Behind her, Mother Blackbeak was still talking with the enormous man from the caravan who called himself a duke. It had been more than coincidence, she supposed, that soon after she’d left that blood-soaked field in Fenharrow she’d received a summons from her grandmother. And more than coincidence that she’d been not forty miles from the rendezvous point just over the border in Adarlan.
Manon was on guard duty while her grandmother, the High Witch of the Blackbeak clan, spoke to the duke beside the raging Acanthus River. The rest of her coven had taken their positions around the small encampment—twelve other witches, all around Manon’s age, all of them raised and trained together. Like Manon, they had no weapons, but it seemed that the duke knew enough to realize Blackbeaks didn’t need weapons to be deadly.
You didn’t need a weapon at all when you were born one.
And when you were one of Manon’s Thirteen, with whom she had fought and flown for the past hundred years . . . Often just the name of the coven was enough to send enemies fleeing. The Thirteen did not have a reputation for mercy—or making mistakes.
Manon eyed the armored guards around the camp. Half were watching the Blackbeak witches, the others monitoring the duke and her grandmother. It was an honor that the High Witch had chosen the Thirteen to guard her—no other coven had been summoned. No other coven was needed if the Thirteen were present.
Manon slid her attention to the nearest guard. His sweat, the faint tang of fear, and the heavy musk of exhaustion drifted toward her. From the look and smell of it, they’d been traveling for weeks. There were two prison wagons with them. One emitted a very distinct male odor—and perhaps a remnant of cologne. One was female. Both smelled wrong.
Manon had been born soulless, her grandmother said. Soulless and heartless, as a Blackbeak ought to be. She was wicked right down to the marrow of her bones. But the people in those wagons, and the duke, they smelled wrong. Different. Alien.
The nearby guard shifted on his feet. She gave him a smile. His hand tightened on the hilt of his sword.
Because she could, because she was growing bored, Manon cocked her jaw, sending her iron teeth snapping down. The guard took a step back, his breath coming faster, the acrid tang of fear sharpening.
With her moon-white hair, alabaster skin, and burnt-gold eyes, she’d been told by ill-fated men that she was beautiful as a Fae queen. But what those men realized too late was that her beauty was merely a weapon in her natural-born arsenal. And it made things so, so fun.
Feet crunched in the snow and bits of dead grass, and Manon turned from the trembling guard and the roaring brown Acanthus to find her grandmother approaching.
In the ten years since magic had vanished, their aging process had warped. Manon herself was well over a century old, but until ten years ago, she had looked no older than sixteen. Now, she looked to be in her midtwenties. They were aging like mortals, they had soon realized with no small amount of panic. And her grandmother . . .
The rich, voluminous midnight robes of Mother Blackbeak flowed like water in the crisp breeze. Her grandmother’s face was now marred with the beginnings of wrinkles, her ebony hair sprinkled with silver. The High Witch of the Blackbeak Clan wasn’t just beautiful—she was alluring. Even now, with mortal years pressing down upon her bone-white skin, there was something entrancing about the Matron.
“We leave now,” Mother Blackbeak said, walking north along the river. Behind them, the duke’s men closed ranks around the encampment. Smart for mortals to be so cautious when the Thirteen were present—and bored.
One jerk of the chin from Manon was all it took for the Thirteen to fall in line. The twelve other sentinels kept the required distance behind Manon and her grandmother, footsteps near silent in the winter grass. None of them had been able to find a single Crochan in the months they’d been infiltrating town after town. And Manon fully expected some form of punishment for it later. Flogging, perhaps a few broken fingers—nothing too permanent, but it would be public. That was her grandmother’s preferred method of punishment: not the how, but the humiliation.
Yet her grandmother’s gold-flecked black eyes, the heirloom of the Blackbeak Clan’s purest bloodline, were bent on the northern horizon, toward Oakwald Forest and the towering White Fangs far beyond. The gold-speckled eyes were the most cherished trait in their Clan for a reason Manon had never bothered to learn—and when her grandmother had seen that Manon’s were wholly of pure, dark gold, the Matron had carried her away from her daughter’s still-cooling corpse and proclaimed Manon her undisputed heir.
Her grandmother kept walking, and Manon didn’t press her to speak. Not unless she wanted her tongue ripped clean from her mouth.
“We’re to travel north,” her grandmother said when the encampment was swallowed up by the foothills. “I want you to send three of your Thirteen south, west, and east. They are to seek out our kith and kin and inform them that we will all assemble in the Ferian Gap. Every last Blackbeak—no witch or sentinel left behind.”
Nowadays there was no difference—every witch belonged to a coven and was therefore a sentinel. Since the downfall of their western kingdom, since they had started clawing for their survival, every Blackbeak, Yellowlegs, and Blueblood had to be ready to fight—ready at any time to reclaim their lands or die for their people. Manon herself had never set foot in the former Witch Kingdom, had never seen the ruins or the flat, green expanse that stretched to the western sea. None of her Thirteen had seen it, either, all of them wanderers and exiles thanks to a curse from the last Crochan Queen as she bled out on that legendary battlefield.
