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All the world comes to Ithkar Fair.
That's what they said, anywayand it certainly seemed that way to Rune, as she traveled the Trade Road down from her home near the Galzar Pass. She wasn't walking on the dusty, hard-packed road itself; she'd likely have been trampled by the press of beasts, then run over by the carts into the bargain. Instead, she walked with the rest of the foot-travelers on the road's verge. It was no less dusty, what grass there had been had long since been trampled into powder by all the feet of the pilgrims and fairgoers, but at least a traveler was able to move along without risk of acquiring hoofprints on his anatomy.
Rune was close enough now to see the gates of the Fair itself, and the Fair-ward beside them. This seemed like a good moment to separate herself from the rest of the throng, rest her tired feet, and plan her next moves before entering the grounds of the Fair.
She elbowed her way out of the line of people, some of whom complained and elbowed back, and moved away from the road to a place where she had a good view of the Fair and a rock to sit on. The sun beat down with enough heat to be felt through her soft leather hat as she plopped herself down on the rock and began massaging her tired feet while she looked the Fair over.
It was a bit overwhelming. Certainly it was much bigger than she'd imagined it would be. It was equally certain that there would be nothing dispensed for free behind those log palings, and the few coppers Rune had left would have to serve to feed her through the three days of trials for admission to the Bardic Guild. After that
Well, after that, she should be an apprentice, and food and shelter would be for her master to worry about. If not
She refused to admit the possibility of failing the trials. She couldn'tthe Three surely wouldn't let her fail. Not after getting this far.
But for now, she needed somewhere to get herself cleaned of the road-dust, and a place to sleep, both with no price tags attached. Right now, she was the same gray-brown from head to toe, the darker brown of her hair completely camouflaged by the dust, or at least it felt that way. Even her eyes felt dusty.
She strolled down to the river, her lute thumping her shoulder softly on one side, her pack doing the same on the other. Close to the docks the water was muddy and roiled; there was too much traffic on the river to make an undisturbed bath a viable possibility, and too many wharf-rats about to make leaving one's belongings a wise move. She backtracked upstream a bit, while the noise of the Fair faded behind her, crossed over the canal and went hunting the rapids that the canal bypassed. The bank of the river was wilder here, and overgrown, not like the carefully tended area of the canalside. Finally she found a place where the river had cut a tiny cove into the bank. It was secluded; trees overhung the water, their branches making a good thick screen that touched the water, the ground beneath them bare of growth, and hollows between some of the roots just big enough to cradle her sleeping roll. Camp, bath, and water, all together, and within climbing distance on one of the trees was a hollow big enough to hide her bedroll and those belongings she didn't want to carry into the Fair.
She waited until dusk fell before venturing into the river and kept her eyes and ears open while she scrubbed herself down. Once clean, she debated whether or not to change into the special clothing she'd brought tonight; it might be better to save itthen the thought of donning the sweat-soaked, dusty traveling gear became too distasteful, and she rejected it out of hand.
She felt strange and altogether different once she'd put the new costume on. Part of that was due to the materialsexcept for when she'd tried the clothing on for fit, this was the first time she'd ever worn silk and velvet. Granted, the materials were all old; bought from a second-hand vendor and cut down from much larger garments. The velvet of the breeches wasn't too rubbed; the ribbons on the sleeves of the shirt and the embroidery should cover the faded places, and the vest should cover the stain on the back panel completely. Her hat, once the dust was beaten out of it and the plumes she'd snatched from the tails of several disgruntled roosters were tucked into the band, looked brave enough. Her boots, at least, were new, and when the dust was brushed from them, looked quite well. She tucked her remaining changes of clothing and her bedroll into her pack, hid the lot in the tree-hollow, and felt ready to face the Fair.
The Fair-ward at the gate eyed her carefully. "Minstrel?" he asked suspiciously, looking at the lute and fiddle she carried in their cases, slung from her shoulders.
She shook her head. "Here for the trials, m'lord."
"Ah," he appeared satisfied. "You come in good time, boy. The trials begin tomorrow. The Guild has its tent pitched hard by the main gate of the Temple; you should have no trouble finding it."
