By Anne McCaffrey Todd McCaffrey
Random House Anne McCaffrey Todd McCaffrey
All right reserved. ISBN: 0345480287
Sent from hold, sent from craft,
Whether old, whether daft.
Shunned for good into the wild--
Father, mother, baby child.
Harper Hall, Second Interval, After Landing (AL) 490.3
He's still waving, isn't he?" Master Zist called back for the third time. He sat at the front of the wagon as it slowly drew away from the Harper Hall. The last of the winter snow covered the fields on either side of the track. Every now and then the wagon skidded as the workbeast lost his footing on the hard-packed icy snow and struggled to regain it.
"Yes, he is," Cayla agreed, looking back out of the brightly painted wagon at the small figure slowly diminishing in the distance.
"We couldn't bring him," Zist said regretfully. "He'd be too obvious."
At least, Zist thought to himself, the lad was taking it better than he had when they'd first told him their plans.
Pellar had thrown a silent tantrum, had sprawled on the ground in the Harper Hall's courtyard, feet and fists hitting the ground in his outrage. He stopped only when Carissa had started howling in sympathy with him.
"She's crying for me, isn't she?" he scrawled quickly on the slate that was never far from his hands.
"Yes, I suppose she is," Cayla answered.
Pellarswiftly rubbed his slate clean and scrawled a new comment on it, thrusting it under Zist's eyes. "Are you taking her?"
"We have to, she's still nursing."
"We want to know that you're safe, here," Cayla added.
"Aren't I part of your family?" Pellar scrawled in response, tears streaming down his face.
"Of course you are!" Zist declared vociferously. "And we need you, as a member of our family, to stay here out of trouble."
"You are always part of our family, Pellar," Cayla said firmly.
"You've been part of our family since we first found you, ten Turns ago," Zist told him.
"Then why can't I come?" Pellar scrawled on his slate, his mouth working soundlessly in emphasis.
"Because we don't know who abandoned you," Zist told him, catching Pellar's chin in his hand and forcing the youngster to meet his eyes. "It could be some who were Shunned. If you come with us and they see you, they'll know that we're not Shunned."
"You could get in trouble then?" Pellar wrote. Zist nodded. Pellar chewed his lip miserably, shoulders shaking so hard with his unvoiced sobs that he could barely wipe his slate to write a new message. "I'll stay. No trouble for you."
Cayla read the note, thrust baby Carissa into Zist's arms, and grabbed Pellar into a firm and fierce hug.
"That's my boy," she said proudly, kissing the top of his head.
"I'll be here when you get back," Pellar wrote.
"I promise you'll be the first to hear us return," Zist swore, freeing a hand to clap the boy on the back.
"He's stopped waving," Cayla reported. "Oh, dear! His shoulders are all slumped and he looks so sad."
Zist blew out a misty breath and pulled on the reins controlling the workbeast, fighting with himself not to turn the wagon back.
"Murenny promised he'd keep an eye on him," Cayla said, noting how the wagon had slowed. "And this was your idea."
"Indeed," Zist agreed, his shoulders slumping in turn. "I think it's absolutely necessary that we learn all we can about the Shunned--"
"I don't disagree with you," Cayla interjected, lifting baby Carissa in her arms and rocking her instinctively.
"Thread will come again soon enough, and what then?" Zist went on, repeating his reasons needlessly. "If there are enough Shunned, what's to stop them from overwhelming a hold or craft hall?"
Cayla didn't have to say a word to make her opinion of that clear; she'd said enough before.
"Well, even if they don't, what will they do when Thread comes again?" Zist asked reflectively. "It's not right to condemn them all to a death no one on Pern should ever experience."
"I know, love, I know," Cayla said soothingly, recognizing that her mate was working himself into another passionate discourse. She knew from past discussions how vivid the image of Thread, falling mindlessly from the sky, devouring all life, searing all flesh, was engrained in Zist's mind from his reading. "We've discussed this, Murenny's discussed this, and that's why we're here in this wagon, dressed like the Shunned--"
"Do you think we should put an 'S' on your head, too?" Master Zist asked, pointing to the purple-blue mark on his forehead.
