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.
“I think you’ve come far enough,” came a low grumble.
A Gwylis shed the darkness and came into view. It was the black wolf with the gray chest that I’d seen earlier that day. He was so much bigger up close. He stalked slowly to where we stood, sniffing the air. He made no threatening movements, yet he didn’t seem overly comfortable in our presence. Snow fell, dotting the wolf with specks of white.
As it approached, I had to remind myself of who I was. I am Isabelle Victoria Rowan and I will kill you if you try to kill us.
With every beat that passed, I began to think about Stormwall. Though I’d been trying to will myself to be calm, anger began to simmer just under my skin. I remembered the way the Gwylis tore through my home, how they obeyed the commands of a foreign king. I felt the sting of the arrow they’d shot me with. The screams of the innocent. The sounds of gnashing teeth and thundering storm clouds.
I am a Gwylis now. But I will never forget.
“Brother,” Fray said, lowering his sword. “I don’t mean harm.”
The wolf’s chest quaked. “How do you speak?” he asked. “What magic is this? What devils did you conjure?”
“Not magic. Just a simple potion of—”
“You smell of death,” the wolf said. His voice was so cold that I began to tremble. Good or bad? Good or bad?
“I’ve been through quite a lot,” Fray said, simplifying his answer.
The wolf lowered his head. And then shifted his yellow eyes from Fray. His ruff bristled. Bent low, he uttered a growl from his open maw. Fray swung both hands behind his back, locking me in.
“She’s with me,” he said. He spread his legs apart and repeated it through gritted teeth. “She’s with me.”
The wolf growled, this time louder and fiercer. “She reeks of royalty,” he snarled. “We do not allow her kind here. Wolf or not.”
“She is my responsibility,” Fray said. “And you can’t make us go.”
“What is her name?” a voice said.
“Yes, tell us your name, sweet thing,” another voice chided.
Sweet thing? “I am Isabelle Victoria Rowan, and I am a Gwylis like you,” I snapped. “Don’t talk to me like a child, or I’ll—”
“Stop!” The black wolf stepped forward, quicker this time, full of purpose. The wolves between the trees began to shuffle and growl. It sounded like a storm of teeth and rustling underbrush. I felt them move away. Recoiling from my name, no doubt. Would they kill me then? Hold me accountable for my father’s actions? Was it just as I feared?
How naïve I was. I was in a world I could not control.
I found the black wolf staring straight at me. As hard as it was to glean any sort of expression from an animal, I could at least see that he was not snarling at me; instead, his look bordered more on curiosity than murder. I let Fray’s hands drop from their grip, and I stepped out from behind him. It wasn’t until the wolf broke contact with me that I realized Fray’s whispers under his breath.
Fray’s transformation knocked me back. For the third time since we’d been together, he became an oversized brown wolf, broad and muscular and filled with power beyond my understanding. He was incredibly handsome despite the bloodthirsty snarls curling from his throat. A blue glow emanated from his paws as ice crystals collected on the ground with each step he took. He snapped at the other wolf and lunged, pinning him to the earth in a sudden flurry of fur and roars.
“Please, stop! Don’t hurt him!” I screamed the words, not even sure who I directed them toward.
The other wolf threw Fray off and scrambled to his feet. He backed away toward the tree line, toward the advancing wolves behind him, his jaw dripping with saliva.
I stood back, my chest heaving, wondering whether I should change or let this unfold without me. It became clear the longer the two wolves stood facing off that neither was going to kill the other.
“You could never stay human for long, Castor,” said the black wolf. “Always more wolf than human and not very well-mannered.”
Fray’s entire body seemed to tremble. The other wolf pawed the ground. Both turned away. Whatever passed between them was fleeting, but not so quick that I did not take notice that their relationship was storied and somehow dropping in contempt.
Fray shook his ruff, saliva flinging from his open maw. “Such are we all.”
“We forbid what you’ve done, Castor,” said the wolf. “She will look upon you for only a second before casting you away.”
Fray bristled at this. “I did not bite her, Olio.”
Olio, as he was called, raised his head, his body tense. “Who changed her?” His stare drifted from Fray to me and stayed there. “Who changed you, girl?”
Fray stared at me, agonizingly long. He didn’t need to be human to read the look. It’s time to talk about it, Izzy.
I stepped forward. “I was changed by a wolf called Aquarius,” I said. “Back in Stormwall in a place called the Barge—”
A strange sound erupted from Olio’s chest. A laugh? “Aquarius is long dead, girl. It won’t do you good to lie to me.” He cocked his large head. “First impressions and all.”
