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Guardian of Dawn

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Guardian of Dawn (formerly Path of Springs) is the Second Book in the World Whisperer Series.

A new life. A cry for help. A journey into the heart of the Great Waste.

Isika is settling into life with her new family in Azariyah, away from the toil of the Workers, but it doesnt take long before a desperate message pulls her back to a world of danger. Answering the call could cost her everything, but this one is impossible to ignore. To survive the malice of the Great Waste, she will need to use the great power she has inherited, but is she strong enough?

Guardian of Dawn is the second book in Rachel Devenish Fords adventurous young adult fantasy series, World Whisperer. If you like Robin McKinley, Madeleine L'Engle, or the Chronicles of Narnia, you'll love this brilliant magical world, populated with fantastic creatures and diverse characters.

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Guardian of Dawn

Chapter 1

 

Western Worker village, Shore of the Great Sea

 

The first time she saw the giant bird was the day she gave birth to her baby boy. Jerutha paced, gasping for air, while pain like hot knives spread from the lowest part of her belly to the very tips of her fingers. She walked the small birthing room wildly, shoulders held against the pain, and took a deep breath.

She tried humming as the spasm subsided. The birthing room she had prepared was peaceful at least. The herbs she had tied to the doorway released their gentle scent into the air. The walls were white and clean, and a few squares of sunshine fell across the simple mattress on the floor. She breathed. The ache in her heart hurt more than anything. She wanted her stepdaughter, Isika. She wanted her mother.

She couldn’t have either of them, and the old midwife wouldn’t be much comfort, coming only at the end of her labor to help the baby into the world. Focus on the baby, she told herself. When she had her child in her arms, she wouldn’t be so lonely. Now, though, she had no one except her husband, Nirloth, the old village priest. Not so long ago, the house had been full of life. But Nirloth’s stepchildren—Isika, Benayeem, Ibba, and Kital—were gone, and she missed them desperately. Since they left, a gray haze had covered the house as Nirloth grew sicker. His death seemed imminent. He skipped many days of temple work, and the villagers grew nervous that the goddesses would retaliate in anger. 

Jerutha paced and swung her arms, preparing herself for the next wave of pain. What she would really like was to go into the forest to have her baby. Or to the sea. She could sit on its shores and let the pain drift out into the water. But she must stay in this room, alone until the midwife came. Another pain ripped through her and she gasped. She fumbled for the birthing ropes she had tied to the rafters, gripping them until her knuckles were white. The pain subsided, and she exhaled. The spasms were coming more quickly now. She whimpered, afraid. How could she do this alone? No one had ever told her just how much it would hurt.

 Just when her terror felt unbearable, there was a breath of sweet-smelling air and a bird landed in the birthing room doorway. Jerutha froze. The bird was massive, as black as midnight, though when it lifted its wings, its feathers gleamed like jewels, purple and red in the light. She couldn’t move from fear. A strange sound, a hum overlaid with words, came from the bird, though Jerutha could not say how. 

“Don’t be afraid,” the bird said. “Rest.” 

It sang a low, quiet song, and Jerutha’s terror and loneliness eased until she was filled with warmth and comfort. She lay on the mattress and dozed between pains. When she woke, the bird was gone. The midwife arrived and she rose to grasp the birthing ropes and deliver her son into the world. 

 

The midwife checked the baby over silently. She bathed him, then Jerutha held her baby in her arms for the first time. A son. He moved his little mouth, searching for food, so she held him to her breast and he moved his face back and forth until he found her and latched on. She nursed him a long time, and when he seemed satisfied, she held him out in front of her. He opened his eyes and looked at her—a little mouse-bright creature, soft and new. She kissed him all over his face and marveled over his tiny body, his miniature hands and feet. A fleeting thought drifted through her mind. Who was the bird? How had he granted her this strange peace?

Jerutha and her newborn son lay curled together for hours, feeding and sleeping. The old midwife went home after she brought Jerutha the day’s food; a weak porridge, filled today with chopped green vegetables for strength. She was staring at the baby’s perfect, sleeping face again when a shadow fell over her. She looked up, expecting to see Nirloth, but was startled to see four strange men, dressed in the robes of priests, standing on the ground of their courtyard. It was unspeakably rude to tread on another family’s grounds except for extreme circumstances. Jerutha’s heart beat rapidly as she covered herself. 

“Woman,” one of the men said, and she shivered at the sound of his voice. “Dress yourself and attend us.” 

“Lord,” she said, because though she didn’t know who he was, he was clearly a man of great power. “I have given birth to a new son, not five hours ago.”

“We have grave business with your husband and it cannot wait,” the man said.

“Oh, but he is very sick,” Jerutha replied, her heart still tapping a rapid, terrified rhythm.

“We know, and that is why it cannot wait. Please dress and attend us.”

 

They turned and walked toward the house, and Jerutha knew they would go to Nirloth whether or not she was there. Wanting to spare him, she sat up and pulled her heavy outer dress over her head, wincing at the stiffness in her muscles, the pain in her abdomen. She may not have felt much love for the old man, but pity twisted in her gut as she thought of him lying alone in his bed. She picked up her baby and held him close, tucking his soft head under her chin. She felt the fierceness of her love for the tiny creature, the way it was already forming her, shaping her into something stronger than she had ever been, yet helpless to save them from whatever would happen next.

The men stood around Nirloth’s sleeping pallet in the dim room. Their faces looked repulsed as they stared down at the old man. He sat up and shifted so his back leaned against the wall. 

“Jerutha,” he said, as she entered. “Prepare some tea for these men.” His voice was weak.

