As the lone traveller approached, the five Enforcers spread out in a line across his path. They waited in silence, a team of dark-cloaked
warriors in full combat gear, astride their tall black horses. The fellow was roughly dressed – hooded cloak of grey felt, woollen leggings, battered old boots – and carried only a small pack and a staff. His gait was steady, though his head was bowed. He looked as if he’d been on the road a while.
‘Halt!’ called Rohan Death-Blade when the traveller had come within ten paces and showed no sign of stopping. ‘State your name and your business in these parts!’
The man raised his head. The lower part of his face was covered by a cloth, like a crude imitation of the mask Enforcers wore on duty to conceal their identity. Above this concealment a pair of clear grey eyes gazed calmly at the interrogator. The man straightened his shoulders. ‘Have I been gone so long that you’ve forgotten me, Rohan?’ Though harsh with exhaustion, the voice was unmistakable. They knew him before he peeled off the makeshift mask.
‘Owen! By all that’s holy!’ Rohan removed his own mask, swung down from his mount and strode forward to greet their long-absent commander. The others followed, gathering around Owen Swift-Sword. ‘Where’s the rest of Boar Troop? We expected you long ago. When will they be here?’
‘Not today.’ A long pause, as if the speaker had to dig deep for the strength to say more. ‘I must speak to the king. Straight away. Have you a spare mount?’
‘Take Fleet,’ said Rohan Death-Blade. ‘I’ll go up behind Tallis. You’d best get yourself cleaned up before you see the king; you stink like a midden. Don’t tell me you walked all the way from Summerfort.’
‘I have . . . ill news. Grave news. Keldec must hear it first.’
Something in his face and in his voice halted further questioning. They knew that look; they understood the sort of news that rendered a man so grim and taciturn.
The king’s men mounted their horses and turned for Winterfort. Their troop leader rode with them. Nobody spoke a word.
‘Up, girls!’ The sharp command from the doorway was familiar now. No matter how early we woke, Tali was always up before us. She stood waiting as the four of us struggled into our clothes, tied back our hair and straightened our bedding. When folk lived at such close quarters over a long winter, keeping everything in order became second nature.
‘Hurry up, Neryn.’ Regan’s second-in-command leaned against the door frame, her tattooed arms folded, observing me as if I were a tardy recruit. ‘I planned to put you on the Ladder later this morning, but two young fellows have turned up at the door – Black Crow only knows how they got here through the snow – and I’ll have to test them today. So you’ll be training before breakfast. It’s the only time I can fit it in.’
My heart sank. When I’d first reached the rebel base at Shadowfell, I’d been weak. Three years on the road, living rough, moving from one place of hiding to the next, had left me undernourished, sick and slow to trust. When I was on the run I had not understood why the king’s men were pursuing me, only that my canny gift was more curse than blessing. Indeed, I had hardly known what that gift was. It had taken a long journey and many strange meetings before I’d learned that I was a Caller, and that my gift might be key to ending King Keldec’s rule.
My first weeks at Shadowfell had been spent resting, eating what was set before me, and having occasional visits from my fey friends Sage and Red Cap, who were lodged somewhere out on the mountain. I had not been invited to join strategic discussions or to study the various maps and charts Regan kept in the chamber where he did his planning. Everyone at Shadowfell had daily work to do, but I had not been asked to do anything except recover my strength. Regan and his rebel band had treated me as they might a very special weapon – they had concentrated on returning me to top condition as swiftly as possible.
Of recent days I had insisted on helping Fingal in the infirmary, where I could make myself useful preparing salves and tinctures, rolling bandages and performing other routine tasks. That freed Shadowfell’s healer for other work. Tali’s tough winter training regime resulted in a steady stream of sprains, cuts and bruises for her brother to tend to.
And now, at last, I had been declared well enough to begin that training myself. For my canny gift, so valuable to the rebels, was not enough on its own; Regan would not allow me to work for the rebellion unless I had at least basic skills as a fighter. I would never be a warrior like Tali or Andra or the other women who shared the sleeping quarters. My years on the road had made me tough, but I was too small and slight to be much use in a fight. Still, I needed to be able to defend myself until someone could step in to help me. That was what Regan had said.
‘Good luck,’ muttered Sula, who had tied up her hair with practised efficiency and was heading for the door.
‘You’ll be fine, Neryn,’ murmured Dervla as she passed me. Finet thrust her feet into her boots and followed the others out while I was still pulling on my skirt. Andra had been on night guard and had not yet come in. Despite our remote location, Shadowfell’s entry was constantly patrolled.
‘You can’t wear that.’ Tali’s dark eyes were not hostile, exactly, but they were not friendly either. Even now, when I had been at Shadowfell long enough to be accepted by everyone else, it was plain she still had reservations about me. ‘Hasn’t Eva found you some trousers? Get them on, hurry up, and wear your boots, not those soft slippers, or you’ll end up injuring your ankles.’