Fray let out a puff of air. “That’s impossible.”
“I assure you, Aquarius is very much alive,” I insisted. I thought of the great wolf’s pathetic state in the cellar of Wargrave’s Wears and lowered my gaze. “More or less.”
“She lies!” a voice said through the darkness. A dozen more called out the same. Olio called for quiet, and for a moment there was nothing but the sound of our own breathing.
I shook my head, unsure of why everyone was reacting the way they were. I set my gaze on Olio. “I did what I had to do,” I snarled, then looked into the woods at the wolves watching me from the shadows. “And you don’t get to call me a liar. You don’t know me at all!”
“Which is why we don’t trust you,” Olio said coolly.
Fray bristled. “I trust her.”
Olio laughed. “But I don’t trust you, Castor, so that doesn’t hold up much, does it?”
My eyes danced between the two wolves. I’d been so selfish to not give a thought to whether or not Fray would be welcomed back home. I’d only thought of myself. Now, there was a chance we’d both be cast away for separate crimes. Why did we come here? We could leave now. There was still a chance . . .
After a tense minute of deciding which direction to run, Olio finally spoke up. “Come here,” he demanded.
“I will not,” I said, undeterred. “You cannot tell me what to do.”
Olio seethed, his head sweeping up and down. “Can’t I? You are on my land, need I remind you?”
I started to speak but thought better of it. I walked until I was beside Fray. He lowered his head so I could rest my hand on his muzzle.
“Is it true?” he asked, softly.
Olio coughed. “I don’t have all day.”
I moved forward, conjuring all the courage I kept reserved for moments like this, and stopped inches from Olio, close enough to feel his breath on my skin. I stood, looking up at his massive height, and exhaled. I was exhausted, mind, body, and soul. I yearned for a soft place to sleep. Maybe this pack could give it to us.
“Is she telling the truth?” asked another wolf from the darkness.
Olio’s upper lip twitched. “She can’t be.”
I held out my arms, inviting him closer. “Wrong. Try again.”
A tense moment passed.
“Well, is she?” barked another.
Olio dipped his head, taking in my scent. When he met my eyes again, my heart stuttered. His ears suddenly stood stick-straight, and his muzzle wrinkled. Even before he spoke, the message was clear.”
They were going to kill me.
“You can’t, and you know it.”
Fray stepped between me and Olio, nudging me away with his great muzzle. This wasn’t going well at all.
Olio peeled back his lips, revealing bone white teeth. “Castor, we don’t need trouble,” he said. “I’ll give you a head-start. Think of it as a parting gift.” Some of the other Gwylis huffed in laughter. “But if we catch you, we kill you.”
I put distance between us, clumsy on my feet. A thousand heartbeats went by before anyone spoke again. Darkness slithered across my vision as I began my chant, my mind made up to fight or die—the most natural feeling for me now.
I stood, steeling myself, legs spread shoulder-width apart, hands balled into fists, my body suddenly hot as flames. “You touch him, and I will rip out your throat and swallow it whole,” I said carefully, quietly, pausing my change, waiting for a reprieve. I didn’t want to kill anyone, but I’d done so before and would again if it meant keeping Fray and myself safe. “It’s not cake, but it’ll do fine.”
There was a burst of smoke in the cold air as Olio exhaled.
“I like you,” he said with a laugh. I wasn’t sure if I believed him, but he took no threatening stance toward Fray or myself. I seemed to have impressed him somehow. The other wolves either hadn’t heard his order or chose to disobey, because they stayed in the shadows. Some eyes flashed in and out. Were they cowering?
“If she is a daughter of Aquarius, the queen will never accept her,” Olio stated.
“Why?” I asked boldly, the heat in my body still raging. “I’m just like you. Maybe a little better looking.”
Olio uttered a husky laugh and sat back onto his haunches. He seemed to observe me with new eyes. I felt different suddenly, as if the promise of a fight sparked the old Izzy—the one who faced everything with snark.
Within a split second, Olio’s wolf form evaporated, shrinking and melting away into a human—a completely naked one, lean and tall, a few years older than I with hair just as long as my own. “You are not like me,” he said, knowing something I didn’t, and turned away toward the trees. “You’re not like any of us.”
“What does that mean?” I asked. I turned to Fray, who was back in human form and dusting himself off.
“It means you’ve been bitten by one of the most powerful Gwylis to ever walk this land,” he responded coolly. “The very first Gwylis, to be exact.”
