READ THE FIRST TWO CHAPTERS: Uncaged (Unspoken Series, #2), by Celia McMahon
Happy Sunday! This Tuesday, we'll get to dive back into the kingdom of curses, usurper kings, and concealed magic with the highly-anticipated sequel to Celia McMahon's Unspoken—but, for now, here are the first TWO chapters of book two in the Unspoken Series, UNCAGED...
Start with book ONE, here!
Preorder UNCAGED, here!
“Come closer. Let me look upon you. Oh, yes, I know you. Word has reached my ears. You are a legend. The princess who became a wolf. Now tell me, what could possess you to do such a thing? Oh, is he standing right behind you? Come closer. Let me look upon your face.
Light pierced through my eyelids as I stirred awake. I groaned and turned, shaking the dream-voice from my head. The smell of the fire from the night before burned my nostrils, igniting the remainder of my senses. The whistle of the wind. The taste of rabbit on my tongue. The battering of my panicked heart against my ribs.
I sat up as the slow steady rise of the sun lit the forest. My blanket froze overnight, so I shook it out and laid it over a nearby tree branch. I should go and find food, but my muscles ached and my head felt light. Instead, I sat against a tree in the snow, looking out at the mountains that encased me, and watched helplessly as a new day pulled me in.
We’d traveled for eight days through the Archway and into the mountains, leaving behind my old home of Stormwall, where, by now, Dal Paratheon and his son, Ashe, had taken the throne alongside the Voiceless Gwylis—cursed people of the Old Kingdom. Wolves. Where my mother fit into all of this remained to be seen. She had been alive when I last saw her, knocked unconscious by my own hand. My father died by my teeth. I never thought about him. I still didn’t. But I did remember.
I wished I could forget them. When I’d gone to Wargrave—the skanky shop owner of the Barge—I’d “hoped that when I became a wolf, my past would be erased. As if everything up until the moment Aquarius bit me would have been nothing but a bad dream. But just looking at my reflection made it impossible to push the memories aside. And the dreams got worse as the days went on.
It was always the same. I’m walking through a deep cave and there’s a pool of water and the voice—the voice says the same thing over and over again, and I can’t make it stop. I see shadows lurking in the corners of my vision—quick and gone before I turn my head. Before my cousin Lulu died, she told me that she’d had the very same dream. Only it never finished for her. I wondered how long it would be before I heard everything the woman’s voice had to say.
I swallowed, sniffed the air, and watched the sun rise. Despite my muscles’ objections, I pushed to my feet and headed into the woods.
The snow was about knee-deep in some places and took a bit of effort to push through. I went slow. There were predators out there. Bears. Wildcats. Even wolves.
But it didn’t matter anymore. Back in my old life, it would matter, but now it was different. Now they were afraid of me.
“Lulu,” I said into the frosty morning air. “Henry.”
The names of my cousin and brother brought life when life was no longer there. I was afraid that if I didn’t say it often enough, they would fade away, lost in time and memory.
I wished I could forget.
But I couldn’t. Somewhere out in the Old Kingdom, Henry took his last breath, both as a human and a Gwylis. He may have showed me what our father had done, but I had to know how my brother had come to the decision of betraying his flesh and blood. There was so much I didn’t know.
My boots crunched along the ground. Henry’s old wrapped boots. I clutched the emerald necklace at my neck, letting the familiarity of my brother’s gift calm my nerves. I walked until I came to a spot by a river that cut horizontally through the range of mountains. Fray was there, bent over our doused fire, watching the smoke rise into the trees. I noticed our horse was already packed and saddled. Fray looked tired. With my mind as scattered as it was, he’d done more than pull my weight alongside his own.
I took in the moment of Fray, unaware of my presence until I remembered what he was. His clear blue eyes locked onto mine, and I instantly drowned.
“Izzy,” he said. Still a man of few words.
Fray Castor used to be a Voiceless, but because of Pyrus’ cure, he’d regained his voice. Each and every day since, it still made my heart skip a beat. My name on his lips was like honey. When he looked at me, I was reminded of the tiny vials in my pack. One cured an affliction. One took a life.
