An abandoned child becomes a singular inspiration to the mythology of Muirwood in an epic series by Jeff Wheeler, Wall Street Journal bestselling author of the Muirwood and Kingfountain novels.
Eilean was born a “wretched”—a lowly foundling raised by the Aldermaston of Tintern Abbey. Then she’s chosen to assist in establishing the new abbey of Muirwood, now the site of a castle in the swampy Bearden Muir. Eilean’s role is as night servant to the druid Mordaunt, the king’s exiled advisor—and prisoner. He’s clever, dangerous, and invaluable to the Aldermaston.
Mordaunt’s priceless secret: the hiding place of an ancient tome that reveals the existence of other worlds and the magic between them. Mordaunt knows how potent its words are and how dangerous they could be in the wrong hands. But can Eilean win him over? All she must do is gain Mordaunt’s confidence and trust and persuade the apostate to divulge his secret to her. But as she learns more from Mordaunt, Eilean’s loyalties begin to fray. And the risks are greater than she imagined.
Despite betrayals, deceptions, and the deadly motivations of others, a girl from the flax fields is about to rise above her station. By exploring the potential of the power of an ancient spoken magic, Eilean is coming into her own.
Release date: May 1, 2022
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The Druid: The Dawning of Muirwood, Book 1
A Field of Flax
The sun was nearly down, creating a glorious sunset over the even rows in the field. Brushing the dirt from her hands, Eilean stared at the ridges of earth, spaced apart just so, and imagined what the field would look like when it was blooming with blue flowers. She had dirt under her fingernails, her kirtle needed a good scrubbing, but the smell of rich soil in the recently torn field thrilled her. First the buds would come, then the stalks of flax would grow straight and pale. Everyone in the abbey would come with scythes and sickles to mow them down. After that, the stalks would be bound into sheaves. It was hard work, but the people of Tintern Abbey did their part. Flax was useful in so many ways. Like a wretched.
“I’ve never seen the sky so orange,” said Celyn as she approached Eilean from behind. “What a sunset.”
“Aye,” replied Eilean. “I wish I could grab it and hold it still. But I don’t want to be here after it gets dark.”
“No, not outside the Leerings, anyway. Come along. We’re both dirty as can be. But at least the field is done.”
“Ardys will want us clean as whiskers before we touch anything in the kitchen.”
The girls hooked arms and started back to the abbey, which Eilean could see over a row of tall ash trees on the other side of the field. A drover was trying to coax a stubborn mule to pull his wagon back to the abbey, but the beast was having none of it. The smell of the freshly turned earth was thick with the odor of dung. It wasn’t an unpleasant smell—just a strong one.
“Now that the field is planted, the maypole’ll be set up soon,” Celyn declared. “Who shall we dance with, you and I?”
It was just like Celyn to presume they would be asked, let alone that they’d get to pick their partners. “Anyone who asks us, I should think.”
“Some of the learners, maybe?”
“Reckon they’d stoop to ask us?” Eilean replied with a chuckle.
“They’d have to stoop to ask me, for I’m so short! But why not, Eilean? Learners have asked wretcheds before.”
“Not many have,” Eilean replied softly.
Then she saw him, and her heart did a little tumble inside her chest. Aisic stood inside the row of ash trees with three other lads, their heads bent together in deep discussion. Suddenly all she could see was the dirt on her clothes and hands. On Celyn.
“Let’s go that way,” Eilean suggested in an undertone, tugging her friend’s arm to steer around them.
Only she was too late.
“Hoy!” shouted Aisic when he saw them. She felt heat flush her cheeks and rise to the tips of her ears.
“Let’s see what they want,” Celyn suggested, resisting the pull.
Mortified, Eilean followed along, and they reached the four young men—Aisic, Bryant, Ely, and Llewellyn. They were wretcheds too, of an age with one another, and they’d all been raised together at the abbey.
“We’re finished planting in the fields,” Celyn said with a smile and look of ease.
“We’re not mitching. We finished our work long ago,” said Llewellyn—the shortest of the four—while puffing out his chest.
Aisic was regarding Celyn with a smirk. Was it because they were so dirty or because he was pleased the lads had been given a quicker task?
“Have you heard the news?” Ely asked with a twinkle in his eye.
“We were in the field; how could we?” Celyn said with an easy laugh.
“What news?” Eilean asked him.
But it was Aisic who answered. “The High Seer of Avinion is here at the abbey, so she is.”
Celyn and Eilean exchanged a surprised look.
“How do you know it is her?” Eilean asked, then regretted it when she saw the flicker of annoyance in Aisic’s eyes.
“I’m not thick, Eilean,” he scolded. “There are guards outside the Aldermaston’s manor. They have bows and these short blades called—”
“Gladiuses,” interrupted Ely.
“I know what they’re called!” barked Aisic.
“Shaw, don’t get sulky, Aisic!” countered Ely. He turned to face the girls again. “They say she’s speaking to Aldermaston Gilifil now.”
One of the most curious things about the mastons was their ability to cross from abbey to abbey without horse or wagon. Even though the island of Avinion was far away, the abbeys were all interconnected through the magic of the Medium. This visit was unprecedented, and excitement tingled inside Eilean. She’d never seen the High Seer before, but the woman had a reputation for being both powerful and impressive. Squeezing Celyn’s arm, she signaled she didn’t want to stay and talk to the boys any longer.
“I wonder what she’s after?” Celyn asked, ignoring the squeeze.
“No one knows. No one’s allowed inside,” Aisic said. From the look on his face, he too was keenly interested in the visitor.
“Aisic tried talking to the captain,” Llewellyn said with a laugh.
Aisic glowered at the reminder, and the other boys laughed.
“What’s wrong with that?” Celyn asked. She didn’t like it when anyone was teased and was quick to rush to their defense.
“He wants to join the Apocrisarius,” Llewellyn said with a smirk. “Thinks he’s high and mighty, he does.”
“Shut it, all right?” Aisic said, giving him a shove.
Everyone knew Aisic wanted to be more than just a wretched. He had ambition—a feeling Eilean recognized in herself, although she didn’t like to speak of it for fear of being laughed at. If only she’d been higher born, she could have lived in a castle and served a lady. She would have heard about all the goings-on in the realm. Here, there was so rarely news.
“Reckon that’s brave,” Eilean said, the words spurting out.
Llewellyn’s brow furrowed. “Who cares what you think?”
“Shaw, Llewellyn, don’t be rude!” said Ely.
The disdain in Llewellyn’s voice stung, and Eilean nearly picked up a clod of earth and threw it at his head. Instead, she yanked her arm away from Celyn’s and stormed off.
“Eilean, wait up!” Celyn hurried after her, and it took her a while to catch up because she was so much shorter. “That was very rude,” her friend said through gasps of air.
“When one of them is alone, they’re reasonable enough,” Eilean said, turning back and giving the four of them a hot glare. “But put all four together like that, and they don’t have enough brains to make one person.”
“They’re not so bad,” Celyn said. “But Llewellyn shouldn’t have said that.”
“He acts like he’s better than us, but he’s just the same.”
If only Aisic had stood up for her. He was the biggest of the four of them, and a word from him would have had Llewellyn cringing.
Tintern Abbey began to glow.
“Ooh, I love being outside when the lights come on,” Celyn cooed.
At sunset, the eyes of the Leerings set into the stone walls of the abbey brightened. It made the structure visible for leagues in every direction, a bastion of the maston order, a symbol of the strength and mystery of the Medium.
When they reached the kitchen, they hurried inside and walked down the long aisle of tables and benches already crowded with people from the fields, eating and talking boisterously. Everyone helped out, some carrying pitchers, some bowls with loaves, others trays of cheeses, nuts, and gooseberries.
There were Leerings within the kitchen as well, casting warm light on the diners seated at the trestle tables. Even though she and Celyn had labored all day in the field, there would be a lot of cleanup for them after the meal. Eilean didn’t resent it, but she was grateful the planting was done.
“Fetch me a drink?” said another boy, Hissop, thrusting a wooden cup at her.
“Fetch it yourself,” she said back to him, her own stomach growling.
When they reached the back of the kitchen, the cook, Ardys, was hard at work with her husband, Loren, who was sometimes caught mitching on a stool instead of actually helping. Of course, Ardys was always hard at work. She was the most diminutive person in the abbey but also the most productive.
“The girls are back,” Loren said.
Ardys whirled around. “Get cleaned up! Clean as whiskers! The Aldermaston has guests and needs to be checked on.”
Eilean hurried to the water Leering first and invoked it. The face carved into the stone bore the appearance of an elegant woman—the kind of lady she wished she could serve. The Leering’s eyes glowed blue as water tumbled from its lips. Eilean tugged up the sleeves of her dress and scrubbed her hands quickly. Celyn stood by, awaiting her turn without complaint. Although she likely wished to see the High Seer too, she was allowing Eilean to beat her to it. If Eilean were a better friend, she wouldn’t take advantage of such kindness, but her curiosity had gotten the best of her.
After washing, she found a towel to dry her arms and then quickly rubbed her face and behind her ears.
“I’ll go!” she volunteered to Ardys.
Ardys looked her over. “Your dress needs washing tonight, but it’ll have to do. Take off the apron first. It’s a fright.”
Eilean did so, and Ardys took it from her. “There is a loaf of pumpkin bread I made this afternoon under that cloth,” she said with a wave. “Take it and see if he needs anything for the guests.”
“Is one of them the High Seer?”
Ardys nodded. “Aye, lass. Be respectful. Don’t ask too many questions. She and her people didn’t come all this way to talk to a wretched of Tintern Abbey.” She gave Eilean a look of love and patted her cheek. “Go on. And be quick about it!”
Finding the loaf beneath the cloth, Eilean wrapped it up and then went out the back door. The shadows were thicker now, and the purple western sky grew darker by the moment. If not for the chance to see the High Seer, she wouldn’t have volunteered to go out of doors at night. Ever since she could remember, she’d had a terror of the dark.
The manor was a short distance from the rear of the kitchen that serviced not just the Aldermaston himself but also the entire population at the abbey. There were twelve scullery girls in all, and Eilean and Celyn, both seventeen, were the oldest.
The chill of night was starting to settle in as well, closing around her like a cloak. As she hurried to the back door, a person stepped out of the shadows, hand on the hilt of a blade.
“Hold there, lass. What’s the hurry?”
She couldn’t see the man’s face, but she recognized his tone of command and halted. He was taller than her, dressed in a hooded cloak and leather armor. And he’d spoken to her in Pry-rian, which she hadn’t expected.
“I’m from the kitchen,” she said. “The cook sent me to see if the Aldermaston needs anything for his guests.”
“What are you carrying?” he asked, pointing at the cloth-wrapped loaf. “Let me see it.”
She stepped forward to show him, but he held up his hand. “Stay where you are.”
“It’s just a loaf of bread.” She unwrapped it and held it out. He was still half-concealed in the shadows, and she had the sense he’d positioned himself there on purpose.
His head tilted a little, and then he came closer. With his face exposed, she saw the distrust in his eyes as he looked from her to the bread. He had a handsome, arrogant face, and the makings of a beard that suggested he wasn’t too much older than her, but he also had the perfectly disciplined posture and commanding presence of an experienced soldier. She noticed his other hand lingered on the hilt of the blade—a short one, a gladius. A feeling of unease came over her as he continued to stare at her.
He gestured with his fingers for her to hand him the loaf.
She approached him warily, feeling vulnerable and ill at ease, and snatched her hand back after he took the loaf. Then she watched as he lifted it to his nose and smelled it.
“It’s pumpkin,” Eilean explained.
“I know,” he said, lowering it again. “The cook’s name is Ardys. She was the cook when I was a learner here for a year.” He handed it back to her. “Just making sure you didn’t poison it.”
She stared at him for a moment, not recognizing his face and so shocked by the accusation that she could not find words, until finally they came tumbling out. “How dare you say such a thing!”
