Eighteen-year-old Liobhan is a powerful singer and an expert whistle player. Her brother has a voice to melt the hardest heart, and is a rare talent on the harp. But Liobhan's burning ambition is to join the elite warrior band on Swan Island. She and her brother train there to compete for places, and find themselves joining a mission while still candidates. Their unusual blend of skills makes them ideal for this particular job, which requires going undercover as traveling minstrels. For Swan Island trains both warriors and spies.
Their mission: to find and retrieve a precious harp, an ancient symbol of kingship, which has gone missing. If the instrument is not played at the upcoming coronation, the candidate will not be accepted and the kingdom will be thrown into disarray. Faced with plotting courtiers and tight-lipped druids, an insightful storyteller, and a boorish Crown Prince, Liobhan soon realizes an Otherworld power may be meddling in the affairs of the kingdom. When ambition clashes with conscience, Liobhan must make a bold decision—and the consequences may break her heart.
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***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2019 Juliet Marillier
A pox on Archu! Why must we fight in a wretched downpour? I hook my left leg around Brocc’s right and throw my full weight backward, toppling us both to the ground. We roll, coating ourselves with mud. Shit! Who would want to do this for the rest of their life? I must be crazy.
The wind gusts in, straight off the northern sea, driving the rain sideways. Brocc curses. There’s a little catch in his breath. I’ve almost got him.
“Go for his nuts!” someone shouts.
“Grab her hair!” yells someone else. Dau, I’m guessing. He likes to see me lose.
There’s no need to look at Archu, even if I could turn my head. I know what he’s thinking: This isn’t some brawl behind the drinking hall, it’s training for the real thing. You’ve got advantages. Use them.
Superior height, I tell myself as Brocc fights his way up onto one knee and, for a moment, loosens his hold on my right arm. Stronger will to win. Sheer bloody-mindedness. I claw up a handful of mud and throw it in his face. He swears, releases his hold, puts his hands up to his eyes. I twist onto my knees and deliver a well-calculated punch to his jaw. And he’s down.
“Cease.” Archu lifts his hand. “Bout goes to Liobhan.”
It’s over, thank the gods of wind and weather. There’s a scattering of applause from our drenched comrades, who are required to observe all bouts, no matter what the weather. Archu believes there’s always something to learn, especially from watching people make mistakes. I hold out a hand to Brocc and haul him to his feet.
“Should’ve seen that coming,” he mumbles, swiping at his face with his mud-soaked sleeve.
What can I say? We’ve been sparring together since we were children. He knows I’ll use dirty tricks to win if that’s what it takes. More often than not I do win against Brocc; he’s too honorable for his own good.
“Untidy bout,” says Archu. “Brocc, you had the advantage there briefly, but you let it go. Don’t let your thoughts drift off, especially in these conditions. Sharpen your eyes, sharpen your ears, feel what’s going on in every part of your body. Even as you counter her move, you should be anticipating her next. If she catches you unprepared, you’re gone. Make an error like that in a real situation and you might be dead. Which would be less than useful to whoever’s paying for your services. Here.” He fishes a disreputable cloth from some hidden corner of his voluminous fur cloak—the garment is almost legendary—and passes it over. “Wipe that stuff off your face.” He turns toward me. “Liobhan, quick thinking there. I hope you haven’t done your brother any damage. There are cleaner ways you could have ended that. Tell me some.”
I’ve been running over the fight in my mind, since Archu always asks this. “If I’d been quicker after we both went down, I could have thrown my full weight across him. Or earlier on, when I did the lock-and-throw move, if I’d placed my feet wider I could have blocked him from doing that spring back up.”
“The spring was well executed.” Archu’s hard gaze goes to Brocc, and he gives a brief nod of approval. “You’re nimble, no doubt of that.”
“He’s cut out to be a strolling player.” Dau again, supercilious bastard. “A man of many talents: singing, harping, tumbling, and tricks.”
I clench my teeth over the withering retort this comment deserves. Self-restraint is part of the Swan Island code, and Archu is present—Archu, who will in time help decide which of us trainees become permanent members of the warrior band and which are dispatched home with the weight of failure on their shoulders. As for Brocc, he says not a word.
“You’d be surprised,” Archu observes, “what talents a Swan Island warrior can use to strategic advantage. Some of them, you might not think of as combat skills. Should any of you be fortunate enough to stay the course and find a long-term place on the island, you’ll find that the services we offer are diverse. It’s not all heading out festooned with shiny weapons and killing the other fellow before he kills you. Though you need to learn that as well. Anyone else have any observations?”
They do, of course. Our group has been on the island for two turnings of the moon, and the training’s been intense. We work every day and often nights as well. We need to be capable under all conditions. Archu is chief combat trainer on Swan Island, but others also teach us. There are experts in swordsmanship, archery, fighting with staves and with bare hands, as you’d expect at a school of war-craft. We learn the best way to scale rock faces, and what to do if someone gets stuck or falls, and how to fight off attackers when you’re halfway up a cliff and hanging on for dear life. We’re taught the care and maintenance of our equipment, from weapons to boots. Checks occur at irregular intervals, and if one of us is found with an ill-cleaned knife or muddy footwear, we all pay the price. A mouse-like woman named Eabha teaches us how to open locked doors and to hide effectively right under folk’s noses. That is harder for a tall, sturdily built person than a slight one, as I have cause to know. The color of my hair—a vivid red—doesn’t help.
