The Herald of Day
Excerpt ~ Chapter 1
Most of Dover’s folk turned out for the witch’s hanging. Merchants in fine silk and linen mingled with farmers and laborers in stained homespun. Shoulders hunched against the damp salt air, they chatted while they waited.
To see justice done. Or so they thought.
Miranda Willoughby knew better. Although she hid her own powers, they would alert her to anyone else’s gifts, and she’d never caught a whiff of magic around old Mistress Smith. But saying so wouldn’t save the woman. It would only win Miranda a hanging of her own.
“Black Bess, now,” said a short woman, “she danced like a hen on a hot slate b’fore she died.”
Her burly, male companion shook his head. “That don’t compare to Jack Dawes, the highwayman—took near half an hour dyin’.”
Their anticipation rasped across Miranda’s magical senses as harshly as rough surf scraped the shore. Standing by a small cart in the midst of the crowd, selling hot bread from the inn where she worked, she steeled herself against the callous talk.
She’d known how people would react and so had pushed to be the maid chosen for this duty. While her limited magical skills could do little to ease the doomed woman’s passing, Agnes Smith would at least have one person in the crowd who recognized the injustice of her death.
“I seen a double hangin’ in Canterbury,” the inn’s driver said from the cart seat. “Pair o’ thieves danced a merry jig.”
Standing by the front wheel, his friend nodded and grinned.
Miranda gritted her teeth. If only she could stop this. But Mother had died before she’d had the chance to teach Miranda more than summoning and glamours, and they were no use here.
She and the inn’s driver had arrived early to secure a spot near the hanging tree, a stout oak. The noose dangled from a thick limb above the crowd’s heads. Swaying in the moist ocean breeze, it taunted her with her lack of power.
To her right, a narrow, rutted dirt lane ran toward the town. The sheriff would bring the doomed woman that way.
The pie-seller’s stand to Miranda’s left did brisk business, and a juggler near the road collected coins in his upturned hat. Shrieking, laughing children chased each other through the fringes of the crowd.
A sturdy, blond man in rough woolen garb stopped beside her. “A hot cross bun, mistress.”
He barely glanced at her, which was no surprise. Men didn’t favor plain women, and she’d used her magic to become so. Her dark brown hair appeared thin and limp, her form scrawny, and her face pox-marked. In homeliness lay safety that was well worth its cost to her in other ways.
She uncovered one of the three pails in the back of the cart, where warm bricks kept the buns hot. A sweet, yeasty scent rose from the pail. Reaching in, she said, “That’ll be a farthing, if you please, sir.”
He passed her the coin and accepted his bread.
As he turned away, a shout rose from the crowd. They surged as one toward the road. Their bodies obscured her view of the approaching wagon, but its lone passenger, her aged face twisted with fear, stood high enough for Miranda to see.
People stooped, picking up rocks and dirt clods. Threw them at that helpless woman.
Miranda gripped the edge of her cart, the weather-worn wood biting into her palms. What use was power if you didn’t know enough about it to help someone in need?
The sheriff’s wagon rattled its way toward the tree. The crowd followed, gleeful over the woman’s helplessness. A stone flew through the air and hit her shoulder. With her hands tied behind her, she couldn’t deflect the missile. She cringed, turning into the path of a dirt clod that struck her temple.
Shuddering, Miranda swallowed against nausea. If she lost her breakfast, she’d draw attention she couldn’t afford.
The wagon stopped under the tree, and the sheriff’s men pulled the old woman out. They pushed her up onto a ladder below the noose and put the rope around her neck.
The sheriff stood in the wagon to read the sentence. The wind kept his words from carrying clearly, but Miranda caught some phrases. “For the crime of witchcraft...Squire Mason’s cows...”
Miranda frowned. Cows, hah! This had more to do with Squire Mason’s desire for the old woman’s land. Everyone knew he’d tried to buy her little plot at an absurdly low price, which the widow had resented. That resentment had opened the way for the witchcraft accusation. As had the old woman’s eccentric ways and homely, pox-scarred features.
Miranda’s hand rose to the pox scar illusions on her cheek. Her disguise could have liabilities she hadn’t expected.
“Hanged by the neck until dead,” the sheriff finished. He rolled his parchment with a flourish and jumped from the wagon.
“I’m innocent. I done nothing!”
The crowd’s derisive shouts drowned the old woman’s screech. “Nothing anymore,” a man yelled, and everyone laughed.
Sickened by the cruelty, Miranda stepped on the hub of one of the cart’s wheels, boosting herself above everyone’s heads. Her eyes sought the condemned woman’s in the probably vain hope of making her last sight a kindly one.
