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With her fiddle safely stowed away, Rune made her reluctant way to the stable-yard-such as it was. This little road wasn't used by too many people, certainly not the kind of people who would be riding high-bred horses that required expensive stabling. When the Sire traveled, he took the roads patrolled and guarded by the Duke's Men. And when someone was sent to collect taxes and take the man-count, it was never anyone important, just a bailiff. This village never gave any trouble, always paid its taxes with a minimum of cheating, and in general was easy to administer to. There were robbers, occasionally, but when robbers cropped up, a quick foray into the woods by the local men usually took care of them. There were places said to be dangerous, because of magic or supernatural menaces, but the road bypassed them. People who traveled between here and Beeford were simple people, without much in the way of valuables.

So the stable was a bare place, nothing more than four walls and a roof, with a loft and a dirt floor. Half of it was the storage place for hay and straw-no grain; the inn pony and donkey were sturdy enough to live on thistles if they had to, hay and grass suited them very well. The other half had been partitioned into rough stalls. There was a paddock, where beasts could be turned loose if their owners couldn't afford stable-fees, or the inn beasts could be put if their stalls were needed for paying tenants. That had never happened in Rune's experience, though they had come near to it in Faire season. The loft stood over the half where hay was stored, and that was where Jib slept, hemmed in and protected by bales of hay, and generally fairly snug. Tarn Hostler, the stable-master, slept with his wife Annie Cook in her room next to the kitchen. In the winter, Jib slept next to the kitchen fire with Granny.

Rune hoped, as she took herself out the kitchen door, that Jib wouldn't try to court her again today. He was her best friend-in point of fact, he was her only friend-but he was the last person she wanted courting her.

She'd been trying to discourage him; teasing him, ignoring his clumsy attempts at gallantry, laughing at his compliments. She could understand why he had the silly idea that he was in love with her, and it had nothing to do with her looks or her desirability. There were two available women here at the Bear, for Jib was too lowly ever to be able to pay court to one of the village girls. And of the two of them, even a blind man would admit she was preferable to Maeve.

Jib was fine as a friend-but nothing more. For one thing, he was at least a year younger than Rune. For another-he just wasn't very bright. He didn't understand half of what she said to him, sometimes. He wasn't at all ambitious, either; when Rune asked him once what he wanted to be when he was a man, he'd looked at her as if she was crazed. He was perfectly happy being the stableboy, and didn't see any reason for that to change. He didn't want to leave the village or see anything of the outside world but the Faire at Beeford. The only wish he'd ever expressed to her was to become a local horse-trader, selling the locally bred, sturdy little ponies and cobs to bigger traders who would take them to the enormous City Faires. He didn't even want to take the horses there himself.

And-to be honest-when a girl dreamed of a lover, she didn't dream of a boy with coarse, black hair, buck teeth, ears like a pair of jug handles, a big round potato of a nose, and spots. Of course, he'd probably grow out of the spots, but the rest was there to stay.

All in all, she wished he'd decide to settle for Maeve. They'd probably suit one another very well as long as he told her exactly what to do. . . .

The yard was deserted, and Tarn Hostler was grooming the two beasts in the paddock, alone, but Rune heard straw rustling and knew where she'd find Jib. And sure enough, when she entered the stable, there he was, forking straw into a pair of stalls.

She grabbed a pitchfork and went to help him, filling the mangers with fresh hay, and rinsing and filling the water buckets at the paddock pump. The pony, Dumpling (brown and round as one of Cook's best dumplings), and the donkey, Stupid (which he was not), watched her with half-closed eyes as old Tarn gave them a carefully currycombing, brushing out clouds of winter hair. They knew the schedule as well as anyone. Bring back loads of wood for the ovens on Monday, haul food for the inn on Tuesday, wood again on Wednesday (but this time for the baker in the village), be hitched to the grindstone on Thursday, since the village had no water-mill, wood again on Friday for the woodcutter himself, odd jobs on Saturday, and be hitched to the wagon to take everyone to Church on Sunday. They'd done their duty for the day. Now they could laze about the yard and be groomed, then put in their stalls for the night, once Jib and Rune finished cleaning them.

