To be born of the forest is a gift and a curse…
In a world that fears magic, a young, orphaned shapeshifter must risk everything if she hopes to save her only friend in Elayne Audrey Becker’s Forestborn—first in a new fantasy series publishing August 31st with Tor Teen.
Rora is a shifter, as magical as all those born in the wilderness—and as feared. She uses her abilities to spy for the king, traveling under different guises and listening for signs of trouble.
When a magical illness surfaces across the kingdom, Rora uncovers a devastating truth: Finley, the young prince and her best friend, has caught it, too. His only hope is stardust, the rarest of magical elements, found deep in the wilderness where Rora grew up—and to which she swore never to return.
But for her only friend, Rora will face her past and brave the dark, magical wood, journeying with her brother and the obstinate, older prince who insists on coming. Together, they must survive sentient forests and creatures unknown, battling an ever-changing landscape while escaping human pursuers who want them dead. With illness gripping the kingdom and war on the horizon, Finley’s is not the only life that hangs in the balance.
“You’re late,” observes Dom, one of King Gerar’s most senior guards, in a tone of quiet delight. At his side, Carolette sniffs and looks down her nose.
“Just open the door,” I say.
Carolette clicks her tongue, her beige skin crinkling around the eyes. “Manners, shifter. You’re in the company of royals now.”
At my side, my fingernails stretch into claws. “Open the door, or I’ll open you.”
The members of the esteemed Royal Guard look far from impressed by this threat, but Dom turns the knob and steps inside nevertheless.
“You reek of death,” Carolette hisses as I pass, her breath hot in my ear. And though I clutch my anger close like a second skin, I can’t stop the old fear from sweeping its clammy hand down my spine.
“The shifter to see you, Your Majesty,” Dom announces, his purple-accented, grey uniform appearing washed out amidst the upholstered furniture.
At the far end of the gauzy pearl parlor, three members of the royal family are milling about by the curtained windows. King Gerar with his emerald-encrusted crown, the one reserved for formal ceremonies only, along with the crown princess, Violet, and Weslyn, the elder and far less endearing of the two princes. All three wear the customary, funereal black.
The day of the Prediction. The anniversary of Queen Raenen’s death. By a perverse turn of events, this black-hearted day marks them both.
“Rora, good,” King Gerar greets. His tired smile falls flat against the grief shadowing his face. Behind him, Violet spears me with a glance before continuing to pace in her floor-length gown, her dark hair cropped short above bare, rigid shoulders. Back and forth, she taps a long, red and gold feather quill lightly against her palm. The one her father gifted to her to cement her place as his successor.
I’d yank that quill from her grasp and snap it in two, if I didn’t think that would crack the kingdom as well.
“Your Majesty. Forgive me, I was following a lead.” I dip into a hasty bow once the door clicks shut behind me.
“Five more cases in Briarwend,” I tell him. “One of them dead. Two that have reached the sway and the silence.” Five added to nearly two hundred other cases scattered throughout the kingdom. Eighty-seven afflicted already dead, and all only the ones I’ve found. This magic-induced illness with no set duration—it could kill its victims in days or months, adults and children alike. No name beyond the Fallow Throes. No cure that healers have yet discovered. It’s spreading.
“No links between any of the afflicted?” King Gerar asks, folding a hand into his suit pocket. His features are a collage of his children’s—the crown princess’s stern brow, the younger prince’s crystal eyes, the elder prince’s trim beard and thick, dark curls, though the flecks of grey peppering his own have become more prevalent in recent months. While he has the tanned white skin of his two eldest children, to my eyes, in this moment, the emotion in his expression is all his youngest son, Finley.
“None that I could tell, Sir. Except the usual.”
The usual. That no shifters, whisperers, or forest walkers are falling ill and dying. Only humans. I twist my hands behind my back, watching King Gerar process this information in silence. “There’s something else,” I add, more hesitant now.
