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The Caller

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The Caller

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Author: Juliet Marillier
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 2014
Series: Shadowfell: Book 3

1. Shadowfell
2. Raven Flight
3. The Caller

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

Just one year ago, Neryn had nothing but a canny skill she barely understood and a faint dream that the legendary rebel base of Shadowfell might be real. Now she is the rebels' secret weapon, and their greatest hope for survival in the fast-approaching ambush of King Keldec at Summerfort.

The fate of Alban itself is in her hands. But confidence is stretching thinner by the day when word of another Caller reaches the rebels: a Caller at Keldec's side with all of Neryn's power and none of her benevolence or hard-earned control. As the days before the battle drop quickly away, Neryn must find a way to uncover--and exploit--her opponent's weaknesses. At stake lies freedom for the people of Alban, a life free from hiding for the Good Folk--and a chance for Flint and Neryn to finally be together.


Excerpt

Chapter One

With winter closing its fists tight on the mountains, the ground was too hard for even the strongest man to get a spade in. So we laid Regan's head to rest in stone, and sealed it there by magic.

The whole community of rebels was present, along with the clan of Good Folk who lived below us at Shadowfell in their own network of chambers and tunnels. The area called the Folds was deeply uncanny, a place that changed its form as it chose. So it was on the day we bade our beloved leader farewell.

Woodrush, the wise woman of the Northies, spoke a prayer and a charm, and a hollow opened up in the mountainside, just the right size for the head in its sealed oakwood box to fit snugly within. Tali and her brother, Fingal, placed the box; Milla held the lantern. Dusk seemed the right time to lay our leader down to his well-earned rest.

Tali spoke words of farewell and blessing. Her speech was brief; she was struggling to hold herself together. The flickering lamplight gave the ravens tattooed around her neck a curious life, as if they were really flying their straight, true course. Then Woodrush moved her hands over the stone again, and the hollow closed up as if it had never been.

We shivered in our thick cloaks. Snow lay on the mountaintops, and the wind whistled a song of winter. When we had made our goodbyes, we retreated indoors to the warmth of Shadowfell's dining chamber. The whole place was belowground, apart from the practice area. That was where Andra drilled Shadowfell's warriors while Tali, now leader of the rebel movement, prepared her strategy for the final challenge to King Keldec's rule.

We had less than a year to achieve it. The support of the powerful northern chieftain, Lannan Long-Arm, was dependent on our mounting the challenge at the next midsummer Gathering. Before that time came, we had to create a fighting force made up of humankind and Good Folk, a force sufficiently strong and united to stand up against the power of the king and his Enforcers. It was a near-impossible task. The Good Folk did not trust humans. They did not even trust each other. Why would they set themselves at such risk when they could simply go to ground and wait for the bad times to pass?

The answer, remarkably enough, was me. It had taken me a long time to accept that I was indeed a Caller, a person with the unusual gift of being able to see, hear, and summon the Good Folk no matter where they were; a person who could call forth uncanny beings and persuade them to work with humankind for the greater good. Call them to fight. I'd struggled with this. I still did. Summoning folk into possible harm, even death, felt deeply wrong to me. In Regan's eyes, all that had mattered was the cause. If the rebellion were to succeed, he'd said, we must set aside such concerns. We must be prepared to do whatever was needed to ensure the tyrant's downfall. It was a lesson every rebel at Shadowfell had taken to heart.

When I'd first made my way here, a scant year ago, my talent had been raw. I had been completely untrained, and the power of what I could do had frightened me, for I had seen what damage it could cause if not used wisely. So I had embarked upon a journey to find the four Guardians of Alban, the ancient, wise presences of the land, and to seek their aid in learning the proper use of my canny gift. Between spring and autumn I had made my way first to the Hag of the Isles, who had taught me how the call might be strengthened by the magic of water, and then to the Lord of the North, whom I had helped wake from a long enchanted sleep. In return, he had trained me in the magic of earth. Now I was back at Shadowfell, with the sorrow of Regan's loss still fresh, and the news about Flint filling my dreams with troubling visions of the man I loved. When Daw, the bird-man of the Westies, had brought Regan's head back home, he had told us an unsettling tale.

