Award-winning author Juliet Marillier “weaves magic, mythology, and folklore into every sentence on the page” (The Book Smugglers). Now she presents the first novel in an enchanting series that will transport readers to a magical vision of ancient Ireland....
In exchange for help escaping her long and wrongful imprisonment, embittered magical healer Blackthorn has vowed to set aside her bid for vengeance against the man who destroyed all that she once held dear. Followed by a former prison mate, a silent hulk of a man named Grim, she travels north to Dalriada. There she’ll live on the fringe of a mysterious forest, duty bound for seven years to assist anyone who asks for her help.
Oran, crown prince of Dalriada, has waited anxiously for the arrival of his future bride, Lady Flidais. He knows her only from a portrait and sweetly poetic correspondence that have convinced him Flidais is his destined true love. But Oran discovers letters can lie. For although his intended exactly resembles her portrait, her brutality upon arrival proves she is nothing like the sensitive woman of the letters.
With the strategic marriage imminent, Oran sees no way out of his dilemma. Word has spread that Blackthorn possesses a remarkable gift for solving knotty problems, so the prince asks her for help. To save Oran from his treacherous nuptials, Blackthorn and Grim will need all their resources: courage, ingenuity, leaps of deduction, and more than a little magic.
Release date: November 4, 2014
Print pages: 448
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Approximate pronunciations are given for the more difficult names (kh is a soft guttural sound, as in the Scottish loch).
I fished out the rusty nail from under my pallet and scratched another mark on the wall. Tomorrow would be midsummer, not that a person could tell rain from shine in this cesspit. I’d been here a year. A whole year of filth and abuse and being shoved back down the moment I lifted myself so much as an inch. Tomorrow, at last, I’d get my chance to speak out. Tomorrow I would tell my story.
In the darkness of the cell opposite, Grim began muttering. A moment later the door down at the guard post creaked open. How Grim could tell the guards were coming before we heard them was a mystery, but he always knew. The muttering was a kind of shield. At night, when the place belonged to us prisoners, he spoke more sense.
A jingle of metal; footsteps approaching. Long strides, heavy footed. Slammer. Usually, when he came, we’d shrink back into the shadows, hoping not to draw his attention. Today I stood by the bars waiting. My time in this place had broken me down. The person they’d locked up last summer was gone, and she wasn’t coming back. But tomorrow I’d speak for that woman, the one I had been. Tomorrow I’d tell the truth, and if the council had any sense of right and wrong, they’d make sure justice was done. The thought of that kept me on my feet even when Slammer went into his little routine, smashing his club into the bars of each cell in turn, liking the way it made us jump. Yelling his stupid names for us, names that had stuck like manure on a boot, so we even used them for one another, Grim and I being the only exceptions. Peering in to make sure we looked sufficiently cowed and beaten down.
“Bonehead!” The club crashed against Grim’s bars. “Stop your stupid driveling!”
At the back of his cell Grim was a dark bundle against the wall, head down on drawn-up knees, hands over ears, still muttering away. Funny thing was, if Slammer had opened that cell door just a crack, Grim could have killed him with his bare hands and not raised a sweat doing it. I’d seen him at night, pulling himself up on the bars, standing on his hands, keeping himself strong as if there might be giants to kill in the morning.
The guard turned my way. “Slut!” Crash!
I wished I had the strength to keep quite still as the club thumped the bars right by my head, but the three hundred and fifty-odd days had taken their toll, and I couldn’t help wincing. Slammer didn’t move on to the cell next door as usual. He stopped on the other side of the bars, squinting through at me. Pig.
“Got something to tell you, Slut.” His voice was a confidential murmur now; it made my skin crawl.
Slammer liked playing games. He was always teasing the men with talk of messages from home, or hinting at opportunities for getting out. He was a liar. They all were.
“Something you won’t like,” he said.
“If I won’t like it, why would I want to hear it?”
“Oh, you’ll want to hear this.” He put his face right next to the bars, so close I could smell his foul breath. Not that it made much difference; the whole place stank of unwashed bodies and overflowing latrine buckets and plain despair. “It’s about tomorrow.”