"Hey, Rune," Jib said, after trying to get her attention by clearing his throat several times.

"You ought to see Annie about that cough you've got," she interrupted him. "It sounds really bad."

"My cough?" he replied, puzzled. "I don't have a cough."

"You've been hemming and hacking like a wheezy old man ever since I got out here," she replied sharply. "Of course you have a cough. You ought to take care of it. Get Annie to dose you. I'll tell her about it-"

"Uh, no, please," he said, looking alarmed, as well he might. Annie's doses were fearsome things that took the skin off a person's tongue and left a nasty, lingering taste in the back of the throat for days afterwards. "I'm fine, really I am, please, don't tell Annie I'm sick-"

He babbled on about how healthy he was for some time; Rune paid scant attention, simply pleased that she'd managed to elude whatever he'd planned to ask her. With that much nervousness showing, it had to be romantic in nature, at least by Jib's primitive standards of romance.

Which were at best, one step above Dumpling's.

She looked about for something else to distract him when he finally wound down, but fate took a hand for her-for his babble was interrupted by the sounds of hooves on the hard-packed dirt outside, and a strange voice.

They both ran to see who it was, just as they had when they were children, Rune reaching the stable door a little before Jib.

At first glance, the newcomer looked to be a peddler; his pony had two largish packs on its back, and he was covered from head to knee in a dust-colored cloak. But then he pulled the cloak off, and shook it, and Rune saw he was dressed in a linen shirt with knots of multi-colored ribbon on the sleeves, a bright blue vest, and fawn-colored breeches. Only one kind of traveler would dress like that, and her guess was confirmed when he pulled a lute in its case out of one of the packs.

He was very tall, taller than Rune, and lanky, with dust-colored hair, and wonderfully gentle brown eyes. The stable-master saw them both gawking from the shelter of the doorway, and waved them over abruptly.

They obeyed at once; Tarn told them to groom the minstrel's pony and put it in one of the prepared stalls, then come fetch the inn beasts when a third stall was ready. He himself took the stranger's packs, leading him into the inn as if he owned it.

Jib and Rune eyed each other over the empty pack-saddle. "Flip you for it," Rune said. Jib nodded wordlessly, and Rune bent down long enough to fetch a pebble from the dust at her feet. She spat on it, and tossed it into the air, calling out, "Wet!" as it fell.

It landed wet side up, and Jib shrugged philosophically.

She led the visitor's pony into one of the stalls, unsaddled him and hung his tack over the wall of his stall, and gave him a brisk grooming. He seemed to enjoy it, leaning into the strokes of the currycomb with an expression of bliss on his round little face.

When she had finished, Jib was still forking in hay for the new stall. She turned the pony loose in this temporary home, made sure that the door was secure (some ponies were wizards at finding ways to escape), and took herself back into the inn.

She was met at the inner door by her mother, who barred the way with her arm across the doorway. "His name is Master Heron and he's on his way to the Lycombe Faire," she said, as Rune fidgeted. "He promised Jeoff he'd play tonight, and that means that you serve."

"Yes, M-Stara," she replied, catching herself at the last minute before saying the forbidden word.

"Jeoff wants you to go down to the village and make the rounds of all the Guildsmen," Stara continued. "He wants you to tell them all that Master Heron will be entertaining tonight; from them it will spread to everyone else in Westhaven."

"Yes, Stara," Rune said, curbing her impatience.

"He has to be on his way first thing in the morning if he's going to make the Faire in time," Stara finished, dashing Rune's hopes for a lesson. "And you'd better be on your way now, if we're going to have the extra custom tonight."

