Maerad discovers that she may have a powerful gift that will help her kingdom overthrow a dark evil and with the help of her mentor, a mercurial bard named Cadvan, she learns how to activate and control her magic as they journey across the kingdom to elude their enemies. Maerad is a young girl who was taken as a slave when her city, Pellinor, fell to the forces of the Dark. The Dark is a malignant force that corrupts all that is "good" in the world and turns men and women into violent and evil people. During the sacking of Pellinor, her parents were killed and her and her brother were separated and enslaved. Since then, she's been forced to work on a small farm in the middle of the wilds.
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One day, she meets a man named Cadvan, who claims to be from the School of Lirigon, one of the bardic schools of magic. He uses his magic to help her escape her slave-master, unseen. Cadvan tells Maerad that she is blessed with the "Gift" (magical powers) and that she should, by rights, be attending one of the great bardic schools because an ignorant person with the Gift is dangerous to herself and people around her. The Gift is a sort of bardic magic that involves magical "Speech" and "Knowledge". When a child comes of age, they will suddenly know the Speech, which is the ancient bardic language that activates their magic. Cadvan explains that long ago, the King of Afinil traded his bardic "Name" in order to have immortality and became an evil sorcerer who everyone now calls the Nameless One. Since then, the Nameless One has been growing more powerful and his dark minions have been growing in strength and numbers, threatening to overrun the kingdom of Annar with their evil. He tells her that he will take her to Innail, a town where Maerad will be able to get proper training as a bard.
While they travel, they attract the attention of a being called the Landrost. Cadvan uses his magic to protect them, but he senses that the Landrost is hunting them. He thinks that it's better if they confront the Landrost rather than wear themselves out trying to run away. One night, he weaves a series of magical spells that will repel the Landrost's minions. During that night creatures like the wers' (wolf-like creatures) attack his magical barrier. Some of the creatures break through the barrier and Cadvan and Maeran battle them off. They survive the night and the Landrost retreats back to its lair.
The next day, they arrive at a mountain. Cadvan silently communicates with a mountain lion that shows them a path through a twisting tunnel that will get them to the other side. They cannot use any light because it may attract unwanted attention from creatures of the Dark so Maerad and Cadvan must use all their remaining senses to navigate the treacherous paths inside the mountain. Once they reach the other side, they arrive at Innail. Cadvan introduces Maerad to other bards and they rest for a while in the city. The other bards tell Cadvan that the Dark is increasing in power in Annar and there is unease throughout the lands. They also think Maerad's potential for the Gift is very great. Cadvan decides he will take Maerad to another city called Norloch, to consult with the powerful bards there on how best to train Maerad. After spending several weeks in Innail where she trains with the sword and tries to activate her magic, Cadvan and Maerad continue their journey to Norloch.
As they journey to Norloch, Maerad has a nightmare about their friends at Innail being threatened by some evil bards called Hulls. The next day, they receive a message to confirm that Maerad's nightmare was true and that some of her friends are dead. Cadvan finally reveals to Maerad that he thinks the Nameless One is hunting her because she might be the Foretold, the one person who is destined to defeat the Nameless One. They decide to avoid villages and towns as much as possible for fear that the Nameless One will go to great lengths to find her and many innocents may be killed.
One day, Maerad encounters an elemental spirit called an Elidhu who tells her they are kin and that she should forget about her quest and instead join her to rule the kingdom of elemental spirits. Maerad does not understand how they can be kin and she refuses the offer. The Elidhu disappears but not before predicting that Maerad will change her mind one day and come looking for it.
As Maerad and Cadvan continue their journey, they have many near encounters with Hulls that have positioned themselves strategically all over Annar. The Hulls summon a giant creature called a Kulag to attack them. Maerad inadvertently calls up her new-found magic to throw fire at the Hulls and repel the Kulag. But she doesn't know how she did it and she still doesn't know the Speech. Cadvan thinks it may take some time for the Speech to awaken in her. Over the next few weeks, he begins to teach her more about the Speech and also about sword-fighting.