I met Fray’s eyes with abject shock. “The first Gwylis?” I asked, my voice half surprised, half angry. “The very one who—”
“Made the deal with the Uncanny?” Olio finished, still out of sight. “The one and only.”
Fray sighed. I prepared myself for a tongue-lashing. Gods, I deserved it. I let the Gwylis king bite me! The powers Aquarius must hold . . . the powers I now held that I still didn’t know anything about—they could be depthless. My head began to spin.
But instead of anger, Fray chose understanding.
“Izzy didn’t know, and if she did, I’m sure she’d do it all over again the very same way.”
I smiled. Understanding and a little bit of snark.
“Castor?” Olio stepped back into view. He wore pants and nothing else. Small victories. “I don’t have all night.”
Fray furrowed his brow and nodded reassuringly. I went to my horse, but Olio cut in, saying “Leave the horse, you won’t need it,” so I retrieved my pack, my dagger, and my bow, and by the light of the moon, we followed the pack into the woods.
I clung to Fray’s arm. For the first time since Fray had been captured, there was true fear gripping my heart. Never once had I thought that I’d be in danger amongst the Gwylis, but I still bore the Rowan name.
How could I expect anything less than pure hatred at the sight of me?
Olio lingered behind the rest of the pack, close enough to see his outline but far enough away for me to whisper to Fray as we wound our way through the forest that carpeted the mountains running north. None of Henry or Fray’s stories could have prepared me for such an uninhabited land. Though I hadn’t been outside of Stormwall, I knew the New Kingdom spread out west in lush country of hills and snaking rivers. Deserts rolled out in the south, sand like a crawling ocean, and cities jutted out like mountain peaks, built up and up. Never would I have thought the snowcapped mountains that separated both kingdoms were as monstrous as they were. After eight days out here, I expected more. What did my father see in this place?
“Aquarius was exiled, wasn’t he?” I asked Fray, who kept pace behind me.
“Not in the way you think,” he replied. “He banished himself. You see, he thought what he was doing was good, but he changed his mind.”
“How can you change your mind about such a thing?” To make sure an enormous choice for your own people and then turn your back on them was something I could not fathom doing. What had been going through Aquarius’s mind?
“Because he was still human,” said Olio.
Wolf hearing. Great.
“And because of that, we’re susceptible to the weakness of the human race,” Olio continued. He stopped so we could catch up to him. He was a lean man, all legs and torso. He had wild but clever dark eyes that locked onto me when I spoke, like he was actually listening, but liking him was very “much up in the air at that point. He certainly did not look at me as if I were royalty. In his eyes, I was probably less than the dirt between his paws.
“Greed,” he said. “Lust. Jealousy. Love. Regret.”
“Love is not a weakness,” I said.
“It is. Some mistake lust for love so often.” He stopped and waited for my reaction. I gave none, but he reiterated anyway, “It is.”
I rolled my eyes, unable to take anything Olio said to heart. He walked ahead again. “Okay, so Aquarius regretted the deal with the Uncanny. Did he need to isolate himself in the cellar of a crazy old man?”
Olio stopped walking again and looked at Fray. “You didn’t tell her?” Olio asked him.
I loathed when people talk about me as if I weren’t standing right there. “Tell me what?”
“I haven’t exactly had my voice for very long,” Fray said defensively. He gave Olio a pointed look.
“It’s not my fault you sided with the wrong pack, Castor. You all wanted to fight that king so badly, and he poisoned your tails.” He gave a look that said, You more than deserved it.
“I don’t understand,” I said.
“Tell her,” Olio replied and walked ahead. “You’ve got your voice. Use words like a big boy.”
I looked to Fray. “You don’t want to tell me?”
Fray sighed. “Listen, here’s the gist of it,” he said tightly as we began walking again. “Two packs emerged after the deal with the Uncanny. One wanted to fight, and the other didn’t. Olio is right. People change their minds all the time, and so it happened here."
All of this I knew, to an extent. The Gwylis had been fractured. Those who fought my father later bowed to him and soon integrated into life in the New Kingdom. Some even acted as palace servants.
I thought of Crim then, and my heart sank into my stomach. He had fought with Aquarius. All those who lost their voices had. That meant that the pack we were now headed to meet had avoided such a fate. There would be no Voiceless.
They would all be wolves.
Olio cleared his throat, bringing me back from my thoughts. Fray continued speaking: “The pack led by Aquarius was eventually poisoned by your father and lost their voices, rendering their power useless, so they gave in. The other pack fled, hidden away. That’s the one we’re going to, and it’s led by my mother."
He stopped and took my arms as his words started to process, albeit slowly. I was almost certain that I imagined them.
