A young warrior who wields both the power of her music and the strength of her sword faces a grave threat in this enthralling historical fantasy.
Bard and fighter Liobhan is always ready for a challenge. So when news arrives at Swan Island that the prince of Dalriada has gone missing after an assault by both masked men and the sinister Crow Folk, she’s eager to act.
While Liobhan and her fellow Swan Island warriors seek answers to the prince’s disappearance, the bard Brocc, Liobhan’s brother, finds himself in dire trouble. His attempts to communicate with the Crow Folk have led him down a perilous path.
When Liobhan and her comrades are sent to the rescue, it becomes clear the two missions are connected—and a great mystery unfolds.
What brought the Crow Folk to Erin? And who seeks to use them in an unscrupulous bid for power? As Liobhan and Brocc investigate, it will take all their strength and will to continue pursuing the truth. With the safety of their loved
ones in the balance, the risks they must take may cost them everything.
Release date: September 21, 2021
Print pages: 464
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Listen to a sample
A Song of Flight
I want to talk to the druid. Brother Oisín is an old man, but age hasn't slowed him much. He walks long distances and doesn't always keep to the roads. He is solitary by choice, loving wild places, praying alone, meeting with other folk from time to time to offer teaching or advice or help. At such meetings, if one is lucky, Oisín will tell tales of long ago, stories of wonder and terror, of joy and heartbreak. His tales are magical. They challenge the mind and refresh the spirit.
We are fortunate. Every spring, the druid spends time at Winterfalls, in a hut deep in the forest, not far from my holding. I have offered him one of the cottages that lie within my outer wall-we generally keep one available for visitors-but he prefers to be out in the woods, where birds and creatures and the ever-changing trees are all the companions he needs. My household provides him with supplies, and every so often he walks down to visit us, for he knows I am fond of poetry, philosophy, and the like.
This spring there has been no sign of him. No word. As time passes my concern grows. So, on a particularly fine day, I suggest to Galen that we should ride out as far as the druid's hut to discover if Oisín has been there.
Galen reacts in keeping with his official role as my bodyguard. "What about the Crow Folk?" he asks. "You know they've been spotted in that part of the forest."
"All the more reason to check if all's well with him."
"You could send Baodán with some guards. No need to risk your own safety."
Baodán is my master-at-arms. We both know he won't relish being given such a job. Everyone fears the Crow Folk with their random attacks, their wildness. For a long while this area was free of them, but of recent times they have appeared in our northern forests, and we must be careful. "No need for Baodán's men to risk themselves simply because the prince happens to care about a druid's welfare," I reply, catching the hint of a smile on Galen's face. He's been my companion and dearest friend since we were twelve years old, and we know each other very well. "Just you and me, a leisurely ride, a stop for refreshments somewhere. The weather's beautiful. Come on, Galen. I'll teach you a song on the way."
He lifts his brows, twists his mouth into a grimace. My friend lacks the remarkable musical talent of his siblings, though he can, in fact, hold a tune passably well.
"What if I promise to turn back if the Crow Folk appear particularly menacing?" I ask. "Not that they will, my friend. You're fearsome enough to frighten away dragons." Galen's a very tall man, strongly built, with a shaven head and a luxuriant, fiery red beard. He doesn't simply guard me. Over the years he's made sure I can defend myself, handle a horse capably, and generally get myself out of trouble. If not for him, I'd have spent most of my time in my library reading old tales and writing poetry, and I'd be far more of a weakling than any prince should be. One day I'll be king of Dalriada. A king must be a man of many parts, even if his bent is more toward scholarship than action.
"All right," Galen says, grinning. "But keep to your word. If I say we should turn back, we turn back."
The day is indeed warm. When we’ve covered a fair distance, we stop in a clearing among birches to let our horses rest awhile and drink from a stream. No Crow Folk here; they’ll be in the upper reaches of the forest, and we have not yet climbed far. It’s good to be alone, just the two of us without the bustle of a royal household around us. I have a council tomorrow with the local landholders, at which I must listen to their grievances and arbitrate in any disagreements. I suppose it is good practice for the time when I become king, though I fervently hope my father has many long years of healthy life ahead of him. I love the quiet of Winterfalls; I love being my own master, with my own household where we lack the formalities and protocols of court. But I love still more the times when Galen and I can get away on our own.
