A SHEPHERD was gathering firewood by the old Pellinor Road when a strange sight caught his attention. A horseman dressed in black, mounted on a magfinicent black horse, was trotting briskly along the disused courseÑa clear, small figure in the pale winter sunshine. To see a stranger at all was noteworthy. Since the sack of the School of Pellinor ten years before and the bad times that had followed, few travelers came this way. The days when Bards and merchants had ridden easily to Pellinor, making the road bright with their fine clothes and singing, had vanished so completely they now seemed like a time of legend. But the sight of a stranger, even one so ominously cloaked, was not what made the old man clutch his bundle of faggots to his chest and step warily behind a thicket of brambles, fearfully making the sign against the evil eye. His eyes were fixed on the beast that accompanied the rider: a large, white dog. If it was a dog, that is. It was like no dog the shepherd had seen. It was taller than a calf, and seemed bigger because of its thick winter pelt, which stood out around its head like a ruff. It kept pace effortlessly with the horse, running at an easy lope that revealed the strong muscles of its shoulders and haunches. If it hadn't been with the rider, the old man would have thought it a wolf; but he had never heard that a wolf would run with a horse. As the strange trio came nearer, the shepherd's heart chilled and he crouched down behind the brambles, his hands trembling. His eyesight wasn't what it was, but he knew a wolf when he saw one. He began to regret having strayed so close to the road, even on so fair a day, and all the rumors he had heard of uncanny events, of evil creatures and dark sorcerers crowded into his head at once. If anything should happen to him, his wife would never know; and she would be quite alone, as their son had left the hamlet, looking for a better life. The shepherd crouched closer to the ground, hoping he would remain unnoticed, and held his breath as the hoofbeats came closer and closer. To his alarm, they slowed to a walk; and then they stopped altogether.
"Where is he, Maerad?" A man's voice rang clear on the cold air, although he spoke in a low voice.
Even though he was so frightened, the old man was confused: to whom was the stranger speaking? He had seen no other with him. Did he converse, as the black witches were said to do, with spirits of the air? The shepherd held his breath, clutching his bundle of faggots so tightly to his chest that his knuckles were white.
"Over there, you think?"
The shepherd heard the man dismount and begin to walk toward him. In his agitation, the old man dropped his firewood with a clatter that to him sounded like thunder. He turned to run, but tripped over a tussock and fell over. As he scrambled onto his hands and knees, he found himself face-to-face with the wolf, and groaned in terror. Instinctively he hid his face in his hands, so he should not see his own death.
But he did not feel the wolf's teeth meeting in his neck, as he had expected. Instead, the stranger was speaking to him. At first the shepherd was too terrified to hear what he said.
"I beg your forgiveness," the stranger was saying. "I swear by the Light that we mean you no harm."
Slowly, the shepherd took his hands from his face. There was no sign of the wolf, and instead the stranger was standing before him, offering his hand. He helped the old man to his feet and gently brushed down his jerkin. Then he silently picked up the firewood and carefully heaped it in the shepherd's arms. The old man regained his breath. The stranger had a kindly look; but there was something else about him, an air of grace, that reminded the shepherd of better days. It had been a long time since his kind had been seen here.
He thanked the stranger gravely, in the formal way he once would have thanked a Bard who did him some healing or said the spring rites over a crop. The other gave him a sharp look.
"It's been many years since I've seen a Bard around here," said the old man. Now that his fright was over, he wanted to talk.
"There is little reason to come," said the stranger. His eyes met the old man's, and they both looked away at the same instant, as if reading in each other's faces a sadness they didn't wish to name.
"Does this mean that the School of Pellinor will come back? Will there be Bards again?"
The Bard hesitated. "I don't know," he said.
The shepherd shifted the firewood, as it was getting heavy. "I am hoping that they do," he said at last. "It's hard with them gone. The winters bad and the lambs born awry and all else gone wrong."
"Aye," said the Bard. "Much else, and not only here. These are hard times for many people."
The shepherd nodded, and sniffed unhappily. But the stranger reached forward and touched his brow briefly, and for a moment it was as if a soft sun bloomed in the old man's forehead, and spread its golden warmth through his whole body.
"The Light go with you," said the Bard.
"And with you," answered the shepherd, in the proper way. He watched as the stranger walked back to his horse, which stood patiently on the road awaiting its rider. The white wolf sat on its haunches by the horse, looking no more dangerous than a big puppy. The Bard mounted, raised his hand in farewell, and rode away. It was only then that the old man realized that he hadn't asked his name.
He didn't stay to watch the horseman vanish in the distance. His wife would be waiting. The warmth from the Bard's touch still ran through his veins, and he hummed an old song as he walked home. His step was light: for the first time since he could remember, hope stirred in his heart...
Excerpted from The Singing by Alison Croggon. Copyright © 2010 by Alison Croggon. Excerpted by permission of Candlewick, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.