“Mab was immortalized into godhood thanks to Maeve,” Celaena mused as she ran a hand down the jagged block. “But that was over five hundred years ago. Mala had a sister in the moon long before Mab took her place.”
“Deanna was the original sister’s name. But you humans gave her some of Mab’s traits. The hunting, the hounds.”
“Perhaps Deanna and Mala weren’t always rivals.”
“What are you getting at?”
She shrugged and kept running her hands along the stone, feeling, breathing, smelling. “Did you ever know Mab?”
Rowan was quiet for a long moment—contemplating the usefulness of telling her, no doubt. “No,” he said at last. “I am old, but not that old.”
Fine—if he didn’t want to give her an actual number . . . “Do you feel old?”
He gazed into the distance. “I am still considered young by the standards of my kind.”
It wasn’t an answer. “You said that you once campaigned in a kingdom that no longer exists. You’ve been off to war several times, it seems, and seen the world. That would leave its mark. Age you on the inside.”
“Do you feel old?” His gaze was unflinching. A child—a girl, he’d called her.
She was a girl to him. Even when she became an old woman—if she lived that long—she’d still be a child in comparison to his life span. Her mission depended upon his seeing her otherwise, but she still said, “These days, I am very glad to be a mortal, and to only have to endure this life once. These days, I don’t envy you at all.”
It was her turn to stare toward the horizon. “I used to wish I had a chance to see it all—and hated that I never would.”
She could feel him forming a question, but she started moving again, examining the stones. As she dusted the block off, an image emerged of a stag with a glowing star between its antlers, so like the one in Terrasen. She’d heard Emrys tell the story of the sun stags, who held an immortal flame between their massive antlers and who had once been stolen from a temple in this land . . . “Is this where the stags were kept—before this place was destroyed?”
“I don’t know. This temple wasn’t destroyed; it was abandoned when the Fae moved to Doranelle, and then ruined by time and weather.”
“Emrys’s stories said destroyed, not abandoned.”
“Again, what are you getting at?”
But she didn’t know, not yet, so she just shook her head and said, “The Fae on my continent—in Terrasen . . . they weren’t like you. At least, I don’t remember them being that way. There weren’t many, but . . .” She swallowed hard. “The King of Adarlan hunted and killed them, so easily. Yet when I look at you, I don’t understand how he did it.” Even with the Wyrdkeys, the Fae had been stronger, faster. More should have survived, even if some had been trapped in their animal forms when magic vanished.
She looked over her shoulder at him, one hand still pressed against the warm carving. A muscle flickered in Rowan’s jaw before he said, “I’ve never been to your continent, but I heard that the Fae there were gentler—less aggressive, very few trained in combat—and they relied heavily on magic. Once magic was gone from your lands, many of them might not have known what to do against trained soldiers.”
“And yet Maeve wouldn’t send aid.”
“The Fae of your continent long ago severed ties with Maeve.” He paused again. “But there were some in Doranelle who argued in favor of helping. My queen wound up offering sanctuary to any who could make it here.”
She didn’t want to know more—didn’t want to know how many had made it, and whether he had been one of the few who argued to save their western brethren. So she moved away from the carving of the mythical stag, instantly cold as she severed contact with the delightful heat living within the stone. Part of her could have sworn that ancient, strange power was sad to see her go.
The next day, Celaena finished her breakfast shift in the kitchens achy and more drained than usual, as Luca hadn’t been there to help, which meant she’d spent the morning chopping, washing, and then running the food upstairs.
Celaena passed a sentry she’d marked as Luca’s friend and a frequent listener to Emrys’s stories—young, leanly muscled, with no evidence of Fae ears or grace. Bas, the leader of the fortress scouts. Luca prattled about him endlessly. Celaena gave him a small smile and nod. Bas blinked a few times, gave a tentative smile back, and sauntered on, probably to his watch on the wall. She frowned. She’d said a civilized hello to plenty of them by now, but . . . She was still puzzling over his reaction when she reached her room and shrugged on her jacket.
“You’re already late,” Rowan said from the doorway.
“There were extra dishes this morning,” she said, rebraiding her hair as she turned to where he lounged in the doorway. “Can I expect to do something useful with you today, or will it be more sitting and growling and glaring? Or will I just wind up chopping wood for hours on end?”
He merely started into the hall and she followed, still braiding her hair. They passed another two sentries. This time, she looked them both in the eye and smiled her greeting. Again, that blink, and a shared look between them, and a returned grin. Had she really become so unpleasant that a mere smile was surprising? Gods—when had she smiled last, at anyone or anything?
They were well away from the fortress, headed south and up into the mountains, when Rowan said, “They’ve all been keeping their distance because of the scent you put out.”
“Excuse me?” She didn’t want to know how he’d read her thoughts.
Rowan stalked through the trees, not even out of breath as he said, “There are more males than females here—and they’re fairly isolated from the world. Haven’t you wondered why they haven’t approached you?”
