Chap. 253 The Night Raider
K’ndar stood up and stretched. He wasn’t used to sitting for so long. There were parts of his job that entailed piloting a desk…and he wasn’t so sure he liked it.
The last few weeks had been unexceptional, almost boringly quiet. I’ve actually been able to get a lot of things done, he thought. Somehow that wasn’t comforting.
No flitting here and there across the continent like a flutter! he thought. No matter, it’s dragon maintenance time! The rest of the day, devoted to Raventh and Siskin!
He’d just finished putting away his work when his datalink spoke up. “K’ndar of Landing. K’ndar of Landing.”
Hmmph. Maybe I thought too soon?
“Leana here, K’ndar. If you have a moment, would you please come up to Admin, to Acquisition? I’ve a strange beast I’d like you to identify, please,” Leana, a green rider who had been made Chief Acquisition officer, said.
Grateful for the opportunity to stretch his legs, he said, “On my way!”
On the way out, he scanned his meager bookshelf, the one he was gradually filling. “The Natural History of Pern” was there, already well thumbed and bookmarked. He tucked it under his arm and headed for Admin.
It was of no use.
A grizzled man stood before Leana’s reception table. K’ndar felt just the slightest bit of pride when he entered through the main door to join Leana across from the man. I’m staff, now, he thought.
Then he saw the animal on the table. It was very obviously dead…and equally obviously something completely unknown.
He stared, jaw dropping.
” ‘Ello, and you might be?” the man said.
“Oh, I beg your pardon, sir, I’m K’ndar, rider of brown Raventh and Staff Biologist. I didn’t mean to be rude, but what in the world is this?”
The man laughed. ” “Ere and I thought you’d be telling me, sir. Me name’s Rand. I’m from Southern Hold. Well, mebbe not the Hold, you know. I’m a cotholder o’ Toric’s, but truth be known, sir and madam, I’m happiest not ever seein’ Lord Toric. He can be…difficult.”
K’ndar laughed, liking the man immediately. He kept his opinions to himself about Toric, though.
Leana said, “K’ndar, Rand just brought me this animal.”
K’ndar reached out and touched it. What in the world was it? Plank’s “Natural History” would be useless. He’d been through it so many times he knew this animal wasn’t in the book. Nor was it a mammal, so “Walker’s Mammals of the Galaxy” would be just as useless.
“Leana, ma’am, do you have a measuring tape?”
“Of course, K’ndar, right here,” she said. She opened a drawer and pulled it out. “If you dictate, I’ll copy,” she said.
“Thank you. I hope there’s a scale in there, as well?”
“Aye, but this animal is probably too big for it, we’ll have to measure it in the lab. Why don’t we wait to examine it after Rand tells us how it is he’s brought it to us,” she said.
“Yes, ma’am. Rand, tell us what you know about this animal. How did you get it? Do you have a name for it?”
Rand laughed. “Aye, but they’s not polite ‘uns. This is the beast that’s been killing me small animals. Roasting piglets, mostly, but I’ve been raising chickens, too, mostly for the eggs, you know? ‘Bout two months ago,I started losing them. Middle of the night, something’d get into me pens. I lives in the jungle, K’ndar, so I’ve built a boma almost two meters high, from the bigthorn. That plant, it’s like needle thorn but don’t shoot its thorns, them thorns’re long as your fingers and SHARP. You have to wear wherhide gloves to even handle it and don’t let it get near your eyes! It keeps the jungle wherries out, even though they’s smart, they don’t try to get past them thorns.
But I weren’t smart enough to put bars over the top. Pigs nor chickens don’t fly, at least not very well. I’ve been raising them a couple turns now, ever since I got me cothold approved by Toric. Long as I don’t let them pigs roam, he don’t mind, an’ tithing a few of ’em keeps him off my neck. Pigs’ll do an awful thing to the ‘vironment if they’s allowed to run free, but the jungle wherries are death on pigs. It’s no surprise they’ve never gone wild, not like herdbeasts.
Anyway, I started seeing fewer chickens. Then the piglets started turning up missing until all I have left is the sow. Them chickens, they’re not too smart, but the sow, she tells me something dangerous is after ’em. She was losing weight from fretting.
So I put me dog in the pen, thinking, oh, it’s a big snake. We get some big ‘uns in the jungle, we do, they’s quiet. I put up a lot of fencing at the bottom, them snakes, they’s too big to climb. It were a dirty trick on the dog, he weren’t too happy being in with the pig, but he’s a good dog and murder on snakes.
So a few nights ago, I hear a ruckus, the dog, he’s carrying on. Then he stops barking and starts yelling for help. Then he shut up. By the time I get out there, mind you, it’s blacker’n the inside of a cow, all I gots is a glow to see by, but I seen this beast with me last pig, me sow, in its jaws. And the dog all clawed up, he tried his best, he did, went for that beast. Poor lad…”
The man stopped, obviously stricken.
“The dog…didn’t make it?” Leana said, grimacing.
“Nay, ma’am, he were too cut up. Torn to ribbons, poor lad. He were a good dog.”
Rand paused, and heaved a sigh.
