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Summerbird Rises: Book 1 - An Act of Entreaty, #1
Summerbird Rises: Book 1 - An Act of Entreaty, #1
Summerbird Rises: Book 1 - An Act of Entreaty, #1
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Summerbird Rises: Book 1 - An Act of Entreaty, #1

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Summerbird Asii has always been an inept seer; why try to deny it? She's spent her young life hiding her fractured magic, in a land where magic will get you a death sentence faster than any crime. The last thing she needs is a gruff, wheedling griffin appearing in her cottage. He might be the size of her cat, but he's a magical creature, from forbidden magical Emythor, and he's requesting her help. What? No. She was born in Emythor but dumped in Isterr as a child. She wants no part in rescuing highborn Fey with compromised magic. But the griffin's story intrigues her. Though the evil sorcerer sounds terrifying, she wavers. What's in it for her? Can she stay in Emythor if she succeeds? Does she have a choice? She doesn't. But as the griffin leaves her to decide, his parting words are an irresistible lure to a young woman desperate to learn of her stolen life— "would you like to learn your magic?" "Summerbird Rises" begins the tale of a young seer, whose ultimate talent is her appalling inability to see the future or work magic. Her lack of talent is actually goddess-sent, as the last thing she wants is the heavily armed men who enforce the 'no-magic' law to jail or even execute her. When a gruff griffin shows up in her cottage, her life will never be the same. Follow Summerbird as she returns to the land of her birth. The griffin's simple words lead her to learn who—and what—she really is, and what life-changing secrets have been hidden from her. Why did her grandfather leave her in a cold-bloodedly non-magical world with a well-used green-crystal ball, and the words, "This is your legacy. Forget whatever you see in it."

LanguageEnglish
Release dateOct 22, 2017
ISBN9781386924616
Summerbird Rises: Book 1 - An Act of Entreaty, #1
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Author

Debi Ennis Binder

Debi loves sharing her tales of altruistic dragons and wild-blooded witches, unworldly ælves, mischievous sprites, and clever, magical cats. Step into one of her tales and you’ll be engulfed in a world not so different from your own in some ways and utterly contrasting in others—where courage and honor mean everything; and cowardice and betrayal can cost you your life. Ah, but the rewards! Eternal love and unending adventures, where worlds without modern amenities are not as simple, or as challenging, as you would think. Join a quest through serene and dangerous woods or find an adventure in endless, icy mountains, with strong and dedicated women and men, wielders of magic and swords, who will teach you what a friend truly is. Or an enemy. Some beings are good, some bad, many don't know what they are, and it's hard to know which is which, But one thing is certain--with the varieties of species and the worlds they live in, full of discord and harmony, love and hate, virtue and corruption, life can be breathtaking!

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    Summerbird Rises - Debi Ennis Binder

    Debi Ennis Binder

    Story © 2016 Debi Ennis Binder—all rights reserved. No part of this story may be reproduced in any matter whatsoever, including Internet usage, without written permission from the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.

    This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

    This book contains scenes of consensual sex and gory swords-and-magic battles. It is meant for audiences over 18.

    Front Cover Art by Adriana Musetti Dávila

    https://adrianamusettidavila.deviantart.com/

    Contact Debi Ennis Binder at: http://debiszoo.com

    *Rev 1- 09232021*

    BISAC Subject Headings

    FIC009000 FICTION / Fantasy / General

    FIC009020 FICTION / Fantasy / Epic

    FIC009090 FICTION / Fantasy / Romantic

    Dedication

    To Joseph Prasil, for lighting the fire.

    To Steven Binder, for continuing to flame it.

    To Tom H. Richardson, an excellent alpha reader.

    Acknowledgments

    I would like to acknowledge the invaluable help of my wonderful readers: Tom H. Richardson, Cheryl Ennis, Bruce Berg, Gerald Loeb, Loretta Dart, and Leandra Binder, for reading, guiding, suggesting, rereading, not laughing, and for their ever-gentle critique and assistance. Reading for a writer takes finesse not everyone has. They handled my endless questions, strange looks, raised eyebrows, and rolled eyes with brave aplomb and warm humor, showing more class in critiquing my work than I ever did in defending it. But I always took their suggestions to heart.

    Prologue

    The late-summer eventide was uncommonly wintry. Summerbird Asii had loved this time of the year when, as a child, she could walk through the forest with her grandfather outside the village walls. Later, alone but still safe, she’d spent many an eventide under the ring of three moons overhead. Touched by the gentle breeze, smelling the scents of the trees and flowers she loved, she had often thanked the Goddess for lighting up the dark skies.

    Tonight, she bit her tongue to keep from cursing the light, for it was absolutely the last thing she needed. Tonight, she was not where she should be—in her cottage, in the bazaar. Where she plied her craft, she tended her tiny garden, and she existed.

    Summerbird gnawed on her bottom lip, then released a long sigh. Perhaps she should have waited. On the other hand, the night wouldn’t get any darker, would it? And she was already outside the bazaar.

    Not only was she forbidden to leave the bazaar for any reason without a writ, but it was Day-End. She broke the law simply by being outside after Day-End without a dire reason and a village guard as an escort.

    She had none of those things. Instead of being where any poor foreseer should be, this eventide, gazing into her crystal ball, she was in the Law-scribners district of the village. She’d heard from one of her clients that this particular garden held many valuable plants, as well as a noisy dog. 

    Wrapped in a black cloak, her blonde hair hidden from the moonslight, she was on a fool’s errand that would cost her everything if she were caught—

    Except for her life.

    The village elders would take her cottage, her livelihood, everything she possessed, but they would leave her alive, to beg in the streets or take money for her body.

    It wasn’t a voluptuous body and wouldn’t bring very much money.

    No smiles.

    Summerbird jumped at the whisper, her heart pounding. She looked around, then bent and gazed at her companion, who frequently grumbled under her breath. Sometimes, Summerbird wished the little black cat did speak to her rather than her imagining it.

    She took a deep, steadying breath before resolutely stepping forward, down a length of the walkway. The structure that was her aim was now in sight.

    She dashed from the safety of a tall bush and into the shadows of the high wall, followed that wall toward the back of the building, and found the door leading into the garden.

    Dropping to her knees, she pressed two fingers against the lock. After a moment, there was the barest nick, and the lock opened under her hand.