“Now,” the sheriff yelled.
Someone kicked the ladder away. Mistress Smith’s body dropped, pulling the rope taut. She thrashed wildly in the air. In her reddening face, her eyes bulged. Her desperate, pleading gaze met Miranda’s.
Miranda’s stomach lurched, and she tasted bile. Swallowing frantically, she murmured, “Ease,” and tried to push power into the words. “Stop the pain. Stop.”
It wasn’t working. Desperately, she whispered, “Stop!”
Nothing changed. Oh, if only she could do something. Anything!
Wrenching pain lanced through her head, and the crowd vanished. Purple-gray mists swept around her, swallowing the shouting, hooting voices.
Beneath her feet lay solid shadow, and the nasty odor of rotten eggs pervaded the dank, foggy twilight. Her neck and arms tingled with magic. With cold foreboding.
The fog receded, revealing a white boar—with blue eyes, not small, black, piggy ones—lying on a carpet of deep blue bordered in mulberry. It struggled to rise, its eyes dark with pain and mute appeal that wrenched her heart.
Above it loomed a red dragon bugling in triumph. White and green striations shimmered on the undersides of its spread wings. Blood dripped from its talons and flowed from gouges in the boar’s side. She’d always loved tales of dragons, but this one’s joy stabbed into her with the certainty that the creature was evil.
Summon the boar’s knight, said a voice in her head.
As she backed away from the gory tableau, the reeking fog closed around the images. A man’s face flashed into her mind, his strong, stern features framed by a knight’s helm. Clad in gleaming, silver armor, he galloped a black charger through the swirling vapors to confront the dragon.
On his left arm, he bore a shield emblazoned with twin stripes of mulberry and blue down the middle and a white rose backed by the rays of a sunburst in the center. Etched boars and sunburst roses covered his armor.
Beneath straight, dark brows, his blue eyes narrowed as he eyed the dragon and its prey.
If he opposed the dragon, did that mean he was a force for good? Her instincts said yes, but how could she know?
The dragon roared, a ground-shaking threat, and the knight’s expression hardened. He slammed his visor shut, drew his broadsword, and spurred his mount to charge. The dragon belched flame.
No! He’d be killed.
The fog closed over the scene, then cleared.
Miranda found herself sitting on the ground by the cart, surrounded by half a dozen anxious townsfolk and the inn’s driver. The vision, or whatever it was, was over. Gasping in relief, she clutched the arm supporting her.
Its owner was the last man who’d bought a bun. “Did you hit your head, mistress? Are y’all right?”
They were watching her—all looking at her face. Staring. Oh, no—were her glamours—? But she could feel her power still shrouding her, holding them in place.
Shaky with relief, she scrambled upright. “I’m quite well. I thank you. I must have lost my balance.”
Of course she had. That had felt like a true magical vision, as unexpected as it was disturbing. Until today, though, she hadn’t used her magic for anything other than her glamours in years. Not since coming to the inn. Why would such a vision come to her now?
And why would a man fight a dragon for a boar?
She could worry about that later. Now she couldn’t afford to draw so much notice. “I’m all right. Truly.”
“Been hexed, more like,” said an elderly woman in stern tones. “No tellin’ what a witch’ll do at the end.”
If only the explanation were that simple, but Mistress Smith’s limp body dangled at the edge of Miranda’s vision. The old woman had passed beyond caring what anyone thought, God rest her soul.
Miranda mustered a weak smile. “I thank you, all of you. I’m quite well now.”
“You missed the show,” a man said. “Glad you’re well, mistress.”
Nodding her thanks, Miranda let the driver help her into the cart. The sooner she escaped all this attention, the better.
* * *
Wind rattled the window panes of the inn’s empty common room, whispering of change and danger and warning. The glass blocked most of the chill, but Miranda shivered. Her hands tightened on the broom. The shadows the firelight cast over the familiar plaster walls and beamed ceiling felt ominous.
There’d been no eerie wind the night Mother died, thirteen years ago, but Miranda had felt just as unsettled and anxious, on top of her heartbreak and grief. She’d been only nine then, but she’d never forgotten those feelings.
She set her jaw against the old pain. Perhaps she was imagining things, overwrought about today’s injustice.
The hours since this morning’s hanging had been too busy for pondering strange events. Now that she had time and quiet, she should puzzle out the strange vision, not chide herself over what she couldn’t help.
As though summoned by her thought, the purple-gray fog blotted out sight and sound and scent. She stumbled. Caught herself on a bench.
The fog swirled aside to reveal a bedchamber. A young man, brown-haired and sturdy, writhed in pain on the floor. He was dying, and before his time, she somehow knew. From somewhere near, triumph poured over her like flood waters.