Rune sighed, but said nothing more. If she got down to the village before the men went home to their suppers, they'd likely eat lightly or not at all, those who could afford to. Then they'd come here, and eat plates of salt-laden sausage rolls and sharp cheese while they listened to the minstrel, making themselves thirsty. They'd drink plenty of beer tonight to drown the salty sausages. Jeoff was probably already hauling up extra kegs and putting them behind the bar. It would be a good night for the inn.

And at least Rune would hear some new songs. If she was lucky, the minstrel would repeat them enough for her to learn one or two.

She turned and started down the path to the village, hoping to get back quickly enough not to miss anything.

The village of Westhaven was set back from the road, because there wasn't enough flat land for more than the inn right up beside it. Those who had business in Westhaven itself-not many-took the path up the valley to find the village. Rune usually enjoyed the walk, although it was a bit long, and a little frightening after the sun went down. But today, halfway between the inn and the first buildings of the village itself, she stopped; the path was blocked by two of Westhaven's girls, Joyse and Amanda, gossiping in the middle of the path and making no effort to move out of the way.

They knew she was coming; they could hardly miss her. But they pretended not to notice her, clutching baskets of early flowers and keeping their heads close together. Joyse, as blond as Stara, but thin, was the baker's daughter; Amanda, as round and brown as Dumpling, but without the pony's easy-going nature, was the offspring of one of the local farmers. Joyse, with her hair neatly confined under a pretty red scarf that matched her brand new kirtle, was betrothed already to another farmer's son. Amanda, in a blue dress that looked almost as new, but was already straining at the seams around her middle, was one of the contenders to replace Rose. From the way it looked, one or the other had been up to the inn, possibly to spy on Rune, Stara, or both. Rune had the feeling that Amanda would do just about anything to become the innkeeper's new wife, except surrendering her virginity before taking wedding vows.

Both girls looked down their noses at Rune as she approached slowly.

"Well, I wish I had time to play games in the hay and flirt with boys," Amanda said nastily. "Of course, some people have lots of time. Some people have all the time they want, not just to play games, but to pretend they're minstrels."

Joyse laughed shrilly, showing buckteeth, and looking uncannily like a skinny old mare whinnying.

"And some people are so lazy, they pretend to be working, when all they really do is stand around and make up stories because the truth is too dull," Rune said aloud, to a squirrel in one of the trees beside her. It chattered, as if it was responding to her. "And some people are so fat they block the path, so people with work to do can't travel it. And of course, some people are so bad-tempered that no one will have them for a wife, not even with a big dower."

Amanda squealed with rage, turning to face her directly, and Rune pretended to notice her for the first time. "Why Amanda, I didn't see you there. I thought it was a pony blocking the path."

Amanda's round face turned bright red, and her hands balled into fists beside her skirt. "You, little bastard-brat-were you talking about me?"

"Talking about you?" Rune shrugged, and pretended surprise. "Why would I bother? There's nothing at all interesting about you. I'd put myself and that squirrel to sleep talking about you. Besides, you know what Father Jacob says about gossiping. He says that women who spend their time in idle gossip spend three hundred years in hell when they die, with their lips sewn shut." She shuddered artistically. "I'd never want to end up like that."

"I'll show you how you'll end up," Amanda hissed, taking a step forward.

But Joyse grabbed her shoulder, bent to her ear, and whispered something fiercely to her, stopping her. Rune had a fairly good idea what the general gist of the advice was, because the last time any of the Westhaven youngsters had tried to turn a confrontation with Rune into something physical, it had ended with the girl getting her hair rubbed full of mud while Rune sat on her back. Not even the boys wanted to risk a physical fight with her; she was taller and stronger than most of them, and knew some tricks of dirty fighting Tarn had taught both her and Jib (though Jib never kept his head long enough to use them) that they didn't.

Rune took one deliberate step forward, then a second. Joyse whispered something else, her eyes round with urgency, and Amanda backed up-then turned, and the two of them flounced their way up the path. Rune watched them go, seething inwardly, but refusing to show it.