    I shouldn’t be here—

    Summerbird wished her head would stop telling her that. If the guards caught her inside the gate—the one she’d just used her next-to-useless magic to open—at least she’d not have to become a beggar or a whore. She’d be dead.

    Her furry companion slipped in beside her and stopped next to Summerbird, who stood still in the deep shadow formed by the convergence of wall and building. Her eyes swept the garden, peering...

    Ah. There it is.

    She gestured to the little cat—stay here.

    She would take only what she needed. Seeds were strewn across the ground, wasted. She couldn’t grow them, for someone was bound to see the plants and report her. This garden was the only place in Woorn where this plant grew, yet no one recognized the bounty—

    She froze and dropped to a crouch. She heard a scratching sound, then a door creaking open. A bundle of energetic tongue and feet flew into the garden, and the door closed. The ball of fur ran directly toward Summerbird.

    Her companion growled softly; a faint sound carried on the wind. But Summerbird came prepared. She withdrew a meager piece of meat from her pocket and tossed it across the garden to the far wall.

    The dog darted after it—another creature of the night that didn’t get fed very well or often enough.

    Summerbird took several young stalks, trying to be as discreet as possible, hoping no one would realize they’d been stolen. If so much as a single leaf had gone missing from her garden, she would have known. Yet, she would have shared her plants with anyone if it meant saving a life.

    The owner of this lovely garden didn’t care. These plants would die, unharvested, unused, their value not appreciated, just as life was in Woorn—as it was in the entirety of Isterr for someone with magic, no matter how worthless it was.

    And Summerbird, the youngest foreseer in the village of Woorn, should know. She would glibly tell anyone who asked, she’d chosen to become a future-teller because it was easy money. But the truth was far more dangerous. This profession was also the safest way to hide the magic in her blood.

    Chapter One

    Summerbird peered through the cracked window decorating her front door, watching her elderly client hobble to the end of the cottage’s cobblestone path. Guilt and sorrow rolled through the young foreseer, threatening to sicken her. She continued to watch until the aged future-seeker disappeared into the mist.

    Her illegal venture out the previous eventide for the plants she needed to brew a tea for Maid Tomis meant Summerbird could provide at least some help to her ailing client.

    If the elderly woman hurried, she would get home before the castle guards set out to prowl the streets. If village guards saw her first, they’d likely recognize her and help her home. Summerbird only hoped the small packet of leaves Maid Tomis carried went unnoticed.

    I told her they were for tea to comfort her cough. Should anyone ask, surely, she won’t reveal where they came from. She doesn’t want to be in trouble any more than I do.

    Village law prohibited Summerbird from selling medical herbs to others. She could possess only a tiny amount for her personal use—and not of the type she’d provided Maid Tomis.

    That she’d given the purloined herbs away made no difference. They weren’t hers. She took them from someone who neither wanted nor needed them, but that didn’t matter either.

    Go home and brew your tea, Maid Tomis. Stay silent about where you got it, please.

    Should the old woman reveal her source, the questions for Summerbird would be daunting. What wisdom have you to use such herbs? And how did you obtain them—no, how did you know where to find them? How did you get them? Was it... magic?

    Summerbird shivered. Being questioned about magic was another entirely different sort of terror, wasn’t it? As she locked the door, she wondered if she had gone too far in helping—

    A woman’s panicked, pain-filled shrieks assaulted her ears, echoing off the walls and buildings, startling Summerbird so much she jumped, her heart pounding. She stood, frozen in place by the horrible, keening sound.

    Dear Goddess, she’d forgotten! The stress of stealing herbs last eventide and seeing Maid Tomis again had made her forget today's scheduled punishment.

    Summerbird had heard mention of another young woman who sold herbal remedies, clearly too skilled at her art. She ground her teeth. Someone—probably a disgruntled neighbor—had likely alleged the screaming woman used magic. Not suspected or proven, only accused, and now punished for all to see.

    Another herbalist who wanted the accused’s business might have murmured damning words to a castle guard. Or a man who wanted to see a young woman stripped down to her undertunic and whipped might have accused her of performing magic.

    Summerbird buried her face in her shaking hands, unable to block out her frantic thoughts, brought on by terrified shrieks. She had been in the bazaar the day the castle guards arrested the woman. She’d heard the oppressed bazaar dwellers’ outraged whispers aimed at the burly sentries.

    She had actually witnessed a punishment, and only once, thank the gods. Trapped in the bazaar, she’d been forced to watch as the castle guards had tied a woman to a tall pole in the village center. Three enormous men had taken turns whipping that woman’s frail body. After the first strike, Summerbird had gazed beyond the victim to the castle on the hill, and hatred had churned within her.

    That punishment was now being repeated. A chill twisted painfully through the young foreseer as scream after tortured scream cut through the village. She didn’t know the pitiful woman and was sorry for her, but all she could imagine was Maid Summerbird Asii, tied to a pole.

    Another scream—Summerbird blinked back tears. In her opinion, the only wicked deed the women had ever done was charge too much for their remedies or overstated their skills. Both were capable herbalists, and neither had a dram of magic in her blood.

    Summerbird should know. Her memories of her childhood were vague, but she had not been born in this realm. She’d been born where such blood ran within everyone’s veins, but only she spent every day of her adult life trying to conceal that fact.

    If that poor woman truly could see the future, Summerbird muttered, she’d have known they planned to arrest her and prevented it. I’ve developed quite a talent for lying to keep myself safe.

    Summerbird’s whispered words left a hazy film on the cracked pane of glass adorning her front door, where she rested her forehead. She promptly felt remorse for those unkind words.

    I shouldn’t be so glib. One slip and I could be out there, right alongside the pitiful thing.

    She was a future-teller—fortunetellers were for far more affluent villages—and she often walked a fragile line that revolved around the primary rule of her realm.

    No magic. At all, ever.

    Like every foreseer in Isterr, her imagination and fluent tongue were her best assets. She saw nothing for nearly all her clients and gave each one a bland future as fraudulent as she felt. At least they were safe futures.

    But other times, she saw the truth in her crystal ball—terrible, gut-wrenching truth.

    She wouldn’t risk her life to provide the location of a missing cat or a stolen loaf of bread. But if she happened upon a way to help, she did so. Gossip in the bazaar supplied the information she needed to find the thief selling stolen bread and produce. Producing a comically drawn picture helped a small child find his lost kitten.