“They stayed away because I . . . smell?” She didn’t think she would have cared enough to be embarrassed, but her face was burning.
“Your scent says that you don’t want to be approached. The males smell it more than the females, and have been staying the hell away. They don’t want their faces clawed off.”
She had forgotten how primal the Fae were, with their scents and mating and territorial nature. Such a strange contrast to the civilized world beyond the wall of the mountains. “Good,” she wound up saying, though the idea of her having her emotions so easily identifiable was unsettling. It made lying and pretending almost worthless. “I’m not interested in men . . . males.”
His tattoo was vivid in the dappled sunlight that streamed through the canopy as he stared pointedly at her ring. “What happens if you become queen? Will you refuse a potential alliance through marriage?”
An invisible hand seemed to wrap around her throat. She had not let herself consider that possibility, because the weight of a crown and a throne were enough to make her feel like she was in a coffin. The thought of marrying like that, of someone else’s body on hers, someone who was not Chaol . . . She shoved the thought away.
Rowan was baiting her, as he always did. And she still had no plans to take up her uncle’s throne. Her only plan was to do what she’d promised Nehemia. “Nice try,” she said.
His canines gleamed as he smirked. “You’re learning.”
“You get baited by me every now and then, too, you know.”
He gave her a look that said, I let you bait me, in case you haven’t noticed. I’m not some mortal fool.
She wanted to ask why, but being cordial with him—with anyone—was already odd enough. “Where the hell are we going today? We never head west.”
The smirk vanished. “You want to do something useful. So here’s your chance.”
With Celaena in her human form, the bells of some nearby town were heralding three o’clock by the time they reached the pine wood.
She didn’t ask what they were doing here. He’d tell her if he wanted to. Slowing to a prowl, Rowan tracked markers left on trees and stones, and she quietly trailed him, thirsty and hungry and a bit light-headed.
The terrain had shifted: pine needles crunched beneath her boots, and gulls, not songbirds, cried overhead. The sea had to be close. Celaena groaned as a cool breeze kissed her sweaty face, scented with salt and fish and sun-warmed rock. It wasn’t until Rowan halted by a stream that she noticed the reek—and the silence.
The ground had been churned up across the stream, the brush broken and trampled. But Rowan’s attention was fixed on the stream itself, on what had been wedged between the rocks.
Celaena swore. A body. A woman, by the shape of what was left of her, and—
As if she had been drained of life, of substance. No wounds, no lacerations or signs of harm, save for a trickle of dried blood from her nose and ears. Her skin was leached of color, withered and dried, her hollowed-out face still stuck in an expression of horror—and sorrow. And the smell—not just the rotting body, but around it . . . the smell . . .
“What did this?” she asked, studying the disturbed forest beyond the stream. Rowan knelt as he examined the remains. “Why not just dump her in the sea? Leaving her in a stream seems idiotic. They left tracks, too—unless those are from whoever found her.”
“Malakai gave me the report this morning—and he and his men are trained not to leave tracks. But this scent . . . I’ll admit it’s different.” Rowan walked into the water. She wanted to tell him to stop, but he kept studying the remains from above, then below, circling. His eyes flashed to hers. They were furious. “So you tell me, assassin. You wanted to be useful.”
She bristled at the tone, but—that was a woman lying there, broken like a doll.
Celaena didn’t particularly want to smell anything on the remains, but she sniffed. And wished she hadn’t. It was a smell she’d scented twice now—once in that bloody chamber a decade ago, and then recently . . . “You claimed you didn’t know what that thing in the barrow field was,” she managed to say. The woman’s mouth was open in a scream, her teeth brown and cracked below the dried nosebleed. Celaena touched her own nose and winced. “I think this is what it does.”
Rowan braced his hands on his hips, sniffing again, turning in the stream. He scanned Celaena, then the body. “You came out of that darkness looking as if someone had sucked the life from you. Your skin was a shade paler, your freckles gone.”
“It forced me to go through . . . memories. The worst kind.” The woman’s horrified, sorrowful face gaped up at the canopy. “Have you ever heard of a creature that can feed on such things? When I glimpsed it, I saw a man—a beautiful man, pale and dark-haired, with eyes of full black. He wasn’t human. I mean, he looked it, but his eyes—they weren’t human at all.”
Her parents had been assassinated. She’d seen the wounds. But the smell in their room had been so similar . . . She shook her head as if to clear it, to shake the creeping feeling moving up her spine.
“Even my queen doesn’t know every foul creature roaming these lands. If the skinwalkers are venturing down from the mountains, perhaps other things are, too.”
“The townspeople might know something. Maybe they’ve seen it or heard rumors.”
Rowan seemed to be thinking the same thing, because he shook his head in disgust—and sorrow, to her surprise. “We don’t have the time; you wasted daylight by coming here in your human form.” They hadn’t brought any overnight supplies, either. “We have an hour before we head back. Make the most of it.”