In a world on the brink of the next Great Dying, no amount of training can prepare us for what is to come…
We’re pleased to share an excerpt from A. K. Wilder’s Crown of Bones, a new epic fantasy adventure available January 5, 2021 from Entangled Publishing.
In a world on the brink of the next Great Dying, no amount of training can prepare us for what is to come…
A young heir will raise the most powerful phantom in all of Baiseen.
A dangerous High Savant will do anything to control the realms.
A mysterious and deadly Mar race will steal children into the sea.
And a handsome guide with far too many secrets will make me fall in love.
My name is Ash. A lowly scribe meant to observe and record. And yet I think I’m destined to surprise us all.
Morning light blasts through the woods, making me squint. “There! To the south.”
I urge Echo, my black palfrey, on to greater speed, the hunting dogs falling behind. We gallop hard, neck and neck with True, my brother’s mount, careening around giant oaks and jumping over fallen logs. Autumn leaves scatter in our wake.
“They’re headed for the meadow,” Petén calls over the pounding hooves. His dark hair streams behind him, revealing his high forehead, an Adicio family trait. I’ve got it, too, but not quite as pronounced as his.
We’re alike in other ways—same tall, broad build, brown eyes, and olive skin, though my hair is the color of brass, not black. Also, Petén’s nineteen, two years older than me, and non-savant—he can’t raise a phantom. It’s a blow to him, because I am savant and therefore Heir to the Throne of Baiseen, a fact that turns everything between us sour.
“Head them off.” I signal toward the upcoming sidetrack.
“So you can beat me there and win all the praise?”
I laugh at that. Father’s not going to hand out praise for anything I do, even catching Aturnian spies, if that’s what the trespassers really are. Besides, palace guards are coming from the south and will likely reach them first, so I don’t know what Petén’s talking about. He’s right, though—I wouldn’t mind being the one to stop them, just in case Father is watching. “Race you. Loser takes the sidetrack!”
He nods, and our mounts tear up the path for a short, breakneck sprint. Echo wins by half a length, and I stand up in my stirrups, victorious, waving Petén off to the right. On I gallop, a downhill run toward the meadow. When I reach the open grass, there’s a clear shot at the three men who race on foot.
“Halt in the name of the Magistrate!” I fit an arrow to my bow and fire it over their heads, a warning shot. I wouldn’t actually shoot anyone in the back, but they don’t know that.
“Halt in the name of Baiseen!” Petén yells, bursting into the meadow from the north.
The hunted men veer to the left and keep running. Petén lets loose his arrow, and it lands just short of them, another warning.
I’m close enough to pick off all three. “Halt!” I shout, hoping they do this time.
My brother and I barrel down on them, and in moments, we’ve corralled the men, trotting our horses in a tight circle, arrows aimed at the captives in the center. The dogs catch up and bark savagely, ready to attack.
“Stay,” I command the two wolfhounds, and they obey, crouching in the grass, tongues hanging out to the side as they lick their chops and growl.
“Drop your weapons,” Petén says just as Rowten and his contingent of palace guards, three men and two women, gallop into the field from the other end. Chills rush through me as Father appears behind them, riding his dark-red hunter. The captives unbuckle their sword belts and raise their hands as the guards join us, further hemming them in.
“Why are you here?” Father asks as he rocks back in the saddle. He turns to Petén. “Search their gear, if you are sober enough for the job.” To me, he says, “If any move, kill them.”
Sweat breaks out on my brow, and a tremor runs down my arms. My brother’s not all that sober. In fact, he usually isn’t. If he provokes them…
But Petén swings out of the saddle without falling on his face, and I keep my arrow aimed at each man in turn while he goes through their packs. They have a distance viewer and a map of Baiseen marking where our troops are quartered, the watchtowers, and the Sanctuary with numbers in the margin.
“Scouting our defenses?” Father asks. “Who sent you?”
Officially, we’re not at war with the neighboring realms of Aturnia and Sierrak to the north or Gollnar to the northwest. But that doesn’t mean one of their red-robe masters isn’t behind this. Tann or even Atikis. Relations are strained to near breaking if the long council meeting I sat through yesterday was any indication, and Father suspects breaches on the border. Like this one.
The captives remain silent, which doesn’t help their case.
“Answer.” I try to sound authoritative. “Or do you not know who questions you? Bow to Jacas Adicio”—I nod to my father—“orange-robe savant to the wolf phantom, Magistrate of all Palrio, and lord of the Throne of Baiseen.”
The middle one lifts his head. He’s not dressed in the robes of a savant or an Aturnian scout. He wears traveler’s garb: leggings, tunic, riding coat, and high boots without a hint of mud. Their horses can’t be far away. “We’re lost, Your Magistrate, sir. Meaning no harm or trespass. If you just set us straight, we’ll be on our way.”
It’s a fair attempt at diplomacy, but unfortunately for this poor clod, his accent betrays him.
“All the way from Aturnia? You are indeed lost.” My father turns to me. “Did you track them down, Marcus?”
My chest swells as I start to answer. “It was—”
“I led the chase,” Petén cuts in as if I wasn’t going to give him half the credit. Which I was…probably.
“Fine,” Father says, though he doesn’t seem particularly pleased. I can’t remember the last time he was anything but frustrated with either of us. But then, it’s no secret he’s not been the same since my eldest brother was deemed marred. Losing his first son changed Father irrevocably.
While I blink sweat out of my eyes, the nearest captive makes to drop to one knee.