“If you’re here to tell me that tomorrow’s the midsummer council, don’t trouble yourself. I’ve been waiting for this since the day I was thrown into this festering dump.”
“Ah,” said Slammer in a voice I liked even less than the previous one. “That’s just it.”
Meaning, I could tell, exactly the opposite. “What are you talking about?”
“Now you’re interested.”
“What do you mean, that’s just it?”
“What’ll you give me if I tell you?”
“This,” I said, and spat in his face. He was asking for it.
“Euch!” He wiped a sleeve across his cheek. “Filthy whore!”
Filthy was right; but not the other. I’d never given myself willingly in here, and I’d never been paid for the privilege. The guards had taken what they wanted in those first days, when I’d still been fresh; when I’d looked and felt and smelled like a woman. They didn’t bother me now. None of them was desperate enough to want the rank, skinny, lice-ridden creature I’d become. Which meant I had nothing at all to offer Slammer in return for whatever scrap of information he was teasing me with.
“That’s the last time you’ll spit at me, Slut!” hissed Slammer.
“You’re right for once, since I’ll be out of this place tomorrow.”
He smiled, but his eyes stayed cold. “Uh-huh.” The way he said it meant I was wrong. But I wasn’t. I’d been told my name was on the list. The law said a chieftain couldn’t keep prisoners in custody more than a year without hearing their cases. And with all the chieftains of Laigin here, even a wretch like Mathuin, who didn’t deserve the title of chieftain, would abide by the rules.
“You’ll be out, all right,” Slammer said. “But not the way you think.”
Oh, he was enjoying this, whatever it was. My mouth went dry. Over in the cell opposite, Grim had fallen silent. I couldn’t see him now; Slammer’s bulk took up all my space. I forced myself to keep quiet. I wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of hearing me beg.
“You must have really got up Mathuin’s nose,” he said. “What did you do to make him so angry?” Perhaps knowing he wouldn’t get an answer, Slammer went right on. “Overheard a little exchange. Someone wants you out of the way before the hearing, not after.”
“Out of the way?”
“Someone wants to make sure your case never goes before the council. First thing in the morning, you’re to be disposed of. Quick, quiet, final. Name crossed off the list. No need to bother the chieftains with any of it.” He was scrutinizing me between the bars, waiting for me to weep, collapse, scream defiance.
“Why have you told me this?” A lie. A trick. He was full of them. I willed my heart to slow down, but it was hopping all over the place like a creature in a trap.
“What, you’d sooner not know until I drag you out there in the morning and someone gives you a nasty surprise? Little knife in the heart, pair of thumbs to the throat?”
“Better say your prayers, Slut.” He moved off along the row. “Poxy!” Smash! “Strangler!” Crash! “Frog Spawn!” Slam!
Across the walkway, Grim was standing at the front of his cell, big hands wrapped around the bars.
“What are you looking at?” I snarled, turning away before my face could show him anything. The three hundred and fifty-odd marks stared back from the wall, mocking me. Not a count to freedom and justice after all; only a count to a swift and violent end. Because, deep down, I knew this must be true. Slammer didn’t have the imagination to play a trick like this.
“Shut your mouth, Grim! I never want to hear your wretched voice again!” I sank down on the straw pallet with its teeming population of insects. Even these fleas would live longer than me. I wished I could find that amusing. Instead, the anger built and built, as if the swarm of crawling things was inside me, breeding and multiplying and spreading out into every corner of my body until I was ready to burst. How could this be? I’d held out here for one reason and one reason only. I’d endured all those poxy days and wretched, vermin-infested nights, I’d listened to that idiot Grim mumbling away, I’d seen and heard enough to give me a lifetime of nightmares. And I’d stayed alive. I’d held on to one thing: the knowledge that eventually I’d get my day to be heard. Midsummer. The council. It was the law. Curse it! I’d done it all for this day, this one day! They couldn’t take it away!