She'd won-sort of. In most ways, though, it had been a draw. They could continue to pick on her verbally, and she could do nothing, and they all three knew it. Most of the time she couldn't even get her own hits in when it was a verbal confrontation. It wasn't fair.

She waited a few more minutes for them to get far enough ahead of her that she shouldn't have to encounter them again, then continued on her way. Slower, this time, trying to get her temper to cool by listening to the blackbirds singing their hearts out in the trees around her, trying to win themselves mates.

There was this much satisfaction; at least this time she'd been able to give as good as she got. And none of them would try to touch even Jib, these days, not even in a group. Everyone knew she was Jib's protector. She wasn't averse to using teeth and feet as well as fists when she was cornered, either. They had to keep their abuse verbal.

One of these days I'm going to write a song about them, she thought angrily. About Amanda, Joyse, all of them. All of them pretending to be so much better than me . . . but Amanda steals her mother's egg-money, and Joyse only got Thom because her father promised to help his father cheat on his taxes. And they don't know I know about it. That'd serve them right, to go to a Faire and hear some strange minstrel singing a song mocking them. 

Not a one of them ever missed a chance to tell her that she was scum. It would be nice to watch their faces as someone told them exactly what they were. And why not? When Raven came, maybe she could get him to help her with that song. With his help, surely it would be picked up by other singers.

Savoring that sweet thought, she picked up her pace a little. The first stop was going to be the chandler's shop.

Maybe with luck she'd get through this without having any more little "encounters."

After the chandler, she left her message at the tannery and the baker's, wishing she could stay longer and savor the wonderful aromas there. The baker said nothing about her little encounter with his daughter; she hadn't really expected that he would. If he knew about it, he'd likely just chalk it up to the "bastard-brat's" bad breeding. But since Rune had gotten the better of that exchange, and in fact had not said a single thing that-taken literally-could be called an insult, she doubted either girl would even mention it to a parent.

In fact, she thought, as she crossed the lane to the smithy, she'd handled it rather well. She'd simply said that some people were fat, were gossips, and couldn't get a husband because they had such terrible tempers. She'd only repeated what the Westhaven priest-shared with Beeford-had told all of them about the fate of gossiping women. She hadn't once said that either Amanda or Joyse were anything other than dull. And while that was an insult, it was hardly one that was anything other than laughable.

The smithy was full; Hob and his two older apprentices, hard at work on sharpening farm tools gone rusty after a winter's storage. They stopped work long enough to hear what she had to say; she spoke her piece quickly, for the forge was hot as a midsummer day, and plain took her breath away. All three men paid her little heed until they heard her news. Then they reacted with considerably more enthusiasm; it had been several weeks since the last real minstrel had been through, after all, and spring had brought with the new growth a predictable restlessness on everyone's part. Tonight's entertainment would give them a welcome outlet for some of that restlessness.

The next stop on Rune's mental list, as she passed behind the smithy and the blacksmith resumed his noisy work, was the carpenter-she'd take this shortcut behind the smithy, between it and its storage sheds, for the smithy and the carpenter's shop lay a little to one side of Westhaven proper, on the other side of the tiny village pond, out where their pounding wouldn't disturb anyone, and where, if the smithy caught fire, there'd be no danger of houses taking flame.

"Well, look what jest wandered inta town." The blacksmith's son Jon stepped out from the side of the shop, blocking her path.

She stopped; he grinned, showing a mouth with half the teeth missing, and rubbed his nose on the back of his hand, sniffing noisily. His manners hadn't improved over the winter. "You lookin' fer me, girl?" he drawled.

She didn't answer, and she didn't acknowledge him. Instead, she turned slowly, figuring that it would be better-much better-if she simply pretended to ignore him. He'd grown over the winter. Quite a bit, in fact. Suddenly, her feeling of superiority to the rest of the village youngsters began to evaporate.