The wizard of the gate looked bored, ignoring her. Rune did not correct the Fair-ward's assumption that she was a boy; it was her intent to pass as male until she'd safely passed the trials. She'd never heard of the Bardic Guild admitting a girl, but so far as she'd been able to determine, there was nothing in the rules and Charter of the Guild preventing it. So once she'd been accepted, once the trials were safely passed, she'd reveal her sex, but until then, she'd play the safe course.
She thanked him, but he had already turned his attention to the next in line. She passed inside the log walls and entered the Fair itself.
The first impressions she had were of noise and light; torches burned all along the aisle she traversed; the booths to either side were lit by lanterns, candles, or other, more arcane methods. The crowd was noisy; so were the merchants. Even by torchlight it was plain that these were the booths featuring shoddier goods; secondhand finery, brass jewelry, flash and tinsel. The entertainers here weresurprising. She averted her eyes from a set of dancers. It wasn't so much that they wore little but imagination, but the way they were dancing embarrassed even her; and a tavern-bred child has seen a great deal in its life.
She kept a tight grip on her pouch and instruments, tried to ignore the crush, and let the flow of fairgoers carry her along.
Eventually the crowd thinned out a bit (though not before she'd felt a ghostly hand or two try for her pouch and give it up as a bad cause). She followed her nose then, looking for the row that held the cookshop tents and the ale-sellers. She hadn't eaten since this morning, and her stomach was lying in uncomfortably close proximity to her spine.
She learned that the merchants of tavern-row were shrewd judges of clothing; hers wasn't fine enough to be offered a free taste, but wasn't poor enough to be shooed away. Sternly admonishing her stomach to be less impatient, she strolled the length of the row twice, carefully comparing prices and quantities, before settling on a humble tent that offered meat pasties (best not ask what beast the meat came from, not at these prices) and fruit juice or milk as well as ale and wine. Best of all, it offered seating at rough trestle-tables as well. Rune took her flaky pastry and her mug of juice (no wine or ale for her; not even had she the coppers to spare for it. She dared not be the least muddle-headed, not with a secret to keep and a competition on the morn), and found herself a spot at an empty table where she could eat and watch the crowd passing by. The pie was more crust than meat, but it was filling and well-made and fresh; that counted for a great deal. She noted with amusement that there were two sorts of the clumsy, crude clay mugs. One sort, the kind they served the milk and juice in, was ugly and shapeless (too ugly to be worth stealing) but was just as capacious as the exterior promised. The other, for wine and ale, was just the same ugly shape and size on the outside (though a different shade of toad-back green), but had a far thicker bottom, effectively reducing the interior capacity by at least a third.
"Come for the trials, lad?" asked a quiet voice in her ear. Rune jumped, nearly knocking her mug over, and snatching at it just in time to save the contents from drenching her shopworn finery (and however would she have gotten it clean again in time for the morrow's competition?). There hadn't been a sound or a hint of movement or even the shifting of the bench to warn her, but now there was a man sitting beside her.
He was of middle years, red hair going to gray, smile-wrinkles around his mouth and grey-green eyes, with a candid, triangular face. Well, that said nothing; Rune had known highwaymen with equally friendly and open faces. His dress was similar to her own; leather breeches instead of velvet, good linen instead of worn silk, a vest and a leather hat that could have been twin to hers, knots of ribbon on the sleeves of his shirtand the neck of a lute peeking over his shoulder. A Minstrel!
Of the Guild? Rune rechecked the ribbons on his sleeves, and was disappointed. Blue and scarlet and green, not the purple and silver of a Guild Minstrel, nor the purple and gold of a Guild Bard. This was only a common songster, a mere street-player. Still, he'd bespoken her kindly enough, and the Three knew not everyone with the music-passion had the skill or the talent to pass the trials
"Aye, sir," she replied politely. "I've hopes to pass; I think I've the talent, and others have said as much."
His eyes measured her keenly, and she had the disquieting feeling that her boy-ruse was fooling him not at all. "Ah well," he replied, "There's a-many before you have thought the same, and failed."
"That may be" she answered the challenge in his eyes, "but I'd bet fair coin that none of them fiddled for a murdering ghost, and not only came out by the grace of their skill but were rewarded by that same spirit for amusing him!"