The crawling things broke out all at once. From a distance, detached, I watched myself hurling objects around the cell, heard myself shouting invective, felt myself hitting my head on the wall, slamming my shoulder into the bars, ripping at my hair, my mouth stretched in a big ugly square of hatred. Felt the tears and snot and blood dribbling down my face, felt the filth and shame and utter pointlessness of it all, knew, finally, what it was that drove so many in here to cut and maim and, eventually, make an end of themselves. “Slammer, you liar!” I screamed. “You’re full of shit! It’s not true, it can’t be! Come back here and say it again, go on, I dare you! Filthy vermin! Rancid scum!”
It was catching, this kind of thing. Pretty soon everyone in the cells was shouting along with me, half of them yelling at Slammer and the other guards and the unfairness of everything, the rest abusing me for disturbing them, though there wasn’t much to disturb in here. Crashes and thumps told me I wasn’t the only one throwing things.
All the while, there was Grim, standing up against his own bars, silent and still, watching me.
“What are you staring at, dimwit?” I wiped a sleeve across my face. “Didn’t you hear me? Mind your own business!”
He retreated to the back of his cell, not because of anything I had said, but because down at the end of the walkway the door had crashed open again and the guards were coming through at a run. It was the usual when we got noisy: buckets of cold water hurled in to drench us. If that didn’t work, someone would be dragged out and made an example of, and this time around that person would have to be me. Not that a beating made any difference. Not if Slammer had been telling the truth.
I got a bucket of slops. There was a bit of cursing from the others, but everyone stopped yelling, not wanting worse. The guards left, taking their empty buckets with them, and there I was, dripping, stinking, bruised and bleeding from my own efforts, with the buzzing insects of my fury still swarming inside me. The cell was a mess, and with wretched Grim over there, only a few paces away, there was nowhere to hide. Nowhere I could curl up in a ball with the blankets over my head and cry. Nowhere I could give way to the terror of knowing that in the morning I would die, and Mathuin would be alive and going about his daily business, free to do to other folk’s families what he had done to mine. I would die with my loved ones unavenged.
I scrabbled on the floor, searching among the things I’d hurled everywhere, and my fingers closed around the rusty nail. Those marks on the wall were mocking me; they were making a liar of me. I hated the story they told. I loathed the failure they showed me to be. Weak. Pathetic. A vow breaker. A loser. With the nail clutched in my fist I scratched between them, around them, over them, making the orderly groups of five, four vertical, one linking horizontal, into a chaotic mess of scribble. What was the point in hope when someone always snatched it away? Why bother telling the truth if nobody would listen? What use was going on when nobody cared if you lived or died?
• • •
I waited for death. Thought how odd human nature was. All paths were barred, all doors closed. There was no escaping what was coming. And yet, when the guard known as Tiny—a very tall man—brought around the lumpy gray swill that passed for food in this place, I took my bowl and ate. We were always hungry. One or two of the men caught rats sometimes and chewed them raw. I’d never had the stomach for that, though Strangler, in the cell next to mine, always offered me a share. In the early days we used to talk about food a lot; imagine the first meal we’d have when they let us out. Fresh fish cooked over a campfire. Mutton-fat porridge. Roast duck with walnut stuffing. Carrot and parsnip mashed with butter. For me it was a chunk of bread and cheese or a crisp new apple. When I thought of that first bite my belly ached and so did my heart. Then I’d got beaten down and worn out, like an old mattress with the stuffing gone to nothing, and I didn’t care anymore. Same with the others; we were grateful for the swill, and thankful that Tiny didn’t rattle our cages and scream at us. So, even when I was looking death in the eye, so to speak, I ate. Across the walkway, Grim was on his pallet, scooping up his own share and trying to watch me and avoid my eye at the same time.
The long day passed as they always did. Grim muttered to himself on and off, making no sense at all. Frog Spawn went through his list of all those who had offended him, and what he planned to do to them when he got out. It was a long list and we all knew it intimately, since he recited it every day. The others were quiet, though Poxy did ask me at one point if I was all right, and I snarled, “What do you think?,” making it clear I didn’t want an answer.
