Disclaimer: The world of Pern belongs to the wonderful Anne McCaffrey, but most of these characters are mine.
Thanks for reading, I hope you enjoy the story!
Ransom hadn't intended to make a mess of things the first time he was fostered. Sent out with a swollen lip and spectacular bruises blooming around his eye, he had sworn to be better. Granted, he had been thirteen at the time, and adolescence did little to help him uphold his intentions. Two Turns later, he faced the gates of a new Hold with fresh bruises and crumbling hopes.
"What do you reckon this place'll be better than the last?" he mused, half to himself and half to the taller boy standing beside him. Roe didn't reply. He looked exhausted, face sunburned and peeling. No one would have guessed they were brothers. They had the same tangled black hair, but the resemblance ended where their foreheads began. Ransom was dark and compact while Roe was fair and long of arm and leg.
"I'm sorry, Roe," Ransom said, more for his own benefit than his brother's. "For everything." He hitched his pack higher on his back as the gates of the Hold creaked open. His shoulders were stiff and rubbed nearly raw. His wool shirt scratched his skin and he grimaced. At least the evening air was cooler and drier than what he was used to at Southern Boll. The covered cart in front of him lurched forward. He followed the column of traders shuffling slowly under the stone arch into the Hold.
They entered a wide cobblestone courtyard, the caravan curving along the Hold walls. He had never been to Ruatha before, but the stern stone and banners flapping limply in the wind looked less than welcoming. Southern Boll had been their home for just a few Turns yet he was already beginning to miss it.
A short, hard-eyed woman greeted their caravan leader, exchanging the necessary formalities. Ransom caught up to Roe, his feet aching in his boots. His brother gave him a tightlipped smile that didn't reach his shadowed eyes.
A few of the Hold's men set to work unloading the traders' wares, unharnessing the beasts and leading them back outside. The hard-eyed woman approached the brothers with a purposeful tread.
"I am the headwoman, Winna. You are the new fosterlings from Southern Boll?" the woman asked.
"Yes, headwoman," Ransom replied. "I am Ransom and this is Roe." He gestured towards his brother, who nodded respectfully.
"Your commissions?" Winna held out her hand. Ransom passed her a creased parchment and arranged his face into his best attempt at a smile.
She scanned the page and looked up. "The Masterharper?" Surprise softened the creases in her forehead and the corners of her eyes, making her look nearly pleasant. She glanced from Ransom to Roe and back again. "You're his sons?"
Ransom forced his smile a little wider, hoping it didn't look too much like a grimace. "Yes, headwoman."
Winna raised her eyebrows and returned her attention to the rest of their commission. "But only one of you is assisting the Harper. The other is a weaver apprentice, transferring to our Crafthall?"
"Yes, headwoman," Ransom replied. He glanced at Roe, who was watching him with the same tightlipped expression.
"Unusual," Winna commented. She folded the parchment and slid it into her belt. "We don't get many apprentices transferring in from Southern Boll's Crafthall. Usually, our most talented are sent to them."
"My brother is a talented weaver," Ransom said, attempting to keep a flare of irritation out of his voice. "Headwoman," he added belatedly.
Winna's hard brown eyes regarded him for a moment. "We'll leave that to the Master Weaver to decide. Come with me. I will take you to your quarters." She turned on her heel and began marching across the courtyard.
Roe looked at him and raised an eyebrow. Ransom simply shook his head and hitched up his pack again, following the headwoman toward the Hold. Ruatha was much smaller than Southern Boll, but inside the walls, it was a beehive of activity. Women poured in and out of the kitchens, bearing soiled rushes and steaming pots. Orders were being shouted over the lines of workers laying fresh rushes on the flagstones and scrubbing benches. Ransom paused for a moment on the threshold to the main hall, stunned by the cacophony. Roe pushed past to continue on the headwoman's course, glancing reproachfully over his shoulder at him. Ransom remembered himself with a start and followed, trying to block out the mass of noise.
They wove their way through the main hall to a wide staircase at the back. "Layla!" Winna called. A young woman with a basket of linens stopped at the foot of the stairs and turned, untamable brown curls swinging around her face.
"Take these young men to their quarters," Winna said, gesturing to the brothers. "They are the new fosterlings from Southern Boll."
