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A Dance with Fate

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A Dance with Fate

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Author: Juliet Marillier
Publisher: Ace Books, 2020
Series: Warrior Bards: Book 2

1. The Harp of Kings
2. A Dance with Fate

Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
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Synopsis

A young woman who is both a bard--and a warrior--seeks to repay her debts and settle scores in this thrilling historical fantasy series.

The young warrior and bard Liobhan has lost her brother to the Otherworld. Even more determined to gain a place as an elite fighter, she returns to Swan Island to continue her training. But Liobhan is devastated when her comrade Dau is injured and loses his sight in their final display bout. Blamed by Dau's family for the accident, she agrees to go to Dau's home as a bond servant for the span of one year.

There, she soon learns that Oakhill is a place of dark secrets. The vicious Crow Folk still threaten both worlds. And Dau, battling the demon of despair, is not an easy man to help.

When Liobhan and Dau start to expose the rot at the center of Oakhill, they place themselves in deadly danger. For their enemy wields great power and will stop at nothing to get his way. It will take all the skills of a Swan Island warrior and a touch of the uncanny to give them a hope of survival....


Excerpt

1

Liobhan

It's a glorious day. The sun is warm, the clouds are high puffs of white, the sea is as calm as it ever gets around Swan Island. We're sitting on the bench seats at the combat area, tingling with anticipation, knowing today's celebration marks the end of many months of grueling work. Work that we've loved and hated. Work that has tried us to the edge of our endurance and stretched us to the furthest bounds of our ability-though, as Archu has told us, in a crisis you can always find a bit more to give. Work that has forged not only four warriors fit to join the island's permanent force, but also four true friends.

They don't choose many. When we started training there were twenty in our group. Fifteen went home. My brother Brocc was lost on our first mission. Not dead; gone to the Otherworld, in a strange and baffling series of events. I miss him every day. I think of him every time I sing. I'm afraid he will never come back.

"All right?" murmurs Dau, who's sitting beside me.

"Fine." I sound sharp, but I can't help it. I so wish Brocc was here with us, enjoying this day, sharing our success. "Look, there they are!"

We jump to our feet, shouting encouragement as our fellow trainees walk out onto the combat ground, staves in hand. They have the next display bout, then it's Dau and me. We're well warmed up, ready to go, but we're not going to miss watching Hrothgar and Yann show their talents. A great noise goes up, the voices of every resident of Swan Island cheering the combatants. There's nobody off on a mission at present, so there's a crowd of nearly sixty watching: fighters, trainers, the folk who support the work of the island, and the elders: Cionnaola, our leader; Archu, our chief combat trainer; Brigid and Eabha and Haki and the others. They're the best of the best. Those lucky enough-and talented enough-to be trained here are highly sought after when kings and chieftains need a task completed that's beyond the ability of their own men-at-arms. Or their own spies, if they have them. Sometimes our missions fall somewhat outside the rules of law. We do covert work. Secret work. That's why we live and train in such an isolated place. It's why few outsiders come here. And it's why the training period is so long. They've not only been testing our physical skills, they've been making sure we're trustworthy. Making sure we won't crack under torture. And making sure we can think for ourselves. It's unusual for them to take four new fighters at once. We know how lucky we are. And we know we've earned it.

Hrothgar and Yann enter the combat space. The field edge is marked by a circle of rope laid on the ground. The combatants halt, facing the elders, and with staves held upright they bow. Cionnaola gives a grave nod of acknowledgment. The crowd is quiet now.

"Three coppers on Hrothgar," whispers Dau in my ear.

"Done." Hrothgar, a Norseman, is taller and broader than Yann. But the Armorican has a talent for deception. That makes him dangerous. Yann's beaten me once or twice, using that skill, and I know it's a mistake to underestimate him.

The two turn to face each other and bow again. They assume a fighting pose, staves gripped in both hands, one near the end, one partway up the shaft. They move about, backward and forward, jabbing in turn, each looking for an opening. Both men wear protective leather helms-those things get hot as an oven and you end up with sweat obscuring your vision, but for this sort of fight you need them-and padded jerkins over their trousers and tunics.