I made myself breathe calmly as I changed skirt for trousers. Eva, who along with Milla was in charge of domestic matters at Shadowfell, had indeed made me the required garment, since all the female fighters wore male attire for active duty. I should have thought of this. Tackling the Ladder in a skirt would be impossible.
I put on my boots. I plaited my hair. I wondered if Tali would let me go to the privy before we began.
‘That was much too slow,’ she said now. ‘If we were sleeping in the open and there was an ambush, you’d be dead before you could pick up your weapon at that rate. We can’t afford any weak links.’
There were things I could have said about the numerous times Father and I had melted away into the woods when Enforcers came near. I could have mentioned that we had managed three years on the run without being caught, until the terrible night when the Cull came to Darkwater and my father perished. But I said nothing. Tali’s job was to keep us all fit enough to fight on, to survive, to spread the message of freedom out across Alban. For now, my job was to learn.
‘Go to the privy,’ Tali said, ‘then meet me at the Ladder. We’ve got it to ourselves until breakfast is over and I want to make the most of that. Don’t dawdle.’
‘Ready? Fifty steps this time, and I want it quicker. One, two, three, go!’
I climbed. Tali followed, apparently tireless, staying a few steps behind and keeping a rapid count. My thighs burned with pain. My chest ached. I hardly had the strength to hate her, only to keep on going.
‘. . . forty-nine, fifty!’
I bent over, hands on knees, chest heaving. Tali stepped up behind me, not in the least out of breath. Now I really did hate her.
‘Rest to the count of ten. One, two . . .’
The precipitous stone steps known as the Ladder lay at the end of a long winding passageway, part of the network of cave-like chambers that was Shadowfell. Who had made the place, nobody knew. It was old and uncanny. From time to time it changed its shape, forming new caverns or hallways, or opening new doors and windows to the outside. There was a clan of Good Folk here, the fey folk of Alban whom the king had decreed human men and woman should shun. They lived in the mountain beneath the rebel quarters, or so my small friend Sage believed. Without the useful gifts they left, the human folk of Shadowfell could not have survived the harsh highland winters. Firewood. Freshly killed livestock. Vegetables that could not grow here on the mountain. The Good Folk teased the rebels with their closeness, but never showed themselves. When I’d first come here, I’d thought it might be easy for me to find and befriend them. My gift as a Caller allowed me to see and speak to uncanny folk of every kind. Or so it had done in the past. But these particular folk were proving as hard to coax from their bolthole as a hazelnut is to prise from its shell.
The Ladder went up the wall of a high, narrow cavern. At the top, the steps opened out to a broad ledge. People said that on a good day the view from up there was breathtaking: a sweeping vista of snow-capped peaks, high fells and deep valleys. If you were lucky, you might see eagles soaring on the currents of air.
I had never been up before. Clearly the steps had been carved out of the rock by someone with a wicked desire to challenge folk to breaking point. Either that, or their creator had not imagined the use Tali might make of them.
‘. . . ten. Ready? One, two, three, go!’
I climbed. I might have been almost too tired to move, but I could still obey an order.
‘Good,’ Tali said as I reached the hundredth step and bent double, gasping for air.
‘Thanks,’ I wheezed. From her, this was extreme praise.
‘Don’t waste your breath talking. Rest for the count of fifteen. Then we’re heading for the top.’
She counted. I breathed. In the chill of the cavern, I was drenched with sweat.
‘Fourteen, fifteen. Ready? One, two, three, go! Pick up the pace, Neryn! Move those legs!’
There were one hundred and twenty-seven steps in all. By the time we reached the ledge at the top, every part of my aching body wanted to collapse. I held myself upright, leaning back on the rock wall, working to slow my breathing. If there was anything Tali despised, it was a lack of self-control. And she had a habit of springing surprises. It didn’t pay to lose concentration, even for a moment. She was perfectly capable of making me go all the way back to the bottom and start again.
‘You can sit,’ she said, moving out along the ledge and seating herself with her back against the rock wall and her long legs stretched toward the sheer drop. ‘You’re not a warrior; I do make allowances for that. And the way down is hard on the knees.’
Since she had given me permission, I sat down beside her. The air was icy. It was a still day, without the whipping northerly that so often came up in the mornings. Low cloud wrapped the mountain closely. No view today beyond a few rocks here, a patch of barren hillside there. Shadowfell sometimes felt like the end of the world.
‘What lies north of here?’ I asked when I had enough breath to speak. ‘Are there settlements beyond those mountains?’
‘Why do you ask?’