As Hill and Warran, two of the farm boys, moved out from the other side of the blacksmith shop to block her escape, the last of her assumption of superiority vanished. They'd grown over the winter, too. All three of them were taller than she was, and Jon had huge muscles in his arms and shoulders that matched his father's. Becoming his father's apprentice on his fifteenth birthday had developed his body beyond anything she would have anticipated.

It hadn't done much for his mind, though. She whirled at a sound behind her, and saw that he had already moved several paces closer.

"What do you want, Jon?" she asked, trying to sound bored. "I'm busy. I'm supposed to be delivering messages from Master Jeoff. I left one with your father," she concluded pointedly.

"What's the matter?" he asked, scratching his behind with one sooty hand, and grinning still wider. "You in a big hurry t' get back t' yer lo-o-over?" He laughed. "What's Jib got, huh? Nothin', that's what."

So, now it was out in the open, instead of being sniggered about, hinted at. Someone had finally said to her face what everyone in Westhaven had been telling each other for a year.

"He's not my lover," she said as calmly as she could. "I don't have any lover."

"Then maybe it's time you got one," said Hill, snickering. "Little lovin' might do you some good, string bean. Teach you what a woman's for."

"Aww, Hill, she just means she ain't got a real lover," Jon said genially, flexing the muscles of his shoulders, presumably for her benefit. "She just means she wants one, eh?"

"I meant what I said," she told him defiantly.

"Ah, don't fool around, Rune. We know your Mam's been in ol' Jeoff's bed since Rose died. An' we know 'bout you. Your Mam wasn't any more married than m' Dad's anvil." He advanced, and she backed up-into Hill's and Warran's hands. She suppressed a yelp as they grabbed her. "You got no call pretendin' that you're all goody-good." She struggled in the farm boys' hands; they simply tightened their grips.

She stopped fighting, holding very, very still, part of her mind planning every second of the next few minutes, the rest of her too scared to squeak. "Let me go," she said, slowly, clearly, and sounding amazingly calm even to herself.

"Yer Mam's a whore," Jon said, his grin turning cruel, as he reached out for her. "Yer Mam's a whore, an' yer a whore's daughter, an' if yer not a whore now, ye will be-"

He grabbed her breast, crushing it in his hand and hurting her, as he slammed his foul mouth down on hers, trying to force her lips open with his tongue.

She opened her mouth and let his tongue probe forward-and bit down on it, quick, and as hard as she could, tasting blood briefly.

At the same time, she slammed her knee up into his crotch.

As Jon screamed and fell away from her, she brought her heel down hard on Hill's instep, and slammed her head back against his teeth. That hurt, and she reckoned she'd cut her scalp a bit, but it surely hurt him worse.

Hill let out a hoarse cry and let go of her immediately, and bumbled into Warran. She pivoted as much as she could with Warran still holding onto her, and kicked Hill in the knee, toppling him; he went down, taking Warran with him. As Warran fell, she managed to pull free of the last boy's grip-and she pelted away as fast as her legs would carry her, never once looking back to see if she'd hurt them seriously or not.

She ran all the way out of the village, her side aching, her head hurting, half blinded with fright. No matter who might have been following her, she still had longer legs and better wind than any of them. When she slowed and finally paused, near where she'd been stopped by the girls earlier, she couldn't hear any pursuit.

That was when she started to shake.

She started to drop to her knees beside the path, then thought better of the idea. What if there was someone following? What if the boys recovered and decided to come after her?

But she had one place of shelter, one they wouldn't know about-one that was completely defensible.

She got off the path somehow, and fought her way through the brush some twenty or thirty feet into the forest. And there was her shelter, the biggest oak tree for miles around. She forced her shaking legs to carry her up the side of the forest giant, and into the huge fork, completely hidden from below by the new young leaves of lesser trees. There she curled up, and let her mind go blank, while she shook with reaction.

After a while, her heart stopped pounding in her ears, and she stopped feeling sick to her stomach. Mostly, anyway.

Her mind began to work again, if slowly.

