A kingdom is on the brink of war in the riveting finale to Elayne Audrey Becker’s epic fantasy duology that began with her enchanting YA debut, Forestborn. With a magical illness running rampant and the continent arming for battle, the three realms’ long-feared destruction seems inevitable. But the two shifters they believed would bring about Alemara’s ruin may in fact hold the key to its survival.
Wildbound will be available in hardcover on August 30th, 2022. Please enjoy the following excerpt!
I hold my body as still as I can, scanning the surrounding trees for any signs of movement. opens in a new window
It’s chilly up here at higher elevation. A sharp breeze teases a few tresses of hair, the mountain air crisp against my skin and carrying the heady scent of cedar. I breathe it in deep, willing my pent-up nerves to unfurl a little in response.
Perched on a large, slanted rock face hidden among the creaking spruce pines, I roll my neck in an attempt to release some of the tension. These conifer woods end a mere two dozen paces ahead, old forest and birdsong giving way to barren, brown plains be- yond, which means I should be near enough to the tree line to spot an approaching uniform with ease. Frustratingly, there are none.
Perhaps he decided it wasn’t worth the risk of getting caught. Or perhaps they’ve forced the truth from his traitorous mouth already.
I glance again at the sun poking out from its nest of drifting clouds. Midday. Soon it will sink into afternoon, and our carefully orchestrated window will be gone.
When wings flutter past my ear, I twist to see a black-tipped caw alight on a nearby branch, his razor-sharp feathers carving shallow lines into the spindly wood. The magical raven lurks too close to my face for comfort, but he only tilts his glossy head, sizing me up through beady chestnut eyes.
“My friends have a saying, you know.”
The lithe boy who speaks steps onto the base of my rock, his caribran-hide boots unnervingly quiet.
Cursed fortune. I need to pay better attention.
“Studying a bud does not make it bloom,” he goes on, sounding faintly amused. Silver eyes gleam bright beneath thick lashes and above long features etched into a rich brown face.
“Maybe not,” I reply, the sudden tension easing as I brush a pine needle from my dark cotton shirt. “But better to arrive early for the moment than to miss it entirely.”
Peridon smiles as he nods in the direction I’ve been monitoring. “Still no sign?”
My lips press into a thin line.
“Coda,” he murmurs. Heartbeats later, the black-tipped caw perches on his narrow shoulder, inky talons pressed into the moss-green cloth; somehow, the bladed feathers never seem to graze Peridon’s skin. The rest of his command is inaudible to me, spoken mind-to-mind, and Coda flies away.
Removing the bow slung over his back, Peridon sets the weapon on the rock face and takes a seat beside me. A few strands of silver- and gold-streaked hair have tugged free of the leather band knot- ting the rest behind his head, and six golden rings are spaced evenly across his left forearm like a second skin. One appeared for each animal species he learned to compel, he explained the first time he caught me staring, all requiring different levels of mastery. He’d looked prepared to offer more if I’d asked. I hadn’t.
With Finley ill, Telyan’s leadership unknown, and Eradain’s thirst for violence sweeping the realms, each sunrise feels precious, every day without progress a waste. Yet even pushing hard, it took me two days to trek back through Telyan and across the tree bridge, into the Western Vale, and another three still to track down Peridon amidst the sprawling, changeable wilderness where most magical people and creatures now reside—or did, before Eradain began capturing and slaughtering them. The whisperers here are nomadic, annoyingly adept at covering their tracks, and the only other time I’d spoken with Peridon was the day I tried to persuade his circle of friends to help me infiltrate the prison compound I’ve returned to destroy.
Of the whisperers I’d entreated, only he had been eager to help—except his clan leader, Feren, forbade it.
This time, I made sure to catch him alone. “Rora.”
Peridon and I push to our feet as Coda lands on a nearby tree, scarcely any time since setting off.
“He’s coming,” Peridon says, voice grim.
Two figures appear in the distance. We split up, positioning our- selves among the low-hanging branches to either side of the boulder. Our plan for dismantling the prison feels simple enough—in broad strokes, at least. Break in and blend until nightfall. Dismantle the watchtower guards and steal the master key. Free the prisoners, like Peridon’s cousin. Flee. The tricky parts lay in the details, and most of all, in securing the aid of the Eradain soldier I’ve managed to turn.