‘It looks empty. Trackless.’ When I had discovered I was a Caller, with the ability to summon the Good Folk to the aid of humankind, I had also learned that I must seek guidance in my craft from the Guardians of Alban. These ancient beings of great power had retreated to places of hiding when Keldec came to the throne. They could not bear to see our peaceful realm turned into a place of fear and cruelty. If I could find them, their teaching would enable me to use my gift to the full, and wisely. I’d met one Guardian already. The Master of Shadows had found me and tested me, then told me in his cryptic way what I must do next. I had three journeys to make and three more Guardians to find: the Lord of the North, the Hag of the Isles, the White Lady. North, west, east. ‘The Lord of the North must live in those mountains, or beyond them, so when the winter is over I’ll have to go there.’
‘Without a guide, you could wander about in that area until you died of starvation,’ Tali said flatly.
‘I can forage. I can fish. I know how to make a snare.’
‘It’s not easy terrain. There are few settlements, few good tracks, few bridges. Even in summer, not much grows there.’
‘At least there will be no Cull and no king’s men to contend with, if the north is so empty.’
‘One thing’s certain,’ Tali said. ‘You can’t do the trip on your own, no matter how much of a warrior we make of you by springtime. Regan seldom sends people out alone anyway, Flint being the obvious exception. He’ll insist you take someone with you as path-finder and bodyguard.’ She stared out over the cloud-veiled mountains. ‘If I were you I’d go west first and seek out this Hag of the Isles,’ she said. ‘Save the north for summer. Or do you need to follow a particular order?’
‘The Master of Shadows didn’t say anything about that. I only know that I need to learn something different from each Guardian.’
‘Mm-hm.’ Tali was non-committal; I could not tell what she was thinking. She lifted an arm ringed with tattoos – spirals, swirls, flying birds to match the ones around her neck – and pushed a strand of her dark hair back behind her ear. ‘It’s a long way to travel, Neryn. Perhaps further than you realise. The north . . . it’s an unforgiving place. We’ve lost a lot of good comrades there.’
‘I suppose I could go west first.’ That would mean retracing the path I had taken to come to Shadowfell, a path full of difficult memories. Still, I had to do it sometime. If I went west, there was a possibility – slim but real – that I might see Flint. The thought of him was both joy and sorrow, for when he had left Shadowfell we had spoken sweet words of forgiveness and hope. We had not spoken of love, not in so many words, for soft feelings were forbidden among Regan’s rebels. But something deep and real had passed between us. Now Flint would be back at Winterfort and living his perilous life as Regan’s eyes at the heart of the king’s court. Keldec’s Enforcer; Keldec’s confidant; Keldec’s most trusted man. A rebel spy. Treading a very thin line, and in constant danger. I still dared to hope he might return to Shadowfell in time to travel with me in spring. But, knowing he would need to explain away the loss of an entire troop of Enforcers, I doubted the king would let him leave court again so soon.
‘Have you thought of asking your uncanny friends to go with you?’ Tali asked. ‘Or one of those folk who are supposed to be living downstairs?’
‘The Folk Below, Sage calls them. You sound as if you don’t believe in them.’
Tali gave me a sideways look.‘I’m not stupid, Neryn. I know there’s something in these caves apart from us. Especially now I’ve seen your unusual friends. We’d never have survived in this place without fey help. But they can’t be down that spiral stair. It leads nowhere. You’ve seen it for yourself. The passageway at the bottom ends in a solid rock wall. Yet Sage insists that’s where they live.’
I had nothing to say to that. Not even Sage had been able to raise so much as a squeak from the Folk Below.
‘So why not ask them to go with you? Sage and the other one? Their magic could help protect you on the way, couldn’t it?’
‘I don’t want to ask them. One of their kind died protecting me, on the way up here. You know iron is a bane to the Good Folk, as deadly as poison. Sage’s dear friend died with a chain wrapped around his neck and an Enforcer holding it tight. It was hideous. Cruel. He was just a small being, a creature of the woodland, and he stood up to the king’s men so I could escape. Sage has given up a lot for me already. Red Cap has a little baby to look after. If I asked them to come with me and it happened again, I don’t think I could . . .’
I felt the weight of Tali’s gaze on me. ‘Believe me,’ she said, ‘I know how that feels. It’s something you learn to live with, because it’s the nature of what we do. This war won’t be won without losses. Regan will balance up the value of your gift against the risk of someone getting hurt protecting you, and he’ll insist you have a guard. If not one of the Good Folk, then one of us. You’ll have to swallow your scruples.’
When I said nothing, she went on. ‘The north isn’t entirely empty. There’s a regional chieftain there, Lannan, sometimes called Lannan Long-Arm, with a number of district chieftains answering to him. Lannan is kin to the leaders in the northern isles. We’ve been told his personal fighting force is substantial.’ She hesitated. ‘Our negotiations with Lannan are at a delicate stage. Of Alban’s eight regional chieftains, this is the most powerful. He hasn’t attended the Gathering for several years; his relationship with the king is less than cordial. Distance is his friend. Keldec’s unlikely to send a war-band rushing up there only to see them lost in the mountains.’