She put her hand to the back of her head, but surprisingly, didn't come away with any blood on it, though she felt the hard lump of a rising goose egg back there. That, and a torn and dirty shirt were the worst she'd taken out of the encounter.

This time.

She chewed some young leaves to get the nasty taste of Jon out of her mouth, but she couldn't get the nasty feel of him out of her mind.

One thing was certain; her immunity had vanished with the snows of winter. The girls might leave her alone, but she was completely at the mercy of the boys, even in daylight. The girls might even have set their brothers on her; that would certainly fit Amanda and Joyse's personalities. And that this attack had taken place in daylight meant that they were not particularly worried about hiding their actions from their parents.

That meant their parents didn't care what they were doing to her. If anything happened to her, nothing would be done to punish her attackers. That had always been true-but the threat of attack had never included rape before.

The boys had said it all; her mother was a whore, she was the daughter of a whore, therefore she was a whore. No one would believe anything else. Anything that happened to her would be her own fault, brought on her own actions, or simply by being born of bad blood.

Not even the Priest would help, unless she took holy vows. And even then-he might not believe that she was an innocent, and he might refuse her the protection of the Church. She had nowhere to turn to for help, and no one to depend on but herself.

How long was it going to be before she was cornered by a gang she couldn't escape? It was only the purest luck, and the fact that they hadn't expected her to fight back, that had let her get away this time.

Next time she might not be so lucky.

Next time, they might win.

The realization made her start to shake all over again.

It felt like hours later that she managed to get herself under control, and climb down out of the tree-but when she made her way back to the inn, no one seemed to have missed her. At least, no one seemed to think she had taken an extraordinary amount of time to deliver her messages.

After much thought, she had decided to keep quiet about the attack; after all, what good would complaining about it do? None of this would have happened if the boys hadn't been sure they were safe from punishment. Jeoff wouldn't do anything to risk the anger of his customers, Stara and Annie Cook would be certain she'd brought it on herself, and Jib would only get himself into fights he couldn't hope to win. No one would care, at least, not enough to help protect her.

But she could protect herself, in clever ways. She could refuse to go into the village alone, or better still, she could send Jib to run errands for her, trading chore for chore. Even if it meant more of the kind of work that might stiffen her hands. . . .

Better that, than the little entertainments Jon and his friends had planned.

But she didn't have long to brood on her troubles, for despite the fact that she hadn't been able to deliver more than half her messages, word of the new minstrel had traveled all through the village, and the men and their wives were already beginning to take their places behind the rough wooden tables. There were three couples there already; the baker and his wife, and a couple of the nearer farmers and their spouses. The place would be full tonight, for certain.

She dashed upstairs to change her torn shirt for a clean, older one-a loose and baggy one that didn't show anything of her figure-making sure no one saw her to ask about what had happened to the first shirt.

She stripped off the shirt and frowned-more in anger now, than fear-at the bruises on her breast. She touched it gingerly; it was going to hurt more later than it did now, and it hurt bad enough now that she waited long enough to wrap her chest in a supporting and protecting-and concealing-band of cloth. She slipped the new shirt over her head, pledging herself that she'd find a way to make Jon hurt as much as he'd hurt her.

If he didn't already. She hoped, devoutly, that he did. He'd surely have a hard time explaining away his bitten and swollen tongue. She was quite sure she'd drawn blood, for there'd been blood on the back of her hand when she'd wiped it across her mouth. With any luck it would be so bad he'd have to drink his meals tonight and tomorrow. And she had a notion his privates ached more than her breast did right now.

The thought made her a little more cheerful.

She scraped her hair back and tied it into a severe knot at the nape of her neck. There had been no sign from any of the adults today that they thought the way the boys did, but she had no intention of finding out the hard way. When she made herself look like a boy this way, most of them actually forgot she was a girl. And she didn't want to start anything among the beer-happy men-she knew for a fact that she wouldn't be able to defend herself from a grown man. Stara was safe enough behind the bar, but she was going to be out in the open.

