/ Language: English / Genre:sf_fantasy, / Series: Bardic Voices

The Robin And The Kestrel

Mercedes Lackey


BARDIC VOICES: The Robin And The Kestrel

Mercedes Lackey

copyright 1993

Dedicated to

Dr. Paul Welch, and the other avian veterinarians

who keep the namesakes of our Free Bards,

wild and tame, alive and well.

CHAPTER ONE

Jonny Brede_aka "Free Bard Kestrel"_shook mud and cold, cold water out of his eyes. He grunted as he heaved another shovelful of soft mud from beneath the wheel of their foundered travel-wagon. And the hole immediately filled up with water. This was not how a honeymoon was supposed to be conducted. Not in a blinding downpour, with more mud on him than even this flood of rain could wash away. Not with their wagon stuck in a pothole the size of Birnam. What happened to "and they lived happily ever after"?

It's stuck at the end of tales in stupid Guild ballads, that's what happened to it. Real people get stuck in potholes, not platitudes.

Jonny Brede grinned at that, in spite of the miserable situation; it had a good ring to it. A nice turn of phrase. He'd have to tell Robin; she could store it away in her capacious memory and put it in a song some time. She was the one with a talent for lyrics, not he. They hadn't been out of Birnam for more than a week when she'd already crafted a song about the two of them, "The Gypsy Prince." "If I don't, someone else will," she reasoned, "and if it isn't Rune or Talaysen, they'll probably get it all wrong. Never trust your story to someone else."

Well, she had a point. Though he simply could not think of himself as "Sional," much less as "Prince Sional"_not anymore.

Not when the "Prince" was in command of no more than himself, two mares, and a shovel. Better "Jonny," or better yet, "Free Bard Kestrel."

He shoveled a little more muddy gravel under the wheel of their caravan-wagon and took a cautious peek at his bride of a few scant weeks through a curtain of rain. The last time he'd looked at her, she'd been giving the wagon a glare as black as the thunderclouds overhead. She'd been standing to one side of their patient, sturdy, ebony mares, fists on her hips, gaudy clothing pasted to her body by the rain, with her ebony hair flattened down on her head and her lips moving silently. He did not think she was praying. The look on her face had boded ill for the King's road crew, if she ever discovered who had permitted this enormous pothole to form and fill with soft, sucking mud.

Her temper did not seem to have improved in the past few moments. She held the bridles of their two well-muscled horses and murmured encouraging things into their ears, but the scowl on her face belied her soft words. Hopefully her temper would cool before she actually needed to find a target for her anger other than the storm itself. Robin had a formidable temper when it was aroused.

Kestrel sighed, and stamped down on the gravel to make it sink into the mud and hopefully pack down. He was happy, despite being soaked to the skin, cold and muddy. Their horses had shied at a lightning strike, running off onto the verge of the road and now their wagon was mired at the side of the road. So what? It was not an insurmountable problem. The wagon had not been hit, their horses had not broken legs, neither of them were hurt. It was just a matter of hauling the thing out themselves, or waiting until someone came along who could help them.

So what? He wasn't going to let a little accident upset his cheerful mood. In fact, he thought he had never been so happy before in all his life. Certainly not during his best-forgotten childhood.

He shoveled in another load of gravel, which splashed into the yellow mud and sank. Prince Sional, huh. Oh, it's a great thing to be a Prince, when your father sticks you in a so-called palace that's half derelict, with one servant to care for a child, an invalid Queen to do all the char work, and deal with leaky roofs and cracks in the walls. It's a great thing to be royal, when your kingly father trots you out only for special occasions when a live son is useful. It's a fine thing to be a Prince, when you've got snow on your satin bedspread in the winter, leaks onto your head in the summer, and the servants at the Crown Palace eat better than you do. When your only friend is a Guild Bard who should have retired a hundred years ago...

He'd been ignored by his wastrel father, who was too busy debauching himself to pay attention to his son or his land, and willfully neglected by his father's underlings. The only thing good in that childhood had been his mother and tutor, a Guild Bard of Birnam, one Master Darian, who had been father, mother, and mentor to him. Master Darian had taught him about honor and about care. And within his own specialty, first the love of music, then the means of making it.

Kestrel's eyes misted over and a tear or two joined the rain on his cheeks. Darian, my good Darian, faithful one. Oh, Master, I wish you could see me now. I think you'd be pleased. You always said it was the music that should be important, and the skill of those who played it. I think you'd like Robin. I know you'd like Talaysen.

King Charlis' royal chickens had come home to roost with a vengeance. When he had wrung his land near-dry to support his self-indulgence, some of his subjects could bear no more. One, Charlis' own brother, was willing to act on their desperation. He staged an uprising; flooded the palace with his own men, and killed his brother, taking the throne for himself.

Now, at long last, Kestrel knew why his uncle had taken those drastic steps. And he knew now what neither he nor Darian had known then; that Rolend had no intention of harming his nephew, and that the orders that night had been to stay away from the Dowager Palace. Then in the morning, after the situation had been resolved, Rolend had planned to bring Sional to the Crown Palace to be installed with his cousin and his cousin's tutors.

Whether he would have given me preference for the throne over Victor_well, that hardly matters. He wasn't going to kill a child.

But Sional had been snooping, as a young boy would, in places he shouldn't have been; he had seen his father's assassination and the beginning of the uprising, and had run to his tutor in terror. Old Darian, not knowing any of the plans afoot, had assumed the worst, and had smuggled them both out of the palace, out of the city, and out of Birnam through the terrible fens between Birnam and Rayden.

As a Guild Bard from Birnam the old man was given a certain respect, even though he had been in the scant train of the Queen until she died, then had chosen to live in obscurity as Sional's tutor for her sake. But the Guild in Rayden was not minded to see any prize places go to some outsider, and Jonny and his ailing mentor had been shuffled off to the Guild Hall at Kingsford and left to rot.

Kestrel wiped away a couple more tears; of anger this time, at the arrogant bastards who'd politely jeered at the brave old man, and had accounted his stories of revolt and assassins to be a senile fool's meanderings. They had never questioned the boy that Darian called "Jonny Brede."

I was sick with marsh-fever. And they wouldn't have believed me, anyway. The marsh-fever had taken his memory and left him thinking he was no more than a peasant boy that Darian had chosen for his apprentice despite the "obvious unsuitability" of the boy; either the fever or the trauma of flight had also left him with a stutter he still suffered.

He scrubbed the back of his hand across his mouth and tasted grime and dilute salt. Damn them. Darian should have been covered with honors, and what did they do? They stuck him in the worst room in the Guild Hall, a room they wouldn't even put a servant in, and left him to die. If it hadn't been for me, he would have died within a week. He was too old and too tired to flee across two countries with a sick boy.

He had to keep reminding himself that it was all in the past. Otherwise he'd get too angry about things he couldn't change. That was what Master Wren kept telling him, and he was right.

He shoveled in another load of gravel, packing it down savagely. Oh, that was what everyone told him, but forgetting, now_that was the hard part.

The Guild had a lot to answer for. When Master Darian died, it was their own law that he be found a new Master. He was, after all, a full apprentice, and had anyone been watching out for his rights, he would have gotten that new Master. But no one wanted to be bothered with a stuttering apprentice_and one who was a "legacy," chosen by a Bard from another kingdom, at that. There would be no grateful parents sending gifts as there would have been if he had been born well-off. There would be no gifts from the boy to the Master who had discovered him, if and when he achieved fame, for that Master was Darian. There was no one to insist that the boy's rights be observed, for that troublemaker, Master Talaysen, had vanished after tossing all his honors into the face of the Guild Master.

In short, there was no profit in taking the boy, and it would mean a great deal of wasted time trying to train him out of the stutter.

So the Guild Master and his chosen cronies told him he was feebleminded, a half-wit; told the same tale to anyone who looked the least bit curious. Then they had thrown him out into the street with only the clothes on his back and those few personal possessions he still had, denied his rights to a new Master, denied even the old harp his Master had left when he died.

Something Talaysen had said made him smile in spite of his anger. "The irony is, they trained plenty of half-wits in there, and they are still doing so. It doesn't take wits to play without any sense of the music. Halfwits are conscious only of form and style, not content_and form and style are all the Guild cares about."

If I'd had that harp, I could at least have made some kind of living as a street-busker. That had been the worst of it; he had no skills, and he was too old to find another Apprenticeship in a trade. If I'd had the harp, I would have found the Free Bards earlier_or they would have found me, the way they found Rune. They'd have told me I wasn't worthless....

Still, there was no point in dwelling on that.

No, he certainly had no pleasure in looking back at those years. Nor at the ones that followed; with no harp to play to make a living, and no way of ever getting one, he had been forced to look for whatever work he could find as an unskilled laborer. He worked himself to the bone in the worst of conditions, stealing when there was no work.

That was when his life had truly fallen to pieces. His uncle, King Rolend, had gotten wind of the fact that he was still alive. The King's own grasp on the throne was as shaky as his predecessors' had been; he could not afford a pretender to it, however young. And a young boy, had anyone known what he was, would have been easy to manipulate. There were plenty of people in Birnam who would have been very pleased to get their hands on a figurehead for a counter-rebellion.

So King Rolend had made the cruelest decision of his life. To have seeking-talismans made, and send out hired killers bearing them, to find Sional, now only fifteen or sixteen, and kill him.

Since Sional had no inkling of who and what he was, this was even crueler than it seemed. He was now caught in the heart of a senseless nightmare. Hired killers were after him, and he had no notion why. Their mere existence made it impossible for him to accept a permanent job even when one was offered, for he dared not stay in one place for too long.

He shook rainwater out of his eyes, and glanced over to his beloved Robin again. She had that knack for dealing with animals that all Gypsies seemed to have; the mares were listening to her and had calmed considerably.

Flickering light overhead made him cock his head to look at the sky. An area of clouds just above him lightened again, and a distant mumble of thunder followed the light.

Good. All the lightning was up in the clouds. May it stay there. This was a bad place to be caught by lightning, here in an area of road lined by oaks. Oak trees seemed to attract lightning, for some reason, and several of the huge trunks nearby bore mute testament to that.

He had done all he could for this wheel. He moved to the other, and started in again, his thoughts returning to the past. If anyone wanted to devise a hell for someone, he thought, packing the gravel as far in under the wheel as he could, it would surely have been a life like mine! Able to find only the most menial of work, watching over one's shoulder for the mysterious killers_and not knowing why they pursued, much less how to get rid of them!

He had taken a job as a goat-driver, a job that brought him to the edge of the Downs and the little town of Karsdown. What he had not known was that this late in the season, there would be no further work in Karsdown for an unskilled laborer. He found himself trapped in a tiny sheep-herding town with no work in it, without enough money to buy himself provisions to get to someplace else, and without the woods-knowledge needed to live off the land. He had been desperate; desperate enough to try to pick the pocket of a tall man with graying red hair, who appeared to have enough coin that he would not miss a copper or two. His target was a man he had not then known was a Bard, since he was not carrying an instrument, nor wearing the Guild colors of purple and silver or gold. He had tried to pick the pocket of one known both as "Master Wren" and_by a chosen few_as the great Free Bard Master Talaysen. Wren was the same man who had fled acclaim and soft living to form the loose organization known as the "Free Bards"_but before he had done that, he had won Guild Mastery as well, under the far-famed name of Master Gwydain. The songs and music of Gwydain were famed in every kingdom_though the songs and music of Free Bard Talaysen bid fair to eclipse that fame.

Funny_Wren outshines even himself!

All he had known at the time was that the man was accompanied by two young and attractive women, and to Jonny's eyes was spending a great deal of money. He had assumed that the man was_well_their "honey-papa," as the shepherds would say, an older man who bought young ladies nice things and received most particular and personal attentions from them in return.

That he had been mistaken was his good fortune rather than his bad, for that was when his streak of horrible luck finally broke. Talaysen had caught him, but had not sought to punish, but to help him. The young women had been his wife, the Free Bard Rune, and a Gypsy Free Bard named Gwyna, but far more often referred to as "Robin."

Kestrel grinned at that memory. Robin had first loaded him down with all her packages to carry, without so much as a "by-your-leave," and then had marched him off to get a bath in the stream and had made it very clear that either he would bathe, or she would bathe him. And her expression had told him wordlessly that if she did the bathing, it would be thorough, but not pleasant. He opted to scrub himself down, and change into some old clothing of Rune's rather than his own rags.

Amazing how much better being clean for the first time in months can make you feel. And she certainly thought I cleaned up well enough.

He stole another glance at her, and it seemed to him as if she looked a trifle less angry. Perhaps talking to the horses had calmed her. He hoped so; there was no reason to be angry, after all. Even though the pothole seemed to be the size of Birnam, the wagon that was stuck in it was theirs, the horses that drew it were theirs, and it all was a gift of his uncle_

The same uncle who had tried to kill him, true, but King Rolend wasn't trying to kill him anymore.

He grinned again. Poor Uncle Rolend! He had been no match for the wits of Talaysen, the magic of the Gypsies, and the determination of his three new friends to see him out of the mess!

One of the Elves who'd come to his wedding, one of those who were allies of both Talaysen and King Rolend, had told him that it was no accident, his being in Karsdown at the same time as the other three. "Your Bardic magery was awakening," the Elf had said, with lofty off-handedness. "It called to them, as theirs called to you. If you had not met then, you would have met soon."

He rubbed his nose, uneasily. He wasn't altogether certain about this "Bardic Magic" business. It was easy enough for Wren to be blithe about it; he was a Master twice over, in the Guild Bards and the Free Bards, and a nobleman to boot. He was used to power of all sorts. Kestrel was far from comfortable with the idea that he could influence people and events just by thinking and singing....

Well, right now that hardly mattered. No magic, Bardic or otherwise, was going to get this wagon out of the muck. It was going to take nothing more esoteric than muscle of man and beast.

But was that really why Talaysen had so readily "adopted" him? Master Wren said not, no matter what the Elf said. "All it took was to hear you play," the Bard had said, simply. "I knew you were one of us, and that we had an obligation to help you."

He grinned, through the rain dripping down his back, and in spite of the aches in his muscles. To hear that, from the one he admired most in the world_

I wouldn't have blamed him if he'd gotten rid of me that night in Ralenvale when the killers caught up with me....

Though no one had been hurt except the killers themselves, it had been a terror-filled night, both for Kestrel, who had hoped to escape his pursuers, and the Gypsies they had camped with.

But before that, he had been having the time of his life, for the Gypsies treated him as one of their own, and made him feel at home with them. That was when Jonny had earned his Bardic nickname of "Kestrel" from the Gypsies; he had said, in disgust, that his stutter made him sound like a kestrel. The Gypsies had seized upon that and promptly dubbed him "Free Bard Kestrel." They'd included him in their music, their dancing_and never once teased him about the way he sounded when he talked.

Then the attack had come. One of the assassins had died, challenging a magical trap set by the Gypsy mage, Peregrine. The rest had fled when their weapons missed their target.

I thought for certain when they realized how much trouble I was bringing to them that they would tell me to make my own way. But instead, Wren had decreed his lost past must be plumbed_to find out why he was the target of such attacks, so that something could be done to prevent or evade them.

Peregrine had performed the magic that unlocked Kestrel's lost memories, and then "Jonny Brede" learned who and what he really was. It had been a shock to all of them, but it had been Talaysen who decreed they must go to the source of those memories, to discover the truth of the matter, and what, if anything, they should do about that truth.

From the first, he had never really entertained fantasies of being the "lost Prince" returned to reclaim his throne_or not for long, anyway. He wasn't certain what the others had in their minds. But the further into Birnam they got, and the more questions they had asked, the more the truth about the current and past King emerged, although they had more questions on the whole than they had answers. So, at last, they had taken the risky chance of summoning Elves to answer what had become a series of vital questions.

And the answers the Elf gave them had not been in keeping with any fantasy of "lost Princes." Kestrel's father Charlis had indeed, even by Elven standards, been a terrible King; he had wasted the resources of his land on his own pleasure, and had taken no thought to truly governing it. King Rolend had acted in part to keep his brother from destroying his own lands and people with his greed. Rolend was the very opposite of his brother, and had, through sacrifice and hard work, brought Birnam back into prosperity.

The obvious question then was why had such an apparently good and honorable man been sending killers to rid himself of a child?

The Elves had an answer to that as well, for they were privy to Rolend's counsels and many of his secrets; Rolend believed that the King's concern lay with all the peoples of his realm, and not just those who were human.

Rolend, they said, had learned that the Prince had survived his flight into Rayden and had become more and more nervous, as the boy grew older, that one day someone might use the Prince as a front in an attempt to regain the throne. He was, after all, the "rightful" heir to his father. And there were plenty of folk who had profited when Charlis sat the throne, who now were not profiting in the reign of his honest brother. These folk, a mixture of dishonest Priests of the Church, discontented Dukes and Sires who had enjoyed considerable autonomy in their own holdings under Charlis, and the Birnam Bardic Guild who had lined their pockets with Birnam's gold, would have been overjoyed to have a figurehead to use for a counter-rebellion, particularly one as romantic as a "lost Prince." Most particularly, one who could be manipulated, as a young, and presumably naive, child could be.

So King Rolend had gritted his teeth and sent assassins, armed with tokens that would lead them to the Prince.

He would never feel safe until "Prince Sional" had been taken out of the picture, permanently.

Intellectually_well, I could understand that. Kestrel stood for a moment to ease his cramping shoulders, then went back to his work. And now that I've met with Uncle_all I can say is, I'm glad things worked out this way. The trouble with Uncle Rolend is that he is very good at convincing himself that he is doing something for the best possible reason. It's awfully easy for someone like that to think that the end justifies the means.

Kestrel did not want the throne; he knew, deep in his heart, that he was a good musician, but would make a terrible King. He knew nothing of governance outside of the little gleaned from a few ballads, which was hardly the best source of information.

Oh, Rune would have made a better King than me!

The only way to stop the assassins, short of dying or taking the throne, was to find a way to renounce his heritage. So, with the help of Talaysen, Rune, and the Gypsy named Robin whom he had come to love, he had taken himself out of the picture. Permanently.

A midnight incursion into the palace was in order; they held Rolend "hostage" briefly while they explained themselves and worked a little Bardic magic to make him believe what they were saying. That was followed by a sunrise abdication_a very public abdication_on Kestrel's part.

And then Kestrel sealed his "unsuitability" by publicly proposing marriage to a Gypsy... and being accepted

The corners of his mouth turned up in a smile he could not repress. The look on her face when he had proposed!

It probably matched the look on mine when she accepted.

No King could ever wed a commoner; the Dukes, Barons, and Sires would never permit it. No nobleman could ever wed a Gypsy; by doing so he had rendered not only himself, but all his future offspring, completely ineligible for the throne of Birnam. By that single action he had ensured his safety and that of those with him, no matter how suspicious his uncle might become.

So here they were, riding off to make their way in the world as "mere" Free Bards in a gypsy caravan complete to the last detail and as luxurious in its appointments as it could be and not attract robbers and brigands_

Well, we were "riding" up to an hour ago, anyway.

_the wagon itself a gift of his uncle, who had been only too obviously relieved to see the last of him.

With Talaysen and Rune now safely installed as Rolend's court Bards, and Talaysen actually appointed Laurel Bard to the throne, hopefully Rolend's fears would stay safely buried.

But Kestrel had always preferred to hedge his hopes with defenses. A man who fears shadows can sometimes manufacture enemies, as Gwyna's people say.

Besides, there had been no point in courting trouble or giving King Rolend any cause for more sleepless nights. The best way to show him that "Prince Sional" was dead and not lamented, was to keep as far from Birnam as possible.

Not exactly a hardship, to keep his distance from one little pocket-kingdom when he had all the wonders of Alanda to roam in. He had always been fascinated, even as a very tiny child, by the stories about all the myriad races and cultures of this strange and patchwork world. Now he had the chance to see them firsthand. All of them, or at least as many as he could in a single lifetime.

I am far more likely to thank my uncle than hold a grudge against him. This time he didn't bother to hold back the grin. He is stuck on that stupid block of a throne for the rest of his life, and he will never move more than twenty leagues from his own castle. He will never see the Mintaks and their step-pyramids, the canal-streets of the Loo'oo'alains, the walled fortress-city of the Deliambrens! Why, he probably won't even go under the Elven Hills with the Elves in his own little kingdom!

Birnam had never been a home to him; in fact, he had never really known a home, nor did he have a clear recollection of a time when he had owned more than he could carry in a thin rucksack on his back. A luxurious wagon was home enough for him! And the road was all the country he needed. Besides, now he need no longer watch his back for the mysterious men who had kept trying to murder him.

His grin widened. Altogether, this was a wonderful life, mud, stuck wagon, and all!

"What are you grinning about?"

Robin came around the side of the wagon, and scraped a draggle of wet hair out of her eyes as she spoke. Jonny seized her wrist and pulled her over to him, giving her a muddy hug and a passionate kiss, both of which she returned with such interest that he began to think he might steam himself dry in her arms. He let go with reluctance.

"I'm g-g-grinning at th-this!" he said, waving his hand at the wagon, the horses, themselves. "I m-m-mean, think ab-b-bout it! We may be s-s-stuck, but we c-c-can just unhitch th-th-the horses and g-g-get inside if w-w-we want! Th-th-there's nothing s-s-stopping us, if w-w-we d-decide to g-g-give up for a little. It's ours. Y-y-you s-s-see?"

She nodded, finally, and a ghost of a smile appeared as her frown of worry faded. "You know, you're right. We don't have to be anywhere. We've got anything a Gypsy could ever want, we can get out of the wet if we get tired of trying to fish this thing out of the mud, and the horses will survive a soaking."

He nodded vigorously. "You s-s-see? We aren't even b-b-blocking the r-r-road! W-w-we can w-w-wait unt-t-til someone c-c-comes along who c-c-can give us a h-h-hand! And if anything is b-b-broken, w-we have the m-money to f-f-fix it! Th-th-that's m-m-more than I've ever been able to say b-b-before!" He lowered his eyelids suggestively. "Th-th-there's lots of w-w-ways to get w-w-warm."

Now she grinned right along with him, and tossed her head to get her wet hair out of her eyes. "True," she agreed. "But I would like to think I'd at least tried to get this thing out of the muck before we give up and go inside. The horses are ready any time you are." Her smile turned wistful. "I don't think either of us thought we'd be spending part of our honeymoon trying to boost a wagon out of a pothole."

"A m-m-muddy p-p-pothole," he said, ruefully, looking at the state of his clothing. Impossible now to tell what color it had been, as mud-soaked as it was.

She shrugged, and put her shoulder to the other wheel. "Still, I'll keep telling myself that it is our wagon. We have options I never had before. A year ago I'd have been huddling under a rock overhang if I was lucky, or trying to stay warm under a fallen log if I was not."

He bent to his wheel and she whistled to the horses, who strained forward in their harnesses while the two of them pushed the wagon from behind.

Indeed. This was their beautiful, if mud-splashed, wagon. They were safely in Rayden again, and on their way out, after which dear Uncle would have no clue as to where they might have gone. And shoving away at his side was the loveliest_if muddiest_lady he had ever known in all his life. And she had picked him.

All right, I'm prejudiced, he admitted, as the wagon rocked a little in place, but otherwise refused to move. But I'm also not blind, and I think I've seen enough lovely ladies to know true beauty when I spot it!

After several attempts, the wagon was not budging, the horses were straining, and the rain showed no signs of abating. Robin panted, bending over with her hands braced against her knees, her wet hair dangling down. Kestrel massaged his hands and again tried to see if anything was obviously wrong.

He was beginning to think that there might be something broken or jammed; this wagon had axles built into the body to protect them. A good idea, but it made it difficult to judge what might have gone wrong without the tedious business of taking off the bottom plate.

He sighed, and Robin turned her head and caught his eye.

"Are you s-s-sorry you d-d-didn't get the K-K-King of B-B-Birnam after all?" he asked, ruefully. "You w-w-wouldn't be standing in the m-m-mud if you had."

But Robin only grinned, her good nature restored by the exertion. "Powers forfend!" she replied. "The King of Birnam would be fair useless getting this blasted wheel out of the mud! Let's try that notion of yours, of heaving up and trying to shore up the wheel while it's up."

It had been a faint hope more than an idea, but if Robin wanted to try it he was game.

"You d-d-do the c-c-counting," he said, with a self-deprecating laugh. "If I d-d-do, we'll b-b-be here all d-d-day!"

CHAPTER TWO

Gwyna shoved little bits of wood under the wheel, using a larger piece to protect her hands in case the wagon slipped back. Damn the rain. Always comes at the worse possible time. A rain-soaked lock of hair fell down across her nose in a tangled curl again, and she didn't have the hand to spare to push it out of the way. It tickled, and it got in the way of her vision.

It was hard to stay cheerful when you were dripping wet, your hair was snarled and soaked, and there was mud everywhere the rain didn't wash it away. But there was Kestrel, laboring manfully beside her, for all his slight build, and he wasn't complaining. Poor thing, he wasn't much taller than she, nor much more muscled, though regular feeding had put a little more weight on him. He still inspired women to want to take him home and feed him pastries and milk.

And then feed him something else entirely, girl, she told herself, and grinned, in spite of the cold rain dripping down her back and the certain knowledge that at the moment she looked more like a drowned kitten than a seductress. Well, he was hers. The others would simply have to look and wish.

Even soaking wet and muddied to his ears, he was a handsome piece, though he hadn't a clue that he was, bless his heart. Long, dark hair, as dark as a Gypsy's, now plastered to his head, but luxuriant and wavy when it was dry, set off his thin, gentle face with its huge, innocent dark eyes and prominent cheekbones_definitely a face to set maidens' hearts a-flutter. And when you added in the promise in the sensual mouth and clever hands, well, it set the hearts of no-longer-maidens aflutter, too. And he looked fine, very fine, in the flamboyant colors and garments favored by the Gypsies. He did most of his "speaking," when he could, with eloquent gestures and with his eyes. Right now, they held a cheer that not even their dismal situation could quench. And relief that once again, she had affirmed that she would rather have Kestrel the Free Bard than all the Kings in the Twenty Kingdoms.

And what would I do with a King, if I had one? Thank you, no. She was nothing if not practical. A King has all of his duties, and little time for pleasure, if he is a good King. I should see him for perhaps an hour or two in the day. I have my Kestrel with me as much as I like.

The horses stamped restively; she went up to the front of the wagon to reassure them. Thank the Lady that King Rolend had the sense to fling gold at Gypsy Raven with which to outfit a wagon and buy horses for it, rather than trusting such a task to his own stablemen. Not that the King's stablemen were unfit to choose horses, but a pair of pampered highbloods would be ill-suited for tramping the roads in all weathers. No, these mares were as sturdy as they were lovely; two generations out of the wild horses of the Long Downs, and crossbred to Kelpan warmbloods for looks and stamina. Truly a wedding present fit for a Prince, for all that he was Prince no more. A Prince of the road, then.

Why would she ever trade a life bound to one place for her free life on the road, anyway? She'd had a dislike for being tied to one spot before her unfortunate encounter with the dark-mage Priest, an encounter that left her with a horror of cages and being caged; now she was positively phobic about the notion.

Kestrel did not know about that, beyond the bare bones, that a renegade Priest-mage had turned her into a bird and caged her. He did not know how she had refused the Priest's demand she be his mistress, and that he had not only turned her into a bird, he had turned her into a bird too heavy to fly! He'd put her in a cage just barely large enough to hold her, and had displayed her by day for all the Kingsford Faire to see as his possession, and by night to the guests at his dinners.

Only the intervention of Rune and Talaysen had freed her; only Talaysen's acquaintance with a decent mage-Priest had enabled them to break the spell making her a bird. It had then rebounded upon its caster, who was still, for all she knew, languishing in the same cage he had built for her, in the guise of the ugliest and biggest black bird she had ever seen.

But ever since, the thought of staying in one place for too long brought up images of bars and cages....

No, thank you. No Kings for me! No matter how luxurious, a cage is still a cage.

The horses calmed, she went back to her task of shoving wood wedges under the wheel. Trying to, at any rate. It was awfully hard to tell if she was getting anywhere at all; the mud was only getting worse, not better, as the rain continued to pound them.

" 'Ware!" Kestrel warned her with a single word; he could usually manage single words without stuttering. She snatched her hands and board out of the way, called to the horses, and the wagon settled as Kestrel and the mares let it down.

He closed his eyes and sagged against the back of the wagon. She appraised him carefully, trying to measure with her eyes just how exhausted he was, how strained his muscles. We can't manage too many more of these attempts, she decided. He hasn't got them in him, and neither do I.

She thanked her Lady that he was not, like so many men she knew, inclined to overextend himself in the hope of somehow impressing her. That sort of behavior didn't impress her and it inevitably led to the man in question hurting himself and then pretending he was not hurt!

Kestrel, on the other hand, was naive enough about women to take what she said at face value_and bright enough not to do something stupid just for the sake of impressing her.

And I am just contrary enough to say precisely what I mean, so all is well. She had to shake her head at herself as she admitted that. I would not have him change for the world and all that is in it. I am no easy creature to live with. He would not change me, either. So he says, and so I believe.

She leaned against the wagon, and tried to knot her wet hair at the nape of her neck, but little strands kept escaping and straggling into her eyes. She gave it up as a hopeless cause.

This naivete of his was something to be cherished_if that was precisely the right thing to call it. Perhaps it was simply that he had no one to teach him that women were anything other than persons. Truly, he had no one to teach him that women were anything!

After all, his childhood was spent with that old Master of his, and not even a female servant about_and the rest of his time was spent trying to earn enough to keep fed and running to save his life.

For whatever reason, he was one of the few men she knew, Free Bards and Gypsies included, who simply assumed that she was his partner_his equal in most things, his superior in some, his inferior in others. She had met a few men who were willing to accept her as a partner, but Kestrel was only one of three who simply assumed the status, and the other two were Raven and Peregrine. There was a difference, subtle, but very real to her, between that acceptance and assumption. It was a distinction that made a world of difference to her.

He never asked her to prove anything; he simply assumed that if she claimed she could do something, it was true. When she said she could not, he worked with her to find a way around the problem. When he knew how to do something, he asked her opinion before he simply did it_and she gave him the same courtesy.

Like this situation that they found themselves in now; neither of them knew a great deal about wagons, at least of this type, and neither of them were large and muscular. Without any arguing, they had each tried the other's suggestions, and when things didn't work, they simply went on to try something else.

Oh, they had arguments; everyone did. But when it counted, they were partners. Arguments were for times of leisure!

In a peculiar way, even standing in the pouring rain, wet and miserable, cold and besmeared with muck, was a wonderful and rare experience. It proved something to her that she had hoped for all along; that she was his friend, companion, the person he trusted, as well as his lover. She could count the number of couples who could say that on one hand, and have fingers left over.

"Ready?" she asked, when it looked as if he had recovered as much as he was going to. He nodded tiredly.

"C-c-can't d-d-do this m-m-much l-longer," he said, simply. "I'm ab-b-bout gone."

"So am I," she admitted. "And so are the mares. But let's give it what we have, yes?"

He nodded. She counted. On four, she shouted to the horses, and they all strained to the limit.

Nothing happened. Just as nothing had really happened all the times before, no matter what they had tried.

" 'Ware!" she shouted, and they both let go as the horses slacked the harness. The wagon did not even move a great deal as it settled back.

Her good temper finally broke under the strain. She clenched fists and jaw, and glared at the wagon, the pothole, the mud that now reached halfway to the wheel-hub. "Damn," she swore under her breath, as she backed off and stared at the cursed thing. "Stupid, stubborn, blasted, demon-possessed pile of junk!" It was pretty obvious that there was nothing they were able to do alone that was going to free the wheels. They were not going to get it out, and everything they did now that it was obvious was a wasted effort.

She muttered a few Gypsy curses at the wheels under her breath for good measure. Kestrel just pulled the hair out of his eyes and leaned back so that the rain washed the mud from his face. After a few moments with his mouth open, drinking the fresh rain, he lowered his head and looked at her apologetically, as if he thought that he was somehow responsible for the situation.

"It's really s-s-stuck, isn't it?"

She nodded and, in a burst of fading annoyance, kicked the wheel.

As she had known it would, this accomplished nothing except to hurt her toe a little.

"Damn," she swore again, but with no real vehemence; she was too tired. Then she sighed. "It's really, really stuck. Or else something is broken. Let's get the horses under whatever cover we can, and try and dry off before we catch something."

As if to underscore the triumph of nature over the hand of man, the skies truly opened up, sluicing them with rain that seemed somehow much colder than the downpour that had already drenched them.

The horses cooperated, but their harness didn't; stiff leather, soaked with water and heavy, met cold stiff fingers. It took so long to unharness the mares that Robin's temper was well on the way to boiling by the time they had the two sodden beasts hobbled under the scant shelter of a low tree, wrapped in woolen horse-blankets.

They did not tether the team under an oak. And they did spread a canopy of canvas over the branches above, giving each beast a nose bag of grain to make up for their sad excuse for stabling.

Robin and Kestrel finally took shelter in the wagon, involuntarily bringing at least four or five buckets of rain in with them through the open door. By then, they were so cold that Robin despaired of ever feeling warm again. The charcoal stove in the wagon took time to heat up; that made it safer in a wooden wagon, but it meant it took a while to make any difference. In the meantime, they huddled in blankets that didn't seem to help very much even though they were dry.

Robin stared at the tiny stove, willing it to get warmer. The rain showed absolutely no sign of stopping; she'd had a forlorn hope that once they gave up, the rain might, too. She'd even seen a patch of blue to the east, but it had closed up again before it had ever fulfilled its promise.

She and Jonny were too far from any village to walk to shelter, even assuming they would be willing to leave the horses, the wagon and everything in it. Neither of them were, of course. She didn't know if the mares were broken to saddle; if they weren't, trying to ride them would probably end in someone getting dumped on his head.

Besides, only a fool would walk or ride off and leave everything he owned unprotected. She pulled the blanket closer around her shoulders, and shivered. Rain pounded the wooden roof, making it very hard to hear anyone who wasn't shouting.

If I can just get warm again, this could be pleasant....

Oh, the frustration that a little prosperity could bring! And the unexpected discomforts!

The more you have, the more you have to lose, and the less willing you are to let go of it.

Back when she was on her own, traveling afoot, burdened only by her pack and her instruments, she would never have found herself in such a fix. It seemed so long ago that she had been so footloose, and yet it was no more than a few months ago! Hard to believe that this was the first really bad rain of late fall_and she had begun journeying with Lark and Wren at the very end of summer. They didn't even meet Jonny until the first of the Harvest Faires.

If I was still alone, I would be sitting beside a warm fire right now_

Her conscience, which had a better memory than the part of her that controlled wishful thinking, sneered at her and her pretensions. A warm fire? Maybe. If she had been clever enough to read the weather signs and if she had been lucky enough to get a place at an inn. And even if she met both those conditions, there was no guarantee that the fire would be a warm one, and she would probably not be sitting right beside it, but rather off to one side. The paying customers got the flame; more often than not, the entertainers had to make do with the crackle.

Anyway, it would be under a solid roof_

Solid? Maybe. Maybe not. Her conscience called up a long litany of leaking roofs, inns without shutters, stinking little hovels without windows, dirt-floored, bug-infested places with only a hole in the center of the roof to let the smoke from the fire in the middle of the room escape. Which it mostly didn't....