Miranda shuddered. Who could glory in that?
Skeletal creatures rushed, shrieking, out of the mists, and a cry choked in her throat.
“Miranda?” A familiar voice broke into the torrent, ending the horrible visions. Short, blonde Lucy, the friendliest of the other maids, hurried into the room.
“Are you ill?” Lucy picked up the broom.
Miranda didn’t remember dropping it. “I’m all right,” she managed. At least her glamours had remained steady.
“You’re gray as an old sheet. I’ll do this.”
Miranda pushed herself to her feet. “My thanks, but I’m almost finished.” Perhaps Lucy’s calm presence would help keep at bay the warnings that seemed to hover in the air.
Lucy reluctantly surrendered the broom, and Miranda turned back to her task. The dying fire gave off little light and less warmth. Even with her unusually keen sight, she could barely see the worn, oak floorboards. She had once swept up a shilling, but tonight the broom caught only the usual rubbish, bits of tobacco, scraps of food, and too much tracked-in dirt.
Lucy settled onto a bench. “I can’t believe we’ve had a witch so near. Why, she came in here from time to time. With her potions.” She shuddered.
Miranda’s fingers clenched on the broom. “Those potions were once well received.” She couldn’t stop the words, unwise though they were.
What would Lucy say if she knew how close she sat to a true witch?
“Well, we’re safe now, anyway.” Lucy paused, eyeing Miranda. “Ned says some of the farm lads would show an interest if you’d talk sweet to them now and again.”
“And if I looked more fetching.” Miranda forced a smile to push away the twinge of longing. Lucy and Ned would probably wed soon and then start a family. They didn’t realize how fortunate they were, sharing an honest, open love.
Not having to keep secrets.
Lucy sighed. “If you didn’t wear dresses what make you look like a stick—a crime, as well as you sew—or scurry away as though the lads had the plague, they’d overlook a few scars.”
“I am as I am,” Miranda replied. She pushed the last bit of dirt to the door. “I’ve no money for new dresses.”
“Oh, Miranda.” Lucy shook her head.
Miranda shrugged. Of course she wanted beautiful dresses and flattery, but safety lay in avoiding attention. Peace of mind lay in shunning, as her mother had not, ties to a man who couldn’t know what she was. “Would you open the door, if you please?”
Lucy pushed aside the heavy latch, and Miranda whisked the dirt out before the shrieking wind could fling it back in their faces. A chill that owed naught to cold ran down her back.
“I’ll bank the fire.” Lucy knelt by the hearth.
“My thanks.” Miranda set the broom in its corner, then threw the bolt on the door. Lucy meant to be a friend, but Miranda couldn’t risk becoming close to anyone.
She swallowed a sigh. Loneliness, however bleak, was necessary. And safe.
The two women climbed to the garret together. Lucy chattered softly about Ned, but Miranda barely listened.
Without the distraction of chores, she couldn’t ignore the wind’s keening. Prickles of dread ran down her neck and along her arms.
The window at the end of the loft admitted a generous draft but only a narrow rectangle of moonlight. The other two maids, April and Sarah, already slept in the cold, darkened room. Miranda and Lucy undressed and dived into their beds.
Miranda pulled the thin coverlet over her ears. The wind’s moan mocked her uneasiness.
Perhaps today’s visions meant she knew—or could know—more than she thought. She closed her eyes, trying to remember what Mother had said.
Purple fog that reeked of rotten eggs swirled around her. The red dragon’s roar mingled with the sound of a horse’s galloping feet and an animal’s squeal of pain.
Heart pounding, Miranda jolted awake.
In the next bed, April grumbled and turned over. No one else stirred. Miranda clenched her icy hands on the coverlet.
Mother had said foresight could come as visions or dreams, and she’d warned against ignoring such things. Dire events will come to pass if you do, she’d said.
If only Mother had lived long enough to teach her more about understanding what she Saw.
Still, thanks to the old tales Grandmother had told, Miranda did know dragons were symbols of power. The legends Grandmother loved said they were also beings of great wisdom.
Yet the one in the vision stood for evil—she’d felt that unmistakably—but what sort? What did the white boar symbolize?
Who was the knight the vision wanted her to summon? Armored knights were the stuff of legend, symbols of times long past.
She couldn’t interpret the dream, but she knew summoning. It drew on the same illusion skills she used to create her disguising glamours. She could summon the knight or whatever he represented in the real world. If she dared.
Discovery would mean death.
She shivered. No. She couldn’t do it. Wouldn’t.
Others with Gifts, better trained, could deal in arcane visions. She couldn’t risk it.