"The Harper's assistants, headwoman?" Layla asked. She observed them curiously, the tilt of her head and her bright green eyes reminding Ransom of an inquisitive bird.
"One is. The other is apprenticed to the Crafthall."
Layla frowned and squinted between the two brothers. "The Crafthall? How will the Harper manage with only one?" I arranged for two bunks in the Harper's quarters. There's not a space ready in the apprentices' dormitory."
Winna held her hands up helplessly as she made her way back towards the kitchen. "Take them both to the Harper for now," she called back over her shoulder. "I'll have a cot prepared later."
Layla pursed her lips and hitched the basket higher up on her hip. "Very well. Come with me." She gestured with her head up the stairs. The brothers followed her a few steps behind. Ransom could feel Roe's eyes trained on the back of his head, but he ignored it and stared at the scuffed stone of the stairs. Layla looked back at them over her shoulder.
"What happened to your faces?" she asked suddenly.
Ransom's toe caught on a stair and he stumbled, throwing his hands out to catch himself. Roe nearly plowed into him from behind.
Layla snorted in laughter. "I suppose I know now."
Roe pulled his brother up by his elbow. Ransom righted his pack, his composure slipping. An angry scowl flashed across his face before he was able to school his features into a blank expression.
"If you're the weaver apprentice, I hope your fingers are nimbler than your feet." Layla grinned down at them from the top of the stairs.
"I'm not the weaver. He is." Ransom jerked his thumb over his shoulder at Roe.
"Oh." Layla raised her eyebrows as she looked towards the taller brother. "So. Transferred in from Southern Boll. What did you do, drop a batch of wool into the wrong dye?"
"He didn't do anything," Ransom snapped. He stomped to the top step and frowned down at the girl. She was nearly as tall as him.
She stared back, unfazed. "I didn't ask you. What's the matter, something wrong with him?"
"No!" Ransom spat. "And if there was, it would be none of your business." Roe gripped his shoulder in warning, but Ransom shrugged him off.
She raised her chin and her eyes narrowed. "It is my business. I'm a weaver as well, and I want to know why Southern Boll has farmed him out on us. Other than journeymen and an occasional Master, Southern Boll only sends us their castoffs." Her foot tapped impatiently beneath her long skirt. One of her eyes was noticeably larger than the other, giving her an unnerving gaze.
Ransom glowered at her. She continued to wait, unmoved by his baleful glares.
"He's deaf," Ransom muttered finally.
The corners of Layla's lips tightened slightly, but the rest of her face remained emotionless. "I see," she said and shrugged. "Let's just hope he'll catch up quickly."
"He's perfectly capable," Ransom said firmly. "He doesn't need to catch up." Roe was looking quizzically from his brother to the girl, his forehead crinkled. Ransom shook his head. The other boy rolled his eyes and crossed his arms in response.
"This way," Layla said, setting off down the wide corridor. "I have work to get back to." They turned down a stone hallway and ascended a set of stairs that opened up onto a second storey gallery overlooking the Hold courtyard. Layla pushed open the first door and led them inside. The room was small, occupied only by a chest and a cluttered worktable standing against the back wall.
"These are the Harper's quarters. You'll stay in the extra room through that door. The Harper's sleeping room is on the right." Layla nodded toward Ransom. "Both of you can leave your things here until we find a place for him in the dormitory." She pointed her chin at Roe. "Can he understand me at all?"
Ransom swallowed a sigh and made a few short gestures to translate for his brother.
Roe nodded, his face brightening. He turned to Layla and brushed two fingers across his chest. The girl raised an eyebrow.
"He says, 'Thank you'," Ransom translated wearily.
Layla smiled. "Your friend is pleasant. You should try following his example." She stepped backwards out the door. "The bathing room is down the stairs in the hall should you want to get clean. You can eat once the Lord's household finishes their meal. Come down to the main hall and someone will take care of you."
"But what about the Harper?" Ransom asked, his eyes flicking around the empty room. Surely the Harper couldn't be sleeping at that moment. "Shouldn't I report to him?"
"He's out on Harper business. He'll probably return sometime tonight. You can report to him then." With that, she swept away, her feet pattering down the stairs.
Once they were alone, Roe turned to his brother and punched his arm.
"Ow!" With difficulty, Ransom squashed the urge to hit back, rubbing his sore shoulder instead. "What was that for?"
