Annik, over twenty-five turns. There is so much to learn.

Mention of drug use, profanity, references to sexual harassment


The Interval, the Pass



OOC Date




At the still point, there the dance is…
(T.S. Eliot, 'Four Quartets')

When Annik is a little girl, she is afraid to sleep in the cot she shares with her sister. The space seems too big, her self threatening to drift apart in the openness of it. Even the warm comma of Nerys’ body by hers is not enough to keep her grounded. Another child might shift the curtain and crawl in between her parents, taking comfort in their closeness, but Annik is not like other children.

They find her curled on the linens in a cupboard. They find her under the table. They find her in the kennel with the canine, curled up against the mutt’s belly with her thumb in her mouth.

“Daft as a brush,” her mother says to anyone who’ll listen.

“There’s nowt as queer as folk,” her grandmother says as she rubs warmth into the little girl’s icy hands.

“Don’t tha be in a rush to get underground, pet,” her father murmurs, coal-black face half invisible in the dark. “Keep up here long as tha can.”

By ten Annik has been to more wakes than she could count on both hands, but she has never been to her own father’s. It might be easier if it were in the family’s room as was customary, but there were too many men in the second shaft for that. Fourteen widows and two score children won’t fit in a family’s private quarters, let alone with all the other men. The great hall has been opened for once, the space filled with barrels of beer and a feast laid out on trestle tables: scrawny half-burnt herdbeast carcasses, tubers that are only just beginning to turn. It is more food than Annik has ever seen in her life.

She knows them all, the straight-backed youths still in their first flush of strength, the men with their hacking coughs and the coaldust that cannot be scrubbed from careworn faces. They ruffle her hair and embrace her grandmother, looking sadly at the little ones.

Later, when everyone is drunk and the harper sings sad songs, the men come to them. Old Master Laremon with his bent back and twisted leg pats Annik’s head sadly, and soft-spoken Remo embraces her mother.

“We’ll take care of your’n, Rynna. T’ bairns won’t want for nowt.”

For turns Annik has helped her mother carrying food to other widows, has passed her worn clothes on to orphans as they grow short at ankle and wrist. She knows that the firefields’ people take care of their own, the great compact made by the men of the pit holding as it always has. Each family supports those that are bereaved, and each family is supported in turn. There is never enough, but what there is must be shared.

She knows this, has lived the cycle of it her whole life, and yet it feels different when it is her food that is brought not by her father but the sad-faced wives of the mine. Widows walking, ready to take on their own black weeds sooner or later.

There is so much to learn, in the Craft. How to heft a pick axe with the strength of your body as well as your arms. How to write more than your own name. How to identify firestone, Cromcoal, common gems. Where to find blackwater. How far ahead a firelizard needs to fly to smell the gas leak that could bring a mountain down on their heads. How to speak differently so people will understand, replacing the familiar comfort of ‘tha’ with the stiff ‘you’.

There are other lessons too, and those ones come harder.

She learns how to eat in the great refectory, a room grander than her entire hold. For the first time in her life she is full, and when the heavy food and second helpings put new padding at breast and hip she learns to hide it under tight wraps and too-large clothes. When she wakes up one morning turns delayed with blood on her thighs she learns which drudge will give her rags and where they can be washed in secret. She learns which awkward candlemarks find the baths at their most empty, avoiding witnesses to the shame of her traitorous body.

She learns how to close her ears to the taunts of apprentices and the whispers of masters, allowing their words to slide off her like water from rock. As the convicts wind past in their slow shackled line she learns to keep her face down, how not to imagine the things that they promise for her. She learns how to sleep in a dormitory full of boys with one eye open like a runner.

She learns that men are all the same, shackled or no, whether they flatter or feign disinterest or wear their spite on their sleeve. She becomes an expert in sifting the bad from the worse, and then she learns to wriggle her way into one class and out of another, in front of which Master she can speak and with which she must bite her tongue.

She learns that people are like rock, changed beyond all recognition under the heat and pressure of forces beyond their control.