Maybe, if she hadn't even found that kind of scant shelter, not a roof at all.

In fact, if she hadn't been clever or lucky, she could be shivering in the so-called "protection" of her travel-tent right now, a lot colder and wetter than she was, or even be huddled under a bush somewhere. The wagon was solid, the fire was their own, and they were entitled to the flame and the crackle, once the stove warmed up.

If it ever does.

But memory did supply some honest memories of sitting on the clean hearth of a good, clear fire, in a good quality inn; sipping a mug of spiced cider or even wine, listening to the rain drum on the roof while she tuned her lute. In fact, she had spent whole seasons in such venues, the valued fixture of the tap room who brought in custom from all around.

Will this stove never heat up?

"Th-they s-say a w-w-watched p-pot never b-boils," Kestrel said, his voice muffled under his blanket. "D-do w-watched s-s-stoves n-never heat?"

"I'm beginning to think so," she replied. "I _"

"Hello the wagon! Having trouble?"

The clear tenor voice from outside carried right over the drumming of the rain on the roof. She was out of her blanket and had poked her head out of the door at the rear of the wagon before Kestrel could even uncurl from his "nest." That voice was more than welcome, it sounded familiar!

Another vehicle had pulled up on the road beside them, a wagon much, much larger than theirs. So large, in fact, that it probably had to keep to the major roads entirely, for the minor ones would not be wide enough for it. As it was, there was just barely room for a farm-cart to pass alongside of it. Anything larger would have to go off to the side of the road and wait.

It had tall sides, as tall as a house, and rather than wood, it was made of gray, matte-finished metal. It had glass windows, real glass, covered on the inside by shutters. Below the windows were hatches, perhaps leading to storage boxes. It was drawn by four huge horses, the like of which Robin had only seen when the Sires held one of their silly tournaments and encased themselves in metal shells to bash each other senseless.

As if they weren't already senseless to begin with.

The huge beasts stood with heads patiently bowed to the wind and weather, rich red coats turned to a dull brown by the rain, white socks splattered with mud, "feathers" matted. They were beautiful beasts, but she did not envy their driver, for they would eat hugely and be horribly expensive to keep. That was why only the Sires could afford such beasts, although their great strength would be very useful to any farmer. Then again, anyone who could afford a rig like this would have no trouble affording the feed for these four huge horses.

Their little Gypsy caravan would easily fit inside this colossus, with room for two or three more.

The driver sat in sheltered comfort inside a porch-like affair on the front, enclosed on the left and right, roofed and floored. He leaned out around the side, just as she tried to make out who or what he was_and as soon as he saw her, his face was lit by a mixture of surprise and delight.

"Old Owl!" she exclaimed, jumping from the back of the wagon to the ground. "By our Lady, I can't think of anyone I'd rather see more!"

Kestrel poked his head out of the door of the wagon just in time to hear Robin address the driver of an utterly amazing vehicle as "Old Owl."

Both made his eyes widen. The wagon was like nothing he had ever seen before in his life. It seemed as alien to this road and forest as a coronet on a rabbit. The driver was as astonishing as his wagon, and he certainly saw why Robin_and presumably the other Free Bards_would call him by that name.

He looked quite owllike, although he was more human than a Mintak or a Gazner_but much less so than an Elf. While Kestrel stared, the driver grinned down at them both, perfectly protected from the rain by the roof over the drivers box. Kestrel simply gaped at him, unashamed, since he didn't seem to mind.

"Welladay, I can think of places and times I'd rather see you in, other than mired in a morass, Gypsy Robin," the driver replied cheerfully, cocking his head to one side. "I suppose now I shall have to get you out. If I don't, you'll write some kind of nasty little ditty about me and I shall never be able to show my face in polite company again."

"I?" Robin made innocent eyes at him, and pretended shock. "Why should I do anything like that?"

"Because you are the Gypsy Robin, and no male, human or not, escapes your charm without regretting it." The strange being bowed from the waist, and winked at Kestrel. "Give me a moment to change and I will be down beside you."

Robin snorted, and shook her head. To Kestrel's bemusement, Gwyna was now as cheerful as if their wagon was safely on the road and the sun was shining overhead. What magic did this man have to make her suddenly so certain he would be able to fix all their problems? "Still a clothes-horse, now as ever! Your wardrobe, no doubt, is the reason for the size of your wagon!"

"How not?" he countered. "Why not?" and disappeared inside.

Kestrel blinked. "Old Owl"_whoever and whatever he was, had been one of the oddest attractive creatures he had ever seen. His face and body_what Kestrel had seen of the body, anyway_had been fairly human. But that was where the similarity ended. He had long, flowing, pale hair growing along his cheekbones, giving his face the masklike appearance of an ancient owl. These were not whiskers or a beard; this was hair, as fine and silky as the shoulder-length hair on his head, and it blended into that hair on either side of his face. To complete the image of an owl-mask, his eyebrows were enormous, as long as Kestrel's thumb, and wing-shaped.

The hair on his head had been cut in some way that made parts of it stand straight up, while parts of it lay flat, all of it forming a fountainlike shape. It gave the man's head a fantastical appearance, and his clothing_

Well, what Kestrel had seen of it, left him dazzled and astonished, and quite, quite speechless. It had certainly rivaled anything he'd seen on any Gypsy; not only was it brightly and brilliantly colored and cut in fantastic folds and draperies with flowing sleeves and a capelike arrangement at the shoulders, but parts of it gleamed with a distinctly metallic sheen, and some had the look of water, and still other parts were as iridescent as an insect wing.

No wonder he had not wanted the mud to spoil it!

First and foremost_who was this person, this "Old Owl"? And what was he to Robin? "Wh-wh _" Jonny began.

"Who is that?" Robin asked, turning around to give him a lopsided grin. She waded back to the wagon through ankle-deep mud. "Well, we call him 'Lord' Harperus, or 'Old Owl' since he is something of an honorary Free Bard, he's pulled so many of us out of fixes like this one. No one knows if he's really entitled to the 'Lord' part, but he has piles and piles of money, as much as any Sire, so everyone calls him 'Lord.' He's a Deliambren."

A Deliambren! Kestrel blinked, and his interest sharpened considerably. The Deliambrens were top of the list of beings Kestrel had always wanted to see. They were reputed to be wizardly mechanics, building clockwork creations that could do almost any task. You found their constructions in the homes of the wealthiest of the Barons and Dukes, and the palaces of Kings. Very few Sires could afford the handiwork of Deliambrens, and very few merchants, even Guild Masters. Those who could afford them boasted about it.

The Deliambrens knew how to make magical lights that illuminated without creating heat or needing any oil to fuel them. They created boxes that produced music, melody after melody, fifty tunes or more without repetition, boxes no bigger than a wine cask. It was even said they could build wagons that did not need horses to pull them, and conveyances that could fly!

They lived, so Kestrel had been told by his tutor, in a place called "Bendjin." It was a "Free Republic," whatever the hell that was; there were no Kings, Sires, Dukes, or anything else there, he'd been told. How they were governed, he had no notion; it sounded completely chaotic to him.

And that was all he knew of them, other than the fact that they had something so complicated it was akin to magic that they used to create their toys. And the toys answered to anyone, mage or not.

"I've n-n-never s-s-seen a D-Deliamb-b-bren," he managed to get out. "D-d-do they all l-l-look l-like th-that?"

Robin laughed, and reached up and hugged him. "Old Owl is not the only one you'll see on the road, and that is just about the only place you ever will see them," she told him, all her good cheer back, now that the stranger had offered his help. "Unless you earn an invitation to Bendjin, that is. They don't make very many of those, so don't get your hopes up. I don't know if they all look quite like that, but they are all pretty flamboyant. We call him Old Owl because Erdric back at Kingsford is an Owl too, but Harperus is his senior by a century or so."

Kestrel tried not to goggle at that. "How old is he?"

She shook her head, as the rain slacked off a little. "I don't exactly know," she replied, after a moment of thought. "Wren said he was at least a hundred years old, and guessed from records and stories that he might be as old as two hundred. That was the best guess he had, but Wren said he couldn't be sure."

He hopped down off the back of the wagon to join her; she gave him a flirtatious kiss. "We'd better get things ready so when he comes out, all he has to do is use our chains to pull us out." Kestrel nodded, and waded through the mud beside her. They were already so wet and mired that a little more wouldn't matter.

"I've been inside Bendjin," she offered, as they got the tow-chains out of the box on the back of the wagon where they were kept safe from rusting in an oiled bag. "Once, when I was very small. They brought in my Clan to entertain for a festival of some kind. I don't think they let anyone but Free Bards and Gypsies inside the walls; I don't think they trust anyone else." She chuckled. "I suppose they know we have no reason to covet their powers, since no Gypsy would ever own anything he couldn't repair himself in a pinch, and no Free Bard would care about anything other than making music."

"W-was it l-like they s-say?" he asked, fascinated by the mere idea of being inside the Deliambrens' mysterious fortress-city.

Robin took her end of the chains and fastened them carefully to the loops built into the frame of the wagon before she answered. "I wasn't very old, but it was rather amazing, even to a child. It was quite dazzling, that's all I can tell you," she said reminiscently, as he copied her movements with the chains on his side. "Lights; that's what I mostly remember. Lights everywhere. Not candles or lamps or anything of that sort. They have lights outside that glow when darkness falls, and little light-globes inside that light up and grow dark again at the touch of a finger. All the colors of lights that you can possibly imagine. They do have wagons that move by themselves, without horses. And they have boat-shaped things that fly. I only saw the little ones; Old Owl told me there were bigger ones that they use for their special trading missions outside Bendjin, and some even bigger ones that they only use once in a while, because they kind of break down a lot."

Kestrel grimaced. He couldn't imagine anything involving a Deliambren breaking down_

"I wish I could describe what I saw for you," she concluded, with a little shrug of apology, "but I was only five or six years old. I don't remember much more than that. Oh, I do recall one other thing; they had some pet birds that were just as flamboyant as their costumes, birds that sat on your shoulder and talked! I played with one for hours, and I really wanted one, but Old Owl told me that they just couldn't stand cold, and it would die in the first winter."

"I'll f-f-find you one th-that w-w-won't," Kestrel promised, and was rewarded with a smile. A warm and lovely smile, that said, You understand. And he did. He truly did.

Besides, it was not all that difficult a promise to fulfill. With all of the creatures of Alanda, surely there was a bird like that somewhere....

"Well!" said Harperus, popping his head out of the door of his vehicle. "Are you ready?"

"I think so, unless you want to come down here and look things over first," Robin called up to him.

He nodded; that amazing hair was all tucked under a shiny hood, the hood of a coat made of the same shiny blue material. Water slid right off it without soaking in, as if it were made of bright metal like the wagon itself. "Good idea. I probably know a bit more about wagons than you do, little one. Unless you've studied them since I saw you last, or this young man is an expert_?"

Kestrel shook his head, not trusting his voice. He would surely stutter, and look a fool.

Robin laughed. "This 'young man' is my vanderlan, Old Curiosity."

"You? Vanderie?" Harperus seemed as delighted as he was surprised, which was something of a relief to Kestrel. "It must be a true-love match then, for you would never settle for less! My felicitations and blessings, my children! Not that you need either, from me, or anyone else _"

He leapt down to the ground with remarkable agility for someone who was a hundred years old_

Or maybe two hundred!

He held out his hand to Kestrel, who took it and shook it gingerly. Then Harperus kissed Gwyna chastely on one cheek. "And that is all you shall get from me, you young minx!" he said, when she pouted. "Forget your flirtations, please! I have no wish to make your young man jealous or he will begin to look daggers at me!"

When Kestrel grinned shyly, and managed, "R-R-Robin c-can t-t-take c-c-care of hers-s-self," the Deliambren laughed with pure delight.

"I see you have yourself a wise partner, pretty bird," Harperus said with approval. "Now, let me have a look at this bit of a predicament _"

He continued talking as he peered under the wagon, then extracted an object from his coat and did something around the axle. Flashes of light came from beneath, and Kestrel wondered what he could be doing under there....

"Are you new to the Free Bards, youngster?" he asked Kestrel, his voice emerging from beneath the wagon as if from the bottom of a well. "I don't recall anyone mentioning someone of your description before _"

Now Kestrel was in a quandary; he wanted desperately to talk to this man_but he was afraid that his stutter would make him sound like a fool.

But then Harperus cocked his head just enough so that he could look out and Kestrel could see one intelligent eye peering up at him. The color of that eye was odd_not quite brown, not quite yellow. A metallic gold, perhaps, with the soft patina of very old metal. "Take it slowly, lad, and take your time in answering. I'm in no great hurry, and you mustn't be ashamed if you have a trifle of trouble speaking. Plenty of intelligent people do; it is often because they are so intelligent that their thoughts run far ahead of their mouths. Simply work with one word at a time, as if you were composing a lyric aloud."

Kestrel was momentarily speechless, but this time with gratitude. "I_have only b-been w-w-with the F-F-Free B-Bards since f-first H-Harvest F-F-Faire."

"We found him, Wren and Lark and I, I mean," Gwyna put in. She gave Kestrel an inquiring glance; he nodded vigorously, much relieved that she wished to tell their story. Better she tell the tale. If he tried, they'd be here all day.

She summed up the entire mad story in a few succinct sentences. Harperus made exclamations from time to time, sounds that were muffled by the fact that he was halfway under the wagon by now. Finally he emerged, amazingly mud-free and dry.

"Fascinating," he said, eying Jonny as if he meant it. "Absolutely fascinating. I must hear more of this, and in detail! I must have a record of all this_it could be very significant in the next few years."

Robin laughed at him. "You and your datas," she mock-scolded. "That's all you people are interested in!"

"Data," he corrected mildly. "The singular is the same as the plural. It is data."

"Whatever," she replied. "You Deliambrens are the worst old maids I ever saw! You can't ever hear a story without wanting every single detail of it! Like sharp-nosed old biddies with nothing more on your minds than gossip!"

To Kestrel's surprise, Harperus did not take any offense at Gwyna's words. "It is all information, my dear child," he told her. "And information is yet another thing that we collect, analyze, and sell. Somewhere, sometime, there will be someone who will want to know about this story, for there will be all manner of rumors and wild versions of it before the winter is over. And we will tell him, for a price. And he will trust our version, for he will know it to be composed of nothing but the facts. Facts are what we sell, among other things."

"Just so long as you don't sell him who we are and where we are," Robin replied sharply, suddenly suspicious. "Those same people could be more interested in using Jonny than in facts, my friend. You people _"

"You know better than that," he said, with immense dignity. "Now, however, is not the time to discuss the ethics of information-selling. Firstly, it is very wet _"

"Tell me something I don't know!" Robin exclaimed, tossing her sodden hair impatiently.

"_ and secondly, I have some bad news concerning your wagon. I fear you have cracked the axle." He tsked, and shook his head as Robin winced and Jonny bit off a groan. That was something they could not fix themselves; not without help, at any rate. "It is just as well that you could not budge it. You might have caused more damage. If you had attempted to drive on it, that would break it, within a league." He nodded, as Gwyna grimaced. "You must go somewhere there is a cartwright; I do not have the equipment to fix a vehicle such as yours."

"I know where there's a cartwright, and it isn't that far from here but _" Robin began, biting her lip anxiously.

He brightened. "Ah! Well, then in that case, there is no true problem. I can get you out without further damage, and I can tow your wagon without breaking the axle."

Kestrel gaped at him. "How?" he gasped.

Harperus laughed. "Watch!" he said. "And see! Am I not a Deliambren? There will be wonders! Or at least"_he amended, with a sheepish smile_"there will be winches."

CHAPTER THREE

There were, indeed, winches; just as Harperus promised. Or a winch, with a hook on the end of a cable, a winch that swung out from the back of Harperus' vehicle. Once Gwyna had an idea of what he intended, she made him wait while she extinguished the fire in the charcoal stove; there was no point in risking coals spilling and setting fire to the entire wagon. It was quite a powerful winch, although not at all magical, simply very well made. Harperus maneuvered his huge wagon so that the winch was as close to the back of their wagon as possible without the wheels of his vehicle leaving the firm roadbed. Then he unwound the cable, fastened the hook of his winch to the chains they already had in place, and enlisted the help of both Bards with the business-end of the winch.

It required hand-cranking; if there were any of the magical machines legend painted anywhere in or on the wagon, they were not in evidence. As the two Bards helped Harperus turn the capstan, the cable and chains slowly tightened; then, the rear rose with a wide and amusing variety of odd noises as the mud fought against releasing the wheels.

The mud was no match for Harperus' winch. Jonny was relieved at how relatively easy it was to crank it up by hand. He knew a little, a very little, about machinery. This winch must have some clever gearing to make it so easy to use.

As the wagon creaked and groaned, the wheels pulled free with a sucking sound, and rose above the muck. Blobs of thick mud plopped back into their parent pothole.

They didn't stop there. Harperus continued to winch the wagon higher, until the damaged rear was well above the roadbed. Jonny hoped that everything was stowed away properly in there. If it wasn't _well, there was no hope for it. It was going to be a mess inside, with things tumbled everywhere.

A small price to pay for getting out without losing the axle while moving. That would have caused more than a mess; they might have lost the whole wagon. They surely would have been injured, perhaps seriously, depending on how fast they would have been going when the axle broke.

The rain finally slacked off, and by the time Harperus was ready to actually haul their wagon up onto the road, it had thinned to a mere drizzle.

They fastened the halters of the mares to the front_now the rear_of their wagon, stowed the harness away in the exterior storage boxes under the drivers seat, but left the blankets on them, and put away the tarpaulin and nose bags. The mares didn't look unhappy about moving; they couldn't have been very comfortable in the rain and chill wind. Before too very long, everything was ready.

Harperus checked and double-checked everything, from the set of the hook to the lock on the winch, before he had convinced himself that all was as it should be. Then, with a self-satisfied grin, he handed them both up to the drivers bench on his wagon. Jonny admired the arrangement as he took his place; there was a clever set of steps built into the front of the wagon, and the front panel had a door set into it. Harperus took his place beside them, handling the reins of all four horses with the confidence of long practice.

He clucked to them and shook the reins. The four huge horses leaned forward into their harnesses, pulling with a will.

The wagon crawled forward; the wheels creaked and squealed, and more creaks and groans came from the Gypsy wagon behind them as Harperus sought to pull it free.

Sucking mud made obscene sounds that sent Robin into giggles. Kestrel leaned around the side of the drivers box and gazed anxiously back at their precious wagon.

But Harperus knew what he was doing. The wagon was fine; protesting, but fine. Inch by inch, bit by bit, Harperus pulled it free of the mud that had held them trapped for most of the day. As the front wheels rolled up onto the roadbed with a rumble and a crunch of gravel, Kestrel let out a sigh of relief, and pulled his head back in under the shelter of the roof.

Harperus regarded him with faint disappointment. "You doubted me!" he accused.

"N-not y-you," Kestrel protested. "I w-w-wasn't sure ab-b-bout our w-w-w-wagon!"

"Ah." Harperus beamed with the pleasure of accomplishment, then his expression changed to one of concern. "Oh, you two look near-frozen. And you're certainly soaked. There are blankets under the bench; wrap yourselves up in them before you catch something."

Kestrel was a little disappointed; he wanted, badly, to have a look inside the fascinating vehicle, and it would have been nice if Harperus had invited them to go inside to warm up. He sighed as he fished around under his seat with one hand until he encountered something soft that felt like cloth.

He pulled it out; it was a blanket, with no discernible weave, of a tan color nearly the same as all the mud. It seemed awfully light and thin to do any good, but it was better than nothing. Or so he thought, until he actually wrapped it around his shoulders and head.

Suddenly he was warmer; much warmer. And_was he getting drier, as well? It seemed so! He stared at Harperus in surprise; the Deliambren returned his look blandly.

Maybe all the wonders weren't inside the wagon after all!

He began examining the "driver's box" covertly, while pretending to watch the horses.

They were under as much shelter as most porches on a house provided. The driver's seat was well-padded and quite soft, covered with something that looked superficially like leather, but didn't feel quite like leather. And now that they were moving, there was a gentle stream of warm air coming from underneath it, drying his feet.

The box itself was quite spacious, with a great deal of room behind the driver's bench, more than had been apparent from the ground. There was quite enough room for all three of them on the bench, side-by-side, and there was enough room for a second bench behind the first. Maybe Harperus intended to put one in some day, for passengers who would rather not ride inside the wagon....

Then he noticed something else; now that they were on the move, the horses did not seem to be leaning into their harness at all. In fact, on a closer look, he would have said, if he were asked, that they were guiding the wagon rather than pulling it. They certainly weren't straining in the least.

Could it be that the wagon propelled itself, and their presence was a deception?

It was certainly a very good possibility_

But his curiosity would have to go unappeased; he had no way of checking his supposition, and if Harperus did not want them to know something, then that was his business.

Still, that didn't help assuage his curiosity in the least.

The Deliambren was the first nonhuman being Kestrel had ever seen up close, with the exception of the Elves who had attended the wedding. There had been both a Mintak and a Gazner at King Rolend's palace, but they were ambassadors of some kind, and he had not wanted to approach them.

That had been more caution on his part; he could not have gone near them without causing new suspicions in his uncle's mind just when it had been settled.

He had been very, very careful how he looked and acted around Rolend's court. Why would he be talking to a foreign ambassador after he had renounced his title? Rolend would have immediately suspected he was intriguing. Perhaps plotting with nonhumans, looking for a way to get power again. Surely, that is how Rolend would have thought of it.

He had told himself that he had the rest of his life to talk to anyone he wanted. What would have been the point of creating trouble when eventually he would find other nonhumans to talk to freely?

He wanted to ask Lord Harperus thousands of questions. Harperus seemed amazingly approachable, and quite affable. Gwyna had closed her eyes and was settling back for a nap, so he wouldn't be interrupting anything she had planned. "Wh-what are y-y-you d-doing out here, L-L-Lord?" he asked, trying to frame each word carefully. Gwyna snuggled into his shoulder, and gave him a little smile and a nudge of encouragement.

"What is my reason for being on the road, do you mean?" Harperus replied, and chuckled, as Robin grimaced a little. "Collecting information. As your dear lady will tell you, we Deliambrens do an inordinate amount of that. This is a much more elaborate vehicle than I am wont to use, however, as I assume our Gypsy Robin has noted. I am also acting as an advance scout, of a kind, this time. My people will be embarking on a most ambitious project shortly, and I am establishing contacts for them, so that they will never lack for allies on the ground in the initial part of the journey."

"Ambitious project?" Robin said. "Just what do you mean by that?" She sounded suspicious again, and her eyes opened, but narrowed thoughtfully. "Are you planning something we Gypsies ought to know about?"

"Nothing sinister, my dear," Harperus replied soothingly. "In fact, it is something that your people will find useful, I think. We intend to make maps_maps of all of Alanda, eventually, and those, like the Gypsies, who assist us will get maps for their efforts. Road maps, terrain maps, population maps, resource maps_we intend to build something we call a 'data base,' so that if someone has an abundance of corn or copper, coal or pre-Cataclysm artifacts, we will be able to find a buyer for him."

"Which information you will no doubt give him for a price," Robin said dryly. But despite her heavy irony, she had relaxed again, and was braiding her hair.

"And, if he does not have the means to transport his product, or fears being cheated, we can act as broker," Harperus replied, just as blandly. "Why not? We also have an honorable intent, though you might not believe it, Gypsy Robin," he added. "We intend to see to it that those with superior forces do not take those resources that do not belong to them. I mean this," he finished, his voice suddenly without any hint of humor. "I am quite, quite serious about this. Before the Cataclysm, my people acted as a policing force among the stars. Presumably, the rest of them still do, somewhere. Now that we have stabilized our position and regained our mobility, our mission can be resumed, albeit on a smaller scale. It is, after all, in our interest to see that no culture is exploited. They are all potential customers, when all is said and done."

"Huh," Gwyna replied. "So now you're looking for more allies than just the Gypsies?"

"Allies on the ground, yes," Harperus replied. "We cannot do everything. We will need folk we can trust in or near every land we travel through, in case there are things we need, or repairs we need to make."

Allies on the ground? An interesting choice of words. Did they imply that this "project" would involve people traveling through the air? Were they going to bring one of those air-wagons Robin had described out into Alanda?

How much dared he ask, without becoming impolite?

Or worse; perceived as dangerous? Harperus had power, money, and resources he could not even dream of. It would be very foolish to make Harperus think he might be a threat of any kind.

"H-h-how long h-h-have you kn-known R-Robin?" he asked, instead of the questions he wanted to ask. Perhaps, after feeling the Deliambren out, he could ask them later.

"Oh, since she was very young," Harperus told him, turning to wink at him. The skin around the Deliambren's eyes crinkled when he smiled, and he pulled back the hood of his coat and shook his hair free. "I first met her when her Clan came to perform at the Four Worlds Festival. She was always getting into places she was not supposed to, and I was detailed to keep an eye on her."

"Me?" Gwyna exclaimed. "I never _" Then she began to cough, as if she had not intended to say anything.

"Most adventuresome was her foray into the upper reaches of the butterfly conservatory; I had no notion that a five-year-old could climb so high," Harperus continued as if he had not heard her protest. "Most interesting was when she decided that the fountain in Hazewood Square required fish, and began transporting them, in her bare hands, one at a time, from the view-ponds in the Aquarium nearby. Amazingly, they all survived the trip! It was quite a surprise to the fountain-keepers, however."

He turned to Gwyna, who was blushing furiously. "How did you catch them, anyway? I have never been able to figure that out."

"I tickled them," she said, in a small, choked voice.

"You tickled them." Harperus shook his head, and peered ahead through the curtain of rain. "Some sort of obscure Gypsy secret, I suppose." He turned back to Kestrel. "At any rate, I have been the 'adopted uncle' for any number of Gypsy youngsters, and she is one of them. Although I must admit that our dear Robin is one of my favorites."

Kestrel relaxed a trifle; if Robin had known him that long ago, then certainly he was not one of the odd creatures you heard about from time to time whose behavior was so bizarre you never knew whether they considered themselves your dearest friend or your worst enemy. "D-d-do you d-d-do m-much tr-traveling?" he asked.

"I would say that I am probably on the road for about half of the year," Harperus said, after a moment of thought. The wagon swayed slightly beneath them; nothing like the rough jouncing of their own little caravan. "Some of us enjoy traveling, trading, and gathering information, and those of us who do spend as much time out and about as we may. Usually we travel in wagons about the size of yours, and there is very little to distinguish it from a Gypsy caravan. Frankly, dear boy, I would not have taken this vehicle if it were not for two things, and one of them is that it can defend itself from an unpleasant visitor. It is far too conspicuous for my liking."

A little shiver ran down Kestrel's back at that. It can defend itself.... He could not even begin to imagine what that could imply. He did not want to find out at first hand. And he was very glad that Harperus did not consider them "unpleasant visitors."

"Have you made any good bargains lately?" Gwyna asked casually. Harperus brightened at that, and began rattling off a number of trades that he considered to be something of a coup. A "laser imaging system" ("still functional, if you can believe it!") for a small glass-smelting furnace; a "complete cache of memory crystals" for an equal number of precious stones. Or rather, Kestrel assumed they were precious; Harperus referred to them as "cultured" pearls, rubies, and sapphires. Kestrel was not certain just what "cultured" meant. Perhaps they were better educated than other gems. Something else Harperus said made him feel a little better.

"You know, value lies in rarity, really," the Deliambren told Gwyna, when she raised her eyebrow and asked who had gotten the real bargain. "They were using the memory crystals for jewelry, and valued them no more than quartz. We simply gave them something better suited to display_and tripled our library. To us, memory crystals are rare. To them, our cultured stones are. Everyone benefits, and no one feels cheated. That is the essence of a good bargain."

Gwyna laughed and told him he would never make a horse-trader, and then settled back for a real nap against Kestrel's shoulder as the rain changed to a dismal drizzle. He held her with an arm around her shoulders, supporting her so that she could nap, as the unknown source of warmth beneath their seats dried them all and made her drowsy.

Harperus patiently waited through Kestrel's stuttering, and answered all of his questions, though Jonny could not tell just how much of what he said was evasion. Finally he turned the tables on the Free Bard and began his own series of questions.

Mostly, he concentrated on Kestrel's own story, and seemed particularly fascinated by the intervention of Rune and Talaysen and the latter's discovery of the power of Bardic Magic.

"I have often suspected something of the sort existed among you humans," Harperus said thoughtfully. "Particularly in light of some things I have seen Gypsy Bards do_calming crowds that were in an ugly mood, or charming coins out of the previously unwilling. Fascinating. And you have this power?"

"Wren s-s-says s-s-so," Kestrel replied, but with uncertainty. "And he says G-G-Gwyna does too. I th-think he's r-r-right. B-but I d-d-don't know if I w-w-w-want t-t-to use it s-s-since it c-can c-cause as m-much t-trouble as it s-solves."

Harperus nodded, his face very still and sober. "I can understand that_but you may be forced to. You should at least master this power before it masters you. Not learning to use it could be more hazardous than mastering it."

Jonny shook his head.

"If you do not learn how to control this 'magic,' it may act without your knowledge or control," Harperus amended. "Let me give you an example. Some peoples we have encountered have the power to read the thoughts of others_and if they do not learn how to do this at their will, it happens without control, and they can be overwhelmed by intruding thoughts so that they do not know who, where, or even what they are. Do you understand now?"

Kestrel nodded, then. And Harperus was right; if he did not learn how it "felt" to invoke this magic, he might use it when he didn't want to, and that could have some unfortunate consequences. Especially if he was using it on someone who had the ability to tell when magic was being used, and had a reason to resent it being used on him!

"If I may bring up a possibly delicate subject?" Harperus said, carefully. "Your_ah_difficulty in speaking?"

Kestrel flushed. "Wren th-thinks it's b-because of the f-f-f-fever I c-c-caught when w-w-we esc-c-caped B-B-Birnam."

Harperus shook his head. "I would think not. From all that I know, such a problem is more because of some kind of extreme upset in the past. Your escape, I would say, is itself to blame, and the fear and stress you went through. Not the fever. My people have been known to treat such things, and they are usually successful. May I offer some advice?"

Jonny nodded eagerly. Wren had some advice to give, but he had been no expert, and admitted it. No one else had anything to say on the subject. Robin didn't seem to care_but it would have been so wonderful to tell her all the things she deserved to hear without falling all over the words!

"As I said, this is sometimes the case of your mind running ahead of your words. First, you must learn to relax, and think about the words, not about what your listener is going to think when he hears you." Harperus smiled as he saw Jonny's eyes widen with surprise. "You see, some of this is also from tension. You wish to make a good impression, so you tense up. Your mind runs on ahead, and ceases to control your speech, so the tension makes you stammer. You stutter_you fear you are making a bad impression_you grow tenser_and you stutter more. You try to speak faster, to get your words out through the stuttering, and this makes you more tense, which makes it worse yet. If you relax, and take things at their own, slow pace, you will find your problem easing. Think of each word as a note in a melody, and pronounce it with the care you have in singing, and do not think about your listener. When you sing, what are you thinking of? The audience, or the song?"

"The s-s-song!" Kestrel replied in surprise. "I alw-w-ways r-relax when I s-sing!"

"And you do not stutter, I wager." Harperus shrugged. "This is how I would begin to overcome the difficulty. The rest is much, much patience. It will take a very long time, and you must not be discouraged. It took, perhaps, ten years to establish this pattern in you. It cannot be unlearned in a day, or a week, or even a year, necessarily. But you will improve, a very little, every time you speak, and people who have not heard you for some time will be astonished at what you think is no progress at all."

Kestrel bit his lip and stared at the ears of the nearest horse. He wanted a magical cure; for Harperus to touch his lips with a machine, and make the stutter go away.

But something that could take the stutter away might not keep it away. And understanding it might....

He raised his eyes and stared at the road ahead, misty in the steadily falling rain, and followed the Deliambren's advice, concentrating on each word.

"Thank you, L-Lord Harperus," he managed, with a minimal stammer. "I will t-try your adv-vice."

"I hope that it works," Harperus replied earnestly. "And try to keep this in mind, every time you are tempted to hurry your words. It will take longer to get them out if you stammer than if you took your time with them. You are a good young man, and a bright one. You do not speak without much thought. A wise man will be willing to wait to hear your words, and you need not waste them on a fool."

He might have said more, except that at that moment there was a polite tap on the wall of the driving box behind them.

Kestrel's head snapped around, as the back of the box slid open. So that was how Harperus had gotten in and out of his wagon! And evidently Harperus was not alone on this "collecting" mission of his_

"Harperus," said a deep, resonant voice from the darkness beyond the open door, "I wonder if I might join you and your guests?" The opening was shrouded in shadow, and all Jonny saw was a vague, humpbacked shape in the darkness. But the voice sent a thrill of pleasure down his spine. It was a pure delight simply to hear it; a deep bass rich with controlled vibrato.

"Certainly, T'fyrr," the Deliambren replied immediately. "There are no xenophobes here. I'm sure my friends would welcome meeting you and your company."

"I am pleased to hear it," the voice replied, and the shapeless figure, who was shrouded in fabric, or an all-enveloping cloak, ducked its head and came out into the light.

It was not wearing a cloak.

As it carefully closed the door at the rear of the box behind it with one taloned hand, and folded down a hitherto-invisible seat from the side of the box, the "shrouding cloak" proved to be a set of wings, and the hood, head-feathers. Gwyna woke from her half sleep to glance at, and then stare at, Harperus' road companion; T'fyrr was nothing more or less than a true nonhuman, an enormous bird-man.

As the being arranged himself on the seat with a care to those folded wings and a tail that must have made most chairs impossible for him, Harperus made introductions. "T'fyrr, this is Gwyna, who is also called Robin. She is a Gypsy and a Free Bard, and I believe I have mentioned her before. This is her husband, Jonny, who is called Kestrel; he is also a Free Bard. As you know, T'fyrr, all Free Bards have trade-names, so that the Bardic Guild will never know precisely who they truly are. In public, you must call them 'Robin' and 'Kestrel.' My friends, this is T'fyrr."

The huge beak_quite obviously that of a raptor_gaped open in what was very likely T'fyrr's attempt at a smile. "I see from your expressions that you have never met one of my kind before this. You should not be surprised, since the Haspur do not travel much outside their own land, and few wish to venture into it. My land is very mountainous, and since we fly, we have not made such niceties as roads and bridges. This makes it difficult for the wingless_and thus, the harder to invade."

"So you keep it that way." Robin had recovered enough to show her sense of humor. "As a Gypsy, I approve. Our way to keep from being hunted and hounded is never to stay in one place for more than a day or two. The best defense is to let something besides yourself provide the 'weapons' and barriers."

"So we say. Much talk of weapons and dangers, but our world is not a kind one," T'fyrr said towards Harperus in what must have been a private joke. The avian had very little difficulty with human speech, despite his lack of lips, and Jonny was completely fascinated. How could something with that huge, stiff beak manage human words?

He watched closely as T'fyrr spoke. "Your t-t-tongue!" he blurted aloud, without thinking.

T'fyrr intuited what he meant with no difficulty, and laughed, a low, odd sort of caw. "It is very mobile, yes. A kind of finger, almost. This is a good thing, for I, like the two of you, am a singer of songs, and I am thus not limited to those of my own people."

