FAEBOUND by Saara El-Arifi (EXCERPT)
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Saara El-Arifi’s highly-anticipated new novel FAEBOUND
Before we dive into the first chapter, let’s find out a little more about what we can expect:
Yeeran is a warrior in the elven army and has known nothing but violence her whole life. Her sister, Lettle, is trying to make a living as a diviner, seeking prophecies of a better future.
When a fatal mistake leads to Yeeran’s exile from the Elven lands, they are both forced into the terrifying wilderness beyond their borders. There they encounter the impossible: the fae court.
The fae haven’t been seen for a millennium. But now Yeeran and Lettle are thrust into their seductive world – torn between their loyalty to each other, their elven homeland, and their hearts. . .
Faebound is expected for release from HarperVoyager on the 18th January. You can pick up your copy from Bookshop.org
The story of the wheat, the bat, and the water
In the beginning there were three gods.
The god Asase came to being as a grain of wheat. A single particle that bloomed into life. As Asase grew, their roots became mountainsides and their leaves blossomed into forests. Valleys formed in the gaps of Asase’s branches and the knots in their bark became canyons.
And so, the earth was born.
The god Ewia flew in on wings of darkness to bring day and night to the world. As a bat with two heads they found their place in the sky above their sibling. When one face looked to the earth there was light, and when the other turned their gaze down- wards there was darkness.
And so, the sun was born.
The last god to appear in the universe was Bosome. They moved through Asase’s roots creating rivers and seas before residing next to Ewia, a silver droplet of water in the sky that ebbed and flowed with the turning of tides.
And so, the moon was born.
The three gods lived happily for many years until one day Asase said, ‘I wish for a child. I shall create one.’
From the seeds of the earth Asase made humans. Sprigs became bones and flowers sprouted smiles. Ewia seeing their sibling so happy with their children said, ‘I too wish for a child. I shall create one.’
And so, from the skin of their wings, Ewia made fae with pointed teeth and ears like bats.
Centuries passed and Bosome watched both their siblings in their happiness but saw their children’s faults. Humans were too fragile to survive long, and fae too arrogant to care much for their parents. So Bosome made the elves out of the waters of the world with the pointed ears of fae, but with the humble nature of the humans.
And for a time, all was well. But no matter how much the gods wished for peace, they had given their children the one thing that would never ensure it.
Yeeran was born on the battlefield, lived on the battlefield, and one day, she knew, she’d die on the battlefield.
Her first breaths were tinged with the smoke and ash of her mother’s dying enemies. And when Yeeran screamed, she joined the rallying cry of her tribe as they rode into battle. Soldiers giving birth on the front line wasn’t uncommon. If you could hold a drum, you could fight.
And yet we still don’t have enough soldiers.
Yeeran let out a heavy sigh as she surveyed the war map in front of her. Each valley and hill had been etched into the slab of oak by skilled cartographers. An expensive piece of craftmanship to have in a bed chamber, but Yeeran’s lover had never been called frugal.
The moonlight cast a shard of silver over the centre of the table where the four districts of the Elven Lands converged on the Bleeding Field, the front line of battle. She ran her gaze over the four quadrants of the map: Waxing, Crescent, Eclipse and finally her own elven tribe, Waning.
Her hand curled around the edge of the table, her nails making fine dents in the grain of the wood as she scrutinised the battlefield formations. White tokens tracked the locations of troops under her army’s direction.
Yeeran’s eyes homed in on one regiment that lay in wait by the eastern tower of the garrison. Hers.
‘Yeery,’ the nickname was breathed into the silence. Salawa’s quiet steps had brought her to Yeeran’s side. ‘Come back to bed.’ Her breath was hot as she brushed her lips against the shaved sides of Yeeran’s hair towards the pointed tips of her ears.
Yeeran’s hand slid up Salawa’s back and tangled her fingers in the edges of the woman’s braids. They hung heavy against her naked skin, weighed down with beads and gemstones.
‘I can’t sleep.’
Salawa didn’t respond for a time. Yeeran liked that about her lover, that each second was considered, every thought knitted together, before she spoke.
‘Twenty years you have waited to be promoted to colonel. Few thought you’d do it before your thirty-fifth birthday, yet here you are, the youngest colonel the Waning Army has ever had—’
‘Not until tomorrow.’
Salawa inhaled sharply. She didn’t like to be interrupted. Yeeran’s hands slipped up from Salawa’s clavicle until it rested against her cheek. It was only then that Salawa softened enough to continue.