I sat on the floor, trying out the pose Grim seemed to find most comforting when under threat, head on knees, arms around legs, eyes squeezed shut. The day before you died was the longest, slowest day ever. It gave you more time than you could possibly want to contemplate all the things you’d got wrong, the chances you’d missed, the errors you’d made. It was long enough to convince the most hopeful person that there was no point in anything. If only this . . . if only that . . . if only I had my chance, my one chance to be heard . . .
Another round of swill told us it was getting on for nighttime; a person wouldn’t know from the windows, which were kept shuttered. It was a long time since they’d last let us out into the courtyard. Maybe Mathuin’s men didn’t know folk could die from lack of sunshine. Our only light came from a lantern down the end of the walkway.
Frog Spawn’s ravings slowed, then stopped as he fell asleep.
“Hey, Slut!” called Strangler. “Place won’t be the same without you!”
“Our lovely lady,” put in Poxy, mostly mocking, a little bit serious. “We’ll miss you.”
“Don’t let the vermin take you without a fight, Slut,” came the voice of Dribbles from down the far end. “Give ’em your best, tooth and nail.”
“When I want your advice,” I said, “I’ll ask for it.”
“Wake us up when they come for you,” said Strangler. “We’ll give you a proper send-off. Worth a bucket or two of slops.”
Grim wasn’t saying anything, just sitting there gazing across at me, a big lump of a man with a filthy mane of hair, a bristling beard and sad eyes.
“Stop looking at me,” I muttered, wondering how I was going to get through the night without going as crazy as Frog Spawn. If there was nothing I could do about this, why was my mind teeming with all the bad memories, all the wrongs I hadn’t managed to put right? Why was the hate, the bitterness, the will for vengeance still burning in me, deep down, when the last hope was gone?
Finally they all slept; all but Grim and me. The lantern burned low. Soon we’d be in darkness.
“Maybe you can . . .”
“Maybe I can what? Fly through stone walls? Charm the guards with my feminine wiles and make a miraculous escape? Wave a wand and turn them all into toads?”
He was silent.
“I can’t fix this, Grim. I wish I had a magic charm to set the world to rights. To see evil-doers punished and good men rewarded. To see the innocent protected and the guilty judged. But it doesn’t work that way.” I looked across at him hunched on his pallet. “I hope you survive,” I said, finding that I meant it. “I hope you don’t have to wait too long for . . . whatever comes next.” I vowed to myself that when the end came I would be strong. No pleading; no tears; no cries for mercy. I would not give them the satisfaction. “You should try to sleep,” I said.
Another silence, then Grim spoke. “I’ll wait up. If that’s all right.”
Time passed. If I’d had even a skerrick of faith in gods of one persuasion or another, I’d have prayed to them to make a lie of Slammer’s words, or if that wasn’t possible, at least to give someone else the chance to do what death would prevent me from doing. Never mind my own so-called crime and the need to prove my innocence. Mathuin must be brought to account. He must be stopped. He must be made to pay.
But I did not believe in gods, not anymore, and there was nobody else. When I died, my vengeance would die with me. There was no justice in the world.
Maybe I could use the rusty nail to slit my wrists. Better to make an end of myself than let Slammer or one of the others butcher me like a pig for the table. More dignity in it this way. But no; I’d blunted the nail with my wild scratching, and it wouldn’t even break the skin. I contemplated sticking it in my eye. But that wouldn’t be final enough, and I doubted I had the resolve anyway. I could smash my head against the bars, harder than before, but I’d probably only knock myself senseless and come to just in time for that little knife Slammer had mentioned. Hanging was too slow. By the time I’d ripped up my skirt and made a noose, then managed to tie it high enough, Grim would have made enough racket to fetch whichever guard was sleeping outside the door down the end. Which made no sense, when you thought about it; rush in to stop a person killing herself, so you could do the job for her in a scant—what—six hours or so?
“How long till dawn, do you think?” I murmured.
“A while yet.” Grim’s voice was held quiet, too, so as not to wake the others. In this place, good sleep was a gift not to be taken lightly. He muttered something else.
“I’d go in your place, if I could.”
I hadn’t thought the big man had it in him to surprise me, but I’d been wrong. “That’s just stupid,” I said. “Of course you wouldn’t. All men are liars, and you’re no better than the rest of them.”