There was a pause.
‘You understand what I’m telling you, Neryn?’
‘That whoever wins Lannan over to their side has a big advantage. Yes?’
‘Does that mean Regan is travelling north himself in spring?’
Tali shook her head. ‘No need. We’ve a team talking to Lannan already. There’s more to Regan’s rebels than this small band at Shadowfell, Neryn. This is the centre of the operation, yes; Regan is the beating heart of the rebellion. But we couldn’t do it with so few. We’re spread out in many parts of Alban, in places where a single dissenting voice has grown into a force for change. We do have to be careful. You know what happens when the king gets the merest whiff of disobedience.’
I knew all too well. I had seen villages burned, the innocent put to the sword, leaders who stood up for justice summarily executed. I had lost my entire family to the Cull, the seasonal sweep of Alban’s villages that weeded out the rebellious and those with canny gifts. Keldec feared magic above all else. And yet he used it for his own ends. His Enthrallers, of whom Flint was one, were able to work an enchantment to turn someone who had displeased the king into a flawlessly loyal subject. Sometimes, though, the charm went wrong, and the victim became a witless husk of his or her former self. That, too, I had seen. It had been the worst night of my life.
‘If Regan’s teams are spread out all over Alban,’ I asked,‘how do they communicate? How can you put a complete strategy in place when the time comes?’
‘We have folk here and there who carry messages. Trusted folk. Believe it or not, there are some of those in Alban still. But yes, it is a weakness. These things take time.’
I thought of the boy who had brought messages to Flint, when he and I had spent the long days and nights of my illness in a little hut halfway up the Rush Valley. I had wondered about that boy; wondered if he was like my brother, who had died with a spear through his chest when the Enforcers raided our home village, less than four years ago. Only a fool or a hero would dare carry messages for the rebels. Perhaps such folk were both heroes and fools.
‘It’s not a quick process,’ Tali said. ‘Winning the chieftains over, I mean. Those who are prepared to support a rebellion dare not be open about their intentions. In every stronghold there’s someone ready to slip word to the Enforcers for a few pieces of silver. And once they do that, whether their information is true or false, the king’s wrath comes down like an ill-aimed hammer, striking innocent and guilty alike. All of us want the rebellion to happen soon, as soon as possible, before people are too worn down to care anymore. But a word in the wrong ears could wreck the whole endeavour.’ She glanced at me sideways, her dark eyes narrowed. ‘That means no blundering into unknown parts and saying too much, whether it’s a chieftain’s hall or a cave housing an uncanny creature of some kind.’
‘I wasn’t intending to do any blundering. And I’ll be staying away from chieftains’ halls. I’m hoping to avoid human settlements altogether, if I can. But I do need to go, and go as soon as the season allows. If Regan wants my gift as a tool for the rebellion, I must find the Guardians and complete the Caller’s training. Though by the time I get back down the Ladder I may not be able to walk to my bedchamber, let alone all the way to the western isles.’
‘By springtime,’ said Tali, standing and reaching out a strong hand to pull me to my feet, ‘you’ll be running up and down these steps without a second thought. You’re tougher than you look; must be those years on the road. If you’re heading west first, maybe we should be practising swimming.’
‘Wonderful,’ I said, not mentioning that I could not swim at all. ‘Where would we be doing that, in some ice-bound mountain tarn?’
‘Don’t put it past me.’ The merest trace of a smile touched Tali’s features. ‘Now we’re heading back down. Don’t be too cautious, keep the pace steady and lean back slightly as you go. I’d prefer not to have to catch you. I won’t count, but I want you to imagine there’s a big fellow with a big weapon right on your tail. Dawdle, and he’ll make sure you get to the bottom uncomfortably fast.’
Once I began training with Tali, my daily routine changed. The Ladder was in heavy use during the day, with everyone at Shadowfell bar Milla and Eva required to complete a certain number of ascents and descents to maintain their fitness. I took to rising early and going up and down while everything was quiet. The only ones on the Ladder before me were Tali and her brother Fingal, who fitted in the same combat training as everyone else. People said Shadowfell’s healer had a rare skill with the knife, and not only for surgery. As for Tali, she worked everyone hard, and herself hardest of all.
When the folk of Shadowfell were not on the Ladder or in the training yard, they were busy with other work: helping Milla and Eva maintain the household, keeping weaponry in top condition, fashioning maps, making plans for the spring’s trips out from Shadowfell. I wondered, sometimes, if Regan had established this routine so there would be less time for arguments. Disputes did tend to break out when a small community was cooped up in a confined space, as we were over the long highland winter. It was rare for anyone to venture outside, apart from when we undertook activities in the training yard with its sheltering stone walls. The fells were blanketed with snow; ice made the paths treacherous.