It happens when Annik is a senior apprentice, a turn before the fateful day when she stands in the hallway and listens to the masters decide to hold her back from her cohort. A cold Telgari winter’s afternoon, the air sharp with ice and the wind wriggling its way between fur and leather to chill the skin. Four of them set off together, the boys dawdling behind and Annik making a brisk pace to keep up with the Journeyman who’s leading them. Not that she needs to: Journeyman Breca walks with the easy self-possession of a man who feels he has all the time in the world. He isn’t chatty, but he doesn’t have roving eyes or a cruel tongue, so he’s alright in Annik’s book.

As far as any of them know this could be their only trip to a real, almost-virgin cave. Most miners take one look and decide to get the fuck out of Bitra, as the saying goes. Lonely, dark, cold, with everything trying to kill you even if it’s only through sheer indifference: what’s to like? At best the place will only give you blisters and bruised knees and a cloying sense of claustrophobia.

It happens when Annik goes for a pee, setting her helmet down on a rock as she fumbles through her bag for the wide-topped bottle given to each of them in the Hall (another black mark against caving: the indignity of squatting over glass.) She only has her back turned for a second, but it’s long enough for one of the other apprentices to sneak back, grab her helmet with its all-important glow-lamp and scamper off again, shimmying through the crawlspace so quickly that Annik isn’t finished cussing before she’s plunged into darkness.

She isn’t sure how long she’s left like that. Time seems to lose its meaning, the hammering of her heart in her chest too fast to reckon by. For some reason her voice won’t work, trapped in her like a sneeze that won’t come. Instead she’s left to wait, feeling tentatively for the rock which is strangely warm under her fingertips.

It’s the journeyman who comes back to find her eventually, squeezing through the crawlspace without a word. He only straightens and looks at her, expression steady as if nothing had happened.

“It felt like,” but Annik can’t find any word fit to use. The feeling is still there, that safeness that reminds her of sleeping in a cupboard turns and turns ago. She has the most curious sense that the cave is listening, indifference revealed to be acceptance instead. An open, quiet waiting, neither coming nor going, the still point of the turning world.

When Annik is allowed to walk the tables it changes everything and nothing all at once. The men still say the same things and make the same gestures as she walks past. Every day is still spent staring at surveys, staring at the rock face, staring at the back of the man in front of her in the queue for food. She has her own room though, which is a blessing, and it sends a flutter in her chest to hear them call her ‘Journeyman’.

She isn’t exactly assailed with offers of placements. Master Naoshi is ’unable to accomodate new Journeymen at this time’, so Annik doesn’t know what that makes the boy he takes on two sevens later. Someone suggests Seyban might like her, but Annik thinks Seyban likes her too much by half so she loses his letters. It doesn’t bother her in the end: Annik knows what she wants to do, and she can wait. At night she closes her eyes and remembers the feeling of the darkness cradling her like a mother.

It takes time, of course. There aren’t many people who specialize in speleology, at least not in the field, and those that do don’t tend to make it far. Sumps filled with cold dark water. Loose snow on the mountains. Crumbling rock and poorly-packed pitons. There are hundreds of ways you can die in a cave, and the people who are drawn to them tend to hear ‘go big or go home’ and stop listening after the second word.

In the end it falls into her lap, opening before her like a perfect ‘o’ cave mouth. A bowl of stew cradled in the crook of her elbow, the softness of a hide under her fingers as she sketches, and then the little noise of welcome he makes as he sits opposite her. The Journeyman, though the intervening turns have changed his knot to a Senior’s.

“Journeyman Annik,” he says as if he’s known her name all along, and then he lays out his offer in the quiet measured tones she’ll come to know better than her own.

There is so much to learn, with Breca.

He has her sit with him for hours in the Hall, his hands cradling endless mugs of klah as he watches her tie and re-tie knots: figure of eight, alpine flutterby, Cromese hitch. When her fingers are aching and her eyes bleary they move to the courtyard where he empties his pack in front of her and has her identify everything inside: ropes, specially-made glow headlamp, sling, eight descender, carabiner, piton, chock stones, crampons. Annik thinks she’s pretty sharding good at it by the end, but when she looks to Breca for praise he just gives her a nod and then makes her do it blindfolded.

