“I’m sorry,” Rowan hissed, swearing again, and the air vanished.
She tried to groan, to move, but she had no air. No air for that inner fire. Blackness swept in.
Then she was gasping, arcing off the grass, the fires now crackling naturally and Rowan hovering over her. “Breathe. Breathe.”
Though he’d snapped her tethers to the fires, she was still burning.
Not burning on the outside, where even the grass had stopped smoldering.
She was burning up from within. Each breath sent fire down her lungs, her veins. She could not speak or move.
She had shoved herself over some boundary—hadn’t heard the warning signs to turn back—and she was burning alive beneath her skin.
She shook with tearless, panicked sobs. It hurt—it was endless and eternal and there was no dark part of her where she could flee to escape the flames. Death would be a mercy, a cold, black haven.
She didn’t know Rowan had left until he came sprinting back, two females in tow. One of them said, “Can you stand to carry her? There aren’t any water-wielders here, and we need to get her into cold water. Now.”
She didn’t hear what else was said, heard nothing but the pounding-pounding of that forge under her skin. There was a grunt and a hiss, and then she was in Rowan’s arms, bouncing against his chest as he hurtled through the woods. Every step sent splinters of red-hot pain through her. Though his arms were ice cold, a frigid wind pressing on her, she was adrift in a sea of fire.
Hell—this was what the dark god’s underworld felt like. This was what awaited her when she took her last breath.
It was the horror of that thought that made her focus on what she could grasp—namely the pine-and-snow smell of Rowan. She pulled that smell into her lungs, pulled it down deep and clung to it as though it were a lifeline tossed into a stormy sea. She didn’t know how long it took, but her grasp on him was weakening, each pulse of fiery pain fraying it.
But then it was darker than the woods, and the sounds echoed louder, and they took stairs, and then—“Get her into the water.”
She was lowered into the water in the sunken stone tub, then steam brushed her face. Someone swore. “Freeze it, Prince,” the second voice commanded. “Now.”
There was a moment of blissful cold, but then the fire surged, and—
“Get her out!” Strong hands yanked at her, and she had the vague sense of hearing bubbling.
She had boiled the water in that tub. Almost boiled herself. She was in another tub a moment later, the ice forming again—then melting. Melting, and— “Breathe,” Rowan said by her ear, kneeling at the head of the tub. “Let it go—let it get out of you.”
Steam rose, but she took a breath. “Good,” Rowan panted. Ice formed again. Melted.
She was sweating, heat pulsing against her skin like a drum. She did not want to die like this. She took another breath.
Like the ebb and flow of the tide, the bath froze, then melted, froze, then melted, slower each time. And each time, the cold soaked into her a bit more, numbing her, urging her body to relax.
Ice and fire. Frost and embers. Locked in a battle, pushing and pulling. Beneath it, she could almost taste Rowan’s steel will slamming against her magic—a will that refused to let the fire burn her into nothing.
Her body ached, but now the pain was mortal. Her cheeks were still aflame, but the water went cold, then lukewarm, then warm and—stayed that way. Warm, not hot.
“We need to get those clothes off her,” one of the females said. Celaena lost track of time as two small sets of hands eased up her head and then stripped off her sodden clothes. Without them, she was almost weightless in the water. She didn’t care if Rowan saw—didn’t think there was an inch of a woman’s body he hadn’t already explored anyway. She lay there, eyes shut, face tilted toward the ceiling.
After a while, Rowan said, “Just answer yes or no. That’s all you have to do.” She managed a slight nod, though she winced as pain shot down her neck and shoulders. “Are you in danger of flaring up again?”
She was breathing as evenly as she could, the heat pounding in her cheeks, her legs, her core, but it was steadily diminishing. “No,” she whispered, a brush of hot air from her tongue.
“Are you in pain?” Not a sympathetic question, but a commander assessing his soldier’s condition to sort out the best course of action.
“Yes.” A hiss of steam.
A woman said, “We will prepare a tonic. Just keep her cool.” Soft feet padded on the stone floors on their way out, then came the snick of the door to the baths closing. There was a slosh of water in a bucket, then—
Celaena sighed, or tried to, as an ice-cold cloth was laid on her forehead. More sloshing, then another cloth dripped freezing water onto her hair, her neck.
“The burnout,” Rowan said quietly. “You should have told me you were at your limit.”
Speaking was too hard, but she opened her eyes to find him kneeling at the head of the bath, a bucket of water beside him and a cloth in his hands. He wrung it again over her brow, the water so wonderful she would have moaned. The bath cooled further, but was still warm—too warm.
“If you’d gone on any longer, the burnout would have destroyed you. You must learn to recognize the signs—and how to pull back before it’s too late.” Not a statement, but a command. “It will rip you apart inside. Make this . . .” He shook his head again. “Make this look like nothing. You don’t touch your magic until you’ve rested for a while. Understand?”
She tilted her head up, beckoning for more cold water on her face, but he refused to wring the cloth until she nodded her agreement. He cooled her off for another few moments, then slung the cloth over the side of the bucket and stood. “I’m going to check on the tonic. I’ll be back soon.” He left once she’d nodded again. If she hadn’t known better, she might have thought he was fussing. Worried, even.
