market skiffs plied the water around them. On the crown of the only hill in the city, Phelan could see his destination: the ancient school, the thick-walled building hugging the broken tower rising out of it, making a dark gray stroke among the brighter walls of later centuries around it.

On the noisy, busy streets at the other end of the bridge, he caught a horse-drawn tram to the school on the hill.

He kept a robe along with his books and papers in the oak cupboards lining the staff room in the pink and gray edifice that had been funded by, and named appropriately for, Jonah Cle. Several other of the younger student teachers were pulling on their robes as well, yawning and muttering comments in the early hour. Like Phelan, they were nearly finished with years of study; they lacked only one last subject to master, a class or two to teach, a final research paper, before they could go out into the world and call themselves bards. The robes they wore over their clothes were still the students’ gold and green. But as masters in training, they were allowed to leave them casually unbuttoned, revealing leathers, homespun, silks, brocades, sometimes looking as tavern-glazed and frayed as their wearers.

Phelan heard his name spoken, glanced around absently as he sorted through books and papers.

“Have you got a topic for your final paper, yet?” a young man asked. He was a fine musician, ferociously hardworking except on anything that wasn’t music. “I hate history. I hate reading. And above everything, I hate writing. I can’t come up with an idea that would compel me to sit for days in a chair with a pen in my hand writing an endless succession of words that nobody but one or two masters will read, and only because they have to. What are you going to write about? Have you decided?”

Phelan shrugged. “Something easy. I just want to get out of here.”

“What’s easy?” the young man pleaded. “Tell me.”

“The standing stones.”

“The stones of Caerau?” someone interjected. “That’s been done. Once a decade at least for the last five hundred years. What’s left to say about them?”

“Who knows? Who cares? Anyway, not Caerau. I’m researching the standing stones of Bone Plain.”

A dour young woman who taught beginners to write their notes groaned. “Twice a decade for five hundred years.”

Phelan smiled. “You sound like my father; he said exactly that after he asked me what I would write. It’s simple: all the hard work has been done, and I won’t have to think when I write.”

“You haven’t started yet?” she guessed shrewdly. Phelan shook his head. She gazed at him silently a moment, asked abruptly, “How can you possess such astonishing gifts and so little ambition?”

He hefted papers and books in one arm, closed the cupboard, and gave her his wry, charming smile, then turned away without bothering to explain that his entire life up to that point was his father’s idea.

Phelan had long given up trying to understand him. Enough that Jonah had had his thumb on Phelan’s destiny since he was five, when he was ruthlessly ensconced in the school on the hill with a promise of freedom and wealth if he stayed to the end of the long course of studies. The end, after all those years, was a step or two away: one last boring class to teach, the final paper. A hundred times he had nearly walked away from the school; a hundred times he had chosen to stay. The most compelling reason—far more compelling than his father’s promises—was that somehow he could, by doing as Jonah insisted, unravel Jonah’s convoluted mind and finally understand him.

He had, sometime before, bitterly admitted defeat. Now he only wanted to walk one final time from the school on the hill down to the streets of Caerau and never look back.

The class he taught was held, by tradition, or on days it didn’t rain, in the oak grove on the crown of the hill. By the school steward’s estimation, the grove was on its fifth generation of oak. Across the lawn, Phelan could see his seven students already sitting under them. The immense, golden boughs that could catch lightning, that created thunder when they broke, flung shadows like webs; the students sitting on the ground seemed obliviously tangled in them. A couple of the hoariest trees had already dropped a bough, huge, moldering bones that the gardeners, with an eye for the picturesque, had let lie.

The students, ranging in age from twelve to fifteen, were midway through their rigorous studies. They blinked sleepily at Phelan, who was beginning to feel the lack of his breakfast. No one, not even the teacher, opened a book or used paper or pen in this class: it was an archaic and exacting exercise in memory.

“Right,” Phelan said, dropping down into their circle on the lush grass. “Good morning. Who remembers what we’re trying to remember?”

“‘The Riddle of Cornith and Corneath,’ ” the round-faced twelve-year-old, Joss Quinn, answered earnestly.

“Which is about?”

“Two bards having a contest to see who becomes Royal Bard of King Brete.” Joss stuck, his mouth still open, Sabrina Penton, a neat, confident girl whose father was the king’s steward, picked up the thread.

“They try to guess each other’s secret names by asking questions.”

“How many questions?”

“A hundred,” the irrepressible eldest, Frazer Verge, breathed. “A thousand. How could anyone ever have performed this without everyone falling asleep facedown in their plates?”

“It was a game,” Phelan said, pausing to swallow a yawn. “And a history lesson as well. Remember the order of the first letter of each line. There is the pattern, your aid to memory. Around the circle, one line apiece.” He looked for the eyes that avoided him; the slight, fair Valerian seemed most uncertain. “You first, Valerian.”

The boy gave his line without mishap. The lines began to ratchet like clockwork around the circle. Phelan’s thoughts wandered back to the earlier hour. His father would return home as his wife requested, only who knew by what route? A birthday party awaited him; he would not be pleased. At least it wasn’t his own.

He became aware, suddenly, of the wind in the oak leaves, the distant clamor of the city. The clock had stopped. His eyes flicked around the circle, found the daydreaming face everyone else was looking at.


The young man blinked, fell back to earth. “Sorry. I drifted.”

“We await the next line.” P, was it? Or T? He couldn’t remember, either.

“You,” he heard Sabrina breathe to Frazer, and memory opened its door, shed light upon teacher and student.

“‘Up or down go you at night,’ ” Frazer recited promptly, “ ‘or by the light of day?’”

Phelan emitted a dry sound from the back of his throat, but no other comment. He shifted his attention to the dark-haired, strawberry-cheeked Estacia, next in the circle, who picked up the rhythm without a falter.

“‘Vine are you to twine and bind the branching hawthorn bough?’ ”

“The clues,” Phelan said glibly when they had muddled their way through the rest of the riddles, “will become obvious to those who complete their years of study and training here. The more you learn of such ancient poetry, the more you realize that all poetry, and therefore all riddles, are rooted in the Three Trials of Bone Plain. Which are what?”

“The Turning Tower,” Frazer said quickly, perhaps to redeem himself.


“The Inexhaustible Cauldron,” said the rawboned Hinton, all spindly shanks and flashing spectacles.


“The Oracular Stone,” answered Aleron the indolent, who was bright enough, but preferred the easy question.

“Yes. Now. Of all the bards in the history of Belden, which bard passed all three tests?”

There was silence again. A dead oak leaf, plucked by the spring wind, spiraled crazily off a branch and sailed away. “Your muses are everywhere around you,” Phelan reminded them as the silence lengthened. “Your aids to memory, and creation. Sun, wind, earth, water, stone, tree. All speak the language of the bard. Of poetry.” The leaf was flying across the grass toward the great standing stones that circled the crown of the knoll above the river in a dance that had begun before Belden had a name.

“Where,” Frazer asked suddenly, “exactly, is Bone Plain? Are we on it?”

“Maybe,” Phelan answered, quoting his research. “No one has yet found conclusive evidence for any particular place. Most likely it existed only in the realm of poetry. Or it was translated into poetry from some more practical, prosaic event, which a mortal bard might have a chance of enduring. As we know, stones do not speak, nor do

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