A young woman’s burgeoning powers make her Muirwood’s most wanted in a breathtaking novel by Jeff Wheeler, Wall Street Journal bestselling author of The Druid.
Eilean is rising. A foundling raised in an abbey, she was entrusted by its imprisoned druid, Mordaunt, with an ancient tome. Its magical words can change the world. Eilean’s first mission: translate it. Her second: rescue a benevolent Aldermaston sentenced to death as a heretic by the High Seer. But wielding power, knowledge, and ambition has now made Eilean the hunted.
In pursuit is Captain Hoel Evnissyen, an inquisitor in service to the High Seer’s demands. His objective is to track Eilean and steal Mordaunt’s invaluable work. But Hoel’s quest soon yields a fascination with the woman he’s been ordered to pursue. When an invasion begins and the world erupts in chaos, Eilean and Hoel find themselves bound by their mutual wills to survive and, against all odds, realize they are not each other’s enemy.
But now Eilean must decide who is friend and who is foe. Especially when the powerful tome falls into the wrong hands. The closer Eilean and Hoel get, the nearer they are to realizing the part they must play in their kingdom’s destiny—and its ties to Eilean’s own mysterious past.
Release date: September 20, 2022
Print pages: 313
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The Town of Isen
Lady Gwenllian Siar enjoyed her morning walks in the heart of the town of Isen. Only, that was not her true name, nor was she really a lady. She was, in fact, a wretched escaped from Muirwood Abbey. And while she did not know who her parents were or where they had come from, she had knowledge they had likely never possessed. With a word, she could unlock a door. With another, she could summon clouds and rain. With yet another, she could converse in any language in any realm. But speaking those words came with a price. The words of power drained her and left her weak and dizzy if she used them too often. It was a careful balance. And more than once she had pushed herself too far and lost consciousness.
Isen was a beautiful town in the Thuren province of Hautland. The buildings had plaster walls painted dozens of different shades—purple, yellow, orange, pale green, and blue as robins’ eggs—and sloped roofs with shake shingles. Businesses were housed on the lower floors, advertised by wooden signs hung from ornate, fanciful iron bars, and upper floors were reserved for living spaces.
At that early hour, there were few carts clacking, and there was a pleasant stillness to the streets. Lady Gwenllian had learned Hautlanders treasured their sleep and didn’t start the work of the day until the morning bell was struck from the many bell towers.
As if summoned by her thought, the bells began to toll, and immediately doors opened and people began to bustle about in great urgency, as if they’d been waiting behind the doors with their hands on the knobs.
“Blessed morning, Lady Gwenllian,” said a hatmaker from a mint-green building as he carried out a rack with displays to showcase his craft.
“Blessed morning,” she answered, fluent in their tongue. After traveling through Hautland for a while, she knew the standard greetings. The spell was a tutor of sorts. Each time she used it, she understood more and more about the tones and meanings of the language. There would come a day, if she lingered, when she wouldn’t need it at all.
Other than a few pleasant greetings, she kept herself aloof from passersby lest they ask too many questions and force her to use the Medium’s power. Passing beneath an arch between two tall stone bell towers, she took a moment to study the side of the nearer building. The ivy climbing the lattice looked faded, and barely any leaves clung to it.
It would be winter soon, and she still hadn’t managed to arrange a meeting with Aldermaston Utheros. Time was running out. There was no self-deception on her part. Hoel would find her eventually. And every day, she dreaded that he would do so before she could complete her mission.
She continued to the dwelling that she had rented. It was a narrow building—a delightful ocher color—crammed between two taller ones. The bedroom she shared with “Holly,” whom everyone believed to be her maid, was on the top floor. Their home was simple, with a sitting room on the second floor, and beneath it a small kitchen, a fireplace, and very little else. Still, it was more opulent than any personal space they’d had previously, and it provided them with shelter while they continued their attempts to gain admittance to the castle. Better yet, the old woman they rented from left them alone, except when it was time to collect their monthly payment.