I smiled, took his face in my hands, and pushed aside strands of hair from his eyes and the bridge of his nose. His hair had grown unruly—he refused to let me properly comb it out—and a shadow of stubble ran the length of his jawline and upper lip. I kissed him, and a warmth ran through my body. He pulled me closer locking me in his arms. The tightness in my chest loosened. When I was with him, everything felt all right. He took away the voices, if only for a little while.
“How are you?” he asked when we pulled apart. His words were smoke in the chill air. He looked into my eyes, but I couldn’t seem to meet his. “Dreams again?”
“I don’t really understand it,” I told him. I watched the river take an old log downstream and swallowed the lump building in my throat. I wished he’d never asked. “It’s like it’s trying to tell me something, but I don’t get it.” I shrugged. “That’s it. I don’t get it.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
I knew what he meant. It was more than a simple question with a simple answer. What he wanted to know was what I’d seen painted across his face the very moment I’d climbed the stage where he was to be executed. What he wanted to know was how I had created the barrier that surrounded us—that ultimately saved us from the barrage of arrows set to kill the man I loved.”
I had used magic; I knew this well. But it was a magic that seemed to scare Fray and, in turn, scare me.
I pondered day after day how to talk about it, how to tell Fray about Aquarius and how I’d come to know the old wolf that Wargrave kept in his cellar. But that would mean I would have to talk about Wargrave, which led to my dear cousin Lulu and all the things that hurt my heart to remember. To speak of the life before we’d crossed through the Archway was speaking of a world that no longer existed. My life was stitched together with a hundred memories of things I wanted to forget. Though I knew the time would come, today was not that day.
Fray waited for me to answer as long as he could. Eventually he dropped his eyes, pressing his lips together like he was holding in something he wanted to say.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered. Shame burned my cheeks. How many times had I done this—made Fray feel as though I was as fragile as glass so that he felt like he had to sidestep around my feelings? “I promise when we settle, I will tell you everything I know,” I said, “and we can figure out the things I don’t.”
“Maybe when we get closer to my home, we can find out.”
Closer to Fray’s home meant cutting through some dangerous terrain, avoiding the main roads, some of which my father and his men had taken. Some of which may still be occupied by Mirosa’s army. But traveling the woods was easy. I felt at home in them, more so now than ever before.
Somewhere deep in the mountains was Fray’s old pack. They lived in a place Fray called the Den, which Fray described as an area that overlooked a large crystalline lake where everybody knew each other’s names. I smiled at that last bit. It seemed like a good place to put down roots. He mentioned in passing how unreachable it was by human feet, especially during this time of year, when the snow piled on inches almost every day. The sun would melt it and more would come, and some days there wasn’t any sun at all, leaving the ground high and frozen. Not at all treacherous for wolf paws, though I preferred to stay in my human form. I knew there were still Mirosian armies out there who hadn’t yet heard of what happened. Better safe than sorry.
I wondered if Fray feared the Den was no longer standing. His reluctance to even answer direct questions about his home led to more silences than necessary. I wished I could take some of his burden and add it to my own, since it weighed me down anyway. The unknown path that lay ahead of me branched out a hundred different directions. One wrong choice, and I’d lose everything. But when I felt that tang of fear, I remembered that Henry had come through this land. If he could do it, so could I.
“Are you hungry?”
I shook my head and felt his arms wrap around my body. A soft voice in my ear said, “Liar. You’re always hungry.”
He had a point. I’d probably kill for some of the palace’s baked delights, but as with all things, I forced myself to forget them. Maybe the Den would have bakers just as good, but for now, I would stick to eating campfire meat. Maybe as a wolf, I’d find the taste of undercooked meat a little more satiable. But I wasn’t ready to try.
Fray held me tighter, and all thoughts of my former life vanished. “We’re going to get through it,” he said.
I held him to that.
The river was freezing, but I didn’t feel it. I stripped naked and bathed the best I could. After, I pulled on my riding pants, tunic, cloak, and lastly my braided leather boots—Ashe’s boots from when Fray made him relinquish them so we could get away. They bore extra scuffs and some blood. I wondered whose blood it was. I couldn’t be sure. It felt eons ago.