‘Sleep will not take this moment away from you. Your new regiment will be there in the morning.’
Salawa looked to the window where the city of Gural pulsed as the heartbeat of the Waning district. Yeeran followed the direction of her gaze.
Chimneys thrust up from domed roofs puffing smoke into the star-speckled sky. Yeeran knew that the taverns would be teeming with soldiers made merry by spiced rum. For the bakeries it wasn’t late night, it was early morning, and the aroma of their ovens seasoned the light wind.
Yeeran watched the tenderness in Salawa’s face harden as she looked further, towards the Bleeding Field. Battle fire lit her green irises hazel and Yeeran felt herself burning from the flame reflected there.
‘I got you something, to celebrate your new title,’ Salawa said quietly.
Yeeran’s hand dropped from Salawa’s cheek. Her lover’s gifts were always ostentatious and gaudy. Yeeran didn’t wear jewellery or care for fine dresses. Neither helped her in combat.
The only thing she did keep on her was a small gold ring sewn into the lining of her uniform. It had no sentimental value for her, but she knew that, should she fall in battle, the ring would be rightfully claimed by the young children who made a living scavenging from the corpses of the army. With that ring, the children would be able to feed themselves for a year. Yeeran had spent many years of her childhood hoping to find such a boon.
‘I think you’ll really like this gift,’ Salawa said as she padded away to retrieve something from under her four-poster bed.
Yeeran gave her a tentative smile and Salawa laughed knowingly as she withdrew a large circular object wrapped in a leather sling.
It took Yeeran less than three steps to cross the room. She lifted the gift from Salawa’s outstretched hands and peeled back the grain of the leather to find the present within.
The drum was exquisitely crafted. The outer shell hewn in mahogany, making the barrel shine a deep crimson like fresh blood. The casing and hoop were gold and studded with sapphires. Beading threaded down the bowl of the drum, more for decoration than for sound. But the most beautiful thing by far was the black drumskin.
‘From an obeah elder?’ Yeeran murmured, her hand running over the stretched leather.
Obeah were the only creatures imbued with magic in the realm. The animals had once been as common as deer, roaming in packs across the Elven Lands. Yeeran’s sight went inwards as she imagined the creatures thundering through the forest, their white horns slicing through the foliage, their feline forms slipping past trees with the ease of ink on paper.
But now the ink had all but dried up, as they had been hunted to near extinction for their magic.
Magic for weapons like these. Yeeran’s fingers prickled where they rested on the drumskin.
Salawa grinned and clasped her hands under her chin.
‘Yes, this was made from one of the oldest obeah our hunters have ever caught.’
As an obeah aged its skin colour deepened, making the creature’s magic more potent, and its skin even more coveted for crafting powerful objects. Unfortunately, elder obeah were also more intelligent, so hunting them was near impossible. Salawa’s gift was something rare and precious.
Yeeran could feel the magic emanating from the skin. She tapped her fingers across it and directed the vibrations of the drumbeat with purpose, knitting them together in her mind to form a small projectile. It was like weaponising sound. The invisible force struck a white token in the centre of the map ten feet away.
She’d always been good at drumfire. Having a clear intention was the key, but the clarity of the note and strength of magic in the obeah elder skin made her skills unmatchable. If her enemies had thought she was dangerous before, they would soon see how deadly she could be.
‘Now the greatest colonel of the Waning Army has the greatest weapon.’
Yeeran carefully sheathed the drum back in its case and went to Salawa. She folded her into her arms and rested her chin against her hair.
‘Thank you, I will treasure this gift for the rest of my life.’
‘Now can we go back to sleep? Tomorrow will come soon enough,’ Salawa murmured.
Yeeran released a breath of assent and let herself be led back towards Salawa’s bed. She slipped beneath the silk sheets, and Salawa moulded herself into the contours of Yeeran’s body. She lay her head on the soft skin between Yeeran’s shoulder and breast and let out a contented sigh.
Salawa’s breathing elongated as she fell into a deep slumber. Yeeran watched as the fraedia beads in her hair began to softly gleam with the oncoming dawn. The crystal had the same properties as the sun and could be used to grow crops or warm homes in winter.
She reached out and gently moved one of the beads away from Salawa’s face, lest the brightness wake her. She cradled the gemstone for a second, marvelling in its warmth. This small deposit could help grow a plant for its entire lifecycle. Could help feed a family.
