In a realm where true magic has been lost for centuries, seventeen-year-old bard Telyn Songmaker's powers are unprecedented — and unpredictable. Able to control the actions and emotions of others with her melodic enchantments, the violent aftermath of an accidental spell has left Telyn exiled from the King's court — unaware of the price on her head.
When Telyn is outnumbered by assassins in the Wood, Mithrais comes to her aid, dispatched to protect her by dying sylvan gods who need her unique magical gifts to free them from an ancient and deadly spell. Bound to the Wood by blood and by oath, Mithrais is more than the mere soldier he seems, and he and Telyn discover that they share a rare empathic bond of heart and mind.
The Fates have plans for Telyn and Mithrais, but what is brewing will further endanger their lives. If they succeed, magic will return to the realm, but love may be the most unpredictable magic of all...
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The evening began on a melancholy note, a song of exile on her lips. Because there was no one listening who could be inadvertently influenced by her lamentation, Telyn made no effort to suppress the building spell.
It was just as well that she was not playing for her supper tonight—a room full of sobbing patrons would have upset the tavern keepers, and left her purse lighter than the bard might have hoped. She allowed the bittersweet tendrils of her song magic to flow across the small clearing and wind around the long shadows that rose into the stars on either side of the deserted forest road.
The graceful syllables of the old language, nearly forgotten to all but bards and scholars, seemed to elicit a mournful counterpoint in the sighing of the wind through the branches. Springtime breezes were ebbing after the sunset, but something else rode the wind in the darkness: a low, throbbing pulse, like a distant drum.
The odd sensation broke upon her skin and raised the hair on the back of the bard’s neck. Telyn’s fingers faltered on the strings of her harp, and she stilled the resulting discord with a touch. She listened intently, her sorrow displaced.
This strange, soundless percussion had been with her since the road had entered the southwestern fringes of the Wood earlier in the day. In the absence of sunlight, Telyn now found herself reflecting on half-remembered tales of vengeful phantoms and haunted groves, where the trees would cry aloud in warning. These were stories best suited to chill autumn nights when the veil between worlds was thin, and not to early spring nights such as this. Cautionary tales, they spoke of those who had dared to enter the forbidding Wood with evil deeds against their souls, and never made it out of the trees, meeting judgment at the hands of merciless spirits.
Telyn hoped that the stain on her own soul would fade in time, and she could not suppress a shiver in response to the faint echo of that strange vibration in the air. It had been a year ago...just a single turn of the wheel, but the twin burdens of shame and sadness were still heavy in her heart.
A snort from the grey horse tethered to the wheel of her small wagon distracted the bard from her reverie. Her faithful companion in exile, Bessa, was uncannily astute about two-legged affairs, and knew the bard as well as any person might. In spite of her low mood, Telyn grinned at the mare’s reproachful look and dashed an impatient hand over her damp eyes. She was almost eighteen, and no longer a child. It was foolish to weep over things she could not change.
“You’re right, Bessa,” she said aloud. “It’s much too beautiful a night to be counting my regrets.”
Telyn placed the harp carefully into the waxed leather case that protected it from harm. The horse turned its attention to the bag of oats sitting beside the wagon and nuzzled it with hopeful interest. Slapping the mare’s withers affectionately as she passed, the bard lifted the lid of the weatherproofed wooden box built beneath the seat of the wagon, which housed her precious instruments.
Beneath the folded winter cloaks and extra blankets that cushioned her pipes, bodhran, and smaller flutes, the less aesthetic relics of her training in the service of the Sildan King glinted dully in the firelight. It was highly unlikely she would need one of the weapons tonight. The tree-shrouded paths, haunted groves included, were far safer than the streets of the King’s own city due to the fierce reputation of the Tauron Order: elite Wood-born soldiers who patrolled the main roads crisscrossing the edges of the Wood. She suspected that at least some of the stories of ghostly vengeance learned at Emrys Harpmaster’s knee during her apprenticeship were due to the Tauron’s legendary skill.
But Telyn paused over the blades, drawing out a sheathed dagger. Her jaw set as she slid the weapon from its sheath. A dagger had saved her once, but the cost had been very high. The bard snapped the blade back into its scabbard before the threatening memories could fully surface and replaced it in the box beside the sword. She lifted the leather harp case and stowed it carefully as well before shutting the lid.
Bessa butted her head against Telyn’s thigh impatiently, and the bard grinned, making a determined effort to set this unwelcome melancholy aside. She poured a measure of oats on the new grass, and as the horse began to munch contentedly, Telyn scratched Bessa behind the ears and whispered, “Make sure you earn those oats and warn me if anything unfriendly comes our way, my girl.”
Turning back toward the fire, she froze.
A hooded figure stood on the other side of the flames.
Telyn crouched instinctively, her wild thoughts returning to phantoms for a fleeting moment. Her eyes slightly dazzled by the firelight, she could make out the curve of a bow rising behind the shoulder in a back sheath, but could not see if the figure was more immediately armed.
The individual quickly held empty hands toward her, palms up, in a gesture of peace. The voice that issued from the shadows of the deep hood was male, and apologetic. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.”
As her eyes readjusted to the firelight, the bard recognized the unusual, deeply hooded cloak and forest-green garb, and she breathed a sigh of relief.
“To what do I owe the presence of the Tauron?” Telyn smiled cautiously at the cloaked figure, recovering her composure.
“I caught the scent of your fire. When I came to investigate, I heard your song. Its sadness drew me here.” The warden paused as Telyn grimaced, blushing. “I didn’t mean to intrude.”
“No, you aren’t intruding. I’m simply embarrassed that there was a witness to my self-pity,” Telyn admitted guiltily. “I had just been thinking that I was lucky not to have an audience, and lo! Here you are!” She laughed, and added, “I hope that there isn’t an entire squadron of wardens sobbing out there in the Wood.”
She was rewarded with a low chuckle from the depths of the hood. “My comrade isn’t far away, but too far to feel the effects of your music, I think.”
“Then he’s fortunate.” The bard shook her head in self-deprecation. “I owe you amends for subjecting you to that. Are you thirsty? I have a small amount of some rather good wine, or fresh water.”
“Water would be most appreciated,” the warden agreed, entering the circle of firelight as Telyn reached into the floorboard of the canvas-covered wagon to produce a crockery jug. He thanked her and hefted the container, drinking deeply, his face still hidden in the shadows of his hood.
“You were singing in the old language,” he remarked, corking the jug and returning it to her. “I didn’t know bards still spoke it. One rarely hears it any longer, even in the Wood. L’nathair a ta. My name is Mithrais. I’m Westwarden of the Tauron.”