As long as the people of Pern could remember, the Holds had protected them from Thread, the deadly silver strands that fell from the sky. In exchange for sanctuary in the huge stone fortresses, the people tithed to their Lord Holders, who in turn supported the dragonriders, Pern’s greatest weapon against Thread. But not everyone on Pern was protected. Some, like Jayge’s trader clan, simply preferred the freedom of the roads to the security of a hold. Others, like Aramina’s family, had lost their homes. Regardless of their differences, however, they all feared the outlaws who preyed on holds and holdless alike.
The Lady Thella’s renegades are the most dangerous yet—all they need is Aramina, whose telepathic link with dragons can help them evade the dragonrider patrols. But Jayge is out to stop Thella . . .and he will never let her have Aramina.
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Eastern Telgar Hold, Present (Ninth) Pass, First Turn, Third Month, Fourth Day
Jayge had hoped his father would stay longer at Kimmage Hold. He did not want to leave as long as he and his shaggy mare were doing so well in races against the holder boys’ runners. Fairex looked so clumsy with her winter hair that it had been easy to fool the other lads into wagering against her. And to give the Kimmage boys their due, they had not warned off any of the outholders who came in with their fathers to visit the main Hold. So Jayge now had a most satisfactory collection of credit bits, almost enough to trade for a saddle when next their wagons encountered those of the Plater clan. He needed only another race or two—just a seven day more.
The Lilcamps had been at Kimmage all through the wet spring. Why did his father want to move out now? No one argued with Crenden. He was fair but tough, and although he was not a very big man, anyone who had experienced his fist—and Jayge still did at times—knew that he was far stronger than he looked. Just as a holder, major or minor, was the final authority on his property, so Crenden was obeyed by his kin. A shrewd trader, a hard worker, and honest in all his dealings, he was welcome in those smaller, less accessible holds that were unable to get to the main Gathers on a regular basis. To be sure, some Crafts sent travelers on regular routes to take orders for their Halls, but they rarely ventured up the narrow tracks into the mountains or across broad plains too far from water. Not all of Crenden’s goods bore a Crafthall stamp but they were well-made, and cheaper than Crafthall products. Crenden also had a fine memory for what his clients might need and carried a varied stock, limited only by the space of the wagons.
So, early that morning, bright and clear, Crenden gave the order to break camp, and by the time a hot breakfast had been eaten and everything was once again neatly stored in the wagons, the teams were harnessed and all the Lilcamps stood ready to move out.
Jayge took his position by the lead wagon; now that he was ten, he rode courier for his father on the nimble Fairex.
“I admit it’s a fine day, Crenden,” the holder was saying, “and the weather looks to hold fair awhile, but the roads are hub deep in mud yet. Stay until they’ve dried out enough to make travel easier.”
“And let other traders make it to the Plains Hold before me?” Crenden laughed as he swung up onto his rangy mount. “Thanks to your good fodder and hospitality, my beasts—and my folk—are well fed and rested. That lumber’s going to fetch a fine price at Plains, and we’d best be on our way with it. The track is downhill most of the way from here, so the mud won’t be a problem. A little gentle exercise will work the winter fat off all of us, get us in shape for the hills again! You’ve been a good host, Childon. I’ll have those new clamps for you when we’re back this way in a Turn or two, as usual. Be in good health and heart in our absence.” He stood in the stirrups, looking back over the train, and Jayge, seeing the look of pride on his father’s face as he surveyed his clan, drew himself straighter in the saddle.
“Move ’em out!” Crenden cried, his deep voice reaching to the last of the seven wagons. As the beasts leaned into their yokes and harnesses and the wheels began to turn, there was waving and cheering from the holders lining the flagged apron in front of the entrance. Some of the holder boys raced up and down the line, yelling and snapping their drive-whips, showing off the proper pop! they had learned managing the Kimmage herdbeasts. Jayge, who had long since proved his prowess with the lash, kept his long whip neatly tied to his saddle horn.
