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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 the 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 Battened 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 nil 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 me 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 Victorwell, 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 snuffled 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 predecessor's 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 canned 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 Kars-down 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.

Intellectuallywell, 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. Ml 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 R-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!"

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