He turned his head to the side to spit blood.
Her blood was pounding, so wild that every little restraint she’d locked into place shattered. She shoved back against it, and the distraction cost her. Rowan moved, and then she was under him again. She’d mangled his face, but he didn’t seem to care as he growled, “I will do whatever I please.”
“You will keep other people out of it!” she screamed, so loudly that the birds stopped chattering. She thrashed against him, gripping his wrists. “No one else!”
“Tell me why, Aelin.”
That gods-damned name . . . She dug her nails into his wrists. “Because I am sick of it!” She was gulping down air, each breath shuddering as the horrific realization she’d been holding at bay since Nehemia’s death came loose. “I told her I would not help, so she orchestrated her own death. Because she thought . . .” She laughed—a horrible, wild sound. “She thought that her death would spur me into action. She thought I could somehow do more than her—that she was worth more dead. And she lied—about everything. She lied to me because I was a coward, and I hate her for it. I hate her for leaving me.”
Rowan still pinned her, his warm blood dripping onto her face.
She had said it. Said the words she’d been choking on for weeks and weeks. The rage seeped from her like a wave pulling away from shore, and she let go of his wrists. “Please,” she panted, not caring that she was begging, “please don’t bring anyone else into it. I will do anything you ask of me. But that is my line. Anything else but that.”
His eyes were veiled as he finally let go of her arms. She gazed up at the canopy. She would not cry in front of him, not again.
He peeled back, the space between them now a tangible thing. “How did she die?”
She let the moisture against her back seep into her, cool her bones. “She manipulated a mutual acquaintance into thinking he needed to kill her in order to further his agenda. He hired an assassin, made sure I wasn’t around, and had her murdered.”
Oh, Nehemia. She had done it all out of a fool’s hope, not realizing what a waste it was. She could have allied with flawless Galan Ashryver and saved the world—found a truly useful heir to the throne.
“What happened to the two men?” A cold question.
“The assassin I hunted down and left in pieces in an alleyway. And the man who hired him . . .” Blood on her hands, on her clothes, in her hair, Chaol’s horrified stare. “I gutted him and dumped his body in a sewer.”
They were two of the worst things she’d done, out of pure hatred and vengeance and rage. She waited for the lecture. But Rowan merely said, “Good.”
She was so surprised that she looked at him—and saw what she had done. Not his already bruised and bleeding face, or his ripped jacket and shirt, now muddy. But right where she’d gripped his forearms, the clothes were burned through, the skin beneath covered in angry red welts.
Handprints. She’d burned right through the tattoo on his left arm. She was on her feet in an instant, wondering if she should be on her knees begging for forgiveness instead.
It must have hurt like hell. Yet he had taken it—the beating, the burning—while she let out those words that had clouded her senses for so many weeks now. “I am . . . so sorry,” she started, but he held up a hand.
“You do not apologize,” he said, “for defending the people you care about.”
She supposed it was as much of an apology as she would ever get from him. She nodded, and he took that as answer enough. “I’m keeping the sword,” she said, yanking it free of the earth. She’d be hard-pressed to find a better one anywhere in the world.
“You haven’t earned it.” He fell silent, then added, “But consider this a favor. Leave it in your rooms when we’re training.”
She would have debated, but this was a compromise, too. She wondered if he’d made a compromise any time in the last century. “What if that thing tracks us to the fortress once darkness falls?”
“Even if it does, it can’t get past the wards.” When she raised her brows, he said, “The stones around the fortress have a spell woven between them to keep out enemies. Even magic bounces off it.”
“Oh.” Well, that explained why they called it Mistward. A calm, if not pleasant, silence fell between them while they walked. “You know,” she said slyly, “that’s twice now you’ve made a mess of my training with your tasks. I’m fairly sure that makes you the worst instructor I’ve ever had.”
He gave her a sidelong look. “I’m surprised it took you this long to call attention to it.”
She snorted, and as they approached the fortress, the torches and candles ignited as if to welcome them home.
“I’ve never seen such a sorry sight,” Emrys hissed as Rowan and Celaena trudged into the kitchen. “Blood and dirt and leaves over every inch of you both.”
Indeed, they were something to behold, both of their faces swollen and lacerated, covered in each other’s blood, hair a mess, and Celaena limping slightly. The knuckles of two of her fingers were split, and her knee throbbed from an injury she did not recall getting.
“No better than alley cats, brawling at all hours of the day and night,” Emrys said, slamming two bowls of stew onto the worktable. “Eat, both of you. And then get cleaned up. Elentiya, you’re off kitchen duty tonight and tomorrow.” Celaena opened her mouth to object, but the old man held up a hand. “I don’t want you bleeding on everything. You’ll be more trouble than you’re worth.” Wincing, Celaena slumped next to Rowan on the bench, and swore viciously at the pain in her leg, her face, her arms. Swore at the pain in the ass sitting right next to her. “Clean out your mouth, too, while you’re at it,” Emrys snapped.
