. And Son, just because they're old, and we have so many new songs now, you know we don't need to forget them."
"Our old songs shape our new music. I remember, Pops," Jeff said.
"I'm pleased that you do. No go dance with your weyrmate some more," he said.
"I will. I'll do another turn in a little while," Jeff assured his grandsire.
His next turn was successful as well, after which Pops and Nana decided their old bones had had enough and they were going home to bed.
"Goodnight, love," Docena said, kissing Jeff's cheek. "Sleep well and we'll see you in the morning. Good night, Saldia."
"Night, Nana." Saldia bid the older woman goodnight as well.
Jeff and Saldia danced several more sets until even his energy was worn down and he was ready to leave. As they walked back to the cot, Jeff asked his weyrmate, "Did you have a good time, Sally?"
"You know I did. I don't remember the last time I had so much fun!" she enthused.
"Good. I'm glad you did." They entered the cot as silently as they could and tiptoed into Jeff's room, so as not to wake his grandparents. Once the door was fairly shut, he stretched and unbelted his dagger and pulled off his boots and vest.
"Let me help you with those fastenings," Jeff said, as Saldia started reaching behind her back to slip the catches of her dress. His deft fingers made short work of the hooks and eyes and he started sliding it off her shoulders, his mouth on her neck.
She gave a feline sound of pleasure, then said, "Aren't you exhausted?"
He pulled her close to his chest as her dress pooled at her feet on the floor. "Not for this," he laughed.
She turned to face him and unlaced his shirt front, untucking it from his waist and allowing it to slide casually to the floor. "I've said it before, but how did I manage to weyrmate one like you?"
He grinned at her. "I ride a fast dragon," he said, as his mouth came to hers.