A few months ago, with Rose in charge, anyone bothering "the wenches" would have found himself getting a rap on the head or hand with a spoon-or invited to leave and not return, which could be quite a punishment in a village with only one inn. Rune hadn't ever thought that the situation might change-

Until this afternoon. That changed everything.

Now, she wasn't taking any chances.

For a moment she hesitated at the foot of the stairs, afraid to face the crowd, afraid that she might see knowing looks in their faces, afraid of what they might be thinking-

But Annie Cook seized her as soon as the red-faced woman spotted her, and shoved a tray of sausage rolls into her hands, not giving her a chance to think about anything else.

The young minstrel was in the common room, tuning his instrument, as she delivered the salty sausage rolls to the customers. He glanced up at her as she passed, and smiled, the setting sun coming in through the inn windows and touching his hair and face with a gentle golden light. It was a plain, friendly smile, unlike the leers of Jon and his companions, and it warmed a place within her that had been cold all afternoon.

The next time she passed, this time with a tray full of beer mugs, he stopped her, on the pretense of getting a mugful of beer himself.

"I understand you're a fiddler," he said, quietly, taking his time about choosing a mug. "Will you be playing tonight? Do you think you'd like to try a duet?"

If only I could- But Stara had given her direct orders. She shook her head, not trusting her voice.

"That's too bad," he answered, making it sound as if he really was disappointed that she wouldn't be fiddling. "I was hoping to hear you; well, let me know if I do anything new to you, all right? I'll make sure to try and repeat the new songs so you can pick them up."

Speechless now with gratitude, she nodded emphatically, and he took his mug and let her go.

As the evening passed-and the women left-the atmosphere in the room changed. Some of the men from the village, who a month ago would never have dreamed of taking liberties, were pinching and touching Maeve, their hands lingering on her arm or shoulder-or, when they thought no one was watching, her breasts. Maeve seemed oblivious as usual. And neither Jeoff nor Stara were doing anything about it. Now, more than ever, Rune was glad she'd made herself less of a target. As she'd hoped, some of the men, with several mugs of dark beer in them, were calling her "boy." As long as they thought her a boy, she'd probably be safe enough.

True to his promise, Master Heron watched her closely at the conclusion of every tune he played. If she nodded, she could be sure he'd play that song later in the evening, and as the crowd grew more intoxicated, he could repeat the songs a little more often. His hat, left at his feet, was quite full of copper by now. There was even a silver piece or two among the copper. Rune didn't know for certain what he was used to, but by the standards of Westhaven he was doing very well indeed.

Finally he pled the need to take a break, and as Rune brought him more beer and a bit of bread and cheese and an apple, the villagers gathered closer to ask him questions. She ran into the kitchen and out again, not wanting to miss a single word.

"Lad, you're the best these parts have heard in a long while. Are you a Guild Bard?" the mayor wanted to know.

Of course he'd ask that, Rune thought cynically. It's always better if it comes from a Guildsman. As if the music cared who plays it! 

"No, that I'm not," he replied, easily. "Look you, Guildsmen always wear purple ribbon on their sleeves, purple and gold for Bards, purple and silver for Minstrels. I doubt you'd ever see a Guildsman through here, though; they're not for the likes of you and me. They play for no less than Sires, and sure they'll tell you so, quick enough!"

He said it so lightly that no one took offense, not even the mayor, who looked a bit disappointed, but not angered.

"No, now I'm just a rover, a Free Bard, seeing that everyone gets to hear a bit of a tune now and again," he continued. "Though after the Faire, I'll admit to you I've been asked to play for the Sire."

That put the mayor in a better humor. "So what's the difference, lad?" he asked genially. "Besides a bit of ribbon, that is."

"Ah, now that is the question," he replied, with his eyebrows raised as high as they could go. "And the answer to it is more than you might think. It's not enough to be able to play, d'ye see. The Bardic Guild seems to think that's only part of what a man needs to get into it. You've all heard of the great Midsummer Faire at Kingsford, right by Traen, have you not?"