"You're a Bard?" Gwyna exclaimed. "Do they have such things among your folk?"

"A kind of Bard, indeed, though I am far more like the Free Bards; we do not have anything like this 'Guild' Harperus has told me of." He made a clicking sound that expressed very real disapproval. "They seek to cage music, or so it would seem. I like them not. It is a pursuit for fools; a waste of intellect."

Gwyna grimaced. "We don't like them either. Free Bards don't believe in caging anything, music, people, or thoughts."

Within moments, the two of them were immersed in a deep discussion of freedom, thought, the politics of both, and other philosophical considerations, much to Harperus' amusement. Jonny was completely content with the situation, since it gave him the opportunity to study T'fyrr to his heart's content.

The only thing at all human about the bird-man was his voice and his stance; upright on two legs. He had just told them that the wings he bore on his back were entirely functional, and Jonny would have given a great deal to see him in flight. As large as he was, his wingspan must be very impressive.

He was as completely feathered as any bird Jonny had ever seen, from the top of his head to his "knees." His "hands" were modifications of his "feet"; both had sharp talons on fingers and toes, and scaled skin stretched over bone, with prominent thin, strong muscles beneath the skin. Those feet and hands were formidable weapons, Kestrel was quite certain_and he was just as certain that, in a pinch, T'fyrr would not hesitate to use his strong, sharp beak as a weapon as well.

T'fyrr's chest was very deep, much deeper than the chest of a human, and probably accounted for the resonance of his voice. In color he was a gray-brown, with touches of scarlet on the very edges of his wings and tail.

He wore "clothing" of a sort; a close-tailored wrapping that covered his torso without impeding the movement of any limbs or his wings and tail. It did not look very warm, and Jonny did not blame T'fyrr for staying in the shelter of the wagon until now. An odd, spicy scent came from his feathers_or perhaps, from his clothing_when he moved, very pleasant and aromatic.

But it was his voice that interested Jonny_as a musician. There were over- and under-tones to his speaking voice that made Jonny sure his singing voice would be incredibly rich. It would surely sound as if it were three people singing in close harmony rather than one.

"I am a folklorist," he said at last, when the discussion of philosophy ended in mutual agreement. "I am collecting songs, most particularly songs of what my people refer to as the 'outreach era,' when we first ventured outside of our borders after the Cataclysm. We have long known of the Deliambrens and in fact have traded with them for certain rarities. When it became obvious that to complete my quest for certain knowledge, I would have to go outside the Skytouching Mountains and the aeries of my people, I knew whom I must recruit to my efforts."

He nodded at Harperus, who chuckled and bowed. "I think it was a matter of mutual recruitment," Harperus said modestly. "After all, there are things even Deliambrens cannot do, and that is to fly without a machine. We are trading in skills. He originally pledged to aid me in return for Deliambren aid. When I asked if he would aid me now, he agreed. He is to scout by air for me; I am to help him continue his musical quest _"

"He and his people have a way of capturing music and sound and holding it. We had this ability before the Cataclysm, but we have lost the skill of making the devices, as well as the tooling," T'fyrr said, before Harperus could finish his sentence. "So there you have it. We aid each other, and we each have skills the other does not. I had been learning the songs I did not know from Harperus' collection; at about the time I had learned all that he had, he decided to go out on this collecting venture and asked if I would pay my debt by accompanying him. When I learned he would be visiting some of the lands where my songs originated, I agreed, of course."

Jonny was completely fascinated, and a bit dazzled. After years of hearing about exotic creatures and never meeting one, he had just encountered, not one, but two in the same day!

So, while Gwyna engaged both Harperus and T'fyrr in yet another discussion, this time concerning politics, he simply sat quietly and watched and listened with every nerve.

Gwyna was charmed by Kestrel's open fascination with both Lord Harperus and T'fyrr, although she did not share it_or at least, not to the same extent. She had been around nonhumans all of her life, after all. Her Clan had often been asked to perform by Harperus, and there were any number of talented linguists in her family, so they were often requested as translators wherever they went. While she had never seen a bird-man before, and she was intrigued by the sheer novelty of such a creature, the novelty wore off fairly quickly. She was far more interested in what Harperus and his companion had seen and heard so far on this trip.

And in the philosophies of an avian race, which to her seemed very complimentary to the Gypsy way of life.

Harperus' wagon astounded and intrigued her far more than either Harperus or his friend. She didn't often lust after anything material, but she had the feeling that the more she saw of this wonderful conveyance, the more she would want it.

For one thing, it was quite obvious to anyone who knew horses that this thing was propelling itself. The horses were only there for guidance. And she had not missed the fact that Harperus had disconnected some esoteric device before he had asked for their help in winding up the winch. If she and Kestrel had not been present, he probably would not have used that capstan at all. Doors appeared in walls that seemed solid, seats could be folded down out of nowhere. The wagon itself had glass windows, with metal sides that obviously required neither painting nor maintenance. What a time-saver that would be! There was none of the jouncing around associated with their vehicle, and she rather doubted that Harperus would ever suffer the inconvenience of a broken wheel or a cracked axle. The heated air coming up beneath their seat must be coming from somewhere, and only gave a hint of how comfortable the interior of this vehicle must be. She already knew about the Deliambrens' "magical" heating and lighting, and she could not imagine Harperus doing without either.

And Harperus' little dropped comment about how the wagon could "defend itself"_

There must be wonder upon wonder inside this vehicle, and she wanted to see the inside, badly.

And yet, if she did_she would have to try to calculate just how much it would take to get the Deliambrens to part with enough of their precious "technology" to give her something like the luxurious appointments in this thing. And she had the horrible suspicion that it would require selling herself, Jonny, and any children unto the ninth generation into virtual slavery to acquire it.

But wouldn't they thank you for it every time they woke in warmth or cool comfort?

Maybe if she saved Harperus' life, or something...

Even as part of her was thinking these thoughts, the rest was aghast. How could she want anything that badly? Wasn't she a Gypsy and a Free Bard? How could she even think about becoming tied down to anything or anyone for the sake of a mere possession?

But_! that interior voice of greed wailed.

To get her mind off that greedy little inner self, she turned the subject to politics. The Deliambrens always wanted to hear about politics, for politics affected trade, and trade was a large part of their life.

And there were serious changes occurring, changes that seemed minor and subtle, but could build to devastating results.

"It isn't just the Bardic Guild, though it's the worst of the lot. What Talaysen thinks is that the Guilds are trying to get as much power as the Dukes," she said, after describing some of the troubles the Bardic Guild had been causing for the Free Bards. "And the High King seems to be letting them get away with it."

Harperus looked troubled. "I fear that is because the High King has lost interest in governing the lesser Kings," he said, after a moment. "There is much unrest among the Twenty Kings, and more still among the nobles. Many of them have gone back to feuding, quarrels which would have been strictly squashed a few years ago. There is something amiss in the High King's court."

"What is worse, to my mind, is that the Guild and the Church seem to be working together to cause problems for anyone who does not agree to the rules of the Guild and Church," Gwyna said. "And the High King is letting them get away with this."

"But the twenty human Kingdoms are but a small part of Alanda," T'fyrr objected, flipping his wings impatiently. "They are insignificant in scale! Surely, Harperus, you concern yourself too much with them _"

"They are a small part, it is true, but they are strategically placed," Harperus pointed out. "If there is war among them, as there was in the days before the High King, they can effectively cut us off from many things that we need."

"And as you have often pointed out to me, humans breed like rabbits," Gwyna interjected with some sarcasm. "They may only be the Twenty Kingdoms, but they have spread out to occupy a great deal more territory than they held originally. We aren't a peaceful species, Harperus. And I don't care how superior your weapons are, my friend, enough bodies with spears and swords can take over that precious Fortress City of yours, either by treachery or by siege. While they may not have the stomach for losses that great, they can certainly lock you inside that Fortress for ever and aye."

"That had not escaped our notice," was all Harperus said. But though his tone of voice was mild, she detected an edge to it. "This is the other of the reasons why I was willing to take this particular vehicle. I can leave small devices now that can collect more information without the need for human agents. I fear that we will have need of such information."

Gwyna sighed. "Are we heading for the Waymeet between Westhaven and Carthell Abbey?" she asked. "If we are, that would be a good place to talk to people and to leave one of your little 'collectors,' both. I'm certain that the Waymeet family will give you no difficulty over leaving such a thing."

At Harperus' nod, T'fyrr asked with puzzlement, "What is a Waymeet? You have not told me of this."

"I did not tell you because we were not going there until we encountered our two young friends," Harperus replied. "But Robin tells me that there is a cartwright there, and a cartwright is what they most urgently need at the moment."

"The Gypsies created the Waymeets," Gwyna told the Haspur. "We created them, and we continue to run them, even though now there are a number of non-Gypsies who know about them and use them." She thought for a moment; she had lived with the knowledge of Waymeets all her life, and had never needed to describe them to anyone before. "You find them just off the major trade roads," she continued, finally. "They're a special, permanent camping-place, with a caretaker, certain things like bathhouses and laundries, a small market, and a population of craftsmen. One thing is pretty important; they're all on land that doesn't belong to anyone, not Duke nor Sire, not Guild nor Church. And another; no one stays there more than a few days at a time, except when bad weather really bogs things down. I know there will be a cartwright there, which solves our problem, and there will be people for Harperus to talk to with fresher news than ours."

T'fyrr nodded as he followed her words. "And the caretaker charges a certain amount for the amenities?" he hazarded. "Such things would make camping there more attractive than camping in the wilderness. Civilized."

"Exactly so," she said, nodding. "They're also, as the Old Owl here well knows, excellent places to pick up information, gossip, or both. People speak more freely there_and if I pass the word," she added, a little arrogantly, "they will speak very freely to him."

Harperus smiled. "I am certain of that, Gypsy Robin. For all of us, this Waymeet will be most productive."

CHAPTER FOUR

Stillwater Waymeet lay just off the main trade road, down a lane of its own that was_currently, at least_in better repair than the trade road. The Sire had not been keeping up his road repairs lately; another sign that the King of Rayden had become lax in seeing that his nobles attended to their duties. Probably the road would remain in poor repair until a Guild Master or a high Churchman had to pass this way. Ruts were the least of the problems along the trade road; much worse were the potholes at the edge of the road that gradually crept into the right-of-way and formed an actual hazard to traffic. By contrast the Waymeet lane was smooth, graded gravel, well-tended, and potholes had not been permitted to form on the edge.

There was a single sign at the joining of the lane and the road, a sign that said Stillwater Waymeet and had little carvings of a bucket of water, a caravan, and an ear of wheat, signifying that water, camping, and food were available. As large as it was, Harperus' wagon negotiated the turn easily, although the wagon filled the entire lane and the wheels were a scant finger length from the edge of the gravel.

Robin yawned discreetly; it had been a very long day, and trying to get their wagon out of the mud had pretty much done her in. As thick as the clouds were, there had been no real "sunset," only a gradual thickening of the darkness. It was dusk now, though, a thick, blue dusk with darker blue shadows under the trees, and she was going to be very glad to stop, get something hot to eat, and get to sleep.

"How long is it to the Waymeet itself?" Harperus asked, probably puzzled by the fact that the long tunnel of trees arching over the lane gave the illusion that it went on without any end. Most of the leaves had fallen from the seasonal trees, but there was a healthy percentage of evergreens along here that kept the lights of the Waymeet from showing. Despite the constant rain, the bitter scent of dead leaves hung in the air along the lane, and the gravel was covered with a carpet of fallen leaves that muffled the steady clopping of the horses' hooves.

"Not far," Robin assured him. "There's a slight, s-shaped bend up ahead that you can't see from here; it keeps this from being a straight line to the road. Keeps people from driving up like maniacs and running someone over."

The Gypsies were responsible for the creation of the Waymeets, building them up from a series of regular camping grounds along the roads. When a camping site always seemed to hold at least two Gypsy families and never was completely unoccupied, people would naturally begin to improve it. After a while, permanent, if crude, amenities (protected fire pits, stocks of wood, bathing and laundry areas, wells) were built at such places, slightly more elaborate than similar arrangements at large Faire-sites. With people always at a site, there was little chance that such amenities would be vandalized, and incentive to take care of them. Then the next logical extension was for someone to decide he was tired of living on the road, but did not want to live in a town_

That unknown Gypsy had settled instead at one of those camping grounds, and had built not only living quarters for himself and his family, but a bathhouse, a laundry, and a trading post, and had begun selling odds and ends to the others who came to camp. This had the result of bringing in more campers; after all, why take the possibly dangerous step of camping alone when you could go somewhere, not only safe, but which boasted some small luxuries? From that moment, it was only a matter of time before others who wished to retire in the same manner found other such sites and did the same thing.

Then someone had the bright notion to open the sites up to anyone who traveled the trade-roads, for a fee.

The results of these enterprises were varied. Some Waymeets wound up resembling an inn, but without a building to house travelers. Some turned out, as was the case with Stillwater, rather along the lines of a village, without the insularity.

Robin had been to Stillwater many times. The camping grounds were laid out in sections for wagons and for tents, and patrolled by the proprietors two tall sons and three of his cousins, to discourage theft and misbehavior. There was clean water in both a stream and a well. It also boasted a bathhouse and laundry, a cartwright, a blacksmith, and a carpenter. A small store sold the kinds of things people who traveled often broke, lost, or forgot; it served as a trading post for those who had goods to trade or sell. The fee to camp was minimal, the fees charged for the other services reasonable. Virtually all of the permanent residents were Gypsies, since generally any Gypsy who wished to retire from the road but still wanted the excitement of life on the road looked for a Waymeet that needed another hand about the place. At a Waymeet it was possible to have most of the excitement and change of traveling without ever leaving your home.

Waymeets were well known, and their locations clearly marked on most maps, since most experienced travelers with their own wagons used them_often in preference to the Church hostels set up for similar purposes. Most merchants would rather pay the higher fees of the Waymeets than endure the lodging-with-sermons one got at the hostels. Only in truly vicious winter weather were the hostels more popular than the Waymeets.

The result was a peculiar village where the entire population changed over the course of a week_more often than that in summer, when travel was easier.

As they rounded the first curve, the lights of the Waymeet began to glimmer through the screening of trees. As they rounded the second, the Waymeet lay spread out before them.

Right on the lane at the entrance, surrounded by lanterns on posts, was the building housing the laundry, bathhouse, store, and proprietor's quarters. A tall, handsome young Gypsy was already waiting for them beside the lane as Harperus pulled up. He wore a cape of oiled canvas against the rain, but he had pulled the hood back, and mist-beads glistened in the lantern light as they collected on his midnight-black hair.

"Not full, are you?" Harperus asked anxiously, as the young man strolled over to the driver's box after appraising the horses with an admiring eye.

"Fullish, Old Owl, but not full-up," the young man replied. "It's about the last chance of the season for traders, an' we got folk comin' home from Harvest Faires. Ye don't recognize me, I reckon, but I'm Jackdaw, Guitan Clan. I mind I met you when I was knee-high _"

"You're the lad with the knack with penny-whistles!" Harperus exclaimed, to the young man's delighted smile that the Deliambren had remembered him. "Dear heavens, has it been that long since I saw you last? How did you come here? I thought you and your family were somewhere near Shackleford!"

"Sister went vanderei with Blackfox, he got Stillwater from his nuncle, reckoned he could use some hands an' tough heads." Jackdaw shrugged, and grinned, his teeth gleaming whitely in the gathering dusk. "Not much call for a penny-whistle carver, and never could carve naught else. Fee's ten copper pennies for th' two wagons, indefinite stay, you bein' Free Bard an' all _"

He peered through the gloom, and Robin spoke up to save his eyes. "Robin of Kadash Clan, vanderei with Free Bard Kestrel. I hope the cartwright isn't full-up, we've got a cracked axle, or so Old Owl says. The road has gone all to pieces since I was here last."

"Nay, nay, nothin' he can't put aside, anyway, since he's a cousin." Jackdaw looked the pair of wagons over with an expert eye. "Kin come afore gajo. I'll tell him t' come look you over as soon as this blasted rain clears. Right about the road, though, an' the Sire ain't done nothin' about it. Prob'ly won't, 'till he breaks his own axle. Tell you what, there's two sites all the way at the end of the last row left; pull both rigs into the first site, drop the little wagon, then pull the big 'un up into the second site. You'll both be right an' tight t' pull straight out when y' please."

Robin had already pulled out her purse and passed the ten coppers over to Jackdaw before Harperus had a chance to protest or pay the lad himself. "You pulled us out and towed us here, so let me discharge the debt and cover your fee," she said firmly. Harperus had known Gypsies more than long enough to understand the intricate dance of "discharging debt," so he did not argue; he simply followed Jackdaw's instructions and drove the horses to the next-to-last path on the left, then all the way down to the end. The lanes were also marked clearly with lantern poles, with another set of poles halfway down, and large white stones marking the place to pull into each site.

Parking the wagons was as simple as Jackdaw had stated, which was a relief; Robin had known far too many Gypsies who would try to wedge a wagon into a space meant for a one-man tent-shelter. The camping sites were on firm, level grass, with trees and bushes between each adjoining site, and a rock-rimmed, sand-lined fire pit for each site as well. Robin didn't get a chance to see much of the Waymeet, however, for by the time they were parked and the horses unhitched, night had fallen, and a thick darkness made more impenetrable by the mist had taken over the area.

Kestrel took all six horses to the common corral and stable area; shelter was provided, and water, but food must either be bought or supplied from their own stores. Just as he left, the mist thickened, and then the rain resumed, pouring down just as hard as it had during the day.

Robin cursed under her breath, and Harperus looked annoyed. "T'fyrr, you stay in the wagon," he ordered. "There is nothing worse than the smell of wet feathers, and I don't want to chance you catching something in this cold. Robin and I can deal with unhitching her caravan and pushing it back."

He did something at the side of the driver's box, and soft, white lights came on at the rear and the front of his wagon. Robin's eyes widened, but she said nothing. The lights looked exactly like oil lamps, and if you had not seen them spring to life so suddenly and magically, you might have thought that was what they really were. A flamelike construction flickered inside frosted glass in a very realistic manner.

But the "flames" were just a little too regular in their "flickering;" there was certainly a pattern there. And besides, oil lamps required someone or something to light them, they simply didn't light themselves.

Then she shrugged, mentally. If Harperus wanted to make things look as if he was driving a perfectly normal_if rather large_wagon, that was his privilege. If he wanted to pretend that he had no Deliambren secrets in there, that was his problem. No one who had ever seen Deliambren "magic" was going to be fooled for a second. The glass in the windows was enough to show this was no ordinary wagon, and the smooth metal sides were too unlike a wooden caravan to ever deceive anyone.

Together they cranked the winched-up caravan down; it was no problem for only two to handle, even in the downpour, since it was always easier to get something down than it was to get it up. And it was not as hard as she had thought it would be, to push the caravan back a few paces from the rear of Harperus' wagon. The wheels moved easily on the wet grass. Harperus climbed under the damaged rear end again and poked and prodded, and created his mysterious little flashes of light, then finally emerged and shook water and bits of leaves off his hands.

"That axle will hold your weight, I think," he said, as Robin's nose turned cold and she shivered in the light breeze. "I wouldn't worry about sleeping or moving around in the wagon. I wouldn't trust it to take the abuse of the road, but sitting here on grass there should be no problems."

She had no idea how Harperus could tell all of this just by looking at the axle_or what little could be seen of the axle inside its enclosure_but she was quite confident that he was right. Deliambrens were seldom, if ever, wrong about something that was physical or structural.

"Thank you, Old Owl," she said with gratitude. "I don't know how we'd have managed if you hadn't come along _"

He cut short her speech of gratitude with a wave of his hand. "You are freezing, little one, and all this can wait until morning. I will go and see to our horses while you get something warm to eat and some sleep. Think of it as trade for the rumors you are going to track for me. You can thank me in the morning. All right?"

She nodded, with a tired sigh. Deliambrens as a whole were not very good at judging the strength of human emotions, nor the strength of the actions that emotions were likely to induce, but this time Harperus had gauged her remaining reserves quite accurately. "Right," she said, without any argument. "Talk to me in the morning and let me know what you want me to listen for tomorrow, what you want me to say to the others."

Harperus nodded and turned back to his own wagon, hurrying through the rain to the front, which was the only place on the vehicle with an entrance. The exterior lights went out as abruptly as they had come on as soon as she reached the door of her own little caravan. No matter; she knew where everything was, and lit the four real oil lamps by feel, filling the interior of the wagon with a mellow, golden light, and very grateful for the stock of sulfur-matches that had come with the wagon. They were precious and hard to come by; she only used one, then lit the rest of the lamps from a splinter she kindled at the first lamp.

Once again she lit the tiny charcoal stove, and waited for the place to warm up. The interior of the caravan was well-planned as far as usable space went. Their bed was in the front, just behind the drivers seat, and the door there slid sideways rather than swinging open, so that someone could lie on the bed and talk to the driver while the wagon moved down the road. And on warm nights, a curtain could be pulled across the opened door, giving privacy and fresh air. A second curtain could be pulled across the other side of the bed, giving privacy from the rest of the wagon. It was possible to sleep four, in a pinch; an ingenious table and bench arrangement on the right-hand wall under the side window could be made into a bed just wide enough for two. But the arrangement would not be good for long periods, unless the people in that bed were children.

There was storage for their clothing under the bed, more storage above it. The stove was bolted away from the wall in the rear beside the rear door, and had a cooking surface on the top of it. Storage for food was nearby and their pans and utensils hung from the ceiling above it. There were small windows surrounded by shallow storage cabinets on either wall, where they kept everything else they needed, from instruments to harness-repair kits. The table and benches, bolted to the wall and floor, were beneath the right-hand window, and a built-in basin above a huge jar for fresh water with a spigot on the bottom, were beneath the left-hand window. The basin could be removed from its holder, to be emptied out the window or filled from the jar.

Harperus' suggestion of hot food was a good one. How long had it been since they'd eaten? Certainly not since noon.

Still shivering, she made the simplest possible hot meal, toasting thick slices of bread and melting cheese over the top of them_and putting a kettle for tea on top of the stove. The activity kept her from feeling too cold, and by the time Kestrel returned, the wagon had begun to warm.

"I_got the h-horses_put up," Kestrel told her, as she stripped his sodden clothing from him and wrapped him in a thick robe made from the same material as their blankets. "And f-fed."

"Good_here, eat this, you'll feel better." She put a slice of toast-and-cheese in his left hand and a mug of tea well-sweetened with honey in his right. With a smile of gratitude, he started on both. "And next time, I can put the horses up and you can make dinner."

"D-done," he agreed, as he joined her on the bed.

"Thank goodness Harperus came along," she sighed. "We'd still be out there if he hadn't."

Jonny nodded. "I've n-never seen a D-Deliambren before. Are th-they all like h-him? So c-courteous?"

"Most of them." She sipped her tea, carefully; it was not that far from being scalding. "All of them would stop to help someone they knew, and most would stop to help a stranger. They can afford to. With their magic, there aren't too many people who would be a threat to them."

"Ah." He shifted a little more, and tucked his feet in under his robe. "I w-was w-wondering if they all are so_so_d-d-detached."

"As if Harperus is always observing the rest of the world without really being part of it?" she asked in reply, and at his nod, she pursed her lips. "They really are pretty much all like that," she told him. "All the Deliambrens I've met, anyway. They just don't understand our emotions, but they're completely fascinated by them. I think that's why they enjoy being around the Free Bards and the Gypsies. They like to hear the songs that we sing that are full of very powerful emotions, and they like to watch the emotional reactions of our listeners. It seems to be a never-ending source of entertainment for them."

Kestrel made a face of distaste. "L-like we're s-some kind of b-bug."

"No, not at all," she hastened to tell him. "No, it's something like the fascination I have for watching someone blow glass. I can't do it, I don't understand it, but I love to watch. This fascination of theirs gets them in trouble too_they are very apt to go running off into a bad situation just because it looks interesting. Wren had to pull Harperus out of a mob once, for instance, and another Deliambren we know nearly got disemboweled for asking one too many questions about a particular Sire's lady." She hoped Harperus had more sense than that. "It's not that they don't feel things, they just don't express them the way we do. Harperus has a very good sense of humor and tells excellent jokes_but he can't always tell when things have turned serious, and he can't always anticipate when serious things have turned deadly. They seem on the surface to be very shallow people, and I've heard some Churchmen call them 'soul-less' because of that."

Kestrel's expression grew thoughtful. "Th-the things the Church is s-saying, about th-the n-nonhumans? H-having no souls? And b-being d-damned?"

"Could be very, very dangerous for the Deliambrens," she said, catching his meaning. "And they don't even realize it. They have no idea how very emotional people can be when it comes to religion, and how irrational that can make them."

Kestrel finished his bread, took the last sip of his tea, and put the mug down on one of the little shelves built above the foot of the bed. "M-maybe. And m-maybe he d-d-does. He asked you t-to listen for r-rumors."

She licked her lips thoughtfully, then nodded, as a sudden flash of lightning illuminated the cracks around the doors and the shutters. The thunder followed immediately, deafening them both for a moment.

"You might be right," she admitted. "If so, it may be the first time he's been able to figure out when he's treading on dangerous emotional ground! But _"

"It c-can wait unt-til tomorrow," Kestrel said firmly, and took her mug away from her. He put it down beside his own, and then took her in his arms. "I m-may be t-tired, b-but I h-have other p-plans."

And he proceeded to show her what those plans were.

Afterwards, they were so exhausted that not even the pounding rain, the thunder, or the brilliant lightning could keep them awake.

Jonny woke first, as usual; he poked his nose out from under the blankets and took an experimental sniff of the chill air.

Clear, clean air, but one without a lot of moisture in it. Maybe the rain had cleared off?

He opened up one eye, and pulled back the curtain over the door by the bed. Sunlight poured through the crack, and as he freed his head from the bedclothes, he heard a bird singing madly. Probably a foolish jay, with no notion that it should have gone south by now. He smiled, let the curtain fall, and closed his eyes again.

In a few more minutes, Robin stirred, right on schedule. She cracked her eye open, muttered something unintelligible about the birds, and slowly, painfully, opened her eyes completely. Jonny grinned and stretched. Another day had begun.

He crawled past Robin, who muttered and curled up in the blankets. She was never able to wake up properly, so he was the one who made breakfast; he got the stove going and made sausage, tea, and batter-cakes, while she slowly unwound from the blankets. He ate first, then cleaned himself and the tiny kitchen up while she ate. And about the time her breakfast was finished, Robin was capable of speaking coherently. About the time she finished her second mug of tea, the cartwright arrived.

Kestrel left her to clean herself up, and joined the cartwright in the clear and rain-washed morning.

There was no sign of life in Harperus' wagon, but it was entirely possible that the Deliambren and his guest were up and about long ago; there was enough room in there for six or eight people to set up full-time housekeeping. Certainly it was possible for Harperus to be doing anything up to and including carpentry in that behemoth without any trace of activity to an outside watcher.

The cartwright was a taciturn individual, although not sullen; he seemed simply to be unwilling to part with too many words. Clearly another Gypsy by his dark hair and olive skin, his scarlet shirt and leather breeches, he nodded a friendly greeting as Jonny waved to him. "Free Bard Kestrel?" he asked, then crawled under the wagon without anything more than waiting for Kestrel's affirmative reply. He had brought a number of small tools with him; he took off the protective enclosure on the offending axle while Kestrel watched with interest. He studied the situation, with no comment or expression on his dark face, then replaced the cover and crawled back out.

"Right," he said then. "Cracked axle. Not bad. Start now, done by nightfall. Fifty silver; good axle is thirty, ten each for me and Crackle."

Robin poked her head out of the wagon as he finished, and Kestrel blanched at the price of the repair. They had it; had it, and a nice nest-egg to spare, but all the years of abject poverty made Kestrel extremely reluctant to part with any money, much less this much. He looked to Robin for advice. Was this fair, or was the man gouging them?

Robin shrugged. "It's a fair price," she said. "An axle has to be made of lathe-turned, kiln-dried oronwood, and the nearest oronwood stand that I know of is on the other side of Kingsford."

The cartwright (whose name Kestrel still did not know) nodded, respect in his eyes, presumably that Robin was so well-informed. Kestrel sighed, but only to himself. There would be no bargaining here.

"G-go ahead," he said, trying not to let the words choke him.

The cartwright nodded and strode briskly off down the lane towards the cluster of buildings at the front of the Waymeet, presumably to get his partner, tools, and the new axle.

"D-do we s-stay here?" he asked Robin. "Are w-we s-supposed to help?"

"Not at that price," she replied, jumping down out of the wagon. "I heard him out here, so I locked everything up, figuring if he could start immediately, we could go wander around the Waymeet for a while, and see if there's anyone I know here. We can't do anything in the wagon while he has it up on blocks, changing out the axle."

She reached up and locked the back door, then slipped the key in her pocket. The bird in the tree above them, who had been silent while the cartwright was prodding the wagon, burst into song, and she looked up and smiled at it.

That smile lit up his heart and brought a smile to his lips. He reached for her hand, and she slipped it into his. "Th-there's lots of n-news t-to tell, and m-more t-to hear. L-let's at least g-go tell Gypsies and F-Free B-Bards ab-bout Wren and L-L-Lark. And th-the w-welcome to Free B-Bards in B-Birnam. Th-that's g-good news."

"Surely," she agreed. "And we'll see if there's anything of interest to us in what the other folk here have to tell us in the way of news."

To Robin's delight, the first people they encountered, cooking up a breakfast of sausage around their fire, were people she knew very well. It was a trio of Free Bards: Linnet, Gannet, and Blackbird. Blackbird jumped up, nearly stepping into the fire, when he spotted Robin, and rushed to hug her.

Linnet was a tiny thing, with long, coppery-brown hair that reached almost to her ankles when she let it down. Gannet's hair was as red as flame, his milky face speckled with freckles; Blackbird's red-gold hair was lighter and wavy rather than curly, like Gannet's. All three had sparkling green eyes, and slight builds. They made a striking group, whether they were dressed for the road or in their performance costumes.

She made the introductions hastily; none of the trio had ever seen Jonny or even heard of him, so far as she knew.

"Linnet is flute, Gannet is drum, and Blackbird is a mandolin player," she told him, concluding the introduction. "Kestrel is a harpist, and he's learning lute _"

"Well, if Master Wren declared he's one of us, that's good enough for me," Blackbird declared. "No other qualifications needed. Now, we heard there was some kind of to-do over in Birnam_but how did you end up mixed in it, and how did you end up wedded?"

She glanced over at Kestrel, who shrugged, and settled down on one of the logs arranged as seats around the open fire. "Finish your meal and we'll see if we can't get it all sorted out for you," she said, following his example. "We've already eaten, so go right ahead."

Jonny didn't say a great deal, but he did interject a word or phrase now and again; enough that it didn't look as if she was doing all the talking. Linnet and her two partners kept mostly quiet, although by their eyes, they were intensely excited by the whole story. They passed sausages and bread to each other, and filled tea-mugs, without their gazes ever leaving the faces of the two tale-tellers.

"_ and then, well, it was just a matter of getting wedded," Robin concluded.

Kestrel grinned wryly. "And s-so p-p-publicly that K-King R-Rolend c-couldn't th-think I w-was g-going to b-back out of my p-p-pledge. S-s-so here w-we are."

"Lark and Wren are still in Birnam, and King Rolend made Wren his Bard Laurel, so he said to pass the word that Free Bards are welcome in any place in Birnam," Robin added. "That's the biggest news, really. Apparently the Bardic Guild in Birnam was one of the biggest benefactors of the old King's spendthrift ways, and they are not happy with Rolend."

"And th-the f-f-feeling is m-mutual," Jonny pointed out. "Th-things th-that Wren w-wants, he's h-happy t-to g-give. P-politely th-thumbing his n-nose at the G-G-Guild."

"Like the right for any musician to work anywhere, and take anyone's pay, at least in Birnam." Gwyna made no secret of her satisfaction, and the other three looked so satisfied that Robin wondered if they had been having trouble finding a wintering-over spot.

"Well, that's the best news I've had since the Kingsford Faire!" Linnet exclaimed. She glanced over at her two partners, who nodded. "I think the situation in Birnam is well worth crossing those damned fens, even at this late in the year. We haven't found a single wintering-over job, and we've been looking since the first Harvest Faire."

Robin blinked in surprise at that, as Gannet carefully poured the last of the tea-water over the fire, putting it out. Steam hissed up from the coals and blew away in the light breeze. "That's odd," she said carefully.

"Odd? It's a disaster!" Blackbird never had been one to mince words. "No one will take us. There's Guild musicians in every one of the taverns we've wintered over in before. The innkeepers just shrug and wish us well_elsewhere. They won't tell us why they hired Guild when they couldn't afford Guild before, and they won't tell us why they don't want us, when the Guild musicians aren't as good as we are."

But Gannet looked up with shadows in his dark eyes. "Got a guess," he offered. "Just now put it together_been a lot of Priests around, preaching on morality. We're a trio."

Robin shook her head, baffled, but Linnet put her hand to her mouth. "Oh!" she exclaimed, looking stricken. "I never thought of that! We're _" she blushed, a startling crimson. "We've always shared a room, you see _"

Robin grimaced. "If the Church Priests are going around the inns, threatening to cause trouble if there are 'immoral people' there, you three would be right at the top of their list, wouldn't you?"

"I never thought it necessary to announce that we're siblings every time we ask for a job," Blackbird said, with icy anger. "It doesn't exactly have anything to do with music."

"Well, maybe it does now," Gannet said, his jaw clenched. "Church's poking its nose into our lives, time we went on the defensive, maybe _"

"Or time we went into Birnam, where we don't have to make excuses, just music," Linnet said firmly. "No, I don't like running away any more than anyone else, but the Church scares me. It's too big to fight, and too big to hide from."

She stood up and shook out her skirts decisively. "If they decide not to believe that we're siblings, we have no way of proving that we are!" she continued. "And for that matter, a nasty-minded Churchman can make nasty assumptions even if they accept our word! Call me a coward, but there it is."

Gannet rose, nodding, as Robin and Kestrel got to their feet, leaving only Blackbird sitting. He stared up at them, stubbornly, for a long moment. Then he finally sighed and rose to his feet as well.

"We're too good a trio to break up," he said, with an unhappy shake of his head. "I think you're overreacting, but if it makes the two of you happy to head for Birnam, then that's where we'll go."

Robin let out the breath she had been holding. "I think you're being wise," she said. "It's just a feeling I have, but_well, incest is punishable, too, and the punishments are pretty horrible. It might be worse for Church Priests to know you are related, and sharing a room."

"Better to be safe," Linnet said, with a twitch of her skirts that told Robin that she was not just nervous, she was actually a little afraid, and had been the moment that Gannet mentioned the Church.

And that was not like Linnet.

Not at all.

Something had frightened her, something she hadn't even told her brothers. Threats from some representative of the Church?

Or some Priest deciding he liked her looks and promising trouble if she wouldn't become his mistress. It had happened to Robin, and the trouble had come. Small wonder Linnet would rather leave the country than come under Church scrutiny again. Robin would make the same choice, in her place.

