Toria: Chapter 1, Episode 3.6 – Put To The Test

Toria makes new friends and one potent enemy…

At the Autumn Gather, one of the most popular music venues for visitors was the Journeyman Stage. Up-and-coming musicians from Harper Hall formed bands, hoping to entertain crowds, make a name of themselves, and earn a few Marks in tips.

After a bit of searching, Toria learned that Kebrin would be performing with a group called the “Stumpthumpers”. They would play right after the “Compulsive Lyres”. It seemed like the best opportunity to find her friend from Ista Weyr.

The band was five members strong, all boys, plus a female harpist who stood aside for the first half of the set. Eventually, she and Kebrin took center stage, backed up by two young Harpers on bowed instruments. After the harp played a beautiful introduction, Kebrin began to sing.

Music: Last Sweet Day

This morning early I walked on
While my dragon was in a dream
The last sweet days of summer bloomed
And cloaked the trees in green

Then rising high in the gleaming sky
Between the stones we set
Came a fearsome gray from so far away
And the Red Star’s ancient threat

So I called my men to follow me
Knowing well that the view was dim
Though tired and worn, our Weyrmen they fought all morn
As thread was closing in

And my heart was heavy though full of pride
For brave lads all were they
As the dragons fly, how they climbed so high
At the dawning of the day

But the edge was moving faster still
All silvery in the sun
Their unyielding hearts calling out to us
My riders, one by one

Escaped their scores in the endless cold
Returning to the Fall
Flaming dragons dove and the ashes burned
Above Weyr and Hold and Hall

Forgive me my love, I’m going now
To join my men between
When bronze dragons fly, you’ll feel me near
And hear me in their keen

There’s no need to grieve us when we are gone
We live in memory
‘Til the Red Star’s end and we meet again
Far beyond the western sea

This morning early I walked on
While my dragon was in a dream
The last sweet days of summer bloomed
And cloaked the trees in green

‘Til the Red Star’s end and we meet again
Far beyond the western sea

As the song drew to a close, Toria felt tears trickling down her cheeks. She was gripped with sadness for the plight of dragonriders of Turns past. She had never been so deeply moved by music. Around her, no one was dancing. The crowd stared at Kebrin with eyes full of sorrow, completely transfixed. Some of the women were openly weeping and their men were holding them tight.

The Stumpthumpers ended their set, leaving Toria and the rest of the audience awash with bittersweet emotion. One of the drummers brought a tip jar to the front of the stage as the next ensemble gathered themselves to perform. The jar filled quickly.

Kebrin and his friends packed their instruments and walked off stage. It took Toria a moment to come back to her senses and remember that she wanted to speak with him.

The pretty young harpist gave Kebrin a long, passionate kiss, looked him in the eyes and smiled. She said something quietly that Toria couldn’t overhear and then walked away, probably taking her bulky instrument back to the Hall.

The Stumpthumpers went to an ale tent and bought a round to celebrate. As they finished, Toria was able to catch Kebrin’s eye.

Toria swiped her face with her hand after the moving performance and added a small tip to the jar by the stage. She made her way to the tent she had seen his group enter and maneuvered through the crowd to get to Kebrin.

Kebrin drank deeply from a tankard of water and then another, having worked up a surprisingly strong thirst in only half a set. He congratulated his band mates on an excellent set, privately pleased by the knowledge that they would undoubtedly continue to ask him to perform with them – a rare honor, since they were a mix of Senior and Junior Journeymen.

He nodded toward Toria when she finally caught his attention, excused himself from his companions, and walked over.

“Kebrin! That set was really something! I actually cried… it moved much of the crowd. I actually felt for the dragonriders of the past. You have quite a gift!” she enthused.

An easy, familiar smile graced his features. “Toria! How have you been? Made Master yet?” He bowed slightly in response to Toria’s compliments, “Thank you. We’ve been practicing. A lot.”

It had been half a Turn since they’d seen each other and they were at the ages where changes came rapidly. Toria’s hair was wound around her head in an elaborate braid, and her skin was a bit paler than it used to be, as she was spending more time indoors. She was wearing a deep purple shirt in Healer colors with the heraldry of the Hall stitched on it. She had also developed in the way that all girls around that age do and shot up half an inch.

