They entered the hallway that ended in the arched wooden door to Dorian’s tower, but Chaol stopped him with an arm on his shoulder. “I don’t want details,” he murmured so the guards posted outside Dorian’s door couldn’t hear, “because I don’t want my knowledge used against you. I know I’ve made mistakes, Dorian. Believe me, I know. But my priority has always been—and still is—keeping you protected.”
Dorian stared at him for a long moment, cocking his head to the side. Chaol must have looked as miserable as he felt, because the prince’s voice was almost gentle as he said, “Why did you really send her to Wendlyn?”
Agony punched through him, raw and razor-edged. But as much as he yearned to tell the prince about Celaena, as much as he wanted to unload all his secrets so it would fill the hole in his core, he couldn’t. So he just said, “I sent her to do what needs to be done,” and strode back down the hall. Dorian didn’t call after him.
Manon pulled her bloodred cloak tightly around herself and pressed into the shadows of the closet, listening to the three men who had broken into her cottage.
She’d tasted the rising fear and rage on the wind all day and had spent the afternoon preparing. She’d been sitting on the thatched roof of the whitewashed cottage when she spotted their torches bobbing over the high grasses of the field. None of the villagers had tried to stop the three men—though none had joined them, either.
A Crochan witch had come to their little green valley in the north of Fenharrow, they’d said. In the weeks that she’d been living amongst them, carving out a miserable existence, she’d been waiting for this night. It was the same at every village she’d lived in or visited.
She held her breath, keeping still as a deer as one of the men—a tall, bearded farmer with hands the size of dinner plates—stepped into her bedroom. Even from the closet, she could smell the ale on his breath—and the bloodlust. Oh, the villagers knew exactly what they planned to do with the witch who sold potions and charms from her back door, and who could predict the sex of a babe before it was due. She was surprised it had taken these men so long to work up the nerve to come here, to torment and then destroy what petrified them.
The farmer stopped in the middle of the room. “We know you’re here,” he coaxed, even as he stepped toward the bed, scanning every inch of the room. “We just want to talk. Some of the townsfolk are spooked, you see—more scared of you than you are of them, I bet.”
She knew better than to listen, especially as a dagger glinted behind his back while he peered under the bed. Always the same, at every backwater town and uptight mortal village.
As the man straightened, Manon slipped from the closet and into the darkness behind the bedroom door.
Muffled clinking and thudding told her enough about what the other two men were doing: not just looking for her, but stealing whatever they wanted. There wasn’t much to take; the cottage had already been furnished when she’d arrived, and all her belongings, by training and instinct, were in a sack in the corner of the closet she’d just vacated. Take nothing with you, leave nothing behind.
“We just want to talk, witch.” The man turned from the bed, finally noticing the closet. He smiled—in triumph, in anticipation.
With gentle fingers, Manon eased the bedroom door shut, so quietly the man didn’t notice as he headed for the closet. She’d oiled the hinges on every door in this house.
His massive hand gripped the closet doorknob, dagger now angled at his side. “Come out, little Crochan,” he crooned.
Silent as death, Manon slid up behind him. The fool didn’t even know she was there until she brought her mouth close to his ear and whispered, “Wrong kind of witch.”
The man whirled, slamming into the closet door. He raised the dagger between them, his chest heaving. Manon merely smiled, her silver-white hair glinting in the moonlight.
He noticed the shut door then, drawing in breath to shout. But Manon smiled broader, and a row of dagger-sharp iron teeth pushed from the slits high in her gums, snapping down like armor. The man started, hitting the door behind him again, eyes so wide that white shone all around them. His dagger clattered on the floorboards.
And then, just to really make him soil his pants, she flicked her wrists in the air between them. The iron claws shot over her nails in a stinging, gleaming flash.
The man began whispering a plea to his soft-hearted gods as Manon let him back toward the lone window. Let him think he stood a chance while she stalked toward him, still smiling. The man didn’t even scream before she ripped out his throat.
When she was done with him, she slipped through the bedroom door. The two men were still looting, still believing that all of this belonged to her. It had merely been an abandoned house—its previous owners dead or smart enough to leave this festering place.
The second man also didn’t get the chance to scream before she gutted him with two swipes of her iron nails. But the third farmer came looking for his companions. And when he beheld her standing there, one hand twisted in his friend’s insides, the other holding him to her as she used her iron teeth to tear out his throat, he ran.
The common, watery taste of the man, laced with violence and fear, coated her tongue, and she spat onto the wooden floorboards. But Manon didn’t bother wiping away the blood slipping down her chin as she gave the remaining farmer a head start into the field of towering winter grass, so high that it was well over their heads.
She counted to ten, because she wanted to hunt, and had been that way since she tore through her mother’s womb and came roaring and bloody into this world.
Because she was Manon Blackbeak, heir to the Blackbeak Witch-Clan, and she had been here for weeks, pretending to be a Crochan witch in the hope that it would flush out the real ones.
They were still out there, the self-righteous, insufferable Crochans, hiding as healers and wise-women. Her first, glorious kill had been a Crochan, no more than sixteen—the same age as Manon at the time. The dark-haired girl had been wearing the bloodred cloak that all Crochans were gifted upon their first bleeding—and the only good it had done was mark her as prey.