Lady Gwenllian approached the house, inserted the key into the lock, and turned it. When she entered, the sizzle and aroma of cooking sausages met her nose. Holly was in the back of the kitchen, preparing the morning meal.
Once the door was closed, the pretense ended. She was Eilean again, and “Holly” was Celyn, her childhood friend and companion. They’d fled Muirwood Abbey to seek out Aldermaston Utheros, who was supposedly guilty of heresy. They believed differently. The maston order had succumbed to pride, and the leaders were acting increasingly despotic. The High Seer’s refusal to reveal Utheros was a heretic, despite sentencing him to death, suggested his heresy was anything but. Eilean hoped he would prove an ally capable of making real change in the order. She also hoped he could make use of the tome the druid Mordaunt had entrusted to her and use the knowledge therein to help their world, something Mordaunt, as a prisoner at Muirwood Abbey, could not do directly.
If only they could find a way to reach Utheros.
The Aldermaston had escaped death, temporarily, because he’d been granted a writ of safe conduct to attend his trial. He’d disappeared for a time before it was discovered the prince of this province of Hautland had brought him to the safety of his castle. No one knew why the prince had taken such a risk, but only one explanation made sense: he believed the excommunicated Aldermaston was innocent.
He was certainly taking every precaution to protect him. Entering the castle without an invitation was now a crime.
So Mordaunt’s tome sat hidden on the ground floor of the ocher house at the bottom of a barrel of beans they’d purchased after arriving.
“How was your walk, Eilean?” asked her friend.
“It’s getting colder each morning. Winter is nearly here, and soon I won’t be able to walk outside anymore without freezing.” Eilean tugged off her gloves and set them on a small end table by the door. She removed her cloak and hung it from a hook. Her dress, which they’d bought in Bridgestow before crossing to Hautland, gave her a foreign look compared to the costumes of the locals. But that was intentional. She’d hoped to rouse curiosity in her arrival so they’d get an invitation to the castle on the hill.
So far it had not worked.
Celyn took the pan and dumped a sausage each onto two plates on the table, which already held bread and cheese. There was no third plate since Stright spent most nights at a cell among the greyfriars, and he would eat with them. He’d picked up the Hautland tongue very well since they’d arrived, and none of his “brothers” of the order appeared to suspect that he wasn’t one of them. His strange ways were attributed to his foreignness, but in truth he was a druid from the Bearden Muir in the kingdom of Moros.
After drinks were poured, Celyn carried the tray up to the sitting room floor. Eilean followed. They ate their meals together by the window so they could observe the foot traffic through the arch at the base of the bell tower. There was less of it than in previous days.
“It is going to start snowing soon,” Celyn said after eating some of her sausage and bread. “Then we’ll be trapped here all the rest of winter.”
Eilean had another bite of the delicious sausage. “I’m wondering if I should just use magic to get into the castle. I think I could do it.”
Celyn frowned. “I know you could transform yourself to look like a servant or something, but it would be terribly dangerous. If you had to maintain the illusion too long . . .” She shook her head. “I think we should keep waiting for an invitation.”
“But what if one doesn’t come? What if Utheros changes locations in the spring? We need to speak with him, Celyn.”
“I know, I know. But I’m worried about you. Not even the greyfriars are allowed up there. It’s heavily guarded.”
Eilean avoided her gaze, looking out the window. A man in gray robes was walking toward their door, and she immediately recognized the stride, his gait. It was their friend.
“Stright is coming,” she said.
Celyn’s worried eyes brightened upon hearing his name. She was as enamored with him as he was with her. Eilean was a little jealous of their connection, but so far neither of them had confessed their feelings to each other. At night, however, the lady and her maid had many frank discussions about it.
Celyn hurried downstairs to let him in, and the wooden floor was so thin Eilean could feel the vibration through it. A knock sounded, followed by the sound of the door unlatching, and the two exchanging greetings. Soon her friends were both up in the sitting room.