She and Kestrel found several more Gypsies, and two more Free Bards, besides a round dozen wandering players who were not associated with either the Guild or the Free Bards. To all of them she passed the news that any musician was welcome to play wherever he could find work in the Kingdom of Birnam. Some of the ordinary musicians were interested, most were not_but they were folk who had a regular circuit of tiny inns, local dances and festivals, and very small Faires. They had places to play that no Guild musician would touch with a barge-pole, and while the living that they eked out was bare by her standards, it was enough for them.

The Free Bards were, like Linnet, very interested in her news, and had similar tales of finding Guild musicians_or, at least, musicians in Guild badges_playing in the venues where no Guildsman had ever played before.

But it was not until they found another musician who was both a Gypsy and a Free Bard that they had anything like an answer to the question of why this was happening.

The ethereal strains of a harp drew Kestrel across the clearing and into the deeper forest beyond the immediate confines of the Waymeet. Dead leaves crackled underfoot, and the scent of tannin rose at his every step. This was no simple song; this was the kind of wild, strange, dream-haunted melody that some of the Gypsies played_though Robin never would, claiming she had no talent for what she called adastera music. She said it was as much magic as music, and told him it was reputed to have the power to control spirits and souls, to raise ghosts and set them to rest again.

Robin followed him under the deep shadows of the trees, as the bare branches above gave way to thick, long-needled evergreens, a voice joined the harp, singing without words, the two creating harmonies that made the hair on the back of his neck stand on end. This was music powerful enough to make even Harperus weep! The harpist must be a Gypsy, but who was the singer? It did not sound like any human voice....

The path they followed seemed to lead beside the stream that watered the Waymeet; it led through deep undergrowth, along the bottom of a rock-sided ravine that slowly grew steeper with every twist and turn of the path. The stream wound its way through a tangle of rounded boulders, but its gurgle did not sound at all cheerful, although it was very musical. It held a note of melancholy that was a match for the sadness in the music floating on the breeze ahead of them.

"Nightingale," Robin muttered. "She's the only person I can think of who plays like that! But who is the singer?"

They had their answer a moment later, as the stream and path brought them to a tiny clearing made by the toppling of a single tree that bridged the water. There, beside the tree, was the harpist, seated on a rock with her harp braced on her lap. And standing beside her was T'fyrr.

Not even the birds were foolish enough to make any sound that might disturb these two. The Haspur stood like a statue of gray granite in the twilight shadows of the forest, only his chest moving to show that he was alive, with his eyes closed and his beak open just enough to permit his voice to issue forth. Nightingale's eyes were closed as well, but most of her face was hidden in the curtain of her hair, as she bent over her harp, all of her concentration centered on her hands and the melodies she coaxed from the delicate strings.

Both of them were too deeply engrossed in the music to notice their audience_and Robin and Kestrel stopped dead to keep from breaking their concentration.

The song came to its natural end, a single harp-note that hung in the air like a crystal raindrop; a sigh from T'fyrr that answered it.

For a long, long moment, only silence held sway beneath the branches. Then, finally, a bell-bird sang out its three-note call, and the two musicians sighed and opened their eyes.

T'fyrr caught sight of them first, and clapped his beak shut with a snap.

"T-T'fyrr _" Kestrel said, softly, "th-that was w-w-wonderful."

The bird-man bowed, graciously. "It was an experiment _" he offered. "It was not meant to be heard."

"But since it was..." The Gypsy that Robin had identified as "Nightingale" cocked her head to one side.

Robin evidently knew her well enough to answer the unspoken question. "As critique from two fellow harpists_you've found the best match to your harp and your music I've ever heard," Robin replied. "I know Kestrel agrees with me, and he's a better harpist than I am. That was nothing short of magical."

Nightingales mouth twitched a little, as if she found Robin's choice of words amusing. "Well, we had agreed, T'fyrr and I, that this song would be the last of our experiments this morning. And while my heart may regret that you found us and are about to make us cleave to that agreement, my hands are not going to argue." She began flexing them, and massaging each of the palms in turn. "A forest in autumn is not the best venue for a performance. It is very damp here, and a rock makes a chilly, and none-too-soft cushion." Her eyes met Kestrel's, sharp and penetrating, and just a little strange and other-worldly. "T'fyrr said that you would turn up eventually, and that you had some news?"

Once again, the two of them passed on their own news, with the added tales from Linnet's trio and some of the other musicians. "We started out with only good news," Robin concluded, ruefully, "but we seem to have acquired news of a more sober flavor. I feel like a bird who just finished the last song of summer, and sees the first storm of winter coming _"

Nightingale nodded. "And now you will hear why I am here, and not in my usual winter haunt. And I think I may have the answer you have been looking for, as to why there are fewer places for Free Bards, and Guild musicians crowding into our old venues."

As Robin took a place on the fallen tree, and Kestrel planted himself beside her, Nightingale glanced up at T'fyrr. "I think that some of what I have to say will affect you, my new friend," she said. "But_listen, and judge for yourself."

When Nightingale had found her usual winter position as the chief instrumentalist at a fine ladies' tea-shop closed to her, taken by a barely tolerable Guild violist, she did more than simply look for work, she began looking for the cause. And just as Gannet had, she had found clerics from the Church posted on street-corners, preaching against "immorality." But unlike Gannet, she had listened to the sermons.

"Time after time, I heard sermons specifically against music," she said. "And not just any music_but the music performed by what these street preachers referred to as 'wild and undisciplined street players.' They always went on to further identify these 'street players' as people no Guild would permit into its ranks, because of their lack of respect for authority, their immorality, and their 'dangerous ways.'"

"Us, in other words," Robin said grimly. "Free Bards. Just what were the complaints against us, anyway?"

Nightingale's mouth had compressed into a tight line, and Kestrel sensed a very deep anger within her. "According to what they said, directly, our music is seductive and incites lust, our lyrics licentious and advocate lust, and we destroy pure thinking and lead youths to rebel against proper authority. To hear them talk, the Free Bards are responsible for every girl that ever had a child out of wedlock, every boy that ever defied his parents, and every fool who sought strong drink and drugs and ruined his mind and body. But it wasn't only what they said directly, it was what they implied."

"Which w-was?" Kestrel prompted, quickly.

"That we're using magic," she said flatly. "That we're somehow controlling the minds of those who listen to us, to make them do things they never would ordinarily. He was full of examples_boys that had been lured into demon-worship by a song, girls that had run off with young brigands because of a song, folk who had supposedly been incited to a life of crime or had committed suicide, all because of the 'magic spells' we Free Bards had cast on them through our music. They even had the tides of the songs on their tongues, to prove their lies_'Demon-Lover,' 'Follow Come Follow,' 'Free Fly the Fair,' The Highwayman's Lady.' As if simply by knowing the title of a song, that proved there was evil magic behind the singing of it. That is why there are no jobs for Free Bards. Not because we're 'immoral'_but because no one wants to risk a charge that some patron did something wrong because the musician at the hearth somehow cast a sinister spell upon him and took control of his mind. Most especially they do not want to risk an accusation that such a spell had been cast against a minor child."

Kestrel felt cold. That was too close to the truth, as Wren had uncovered it. Some Free Bards could influence the thoughts of others. Not to any sinister purpose, but_

"And the Guild, in its infinite wisdom and compassion, has been offering an option to the owners of the better taverns and those citizens of modest wealth who may hire a musician or two," Nightingale continued, her voice dripping with sarcasm. "They have been recruiting what they call 'Guild-licensed' musicians_players who are not good enough to pass the Guild trials, but who may be barely competent musicians on one or two instruments. These people are certified by the Church and licensed by the Guild as being capable of entertaining without corrupting anyone. They wear Guild colors and double-tithe to the Church, plus pass back a commission to the Guild."

"Brilliant," Robin muttered, bitterly.

"This, of course, does leave us the street corners, the very poor inns and taverns, the common eating-shops, and the patronage of younger people who usually don't have a great deal of money," Nightingale concluded. "And, of course, the country-folk, who haven't gotten the word of our immorality and possible corrupting magic-use yet."

T'fyrr, who had remained silent through all of this, finally spoke. "I like this not, lady," he said, his voice echoing oddly through the trees.

"No more do any of us, friend," Robin answered for all of them.

They finished making their rounds of the other, non-musical "residents" of the Waymeet at just about the time that the cartwright (who they now knew was called "Oakhart") and his helper were taking the wagon down off the blocks. "She'll hold now," Oakhart said, with satisfaction. They shook hands on it, and the cartwright departed with his promised fifty pieces of silver. Kestrel let Robin pay the man; it gave him pain to see that much money leaving their hands.

Harperus appeared just as Oakhart was leaving, and invited them to dinner and a conference around the fire he had just built. He had quite a civilized little arrangement there; folding chairs, a stack of baskets, each containing a different, warmed dainty, and plates to eat from. "T'fyrr told me what your Gypsy-harpist friend said," the Deliambren told them, as they accepted plates full of food that obviously had never been prepared over a fire, tasty little bits of vegetables and meats, each with different sauces or crisp coatings, or sprinklings of cheese. "This is some of what I had heard, the rumors that I wanted you to track for me, but not the whole of it."

Gwyna picked up a bit of fried something, and bit into it with a glum expression. "I don't know how we're going to fight the Church, Old Owl. I don't know how anyone could."

"I h-heard some other things," Kestrel added casually, after popping a sausagelike thing into his mouth. "I d-don't kn-know if it m-means anyth-thing. Or if th-the Ch-Church has anyth-thing t-to d-do with this. N-no one else s-s-seems t-to think it m-means anyth-thing. J-just_th-that n-nonhumans are h-having a h-harder t-time of it, just l-like the F-Free B-Bards. All of a s-sudden it's all r-right t-to s-say y-you d-don't t-trust 'em, th-they're th-thieves, or sh-shifty, or l-lazy. Th-that it's h-harder for 'em t-to g-get any k-kind of p-position, any k-kind of j-job, and even t-traders are f-finding it h-harder t-to g-get c-clients, unless th-they've g-got something ex-exclusive. And th-there are s-signs showing up, at inns and t-taverns and l-lodgings."

"What kind of signs?" Harperus asked, sharply.

"Ones th-that s-say 'Hu-humans only.'" He shrugged. "N-not a l-lot of them, th-they s-say, b-but I've n-never heard of th-that b-before."

"Nor have I." Harperus was giving him a particularly penetrating look. "You seem to think this is nothing terribly important, certainly nowhere near as important as these preachers and the apparent backing of the Bardic Guild by the Church."

Kestrel shrugged again. "It's j-just a c-couple of b-bigots," he said. "Wh-what h-harm c-can they do?"

"Could they express their bigotry so openly if they did not have some sanction?" Harperus countered sharply. "And if there are signs reading 'Humans only' now, how long will it be, think you, before there are signs that say, 'Citizens only,' 'Guild Members only,' or even 'No one permitted in the gates without Church papers and permissions'?"

Kestrel blinked, and his level of concern rose markedly. "D-do you th-think the Ch-Church is behind this, too?"

Harperus stroked his cheek-decorations with a thoughtful finger. "I find it peculiar that a Church whose scriptures speak of love and tolerance should suddenly have words of hate and intolerance in its collective mouth," he said. "I find it disturbing that it is effectively sanctioning things that should be repugnant to any thinking being. And I do not think that it is any accident that this should be happening to the two main groups who escape the Church's authority_the nonhumans, who do not share this human religion of the Sacrificed God, and the Free Bards and Gypsies, who have no address and cannot be followed, controlled, or intimidated."

"I find it significant too, my friend," boomed T'fyrr out of the darkness. "What is more, I have been speaking in greater depth with Nightingale, who tells me that the Church has never before preached against the use of magic_but now finds reasons to condemn even such beneficial magic as healing, if they are not performed by a Priest. And I wonder, how long before use of magic is declared a crime_and how long before anyone that the authorities wish to be rid of is called a magician?"

"A very good question, T'fyrr." Robin's face was grim, and Kestrel felt a cold and empty place in his stomach that the excellent food did nothing to fill. "A very good question. And I am beginning to wonder if the answer to your question can be measured in months."

"That," Harperus said, "is precisely what I am afraid of."

CHAPTER FIVE

Kestrel thought about the revelations of the day long into the night, and in the morning, while Gwyna took their mud-stained garments to the laundry to try to scrub them clean again, he waited for Harperus to make his appearance.

It was another clear, cold day, with a bite in the air that warned that winter was not far off. Kestrel's thin fingers chilled quickly, and he stuffed his hands into the pockets of his coat to warm them. The Deliambren came out of his wagon from the door at the front, looked around, and greeted Kestrel with some surprise. "I didn't expect to find you here, still," Harperus told him. "I expected that you and Robin would be on your way as soon as the sun rose. Have some breakfast?"

He had his hands full of something, and offered Jonny a very odd object indeed; a thin pancake folded around a brightly colored filling. Strange-looking, but Kestrel already knew that Harperus' odd-looking food was very good, and he accepted his second breakfast of the day with alacrity. There had been too many days in the past that he had had no breakfast, no lunch, and no dinner. Old habits said, "Eat when you can," so he did.

"W-we have ch-chores," Kestrel offered, after first trying a bite and discovering that it was as good as dinner had been last night. "Th-things w-we didn't g-get to. L-laundry, a l-little cl-cleaning. Re-s-stocking. And w-we hadn't d-decided where w-we w-were g-going, yet. S-South, that w-was all w-we knew. W-we needed t-to look at s-some m-maps."

There was still hot tea left in their wagon; he turned and got mugs well-sweetened with honey for both of them. Harperus accepted his with a nod of thanks. The warm mug felt very good in Kestrel's cold fingers.

"So. You'll be going out of Rayden, I take it, given the word you gathered yesterday?" Harperus regarded Kestrel shrewdly over a mug of steaming tea. "Obviously, you can't go back to Birnam, so where are you thinking of heading?"

"D-don't know." He finished Harperus' offering, and dusted off his hands. "Th-this b-business w-with the Ch-Church; I g-got the f-f-feeling you'd heard m-more than you t-told us l-last night."

"And if I have?" the Deliambren asked levelly.

Kestrel studied the odd, inhuman face. It was very handsome, the more so as he became accustomed to it; the swaths of silky hair only added to the attraction. There was no sign of aging at all; certainly no sign of the years Robin had claimed for the Deliambren. And there was no sign of any emotion that Kestrel recognized. Harperus' odd-colored eyes studied his, seeming more coppery this morning than yellow.

"Y-you've b-been w-watching th-things for a l-l-long t-time," he said, finally. "C-collecting inform-m-ma-tion. S-so maybe you kn-know. H-how c-can wh-what the Church is d-doing b-be j-j-justified?"

"One of the characteristics of organized religion is that no action it takes has to be justified from outside, if it is justified by the religion itself, Kestrel," Harperus said, patiently. "That is a truism for nonhuman as well as human religions. No matter how irrational an action is, if it is done in the name of the religion, that alone serves the organizers."

Jonny shook his head. "I d-don't understand," he said, plaintively.

Harperus sighed. "Neither do I. But then, I have never claimed to be religious."

Both of them wore coats against the chill in the air, and once again, Jonny shoved one of his hands into his pocket and wished that he were somewhere warm that had never heard of the Church. "Wh-when I asked the tr-traders wh-why these th-things were happening, th-they d-didn't know either. And th-they didn't s-seem worried." He tried to make his glance at Harperus an inquiring one, and evidently Harperus read it that way.

"That seems to be the prevailing attitude." Harperus looked up at the sky, broodingly. "The only human folk who are worried are the Free Bards and the traveling musicians_and they seem concerned only with the immediate effect these sanctions are having on their livelihood. No one seems at all concerned about what could happen next, or the sanctions against nonhumans. To be honest with you, Kestrel, those worry me the most. And not because I am Deliambren, either."

Jonny had formed some ideas of his own last night, and he wanted to see how they matched with the Deliambrens. "Why?" he asked.

Harperus smiled thinly. "You pack many questions into a single word, youngster." He leaned back against the side of his vehicle. "I am not concerned for myself and my race, because there is no one in the Twenty Kingdoms who can effectively threaten us, my earlier protestations notwithstanding. We can simply outlive human regimes. We have the capability of closing up the Fortress and outliving this current generation. We have done so before, and are always prepared to do so again. It is simply not our policy to boast of that ability."

Jonny's eyebrows rose. He had not expected Harperus to be so frank....

"However, the reason that these little, petty annoyances worry me is that they seem to have been formulated, by accident or deliberately, to undermine a great deal of the progress that has been made here in the last few centuries. Progress in cooperation, that is." The Deliambrens expression was a brooding one. "Each little action seems designed to strike in such a way that the group that is acted against is quite certain that the actions against them are far more important than the petty annoyances of other groups." He leaned towards Kestrel, his mouth set in a thin, tight line. "Look at you_the Gypsies think there is no problem at all, because it is only happening in the settled places, and they pay very little heed to anything done in towns. They assume that if trouble spreads, they can simply drive away from it. The Free Bards are more concerned with the restriction on their ability to make a living, and not on the reputation they may be getting thanks to the tales spread by Churchmen _"

"N-not N-Nightingale," Kestrel protested.

"True. Not the Nightingale. But she is unique among all the Free Bards and Gypsies I have spoken to." He shook his head. "None of them are at all thinking about what is happening to the nonhumans, because they think their own problems are much greater. I have not heard from the nonhumans themselves_and that alarms me. Are they being harassed? Are they being arrested and taken off into oblivion? Are they being deported? Or is there nothing happening at all? I have heard nothing, and when I hear nothing, I worry more than when I hear rumors. I only know that the few nonhuman traders I know have simply turned over their routes in Rayden to human partners. The human traders frankly see this in terms of less competition and more profit. The nonhumans are gone, and I cannot question them."

Kestrel blinked. He had not considered the possibility that there might actually be bad things happening to the nonhumans. "Do you th-th-think _"

"That any of that has happened?" Harperus' grim expression lightened a little. "Not yet, Kestrel," he said gently. "But I greatly fear it may."

"M-m-me t-t-too." Jonny was serious about that; he had seen too many "insignificant" things turn out to be dangerous, had things that should have been no more than annoyances turn out to be life-threatening.

"There is a last 'why' that I have not answered," Harperus continued. That is because I do not know. Why is this happening? I honestly have no idea, partly because my people do not think like yours. It would seem to me that the Church is doing very well without all this nonsense. Or it is, if you take the Church's primary goal as being the saving of souls and directing people to act in a moral and responsible manner. But if the Church's goal has changed to something else _"

"Th-then th-that m-may b-be the why." Jonny licked his dry lips, nervously, and ventured his thought on the matter. "M-maybe it isn't j-just a wh-why. M-maybe it's also a who."

Now it was Harperus' turn to raise his eyebrows. "This might be the work of one person? Perhaps a person in a position of power within the Church? Or_someone who wishes to use these changes as a means of gaining more power for himself?" At Jonny's nod, he pursed his lips, thoughtfully. "An interesting speculation. I will look into this."

Harperus handed Jonny his mug, then shoved away from the side of the wagon, turned on his heel, and headed back to the door, vanishing inside. Jonny turned and went back to his vehicle, walking slowly and thoughtfully.

He was not offended by Harperus' abrupt departure; he knew better than to expect human behavior or even what a human would think of as "politeness" out of a nonhuman. In fact, he was rather gratified; it meant that the Deliambren took him and his speculations seriously.

But Harperus was not the only person who now had that particular speculation to 'look into." Jonny had decided last night that if the Deliambren thought enough of his idea to take it seriously, he would see what he could do to track down the center of all these troubles.

As he had told Harperus, there often was a who in the middle of something like this, and if you could find him and deal with him, before he had become so protected that it was impossible to get near him, you could actually do something. In fact, you could effectively stop the movement before it had gained its own momentum and had, not one, but many people devoted to keeping it alive. It was like extracting the root of a noxious plant, before it spread so far and had sent up so many shoots it was impossible to eradicate.

He had learned a great deal about politics in the short time he had been in Birnam, watching the way the people opposed to his uncle's rule had operated. He had probably learned more than anyone else had ever guessed.

Ordinary people, he had noticed, tended to do what they were told, as long as they were given orders by someone who was a recognized authority. Or, as long as the orders did not affect their own lives very much, they would support the orders through simple inaction. If you made changes gradual, and made them seem reasonable, no one really cared about them.

And the changes mounted, imperceptibly, until one day people who had been "good neighbors"_which basically meant that they had not disturbed each other and had no serious quarrels with each other_were now deadly enemies. And it all seemed perfectly reasonable by then.

As long as nothing bad happens to them, people they know, or anyone who agrees with them_"Atrocities" only happened to your own land. "Just retribution" was what happened to other people. A cult or a myth was someone else's religion. Your religion was the right and moral way.

Or as the Free Bards put it, "One man's music is another mans noise." As long as people were able to listen to what they called music, they didn't care if "noise" was banned....

Well, this all might be something the Free Bards could do something about, at least if it was at a controllable stage. Maybe that was another "why"_why the Free Bards had come in for the greater share of trouble so far. They poked fun at pompous authority; they made the strange into the familiar. It was very difficult for a person who had heard Linnet's "Pearls and Posies" to think of Gazners as "cold-blooded" for instance_or Wren's own "Spell-bound Captive" to believe that Elves truly had no souls. The Free Bards opened up the world, just a little, to those who had never been beyond their own village boundaries. Jonny knew that Master Wren had wider ideas for the Free Bards than most of them dreamed at the moment. Wren saw his creation as a means to spread information that others would rather not have public_and perhaps he might even have a greater goal than that. But that was enough for Jonny, at least at the moment.

So, this whole situation just might be a state of affairs that Free Bards could do something about. It definitely was something they should know about if it turned out there was a single person behind the persecution!

So_the first thing to do would be to see if he and Robin could track the sermons to their source.

He thought about that for a moment. There were only two of them, and they could only go in one direction. There was Harperus, who would be "looking into things" as well. But what about asking Nightingale as well? She was the one who had stopped to listen to the preachers in the street. She was the one who had given them the most information. She was already observing. If she was willing to expand that a little_

He locked up the wagon, and went in search of Nightingale. He would find out what direction she planned to go when she left the Waymeet. They would go in the opposite direction. Perhaps this little group of Free Bards would be able to find some answers to all their questions. And_dare he hope_solutions as well?

Kestrel sighed, and took up the reins as the first fat drop of rain plopped down on the gravel lane in front of the horses. "An-nother b-beautiful d-day," he said sardonically.

"It could be worse," Robin replied, and patted his knee. "At least the rain held off long enough for our laundry to dry."

"And w-we d-did get that n-nice h-hot b-bath," he admitted. Although it had been something more than a mere "bath"_the bathhouse proved to be the kind that had several small rooms, each furnished with a huge tub, fully large enough for two. It had been well worth the money, all things considered.

"We did. We are clean, the wagon is clean, all our clothing is clean_we just might be presentable enough that they won't throw us out of Westhaven," Robin said, cheerfully.

The horses stamped, showing their impatience, but Kestrel was not going to let them move out just yet. Not until_

A sharp whistle behind him told him that Harperus was about to pull out. The Haspur had once again vanished into the depths of the wagon; Kestrel doubted that more than a handful of people had even glimpsed him during the three days they all camped here. It had been T'fyrr who had spoken to Nightingale and obtained her agreement to reverse her planned course and return to Kingsford, to see if the strange Church activities originated there, or elsewhere. "But then I am going to Birnam," she had said firmly. "I must eat, and I cannot eat if I cannot play."

Kestrel got the feeling that if it hadn't been for T'fyrr, she wouldn't even have agreed to that much.

Harperus' huge vehicle moved slowly into the lane parallel to theirs. Once they reached the trade road, Kestrel planned to follow him for the short period when they would both be going in the same direction. A few leagues up the road, a minor, seldom-used trade-road branched off this one. This was the road to Westhaven, which just happened to be Rune's old home, and that was the direction he and Robin were going, while Harperus and T'fyrr took the main road.

It was Robin's notion to spy on Rune's mother, if she was still there. She wanted to be able to tell Rune something about what was going on in her old haunts; she had told Jonny that she thought Rune would feel less guilty over leaving if she knew her mother was all right.

Personally, Jonny hadn't detected any concern for her mother on Rune's part, but he wasn't a female. There might have been things the two of them said to each other that made Robin think Lady Lark felt guilt over leaving her mother to fend for herself. And one road was as good as another, really_at least, when the road led eventually to Gradford. That particular city had a High Bishop in residence, which made it another logical candidate for information about the Church.

What was more, so far as he was concerned, there was an abbey, Carthell Abbey, lying on that little-used road that linked Westhaven and Gradford. Priests and the like who lived in isolated abbeys liked to talk to visitors; they might say something to give Kestrel a place to start.

How Harperus maneuvered that huge wagon so easily, Kestrel had no notion_but he brought it around smartly and was already on the lane leading to the trade-road by the time Kestrel got his mares in motion. The rear of the wagon was a blank wall; peculiar sort of construction. Wagons were dark enough that most people cut windows everywhere they could.

The new axle performed exactly as Oakhart had promised; they jounced along in Harperus' wake, but thanks to the Deliambren, their course wasn't as bumpy as it could have been. Harperus' wagon was much, much heavier than theirs, and his wheels much broader, although the distance between his left and right wheels was about the same as between theirs. That was why Jonny was letting him lead; as long as he kept their wheels in the ruts left by the Deliambren's wagon, their ride was relatively smooth.

At about noon, they all stopped at the crossroads for a meal; Harperus supplying more of his odd, but tasty food, and Robin offering fresh honey-cakes she had bought at Waymeet.

"Be careful out there," Robin said, as they made their farewells. "If we see you at Gradford, I don't want to see you in trouble!"

"I?" The Deliambren arched an eyebrow at her. "I am a well-known and respectable trader. You, on the other hand, are a disreputable Gypsy, and a Free Bard to boot! I am far more like to see you in a gaol of one sort or another!"

Jonny shivered; after the things that Nightingale had told them, that was no longer very funny. "D-d-don't even j-j-joke about th-that," he said. "L-let's j-just s-say w-w-we'll s-s-see y-you b-b-before M-M-Midw-w-winter."

"So we shall. May your road be easy, friends," Harperus responded, gravely. "Now_if you are to make Westhaven before nightfall _"

"We had better be off." Robin swung herself up into the drivers seat, leaving Jonny to accept Harperus' clap on the shoulder and T'fyrr's handclasp_

_or clawclasp. Or whatever.

Then they parted company; Harperus to take his wagon onward, and Robin to turn theirs down a much smaller road, one covered with wet, fallen leaves and shaded by sadly drooping branches, with undergrowth so thick that once they were on the lane, it was no longer possible to hear or see the larger vehicle. In moments, they could have been the only people in the entire world. There was no sign of any human, nothing but the forest, the occasional birdcall, and the steady drip of water from the bare branches.

Kestrel sighed. In some ways, he was glad that the two of them were alone again, but he had enjoyed Harperus' company, and he wished he could have heard T'fyrr sing a few more times.

But most of all, he liked the feeling of security he'd had, being around the Deliambren and his formidable wagon. No one was likely to give Harperus any trouble, and if anyone did, against all common sense, he was probably going to regret doing so.

He only wished that the same could be said for them.

They reached the village of Westhaven quite a bit before nightfall. The fact that the road was considerably less traveled meant that it was, conversely, smoother than the main road. Less traffic during all this bad weather had made for fewer ruts, though there were erosion cuts to rattle across. The mares made much better time that he or Robin had any right to expect.

"If I recall, the inn is on the other side of the village," Robin said. There wasn't much there, really; a few buildings around a square, although there did seem to be a farmer's market going on. This was the kind of village that Jonny Brede would have passed by, if he'd had the choice. There was no room for an outsider here, everyone knew everyone else. Still, though strangers might not be welcome, their coin was, and spending money usually brought some form of speech out of even the most taciturn of villagers.

"W-we should g-get some bread," he said. "M-maybe ch-cheese. S-S-Stillwater d-d-didn't have either."

Robin glanced at him out of the corner of her eye, and smiled. "So we can find things out without asking questions, hmm?" she replied. "Oh, I can think of a few more things we could use. Roots, for one; and more feed for the horses. Even at the 'good price' they gave me for being a Gypsy, the price for grain at Stillwater was outrageous."

By that time, they were actually in the village; virtually everyone in the square or the stalls along one side stared at them as they drove in. Robin pulled the horses up to the single hitching post with ostentatious care, then jumped down and tied the mares up to it. Kestrel climbed down on his side, trying to look as formidable as possible.

The village square was centered around a well. No great surprise there, most small villages were. There were four buildings on three sides of the square, with two larger buildings, one clearly a small Church and the other a Guild Hall, on the fourth side. A joint Guild Hall from the look of it; there were boards with the signs for the Millers', the Joiners', the Smiths' and the Tanners' Guilds up above the door. No Bardic Guild harp, though, which was a relief.

The stalls had been set up along this side, and Kestrel followed Robin as she opened the back of the wagon, got a basket, and made her way directly towards them. It looked as if the rain that had plagued their travel so far had scarcely touched Westhaven; the dust of the street was damped down, but had not turned to mud, and beneath the dust, the street itself was packed dirt that must surely turn into a morass every time it rained heavily.

Now I remember why I like cities, Kestrel thought. Paved streets, and regular collection of refuse, were two very good reasons.

As Robin approached the first stall, looking determinedly cheerful, he decided he did not like the faintly hostile way the woman minding it and the two loitering in front of it were staring at her. He steeled himself for trouble.

But it never came. At least, not in the form of outright "trouble."

Instead, the thin, disagreeable-looking wench, who had a face like a hen with indigestion and hair the color and texture of old straw, completely ignored them. She began chattering away at her two cronies at such a high volume and rate of speech that it would have been impossible for anyone to "get her attention" without interrupting her forcibly and rudely.

But Kestrel knew that Robin had no intention of doing anything that would give the stallkeeper an excuse for further rudeness. And if the wench thought she was going to outmaneuver a Gypsy_

Instead, Robin silently surveyed the contents of the stall with a superior eye, counterfeiting perfectly the airs of a high-born nobleman. She raised one supercilious eyebrow, then sniffed as if she found the selection of baked goods vastly inferior to what she was expecting, and sailed on without a single word to any of the three.

At the sound of a smothered giggle from just ahead of them, Robin smiled, and exchanged a quick glance with Kestrel. He nodded slightly in the direction of the giggler, an older woman in the next stall, one with a plain but merry face, who was selling eggs, sausage, and bacon.

Although none of these things had been on their tentative shopping list, Robin headed straight for her, and engaged her in a spirited bargaining session. As Robin put her purchases in her basket, she cocked her head to one side, and paused for a moment.

"Is there anyplace here in Westhaven where I can get fresh bread?" she asked, loudly enough that the women at the first stall could hear her clearly. "Properly made bread?" The disagreeable hen-woman flushed, and the egg-seller's mouth tightened as she held back another giggle.

"Well, Mother Tolley isn't a baker, precisely, but she sells the freshest bread on market-days," the egg-seller said, with a slightly malicious sparkle to her eyes that told Kestrel there was a petty feud, probably of long standing, between her and the hen-woman. "It's from an old family recipe, and her own yeast, and I buy it myself. She's got the last stall in the row."

"Thank you so much," Robin replied, with a warm smile. "I really appreciate your courtesy."

She made her way past the next four stalls, still smiling, and paying no outward attention to the varied expressions of shock, amusement, and hostility the women there displayed. Interesting that there were only women in the market today. Perhaps the harvest was late.

Or perhaps the men did not consider market-day to be within their purview.

Now, Kestrel was no stranger to small villages or the behavior people who lived in them exhibited, particularly to outsiders, but the feeling here was_odd. By their clothing, by the condition of the buildings, and by the unused state of the road leading to Westhaven, this village was not exactly prospering. The women with stalls here should have been falling all over each other to attract the money Robin was so willingly spending.

But they weren't. The first woman had been actively hostile, and only the woman with the sausages seemed at all friendly_and that was simply because of the quarrel she had with the first stall-keeper. What was going on here?

The last stall held something they could actually use; some nice, freshly dug root-vegetables and two round, golden loaves of bread_obviously the last of a large baking, by the blank places on the cloth where they sat. "Mother Tolley" behaved in the way Kestrel had expected_she was obviously pleased to see them and their coins, and was only too happy to sell them whatever they wanted. Robin chatted with her about the weather, the terrible state of the roads, revealed the fact that they had come from Birnam by way of Kingsford and that they were on their way to Gradford.

"My, how you've traveled! And you've been through Kingsford! Oh, I wish I could see it some day," Mother Tolley said, brightly. "I hear the Kingsford Faire is something to behold!"

"It is, indeed," Robin replied, nodding. "I have been there as a performer every year since I was a child of ten."

"Truly?" Mother Tolley's eyes widened. "What is it like? Is it as great as they say?"

Robin spread her hands wide. "Absolutely hundreds of people attend the Faire, from Dukes to Guild Masters to every manner of peddler you can imagine. If there is anything in the world that can be sold, you'll find it at Kingsford Faire. All the best performers in the world come there, and the Holy Services at noon on Midsummer Day are beyond description."

"All the world comes to Kingsford Faire." Mother Tolley repeated the old cliche as solemnly as if she had made it up on the spot. "Well, say, since you are so well-traveled, and a musician and all _" she hesitated a moment, then, with a sly glance at the other women, continued on "_ there was someone I knew once who had a hankering to go to the Kingsford Faire. It was a local child, with so many dreams_well, there aren't too many folk who believe in dreams, especially not here. I don't suppose you've ever heard tell of a fiddler girl named Rune?"

By now, Kestrel would have had to be a blind man not to notice how all the women, even those who were feigning indifference or displaying open hostility, were stretching their ears to hear Robin's reply to that question. And by the look in her eyes and the set of her jaw, Robin was about to give them more than they bargained for.

"Rune? Lady Lark?" she said brightly. "Why, of course I have! Everyone in all of Rayden and Birnam knows all about Free Bard Rune! Why, she's the most famous Free Bard in two kingdoms except for Master Wren!"

Mother Tolley blinked. Apparently that was not precisely the response she had expected. Kestrel figured she had hoped to hear something good about Rune, but not this. "Rune! Famous!" she said, blankly. "Why, fancy that _"

But Robin wasn't finished, not by half. "Oh, of course!" she continued, raising her voice just a little, to make certain everyone in the market got a good chance to hear. "First there was her song about how she bested the Skull Hill Ghost_I don't think there's a musician in Rayden that hasn't learned it by now."

"She_actually _" Mother Tolley was still trying to cope with the notion that Rune was famous.

"Oh, indeed! And she still has the Ghost's ancient gold coins to prove it!" Now Robin was getting beyond the truth and embroidering... and that made Kestrel nervous.

"Gold? The Ghost has gold?" That was one of the other women, her voice sharp with agitation.

"He did, but he gave it all to Rune, for her fiddling," Robin said brightly. "But that was just the beginning. Then she became an ally of the High King of the Elves for getting the better of one of the Elven Sires."

"Elves?" said another, in a choked voice. "She _"

Robin ran right over the top of her words. "But of course, what really made her famous was that she won the hand of Master Bard Talaysen himself with her talent and her musical skill_in fact, she was the one who saved him from that Elven Sire she bested. He wedded her, and now the two of them are the Laurel Bards to the King of Birnam, King Rolend, not just Laurel Bards but his personal advisors _"

Mother Tolley's face had gone so completely blank from astonishment that Kestrel couldn't tell what her feelings were. He guessed she would have been pleased to learn that Rune was doing well_but that this was something she wasn't prepared to cope with.