    Summerbird sighed. Life was a challenge, and those screams reminded her that unpleasant reality was never far away. She so feared that others might suspect she was somewhat magical that she left her cottage only when she had to.

    Seeing the future paths of tragic villagers haunted her. Self-preservation ran deep within Summerbird. She dared not forewarn the poor villagers, so she resolved the unimportant, hoping to lessen her guilt over ignoring the futures she couldn’t touch, couldn’t warn others about. Being unable to forget each death was her penance for her survival instinct.

    Her little green crystal ball had darkened nine times through the years—just as it had done less than a fortnight ago—filling with roiling, black clouds. Dread had scraped through Summerbird like shards of glass. She knew what would follow. She always tried to look away, but it was impossible. Death—last, gasping breaths taken—when presented as a small round image, was just as compelling, perhaps even more horrifying than seeing it in real life.

    She remembered each time death awaited a client and each time how her heart yearned to help. She often told the person to come back later, that she wasn’t feeling well enough to continue. She had no choice. It was necessary to lie to them about their fate, and it took time to regain her composure. And the additional time gave her a chance to find any small thing—such as the herbs—that might help.

    But this time, Maid Tomis left early today, and Summerbird hadn’t asked the ill woman to return for another reading, only given her the promised tea leaves, which Summerbird hoped would help with Maid Tomis’s persistent cough.

    Knowing she was gravely ill, Maid Tomis still likely hoped Summerbird would tell her something different. The elderly woman looked surprised and a bit forlorn when the foreseer sent her away with only the leaves and not a reading.

    Summerbird had given the old woman the name of an herbalist—hopefully, one clever enough to avoid being imprisoned—who might help her relieve her pain. And she’d sent her away, knowing it would likely be the last time she saw her. Again, she blinked back hot tears.

    Maid Tomis—Summerbird wondered what her first name was—had been her favorite client for almost four years, visiting her faithfully once a month. The young woman would miss the acid-tongued gossip of Maid Tomis so much. Her remarks had helped Summerbird resolve several local mysteries throughout the years. And often, her comments were funny.

    The spirited old woman paid Summerbird for her visits with baked sweets and rolls left in the latter’s delivery box once a week. Summerbird valued those treats. As she enjoyed fruit far more than sweet bread, the bread was encouragement for local children to hunt for the fruit that escaped her yard. It was their reward for returning her fruit to her.

    Summerbird released a breath she didn’t realize she was holding and came out of her reverie, surprised to find herself wandering around her foreseer room. Anxiety churned in her once again.

    Lying to save herself made her feel guilty, but she thought it was an excellent reason to do so. But lately, it was almost as hard to keep coming up with new lies as it was to remember which lies she told to whom.

    Another client awaited her, and she was wasting time. She quickly tidied her table. When she adjusted her crystal ball, she stopped short. A vision-like memory flooded her.

    He pushes the ball into my hands... small child-hands. It feels solid and frightening. I gaze down into it and see something moving about. It’s long, thin, and green-gold. Someone kneels beside me. Grandfather? Where did he come from? Grandfather is large and comforting. He smells of the forest and green meadows. He puts an arm around me and gives me a gentle hug. I am seven years old. I realize he is leaving yet again, going away, and leaving me in this dreadful place. He leans down and kisses my forehead.

    This is your crystal ball, he whispers. You must hide it away for now. Someday, you may best use it, and it may best serve you by forgetting whatever you see in it.

    Summerbird blinked and shook her head. Sadness rolled through her. So much time had passed since she last saw her grandfather. Why did those words, forever seared into her mind so many years before, always surface when she was stressed?

    Seven more years passed, and upon her fourteenth unremarked day of birth, a law-scribner came to her guardian’s home. He surprised all of them by telling Summerbird she had inherited a cottage and, though young, was now legally able to take ownership. It was awaiting her—a home where she could have a small business.

    She still remembered the joy of leaving her guardian, Marse, and his awful family behind. Of having her own home and slowly building a business that kept her and Orkey fed and comfortable.

    It wasn’t Grandfather’s words that taught her to close her eyes to the more frightening scenes her crystal ball showed her. It was living in endless fear of arrest. Of finding herself in the village square, screaming her head off as a brutal castle guard used a thin, vicious whip on her to remind the villagers that not only did Isterran laws prohibit magic, but those laws were also strictly, zealously enforced.

    The memory of seeing a woman whipped made Summerbird think of Maid Tomis again. The old grocer first visited the foreseer after the public punishment of a supposed witch.

    It’s odd, Summerbird observed, how my business always increases after the castle guards come through to cleanse the village of magic.

    Cleanse?

    She shuddered. Such an innocuous, even pleasant word was now something dark and evil. Who sent the ruthless guards to perform ritual cleansing in a poor village like Woorn? What lived in the castle, so vile it found beating or even killing a suitable way to keep people in line?

    How long would it be before they found Summerbird?

    Uncharacteristic rage shot through her as she dropped into her chair, shaking with fury at those who deserved her wrath—the Fey. The devious and enchanting inhabitants of magical Emythor, where she was born. Where she belonged.

    A tale of Emythor? Grandfather chuckled. Yes, come, sit down, and eat, Summerbird. I will tell you another story once you are ready for bed.

    How could it not be magical, a mystical place immortalized by her grandfather, coming to life in the tales he told Summerbird? A realm created by an unseen, unknown entity, where magic lived and flowed freely and where the Fey could hide from murderous non-magic humans. Summerbird should have grown up and thrived in Emythor, safe from persecution for being what she was born to be—magic.

    Beautiful, whimsical, enchanted Emythor—full of people who were her blood and who did not want her.

    Damned stupid Emythor and its high and mighty denizens, thinking themselves so much better, leaving me stuck here. Gods, I hate it here. Damned inhuman castle guards—I hate them too.

    What was the use? What would change? Her shoulders slumped, and she gave up the anger, letting it slide away.

    Giving up. I do that very well.

    I pity you, Maid Tomis, she whispered, her words almost too faint to reach her ears. It was the first truthful thing Summerbird had ever told the woman, even if Maid Tomis didn’t hear it.