Everything, Roe signed, his blue eyes narrowed into angry slits. And for ignoring me earlier.
"I can't translate everything that is said," Ransom signed back.
You can at least tell me what's going on.
"Just follow my lead, and you'll be fine."
Roe gave him a withering look, his long arms crossed over his chest.
After what's happened, you think I trust you to handle the situation?
"Who else will speak for us? You?"
Roe shook his head, his hair slipping out from its tie at the nape of his neck, and sighed. I'm not in the mood for this. Do you want to bathe first, or shall I?
"You go first. I need something to eat." Ransom stretched his aching back and rubbed his neck. A hot bath sounded heavenly, but he needed to get his bearings first. A new Hold wanted exploring, and he didn't fancy waiting around for the Harper to come to him.
Try not to do anything stupider than usual. Roe shrugged off his pack, plopped down onto the ground and began tugging his boots off.
Ransom scowled at his brother's bent head and made a rude gesture before stomping out the door. The evening wind whistled over the roof of the Hold as he descended a narrow staircase to the shadowed courtyard. Rows of Threadproof metal shutters were closed over the Hold windows, even though the ancient threat was gone. The deadly spores had fallen sparsely and infrequently in Ransom's lifetime, but the sound of wailing Thread klaxons still twisted his stomach in anxiety. As a child in the Harper Hall, he had been raised on a diet of Thread horror stories like other children were raised on tubers and greens. Thankfully, the fear-stricken hours of huddling inside the stuffy Hall while Thread fell outside were over. Or so everyone hoped.
The last Thread of the Eighth Pass had fallen nearly six months ago. Ransom and Roe were at Southern Boll when the celebration began across Pern. Ransom had drummed and piped till his fingers were raw and his mouth dry to accompany the dancing that went into the night. Although he was only an apprentice, he had performed nearly as much as the journeymen harpers stationed in the Hold.
Just as the holders had become accustomed to the months passing without ever hearing the Thread klaxon scream, disturbing news was run in from Fort. The Weyr was empty. Entire Wings of dragons and riders had vanished overnight like the family silver after hosting Bitran houseguests. Ransom used to be able to see the Fort watchdragon on the heights from his window in the Harper Hall. He was stunned to think that the ever vigilant dragons were gone.
It only worsened as more runners came in from the far north, and as fishing ships docked at the Hold after crossing the bay, bearing dark news alongside crates of gutted packtails. Five of the six Weyrs that defended Pern for thousands of Turns had been inexplicably abandoned. No trace of the missing dragonriders was found, not even a pebble of firestone or a shriveled shard of eggshell. Only Benden Weyr remained populated, left to watch the skies alone.
The lingering air of celebration in Southern Boll was strangled by a paralyzing fear even stronger than the apprehension of Thread all Pernese had bred in them. The ovine flocks that had gradually been allowed to wander farther afield were herded back into tight enclosures. The Hold drudges hunched their shoulders and watched the sky fearfully each time they were forced outside to dump a bucket of compost, as if expecting silvery spores to appear at any moment. Although the Red Star was no longer visible in the heavens, the weaver apprentices whispered over their vats of dye about the return of Thread. If the Red Star somehow turned back on its path and sent deadly rain down on Pern again, they would all be doomed.
Ransom filled his lungs with the cool fresh air, clearing his throat of the gritty dust from the road. The topic of the Weyrs' disappearance had long been exhausted in both talk and thought. He had his own concerns to worry about.
He had traced a winding path through the courtyard into a service hallway at the side of the kitchens. He wasn't wearing his apprentice badge, and was grateful for the anonymity as the holdfolk bustling past didn't even notice him. It was refreshing not to have eyes follow him warily around a room. The kitchens were a frenzy of activity as the final touches were made to dishes to carry out to the Lord's household. Harried-looking women frantically ladled fragrant sauces over a side of roasted wherry. Ransom spotted Winna sticking burned fingers in her mouth as she pulled a tray of freshly baked bread from the oven. His stomach growled and he swallowed the moisture gathering in his mouth.
"You! Harper boy!"
Ransom turned to see Layla waving him over from behind a bulbous pot of simmering soup. Her hair was even wilder from the heat and moisture in the air, fanning out around her head like a dusty brown corona.
"Come here!" she called. "You'll want some soup."