“Blessed morning,” Eilean said to Stright in the Hautlander fashion.
“Indeed it is,” he replied in their own language. He lifted his eyebrows. “I think I’ve found a way into the castle.”
“Really?” Celyn asked with delight.
There was a third chair by the table, and he sat down, leaning forward eagerly. “I spent the night in the woods near the castle.”
“Weren’t you cold?” Celyn asked with worry.
Eilean sipped from her drink, suppressing a small smile.
“I’m more comfortable there than in that dank cell at the hostel. It’s a punishment, I tell you.”
As a druid, Stright preferred dwelling out of doors, in proximity to the spirit creatures that proliferated in the natural parts of the world and shunned towns and cities. The amulet he wore allowed him to commune with them and influence them to use their magic on his behalf. No spirit creatures lived within the town of Isen, so he had been communing with the ones that lived in the woods surrounding the town.
“How close to the castle did you get?” Eilean asked him.
“Very close,” he said. “And I know where Utheros is staying within the castle.”
“Truly?” Celyn asked with delight. She gripped his wrist with enthusiasm. He looked down at her fingers, his cheeks turning a little pink, and she hurriedly removed her hand.
“Did one of the spirits tell you?” Eilean asked.
“Yes. A púca. They are mischievous sorts. Normally you have to win their trust, but this one was a companion of Mordaunt’s.”
“Truly?” Eilean said with great interest. “I don’t remember seeing it.”
“Púcas can alter their form. This one favors the shape of a rather large bat. So it was probably disguised when you were around. It offered me a ride to the castle, but understand that if you accept a ride from a púca, they have power over you until the ride is done.”
Eilean’s stomach dropped. Fly to the castle? “That is not very reassuring, Stright. What kind of power?”
“It doesn’t have to take you there immediately. But you’ll be safe. Spirit creatures cannot lie,” he said, holding up his hands, “so it would not have claimed to be Mordaunt’s companion if it were not true. I know of their kind through the druid lore, but I’ve never met one before. Since coming here, this púca likes to fly up to the castle at night and torment the soldiers on guard.”
“Mischievous indeed,” Eilean agreed.
“The púca has seen the man being kept at the castle. It’s Utheros. The creature wanted to make contact with you and Celyn, but it came to me when it realized I was a druid. It knew I could pass on its message.”
“So it can get us inside the castle?” Eilean asked with interest.
“It’ll only come out at night, so we’d have to spend the night outside the city walls.”
“Are you sure we can trust it?” Celyn said nervously.
Stright sighed. “As long as you understand these creatures, they will not harm you. I’d be willing to go first, to tell Utheros about Eilean and Mordaunt’s tome. That might earn you an invitation at least.”
“But what if it doesn’t? What if you’re captured?”
All druids were considered heretics by the maston order, regardless of whether they worked with the Medium, like Stright, or twisted its power to their demands, like the dark druids. If Stright were taken, the consequences could be severe.
Stright looked at Celyn. “I’m willing to take that risk. It won’t be long before Hoel finds us, and if we don’t find a way to get into that castle without giving away why we’re here and what we have, we’ll run out of time. Those guards will never let us in without scrutinizing our story. They’re taking serious precautions to keep Utheros safe. We all know his life is in jeopardy.”
“What do you think, Eilean?” Celyn asked.
“I should be the one,” she answered. “I’m the one who knows Mordaunt. Utheros is more likely to listen to me. Besides, if he calls the guards, at least I could use my magic to get out. Would the púca also bring me back?”
“I’m sure it would try,” Stright said with hesitation.
“That doesn’t sound comforting,” Celyn observed.
“I don’t know how brave this particular púca is. They aren’t vicious. It might flee if the guards frighten it. Of course, you won’t need help if you can convince Utheros you’re friendly.”
Eilean looked at Celyn.
