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Authors: Anne McCaffrey

Dragon Harper (7 page)

BOOK: Dragon Harper
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He walked slowly back to the camp, pausing to touch the bark of a tree, check for the sign of animals, inhale deeply of the scents on the air, feeling more at peace and focused than he had since he’d first arrived at the Harper Hall over a Turn before.

He could do this. He could meet Vaxoram and win. But his good feelings faded as he realized one thing: He could not blind the older apprentice to win, any more than he could kill him. It wasn’t that Kindan didn’t believe he had the ability now, nor that he wasn’t willing to do either deed if there was no other way—it was that he realized that winning by those means would be a hollow victory, would leave Vaxoram so utterly defeated that the older boy would have no chance to redeem his honor.

Kindan had to find another way.

He spent the rest of the day in an uneasy, thoughtful silence.

He returned to the wherhold that evening and was grateful to be offered his meal in silence. Even the youngsters were quiet, their chattering voices stilled. Kindan felt guilty about that for a moment, then caught the eyes of one of the smaller girls and saw that she was regarding him solemnly, sharing his silence in a kind and compassionate way. He smiled at her and she smiled back, her eyes shining brightly. Then, as though that were too loud, she schooled her expression to be serious and brought a finger to her lips. Kindan nodded. He held her eyes for a long while. She looked away first, toward her mother, and Kindan found himself following her gaze, to her mother’s eyes. He continued, wordlessly expressing his gratitude to every member of the small hold. When the meal was complete, Arella led him once more to the massage table and, in silence, massaged his muscles until he fell into a deep, dreamless sleep.

“Kindan,” Mikal’s soft voice roused him slowly into consciousness.

Kindan opened his eyes.

“This is the seventh day,” Mikal said, his tone neutral.

“I’m ready.”

“You only think you are,” Mikal told him. “You have one more thing to do.”

Kindan sat up and looked at the ex-dragonrider expectantly.

“You must discover ten things to live for,” Mikal told him quietly. Kindan opened his mouth, but Mikal silenced him with an upraised hand. “First, we will eat.”

It seemed that the whole of the wherhold had gathered for breakfast. The children, including the solemn girl of the previous night, were bright-eyed and loud in the way of all children. The adults were also animated, and even sometimes coarse in their language. They laughed frequently; Kindan found himself smiling a lot.

When they finished, Mikal led him off to their practice area and indicated that Kindan should sit.

“Well, what have you discovered so far?” Mikal asked.

“To live for?” Kindan repeated, partly to buy time. Mikal nodded. “I want to live for my fire-lizard egg.”

Mikal nodded and held up a finger.

“I want to live for Nonala and Kelsa,” Kindan said.

“What does that mean?” Mikal asked.

“I want to protect them,” Kindan replied.

“Why?” Mikal pressed.

This is getting harder, Kindan thought as he grappled with the question.

“Because they’re my friends,” he said out loud.

“You could get other friends—that doesn’t sound like a reason,” Mikal replied dismissively. “Find another.”

“Because I love them!” Kindan blurted out, surprised at his words and the heat of his reaction. All his half-formed dreams of kissing Kelsa, of dancing through the night with her, maybe even of partnering with her, vanished as he absorbed that. He loved them both, equally, and neither of them as a mate. Kelsa and Nonala were special to him because he knew they loved and trusted him; he would do nothing to alter that—he loved them too much.

Mikal stared at him for a long, tense moment, then nodded and held up two more fingers. “What else?”

“For M’tal,” Kindan said.

“The Weyrleader?” Mikal repeated. “You want to live for the Weyrleader?”

Kindan frowned. “No, I want to go to Benden, become the Weyr harper.”

Mikal held up a fourth finger.

And now Kindan faltered, groping for a fifth reason. What if he couldn’t find five reasons to live? What did that say about his life, he wondered.

“I want to live for my father and my brothers,” he said after a moment. “To honor their memory.”

Mikal held up his fifth finger and waved the other clenched fist in the air. Kindan took in a deep breath and let it out slowly.

