He was silent for a long while. “You hadn’t been in your Fae form for ten years, so perhaps your instincts weren’t even able to take hold. Sometimes, mates can be together intimately before the actual bond snaps into place.”
“It’s a useless hope to cling to, anyway.”
“Do you want the truth?”
She tucked her chin into her tunic and closed her eyes. “Not tonight.”
Shielding her eyes from the glare, Celaena scanned the cliffs and the spit of beach far below. It was scorching, with hardly a breeze, but Rowan remained in his heavy pale-gray jacket and wide belt, vambraces strapped to his forearms. He’d deigned to give her a few of his weapons that morning—as a precaution.
They’d returned to the latest site at dawn to retrace their steps—and that was where Celaena had picked up a trail. Well, she’d spied a droplet of dark blood on a nearby rock, and then Rowan had followed the scent back toward the cliffs. She looked down the beach, at the natural-cut arches of the many caves along its curving length. But there was nothing here—and the trail, thanks to the sea and wind and elements, had gone cold. They’d been here for the past half hour, looking for any other signs, but there was nothing. Nothing, except—
There. A sagging curve in the cliff edge, as if many pairs of feet had worn the lip down as they slid carefully over the edge. Rowan gripped her arm as she leaned to view the crumbled, hidden stair. She glared at him, but he didn’t let go. “I’m trying not to be insulted,” she said. “Look.”
They were hardly steps now—just lumps of rock and sand peppered with shrubs. The water beyond the beach was so clear and calm that a slight break could be seen in the barrier reef that guarded these shores. It was one of the few ways to make a safe landing here without shattering your boat, only wide enough for a small craft to pass through. No warships or merchant vessels would fit, undoubtedly one reason this area had never been developed. It was the perfect place, however, if you wanted to surreptitiously enter the country—and stay hidden.
She began sketching in the sandy earth, a long, hard line, then drew dot after dot after dot.
“The bodies were dumped in streams and rivers,” she said.
“The sea was never far off,” he said, kneeling beside her. “They could have dumped the bodies there. But—”
“But then those bodies probably would drift right back to shore, and prompt people to look along the beach. Look here,” she said, pointing to the stretch of coastline she’d sketched—and where they were currently sitting, smack dab in the middle of it.
“There are countless caves along this section of the shore.”
She indicated where the waves broke on the reef and the small, calm space between them. “It’s an easy access point from—” She swore. She couldn’t say it. There were no ships along here, but that didn’t mean that one or two or more couldn’t have come from Adarlan, sneaking in at night, and slipped in their violent, vicious cargo using smaller boats.
Rowan stood. “We’re leaving. Now.”
“Don’t you think they would already have attacked if they’d seen us?”
Rowan pointed to the sun. If he was about to tell her it wasn’t safe for a queen to be throwing herself into danger, then he could— “If we’re going to explore, then we’re going to do it under cover of darkness. So we’re going back to the stream, and we’re going to find something to eat. And then, Princess,” he said with a wild grin, “we are going to have some fun.”
Some god must have decided to take pity on them, because the rain started right after sunset, thundering clouds rolling in with a vengeance to conceal any sound they made as they returned to the beach and began a thorough search of the caves.
But that was about where their favor from the gods ended, because what they found, while lying on their bellies on a narrow cliff overhanging a barren beach, was worse than anything they’d anticipated. It wasn’t only monsters of the king’s making.
It was a host of soldiers.
A few men came out of the massive cave mouth, which was camouflaged among the rocks and sand. They might have missed them had it not been for Rowan’s keen sense of smell. He did not have the words, he said, to describe what that smell was like. But she knew it.
Celaena’s mouth had gone dry, her stomach a knot as the dark figures slipped in and out of the cave with disciplined, economic movements that suggested they were highly trained. They weren’t rabid, half-feral monsters like the one in the library, or cold, flawless creatures like what she’d seen in the barrows, but mortal soldiers. All of them aware, disciplined, ruthless.
“The crab-monger,” