The Eagle & the Nightingales: Bardic Voices, Book III

BOOK: The Eagle & the Nightingales: Bardic Voices, Book III
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THE EAGLE &
THE NIGHTINGALES

BARDIC VOICES

BOOK II

MERCEDES LACKEY

BAEN

LET THE KING BE KING!

Why is the High King of the Human kingdoms not doing his job— and thereby allowing the Church to fill the power vacuum in the human lands of Alanda? This is a matter of some concern to Nightingale and her friends: the church is becoming ever more overtly hostile to non-human sentients (of which there are several species in Alanda) as well as to anything that it does not at least indirectly control, such as gypsies and Free Bards.

To discover just what is going on, she will join forces with T’fyrr, a birdman with the visage of a raptor and the voice of an angelic choir. And before the King – and through him the gypsies, Free Bard and non-humans of the twenty kingdoms – is saved they, the Eagle and the Nightingale, will become if not quite lovers then far more than friends.

Praise for the
Bardic Voices
series:

The
Lark and the Wren . . .
[has] a world distinctly different from that of the Heralds of Valdemar. The political intrigues are more complex . . . and there’s a subtle weaving of very old Celtic material on the musical side of the plot . . . it’s a good read . . .”

—Dragon

“[The Robin and the Kestrel]
is a great story; lots of action, mystery, a little romance, and a ghost . . . All collections should own this book . . .”


VOYA

“[The prose in
The Robin and the Kestrel
is] deft and readable . . . as lively as one might wish, and the reappearances of the Skull Hill Ghost from
The Lark and the Wren
are
especially well-rendered.”

—Dragon

“Mercedes Lackey returns to her tales of Free Bards with
The Robin and the Kestrel . . .
They have to face both a music-loving ghost and a town gone gaga over religion in this fun tale.”


Philadelphia Weekly Press

“Gypsy encounters and magic permeate a fast-paced fantasy well laced with romance.”


The Bookwatch

“. . . Interesting, well-told, and complete . . . a fun read and a fix for Lackey fans who have been looking forward to reading further about the Free Bards.”


ConNotations

BAEN BOOKS by MERCEDES LACKEY

The Fire Rose

BARDIC VOICES

The Lark and the Wren

The Robin and the Kestrel

The Eagle & the Nightingales

Bardic Choices: A Cast of Corbies
(with Josepha Sherman)

URBAN FANTASIES

Knight of Ghosts & Shadows
(with Ellen Guon)

Summoned to Tourney
(with Ellen Guon)

The SERRAted Edge

Born to Run
(with Larry Dixon)

Wheels of Fire
(with Mark Shepherd)

When the Bough Breaks
(with Holly Lisle)

Chrome Circle
(with Larry Dixon)

The Ship Who Searched
(with Anne McCaffrey)

Wing Commander: Freedom Flight
(with Ellen Guon)

If I Pay Thee Not in Gold
(with Piers Anthony)

THE BARD’S TALE NOVELS

Castle of Deception
(with Josepha Sherman)

Fortress of Frost and Fire
(with Ru Emerson)

Prison of Souls
(with Mark Shepherd)

The Eagle & The Nightingales

This is a work of fiction. All the characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 1995 by Mercedes Lackey

All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form.

A Baen Books Original

Baen Publishing Enterprises

PO Box 1403

Riverdale, NY 10471

ISBN: 0-671-87706-2

Cover art by Darrell K. Sweet

First paperback printing, March 1996

Distributed by Simon & Schuster

1230 Avenue of the Americas

New York, NY 10020

Library of Congress Catalog Number: 94-27320

Printed in the United States of America

eISBN: 978-1-62579-205-1

Electronic Edition by Baen Books

http://www.baen.com

Dedicated to

Gail Gallano,

Mother of all Tulsa wildlife rehabbers!

CHAPTER ONE

All the world comes to Kingsford Faire, the Midsummer Faire of Kings . . .

A Gypsy known only as Nightingale sat on a riverside rock on the edge of the Faire grounds, with the tune of “Faire of the Kings” running through her head. Not that she liked that particular piece of doggerel, but it did have one of those annoying tunes that would stick in one’s mind for hours or days.

A light mist hung over the Kanar River, and a meadowlark nearby added his song to the growing chorus of birds singing from every tree and bush along the riverbank. The morning air was still, cool, and smelled of river water with a faint addition of smoke. Sunlight touched the pounded earth that lately had held a small city made of tents and temporary booths, then gilded the grey stone of the Cathedral and Cloister walls behind the area that had been home to the Kingsford Faire for the past several weeks. Nightingale didn’t particularly admire the fortress-like cloister, but examining it was better than looking across the river. She kept her eyes purposefully averted from the ruins of Kingsford on the opposite bank, although she was still painfully aware of the devastation that ended only where the river itself began. There was no avoiding the fact that Kingsford, as she had known it, was no more. That inescapable fact had lent a heaviness to her heart that was equally inescapable.

This had been a peculiar year for the annual Kingsford Faire, with something like half of the city of Kingsford itself in ruins and the rest heavily damaged by fire.

I am glad that I was not here, but the suffering lingers.

Perhaps other people could forget the suffering of those who had been robbed of homes, livings and loved ones by that fire, but Nightingale couldn’t, not even with the wooden palisade surrounding the Faire and row after row of tents between her and the wreckage on the other side of the river. The pain called out to her, even in the midst of each brightly dawning midsummer day; it had permeated everything she did since she had arrived and crept into her dreams at night. She would never have used the Sight here, even if she had needed to—she knew she would only see far too many unquiet ghosts, with no means at her disposal to settle them.

She had dreams of the fire that had swept through the city last fall, although she had no way of knowing if her dreams were a true vision of the past or only nightmares reflective of the stories she heard. She’d had one last night, in fact, a dream of waking to find herself surrounded by flames that reached for her with a lifelike hunger.

Such a complete disaster as the fire could not be erased over the course of weeks or months. Even now, with the fire a year past, there were blackened chimneys and beams standing starkly in the midst of ashes, and a taint of smoke still hung in the air.

The Faire
had
been profitable for just about everyone who came this year, herself included. Knowing that the folk of Kingsford would be needing every possible article of daily living, even so many months after the fire, merchants had flocked to the Faire-site across the river with their wagons piled high, their pack-beasts loaded to the groaning point. They had prospered, and they had been generous to those who came to entertain. The Bardic Guild, bane and scourge of the Free Bards for as long as that loosely organized group had existed, had been remarkable for its reticence during the Faire.

Her polite encounters with Guild Bards had been odd enough that they still stuck in her mind. Time after time, she had gotten a distant nod of acknowledgement from Bard and Guild hireling alike, and not the harassment and insults of previous years.
One might have thought that the Guild did not particularly want attention drawn to it,
she mused. The Guild simply held its auditions and performances quietly and gave no opposition to anything that the Free Bards did. There were rumors, never verified, that the Bardic Guild had a hand in the burning of Kingsford, and that the Church, in the person of a Justiciar Mage and Priest called Ardis, as a consequence had its eye on them. Nightingale discarded both rumors; there was no reason to believe the former, and the Church and the Guild had always operated hand-in-glove in the past and it was unlikely that situation would change any time in the future. Never mind that Ardis was reputedly the cousin of the head of the Free Bards, Talaysen, also called Master Wren; there was only so much a single Priest could do. And one could not change attitudes by fiat.

The meadowlark flitted off, his yellow breast with the black “V” at his throat vivid in the morning sun.
Well, I endured; nightmares, sorrow hanging like a heavy mist over the Faire, and all. It will take more than old sorrows and nightmares to keep me from my music.
Nightingale had suffered too many lean seasons in her short life to allow personal discomfort to get in the way of her performances. She was, after all, a professional, however much the poseurs of the Guild might deny that. So she, too, had passed a profitable term at the Faire, and now at the close of it found herself prosperous enough to afford a donkey to carry her burdens for her for the first time in her life as a musician. Heretofore when she traveled she had been forced to rely on the kindness of fellow Free Bards or Gypsies, who would grant her a corner of their wagons to stow her goods in. And while the company was welcome, this arrangement forced her to depend on others, and constrained her to whatever itinerary they chose and not one of her own choosing. When given the option, she preferred to avoid cities, towns, even larger villages altogether. Unfortunately, such destinations were usually where her traveling companions preferred to go.

She closed her eyes and pressed her hands against her temples for a moment; not because she had a headache, but to remind herself to stay calm and bulwarked against the outside world. She could not help but wish she had chosen not to come to the Faire this year, but to stay in one of the lands held by those who were not human, or even pass a season or two in the halls of an Elven king, perilous as that was for mortals. The Faire had posed a trial for her ability to keep herself isolated from her own kind, and more than once she had been tempted to give over her ambitions for a wider reputation as a musician and simply walk away.

But all that was in the past now; there was a sweet-tempered little donkey tethered beside her, his panniers loaded with her gear and her two harps strapped over the top of it all. She had a tent as well, if a small one, and with the donkey she could carry provisions to see her through to better lodgings instead of being at the mercy of greedy or stingy innkeepers.

She was all packed up and ready to go, and eager to be on the road and away from the all-pervasive aura of tragedy that hovered over the city across the river. Only one thing kept her here, an appointment that she had made last night, and she wished
he
would just show up so that—

“Thank you for waiting, my friend.” Talaysen’s speaking voice was as pleasant as his singing voice, and Nightingale gratefully turned her back to the river and the Church’s stronghold to catch his hands in hers in the traditional greeting between Gypsies of the same clan. Talaysen smiled at her, his grey-green eyes warming, and gave her hands a firm squeeze before releasing them. Free Bard Talaysen looked prosperous, too, in his fine leather jerkin, good linen trews, and silk shirt with the knots of many-colored ribbons on the sleeves that denoted a Free Bard.
He
did not owe his prosperity to the Faire, however. Talaysen shared the post of Laurel Bard to the King of Birnam with his wife, Bard Rune, and his clothing reflected his importance. They were the only Free Bards with any kind of position in all of the Twenty Kingdoms.

Not that he has ever let rank go to his head,
Nightingale reflected, allowing his pleasure at seeing her to ease the distant ache of Kingsford’s sorrow within her.
He has made Birnam a haven of freedom, for all of us.

“I would wait until the snow fell for your sake, Master Wren,” she told him truthfully, scanning his honest, triangular face for signs of stress and his red hair for more strands of grey than there had been the last time she saw him. She saw neither, and felt nothing untoward from him, which eased her worries a little. He had been so adamant in asking her not to leave after the Faire closed—at least until he had a chance to speak with her—that she had been afraid there was something wrong with him personally. They were old friends, though only once, briefly, had they ever been lovers.

“Well, it is lucky for us both that you won’t have to do that,” he replied, and his eye fell on her little donkey. “So, the rumors of your prosperity were not exaggerated! Congratulations!”

She raised her eyebrow at that, for there was something more in his voice than simple pleasure in her good fortune. There was some reason why he was particularly pleased that she had done well, a reason that had nothing to do with friendship or his unofficial rank as head of the Free Bards.

“This simplifies matters,” he continued. “I have a request to make of you, but it would have been difficult if you had already arranged to travel with anyone else this winter.”

A blackbird winged by, trilling to find them standing in his territory, so near to his nest. Her other eyebrow rose. “A request?” she said cautiously, a certain sense of foreboding coming to her. “Of what nature?”

Wren can charm birds out of the trees and honesty out of Elves, and I’d better remember that if he’s asking favors of me.
It was mortally hard to refuse Wren anything.
But I can hold my own with the Elves; it will take more than charm to win me.

