“Shadow Herald” Teaser: CH 2

Crislie streaked down the beaten path, her tunic’s folds and dark curls flying behind her as she passed the lanes of barley and chaff that marked the outskirts of Gadlin Town. Her elder brother gasped along a few paces behind. She could practically hear his reading glasses bouncing at the end of their twine loop.

“For the last time, slow down!” Evain called out.

Crislie’s reply came between bursts of breath and laughter. “Why? So you can win?”

“When did this become a race?”

Grinning, Crislie surged forward over the dirt and gravel. Sitting in one place had never sat well with her. Truly, she was at her happiest when in motion. With the wind whistling in her ear and her feet skimming the ground, she couldn’t stay mad at the world.

Trees clustered tightly in the forest at Gadlin’s edge and the sky was but a dapple of fading blue peeking out between their leaves. It was early in a bright fall eve, the canopy touched with fire and gold from both the sunset and autumn’s arrival. One could hear the river from here, gurgling a gentle song as it wound through the woods. The path grew thick with twigs and mud.

Snickering to herself, Crislie hiked up the edge of her skirts to avoid getting them too dirty. “Keeping up, Ev?” she called back, whirling around at the river’s edge to face him.

Her brother — lanky, curly-haired, and now heavily winded — stumbled to a halt with his hands on his knees.

“It’s not fair,” he said between wheezes, laughing. “I should never have given you my old boots when you wore yours through. Should’ve let you run about in your flats. See if you’d go so fast then, you jerk. Maybe I should take them back.”

Crislie shrugged, failing to hide the smugness in her smile. “But imagine the look on Ma’s face if I hauled myself home with my good shoes ruined again.”

Catching his breath, Evain dragged himself the rest of the way to the river’s bank. “There’s a sight I’d hate to see. Speaking of those . . . it’s getting dark. Maybe this wasn’t a smart way to end the day? We’re going to have to slip past the guards so we don’t get caught breaking curfew.” Evain cut her a sharp look. “Ma’ll be upset.”

A snort left Crislie. “Oh, but isn’t she always?”

“With you? Probably. Stop doing things like this, and maybe she won’t be so cheesed off.”

“Maybe,” she muttered. “If you came home late with dirty shoes and mud on your clothes, she’d be fussing all concerned-like over you, wouldn’t she? Wouldn’t even raise her voice.”

Evain hesitated, closed his mouth, and shrugged.

Having made her point, Crislie plunked herself down on a boulder by the river’s edge. As far as rivers went, Crislie supposed that Gadlin’s was nice (though she hadn’t ever traveled far enough to find other rivers to compare it to). Minnows flashed in the shallows and darted away from each shifting shadow in the clear, slow-moving waters. You could wade right across it if you had a mind to. But then, you might run into something on the other side. The forest across loomed dark and untamed. There, the trees were as tall as ten men, and gods-touched creatures ran wild.

Thankfully, no feyrie folk dared dance across the river that split around the town. They knew their boundaries. If they set a toe out of their woods, or if they were bold enough to show their sharp ears on a trading road, there would be consequences. The Irongardhe knights, servants of the nobles and their god, Gardhe, he of sunlight and smelting, would make sure of that. Bright blood would drip from magic-sung bones.

It made one almost glad that the knights governed Gadhi, even if they were horribly stuffy. Crislie peered into the dark oak and hawthorn and wondered, furtively, what evils would befall her if she gave in to curiosity and walked into the deep woods.

She entertained the idea more often than she ought to.

A yelp from her brother brought Crislie back to reality. Evain pulled one dripping foot back from the water — the source of his discontent. One of his shoes and one of his socks had been laid neatly aside over a rock. “We’ve had our last wade of the year.”

“What? No we haven’t.” Crislie hiked up her skirts and kicked off her own boots. Gritty pebbles and dew-laden leaves stuck to the soles of her feet as she stood up. Unafraid, she stuck a foot in the water, then hastily withdrew it. Gah! Cold! When had it gotten so chilly? Too early in the year for winter cloaks, too late for dipping one’s feet. Stupid fall and its stupid early frosts. Sighing, Crislie shoved her feet back into their shoes.

“Disappointing to walk all this way, only to have the season thwart us, isn’t it?” her brother said with a wry chuckle.

Crislie scoffed. “The forest air’s good for you. Can’t breathe in candle smoke and dusty books all the time, Ev.”

As she rested on her boulder, leaning over the singing waters to fuss with the more stubborn of her boots, a strange sight caught her eye. The bushes to their left were full of broken branches. Dried sap crusted their splintered ends. Had some wild creature crossed over the stream, trampling the undergrowth as it went along? It happened sometimes. Her heart skipped a beat. The path of destruction stopped just . . . oh.

Crislie’s hand fell slack, her uncomfortable boot forgotten already. Evain’s gasp confirmed that he saw it too. Lying where the water kissed the underbrush was a stranger, about Crislie’s age, half-sunken into the mud.

They were quite bedraggled-looking, to put it mildly.