"I was at the ceremony, myself," Robin rattled on, in a confidential tone, as if she was a name-dropping scatterbrain. "As one of Lady Lark_that's what we call her, Lady Lark_one of Lady Lark's personal friends, of course. My! Even a Duke's daughter would envy her! She has twelve servants, all her very own_three of them just to tend to her wardrobe!"

Kestrel elbowed her sharply; she'd already gone too far three lies ago. She ignored him.

"The King himself gave her so much gold and gems that she couldn't possibly spend it all, and the weight of her jewelry would drown her if she ever fell into a river wearing it!" Robin gave him a warning look when he moved to elbow her again. "She wears silk every day, and she has three carriages to ride, and she bathes in wine, they say _" Robin simpered. Kestrel did his best not to laugh at her expression, despite his unease. He hadn't known she could simper. She was a better actress than he'd thought. "Our wagon and the horses and all_that was her present to me. You know, she gave wagons and horses to all her Gypsy friends who came to the ceremony. So sweet of her, don't you think?"

Mother Tolley had gone beyond astonished. "Yes," she said faintly. "Yes, very sweet. Of course."

Calling Rune one of King Rolend's Laurel Bards and a personal advisor was not exactly the truth_and the picture Robin had painted of Rune and Talaysen wallowing in luxury and wealth was not even close to being true. But Kestrel watched the faces of those who had been so eager to hear some terrible scandal about their prodigal runaway, and their puckered expressions told him that some of the good citizens of Westhaven were less than thrilled to hear that she was doing well. And the more sour those expressions became, the more Robin embroidered on her deceptions. He didn't think he had ever seen her look quite so smug before.

But while this was all very amusing to her, he was beginning to worry more than a little that she might be digging a hole they both were about to fall into.

"W-we must g-go," he said, firmly and loudly, before she could make up any more stories, this time out of whole cloth_either about Rune or about their supposed importance to her. Or worse yet, told the whole truth about him! He didn't know what was worse_to have these women believe Robin's tales, or to have them think her a liar.

"Ah," Robin said blankly as he completely threw her off her course for a moment with his interruption; then she regained her mental balance, and blinked, as if she had suddenly figured out that she might have gone a little too far. "Of course, you're right! We have a long way to go before we stop tonight."

She tucked her purchases carefully in her basket and allowed Kestrel to hurry her off.

"What w-were you th-thinking of?" he hissed, as they followed the sausage-woman's stammered directions to the mill.

"I'm not sure," she said weakly. "I got kind of carried away."

He refrained from stating the obvious.

"It was just_those sanctimonious prigs! You saw how they wanted to hear that I had never heard of Rune, that she was a nothing and a failure! I wanted to smack their self-satisfied faces!"

"Y-you d-did that all r-right," he replied, a little grimly, as they arrived at the mill.

The miller himself was busy, but one of his apprentices handled their purchase of grain for the horses. It took a while; the boy was determined that he was going to give them exact measure. By the time they returned to the wagon, the stalls were deserted, and the women gone from the marketplace.

Kestrel's stomach told him that there was no sinister reason for the empty market _it was suppertime, and these women had to return home to feed their families.

But the silence of the place unnerved him, and for once even Robin didn't have much to say. She unlocked the back of the caravan quickly and stowed her purchases inside; he went to one of the storage bins outside to put the grain away. Suddenly he wanted very much to be out of Westhaven and on the road.

Quickly. He felt eyes on his back; unfriendly eyes. The women might be gone, but they were still watching, from their homes and their kitchens. The sooner he and Robin had Westhaven behind them, the better.

He had put the last of the bags of grain away in the bin and locked the door, when he heard footsteps behind him.

"Hey!" said a nasal, obnoxious male voice. "What kinda thieves do we have here?"

CHAPTER SIX

He turned, but slowly, as if he had no idea that there was anyone at all there, pretending he had not heard the voice or the not-so-veiled insult. They weren't in any trouble_yet. An official, even in a tiny, provincial village like this one, would not be as young as the voice had sounded. Obnoxious, surely. Officious, of course. But not young. So this must be some stupid troublemaker, a village bully and his friends.

He knew as soon as he turned that he had been right, for the young men wore no badges of authority. There were three of them, none of them any older than he. All three were heavily muscled, and two of them had teeth missing. All three were taller than Kestrel. He looked up at them, measuring them warily. Definitely bullies, else why have three against two?

Don't do anything. Maybe they'll get bored and go away.

"So, Gyppo, what'd ye steal?" one asked, rubbing his nose across the back of his hand. It was a very dirty hand, and the nose wasn't exactly clean either. Dirty hair, pimpled face, a sneer that would have been more appropriate on the lips of a bratty little six-year-old.

Then again, I doubt his mind's grown much beyond six.

Kestrel ignored them, and moved to the front of the wagon. Robin was already there, untying the horses from the hitching post. Bad luck there; they would have to lead the horses around to turn the wagon, and the three bullies were purposefully blocking the way. The horses were well-trained, but it would be easy enough to spook them.

"He's a Gyppo, he had ta steal sumthin'," said the second. The troublemakers moved in a little closer, blocking any escape_unless they left the wagon and horses and fled on foot. And they were trapped between the wagon and the blank wall of the Guild Hall. Even if anyone here might be inclined to help, there would be no way to see what was going on. "Mebbe he stole th' wagon."

"Mebbe he stole the horses," said the third. "They's too good a horse fer a Gyppo."

"So's the wagon," replied the first. "Mebbe he stole both. Hey, Gyppo! Ye steal yer rig? Thas more likely than that tale yer slut spun, 'bout Rune given it to ye!"

Something about the bully's tone warned Kestrel that Robin's stories about Rune had brought them the trouble he feared. This fool had been no friend to Rune while she'd lived here_and he held a longstanding grudge against her, like the hen-faced woman.

"Yah," said the third, sniffing loudly and grinning. "We know all 'bout Rune! Her mam's a slut, she's a slut, an' I reckon her friends'r all sluts, too." He stared at Kestrel, waiting for an answer, and became angry when he didn't get one. "How 'bout it?" he growled. "Ain't ye gonna say nothin'?"

Kestrel had been watching them carefully, assessing them, and had concluded that while they were very likely strong, and probably the town bullies, they also didn't have a brain to share among them. They were slow, and moved with the clumsy ponderousness of a man used to getting his way through sheer bulk and not through skill. And the way they held themselves told him they were not used to having any real opposition. They wanted to goad him into anger, into rushing them like an enraged child. They would not be prepared for someone who struck back with agility and control.

Still, if they could get away without a physical confrontation_

He simply stood his ground, and stared at them, hoping to unnerve them with his silence.

Stalemate. They stared at him, not sure what to do since he wasn't reacting to their taunts in the way they were used to. He stared at them, not daring them to start anything, but not backing down either.

Robin made a movement toward the slit in her skirt that concealed her knife. He put his hand on her wrist to stop her.

Unfortunately, that movement broke the tenuous stalemate.

"Yah, Rune's a slut an' her friends'r sluts!" said the first one, loudly. "Right, Hill, Warren?" He grinned as the other two nodded. "Hey, boys, I gotta idea! We got our fill'a her_so how 'bout we get a taste'f her friend, eh? They say Gyppo women is real hot _"

And he made the mistake of grabbing for Robin_who had fended off more bullies in her time than there were people in this village. As she launched herself at her would-be molester, Kestrel sprang at the one grabbing for him.

Fighting off assassins for most of your life tends to make you a survivor; it also teaches you every dirty trick anyone ever invented. Kestrel turned into a whirlwind of fists and feet, and Robin was putting her own set of street-fighting skills into action. He hadn't wanted this to turn into a physical confrontation, but the bullies had forced it on him, and now they were going to find out that the odds of three large men against a tiny man and woman had been very uneven_but not in their favor.

He kicked the legs out from beneath the one nearest him by slamming his foot into the fools knee before the man had a notion that he had even moved. The bully went down on his face and started to scramble up, putting his rear in perfect target-range. Kestrel followed his kick in the rump with one to the privates so hard that the bully could not even scream, only gasp and double up into a ball. Robin had already done the same to the fool who had grabbed her, except that she hadn't bothered to knock his legs out from under him first. And she hadn't hit him with the knee, either; he was expecting that. He had backed out of knee range, laughing. She had snap-kicked him as she had intended all along, and the laugh turned into a gasp as she put her full weight behind the kick. She had followed up her foot to the groin with a backhanded blow in his face with the hilt of her dagger that put him to the ground with a bleeding nose and a few less teeth.

They both converged on the third bully, the one who seemed to be the leader, slamming him up against the side of the wagon before he had quite comprehended the fact that his two friends were no longer standing.

They knocked the breath out of him, and Robin had her dagger across his throat before he could blink. Kestrel grabbed his wrists and twisted his arms back while he was still stunned, holding him so that no matter how he moved, it would hurt. And the more he moved, the more it would hurt.

"Now," breathed Robin, as the bully's eyes bulged with fear and the edge of her blade made a thin, painful cut across his throat, "I think you owe us an apology. Don't you?"

Kestrel jerked the bully's arms so that they wrenched upwards in their sockets. He gasped, and nodded, his eyes filling with tears of pain. Now the very fact that nothing of this confrontation could be seen from the square or the houses around it worked in their favor. So long as no one missed these fools and came looking for them, if things went well.

Then again_they probably won't come looking for someone who might be beating the pulp out of two strangers. No one wants to know what these three are doing, I'll bet.

"I also think it would be very wise of you to make that apology, like a gentleman, and say nothing more about this," she continued. "Don't you?"

Frantically, he nodded, his eyes never leaving her face. The bloodthirsty expression there would have terrified a denser man than he.

"Just a few things I want you to think about, before you make that apology," she said harshly. "You might have what you think is a clever idea, about claiming how we attacked you, after we drive off." She shook her head, as he broke out in a cold sweat. "That would be a very, very stupid idea. First of all, you'd end up looking like a fool. Why, look how small we are! We weigh less than you do, the two of us put together! Think how brave you'd look, saying that two tiny people attacked you and beat you up, and one of them a girl! You would wind up looking like a weakling as well as a fool, and everyone from here to Kingsford would be laughing at you. What's more, they'd say you can't be any kind of a man if you let a girl beat you up. They'd say you're fey. And they'd start beating you up, any time you left home."

The sick look in his eyes told Kestrel that her words had hit home, but she wasn't finished with him.

"There's another reason why that would be a very, very stupid idea," she continued. "We're Gypsies. Do you know just what that means?"

He shook his head, very slightly.

"That means that we have all kinds of ways to find out what you've been doing, even when we aren't around. It means we have even more ways of getting at you afterwards_and all of them will come when you aren't expecting them." Her eyes widened, and her voice took on a singing quality_

And Kestrel sensed the undercurrent of music in the mind, music that could not be detected by the ears, the music he only heard when someone was using Bardic Magic.

Robin's voice matched that music, turning her sing-song into a real spell, a spell meant to convince this fool that every word she said was nothing less than absolute truth. "We'll come in the night, when you're all alone_catch you on a path and send monsters to chase you until your heart bursts! We'll send invisible things, night-hags, and vampires to your bed, to sit on your chest and squeeze the breath from your lungs while you try to scream in pain and can't! We'll come at you from the full moon, and set a fire in your brain, until you run mad, howling like a dog!"

The bully was shaking so hard he could hardly stand now.

"Or_we'll wait_and one night, when you're sitting at your ease _"

Her eyes widened further, and he stared at them, unable to look away.

"_ watching the fire_all alone_no one around to help you, or save you _"

He was sweating so hard now that his shirt was soaked.

"_ suddenly the fire will flare! It will grow! You'll be unable to move as it swells and takes on a form, the form of a two-legged beast with fangs as long as your arm and talons like razors! You'll scream and scream, but no one will hear you! You'll try to escape, but you'll be frozen to your chair! You'll watch the demon tear out your heart, watch as it eats your heart still beating, and howl as it takes you down to hell!"

At the word "hell," a burst of flame appeared under his nose, cupped in the hand that was not holding the dagger.

A slow, spreading stain on the front of his pants and a distinctive smell betrayed just how frightened he was. The bully had wet his breeches with fear.

Kestrel let him go in disgust, and the man dropped to the ground, gibbering incoherently. Robin stepped back and smiled at him sweetly.

"Now," she said, "do you apologize for calling me a slut?"

He nodded frantically.

"Do you apologize for calling Rune a slut?"

His head bobbed so hard it practically came off his shoulders.

"Are you going to keep your filthy tongue off Rune and any other Free Bard? Are you going to take your two playmates and go away, and never say anything about this again?" She smiled, but it was not sweetly. "Are you going to pretend all this never happened?"

"Yes!" the bully blubbered, through his tears. "Yes! Oh, please _"

"You may go," Robin said, coolly, sheathing her dagger so quickly it must have looked to the man as if she had made it vanish into thin air. He fled.

The other two were just getting to their feet, but they had heard and seen everything Robin had said and done. And they had been affected by her Bardic spell too, just not as profoundly or immediately as the first bully. The one Kestrel had kicked helped the one with the bloodied face to his feet, and the two of them supported each other, getting out of sight as quickly as possible.

Which was precisely what Kestrel had in mind, as well_getting away before some other variety of trouble found them! He jumped into the driver's seat and picked up the reins, giving Robin just enough time to scramble into the passenger's side before turning the mares, and heading out of the village at a brisk trot, thanking whatever deity might be listening for the thickening dusk that hid both them and their erstwhile attackers, and for the emptiness of the village square.

"Wh-why d-did you d-d-d-do that?" he asked, as Robin arranged her skirts with a self-satisfied little smile.

"What?" she asked, as if he had astonished her by asking the question. "Why did I use the Bardic Magic? I wanted him to believe me! If I hadn't, he'd have gotten another dozen of his friends and come after us!"

"N-not using th-the B-Bardic M-Magic!" he scolded, guiding the mares around a tricky turn. "M-making th-them th-think w-we w-were evil m-m-mages! R-remember wh-what the Ch-church has b-b-been saying ab-b-bout m-mages?"

"Oh, that," she replied, indifferently. "What difference does it make? He won't tell anyone anything now. He'll be sure that the moment he opens his mouth, a demon will come after him."

"N-now," Kestrel retorted. "You kn-know the m-magic w-wears off! H-how l-long b-before he t-tells a P-p-p-priest?"

"So what? We're never coming back." She had something cradled in her skirts; a moment later, he heard the distinctive clink of coins. "Hah!" she said, in the next moment, as the wagon jounced a little. "We actually came out ahead!"

"Wh-what?" he yelped. He knew exactly what that meant; she'd not only beaten and terrified those bullies, she'd picked their pockets. "Y-you d-d-d-didn't!"

"Of course I did," she said, calmly, taking the coins and pouring them into her belt-pouch. "Why not? They deserved worse than that! Didn't you hear them? I'll bet those louts absolutely terrified Rune while she lived here! They should be grateful that I was in a good mood! I almost made the three of them eunuchs while I was at it!"

"B-but _" he protested. "Th-that m-makes us n-no b-better th-than th-they are!"

"I don't think so." She folded her arms stubbornly across her chest. "I think we were simply the instrument of proper justice."

"B-but _" He gave up. She would never admit she was wrong, even if he managed to convince her of it_and even if he did, she would only think he was worried about the possible consequences. That wasn't what made him so upset, but how could he make her understand that she had just acted in as immoral and irresponsible a manner as the Church claimed Free Bards were?

How could they honestly refute the claims of the street preachers when they actually did what the street preachers said they did? Even though they had been provoked_

Never mind. Right now, the best thing he could do was drive. Maybe this would sort itself out later.

He hoped.

Darkness had fallen by the time they reached the next building on the road. The Hungry Bear inn_distinguished as such by the sign over the door, a crudely painted caricature of an animal that could have been a bear_or a brown pig_or a tree-stump with teeth. The sign was much in need of paint. The inn was much in need of repair.

Even in the fading twilight and the feeble flame of a torch beside the door, that much was all too obvious. It was clean, superficially at least, but so shabby that Gwyna would have passed it by without a second thought if they were really looking for a nights work.

But they weren't, so when Kestrel pulled the horses to a halt outside the front door_which didn't even have a lantern, only that crude pitch-and-straw torch_she hopped down to see if she could find the innkeeper.

She had barely one foot on the ground before a round blob of a woman dressed in clothing more suited to a coquettish girl came hurrying out to see if they might be customers.

As she came out of the darkness of the tap room and into the flickering light from the torch, Gwyna felt her eyes widen in surprise. Was this Rune's mother?

She must be_certainly the lavish use of cosmetics, and the straw-blond hair, the low-cut blouse and the kilted-up skirt matched Rune's descriptions. But if this was Rune's mother_either Rune's memory was horribly at fault, or the woman had doubled, or even tripled her weight, since Rune had left!

"Welcome to the Hungry Bear," the woman said, her eyes taking in their equippage, and probably evaluating it to the last penny. "My name is Stara, and I am the innkeeper's wife_how may I serve you?"

Well, that certainly clinched it. This was Rune's mother, and she had evidently managed to wheedle, connive, or blackmail her way into more than Jeoff's bed.

Well, Rune was right about that much. And since I don't see any other helpers around, I suspect they either can't afford more help anymore, or no one will work for them. So Rune was right there, too, in thinking Stara would have turned her into an unpaid drudge, given half a chance. If Rune had stayed, she'd have found herself shackled to this shoddy inn for the rest of her life, with music taking second place to whatever her mother wanted her to do.

"We are musicians, Innkeeper," Robin said, in a carefully neutral voice. "We hadn't really expected to find an inn here, but we usually offer our services in return for a room and a meal _"

Not that I'd sleep in any bed you had anything to do with. You probably haven't washed the sheets in months.

The balding and middle-aged innkeeper himself appeared at the door as Robin finished her little speech, but he held back, diffidently saying nothing, quite obviously very much the henpecked husband. Stara looked them over critically, and her eyes sharpened with mingled envy and greed at their prosperity. No one who drove a rig like theirs, new, and well-made, would be an inferior musician or poor....

And given the general air of abandonment, when Rune ran off, most of the business went somewhere else. There should be at least a handful of customers in there, and the tap room is empty. I don't smell anything cooking, either, which means they don't get enough customers of an evening to have a regular supper ready.

So, if they stayed, there'd be an empty tap room, a poor meal and a cold and musty bed. And given what had just happened back in the village_

It probably wouldn't be a good idea to stop here. No matter what else I could find out about Stara. I think I've seen enough to tell Rune all she needs to hear. Enough to make her glad that she got out while she could.

"Uh_Stara _" the innkeeper said, timidly. "We don't know these people. We don't know anything about them. Remember what the Priest has been preaching? These people aren't wearing Guild colors. So many of these free musicians sing that licentious music, that music that makes people do sinful things _"

Stara started to wave him to silence, but it appeared that on this subject, at least, he would not be henpecked. He raised his chin and his voice stubbornly. "You know very well how sinful we were when that daughter of yours was playing her music here! And every night the tap room was full of people dancing, singing, taking no thought of their souls _"

"I know," Stara muttered resentfully, no doubt thinking how full the cashbox had been back then.

"Well, what if these people are the same kind?" he asked her, his voice rising with a touch of hysteria. "I'm sure the Sacrificed God has been punishing us for our sin of letting people like that play here while that daughter of yours was here. Worse than that, what if they're magicians? I don't think we should let anyone play here who hasn't been approved by the Church!"

Harperus' words rang at her out of memory. "How long before the signs say, 'No one permitted without a Church license'?"

She grimaced, her expression hidden in the shadows of the wagon. Not that I'd want to play here, with or without a license.

"I would not want to make anyone uncomfortable, much less give them the impression that they were sinning by simply listening to music," Robin said, smoothly. "I personally have never heard of any such nonsense as musicians who were magicians, but since your Priest evidently has, I will take his word that such things exist. And since obviously you don't want us, and no one can prove he isn't a mage, we'll just be on our way. We would never want to play where we were under suspicion, or where our music wasn't wanted." She raised her voice a little more, and pitched it to make certain that it carried. "We are really in no great need of lodging, as you can clearly see, so do not concern yourselves for us on that score."

Not that you would care, but it's a nice little dig, isn't it?

Stara looked disgusted and stormed back into the tap room. The innkeeper followed, wearing a look that mingled triumph and apprehension in equal measure. Triumph that he had his way, no doubt_and apprehension for the way that Stara was going to make him pay for getting his way. The door shut behind them.

Kestrel looked over at her, holding the reins quietly. "Interesting," he said.

She nodded. "I really think we ought to try camping somewhere down the road. Between the bullies and Priests with tales of music that leads you into sin, I'd sooner trust myself to wolves than Westhaven."

"But would ye trust yerselves to ghosts, young friends?" asked a hoarse voice from the shadows of the rear door, across the inn-yard from the sorry excuse for a stable. "An ye would not, turn back 'round and take the long road_or follow th' right-hand fork o' this one."

A stolid woman with a round, red face moved out of the shadows and into the uncertain light of the torch. "She wouldna tell ye, an' he would be just's pleased t'see a sinner come t'grief, but yon's the road over Skull Hill. There be a Ghost there, a murderin' Ghost. It's taken a priest in it's time, no less, so it don't care a tot fer holiness. Yer safe enough by day, but by night, ain't nobbut safe on Skull Hill."

Kestrel nodded, gravely. "Th-thank you, l-lady."

The cook looked pleased at being called "lady." "Tush. Tain't nothin' no decent person wouldna pass warnin' 'bout."

Robin looked closely at the woman; they knew all about the Ghost from Rune, of course, but Rune had described someone very like this woman_one of her few supporters after the innkeeper's first wife had died. The cook_

"Are you Annie Cook?" Robin asked. The woman stared at her, and nodded, slowly, her expression turning to one of apprehension.

"How d'ye know _" Annie began, clearly suspecting Robin of an uncanny, unnatural method of learning her name.

"Rune told me about you," Robin replied quickly, not sure how long it would be before Stara or Jeoff came to chase them off. "She said you were a good friend to her while she was here."

The uneasy expression turned again to one of pleasure. "Rune! I hope th' child's well! She did aright t' run off from here."

Impulsively, Robin decided to tell Annie a more edited_and truthful_version of what she had told the villagers. "Rune is doing wonderfully; she is a Master Free Bard herself, she's wedded Master Bard Talaysen, and they are both in the service of the King of Birnam. She is very happy, and she and Talaysen are expecting their first child in the summer."

Annie gaped at her, then the gape turned into a smile. "Ye don't say! Welladay!" The smile widened. "Why good for the girl! If ever there was a child deserved a bit'a luck, it was that 'un!" She glared at the closed door of the inn. "Not like 'er mother. That bit can't get nothin' without it bein' through some man's bed. An' had Rune stayed here, she'd'a been slavin' away i' that tap room while her mam sat on 'er fat rump an' held th' cashbox."

"Annie?" the voice from within was muffled, but clearly Stara's. Annie rolled her eyes, waved a friendly, but silent farewell, and retreated to her kitchen.

Dark as it was, the road was smooth enough to permit them to travel by night, at least for a while. Kestrel held the horses to a walk. It wasn't as if they had to fear pursuit from the village. It wasn't likely that, even if by some miracle the three bullies got over their fright, any of them would come pursuing the Gypsies in the dark. "S-so that w-was S-Stara," he said. "N-n-nasty, p-petty piece."

"I'd have run off long before Rune did," Robin said thoughtfully. "Long, long before Rune did. That woman can't see past the end of her nose, and if she ever had a generous bone in her, it's long since gone."

Kestrel chuckled. "S-sunk in f-fat."

It was still barely warm enough for crickets, which sang a melancholy tune in the grasses beside the road. Overhead, thin clouds obscured the stars; the overcast was blowing off, but the moon was not yet out. No way to see past the dim lanterns on the front of the wagon, but the underbrush was so thick on either side of the road that there was no chance of the horses wandering off. And this road, according to the maps, went straight to Carthell Abbey without forking.

By way of Skull Hill.

That was according to the map; according to Rune and Annie Cook, the road forked a little way ahead, and while the old road still went over Skull Hill, the locals had cut another, cruder path around the dangerous place. Passable, she had said.

"I th-think, that c-compared to S-Stara, the Gh-Ghost m-must have been a p-pleasant audience," he said, trying to make a small joke.

Robin chuckled. "Certainly more appreciative. And the Ghost rewarded talent instead of stifling it."

"T-true." The horses clopped on, through the thick darkness, carefully feeling their way. Kestrel had been watching for roadside clearings, but there didn't seem to be any. He was beginning to wonder if they ought to stop and camp along here, even if they had to camp in the center of the road. After all, it wasn't as if it got very much use_they were hardly likely to block anyone's travel! By the old tracks they had seen, they might have been the only wagon along here in the past week.

"Th-that p-place where the r-road f-forks should b-be around here s-soon," he said. "What if w-we _"

"What if we go up Skull Hill?" Robin asked, suddenly.

For a moment he wasn't certain he had heard her right. "Wh-what?" he blurted.

"What if we go up Skull Hill?" she repeated. "Confront the Ghost, just like Rune did?"

He had heard her correctly. "Are you c-c-c-crazy?" he spluttered. "Why?"

She laughed; she didn't sound crazy. She did sound rather determined, however. "Why not?" she replied. "Rune did, and she wasn't even fully trained! We already know it likes music, and it might have another silver hoard or something equally interesting to swap for our music. We might be able to get him to grant unmolested passage to Gypsies and Free Bards, and that would be worth a night of playing, alone_we might need a road some day that no one will take."

He chewed on his lip, fiercely, and thought about it. She had a point. She had a very real point. The old road ran this way for a reason; it was a shorter route than the one that Harperus and T'fyrr were taking. If Gypsies and Free Bards knew it was safe for them to use, it could take a couple of days off their trips in this part of the world.

And if no one else would use the road for fear of the Ghost_it made a very neat escape route in case of trouble. From here to Stillwater was no great distance, and Stillwater could be held against even armed men if necessary.

"Let me get a lantern and walk ahead of the horses, so I can spot the place where the road forks," she said, while he was still thinking about it.

He pulled the horses to a halt; she wriggled back over the bed, and popped out the back with a lit lantern in her hand. She trotted up to take the halter of the right-hand horse, and held the lantern over her head to keep from getting glare in her eyes.

Well, that was all very well for her, but nothing saved him from the lantern-glare! He squinted, but he couldn't quite make out the road. He let the reins go slack; she was the one who could see where they were going_

And he realized a few moments later that she was leading them down the left-hand fork of the road. The overgrown, but obviously older, fork of the road.

"Robin!" he yelped. "Wh-what are you d-d-doing?"

She stopped the horses, and looked back at him, a little defiantly.

"I told you!" she said. "I want to climb Skull Hill to meet this Ghost face to_whatever!"

Robin left the mares and brought her lantern back to Kestrel, placing it at his feet. She looked up into his face, carefully gauging his expression. "I don't think there's any real danger," she said, calmly and reasonably, watching his eyes. "Honestly, or I wouldn't even consider this."

He didn't seem frightened. Of course, he could be hiding his fear. "N-no d-d-d-danger," he repeated sarcastically. "Wh-when wh-who kn-kn-knows how m-m-many p-p-p-people have d-d-died up th-there!"

She took a very deep breath and got a firm grip on her temper. He wasn't saying she was stupid_wasn't even implying it. "When have I ever done anything really reckless?" she asked him.

He looked as if he was about to say something_but thought better of it, and closed his mouth again. "G-go on," he said grimly. "I'm l-l-listening. If y-you have a r-r-real argument, b-b-besides c-curiosity, I w-want to h-hear it."

"I've known something about magic for a long time," she told him. "At least, about some of the tinier magics. Not Bardic Magic, but little things Gypsies take for granted; healing, animal-charming, that kind of thing. And I think I know how this Ghost kills. I am pretty sure that his only real weapon is fear, and he can't do anything unless you're already afraid of him."

Kestrel looked skeptical, but a little less grim. "S-so?"

She licked her lips, and stared at the lamp flame for a moment. "If you're afraid of him, he can turn that fear against you_he can make it so overwhelming that_that it becomes something the human body just can't deal with. The heart races until it just gives up, he chases you until you drop dead of exhaustion, that kind of thing. Maybe some people don't die_maybe most of them don't die, they just run mad in this wilderness until they die of thirst or starve, or wild beasts get them."

"Th-that's v-v-very c-c-comforting," he said with heavy irony.

"But the point is that if you aren't afraid of him, he can't hurt you," she insisted. "Or if you interest him, he won't use that weapon of his! Rune wasn't completely terrified of him_and she interested him. So she was able to stand up to him. I don't know why we can't!"

Kestrel shook his head. "Wh-who s-s-said w-we aren't af-f-fraid of h-him?" he muttered. "N-n-not m-m-me."

She chuckled, as if he had made a joke. "Jonny, do you think I would have suggested this if you weren't a Master Bard in your own right? Think a minute! Rune managed to entertain this Ghost before she was even trained_when she was just a little better than a common traveling musician like all those people back in the Waymeet. Just think for a moment what we might be able to find out from him! Jonny, you're going to be the best thing he's heard in_well, since he got stuck up there!"

The only thing he was vain about was his talent and his ability as a musician. He began to soften as she appealed to that vanity.

"I think we can do this with no danger," she said, persuasively. "I think you could do this all alone, but with two of us there, we can keep from getting too exhausted."

Finally, the stubborn line of his jaw softened, and he sighed. "You r-r-really want t-t-to d-do th-this, d-don't you?"

"Yes," she replied, firmly. "I do. Call it_a sort of test. I want to measure myself against the same standards as the best musicians I know. This is one of them."

He shook his head. "All r-r-right," he replied.

"Th-this m-makes m-more s-sense than wh-what you d-did back in W-Westhaven, anyw-w-way."

And as she led the horses up to the top of Skull Hill, she was left to wonder_

What in heaven's name did he mean by that?

CHAPTER SEVEN

Gwyna was just as glad that Jonny was not as familiar with Rune's history as she was. It had not been easy to convince him to go along with her scheme, but her appeal to his only point of pride had turned the trick. If he had known as much about the Ghost as she did_he might not have agreed even under a threat to their lives.

Robin knew she had a distinct advantage over Kestrel; she had heard Rune tell the story of the Skull Hill Ghost in detail, several times. Jonny had only heard the song. She knew pretty much what to expect, and when to expect it; she knew all there was that Rune had been able to put into words about the effect the Ghost had on people. She had paid very close attention to that story each time Rune had told it, because even before she had ever met Jonny or had learned that she, too, had the gift of Bardic Magic at her disposal, she had intended to come to Skull Hill one day.

Not just because she was determined to prove_if only to herself_that what Rune could do, she could duplicate. No, that was the easy answer, the one she thought Jonny would best understand.

Robin had spent her life in the pursuit of answers for the questions that plagued her. The story of the Ghost had created more questions for her than answers, and had powerfully aroused her curiosity. What was this spirit, anyway? The impression she'd gotten from Rune was that it was not, and never had been, human. So what was it? Was it really a spirit at all, or something more like an Elf, except that it was both more limited and more powerful? If it was a spirit, then why was a spirit bound to Skull Hill? And if it was the spirit of some creature that had not been human when alive, then what had brought a nonhuman creature here, to the heart of a human kingdom, and what had bound its spirit here after death?

And why was it killing people with fear? Rune's story made it very clear that the Ghost was deliberately trying to murder his victims; the deaths that had occurred were as a result of the Ghost's deliberate use of his powers to kill. By that definition it was a murderer.

But the fact that he_it_had also let Rune "buy" her way free with her music implied that the Ghost could spare people when it chose to do so. The things it had said implied that it was not free to leave. Those implications only opened up a horde of questions so far as Robin was concerned.

Before she had ever met Jonny, curiosity had driven her to do things and go places when nothing else would have. Questions would burn inside her until they found an answer. Talaysen often said it was her greatest strength and her greatest weakness, and she didn't see any reason to disagree. But her curiosity had gotten her information that might never have come into the hands of the Free Bards or the Gypsies otherwise, and many times, that information had been important to their survival.

This time both intuition and curiosity had combined forces. This is important, that was the message she was getting from both. She didn't get many "hunches," and she tried hard to follow them whenever she did; they were right more often than they were wrong.

She kept the lantern over her head to keep her eyes from becoming dazzled by the light, and led the horses up the untidy, long-neglected track It wasn't as overgrown as she would have expected, though; no bushes or trees, only weeds, and those looked sickly and were no taller than her calf, even after a summer's worth of growth. She knew what that meant; there was a road underneath this track, one of the Old Roads, the ones no one knew how to build anymore. If she got out a shovel and dug, she knew she would hit the hard surface of one of the roadways that dated back to the Cataclysm; it would be a lightless black substance, like stone but yielding, like tar but much harder. Nothing could grow through it; that was why there was nothing growing on this track but short weeds. The earth and loam that had covered this road couldn't be more than an inch or so thick; just enough for grass and weeds to take root in. There would be no cracks or imperfections in it, unless she came to a place where an earthquake had split it, or the edge of a Cataclysm-boundary, where it would be cut off as if by a giant knife.

The Old Roads usually connected two or more important places_or at least, places that had been important before the Cataclysm. There were often ruins along them. The Deliambrens always wanted to know about Old Roads, so the Gypsies kept track of the ones they ran across. Did Harperus know this one was here?

Probably not. Whatever this segment had connected before, it certainly connected nothing of any import now. Gradford was a very minor city-state despite its pretentions otherwise, and what was Westhaven? Nothing, full of nobodies. A dead-end, dying, and not even aware it was in its death-throes. Too stupid to know that its days were numbered.

The only thing that makes it important is that Rune came from there, Gwyna thought cynically, thinking of the women in the marketplace and the three bullies they had left damaged. Of course, she had_she hoped_inflicted some emotional damage on the women who deserved it, with her descriptions of Rune's fame and prosperity. I hope that hen-faced bitch is so envious of Rune that she chokes on her dinner. I bet she's the one that set those bullies on us. I hope she nags her husband about silk gowns and carriages until he beats her senseless. I hope that fool I scared into incontinence is her husband, and I scared him into impotence as well! She kept her feral snarl to herself. Vindictive? Oh, a tad.

She knew better than to say any of this out loud. Jonny, bless his sweet little heart, was not vindictive. He believed that concentrating on revenge simply reduced you to the level of your persecutors. Gwyna believed in an old Gypsy proverb: Get your revenge in early and often. You might not have another chance.

Maybe that was why the Ghost fascinated her so. Was he somehow working out some bizarre scheme for revenge? If so, on who, and why? Was he choosing to let some people by, people they never even heard of because they were unaware that they had been in any danger at all?

Or was he a strange revenant from the distant past, from the time when this Old Road had been in use? Could something have called him up out of that past to haunt this stretch of roadway? Could his reasons and motives, or need for revenge, be buried so far in the past they no longer had any relevance?

Or if this creature was strange enough, could they even understand his reasons, much less his motives?

An owl called up above her, and she sighed. No point in following that line of speculation. He had to be understandable; there was no point in this, otherwise.

Well, he's enough like us to enjoy our music.

The track grew steeper, and she felt the strain in her calf muscles. Too bad she couldn't ride, but if she let the horses try to pick their own way, they might get hurt. She glanced back at Jonny; he was watching all around them, nervously expecting the Ghost to pop up at any moment.