After Manon left the Crochan’s corpse in that snow-blasted mountain pass, she’d taken the cloak as a trophy—and still wore it, over a hundred years later. No other Ironteeth witch could have done it—because no other Ironteeth witch would have dared incur the wrath of the three Matrons by wearing their eternal enemy’s color. But from the day Manon stalked into Blackbeak Keep wearing the cloak and holding that Crochan heart in a box—a gift for her grandmother—it had been her sacred duty to hunt them down, one by one, until there were none left.
This was her latest rotation—six months in Fenharrow while the rest of her coven was spread through Melisande and northern Eyllwe under similar orders. But in the months that she’d prowled from village to village, she hadn’t discovered a single Crochan. These farmers were the first bit of fun she’d had in weeks. And she would be damned if she didn’t enjoy it.
Manon walked into the field, sucking the blood off her nails as she went. She slipped through the grasses, no more than shadow and mist.
She found the farmer lost in the middle of the field, softly bleating with fear. And when he turned, his bladder loosening at the sight of the blood and the iron teeth and the wicked, wicked smile, Manon let him scream all he wanted.
Celaena and Rowan rode down the dusty road that meandered between the boulder-spotted grasslands and into the southern foothills. She’d memorized enough maps of Wendlyn to know that they’d pass through them and then over the towering Cambrian Mountains that marked the border between mortal-ruled Wendlyn and the immortal lands of Queen Maeve.
The sun was setting as they ascended the foothills, the road growing rockier, bordered on one side by rather harrowing ravines. For a mile, she debated asking Rowan where he planned to stop for the night. But she was tired. Not just from the day, or the wine, or the riding.
In her bones, in her blood and breath and soul, she was so, so tired. Talking to anyone was too taxing. Which made Rowan the perfect companion: he didn’t say a single word to her.
Twilight fell as the road brought them through a dense forest that spread into and over the mountains, the trees turning from cypress to oak, from narrow to tall and proud, full of thickets and scattered mossy boulders. Even in the growing dark, the forest seemed to be breathing. The warm air hummed, leaving a metallic taste coating her tongue. Far behind them, thunder grumbled.
Wouldn’t that be wonderful. Especially since Rowan was finally dismounting to make camp. From the look of his saddlebags, he didn’t have a tent. Or bedrolls. Or blankets.
Perhaps it was now fair to assume that her visit with Maeve wasn’t to be pleasant.
Neither of them spoke as they led their horses into the trees, just far enough off the road to be hidden from any passing travelers. Dumping their gear at the camp he’d selected, Rowan brought his mare to a nearby stream he must have heard with those pointed ears. He didn’t falter one step in the growing dark, though Celaena certainly stubbed her toes against a few rocks and roots. Excellent eyesight, even in the dark—another Fae trait. One she could have if she—
No, she wasn’t going to think about that. Not after what had happened on the other side of that portal. She’d shifted then—and it had been awful enough to remind her that she had no interest in ever doing it again.
After the horses drank, Rowan didn’t wait for her as he took both mares back to the camp. She used the privacy to see to her own needs, then dropped to her knees on the grassy bank and drank her fill of the stream. Gods, the water tasted . . . new and ancient and powerful and delicious.
She drank until she understood the hole in her belly might very well be from hunger, then staggered back to camp, finding it by the gleam of Rowan’s silver hair. He wordlessly handed her some bread and cheese, then returned to rubbing down the horses. She muttered a thank-you, but didn’t bother offering to help as she plunked down against a towering oak.
When her belly had stopped hurting so much and she realized just how loudly she’d been munching on the apple he’d also tossed her while feeding the horses, she mustered enough energy to say, “Are there so many threats in Wendlyn that we can’t risk a fire?”
He sat against a tree and stretched his legs, crossing his ankles. “Not from mortals.”
His first words to her since they’d left the city. It could have been an attempt to spook her, but she still did a mental inventory of all the weapons she carried. She wouldn’t ask. Didn’t want to know what manner of thing might crawl toward a fire.
The tangle of wood and moss and stone loomed, full of the rustling of heavy leaves, the gurgling of the swollen brook, the flapping of feathered wings. And there, lurking over the rim of a nearby boulder, were three sets of small, glowing eyes.
The hilt of her dagger was in her palm a heartbeat later. But they just stared at her. Rowan didn’t seem to notice. He only leaned his head against the oak trunk.
They had always known her, the Little Folk. Even when Adarlan’s shadow had covered the continent, they still recognized what she was. Small gifts left at campsites—a fresh fish, a leaf full of blackberries, a crown of flowers. She’d ignored them, and stayed out of Oakwald Forest as much as she could.
The faeries kept their unblinking vigil. Wishing she hadn’t downed the food so quickly, Celaena watched them back, ready to spring to a defensive position. Rowan hadn’t moved.
What ancient oaths the faeries honored in Terrasen might be disregarded here. Even as she thought it, more eyes glowed between the trees. More silent witnesses to her arrival. Because Celaena was Fae, or something like a mongrel. Her great-grandmother had been Maeve’s sister, proclaimed a goddess when she died. Ridiculous, really. Mab had been very much mortal when she tied her life to the human prince who loved her so fiercely.