"Oh, so?" a lifted eyebrow was all the indication he gave of being impressed, but somehow that lifted brow conveyed volumes. "You've made a song of it, surely?"
"Have I not! It's to be my entry for the third day of testing."
"Well then" He said no more than that, but his wordless attitude of waiting compelled Rune to unsling her fiddlecase, extract her instrument, and tune it without further prompting.
"It's the fiddle that's my first instrument," she said apologetically, "And since 'twas the fiddle that made the tale"
"Never apologize for a song, child," he admonished, interrupting her. "Let it speak out for itself. Now let's hear this ghost-tale."
It wasn't easy to sing while fiddling, but Rune had managed the trick of it some time ago. She closed her eyes a half-moment, fixing in her mind the necessary changes she'd made to the lyricsfor unchanged, the song would have given her sex awayand began.
"I sit here on a rock, and curse
my stupid, bragging tongue,
And curse the 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!"
Oh, aye, that had been a damn fool moveto let those idiots who patronized the tavern where her mother worked goad her into boasting that there wasn't anyone, living or dead, that she couldn't cozen with her fiddling. Too much ale, Rune, and too little sense. And too tender a pride, as well, to let them rub salt in the wound of being the tavern wench's bastard.
"It's midnight, and there's not a sound
up here upon Skull Hill
Then comes a wind that chills my blood
and makes the leaves blow wild"
Not a good word choice, but a change that had to be madethat was one of the giveaway verses.
"And rising up in front of me,
a thing like shrouded Death.
A voice says, `Give me reason why
I shouldn't kill you, child.' "
Holy Three, that thing had been ghastly; cold and old and totally heartless; it had smelled of Death and the grave, and had shaken her right down to her toenails. She made the fiddle sing about what words alone could never convey, and saw her audience of one actually shiver.
The next verse described Rune's answer to the spirit, and the fiddle wailed of fear and determination and things that didn't rightly belong on earth. Then came the description of that night-long, lightless ordeal she'd passed through, and the fiddle shook with the weariness she'd felt, playing the whole night long, and the tune rose with dawning triumph when the thing not only didn't kill her outright, but began to warm to the music she'd made. Now she had an audience of more than one, though she was only half aware of the fact.
"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 had stood
there is a heap of shining gold!"
The fiddle laughed at Death cheated, thumbed its nose at spirits, and chortled over the revelation that even the dead could be impressed and forced to reward courage and talent.
Rune stopped, and shook back brown locks dark with sweat, and looked about her in astonishment at the applauding patrons of the cooktent. She was even more astonished when they began to toss coppers in her open fiddlecase, and the cooktent's owner brought her over a full pitcher of juice and a second pie.
"I'd'a brought ye wine, laddie, but Master Talaysen there says ye go to trials and mustna be a-muddled," she whispered as she hurried back to her counter.
"I hadn't meant"
"Surely this isn't the first time you've played for your supper, child?" the minstrel's eyes were full of amused irony.
"Well, no, but"
"So take your well-earned reward and don't go arguing with folk who have a bit of copper to fling at you, and who recognize the Gift when they hear it. No mistake, youngling, you have the Gift. And sit and eat; you've more bones than flesh. A good tale, that."
"Well," Rune blushed, "I did exaggerate a bit at the end. 'Twasn't gold, it was silver. But silver won't rhyme. And it was that silver that got me herebought me my second instrument, paid for lessoning, kept me fed while I was learning. I'd be just another tavern-musician, otherwise"
"Like me, you are too polite to say?" the minstrel smiled, then the smile faded. "There are worse things, child, than to be a free musician. I don't think there's much doubt your Gift will get you past the trialsbut you might not find the Guild to be all you think it to be."
Rune shook her head stubbornly, wondering briefly why she'd told this stranger so much, and why she so badly wanted his good opinion. "Only a Guild Minstrel would be able to earn a place in a noble's train. Only a Guild Bard would have the chance to sing for royalty. I'm sorry to contradict you, sir, but I've had my taste of wandering, singing my songs out only to know they'll be forgotten in the next drink, wondering where my next meal is coming from. I'll never get a secure life except through the Guild, and I'll never see my songs live beyond me without their patronage."
He sighed. "I hope you never regret your decision, child. But if you shouldor if you need help, everwell, just ask for Talaysen. I'll stand your friend."