I learned new skills. Andra, a strapping red-haired fighter of one-and-twenty who could match the best of the men in hand-to-hand combat, trained me to use my staff as a weapon. Muscular, hard-faced Gort, who had once been a chieftain’s master-at-arms, taught me to wield short and long daggers in self-defence. I was not trained alongside the new recruits, who had been given a trial period over the winter to prove themselves. Regan had ordered that my lessons be conducted in private. Knowing how vital it was for me to be ready when spring came, I worked hard and asked no questions.
Every few days Sage came to the door of the rebel headquarters, and the door guards put away their iron weapons, respecting what she was. They would call me, and I would go to talk to my friend in a little chamber set aside for this purpose. Sometimes Red Cap came with her, but not often. His infant was still very small, and it was cold out in the snow, going to and fro. My fey friends did not like to come further inside our dwelling, for there was iron everywhere, not only weaponry but Milla’s kitchen ladles and tongs, the soup pot, the trivets and other paraphernalia.
Sage and Red Cap, with the babe, had followed me all the way from the forests by Silverwater in the west, where I had first encountered them. They had helped me, had stood up for me in the face of their clan’s doubts and convinced others of their kind to aid me on my journey. Indeed, I’d discovered that Sage had been keeping an eye on me since I was a child, suspecting my special ability went something beyond the canny gifts – unusually good sight or hearing, a particular talent at music, an exceptional knack with animals – that a scattering of human folk possessed.
So Sage and Red Cap were here on the mountain, not lodged with the rebels or with the mysterious Folk Below, but in some place unknown to me. Sage had been confident, at first, that the Good Folk of Shadowfell could be persuaded to come out and talk to us, but thus far our efforts to contact them had been fruitless. I had hoped to enlist their help; I had promised Regan I would do my best. Although the Good Folk in general were distrustful of humankind, the Folk Below, with their gifts of food and fuel, had shown goodwill toward the rebels since Regan and his band had first moved into Shadowfell. I had thought I could ask for their help in finding the Guardians – they should know, at least, where to start looking for the Lord of the North. More than that, I’d thought we could win them over to the cause. If the Good Folk could be persuaded to join the rebellion, we had a much better chance of removing Keldec from the throne. The most famous Caller of the past had united fey and human armies to defeat a common enemy.
All very well. Thus far I had not even persuaded these folk to open their door to me. And there lay the problem. My gift was powerful. I had used it to turn the tide of a battle last autumn; I had called out a rock being, a stanie mon, to fall on a party of Enforcers and crush them. That deed weighed heavily on my conscience, and not only because one of the rebels had been caught up in it and had sustained an injury from which he’d later died. Regan’s fighters had hailed me as a hero that day. But I did not feel like a hero. Wielding that kind of power horrified me. It made me determined not to use my special talent again until I knew how to use it wisely. I must reach the Folk Below without using my gift; I must not compel them to come out. Sage and her clan had befriended me without my needing to call. Why should not the Folk Below be the same?
My health improved. My strength increased, thanks to good food, enough rest and rigorous training. I became more used to living at close quarters with many folk. That had been hard at first, for it was years since I had lived in the village of Corbie’s Wood, with a family and a community. Father and I had been on our own a long while; after he died, it had been only me. And then Flint and me. I tried not to think too much of him, for my imagination was all too ready to paint me pictures of Flint at court, Flint in trouble, Flint under suspicion of spying. I dreamed of him sometimes, confusing dreams that I could not interpret. I kept them to myself. He had been my companion in times of trouble, sometimes trusted, sometimes doubted, in the end a friend above all friends. And now he was gone. I must not waste time regretting something that could not be.
I had not kept count of the days, but others had. It was close to midwinter, and even Ban and Kenal, the two lads most recently arrived at Shadowfell, were starting to look like warriors, thanks to Tali’s training and their own hard work. We sat in the dining chamber, the only place big enough to accommodate our whole community at once, working on various tasks by lamplight after supper had been cleared away. At one end of the chamber, Milla’s cooking fire burned on the broad hearth, filling the place with welcome warmth. Regan and Tali sat together, red head and dark bent over a map spread out on the table before them. They were arguing, though they kept their voices down. Tali had her arms tightly folded. Regan’s handsome features wore an uncharacteristic frown.
Eva and I were working our way through a basket of mending. Killen, Shadowfell’s most expert archer, had fletching materials laid out on the table before him. Andra was sharpening my knife for me, her eyes narrowed as she worked it against the whetstone. The special sheath I had made, with its protective wards, lay close by. She had not asked me about it, and I had not volunteered any information. I had learned the making of such things from my grandmother, a wise woman. Grandmother’s story was too hard to tell, too raw and painful, even now. She had fallen victim to the Cull in the cruellest way, turned into a witless shell by an enthralment gone wrong. Destroyed before my twelve-year-old eyes, as I hid and watched. I had learned to set the memory away where it would not cripple me, and I did not bring it out for sharing.