He introduces her to the Weavers who help them develop new gear, thinner and warmer for long tiring days under the earth. She learns the importance of woollens, of oilskin, of her thick gloves and the knee- and elbow-pads that are made specially for her. After they take Annik’s terrifying first flight on dragonback to Tillek, where she sees the ocean for the first time and watches ropes being woven. The air is fresher than anything she’s ever breathed before, the brine catching in her throat and the water making her hands itch. Breca buys a battered packtail and shows her how to splash it in vinegar and sprinkle it with salt. They share it in silence out by the breakers, the fat glistening on her hands.

A seven before her turnday, when the Hall is snow-steeped and the air crackles with cold, he has her break the ice on a trough in the courtyard and submerge herself in it, over and over again, until she can lie under the frigid water and hold her breath as her lungs scream and her flesh turns numb. His hand rests on her shoulder under the water, long fingers clasping light at the bone, that touch her only connection to the world above the surface.

It’s the first day of the new turn when Breca gives Annik the present. She is in her room, slowly packing her things into an oilskin bag, and when he knocks on the door the sound makes her hangover pulse against her skull.

“Y’can come in,” she grumbles, “but only if yer quiet like.”

Breca looks better than he has any right to after the amount of ale they drank, eyes still bright under the lick of his hair. He comes to sit on the edge of the bed, and though he is a polite distance away Annik can feel the prickle of his skin.

“Brought you a present.”

She thinks he’s joking, at first, and looks up ready to bite back at any teasing — but he has his hands held out already, a small lumpy egg cradled in the bowl of his palms.

“Is that…?”

“Yes.” He waits as if he thinks she’ll take it, dark eyes searching hers before he places the egg down on the rough blanket.

There is a long silence, and Annik keeps her eyes fixed firmly on her work: knee pads, elbow pads, thick woolens and slippery waxed jacket.

“Keep it warm and it’ll hatch before we make it to Telgar,” he says finally. “Best bring some meat with you.”

More quiet, Annik swallowing down the hammering of her heart. When Breca stands the cot wheezes under him.

“I’ll see you in the morning, then.”

She manages a nod, the ‘thank you’ stuck in her mouth like so much cotton wool.

Annik calls the little gold Spinel for the rosy undertones of her hide, and she reckons that the hatchling is the most beautiful thing she’s ever seen. Demanding, too: the long days walking alongside the wagons are punctuated with feeds, fresh caprine flesh cut into gobbets that Annik stuffs into that tiny maw with its row of needlelike teeth.

When Spinel isn’t eating she’s sleeping, whether cradled in the sling that Annik wraps about her or curled by her head at night. She seems to grow by the day. Tonight the little gold is particularly heavy in Annik’s lap, her belly swollen with food and her head hidden in the fur lining of her owner’s jacket.

“Didn’t say it afore,” Annik murmurs, turning her face away from the slow-dying fire. “But — I meant to thank you, like.”

There is a pause before Breca rolls to face her, the heavy fur falling half off him. The light from the embers catches over his eyes, tugging at something in Annik’s stomach.

“You don’t have to ‘you’ me,” he says finally, bringing one hand up to cradle beneath his cheek. “I know it’s not what you do back home.”

Thank Faranth there is Spinel to look at, those little golden headknobs to rub. “No one understands nowt I say if’n I don’t. And we ‘you’ when we’re being polite, like,” she corrects, voice quiet so the others don’t wake. “And you’re a senior Journeyman.”

More rustling, and when she looks over Breca has turned again, the fur pulled back up over his shoulder. “You don’t have to ‘you’ me,” he repeats, his voice so low in the night Annik isn’t sure that she hears it.

Here are the things that everyone knows about caves: they are cold, most often, any heat disconcerting as if you have skinned the earth to find the still-hot flesh beneath. You emerge with cracked skin, infected cuts, fingertips oozing pus from bacteria grown far under the ground. The darkness steals the healthy colour of your skin, and the solitude leaves you awkward with people. There is risk, constantly, and the stakes are high. Firelizards allow two people to climb rather than four, one left to tend to a wounded partner as the flit goes for help, but in deep caves a rescue party can be hours away, even days. If you die down there, and eventually you will, you die far away from home.

These things are all true, and Annik knows them. But there are things that other people don’t know, perhaps could never see even if they tried.