With those surprising words, he rose soundlessly, as gracefully as a bird in flight, and slipped out of the tent. Just before he passed out of sight among the press of people, Rune saw him pull his lute around and begin to strum it. She managed to hear the first few notes of a love-song, the words rising golden and glorious from his throat, before the crowd hid him from view and the babble of voices obscured the music.
Rune was waiting impatiently outside the Guild tent the next morning, long before there was anyone there to take her name for the trials. It was, as the Fair-ward had said, hard to miss; purple in the main, with pennons and edgings of silver and gilt. Almosttoo much; almost gaudy. She was joined shortly by three more striplings, one well-dressed and confident, two sweating and nervous. More trickled in as the sun rose higher, until there was a line of twenty or thirty waiting when the Guild Registrar, an old and sour-looking scribe, raised the tent-flap to let them file inside. He wasn't wearing Guild colors, but rather a robe of dusty brown velvet; a hireling therefore.
He took his time, sharpening his quill until Rune was ready to scream with impatience, before looking her up and down and asking her name.
"Rune, child of Lista Jesaril, tavernkeeper." That sounded a trifle better than her mother's real position, serving wench.
"Karthar, East and Northbelow Galzar Pass."
He raised an eyebrow; the usual order was lute, primary; fiddle, secondary. For that matter, fiddle wasn't all that common even as a secondary instrument.
"And you will perform?"
"First day, primary, `Lament Of The Maiden Esme.' Second day, secondary, `The Unkind Lover.' Third day, original, `The Skull Hill Ghost.' " An awful title, but she could hardly use the real name of "Fiddler Girl." "Accompanied on primary, fiddle."
"Take your place."
She sat on the backless wooden bench trying to keep herself calm. Before her was the raised wooden platform on which they would all perform; to either side of it were the backless benches like the one she warmed, for the aspirants to the Guild. The back of the tent made the third side, and the fourth faced the row of well-padded chairs for the Guild judges. Although she was first here, it was inevitable that they would let others have the preferred first few slots; there would be those with fathers already in the Guild, or those who had coins for bribes. Still, she shouldn't have to wait too longrising with the dawn would give her that much of an edge, at least.
She got to play by midmorning. The "Lament" was perfect for fiddle, the words were simple and few, and the wailing melody gave her lots of scope for improvisation. The row of Guild judges, solemn in their tunics or robes of purple, white silk shirts trimmed with gold or silver ribbon depending on whether they were Minstrels or Bards, were a formidable audience. Their faces were much alike: well-fed and very conscious of their own importance; you could see it in their eyes. As they sat below the platform and took unobtrusive notes, they seemed at least mildly impressed. Even more heartening, several of the boys yet to perform looked satisfyingly worried when she'd finished.
She packed up her fiddle and betook herself briskly outto find herself a corner of Temple Wall to lean against as her knees sagged when the excitement that had sustained her wore off. It was several long moments before she could get her legs to bear her weight and her hands to stop shaking. It was then that she realized that she hadn't eaten since the night beforeand that she was suddenly ravenous. Before she'd played, the very thought of food had been revolting.
The same cookshop tent as before seemed like a reasonable proposition. She paid for her breakfast with some of the windfall-coppers of the night before; this morning the tent was crowded and she was lucky to get a scant corner of a bench to herself. She ate hurriedly and joined the strollers through the Fair.
Once or twice she thought she glimpsed the red hair of Talaysen, but if it was he, he was gone by the time she reached the spot where she had thought he'd been. There were plenty of other street-singers, though. She thought wistfully of the harvest of coin she'd garnered the night before as she noted that none of them seemed to be lacking for patronage. But now that she was a duly registered entrant in the trials, it would be going against custom, if not the rules, to set herself up among them.
So instead she strolled, and listened, and made mental notes for further songs. There was many a tale she overheard that would have worked well in song-form; many a glimpse of silk-bedecked lady, strangely sad or hectically gay, or velvet-clad lord, sly and foxlike or bold and pompous, that brought snatches of rhyme to mind. By early evening her head was crammed fulland it was time to see how the Guild had ranked the aspirants of the morning.