A silence, then. After a while he said, “I would, Lady. The way I see it, your life’s worth something. Mine’ll never amount to much.”
“Bollocks. My life, the one I had, is gone. Even if I walked out of here right now, a free woman, it would still be gone. There was one thing I wanted: justice.” Sounded good; wasn’t the whole truth. “Two things. Justice and vengeance. I don’t mind dying so much. My life’s a poorer thing than you imagine. But I do mind dying with that man unpunished. That fills me up with fury.”
“Lord Mathuin?” Grim’s voice was not much more than a breath, and in that moment the lantern flickered and went out, plunging us into darkness.
“One more day. Was that too much to ask, one poxy day?”
This time the silence stretched out so long I wondered if he had fallen asleep. But then his voice came again.
“How will I . . .” A long pause. “I don’t know how I’ll . . .”
“How you’ll what?”
“You don’t know how you’ll what, Grim?”
“Nothing. Forget it.”
The night wore on, and in the cells it was quiet. Was it getting close to morning out there, or was I only imagining that? At a certain point I began to shiver and found I couldn’t stop, even when I curled up on the pallet with the blanket wrapped around me, a grub in a meager cocoon. The shaking was deep down, as if frost was creeping into my bones. My teeth chattered; my joints ached like an old woman’s. My good intentions, of standing up bravely before they did whatever they were going to do to me, vanished away in the face of my wretched, trembling body. Maybe, when a person was truly terrified, mortally afraid, there was no hiding it, not even for the best dissembler in all Erin. “Hey, Grim!” I forced the words out. “Talk to me about something warm, will you?”
“Big woolen blanket,” Grim said straightaway. “Flame red in color. Wrapping you up from head to toe, with only your face showing. Roaring fire, throw on a pinecone or two for the smell. Bowl of barley broth. Mulled ale with spices. Curl your hands around the cup, feel the warm in your bones.” A pause. “Any better?” His voice sounded odd.
“Yes,” I lied. “Keep it up.”
“Out of doors,” Grim said. “Big field of barley all ripe and golden, sun shining down, yellow flowers in the grass. You go down to paddle in the stream, and the water’s like a warm bath. Ducks swimming by with little ones. A dog running about. Sky as blue as—as—”
“Forget-me-nots,” I said. “Grim, are you all right?”
“Fine,” he mumbled. “All out of words now.”
A sudden rattling at the door down the end. If I’d been cold before, now I was frozen. They were here. Already, they’d come for me.
“Wake up the others. That’s what they said.”
“No, Grim. Let them sleep.”
The door creaked open, as if someone was trying not to make too much noise. The light that came through was not the light of day, but the glow of a lantern. Out there it must still be nighttime. They were robbing me, not only of midsummer day and the council but of half the night before as well. Typical of this piss hole and the foul apologies for the men who ran it.
Slammer was at the bars. I stood by my pallet, the blanket around me, trying to breathe.
“You got a visitor.”
“A what?” How many stupid tricks could he inflict on me before this was all over?
“A visitor. Make yourself tidy, and be quick about it.”
I was dreaming. Nobody had visitors in here, and especially not me. Who was there to come? Unless it was Mathuin wanting to gloat, and he’d hardly do that at a time when all sensible folk were in their beds fast asleep.
Slammer was unfastening the door of my cell; swinging it open. “Hurry up,” he said. “Haven’t got all night.”
A lie. It had to be. The only reason they’d let me out of here was so they could kill me without anyone finding out, or at least anyone that mattered. Nighttime would make that easier. I’d be neatly buried in some corner before the sun was even thinking about rising.
“Slammer.” Grim spoke in a tone I had never heard before; it sent a chill right through me. “You’re top of my list. When I get out of here, I’ll hunt you down, I swear it. Before I’m done with you, you’ll be in such little pieces nobody will know you were ever a man.”
“Hah!” Slammer was scornful. “When you get out of here? By that time you’ll be an old man, Bonehead, a dotard dribbling into your beard.”
“Shut up!” mumbled a sleepy voice from farther along the cells.