“So now this beast, he’s killed all me pigs and me dog. I knows he’s going to be back. I never seen this beast in the daylight, mind you. Just this ‘thing’ in the dark, carrying a 30 kilo full grown sow in his jaws like it were nothin’, going straight up like a dragon. Hit the tree trunk and run up it like he were a quorl and was gone.”
K’ndar shook his head. He looked at the animal on the table. It was lithe, and muscled. Even in death, it seemed to made of steel. The hide was a deep, dark green, speckled all over with pale yellow spots. Camouflage, he thought.
Rand continued. “So last night, I set him a trap. I put my last few chickens in a tiny cage, no openings so that he can’t get them, and put up a snare. The beast jumps down from the overhanging branches, gets hung up in the snare, and it’s screeching, fighting, bending double while upside down! but the snare’s got him, sure as sunrise.
I go out there, set the fire to goin’ so I can sees what I’ve caught. It’s spinning on the end of the snare line. It’s spitting and hissing, and I’m telling you, sir, I’ve been through some tough fights, I’ve hunted wherries with just a dagger and a spear, gone through the jungle after dark, but this things’ got me scared spitless. I suddenly realizes, there’s no way I’m going to be able to release this thing without being killed by it. But he’s crossed the line, pushed me over t’edge. He’s killed me livelihood, how I’m going to tithe Toric? And that makes me mad.
So I get my spear, and goes to stab him. This beast, he’s grabbing at the spear with his front feet, and trying to get loose with the middle pair, and hung up by his back un’s. That tail, it’s lashing, and this things’ screeching to part your hair from the inside. I’m stabbing but not getting nowhere, just pissing him off and setting him to spinning faster. Suddenly, I hit the snare by mistake and cut it, and the beast falls onto the ground, and then I’m so scared, I’m stabbing like a madman, knowing he’s coming for me. And he did, even with his hind legs all tangled up in the line, he come at me, scrabbling like, them front feet with claws like scythes. I were lucky, sir, I got him right behind t’head, just about cut his spinal cord, and that put him out o’ action,” Rand said. “Even then, he kept hissing for a while, can’t move, his eyes just a burnin’-but it were with terror, now. I felt bad, isn’t that crazy? Even all he’d done to me? Then he was dead. I was shaking afterwards, I’m not afraid to admit.”
Leana and K’ndar both gulped.
“Whew,” Leana said, “And so you brought him to us?”
“Yes’m. I’m thinking, I’ve never seen this beast in my life and I’ve spent most of it in this jungle. This beast needs to go to Landing, they’ll want to see it.”
“I have a horse, but she took one whiff of this beast and said No SIR I’m not letting you pack that thing on me!! And I realize, it’d be a week? afore I can get it to you by horseback. So’s I bundle this thing up in a bag, and run up a sweep signal for the next dragon what comes by. I wanted to get it to you quicklike, afore it goes off. It’s already starting to stink! I was lucky, ma’am, not a couple hours later, here comes a big dragon, he sees me signal and lands in the spot I’ve cut for wagons and dragons.
Dragonman hops off, says, what’s your problem and I says, I need to take this bundle to Landing, and he says, right, mate, that’s three marks.”
“THREE marks! That’s outrageous!” K’ndar almost shouted in fury. Then, “Sorry! Please continue.”
“Aye, sir, it surprised me, too. I’ve not needed transport before but I had no idee it cost money!
I says, I’m sorry, I don’t have but one and a half. The dragonrider says, “done, you can owe me, I’ll be by to collect it later.” So I pays him, he puts me aboard his dragon and just like that, we’re here. Now I know what ‘between’ means, it didn’t take but a few breaths but it were COLD. He dropped me off ’bout a kilometer south of here, I don’t know why, as I see you’ve got a dragon meadow and even some dragons in it. Then he’s off without a word, and I carried this beast up here, he’s heavier than he looks. Someone stops me and asks me what would I like to do, and I told her and she led me here. And that’s my story,” Rand said. He looked at them with a combination of embarrassment and hope. Leana could feel his reluctance to ask for remuneration.
“Three marks? Three? That’s robbery,” K’ndar said. “The going rate for unscheduled transport is two, all the weyrs agreed to it.”
Leana touched his arm, her unspoken reassurance to K’ndar. “You’re correct, Rand, we will be more than happy to take this specimen. Thank you for thinking of us! You’ve lost a lot, and I’d like to make you whole. If you would excuse me, I’ve got to get some money,” Leana said, and left the intake office.
Rand’s face lit up in relief.
K’ndar reached out to touch the animal. It had been dead long enough for rigor mortis to set in. It was starting to smell, but it was more than just the smell of deterioration. I’ll have to put it somewhere cool, so it doesn’t get any worse.
“Sir, this all happened this morning?”
“Before dawn, yes sir,” Rand said.
“And you said you live in the jungle? Toric’s Holdlands?”
“Aye, I do, dragonrider,” Rand said, “lived in it most of my life, but only recently got the money for a cothold of me own. That mark and a half was all I had.”
K’ndar felt excitement growing in him. I’ve wanted to do some exploring in the jungle for a long time. Imagine finding more of these creatures! Imagine being the first one to describe it!