The list was posted outside the closed tent-flaps, and Rune wasn't the only one interested in the outcome of the first day's trials. It took a bit of time to work her way in to look, but when she did
By the Three! There she was, "Rune of Karthar" listed third.
She all but floated back to her river-side tree-roost.
The second day of the trials was worse than the first; the aspirants performed in order, lowest ranking to highest. That meant that Rune had to spend most of the day sitting on the hard wooden bench, clutching the neck of her lute in nervous fingers, listening to contestant after contestant and sure that each one was much better on his secondary instrument than she was. She'd only had a year of training on it, after all. Still, the song she'd chosen was picked deliberately to play up her voice and de-emphasize her lute-strumming. It was going to be pretty difficult for any of these others to match her high contralto, (a truly cunning imitation of a boy's soprano) since most of them had passed puberty.
At long last her turn came. She swallowed her nervousness as best she could, took the platform, and began.
Privately she thought it was a pretty silly song. Why on earth any man would put up with the things that lady did to him, and all for the sake of a "kiss on her cold, quiet hand" was beyond her. Still, she put all the acting ability she had into it, and was rewarded by a murmur of approval when she'd finished.
"That voiceI've seldom heard one so pure at that late an age!" she overheard as she packed up her instrument. "If he passes the third dayyou don't suppose he'd agree to become castrati, do you? I can think of half a dozen courts that would pay red gold to have him."
She smothered a smileimagine their surprise to discover that it would not be necessary to eunuch her to preserve her voice!
She lingered to listen to the last of the entrants, then waited outside for the posting of the results.
She nearly fainted to discover that she'd moved up to second place.
"I told you," said a quiet voice in her ear. "But are you still sure you want to go through with this?"
She whirled, to find the minstrel Talaysen standing behind her, the sunset brightening his hair and the soft shadows on his face making him appear scarcely older than she.
"I'm sure," she replied firmly. "One of the judges said today that he could think of half a dozen courts that would pay red gold to have my voice."
"Bought and sold like so much mutton? Where's the living in that? Caged behind high stone walls and never let out of the sight of m'lord's guards, lest you take a notion to sell your services elsewhere? Is that the life you want to lead?"
"Trudging down roads in the pouring cold rain, frightened half to death that you'll take sickness and ruin your voicemaybe for good? Singing with your stomach growling so loud it drowns out the song? Watching some idiot with half your talent being clad in silk and velvet and eating at the high table, while you try and please some brutes of guardsmen in the kitchen in hopes of a few scraps and a corner by the fire?" she countered. "No thank you. I'll take my chances with the Guild. Besides, where else would I be able to learn? I've got no more silver to spend on instruments or teaching."
"There are those who would teach you for the love of itwelladay, you've made up your mind. As you will, child," he replied, but his eyes were sad as he turned away and vanished into the crowd again.
Once again she sat the hard bench for most of the day, while those of lesser ranking performed. This time it was a little easier to bear; it was obvious from a great many of these performances that few, if any, of the boys had the Gift to create. By the time it was Rune's turn to perform, she judged that, counting herself and the first-place holder, there could only be five real contestants for the three open Bardic apprentice slots. The rest would be suitable only as Minstrels; singing someone else's songs, unable to compose their own.
She took her place before the critical eyes of the judges, and began.
She realized with a surge of panic as she finished the first verse that they did not approve. While she improvised, she mentally reviewed the verse, trying to determine what it was that had set those slight frowns on the Judicial faces.
Then she realized; boasting. Guild Bards simply did not admit to being boastful. Nor did they demean themselves by reacting to the taunts of lesser beings. Oh, Holy Three
Quickly she improvised a verse on the folly of youth; of how, had she been older and wiser, she'd never have gotten herself into such a predicament. She heaved an invisible sigh of relief as the frowns disappeared.
By the last chorus, they were actually nodding and smiling, and one of them was tapping a finger in time to the tune. She finished with a flourish worthy of a Master, and waited, breathlessly. And they applauded. Dropped their dignity and applauded.
The performance of the final contestant was an anticlimax.
None of them had left the tent since this last trial began. Instead of a list, the final results would be announced, and they waited in breathless anticipation to hear what they would be. Several of the boys had already approached Rune, offering smiling congratulations on her presumed first-place slot. A hush fell over them all as the chief of the judges took the platform, a list in his hand.