A sudden shiver rippled through me and turned my attention across the river’s edge. Something moved: a disturbance of underbrush too heavy to be the wind, but I could not discern its origin from this distance. A deer or some other woodland creature that would or would not end up on a stick on our campfire? The scent of the animal replaced all others and filled my nostrils. I inhaled it into my lungs, tasting it on my tongue, and found it not to be prey. A strange warning crawled inside of me. Crouched down, I watched the figure come. It materialized like a ghost from the feathery, snow-packed branches and stopped just along the river’s edge.
There stood a massive wolf, its fur black as my own, its tail longer than the length of my own body. There was snow crusted over the top of its head, forming a crown. There was gray on his chest.
The word caught in my throat. Gwylis.
Its eyes were bright yellow.
It was watching me.
I rose slowly, setting my shoulders back. Could it smell me? Did it know that I wasn’t human?
It stared at me for a moment longer before its ears pricked, showing me that it was well aware of my presence. Then, without a sound, it turned and disappeared into the skeleton trees. Did it know that I was one of them?
Was it on our side?
I found Fray back at our camp, adjusting the saddle on our horse, his hood pulled over his head. He was hard at work pulling the straps tight when I came up beside him.
“I think we’re being followed,” I said.
He turned, the hood obstructing one half of his face. “I know. He’s been tracking us since we left Stormwall.”
I eyed Fray suspiciously. “He has? There’s no way . . . why didn’t you tell me?”
“Because he’s not a threat. Honestly, I thought he’d die by now.” He let out a quick laugh. “Must be hard hunting with one arm.”
I stepped back, confused. “What?”
Fray turned his entire body to me and frowned. “Prince Paratheon.” He narrowed his eyes. “Wait. You’re not talking about him?”
“No.” I shook my head, still confused. “No, Fray, I wasn’t.” I looked away, still shaking my head. My thoughts returned to this new revelation that Ashe was following us. How had he survived out here all alone? He should be dead, and I’d be glad for it.
I blew out a gust of air, exasperated. Despite all that, I wished he hadn’t done such a foolish thing like following us through the Archway. For some reason, I wished he was safe. “A wolf,” I finally said. “I saw a wolf on the river’s edge.”
Fray raised his eyebrows and nodded knowingly. “The pack,” he says. “No need to worry. They probably sensed us long ago. It’s a good sign.”
He turned to me, squinting against the sun. “It means they’re still alive.”
That was one good thing, at least. “Well, what do we do about Ashe?”
Fray tightened the last of the straps and shook his head before putting one foot in the stirrup and swinging a long leg over the seat. He gripped his reins and gave a heavy sigh. “He’s good as dead, Izzy. Especially if the Gwylis find him. Unless you want me to—”
“No,” I said. He was right. If the Gwylis didn’t kill him, then the elements would.
Later that evening, after we’d built a fire and caught supper, I sat between Fray’s legs, staring at the fire, drifting in and out with my head tucked in the space between his chest and shoulder. Fray said I’d get used to the sensitive hearing, but for now, every branch snapping and every rustle of leaves sounded as if they were right by my ears.
“You said you knew the wolf whose head was staked in front of the castle gates,” I said. “What was his name?”
Fray shifted. “Why do you want to know that?”
“Because he was important to you, and I’d like to know his name.”
“His name was Jonai,” Fray said in a tight voice. He trembled a little, and I pretended not to notice.
“How long did you know him?”
“Only a year or two. He’d been living in Stormwall quite a while by then. He’d avoided the Voiceless poison by fleeing past the Archway during the war. He’d avoided much up until that point. But he was like many—torn between his two worlds. He liked the speed of the wolf and the feelings of being human.”
“Never both at once?”
“Always both at once.”
Fray was quiet for a while. I listened to the fire crackle and the wind make the branches tap against the trees. He locked his fingers into mine with tight strength. I’d been careless with his heart. I needed to be better.
“Will you tell me about your people?” I asked. He knew all about my own family, so it only seemed fair.
“What do you want to know?”
I turned so that I was facing him. I studied the lines of his face and planted a soft kiss to his lips, finally turning his near-constant frown upward. “Everything.”