Sage's clan of Good Folk had seen a party of Enforcers ride into the stronghold of Wedderburn's chieftain, Keenan, the man who had ordered Regan's death. Later, they had seen Flint come out alone by night; they had watched him climb up above the fortress gates to cut down Regan's head, which had been nailed there in a ghastly display of authority. They had watched as Flint, dressed not in his Enforcer uniform but in ordinary clothes and riding an ordinary horse, had slipped into the woods and traveled swiftly away. Not heading back to Summerfort and his duties at court, but up the Rush valley toward Shadowfell. He'd had Regan's head in a bag tied behind his saddle.

Sage had confronted him when he stopped to rest, and found her fears realized: he was giving up his hard-won position of trust at court, turning his back on the king, and bringing Regan home. He'd barely begun to explain why when two Enforcers had appeared and Sage had been forced to go to ground. That was what Daw had told us; and that the next morning Flint had headed off toward Summerfort with his comrades.

It was disturbing news. Flint had long been the rebels' powerful secret weapon, Regan's eyes at court, a source of vital inside information about Keldec's strategic plans. He'd been there for several years, since he'd completed his training in the ancient craft of mind-mending and gone to offer his expert services to Keldec. He had risen high; to do so, he had been required to demonstrate flawless loyalty to the king. I knew how much it had cost him, for under Keldec's rule a mind-mender must act as an Enthraller, using his craft to turn rebellious folk to the king's will. When I'd seen Flint last spring in the isles, he'd been strung tight; he loathed what he was required to do. But I had not for a moment expected him to walk away before our battle was won.

After the burial, we sat awhile before our hearth fire, drinking mulled ale and enjoying the warmth. We tried to remember Regan the way we should, with tales of our lost leader's courage and vision, and shared memories of the good times. But the shadow of Flint's action hung over us all.

I knew how momentous the decision would have been for him--he would not have taken such a step unless he'd been close to his breaking point. Selfishly, I wished he had indeed come on up the valley, leaving that old life behind, for here at Shadowfell he would have been safe, at least for now. I could have spent time with him. The others debated what it all meant and whether we could progress with our plans unchanged. Winter was closing in, and any movements out from the safe base here on the mountain would be limited. My own difficult decision was looming.

Tali was restless. Regan's death had not only made her our leader--it had unleashed in her a furious drive to get things done, preferably as fast as possible. She let us have a night to rest and grieve. Then she called us to a council.

It was an inner circle that met: Tali, her brother, Fingal, myself, Andra, Brasal, Gort, and Big Don. That was the human contingent. But councils had changed at Shadowfell since we'd won the wary support of the Folk Below, the clan of fey beings who lived in the chambers underneath our stronghold in the mountain. So we were joined by their elders Woodrush and Hawkbit, and the warrior Bearberry, who looked something like a short-statured man and something like a badger. In addition there was Whisper, the owl-like being who had accompanied Tali and me when we returned in haste from the north. If not for Whisper's magic, it would have taken us at least a turning of the moon to travel home; he had brought us back in a single night. Daw, the bird-friend and messenger from Sage's clan, had already flown out from Shadowfell, back to the forests of the west.

With Good Folk in attendance at our council, all iron weaponry and implements within our dwelling were shielded and set away. I had hoped my training with the Guardians would teach me how to protect our fey allies from the destructive influence of cold iron, for this was likely to prove a great obstacle when we stood up together in battle, but neither the Hag of the Isles nor the Lord of the North had possessed the secret. Some of the Good Folk had a resistance to iron and some did not; that was all I had learned so far. I'd been told the secret might lie with the most unreliable of the Guardians, the Master of Shadows.

We gathered in a small chamber with the doors closed. Tali welcomed us, her manner brisk.

"Thank you for being here. This has been a sad time for all of us, and I'm sorry there's the need to talk strategy so soon. But Regan would have wanted us to get on with things, and that's what I plan to do. As you know, Neryn and I witnessed the last midsummer Gathering. We saw Keldec's rule in action, saw it in acts of twisted violence that should have sickened the most hardened person in all Alban. We saw a crowd of ordinary folk stand by and let it happen without a word of protest, because every one of them knew speaking out against the king's authority is not only a death sentence for the person brave enough to do it, but can also bring down disaster on that person's entire family. It was thanks to Flint that we got away from Summerfort; him and another of the Enforcers. We don't know if that man is Flint's ally, or whether he's just somewhat less brutal than most of the king's men. All in all, the Gathering was a vile experience." She glanced at me.