"Wait for it, wait for it," murmurs Dau. "Ah!" as Yann loses patience and rushes forward. His intention is clear: to knock aside Hrothgar's staff, then jab his own toward the other man's midriff. But he's not quick enough; the end of Hrothgar's weapon strikes Yann's arm hard. I know what that does: your fingers go numb for long, precious moments. Yann skips back out of reach, winces, shaking his hand, flexing his fingers.

"Playactor," mutters Dau.

I can't argue. When Yann grips his staff again, he's moved his hands; now they're a handspan further along. This will place the staff slightly further away from Hrothgar than before. Yann's used his own error to his advantage. And now, under cover of a momentary hesitation, he puts one foot forward but leans his upper body back. "Clever," I murmur.

Hrothgar thrusts high to low, aiming for his opponent's chest. If Yann hadn't tricked him, this would be a bout-ending move. But Yann is closer than Hrothgar expected. The Armorican shifts his weight to the front foot and slides his staff through his front hand straight into Hrothgar's chest, between the lower ribs. Hrothgar folds. He can't breathe. His hand goes up in the gesture, I yield.

The crowd roars. Yann steps back, waits for his opponent to catch his breath-it takes a while-then stands beside Hrothgar again as they acknowledge the applause.

Dau and I don't wait to see them walk off. It's our bout now. The last of the day; an unarmed combat, best of three rounds.

"Can't bet on this one," says Dau with a crooked smile as we make our way down to the combat area, where someone is raking the ground, getting it ready for us. Folk do have a habit of throwing things when they get excited. Dust rises around the rake.

"But if you could, you'd bet on yourself to win, no doubt."

"No doubt. I'd wish you good luck, but I want Bran's Blade, so I won't."

"Skill beats luck," I tell him, pausing to put on my helm. Gods, I hate these things! They get even hotter when you have a lot of hair to squash in, as I do. I've been tempted to cut my hair short, but when I'm not fighting I'm a musician, and the long hair feels right when I dress up to perform. And useful when I'm working under cover and needing to look more like an ordinary woman and less like a Swan Island warrior.

At a gesture from Archu, Dau and I walk together into the combat space, where all is now in readiness. Folk cheer and shout as we go; this is a joyful day not only for us but for the whole community. A special day. Bran's Blade is displayed on a cushion, next to Cionnaola. It will be awarded to the most outstanding fighter, not only of today but of the whole training period. It's an old, well-kept dagger, beautifully balanced, of plain design apart from the tiny image of a bee in flight carved on the oak hilt. This weapon is said to have belonged to the man who founded Swan Island long ago, a man who was called an outlaw but who showed great heart, spirit, and generosity to his fighting team. His son and his grandson were in their turn part of the island community, and there are descendants of that original crew still among us. Nobody gets to keep Bran's Blade forever. One of us will be given it today, to look after and to use until a new custodian earns the privilege through some act of outstanding valor or skill. A training and testing period such as the one that saw me and my three comrades win places on the island happens only rarely. It's more usual for fighters to join the community one at a time, each coming here by his or her own path. You have to be capable. You have to be skilled. And you need the right attitude. I thought Dau lacked that when I first met him. His manner was arrogant, scornful, aloof, as you might expect from a chieftain's son. The mission changed my opinion. It changed both of us. But the old rivalry still remains. We both want Bran's Blade. We both want to be the best.

We salute the elders, bow to Cionnaola, position ourselves within the rope guideline.

"Three rounds," calls out Archu, informing the crowd of what we already know. "Win two and you're the victor. Set foot outside the boundary and you lose that round immediately. No eye gouging. No groin strikes. Remember it's a display bout, not a fight to the death. Break those rules and you'll not only forfeit the fight, you'll be emptying privies and hauling goods up from the ferry for a good long while. Understood?"

This is probably meant for me. I do have a reputation for using dirty tricks to win if the situation requires it. But I know better than to try that today of all days. Dau and I both nod and murmur, "Understood."

"Begin," calls Archu.