"No," Cayla said in a tone that brooked no argument. "And you'd best be right about how to get that mark off."
"It's not proper bluebush ink," Zist reminded her. The sap of the bluebush, used for marking the Shunned, was indelible and permanently stained skin. "Some pinesap, lots of hot water and soap, and it'll come off."
"So you've said," Cayla remarked, sounding no more convinced.
In front, Zist noticed that the workbeast was slowing and flicked the reins to encourage it back to a faster walk.
"Well, I'm glad you're with me," Zist told Cayla, after satisfying himself that they were moving fast enough.
"I'm glad that we left Pellar behind," Cayla said. "Ten Turns is too young to see the sights we expect."
"Indeed," Zist agreed.
"Carissa's so little that she'll remember none of it," Cayla continued, half to answer Zist's unspoken thought, half to answer her own fears.
"There'll be children among the Shunned," Zist remarked. "That's part of what makes it so wrong."
"Yes," Cayla agreed. She flicked a wisp of her honey-blond hair back behind her ear and continued rocking little Carissa. Then she looked back again. "He's gone now."
"We'll be back in less than half a Turn," Zist said after a moment of thoughtful silence. "He'll be all right."
"I hope he'll forgive us," Cayla said.
Zist took the coast road south, toward Hold Gar, Southern Boll Hold, and warmer weather. He and Cayla had guessed that the warmer climes would attract the Shunned, who would find the harsh winters of the north harder to survive.
The road was still snow-covered and never more than a pair of ruts running down along the coastline. Even in the protected enclosure of the wagon, Cayla wrapped herself up tightly and nuzzled little Carissa close to her side to keep them both warm. In front, perched on the rattling bench seat, Zist had a thick wher-hide blanket spread over his knees and layers of warm thick-knit Tillek sweaters, the same as those used by the Tillek sailors because they kept out the worst of the wet and cold even at sea. Even so, Zist was chilled to the bone every evening when they halted.
They were both relieved when they finally came upon the outskirts of Hold Gar.
Their reception by the holders was sharp and unpleasant.
"Go away!" shrieked the first old woman whose cothold they had stopped at, hoping to barter for food. "Would you have me Shunned, too?"
She hurried them on their way by throwing stones and setting her dogs on them.
"Go back north and freeze! We're hardworking folk down here," she yelled after them. "You won't find any handouts."
Zist shared a shaken look with Cayla who busily tried to comfort a bawling Carissa.
As they neared the next hold, Cayla glanced quickly at the "S" on Zist's forehead. "Maybe I should go by myself," she suggested.
"Bring the baby," Zist agreed. "I'll tend the beast."
Carissa returned later, smiling and carrying a sack full of goods.
"They cost more than they should," she said when she handed the bag to Zist. "The lady fed us, though, and had fresh milk for Carissa."
Two days later they came upon a wagon by the side of the road. It had been burned down to the wheels.
Zist halted. He went to the wreck, crawled around and through it, and came back thirty minutes later, his face grim.
"They were caught while they were sleeping," he told Cayla.
"How do you know it wasn't an accident with a lantern?" Cayla asked. While holders used glows, the Shunned had to make do with what they could scrounge, and that often meant candles or lanterns.
"I'd rather not say," he replied grimly.
"I suppose we should keep a watch at nights," Cayla said.
"Maybe we should turn back," Zist said. "This is beginning to seem more dangerous than I'd feared."
"Perhaps this is what happened to Moran."
"Perhaps," Zist agreed, his face going pale. With a sour look, he gestured to the burned wreck. "There has to be a better way to deal with the Shunned."
"We don't know what happened here. We know that some were Shunned for murder. After being Shunned, what would stop them from murdering again?" Cayla responded. "Perhaps we're only seeing justice done."
"No," Zist said, shaking his head firmly. "That was a wagon much like ours."
Cayla realized from what he'd left unsaid that the occupants of the wagon were much like them, too--a man, woman, and child.
"We should move on before we attract attention," she said firmly.
"I'd like you to keep watch from the back of the wagon," Zist said by way of agreement.
Excerpted from Dragon's Fire by Anne McCaffrey Todd McCaffrey Excerpted by permission.
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