* * *
“Miranda? Miranda, I say!” Master Warren, the innkeeper, squeezed his thin frame between the common room’s crowded tables. “That fellow by the hearth says he’s tried right well to tell you he needs more stew, yet you seem not to hear him.”
Miranda blinked. The bustle of the noon meal surrounded her. No vapory shadowland. No dragon or boar, but she’d been almost asleep on her feet.
She gritted her teeth in frustration. The troubling wind had died away after a day, but the strange visions and dreams continued to plague her. For the past three nights, she’d been unable to sleep because of them.
“I beg pardon, Master Warren. I’ll fetch it at once.”
“See that you do. You’ve been half asleep these past days, and you’d best awaken to your duties right now.”
“Aye. I know, sir.” The implied threat turned her insides to ice, for she had nowhere else to go.
Warren turned away, and Miranda rushed down the narrow, dark corridor to the kitchen. Plague take that dream! Having it torment her sleep was bad enough without it ruining her work or making her draw scrutiny.
She’d first created her glamours shortly before Father died, when men began looking at her in ways that made her skin crawl. She’d gradually made more changes before coming here. She knew what a serving maid’s life was like, and she had no desire to draw attention from lecherous customers. As time passed, she’d realized the glamours also prevented anyone from looking closely enough to notice anything odd about her.
In the hot, busy kitchen, Flora, the cook, and her two helpers sliced bread and meat and stirred kettles. A scrawny lad by the hearth turned the meat jack with one hand while wiping sweat from his brow with the other. Tiny, red-haired Sarah, one of other maids, waited by the long table in the room’s center, tapping one foot impatiently while a cook sliced venison for her.
For once, Owen, the cheerful scullery lad, stood at his post near the door, so Miranda didn’t have to wait. He dished up the hot stew and handed it to her on a tray.
She spun toward the door, but the opening was closer than she thought. Her shoulder banged into the door frame. Stew sloshed over her thumb, and scalding pain flashed up her arm. She choked back a cry but managed to stagger sideways, bracing the tray against the wall lest she drop it. Another mistake, and Warren might dismiss her.
Owen grabbed the tray. “I’ll clean and refill it. Good thing only a bit spilled.”
“Aye. My thanks.” She blinked against the sting of tears. Spilling as much as half would’ve sent her to bed without supper tonight to make up the cost of the spilled food, even if she didn’t lose her job. She wiped her throbbing hand on her apron.
The burn wasn’t as bad as she’d feared but raw enough to hurt. She sucked the spot to ease it. If she weren’t so weary, she wouldn’t have made the mistake. Somehow, she had to manage a full night of uninterrupted sleep.
Owen brought the tray to her, and she hurried back to the common room.
She set the platter of stew and bread in front of her customer, a heavyset man whose suit of fine, green wool with simple lace at his wrists and throat marked him as gentry or a prosperous merchant. He thanked her with a grunt.
Turning, she almost collided with Lucy, who caught her arm to steady her. “Flora told me what happened. Are you hurt?”
“Not much.” Miranda forced a shaky smile, shifting her gaze aside. A framed linen square over the hearth caught her eye. “Where did that sampler come from?”
It looked ordinary enough, a man and woman flanking a tree with a meticulously embroidered alphabet below them, but it hadn’t been there yesterday. Or this morning.
Lucy’s round face twisted in a frown. “You’re lost more sleep than I thought. That’s been here longer’n we have, made by Master Warren’s wife before she died.”
A chill ran down Miranda’s spine. “Died when?”
Lucy frowned. “Seven years or so ago, I think. Miranda—"
“I was merely confused. I’ve customers, Lucy.” She broke free and hurried between the tables. But she wasn’t confused. Despite its weathered colors, that sampler was new, and Master Warren had never married.
What was happening? Was she going mad? Lucy had no reason to lie, so she must believe what she said. But how could that be true? Miranda scrubbed her hand over her bleary eyes.
Dire events will occur, Mother had warned. Was this the sort of thing she’d meant?
Summon the knight, the dream voice had ordered. If she did as the voice commanded, perhaps the visions would end.
* * *
Before dawn the next day, Miranda crept into the woods behind the inn. Her heart beat fast, and her hands felt chilly, but not from the cold. She hadn’t tried a major working in years. Despite the risk, excitement over the challenge hummed through her.
Shadows concealed the hollows in the landscape. The cold autumn air bit through her clothes and turned her breath to fog, but she had left her cloak in the garret. Anyone who saw her return to the inn mustn’t suspect she had been out long enough to need it.
She had to hurry. Starting her duties late would anger Master Warren. But she also had to take care that no one saw her.