Gawking, Crislie faintly recognized the swath of purple cloth wrapped around their head, and fastened at the bottom was an ivory bead. Traders from Ullua — a dry country ruled by the celestial goddess Alluari — wore uen in various fashions to keep the sun off of them. The stranger’s uen was unraveling. Underneath the silky fabric, they had dark-brown skin, a narrow nose, and half-closed eyes of a dull violet. Squinting at the face, Crislie came to the uncertain conclusion that “they” were a “she.” Most of her body was obscured by a torn traveling poncho and a loose sirwal.

The silence and stillness of this strange waif made Crislie’s skin crawl. In fact, she seemed almost dead. Only with that thought did Crislie realize that the dirt around the waif’s feet was splotched with something darker than water.

The realization broke the spell of shock that had held her in place. Crislie took a deep breath, knowing that she had to do something. How long had this waif been here like that? Not long enough for one of the Irongardhe knights to find her, that was certain. No more than a day at most. “Hello?” Crislie chanced to speak as she rose to her feet. The waif didn’t stir.

Evain lowered his voice to a grave whisper. “Crislie . . .”

Ignoring him, Crislie crept closer and closer to the bloody patch of soil, dread beating in her chest.

“Please, for the love of all the absent gods, don’t touch that corpse,” Evain pleaded.

“She’s shivering, Ev.”

It was the slightest of movements, but enough to confirm that the waif still clung to life. Slowly, Crislie pulled aside the dried leaves obscuring her.

The waif’s uen caught on a branch and pulled away from her head. Crislie covered her mouth, holding back her shock. Inky hair spilled out of the head coverings to rest on the waif’s shoulders and mix with the leaves. Except that it wasn’t hair hidden under the uen. Feathers trailed from the waif’s scalp, downy plumes matted together with mud and sweat.

Behind Crislie, Evain rasped out a polite cough, as if to muffle an exclamation of surprise. She shared a startled look with him. Both of them knew perfectly well that humans did not have feathers for hair.

“You don’t think she’s . . . a feyrie? Right?” Crislie whispered.

Evain shook his head, still keeping his distance. “Her ears are blunt, and her blood doesn’t glow.”

So not a fey. But no ordinary human, either. Crislie pushed more branches out of the way, her mind reeling. What was this waif, what was she doing here, and what had happened to her?

A haggard whimper arose from the stranger. The violet eyes fluttered and rolled up to meet Crislie’s. Shock registered within them. In a flash, the waif struggled to her feet — then shuddered and collapsed again, clutching her sloppily wrapped ankle.

“Vak!” the narrow mouth exclaimed with a hiss of pain.

“Absent gods!” Crislie muffled out in kind, one hand still clamped over her own mouth.

Strain gave the waif’s voice a harsh quality as she struggled up into a sitting position. It sounded like fear. “Please, whoever you are, leave me be,” she begged. The whole of her body hunched over her ankle. Though it was tricky to tell with the fabric of her “bandaging,” which was suspiciously akin to that of her thick, dark poncho, it was definitely soaked with blood. Once it got on the waif’s hands, it was a lot easier to see.

Though she couldn’t make heads or tails of this feathered girl nor what had happened to her, it was obvious that something had gone very, very wrong here. Crislie regained use of her tongue. “I don’t think so,” she said slowly. “You look awful.”

A sigh heaved out of Evain as he crouched beside them. It was resignation, if she’d ever heard it. “Much as I hate to admit it, my sister’s right. You’re hurt, and you need help.”

“No, no. It is fine.” The waif inched away as she spoke. Soon enough, she had her back pressed against a tree, still curled over herself like a cornered owlcat. “My well-being is none of your concern. I have recovered from worse, and the best thing you can do is pretend that you never saw me.”

A skeptical look passed from Evain and over to Crislie, one of knitted brows and furrowed frowning. She mirrored him in agreement. What would scare someone away from getting help? Especially with that kind of wound. Crislie’s hands clenched uselessly at her sides while she considered their options. “Are you sure?” she asked. “We could take you to the town’s priestess. Illia’s a decent healer. Or, the Irongardhe patrols here. You want us to fetch one of them? They know a bit about treating wounds.”

The horrified drop of the waif’s jaw at the word Irongardhe said everything.

Evain fumbled to reassure the waif as she shrank from the offer. “Forget everything Crislie said. No knights, no priest. But we can’t leave you here like this. Look, you’re bleeding, okay?”

“The bleeding has stopped,” the waif replied stubbornly. “That is old blood. It barely hurts, and I will heal fine on my own.”

Crislie thought for a moment, staring at how the waif grasped the still-damp bandaging around her ankle. She raised an eyebrow. “We’re not stupid, you know.”

“No, I suppose you are not. But you do not want to take me in.”


The waif looked away. “I’m a Herald.”