She hadn’t been old enough in Terrasen to have anyone teach her about the deadly side to her power—and no one had explained, since her lessons had been so limited. She hadn’t felt like she was burning out. It had come on so quickly. Maybe that was all there was to her magic. Maybe her well didn’t go as deep as everyone had thought. It would be a relief if that were true.
She lifted her legs, groaning at the aches along her muscles, and leaned forward far enough to hug her knees. Above the lip of the sunken tub, there were a few candles burning on the stones, and she glared at the flames. Hated the flames. Though she supposed they needed light in here.
She rested her forehead on her scarred knees, her skin nearly scorching. She shut her eyes, piecing her splintered consciousness together.
The door opened. Rowan. She kept herself in that cool darkness, savoring the growing chill in the water, the quieting pulse under her skin. He sounded about halfway across the room when his footsteps halted.
His breath caught, harsh enough that she looked over her shoulder.
But his eyes weren’t on her face. Or the water. They were on her bare back.
Curled as she was against her knees, he could see the whole expanse of ruined flesh, each scar from the lashings. “Who did that do you?”
It would have been easy to lie, but she was so tired, and he had saved her useless hide. So she said, “A lot of people. I spent some time in the Salt Mines of Endovier.”
He was so still that she wondered if he’d stopped breathing. “How long?” he asked after a moment. She braced herself for the pity, but his face was so carefully blank—no, not blank. Calm with lethal rage.
“A year. I was there a year before . . . it’s a long story.” She was too exhausted, her throat too raw, to say the rest of it. She noticed then that his arms were bandaged, and more bandages across his broad chest peeked up from beneath his shirt. She’d burned him again. And yet he had held on to her—had run all the way here and not let go once.
“You were a slave.”
She gave him a slow nod. He opened his mouth, but shut it and swallowed, that lethal rage winking out. As if he remembered who he was talking to and that it was the least punishment she deserved.
He turned on his heel and shut the door behind him. She wished he’d slammed it—wished he’d shattered it. But he closed it with barely more than a click and did not return.
Rowan soared over the trees, riding and shaping the winds to push him onward, faster, their roar negligible to the bellowing in his head. He took in the passing world out of instinct rather than interest, his eyes turned inward—toward that slab of ruined flesh glistening in the candlelight.
The gods knew he’d seen plenty of harrowing injuries. He’d bestowed plenty of them on his enemies and friends alike. In the grand sense of things, her back wasn’t even close to some of those wounds. Yet when he’d seen it, his heart had clean stopped—and for a moment, there had been an overwhelming silence in his mind.
He felt his magic and his warrior’s instincts honing into a lethal combination the longer he stared—howling to rip apart the people who had done that with his bare hands. Then he’d just left, hardly making it out of the baths before he shifted and soared into the night.
Maeve had lied. Or lied by omission. But she knew. She knew what the girl had gone through—knew she’d been a slave. That day—that day early on, he’d threatened to whip the girl, gods above. And she had lost it. He’d been such a proud fool that he’d assumed she’d lashed out because she was nothing more than a child. He should have known better—should have known that when she did react to something like that, it meant the scars went deep. And then there were the other things he’d said . . .
He was almost to the towering line of the Cambrian Mountains. She had barely been grown into her woman’s body when they hurt her like that. Why hadn’t she told him? Why hadn’t Maeve told him? His hawk loosed a piercing cry that echoed on the dark gray stones of the mountain wall before him. A chorus of unearthly howls rose in response—Maeve’s wild wolves, guarding the passes. Even if he flew all the way to Doranelle, he’d reach his queen and demand answers and . . . she would not give them to him. With the blood oath, she could command he not go back to Mistward.
He gripped the winds with his magic, choking off their current. Aelin . . . Aelin had not trusted him—had not wanted him to know.
And she’d almost burned out completely, gods be damned, leaving her currently defenseless. Primal anger sharpened in his gut, brimming with a territorial, possessive need. Not a need for her, but a need to protect—a male’s duty and honor. He had not handled the news as he should have.
If she hadn’t wanted to tell him about being a slave, then she probably had done so assuming the worst about him—just as she was probably assuming the worst about his leaving. The thought didn’t sit well.
So he veered back to the north and reined his magic to pull the winds with him, easing his flight back to the fortress.
He would get answers from his queen soon enough.
The healers gave her a tonic, and when Celaena reassured them that she wasn’t going to incinerate herself, she stayed in the bath until her teeth were chattering. It took three times as long as usual to get back to her rooms, and she was so frozen and drained that she didn’t change into clothes before she dropped into bed.
She didn’t want to think about what it meant that Rowan had left like that, but she did, aching and cramping from the magic. She drifted into a jerking, fitful sleep, the cold so fierce she couldn’t tell whether it was from the temperature or the aftermath of the magic. At some point, she was awoken by the laughing and singing of the returning revelers. After a while, even the drunkest found their bed or someone else’s. She was almost asleep again, teeth still chattering, when her window groaned open in the breeze. She was too cold and sore to get up. There was a flutter of wings and a flash of light, and before she could roll over, he’d scooped her up, blanket and all.