The Matron went on, still staring at the mountains. “And if your sentinels see members of the other clans, they are to inform them to gather in the Gap, too. No fighting, no provoking—just spread the word.” Her grandmother’s iron teeth flashed in the afternoon sun. Like most of the ancient witches—the ones who had been born in the Witch Kingdom and fought in the Ironteeth Alliance to shatter the chains of the Crochan Queens—Mother Blackbeak wore her iron teeth permanently on display. Manon had never seen them retracted.
Manon bit back her questions. The Ferian Gap—the deadly, blasted bit of land between the White Fang and Ruhnn Mountains, and one of the few passes between the fertile lands of the east and the Western Wastes.
Manon had made the passage through the snow-crusted labyrinth of caves and ravines on foot—just once, with the Thirteen and two other covens, right after magic had vanished, when they were all nearly blind, deaf, and dumb with the agony of suddenly being grounded. Half of the other witches hadn’t made it through the Gap. The Thirteen had barely survived, and Manon had almost lost an arm to an ice cavern cave-in. Almost lost it, but kept it thanks to the quick thinking of Asterin, her second in command, and the brute strength of Sorrel, her Third. The Ferian Gap; Manon hadn’t been back since. For months now there had been rumors of far darker things than witches dwelling there.
“Baba Yellowlegs is dead.” Manon whipped her head to her grandmother, who was smiling faintly. “Killed in Rifthold. The duke received word. No one knows who, or why.”
“Perhaps.” Mother Blackbeak’s smile spread, revealing iron teeth spotted with rust. “The King of Adarlan has invited us to assemble in the Ferian Gap. He says he has a gift for us there.”
Manon considered what she knew about the vicious, deadly king hell-bent on conquering the world. Her responsibility as both Coven leader and heir was to keep her grandmother alive; it was instinct to anticipate every pitfall, every potential threat. “It could be a trap. To gather us in one place, and then destroy us. He could be working with the Crochans. Or perhaps the Bluebloods. They’ve always wanted to make themselves High Witches of every Ironteeth Clan.”
“Oh, I think not,” Mother Blackbeak purred, her depthless ebony eyes crinkling. “For the king has made us an offer. Made all the Ironteeth Clans an offer.”
Manon waited, even though she could have gutted someone just to ease the miserable impatience.
“The king needs riders,” Mother Blackbeak said, still staring at the horizon. “Riders for his wyverns—to be his aerial cavalry. He’s been breeding them in the Gap all these years.”
It had been a while—too damn long—but Manon could feel the threads of fate twisting around them, tightening.
“And when we are done, when we have served him, he will let us keep the wyverns. To take our host to reclaim the Wastes from the mortal pigs who now dwell there.” A fierce, wild thrill pierced Manon’s chest, sharp as a knife. Following the Matron’s gaze, Manon looked to the horizon, where the mountains were still blanketed with winter. To fly again, to soar through the mountain passes, to hunt down prey the way they’d been born to . . .
They weren’t enchanted ironwood brooms.
But wyverns would do just fine.
After a grueling day of training new recruits, avoiding Dorian, and keeping well away from the king’s watchful eye, Chaol was almost at his rooms, more than ready to sleep, when he noticed that two of his men were missing from their posts outside the Great Hall. The two remaining men winced as he stopped dead.
It wasn’t unusual for guards to occasionally miss a shift. If someone was sick, if they had some family tragedy, Chaol always found a replacement. But two missing guards, with no replacement in sight . . . “Someone had better start talking,” he ground out.
One of them cleared their throats—a newer guard, who had just finished his training three months before. The other one was relatively new, too, which was why he’d assigned them to night duty outside the empty Great Hall. But he’d put them under the supposedly responsible and watchful eyes of the two other guards, both of whom had been there for years.
The guard who’d cleared his throat went red. “It—they said . . . Ah, Captain, they said that no one would really notice if they were gone, since it’s the Great Hall, and it’s empty and, ah—”
“Use your words,” Chaol snapped. He was going to murder the two deserters.
“The general’s party, sir,” said the other. “General Ashryver walked past on his way into Rifthold and invited them to join him. He said it would be all right with you, so they went with him.”
A muscle feathered in his jaw. Of course Aedion did.
“And you two,” Chaol growled, “didn’t think it would be useful to report this to anyone?”
“With all due respect, sir,” said the second one, “we were . . . we didn’t want them to think we were ratters. And it’s just the Great Hall—”
“Wrong thing to say,” Chaol snarled. “You’re both on double duty for a month—in the gardens.” Where it was still freezing. “Your leisure time is now nonexistent. And if you ever again fail to report another guard abandoning his post, you’re both gone. Understood?”
When he got a mumbled confirmation, he stalked toward the front gate of the castle. Like hell he’d go to sleep now. He had two guards to hunt down in Rifthold . . . and a general to exchange some words with.
Aedion had rented out an entire tavern. Men were at the door to keep out the riffraff, but one glare from Chaol, one glimpse of the eagle-shaped pommel of his sword, had them stepping aside. The tavern was crammed with various nobles, some women who could have been courtesans or courtiers, and men—lots of drunk, boisterous men. Card games, dice, bawdy singing to the music made by the small quintet by the roaring fire, free-flowing taps of ale, bottles of sparkling wine . . . Was Aedion going to pay for this with his blood money, or was it on the king?