Crislie shared a startled look with Evain. Everyone knew of Heralds — those rare few who the gods spoke to, spoke through, and saw out of. A Herald was a god’s highest servant. Gadhi was ruled by Herald-Regent Elaina Lilisie Ayowen. She was the servant of Gardhe, god of iron, forging, and sunlight. Ullua was ruled by its Matrius, Herald to Alluari, goddess of the stars and the rain. Crislie supposed that the Romne, the twins of the earth and the seasons, might’ve had a Herald too.

But given that Romne worship was banned in Gadhi, she knew very little about the twin gods of the earth and the seasons. Only that they aligned themselves with the feyries.

Either way, to meet a Herald was tantamount to meeting a god, much in the same way that wandering into a god’s holy grounds would press upon you the awe of their presence. Or at least, that was how it was supposed to go. Crislie didn’t feel much but pity, looking at the waif hunched before her.

“Gods,” she said quietly. “What sort of Herald are you?”

“I already know,” Evain announced. “A slim Ulluan girl with feathered hair and violet eyes . . . I’ve seen the Irongardhe’s posters, and you know, ‘Shadow Herald,’ they offer a handsome reward for your head. Dead or alive. Why would they issue such a harsh warrant against you?”

The waif flinched. “And why are you asking?”

Evain held her skittish gaze. “We aren’t going to turn you in. But I do want to know what’s going on here. Who we’re about to harbor, why you need the protection in the first place.”

“Oh. Well, ahh, long ago, in the Immortal Reckoning—”

Evain stood up quickly. The motion was snappish, insulted. “Okay, you don’t have to explain that far back. For the god’s sakes, I’m a historian — I study under the town’s record keeper. ‘To forge himself as the sole ruling power over Rhimn, Gardhe rallied his followers to slay the other gods who used to live alongside him — all but Alluari, who outfought him, and the Romne, who outfoxed him.’ And now, they are the only four gods left. Right?”

Crislie nodded along. She’d heard a couple different versions of the story. That of Gardhe’s noble ascension, giving his people their northern empire by punishing the vain, weaker, lesser gods who cared naught for humanity . . . and the one her ma had told her, that of a jealous sun setting fire to everything he could not own.

The waif lowered her head and gave but one quiet correction. “Except that, apparently, Alluari and the Romne were not the only ones to survive Gardhe’s wrath.”

“There are more gods out there?” Crislie whispered, surprised.

“One,” the waif mumbled sheepishly. “Silamir.”

The name was entirely unfamiliar to Crislie. Hence, she found herself caring less about the abstract god, and more about the pretty, sad girl in front of her.

“Well, if you’ve got a wanted poster and all,” Crislie mused, “then we should get you out of here before the Irongardhe start their nightly patrols.” She gestured up the path. “We’ll bring you to our house to clean up and rest in private. It’ll be a little better than hiding in the bushes, won’t it?”

The waif bit her lip, mulling the offer over. It took a minute for her to spit out a reply. “And you will not turn me in?”

“Of course not. I swear on my ma’s needle,” Crislie promised.

A moment passed as the waif thought. Her eyes leapt from the two of them, to her wound, to the mud. Crislie began to worry that she would utter another stubborn “no.” But after the hesitation, she agreed. “At your insistence.”

Relief spread a grin over Crislie’s face. How could it take so much arguing to get someone to accept help?

Before she could even offer the waif a hand up, however, Evain pulled her aside to whisper in her ear. “You do know that we can’t bring her home with us, right? Ma’ll have a right fit about us bringing in a fugitive without—”

“Look, we’re not taking her to Ma. We’ll be taking her to the old house.”



Evain stopped, stared, and then relented. “Fine. But if this ends badly, I want it in ink that this was all you, and that I just did as you suggested. Your idea. Not mine.”

Crislie stifled a giggle. “Sure.”

“Excuse me, but, if you happen to be done bickering now,” the waif croaked, bringing their focus back to her, “could we go about this quickly?” She flicked a stray feather out of her eyes and pulled her uen haphazardly over her head. It slipped right off again. “Let us get this over with. If I am to be honest now, I fear that I cannot stand up on my own. And the world is . . . furry? No, fuzzy.”

“Sorry,” Evain said. “But one more thing first, miss. May we have your name?”

“Navaeli. I am called Navaeli.”

Unthinkingly, Crislie crouched down beside Navaeli and wrapped an arm around her shoulders. The waif hesitated at first, but soon draped around her neck in turn, as if trying to find the most polite way to siphon off body heat. Certainly, she needed it. Her skin was clammy, and her limbs, birdishly frail, were wracked with shudders.

More questions reeled through Crislie’s mind as Evain helped Navaeli fix her uen so that it hid her feathered hair. Crislie bit them back for now. Doubtless, Navaeli wasn’t up to answering them yet. Her face tightened with pain and her face drained of color as she stood up.

“This isn’t hurting you too much, is it?” Crislie asked.

“Haste in bringing me to this house of yours,” Navaeli muttered through clenched teeth.

Hobbling, they started down the path.

CH 1 TeaserCH 3 Teaser

Shadow Herald is set to release May 20th, 2021. Learn more here!