She didn't think that was likely; the Ghost and things like him often picked specific times to appear. Sunset, midnight, moonrise, or moonset seemed to be the most often chosen. Since people had been caught out on this track by the spirit after dark, not knowing that it was there, and since Rune had climbed Skull Hill without seeing the Ghost and had to actually wait for it to appear, Robin guessed that it probably appeared at midnight or moonrise. Tonight the two would be almost simultaneous; midnight and moon-rise within moments of each other.

And they would be at the top long before either. There would be plenty of time to rest her aching legs and eat a little. Time enough to park the wagon and ready the instruments. Time to think about what they were going to play, what they were going to say. Everything needed to be perfect for this performance.

After all, it was going to be the performance of a lifetime... and it had better be the best performance of their lives. She had the feeling that the Ghost would not accept anything less.

"You might as well eat something," Robin observed, biting into her bread-and-cheese with appreciation. Mother Tolley did, indeed, make very good bread; firm and sweet, with a chewy crust. About the only thing good in that whole town, she decided. Unless Annie Cook's skills match Rune's memory. The tasty bread settled into her stomach comfortably, and she took another bite.

"C-c-can't," Jonny replied, nervously fingering the tuning-pegs on his harp as he watched the shadows for any sign of the Ghost. There was nothing, and had been nothing since they had parked the wagon here. And if Rune's story was accurate, there would be plenty of warning when the Ghost did arrive; it was not going to sneak up on them when they weren't looking. Likes to make an impressive entrance. I wonder if it was an actor once?

They were at the very top of the hill, with the slash of the road going right across the clearing at the very peak. As overcast as it was, even with the lamp burning, you couldn't see a thing beyond the darker forms of trees and shrubbery against the slightly lighter sky. A cool breeze blew across the clearing, but it held no hint of moisture, and no otherworldly scent of brimstone or the fetor of the grave, either.

Robin shrugged as she caught Jonny's eye. "This would steady your stomach," she suggested. "It's going to be a long time until dawn. You're going to need a little sustenance before the night is over."

"I g-guess s-so," he said, after another long moment. But he groped after her hand, then seized the slice of bread-and-cheese she handed him without looking at it, and wolfed it down without tasting it, his eyes never leaving the clearing in front of their wagon.

With the help of the lantern, Gwyna thought she'd identified Rune's rock_that is, the one Rune had been sitting on when the Ghost appeared to her. They had parked the wagon with the tail of it facing that rock and the clearing in front of it. She figured it was the most likely place for the Ghost to manifest. Now it was just a matter of waiting.

Jonny was not taking the waiting well. He was as tight as a harp strung an octave too high, and if she hadn't seen him in crisis situations and known that he handled them well and settled once the crisis was upon them, she'd have been very worried about his steadiness.

Her stomach was fluttery_hence the bread-and-cheese_and her shoulders were tight. But her senses seemed a hundred times sharper than usual, and everything happened with preternatural slowness. She heard every cricket clearly and knew exactly where it was; she knew where the owls were hooting, and about how far away they were. She felt the breeze across her skin like a caress; she tasted the bitter tannin of dead leaves, the promise of frost in the air. All of it was very immediate, and very vivid.

She wanted this to happen; she had not felt so alive for weeks. That was what performance nerves did to her; she'd felt exactly like this when they'd gone in to confront Jonny's uncle, King Rolend. Afterwards, she might shake and berate herself for doing something so risky_but now, there was only the chill tingle of anticipation and_

And the moon was rising!

She caught the barest hint of it, a mere sliver of silver at the horizon, before it was covered by the clouds. But that was enough_and enough to tell her that the chill tingle she felt along her nerves was not anticipation. It was something else entirely.

Magic? The crickets!

The crickets stopped chirping abruptly, with no warning. They had not faded away; no, they had stopped entirely, leaving behind a hollow and empty silence that seemed louder than a shout. The breeze dropped into a dead calm.

Then, in the very next moment, a wind howled up out of nowhere, just as Rune had described, a wind carrying the chill of a midwinter ice-storm. It flattened their clothing to their bodies and if Robin had not taken the precaution of binding her hair up for travel, it would have blinded her with her own tresses. This was not a screaming wind_no, this wind moaned. It sounded alive, somehow, and in dire, deadly, despairing pain. A hopeless wind, a wind that was in torment and not permitted to die. A tortured wind, that carried the instruments of its own torture as lances of ice in its bowels.

It whirled around them for a moment, mocking their living warmth with deathly cold, as they huddled instinctively close together on the wagon-tail. There was more than physical cold in this wind; the hair on her arms rose as she realized that this wind also carried power. Not a power she recognized, but akin to it. The antithesis of healing-power... malignant, bitterly envious, and full of hate. The horses were utterly silent, and when she looked back at them, she saw them shaking, sides slick with the sweat of fear, and the whites of their eyes showing all around.

She didn't blame them. Now, now that it was far too late, she realized what an incredibly stupid thing she had done. Whatever had made her think she could bargain with this thing? This wasn't a spirit_it was a force that was a law unto itself. She shook with more than cold, she trembled with more than fear. She had walked wide-eyed into a trap. Her own confidence had betrayed her. Her guts clenched, and her throat was too tight to swallow; her mouth dry as dust and her heart pounding.

The wind spun out and away from them; in the blink of an eye it swirled out into the clearing, gathering up every dead leaf and bit of dust with it. In a moment it had formed into a column, a miniature tornado, swaying snakelike in the middle of the clearing.

There were eyes in that whirlwind; not visible eyes, but something in there watched her. She felt those eyes on her skin, felt them studying her and searching for weaknesses, hating her, hating Jonny, hating even the inoffensive horses. Hating every living thing, because they were alive and it was not.

She couldn't take her eyes off the whirlwind, and Rune's description quite vanished from her mind. All she could think of were the words of the song.

...then comes a wind that chills my blood And makes the dead leaves whirl....

But the song had said nothing about how the leaves glowed with a fight of their own. Nor about the closing in of malignant power as it surrounded her and increased until it choked her.

Each leaf glowed in a distinctive shade of greenish-white, the veins a brighter white against the shape of the leaf, somehow calling to mind things rotting, things unhealthy. The leaves pulled together within the center of the whirlwind, forming a solid, irregular shape in the middle of the whirling wind and dust, a shape that was thicker at the bottom than the top, with a suggestion of a cowl crowning it all.

The shape grew more distinct by the moment as the wind whipped faster and faster until the individual leaves vanished into a glowing blur. Then the odd shape at the top of the column was a cowl, and the entire form was that of a hooded and robed figure, somehow proportioned in such a way that there was never any doubt that this thing was not, and had never been, human.

Exactly as Rune had described.

... rising up in front of me, a thing like shrouded Death....

Oh, it looked like Death in his shroud, all right_worse, it felt like Death. The wind died; it had, after all, done its work and was no longer needed. Robin had never felt so cold, or so frightened. Her heart seemed lodged somewhere in her throat, and her fingers were frozen to her instrument_

It's doing this, not you! The thought came sluggishly, up through a thick syrup of fear. This thing is making you afraid! Didn't you feel the power? Fight it! Fight it, or you won't be able to speak! And if you can't speak, you can't bargain, and you certainly can't sing!

With the thought came determination; with the determination and the sheer, stubborn will came the realization that the fear was coming from outside her! She clenched her jaw as momentary anger overcame the fear_

_and broke it!

It was gone, all in that instant, and once broken, the spell of fear did not return. She sat up straighter; she was free! Her stomach unknotted; her heart slowed. Her throat cleared, and she was able to breathe again.

The last of the leaves settled around the base of the robe. The figure within that robe was thin and dreadfully attenuated; if it had been human, it would have been nothing but bone, but bone that had been softened and stretched until the skeleton was half again the height of the average human male. Elongated. That was the description she was searching for. And yet, there was nothing fragile about this thing. The cowl turned towards them, slowly and deliberately, and there was a suggestion of glowing eyes within the dark shadows of the hood.

The voice, when the thing spoke, came as something of a surprise. Robin had expected a hollow, booming voice, like the tolling of a death-bell. Instead, an icy, spidery whisper floated out of the darkness around them, as if all the shadows were speaking, and not the creature before them.

"How is it"_it whispered_"that you come here? Not one, but two musicians? Have you not heard of me, of what I am, of what I will do to you?"

Robin felt the pressure of magic all around her, as the Ghost tried to fill her with fear and make her flee. But the fear failed to touch her; she sensed only the power, and not the emotion the Ghost sought to use against her. So it did not know she had broken its spell!

Time to enlighten it.

"Of course we have heard of you!" she said, clearly and calmly. "The whole world has heard of you! Listen _"

Her fingers picked out the introduction to "The Skull Hill Ghost." And she began to sing.

I sit here on a rock, and curse my stupid, bragging tongue,

And curse my pride that would not let me back down from a boast

And wonder where my wits went, when I took that challenge up

And swore that I would go and fiddle for the Skull Hill Ghost!

As she sang, she exerted a little magic of her own; warm and loving magic, Bardic Magic and Gypsy magic and the magic of one true lover for another. She sent it, not at the Ghost, but at Kestrel, all of it aimed at breaking the spell of fear that held Jonny imprisoned in his icy silence as she had been imprisoned a moment before.

The warmth must have reached him, for as she reached the chorus, he shook himself, and suddenly his harp joined the jaunty chords of her gittern as his voice joined hers in harmony.

I'll play you high, I'll play you low

For I'm a wizard with my bow

For music is my weapon and my art_

And every note I fling will strike your heart!

That was a change from the original wording of Rune's contest-song; more of a metaphor for the life-and-death battle she had waged to save herself from the Ghost and a life of grim poverty than the original chorus had been.

Robin continued in the "Rune" persona, with Kestrel coming in with the Ghost's first line_in a cunning imitation of the Ghost's own voice.

"Give me reason why I shouldn't kill you, girl!"

She watched her audience of one as closely as she had ever watched any audience; had she seen the spirit start with surprise at hearing his own words?

She responded as Rune.

"I've come to fiddle for you, sir _"

Kestrel came in_and again, his voice was not a booming and spectral one, as Wren usually sang the part, but in that deliberate imitation of the Ghost's true disembodied whisper.

"_Oh have you so?

Then fiddle, girl, and pray you fiddle well,

For if I like your music, then I'll let you live to play_

But if you do not please my ears I'll take you down to Hell!"

The cowl nodded, ever so slightly. And the pressure of magic eased off.

Now Robin concentrated on the music, and not the Ghost. She had his attention. Now she must keep it.

The song was a relatively short one, meant for a Faire audience that might not linger to hear an extended ballad. The last verse came up quickly.

At last the dawnlight strikes my eyes, I stop and see the sun_

The light begins to chase away the dark and midnight cold_

And then the light strikes something more, I stare in dumb surprise_

For where the Ghost once stood there is a heap of shining gold!

Then she and Kestrel swung into a double repeat of the last chorus, laughing and triumphant.

I'll play you high, I'll play you low

For I'm a wizard with my bow

And music is my lifeblood and my art

And every note I sing will tame your heart!

They finished with a flourish worthy of Master Wren himself. The Ghost regarded them from under his hood with a speculation and surprise that Robin felt, just as she had felt the fear he had tried to force on her.

"Well," it whispered, the voice now coming from beneath that cowl and not from every shade and shadow in the clearing. "So, the little fiddler girl survived. Did she thrive as well as survive?"

There was more than a little interest in that question. And not a hint of indifference. He remembered Rune, and he wanted to know about her.

"She continues to thrive, sir," Robin said boldly. "Your silver bought her lessons and instruments, and brought her to the Kingsford Faire and the Free Bards. She got a Master from the Free Bards, and then more than a Master, for she wedded him and earned her title of Master and of Elf-Friend as well. They sing for a King now, and wander no more."

"A good King, I am sure," came the return whisper. "She would settle for naught else, the bold child who dared my hill." Then amazingly, something that sounded like a hint of chuckle emerged from beneath the cowl. "It is, I trow, hard to find a rhyme for 'silver'_and that 'heap of shining gold' tells me why, on a sudden, a fool or two a year has come to dig holes in my hill when they never did before."

"And they f-f-find?" Jonny asked, boldly.

"Rocks. And, sometimes, me." Again the chuckle, but this time it chilled and had no humor in it. Once again, she sensed the power coiled serpentlike behind him, a power that quickened to anger at very little provocation. So before he had time to be angered at the song, at them, she spoke.

"Sir, we came to ask a bargain of our own. Not gold or silver or even gems _"

She was the entire focus of the Ghost's gaze now; the antithesis of the tropical sun, it fell upon her and froze her in a silence of centuries. Or tried. It was at that moment the Ghost must have realized she was not caught in his web of terror, for the spirit straightened a little in what looked very like surprise. "What_bargain?" it said at last.

"We will tell you anything you care to ask, in as much detail as you wish, if we know the answers," she said, faintly, from beneath the weight of that gaze. "We will sing and play for you until dawn, as Rune did. Information and entertainment, and in return _"

The frigid pressure of his regard deepened. "In return_what? Besides your lives, of course. You have not_yet_earned those."

She tried to answer, and could not. For a moment she struggled in panic, knowing that if she did not answer, he could and would use that as the only "excuse" he needed to take her, Kestrel_

"F-free p-passage f-for G-G-G-Gypsies and F-F-Free B-B-B-Bards," Kestrel stammered, forcing the words out for her, fighting his stutter as she fought the Ghost's compulsion. The Ghost's cowl moved marginally as his gaze transferred to Kestrel and the pressure holding her snapped.

"Exactly," she said, quickly, into the ominous silence. "Free and unmolested passage across your Pass at any time of the day or night for Gypsies and Free Bards. Including us, of course. That's all." She remembered now something else that Rune had said_that the Ghost had heard her tale of being harassed and plagued, and then had said that he and she might have more in common than she guessed. "We're something less than popular with the Church right now," she added, and had the reward of seeing the cowl snap back to point at her. "And with the Bardic Guild. We sing a little too much of the truth, and we don't hide what we know for the sake of convenience. We might need _"

"An escape route?" the Ghost hissed, and nodded. "Yes. I can see that."

He stood wrapped in weighty, chilling silence for a long time. She studied him, trying to determine what his race was_or had been. He matched nothing she had ever seen or heard of. Too tall for a Deliambren, a Gazner, or a Prilchard. No place under that robe for the wings of a Haspur_

"I am_astonished," the Ghost whispered at last. "To dare me and my power simply to assure your friends of an escape route in case of danger_to dare me!" He did not breathe, but he paused for as long as it would take someone to take a deep breath. "Yes. I will make that bargain. With a single exception."

Exceptions? Why would he have to have exceptions? Her eyes narrowed with speculation and suspicion.

The Ghost returned her gaze, but this time without the pressure of his magic behind it. "I must have the exception," he said, simply. "I am_bound to a task, as I am bound to this place."

Now she sensed the full scope of the terrible power of his anger; once, long ago, she had been in the presence of a dreadful weapon of what the Deliambrens called interstellar warfare. This interstellar thing was something they could not explain to her, but she had sensed, nevertheless, the shattering potential for destruction encased within the metal pod-skin of the object they showed her. The Ghost's anger felt like that; like the moment before the storm is about to break, when the earthquake is about to strike, when some force too large for a mere human to comprehend is about to be unleashed.

And yet, it was not directed at her.

No_no, his anger is for those who have bound him here. May their gods help them if he ever does get free!

"If your Gypsies and Free Bards are not sent here from Carthell Abbey, they may pass," he continued, in his ice-rimed whisper. "But if they are sent, I have no choice. I_am bound to slay anyone who is sent from the Abbey. Any other, I shall let pass, freely. This is the bargain; take it, or not. Fear not for yourselves; I shall let you pass without your music if you choose not to take it."

She looked at Kestrel out of the corner of her eye; he nodded slightly. It was the best they were likely to get; the Ghost was giving a pledge within the limits of his ability to fulfill it. Kestrel sensed that as well as she did.

"Done," she said. "I won't hold you to something you can't promise."

The Ghost nodded, ever so slightly, but the atmosphere suddenly warmed considerably, physically as well as emotionally. Although he did not "sit," she felt a relaxation about him, and the chill breeze that had swept through the clearing vanished, to be replaced by a breeze as comfortable as any of early fall, with a hint in it of false summer.

"I should have given this small comfort to the fiddler girl, had I recognized her bravery and honesty," the Ghost whispered, as Jonny took her hand for a brief, congratulatory squeeze. "But she was the first I had ever seen who deserved that consideration, so perhaps it is not surprising I did not recognize this until after she was gone. So_tell me first of her, in more detail. And of her song...."

She almost smiled at that, and caught herself just in time. So, he likes being famous as well as any living being! Well, I think I can oblige him.

She told him Rune's history, or at least as much of it as she knew, from the moment that Rune had left Skull Hill. How she had put his money to proper use, investing it in instruments and lessons, how she had gone to Kingsford Faire to take part in the trials for the Bardic Guild_

How her song of the "Skull Hill Ghost" had won her acclaim and the highest points in the trials_

How the Guild had treated her when they learned she was a girl and not a boy.

That made him angry again; interesting how she could sense his moods now, as if he had let down some sort of wall, or she had become more sensitive. She pitied the next Guildsman, Bard or Minstrel, that might pass this way by accident! He would take out his anger at what they had done to "his" fiddler girl on any of the Guild that came into his hands.

She went hastily on to describe how the Free Bards had rescued her, and what had happened to her then. He asked her detailed questions about Talaysen, Master Wren_and about King Rolend and her position in Birnam. She sensed his satisfaction in the rewarming of the emotional atmosphere.

"Good," he whispered at last. "Very good. I am pleased. Despite her enemies, she has triumphed. Despite fools, she has prospered." He nodded, and the crickets began to sing again, down the hill at first, then up around the clearing. He turned his cowl towards Kestrel. "Now music," he continued. "You, harper. Something with life in it. Warmth. The sun."

Kestrel nodded without speaking, and set his hands to the strings of his harp. As always, he was lost in his music within the first few bars, and as always, he invoked Bardic Magic without any appearance of effort. Robin wondered if he realized what he was doing; the Magic that he called was mild, harmless, and did nothing more than invoke a mood. In this case, in performing a sweet child's song about a mountain meadow, he enhanced it with a mood of sunny innocence.

The Ghost either did not notice, or else since it was not threatening, he simply ignored it. Probably the latter; Robin had the feeling he noticed everything.

As Jonny played, she paid careful attention to the flow and flux of powers about them all. About halfway through the song, she knew that there was a pattern to those flows... and near the end, she knew what it was.

She had a suspicion when he agreed to the bargain that the Ghost would take power from them, through the music, through the Bardic Magic he hoped they would invoke. And it looked as if she was half right; but only half. He was not stealing their power, nor pulling it in. It was as if they were campfires, and he was basking in the warmth they produced. Taking nothing, only enjoying what flowed to him naturally.

But she sensed something else as well. This benign enjoyment was the reverse side of something much, much darker. That was the side that his victims saw, the icy chill to the warmth... as he stole their life-force along with their life.

He chose a Gypsy love song from Robin next; she hid a grin, because she had the feeling he was hoping she'd sing something at and for Kestrel. Well, he would get that_but not just yet. Instead, she sang a song of a night of celebration and tangled lovers who could not make up their minds over who was going to pair off with who, until in the end, everyone ended up sleeping alone, for that night at least! She got the definite impression that her audacity pleased him, and that the song itself amused him.

"Tell me what this quarrel is that the Church has with your kind," he whispered, as soon as she had finished. "How did you come to this conclusion, and what are you doing to remedy it? All that you know, tell."

She found herself recounting what Nightingale had told them, what she and Kestrel had seen, and Harperus' speculations. He listened silently to all of this, not prompting her by so much as a single word, as she concluded with what she and Jonny were doing_heading to Gradford on the chance that the source of the problem lay in that direction, while Nightingale went in the opposite direction. The anger was back again, but this time she could not imagine what had invoked it. She was only glad that it hadn't been any of their doing.

"I think"_the Ghost began, after a cricket-filled silence_"your searches are like to bear more fruit than hers."

But before she could follow up that astonishing bit of information with a question of her own, he had already demanded a ballad "with free wind in it" from Kestrel.

He obliged with one of the Gypsy horse-trainers' racing songs, and by the time he had finished she knew without asking that question_how he knew that Gradford was the direction they must go_that the Ghost would only give them what he chose to in the way of information. It would be enigmatic, they would probably only understand what he meant after they discovered answers for themselves. And he was much too dangerous to play games with, verbal or otherwise.

So when he asked her again for a love song, this time she played one of her own, made for Jonny, and put her whole heart into it.

"I think," the Ghost said, tilting his cowl up towards the eastern sky, "that it is not long until dawn."

Gwyna shook soreness out of her weary arms; this had taken a lot more energy than she had ever suspected, and if she felt this way with Kestrel and talk to spell her, how had poor Rune ever survived her night of playing?

"I did not lend my strength to you as I did to the fiddler girl," the Ghost said, matter-of-factly, as if he had just read her mind. Perhaps he had; she would not place anything beyond him at this point, and she was very glad that they had both chosen to tell him only the strict and complete truth when he had asked his questions about the outside world. His interrogation had been fascinating to experience; things he had wanted to know, he wanted to know in depth, and things she had assumed he would be curious about, he cared nothing for.

But those things he wished to know_his questioning left her feeling like a rag that had been used to soak up something, then wrung dry. He not only extracted information from her, but as the night went on, he became more and more adept at extracting her feelings about something from her. She was not certain of his motives. It might only be that he had wished to feel things, if only vicariously. It might be he extracted some nourishment from emotions, which might also explain why he killed through terror. It might also be that for some reason he needed to understand if she felt strongly about something, and why.

"You did not need that strength," he continued. "There were two of you, and you did not play continuously. So. Dawn approaches. Your bargain is complete. You have given as you pledged, and fully. I shall pledge likewise. From this moment, all Gypsies and Free Bards that are not sent from Carthell Abbey may pass this way freely." He cocked his head a little sideways. "I may appear, and request a song_but it shall be a request."

Kestrel blew on his fingers to cool them, and echoed the Ghost's head-pose. "I th-think s-such a req-q-quest would b-be honored," he said dryly.

There was a whispered chuckle from the Ghost. "You need not give them identifying marks," the spirit continued_which was something that had been in Gwyna's mind. "Such things can be stolen or counterfeited. I shall know them from their thoughts."

She didn't bother to hide her start of surprise. So he could read thoughts!

"On occasion," he whispered, and there was a hint of humor in his voice. And perhaps, a touch of smugness. "You have been generous in your bargain. I shall be as generous. Spend the morn in safety here, if you wish, or go on. Nothing shall molest you or disturb you while you sleep. My choice of manifestation is my own, for their compulsions were limited in nature_and if I choose to expend myself, the daylight need not hinder my powers _"

And with that final astonishing pronouncement, he disappeared_just as the first light of the dawn-red sun touched the precise spot on which he had been standing just the moment before.

The sunlight glinted on something metallic.

It was Kestrel who climbed down from the tail of the wagon, placed his harp carefully on the floor of the wagon, and walked stiffly across the sun-gilded weeds to the spot that shone with such bright and promising glints.

"Well," he said, carefully, looking down at the small mound. "It's s-s-silver. J-just l-like R-R-Rune's."

She let out the breath she had been holding, and rubbed her tired eyes. "He said he was going to be generous."

Kestrel tilted his head to one side, and dropped down to sit on his heels beside the pile of coins. "S-so l-let's s-see how g-g-generous, shall w-we?"

She yawned hugely, and blinked at the morning sun. "I can't think of any better way to relax before a good long sleep. Can you?"

He shook his head, and stole a kiss from her as soon as she joined him. Then the two of them knelt down beside the pile of coins that the Ghost had left as their personal reward. They counted with one hand each; their other two hands were clasped together lovingly.

CHAPTER EIGHT

Robin woke to the sounds of birdsong and the soft whistling of a human. She knew by the absence of a warm body next to her that she was alone in the bed; but since the whistling was nearby, she was not alone in the wagon. After a moment, the sound of creaking and tapping told her what was going on.

Kestrel was caching the silver coins in little hiding places all over the wagon. All Gypsy wagons had a few hidden caches for valuables, but none had so many as this one; while it was being built he'd been with the wagonwrights every day, planning hiding places everywhere it was possible to cache even a single tiny copper-piece. Robin knew where some of the caches were, but she hadn't a clue where he hid most of the money they had.

I think he does it so I can't spend it or give it all away, she thought with amusement. Probably not a bad idea; sometimes I get a little too generous, I suppose. And I know I get a little too spendthrift when I know we have the money.

Those days when he had not had even regular meals made him more cautious about money and lean times than even old Erdric, so she could hardly blame him. It was just something she was going to have to learn to live with.

She stretched, enjoying the rare luxury of having the bed to herself for a moment, and opened her eyes to stare up at the intricate carving on the underside of the cupboard over the bed. A nice touch, that. It was a sinuous form called "The Endless Knot" that was supposed to aid in concentration and relaxation if you followed it with your eyes long enough.

The encounter with the Ghost had given her more than she had hoped. They had the monetary reward, completely unexpected_and they had the safe-route across these hills for their people and theirs alone. Provided, of course, that none of their people managed to have themselves sent here from Carthell Abbey.

Therein lay the puzzle that kept her lying abed. Carthell Abbey? Now what in the name of all that is holy could Carthell Abbey have to do with a murderous Ghost? The Church had never dealt with ghosts at all, except to exorcise them; at least not that she had ever heard.

Well, the obvious answer was a simple one. The Church officials knew that the Ghost had been bound up on the Hill, and they used him, rather callously, as their convenient executioner. The Church was supposed to remand criminals to the civil authorities for trial and punishment, but everyone knew that a criminal Priest was dealt with within the Church itself. And in using the Ghost as their executioner, the Church kept its hands officially clean of blood. Cynical, yes, but the Church was full of cynics.

An obvious answer, except for a few problems. The first was that the minions of the Church should have been under spiritual obligation to exorcise the Ghost once they learned he was here_not use him! Especially since he had managed to kill one perfectly innocent Priest already, at least according to Annie Cook.

Well, maybe they did try to exorcise him and that was how the Priest was killed. Maybe they figured since they couldn't be rid of him, they might as well use him. The Church employs other executioners, after all_this would just be one rather strange executioner.

Maybe. But if the Church was using this spirit, they were definitely under moral obligation to warn travelers about his existence! Yet there were no warning signs, and nothing telling a traveler that this was a dangerous road. There was no guard on the way up Skull Hill. What few warnings there were, at least on the Westhaven side, were haphazard at best. If the people of Westhaven had been charged with warning travelers, they were doing a damn poor job of it.

That brought everything back to the same question. Why would the Church have anything to do with a spirit like the Ghost? They should do any number of things that they had not; and should not be doing any number of things that they were.

She rolled over and poked her nose through the curtains on the wagon-side of the bed. Jonny was fitting a small pile of silver coins_the last, from the look of things_into the hem of the curtain above the sink. That was one of the caches she already knew about, and as he caught the sound of the bed creaking, he turned and grinned at her.

"All hidden?" she asked. He nodded.

"Its ab-bout noon," he told her. "If w-we move out n-now, w-we should b-be at the Abbey b-by sunset."

She nodded, and swung her legs down over the side of the bed, pushing the bed-curtains back to either side. "And you think we should go there. You think that we might find something out about this vendetta the Church seems to have with us?" she asked, as her bare feet hit the wooden floor with a dull thump.

He handed her a wooden comb, and cut bread and cheese while she washed her face and dealt with the tangle of her hair. "Th-the Gh-ghost made a p-point of m-mentioning it," he said, thoughtfully. "L-like he c-couldn't t-talk about s-something, b-but w-was trying t-to g-give us a c-clue."

"Hmm." She accepted bread-and-cheese with a nod of thanks. "There is something very strange going on here," she observed. "Do you remember, when I was describing how Nightingale went off towards Kingsford and I said we were looking towards Gradford, he said that we were likelier to find the source of our troubles than she was?"

'"M-more l-likely to b-bear fruit,' he said," Kestrel agreed. "I d-don't know whether he m-meant the Abbey or G-Gradford, b-but I th-think we n-need to s-stop at the Abbey."

"It's a start," Gwyna replied, popping the last of her breakfast into her mouth, and licking a crumb of cheese from her thumb. "You know the proverb. 'Soonest begun, is soonest done.' Right?"

Kestrel kissed her nose, and gave her a playful shove in the direction of the drivers seat. As she crawled over the bed, she saw that he had already harnessed the horses, and turned the wagon so that it faced down the hill.

"Right" he agreed. "And y-you d-drive! I w-was up early, and I n-need a n-n-nap!"

Jonny had learned long ago the art of sleeping in odd places and under adverse conditions. A swaying, jostling wagon was no impediment to his drifting off to sleep. He had expected nightmares, or at the least, dreams troubled by the Ghost, but he slept deeply and soundly, and there was nothing to trouble his sleep. He woke shortly before suppertime.

He exchanged places with Gwyna, driving while she rummaged around in their stores for something for them both to eat that was not bread-and-cheese. While he recalled only too well the days when he would have been happy to eat bread-and-cheese for a month running, those days were in the past, and if he had a choice, well, the same food for three meals in a row was not going to be his choice.

This was true wilderness, except for the occasional sheep-farm, and by the rocky condition of the hillsides, he wasn't too surprised. Soil here was too thin to farm or graze; basically the only growing things keeping these hillsides from being completely barren were specialized plants suited to driving their roots into rock and holding tight. Two or three kinds of trees, wiregrass, lichen, moss, and some tough bushes; that was about it. Small wonder there were no people out here_the Ghost was hardly to blame for the condition of the land.

Funny, he thought. Somehow, though, this looks like land that's been worn out, as if people were here a long time ago, but exhausted the soil so much that it couldn't support anything but this wilderness again.

Well, that could be. Alanda was a strange world, and there were places in it like this, side-by-side with rich and virgin land, or a place like the stronghold of the Deliambrens. Maybe there had been people here, just after the Cataclysm_and maybe they had depended heavily on things coming from far outside because they had depleted their own land so much. And after the Cataclysm, when "outside" wasn't there anymore_they had died off, or gone elsewhere, leaving behind the land to recover on its own.

He shook himself out of his reverie as Gwyna reappeared with dinner for both of them. Speculation about the past was all very well, but at the moment he was perfectly willing to put such thoughts aside to concentrate on driving and dinner.

It was to be bread again, but this time with sausage, and an apple apiece. They thriftily saved out the seeds to be given to the owner of the next Waymeet; every Waymeet had some sort of orchard, planted from the seeds the Gypsies brought with them. So you might find apple trees growing side-by-side with Deliambren pares, Mintak tiers, and Likonian severins. Quite often fruits thought to be delicate turned out to thrive in unlikely climates, at least under the careful tending of the Gypsies.

"That's the last of the loaf," Robin told him, as she handed him his dinner through the hatchway. "At least we ate it before it went dry. How's the road?"

"Interesting," he replied, taking a bite. "W-well k-kept."

It was, too; one of the reasons why Gwyna hadn't been tossed all over the wagon while he negotiated potholes and pits. The road had been very carefully patched and graded, and that recently.

She poked her head out, then clambered over the ledge into her seat. "You're right!" she exclaimed. "Now why keep up a road that only leads to a dangerous pass and a nothing little village?'

Kestrel shrugged. "D-don't r-read t-t-too much into it," he cautioned her. "C-could j-just b-be the S-Sire d-doing his r-r-road d-duty r-right. After all, w-we w-were j-just c-complaining that th-the last S-Sire wasn't d-doing his d-duty on the r-roads. So n-no p-point in r-reading something into it wh-when th-the S-Sire's a g-good one."

"It could be, you're right." She settled beside him with her arm around his waist, and smiled up at him. He smiled back and caught her hand in his; a small hand, but very strong, with callouses on the fingers where only a musician would have them. A proper hand, to match the proper lady. Just being with her made him feel so warm_needed and wanted.

Being best friends is the only way to be lovers, he decided, as she rested her head against his shoulder. Staying best friends is the only way to be married.

"I th-think the Abbey isn't t-too far," he said, as shadows deepened under the trees, and the skies above the branches turned crimson and gold. "The n-next v-valley, m-maybe."

His guess was correct; as they topped the hill and looked down into the shallow valley stretching below them, it was obvious that they were back in some vestige of civilization. The leafless trees of an orchard lined both sides of the road, immaculately tended. And as the horses stretched their necks out with interest, the sound of bells ringing for evening services drifted clearly up the road.

He flicked the reins to get the horses moving again, for at the sound of the bells they stopped, their ears flicking forward nervously. Long shadows already filled the valley, and as they moved down the hill and went from the last light into evening's mist and blue dusk, the temperature dropped perceptibly. Gwyna huddled against him for warmth as well as companionship, and he shivered as a chill breeze cut through his shirt.

Once they were beneath the trees, they saw the lights of the Abbey shining up ahead of them, at the side of the road. There didn't appear to be any activity at all around it, which was a little odd.

Well, their harvest is obviously over. There's no real reason for anyone to be moving around at sunset, not when they just rang the bells for evening prayers.

The Abbey was fairly small, a complex of two or three buildings surrounded by a stone wall with a heavy wooden gate in the front. Trees grew right up against it, however, and Kestrel could only look at them wryly and remember a certain small boy who had found walls to be no hindrance as long as there were trees nearby. Presumably many generations of novices here had discovered the same truth.

He pulled the wagon up to the gate, handed the reins to Gwyna, and jumped down to knock for admission.

It opened immediately; there was a lantern just outside, and the light fell on a sour-faced Brother in a dull gray robe, who scowled at him as if Kestrel was personally responsible for everything that was wrong with the world. The man had the soft, ink-stained hands of a scholar, and a squint that suggested many hours spent in a library bending over half-legible manuscripts. His mouth was framed with frown lines, and his jowls quivered when he spoke.

"What do you want?" His voice was not pleasant; a harsh and untrained croak. Kestrel smiled encouragingly, and shyly. He tried a ploy that had worked with other officious, self-important men in the past; to look as harmless and humble as possible. This was the one time his stutter might be useful.

He bobbed his head, submissively. "W-we are t-t-travelers, sir, and w-we are s-seeking sh-shelter f-from the c-c-creatures of the n-night w-within the w-walls of the_"

The Brother did not even give him a chance to finish his sentence. "Be off with you!" he growled. "This is no hostel, and we do not take in any ne'er-do-well who comes requesting shelter! This is a holy order of recluses. We have chosen to leave the world and all the sin within it. We sought to leave such as you in our past, not to open our gates to you!".

"B-b-but _" Kestrel began; shocked as well as puzzled by the Gatekeeper's vehemence. He hadn't said or done anything to warrant such a reaction. The man acted as if they were dressed in rags and covered in filth, yet the wagon was quite clearly visible from the gate, and it was just as clear that they were not penniless wanderers. He had never yet met a Churchman who could resist the possibility of a donation.

Except that it seemed this Brother-Gatekeeper most certainly could and would. "Be off!" he repeated, raising his voice. "No one is allowed within these walls but the Brothers. No one! Find yourself some other shelter _vagabonds and mountebanks are not welcome here!"

And before Kestrel could get another word out, the Gatekeeper slammed the gate shut, right in his face.

He turned, slowly, and walked the few steps back to the wagon, to join Gwyna, who was just as surprised as he was. "What was that all about?" she asked, a little dazed. "What on earth made him say those things? Was he quite mad?"

