His clothes dry thanks to shifting, Rowan stood a few feet away, monitoring the smoldering cliffs upriver. She’d incinerated the skinwalkers. They hadn’t even had time to scream.
She hunched over her knees, arms wrapped around herself. The forest was burning on either side of the river—a radius that she didn’t have the nerve to measure. It was a weapon, her power. A different sort of weapon than blades or arrows or her hands. A curse.
It took several attempts, but at last she spoke. “Can you put it out?”
“You could, if you tried.” When she didn’t respond, he said, “I’m almost done.” In a moment the flames nearest the cliffs went out. How long had he been working to suffocate them? “We don’t need something else attracted to your fires.”
She might have bothered to respond to the jab, but she was too tired and cold. The rain filled the world, and for a while, silence reigned.
“Why is my shifting so vital?” she asked at last.
“Because it terrifies you,” he said. “Mastering it is the first step toward learning to control your power. Without that control, with a blast like that, you could easily have burnt yourself out.”
“What do you mean?”
Another stormy look. “When you access your power, what does it feel like?”
She considered. “A well,” she said. “The magic feels like a well.”
“Have you felt the bottom of it?”
“Is there a bottom?” She prayed there was.
“All magic has a bottom—a breaking point. For those with weaker gifts, it’s easily depleted and easily refilled. They can access most of their power at once. But for those with stronger gifts, it can take hours to hit the bottom, to summon their powers at full strength.”
“How long does it take you?”
“A full day.” She jolted. “Before battle, we take the time, so that when we walk onto the killing field, we can be at our strongest. You can do other things at the same time, but some part of you is down in there, pulling up more and more, until you reach the bottom.”
“And when you pull it all out, it just—releases in some giant wave?”
“If I want it to. I can release it in smaller bursts, and go on for a while. But it can be hard to hold it back. People sometimes can’t tell friend from foe when they’re handling that much magic.”
When she’d drawn her power on the other side of the portal months ago, she’d felt that lack of control—known she was almost as likely to hurt Chaol as she was to hurt the demon he was facing. “How long does it take you to recover?”
“Days. A week, depending on how I used the power and whether I drained every last drop. Some make the mistake of trying to take more before they’re ready, or holding on for too long, and they either burn out their minds or just burn up altogether. Your shaking isn’t just from the river, you know. It’s your body’s way of telling you not to do that again.”
“Because of the iron in our blood pushing against the magic?”
“That’s how our enemies will sometimes try to fight against us if they don’t have magic—iron everything.” He must have seen her brows rise, because he added, “I was captured once. While on a campaign in the east, in a kingdom that doesn’t exist anymore. They had me shackled head to toe in iron to keep me from choking the air out of their lungs.”
She let out a low whistle. “Were you tortured?”
“Two weeks on their tables before my men rescued me.” He unbuckled his vambrace and pushed back the sleeve of his right arm, revealing a thick, wicked scar curving around his forearm and elbow. “Cut me open bit by bit, then took the bones here and—”
“I can see very well what happened, and know exactly how it’s done,” she said, stomach tightening. Not at the injury, but—Sam. Sam had been strapped to a table, cut open and broken by one of the most sadistic killers she’d ever known.
“Was it you,” Rowan said quietly, but not gently, “or someone else?”
“I was too late. He didn’t survive.” Again silence fell, and she cursed herself for a fool for telling him. But then she said hoarsely, “Thank you for saving me.”
A slight shrug, barely a movement at all. As if her gratitude were harder to endure than her hatred and reticence. “I am bound by an unbreakable blood oath to my Queen, so I had no choice but to ensure you didn’t die.” A bit of that earlier heaviness settled in her veins again. “But,” he went on, “I would not have left anyone to a fate at the hands of the skinwalkers.”
“A warning would have been nice.”
“I said they were on the loose—weeks ago. But even if I’d warned you today, you would not have listened.”
It was true. She shivered again, this time so violently that her body shifted back, a flash of light and pain. If she’d thought she was cold in her Fae body, it was nothing compared to the cold of being human again.
“What was the trigger when you shifted earlier?” he asked, as if this moment were a reprieve from the real world, where the freezing storm and the surging river could muffle their words from the gods. She rubbed at her arms, desperate for any kind of warmth.
“It was nothing.” His silence demanded information for information—a fair trade. She sighed. “Let’s just say it was fear and necessity and impressively deep-rooted survival instincts.”
“You didn’t lose control immediately upon shifting. When you finally used your magic, your clothes didn’t burn; neither did your hair. And the daggers didn’t melt.” As if just now remembering that she still had them, he swiped them from her.
He was right. The magic hadn’t swarmed her the moment she’d shifted, and even in the explosion that had spread out in every direction, she’d had enough control to preserve herself. Not a single hair had burned.
“Why was it different this time?” he pressed.
“Because I didn’t want you to die to save me,” she admitted.
“Would you have shifted to save yourself ?”