"It was sickening," I said. The cruel events of the Gathering were burned on my memory; such monstrous acts must not be allowed to happen again. "If neither of us has talked much about it, it's because we couldn't bear to. You all know what Keldec's capable of. This was a display of his authority at its very worst."

"And Flint, as you know, was the prize performance of the day, singled out for particular attention," said Tali. "But we don't believe he's been exposed as one of us. If that were his crime, he'd have faced a far worse punishment than being required to carry out a public enthrallment. The fact that I was chosen as the victim must have been coincidence."

"If the king had known he was a rebel spy, he'd have made sure Flint didn't survive that day. We saw two Enforcers compelled to fight to the death."

"I'm certain Flint didn't know I'd been taken prisoner until they dragged me out for the enthrallment," Tali said. "He was shocked. Though, as you'd expect, he concealed it well."

"It surprises me that you were taken prisoner at all," said Brasal. "I'd have thought you capable of tackling a whole troop of Enforcers."

Tali grimaced. "I wouldn't be such a fool as to attempt that unless the alternative was certain death."

"Tali let the Enforcers capture her because putting up a fight might have drawn their attention to my presence as her companion on the road," I said. "It's fortunate that Flint was the one chosen to carry out her punishment, and that the two of them had the presence of mind to fake an enthrallment." A shiver ran through me as I remembered it, the pretense that the enthrallment had gone terribly wrong, with Tali so convincing that even I had believed her a damaged, witless remnant of her true self. Afterward, the queen had demanded that she be disposed of, and Flint and his companion had taken us up into the woods, where they'd simply let us go.

"We were lucky," Tali said soberly. "Unfortunately, I was seen by the entire crowd that day. The king and queen and their court; every single troop of Enforcers; a large number of ordinary people who traveled to Summerfort for the so-called games. And because my appearance is a little out of the ordinary"--she glanced down at the elaborate tattoos that circled her arms, spirals and swirls and flying birds to match the ones around her neck--"those people would all recognize me again. That means I won't be able to leave Shadowfell until it's time for the final confrontation." She looked over at Fingal. "The same goes for you." Her brother's body markings were almost identical to hers.

"What about Neryn?" asked Andra. "She'll have to travel."

"I was in the crowd," I said. "People did see me, but not with Tali, apart from when they were dragging her out of the open area and I elbowed my way through to follow them. We did meet some folk when we were traveling toward Summerfort, of course. But I don't stand out as Tali does. Besides, as you say, I have to go; I'm only halfway through my training. I still have the White Lady and the Master of Shadows to visit."

"This fellow with Flint, the other Enforcer," said Fingal. "He must have got a good look at you."

"He did." I remembered the open-faced, fair-haired warrior who had checked whether I had supplies for the way, and had asked not a single awkward question. I had seen him in dreams too, for my dreams of Flint were especially vivid, thanks to his ability as a mind-mender. "I believe he's a friend. If he weren't, he'd have expected to make an end of both Tali and me in the woods that day. I'm sure that's what the king and queen intended to happen."

"Let's hope you're right, Neryn, because if you're not, Flint's in even more trouble than we thought," Tali said. "As it is, there's the account Daw brought of his meeting with Sage. I'm still finding that hard to accept. When we met Flint in the isles, he gave us no reason to think he'd suddenly walk away from his position at court, especially at a time when his services are so vital to the cause."

"It costs him dearly to do what he does," I said. "Of us all, he has the hardest part to play."

"The story was that he rode back to court with the Enforcers who came to fetch him," Big Don said. "What we don't know is whether he was in their custody, a prisoner, or whether he managed to give them some plausible excuse for heading off on his own like that. Flint's pretty good at lying; he's had a lot of practice over the years, and from what he's told us in the past, the king's often inclined to believe him where others wouldn't. Maybe he can talk himself out of this."

Copyright © 2014 by Juliet Marillier


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