Kebrin had grown half an inch and his shoulders were broader than they were before. His facial features were also sharper, especially his cheekbones, and his voice was noticeably deeper and richer – at least some of which was almost certainly the result of extensive training. He had finally allowed his hair to grow out a little longer, more like that worn by other young men from Harper Hall and Fort Hold, but it was still strongly reminiscent of the short, vaguely-military styles favored by dragonmen. That night, he was dressed in surprisingly well-made and well-fitting clothes of dark orange and brown – the colors of Ista Weyr.

Toria laughed, “Not a master just yet. Any day now, I’m sure! For now, I’m just a Senior Apprentice. So how are you doing at Harper Hall?” She gestured at the stage, “I’m guessing fairly well, judging by that performance!”

Kebrin laughed and agreed, “Any day now, I’m sure. Congratulations on your promotion to Senior Apprentice!” His easy smile flickered at her question, but only for a moment. “I’m doing well. Made Senior Apprentice myself, and very glad for it. Finally get a little bigger room and a little more privacy. What I’m really looking forward to is when I make Junior Journeyman, and I can kick in a few Marks a semester to have my own – small – private apartment.”

Toria nodded. “Some peace and quiet would be nice sometimes,” she said wistfully. “Well if I had anything to say about it, you’d make Junior Journeyman in no time!”

A few snippets of conversation made their way to Toria and Kebrin as the Stumpthumpers grew more boisterous. They ordered a second round. From the sound of it, they were reminiscing about past performances, both good and bad.

Toria paused, looking over at the group having a fun time behind them, “I’m sorry… I don’t mean to interrupt your celebration. If you’d rather talk later, I do have a bit of a favor to ask of you. Plus, I wouldn’t mind catching up a bit more.”

Kebrin shook his head, “You’re not interrupting. I already got my cut and told them that I’d catch up with them later tonight or maybe tomorrow.” He finished off the tankard of water he had been drinking and gestured for her to follow him outside the tent.

He led her this way and that, obviously having a clear idea of where he was going amidst the chaos of the Autumn Gather, until they came to a number of small, cheap tables with chairs that that had been set up by a temporary restaurant. Most now stood empty due to the hour, save for a scattering of other people talking, people-watching, or just resting.

He pulled out a chair for her and then slid into the one across from it. “So what can I do for you?”

Making herself comfortable in her chair, Toria spoke, choosing her words carefully. “Well, seeing as you grew up in a Weyr, I was wondering if you knew how to wield a knife or anything about… how to defend yourself? Possibly both. Failing that, do you know anybody who might?”

Kebrin’s relaxed attitude evaporated quickly, leaving him sitting up straighter and leaning forward intently. “Yeah, I was taught how to handle myself in a fight. And, yeah, I could teach you – we’re friends – but the big question is why? What have you gotten yourself into?”

Toria shook her head, “Nothing! Swear on the First Egg! But there have been a few times where knowing how to protect myself or someone else might have come in handy. Eventually, I’ll be going out in the world and I’ve learned it’s… not always what you want it to be. If there’s a dangerous situation, I don’t want to depend on someone else to get out of it.” She grinned slightly, “Look, I don’t want to become some death-dealing fighter, I just want to know enough to be able to protect myself.”

Kebrin watched and listened to Toria intently as she spoke. He was quiet for a few moments after she finished, obviously thinking.

“Weyr-folk believe it’s everyone’s right to be able to fight, to defend themselves and those they love. Hall and Hold folk don’t always feel the same,” Kebrin said. “I could get into a lot of trouble for teaching you to fight, especially if I taught you how to use a blade. If you want that, then you’re going to have to trust me. What happened to you? Because I know you, and I know this sudden interest didn’t just come out of nowhere. No way.”

He didn’t sound confrontational, just certain that he knew Toria well enough to realize that she didn’t wake up one day wanting to know how to fight.

Toria looked away in thought for a moment and sighed. Looking back at Kebrin, she spoke quietly, “Last Turn, I ran into some renegades while out picking herbs. I followed them from where I found some supplies stashed and I was found out. I thought I might die at first. It was really scary.

Her voice wobbled a bit but Toria cleared her throat and resumed after a brief pause. “They were angry, but eventually one kind woman there explained to me why they were holdless and that they’re doing what they must to be able to live. It turned out fine in the end, but it shook me. That… and an encounter back in Katz Field where I felt helpless when a friend and I were attacked by a wherry… are why I want to learn.”