“Your opinion of me is pretty much identical to my own, so you know the answer.”
He was quiet for long enough that she wondered if he was piecing the bits of her together. “You’re not leaving,” Rowan said at last, arms crossed. “I’m not letting you off double duty in the kitchens, but you’re not leaving.”
He unfastened his cloak. “Because I said so, that’s why.” And she might have told him it was the worst gods-damned reason she had ever heard, and that he was an arrogant prick, had he not tossed her his cloak—dry and warm. Then he dropped his jacket in her lap, too.
When he turned to go back to the fortress, she followed him.
For the past week, not much had changed for Manon and the Blackbeaks. They still flew daily to master the wyverns, and still managed to avoid outright war in the mess hall twice a day. The Yellowlegs heir tried to rile Manon whenever she could, but Manon paid her no more attention than she would a gnat buzzing about her head.
All that changed the day of the selection, when the heirs and their covens chose their mounts.
With three covens plus three Matrons, there were forty-two witches crowded around the training pit in the Northern Fang. Handlers rushed about below the viewing platform, readying themselves. The wyverns would be brought out one by one, and, using the bait beasts, would show off their qualities. Like the other witches, Manon had been sneaking by the cages every day. She still wanted Titus.
Wanted was a mortal word. Titus was hers. And if it came down to it, she’d disembowel any witch who challenged her. She’d sharpened her nails this morning in anticipation of it. All of the Thirteen had.
Claims would be settled in a civilized manner, however. The three Matrons would draw sticks if more than one claim was made on a mount. When it came to Titus, Manon knew precisely who would vie for him: Iskra and Petrah, the Yellowlegs and Blueblood heirs. She’d seen them both watching him with hungry eyes. Had Manon gotten her way, they would have fought for him in the sparring ring. She’d even suggested as much to her grandmother, but was told they didn’t need to quarrel amongst themselves any more than necessary. It would be luck of the draw.
That didn’t sit well with Manon, who stood along the open edge of the platform, Asterin flanking her. Her edginess only sharpened as the heavy grate lifted at the back of the pit. The bait beast was already chained to the bloodstained wall, a broken, scarred wyvern, half the size of the bulls, his wings tucked in tight. From the platform, she could see that the venomous spikes in his tail had been sawn off to keep him from defending himself against the invaluable mounts.
The bait beast lowered his head as the gate groaned open and the first wyvern was paraded in on tight chains held by very pale-faced men. They darted back as soon as the beast was through, dodging that deadly tail, and the grate shut behind them.
Manon loosed a breath. It wasn’t Titus, but one of the medium-sized bulls.
Three sentinels stepped forward to claim him, but the Blueblood Matron, Cresseida, held up a hand. “Let us see him in action first.”
One of the men whistled sharply. The wyvern turned on the bait beast.
Teeth and scales and claws, so fast and vicious that even Manon held her breath. Chained as he was, the bait beast didn’t stand a chance and was pinned within a second, massive jaws holding down his neck. One command, one whistle, and the wyvern would snap it.
But the man let out a lower-note whistle, and the bull backed off. Another whistle and he sat on his haunches. Two more sentinels stepped forward. Five in the running. Cresseida held out a fistful of twigs to the contenders.
It went to the Blueblood sentinel, who grinned at the others, then down at her wyvern as it was led back into the tunnel. The bait beast, bleeding from his side, heaved himself into the shadows by the wall, waiting for the next assault.
One after another, the wyverns were brought out, attacking with swift, wicked force. And one by one, the sentinels claimed them. No Titus, not yet. She had a feeling the Matrons were drawing this out as some test—to see how well the heirs could control themselves while waiting for the best mounts, to see who would hold out longest. Manon kept one eye on the beasts and another on the other heirs, who watched her in turn as each wyvern was paraded.
Yet the first truly enormous female had Petrah, the Blueblood heir, stepping forward. The female was nearly Titus’s size, and wound up taking a chunk out of the bait beast’s flank before the trainers could get her to stop. Wild, unpredictable, lethal. Magnificent.
No one challenged the Blueblood heir. Petrah’s mother only gave her a nod, as though they had already known what mount she desired.
Asterin took the fiercest stealth wyvern that came along, a cunning-eyed female. Her cousin had always been the best at scouting, and after a talk with Manon and the other sentinels that went long into the night, it had been decided that Asterin would continue that role in the Thirteen’s new duties.
So when the pale blue female was presented, Asterin claimed her, her eyes promising such brutality to anyone who got in her way that they practically glowed. No one dared challenge her.
Manon was watching the tunnel entrance when she smelled the myrrh and rosemary scent of the Blueblood heir beside her. Asterin snarled a soft warning.
“Waiting for Titus, aren’t you?” Petrah murmured, eyes also on the tunnel.
“And if I am?” Manon asked.
“I’d rather you have him than Iskra.”
The witch’s serene face was unreadable. “So would I.” She wasn’t sure what, exactly, but the conversation meant something.