The Orphan’s Song (Enclave Publishing)
Book 1 of The Songkeeper Chronicles
By Gillian Bronte Adams
Who Will Keep the Song Alive?
Every generation has a Songkeeper—one chosen to keep the memory of the Song alive. And in every generation, there are those who seek to destroy the chosen one.
When Birdie’s song draws the attention of a dangerous Khelari soldier, she is kidnapped and thrust into a world of ancient secrets and betrayals. Rescued by her old friend, traveling peddler Amos McElhenny, Birdie flees the clutches of her enemies in pursuit of the truth behind the Song’s power.
Ky is a street-wise thief and a member of the Underground—a group of orphans banded together to survive . . . and to fight the Khelari. Haunted by a tragic raid, Ky joins Birdie and Amos in hopes of a new life beyond the reach of the soldiers. But the enemy is closing in, and when Amos’ shadowed past threatens to undo them all, Birdie is forced to face the destiny that awaits her as the Songkeeper of Leira.
They were coming.
Gundhrold peered into the moonless dark, feathered wings ruffling in the breeze. Distant howls sounded to the beat of thundering hooves and clinking armor. Distant, but rapidly approaching.
Foul murderers. His claws dug into the bark of the limb and dark sap bubbled out of the scratches. A fresh scent hovered around him, strange amidst the eerie screams borne upon the wind, and he studied the russet sap staining his claws like blood.
The limb groaned as he shifted his weight and clacked his beak impatiently, straining to pierce the heaviness of the woods with his gaze. Where was she?
A twig snapped in the depths of the forest. A branch rustled. He tensed, raising his wings for flight. Soft footsteps on damp leaves, a shuddering breath, then a whispered voice spoke from the shadows. “Gundhrold? Are you here?”
Dropping from the tree, Gundhrold spread his wings and glided to the forest floor. He landed without a noise, catlike on all four paws, before a woman hooded and cloaked. “Lady Auna, you are late.”
The woman started, then breathed a sigh of relief. “Oh, it’s you.”
“Did you expect another, Songkeeper?”
“Do not call me that. Not when they are so close.” She pushed her hood back with a trembling hand, revealing eyes that sparked with urgency beneath a flood of gray hair. “here is no time. They have come for me.”
A wild undulating cry tore through the woods, nearer than before.
“Then I must see you safe from here.” He stood and stretched, wincing at the tremor that ran from his shoulders to his wing tips. “It has been long since I have carried a grown human in sustained flight. Nonetheless, we will manage. There is a clearing west of here where we can be off—the upper canopy is too dense here to permit flight.”
Auna shook her head. “No, friend, I am too old to flee. That is not why I summoned you.”
“Memory must not perish tonight, Gundhrold.” She shrugged aside her dak gray cloak, revealing a bundle cradled in her arms. “We must not fail.”
Gundhrold peered at the bundle. “Is this . . .”
“It is,” Auna said, relinquishing the bundle to him. “This is your task, entrusted to your care and protection.”
The bundle seemed to grow heavier as the weight of his responsibility settled upon him. “I will not fail, Songkeeper.”
A soft, sad smile spread across Auna’s face, smoothing the wrinkles crisscrossing her forehead. “The land of Leira owes a debt to you Protectors that she can never repay. And now, friend, you must—” She stiffened suddenly, listening.
An otherworldly howl shook the ground, and the harsh scream of a raven split the night air. Flickering orange lights appeared in the forest, bobbing toward them, cracking twigs and splintering branches keeping time with the quickening tramp of feet and hooves. Auna spu around, gripping the edges of her cloak to her neck so tightly that her knuckles turned white.
“They have come.” Gundhrold clasped the bundle to his chest. Loosing his wings, he coiled to spring into the air, but his gaze strayed to Auna and he hesitated.
“Why do you delay?” she cried. “Go, before it is too late!” Clutching her cloak, she darted off through the trees, a glimmer of gray in the night.
Gundhrold launched from the ground and landed three-legged on the branch he had occupied minutes before. His fourth paw hugged the bundle, softening the jolt of his landing. Below, dozens of hounds raced up and skidded to a stop, snuffling and tearing at the loam where he and Auna had been standing. A howl of triumph burst from their throats, and they dashed away into the woods, following the path Auna had taken.
All but one. A massive beast lunged at the base of his tree, claws scrabbling at the bark, howl echoing through the woods. Even from a distance, he could smell the hound’s rancid breath—like a battlefield, it reeked of death.
Though the hound could not reach him in the tree, it would be followed by the Khelari—soldiers with weapons, with axes, bows, and fire.
He scrambled along the branch, running awkwardly on three legs. The hound followed, its cries joined by the shouts of men drawn to the pursuit. At the end of the branch, Gundhrold dove, glided to the next, and ran again and again, ever westward, toward the clearing and flight. He missed the craggy mountains and desert plains of his youth, where there were no trees to obscure flight and no Khelari to necessitate it.
The clearing came into sight just ahead, and he raced toward it, wings unfurled, heedless of the grasping branches on either side. A bough snagged his right wing, and he tore it free, releasing a cloud of feathers, and leapt into the air.
For a moment, he hung suspended over the clearing. The hound burst from the trees below with a mass of armed men hard upon its heels, shouting and brandishing weapons. Torches blazed in their hands, lighting the clearing with an orange glow . . .
Wings beating, Gundhrold soared up out of the clearing and banked to the left. Something thrummed past his ear and vanished into the starless sky. An arrow. Another twang sounded and pain exploded in his right shoulder. His wing fell limp. A black feathered shaft stuck in his side, the steel point grating excruciatingly against bone. Gundhrold grasped vainly at the air and then dropped like a stone into the clearing.
He hit the ground with a dizzying thud and immediately teeth sank into his neck. He lashed out with his claws and the hound yelped. It retreated across the clearing and stood staring at him, head hanging, bloody slobber dripping from its tongue.
Gundhrold flexed his wings and growled at the pain. Still clutching the bundle to his chest, he inched to his feet and slowly turned around. Black figures surrounded him, weapons aimed at his heart. Above, ravens swarmed to the tree tops, feathers glinting midnight blue in the torchlight, croaking calls rasping from their throats. And in the woods, chanting throbbed like the pulse of the ocean, drawing nearer like the incoming tide.
A mounted man broke through the circle of Khelari and dismounted, dropping his reins on the ground. Gundhrold’s gaze darted to the slim bow in the man’s hands and the black feathered arrow already on the string. His claws dug into the loam. Wounded as he was, he could not hope to dodge an arrow on the ground.
But the archer did not shoot. He lowered the bow and let the arrow slip from the string, then waved a dismissive hand at the Khelari. “We will let the Takhran deal with him.”
The chanting grew louder and deeper, blending with the baying of the hounds. A dozen men marched out of the woods, followed by a pack of the beasts. They halted in front of the archer and shoved a gray-clad figure out of their midst. The figure stumbled to its knees in the middle of the clearing, head bowed, hands bound behind its back.
“Auna,” Gundhrold whispered.