“And you’ve never seen this beast before?”
“No, sir. Not once. Never even heard talk of it, but, dragonrider, more and more people be coming to Southern Hold. Most of ’em from North and they don’t know diddly about living in the jungle, or how to make a living from it. Me parents were woodsmen from Northern, and I were just barely 9 when we moved here to Southern. I turned into a jungle beast myself, spent all day in it when I weren’t doing my chores. The jungle taught me what’s safe to eat, how to navigate. Sir, there’s places in the jungle where you can’t stretch your arm out without it being tangled up, tripping you up with vines that grab you and hold on, and big trees everwhere. And snakes, thick as your leg. I’ve gone through a lot of machetes, carving my place out of the jungle, but I’m respectful of her, and she takes care of me. She feeds me, she feeds me livestock, and I respect her. I don’t take more than I need, and I try to keep me cothold small. Truth be told, sir, I don’t like seeing all them folks coming here. They don’t respect the jungle, they treat it like it’s something to kill, something to fight. They don’t seem to know you can’t fight her. They’re pushing further into the jungle, ‘n I don’t think the jungle likes it. I think this beast is her way of saying, stay out, this is my home.”
“I know the feeling. I feel the same way about my steppe,” K’ndar said.
Leana emerged, with a small pouch in her hand. She looked troubled, though.
“Rand, I’m prepared to pay you for this beast, but before I do, tell me again…the dragon rider CHARGED you? While on a sweep?”
“Aye, ma’am, wanted three marks up front. No discussion, not even a chance to barter. Like it were a contract,” he said.
“Did he tell you who he was?”
“No, ma’am. Not a word. Not polite, at all.”
“And he was from Southern Weyr? Because they usually provide transport for no fee if they’re sweeping,” she said. K’ndar could tell she was upset at the anonymous dragonrider’s usury.
“I don’t think he were from Southern Weyr, ma’am. I’ve talked with Southern Weyr’s dragonriders on occasions, they stop sometimes. They’re always civil, always polite. Not like this yob. He had the look of a brigand, like he was a raider, but I’ve never heard of a dragonrider turning rogue. I want to think he were Toric’s man. Same attitude. I see that a lot with Toric’s men. Lord Toric, he seems to attract the low lifes. You’d think at his age, he’d have changed? But I shouldn’t be saying things about him, he IS my Holder. So this is between us, please? I keep my nose outa Toric’s business. He’s not a man to cross, not when you’re like me, a nobody. With Toric, the wise man keeps his mouth shut and his eyes elsewhere.”
Toric has his own dragonriders? Or was this dragonrider a true nomad, a free lancer? If so, he’s giving the rest of us a bad name. Three marks is much too much, K’ndar thought.
Leana sighed. This was something that would have to be discussed with higher ups, she thought. Weyrs and Holders were autonomous and for the most part, kept out of each other’s business…but this was different.
“Rand, I’m prepared to pay you for this beast, as well as cover your transportation both here and back to your cothold. In addition, can you tell me how many animals you lost?”
The man raised his eyes to the ceiling. K’ndar watched as he clenched his fists then raised eight fingers, one after another.
He met Leana’s eyes. “Six pigs, including the sow, two chickens. One I don’t know if it got et by a snake or what, it were the first one to go missing.”
“So, nine in all?”
“Eight I’m sure of, ma’am.”
“Let’s call it nine. I would like to reimburse you for your nine animals lost. AND your dog.”
Rand looked surprised-and grateful.
“That would be wonderful ma’am but it t’aint necessary,” he said.
“I insist. Will fifteen marks be enough?”
Rand’s eyes flew open in amazed appreciation.
“That would be more than fair,” he sputtered.
She counted out fifteen one mark coins. She and K’ndar both appreciated that he didn’t snatch them up, but picked them up with dignity.
“Thank you, ma’am, thank you,” Rand said.
“Rand, would you be willing to show me where it lives?” K’ndar asked.
“You mean, back at my cothold?” Rain asked.
“Yes, sir. Once I know where it lives, I’ll be coming back later on, to see what I can learn about it. For now, I’d be happy to take you back to your cothold on my dragon-at no charge, of course,” K’ndar said, his mind still whirling with the implications.
“I’d be glad to take you into the jungle, I’ll even put you up, if that’s your wish. I was wondering how I was going to get back home. It’d be a long, long walk,” Rand said.
“If you’ll give me about half an hour to harness my dragon and get my gear ready, I’ll take you home. I’ll have to go to Southern Weyr to get the coordinates for your cothold but that shouldn’t be too difficult.” He was already visualizing Southern Weyr’s dragonstones.
Leana said, “By the way, sir? Don’t let on how much money we paid you for the beast. I don’t want people going out and killing them for what they would consider a bounty.”
The man put the coins in a pouch tied to his side.
“Yes,’m. I wouldn’t have said a word, anyway, it don’t pay to let on that one has money,” he said.
He paused, then reached out to the animal on the table. He ran his hand over its side.
“I don’t blame this beast. He were just trying to make a living, just like me.”