One skill we can’t learn on the island is mounted combat. Horses can’t be kept here—there’s not much level ground, and all of it’s taken up by the training facilities and living quarters. The remainder of the island—steep rises, sudden dips, sheer cliffs—is given over to sheep, seals, and puffins. Swan Island has a fleet of small boats, some for fishing, some to transfer people and supplies between island and mainland, and some, as we’ve discovered, kept so we can practice fighting on a shifting deck without falling overboard. Our trainer for that is Haki, a giant Norseman.
We never forget that we’re on trial here. Exercises to test us can happen at any time of the day or night. And all the time, our tutors are watching us. Who is the best, the strongest, the most promising? No point in asking who wants it most. All of us do, or we wouldn’t be putting ourselves through this. Brocc and I prepared for months to win places in the training course, from which maybe two or three out of the twenty will be chosen to stay as permanent members of the Swan Island force. Nobody wants to be sent home.
If I was doing the choosing, I’d pick Dau. He may be the least likable of the trainees, but he excels in all the physical tasks, and he’s clever at solving puzzles and devising strategies. Brocc isn’t the strongest fighter in the group, but he has other skills that might prove to be assets to Swan Island. It seems to me our trainers recognize his unusual talents, though none of them says anything. My brother has a remarkable ability for keeping other people calm under testing conditions. And he has a way of using his senses that goes beyond the ordinary, not just when he’s playing music, but all the time. As for me, I know I’m good enough. But although there are quite a few women working and living in the Swan Island community, and several female tutors, the elite fighting group has only two female members. That’s two out of a force of more than fifty. And in this group of trainees I’m the only woman. The odds are not in my favor. But I will prove myself. I didn’t come here to fail.
“If you want my opinion,” Dau says now, “Brocc goes easy on Liobhan because she’s a female. He’s hardly going to pinch her breast or dig an elbow in her privates. And he’d never stand by while someone else attacked his sister. The expression on his face right now proves it.”
I manage not to look at Brocc, though I know how he must be feeling. Wretched Dau! Along with his other talents comes an unerring ability to find and exploit a person’s weak spot. I can see how that might come in useful, but I’d prefer him not to exercise it on the rest of us.
No comment from Archu. He’s biding his time. Letting us hang ourselves with our own rope.
“That’s bollocks, Dau.” This is our Norse trainee, Hrothgar, a big, bearded man. I get on well with Hrothgar. He’s told me how it was where he grew up, how the women can be leaders and fighters and heads of the household if there is a need, and how they are respected for whatever they do. His sister wanted to come with him to Swan Island, but she’s only thirteen; five years younger than me. “Brocc’s a fine fighter,” Hrothgar goes on. “How do you think Liobhan got so good? By practicing with him for years, that’s how. He’s got his own style, that’s all. As for standing by while someone attacked one of your comrades, male or female, would you do that?”
“There might be a time when I had to,” Dau says. “What if we were on a mission under cover, and defending my comrade would mean destroying that cover? Haven’t we been told that fulfilling the mission must always come first?” He glances at Archu, but if our trainer replies, his words are drowned by a sudden, violent increase in the rain. It roars across the island, blotting out everything in sight and making an abrupt end to conversation. Archu points in the general direction of the nearest building, and we sprint for shelter.
The rain is still bucketing down outside hours later, as we sit in the hall after supper. This is the time when the whole community comes together to enjoy food and drink and good fellowship. Tales are told before the hearth fire, jugs of mead or ale are passed around, and those of us who can play or sing provide musical entertainment. Brocc and I both love music. At home, our band was in demand for village weddings and festivals. We even played for some grand gatherings in the household of Dalriada’s crown prince, which is not far from our family home. The Swan Island community soon learned we were musicians—the arrival of Brocc with his harp strapped to his back made it pretty plain.
Archu is a musician, too. The man’s arms are all muscle; he handles the bodhran as he handles the sword, as if it’s an extension of himself. You can hear the warrior’s marching feet and beating heart in his playing, and the sounds of the island’s natural world: the great wings of the albatross, the dive and twist of a seal, the thrum of wind in thatch. He’s as much a master of drumming as he is of just about every form of combat. Archu doesn’t talk about his life before the island, or where and how he developed those skills. And we don’t ask. But I’d like to hear his story one day.
On the evening after that bout in the mud, Haki tells a story of his time as an ulfhednar, a Wolfskin. The role of these peerless warriors is to leap from the prow of the longship as it comes in to shore, setting terror into the hearts of their enemies. They’re god-sworn and, from the sound of it, more than half crazy. This particular tale concerns an ax that was blessed by the gods, which for a long time brought good fortune to the man who wielded it. But when it fell into the hands of another, everything changed. We’re all captivated by this story, and I can see from my brother’s intense concentration that he’s already making it into a song.
“And on the night Brynjolf breathed his last breath”—Haki’s voice has dropped to a near whisper—“the men who sat vigil over him swore that although the ax rested beside him on his bier, they could hear its voice in the air above him, singing the true song of a fine blade: Home, my faithful one, come home now to the hall of the gods! And to the one who stole me from you, I say: A curse upon you for your betrayal of a friend! May your sword be blunt and your arm be weak, and may your enemies laugh in your face until the day you die!”
It’s a fine story. Who cares if it’s true or not? Next it’s our turn to entertain: a makeshift band made up of me, Brocc, Archu, and Eimear, a girl who’s good on the whistle. I’m capable on the whistle, too—in a band, the more things you can turn your hand to the better. Eimear and I are performing a reel as question and answer, taking eight measures in turn and gradually speeding up. By the end, the would-be dancers are falling over their own feet and breathless with laughter. It all feels oddly right. Swan Island’s warriors are the best of the best in combat, and their deeds are spoken of in hushed tones all over Erin, forming the stuff of fireside tales. Yet at times like this, they’re a big, warm family.