Ransom dodged around a drudge carrying a cask of wine on one shoulder, getting roundly cursed for his efforts. "I thought I could eat only after the Lord's household was done," he said as he slipped around the girl to stand on a relatively empty corner of the hearth.
"You looked lost and hungry, so I thought I'd help you out." Layla ladled the thin broth and chunks of soft tubers into an earthenware bowl. She passed him a spoon and the bowl filled precariously to the rim. "Here. Lord Haligon isn't fond of soup anyways."
Ransom sucked in his breath as hot broth burned his fingers. The soup scalded his mouth, but what he could taste was delicious. "Thank you," he mumbled around a chunk of tuber.
Layla grinned, pleased to see him enjoying the food. "So where's your friend?" she asked, turning her attention to pouring soup into a porcelain tureen.
She made a face. "Shouldn't you do the same? You just traveled here from Southern Boll. I bet you smell awful."
Ransom scowled in return. "No one could smell me in here."
"I forgot to tell your friend to find me after dinner. I should show him around the Crafthall. I suppose you should come too, otherwise my explanations would be useless. What is your name, anyway?"
"And your friend?" Layla topped off the tureen with a flourish, spattering broth on Ransom's boots. "Oops. Sorry 'bout that."
"Roe. He's actually my brother."
She looked at him with round green eyes. "You can't be brothers. You look nothing alike."
"We're half-brothers," Ransom amended. "Same father, different mothers. He's the older one."
"I see. So, which one of you is the bastard?"
Ransom choked on a tuber, gasping as soup seared his windpipe.
"I suppose that's not really my business."
"It's not," Ransom finally replied once he stopped coughing.
"I take it you look like your mothers?" she continued blithely.
Ransom's grip tightened involuntarily on his spoon and he stared into the reddish broth in his bowl. "So I'm told," he replied. Roe certainly took after Kesandra, but Ransom had never known his own mother. She had died in childbirth, and Kesandra had raised Ransom as her own.
"Excuse me," Layla's voice interrupted his thoughts. "Winna'll have my hide if I don't bring her this soup now. You eat more." She picked up her full tureen and walked swiftly to where the headwoman was waiting at the entrance to the main hall. Ransom watched her go and shook his head. She was a strange girl. He ladled himself another bowl of soup.
The frenzy in the kitchen slowed as the Lord's meal progressed. Ransom finished a third helping of soup and Layla hadn't returned. He had lost track of her somewhere in the middle of his second bowl. Feeling a little less like his stomach was eating itself, he left the hearth, depositing his bowl and spoon in a tub of dishes in the scullery as he passed through.
He snagged an abandoned hunk of bread and made his way back up to the Harper's quarters. Roe had just returned from the bathing room, his black hair hanging loose in wet strands around his face. He was barefoot and shirtless, the greenish brown of faded bruises like inkstains on his pale chest.
Ransom tossed him the bread, signing once he had his attention. "That girl we met earlier wants to show you the Crafthall."
Roe nodded and finished folding his dirty clothes into a pile at the top of his pack. Are you coming too?
I've learned more lips, so soon you won't have to translate for me all the time. Roe had on the crooked half-smile he always wore when he brought up his disability.
Ransom grunted noncommittally. "I'm your brother. Get a shirt on so we can go."
Once Roe was dressed, they left the Harper's quarters, finding Layla in the scullery. She was scrubbing crusty pots, water splashing all down the front of her apron.
"There you are," she said, drying her soapy hands on her skirt. "I didn't think the soup was so bad to scare you away like that."
"I went to get him," Ransom replied with a nod in Roe's direction. His brother smiled and bowed in greeting.
"He's charming," Layla said with an answering smile. Ransom rolled his eyes. Girls. They always swooned over Roe. The combination of his dark hair and blue eyes did something funny to their heads. Little did they know how much Roe understood from their coy glances and the sight of the giggles they didn't bother to smother. He was deaf, but there was nothing wrong with his vision. Thankfully, Layla didn't giggle or flutter her eyes like a wherry-brained girl. She hung her apron on the wall and herded them out of the scullery.
"This way," she said, leading them to the side of the courtyard across from the main hall. She pushed through a small door in the outer wall of the Hold, emerging on a broad gravel pathway running down a hill to a squat building a few stone throws away.