It is beautiful down there, in the world where people are not. Lamps pick up the glitter of ore in the rock, and stalagmites twist as if made to delight the eye. In places the rock is smooth as silk, caressing bare palms. The silence is as beautiful as the knowledge that, no matter how far you climb, you will never know all of it. Caves are like the best lovers: known enough, never fully understood. The unexplored, the unwalked, call their siren song always beyond the next sump or drop.

The tension of constant risk has its own rewards too. A perpetual awareness of the physical reduces a person to a body, sure-footed and animal. There is no feeling in the world like climbing back into the light, no drink like the first drink once you are out, no fire as welcome as the first made in the cave mouth. Everything feels better afterwards: eating, laughing, touch.

Annik knows that people fear dark close spaces, rock that has existed long before they were born and will exist long after they die. They imagine that abseiling a descent or choosing which winding tunnel to follow is a moment of panic. The smothering of precious glows for sleep must be, they think, a thing that ushers in terror.

Annik knows different. There is risk and fear and pain, of course, more than she’s ever felt. But then there is the choice: the deep exhale that releases all tension, the closing of eyes as the heart is urged to still.

There is no peace like there is down there, that moment before you dive into black water or squeeze through a crevice and you let go of everything.

How many Holds do they visit in six months, how many caves up in the mountains? Annik doesn’t remember their names, though in her mind’s eye she can conjure up all of them. The place so close to the sea that she can taste salt whenever she licks her lips. The grotto deep under a Weyr, an underground pool full of eyeless fish with skin pearlescent as light touches them for the first time. The long crawl where Breca is almost stuck, his head turned to the side as he scrapes forward inch by painful inch, stone scraping his shoulders raw through his tunic. The alpine lake where she teaches him how to skim stones in beautiful decreasing parabolas out over the water.

They are in Igen now and Annik is surprised to learn that the desert nights are cold. She hunches over by the fire, arms wrapped tight about her legs, and looks up at the multitude of stars as she slowly exhales the sweet smoke from the joint.

Eventually Breca takes up his wooden flute and begins to play: ‘The Milkmaid’s Daughter’, a piercing melody that draws involuntary a hum from Annik’s throat. For a moment it is almost indescribably beautiful, the night, the music, the softness the joint sends curling over everything — and then Breca’s little green lifts up her head to join in, a tuneless screech that tears through the peace.

A second, that’s all Annik manages to hold the laugh for. It breaks out of her, an irrepressible guffaw that makes her stomach ache and her eyes fill with tears. Breca looks at her for a long moment, frown creased as if he is annoyed, before a smile unfolds over his lips.

When she moves to scrape off their plates she shifts her furs so that they are next to his, and Breca says nothing.

Another month, another minor hall. Another minor miner hall, as Breca delights in saying. There’s not much Annik delights about in them, coal-blackened structures full of hard-faced men. A decade ago she was a child in a place like this, a home where she was treasured. There is still a part of her that thrills to see the Craft’s colours, to hear the sounds of industry and watch strong-backed men draw up the secrets of the earth.

It has changed, though, with the knot. A woman journeyman does not fit into this space where a miner’s daughter grew snug as a ruby in the rock.

At dinner she tucks her feet under the long bench, bending her legs back so far that the wood bites into the back of her knees. This way she can avoid the wandering feet of the men around her, glaring sullenly at her ale and snapping at anyone who talks to her. Breca catches her eye, one brow arching, and she shakes her head curtly before looking away. He does not insist on fighting her battles.

A seven, that’s all. Time to restock, to rest her sprained wrist, to share their findings with the posted masters. A seven and she’ll be free.

They lie down there together in the darkness and she curves against him, pressing her rear against his groin.


He makes a grunt-soft noise from behind her, nuzzling against her hair.

“Ain't half starved down here.”

Another grumble behind her ear. “Fuck's sake, it's time to sleep.”

She shifts again, raising one hand to pillow under her cheek and blink out at the blackness. “Does tha ever think what tha might've done, if tha hadn't met us?”

“No. I think about sleeping.”

She reaches her other hand to pat against his where it holds her belly. “Coulda been faffin' about all over Pern with all them pretty girls…”

“You're my pretty girl. Now shut up.”

She smiles at that, the darkness soft on her face. “Ah, pack it in.”

“You are.” A long pause and then as he seems to give up, “I'd've found you anyway. Somehow.”

She thinks on that for a long time, lacing her fingers through his. “'appen as not,” she acknowledges finally. “Tha might be right.”