    Even if I could tell you what’s wrong with you, you couldn’t help yourself. And despite my deepest desire to, I can’t help you, either. Summerbird shuddered again, pushing those thoughts out.

    She abruptly noticed the screaming had stopped. She opened a narrow window to a crack and listened. The silence of the bazaar now echoed through the streets as people returned to their wretched lives.

    Summerbird was thankful there was no one to hear her muttering to herself as she walked around the room. People didn’t do that unless they were working a spell. Or mad. She wasn’t certain how to feign madness, but that might be better than the alternative.

    In this idyllic countryside village, something as vague as Summerbird talking to herself might cause one of her friendly neighbors to report her. It wasn’t so severe as to warrant the attention of the castle guard, but mumbling under one’s breath would likely result in a report to the village Elders.

    In that case, well, she could hope those stodgy old men would remember what a dear child and poor orphan she had been. That now, she was a good resident who always paid her taxes on time. In their pity, perhaps they would punish her themselves through the village guards rather than turn her over to the castle guards.

    She shook her head. That was, in fact, comforting. At least the village guards rarely killed a villager.

    She took another deep breath and prepared her little foreseer-room for the next customer.

    A tear leaked out, and all at once, she fell—no, she leaped—into a dark, sucking bog of misery.

    I want to help the villagers. Even if they’d be the first ones to run to the authorities, hoping to curry favor from that cursed castle on the hill. People die. And it hurts.

    She swallowed and dried her face on her sleeve—poor doomed old woman. We talked together in the market, traded harvest from our gardens, and shared our knowledge of herbs. We shared recipes.

    She glanced over at her stillroom, bursting at the joints with dried and fresh plants and herbs. There wasn’t anything there that could help Maid Tomis. Nothing better be there that wasn’t recognizable by the Elders’ representatives who periodically came through to inspect her wares—and steal some, as well.

    Those damned castle guards would arrest both of us—me for working magic and you for benefiting from it. Why couldn’t this mood have come about tonight? I could go to bed, play with my cat, and awaken the next morntide all bright and sprightly, ready for my new, deceitful day.

    Why, on such a miserable day, when she needed to punch a pillow and cry, did a customer still await her? At least there was only one person left, and Maid Tomis left early enough to give Summerbird some extra time to compose—

    A planter hanging in her wide front window swayed slightly, and she heard a soft swish of something moving. She froze and swallowed. Tears gathered in the back of her throat, making her nose itch. She couldn’t stop to indulge in crying. She had to find out what was in her house.

    The next plant moved a bit more, and she rose to see if she might have left a window ajar. As expected, she’d fastened all the windows shut earlier that morning, including the one she’d just opened. It was a firmly rooted habit.

    She hesitated, deciding to blame the movement on the wind coming through the leaky roof. At least she now had a firmer grip on her emotions. It was time to reel in these risky thoughts. Yes, that was a sensible notion.

    Summerbird’s ears sharpened on the murmur of voices in the waitroom. Had someone else come in—no, more likely, her client brought someone with her.

    The voices rose just a bit, perhaps to remind the foreseer that someone still waited. This customer didn’t care that one of her neighbors would soon die. She needed to get home to start her eventide meal.

    As Summerbird passed the table where her crystal ball sat, she stopped short. Maid Tomis had forgotten her woven scarf. It lay crumpled on the floor next to the chair she’d sat in. Despite her better judgment, the young foreseer picked it up. A shiver went through her as she felt the feathery touches of the frightened woman’s mortality.

    Summerbird hastened to smother both pity and that damned guilt. Taking money from poor women who secretly believed her divinations distressed her, but empathy didn’t purchase food or pay her taxes.

    Do they pay taxes in magical Emythor? A quick smile lightened her heart. Did the Fey tax magic?

    As she tucked the scarf away, weariness swept through Summerbird, pushing aside notions of magic and Emythor. She couldn’t remember a day ever being so long.

    Dropping into her chair, she stretched her arms above her head, sighed long, and drew her thick shawl closer to her. When she shivered again, it wasn’t from the constant cold. Anxiety was making her both prickly and nervous.

    She glanced at the small timepiece on her fireplace mantle—she could take a little longer—then carefully peered into the shadows across the room.

    This wasn’t the first time something odd had happened in the cottage these last few days. She caught herself looking over her shoulder and listening more than once when there wasn’t anything to hear. Strange feelings, faint sounds, quick movements—for three days now, she had sensed something was in her cottage. She wanted it stopped. If she could figure out what it was.

    Whatever was happening wasn’t affecting her cottage alone; it was interfering with her business.

    On the first day, Summerbird had been absent-minded, then later, sharp with a client, snapping at her when the woman dawdled at the door on the way out. How could the woman have missed the blur of motion as something slipped from beneath one chair to another or not heard a harsh, whispered sound? How could these women not feel the heavy, sidling touch of something in this house, grinding on Summerbird’s nerves?

    And on the second day, another client certainly saw—and heard—Summerbird’s panic, which the young foreseer nervously laughed off as thoughts of a creepy-crawly in her house. That session came to an abrupt halt by Summerbird’s shriek, shocking both her client and Summerbird herself. When Summerbird found the culprit, she almost wept with relief.

    "Orkey." Summerbird gently scolded her cat, reminding her she didn’t belong in the client area during business hours. And Summerbird’s scream—the tiny black cat grabbed the foreseer’s legging—and leg—with sharp claws and opened her mouth in a silent meow before scurrying away to hide under a cupboard.

    The woman had been so distressed Summerbird had sent her away without charging her. After she left, Summerbird had spent half the night hunting high and low through the cottage for whatever had frightened her tiny predator.

    Magic. Each and every day, the simple word repeatedly returned, nudging its way into her brain, despite her desperate efforts to banish such notions.

    How can a word be full of life yet bring death? Can magic be a thing of nature, of pure lights and a gentle alteration, yet lead to one being dragged down into the black depths of a dungeon?

    This day was the third. Having fallen back into her bemused thoughts, Summerbird started as something soft brushed against her leg. A quickly indrawn breath, a glance, and relief rushed through her. Orkey gazed up at her and gave an unhappy meow.

    Summerbird scooped up the cat, gave her a quick hug, and sent her through the door to the back of the cottage. The little animal was also impatient for her dinner, but one more customer awaited her future, and from the sounds in the waitroom, she wasn’t waiting patiently.

