Related collections and offers
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
There is a moment between life and death when the chain of time is broken. Shrouded by a thicket of sage from unfriendly eyes, Birdie dwelt in that moment, feeling it in the heavy stillness that surrounded her as she knelt over the broken body of a dwarf. His head was wrenched back at a terrible angle, limbs bent and twisted in ways that defied nature and bone.
Birdie bent her head, listening.
Only a moment.
It was little more than a breath in the grand stream of melody, a hitch in the stride of the universe. But in that moment the true depth of a soul was revealed. All the miniscule strands that formed the tapestry of a life — all the fears and loves, aches and losses, hopes and dreams — bound up and knotted off in a final note. Most folk missed it. Most wouldn't have known it even if they could hear it. But when Birdie truly listened, she could capture it. That final moment. That last breath. Sometimes glorious, sometimes peaceful, and sometimes filled with nothing but deep, dark despair. And then silence.
Heedless of the pockets of flame still licking the tufted sage around her, Birdie lowered her head so that her ear hovered over the dwarf's gaping mouth. Ragged breaths puffed against her cheek, accompanied by a gurgle in the back of his throat.
There was life in him yet.
The knowledge eased the pulsing ache in her own chest. In themonths that she and the griffin had wandered through the Whyndburg Mountains since the trial of the Pit and her failure there, she had seen too much death. The struggle that had festered beneath the surface of Leira for centuries had come to a head, and the earth rang with the clamor of weapons and the cries of the wounded. Only a short while, and yet it seemed the entire Nordlands had erupted into one raw and gaping wound, with scores of innocent and guilty alike joining the casualties every day. War had come to the mountains.
Birdie eased back onto her heels and surveyed the battleground over the leafy stems of sage surrounding her. On the far side of the treesheltered dale, the griffin picked his way over earth littered with bent and shattered weapons and the warriors who would wield them no longer. Khelari. Adulnae. Nordlander.
Wounded left to die. Dead left to rot.
It was yet another of many such scenes they had happened upon over the past few weeks, the aftermath of constant skirmishes between the Takhran's forces and the fighting Adulnae of the mountains. Gundhrold spoke of them as "small frays," inconsequential in the grander scheme of this great war. Perhaps his battle-trained eyes saw more than hers. Even now, as he wandered the dale, he paused time and again to taste the air with open beak or turn his tufted ears to the wind or peer closely at the trodden earth.
All she could see were the broken husks of men and women left behind.
The dwarf gasped, and the sound startled her gaze back to him. His gauntleted hands twitched and clutched feebly for the crossbow that lay just beyond his reach. Birdie set it gently on his chest and watched how his hands cradled the weapon, fingers caressing the carved designs with the familiarity and pride of the craftsman.
Some of the tension eased from his pain-racked face.
Unlike many of his comrades, he had lasted through the battle, but his soul was not long for this world. Already his melody — a deep, trudging repetition of the five notes she had first heard back at the Sylvan Swan so long ago — seemed to be growing fainter.
"Come, little Songkeeper." Gundhrold's wing brushed across her shoulder, sending goosebumps prickling down her arms. The silence with which he maneuvered his bulk through the thickets of sage and heather never failed to surprise her. "It is past time we were moving. There is nothing for us here."
She could not bring herself to meet his gaze. It seemed safer to study her hands instead, so small next to the dwarf's gauntleted ones, but calloused and stained with dirt and dried blood. "I would heal him, if I could. But the Song is not willing."
"Nor should the Song be forced." Gundhrold's head dipped into view, yellow cat eyes large and questioning beneath bristling brows. "But there are others who may yet be saved. Come away, little one."
The dwarf's body seized. A cough shook his frame, and blood spewed from his lips. Birdie seized his gauntleted hand in both of hers. For the first time since she had knelt beside him, his eyelids slid open and his eyes rolled to meet hers. Fear and pain lurked there, and she knew that, doomed or not, she could not leave him alone. Still gripping his hand, Birdie began to sing. Her voice came out as a scant whisper choked by sorrow, soft and still as the brush of the wind through the dale. And yet the Song rose to greet her. It overpowered her feeble voice, surged through her bones with a strength not her own, and wound around the broken notes of the dwarf's failing song.
For a breath, the two melodies aligned in perfect harmony.
Then the dwarf fell silent.
Birdie allowed her voice to trail away, but for a long moment she did not move. She sat gazing into the frozen depths of the dwarf's eyes. Then the griffin's feathered head craned past her, and his croaking whisper confirmed what she already knew.
"He is gone, little one." Gundhrold's tone was no doubt meant to be tender, but not even the sweetest Midland honey could have made his voice or the double-bladed truth it conveyed less harsh. It was just the way he was. Rawboned, bare-clawed, and full of grit. His words stung, but his honesty shored up her strength.