“Your mother . . .” My voice caught and vanished. I mouthed the next words—is Rixon?
The fire woman.
I’d seen her once. She walked out of the old crone Abiyaya’s fireplace, cloaked in flames as if she were created from it. She and the soothsayer had spoken more than once, I assumed, by the familiarity of their encounter. Her magic was strong. She was the queen.
“She’s the one who turned you when you were a baby,” I said, my words broken.
Fray came up close, putting his forehead to my own. His face was a heap of emotion, and my stomach sank at the thought of him feeling pain.
I didn’t want to hate Rixon, but I did.
I curled my hands into fists, then slowly relaxed them. “Fray, it’s all right.”
“I’m sorry that I didn’t tell you.” He ran a hand through his hair. Some of it fell into his eyes. “I’m unprepared for all of this.”
“I know.” I pressed my body close to his as the sound of Olio clearing his throat sounded from the shadows. He’s sorry for withholding information, but I’ve done the same. “There’s time for everything, isn’t there?”
Fray nodded, his lips meeting my skin in the place between my neck and shoulder. “Yes, there’s time.”
We walked far from our camp through the mountain passes toward a steep cliff overlooking a great lake. It was not the sea and its salty air, but I could still smell the crisp water—even under the layer of ice—just as well as I could smell the pine from beneath the snow-drenched trees.
When Aquarius had changed me into a Gwylis, I had no time to learn everything there was to know. Fray was still trying to remember his power for himself. I couldn’t expect him to teach me. There were times when I’d forget that I was different. Until the smells or the sounds and the burning way my heart tugged me into the wild woods to stand atop a cliff and stare at the moon.
We descended the cliff, heading east, keeping the lake within my peripheral. I wondered what it was like in the summer months. I wondered what it would be like to swim in it as a wolf. But just like every other instance of wondering who I now was, I pushed it back into the furthest reaches of my mind. One step at a time, Izzy.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“The Den,” Olio replied, pointing off into the distance. “Just over that rise.” He grinned, and added, “Princess.”
He darted out of reach of Fray’s flying fist, disappearing into the darkness ahead.
“I really don’t like him,” Fray said. “Never have.”
The trail declined as we rounded a corner, further down the dark, rocky path. I caught a glimpse of our destination briefly as the path bent and turned. A tower in the distance, lit by torches, smoke rising into the night. And then the voices of the Gwylis who had gone ahead.
No, not voices. Howls.
A few minutes more of descending the winding path, and we came to it at last. The Den, a compound surrounded by a massive wall of stone, crowned the top of a slope with hundreds of burning torches all around it. Though small from this distance, I felt the imposing crush of this place. Watchtowers jutted up like spearheads from the walls, and I could make out figures moving atop them. The full moon rose overhead, a sentinel in the star-spattered sky.
I’d imagined what Fray’s home would look like, but my imaginings were nothing like this. Compared to the visions I’d had of it, this was so much more exotic. I could feel the excitement warming Fray’s skin and the jarring way he flinched his eyes. This was the first time he’d been home in years. Everything about it must have felt familiar. Yet not.
I looked back at the dark forest, jarred by its stillness and by what laid ahead.
Olio appeared at Fray’s side. “Still want to go see Mommy?”
Fray shifted as if he were cracking his back and nodded, serious despite the humor in Olio’s tone. He looked to me, his eyes smiling in a way that I knew was forced. He studied the sight for a moment longer before descending the slope.
There wasn’t much space between the ridge and the entrance, so we all moved single file. Olio and his men became clearer as we approached the bright light of the torches. They were all shirtless, lean, and toned. It was their eyes that startled me. Clear and bright and wild. Just like Fray’s.
They stop at the gate, where Olio pounded both fists rapidly against the wood as if he were playing drums. Soon, there were dozens on fists drumming back at him, a chorus paired with yelps and hollers.
“Open up, Kap!” Olio called out.
“Not until you yelp like a pup!”
The male’s voice came from above, some fifty feet in the air. A face came into view, hanging upside-down. A child, but there was no telling how young.
“Who’s that with you?” the boy asked. He twisted, peering down, and suddenly threw down what appeared to be a torch. The second it landed, it burst, flame and embers filling the space between me and the gate. I hopped back as the air erupted in a chorus of enthused yips. “We got a new girl and—” He hung down so far that I thought he was going to fall to his death, “—shit. Open the gates!”
“Welcome home,” Olio said as he swept past us. The massive doors groaned as they opened, like a beast opening its mouth to swallow us whole.
