They’d already practiced saddling the mounts for two days, though they’d usually have handlers around to do it for them. Manon’s mount for the day—a small female—was lying on her belly, low enough that Manon easily climbed her hind leg and hauled herself into the saddle at the spot where the long neck met the massive shoulders. A man approached to adjust the stirrups, but Manon leaned to do it herself. Breakfast had been bad enough. Coming close to a human throat now would only tempt her further.
The wyvern shifted, its body warm against her cold legs, and Manon tightened her gloved grip on the reins. Down the line, her sentinels mounted their beasts. Asterin was ready, of course, her cousin’s gold hair tightly braided back, her fur collar ruffling in the biting wind from the open drop ahead of them. She flashed Manon a grin, her dark, gold-flecked eyes bright. Not a trace of fear—just the thrill.
The beasts knew what to do, the handlers had said. They knew how to make the Crossing on instinct alone. That’s what they called the sheer plunge between the two mountain peaks, the final test for a rider and mount. If the wyverns couldn’t make it, they’d splatter on the rocks far below. With their riders.
There was movement on the viewing platforms on either side, and the Yellowlegs heir’s coven swaggered in, all of them smiling, none more broadly than Iskra.
“Bitch,” Asterin murmured. As if it weren’t bad enough that Mother Blackbeak stood on the opposite viewing platform, flanked by the other two High Witches. Manon lifted her chin and looked to the drop ahead.
“Just like we practiced,” the overseer said, climbing from the open-faced pit to the viewing platform where the three Matrons stood. “Hard kick in the side sends ’em off. Let ’em navigate the Crossing. Best advice is to hold on like hell and enjoy the ride.” A few nervous laughs from the coven behind her, but the Thirteen remained silent. Waiting. Just as they would faced with any army, before any battle.
Manon blinked, the muscles behind her golden eyes pulling down the clear film that would shield her vision from the wind. Manon allowed herself a moment to adjust to the thickness of the extra lid. Without it, they’d fly like mortals, squinting and streaming tears all over the place.
“Ready at your command, lady,” the man called to her.
Manon studied the open gap ahead, the bridge barely visible above, the gray skies and mist. She looked down the line, into each of the six faces on either side. Then she turned ahead, to the drop and the world waiting beyond.
“We are the Thirteen, from now until the Darkness claims us.” She said it quietly, but knew all could hear her. “Let’s remind them why.”
Manon kicked her mount into action. Three galloping, thunderous steps beneath her, surging forward, forward, forward, a leap into freezing air, the clouds and the bridge and the snow all around, and then the drop.
Her stomach shot right into her throat as the wyvern arced and angled down, wings tucked in tight. As she’d been instructed, Manon rose into a crouch over the neck, keeping her face close to the leathery skin, the wind screaming in her face.
The air rippled behind her, her Thirteen mere feet away, falling as one, past rock and snow, shooting for the earth.
Manon gritted her teeth. The blur of stone, the kiss of mist, her hair ripping out of her braid, waving like a white banner above her.
The mist parted, and Darkness embrace her, there was the Gap floor, so close, and—
Manon held on to the saddle, to the reins, to conscious thought as massive wings spread and the world tilted, and the body beneath her flipped up, up, riding the wind’s current in a sheer climb along the side of the Northern Fang.
There were triumphant howls from below, from above, and the wyvern kept climbing, swifter than Manon had ever flown on her broom, past the bridge and up into the open sky.
That fast, Manon was back in the skies.
The cloudless, endless, eternal sky held them as Asterin and then Sorrel and Vesta flanked her, then the rest of the Thirteen, and Manon schooled her face into cool victory.
To her right, Asterin was beaming, her iron teeth shining like silver. To her left, red-haired Vesta was just shaking her head, gaping at the mountains below. Sorrel was as stone-faced as Manon, but her black eyes danced. The Thirteen were airborne again.
The world spread beneath them, and ahead, far to the West, was the home they would someday reclaim. But now, now . . .
The wind caressed and sang to her, telling her of its currents, more an instinct than a magical gift. An instinct that had made her the best flier in all three Clans.
“What now?” Asterin called. And though she’d never seen any of her Thirteen cry, Manon could have sworn there were tears shining in the corners of her cousin’s eyes.
“I say we test them out,” Manon said, keeping that wild exuberance locked up tight in her chest, and reined her mount toward where the first canyon run awaited them. The whoops and cackles of her Thirteen as they rode the current were finer than any mortal music.
Manon stood at attention in her grandmother’s small room, staring at the far stone wall until she was spoken to. Mother Blackbeak sat at the wooden desk, her back to Manon as she pored over some document or letter. “You did well today, Manon,” her grandmother said at last.
Manon touched two fingers to her brow, though her grandmother still studied the papers.
Manon hadn’t needed to be told by the overseer that it was the best Crossing he had witnessed to date. She’d taken one look at the empty platform where the Yellowlegs coven had been and known they’d left as soon as Manon didn’t splatter on the ground.
“Your Thirteen and all the Blackbeak covens did well,” her grandmother went on. “Your work in keeping them disciplined these years is commendable.”
Manon’s chest swelled, but she said, “It’s my honor to serve you, Grandmother.”