Talaysen sighed, and shifted his weight from one foot to the other, like a naughty little boy who had been caught in the midst of a prank—which further hardened her suspicions. “There is something I would like for you to do for me—or rather, not for me, but for the Free Bards. Unfortunately, it will involve a rather longer journey than you normally make; I expect it will take you from now until the first Harvest Faire to reach your goal even if you travel without stopping on the way.”

She pulled in a quick breath with surprise. “From now until Harvest Faire?” she repeated, incredulously. “Where in the world do you want me to go? Lyonarie?”

She had thrown out the name of the High King’s capital quite by accident, it being the farthest place from here that
she
could think of, but the widening of his eyes showed her that her arrow had hit the mark out of all expectation.

A pocket of sudden stillness held them both, and it seemed to her that the air grew faintly colder around her.

“You want me to go to
Lyonarie?”
she asked, incredulously. “But—why? What possible business have the Free Bards there? And of all people, why me? I am no Court Bard, I know nothing of Lyonarie, and—”

And I hate cities, you
know
that,
she thought, numbly.
And you know why!

“Because we need information, not rumor. Because of all people, you are the one I know that is most likely to learn what we need to know without getting yourself into trouble over it—or inflaming half the city.” He nodded at the ruins of Kingsford behind her, and she winced; there were also rumors that enemies of the Free Bards had set that fire and that it had gotten out of hand. “You’re clever, you’re discreet, and we both know that you are a master of Bardic and—other Magics.”

“Perhaps not a master,” she demurred, “and my talents are as much a hazard as a benefit—” But he wasn’t about to be deflected.

“I know I can trust you, and that I can trust you to be sensible,” he continued. “Those are traits this task will need as much as mastery of magic.”

“Which is why you are not entrusting this to Peregrine?” she asked. “You could trust him, but he is not always sensible, especially when he sees an injustice.”

“He does not do well in cities, any more than you do,” Talaysen pointed out. “And he won’t abide in them unless he must under direct threat to himself or his clan.”

And because I have a large sense of duty, I will endure them if I must,
she thought with misgiving.
I had better have a very good reason

other than that Wren wants me to, however.

“What could possibly be so pressing as to send me across half the Twenty Kingdoms?” she replied, favoring him with a frown. “And there, of all places. Peregrine may not like cities, but neither do I, and I have better reason than he to avoid them.” Her frown deepened. “I’m not minded to risk another witch-hunt because I seem to know a little too much for someone’s comfort—or just because I am a Gypsy.”

“Not in Lyonarie—” he began, but she interrupted him.

“So you
say,
but no one had word of what was chancing in Gradford until Robin stirred the nest and the wasps came flying out to sting,” she retorted. Talaysen did not wince this time; instead he looked ever more determined. “And I ask again, what is so pressing as to send me there?”

Now Talaysen’s changeable eyes grew troubled, and the signs of stress that had not been there before appeared, faintly etched into his brow and the corners of his generous mouth. “King Rolend is concerned, and as Laurel Bard and leader of the Free Bards he often asks me for
my
opinion. High King Theovere has been—neglectful.”

Now Nightingale snorted. “This is hardly news; his neglect has been growing since before Lady Lark joined us. And so just what is it that I am supposed to do? March up to the High King and charge him with neglecting his duty?”

Talaysen smiled, faintly. “Scarcely, though I suspect
you
could and would do just that if it suited you. No, what Rolend and I both want is the reason why Theovere has become this way. He wasn’t always like this—he
was
a very good ruler and kept the power neatly balanced among the Twenty Kings, the Guilds and the Church. He’s mature, but not all
that
old, and there has been no suggestion that he has become senile, and he hasn’t been ill—and besides, his father lived thirty years more than he has already, and
he
was vigorous and alert to the last.”

BOOK: The Eagle & the Nightingales: Bardic Voices, Book III
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