She stared at him, but he didn’t look at her again. Surely he hadn’t missed seeing the baby in her arms. She bowed her head and went to the kitchen, anger sparking deep within her. Who were these other priests? She wouldn’t have lost her stepchildren if it wasn’t for the ways of priest and goddess.

Isika, Ben, Ibba and Kital were considered outsiders because they had walked out of the desert from an unknown place with skin as richly black as the losh trees that surrounded the Worker village. The Workers had finally succeeded in driving the children away, even if by accident. Jerutha felt her anger flame higher, remembering. Isika and Ben had fled to rescue their brother when Nirloth, in the way of the Workers, had sacrificed him to the goddesses, sending him out to the deep ocean in a tiny boat. Had they succeeded in rescuing him? Where were they now? Were they safe? She laid her baby in a nest of blankets and bent to revive the fire, then filled the kettle and put it over the flames for tea.

Her mind raced. Who were these men? She had heard rumors, only whispers, really, of other villages, other Workers, but she had never seen one before. They seemed like priests, they were dressed like priests, but she had never before considered that Nirloth might have men to answer to. She stood frozen as she listened to what the men were saying. 

“Nirloth, you have allowed too many cracks to enter the structure of this village,” the man who had spoken to Jerutha said. “You haven’t made the required sacrifices, the temple is filthy, and, worst of all, you brought black outsiders to work in the temple. You have ruined this village, its power is diminished and the favor of the goddesses is no longer upon it.”

Jerutha heard her husband gasp, his breath becoming jagged and choked. Her heart caught in her chest and she scooped up her baby and ran into the room. He sat, clutching at his chest, and she rushed to him and helped him lie on his side. The man droned on, heedless of Nirloth’s distress. Jerutha stared up at the strange priest. His face was a shadow in the darkness of the room.

“The goddesses are angry. You are no longer priest of this place, Nirloth. Hakar will take your place here and you will be his servant.”

Nirloth continued to gasp for breath. He turned away from Jerutha without even glancing at the baby in her arms, and pressed his face to the wall. Jerutha looked up at the men. 

“Please,” she said. “You have said what you came to say. Please let him rest.”

They looked at her and slowly one of the men, who hadn’t yet spoken, nodded. He put his hand on the arm of the spokesman, and the four of them turned to leave. Jerutha nestled the sleeping baby beside her and turned to put an arm around Nirloth, who was shaking, his face still pressed to the wall. 

 

He didn’t live through the night. The only thing he said to Jerutha was something she barely heard. 

“Tell Isika I’m sorry,” he whispered. A few hours later, she stood and left the shell of her husband, walking out to the birthing room in shock. She lay on the mattress and nursed her new son. Nothing felt real and she was afraid.

She watched, numb, as over the next days, the strange priests performed the funeral rituals. She worried about what would become of her and her son. Even in her grief and fear, the tiny boy was clutching at her heart, a perfect being who comforted in the endless nights of worry.

The priests left the village without saying when the new priest would come back. During the weeks that followed, Jerutha settled into a kind of life that was hard and lonely, but peaceful; making porridge in the morning, tying the little baby to her so she could work in the garden. She began selling her vegetables in the market, leaving herself only the ones that were misshapen or overripe. The coins she gained helped her to buy grain for the porridge. 

The baby was remarkably good. He blinked at her when she bathed him in the warmth of midday, and he grew more solid as the days went on, smiling at her when her heart felt unbearably lonely. The people of the village complained and muttered because there was no priest, and Jerutha felt as though she was always looking over her shoulder, waiting for more trouble to appear. She didn’t know what would happen when the new priest arrived. She supposed she would move into her brother’s house, though it was too small. She thought often of her mother in those days. Jerutha’s mother had wandered into the desert, insane, when Jerutha was young. She had never recovered from her first daughter being given over, sacrificed to the sea long before Jerutha was born. Jerutha missed her and wished hopelessly for a familiar hand on her shoulder on the loneliest days. Sometimes when she felt the most despair, she smelled a fragrance like the one the bird had brought with it, and she looked up, but didn’t see anything.

The moon grew and shrank four times and the baby could laugh, but Jerutha didn’t see the bird again. She wondered about it often. Was it the result of a labor dream, or had it been real?

The priests finally came back on an afternoon when the sun had leached the color out of the sky. Three this time. One marched straight into the temple and began to ring the bells and burn the incense. The other two strode into the house, going from room to room, muttering to each other. Jerutha tried to make herself small, but she couldn’t help overhearing what they said. 

“We will take the widow to Batta,” one said to the other. “The high priest wants her. She is young and already has a baby, perhaps he will marry her. If not, another priest will.” 

Jerutha felt the blood leave her face. She stumbled out to the garden. She fell to her knees on the ground, the baby banging against her ribcage, tied to her front with a long strip of cloth. He made a tiny sound of protest, and she sobbed. What were they bringing her to? How could she protect her son? She looked around wildly, thinking of running out into the wilderness, away from priests and men. But she sat back in the dust, knowing she wouldn’t survive alone with a baby. She cried until she couldn’t cry anymore and sat staring without seeing.

A shadow crossed the golden afternoon light in the vegetable garden she had planted with Isika, many months before. She felt a stirring of air and smelled the sweet breeze from her birthing day. Despite itself, her heart lifted. She looked up to see the bird standing before her. It was not as large as she remembered. It was taller than her as she sat there, but her memory had made it taller than a standing man. The colors rippled through its feathers as it opened and closed its wings once. Jerutha felt a strange rush of hope as the bird spoke. 

“Isika gave you a promise before she left,” the bird said, once again making its words flow into the air around Jerutha in a way she couldn’t see. “She told you she would help you if you called for her. Tell me, young one. I will pass on your message.” 

Jerutha gasped as hope blazed up in her heart. And then she began to speak.

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