I have a plan. As we dance around, I edge toward the rope. Close enough? Yes! I dive for Dau's knees, aiming to send him toppling back. But as he falls he twists, managing to land inside the field. I grab at his leg. He slips from my grasp, and almost before I know it we're both on the ground. He's got me in a hold we call the crab, with him underneath me on his back, his legs hooked over my hips and his arm around my throat. Shit! It's yield or pass out within a count of five. I lift my hand and make the yield sign to show I'm forfeiting the bout. Dau relaxes his grip. I suck in air. I'm shaking with fury as we disentangle ourselves and rise to our feet. Not angry with Dau. Furious with myself for not seeing that coming. For being too slow. A pox on it! Now I have to win both remaining bouts. I stand. I make myself breathe. This wretched helm is driving me crazy; it's so hot and I'm sweating like a pig. I unbuckle the strap and take the thing off, throwing it beyond the field edge. It's not compulsory to wear them for unarmed bouts; we're supposed to use our own judgment. After a moment, Dau takes his own helm off and discards it. Gives me a little smile, or more of a smirk. In that expression I see the old Dau, the one I didn't like much, and I grit my teeth. I'll win this one and the next. I want Bran's Blade. If I win it, I'll be the first woman to do so; even Brigid, a seasoned fighter and a combat trainer, has never had custody of the weapon.

"Go, Liobhan!" yells someone from the crowd, and a chorus of shouting follows, some for me, some for Dau, some for both of us. I steady myself. Bout two and I need to get the advantage quickly.

"Begin!" calls Archu.

Dau closes straightaway for a grapple, but I'm expecting that after the last bout. I duck under his grab and drive my elbow into his liver. Cruel. But effective. He groans and collapses, curled up on himself in agony. When he can make himself move, he stretches out a hand and signals yield.

I help him to his feet. Part of me wants to say sorry. He's my friend and I've hurt him. But you don't let friendship get in the way of a good fight. One more round and I've got it. Dau's weakened by that blow. I can do this. I look across and meet his eye. He's a bit pale and he's breathing hard, as I am. Sweat sheens his face and darkens his fair hair. His eyes are narrowed; his jaw is set tight. I glare right back at him.

"Begin!" comes the call.

We circle. No sound from the crowd now; a deathly silence lies over all. Then, lightning quick, Dau feints a straight punch at my stomach. I grab his arm and pull him further off balance, then hook his foot out from under him. He stumbles, rolls, recovers, is back on his feet.

Keep moving, Liobhan. I go for his waist. I'm a better fighter on the ground than he is. If I can tackle him down . . .

He slides free and ankle-taps me. I stumble, fall, roll to my feet, and put a few steps between us to buy time. He grins. Too cocky by half. I'll win this. I have to.

I grab for Dau's leg. He skips back out of reach, catches his foot on something, and falls heavily. His head hits the ground so hard I hear the thud. I move to leap on him and get him in a leg lock, but suddenly I'm still. The crowd falls silent.

Dau is lying faceup on the hard-packed earth, with his arms flung out wide like those of a sleeping child. His eyes are closed. His face is a ghost's, sickly pale, and he's very, very still. My heart skips a beat as I kneel down beside him. There was a time not so long ago when I thought I'd killed a man simply by pushing him away a bit too hard. That man lived, and so will Dau; he's breathing.

"Step back, Liobhan." Archu is beside me, and others are striding toward us: Cionnaola and Swan Island's resident healer, Fergus. I move out of their way, but I'm not going anywhere until I know Dau's all right. People do get knocked out from time to time during our practice bouts; you can't run a school of warcraft without people sometimes injuring each other or themselves, though all our training is carried out under strict rules to keep us safe.

Dau still hasn't moved. Fergus performs various checks, then shakes his head and murmurs to Archu, who calls out, "Stretcher!" Two men bring the stretcher; four men, under the healer's direction, lift Dau extremely carefully onto it, keeping his body as still as they can. I want to help, but Archu motions me away.

They carry the stretcher out at a snail's pace, as if the slightest jolt might do the occupant damage. Archu and Cionnaola stay behind. They're examining the spot where Dau fell. As I watch, Archu lifts something out of the earth. It looks like a leather cord with something strung on it, maybe a good-luck charm. The sort of thing that folk throw, sometimes, when they get excited. Too small to be dangerous. Or so one would think.

Copyright © 2020 by Juliet Marillier


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