She reached a wide, level clearing as the stars began to fade. Half a mile into the woods, it was her favorite place for spending time alone. Dropping her protective glamours, she opened her senses. Birds and small animals stirred in the forest. An owl returned to its nest after a night’s hunt.
Despite all the movement around her, the back of Miranda’s neck remained free of the tingle of awareness that signaled a human presence.
Good. She hurried to the center of the clearing. The hard ground lay under a colorful blanket of frost-tinged autumn leaves. On her knees, she scraped away leaves and twigs to bare a circle of earth about six feet across.
She took a slow breath to calm herself. Summoning required creating an illusion creature to go and find the one she needed, then deliver her message or else lead the one summoned to her. This time, sending a message seemed better. The creature might have to travel far away before it found the knight. If so, the magic sustaining it might fade away before it led him here.
She had never tried to form anything larger than a bird. A bird would do for this, but would a knight pay attention to something so small?
A dragon would be much harder to ignore, and the evil one in the vision didn’t change her fondness for them.
Her hands shook as she untied the small bag at her waist and dumped its contents into her lap. The needle shone in its scrap of green felt as she pulled it free.
Drawing on her power, she pricked her left fourth finger. A droplet of blood fell into the center of the bare patch. Atop it, she placed a dried, green poplar leaf, a robin’s feather, and the paring from one of her fingernails.
She held her left hand out so more blood dripped onto the little pile. “Nail for scaling, earth for might, leaf for color and feather for flight.”
Before the blood could dry, she struck flint to catch a sliver of tinder, then laid it on the bloody spot with an oak twig. The twig smoldered, then caught.
Quickly, she chanted, “Oak for endurance, day and night, fire and blood to give vision life. Go, my dragon, and find the knight.” She closed her eyes, the better to channel will into words and the vision into being, and slid backward.
Magic flowed through her like liquid sunlight, warming and strengthening her. Behind her eyelids, she could almost see her small fire become a looming, indistinct shadow. Rustling movements nearby told of birds and small creatures scurrying for cover. Then came sudden silence as they found it.
Her creation took on form and substance. Sprouted wings and a snout. Became a dragon. The woodland creatures’ fear of it brushed over her skin like a cold breeze.
The air heated. Something flapped with a leathery sound. A great gust of wind pressed her clothes against her body.
The flow of power within her ebbed. Died.
With a sigh, she opened her eyes. The small fire had gone out, and no sign of her workings remained.
But the center of the clearing bore two sets of three deep slashes as long as her forearm, like the marks of giant talons.
A grin tugged at her mouth. She lifted her head.
High above, a dragon’s graceful silhouette glinted emerald in the faint pre-dawn light. Great wings pushed downward against the air, and she could almost feel the movement in her shoulders. Her spirit soared with the dragon. For one moment, she felt its freedom and strength.
Then it wheeled westward and vanished. Because of its limited substance, it wouldn’t become visible to anyone else until—unless—it found the one it sought.
Her smile faded. Summoning had always come easily to her, but there were so many other skills she’d never had the chance to learn.
If only she could safely find a Gifted teacher. She wouldn’t have to conceal herself all the time, and simply being with someone who also had Gifts would be a joy.
But there was no use wishing for the impossible. People like her didn’t announce their skills, not with the gallows waiting for them. Nor could she go seeking such a one.
Rising, she brushed off her skirt. She’d enjoyed more luck than many people did. After her parents’ deaths, a cousin had helped her find this position at the inn so she wouldn’t starve. Or have to marry out of desperation. She managed to make time now and again to earn extra money with her needlework. Even embroidered mythical beasts like dragons for customers once in a while.
A wise woman would count her blessings, not long for more. Part of counting her blessings was keeping her job. Perhaps now she could do it in peace. Miranda hurried toward the inn.
She was halfway there when a sulfur reek stung her nose. Fog obliterated her sight, then rolled back to reveal the knight sitting upright in the saddle, blocking the red dragon’s path to the wounded boar and a bloody stag. He still bore his shield, now marred by black scorch marks, and his sword gleamed silver in his steel-gloved fist.
Stretching its neck, the dragon roared, the sound frustrated and impotent now.
Your time is done. The knight’s deep voice rang in her mind with the clarion power of unearthly trumpets. The untruths and evils you nurtured shall not prevail but pass away. They are but the shades of night, and I am the herald of day.
The vision faded, leaving her standing in the wood. Blast it, she’d hoped her summons would banish the visions. Would buy her peace.
Did this new twist, the knight’s speech, portend that she’d done what was needed to solve whatever problem triggered the vision?
Or that she hadn’t?
* * *