Kebrin’s eyes widened in surprise. He listened intently until she was finished, his odd hazel eyes never flickering off of her for more than a second.

He was again quiet for several moments and when he spoke, it was slowly as if he was choosing his words carefully. “Toria, I’m very sorry that you went through that. It must have been very scary. Scarier than anything that I’ve ever faced. And I’ll be glad to teach you, if you swear on your honor as a Healer that you won’t tell anyone. Before we begin, though, I need you to think hard about whether you just want to learn to use your hands and feet or whether you also want to learn to use a knife. Because I’ll teach you, either way.”

He paused, swallowed hard, and squared his jaw, “Carrying a fighting knife is a big responsibility. A burden. You may be called upon at any time to defend yourself, or others. And once you pull it, you’re committed. Shards, once some people see it you’re committed. Knife fights aren’t like fist fights and they’re not like in the stories, either. In a real knife fight, the winner’s going to be hurt. Badly. Probably carry a couple of ugly scars and maybe a new ache or two for the rest of their life. And the loser is lying on the ground losing blood. They’re never, ever going to see home again. Their family is never going to see them again. And the winner has to live with that, too, for the rest of their days. Are you certain you want that responsibility?”

Toria frowned, her brow furrowing in thought. She was learning to be a person who healed the sick or injured… not someone who caused harm. She merely wanted to protect herself and others, but hadn’t entirely considered what that meant if she followed it through to the end. Sure, she had played a part in killing the wherry with Dylan but hadn’t delivered the killing blow. She sighed and tapped her fingers on the table.

“No, I’m not.” She spoke steadily and with determination, not wanting to be seen as a weak little girl, “I’m studying to be a healer. I don’t want to hurt or kill people. I just don’t want to be helpless again. Look, maybe I can just focus on using my hands and feet for now. Like I said, I don’t want to be a… warrior or anything, I just want to be able to protect myself if something were to happen when I’m out by myself, or in an unexpectedly dangerous situation.”

Kebrin nodded slowly, “Thank you. That’s a very honest answer. And one you can always change later, if you need to.”

He made a visible effort to unclench his jaw, lean back in his chair, and otherwise compose himself. “I’ll be glad to teach you what I know, which is all the basics. If you decide you need more than that, there are some people we can talk to. Maybe we can learn together. Good?”

Toria nodded at Kebrin, “Sounds good. Thank you for agreeing to teach me what you can.”

Kebrin continued, “Now, about these Renegades you met? They must have been halfway near Fort Hold if you ran into them while gathering herbs? Any idea about where? Or how many there were?”

When Kebrin asked his questions about the holdless people she had encountered, Toria looked confused. “Why do you want to know their location and numbers?

Kebrin’s answer was simple and immediate, “Because my friends and I spend a good bit of time between semesters exploring around Fort Hold, and I don’t want to run into them if I can help it. I’m… not certain things with them would have gone the same way for me or my friends as they went for an unarmed, pretty young woman from Healer Hall.”

Toria nodded, relaxing incrementally. She thought for a bit, eventually replying, “I honestly think if you and your friends could have come across them in your exploring, you would have already. I walked many miles to get to the herb I needed, and at least another hour after that.”

She considered Kebrin, wanting to reassure him and yet protect the people of Spearstone. “I don’t think they would harm anyone unless they were attacked first. They struck me as a people who had gone through hard times, not evil, murderous brigands.”

Kebrin nodded, not entirely happy with her answer but also not willing to push the matter much further with a friend. “Alright. I hope you’re right.” He finally broke his gaze away from her for a moment to scan the surrounding Gather.

Toria could see her answer wasn’t what Kebrin was hoping. “I think I am. They’re good people that got a bad break in life.”

Trying to get past this uncomfortable impasse in the conversation, Kebrin offered a weak lopsided grin, “Any other adventures since the last time we met?”

Letting the conversation be moved to more pleasant topics, Toria thought for a bit on what had transpired over the last semester. “Well, that was my biggest ‘adventure’, really. Let’s see, I continue to be thwarted in my efforts to find a firelizard. I look every time I’m out exploring or picking herbs in the springtime, but no luck yet!”

