Read an Excerpt From Elayne Audrey Becker’s Wildbound

With the assassination of Telyan’s king, the time for peace has passed.

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Wildbound, the finale of Elayne Audrey Becker’s epic fantasy saga of forest magic and a kingdom on the brink of war, out from Tor Teen on August 30th.

With the assassination of Telyan’s king, the time for peace has passed.

Determined to make up for his failure to procure the stardust, Helos finds work as a healer at Fendolyn’s Keep, the historic garrison to which Telyan’s exiled royals—and half its civilians—have fled. Racing against the Fallow Throes’ ticking clock, he endeavors to repair his relationship with Prince Finley and dreams of his claim to a faraway throne, as the base around him prepares for war.

Half a continent away, his sister Rora is doing everything she can to reawaken the land and end Eradain’s slaughter of magical beings. Still reeling from the revelation that Eradain’s violent monarch is her half-brother, she journeys to the kingdom determined to infiltrate his court in disguise—and finds the seeds of rebellion are already stirring.

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.


 

 

ONE

HELOS

Four words have haunted each step, every dawn, any long silence or starless night.

For weeks, they have settled beneath my skin like a curse, worming their way into my thoughts. Worse than a prison sentence, harder to bear than a life with no sun.

The answer is no.

“Astra!” Weslyn calls, shading his forehead as his wiry deer- hound tears past the trees at the meadow’s edge. “Come on, girl.”

The ragged hound bounds out of the hickory woods, a gray smear streaking frost across the ankle-high grass. When her speed renders her invisible, I only roll my eyes and continue marching for the forested hills lining the horizon. Lately Weslyn talks more to his dog than he does to me, and thank fortune for that, because if I have to respond to another word from his infuriating mouth, I might just pummel him instead.

Beyond the meadow, hickory, oak, and river birch are only just beginning to turn; this early into the autumn season, green leaves still far outnumber the smattering of red and gold. I lead us determinedly past the tree line, mindful of the clouds hanging low just behind and having no desire to sleep unsheltered in a downpour. Weslyn clears his throat and branches off farther west, invalidating the course I’ve set with a single, subtle frown.

I swat at Astra when she hovers too close, my jaw clenching. I’m trying to give him a pass, since his castle was empty and his people are missing and he’s only just learned his father is dead. But every time I look at his stony countenance and broad, soldier-fit figure, every time I’m forced to listen to his stupid, lilting voice, all I can think about is that he’s one half of a pair of brothers, and he’s the wrong one.

It’s been five miserable days since we set out from Roanin. The city that once felt vibrant and bursting with life had sat alarmingly silent in its abandonment. The absence of people unnerved me more than I cared to admit, and I’d scoured the apothecary shop and the stairs to my shabby apartment for any message Bren and Tomas might have set out for me, some clue as to why the entire capital cleared out without apparent warning. But my bosses left no note. After my disappearance stretched longer than I’d promised it would, I wonder if they stopped expecting me to return altogether.

Though afternoon heat still clings to my limbs like a second skin, the nights are growing cool enough to cause discomfort. Even so, we carry on after the sliver of sun has taken refuge beneath the horizon. Weslyn is convinced that his sister, the crown princess Violet—Queen Violet now, I suppose—would have taken their people to Fendolyn’s Keep in a crisis, and it’s difficult to say which of us has been pushing harder to reach it. We’re both desperate to find the historic garrison buried among southern Telyan’s endless hills within the next couple of days. Well, if Weslyn’s charged silences and half-vacant expressions can rightly be called desperation. Truly, the man’s as emotive as a brick.

“Your dog is flagging,” I announce, when at last it’s grown so dark the thought of continuing is laughable. It’s a joke, really, considering she’s half a dozen paces ahead of me.

Weslyn halts and backtracks at once, throwing himself down and checking her paw pads for scratches for the fourth time today. His breath is coming more quickly than the situation warrants, and maybe I should pretend not to notice, but too late, I’m already staring. Anything not to look too long at the woods huddling close in the gathering darkness, their branches interlaced like cobwebs, cold and conspiring.

Old enemies.

“We’ll stop here, then,” Weslyn says at last. He catches me rolling my ankle. “You’re hurt?”

“No.”

“You’re squinting.”

I raise a palm in his direction. “Just tend to your dog, okay?”

After studying me another weighted moment, Weslyn orders Astra to stay and goes in search of firewood, since it’s his night to.

Finally, some peace. I loosen my laces and pull my foot from the worn boot, wincing as my ankle scrapes the sides. Beneath my torn-up sock, the skin is puffy and tender. It was careless of me to pick a fight with a coyote yesterday while hunting in fox form.