"First place, and first apprenticeship as BardRune, son of Lista Jesaril of Karthar"
"Pardon, my lord" Rune called out clearly, bubbling over with happiness and unable to hold back the secret any longer. "but it's not sonit's daughter."
She had only a split second to take in the rage on their faces before the first staff descended on her head.
They flung her into the dust outside the tent, half-senseless, and her smashed instruments beside her. The passersby avoided even looking at her as she tried to get to her feet, and fell three times. Her right arm dangled uselessly; it hurt so badly that she was certain that it must be broken, but it hadn't hurt half as badly when they'd cracked it as it had when they'd smashed her fiddle; that had broken her heart. All she wanted to do now was to get to the river and throw herself in. With any luck at all, she'd drown.
But she couldn't even manage to stand.
"Gently, lass," firm hands took her and supported her on both sides, "Lady be my witness, if ever I thought they'd have gone this far, I'd never have let you go through with this farce."
She turned her head, trying to see through tears of pain, both of heart and body, with eyes that had sparks dancing before them. The man supporting her on her left she didn't recognize, but the one on the right
"T-Talaysen?" she faltered.
"I told you I'd help if you needed it, did I not? I think you have more than a little need at the moment"
"Th-they broke my fiddle, Talaysen. And my lute. They broke them, and they broke my arm."
"Oh, Rune, lass" There were tears in his eyes, and yet he almost seemed to be laughing as well. "If ever I doubted you'd the makings of a Bard, you just dispelled those doubts. First the fiddle, then the luteand only then do you think of your own hurts. Ah, come away lass, come where people can care for such a treasure as you"
Stumbling through darkness, wrenched with pain, carefully supported and guided on either side, Rune was in no position to judge where or how far they went. After some unknown interval however, she found herself in a many-colored tent, lit with dozens of lanterns, partitioned off with curtains hung on wires that criss-crossed the entire dwelling. Just now most of these were pushed back, and a mixed crowd of men and women greeted their entrance with cries of welcome that turned to dismay at the sight of her condition.
She was pushed down into an improvised bed of soft wool blankets and huge, fat pillows, while a thin, dark girl dressed like a gypsy bathed her cuts and bruises with something that stung, then numbed them, and a gray-bearded man tsk'd over her arm, prodded it once or twice, then, without warning, pulled it into alignment. When he did that, the pain was so incredible that Rune nearly fainted.
By the time the multi-colored fire-flashing cleared from her eyes, he was binding her arm up tightly with thin strips of wood, while the girl was urging her to drink something that smelled of herbs and wine.
Before she had a chance to panic, Talaysen reappeared as if conjured at her side.
"You're with the Free Bardsthe real Bards, not those pompous pufftoads with the Guild," he said. "Dear child, I thought that all that would happen to you was that those inflated bladders of self-importance would give you a tongue-lashing and throw you out on your backside. If I'd had the slightest notion that they'd do this to you, I'd have kidnapped you away and had you drunk insensible till the trials were over. I may never forgive myself. Now, drink your medicine."
"But howwhywho are you?" Rune managed between gulps.
" `What are you?' I think might be the better place to start. Tell her, will you, Erdric?"
"We're the Free Bards," said the gray-bearded man, "As Master Talaysen told youhe's the one who banded us together, when he found that there were those who, like himself, had the Gift and the Talent but were disinclined to put up with the self-aggrandizement and politics and foolish slavishness to form of Guild nonsense. We go where we wish and serveor not servewho we will, and sing as we damn well please and no foolishness about who'll be offended. We also keep a sharp eye out for youngsters like you, with the Gift, and with the spirit to fight the Guild. We've had our eye on you these three years now."
"Myself, for one," said a new voice, and a bony fellow with hair that kept falling into his eyes joined the group around her. "You likely don't remember me, but I remember youI heard you fiddle in your tavern when I was passing through Karthar, and I passed the word."
"And I'm another." This one, Rune recognized; he was the man that sold her her lute, who had seemed to have been a gypsy peddler selling new and used instruments. He had also unaccountably stayed long enough to teach her the rudiments of playing it.
"You see, we keep an eye out for all the likely lads and lasses we've marked, knowing that soon or late, they'd come to the trials. Usually, though, they're not so stubborn as you." Talaysen smiled.