"By this time, most of the weavers have retired to the Hold," she said as they walked. "But, one of the Masters should still be there to let us in. The building you see there is the workshop and storage rooms." She glanced over her shoulder at Ransom. "Are you translating?"
Ransom tapped Roe's shoulder to get his attention and began signing. His brother watched him intently, glancing every once in a while to Layla.
The path was empty, yellow candlelight glowing warmly from the windows of small cotholds that dotted the hill between the Hold and Crafthall. The sky was already the dark blue of gathering dusk. At Southern Boll about this time, the sunset would still be splashing brilliant colors across the heavens. They were farther north now, and the autumn days would only get shorter.
"Here we are." Layla pushed open the heavy metal door of the Crafthall, cool glowlight spilling out onto the gravel. Over her head, Ransom caught a glimpse of a high-ceilinged space filled with rows of looms and other contraptions he couldn't identify.
"Master Brenthon?" she called. "It's Layla, bringing a new apprentice."
"A new apprentice? What nonsense are you blathering, girl?" The thickly accented voice rumbled from the back of the large work room. "Come in, come in, you'll let in moths."
"It's not the season for moths anymore," Layla replied, ushering Ransom and Roe inside. She shut the door behind them all the same.
The voice grumbled something unintelligible. Ransom thought he heard "girl" and "impossible." Layla set off down a narrow aisle between two huge looms. Roe stared around as they followed, his eyes shining. He ran a long finger across a weathered beam on one of the looms, a pleased smile curving his lips.
The glowlight grew stronger as they approached the back of the work room. A broad-shouldered hulk of a man was bent over a table with his back to them.
"Master Brenthon," Layla said.
"Hmm?" The Weaver Master turned a craggy face toward them, bushy brows bunched over sharp black eyes. A hawk-like nose divided his face, casting half of his features into shadow.
"This is the new apprentice." Layla seized Roe's arm and dragged him forward. "Roe of Southern Boll Hold."
Roe gave a respectful nod. His eyes flicked helplessly to Ransom.
This is the Weaver Master Brenthon, Ransom signed discreetly.
"Southern Boll?" Brenthon faced them with his arms crossed over his wide chest. "They've their own Craft Hall. Why is he here?"
"He was transferred, Master Weaver," Ransom replied.
"And who are you?"
"Harper apprentice Ransom, also of Southern Boll."
"And why aren't you in your Craft Hall, apprentice?" Brenthon asked, his brows lowered so they nearly obscured his eyes. "Is the Harper Hall going their own way and sending out greenie apprentices instead of journeymen?"
Ransom's ears went hot and his hands tightened into fists at his sides.
"He's to assist the Harper Dared," Layla put in.
Brenthon grunted. "Unorthodox. An apprentice isn't qualified to pick up his slack. They should just replace the man."
"Master Brenthon! Dared is a fine harper," Layla began hotly.
"Remember your place, girl," he said, but there was no edge of anger to his voice. He turned back to the papers spread over the table, flapping a hand dismissively at them. "I've met your apprentice, now be on your way. He'll report in the morning to Levine. Close the door behind you when you leave. Season or not, no moth is getting at my yarn."
"Good evening, Master Brenthon." The stocky man didn't respond, already fully absorbed in his papers. Layla shrugged comically at the boys and led them back the way they came. "Translate for me," she said, poking Ransom in the side.
Ransom bit back an angry protest, rubbing his ribs. She had caught him on one of his healing bruises. He hoped Roe would learn his lips fast.
"Master Brenthon is the head of our Crafthall," Layla said in a hushed whisper. "He oversees the major commissions and arranges mentor groups. He's my mentor. You'll probably be assigned to Journeywoman Levine. She works with most of the newcomers and junior apprentices. This is the main workroom." Layla gestured around at the rows of looms. "Only proper yarn is allowed in here. Back there are the storerooms for raw wool. That's where we do all the washing, carding, spinning, and dyeing." She wrinkled her nose in distaste. "Apprentice drudgework. I'm just a Turn from making journeyman, so I've been spending a lot of time on the main floor. Lord Haligon commissioned a giant tapestry a few months back. It's still in the design stage now, but the clothwork itself will be Turns in the making, so I'll get to work on it once I make journeyman. Brenthon won't let any apprentices near it." She patted Roe's arm and gave him a sweet smile. "It might take you a few Turns to rate a spot on a floor crew, but I'll still come visit you in the back rooms."