When Flint had told me he was an Enthraller, one of those men who performed the same vile magic that had been worked on my grandmother, I had fled in revulsion. The news had made me physically sick. Mind-mending, Flint had called it, a fine old magic that had been warped and perverted under Keldec. In time I had come to accept the truth of this: that mind-mending had indeed once been a force for healing. Still, I did not speak of my grandmother: neither of the time of her wisdom and love, her strength and goodness, nor of the frail, lost thing she became. Her death had been a mercy.
Big Don was adjusting the binding on a spear. Little Don, a marginally shorter man, was plucking a tune on a three-stringed fiddle and humming under his breath. Others played games – stanies, hop-the-man or a form of skittles with an elaborate scoring system that seemed to change from night to night. Running totals were marked up on the stone wall with charcoal, and friendly disputes as to their accuracy were common.
The games, I did not care for. No-one at Shadowfell knew I’d first met Flint when he’d beaten my father at stanies and won me as his prize. That night was etched on my memory forever. Not long after the game the Cull had swept down on Darkwater and my father had been burned to death. I had trained myself to be calm when folk brought out the board and pieces. I had taught myself not to start in fright every time they made the call: ‘Spear! Hound! Stag!’
‘You should go off to bed,’ Eva said, giving me a glance. ‘You look worn out. Been having bad dreams again?’
In a place like this, there was no avoiding scrutiny. ‘I’m all right. Let me finish darning these leggings, at least.’
‘Another pair of Tali’s,’ Eva commented. ‘She wears them out faster than anyone else, and since I’d rather not get my head snapped off, I don’t ask her to do her own mending. It’s not as if she’s ever idle. Does the work of four men, that girl.’
Plying my bone needle and hoping Tali would not complain about my uneven stitchery, I allowed my thoughts to wander back to Flint, for it was a dream of him that had disturbed my sleep last night. It was hard to say exactly what we were to each other. Not lovers. Not sweethearts. What lay between us was too deep and too complicated for such words. I feared for him. Despite what he was, despite what he did, I longed for his return. But only if coming back did not place him in still greater danger. I yearned for the time when we could be together in a world without fear. I hoped that time would come before we were too old and tired to care anymore.
‘What are you dreaming of, Neryn?’
I managed a smile.‘Better times. Opportunities. Good things.’
‘Ah, well. We all dream of those.’
‘Even Tali? I wonder what she would do if Alban were at peace.’
Tali’s dispute with Regan had intensified; she smacked her hand on the table for emphasis.
‘I don’t see peace coming in a hurry,’ Eva said. ‘Even if it does, folk will still need guards, protectors, sentries. There’s always work for fighters.’
‘Tali as a sentry? Give her a day or two and she’d be running the whole army.’ I realised halfway through this comment that the chamber had fallen quiet and my voice had carried clearly to both Tali and Regan. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said quickly, glancing over. ‘I meant no offence.’
‘A song!’ put in Big Don before Tali could say a word. ‘What better for a winter night? Who’ll oblige us? Brasal, how about you?’
Brasal was Fingal’s other infirmary assistant, a young man of brawny build who could lift a patient with ease. His strong hands were useful for bone-setting. He also had a deep, true singing voice.
‘Come on!’ Little Don plucked the start of a tune on his fiddle, then reached for the bow. ‘Something cheerful, none of those forlorn ballads of lost loves and misfortunes.’
‘I’ll sing if Regan sings with me. And the rest of you join in the refrain – even you, Tali.’
‘Me?’ Tali’s dark brows lifted. ‘You know I’ve got a singing voice like a crow’s, Brasal. I’ll leave it to the rest of you.’ After a moment she added, ‘Sing that thing about catching geese, I like that one.’
The goose song was lengthy and became sillier as it progressed. Regan added a higher counterpoint to Brasal’s melody and we all joined in the refrain with goodwill. This made a change from the pattern of hard work that filled our days, and it was good to see people smiling. Eva and I sewed as we sang, and Killen’s big hands stayed busy with his arrows. When the goose song was done, requests came from all over the room and the singers obliged. Regan’s singing voice was lighter than Brasal’s, clear and sweet in tone. The fiddle added an anchoring drone and sometimes inserted its own line of melody. The fire crackled; the mead jug was passed around; the mood was mellow.
‘Regan.’ Milla spoke into the silence after a song. ‘Do you remember that old tune for midwinter, “Out of darkness comes the light”? I’ve always loved that.’ She glanced at me. ‘My man used to sing it, back in the early days. Back when we needed every scrap of hope we could find.’
