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The story tells how the people of the fictional planet Pern discover the special abilities of the watch-whers or whers, a distant relative of the dragons. Subsequently, these beasts are used in mines to warn miners of gas pockets and also to locate stranded miners, should there be a cave-in.
The story begins some years before the 3rd Pass in Camp Natalon, a mining camp. There, the reader is introduced to a young boy Kindan, whose father owns a watch-wher called Dask. During a mining cave-in, Kindan loses his entire family as well as Dask, and is adopted by the Master Harper Zist, who begins to train him to be both an entertainer and a spy, something that Harpers do. This is how Kindan learns that the camp is divided into two parties, Natalon's and his uncle Tarik's
Meanwhile, the camp is without a watch-wher and minor accidents keep delaying the work. Despite the protests from Tarik and his group, Natalon decides to trade an entire winter's worth of coal for a chance for Kindan to ask a queen watch-wher for an egg. He succeeds and begins the difficult task of raising a nocturnal animal. As no records exist on how to raise or train the watch-wher, Kindan has no clue but is luckily aided by the mysterious Nuella. Together, they train Kisk and, in the process, learn a great deal about this species. This proves to be vital as, towards the end of the novel, Kisk's abilities will save many lives, including that of the camp leader, Natalon.