Violet’s head swivels in my direction, but King Gerar’s brow only furrows. “Speak freely.”
“I found a forest walker who had been beaten badly, not far from the town center.” Safely hidden from sight, my hands constrict into fists. “I think I know one of the persons responsible.”
“Do you have proof of guilt?”
My mouth thins. “Not exactly.”
King Gerar runs a hand along his beard, looking troubled. “Without proof, I can do nothing. But I will send word to the magistrate. Such behavior is unacceptable.”
Violet begins to pace again, her head now bent in thought.
My focus strays to Weslyn a few paces behind, who hasn’t looked away from the window since I arrived. He keeps his back to me now, apparently indifferent to the news that another magical person was mugged in the streets. But then, he’s never shown a shred of concern for anything I have to say. Not since the day we met, four years ago today.
The annual Prediction and Queen Raenen’s death day. Also the anniversary of Helos’s and my arrival at Castle Roanin. A coincidence his flint-edged apathy never lets me forget.
“Thank you, Rora,” says King Gerar, and the threads of numbness dissipate just as quickly as they surfaced. “You may go.” He diverts his gaze to an old painting on the wall.
“Sir, shall I do another sweep?” I ask hopefully. “I can leave right away.”
“No.” He waves an idle hand in my direction, and my shoulders droop. “No, I may have something new for you. In the meantime, take the rest of the day off.”
I open my mouth to ask what he means when Dom reenters the parlor.
“Your Majesty, it’s nearly eleven. They’re ready to open the gates unless you say otherwise.”
“Fine, fine.” King Gerar gives another wave of his hand. Then he asks, seemingly to no one in particular, “Where is Finley?”
“I can fetch him, Sir,” I say at once, just as Weslyn finally swivels round. His cold eyes narrow, and I feel a vague sense of victory.
I’m gone before his eldest son can protest.
In the time it takes me to reach the brown-stoned northern wing one floor up, the noise from the assembling crowd has grown close enough to permeate the castle’s thick walls. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people, ready to flatten the carefully tended lawn with eager footsteps. Anxiety tightens its familiar grip around my chest.
I round a corner and nearly collide with Finley headlong.
“Rora!” he exclaims, a broad grin overtaking his slender face. “Not looking for me, I trust?”
Finley is the total opposite of his two siblings, and wonderfully so, all tangling limbs and frenetic energy. Wispy blonde waves fall across a kind face dotted with freckles, the mark of a childhood spent under the sun. Already, I can feel my mask dropping for the first time in two days.
“Your father sent me to find you.” I run a critical gaze over his wrinkled suit and the half-made tie hanging loose around his neck. “Lowering your standards, I see.”
“A low blow,” he says, shoving my shoulder before falling into step beside me and fixing the tie. “But possibly deserved.”
“You promised to at least try,” I remind him.
“Today seems a good day to start,” I add, finding the relaxed set of his shoulders far too free from guilt.
“I had something to attend to. Royal duties, you know.”
I raise an eyebrow. “Don’t lie to me.”
“Fine. I overslept. Headache—a bit too much to drink last night, I guess. You know how it is.”
“Actually, I don’t.”
“A fact I’m determined to change one day.” Finley trips over a bump in the blood-red runner underfoot, catching himself on the stone wall.
“Are you . . . nervous?” I ask, biting back a smile.
He glares at me sidelong. “Now you’re just being rude.”
Being with Fin is easy, so much so that I permit my guard to drop more than I should. So by the time we’re nearing the parlor doors, the old dread settles over me all the stronger for its temporary absence. The figures sewn into tapestries along the walls take on new meaning, mocking expressions that seem to warn of the trouble to come. I imagine them reaching for me with greedy hands, wanting to pull and flatten me until I’m like them—still, silent, and unable to cause any more harm.
“I’ve just remembered,” Finley exclaims, so suddenly I flinch. “I’m supposed to bring flowers today.”
I appraise him skeptically. King Gerar didn’t mention any flowers.