Kebrin nodded agreeably, “Yeah, we’ve been out a few times looking for eggs but not had any luck, and the time to do it – to hike that far from Fort Hold – is harder and harder to come by these days.”

Toria laughed with understanding at Kebrin’s comment about a lack of free time as they get further into their studies. Only because she occasionally went out to pick herbs did she have an excuse to get out and search for firelizards more often.

Toria continued, “Healer training is tough at times, but I’m getting through it. Some of the things I’m learning about the body are fascinating! I’m starting to think about what I might want to do when I hopefully get to Journeyman rank… if I want to stay a Journeyman or specialize. I’m not entirely sure yet, but whatever it is, I hope involves some travel.”

Kebrin smiled as Toria talked about her experiences at Healer Hall. “I’m pleased to hear that you’re continuing to do well. You and your people should be proud! That’s quite an accomplishment. I didn’t realize that Healers have to either remain Journeymen or specialize. What’s the difference? And which route would let you travel the most, since that’s what you want?”

Toria explained to Kebrin about Healer careers, at least as far as she understood it as a Senior Apprentice. “Well… if I make Senior Journeyman rank, which can take a few Turns, I can take a posting at a Hold. Journeyman are usually generalists who know a little about a lot, so they can treat a variety of ailments. I could also stay at the Hall and choose a specialty, if a Master sponsors me. There’s child care, surgery, biology, anatomy, medicines, and diseases. Possibly a few more I haven’t heard mentioned as often.”

She thought about some of the things she had heard from Journeyman in conversation, “Though, some go out as Senior Journeyman to get experience and come back to Healer Hall to pick up their Master’s studies. That sounds appealing to me if I decide to specialize. Go out, get experience, and come back to the Hall.”

That time, it was Kebrin’s turn to laugh with understanding. “Yeah, I know the temptation to just… get out. See the world. But several of my instructors – including my Master, Master Salinda, have made it very clear that they expect me to stay at Harper Hall all the way through Senior Journeyman. Preferably beyond.”

He ticked off several people on his fingers, and then ticked off a couple more as he said, “Plus my dorm mates. Plus my friends. And Eurielle, I think. It’s not that I don’t want to stay, but… I wish I felt like I had some choice in the matter.”

Toria could empathize with Kebrin’s words. She was familiar with the weight of others’ expectations, but this had the added wrinkle of threatening to override what Kebrin himself wanted.

She regarded Kebrin, curious about his life in Harper Hall since she last saw him. “What have you been doing since we last saw each other? It seems you have a special lady… if that kiss I saw between you and the harpist was any indication?”

He shrugged, suddenly uncomfortable when the topic of conversation turned toward himself. “I’m doing well in my classes. Really well in most of them. Eurielle, my girlfriend, and I usually compete with each other to see who’s going to be head of the class. That’s… that sort of how we met.” His expression shifted as he talked about Eurielle, softening with something… and a different, gentler tone crept into his voice. “She’s very special to me.”

He glanced back in the general direction of Harper Hall, an unfamiliar expression – worry – crossing his features for the first time Toria had ever seen. “I think she feels the same way about me, but… romances don’t often work out. Classes keep everyone busy, and then most people go their own way once they make Junior or Senior Journeyman.”

Toria grinned at Kebrin as he talked about Eurielle. She could see how much he cared about her, written on his face. “I’m glad for you. I hope you enjoy whatever time you do have together. Maybe you can introduce me to her?”

Kebrin nodded, “I’ll be happy to introduce you. Be warned… she’s used to a lot of fierce competition at the Hall – far more than us boys face – so she can take a little while to warm to people. But she’s great, once she does.”

“I will look forward to meeting Eurielle sometime!” Toria gave him a sympathetic look, “As far as the rest of it, I think I understand. It’s hard to have what others want you to do push you into something, and your wants don’t feel like they matter much.”

She cocked her head to the side, thinking, “But on the other hand, it sounds like your Master and others think you’ve got something special… and I certainly saw that earlier. You have friends and instructors who believe in your talent. That’s pretty great!” Toria gave Kebrin a reassuring smile.

“So, since you have a Master already, what are you studying with her?” Toria asked. “I’m not really all that familiar with the different things you can study and specialize in as a Harper.”