Lies had ever slipped too easily from Amos's tongue.
She felt a traitor for thinking it now that he was gone. But that was the crux of the matter. He was gone, lost in the caverns below MountEiphyr, and though she saw a shadow of his face on every battleground, he would not return to her. What good were his secrets now?
"Come away, little one. Nothing will bring him back."
"I know." With an effort, Birdie pried her fingers from the dwarf's and set his hand atop the crossbow on his chest. Stiff legged from kneeling, she rose and surveyed the battleground. "But there are others."
Always there were others.
Was it the doom of a Songkeeper to witness suffering and yet rarely be enabled to help?
Weariness enveloped her body like a cloak. At the first step she took, the ground seemed to shift beneath her feet, but she pressed on. No matter whether it was her weariness or merely the smoke and stench of the dead that left her light headed, there was work to be done.
"Singing the souls to sleep." The griffin's voice halted her midstride. It was soft, contemplative, so unlike his usual staunch gruffness. He still stood over the body of the dwarf, head cocked and brow furrowed as if in deep thought.
"What do you mean?"
"That is what it is called, what you were doing. I recall it now. It is one of the Songkeeper's tasks — though it has been such a span of years since I witnessed it that I had nearly forgotten. My lady Auna walked many such a battleground and wandered through many a sick chamber, healing those she could, comforting those she could not. And at the last, she sang their souls to sleep. It is a beautiful thing."
Glancing down through the thick branches of heather, she saw the headless body of a dwarf before her feet. She would have trod upon his helmet with the next step. Her stomach twisted at the sight.
"Death is not beautiful."
The griffin came up behind her, footfalls muted by the spring growth, and his wing settled around her, drawing her away. "No, little one, it is not. But the singing of souls to slumber is. Who can say? Mayhap they will wake in Emhran's land when the dawn comes. May Emhran make it so."
His words bore the tone and weight of ritual, as if there was a correct response that Birdie was expected to give, but she was at a loss as to what it might be. Since leaving the Pit, Gundhrold had spoken to her several times of Emhran, the Master Singer who had woven the world through melody at the dawn of time. But although Birdie heard the Song and could comprehend the voice within it, this Emhran still seemed a stranger.
Better that she focus on what she could do than on things she did not understand. So she wandered up and down the battlefield, sometimes stopping to sing a soul to sleep, more often simply grieving over the lifeless bodies of those who had already passed on. Twice the Song filled her with a burst of glorious light, and both an injured dwarf and a Nordlander man were healed. The dwarf wrung her hand and thanked her profusely, rattling off a litany of names and promising her the undying gratitude of his house to the tenth and eleventh generations. The man simply bowed his head, something akin to awe in his eyes.
But their thanks unsettled her, and the melodies of the wounded and the dying called her back to her tasks. She drifted away again through the dale while Gundhrold sent the man and the dwarf on with a gift of supplies and instructions to tell all they met that "hope remains and the Songkeeper yet lives."
Hope seemed too strong a word for it. Birdie could find little reason for it in her own heart. But live she did, and so by Gundhrold's reckoning, hope remained.
So bound was she in her own thoughts that she didn't recognize the strains of the dark melody until it hung about her, throwing a shadow over her vision and threatening to choke the breath from her lungs. She halted, casting about for the source of the song, and reached instinctively for her sword.
But no hilt met her grip. It took a moment's panicked fumbling to recall that Artair's sword, the legendary blade of the Songkeepers, had been lost in the Pit. Weeks had passed since she had worn a blade, and yet at the first hint of danger, her hand went to her side as if she had been born with a sword strapped to her hip. The lack of a weapon hadn't truly bothered her until now. She had seen enough bloodshed to last a lifetime. But with Khelari and Shantren about, it was boggswoggling foolish to wander without a weapon. That's what Amos would say —
Or would have said.
Birdie stamped down the panic rising in her throat and forced a calm breath into her lungs. She had endured far too much to be set on the run by a few notes. The griffin was too far to be of any help. She stood alone among the slain. She had no sword. But she did have the Song, and she would call upon it if she must.
And hope that Emhran willed it to answer.
* * *
The five twisted notes of the dark melody led Birdie to the far side of the dale and beyond. She walked with one ear to the wind, but it wasn't so much a matter of hearing the sound and following it as it was of sensing it. Here, at the end of the dale, the mountains began to climb again, and her path steepened until her legs ached with each long stride. Loose rocks, threaded gorse, and thickets of sage and heather cluttered the way and denied easy passage. Slain warriors lay scattered on the mountainside, faces turned from the battleground below.
Slain while retreating.
The thought came in Gundhrold's voice, and Birdie almost glanced about to see if he had followed her. But she was alone save for the corpse of a dwarf woman lying several paces to her left with arrows bristling from her back.