"I should hope to live!" the lanky fellow agreed. "They made the same remark my first day about wanting to have me stay a liltin' soprano the rest of me days. That was enough for me!"
"And they wouldn't even give me the same notice they'd have given a flea," the dark girl laughed. "Though I hadn't the wit to think of passing myself off as a boy for the trials."
"Butwhy are youtogether?" Rune asked, bewildered.
"We band together to give each other help; a spot of silver to tide you over an empty month, a place to go when you're hurt or ill, someone to care for you when you're not as young as you used to be," the gray-haired Erdric said. "And to teach, and to learn. And we have more and better patronage than you, or even the Guild suspect; not everyone finds the precious style of the Guild songsters to their taste, especially the farther you get from the large cities. Out in the countryside, away from the decadence of courts, they like their songs, like their food, substantial and heartening."
"But why does the Guild let you get away with this, if you're taking patronage from them?" Rune's apprehension, given her recent treatment, was real and understandable.
"Bless you, child, they couldn't do without us!" Talaysen laughed. "No matter what you think, there isn't an original, creative Master among 'em! Gwena, my heart, sing her `The Unkind Lover'your version, I mean, the real and original."
Gwena, the dark girl, flashed dazzling white teeth in a vulpine grin, plucked a gittern from somewhere behind her, and began.
Well, it was the same melody that Rune had sung, and some of the wordsthe best phraseswere the same as well. But this was no ice-cold princess taunting her poor knightly admirerer with what he'd never touch; no, this was a teasing shepherdess seeing how far she could harass her cowherd lover, and the teasing was kindly meant. And what the cowherd claimed at the end was a good deal more than a "kiss on her cold, quiet hand." In fact, you might say with justice that the proceedings got downright heated!
"That `Lament' you did the first day's another song they've twisted and tormented; most of the popular ballads the Guild touts as their own are ours," Talaysen told her with a grin.
"As you should know, seeing as you've written at least half of them!" Gwena snorted.
"But what would you have done if they had accepted me anyway?" Rune wanted to know.
"Oh, you wouldn't have lasted long; can a caged thrush sing? Soon or late, you'd have done what I didescaped your gilded cage, and we'd have been waiting."
"Then, you were a Guild Bard?" Somehow she felt she'd known that all along. "But I never hear of one called Talaysen, and if the `Lament' is yours"
"Well, I changed my name when I took my freedom. Likely though, you wouldn't recognize it"
"Oh she wouldn't, you think? Or are you playing mock-modest with us again?" Gwena shook back her abundant black hair. "I'll make it known to you that you're having your bruises tended by Master Bard Merridon, himself."
"Merridon?" Rune's eyes went wide as she stared at the man, who coughed, deprecatingly. "ButbutI thought Master Merridon was supposed to have gone into seclusion"
"The Guild would hardly want it known that their pride had rejected 'em for a pack of gypsy jonglers, now would they?" the lanky fellow pointed out.
"So, can I tempt you to join with us, Rune, lass?" the man she'd known as Talaysen asked gently.
"I'd likebut I can't," she replied despairingly. "How could I keep myself? It'll take months for my arm to heal. Andmy instruments are splinters, anyway." She shook her head, tears in her eyes. "They weren't much, but they were all I had. I'll have to go home; they'll take me in the tavern. I can still turn a spit and fill a glass one-handed."
"Ah lass, didn't you hear Erdric? We take care of each otherwe'll care for you till you're whole again" The old man patted her shoulder, then hastily found her a rag when scanning their faces brought her beliefand tears.
"As for the instruments" Talaysen vanished and returned again as her sobs quieted. "I'll admit to relief at your words. I was half-afraid you'd a real attachment to your poor, departed friends. `They're splinters, and I loved them' can't be mended, but `They're splinters and they were all I had' is a different tune altogether. What think you of these twain?"
The fiddle and lute he laid in her lap weren't new, nor were they the kind of gilded, carved and ornamented dainties Guild musicians boasted, but they held their own kind of quiet beauty, a beauty of mellow wood and clean lines. Rune plucked a string on each, experimentally, and burst into tears again. The tone was lovely, smooth and golden, and these were the kind of instruments she'd never dreamed of touching, much less owning.