From a distance, the Den seemed like a mystery. But once inside its walls, it was a different story.
We were led inward by Olio. As we took our first steps into the city, I could feel hundreds of eyes on me, like I was a horse at an auction. Small buildings lined the main road—homes by the look of them—dozens of cooking fires sending smoke into the night sky like diabolical ghosts. It was quiet save for the whispers that followed in our wake. I tried to block them out, but it was no use. They asked who we were. They wondered if we were a threat. I couldn’t blame them for their suspicions. I’d be wary of a princess turned wolf, too.
As we moved inward, I caught the distant sound of music and a woman singing sweetly. The rhythm started slow and then quickened. The voice accompanying the song grew into a haunting keening that goose-pimpled my skin. She sounded broken. She sounded sad.
“This way,” said Olio in a bored voice. He led up through the center of town to a looming structure with double towers that stretched into the night sky. I’d forgotten all about the music as I stared. A pair of iron-bound wooden doors caught my eyes as we passed. Was I expecting someone to come out and greet me? The building did look like a smaller version of the palace in Stormwall. Far be it to house its own royalty.
“That’s where my mother lives,” Fray said, glowering up at the structure. He blinked away a fleeting memory. “It’s been a long time.”
“She’s not here.” A brawny man moved from the shadows of the towers. A guard.
Olio scoffed and flicked his wrist. “Surprise, surprise. Where is she then?”
“Where do you think?”
I studied the guard, Olio, and Fray. They all seemed to know the answer to the question, but nobody offered it to me. Instead, Olio turned away and grunted.
“Go away, you scavengers,” he snarled at the crowd of people forming around us. But they didn’t. Some began asking who I was. Some even started to pull on my cloak and sniff me. I got the feeling that they could smell my anxiety as if it were blood.
More people slid from their homes, peeked through windows. Olio’s men dispersed and we were left with just Olio to lead us. He snipped and snarled at the people that gathered. A slight woman rose from a bench and gawked for a moment before coming toward us. Her pace quickened almost to a jog before she stopped, impeding the path just in front of Fray. Something heated up between the two of them, and the world fell into a thick silence.
“How long’s it been, Igosho?” the woman asked, her tone flat. Her dark eyes swept over Fray, and once they locked with his again, her mouth twisted in disgust. “Do you even know?”
Before Fray could answer, the woman pivoted her gaze to me as if just realizing that I was there. She was beautiful like a storm, thrumming with charged energy. Her demeanor demanded attention. And respect. Her blue-black hair braided and twisted in a way that reminded me of what my mother would do to my own. I was suddenly and painfully aware of how far from home I really was.
“Many years,” said Fray, fighting the urge to say more to this woman. “She used to be a princess. Now she’s one of us, and I’d like you stop looking like that, Sonia.”
Sonia gaped looking from Fray to me and then back to Fray. There was a questioning look in her eyes, and I got the feeling it had nothing to do with me.
I held myself back from asking questions. I was stepping into Fray’s world. Fray’s past. I would need more than a night to determine how each and every person here fit into it. If they did at all. Sonia, I was quick to realize, had a history with Fray that extended deep. And it wasn’t a good history, it seemed.
“A Rowan,” she said, practically spitting the name, but before I could say a word, Olio stepped between them and held his hands up to Sonia.
“Play nice, now,” he said, sticking his finger in her face. She swatted it away. “You know the law, Sonia. Gather the elders quickly so we can decide if they can stay for tonight at least. I don’t know about you, but I’d like to get a nap before the sun comes up.”
I remembered Olio’s seemingly easy decision to have me killed. Could these elders make the same choice? If they didn’t kill us, would they cast us out? Where would we go next? My vow of taking things one day at a time began weaken in favor of casting doubt on everything.
Sonia shook her head, a look of disgust on her face. “How is he speaking?” she snapped at Olio. She looked back to me, and my body tensed. “What do you have to say for yourself, Princess?”
A flash of heat warmed my cheeks. My hands balled into fists without me even realizing it, but before I could even conjure a retort, Olio interfered and pushed Sonia back. She bristled at this, baring her teeth.
“Your bitterness can wait a night,” Olio said, gaining control of the situation. He noticed my shaking hands before I did and narrowed his eyes at me. “You don’t want to fight this pup.” I made a face, but he ignored it entirely. “Believe me, Sonia. This can wait.”
Sonia stepped back, her wicked smile full of challenge. I felt her eyes boring into me as we passed, and it stung like a needle in my skin.
“Is she always like that?” I asked.
Fray laughed bitterly. “Always."