“On your way, girl,” he said, waving her to the door, with a look that suggested their conversation was over.
She folded the cloth over the bread again and strode past him, giving him a narrow-eyed glare as she passed, and then yanked on the door handle. It stuck and didn’t open. She yanked on it again, flustered now.
“Do you need help?” he asked.
She stamped her foot and tried a third time, and this time, thank the Medium, it yielded. Her heart blazed with anger still, but she did her best to soothe the roiling feelings before she reached the door to the Aldermaston’s study. Even outside, she heard voices speaking from within. She knocked timidly.
The door opened, and another cloaked warrior stood blocking the way, hand on the hilt of his gladius.
“I’ve come with some bread,” Eilean said with a little exasperation, “not to murder anyone!”
She heard Aldermaston Gilifil chuckle. “That would be Eilean, one of the kitchen girls. Let her in.”
The man still regarded her with suspicion, but he stood aside, giving her a glimpse of Aldermaston Gilifil, whose reddish-gray beard and long locks could be seen beneath the pale gray cassock of his office. He gave her a friendly smile and waved her in.
Standing before him was an older woman in a cassock, with a crown nestled in her hair. There was a sternness and look of discernment in her eyes that made Eilean’s outrage shrivel. Even without the raiments of her office, Eilean suspected she would have known this woman was the head of the maston order. What was she doing in Tintern?
“I brought a loaf of bread,” Eilean said in a small voice.
“I can see that, child. Set it over there.” The woman’s tone was that of one accustomed to commanding respect and obedience.
“Surely you can stay for a slice, Your Eminence,” the Aldermaston coaxed. “There is much we can still discuss.”
“No, I must return to Avinion straightaway. You have your charge, Aldermaston. You will send reports regularly on your progress. Our abbeys will be a bastion of change in the kingdom of Moros. Once the other kings see them rise up from the ashes, they will swiftly bend the knee. This will mark the end of years of war. A time of peace, praise Idumea. And you must persuade your prisoner to disclose the information that we seek.”
“Praise Idumea,” said the Aldermaston. “Shall I escort you back to the abbey to return to Avinion, Your Eminence?”
“No need. I know the way. And you . . . have much work to do.”
“Indeed,” said the Aldermaston with a weary sigh. “The prisoner you mentioned. The druid Mordaunt.”
“Don’t call him that,” said the High Seer with a curl of her lip. “He’s an apostate. If you find where he’s hidden it, bring it to Avinion at once.”
“Of course. It would be my honor.”
“I’m leaving one of my captains of the Apocrisarius to help you,” said the High Seer. “There will be more druids lurking in the swamp. They may try to rescue him.”
“They will not succeed, High Seer. I assure you. Who is the captain?”
“A Pry-rian, like yourself.”
She flashed him a smile. “The very one. He volunteered for the assignment because this is where he passed the maston test. He’ll accompany you to the Bearden Muir. You’ll have to go on foot, I’m afraid. There is no Apse Veil to travel there. Yet.”
The Aldermaston nodded, and Eilean’s heart thrilled at all she’d heard. Something big was happening. Something that would impact everyone at Tintern Abbey. If she surmised correctly, the High Seer had come to assign Aldermaston Gilifil to build a new abbey in the newly conquered kingdom of Moros.
The guard at the door opened it, and the High Seer left. As the door closed behind her, leaving Eilean and the Aldermaston together alone, she finally set the bread on the table.
“Thank you, Eilean,” he said with a fond smile. He looked around the chamber wistfully. “I will be sad to leave this place.”
“Has she asked you to found a new abbey, then?” Eilean asked him eagerly.
“She has. In the middle of a forsaken swamp. Tintern is the closest abbey to that spot. This will be the first abbey constructed in the kingdom of Moros.”
“What will it be called?”
He smiled at her again. “Muirwood.” Then his brow furrowed. “There’s only a small castle and keep there now. A dungeon of sorts. And one very dangerous prisoner.”
He looked her in the eye.
“I will be bringing many from Tintern with me to help establish the new abbey. I’d like you to be one of them, Eilean.”
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