He shrugged. "At l-least he d-d-didn't f-forbid us to c-c-camp up against the w-w-walls," he pointed out. "Th-there m-might b-be a w-w-well or a s-stream where w-we c-can g-get w-w-water."

He took the halter of the horse nearest him and led it off the road, onto the grassy area surrounding the walls of the Abbey, and beyond the circle of light cast into the blue dusk by the lantern beside the gate. Gwyna sat on the seat of the wagon, shaking her head. "I have no idea what could have set him off like that," she observed, dispassionately. "You were the essence of politeness_he was the one who was rude. And every single Abbey I have ever seen or heard of has always been willing to take in a traveler or two, especially in the wilderness like this. This is very strange."

He noticed that she was pitching her voice to carry, as if she was speaking to an audience, and he grinned to himself. If Gwyna had her way, her voice would drift right over the walls and just might reach the ears of someone who cared a little more than the Gatekeeper what a couple of "vagabonds and mountebanks" thought of this Abbey.

On the back side of the walls, he found the rear gate, and the path the Brothers took to the orchards and to a small vegetable garden. There was a well beside the garden, as he had hoped there would be; he picketed the horses a little way away from it, in an area where there was some grazing, and left them water and grain to augment the grass.

As he worked, he took in what he could of the area around the walls. The place was unnervingly ordered, especially in comparison with the country they had just passed through. The garden had been thoroughly plowed up for winter, leaving not a trace of whatever vegetables had been growing there. He had no clue what variety of tree grew in this orchard of theirs; the thrifty monks had left not so much as a windfall fruit underneath them, and without leaves it was impossible to make any accurate guess as to what they were growing here. While he took care of the horses, Gwyna bustled about the wagon, preparing dinner, heating water for washing, setting up a picture-perfect campsite...

Too perfect, he realized after a moment. This was not like the Gypsy Robin he knew! And he grinned again as he saw what she was up to. She was acting in every way like a proper little wife, a well-trained trader's wife who was a good Church-going woman and a lady who knew her proper place. There was nothing to show that they were Gypsies and Free Bards, and not ordinary, middle-class traders. And if the Free Bards were in disfavor with the Church, the traveling traders were not.

So, they would look like traders; industrious, God-worshiping traders, eh? He silently congratulated Gwyna on her cleverness, and did his best to emulate her, right down to shoving their instruments into hiding when he returned to the wagon. Just in case whoever showed up next from the Abbey happened to look inside the wagon.

There would be someone; Gwyna had made certain of that, not only by her words, but by the busy clatter she made with her pots and pans.

But they were left in peace to wash up and eat that hot dinner she had prepared so carefully, and he began to wonder if this Abbey was inhabited by nobody but a single, mad old man. But just as full darkness fell, the expected visitor arrived.

They didn't even notice him, he moved so quietly, with hardly even a swish of his robe against the grass. There were no twigs beneath the branches of these trees to betray him by snapping unexpectedly underfoot; the ground had been swept as clean as the floor in a house. In fact, when the man cleared his throat to announce his presence, he succeeded in startling both of them.

They looked up, to see him standing just within the light of their fire, a thin, diffident man with a pleasant expression and shy eyes. "Oh!" the Brother said, immediately apologetic, and hurrying forward into the light of their fire. "I'm so sorry, I certainly didn't mean to frighten you! I thought you knew I was there! Please, forgive me!"

Kestrel had been sitting beside the fire; he stood immediately, and went to meet the Brother, holding out his hand, which the man took in a firm and friendly clasp. "N-no offense. J-just d-didn't notice you. M-my n-name is J-J-Jonny B-Brede, good s-sir," he said, concentrating on speaking slowly and rhythmically as Harperus had instructed him. "M-my w-wife G-Gwyna and I are t-traders."

"And not vagabonds and mountebanks, I know," the Brother said, pulling back the cowl of his gray robe so that they could better see his ascetic, but friendly face and his apologetic smile. "I hope you will find it in your heart to forgive Brother Pierce; he is old, often ill, and altogether very unhappy. Life has not treated him well. Most of the Brothers here are not like him."

Kestrel returned his smile. "Well, I c-c-can s-see th-that you aren't, at any r-rate... B-Brother... ?"

"Oh! Ah! Brother Reymond, Trader Brede," the Brother replied, his smile widening when Jonny did not meet his friendly overture with a rejection. "I am the Abbey Librarian, and I wanted to apologize for the fact that we simply have no room for you and your wife. That is why Brother Pierce has been instructed to tell travelers we can take no one in. Every cell is occupied, we have no guest rooms, and since our order has taken a vow to use no beast of burden, we have not even a stable you might shelter in. I also wished to be certain that you were warned about the dangers hereabouts."

"Dangers?" Jonny looked around, nonplused. This certainly didn't look like a very dangerous area_

But on the other hand, this Abbey was a small island in the middle of the wilderness. They had been lucky so far; there was no telling what wandered under the branches of these trees once darkness fell.

"I fear so _" Brother Reymond had the grace to look guilty. "Of course, to experienced travelers like you and your wife, these things are likely to be no more than an inconvenience."

"Why don't you tell us what they are, first, before we decide," Gwyna said dryly from her place beside the fire. "Perhaps we ought to move on, after all."

"Oh no!" the Brother said, paling. "No, you don't want to do that! There's a Beguiler about, perhaps more than one! What if it found you on the road?"

Jonny shrugged; that was not a threat he took seriously, since they had a wagon to sleep in. Beguilers couldn't get into a closed wagon. Then I s-suppose we'd d-drown," he replied lightly.

Beguilers were creatures that hypnotized their victims, then lured them into swamps to fall into deep water. Once their victims were safely dead, they feasted on the remains. They cast their "spell" with a combination of sound and light; if you saw them but did not hear them, you were safe enough, and if you heard but did not see them, it was possible to remain in control of yourself. Most often they caught unwary travelers who mistook the light for the lantern of a house or wagon, and were then lulled by the Beguiler's humming to their death. It was not too difficult to evade them, if you knew they were around.

"Oh, don't say that!" Brother Reymond seemed genuinely distressed. "Why, only last week_one of the farm boys hereabouts_not strong in his mind, but still _"

Jonny shook his head apologetically. "I b-beg your p-pardon, B-Brother," he said as quickly as he could. "I d-didn't mean t-to m-make a j-joke of it."

"I know you didn't; how could you have known?" Brother Reymond sighed, and signed himself. "May the poor lad rest in peace. But there are also treekies, an entire flock of them, out in the forest beyond the orchard. I hope you have nets for your horses? If you don't, the Abbey can loan them to you. In that much, at least, we can do our charitable duty."

"With, or without Brother Pierces permission?" Gwyna asked lightly, and chuckled at Brother Reymond's blush. "No matter, Brother, we do have nets and fitted blankets for the horses, and good shutters on the wagon. We should be safe enough, if that is all we need to worry about." She patted the stool next to her. "Can we invite you to stay for a while? The treekies certainly won't come while the lanterns and the fire are burning, and the Beguiler may not come at all tonight. Even if it does, I see no reason why we can't avoid it."

"I would_yes, I would like to speak with you, if you do not mind," Brother Reymond said, shyly. He settled down onto the stool placed between Gwyna's and Jonny's, and accepted a mug of tea, but waved away a bowl of stew. "Thank you, dear lady, but I have supped, and I am not in the least hungered. While your stew smells delicious, our Order regards greed very seriously." He cradled the mug in both hands and smiled at both of them. "I am the Archivist, you see, and I have so little opportunity to speak with outsiders! I try to collect as much information as I can, but _" He shrugged. "My opportunities are few. We do not see many travelers on this road. I can't think why. It is a much shorter route to Gradford than the main trade road, and the Sire tends it well, at least within his lands."

Jonny kept his expression completely under control, but with difficulty. Either this Reymond was the finest actor in the world, or he was completely unaware of the Skull Hill Ghost less than half a day away from here!

"I had heard there was a legend about a haunted hill on this road," Gwyna said casually. "We didn't see anything, of course_but we also traveled between here and Westhaven by daylight. I don't suppose that could have anything to do with the scarcity of travelers?"

Brother Reymond blinked at her in surprise. "I suppose it might," he replied, clearly taken aback. "I should think. But this is the first time I have ever heard anything about a haunted hill!" His expression grew doubtful. "Perhaps the villagers in Westhaven were making a jest at your expense?'

"It c-could b-be," Jonny said, easily. "You kn-know h-how s-s-some of th-these v-v-village f-folk are ab-bout someone w-with an af-f-fliction. I d-do s-stutter. Th-they m-may have th-thought I w-was f-feeble-minded as w-w-well, and ch-chose t-to m-make a f-fool of m-me."

Brother Reymond flushed, averted his eyes in embarrassment, and murmured something appropriate and apologetic. Jonny watched him carefully and became convinced that the Brother was no actor. He really didn't know about the Skull Hill Ghost!

"I d-don't s-suppose th-there m-might b-be s-something in your a-archives?" he added. "I'm c-curious now. It w-would b-be n-nice t-to kn-know if I w-was b-being m-made a g-game of."

"Certainly," Brother Reymond said, after a moment of awkward silence. "I can look, of course. I don't remember anything, but that doesn't mean a great deal." He chuckled with self-deprecation. "My memory is not very good. I make a fine Archivist precisely because of that, you know, for I have to index and cross-index everything, or I would never be able to find a single reference."

Jonny laughed, and refilled the Brothers mug. They continued to chat about some of the things he and Gwyna had seen on the road, and inserted a question now and again about the internal affairs of the Church and the Abbey. They continued to talk for some time_or rather, he gradually turned the conversation so that Gwyna was doing most of the talking, and he could simply listen and look wise. The Brother was certainly a guileless sort, and quite transparently enthusiastic about any new knowledge_but he had no notion of any kind about the internal politics and policies of the Church of the present day. Politics and policies of the Church a hundred years ago, now, he knew quite well, but nothing current. It was fairly obvious why he was here; he was so innocent he would never have survived in one of the larger Church installations. The best and safest place for him was out of the way. In some other Abbey, he was far too likely to overhear something he shouldn't, and repeat it to anyone who cared to ask him about it.

Three mugs of tea later, he finally took his leave with obvious regret. Here in the lee of the Abbey walls, there was very little wind, but from the nip in the air, it had gotten much colder while they talked.

Brother Reymond stood, and sniffed the air. "There will be frost by morning," he said, and sighed. "This seems like such a sad time of year to me_and yet, it is such a pleasant season for the farm-folk! Well, so it is_one man's pleasure is another man's melancholy." Jonny saw Gwyna raise her eyebrow at this unconscious echoing of a Gypsy proverb by a sober scion of the Church, and smiled just a little. "Quite true, Brother Reymond," she said smoothly, accepting the mug he returned to her. "But I can't conceive of anyone finding your conversation unpleasant. Thank you very much for coming out, and proving to us that your fellow Brother is the exception within your walls." Brother Reymond colored up with pleasure, and murmured a shy disclaimer. Jonny had decided after the first mug of tea that he liked the Archivist, as much for his modesty as his eagerness to share knowledge. And if there were more men like him, he thought, as Brother Reymond thanked Gwyna for her hospitality and her tea, the world would be a much better place than it is.

"Don't forget about the treekies," Brother Reymond reminded them over his shoulder, as he hurried away towards the Abbey. "And the Beguiler!"

"We won't!" Gwyna promised. And as soon as Brother Reymond was out of sight, she exchanged a chuckle and a hug with Jonny.

"I like him," she declared. He nodded agreement.

"I d-do, too," he told her. "He's honest."

She didn't answer immediately; instead, she went to one of the storage bins that contained more of the horse-tack, and opened it, taking out carefully constructed horse blankets that covered everything except the ears and legs, then shook out a pair of nets made of wire-wrapped cord. Treekies, the little nocturnal flying beasts that Brother Reymond had warned them about, were more of a pest than anything else, although their attentions could prove fatal to the unwary. Light kept them away, and any material made of mesh too small for their mouths foiled and frustrated them. But if the bloodsuckers caught an animal out, unprotected, or an unwary human, there would be no next generation. They could drain a poor creature of blood completely, without the victim ever waking up.

They were usually creatures of much milder climes than this; it was the first time that Kestrel had ever heard of them being this far north.

"I trust him, Jonny," Gwyna said, as they fitted the horses with their thick, protective blankets, then hung the nets over them to keep the little monsters off the mares' legs and ears. "I really do. I don't think he's ever told more than a handful of lies in his life, and every time he did, I'd bet he gave himself away. He's never heard of the Ghost."

Kestrel nodded, and shrugged. "I c-can't explain it. M-mind, I d-doubt th-the B-B-Brothers are ever allowed out of th-the Abbey. S-so if th-they aren't f-from around here, th-they w-won't kn-know about l-local st-stories. B-but st-still!"

"Still, he should have heard something." She arranged the net over the patient mare's head. "I can't imagine why he wouldn't have. Unless _"

She paused and Kestrel waited.

"_ unless the Abbot was keeping the existence of the Ghost a secret from the Brothers." She raised an eyebrow at Kestrel who had already come to that same conclusion.

"It c-could b-be innocent," he reminded her. "If th-they kn-knew about a Gh-ghost s-so n-near, the d-devout and th-the amb-bitious w-would b-both r-rush t-to t-try t-to ex_ex_g-get r-rid of it."

"Good point," she replied, as they both turned to go back to the shelter of the wagon. "We already know what fate they would have. And those who were neither devout nor ambitious would probably flee in terror. That's quite a reasonable explanation. There's only one problem with it. Remember what the Ghost said? About people being sent from here?"

He did. Only too well. "It st-still st-stands as an explanation," he replied, "j-just n-not as innocent."

"Hmm." She gave him a long look from under her eyelashes, as they climbed into the wagon to fasten down all the shutters. "You aren't as guileless as you look, Jonny Brede."

He grinned. "N-neither are you."

Their night passed with no real disturbance; they heard the Beguiler humming off in the far distance, but it never came anywhere near the Abbey. Eventually they fell asleep without ever hearing anything more sinister than a distant hum, out there in the darkness. Kestrel could not help but be glad that they were not afoot on this journey, however. They might have escaped the Beguiler_or they might not. If it had floated up to their camping spot in the middle of the night and begun singing right over their heads, they might have awakened and been trapped by it before they realized what it was.

No, it was a very good thing that they were traveling by wagon. And if the Beguiler was an example of the kinds of dangers lurking in this wilderness area_well, perhaps they didn't have to look for sinister reasons for the abandonment of this trade-road. Who would want to camp in woods where there were Beguilers and treekies?

But the Abbey should be acting as a traveler's haven and shelter against things like that, came the logical response, just as he drifted off to sleep. Why isn't it? And why did the Ghost say that people were sent from here?

And that brought up yet another question_for Brother Reymond had said that this Abbey was full. Why send so many Brothers to such a remote location? Surely there weren't that many men seeking the solitude of the wilderness, and the purity of a womanless existence!

Kestrel loitered over their morning preparations, hoping that Brother Reymond would be able to get away and speak with them before they left, but it was not to be. Instead, they packed up and took to the road without any sign from within the Abbey walls that there was anything or anyone alive within them. Even the bells ringing for morning services could have been coming from somewhere else.

By mid-morning they had passed out of the true wilderness and had struck the same trade-road that they had left after the Waymeet. The road was broader and better tended here than it had been when they left it; there was quite enough room for two vehicles the size of Harperus' monster to pass on this section of the road, and it was very obvious that the local Sire took his road-tending duties very, very seriously. There was scarcely an uneven place in the roadway, much less one the size of the pothole that had brought their wagon to grief.

Gradford had no Sire; it was a political entity unto itself, although it owed allegiance to the King of Rayden. The inhabitants referred to it as a "city-state," or a "Free Trade City," and it was very nearly the equal of Kingsford in size and importance.

Located deep in the hills, it commanded an impressive number of resources; water, mines, and an advantageous position on a trade-road. The sole disadvantage to its location was the terrain; the hills grew steeper and rockier with every passing hour, and they often got out of the wagon and walked alongside it to spare the horses. These steep grades were very hard on them; going down, holding back the weight of the wagon, was very nearly as wearing for them as climbing.

They were so caught up with watching the mares for strain that it was almost nightfall before Robin noticed a peculiar lack of traffic on the road, and mentioned it to Kestrel.

He furrowed his brow for a moment, and shook his head slightly, but he waited until they took a breather for the horses before he spoke.

"It's f-fall," he pointed out, but with uncertainty. "Its the off-s-season f-for t-trade."

But she shook her head vigorously. "No it isn't!" she contradicted him sharply. "Not for the variety of trade that Gradford does! Oh, maybe the Faires are over for the year, but there should be a lot of people on this road, and there's no one! We haven't seen anyone all day!"

"W-we might not," he told her. "Th-they c-could be r-right ahead of us, and w-we'd n-never s-see them. N-not with all th-these h-hills."

By the look in her eyes, she clearly did not believe him, or his explanation. "W-we'll s-stop at an inn," he promised. "I w-want a r-real m-meal and a b-bath, if w-we c-can g-get one. Y-you'll s-see."

But when they did find an inn_fortuitously, just over the top of the next hill, for the mares needed a real rest_she was not the one who found her notions contradicted.

Robin finished ordering supper, and went hunting her husband. She found Kestrel out in the stable, making certain that the mares were getting all the care he had paid for. She dragged him away from his interrogation of a hapless stable-boy, and into the common room of the inn. Their supper was waiting, but that was not why she had brought him in here.

The dark but cozy common room was half empty, and from the forlorn expressions on the faces of the barkeeper and the serving girls, this was not an anticipated situation. They had been the last travelers to seek shelter here tonight, and most of the few patrons had already had their dinner and sought their rooms or wagons_but she had managed to find one man, at least, who was willing to delay his rest and talk to them in return for a pitcher of beer. The quiet of the common room, holding nothing more than the vague murmur of talk and the crackle of the fire in the fireplace at their end of the room, was relaxing and prompted confidences.

"Kestrel," she said, tugging him towards the table she had taken, in the corner, and away from any other where they might be overheard as they talked. "This is Rodrick Cunart. Rod, this is Kestrel." She did not bother to introduce Jonny as her husband; Rod was a pack-trader, a man whose entire life during trading-season was contained in a single pack carried by a donkey. He knew the road and the life on it; if a Gypsy with a bird-name was wandering the roads with another with a bird-name, it was safe to assume they were "together." And not safe to take liberties.

"Rod trades in books in the north, and ribbons and laces in the south," she continued, as Jonny took his place beside her, and gave Rod a nod of greeting. "And he's going up to Gradford, because of some news he got." She was pleased to see Jonny's interest perk up at that. "I asked him to tell us what's going on up there."

Kestrel settled down to his dinner of shepherd's pie without a word, but his eyes never left Rodrick's. The pack-trader poured himself a mug of his beer and took a long pull of it before beginning.

"It's a good thing yer lady found me," he said, slowly, his accent marking him as coming from one of the Southern Kingdoms. "You bein' Free Bards an' all. It could be bad for ye in Gradford. They've gone religious, they have, an' they don't look well on musickers, 'less they be outa the Church itself. Even Guild is lookin' a bit thin there, these days. Not much trade in anythin' but Church music, an' even the Guild musickers get mortal weary of that. As for us"_he shook his head_"thas' why ye see nobbut on road. 'Tis dead to trade, is Gradford."

Even Robin, who had been expecting some sort of bad news, had not been prepared for so bald a statement. "What happened?" she asked, incredulously, the hearty meal before her entirely forgotten for the moment.

Rodrick finished his first mug of beer before replying. "Its all on account of one Priest," he told them, his eyes thoughtful, as if he was putting things together for himself right there on the spot. "Very persuasive. They say the birds come down offa the trees t' hear his sermons. He was a Count, Count-Presumptive, that is. Count Padrik he woulda been, if he'd waited till his papa died 'fore he joined the Church. But_likely he made the better choice, if ye read him as a man with a bita ambition. He's been a-risin' in the Church like a lark in the mornin'. Fact is, he can't be no older'n me, an' already he's been made High Bishop of Gradford."

Kestrel's brow furrowed. "Isn't th-that a p-p-post th-that g-goes t-to a g-g-graybeard usually?"

Rodrick nodded. "Never heard it go to a man under the age of fifty, that's sure. Well, now he's High Bishop, and seems like all Gradford's gone mad for his notions. Inns_they're closing, 'cause they got no business. Trade in fancy-goods is way down. People are act'lly taking vows, an' doin' it like they thought the Second Cataclysm was this Midwinter! Only one trade's doin' any good, an' that's the trade in religious stuffs."

He nodded to himself with smug satisfaction, and Robin took a few bites of her neglected dinner while he basked in his own cleverness.

"I took m'self home, gathered up ev'ry book on the Church list, an' I've got 'em all loaded down on m'poor little donkey. Havna been able t' unload the half of 'em all these years_if Gradford's gonna come down with a plague'a piety, I'm gonna use the chance t' be rid'a this stuff!"

He beamed at them, and Robin chuckled. "Good for you, Rod, and thank you for telling us about this. It may not make us change our travel plans, but we're going to have to change our trades, I can see that."

Rod drank the last of the beer in his pitcher, and stood up to leave. "So long as it be religious, Gypsy Robin, ye'll profit," he said with a nod. "An' on that note, I'll be takin' m'leave."

"And a good night and fair profit to you." She returned the traditional trader's greeting. "And once again, thanks."

"Glad t' be of service," Rod replied, and took himself off, up the stairs to the sleeping quarters used by those who had no wagons to sleep in.

"Well," Robin said, turning to Kestrel as soon as Rod had taken the stairs out of sight and hearing. "Now what do we do?"

CHAPTER NINE

Jonny glanced around, quickly, to make certain there was no one near enough to overhear their conversation. He needn't have bothered; they were the only two patrons left in the common room, and since Robin had already paid for their meal, the serving girls were gone. The barkeeper polished the top of the counter and put clean mugs up on the shelf, obviously there only in the hope that they might order a drink.

If this common room was typical of the rest of the inn, it was one of the better such places Jonny had seen in all of his travels.

Then again, my pocket wasn't up to bearing the price of inns when I was on my own, he thought wryly.

But this was a good, solid place. Immaculately clean, the simple wood furniture was scarred by use and dark with age and many years of cleaning, but sturdily made; the floors were covered with clean rushes, and the smoke-blackened beams above were free of cobwebs. A few lanterns burned along the walls, but most of the light came from the fireplace. There were more lanterns along the walls, but they were not lit, perhaps in the hope of saving a little money on lamp oil.

"Eat," Robin advised him. "No one is going to hear us, or care what we say. They've heard everything in a place like this. They know we're Gypsies and Free Bards, and I rather doubt that the innkeeper is very fond of the Church and the High Bishop of Gradford. Right now, they're more concerned that their custom has dropped off than in anything we might say or do. We're just ordinary musicians, remember? What possible damage could two musicians do to anyone?"

He shook his head, and followed her advice. There was no point in wasting a perfectly good meal, especially not one as tasty as this; the cook had a good hand with pastry, and the tender, flaky crust covered a meat pie rich with brown gravy. But his stomach was a trifle uneasy and it took concentrated effort to calm it; Rodrick's information frankly disturbed him.

It appeared that the Ghost might have been right; certainly this High Bishop was an excellent candidate for the source of the sentiment against Free Bards. An ambitious man_as Padrik clearly was_could look for no better and quicker road to power than through the Church, and no quicker way to rise in the Church than to find something to get people upset about on religious grounds.

There aren't too many things that can get people aroused the way religion can, he observed, and with this outbreak of "piety," sooner or later someone is going to find a "cause" to expend all their energy on. Unless Padrik is a fool, he'll be that someone; it will be the only way he can continue to control his followers. And if the "cause" turns out to be the control of music and musicians by the Church, it's going to be a bad day for the Free Bards.

There his thoughts might have ended, if he hadn't spoken with Harperus and T'fyrr, but those conversations had opened his eyes to the fact that an attempt to control would not end with music. Control had to begin somewhere, and the best target for the initial stages of control would ideally be someone who was very obviously different, someone who was in the minority. An obvious set of targets for that method of control were the nonhuman citizens of the Twenty Kingdoms.

"So," Gwyna said, as he finished his dinner and pushed the wooden plate away. "We obviously need to go to Gradford even more now than before. What are we going to do? We can't go in as musicians. I have the feeling that we'd better have an obvious reason for being there, or we might find ourselves the center of some unwelcome attention."

"B-but we c-can g-go in as t-traders," Jonny replied. "Even th-the Gh-Ghost's silver won't l-last f-forever. W-we n-need t-to support ourselves s-s-somehow. Th-the only q-question is, wh-what do we s-s-sell?"

She toyed with a bit of bread, and a stray lock of hair slipped over her eye, curling in a most distracting and charming manner. "Religious goods. That would be the most obvious reason to be there. And it would be the safest, really. I don't think anyone is going to accuse a peddler of religious goods of impiety." She tucked the flyaway lock of hair behind her ear, and dropped the bread on the plate. The quickest and easiest things for us to come up with on short notice are jewelry and display pieces; God-Stars are very easy to make, they're just tedious. And they're the kind of thing that only common, country folk display, so very few craftsmen ever bother with them. If no one in Gradford has thought of selling them, we'll have a temporary monopoly."

Jonny nodded; he had never seen God-Stars until he had arrived in Rayden as a child, for no one of noble blood would ever be caught wearing or displaying one. As wall-decorations, they were simply four-armed crosses, with colored yarn woven about the arms to form a solid square. The colors used varied with the prayers of the owner. Red, yellow, and white, for instance, meant the Star was a prayer for prosperity. Blue, green, and white meant a prayer for health, while blue, green, and brown was a plea for good harvests. He had never heard of anyone making God-Star jewelry, however.

"How d-do you make S-Stars as j-jewelry?" he asked.

"It isn't often done, because real jewelers and silversmiths can't be bothered," she replied, with a wry twitch to her mouth. "You can make them of embroidery thread and twigs, or metal and wire. With the wire ones, you have to be very careful so the wire doesn't break_but you use iron, copper, brass, and silver wire, and two nails for the Sacrificed God as the cross-pieces. Easy enough, and they make rather pretty little pendants."

He brightened. "Th-that would w-work. B-but where c-can w-we g-get materials?"

She thought for a moment, sipping at her mug of beer. "Well, Gradford's a center for metals and gems; I'd bet that we can find someone making wire outside the town and buy up a stock. Nails are easy. It shouldn't be too hard to find a weekly market to get dyed wool yarn, and linen embroidery thread, and sticks are under every tree."

"Wh-why not ask th-the innkeeper?' he asked, with a sudden inspiration. "W-wouldn't he know the b-best p-places t-to find things around here?"

She licked her lips, and nodded. "He would, and if he's like any other innkeeper I've ever met, he'll probably have a relative only too pleased to sell to us. That's fine; we'll make him happy and get our stock with a minimum of effort. The amount of money we'll save looking around for ourselves won't be worth the time we'll waste."

She shoved her stool away from the table, and trotted across the common room to consult with the barkeeper. After an exchange of a very few words, the barkeeper went off, and returned with the man Jonny had seen supervising the stable hands. Gwyna spoke with him for a little, and returned to her seat beaming.

"There!" she said. "It's taken care of. I told him part of the truth, that we were headed for Gradford and just heard we wouldn't be welcome there as musicians, so we need to continue our journey in another of our trades, peddlers selling handcrafted holy objects, since we couldn't afford the loss that going back would mean. He snorted, said, 'Religious trinkets, you mean,' and I knew he'd be willing to help us. He has a brother-in-law who can supply us with wire, and a cousin who can bring us the wool yarn and linen thread. He'll sell us horseshoe nails himself. So we're set."

Jonny shared her grin, and took her hand for a congratulatory squeeze. "S-so far," he replied, "s-so g-good. It's a g-good s-start, anyway!"

Four days later, thanks in no small part to the Ghost's gift, they left the inn with a full stock of God-Stars in several forms. They had bought all of the supplies that the innkeeper's relatives had brought, and still had some of the Ghost's silver left when they were done with their bargaining. There were several trays'-worth of the tiny Stars Robin had made up as pendants, from the cheapest Stars of linen thread and tiny twigs, to inexpensive copper Stars through Stars of mixed metals, to ones made entirely of silver wire and thin silver bars. Jonny had learned the knack of turning out wall-hanging Stars at a goodly clip, and he had used up all their yarn at about the same time Gwyna had run out of wire.

He was glad to pick up the reins and drive for a change; they had worked for as long as daylight lasted all during those four days, and his hands and wrists were sore from twisting yarn around sticks in movements he was not accustomed to making. He knew that Gwyna's hands hurt just as much; working with the wire was enough to try the patience beyond bearing, for it broke when flexed too often, and then it was impossible to mend without the mend showing. She'd been pierced with the sharp ends of nails and wire so often that her finger-ends looked like pincushions, and it was just as well that they were not going to be playing their instruments for a while, for her fingers needed to heal before she picked up her gittern or harp again.

They drove off into the dawn, with a friendly farewell from the helpful innkeeper (who had, without a doubt, skimmed off a commission from his relatives). The road was going to take them through a series of steep hills, and if they were going to get to Gradford before the gates closed at sunset, they needed to get this early start.

For a price, the cook had provided them not only with fresh rolls dripping with melted butter for their breakfast, but a packet of meat-pies for lunch on the road. With so little traffic about, Kestrel was able to eat with one hand and drive with the other. He enjoyed the fresh, hot bread, but Robin was in heaven over it, sensuously licking the dripping butter from her fingers until he warned her that if she continued in that fashion, they were going to have to make an unscheduled stop!

She laughed, and pouted at him, tossing her long hair over one shoulder in a flirting manner, and he growled at her playfully.

"Ah, well," she sighed. She popped the last bite into her mouth, and wiped her fingers carefully on a bit of rag. "I suppose we'd better behave. If we make an unscheduled stop, we won't get to Gradford before the gates close."

"P-precisely," he said, with mock-sternness. "One of us h-has t-to have s-some s-self-control!"

She laughed, and folded her hands modestly in her lap under the protective warmth of her coat, looking about with interest. It was a breathtakingly beautiful day, in a stark, monochromatic fashion, but there was no doubt that winter was only a breath or two away. Frost was so thick on the branches and dead, dry grasses that they looked as if they had grown white coats of fur; the cloudless blue sky held a sun that gave very little besides light. As the road wove its way onward, they passed streams that had rims of ice at the edges, and their breath and the mares' puffed out in white clouds whenever they talked or breathed. Crows called occasionally, off in the distance. The hills themselves were covered with forests of hardwood trees that had long since lost their leaves, and made a mist-like haze on the hillsides with the interweaving of their gray-barked, barren branches.

"If it looks like we can pass as 'Church-approved,' we might actually be able to play some music," she remarked, when the inn had receded from sight.

"I th-thought about th-that." While they had been hard at work on the God-Stars, in order to get themselves into the proper mood, they had polished up all the ballads about heroes of the Church that either of them knew. If nothing else, those songs were often used as teaching aids by the Priests, and singing them made a painless refresher course in theology and accepted doctrine, not to mention providing a good source of pious quotations to sprinkle over their conversation. "P-purely instrumental m-music ought t-to b-be safe, if it isn't a d-dance t-tune. And even d-d-dance t-tunes c-can b-be made s-safe."

"How?" she asked, full of immediate interest. "Oh! Of course! If we slow the tempo so it isn't a dance tune anymore, likely no one will recognize it!"

"And add l-liturgical ch-chord sequences, th-the k-kind you hear in h-h-hymns." He was very pleased with that idea; he'd already tried it out in his head, and it made even the liveliest toe-tapper sound as if it came straight from Holy Services.

She nodded, her face full of pleasure at his cleverness. Then her eyes grew thoughtful; he let her sit in silence, knowing that she was trying to work a sudden thought to its conclusion. He listened instead to the steady clopping of the mares' hooves, and the jingle of their harness in the clear, cold air. Finally, she spoke.

"Music isn't going to be forbidden everywhere," she said, slowly. "In fact, the one way to give brothels and pleasure-houses more business than they can handle is to try to forbid pleasure itself. And a pleasure-house is going to be a very good place to learn what's going on in Gradford_really going on, that is, and not just what the officials are telling people, or what street-gossip says. Musicians are probably going to be welcome there, if all the places haven't already been taken by Gradford natives."

"B-but it c-could be d-dangerous," Kestrel finished for her. "If Church officials d-decide t-to l-look for s-someone t-to use as an example. S-someone w-with n-no importance. Still. P-perhaps if w-we d-do what Rune d-did, and have t-two personae, one f-for the s-street and one f-for th-the b-b-brothel."

"Its worth thinking about when we get there," she agreed. "I have to admit I didn't think this was going to be all that important even after listening to Harperus and Nightingale_I thought this was just another bout of petty harassment, the kind we had when we first formed the Free Bards. Somethings up though, something is different this time. I don't like what I've been hearing, and I want to do something about protecting our people before it's too late."

Jonny nodded, but did not add what he was thinking.

I only hope it's not already too late.

Their sturdy mares were in fine fettle after four days of rest and good feeding, and made much better time than either of them had expected. The walls of Gradford appeared in the distance in mid-afternoon, and they had plenty of time to study the city-state during their approach.

It had been built on the top of an enormous hill (or very small mountain) and was supposed to be the oldest complex continuously inhabited by humans in the Twenty Kingdoms. The city had expanded several times, and each time it had, a new set of walls had been built to accommodate the expansion. The original structure looked to have been either a military fortress or fortified castle; probably the original Duke of Gradford's holding. Its strange, blocky, angular architecture was at violent odds with the rest of the city, and it was easily the tallest structure either of them had ever seen in their lives. It must have been at least a full twenty stories tall, and Jonny could not imagine anyone climbing all those staircases to get to the top on a regular basis. The building itself, taken over by the Duke, was supposedly a structure that had made it through the Cataclysm intact. But the Duke's line had died out, and no relative could be found to claim the holding before the Mayor of the city below his fortress had claimed independence, supported by the High Bishop.

That had been in the early days, when no one really wanted the remote city, even though it was on a major trade road. Gradford's heyday had come when enterprising souls roaming the hills had discovered rich veins of silver and copper beneath them to the east, and iron-ore and coal to the west. To the south were finds of semiprecious and precious gems; garnet, beryl, amethyst, topaz, peridot, citrine, tourmaline, moonstone, and fine, clear quartz of all kinds.

Suddenly Gradford had something to trade. And by this time, it had the blessing of the High Bishop, a strong Lord Mayor and a Council comprised of Guild Masters from every major trade. The Council immediately let it be known that they were hiring the best mercenaries money could buy, and there were no more rumors of war.

Gradford prospered and grew, but apparently the Mayor and Council never forgot that there were nobles out there who lusted for its wealth. Every building was neatly tucked inside that last wall, and all of the walls sported sentries and guards, tiny as gnats at this distance, but clearly vigilant and visible.

The road did not actually lead through the city, but rather went past the base of the hill it was built upon. Long ago the hill had been cleared of trees, to keep any hostile forces from creeping up under cover of the branches. What remained was rock; rock, and very thin soil covered with tough, wiry grass. The dead brown grass matched the sandy brown rock, the same rock that had been quarried to form the city walls, so that the city rose out of the hillside as if it had grown from the rocks themselves.