Low, angry words ride the breeze to our hiding place, discordant among the chirping jays and rustling vegetation. Peridon and I exchange a glance as pinecones crackle beneath heavy boots. These humans travel as loudly as timber bears.
“—in a bind. I told him all he needs is one good scuffle in the woods.”
The response is too quiet to make out.
“Please. He’s about as tough as a sack of grain, and just as smart, too.”
“He’s the commander’s nephew.” “As I said.”
The voices are much louder now; the men can’t be more than a few steps away. Peridon tosses a stone, which clatters against the boulder.
“Did you hear that?” says the reedier voice.
“Bloody ends, man. Loosen up.” A sword scrapes free of its sheath, and a burly soldier saunters around the rock face, blade raised. “There’s nothing to—”
He chokes on the rest of his bluster when I slam my boot into the
back of his knee, then my fist into his temple. The soldier collapses, limbs splayed like a stack of firewood dropped on the ground.
“His voice could wake the dead,” Peridon observes, stepping out from behind his tree.
The second man rubs his arms, fitted in the red-trimmed navy uniform that marks him a soldier of Eradain. His dark brown hair is cropped short, his nose bent in the middle as if formerly broken, his white skin marble-smooth. He looks young.
“You’re late,” I tell him, massaging my knuckles.
A lump bobs in his throat. Beside me, Peridon fiddles with his bow, muscular arms taut.
“I came as soon as I could,” the soldier insists, any stab at authority belied by the waver in his voice.
“Are there any more?” He shakes his head. “Good.”
With another glance at his comrade, I focus on the place in my core and pull matter from the air around me, heat rushing through my tingling body as my spine lengthens and my neck grows wider, my arms and legs broader and hairier. My nut-brown waves that usually fall just below my shoulders shorten to raven-black strands close to my scalp. A scraggly beard hugs the sides of my face un- comfortably, and the olive skin that Helos and I share morphs into a paler shade of white. Disconcertingly, his eyes were already the same dark brown as my own.
The conscious soldier gawks. “You look just like him.”
“Yes, and I can keep the façade only as long as you keep yours.” I strip the fallen soldier and pull on his uniform, my skin crawling as the borrowed clothes settle against it. The threat is merely bluster; I can hold this form for two days if I have to. But I need to make sure he’s with us. “Let me remind you that if we’re found out, I’ll take you down, too, which would make you as good as dead.”
“Your name?” Peridon prompts.
“Gerig,” I answer for him, my voice deep and gravelly thanks to my newly thickened vocal cords. “We had the pleasure of meeting several weeks ago.”
When he watched his comrade kill a caegar and fire a crossbow at my chest, then made his own half-hearted attempt to catch me before I clawed free of his grasp.
Gerig shuffles a little, composure wavering.
Not for the first time, I wish Weslyn were here. He’s the more effective negotiator between us, and no doubt he could stoke this turncoat’s loyalty on logic alone, without issuing threats. My chest heats at the thought. Unfortunately, I really don’t have his patience. Besides, Gerig’s presence carries too many grim associations.
The metal cages where they keep their magical prisoners and, once, held my brother. King Jol’s systematic efforts to eliminate every magical being from Alemara, in a misguided attempt to pre- vent another Rupturing that could break the continent apart. Each heavy, ashen wall that shields the room in which they imprisoned me from prying eyes. That horrible shed, its darkness swollen with discarded, empty bodies, the stench of death hanging nearly thick enough to taste.
The base of my throat tightens, and I clench my fists, shrugging away the ghost sensations of rolling corpses and rotting limbs.
“Are you ready, Gerig?” Peridon asks. Gerig lifts his chin. “I’m here, aren’t I?”
Endeavoring to tamp down the fear, I force myself to focus on more practical memories instead. The time Gerig sat silently in a recreation room, separate from his chattering comrades, staring at nothing. When the caegar had paralyzed me with her hypnotic gaze, and Gerig had tried to tug me to my feet. To save me. “You are,” I say, and hold out a hand.
He hesitates a moment, then takes it.
“The next burning is scheduled for tomorrow morning,” he says, his voice coming out a little stronger. “So it’ll have to be today.”