Her grandmother scribbled something down. “I want you and the Thirteen to be Wing Leader—I want you leading all the Clans.” The witch twisted to look at Manon, her face unreadable. “There are to be war games in a few months to decide the ranks. I don’t care how you do it, but I expect to crown you victor.”
Manon didn’t need to ask why.
Her grandmother’s eyes fell on Manon’s red cloak and she smiled faintly. “We don’t yet know who our enemies will be, but once we are done with the king’s war and reclaim the Wastes, it will not be a Blueblood or Yellowlegs sitting on the Ironteeth throne. Understand?”
Become Wing Leader, command the Ironteeth armies, and keep control of those armies once the Matrons eventually turned on one another. Manon nodded. It would be done.
“I suspect the other Matrons will give similar orders to their heirs. Make sure your Second keeps close to you.”
Asterin was already outside, guarding the door, but Manon said, “I can look after myself.”
Her grandmother hissed. “Baba Yellowlegs was seven hundred years old. She tore down the walls of the Crochan capital with her bare hands. And yet someone slipped into her wagon and murdered her. Even if you live to be a thousand, you’ll be lucky to be half the witch she was.” Manon kept her chin high. “Watch your back. I will not be pleased if I have to find myself another heir.”
Manon bowed her head. “As you will it, Grandmother.”
Celaena awoke, freezing and groaning from a relentless headache. That, she knew, was from hitting her head on the temple stones. She hissed as she sat up, and every inch of her body, from her ears to her toes to her teeth, gave a collective burst of pain. It felt as if she’d been pummeled by a thousand iron fists and left to rot in the cold. That was from the uncontrolled shifting she’d done yesterday. The gods knew how many times she’d shuddered between one form and the other. From the tenderness of her muscles, it had to have been dozens.
But she hadn’t lost control of the magic, she reminded herself as she rose, gripping the chipped bedpost. She pulled the pale robe tighter around her as she shuffled for the dresser and basin. After the bath, she’d realized she had nothing to change into and had stolen one of the many robes, leaving her reeking clothes heaped by the door. She’d barely made it to her room before she collapsed on the bed, pulled the scrap of blanket over her, and slept.
And slept. And slept. She didn’t feel like talking with anyone. And no one came for her, anyway.
Celaena braced her hands on the dresser and grimaced at her reflection. She looked like shit, felt like shit. Even more grim and gaunt than yesterday. She picked up the tin of salve Rowan had given her, but then decided he should see what he’d done. And she’d looked worse—two years ago, when Arobynn had beaten her to a bloody pulp for disobeying his orders. This was nothing compared to how mangled she’d been then.
She opened the door to find that someone had left clothes—the same as yesterday, but fresh. Her boots had been cleaned of mud and dust. Either Rowan had left them, or someone else had noticed her filthy clothing. Gods—she’d soiled herself in front of him.
She didn’t let herself wallow in the humiliation as she dressed and went to the kitchens, the halls dark in the moments before dawn. Already, Luca was prattling about the fighting knife a sentry had loaned him for his training, and on and on and on.
Apparently she had underestimated how horrific her face was, because Luca stopped his chattering midsentence to swear. Whirling, Emrys took one look at her and dropped his earthenware bowl before the hearth. “Great Mother and all her children.”
Celaena went to the heap of garlic cloves on the worktable and picked up a knife. “It looks worse than it feels.” A lie. Her head was still pounding from the cut on her brow, and her eye was deeply bruised beneath.
“I’ve got some salve in my room—” Luca started from where he was already washing dishes, but she gave him a long look.
She began peeling the cloves, her fingers instantly sticky. They were still staring, so she flatly said, “It’s none of your business.”
Emrys left his shattered bowl on the hearthstones and hobbled over, anger dancing in those bright, clever eyes. “It’s my business when you come into my kitchen.”
“I’ve been through worse,” she said.
Luca said, “What do you mean?” He eyed her mangled hands, her black eye, and the ring of scars around her neck, courtesy of Baba Yellowlegs. She silently invited him to do the calculations: a life in Adarlan with Fae blood, a life in Adarlan as a woman . . . His face paled.
After a long moment, Emrys said, “Leave it alone, Luca,” and stooped to pick up the fragments of the bowl.
Celaena went back to the garlic, Luca markedly quieter as he worked. Breakfast was made and sent upstairs in the same chaotic rush as yesterday, but a few more demi-Fae noticed her today. She either ignored them or stared them down, marking their faces. Many had pointed ears, but most seemed human. Some wore civilian clothing—tunics and simple gowns—while the sentries wore light leather armor and heavy gray cloaks with an array of weapons (many the worse for wear). The warriors looked her way the most, men and women both, wariness and curiosity mingling.
She was busy wiping down a copper pot when someone let out a low, appreciative whistle in her direction. “Now that is one of the most glorious black eyes I’ve ever beheld.” A tall old man—handsome despite being around Emrys’s age—strode through the kitchen, empty platter in his hands.
“You leave her be, too, Malakai,” Emrys said from the hearth. His husband—mate. The old man gave a dashing grin and set down the platter on the counter near Celaena.
“Rowan doesn’t pull punches, does he?” His gray hair was cropped short enough to reveal his pointed ears, but his face was ruggedly human. “And it looks like you don’t bother using a healing salve.” She held his gaze but gave no reply. Malakai’s grin faded. “My mate works too much as it is. You don’t add to that burden, understand?”