    Summerbird felt weepy, wanting the relief of a tear or two. No, if I start, I won’t be able to stop. How would she explain standing in the middle of the room sobbing her heart out over—nothing?

    The young foreseer gave a deep sigh and turned toward the waitroom. It was time to stop dilly-dallying and get on with business. She had a half-hour to go before the law bade her doors close for eventide.

    She would then cook an uninspired meal and spend another long night with her cat, enjoying the rare book a customer gave her as a trade for a month of readings. It seemed appropriate to Summerbird.

    Sometimes, coming out on top in any barter for food or goods troubled her. Her clients knew the futures she gave couldn’t be much more than common sense, and knowledge garnered from gossip in the bazaar and bartering for anything useful was routine. She tried to make her magical futures at least somewhat thought-provoking, and she also tried not to overly enjoy her bounty, but— A book!

    As Summerbird stepped toward the waitroom, the unease growing in her washed over her in waves, leaving her queasy. She paused for a drink of water and splashed some on her face. The water eased her nausea somewhat. Perhaps she, like Orkey, was simply hungry.

    She glanced again at the timepiece on her mantle. Amazingly, only seven brief minutes had passed. She wasn’t running late; she had three minutes she could spare.

    Grabbing an apple and biting into its crisp, pink flesh, she walked back toward her table, hoping to finish the fruit before the client came looking for her.

    You’re still stalling, she scolded herself, then smiled again. It was becoming a typical situation for her—self-pitying and dawdling.

    Summerbird devoured the apple, then ran a finger over her front teeth. She fanned her hands over her tiny incense brazier to stir up the scent, settled back into her chair, and again rearranged her scarf over her face and hair. Adjusting her linen shawl deepened the shadows provided by the draped fabric and helped to further hide her face.

    Many knew she was a slight, pale young woman of two-and-twenty years. They didn’t want to recall who she was when she immersed them in her mysterious and frightening craft.

    Feeling more composed, Summerbird was about to call in her last future-seeker when she heard a slight, scratchy wheeze. Alarmed, she stood and looked around her, then under the table and chairs.

    Something must be in this room—but again, she found nothing.

    Orkey was still in the bedroom. Thank the Goddess the little cat hadn’t ever made a nasty sound like—

    A silvery glimmer of light materialized on her table. Summerbird straightened and gasped. The wheeze turned into a cough as a small, vertical line appeared next to the incense burner. The incense smoke coiled and gathered around the line, darkening it. As the smoke spread out, the darker area split open—

    Something was emerging.

    Summerbird sank back into her chair and sat frozen, her eyes huge on the glittering line hanging in midair, a hand’s width above her table. She dimly realized she had caught her breath. But she was so frightened, she couldn’t release it.

    The line shivered as the smoke spun and fused around it, then settled over a slowly materializing form. A small talon appeared, followed by a white-feathered leg.

    Summerbird’s entire body was so rigid her muscles were aching. The shimmering line moved again—

    Chapter Two

    A head emerged, followed by snowy shoulders.

    Summerbird slapped her hands over her mouth. The breath she released came out as something between a gasp and a moan.

    Slowly, a wee griffin hopped out onto the table, shaking its back leg—Summerbird peered closer—was its paw caught on the strange, glittering line? The creature, choking on the thick, heady incense smoke, waved a snowy white talon and then its wings, trying to clear the toxic air around it. It staggered to the other side of the table, glaring up at Summerbird through teary eyes.

    Summerbird stared in speechless disbelief. She closed her eyes briefly and looked again. Yes, it was still there. It wasn’t much larger than Orkey. She drew her fingers away from her lips. Taking pity on the hacking griffin, she used her shawl to move the hot incense brazier off the small table onto the floor.

    She then returned to staring at the creature. She’d worried herself ill, seeking a cause for her anxiety, but there was no need to look any further, was there? It had found her.

    Sheer, icy panic went through her as it hit her—there’s a griffin in my house.

    She gripped the table with shaking fingers, unable to take her eyes off the creature. They stared at each other a moment longer before the small creature shook itself again.

    Well, what are you gawking at? the griffin snapped, its—no, his—gravelly male voice loud, despite his size.

    Summerbird blinked. He talked. How did he speak with a beak—a fierce eagle’s beak that dominated an elegant avian head? Common sense—and fear—abruptly interrupted Summerbird’s mesmerized reverie.

    Be quiet, she hissed, throwing a glance at the thick, woven tapestry separating the small foreseer room from the waitroom.

    He continued to peer up at her through the dissipating smoke. His blue eyes were startlingly human-like.

    Harrumph. He lowered his voice. Indeed, yes, I apologize for frightening you.

    I am not frightened, she said, her voice shaking. Excuse me. I-I mean I—you’re so small.

    Surely, you do not expect me to sit on your table at full size, do you?

    No, I suppose not, she replied, then stole another glance toward the waitroom. She had now gone well past the time allotted for the previous future-seeker. Goddess, this was a choice? Four copper vins tagged for food sitting out there and a griffin in here?

    All she needed was someone to stick their head in, looking for the foreseer.

    Her voice lowered still further. You are illegal. If my customer sees you here—

    Yes, yes, he interrupted, waving a talon. You send those women away. I will wait for you in your bedroom. He glanced at her crystal ball and gave a slight shake of his head as though he disapproved of what he saw. You finish your business here.

    But—

    The silver line reappeared. It opened, almost as though it were a door, and the griffin stepped through it and vanished.

    Summerbird felt as though her brain had turned to mush. She sat a moment longer, still staring at the spot where the griffin had sat. She swallowed another wave of fear.

    There was only one explanation. She was so tired, and now she was terrified, as well. She was imagining things. She slowly shook her head. No, there were two explanations. That really was a griffin—a tiny magical beast who was ordering her around in her house.

    Would a small griffin be dangerous if she ignored him? Would such a wonderfully magical creature harm her or Orkey? Wait—how did he know his way around her house?

    A resigned sigh went through her. There was no decision to make, was there? She knew she wouldn’t ignore him, and not solely because of her lively curiosity. He was Magic, personified. He represented all she could never be. She had to find out why he was here.

    She considered what to say as she walked to the tapestry leading to the waitroom. She would just send the women on their way. This client brought her mother, who presumably hoped to sneak in her questions on the sly without paying for herself.