“I’d have to go pretty far back, but I’ll keep it brief.”
“Fray was still familiarizing himself with talking. He did in small bursts, and only after much thought of how he’d form the words. Which is why I knew that when he spoke, it was from his heart. He never said anything just to say it. It all meant something to him. Maybe more than I would ever realize.
“Long ago,” he began, “we were all children of the gods. They blessed us with their powers, entrusted us, and with them we built cities and ideas. We fashioned weapons for hunting, formidable and ever-lasting. We imbued them with magic. We mixed potions and healed. We could speak to the animals. It was a small magic, but it was good. It was safe.
“And then men grew to want more. The lust for power drove them through the mountains into the place you call the New Kingdom. There, they found new gods to worship, but their magic waned because the gods had warned against leaving the land of creation. For that, they took away their magic, leaving them to their own devices. After, they grew bitter at the gods and vowed to destroy magic altogether. Thus the wars that brought your people to mine.
My father hated magic. My grandfathers sought out to erase it from history. As generations passed, nobody would remember it. By the time it came to me, the thought was a mere fantastical story in a child’s book. It did not exist. But it was the idea that some small part of it did. This was what drove him deeper and deeper into the Old Kingdom: to wipe out the existence of the ancient gods. And of the people we used to be.”
I recalled the words of Farrell, the old librarian in The Barge. Different than you and I. But once the same.
“After the reign of Aquarius and the deal with the Uncanny,” Fray continued, “the gods decided that we were lost and abandoned us too. We used to be able to heal each other, make the flowers grow, and create music and art. We traded our small magic for something far more destructive.” Fray paused briefly. “We used to look at the moon and see magic. People like your father looked and saw power. We no longer have the abilities to better the world. Only ruin."
“Do you believe that?” I asked, repeating what I had asked Farrell. “Do you believe they truly sold their souls?”
Fray’s eyebrows sank down low over his eyes. He looked at me as though nobody had ever asked the question before. Maybe they hadn’t. “I think we all failed in the gods’ eyes. New and old alike.”
It wasn’t the answer I wanted, but it was the one that made the most sense.
I remembered looking out my balcony window toward the mountains to a place as unknown as the meaning of a dream, yet I knew I belonged there. I thought it was so infinite that there must be room for me. I knew I’d been naïve. Was I still? To think that the world could be fixed with one choice, by one small person who looked at things from a different angle, who asked the right questions? Would things ever get better? Could the gods forgive us for what we’d done?
Could we still be saved?
Sudden fear spread through me. What would we find at the Den? I knew by looking at Fray that the Gwylis could not all be wicked. But I’d seen the shadows creeping in the dark corners of the world, slipping in and out of my vision. What if the Uncanny affected people differently? What if they took one look at me and killed me?
I realized I’d been so lost in thought that I forgot to blink. Or even breathe.
Fray framed my face with his hands and drew me closer. “Please, don’t worry. You’re worrying too much.”
Was I? I smiled despite the doubt inside of me and kissed him until they melted away.
In my mind, I saw nothing but him, and I let my body sink into the warmth his touch brought me. I trained my ears to the rustle of leaves, to the sounds of animals in the underbrush . . . anything other than the thoughts in my head. With my eyes still shut, I brought his hard, calloused hand down from my cheeks to my waist. This the thing I was sure of. The thing I would never question.
He laid down, and I tucked myself against him, our bodies linked.
My sleep was surprisingly peaceful.
Until I woke to what sounded like a hundred wolves howling.
I felt Fray move out from beside me. His arm that once held me tight went for the sword that he’d lain beside us. A few heartbeats passed before the black of the woods was lit by hundreds of glowing eyes. I sat up slowly, taking a stance behind Fray, my hands on his waist.
“Care to wager a bet that whether or not this is your estranged family?” I whispered.
“Let me do the talking, Izzy,” Fray replied.
“So, what are you wagering?”
His answer did nothing to stop the panic from rising in my chest. I walked in step with Fray, keeping behind him like a shadow. My own dagger was in its sheath on the horse. With how unstable I was with my newfound magic, I wished I’d brought it for a sense of familiarity, if nothing else.