“If we’re patient, an invitation might come anyway,” Celyn said. “We’ve been thinking of nothing else. Surely the Medium will find a way for us to get in there.”
“Maybe the Medium has,” Stright said. Even though he was a druid, he had been open to learning about the Medium from them.
It was a good point. The Medium deliver the results of thoughts mixed with emotions. Eilean had been desperately trying to figure out a way to get to the castle. Earlier attempts had yielded no gains. But perhaps the Medium had finally provided them with a solution.
“I’ll do it,” she said. “Where should I meet you?”
“I’m coming too,” Celyn said, her chin jutting out.
Eilean took her friend’s hand. “I doubt it can take us both.”
“She’s right,” Stright agreed. “It can only carry one person at a time.”
“It will be fine,” Eilean reassured, squeezing Celyn’s hand and then releasing it. To Stright, she added, “I will slip out of the court, invisibly, so that our neighbors won’t know I’m gone. Then I’ll walk to the edge of town and leave before dark. Where do I meet you?”
“The road that leads to the castle hill,” he said. “I’ll be in the woods watching for you. Come at dusk.”
Eilean felt good about the plan, although Celyn clearly disagreed.
Frowning, her friend said, “I’ll be worried all night.”
Eilean patted her arm. “It’ll work out. This is the Medium’s will. I’m sure of it.”
His eyes intent, Stright leaned forward as if to make a weighty pronouncement. Then he motioned to Eilean’s plate. “Are you going to eat the rest of that?”
* * *
Eilean’s nerves prickled like a hedgehog for the rest of the day, which she spent roaming the streets of Isen—sometimes alone, sometimes with Celyn. As the sun began to sink, they returned to the ocher house for a quick meal, and then at last it was time to leave.
Celyn helped Eilean fasten her cloak and then lifted the cowl to cover her hair. “Be safe,” she whispered.
“Stright will take care of me,” Eilean said. “Now, why don’t you open the door and sweep out the entrance? I’ll turn invisible and slip away.”
Celyn took a steadying breath, grabbed the broom, and then unlocked and opened the door. Before she could begin the broom strokes, Eilean whispered the words of power,
The chill of the magic immediately ran down her arms and neck. She was still visible to herself, but she’d invoked the words before in the presence of Celyn or Stright, and they hadn’t been able to see her at all. Eilean stepped through the door and hurried down the blind alley, not releasing the magic until she was in the shadow of the bell tower arch. She’d have held it longer if she could, but even that quick use of magic had unleashed a throb of queasiness inside her. Shaking it off, she proceeded, the feeling lessening as she walked. The invisibility was a precaution. She hoped their home wasn’t being watched, but she couldn’t be sure.
The crowds were getting smaller because of the lateness of the day. Some of the townsfolk greeted her cheerfully and looked interested in talking, but she excused herself and continued on.
As she approached the city gate, the castle came into view atop its wooded perch. A thick screen of denuded trees hid the fountains of the castle, but the towers and minarets were plainly visible in the darkening sky.
She said the words of power again before continuing through the gate, unseen by the Hautlanders. As soon as she was past the first bend in the road, she released the power. This time she was left with a frustrating slump in her shoulders and was awash with weariness.
She wished she were stronger.
The road was paved with cobbles all the way up to the fortress itself. But she wouldn’t be walking up the steep incline.
She saw the gray robes off to her left, just within the bands of trees. Increasing her pace, she hurried to where Stright waited for her.
His cowl was up as well, protecting him from the biting wind. When she approached, she put her hand on one of the nearby tree branches. “Do we wait here until it’s fully dark?” she asked. She still felt a little dizzy from the draining magic. A brief rest would be helpful.
“You look tired, Eilean,” he answered in Pry-rian, her native tongue.
Only it wasn’t his voice.
It was the voice of Captain Hoel, who had tracked her from Muirwood.
Something struck her head, and she blacked out.
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