We eat a little of the food we brought with us, then pack up the rest for later. If Oisín is indeed at the hut, he may appreciate a share. We sit on the rocks in the sun, and I teach Galen a song about a man who got three wishes from a clurichaun and squandered them all on silly things. The moral of the story being, when dealing with uncanny folk, think before you speak. There's a chorus all made up of nonsense words, a tongue twister, and we're in fits of laughter trying to sing this when Galen goes suddenly still.
"Wha-" is all I have time for. He's on his feet, drawing his weapon. Men are moving in from under the trees, men with cloths tied over their faces and weapons in their hands.
"Run!" shouts Galen. I obey, sprinting across the clearing, diving into the cover of the forest. We've rehearsed this kind of thing over and over. He's drummed it into me that I must obey him instantly, no questions asked. Shouting breaks out behind me, the clash of metal, the thud of blows, and a scream. Something huge and shadowy flies over my head. Crow Folk. They're here, too. Galen. Oh, Galen. My heart pounding in fright, I risk one look back.
He's surrounded, slashing, kicking, getting his shoulder in, woefully outnumbered. And as I stare, my heart doing a wild dance in my chest, two Crow Folk join the melee, diving, pecking. It's a bloody maelstrom in which I cannot tell attacker from victim, bird from human. Blinded by tears, I slip my talisman from my neck and drop it on the forest floor. "Be safe, dear heart," I whisper, and take to my heels. I cannot save him. I can only do as I know he would wish, and try to save myself. I run, I run, dodging trees and bushes, slipping in mud, stumbling over rocks and fallen branches. When my breath is almost gone, when my head starts to spin, someone-something-is beside me, a presence felt rather than seen. Something touches my arm, but when I look, there is only shadow. My breath fails. I fall. Down, down, too far down. I land with a jolt. Pain spears through my ankle, then all is dark.
We're halfway up the cliff when Elka spots a boat coming in and casually lifts a hand to point it out. "Ours, yes?" she asks.
"Both hands on!" My heart's thumping. I take a slow breath in and out. "Remember the rule: two hands, one foot. Or two feet, one hand. Keep your attention on what you're doing. Now move your left foot. That's it." I'm watching as closely as I can while maintaining my own position. It's Elka's first climb without ropes and, for a little, her life is in my hands.
Being a trainer is harder than I expected. Since Elka arrived on Swan Island I've worked with her on a wide range of physical skills. I've taught her quite a few unarmed combat moves. She's good; she wouldn't be here if she wasn't. But I'm learning how hard it is to put a trainee in a situation of risk. It's not at all the same as taking a risk myself.
"Now we're moving up and to the right. Long stretch with the right arm-don't move your foot, make sure of your hand grip first. Good. Now the right foot up to that crack, toes in, check it's secure. And left foot up." Elka is shortish for a Swan Island warrior, barely up to my shoulder, but muscular and sturdy, and what she lacks in reach she makes up for in strength. I have to admire her calm confidence.
"Right, you're coming up to the crevice. Ease in as far as you can. Good. Now work your way slowly up. You're on your own for a bit. Call when you get to the ledge, then I'll follow. Don't do anything stupid."
Elka pauses half-in and half-out of the narrow split in the cliff face. Birds are passing very close to us, another distraction, though we've been careful not to climb near any roosting sites. "You are never stupid, Liobhan?"
"Focus!" I've done so many stupid things I've lost count. Things that were risky not just for myself but for people I care about. I've spoken out when silence would be far wiser. During my training to join the Swan Island community, I stretched the rules as far as they could possibly go. Sometimes I did things my own way when we were supposed to work as a team. There was that time when I leaped out of a tree and over a wall of spikes. Probably best forgotten, though I made it in one piece. And without that crazy episode we might not have succeeded in our mission. "Up you go," I tell her. "Don't rush it, it's not a race. If this were a real mission, there might be a big man with an ax waiting to meet you at the top."
"Or a big woman." Elka's voice is almost drowned by the screaming of the gulls.
