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Chapter Two

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


This naiveté of his was something to be cherished—if that was precisely the right thing to call it. Perhaps it was simply that he had no one to teach him that women were anything other than persons. Truly, he had no one to teach him that women were anything]


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


***


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Anyway, it would be under a solid roof-—


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


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


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


If it ever does.


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


Will this stove never heat up?


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


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


"Hello the wagon! Having trouble?"


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


 


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


First and foremost—who was this person, this "Old Owl"? And what was he to Robin? "Wh-wh—" Tonny began.


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


Or maybe two hundred!


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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