He led them onto a viewing platform in a massive cavern. The sunken floor was at least forty feet below, one end of the chamber wholly open to the cliff face, the other sealed with an iron grate—no, a door.
“This is one of the training pits,” the man explained. “It’s easy to sort out the natural-born killers, but we discover a lot of them show their mettle in the pits. Before you . . . ladies,” he said, trying to hide his wince at the word, “even lay eyes on them, they’ll be in here, fighting it out.”
“And when,” said Mother Blackbeak, pinning him with a stare, “will we select our mounts?”
The man swallowed. “We trained a brood of gentler ones to teach you the basics.”
A growl from Iskra. Manon might also have snarled at the implied insult, but the Blueblood Matron spoke. “You don’t learn to ride by hopping on a warhorse, do you?”
The man almost sagged with relief. “Once you’re comfortable with the flying—”
“We were born on the back of the wind,” said one of the coven leaders in the back. Some grunts of approval. Manon kept silent, as did her Blackbeak coven leaders. Obedience. Discipline. Brutality. They did not descend to boasting.
The man fidgeted and kept his focus on Cresseida, as if she were the only safe one in the room, even with her barbed crown of stars. Idiot. Manon sometimes thought the Bluebloods were the deadliest of them all.
“Soon as you’re ready,” he said, “we can begin the selection process. Get you on your mounts, and start the training.”
Manon risked taking her eyes off her grandmother to study the pit. There were giant chains anchored in one of the walls, and enormous splotches of dark blood stained the stones, as if one of these beasts had been pushed against it. A giant crack spider-webbed from the center. Whatever hit the wall had been tossed hard.
“What are the chains for?” Manon found herself asking. Her grandmother gave her a warning look, but Manon focused on the man. Predictably, his eyes widened at her beauty—then stayed wide as he beheld the death lurking beneath it.
“Chains are for the bait beasts,” he said. “They’re the wyverns we use to show the others how to fight, to turn their aggression into a weapon. We’re under orders not to put any of ’em down, even the runts and broken ones, so we put the weaklings to good use.”
Just like dog fighting. She looked again to the splotch and the crack in the wall. The bait beast had probably been thrown by one of the bigger ones. And if the wyverns could hurl each other like that, then the damage to humans . . . Her chest tightened with anticipation, especially as the man said, “Want to see a bull?”
A glimmer of iron nails as Cresseida made an elegant gesture to continue. The man let out a sharp whistle. None of them spoke as chains rattled, a whip cracked, and the iron gate to the pit groaned as it lifted. And then, heralded by men with whips and spears, the wyvern appeared.
A collective intake of breath, even from Manon.
“Titus is one of our best,” the man said, pride gleaming in his voice.
Manon couldn’t tear her eyes away from the gorgeous beast: his mottled gray body covered in a leathery hide; his massive back legs, armed with talons as big as her forearm; and his enormous wings, tipped with a claw and used to propel him forward like a front set of limbs.
The triangular head swiveled this way and that, and his dripping maw revealed yellow, curved fangs. “Tail’s armed with a venomous barb,” the man said as the wyvern emerged fully from the pit, snarling at the men down there with him. The reverberations of the snarl echoed through the stone, into her boots and up her legs, right into her husk of a heart.
A chain was clamped around his back leg, undoubtedly to keep him from flying out of the pit. The tail, as long as his body and tipped with two curved spikes, flicked back and forth like a cat’s.
“They can fly hundreds of miles in a day and still be ready to fight when they arrive,” the man said, and the witches all hissed in a breath. That sort of speed and endurance . . .
“What do they eat?” asked Petrah, freckled face still calm and grave.
The man rubbed his neck. “They’ll eat anything. But they like it fresh.”
“So do we,” said Iskra with a grin. Had anyone but the Yellowlegs heir said it, Manon would have joined in with the other grins around her.
Titus gave a sudden thrash, lunging for the nearest man while using his magnificent tail to snap the raised spears behind him. A whip cracked, but it was too late.
Blood and screams and the crunch of bone. The man’s legs and head tumbled to the ground. The torso was swallowed down in one bite. The smell of blood filled the air, and every single one of the Ironteeth witches inhaled deeply. The man in front of them took a too-casual step away.
The bull in the pit was now looking up at them, tail still slashing against the floor.
Magic was gone, and yet this was possible—this creation of magnificent beasts. Magic was gone, and yet Manon felt the sureness of the moment settle along her bones. She was meant to be here. She’d have Titus or no other.
Because she’d suffer no creature to be her mount but the fiercest, the one whose blackness called to her own. As her eyes met with the endless dark of Titus’s, she smiled at the wyvern.
She could have sworn he smiled back.
Celaena didn’t realize how exhausted she was until all sounds—Emrys’s soft singing from the table, the thud of dough as he kneaded it, the chopping of Luca’s knife and his ceaseless chatter about everything and anything—stopped. And she knew what she’d find when she turned toward the stairwell. Her hands were pruny, fingers aching, back and neck throbbing, but . . . Rowan was leaning against the archway of the stairwell, arms crossed and violence beckoning in his lifeless eyes. “Let’s go.”