“I want to live for you,” he said. “I want to live so that you’ll know that your training helped and that you are needed and—” He faltered, nibbling his lip for a moment before he added, “—loved.”

Mikal’s eyes glistened as he held up the first finger on his left hand.

“I want to live for all that I can learn,” Kindan said. Another finger. “For all that I can give.” Another finger. “For all that I have yet to see.” Another finger—he was up to nine. “I want to live for me and what I can offer.”

Mikal put up his hands, fingers spread wide. “Now, do you know what you have discovered?” the old man asked slowly.

Kindan nodded slowly. “I’ve discovered my strength.”

“How many reasons does Vaxoram have to live?”

Kindan shook his head. “Maybe one.”

“That’s right,” Mikal agreed. “You have at least nine more reasons to live than he does.” He stood up slowly, stretching, and gestured for Kindan to lead the way back to the wherhold. “Are you ready to fight now?”

“Yes,” Kindan replied.

“And do you know what you’ll do?”

“I’ll win.”

CHAPTER 4

Fight only in direst need
Not for lust or petty greed
Honor those that do give birth
Respect them well for their full worth.

H
ARPER
H
ALL

I
t was only as Kindan felt the last of the cold of
between
seep out of his bones as the great bronze dragon, Gaminth, spiraled on down to the landing meadow outside the Harper Hall that he finally realized how he could win the upcoming fight on his own terms. A fierce smile animated his lips and remained there all the way back through the archway and into the courtyard of the Harper Hall.

“Are you ready, Kindan?” Master Murenny asked as he approached.

“Could I have some time to practice?” Kindan asked. The courtyard was full of harpers except for the large center expanse that was reserved for the upcoming duel. He saw no sign of Vaxoram but he wasn’t looking for him. Winning was no longer an issue in Kindan’s mind. All he wanted was to win without bloodshed.

“How long do you need?”

“Ten minutes will be enough,” Kindan replied. “And can I get some green tomatoes? Maybe half a dozen?”

“I’ll see if Selora can provide them,” Murenny replied, his eyes dancing in anticipation. Selora was happy to provide eight green tomatoes.

“What are you going to do?” Kelsa asked as she brought him the tomatoes.

“Practice,” Kindan replied enigmatically. He stepped into the vacant center of the courtyard, beckoning for Kelsa to follow him. “Throw up one of the tomatoes whenever you’re ready.”

“Toward you?”

“No, just close enough to lunge at,” Kindan replied, grabbing his blade in his left hand.

“Kindan, you’re not left-handed,” Kelsa said in surprise.

Kindan smiled and nodded, flicking his blade at her encouragingly. Kelsa swallowed hard, grabbed one tomato, and threw it up into the air. Kindan lunged, flicking his wrist as he did so, and the tomato landed, unharmed on the ground. Kelsa’s eyes grew wider, nervously. Kindan gestured for her to try again. Again she threw, again Kindan flicked and again the tomato reached the ground whole.

“Excellent,” Kindan said over the growing hubbub of surprised apprentices. He knew that to them it looked as though he had missed twice, but he didn’t care. He had seen what he wanted with the tomatoes: on each he had left a thin scar. Now it was time for Vaxoram to be scared.

“Throw up two at once, please,” Kindan said, loud enough to carry over the murmurings. The noise fell immediately. Kelsa pleaded with her eyes, but Kindan merely nodded to her. She threw two tomatoes into the air, unable to control their arcs, and they separated. Kindan lunged twice and both tomatoes fell to the ground—neatly cut in half. Around him the crowd gasped.

“And again,” Kindan instructed Kelsa. She looked at him with unmasked surprise and grabbed two more tomatoes. Kindan lunged twice more and severed both tomatoes before they hit the ground.

“One more time,” Kindan said, his voice carrying clearly in the silent courtyard.