A little farther on, Birdie came across a pack that had been slashed and torn open. She caught her foot on the haft of a discarded axe and lurched to regain her balance. And then, as a thought struck her, she seized the axe, hefting the unfamiliar bulk in both hands. Bits of leaves clung to the bloodied haft, and the head was chipped and scarred. But it was better than nothing.
The knowledge that she had a weapon and could use it if need be enabled her to step out a little more boldly and to glance back less often. The dark melody seemed to be growing louder now. And yet, somehow, fainter at the same time. Before her feet the heather was bent and torn, and the soil beneath was scuffed with boot marks. Such marks could have come from anyone fleeing the slaughter in the dale, not necessarily from her mysterious singer.
And yet ...
A glint of black gave her pause. Just a few feet ahead, she saw it: metal — dark metal — partially concealed beneath a cluster of sage. A spy? For a breath she hesitated, clammy hands tightening on the axe haft. There was still time to turn back. To fetch the griffin and allow him to deal with whatever was hiding beneath the sage. Gundhrold would be furious to learn that she had wandered alone. But as far as she was concerned, he took his task as Protector a bit too seriously.
She clenched her jaw, shoved through the sage ... and found herself staring directly into the wide eyes of a Khelari. "Don't move." She put all of the ferocity into the words that she could muster and wished she possessed the terrifying presence to back it up. Gundhrold could silence an enemy with a glare. Amos had never failed to quiet his opponents with a few wrathful exclamations. Even Ky could be frightening in his own quietly intense way. But she, the last Songkeeper, had to resort to idle threats. "Be still if you value your life."
The Khelari stared blankly at her.
She stared back. Breath for breath. Blink for blink. The soldier did not move, and neither did she. Only then did she realize how shallow the Khelari's breaths were and how the air seemed to rasp in his throat and how his eyes were glazed with the unseeing pain of the dying.
"Kill me ..."
"What?" The word startled from her lips.
The Khelari moistened his cracked lips with his tongue. Blood had dried in the corner of his mouth, and beneath the dirt and grime his skin had taken on a pale, bluish hue. "Kill me. End it now. My back is broken. I will be dead soon and better off —" A spasm gripped him.
The five-noted melody sputtered like a candle and then came back.
Axe raised, Birdie took a cautious step closer. The man's injury was real. The weakness of his song confirmed it. Up close, something about him held her gaze and filled her mind with recollection of Amos — though there was little resemblance to the bluff, ruddy-skinned peddler in the Khelari's pale face, save for his green eyes. Not fierce emerald green like Amos's. More a soft spring green, like the sage leaves crushed beneath his head.
But a Khelari was not to be trusted.
A tendril of the Song crept toward her then, and she dashed it aside. Khelari were a blight and plague upon the land of Leira. The soldier was dying anyway. What harm would it do to speed his passing? She clenched the haft of her axe so tightly that her hands ached, and a tremble ran up her arms.
But the Song was not so easily denied. She felt the pressure that heralded the burst of light and healing welling in her chest —
And with it her indignation. The Song wanted her to heal a Khelari, when the bodies of countless Leirans lay scattered across the battleground below and Amos had been lost in the Pit? It was beyond not right.
It was an injustice.
Still the power surged through her, though she fought it back. Even as the melody rose to her lips, the axe slipped from her grip to thud at her feet, and her hand stretched toward the Khelari of its own accord.
Sing, little Songkeeper.
The words unwound from the notes in her head and hovered in the forefront of her mind. There could be no denying such a command. It reached to the very root of her being but did not demand so much as forge the will to obey. Swallowing her anger, she inclined her head and opened her mouth to sing. But her voice was drowned out by the griffin's screech. The thunder of his wings fell heavy upon her ear, followed a moment later by the clack of a striking beak ...
Then the silence of a melody lost.
She lifted her eyes.
The Khelari was dead. As she watched, the life faded from him, his body went slack, and the blood pooled from his ravaged throat and then ran no more. Gundhrold crouched over the body, shoulders hunched, and wings extended from flight. He clutched her pack to his chest with one paw. Ragged breaths shook his rib cage. Wild he looked, and utterly fierce, reminding Birdie why she had feared him so when they first met.
"The Song's healing is meant for others, little one." Gundhrold cuffed the body with one paw and clacked his beak in disgust. "Not these creatures of evil." He stepped over the dead Khelari and dropped her pack at her feet. "It is time we moved on. The Takhran's army draws nearer to the Caran's fortress with every passing moment."
It took Birdie a moment to find her voice. "He was a man, Gundhrold."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Song of Leira"
Copyright © 2018 Gillian Bronte Adams.
Excerpted by permission of Gilead Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.