A switchback road cut out of the hillside and reinforced with more of the same sandy-brown stone led up to the city gates, which stood wide open at this hour. Hardly surprising, Jonny reflected. The guards on the walls would see enemies coming long before they were any threat, and by the time an enemy force was within striking distance, the gates would already be closed and barred.

The road was wide and even, and so well-maintained that the mares were not even sweating by the time they brought their wagon in under the enormous gates, which had clearly been built to handle vehicles much larger than theirs. There was not one gate, but several, although Jonny suspected that only the outer, wooden gates, banded and reinforced with iron straps, were ever closed at night. Behind the wooden gates was a portcullis of iron bars that dropped down from above. Behind that was another portcullis of thick stakes of wood, woven with iron straps. And behind that was a second set of wooden gates, this pair sheathed with iron plates on the inner side. Jonny suspected that there were murder-holes in the floor of the walkway topping the gates, and that anyone who got through the first set of gates would find molten lead, stones, or boiling oil or water rained down on him from above. A truly cruel trick would be to let an enemy pass the first set of gates, then drop the outer portcullis, trapping him between the inner gates and the outermost portcullis, and destroy him at leisure.

They were stopped at the inner gates by a guard; a very brisk and efficient middle-aged man, in chain-mail and a tunic with a badge emblazoned on the front. The badge was not one that Jonny recognized; it was not the five coins of Gradford, but a single coin with a four-armed cross superimposed upon it. This guard wanted to know their names, their trade, and where they had come from before he would let them pass.

Gwyna spoke up for them both, although this made the guard frown slightly; evidently women were not supposed to be so forward in Gradford these days as to dare to speak for a man. But neither of them wanted someone as marked by a distinguishing characteristic as Jonny's stutter to be on a guard's list. Gwyna could dye or cut her hair, change her clothes_Jonny could not open his mouth without betraying himself.

So he feigned being mute when the guard made a hushing motion at Robin and ordered him to speak up. He hoped that Robin would pick up on his cues; they hadn't had time to rehearse this subterfuge! He shook his head as the guard frowned and raised his voice.

"Sorry, sir," Robin said, falling into the part of a woman forced into the role of 'caretaker.' "Me husbands mute, sir. Been so since the storm a year agone _" She sniffed, and the guard's expression turned from one of disapproval to sympathy. "Struck by lightning, he was. Mind is as sharp as ever, but he can't speak a word."

Jonny nodded vigorously, and spread his hands in a gesture of helplessness, thanking whatever god might be listening for Gwyna's quick mind. The guard's expression softened further.

"Then give us the names and all, lass," he said, condescendingly, as if she were just a little feeble-minded. Kestrel clenched his jaw a little, and hoped she wouldn't react to that tone.

She didn't; she kept her temper, and smiled at the guard sweetly. "Jonny Brede and Jina Brede. We're traders in religious keepsakes, God-Stars. We came from Kingsford in Birnam when we heard of the work of your great High Bishop, and how Gradford had turned to pious ways."

Jonny let out his breath in a silent sigh of relief. Evidently Gwyna decided her name sounded a bit too much like she might be a Gypsy_they had taken the precaution this morning of dressing soberly, rather than in their Gypsy or Free Bard finery. Or else she was afraid someone might know the name "Gwyna," even though she called herself Robin in public. She could hardly use that name with the guard without branding herself a Free Bard! And she had wisely chosen a city far enough away that no one was likely to send to find out if they had been there recently.

"God-Stars?" the guard said, with interest. Gwyna dimpled, and brought out the samples they had stowed under the driver's seat.

"Little ones, for pendants, like, and the big ones, of course." She preened with pride as the guard examined both and praised the work. She started to offer him both, but to Jonny's surprise, he refused.

"That'd be bribery, dear, and we're honest men here in Gradford," he replied. "No, and I thank you, but you keep those in your pretty hands. Best of luck to you. Go right on in; there's no one in Gradford selling God-Stars like these, so you're no competition to a local trader, and that means you can set up in the market whenever you like. There's no tax on religious goods, other than the usual tithe."

Gwyna thanked him, and did not argue; if the guard was too silly to understand that a customer who bought a God-Star would probably not buy something else, it was not her problem. Kestrel shook the reins to send the horses forward.

And as soon as they cleared the gates, it was only too obvious that Rodrick had been right. Although this was clearly the start of the market-district, there was not a single busker anywhere. No jugglers, no street-dancers, no musicians. The streets seemed to have plenty of people on them, until you realized that this should have been the busiest part of the city. Then it slowly became obvious that there was barely a third of the people here that there should have been.

The undercurrent of music to the chaotic crowd-noises was something that both of them had taken for granted. Now that it was gone, the lack made Jonny, at least, feel oddly off-balance, straining his ears, listening for something that simply wasn't there.

They passed several inns_it was never wise to take the first set of accommodations offered, for such places were invariably overpriced. They shared their side of the street with a number of other vehicles, but none of them were traders' wagons. So Rodrick had been right about that as well; the traders appeared to have deserted the city entirely.

There's no rain that doesn't water someone's garden, Jonny thought. At least there'll be no shortage of rooms. And probably good prices. Gwyna had told him that in most large cities it was against the law to sleep in wagons; anyone who wished to camp in his wagon had to do so outside the city walls.

He still wasn't certain which inn to patronize, and when he finally saw the sign, he knew instinctively he had found the right place for them. The signboard sported a bird, beak wide open and pointed to the sky, obviously singing for all it was worth. It also, unlike many others, had the name of the inn written under the painted bird.

The Singing Bird. The name seemed a good omen, and Jonny turned the horses into the arched gateway that led into the inn's court.

The lean and balding innkeeper was frantically happy to see them, and a glance at his stable showed them why. No more than a third of the stalls were occupied, and if that was an indication of the number of customers inside, it was no wonder that he was glad to see them and their cash.

He was not a Gypsy, somewhat to Jonny's disappointment, but his stables were good, and he saw to their needs personally.

'We'll need to be able to take the wagon out during the day," Gwyna told him. "We'll be using it as our stall in the marketplace."

That stopped him cold, just as he directed the stableboys to put their mares in two spacious loose-boxes. "I hope you aren't selling anything_like luxury goods?" he said, hesitantly, the bald spot on the top of his head growing red with anxiety. "There's not much call for such things in Gradford these days."

Jonny mentally gave him the accolade for his honesty. He could have gotten one night's lodging out of them before they found out the hard truth for themselves. Instead, he warned them.

Then again, if we were selling something proscribed, maybe he'd get arrested or fined for giving us lodging. It was a possibility. Given the lack of buskers and all that implied, Jonny was not taking anything for granted.

But Gwyna laughed, lightly. "God-Stars," she said, simply. "As jewelry and as wall decorations."

The innkeeper heaved a very audible sigh of relief, and mopped the top of his head with his apron. "There's no problem then. I'll have the boys ready your wagon and horses at the bell for Sunrise Service from the Cathedral; you come down for breakfast at Calling Bell for Prime Service and you'll find them harnessed and waiting when you finish. Best place for you will be in the market-square in front of the Cathedral, and to get there you just follow this street until it comes out at the square."

They locked up the wagon and took their bags from under the drivers seat, following their host across the yard to the inn itself. It was a sturdy, three-storied affair, substantial and built of dark timbers with whitewashed stone between. "I'm sorry I can't offer you any entertainment," he said apologetically. "But musics not allowed, unless it's from a Church-licensed musician."

His expression said what he would not say aloud. And those are so bad I'd rather have no music than theirs.

"Gradford has changed since last I was here," Gwyna replied casually. "There were no restrictions then, on what music could be played and what a peddler could sell."

The innkeeper shrugged, and once again his expression of faint distaste told Jonny that he did not care for the current state of things. But then, what innkeeper would? His custom had been cut down to a third of what it had been; he certainly was not prospering.

"I can't sell you strong liquor, either," he continued. "Only beer and ale, and hard cider." By his wary expression, some of his customers had found a great deal to object to in this particular edict, but Jonny only laughed.

"N-never d-drink anything s-stronger," he said, shortly, with a grin that made the innkeeper smile in return.

At that point, they entered the inn, and that was when Jonny realized just how bad things had gotten for the innkeepers of Gradford. Not that the place was ill-kempt, quite the contrary. The common room, with polished wooden tables and real chairs, with hangings on the walls and lanterns or candles on every table, with not one, but two fireplaces, was clearly a quality of hostelry they would not have been able to afford in the days of Gradford's prosperity. Or_perhaps, if their music pleased the innkeeper, they might have graced this room, but only as paid performers, and then only if a Guild musician didn't want the job. Or if the innkeeper didn't want the Guild musician....

"I'll have a table ready for you as soon as you like," the innkeeper was saying as he hurried them across the waxed and polished stone floor of the common room and towards the staircase at the other side. "It's a good ham tonight, and sweetroots, or chicken and dumplings with carrots, and a nice stew of apples for after. Your room is up here _"

The room, up on the third floor, was obviously not the best in the inn, but it was finer than they should have gotten for their coin. It shared a bath with three other rooms; there were good rag rugs on the varnished wooden floor, a plain, but handsome wardrobe, matching tables on either side of the bed, and the bed boasted heavy bedcurtains, a feather mattress and feather comforter. No fireplace, of course, but it did have a small coal-fired stove, and presumably a certain amount of heat came up from the common room below. There were sturdy shutters to shut out the wind, and cheap, thick glass in the windows, full of bubbles and wavy_but in the class of inn they generally frequented, they were lucky to have shutters, much less glazed windows.

They ordered a bath for after dinner, put their gear away, and took the stairs back down to the common room. The ham, as promised, was good, and the room no more than a third full. Small wonder there were only two choices for a meal; with so few customers, this innkeeper could not afford to have several dishes prepared so that a patron had a wider choice.

"You know, we have a few hours of daylight left," Gwyna observed, as they lingered over their stewed apples and spiced tea. "We ought to walk around and see what's to be seen."

Jonny raised an inquiring eyebrow over that remark. Had she seen something he hadn't? He had been too busy driving to pay a great deal of attention to anything else.

"There seem to be a lot of street preachers," she said in answer to his unspoken question. "In fact, it looks almost as if the street preachers have taken over from the buskers."

"Ah," he replied, enlightened. "W-we should s-see what th-they're s-saying."

"Exactly." She sighed, and put aside her empty bowl and the spoon. "Much as I hate to ruin such a nice meal with a sour stomach. I think we really need to get a feel for things before we go out tomorrow."

"Right." He rose, and offered her his arm. "W-would m-my lady c-care t-take a s-stroll?"

"Why, yes, I think she would." She dimpled, and took the proffered arm. "The company, at least, will be pleasant."

"Even if th-the s-stroll isn't?" he replied.

She didn't answer him; she only shook her head with a warning look as they walked out into the inn-yard, and joined the thin stream of people leaving their work and going home.

CHAPTER TEN

There were plenty of street preachers, one for every corner, sometimes shouting so loudly that their speeches overlapped, and some of them were unintentionally funny. The trouble was, no one else seemed to see anything humorous in what they were saying.

A chilly wind whipped up the street, tossing skirts and cloaks, and numbing Kestrel's nose. It was a wind remarkably free of the usual stinks of a large city, and the gutters were empty of anything but a trace of water. Perhaps this place was like Nolton, with laws regarding the disposal of garbage, and crews to clean the streets. In a city like this one, with so many people crowded into so small an area and no river to cleanse it, that was not just a good idea, it was a necessity.

Buildings on both sides of the street loomed at least three stories in height, built of stone with tiny windows in the upper stories. Roofs were of a brownish slate, or of sandy tile. There wasn't a great deal of color, even in the dress of the passersby. Only the brilliantly blue sky above gave any relief to the unrelenting gray and brown. Nothing delineated the changes in Gradford quite so clearly as that; elsewhere, people reacted to the coming of winter by bringing out as much color in their clothing as they could afford. Presumably the people of Gradford had once done the same, but no more. The city looked sober, as if it already hosted nothing but Brothers and Sisters of various ascetic Orders.

They walked about a quarter mile towards the Cathedral, which loomed over the smaller buildings just as the Duke's Palace loomed over the city itself. They both paid careful attention to each preacher for at least a few minutes at a time; usually a few minutes were enough to get the gist of what each was saying.

Gradually Kestrel began to get a sense that there were three kinds of preachers, and each set shared a common style and a set of messages.

The first kind were the wild-eyed, unkempt street preachers he was used to seeing in every city or town he had ever found himself in. Dressed in strange assortments of tattered and layered garments, they exhorted the crowds passing with wildly waving arms and hoarsely shouted diatribes. They were fairly incoherent, contradicting themselves from sentence to sentence, and full of dire prophecies about the "Second Cataclysm." He'd always thought they were a little mad, and he didn't see any reason to change that opinion now. Interestingly, these men had only the same sort of audiences they got in other cities; people as mad as they were, gawkers, and adolescents who got a great deal of amusement out of making a mockery of them.

But the adolescents making mock were uniformly ruffians, rather than the mix of ne'er-do-wells and ordinary youngsters that usually tried to give these poor old men a difficult time. And the authorities, in the form of the City Constables, ran the youngsters off with warnings, and not the preachers, who would elsewhere have been considered nuisances.

So these days in Gradford, even the lunatics come in for a smattering of respect. Kestrel wouldn't have believed it if he hadn't seen it himself.

The second variety of street sermonizers was a type he normally saw only during Faires: country-fellows who were not ordained Priests and supported themselves through what they could collect on their own. These were men who would say, if questioned, that they felt "called by The Sacrificed God" to preach the Truth as they, and not the Church, saw it. They generally leapt at the chance to preach restraint to a crowd bent on celebration. Their motives were simple enough; perhaps move some of their listeners to moderation, or at least, through a bit of passing guilt, charm a pin or a coin out of their pockets and into the collection plate. Kestrel thought of them as a different form of busker, for they used the same venue as buskers. Their messages were along the line of "repent of your sins and be purified," and "do not waste your lives on short-term pleasures when your energy could better be spent in contemplating God." They urged sacrifice, with the veiled hint that a sacrifice tossed in their direction would find favor with God. More often than not_at a Faire at least_this kind of preacher would manage to "save" some fellow who'd been a chronic drunk all his life and had just hit bottom; having "saved" the fool, the preacher would parade him about like a hunter's prize. And the former drunk, having found a new addiction that made him the center of attention, would perform obligingly.

There were at least two with reformed drunks in tow on this street. And although these men were normally ignored by Faire-goers, who often parted around them like the water in a swift-moving stream avoiding a rock, here their message was falling on more appreciative ears. More than one listener looked both attentive and impressed. Interesting, but not unexpected.

Then there was the third class of preacher_a type that Kestrel had never seen preaching in the street before; real Priests, in immaculate robes, who clearly did not need to be out here and in fact had no collection plates at their feet. These men_they were always men, even though women could aspire to the Priesthood as readily as men_were clean, erudite, and well-spoken, pitching their trained, modulated voices to carry their words over the heads of the crowds.

It was this third type of preacher that had the messages that were very disturbing.

"_ come from God are alone pure and righteous," the first of these was saying, as they came within hearing distance. He had a very well-trained and sonorous voice, and he already had a crowd three deep around him. He was brown of beard and hair and eye; his well-kept robe was a dark brown, and he should have blended in with his surroundings. But he didn't_he stood out from them, as if he was a heroic statue, the focus for all eyes. "No matter what the ignorant and unholy will tell you, all things called 'magic' are inherently evil. Magic can only be the tool of demons and false gods; there is no truth in it, and none in those who practice it."

He looked around at his audience; Kestrel was very careful to school his features into a semblance of sober interest. This man was no fool; any show of resistance to his words would cause him to single that person out for special attentions and special messages. The onlookers would notice. Things could become very awkward, very quickly.

"Perhaps you have heard somewhere that there are mages within the Church itself, but I tell you that this is not true. Whoever has told you this has lied to you," he said, lying gracefully and believably. "Magic is deception; magic only counterfeits the real and holy powers granted only to Priests by God. Those powers practiced within the Church come directly by grace and blessing of the Sacrificed God, and they are nothing like magic! And only those within the Church, within the ranks of the ordained will be blessed with those powers. Those who claim to achieve the same ends through their magic are false, deceptive, and evil. They seek to mislead you, seduce you to muddled thinking and questioning, and then to lead you astray down the paths of darkness."

Neat, Jonny thought, admiring the Priest's command of rhetoric, though not his words. Redefine magic as anything that is not performed by a Priest, and then you can condemn it without condemning the Priests.

"Not only is the magic itself inherently and by its very deceptive nature evil," the Priest continued, warming to his subject, "but anyone, anyone who uses it or allows himself to be touched by it is evil! Magic is a mockery of God's powers! God will not be mocked! He will not permit his servants to be mocked! The day is coming when all those evil ones who practice magic will perish, and those who permitted them to work their magic will perish with them! Those who live by magic will die by the hand of the righteous!"

There was more in this vein, although Jonny noticed that the Priest was very careful not to say who would be dealing out this punishment to the "evil magicians." Given the tales that had been spreading of musicians using magic to manipulate their listeners, it was easy to see where this was going. He might not have brought up the "evil musicians" yet, but it was only a matter of time.

Nightingale had been only too right, and so had Harperus.

He felt a sudden sickness in the pit of his stomach, and it didn't take any effort at all on his part to persuade Gwyna away and get out of hearing range. The Priest was still going strong when they left, and as far as Jonny could tell, it was more of the same. No mention, as yet, of musicians. But given the fact that there were no musicians anywhere in sight, perhaps he saw no need to mention them, in his condemnation of every other person who ever made use of magic and mages.

About the only encouraging note in this was that the Priest was losing listeners at a fairly steady rate_perhaps people who had used the services of a Healer, or those who had employed a mage for some minor work in finding a lost object, locating water, or taming a beast that would not respond to normal efforts. It would take more persuasive means than simply saying that magic was evil to convince most folk that it was bad.

After all, most people in their lives saw many instances of the use of magic, all of it hired and completely matter-of-fact. How could any of this be evil? Mages created amusing illusions for parties, rid homes of poltergeists and kobolds_they didn't do anything that a Priest couldn't do. And they generally didn't ask as much in return. Priests were often greedy in their demands when someone turned to them for help; a simple mage could only ask the usual rate, and did not care what god you followed or whether you were up to date on your tithing.

That was what Kestrel read in the faces of those who turned away from the preacher. But there were some who stayed, nodding in agreement....

A very bad sign.

The sun had turned the sky above the city to a glorious crimson as they came into the "circle" of another of the real Priests out on the street. This man had a much larger gathering of listeners, and fewer of them were leaving with looks of stubborn disbelief on their faces. Jonny steeled himself to hear something unpleasant. This one also wore a brown robe, but he was a much older man, the kind that people would instinctively turn to for advice; clean-shaven with snow-white hair. But there was something subtly cruel and hard about his eyes, and the set of his mouth indicated a man who would never accept any opinion but his own.

"If a soul is the image of God, and God created humankind in His image, how can any creature that does not wear that image have a soul?" the Priest asked, his voice rational and reasonable. "It is there in the Holy Writ, for all to read. For God then created them, male and female, in His Own image. Male and female, and human. The soul is the reflection of God, and is in the image of God. Human, entirely and wholly. No creature that is not fully human could possibly be in possession of a soul. The implications of this are obvious to anyone who takes the time to study the Holy Book and think. A creature that does not have a soul cannot be saved by the grace of the Church; it is that simple, and that profound. Only humans can be saved. Only humans have souls."

This Priest had an interesting demeanor; unlike the last one, who clearly preached at his audience, this man kept his voice calm and steady, his tone ingratiating, his expression persuasive. His manner invited his listeners to discover truth for themselves, not just to be told what the truth was and was not. In a village, this man would be the one most would go to for the settling of disputes.

"But there is a much more serious_yes, and frightening_side to this, and one that is not as obvious," he continued, his expression turning to one of warning. "A creature that does not have a soul and cannot be saved by the Church must by definition be evil! Oh, do not shake your heads; only think about it. To be evil is to act against the interests of God. But a creature that is soulless cannot know the interests of God, so how can he act in accord with them? They cannot be anything but evil by their very natures. Nothing can change that, not all the good intentions in the world, for it is bred into them, blood and bone, by their very differences. They are the damned and the doomed, and they will always be the enemies of the Church, for their inmost nature will cause them to resist the guidance of the Church." His expression hardened, and yet became sorrowful at the same time. "Surely you, who are thinking men, can see the result of this. The Church's charge is the safety, spiritual and actual, of humanity. The enemies of the Church must become, sooner or later, the enemies of all humankind, and the enemies of humankind will inevitably seek to destroy humanity."

Kestrel had no trouble anticipating the next statement.

Those who would seek to destroy humankind must be destroyed first!" the Priest said fiercely. "There can be no sin in this; it is not murder, for they have no souls! It is self-defense and no more; ridding humanity of their cursed presence is no worse than ridding the city of rats! And who is it that has these unnatural magics, that you have been warned against? More often than not, it is these unhuman monsters!"

This time it was Robin who pulled him away, but he was not reluctant to leave; he had certainly heard enough to nauseate him. "God is l-love, l-love is b-blind, I am b-b-blind, therefore I am G-G-God," Kestrel muttered under his breath; something that had become a very unfunny joke. Horrid how the rules of logic could be twisted to make the illogical, irrational, and idiotic sound reasonable....

Robin shushed him, and they crossed over to the other side of the street to return to their inn. The last light of the sun died away overhead; the little canyons between the buildings were already full of shadows, and lamplighters made their way along the street, pausing at each of the street corners. There were not too many people out at this point; those that were did not seem to be in any great hurry to get anywhere. Kestrel noted with thankfulness that the preachers had taken the coming of nightfall as a signal to leave their posts and find some other venue for their speeches. He'd had a bellyful of them, and he was not in the mood for any more.

But he was to get one more dose of Holy Word before they reached the relative safety of their room.

The last preacher of the night was hard to classify; he had the collection plate and the common clothing of an ordinary street preacher, but the trained voice and command of rhetoric of a full Priest. They could not get by, for his listeners had temporarily blocked the street, so they had no choice but to listen for a moment.

And for a moment, it seemed as if his message was no more insidious than any of the other lunatics out here this afternoon. "_ idle time, time that is not spent in work or in contemplation, is time spent in evilness," he was saying. Kestrel could not see his face in the shadows; he kept his voice deliberately soft, so that anyone really listening had to lean forward to hear his words. The combination of the darkness, the soft words, the persuasive voice, worked in a hypnotic fashion before a listener was really aware of it.

Unless you were a musician, and had used similar tricks yourself, to create a mood of quiet persuasion in the middle of a crowded tavern.

"Because of this, anything done purely for pleasure or for simple enjoyment is also evil because these are things done in idleness. The only fit occupation for a true man is work; either the work of his hands and mind, or the work of God and the Church. Those temptations of hollow pleasure must be eliminated, and those who will not give them up must be taught the error of their ways. Gently, if possible, but if not"_he concluded, darkly_"then by whatever means necessary."

At that point the blockage cleared, and Robin and Kestrel hurried on, quickly, until they were well out of range of sight and sound of the final preacher.

"Now I'm glad we were warned," Robin sighed. "If we had come into town the way we usually enter a city_"

"P-playing and s-singing 'The S-saucy P-p-priest'?" Kestrel finished. "I th-think our w-welcome m-might have b-been w-warmer th-than w-we'd l-like."

"That, at least." Robin held his arm, tightly, as much for comfort as for appearances, as they entered the inn courtyard. It opened up like a haven of sanity after the speeches of the past hour. As they opened the door to the common room, one of the serving girls spotted them and hurried over to them.

"Would you like your baths now?" she asked. "The water is hot and ready, and no one has bespoken the room until later."

"Please," Robin said, and lowered her voice a little. "We were just taking a walk outside, and we couldn't help wondering_is every night like tonight? I've never seen so many preachers in one place before. Is there something special about tonight, or this street?"

The girl sighed, and rolled her eyes a little. "Nothing special about tonight, but they do seem to pick this street t' be doing their ranting. P'rhaps it's 'cause most visitors lodge here, or p'rhaps its 'cause the Cathedral's so near. There's laws, thank heavens; they can't be preachin' long after dark, to disturb folks' rest, or we'd not get any. No offense _" she added hastily.

Kestrel managed a wan chuckle. "N-none t-taken," he said. "We're here t-to p-peddle our c-crafts, and if it's G-god-Stars th-these p-people w-want, th-that's what th-they'll g-get!"

The girl smiled warmly. "I shouldn't've said what I did, but I didn't think you was lunatic religious," she replied. "F'r one thing, they don't bathe near often enough!" And she wrinkled her nose. "Be glad it's 'bout winter! I tell you, some 'f them 'd choke a goat in hot weather!"

Robin shrugged. "We're traders," she said. "We were warned what had happened, and we changed our trade goods for something that would sell under the circumstances. Perhaps it may sound cynical, but if they'd all gone mad for_for some actor who fancied feather masks, for some reason, we'd be peddling those instead of God-Stars."

"But actors don't get y' pilloried_or worse," the girl muttered, then shook herself. "Well, sir an' lady, take y'rselves upstairs, whilst I call th' upstairs wench, an' by the time y' reach the bathing room, the baths'll be ready."

She was as good as her word. The bathing room had two tubs, side by side, and both were full and steaming, as promised, by the time they arrived at the bathroom door. They sank into the hot water with gratitude.

Jonny simply let his mind empty; he did not want to think about what he had just heard. He wanted to relax, just for a moment, and pretend that none of this was happening.

Church bells woke them; not uncommon in a large city, but they seemed unusually loud until Kestrel remembered the Cathedral was not far away. And they were very loud. He hadn't heard bells like this since_since_

Since I was a child, and living in the Guild Hall with my Master. The Cathedral was across the street, and every morning the first bells would wake us, no matter how tired we were, or how late we had been up the night before.

The remembrance was tainted with a little less bitterness now. It helped to know that his beloved Master had not been a crazed and half-witted old man, but a very brave and very frightened one. It helped to know that the Guild had been wrong about both of them.

Robin groaned as Kestrel got out of bed and pulled back the thick, dark curtains. He actually felt rather good, even after those wretched street sermons of the night before_and even though his dreams had been haunted by Priests leading fanatic mobs in chasing him. One thing about being in a city obsessed with religion_there was little or nothing to do after sunset, so going to bed was the only option.

I'll bet they have a population explosion around here in a few months_depending on how long this has been going on, he thought, pulling open the shutters to let the sunlight in. Robin groaned again. I wonder if the herbs that protect against conception have been put on the proscribed list too? That would be a logical move, if the Church really was interested in restricting people's interests. If a girl had a real chance of getting pregnant, she might be a bit warier about distributing her favors. And if a wife was burdened with one baby after another, she wouldn't have a great deal of leisure for anything else.

Like thinking for herself....

Robin sat up, her curly hair tousled and a lock dangling over one eye, yawning hugely. "Gods," she moaned, squinting. "Sunlight."

Sun poured through the thick glass and pooled on the floor, catching the reds and blues in the rag rug there and making them glow. Kestrel grabbed clean clothing, while Robin watched, blinking sleepily from her nest of bedclothes. Sober clothing; muted browns and dark grays for him, browns and sand-tones for Robin. No Gypsy reds and yellows here; if he'd had any doubt as to the wisdom of such "disguises," last night in the street had convinced him.

"T-time t-to get to w-work," he reminded her. "W-we're p-peddlers, remember? W-we have t-to be out f-first th-thing when th-the m-markets open."

"I remember," she said, around another yawn. "Well, last night we heard the poison, now we need to find out what the source is. And why all these people are suddenly so full of maniacal religious fervor! A lot of the changes here required some changes in the laws, Jonny, and that doesn't happen overnight. You have to convince very powerful people to make changes that may not be to their advantage."

"You're v-very articulate this m-morning," he observed, with a bit of a smile, then lost the smile as something occurred to him. "One of th-the p-powerful p-people who s-supported Gradford f-from the b-beginning was th-the High B-Bishop. W-wouldn't he b-be on th-the C-Council? D-did you th-think about th-that?"

"Hmm. I think I was thinking about it even in my sleep." She climbed out of bed to join him in dressing, pulling on linen petticoats, wool stockings and boots, a sober brown wool skirt and sand-colored linen shirt, lacing her brown leather vest over both. "Someone has gotten the ears of anyone important, and has convinced the merchants who are losing money right now that they are better off not complaining about their problems. We should keep our ears open in the marketplace. There are probably some merchants out there that are just as cynical as Rodrick, and we might get them to tell us something. There's a piece missing to this puzzle."

As promised, a breakfast was laid ready for the inn's patrons, a buffet-style breakfast where they could help themselves to oatmeal, sliced bread and butter, honey, fruit, last night's ham, and pastries. And as promised, when they were finished and went out into the court, the wagon was standing ready with several others, mares in harness and stamping impatiently.

They swung themselves up onto the driver's bench, and took the wagon out into the street. All traffic, foot and wagon, was going in one direction this morning; towards the Cathedral. Robin had the reins, and she simply let the press of people carry them along at footpace.

"I'm c-curious," Kestrel said, as the Cathedral loomed at the end of the street. "H-how d-did you d-do that b-business w-with th-the f-fire in y-your h-hand in W-Westhaven?"

Robin chuckled. "Gypsy trick," she said, lightly. "Meant to fool the stupid. Special paper that burns very quickly, so quickly there isn't any heat to speak of, and it ignites with just a spark. A little misdirection, flint-and-steel and a bit of paper in your hand, and agile fingers, and there you are. I always carry some, and powder of the same sort, good for throwing into a fire to create a big flash."

Jonny watched the faces of the foot travelers around them. They were uniformly eager, clearly anticipating something. "C-can all of you d-do that?"

She nodded. "Useful skill to have, when you need to make someone think that you're more powerful than you really are. We pledge never to teach outsiders, though, so I'm afraid I can't even teach you."

"D-don't n-need it," he assured her. "G-got enough to worry about."

By that time they reached the place where the street emptied out into the square in front of Gradford Cathedral. For the first time they saw the Cathedral as something other than bits of towers and roof, and in spite of himself, Jonny was impressed and moved.

You couldn't get a sense of the Cathedral simply from the bits you glimpsed over the rooftops and at the end of the street. He had no idea how anyone could construct something like this building without it toppling straight over; it looked as fragile and delicate as any confectioner's masterpiece, and just as ephemeral.

He guessed that the four round steeples, one at each corner, must have been at least fifteen stories tall, maybe more. They spiraled up like the shells of some sea-beasts he had seen, coming to a point at their peaks. They were pierced by a fretwork of windows, and looked as delicate as lace. There were no sharp angles in these towers, nothing but curves; curved arches, round windows, spiraling, ramplike exterior ledges that ran from the bottom all the way to the top. The towers were covered with a network of carvings as well, cut in shallow relief into the pristine marble and alabaster. None of the towers were carved alike. The tower to his right was encrusted with waving kelp and seaweed, sinuous eels, spiny urchins, undulating waves, and delicate fish. The one to his left bore clouds in every form, from wisps to towering thunderheads, and among them sported all the creatures of the air, from birds to butterflies. Rainbows arched from cloud to cloud, and the delicate seeds of thistle and dandelion wafted among the flying insects on the lower level.

The other two towers were harder to see since they were on the opposite side of the Cathedral, but on one, Jonny thought he made out sensuous and abstract depictions of flames, salamanders, and the legendary phoenix, and on the other, carvings of plants and animals crept, climbed, and sported on the curves.

On the top of each tower was a single statue of an angel; they spread wide wings and empty hands over the square below, as if bestowing blessings from on high. Unlike many carved angels Jonny had seen, the expressions on the faces of the two facing him were full of childlike wonder and joy_and there were no weapons in those hands. These angels beckoned the beholder to share in their exultation, neither warning dourly of punishment for sins, nor offering a fatuous and simpering "there, there" in lieu of real comfort.

Within the pinnacle of each tower hung the bells, half hidden in the shadows, but gleaming with polished bronze whenever the sun struck them.

With those four towers to gape at, it was hard to imagine how the Cathedral itself could be any more impressive than the towers were. But somehow, it was, and it left him gaping.

Though by necessity it had to be square in form with a peaked roof, it had been ornamented in the same sinuous style as the towers. The carvings all over the facade depicted the life of the Sacrificed God, and the lives of the saints and heroes of the Church. Somehow, even those who had died grisly deaths seemed not to be contorted with suffering, but rather dancing to their deaths. Arrows and nooses, torture devices and instruments of punishment seemed idle accessories to the dance_wounds mere decorations.

And among the carvings were the windows.

Rather than making pictures with glass, the builders of the Cathedral had chosen to make the windows a backdrop for the carvings, so instead of complicated scenes and designs, there were flowing abstractions_more curves, of course_of four or five pieces of glass in harmonious colors. Some echoed the blue and white of a sky full of clouds, the dark blue and scarlet of a sunset, the crimson and orange of flames, the greens of ocean waves, the golds and browns of a field in harvest colors. The result was breathtaking, and the Cathedral sparkled in the sun like a giant box of jewels.

Jonny found himself thinking only one thing. How, faced every day with this, can these Priests be preaching things that are so small-minded and petty? For the Cathedral as a whole was a song, an expression in stone of the wholeness of man and the world, however that world was put together. There was no room in this structure for pettiness and prejudice. It had clearly been designed, built, and ornamented by men who loved all of creation, and felt at one with the world.

It took a conscious effort for him to turn his attention back to the mundane. But the Cathedral would be here for longer than they would, and there was business to attend to.

There were many more wagons and stalls here in the cobblestone square, all of them in a row ringing the Cathedral, some of the stalls still untenanted, some with traders setting up. The buildings facing the square were not shops, as he had assumed they would be. Rather, they were private residences; very expensive private residences. The owners of the stalls and wagons had courteously faced their businesses away from these homes, and towards the Cathedral. While waiting for Prime to begin, the first Service of the day that would be open to the public, the crowds gathering here perused the contents of the wagons and stalls with varying degrees of eagerness. Some were plainly killing time; others were in a holiday mood and prepared to buy.

Robin tucked their wagon into a good comer, across from a private home, and beneath a lamppost. No sooner had they tethered the horses, than a City Constable came hurrying over, carrying a board to which several papers were attached.

Jonny let Robin deal with him, keeping up his pretense of being a mute, and set up their display on the side of the wagon facing the Cathedral, following the example of the rest of the merchants. The wall-Stars he hung on the side of the wagon itself, where they caught the sun and made a cheerful display of color against the brown wood. For the trays of jewelry, he propped open the lids to two of the storage compartments and laid two trays each on them; two of the inexpensive thread-and-twig Stars, one of the lesser metals, and one of the solid silver and mixed silver, copper, and bronze.

The Constable went away, and Robin carefully attached the paper he had given her to the side of the wagon, Jonny took a look at it as soon as he was done with his preparations.

It described both of them, their goods, their wagon and horses, and declared that they were "certified" by the authority of High Bishop Padrik.

Clearly, since it described them so minutely, it would do an "uncertified" merchant no good to steal the certification of another. He had to admit, grudgingly, that it was a good idea.

"The tithe here is fifteen percent, not ten," Robin told him in a low voice, as she straightened the Stars in their tray. "It's because of the location; he was nice enough to tell me that if we moved to the rear of the Cathedral, it was the usual ten _"