Eagerly Kelsa threw the tomatoes in the air, their courses diverging far more energetically, but it didn’t matter: Kindan lunged toward one, recovered, twisted, and lunged toward the second before it hit the ground. Both were severed.

“I’m done my practice, Masterharper Murenny,” Kindan called loudly. He pivoted on one foot to view the whole courtyard, seeking out Vaxoram. He spotted him and stopped, gesturing with his other hand for Kelsa to rejoin the crowd.

“Good luck,” she called softly to him.

“Vaxoram!” Kindan shouted loudly, his voice echoing off the walls of the Harper Hall. Vaxoram looked up at him, his blade held loosely at his side. “Do you yield?”

“Hah!” Vaxoram shouted back, tromping into the center of the courtyard.

Masterharper Murenny and Master Detallor strode after him.

“Are you determined to do this?” Murenny asked Kindan and Vaxoram in turn. Each nodded, although Kindan noticed that Vaxoram was swallowing nervously, his eyes wide with fear. Kindan locked onto Vaxoram’s eyes until the other glanced away. Kindan kept his eyes on Vaxoram’s face, meeting his eyes every time the older boy glanced nervously in his direction. Kindan was certain that Vaxoram had seen the tomato demonstration, just as he was equally certain that Vaxoram thought that Kindan had missed the first two tomatoes.

“Very well,” Detallor said. “If that’s the case, I shall check your blades.” Both Kindan and Vaxoram reversed their blades, proferring the hilts to the Defense Master. This was a mere formality, as both blades belonged to the Harper Hall. Still, in all solemnity, Detallor took Vaxoram’s first and examined it carefully before flexing it and handing it back. He repeated the same inspection with Kindan’s blade and returned it in the same manner.

Kindan was glad to get his blade back in his left hand, and managed not to smile when he saw Detallor’s look of surprise—at least the Defense Master had paid attention. Kindan had counted on Vaxoram not to care which hand Kindan fought with.

Detallor stepped back, his own sword at his side.

“Salute each other,” Detallor said.

Vaxoram and Kindan raised their blades in the salute, then lowered them again.

“You may begin,” Murenny called loudly.

As expected, Vaxoram charged instantly. Kindan, who had been watching him carefully, waited until the last moment and sidestepped, pivoting around to whack Vaxoram hard with the side of his thin blade. He knew that the blow would at best leave a welt but would probably anger Vaxoram more. He was counting on that.

Vaxoram stopped and turned, eyeing Kindan, who waited for him impassively. Vaxoram started forward slowly, advancing in proper fencing style. When he was near enough to lunge at Kindan, he stopped. Kindan eyed him, waiting. Vaxoram’s lunge was telegraphed by the flaring of his nostrils. Kindan beat it aside and jabbed in return into Vaxoram’s right shoulder. He heard Vaxoram’s hiss of pain, but withdrew quickly and stepped back. Vaxoram retreated as well, his expression a mixture of surprise, fear, and anger.

“Do you yield?” Kindan called.

Vaxoram answered him with an angry growl and charged. Kindan parried and thrust again, but his blade slid off Vaxoram’s shoulder. Kindan retreated.

“Running away?” Vaxoram sneered.

Kindan said nothing, locking his eyes once more on Vaxoram’s. He was ready again for Vaxoram’s lunge, parried once more, but this time in his riposte he raised his blade higher and threatened Vaxoram’s face. The older apprentice jerked his head aside.

Kindan stepped back, to his right. Vaxoram stood en garde, eyeing Kindan carefully. The older boy’s sides were heaving, but Kindan thought it was from fear rather than breathlessness.

“Did you see what I did to those tomatoes?” Kindan asked. He saw a flicker of curiosity in Vaxoram’s eyes. “I can split your eyes just like that.” He saw a look of horror creep over Vaxoram’s face. The large apprentice charged blindly with a loud yell, but Kindan was ready and sidestepped, turning around to keep his blade pointed at Vaxoram.

Vaxoram stopped uncertainly. It was a moment before he turned to face Kindan. In that moment, Kindan knew that the fight was over, that Vaxoram was looking for a way out, an honorable surrender. And Kindan would give it to him.