Slammer seized me by the arm and hauled me out of my cell, then along the walkway beside him, blanket and all. There was nobody at the guard post and the door was ajar. We were going outside. Out into the open air, under the night sky.
“Get a move on,” Slammer said.
I snatched a glance at the moon and stars as he hustled me across the courtyard. The open space made me dizzy. I sucked in a breath of air, but all I could smell was my own filthy body. No sign of the other guards; no sign of an executioner. Maybe Slammer had requested the privilege of doing it all by himself. He was pushing me ahead of him now, into some kind of outhouse—I had a sudden image of myself being hauled up on a rope like a pig for the slaughter—and then there was the bright light of two lamps, and a man sitting at a table looking at me, and the shock of realizing that maybe Slammer had been telling the truth.
“Thank you,” the man said, rising to his feet. “Leave us now.”
“Woman’s a miscreant,” Slammer protested. “Not safe—”
“Against the rules,” Slammer muttered.
The man—long-legged, dressed in a fine hooded cloak—suddenly had a little jingling bag in his hand. He counted out some coins. “I doubt that I’ll be in any danger,” he said, “but you’re welcome to stay just outside the door. We’ll call you when we’re done here.” The bag was put away, still jingling, and Slammer went out and closed the door behind him.
“Sit down, please,” said my visitor, as if we were a pair of high-born folk meeting for a little chat.
I sat down on a bench; I was still shivering. The tall man seated himself opposite me and slipped back his hood. This was a person of striking beauty, and almost certainly fey or half-fey. I had seen enough of his kind, in my old life of long ago, to recognize the signs: the widely spaced eyes, the broad brow, the proud, chiseled features. His manner suggested privilege, certainly, but it was lacking in the arrogance of men like Mathuin of Laois. Facing him across the table, I was sharply aware of my lice-ridden, scabby body in its ragged apology for clothing. What in Morrigan’s name was this elegant creature doing here? He could hardly be my executioner.
“You don’t remember me, do you?” he asked, lifting his brows as if at some private joke.
So he was going to play games too. I had never seen him in my life before. “I don’t know you, and I don’t know why you’re here.” After a moment, because he had not called me Slut, I added, “My lord.”
The stranger sat there examining me for a while. I made sure I looked him in the eye. If I was pathetic and wretched, draggled and filthy, that was not from any fault of mine. I was damned if I’d leave this place looking beaten, even if that was the way I felt.
“Your case was up to be heard today, yes?”
I managed a jerky nod. Was. So he knew. “The guard told me that plan’s been changed.”
“Did he tell you the new plan?”
“A quick and covert disposal at dawn. No due process, no hearing, no case.” What business was it of his? “Are you going to tell me who you are?” I blurted out. “Did Mathuin send you?” Unlikely; a fey nobleman would hardly act as messenger boy for a human leader.
“I have a proposition for you,” the man said. “If a name will help you trust me, I will give it. I am Conmael.”
It meant absolutely nothing. I couldn’t for the life of me imagine why the fellow would have any interest in what happened to me. As for offering my own name, I’d had one when they’d locked me up, and another one before that, but I wasn’t going to share either with a complete stranger. “What proposition?” Under the circumstances, only one kind of proposition was of any interest, and that was one that would see me survive the dawn and stand up before the council as I’d expected. How this Conmael would achieve such a thing, and why he’d bother, was quite beyond me. Lies, all lies—what else could this be? “I’m growing weary of tricks,” I said. “These days, I lose my temper quickly.”
Conmael smiled. He folded his hands on the table before him. His fingers were long and graceful; he wore a number of silver rings. “It is no trick,” he said. “Nor is it an unconditional offer of freedom. But you can leave this place safely, no longer in fear for your life, provided you agree to my terms.”
Despite everything, my heart leaped at the word freedom. I clamped down the sudden elation. He wanted something from me, no doubt of that. I couldn’t imagine what it might be, since I had nothing at all to offer. The whole thing was deeply suspect. I might be exchanging my present hell on earth for something even worse. But you’d be alive, said a little voice inside me. “Terms. What terms?”
“You had a calling before ill luck visited you. A profess
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