“Savant!” I shout.
“Shoot!” my father roars in command.
He means me.
I have the shot, ready and aimed, and I should have taken it by now. But the man is ten feet away. If I hit him at this range, with an arrow made to drop an elk, it’ll stream his guts all over the meadow.
As I hesitate, my father is out of his saddle in an instant and touching down to one knee. The second he does, the ground explodes, a rain of dirt and rock showering us. The horses’ heads fly up, ears pinning back, but they hold position as Father’s phantom lunges out of the earth. The size of a dire wolf, it opens its mouth, lips pulling back in a snarl. Still not clear of the ground, it begins to “call,” a haunting, guttural sound that can draw weapons from a warrior, water from a sponge, flesh from bone. Before the phantom lands, the men’s chests crack open in a spray of blood. Three hearts, still beating, tear out of their torsos and shoot straight into the phantom’s mouth. It clamps its jaws and, not bothering to chew, swallows them whole.
Entranced by the brutality, my fingers spasm, and the arrow flies from the bow. Its distinct red fletches whistle as it arcs high and wide over one of the guard’s heads, a woman who gives me an unpleasant look. The arrow falls, skipping through the grass to land harmlessly a distance away.
No one speaks as the horses settle and Rowten signals for the dogs to be leashed. I breathe heavily, staring at the corpses, blood welling in the cavities that were, moments ago, the bodies of three living men. Aturnian spies, most likely, but living men just the same.
But what if I got it wrong? What if the man had simply gone weak in the knees and wasn’t dropping to raise his phantom at all? What if he really was non-savant, lost, virtually harmless to us? I cried out the warning that led to these deaths. What does that say about me?
“Peace be their paths,” Rowten says, and we all echo the traditional saying used when someone dies. The path to An’awntia is the spiritual road everyone treads, though us savants are supposedly much further along.
I’m not so sure in my case.
When I look to Petén, I find him staring at the bodies as well, until he turns away and throws up in the grass. Somehow that makes me feel better, though I don’t think it has the same effect on our father, judging by his expression.
Father examines the dead men’s weapons. “Aturnian,” he says and lowers gracefully to one knee, his phantom melting away as he brings it back in. It’s a relief. Phantoms don’t usually scare me, not those of our realm, but this one’s different, more powerful, and so much better controlled than most. Merciless. If Father had continued training at the Sanctuary, he’d be a red-robe by now, and not very many savants ever reach that high level. I shudder at the thought.
Before mounting up, he turns to Rowten. “Take the dogs and find their horses. Then call for the knacker to deal with this mess.” In an easy motion, he’s back on the hunter, shaking his head as he turns to me. “You raise a warrior phantom, Marcus. When will you start acting like it?”
Heat rushes to my face, and Petén, wiping his mouth on his sleeve, chuckles. Any warmth I felt for my brother moments ago vanishes.
“Ride with me, both of you,” Father commands.
The road home is short and agonizing as we flank Father, one on either side.
“Petén, if I catch the reek of alcohol on your breath again, I’ll take away your hunting privileges for so long, you’ll forget how to ride.”
“Yes, Father,” he says quietly. “Sorry.”
My lips curl until Father turns to me.
“Marcus,” he says, his voice a newly sharpened knife. “You know war is inevitable—if not now then certainly by the time you are meant to take the throne. Baiseen needs your warrior!”
A subtle reminder of my failings. “Yes, Father.”
“If you can’t master your phantom soon, you’ll lose your vote at the Summit as well as your right to succeed me.” His eyes narrow. “You know this?”
“Then why are you acting so bones-be-cursed weak?”
I couldn’t choke out an answer even if I had one. Even Petén looks away. My eyes drop to Echo’s mane as it ripples down her neck. When I look up, Father’s face turns to stone. He cracks his reins over the hunter’s rump and gallops away.
Petén and I trot the horses back toward the palace, cresting a gentle rise to come out on the hill overlooking the expanse of Baiseen. The view takes in the high stone walls and gardens of the palace, the watchtowers and bright-green training field in the center of the Sanctuary, all the way down the terraced, tree-lined streets to the harbor and the white-capped emerald sea beyond. It’s beautiful, but no matter where I look, those three dead men seep back into my mind.
“If they were spies, then war’s coming sooner than we thought.” I ease Echo to a halt. “But if they weren’t, we’ll have to—”
“We?” Petén cuts me off. “Keeping the peace when Father tempts war is your problem, little brother, not mine.” He chuckles. “If you make it to Aku in time, that is.” His face cracks wide with a smile. “This year’s your last chance, isn’t it?”
I open my mouth to answer, but he’s already pushing past me, loping the rest of the way down to the stables.
Yes, it’s my last chance, the last training season on Aku before I turn eighteen. That’s when our High Savant, head of the Sanctuary, will hand me over to the black-robes if I haven’t held my phantom to form. It would mean no initiate journey. No chance to gain the rank of yellow-robe or higher. No future voice at the council. No Heir to the Throne of Baiseen.
No trained warrior to help protect my realm.
The weight on my shoulders grows heavier. I know my father. He’ll not let this incident with the spies go, and his actions may finally bring the northern realms down upon us. My thoughts lift back to those three nameless men. When I close my eyes, I can still see their shocked faces, hear bones cracking as their chests split open, smell the blood spattering the ground.
War draws near. And if our enemies are infiltrating our lands, I may already be too late.
Excerpted from Crown of Bones, copyright © 2020 by A. K. Wilder.