He rushed toward the larger apprentice. Vaxoram took a step back, then held his ground, his sword in guard position. When Kindan struck, he beat Vaxoram’s blade to the side and curved back across Vaxoram’s exposed face—just below the right eyeball, leaving a thin, red welt.

Vaxoram bellowed in pain and horror. He charged, but Kindan was ready; he sidestepped once more, but this time held out a foot, tripping Vaxoram. He whirled around and stood over the fallen lad, his point coming to Vaxoram’s throat.

“Yield,” Kindan called loudly. He flicked his point up toward Vaxoram’s other eye, then back down to Vaxoram’s throat. “Do you yield?”

Vaxoram licked his lips, his eyes huge, his heart racing, his Adam’s apple wobbling, but he voiced no words.

“I won’t kill you,” Kindan declared, his eyes locked on the other apprentice’s. Vaxoram’s eyes narrowed in surprise. “If you don’t yield, though, I will blind you.” Kindan flicked his point up to Vaxoram’s left eye. “Think about that,” he said very carefully. “Think about it and yield.” He gestured to Vaxoram’s sword, still held in the apprentice’s hand. “Throw your blade away,” he ordered.

With a slight heave, Vaxoram threw his blade away. It landed not far from him.

“Now yield.”

Vaxoram didn’t move, his whole being clearly conveying defeat.

Kindan backed away and gestured with his blade. “Get on your knees in front of me and yield yourself to me,” he said, using the formal words he’d been taught by Detallor, words he’d never thought to hear spoken for real, let alone utter himself.

Slowly, Vaxoram rolled over onto his knees. As he did, one hand lunged toward his blade, but Kindan saw the motion and, with a flick of his own blade, sent the other flying through the air. He flicked his blade back toward Vaxoram once more, this time with the point resting hard on the top of the other’s back just over the left lung.

“Say you yield now,” he said, his voice rasping in anger. “Say it loud so everyone can hear, or I’ll pop your lung.”

“I yield,” Vaxoram said softly, flopping face down onto the ground.

“Get up,” Kindan ordered, nudging him with the point of his blade. “On your knees.”

Vaxoram pushed himself to his knees.

“Yield.”

“I yield,” Vaxoram said more loudly.

“Say it all,” Kindan commanded.

“I yield to Kindan, apprentice of the Harper Hall,” Vaxoram said, his voice rising loud enough to carry. “I yield his judgment on my body and I acknowledge forfeit to him.”

“What forfeit?” Master Murenny’s voice called from the crowd.

“He’s to serve me,” Kindan called back.

“For how long?”

“Until I release him,” Kindan replied.

“Vaxoram, do you forfeit?” Murenny called formally.

“I do,” Vaxoram replied, tears streaming from his eyes. He looked up at Kindan. “I forfeit. I will serve you until you release me.”

Kindan kept his eyes on the older boy who had just agreed to become his personal drudge. And he was surprised to see a sense of relief in Vaxoram’s eyes. The bully had found his place in the Harper Hall—at Kindan’s side.

“He’s not going to sleep with us, is he?” Nonala spoke quietly into Kindan’s ear as she and Kelsa congratulated him on his victory.

Kindan glanced over at Vaxoram who was staring steadily ahead, his eyes dull, his bleak expression marred only by the tracks of tears that had cleared paths through the grime that encrusted his face.

“Yes,” Kindan declared at once. “There’s a spare bunk nearby.”

“But—” Nonala cut herself off as she caught Kindan’s set look. “Okay.”

“Kindan!” Master Murenny’s voice cut through the noise of the massed harpers.

“Master?” Kindan called back, glancing toward the sound of the harper’s voice.

“Meet me in my quarters.”

“Immediately,” Kindan replied. He glanced toward Vaxoram. On impulse, he handed his blade to him. “Clean up the blades, then clean yourself up.”

BOOK: Dragon Harper
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