I nodded understanding. At two-and-thirty, Milla was the oldest person at Shadowfell. She and her husband had been with Regan from the first, along with Flint. Fingal and Tali had joined them not long after. Those six had been the sum of the rebellion then, the tiny flame from which a great fire of hope had flared. Milla’s man had died for the cause. Exactly how, I did not know and did not ask. Folk only shared their stories if they chose to; it was an unspoken rule that one did not pry. Likely every person at Shadowfell had a tale of loss and heartbreak in their past, just as I did.
‘I remember it,’ Regan said. ‘Brasal?’
Brasal shook his head. ‘I don’t know it. You start, I’ll try to pick up the tune.’
Regan lifted his voice, unaccompanied in the quiet of the chamber. The firelight played on the strong bones of his face; his deep blue eyes shone with feeling. And while his singing voice was pleasant rather than exceptional, suddenly everyone’s gaze was on him. Fingers stilled in mid-stitch; playing pieces were set quietly down.
Out of darkness comes the light Out of night comes morning Out of sorrow rises joy In the new day’s dawning Courage, wanderer! May the sun Cast its light upon us Showing us the path ahead Into springtime’s promise. Rise up, weary traveller, rise! Hope’s bright beacon lights the skies.
The melody died away; this song had no refrain. For a count of ten nobody made a sound. I could swear not one of us took a breath. Then, into the quiet, there came a din of clashing metal and raised voices. Tali was on her feet in an eye-blink and in front of Regan, shielding him with a skill born of long practice. Andra and Killen were up a moment later, moving in on either side, she with her staff, he with an axe. Tali’s knife was at the ready; I had not even seen her draw it from the sheath. Brasal moved into position in front of me and Eva. Five people headed out toward the entry, drawing weapons as they went.
‘It’s the middle of winter,’ muttered Eva. ‘Who’d come knocking but an ice trow or a madman?’
I shivered, waiting. It was all very well to joke about trows. I had met a brollachan last autumn, and although the fearsome creature had proven to be a friend, that was only after he had dangled me by the ankle over an abyss and frightened me half out of my wits.
Shouts from the entry; someone exclaiming in astonishment, ‘Cian! By all that’s holy!’
Regan made toward the door; Tali halted him with a raised hand. She formed a word with her lips, making no sound. Wait.
We did not have to wait long. Big Don and Fingal came back into the chamber supporting a man between them. He was wrapped in thick woollen clothing, a cloak, a cloth around head and shoulders, mittens that looked heavy with damp. A dusting of snow lay on his head and shoulders. Within the shawl-like wrapping that swathed his head, his eyes were strangely bright against a death mask of a face, gaunt and pale with exhaustion. His boots were cracked and worn. The two brought him to the fireside and sat him down on a bench. All around the chamber, weapons were slid back into their sheaths.
‘On his own,’ said Big Don succinctly.
Regan crouched before the traveller, gazed up into the drained face. ‘By sun and moon, Cian, you look like a ghost! Welcome home. No, don’t try to speak. Let’s get you warm first. Milla –’
Milla was already ladling broth from a cook pot into a bowl, while one of the men poured mead into a cup and set it by Cian. Plainly this was neither madman nor ill-doer, but one of us.
‘Not too much,’ Fingal warned as Cian lifted the cup in shaking hands. ‘A sip at a time. That’s it. Get that cloak off, man. And the boots. Black Crow save us, look at the state you’re in. How far have you walked today?’
‘Save the questions for later.’ Regan gestured and folk moved back, giving the traveller room. Milla brought the broth; Brasal went out and came back with a blanket, which he wrapped around Cian in place of the cloak and shawl. Under Milla’s direction, Little Don carried in a tub of warm water for the traveller’s feet. Cian’s face regained some colour, but bouts of shivering still coursed through his body.
‘Who is he?’ I whispered to Eva.
‘One of ours,’ she murmured. ‘From the north. He’ll have news. He’d never have attempted the journey in winter otherwise. Just hope it’s not bad news.’
After some time Cian’s trembling lessened, though he still looked shattered and weary. Regan sat close by him, murmuring reassuring words, while Fingal checked the traveller’s pulse, looked in his eyes, then sent me to the infirmary to make up a restorative infusion.
‘Thank you,’ Cian said in a thread of a voice when I returned to set the cup before him. ‘Who . . . ?’
‘Neryn,’ Regan said. ‘A Caller.’
Cian’s eyes widened.
‘She came last autumn, with Flint. A long story, which can wait for tomorrow. As can yours, my friend – Fingal should take you off to the infirmary and get you to bed.’ Despite these words, there was a question in Regan’s voice.
‘No. I must tell you first.’ Cian made a visible effort to sit straighter, to gather himself. I did not like the look in his eye. All around us, folk were waiting in silence.
