cauldrons yield an unending supply of stew except in poetry. Do you remember the bard who passed the tests?”

Frazer shook his head. Then he guessed, “Nairn?”

“No. Not Nairn. Great a bard as he was, he failed even the least complicated of the trials: the Test of the Flowing Cauldron. Which was what? Anyone?”

“The test of love, generosity, and inspiration,” Sabrina said.

“Thereby rendering himself at once immortal and uninspired. Not a good example to follow.”

“So where is he?” Frazer asked.


“Nairn. You said he’s immortal.”

There was another silence, during which the teacher contemplated his student. Frazer’s wild face, with its lean, wolfish bones framed by long, golden hair, looked completely perplexed.

“Where is your mind today?” Phelan wondered mildly. “Lost, it seems, along with Nairn in the mists of poetry. Between the lines. He did exist once; that is a matter of documented history. But the exacting demands of storytelling, requiring a sacrifice, transformed him from history into poetry.”


“Into a cautionary tale.”

“About what?” Frazer persisted. “I’m confused. Why a cautionary tale about an illusion, if that’s what Bone Plain is? And if not, then where do we go to find the tower that will give us three choices: to die, or go mad, or to become a poet? I want to become a bard. I want to be the greatest bard that Belden has ever known. Must I enter that tower? That metaphor?”

“No,” Phelan said gravely, hiding an urge to laugh at the notion. “It’s not a requirement of this school. Nor of the Kings of Belden. You can go looking for the tower if you choose. Or the metaphor. At the moment, I’d prefer you just answer my question.” Frazer only gazed at him, mute and stubborn. Phelan glanced around. “Anyone?”

“The bard Seeley?” the quiet, country-bred Valerian guessed diffidently.

“Good guess, but no. Prudently, he never tried.” He waited. “No one? You do know this. You have all the history and poetry you need to unravel this mystery. Do so before I see you again. The weave is there, the thread is there. Find and follow.”

The students rose around him, scattered, all but for Frazer, whom Phelan nearly tripped over as he turned.

“I have another question,” he said doggedly.

Phelan shrugged lightly, sat back down. The boy’s ambition was formidable and daunting; Phelan, wanting only his breakfast, was grateful he had never been so afflicted.

“If I can answer.”

“I’ve been at this school for seven years. Since I was eight. You’re almost a master. So you must know this by now. How many years must we complete before we are finally taught the secrets of the bardic arts?”

Phelan opened his mouth; nothing came out for a moment. “Secrets.”

“You know,” Frazer insisted. “What’s there. In every ancient tale, between the lines in every ballad. The magic. The power in the words. Behind the words. You must know what I’m talking about. I want it. When am I taught it?”

Phelan gazed at him with wonder. “I haven’t a clue,” he said finally. “Nobody ever taught me anything like that.”

“I see.” Frazer held his eyes, his face set. “I’m not old enough yet to know.”

“No, no—”

“You’ve completed your studies. Everyone says you’re brilliant. You could go anywhere, be welcome at any court. There’s nothing you wouldn’t have been taught. If you can’t tell me yet, you can’t. I’ll wait.”

He seemed, motionless under the oak, prepared to wait in just that spot until somebody came along and enlightened him. Phelan yielded first, got to his feet. He stood silently, looking down at the young, stubborn, feral face.

“If such secrets exist,” he said finally, “no one told me. Perhaps, like that tower, you must go looking for them yourself. Maybe only those who realize that such secrets exist are capable of discovering them. I lack the ability to see them. So no one ever taught me such things.”

Frazer sat rigidly a moment longer. Gradually, his expression eased, through disbelief to a flicker of surprise at both himself and Phelan.

“Maybe,” he conceded uncertainly. He rose, blinking puzzledly at Phelan. “I thought if anyone knew, it would be you.”

He took himself off finally. Phelan, completely nonplussed, headed to the masters’ refectory to fortify himself against several hours in the library archives, as he tried to find a way to say the same thing everyone else had said, twice a decade for five hundred years, only differently.

In his head, he could hear Jonah’s derisive comments, even the ones he hadn’t made yet. Phelan ignored them all, as he had so many others, and walked into the oldest building, under the shadow of its broken tower, to seek his breakfast.

Chapter Two

Across a thousand years of poetry, we have come to know Nairn the Wanderer, the Fool, the Cursed, the Unforgiven intimately through hundreds of poems, ballads, tales. We know his adventures, his loves, his failures, his despair. We have explored his most intimate passions and torments. He is named in any given century; he wears the face, the clothes, the character of those times. Even now, he speaks through our modern voices as he inspires new tales of love and loss, of his endless quest for death. His trials become ours and not ours: we seek to avoid his fate as we are equally fascinated by it.

But of the man behind, within the music and the poetry, who cast his unending shadow across a millennium and more, we know astonishingly little.

He is first named in the records of the village of Hartshorn as the son of a farmer in the rugged wilds of the north Belden known then as the Marches, during the reign of its last king, Anstan. That much at least is documented. Between his birth and the next documented detail of his life, we can only rely on later ballads, which give him the name “Pig-Singer” as a child for his astonishing voice, which he exercised frequently while tending to his father’s pig herd. According to more ribald versions of the “Ballad of Nairn the Unforgiven,” he was often pelted with pig shit by his older siblings for spending more time sitting on the sty posts and singing than attending to his other chores. How the pigs responded to his remarkable gifts of voice and memory has not been documented outside of poetry. He vanished, probably with good reason, out of village life and into folklore at an early age, to surface again in history, a dozen or so years later, in a tavern on the edge of the North Sea, where he was pressed into service as a marching bard for the final battle of King Anstan’s doomed reign: the Battle of the Welde.

Dark his hair, darker his eye, Sweet as cream and honey his voice, O the charm in it, O the lure of it, He could wile a smile from the moon. FRAGMENT OF “BALLAD OF THE PIG-SINGER,” ANONYMOUS

Nairn was the youngest of seven sons, and a hardscrabble lot they were, scraping a living with their fingernails out of the rocky, grudging soil of the mountains in the southern Marches. He learned to dance early: away from that foot, this elbow or great ham hand, one or another careless hoof, or some cranky goose’s beak. His mother took to a corner of the hearth after he was born and refused to budge. Hers was the first singing voice he

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