Kebrin nodded slightly in agreement, a rueful grin playing across his lips, “Yeah, I’m talented on a couple of instruments – but, truth be told, I don’t have the gift that some people have. I’m told that you’re born with it; you either have it or you don’t. But… it’s better to learn to use the gifts you have than to keep pining for ones you don’t.”

He shrugged easily, having apparently at least mostly reconciled himself to it. “Master Salinda is the First Master of Strings, meaning that she’s the most talented Harper in all of Harper Hall – and therefore the known world – with all stringed instruments, like guitars and lutes. This semester, I’m learning how to make drums, the basics of drama and acting, organizing musical groups called ensembles, and basic contract negotiations. Next semester, they’ve already told me they want me to study Hold economics and diplomacy. Not certain what else, yet.”

Toria was amazed at everything Kebrin was studying. Contract negotiations? Acting? Her eyebrows raised up with each new thing he listed off. “Shells, I had no idea so much went into Harper training!”

Kebrin nodded, suddenly very serious when it came to the duties of Harper Hall. “Yeah, Harper Hall isn’t just about music. Music is…” He paused, searching carefully for the right word, “very worthy, very valuable, because it can express things that can’t be easily expressed any other way. But it’s also a way of making certain that our history and traditions are not forgotten. And that’s just as important, if not more. Some Harpers entertain, others teach, and others still serve as advisors and emissaries for Holds and sometimes even other Halls.”

Toria could feel Kebrin’s passion for music come through in his words. She just knew he’d be a great Harper some day. She smiled at him and said, “Well, you’re certainly talking like a Harper already!”

Kebrin laughed, “I’ve been taking extracurricular classes on logic and rhetoric – the art of public speaking – and naturally they’re all taught by other Harpers, so I probably do sound more and more like them.” He asked, “How about you? What are you studying now, and what will next semester look like for you?”

“Well, I’ve been studying things like basic science, anatomy, diseases, medicines, ethics… recently I’ve been studying about things inside the body like bones, muscles, and blood,” Toria answered. “Hrm, for example, how to diagnose conditions and harvest Needlethorn, which, if done incorrectly, can shoot you with poisonous darts!” She shrugged, “I’m not sure yet what next semester holds for me, I’ve been so focused on this one.”

“That sounds absolutely fascinating,” Kebrin answered. “Please let me know what you decide, once you decide whether you’ll continue as a Journeyman or a specialist?”

“’Course I’ll let you know whatever I decide. I’m trying to give it a lot of thought. I don’t want to rush anything.” She glanced around, soaking in the energy of the Gather around her, and then looked back at Kebrin and gave a weary sigh as she added, “I’ve been looking forward to the Gather for weeks.”

Kebrin asked, “What are you looking forward to at the Gather?”

“Honestly, I’ve just been looking forward to the Gather itself. Seeing what new things the merchants are selling, doing some dancing and maybe trying to find some of the deep fried cookies I heard someone at the Hall mention!”

There was a brief hesitation before he nodded in general agreement, “Yeah, me too. But Gathers are a little different now, because I have to work some during them. Now that I’m performing with Journeymen – the other Stumpthumpers are all Senior and Junior Journeymen – they’re a good chance to earn some extra Marks. And Autumn Gather is the biggest – and the last – before Turnover, so…”

“It’s a little different now, with your responsibilities,” Toria agreed, bobbing her head in understanding. “Well, you’re sure to earn many Marks if that performance was anything to go by!”

A thought occurred to Toria, “You said you’ve been studying contract negotiations, right? Any good at haggling? I’ve had my eye on a nice pair of leather boots for awhile, but I’m not the best at negotiating for a better price. Also, I’m trying to sell some of my crocheted items while there are people visiting from all over. Any tips would be appreciated!”

Kebrin nodded, “Yeah, I’ve gotten alright at haggling and I’m working to get better.” He stared off into space for a few moments, then explained “The most important thing to remember is that merchants aren’t bad people. They’re not your enemy. They’re working to make a profit so they can take care of themselves and their families, just like everyone else. Your goal should never be to completely take away their profits. Your goal is to reach a reasonable price where both of you benefit. You pay a fair price and the merchant makes a fair profit.”

He proceeded to give her a surprisingly coherent and well-structured overview of the art of haggling, often pausing for several moments – or even a little longer, a couple of times – between topics to organize what he knew before talking about it. After several minutes he concluded, “And that’s the basics, to the best of my knowledge. Any questions? I hope that helps, at least a little?”