Though his features remained cold, she had the distinct impression that he was somewhat annoyed at her for not sulking in a corner, bemoaning the state of her nails. As she left, Luca drew a finger across his neck as he mouthed good luck.
Rowan led her through a small courtyard, where sentries tried to pretend they weren’t watching their every move, and out into the forest. The ward-magic woven between the ring of megaliths again nipped at her skin as they passed, and nausea washed through her. Without the constant heat of the kitchen, she was half-frozen by the time they strode between the moss-coated trees, but even that was only a vague flicker of feeling.
Rowan trekked up a rocky ridge toward the highest reaches of the forest, still clouded in mist. She barely paused to take in the view of the foothills below, the plains before them, all green and fresh and safe from Adarlan. Rowan didn’t utter a single word until they reached what looked like the weather-stained ruins of a temple.
It was now no more than a flat bed of stone blocks and columns whose carvings had been dulled by wind and rain. To her left lay Wendlyn, foothills and plains and peace. To her right arose the wall of the Cambrian Mountains, blocking any sight of the immortal lands beyond. Behind her, far down, she could make out the fortress snaking along the spine of the mountain.
Rowan crossed the cracked stones, his silver hair battered by the crisp, damp wind. She kept her arms loose at her sides, more out of reflex than anything. He was armed to the teeth, his face a mask of unyielding brutality.
She made herself give a little smile, her best attempt at a dutiful, eager expression. “Do your worst.”
He looked her over from head to toe: the mist-damp shirt, now icy against her puckered skin, the equally stained and damp pants, the position of her feet . . .
“Wipe that smarmy, lying smile off your face.” His voice was as dead as his eyes, but it had a razor-sharp bite behind it.
She kept her smarmy, lying smile. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He stepped toward her, the canines coming out this time. “Here’s your first lesson, girl: cut the horseshit. I don’t feel like dealing with it, and I’m probably the only one who doesn’t give a damn about how angry and vicious and awful you are underneath.”
“I don’t think you particularly want to see how angry and vicious and awful I am underneath.”
“Go ahead and be as nasty as you want, Princess, because I’ve been ten times as nasty, for ten times longer than you’ve been alive.”
She didn’t let it out—no, because he didn’t truly understand a thing about what lurked under her skin and ran claws down her insides—but she stopped any attempt to control her features. Her lips pulled back from her teeth.
“Better. Now shift.”
She didn’t bother to sound pleasant as she said, “It’s not something I can control.”
“If I wanted excuses, I’d ask for them. Shift.”
She didn’t know how. She had never mastered it as a child, and there certainly hadn’t been any opportunities to learn in the past decade. “I hope you brought snacks, because we’re going to be here a long, long while if today’s lesson is dependent upon my shifting.”
“You’re really going to make me enjoy training you.” She had a feeling he could have switched out training you for eating you alive.
“I’ve already participated in a dozen versions of the master-disciple training saga, so why don’t we cut that horseshit, too?”
His smile turned quieter, more lethal. “Shut your smart-ass mouth and shift.”
A shuddering rush went through her—a spear of lightning in the abyss. “No.”
And then he attacked.
She’d contemplated his blows all morning, the way he’d moved, the swiftness and angles. So she dodged the first blow, sidestepping his fist, strands of her hair snapping in the wind.
She even twisted far enough in the other direction to avoid the second strike. But he was so damn fast she could barely register the movements—so fast that she had no chance of dodging or blocking or anticipating the third blow. Not to her face but to her legs, just as he had the night before.
One sweep of his foot and she was falling, twisting to catch herself, but not fast enough to avoid thudding her brow against a weather-smooth rock. She rolled, the gray sky looming, and tried to remember how to breathe as the impact echoed through her skull. Rowan pounced with fluid ease, his powerful thighs digging into her ribs as he straddled her. Breathless, head reeling, and muscles drained from a morning in the kitchen and weeks of hardly eating, she couldn’t twist and toss him—couldn’t do anything. She was outweighed, outmuscled, and for the first time in her life, she realized she was utterly outmatched.
“Shift,” he hissed.
She laughed up at him, a dead, wretched sound even to her own ears. “Nice try.” Gods, her head throbbed, a warm trickle of blood was leaking from the right side of her brow, and he was now sitting on her chest. She laughed again, strangled by his weight. “You think you can trick me into shifting by pissing me off ?”
He snarled, his face speckled with the stars floating in her vision. Every blink shot daggers of pain through her. It would probably be the worst black eye of her life.
“Here’s an idea: I’m rich as hell,” she said over the pounding in her head. “How about we pretend to do this training for a week or so, and then you tell Maeve I’m good and ready to enter her territory, and I’ll give you all the gods-damned gold you want.”
He brought his canines so close to her neck that one movement would have him ripping out her throat. “Here’s an idea,” he growled. “I don’t know what the hell you’ve been doing for ten years, other than flouncing around and calling yourself an assassin. But I think you’re used to getting your way. I think you have no control over yourself. No control, and no discipline—not the kind that counts, deep down. You are a child, and a spoiled one at that. And,” he said, those green eyes holding nothing but distaste, “you are a coward.”