“Come on, or Father will have my head.” And without waiting for an answer, he turns on his heel.
I glance at the parlor doors, just at the other end of the hall. But I have no intention of returning there without him, so I resign myself to following.
“Why flowers?” I ask, as he leads me down a winding staircase and past baffled, bowing servants.
“For Mother, you know. To represent her.”
“The gardener couldn’t fetch them for you?”
“It’s more personal this way.”
To avoid any possible sightings by the crowd now gathering on the grounds’ front lawn, Finley sneaks us out a rear door hidden in the castle’s northern facade, nodding to the curious younger recruits on guard. Hot air dampens my skin in what feels like mere moments as I follow him through the hedge-row garden and groves of red maples, past the groundskeeper’s shed and an old, rarely used carriage house, all the way to a secret door hidden in the outer wall. Creeping ivy and moss-strewn cracks hide the iron keyring from view.
“Finley,” I warn, the back of my neck prickling.
“Fine, I lied.” Producing a heavy key, he heaves the door open and gestures for me to step through first. “But you have to admit, the fact that you didn’t catch on sooner proves I was right to do so.”
“What are you talking about?”
“We both know you were suffocating in there.” Finley closes the latch, then uncrosses my arms with a grin.
“Are you insane?” I ask with no small measure of sincerity.
He shrugs and marches straight into the Old Forest.
“You can’t miss the ceremony,” I persist, even as I fall into step beside him. “It’s the most important day of the year!”
“No,” he says, his expression sobering. “It’s a day for silly tradition and baseless speculation. You don’t need to suffer through the aftermath this time. You do enough.”
I bite my lip. “You think it will be the same today?”
Finley runs a hand through his hair. “It’s been six years. I don’t see why not.”
“Please tell me you’re not subverting an eight-hundred-year-old tradition on my account.”
“Come on, Rora. I’m nice, but I’m not that nice.”
But he is. He’s done so before, deftly extricating me from tense situations under the pretense of needing my assistance, only for me to discover through a later series of gripes and eye-rolls that he was meant to be somewhere else.
As we climb, the crowd’s distant chatter ebbs into the forest’s gentle melody—wind-ruffled leaves and creaking branches, chattering cardinals, screeching insects, and small animals scuffling through briars and dens. At first, I think he’s leading us to his mother’s grave, an ornate headstone erected here in accordance with her will. Today of all days would make particular sense, though he and his family visit often anyway. Well, except his brother; if there’s any truth to kitchen gossip, Weslyn hasn’t set foot in these woods since the day Queen Raenen fell.
Soon, however, our idle course tracks south, the wrong direction for a grave visit. The ground underfoot grows rougher, wilder, grass giving way to coarse vegetation and dirt-encrusted rocks. Oak trees, beech trees, hickory, elm—a forest ancient and unyielding, giants from a time long lost. Despite my concern for how King Gerar will receive Finley’s absence, I can’t deny the snags in my stomach are unraveling with every breath of wood-scented air.
The annual tradition of publicly reading the year’s Prediction is almost as old as life on Alemara itself. Nearly eight hundred years ago, after a whisperer named Fendolyn united magical and nonmagical people under a single banner for the first time since magic surfaced on the continent, divisions regarding the line of succession fractured her followers into warring camps.
Some thought her daughter, Telyan, was the natural heir with her added gift of magic. Others thought it unfair that her son, Eradain, be cast aside simply because no magic ran in his veins. Then Willa Glenweil, one of Fendolyn’s closest advisors, challenged both children for the right to rule, for why should the crown be inherited rather than earned?
To spare the mobs from mutual slaughter, Fendolyn proposed a compromise—Eradain could take the north, Glenweil the middle ground, and Telyan would remain in the south, the land from which her mother ruled. But the giants, fearing the seeds of resentment taking root in humans and wanting no part in future trouble, asked that the continent instead be split into four, that the wilderness west of the river remain neutral territory no one could claim. All agreed.