‘Good news or ill?’ Regan was calm, outwardly at least.
‘Both. It cannot wait for tomorrow.’ Cian glanced at me, then over toward the new lads, Ban and Kenal. ‘Is it safe to speak?’
‘It’s safe. Tell us. You come from Lannan Long-Arm. Does this concern the proposed alliance?’
‘I have news of that, yes. But . . . there is something else.’ Cian drew a deep breath; there was a rasping sound in his chest. ‘Three of us set out to bring word to you. Arden and Gova were with me. They are . . . they are both lost, Regan. We were caught in a storm, heading back over the pass north of the Race. Gova fell; we could not reach her. Arden perished from cold.’
A silence, then; heads were bowed all around the firelit chamber.
‘What news could be so urgent that it demanded the sacrifice of two of our finest?’ Tali’s voice was tight with what might have been grief or fury. ‘What news could not wait until the passes were safe to cross?’
‘Tali,’ said Regan in an undertone. It was a warning; Tali fell silent, though her anger was a presence in the room.
‘The news is this.’ Cian looked straight at his leader.‘Lannan Long-Arm will support the rebel cause. He has promised to bring a substantial force to Summerfort and to stand up beside us when we challenge Keldec.’ Then, as the rest of us were about to break out into a chorus of amazed congratulations, he added, ‘There’s a condition. Lannan believes that if our preparations draw out too long, the king will inevitably get word of what we plan. Should that happen, our cause is lost before we can put the final pieces in play. Our whole strategy depends on keeping the plan from Keldec’s knowledge.’
Regan was frowning. ‘I understand Lannan’s concerns. We’re working toward putting this in place as soon as we can. Did you offer him the incentives I suggested?’
‘That was discussed, yes. Should we succeed in removing Keldec, Lannan wants a position as regent, or co-regent, until the heir comes of age. If as co-regent, he wants the power to approve whoever shares the position. He suggested a couple of names.’
‘He knows, I assume, that Keldec is likely to bring magic into play in any confrontation with us?’
Cian nodded.‘He does; and suggested, almost as a joke, that we attempt to harness the support of the Good Folk in order to counter that. At the very least, he said, if our own folk possess canny gifts, we should make use of those. But . . .’ He looked at me.
‘But Lannan does not know – cannot know – that we now have a Caller,’ said Fingal. ‘A Caller gives us an immense advantage.’
I cleared my throat, not sure if I should speak. These people had just learned of the deaths of two of their own; it seemed no time for a strategic discussion. ‘But not yet,’ I said to Cian. ‘I have only recently discovered the nature of my canny gift. I need time to learn its wise use. Two years, maybe three – I won’t know how long until I find the people who can teach me. They are all in different parts of Alban.’
Cian said nothing.
‘Out with it.’ Regan fixed his gaze on the traveller. ‘Lannan has set a limit on how long we can rely on his help, yes? Tell us.’
‘He knows we plan to confront the king at one of the midsummer Gatherings, when the clans are all together in the one place. His ultimatum is this: if we cannot do it by the summer after next, he’ll withdraw his support for the rebellion, and instead step away from both Keldec’s authority and any alliance with the other chieftains of Alban.’
Horror filled me. The summer after next? How could I possibly be ready in time? There were gasps and murmurs all around the chamber; Brasal uttered an oath.
‘You’re saying that if we can’t do this in a year and a half, the north will secede from the kingdom?’ Tali’s voice was hushed with shock.
‘That’s bold,’ said Big Don. ‘Some might say foolishly so.’
‘Lannan has kin in the northern isles,’ Milla said. ‘And his territories are guarded by the mountains; even Keldec’s Enforcers would have trouble sustaining an armed conflict in those parts. Provided his northern kin could supply him, Lannan and his folk could survive without Keldec’s support.’
‘Support!’ put in Big Don with a grim smile. ‘Not the word I’d have used.’
Nobody else was smiling.
‘The Gathering after next.’ Regan spoke calmly, but his face told another story. ‘I would say that was impossible. But here at Shadowfell we don’t use that word. Neryn, you understand how much this depends on you. Can you learn the skills you need by the summer after next? Will it be long enough?’
I bit back my first response. Three Guardians to find, all in different corners of Alban; three branches of knowledge to master; and then, the disparate talents of humankind and Good Folk to be brought into an alliance strong enough to stand up against the might of Keldec and his Enforcers . . . all that in a scant year and a half? When I had thus far failed to exchange even one word with the Folk Below? It was . . . I must not say impossible. I was one of Regan’s rebels now, and I must not even think it. ‘I’ll try my best,’ I said.
Excerpted from Raven Flight by Juliet Marillier. Copyright © 2013 by Juliet Marillier.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Pan Macmillan Australia solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.