Astra sidles closer when I pull the jerky from my pack, sniffing hopefully at my closed fist. I lift it high and look her in the eye until she turns away. Since I’m trying hard to ignore the scrabbling sounds of Weslyn gathering twigs nearby, for a while, I let my mind paint a better picture. One, not of loose brown curls and a beard in need of a trim, but of rose-tinted white skin and golden hair and eyes the color of a clear summer sky. Finley. But Weslyn has spoiled that for me, as well, and all too soon the perfect features melt into decay, sunken cheeks and heavy lids. Throat tightening, I shake the image clean away, salvaging what I can of the meat pulverized against my palm.

Weslyn sets down his bundle of sticks and leaves, carving a hole into the earth and building the fire just like I taught him. Back when our journey still held the hope of success. When my sister, Rora, was here to bridge the gap between us, the glue that came to hold our group of three in place. Now there’s only the two of us, divided by our differences and the mutual understanding that I would have been willing to trade his life for his brother’s.

By the river, I am tired of walking.

“We might reach it tomorrow, if you can maintain this pace,” Weslyn says, gaze flitting to my feet as he sits by the flames.

“Have I slowed you down yet?” I demand.

He doesn’t rise to the provocation, only assesses me with an indeterminate expression before pulling out his waterskin. Astra yawns and flops down at his side. The flames sizzle and pop.

“He’s still alive, Helos,” Weslyn murmurs, his tanned white skin flickering orange in the firelight.

My muscles lock up. It’s the forbidden subject, the one we’ve been avoiding since that day on the riverbank. The nightmare of water pounding and Rora falling and Weslyn lying broken and then not broken on the bank.

“There could be time to—”

“To what?” I reply bitterly. “We have nothing that could help him. Thanks to you.”

Weslyn’s fingers must have tightened around the curls in Astra’s coat, because the hound raises her head in my direction, a low growl rumbling through her teeth.

Whatever. I tear the remains of my dinner apart piece by piece, chewing forcefully. If Rora were here, no doubt she would give me that singular frown of hers—part wounded, part indignant. But I let her go. Alone, after we promised we’d go together, always. And I still can’t get over the waste of it all.

Four weeks journeying into the Vale and back, that wretched magical wilderness with its shifting terrain and perilous unpredictability. Bartering with giants, fleeing from Eradain soldiers, and that evil—that—no, don’t go there. I brush my nose hastily. All to obtain the stardust that could have cured Finley, and anyone else afflicted with the Fallow Throes rampaging the three realms east of the river, killing humans at random. To think that we’d actually managed to do it, secured enough stardust to cure them all—until Weslyn fell into the river and nearly drowned.

The monstrous current from which Rora saved him had ruined most of the stardust, but there had been a little left. Enough for one.

And she used it on him.

In the present, Weslyn’s still staring at the fire, not having touched a scrap of food.

He checks Astra’s paws again.

I didn’t want him to die. I can admit that. But with Fin—No, just… just lock it away. That’s what’s best—pushed to the far recesses of my mind before the weight of it can drown me, too.

I force down a few drops of water, mostly just to give myself something to do, then lay out my bedroll on the other side of the fire, bored. In my weaker moments, I suppose I can understand what Rora sees in him—both so serious, so exasperatingly stubborn and stuck on doing what’s right. And I’m not exactly blind to the strong jawline shrouded in stubble, the way the rolled shirtsleeves fit just so around the forearms.

But still. Weslyn is broad strokes of gray, the whole package too noble and intense and quiet and predictable.

Finley is a portrait in iridescence. He’s the sudden break in rain in the middle of a downpour, the kind of unexpected gift that makes your breath catch before you run out to meet it. Finley is the boy who snorts when you kiss him softly, unsure, then grabs you by the shirt and pulls you close to do it properly.

He’s like a hummingbird, flitting from one topic, any given pursuit, to another. A sketch in constant motion, as easygoing as he is easily distracted. Curious, quick to laugh, lazy at times, eager to grab hold of any loose thread that might lead to an adventure.

The answer is no.

Stomach sinking, I try to count the objects around us. The flames arcing high, the wolf-sized dog. Rough bark, a mossy stone, a—No, it’s useless. It’s one of the tricks Rora employs to calm herself down, but when I try, the anger only tightens its grip in response. This torturous ire that has lodged inside my chest like a bramble, its thorny edges oozing poison, puncturing any moments of levity that dare to raise a challenge.

I used to be better at this.

I look again at Weslyn, on his back now with a hand behind his head, staring at the sky. I wonder if he’s still seeing his father’s head mounted on the post. I see the dead king’s vacant stare behind closed lids more often than I’d like, a horrible sight that I wouldn’t wish on anyone, no matter how much they get under my skin. But since I don’t know how to ask, and I don’t think he’d tell me even if I did, all I do is follow his lead and rest my head on top of my pack. Our usual arrangement.

Maybe Rora’s right, and reawakening the land as she’s off trying to do will free the dwindling magic from its fear of extinction. Maybe she’ll succeed, and the Fallow Throes will loosen its hold on human hosts whose bodies can no longer tolerate magic or offer the sanctuary it’s seeking.