"Either way, you want to be ready. Ignore the birds. They're helpful. Their racket stops your enemy from hearing you coming."
I wait for her call-"Clear!"-then I follow. I wonder again why Archu, who's our chief combat trainer, has given me the job of training Elka. Not solely because she's a woman, I'm sure. We're all treated as equals here, that's part of the code. And it's not as if there's a lack of older, more experienced tutors on Swan Island, where we teach not only the art of fighting but also strategy, mapmaking and pathfinding, and a number of special skills required for covert missions. Who knows when we might be required to scale a cliff in a hurry, or make a quick escape in a leaking boat, or get through a series of locked doors with armed opponents on our tail? This sort of training keeps our bodies and minds ready. We're called upon by leaders from all over Erin to undertake missions their regular household men-at-arms can't perform for them. Covert missions. Perilous missions. Often, missions that step nimbly past the rules of law. There's a reason our community is housed in a place that's hard to reach. There's a reason we're trained to keep secrets under extreme pressure.
"Right," I say, reaching the narrow ledge where Elka stands, her pose entirely relaxed as she rests her back against the cliff face and gazes out northward over the sea. She has both hands touching the rock, but that's not a lot of help when you're facing outward. I bet she had her arms folded just before I came into view. One step forward and she'd plunge to her death. "Turn carefully, then head up and to your left. The overhang is about one body length above us. Ready?"
She's been up this pitch before, with ropes. She knows her way. But I give the instructions anyway, because people can freeze partway through a climb. Their minds can go suddenly blank. I don't think that will happen with Elka.
We haven't come out on our own, of course. Hrothgar is at the top of the cliff, picked not only because I trust him, but also because he speaks Elka's native tongue. She's not entirely fluent in Irish yet, though she gets by, thanks to the somewhat hybrid version of our language that is spoken on the island. The school of warcraft has existed here for a long time now, and we draw in recruits from far beyond the shores of Erin. Over the years the languages brought by new arrivals have added words and expressions to our daily speech, and that has made life both easier and richer for the inhabitants of the island and the smaller group in our mainland settlement, a short but often turbulent distance away by boat.
I watch Elka as she climbs to the overhang; as she hesitates briefly, craning her neck. I don't call out a reminder to go around, not over. This wouldn't be a good time to startle her.
She inches across, flawless in her adherence to my instructions. When she's almost around the overhang and moving out of sight again, I follow. The gulls pass above me, screeching. I ignore them. I move one hand, one foot. One foot, one hand. Balance and flow. Breathe. Wait. Move again. When I'm past the overhang I hear Hrothgar's voice from above, greeting Elka, helping her up the very last bit. Good. She's done it. There's a satisfaction in seeing her succeed. Men outnumber women greatly in the Swan Island community, and among the warriors the disparity is even more striking. So I welcomed her arrival, though I've failed to have much conversation with her beyond what's necessary for training. In fact, I've hardly seen her talking to anyone except Hrothgar, and she does need to practice her Irish. Perhaps, as trainer, I'm supposed to work on that as well.
I'm about two body lengths from the top of the cliff when my right foot misses its target. I curse as a cascade of small rock fragments rattles down. With my heart pounding to an annoying degree, I tighten my hand grip.
Hrothgar calls, "All right, Liobhan?"
I'm scrabbling for a fresh foothold. I swear again, loudly.
The rope Hrothgar's fastened at the top snakes down beside me, not quite close enough to reach without taking a leap of faith. I'm still trying to find a spot for my right foot. I can hear my own breathing, and it's not the steady, controlled sound it should be. A moment later Elka appears, climbing down carefully if a little more quickly than is wise.
"Hold still," she says. "Here." She edges toward me sideways, and with her comes the rope. She's managed to get her shoulder underneath it, perhaps with some assistance from Hrothgar up above.
I allow my right foot to find the purchase I've known was there all the time. "Thanks," I say. I take a few breaths. What just happened was planned, but that didn't make it any less frightening. "You go on up, I'll be fine."
"First you, Liobhan," says Elka.
I don't point out which of us is the trainer and which the trainee. That's for later, when we debrief. I climb the rest of the way, not using the rope, and wait with Hrothgar.
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