When the tears had been soothed away, the various medicines been applied both internally and externally, and introductions made all around, Rune found herself once again alone with Talaysenor Merridon, though on reflection, she liked the name she'd first known him by better. The rest had drawn curtains on their wires close in about her little corner, making an alcove of privacy. "If you'll let me join you" she said, shyly.
"Let!" he laughed. "Haven't we made it plain enough we've been trying to lure you like coney-catchers? Oh, you're one of us, Rune, lass. You'll not escape us now!"
"Thenwhat am I supposed to do?"
"You heal, that's the first thing. The second, well, we don't have formal apprenticeships amongst us. By the Three, there's no few things you could serve as Master in, and no question about it! You could teach most of us a bit about fiddling, for one"
"But" she looked and felt dismayed, "one of the reasons I wanted to join the Guild was to learn! I can't read nor write music; there's so many instruments I can't play" her voice rose to a soft wail "how am I going to learn if a Master won't take me as an apprentice?"
"Enough! Enough! No more weeping and wailing, my heart's over-soft as it is!" he said hastily. "If you're going to insist on being an apprentice, I suppose there's nothing for it. Will I do as a Master to you?"
Rune was driven to speechlessness, and could only nod.
"Holy Three, lass, you make a liar out of me, who swore never to take an apprentice! Wait a moment." He vanished around the curtain for a moment, then returned. "Here" He set down a tiny harp. "This can be played one-handed, and learning the ways of her will keep you too busy to bedew me with any more tears while your arm mends. Treat her gentlyshe's my own very first instrument, and she deserves respect."
Rune cradled the harp in her good arm, too awe-stricken to reply.
"We'll send someone in the morning for your things, wherever it is you've cached 'em. Lean back thereoh, it's a proper nursemaid I am" He made her comfortable on her pillows, covering her with blankets and moving her twono, threenew instruments to a place of safety, but still within sight. He seemed to understand how seeing them made her feel. "We'll find you clothing and the like as well. That sleepy-juice they gave you should have you nodding shortly. Just remember one thing before you doze off. I'm not going to be an easy Master to serve; you won't be spending your days lazing about, you know! Come morning, I'll set you your very first task. You'll teach me" his eyes lighted with unfeigned eagerness "that ghost-song!"
Not long after I was accepted into the Magic in Ithkar anthology, the late Robert Adams who was the co-editor asked me to participate in his Friends of the Horseclans anthologies as well. I was happy to, since I liked Robert a great deal, and this was the result, which appeared in Volume Two.
Robert was an odd duck; you either liked him and chuckled over his eccentricities, or you passionately hated him. His most popular books, the "Horseclans" series, have not weathered the change in political climate well. For some background, they are set in a distant future following a nuclear war in which (apparently) the U.S. and the Soviet Union both bombed each other back to the Stone Age. The hero of the earliest books is immortal and telepathic, having evidently stood in the right place at the wrong time as one of the nukes hit. He decides to single-handedly bring civilization in the U.S. back up to par, mostly by uniting the remains of the population with the Native Americans who, being on remote reservations, survived intact. The villains of the books are the Greeks, who sustained very little damage, since it seems that none of the greater powers thought they were worth bombing back to the Stone Age. They proceed to flourish and conquer in the tradition of Alexander, eventually moving on to the North American continent. However, thanks to better living through radiation, there are telepathic horses and mutated, large cats in North America, both of which have teamed up with the Horseclans-folk.
In those more innocent times, no one raised the objection that all that long-term radiation would probably render the population sterile rather than producing beneficial mutations; the concept of Nuclear Winter hadn't even occurred to anyone. But the possibility of a Third World/First Nuclear War was very real.
One of the obsessions of the more devoted of Horseclans fans was to try and figure out just what the real place-names and proper names were of the locations and characters; Robert had some formula by which he took English names and places, distorted and then phonetically re-spelled them. Some of them I never could figure out.
At any rate, it occurred to me that there was another, highly mobile ethnic group that could have survived Robert's WWIII by being outside the cities; the gypsies, who would have strenuously resisted being absorbed into the Horseclans as they have strenuously resisted being absorbed into every other culture they have come into contact with.
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