All heads nodded; who hadn't heard of the King's Faire? It was the greatest Faire in the land, and one or two of the crowd, the mayor being chiefest, had actually been there once. So great a Faire it was, it couldn't be held inside the capital city of Traen, but had to be set up in its own, temporary city of tents, at Kingsford nearby. It lasted for six weeks, three weeks on either side of Midsummer's Day, with a High Holy Mass celebrated on the day itself, adding the Church's blessing to the proceedings.

"Well," Master Heron said, leaning back against the hearth, so that the firelight caught all the angles of his face, "it's like this. On the second week of Kingsford Midsummer Faire, the Guild comes and sets up a big tent, hard by the cathedral-tent. That's where they hold trials, and they go on for three days. Anyone who wants can sign up for the trials, but there aren't many that make it to the third day."

"You didn't make it, then?" said Ralf, the candle-maker, insolently.

But Master Heron only laughed. "I never tried," he said, "I'm too great a coward to face an audience all of musicians!"

The others laughed with him, and Ralf had the grace to flush.

"So, here's what happens," the minstrel continued. "The first day, you sing and play your best instrument, and you can choose whatever song you wish. There's just one catch-as you play, the judges call out a kind of tune, jig, reel, lament-and you have to play that song in that style, and improvise on it. The second day, you sing and play your second instrument, but you have to choose from a list of songs they pick, then you drum for the next to play. And the third day, you go back to your first instrument, or on to your third, if you have one, and you play and sing a song you have made. And each day, the list of those that get to go on gets shorter by half." He laughed. "Do you see now why I hadn't the courage to try? 'Tis enough to rattle your nerves to pieces, just thinking on it!"

The mayor whistled, and shook his head as the crowd fell silent. "Well, that's a poser. And all that just to get in as an apprentice?"

"Aye," Master Heron replied. "When I was young enough, I didn't have the courage, and now-" he spread his hands. "Wouldn't I look foolish now, as an apprentice?"

The men nodded agreement, as Rune went back to the kitchen, aflame with ambition, but half-crushed as well. She could compose, all right-yes, and she played her fiddle well enough, and drummed too, and sang-

But he'd said quite distinctly that you had to have two instruments, or even a third, and be proficient on all of them.

Even if she could find someone with a lute or mandolin to sell, she could never afford it. She could never afford the lessons to learn to play it, either-and that was assuming she could find a teacher. And if she waited for minstrels to come along to teach her, the way she'd learned fiddle, she'd be an old woman of eighteen or twenty by the time she was ready to go to the Midsummer Faire and the trials.

Well, she could play the shepherd's flute, and even she could make one of those-

No. That was no kind of instrument for the trials before the Guild. These were people who played before princes and kings; they'd hardly be impressed by someone tootling simple shepherd's jigs on a two-octave pipe.

Then the mayor put the crowning touch on her ambitions, placing it out of the realm of "want" and into "need." For what he told the rest, told her that this was the way out of all her problems. Apprenticeship to the Guild would not only get her out of this village, out of danger, but it would place her in a position where no one would ever threaten her again.

"I heard that no one touches a Guild Bard or a Guild Minstrel, am I right, Master Heron?" he asked.

The minstrel nodded, though his face was in shadow now, and Rune couldn't read his expression. His voice held no inflection at all. "That's the truth, sir," he replied. "Only the Church has a right to bring them to trial, and if anyone harms a Guild musician, the Church will see to it that they're found and punished. I'm told that's because a good half of the Guild apprentices go into the Church eventually-and because musicians go everywhere, sometimes into dangerous situations."

No one could ever harm her again. She was so involved in her own thoughts that she hardly noticed when Master Heron resumed playing, and had to forcibly drag her attention back to the music.

There had to be a way to get that second instrument, to get to the trials. There had to be!

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