She let the bead fall.
If only we had more of it.
For fraedia was the currency of the war.
Beneath the bloodied soil of the Bleeding Field were untapped mines of the valuable crystal. And where there is value, there is power, and where there is power, violence will always brew.
So, the Forever War came to be.
Yeeran found herself wondering how many soldiers had died for this small yield of fraedia in Salawa’s hair. It cast her black skin, darker than Yeeran’s soft umber complexion, in a warm saffron glow.
Though all elves looked different, the only difference that mattered was which tribe had your allegiance. And Yeeran was Waning, and Waning was Yeeran. There was no separating her from her tribe. To lead was to be one and the same.
Salawa had shown her that.
Sun sins, she is beautiful. Beautiful in dreams and fierce in waking.
Sleep didn’t come for Yeeran, but nor did she seek it. Instead, she lay there watching the dawn break against her lover’s skin, her mind alight with glory and power and death.
The next morning Yeeran slipped out of Salawa’s bedchamber while she was still asleep and made her way across the city. The sound of warfare grew louder the closer she got to the Bleeding Field, the echo of drumfire was as soothing as it was exhilarating.
Today she was a colonel.
As she neared the training grounds, she heard the familiar lilt of a nursery rhyme.
One, two, three, four: the elven tribes,
Waning, Waxing, Crescent, Eclipse,
Made by the Moon, made to persist.
From a distance it was easy to mistake the youthful voices for a group of children in a playground. But Yeeran knew that she wouldn’t find schoolchildren when she turned the corner.
Three gods, three peoples, there was before,
Now only elves: One, two, three, four.
No, these soldiers had long stopped being children. They marched woodenly in time with their chanting, their expressions grim. Yeeran watched the boy closest to her spin on his heel, his small head rattling against his large helmet like an acorn in a barrel.
He can’t be more than nine years old.
‘Colonel Yeeran Teila.’ The lieutenant overseeing the drills had spotted her.
Yeeran winced, she’d hoped to slip by without being spotted.
‘Lieutenant Fadel.’ She returned the lieutenant’s salute.
‘Are you here to select your next drum-bearer?’ The role was given to the youngest recruits of the army. Yeeran had always thought the title an odd one, as she never relinquished her drum’s maintenance to anyone. Every night she would spend an hour cleaning the barrel of enemy blood and carefully oiling the drumskin.
Not that this drum would need as much maintenance.
It hung from her shoulder now, a reminder of Salawa’s love resting against her hip. Heavy and ever-present.
‘No, I have no need of a drum-bearer,’ Yeeran said, shaking her head sharply.
Fadel frowned but then smoothed his expression into one of earnestness.
‘What about Officer Hana? She is our very best.’ He gave a signal and a girl, slightly taller than her peers, stepped forward.
Her uniform hung off her frame like a flag on a pole. Her stomach, though, swelled from malnutrition, and Yeeran felt her own abdomen prickle with the memory.
The child’s dirty fingers curled into a tight fist as she pounded her frail chest in salute. The harder the drumbeat, the more respect the salute afforded, and this girl beat her chest so hard she was ready to knock the ribs from her breast.
Yeeran lowered herself to the girl’s height, dropping all pretence of formality. Hana gave her lieutenant a worried look, but Yeeran drew her gaze back to her with a smile.
‘It’s OK.’ Yeeran reached into her pocket and withdrew a single gold coin. ‘Make sure you get a proper meal tonight, not the gruel they give you in the barracks. All right?’
The child stood still, awestruck by the gold coin in her hand. Then she said the most unexpected thing, ‘They sold me for less than this.’
Yeeran felt a gasp reflexively escape her lips.
A few years ago, the chieftain had introduced a new programme: Children could be sold directly to the Waning Army for half a silver. The child then became a ward of the district, their fellow soldiers their only family.
It made procreation a profitable business.
‘War plays by no rules. There are only fighters and failures,’ the chieftain had said when announcing the programme.
Looking at Hana, Yeeran wasn’t sure she agreed.
She straightened before striding away from the girl and the open mouth of Lieutenant Fadel.
Yeeran told herself that her hurried steps were driven by the anticipation of meeting her new regiment. But really she was running from the sight of the child soldiers and her own memories of an aching hunger that had never truly gone away.
Faebound is expected for release from HarperVoyager on the 18th January. You can pick up your copy from Bookshop.org