Above Kimmage Hold, the hills were covered with fine stands of the timber that, lovingly nurtured and wisely logged, brought Kimmage holders their income. Once every five years they made the long journey to Keroon Hold to sell the timber that had seasoned in their work cavern. The Lilcamp clan had traded labor with Kimmage Hold for many generations, chopping and hauling timber, or, in the worst of the winter season, helping to enlarge Kimmage Hold into its rock fastness. Now the trees that the Lilcamps had felled five Turns before were loaded on the wagons. A good profit would be made of that lumber.
As Jayge leaned back to check his bedroll, a lash whistled past his ear. Startled, he swiveled to catch sight of the rider going past him and recognized the holder boy he had bested in wrestling the night before.
“You missed,” Jayge called cheerfully. Gardrow would have bruises today, for Jayge had given him some hard falls, but maybe the boy would not be so eager in the future to bully the little kids into doing his chores for him. Jayge hated a bully, almost as much as he hated someone who abused animals. And it had been a fair fight: the lad was two Turns older than Jayge and two kilos heavier.
“I’ll match ye again when we come back, Gardrow,” Jayge cried, and managed to duck out of the saddle as the other boy wheeled his pony, lash swinging above his head for another attempt.
“Unfair, unfair!” two holder boys yelled.
That caught Crenden’s attention. He hauled his spirited mount back to his son. “You been fighting again, Jayge?” Crenden did not approve of any of the Lilcamp folk brawling.
“Me, Father? Do I look like I’ve been fighting?” Jayge concentrated on looking surprised at the question. He had never mastered the air of genuine innocence that his sister could turn on.
His father gave him one long, undeceived look and held up a scarred, thickened forefinger. “No racing now, Jayge. We’re on the move, and that’s no time for foolery. Steady in the saddle. We’ve a long day ahead of us.” Then Crenden let the runner have his head and moved forward to lead.
“Jayge had to fight down temptation when the holder boys begged him for one last race. “Just down to the ford? No? Then up over the spur trail? You’d be back before your father could miss you.” Even the stakes mentioned were good, but Jayge knew when to obey. He smiled and, with a sigh, turned a deaf ear, even though winning would have ensured him the coveted saddle. Then one of the wagons caught a wheel in the side ditch, and he and Fairex were called to help get it back on the track. When he looked over his shoulder to ask the boys to help, they had already scattered.
Good-naturedly Jayge looped his towrope through the haul bar on the side of the wagon and urged his sturdy runnerbeast forward. The wheel came free all of a sudden, and clever Fairex danced out of the wagon’s way. Recoiling his rope and knotting it on the worn nub of his saddle horn, Jayge glanced back at Kimmage Hold, impressive in its bluff that overlooked the energetic Keroon River. On the other side the home herds grazed eagerly on the new grass. Sun warmed Jayge’s back, and the familiar creak and rumble of the wagons reminded him that they were moving on to Plains Hold where, he consoled himself, there surely would be someone who would underestimate Fairex. He would have that new saddle the very next time they passed the Platers.
Ahead of him strode his father’s big mount, leading the way along the track by the riverbank. Jayge settled himself deeper into the saddle, stretching his legs in the stirrups and only then realizing that he would need to lengthen the leathers. He must have grown a half-hand since they pulled into Kimmage Hold. Shards, if he had grown too tall, his father might switch him off Fairex, and Jayge was not sure what his father would have him up on next. Not that any of the Lilcamp runners were slugs, but they would not fool other kids the way Fairex had.
They had been several hours on the trail and were nearly ready for a nooning stop when the cry went up: “Rider coming fast!” Crenden raised his arm to signal a halt, then swung his big mount around and looked back the way they had come. The messenger, racing after them, was plainly visible.
“Crenden,” the oldest Kimmage son cried, yanking his runner to a stop. His message came out in gasps. “My father says—come back—all speed. Harper message.” Hauling a scroll out of his belt and thrusting it at Crenden, the boy gulped, his face blanching, eyes wide with fright. “It’s Thread, Crenden. Thread’s falling again!”
“Harper message? Harper tale!” Crenden began dismissively until he noticed the blue harper seal on the roll.