“I know I am.” A firm kiss is pressed to the back of her ear, strong arms squeezing the air out of her. “Sleep.”

“Aye. Alright then.” And she curls back even closer, letting him and the cave and the dark hold her.

Another turn, another posting. The master who greets them at the minor Hold ignores Annik, hand extended to shake Breca’s with a grin.

“Senior Journeyman, a pleasure. You must be frozen. Let me get you a drink. Brandy? Whiskey? I keep some in my rooms…”

Breca is not hurried now more than he has been a day in his life, waiting with endless patience until the master is forced to turn to Annik, eyes flicking down to her knot.

“Journeyman.” His lips curl with distaste over the rank.

“Whiskey,” Annik says, and Breca smiles that small secret smile.

Once the Hold is quiet Annik creeps to Breca’s room where he has spread the map over the bed. She takes the chair, squinting through the pages of notes, and he leans his head against her knee and takes out his wooden flute, playing songs so old they have no beginnings or endings.

“It’s a nasty one,” she says finally. “Lost two men already down’t. Nobbut trouble in there.”

He tilts his head to look up at her, letting the flute fall from his lips. “It’s beautiful. Deep. Unexplored. Who knows what’s past the last sump?”

“Could be nothing. Like as not it’s a dead end.”

“Perhaps,” he says, as calm as ever.

Annik eyes the sketches made by men now dead, forehead creasing over helictites and stalagmites. “They think as there’s summat special down there?”

Breca shrugs, letting his jaw fall. “They think there’s something valuable down there, yes. There’s always something special.”

There’s a long, long silence before he speaks again.

“Are you afraid, Ana?”

She considers it for a long time, teasing the thought as her teeth tease her lip. “Every time. Tha’d be mad not to be.”

He laughs at that, tilting his head to press his forehead briefly to her kneecap. “I know. I’m excited.”

They eat herdbeast jerky and bruised fruit, giggling at each other as they play dragon poker with their free hands.

“I'm gonna smash tha, Breca of Five Mines. Just wait.”

He snorts at that, flicking his head to get the hair out of his eyes as he throws down a card. “Whatever, Cromgirl.”

“Pffft. Tha’s thicker nor two short planks.”

“Still gonna whup your ass.”

“Tha ain't getting so much as one grubby little finger on my arse.”

Breca smiles at that, taking his time to rip jerky off with his teeth before he says mildly, “not what you said last night.”

“Pack it in, farmboy.”

And then they're rolling and laughing together, the remaining redfruit crushed under the weight of them.

His firelizard goes funny, after. That will be Annik’s clearest memory of it: the little green shrieking out her distress, flickering in and out of between, darting about the cavern as if she looks for him. Not that she needs to look, with Breca right there. Perhaps she doesn’t recognize him, his neck at that funny angle and the thick smell of blood drowning out his familiar scent.

It takes Annik a long time to lower herself down to him because her hands won’t work on the rope. Turns she’s been doing this and suddenly she’s all thumbs, her fingers trembling so much that she can hardly use them. Her feet keep missing the face somehow, sending her body slamming with a curious painlessness against the rock.

By the time she gets down the little green has disappeared. Spinel is there, though Annik can’t remember where she has been for the last — candlemark? Two? Who knows, this deep in the earth. The firelizard’s muzzle is red-smeared from where she has been nudging Breca, and Annik wipes it clean with her sleeve.

When she comes to write the note on the map the words slip through her mind like water through a sieve. Breca. That she can write without hesitation, the last word she would remember if everything else were gone. But the others, all those little squiggles that hold meaning for people other than themselves, those seem as insignificant as smoke fading on the breeze.

How long is it, between Spinel taking the map between and the sound of voices calling from further up in the cave? Forever, perhaps, or only a moment. Countless heartbeats and endless silence.

Long enough for Annik to feel the heat seep out of him. Long enough for her to lie on the unyielding stone and forget her name. Long enough for her to wash the taste of vomit from her mouth.

Long enough for her to strip off her heavy furs and move lightheaded to the sump, walking into the bone-cold water until it settles its hands at her neck. Long enough for her to take a breath and sink under, eyes opening against the silt. Long enough to see only blackness ahead.

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