    Summerbird would quietly mourn the loss of money because they might not come back. An idea occurred to her as she opened the heavy fabric.

    My ladies, I am sorry, but I shall have to ask you to return tomorrow. My last client was so distraught, and I hoped you would understand my taking the time to comfort her. And now, the Day-End is nigh, and I do not wish to hurry through our consultation.

    They exchanged a glance, and she gave them a bright, professional smile. Please, come by tomorrow, whenever you like, and I shall give you preference. Yes, both of you.

    Summerbird knew they would like preference. Unwritten rules of the bazaar dictated the end-of-the-day customers were the poorest, both financially and socially. They were also her most dependable source of income, and she liked to keep them happy.

    They rose, grumbling, but they didn’t argue. There wasn’t any point in doing so. Summerbird was safe in her home, while they still had to cross the bazaar to get to theirs.

    She followed them to the door and turned the key in the lock. She paused and made a pretense at rubbing a spot off the glass as her eyes followed them down the street. The two women didn’t look back.

    Summerbird pulled off her shawl and headscarf, shook out her pale-blond tresses, and scratched her scalp luxuriously. Ah, freedom from over-warm scarves and hidden hair. Her sigh was long and loud, her stretch sensual and cat-like, ending with a grin. Hiding her thigh-length hair all day was uncomfortable, but scarves and shawls concealed her from her clients. And from men.

    She dressed like most other women—leggings, a long-sleeved tunic, and over that, a tabard of heavy, durable fabric. Her clothes and boots covered her from neck to toes. Her dark-gray garments were once blue, but they were so old they’d lost their color.

    Many wealthier women wore clothing that left little to a male’s imagination—as Maid Tomis had once stated—and many left their hair loose and uncovered. But no one made Summerbird dress as she did. She was deliberately subdued and commonplace because she didn’t want anyone to notice her.

    The reality of the castle guard prohibited such freedoms to Summerbird and others of her social standing. They were far more likely than wealthy women to become victims—how terrible, another poor woman, dumped in the village-center, nude and ravaged, not dead, for that would be too considerate.

    Fear walked before those ruthless, armed men, their cold, sharp eyes touching the villagers with contempt for them, for their insignificant businesses and lives.

    I can hardly count myself as insignificant now, can I?

    There was a griffin in her home, and he likely wouldn’t go away on his own, at least not until she listened to him.

    The other shops were closing. Shopkeepers were ushering out the last of their customers and closing before the castle guard started their eventide walk through the bazaar, ensuring everyone was off the streets and each shop empty and locked. Castle guards were not discreet about actively seeking anyone to punish.

    She jumped as she heard the vile guards approaching—dogs barking and doors and windows slamming shut. The sounds came closer as the men neared her lane. Beyond her neglected stone wall, two of the black-clad brutes were hauling in one of their savage dogs. She moved behind the drapery and peered out.

    Beyond the village, the castle was just visible where the river and forest met. Tonight, as always, the three moons would rise and try in vain to shower their bright, peaceful light over the monstrosity, but nothing could change what it was—decaying and evil.

    She caught sight of two village guards further down the street, escorting an elderly couple toward their home. Seeing them surprised her. Once the lone protectors of Woorn, the village guards wouldn’t patrol with the castle guards, usually waiting until those men were gone to enter the bazaar.

    Though unlikely to admit it, they were just as afraid of the castle guards as the villagers were. No village guard wanted to be part of any incident where their savage associates killed or maimed a villager.

    How fortunate Woorn is, having armed and trained men to safeguard us.

    Fear bubbled up in her again as the castle guards slowed near her walkway. If they came in, she knew they wouldn’t find the griffin, but they would discover Summerbird—on her knees, a babbling mess of tears and snot—who would no doubt confess to a griffin appearing on her table.

    None of the other villagers had a griffin in their bedroom. Summerbird fought to tamp down blossoming panic. What could such a creature possibly want with her? By the Goddess, the magical ones had ignored her all these years—why now?

    She couldn’t afford to indulge the griffin. She had to get rid of him. She had to fight to suppress her racing feelings and act normal, but a griffin made it difficult.

    What do you want with me?

    Jerking the window tapestries shut, she turned back into the room, eyeing the door separating the business from the personal side of the cottage. She carried her crystal ball close to her as she blew out candles and again checked the locks on her two doors.

    Why was she postponing her encounter with the beast?

    Because he is magical, and I am barely magical. He will soon be on his way and gone from my home, while I will still be here, living in this Goddess-forsaken village.

    Her feet were slowing until she stopped to pull a dead leaf off a medicinal verbena plant. The other leaves moved to touch her hand ever-so-gently. Her plants’ movements had long ago ceased to startle her, but she dreaded the day someone else noticed it. It was more magic, where none should—where none must—exist.

    Sometimes it all defies understanding, she murmured aloud.

    What?

    She jumped and spun around. The griffin was hovering near her shoulder.

    Stop that, she said, narrowing her eyes at him.

    The small face contrived to look astonished, even innocent. A slight grin touched Summerbird’s lips. Such human-like mannerisms were strange when coming from a non-human creature.

    He followed her to the back of the house and into her bedroom, settling himself upon her nightstand close to where she set her crystal ball. Summerbird gazed at him for a moment, then turned and pulled the bedroom window tapestries tighter, folding the ends together.

    The griffin repeated his question. What defied her understanding?

    Why am I still here? I don’t want to continue pretending I am no more than a dreary future-seeker. I’m tired of lying to poor, insecure women and then taking their money, she said, kneeling to stir up the fire.

    I can see you might be weary of all this, he said, ruffling his white breast feathers. Why are you using such an archaic method of heating your house? Have you not heard of internal steam heating? This place is like a tomb.

    This is how I heat, Summerbird said, rising from the fireplace to glare at him. She was beginning to think he was a stuffy sort of griffin. More heat costs more money. And there is seldom enough of that.

    The little creature stared at her. She stared back, her face expressionless, barely hiding the sudden resentment seething inside her. The magical ones had done nothing for her. If this griffin wanted anything from her, he better be prepared to pay well.

    His next words stunned her.

    Your grandfather should have left you wealthy. His voice was quiet but forceful. Very wealthy, my dear.