Luca was huddled by the fire, wide-eyed and making a sharp, cutting gesture across his neck, as if to warn Celaena about something. Even Malakai, seated at the other end of the table with two weathered sentries, was watching her with raised brows.
Rowan was already hunched over the table, digging into his stew. She glanced again at Luca, who frantically tapped his ears.
She hadn’t shifted back. And—well, now they’d all noticed, even with the blood and dirt and leaves. Malakai met her stare, and she dared him—just dared the old man to say anything. But he shrugged and went back to his meal. So it really wasn’t a surprise after all. She took a bite of her stew and had to bite back her moan. Was it her Fae senses, or was it even more delicious tonight?
Emrys was watching from the hearth, and Celaena gave him that challenging look, too. She punched back through the veil, aching as she shifted into her mortal form. But the old man brought her and Rowan a loaf of bread and said, “Makes no difference to me whether your ears are pointy or round, or what your teeth look like. But,” he added, looking at Rowan, “I can’t deny I’m glad to see you got in a few punches this time.”
Rowan’s head snapped up from his bowl, and Emrys pointed a spoon at him. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough of beating each other into a pulp?” Malakai stiffened, but Emrys went on, “What good does it accomplish, other than providing me with a scullery maid whose face scares the wits out of our sentries? You think any of us like to hear you two cursing and screaming every afternoon? The language you use is enough to curdle all the milk in Wendlyn.”
Rowan lowered his head and mumbled something into his stew.
For the first time in a long, long while, Celaena felt the corners of her lips tug up.
And that was when Celaena walked to the old man—and got onto her knees. She apologized, profusely. To Emrys, to Luca, to Malakai. Apologized because they deserved it. They accepted, but Emrys still looked wary. Hurt, even. The shame of what she’d said to that man, to all of them, would cling to her for a while.
Though it made her stomach twist and palms sweat, though they didn’t mention names, she wasn’t all that surprised when Emrys told her that he and the other old Fae knew who she was, and that her mother had worked to help them. But she was surprised when Rowan took a spot at the sink and helped clean up after the evening meal.
They worked in an easy silence. There were still truths she hadn’t confessed to, stains on her soul she couldn’t yet explore or express. But maybe—maybe he wouldn’t walk away whenever she did find the courage to tell him.
At the table, Luca was grinning with delight. Just seeing that smile—that bit of proof that today’s events hadn’t scarred him completely—made Celaena look at Emrys and say, “We had an adventure today.”
Malakai set down his spoon and said, “Let me guess: it had something to do with that roar that sent the livestock into pandemonium.”
Though Celaena didn’t smile, her eyes crinkled. “What do you know of a creature that dwells in the lake under . . .” She glanced at Rowan to finish.
“Bald Mountain. And he can’t know that story,” Rowan said. “No one does.”
“I am a Story Keeper,” Emrys said, staring down at him with all the wrath of one of the iron figurines on the mantel. “And that means that the tales I collect might not come from Fae or human mouths, but I hear them anyway.” He sat down at the table, folding his hands in front of him. “I heard one story, years ago, from a fool who thought he could cross the Cambrian Mountains and enter Maeve’s realm without invitation. He was on his way back, barely clinging to life thanks to Maeve’s wild wolves in the passes, so we brought him here while we sent for the healers.”
Malakai murmured, “So that’s why you wouldn’t give him a moment’s peace.” A twinkle in those old eyes, and Emrys gave his mate a wry smile.
“He had a fierce infection, so at the time I thought it might have been a fever dream, but he told me he found a cave at the base of the Bald Mountain. He camped there, because it was raining and cold and he planned to be off at first light. Still, he felt like something was watching him from the lake. He drifted off, and awoke only because the ripples were lapping against the shore—ripples from the center of the lake. And just beyond the light of his fire, out in the deep, he spied something swimming. Bigger than a tree or any beast he’d ever seen.”
“Oh, it was horrific,” Luca cut in.
“You said you were out with Bas and the other scouts on border patrol today!” Emrys barked, then gave Rowan a look that suggested he’d better test his next meal for poison.
Emrys cleared his throat and was soon staring at the table again, lost in thought. “What the fool learned that night was this: the creature was almost as old as the mountain itself. It claimed to have been born in another world, but had slipped into this one when the gods were looking elsewhere. It had preyed upon Fae and humans until a mighty Fae warrior challenged it. And before the warrior was through, he carved one of the creature’s eyes out—for spite or sport—and cursed the beast, so that as long as that mountain stood, the creature would be forced to live beneath it.”
A monster from another realm. Had it been let in during the Valg wars, when demons had opened and closed portals to another world at will? How many of the horrific creatures that dwelled in this land were only here because of those long-ago battles over the Wyrdkeys?
“So it has dwelled in the labyrinth of underwater caves under the mountain. It has no name—for it forgot what it was called long ago, and those who meet it do not return home.”
Celaena rubbed her arms, wincing as the split skin of her knuckles stretched with the movement. Rowan was staring directly at Emrys, his head cocked ever so slightly to the side. Rowan glanced at her, as if to make sure she was listening, and asked, “Who was the warrior who carved out its eye?”