One night, Maerad wakes up with an overwhelming feeling of something suffocating and Dark nearby. She and Cadvan discover a small convoy of caravans that have been attacked by Hulls and likely other Dark creatures. Inside one of the caravans, they find a little boy named Hem, who is the only survivor. Cadvan discovers that Hem is also a bard-in-the-making and he thinks it's not by chance that they ran into Hem – he thinks that Hem and Maerad are linked somehow. Maerad agrees, as there is something familiar about him.
With Hem in tow on their journey, there is even more urgency to get to Norloch. They are again attacked by a bunch of Hulls and a creature called a Wight. The Wight defeats Cadvan and Maerad thinks they are all doomed. But, from the depths of her despair, she suddenly summons her magic to call out a fire and again the Hulls and the Wight are repelled. Now, the Speech seems to come easily to Maerad. Later on, they discover that Hem hasn't been entirely truthful with them. Apparently, he was orphaned when he was two years old and then when he was ten years old, he learned he had the Speech. He was sent to be indoctrinated into a group of Dark bards call the Black Bards. He was forced to do evil deeds like kill innocent people with his Speech. Later on, he was again kidnapped when a thief broke into the lair of the Black Bards. Hem thinks the Black Bards are after him because they want him back to do evil deeds for them. Cadvan and Maerad forgive and pity Hem for what he has been through. Cadvan also makes the surprising discovery that Hem is Maerad's long lost little brother because he has a medallion from Karn, which is Maerad's House. Cadvan thinks that Hem was used as a trap to find Maerad, who the Nameless One wants to destroy because she might be the Foretold.
The group finally reach Norloch where Cadvan gets some much needed healing as he hasn't quite recuperated from the Wight's attacks. After healing, he addresses the council of bards and tells them that Maerad may be the Foretold. This proves to be a controversial announcement as many of the bards don't believe that the Dark is rising in power. One bard in particular, Enkir, is cold and power hungry and he proves to be borderline treacherous in his scheming to make Cadvan and appear foolish. Cadvan and Maerad decide they must move on as they will get little support from the bards in Norloch if Enkir is leading them. Hem is taken into the safety of another bard who will bring him to a safe place in the south while Cadvan and Maerad travel north.
Cadvan and Maerad try to flee Norloch at night by traveling in an underground tunnel that leads to a boat. Unfortunately, Enkir knows of their plan and he uses his bardic magic to try to stop them from escaping. Cadvan and Maerad combine their bardic magic to throw up a shield against Enkir's magical assault and they escape on a boat. Cadvan thinks that Enkir draws his power from some other nefarious source. He fears for the fate of Norloch with such a Bard leading the city.
The story ends with Maerad thinking about the next leg of their journey and how perilous it will be.
Best part of story, including ending:
I like the lyrical and poetic language that Alison Croggon uses to describe the majestic and sweeping landscape of Annar and the ancient and mysterious workings of the bardic magic. Her writing gave the book a very mystical and epic feel that reminded me of classic Tolkien.
Best scene in story:
My favorite scene was when Maerad and Cadvan follow the mountain lion into the cave in order to get to the city of Innail. They have to walk in the dark and Maerad feels strange air currents indicating treacherously thin paths. She also runs her hands against the walls and feels carvings and doorways and imagines an ancient city in the cave. That scene was very spooky and atmospheric and because of the vivid writing, I really felt that I was there. It really takes great writing to create both a spooky, "shivery" feeling while also evoking a feeling of something ancient, mysterious and grand.
Opinion about the main character:
I like that Maerad is kind of introverted yet she is courageous when she acts on behalf of those she cares about. Because of her tragic past, she is slow to trust people, but when she does trust someone - that person has her complete loyalty. In this case, she completely trusts Cadvan even though there is some stigma associated with him due to his mysterious past.