She says she wants to marry you and have your babies, Ransom signed.
Tell her I want at least ten, Roe replied with a wry smirk.
"He says he'd like that," Ransom said aloud in answer to Layla's questioning look.
She turned her head away quickly, but not before Ransom saw the delicate blush rising in her cheeks. He thought he heard the faint thud of yet another girl falling for his brother.
"We'll go back to the Hold," Layla said, her composure back in place. She heaved at the door, dragging it open with Roe's help. Night had fallen outside, the battlements and high walls of the Hold a dim outline against the dark sky. Roe pulled the door shut behind them, earning another of Layla's smiles for his efforts. The crunch of gravel beneath their feet was the only sound as they made their way up the path. Ransom fell in step beside Layla.
"What did Master Brenthon mean when he mentioned that Harper Dared should be replaced?" he asked her quietly. He couldn't be sure in the dark, but it seemed like she shot him an angry glare.
"Nothing. I didn't think Master Brenthon paid any attention to idle gossip," she replied, her skirt twitching as she walked.
"Is there something I should know about the Harper before I begin working with him?"
"He's a good man. Why are you coming from Southern Boll Hold instead of the Harper Hall?"
"I stick with my brother," he said simply. She couldn't withhold information and expect him to sing his whole history to her.
"I suppose that's reasonable," she said in a tone that implied she believed otherwise. Their conversation lapsed into silence for the rest of the way to the Hold. She let them in the same side door they left through. The courtyard was lit by a few flickering torches hung beneath the upper gallery.
"If the Harper hasn't returned in the morning, come with your brother to the Crafthall," Layla said. "We'll need you around until we can come up with a better way of communicating with Roe."
"I thought you said the Harper would be back in his quarters tonight," Ransom said.
Layla shrugged one shoulder. "I said he'd probably be back. Doesn't look like it, though." She nodded towards the dark windows of the Harper's rooms. "If he does come back, tell him I told you to come to the Crafthall." She turned to go, but Roe stopped her with a hand on her shoulder. He looked to Ransom and began signing quickly. Translate for me, he finished.
Ransom sighed. "Roe thanks you for your kindness and wishes you a good night," he said aloud.
An oddly shy smile crept over Layla's face, transforming her from a jaded apprentice to a young girl. She bobbed into an off-kilter curtsy. "Tell him I wish him the same."
She told you to go bunk with the watch-wher, Ransom signed.
"Make sure you come in the morning," she said to Ransom, a sardonic expression back on her face. She darted away and disappeared into one of the Hold's many corridors.
Roe seized Ransom's head, wrapping an arm around his neck, and scrubbed his knuckles into the younger boy's scalp.
"Ow! Let me go!" Ransom pushed his laughing brother away. "I let you drag me around everywhere to translate for you and this is how you repay me?"
Roe's laugh was boisterous and unrestrained, echoing off the stone walls as he dodged into the courtyard, out of Ransom's reach. Two women exiting the main hall looked in their direction.
Shut up, Ransom signed. You'll bring the dead back from between with that racket.
They'd take one look at that ugly mug of yours and go right back. Besides, when have you been concerned with public decorum?
"New Hold, new me," Ransom replied.
Let's hope so. Roe's eyes were suddenly serious. Come on. We should get some rest for the morning. His long legs took the steps three at a time.
Ransom made a face and followed his brother up the stairs to their new quarters. It was pitch black inside the Harper's room, the glows by the door nearly dead. A few stubbed toes and muttered curses later, Ransom uncovered a fresh glowbasket in the side room. It was little more than a closet. Two thin cots took up nearly the whole room, the space between them just wide enough for someone to stand sideways. Roe dragged both their packs in and sprawled out onto the cot on the right, his feet sticking out past the end of the bed frame. Ransom stepped over his brother's legs and dropped onto the second cot. A weary groan escaped him, the fatigue of six days' travel weighing on his body like stiff wherhide. Roe was already snoring even with bright glowlight still filling the room. Ransom kicked his boots to the ground and pulled off his shirt. He realized belatedly that he still hadn't bathed, but he was too exhausted to get back up. Telling himself he'd wash in the morning, he threw his shirt at the glowbasket in the corner. The thick material snuffed out the light and he fell back into his cot, asleep before he knew it.