Before departing, as a sign of good will, the giants gifted each of the three new rulers with the continent’s rarest type of bird: a loropin. Coveted by most, because a quill made from one’s feathers will write the truth about the future, but only for the one gifted a feather, and only on each anniversary of the day it was given. Having witnessed the rivalry wrought by jealousy, fear, and anger, the giants urged their gift to be symbolic: a reminder to let truth and logic dictate their reigns, rather than emotion.
Every year since then, as a show of unity throughout the three realms, each ruler uses their quills to write a message—one which always seems to write itself—and reads it publicly. Always vague words of comfort or warning, rarely comprising more than a sentence, to guide their people in the year to come and to solidify their role as the wielder of truth. And relative peace did hold—until seven years ago today, when for the first time in seven hundred and forty-one years, all three quills yielded the same words for all three rulers: two shifters death.
Two years later, the day Queen Raenen, her hunting party, and her two eldest children stumbled upon Helos and me squatting in the Old Forest was the day of the Prediction. The third of what would become six consecutive annual readings all producing the same three words. Seven, if today’s reading yields the same. It was the day the first earthquake in nearly eight hundred years shook the land, striking terror into Telyan hearts that the Day of Rupturing which once broke the world might happen again. The day the queen, an expert rider by all accounts, fell from her horse, hit her head, and died.
An omen, King Gerar’s advisers saw it. A tragedy portending the end of the Danofer line, the royal bloodline that stretches all the way back to Fendolyn, though the magic in it has faded without a magical marriage in almost two centuries. A sign that an explosion of magic could once again crack the continent apart. And trapped at the center of it all, in their eyes, were my brother and me.
“Rora,” Finley says, calling my attention back to the present. “As I said, my gesture wasn’t entirely selfless. I thought—now we’re here—you could help me with something.”
“Yes, and I think—I’m going to need your help sooner than I realized.”
I turn in time to see him trip on a root like he did the runner. Only this time, when he straightens, his face looks alarmingly pale.
“What’s wrong?” I demand as he leans against an oak, breathing heavily. “What do you mean, help?”
But Finley’s eyes are glazing over, far too fast, the pupils dilating as if he’s concussed. He shakes his head, holds out a hand, clutches mine when I step close to steady him. “I think—”
“Finley!” I cry, catching him when his knees suddenly give way. I’m dismayed at how easy it is to support his weight, considering he’s only one year younger than me. Or two, or three. It’s all a guess, really. “Fin, talk to me,” I say, my heart flinging itself wildly against my ribcage as I watch his eyes lose focus once more. His hand loosens its grip on mine, and both of us sink to the forest floor.
“Let him go,” I beg, bending over the body gone rigid, the heaving chest, the quivering, waxen skin. Alarm bells are screaming through my head, loud as the clocktower tolling the hour, and with them, the tingling in my core returns. Threads of numbness engulf my limbs. Fur along my back, then feathers all over—my body torn between the urge to hide or to flee, far away from this scene I never saw coming. “Please. Not him, too.”
I ignore the gathering sounds of creaking, groaning wood overhead with a vengeance. Tears are welling in my eyes, but I blink them away and shake my head, refusing to let them fall. Refusing because this day of truth has always been tainted by lies, so what’s one more to add to the tally? In the darkening wood, I set each one before me, all of the lies I reach for when the nightmares, the dirty looks, the hidden scars and endless self-loathing begin to drag me under—that my mother loved me before she left me, that my brother and I are not a curse, that I can be good and selfless and worthy of love in spite of the things I’ve done. I assemble them all, then set one more on the shelf: that my best friend, my only true friend aside from Helos, isn’t dying.
But the trees around me, leaves and branches straining against their holds, limbs pointing to Finley like a circle of swords—the trees all tell a different story.
Excerpted from Forestborn, copyright © 2021 by Elayne Audrey Becker.