Toria listened carefully to Kebrin’s advice, asking a few questions here and there to clarify something he said, like where a fair starting price was if the boots cost four Marks. She nodded at the end, “No, I think I have enough information to at least give give it a go! I don’t need the boots that badly, so if I can’t haggle him down enough, it won’t be the worst thing ever. So! When do you have more performances with the Stumpthumpers? I’ll try and catch which ones I can.”

Kebrin provided Toria with a list of upcoming performance dates for the Stumpthumpers, and told her where she could find schedules for all of the Journeyman ensembles in Fort Hold. He also suggested an out-of-the-way time and place where they could meet regularly over the coming weeks for him to teach her the fundamentals of self-defense.

Kebrin introduced Toria to Eurielle when she returned to the Gather a little later in the evening, and the three of them enjoyed spending a couple of hours exploring the Gather.

Eurielle was classically beautiful, with porcelain skin, fine features, ice blue eyes, and very long, straight black hair. It was obvious for anyone to see what they were truly an odd couple – opposites in many ways. This was easily symbolized by their differences in skin color, with her pale and him tending toward being naturally tanned – but the differences didn’t stop there. Eurielle was polite but reserved upon first meeting Toria but gradually warmed as the night progressed and she got to know Kebrin’s ‘good friend from Healer Hall. Kebrin, on the other hand, showed absolutely no compunction about meeting new people and never stayed strangers with one for longer than five minutes.

Regardless, it quickly become apparent to anyone paying attention that there was something between the two of them beyond typical teenage hormones.

Toria was happy to spend some time in the company of the two Harpers-in-training, wandering around the Gather and getting to know Eurielle. She could appreciate the girl’s reserved nature as she had that tendency herself sometimes. She was happier still when she found a merchant selling some of the deep fried sweets she had heard one of her dorm mates mention, buying enough to share with everyone. She also kept an eye out for hungry firelizards. She mentally planned to attend at least one of the Stumpthumper’s future performances at the Gather. In addition to wanting to support her friend, they had a rather cute member she had noticed earlier!

Toria was able to purchase a basket of yarn at a steep discount after practicing the techniques that Kebrin taught her. She wove a number of colorful hats, gloves, and scarves. With more than enough to sell, she was able to follow through on her plans to leave a care package in the renegades cave.

Two weeks after the Gather, Toria finally found an opportunity to visit the secret cave.

The walk was long but pleasant. The brisk winds of winter kept threatening to pull her hair loose. In a month or less, the first snows would fall and Toria wouldn’t be able to visit the cave without attracting attention to it.

When she reached the cave, she noticed that it was easier to spot, now that the scruffy bushes concealing the entrance had lost their flowers. She pushed the stiff, dry branches aside carefully to avoid breaking them.

As she stepped inside, she scanned for crates. The cave was empty.

[Attribute check: PER 11, rolled 10.]

Toria’s eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness. She caught a glint of blue and found an agate egg sitting on a narrow rock shelf. It was half the size of her fist, marbled in deep, sky blue with patches of azure and white. A little scrap of paper was scrawled, “For T, now you can say you fownd one.

Suddenly, a harsh, rasping sound startled Toria and nearly made her drop the note. It sounded like an ocean wave crashing in a windy cave. She looked around as another sound began to build, a deep rumble like a grindstone rolling toward her.

A flash of color was her first hint of danger as a massive reptile charged out of the depths.

It was as long as a man’s arm, thick and muscular. The head was wide and black with only the hint of a neck. The tube-like body had a pattern of obsidian and burnt orange scales, like clouds of embers in a pitch black sky. The short, blunt tail had four thick rings of black and its black legs looked entirely too small.

It opened its mouth to hiss, not like a normal animal with a hinged jaw, but like a creature whose sole purpose was to eat everything it could catch. The entire head expanded until a gaping hole appeared between two rows of needle-like teeth.

[Skill check: Survival (Plains) 10-2, rolled 13.]

It was the biggest cave crawler that Toria had ever seen, bigger than she had even heard of. It was a beast of nightmares. A creature that strong could do her great harm and fire-colored reptiles were usually venomous.

For an ugly, lumbering creature, it moved surprisingly fast.

This entry was posted in Episodes and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.