    She sank into her chair, unable to control the myriad emotions rushing through her—sorrow at the mention of her grandfather, anger at her desertion in Isterr as a child, annoyance at this griffin’s perceived pity for her situation. And yes, envy. He commanded more magic to move from place to place within her cottage than she could dredge up or even know how to use.

    Her resentment was fading, once again overshadowed by the dread of being exposed. What if one of her customers had heard his voice, and even now, castle guards were preparing to arrest her?

    Why are you here?

    Summerbird felt a stab of pain—her fingernails were digging into the palms of her hands. She swallowed and willed herself to relax, to breathe...

    To admit that even now, when she was in the direst of danger, she didn’t want him to go. There were so many questions, and he was a link to a world where she knew she belonged, even if they didn’t want to acknowledge her.

    Who is this creature who knows things about me and disapproves of what I have made of myself? Does he know or even care about the danger he places me in simply by being here? What if someone knows—dear Goddess, there’s a griffin—

    That thought would not go away. Would the griffin save her if vicious hordes of evil castle guards came crashing into her home? Could he even help her?

    Had he known Grandfather?

    Chapter Three

    Emotion chilled Miffin Griffin to the bone, making his head hurt. So many sensations ran through him, churning around in his stomach, that he was certain he would disgrace himself, right here, on her floor. Memories roiled within him—a tiny, boisterous child, filled with joyous laughter, running unsteadily through the halls of Darkleaf, his castle.

    A small mark at the base of her throat was still visible—the effect of a færa kiss. Did she even know what the imprint was? Did she remember anything?

    He feared her past was lost to her. She didn’t remember him, now stared at him as though she would just as soon feed him to wolves as have him near her, much less listen to him.

    Miffin’s eyes followed her movements as she sat and tucked her feet up alongside her. He gazed over her garb for a moment and sank further into gloom. She looked so deprived. Everything she wore had tiny, skillful repairs. He envisioned her, patching what she owned with precise stitches, from her thick shawl to her socks and leather short-boots.

    Would she still have chosen to live as a foreseer, knowing what her life would become?

    How do you know what my circumstances should be? Her abrupt question startled him. It was as though she had heard his thoughts. How do you know anything about me?

    In keeping with the norms of humankind she lived among, she took refuge in anger. And Miffin would need a year to answer her questions. He was going to have to consider every word he spoke. She was waiting for him to answer her.

    I know a— I know some things about you, he returned cautiously.

    She surprised him by leaning closer to him. The firelight caught the soft glimmer of her hair. Those lovely, so-familiar eyes were suspicious. But also—he thought—entranced.

    His earlier reservations regarding his approach to her were well-founded. Two choices—hard truths or a multitude of lies—would not be enough to help him in this dire situation.

    He softened his voice. I know about you because of your grandfather’s —her eyes flew to him and narrowed— "contract with the first Lord-Protector of the Realm of Emythor. Emythor is the domain created by the entity Treaty after he ended the Genera War."

    Miffin stopped. I know she is reasonably well-educated, but she has learned from the Isterran point of view, and that is not what the Isterrans call it. It was called the Great War. She might not even know genera is what we call our distinct types of beings.

    But Summerbird did not seem to notice he had stopped talking, and now Miffin grew fretful. Did she even know about the war? He wondered—she reacted to his mention of her grandfather, but not to Treaty.

    She continued to regard him doubtfully, but she nodded. Somewhat reluctantly, he thought. He gave a deep, exasperated sigh. He hoped that by mentioning Summerbird’s grandfather, he might persuade her to trust him. Why did everything with humankind have to be so complicated?

    I know what Emythor is, she said. Was she always so abrupt? And when I took lessons with my guardian’s children, I learned about the war and the persecution of the Fey—or protecting Isterr, as they called it. But surely you don’t think they taught me anything about the Fey? I’ve never heard about a contract with a Lord-Protector of the Realm, or even what a Lord-Protector of the Realm is, or what he has to do with my grandfather, who seems to feel raising me while absent would best help me.

    Miffin was so caught up in pondering what she might have learned about the War from the Isterran perspective that he nearly missed her comment about her grandfather. And such a snarky mention it was. He might like her after all.

    He wondered if she even realized her grandfather was the most powerful sorcerer in Emythor?

    Did your grandfather ever tell you aught of the Fey world? Miffin asked. Or of the Fey Court or of the realm lords, who protect and oversee the various realms of Emythor?

    She shook her head. No.

    My name is Miffin, he said, pretending not to see the surprise and then the quick grin on her face. At least she was polite and did not comment about his name. To be brief, he continued, Emythor is in grave danger.

    Her slight smile vanished. Her curt laugh was skeptical. I think that’s a little too brief, Mast—Miffin. Perhaps a bit more detail might help.

    But I— His head drooped, and he nodded. Yes, you need and deserve more. A king governs Emythor. The one who makes laws and administers those laws for the king and Emythor is the Lord-Protector.

    He glanced at her. He might as well be speaking to her in another language for all that she seemed to be comprehending. That vexed him to no end.

    Below him are realm lords, who oversee the different realms of Emythor, he continued, determined to get through this. Descended from the original inhabitants of this world, the Elementals. Àrd ælves, forest ælves, dæmon ælves, and so on—their bloodlines are ancient, from a time when the Fey and those of Isterr barely knew the other existed.

    She continued to look utterly bewildered. Miffin closed his beak tightly and settled down, letting her mull over his words. When necessary, he could be quite patient in dealing with humankind.

    The griffin, having lived most of his life among humans, recognized her distress. Delighted she did not fear him, Miffin had been confident he could explain his task and then plan for her to begin it. That strategy had now given way to a sad, troubling realization—

    Summerbird did not seem to know what he was talking about, nor was she reacting to anything as Miffin had expected.

    Elementals, she murmured after a long silence. She nodded. Yes, I remember Grandfather told me stories of them, their powerful and wondrous magic. But why are you telling me about realm lords and Elementals?

    Miffin relaxed. Her tone was curious now, and he was slightly more hopeful that she would at least listen to his request.

    Since the intervention of Treaty, there has been peace, but now— He stopped short, cleared his throat again, and stole a glance at her. She still did not react to hearing the name Treaty spoken. Could she have forgotten the entity?

    As Summerbird gazed at him, still waiting, he hunched his shoulders and quickly looked away. Telling this tale is so hard. Why can I not simply tell her the truth? She is an intelligent creature, she would understand.