But every time I allow myself to hope, I remember that her strategy could take weeks, months maybe, and even then it’s still only a guess. Finley could be long gone by then.

Tomorrow. Let us find him tomorrow. Alive.

The fire burns lower as Weslyn rolls over, away from the flames. After another quick glance in his direction, I remove my pack from under my head and set it down by my feet, resting my swollen ankle on top of it.

The rain begins to fall.

 

Silence hangs heavy as we break down our tiny camp at dawn. Silver mist snakes through the deciduous woods, as it seems to most mornings in these parts. The Smoky Rise, the Telyans call this stretch of hills, and though I suppose it’s pretty enough, I can’t help but wish I were back in Roanin. It’s irreplaceable, to wake with four walls around you, no matter that the paint is flaking, the glass a little smudged. To hear windows creaking open and rubber soles striking cobblestone and know you’re safely inside, yet decidedly not alone.

After Weslyn checks his map against the sun’s position, he launches forward with his hands closed tight around the straps of his pack. Astra keeps pace with him as I follow shortly behind, just grateful my ankle feels less tender today.

By the time we reach an old stone road that seems to appear out of nowhere, winding between the forested slopes rising on either side, the dense brown hair that falls midway between my jaw and shoulders has dampened with sweat.

“Do we take it or skirt around?” I ask. The question has divided us every time we hit signs of civilization—two towns and a handful of streets in the days since leaving Roanin, all of which appeared empty from a distance. Weslyn wants to find people to question. I’ve argued we should travel in stealth until we know what’s what.

He shades his forehead with a hand, examining the road until it disappears round the bend ahead. I can tell by the grim set of his mouth that he resents feeling uneasy in his own kingdom, but I have no intention of dying for the sake of his pride.

“Take it,” he decides, like an idiot, stepping onto the road with purpose. “We’re getting close. The valley that hides the Keep should be just around those hills.”

The forested hills ahead that, like all the rest, hide potential adversaries from view. Anyone who travels this road is locked in between them and utterly exposed.

“It’s too open,” I insist.

“It’s ours,” he replies, meaning Telyan’s, but what if it’s not?

“So was Roanin.” I grind a heel into the ground.

“So is Roanin. It’s been evacuated, not lost. Come on.”

Doubt flaring, I fall into step beside him, keeping an eye on the patchy woods. Perfect coverage for an ambush. I can’t help but study the shadows within as Weslyn plows ahead.

I swear by the river, one of them shifts.

“Weslyn.”

“Relax, Helos. I know where we are.”

“So will anyone scouting these hills,” I tell him, nervous now. “We should get off the road.”

“Despite what you seem determined to believe, I’m not stupid,” he says, rather shortly. “I don’t doubt we’re being watched. But our soldiers are not trained to kill on sight, and in any case, they will recognize me.”

Astra’s tail stiffens as she keeps to Weslyn’s side, either picking up on my own misgivings or sensing something else amiss. My heart rate kicks up as we walk another thirty paces or so. Far up and to our left, a shadow shifts again.

“Get back here,” Weslyn calls, but I don’t take orders from him and am already climbing the slope. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that the people in these hills might not be Telyans. My hands curl into fists at my side, weaponless, but there’s always the elk. Sharp antlers and powerful hooves.

I melt into the coverage of low-hanging elms and adjust my gait until my footfalls could passably sound like a small animal rustling the undergrowth. I hope. Sure enough, I spot a sky-blue shirt and black trousers moving through the trees, the stranger facing away from me, a knife at his side. His proximity is a bit of a shock, really, considering I haven’t seen another person aside from Weslyn in almost a week. A soldier from the Keep—or an Eradain scout, perhaps?

Remembered fear flutters in my chest, but it’s best to take no chances. Besides, if Rora were here, she wouldn’t hesitate. Lock it away. I creep up behind him—the fool doesn’t even turn, thank fortune—and disarm him clumsily but successfully. Ignoring his stuttered cry, I grab his slender shoulders and slam him against the nearest trunk, raising a hand to his throat.

At the sight of his face, the air rushes from my lungs.

Messy blond waves. Crystal-blue eyes. Hollowed cheeks and a small, bewildered smile stretching across his narrow face.

“Hello,” says Finley.

 

Excerpted from Wildbound, copyright © 2022 by Elayne Audrey Becker.

citation

Back to the top of the page

1 Comment

Subscribe to this thread

Post a Comment

All comments must meet the community standards outlined in Tor.com's Moderation Policy or be subject to moderation. Thank you for keeping the discussion, and our community, civil and respectful.

Hate the CAPTCHA? Tor.com members can edit comments, skip the preview, and never have to prove they're not robots. Join now!

Our Privacy Notice has been updated to explain how we use cookies, which you accept by continuing to use this website. To withdraw your consent, see Your Choices.