“Tonight,” I amend. Though Peridon and I have only been reunited for two days, neither of us feel we can delay further. “Human eyesight is weaker in the dark.” I mean it as fact, not as insult, and Gerig seems to take it as such. “Remember, the watchtower first. Then we get the key.” I tuck my stolen shirt into my pants and nod to Peridon.
He pulls a knife from his boot and slits the naked soldier’s throat in one smooth motion.
“What was that for?” Gerig cries, falling back a step.
My stomach churns at the blood spilling onto the earth, but I swallow and force myself to look Gerig straight in the eye. “It had to be done. We can’t have him waking up and stumbling back to the prison before we’re through.”
Gerig begins to gag. Hardly the stomach to be a soldier—which is why I chose him. “Why not kill him first then, instead of knocking him out?”
I tug on the soldier’s navy shirt hugging my frame. “I can’t walk in with all that blood on my clothes.”
He frowns, unimpressed by this level-headed assessment. I know how callous it sounds, and discomfort gnaws at my core. But it really is the only logical way.
“Ready?” Peridon asks, wiping the blade clean and returning it to his boot. He appears fairly uncomfortable himself.
I look to Gerig. “You brought the rope?” When he holds it up, I position myself opposite Peridon and take a breath. “Make it look real.”
Peridon raises a hand, then hesitates. I roll my eyes and punch him in the face.
“Shit,” he swears, doubling over at the waist. He spits a wad of saliva and blood onto the grass.
“Now is not the time to be polite,” I remind him, stumbling back when he rams a fist into my cheek. Tears spring to my eyes at the white-hot pain singeing my face.
Gerig clears his throat. “Is this really—”
I slam my borrowed body into Peridon and pin him to the ground, trying to get his shirt to stain. “The rope,” I instruct, holding out a hand. Gerig drops it into my palm, and I make sure to bind Peridon’s wrists tight before helping him to his feet.
“Blood?” Peridon suggests through swelling lips, nodding to the corpse.
Now it’s my turn to hesitate, and in the end, Gerig is the one who dabs his blade against the crimson throat and smears it along Peridon’s side. He rips a hole in the fabric for good measure.
We’re all silent a moment.
“Well?” Peridon says at last, looking down at his disheveled state. “Do I look like a prisoner?”
I wonder what his family would think if they knew what he was doing. Helos would undoubtedly object in horror, but my brother, my only family, is all the way east of the river, days away. “You look like you lost.”
Well, not my only family.
“And you’re sure about this?” Peridon asks, watching me closely. Unbidden, Weslyn’s face floats to the surface again, the morning after Helos’s capture, when we uncovered the trap door hidden in the earth. Are you sure you want to go in there?
What is it with boys and asking me if I want to go through with my own plans? “Of course I’m sure,” I reply, a bit impatiently. Trying, with only a small measure of success, to turn my thoughts away from missing Wes once more.
The curling hair. His gentle smile. “It’s just, you look—”
I fold my arms, feeling the bulky biceps constrict. “I was thinking about something else,” I say truthfully. “Worry about your own nerve, not mine.”
He adopts a slightly wounded look, but I do my best to shrug off the prickle of guilt as Gerig pulls the body beneath a tree— whether to hide it or offer a shred of dignity in death, I don’t know. Peridon and I may have built up a rapport these last two days, and I’m glad he’s here, but I know better than to entrust him with the concern that thoughts of family evoked. Anyway, I’ve no doubt he would abandon the mission the moment he knew.
That Jol Holworth, Eradain’s beloved king orchestrating this
mass slaughter, the one whose prison we’re setting out to destroy— he’s my half brother.
Try as I have to cast aside the note he left for Helos and me, pinned to one of the thrones to either side of King Gerar’s mounted head, the poisonous words are never far from the surface, demanding attention.
To Mariella’s children,
Yes, I know that’s what you are. We did not meet or part on friendly terms, but I would like to rectify that. If you should return to Roanin and see this, I ask that you come to Oraes, so that we might better understand one another. There is much I’d have you tell me, and much that you should know.
“Okay,” Gerig says, emerging from where he’s stowed the body and wiping his hands on the grass. “They’ll be expecting Karlog and me to reappear within the hour. We should move.”
Come to Oraes, Jol requested.
With one last glance at the sky, I steady my racing heart. Oraes, Eradain’s capital—I’ll be there soon enough. But first things first.
“All right,” I say, uncrossing my arms. “Let’s go.”