    Another sigh almost escaped the griffin, but he caught himself.

    We were all at the Fey Court. Do you know—never mind. As we opened the first gathering, a powerful sorcerer attacked us, using trickery and magic to send several highborn Fey here to Isterr, where they are trapped. I need you to rescue them.

    Me? she squeaked. Master Miffin, you have definitely got the wrong woman for your task.

    No, no. He waved a talon and shook his head. You must listen. You are not the wrong person, for you can freely move about in this land. You understand these people, and you look like them. Will you please just hear me out?

    To his surprise, she shot him an angry glance. I am not fond of magic. Her voice was tight and clipped. I don’t see why you think I can help you.

    You cannot judge without all the facts, he pointed out.

    She gave a terse nod, and her taut shoulders and back relaxed. That is true, she murmured. Listening to you has to be more interesting than reading until I fall asleep. Please, continue with your request, Master Miffin.

    Please—just Miffin. Had she just insulted him?

    He sat back on his haunches, and apprehension churned inside him. Anxiety felt like a bowl of tasty crickets still alive within him.

    Summerbird seemed calmer now, settled in her chair, apparently ready to listen, as promised. But he caught some of her disquiet, even if he did not yet fully understand what was causing it in her.

    He huffed. So far, he had confused the young woman and made her suspicious of him. Now, it seemed the path forward was more deception—what a dreadful way to restart a prospective relationship.

    He gazed down at his front talons for a moment longer, contemplating the meticulously groomed and polished claws tipping them, then began.

    The wicked and powerful sorcerer I spoke of is Svar Blackwood. He is malicious and has no qualms about using what he must, whether gestured or spoken spells or his evil glamour, to achieve his desires.

    He stole a glance at her—nothing. She was listening but not reacting to his words.

    He used those abilities to capture some of Emythor’s realm lords, Miffin continued, "including Cián d’Aryb, who is Lord-Protector of the Realm of Emythor—remember, our government’s lawmaker, directly beneath the king? The others are the heads of each provincial government within their particular genera—their type of being—of the Fey Court. They must be freed before someone from this realm learns of their presence."

    He glanced at her and finished in a rush, And that is but the beginning of this debacle.

    She stirred.

    Do you have a question? Miffin asked hopefully. Questions meant interest and progression.

    Are you sure you aren’t having one on me? she demanded. Her fingers drummed the arm of her chair.

    Having one? Having what?

    Why are you telling me all this? she asked.

    Miffin looked at her, perplexed. Had he not just told her what he needed? Then he realized—she thought he was playing a trick on her. He huffed. Griffins did not play tricks on anyone.

    I hoped, he began, again choosing his words carefully, perhaps you would know something about the history of the Fey and Treaty and Emythor. I wanted to tell you about the time before Treaty intervened in the war. That was when Treaty created a covenant and took the magical ones away to Emythor, which ended a long and bloody time in this world. But I do not have time right now to help you understand why all of this happened.

    "This? What’s this? Summerbird shook her head. I haven’t any reason to learn anything about the intervention. She leaned in, still closer to him. The fire shadowed her face, giving her an almost-sinister look. No, I take that back. There is a reason. I want to know why I was imprisoned here."

    He almost winced. He anticipated that issue coming up, yet he still did not have a reply. And who could blame young Summerbird for such a painful question? He hunched his shoulders, thinking over his words.

    "This is what started when Treaty separated Isterr from Emythor, the land he created for us."

    Miffin, sensing movement behind him, turned his head toward the fire and caught sight of the cattue. She was the same size as the griffin in his present form, and happily, she was pleased to see him. He saw, from the corner of his eye, Summerbird’s surprise when he caressed Orkey’s small black ear. Summerbird looked vexed when her cattue began purring and curled up next to him.

    He gazed down at the cattue for a long moment before turning back to Summerbird. He wanted to tell her that as a cattue—a pure, magical creature not unlike the griffin—Orkey was drawn to him, was happiest when close to magic.

    Orkey’s and Summerbird’s lives were as closely entwined as a single soul. But Summerbird didn’t know that yet. No one had ever tried to seriously harm her, so she hadn’t ever seen Orkey in her massive and terrifying, Elemental form.

    Still, the young foreseer might have considered whether either griffin or cattue would try to hurt the other. Perhaps, on some level, she knew her companion was harmless to the griffin.

    How have you managed to conceal yourself in this land? he asked, and from the way her eyes flashed, knew he had yet again asked the wrong question.

    No, Miffin, I hide nothing. Her flat tone belied the occasional flicker of some intense emotion he saw in her eyes. Other than my crystal ball and a small stillroom, all I have are minor spells Grandfather taught me and the mechanical magics he installed so I could go to the forest. Which I can’t do any longer, so I’m afraid to use them.

    She took a deep breath.

    Only you and I can see my crystal is more than a green glass ball. You and I know the stillroom and bedroom are much larger than they appear to others. She was talking faster, her anxiety evident, even to someone who barely knew her. I constantly have to suffer fools rummaging through my stillroom, so they can assure it’s only for appearances—and so they have ample access to my teas—which they usually steal.

    Immediate anger flared within Miffin. Undoubtedly, this was the gravest insult of all. She was born of the greatest of magics yet forced to deny her birthright because of the biases of these stupid humans. How could she endure having to stay—

    He huffed and wilted yet again. Because she has no choice but to stay here.

    Through the past twenty years, Miffin had looked in on her through mirror magic, seeing that at least she was still alive. He was not allowed any further contact. Yet still, young Summerbird Asii mystified him. What compelled her to exist in a land with no magic as a foreseer, of all things? Surely, she would have to invent any future she shared with a client. Otherwise, someone would eventually put things together and expose her.

    And seeing visions of painful truths must be distressing. A foreseer’s nature made it difficult for her to ignore suffering and compelled her to assist others when and where she could. Perhaps that explained the aura of sadness emanating from her. Did she understand the nature of her gifts or just believe she was a melancholy person?

    He glanced at her small crystal ball. According to street gossip, her patrons respected her craft, such as it was.

    I am relieved you know something of Emythor and Treaty, he said. I truly hope someday I can remedy your appall—your unfortunate lack of knowledge about other aspects of your bloodline.

    Another glance at her—nothing in her countenance suggested she did not

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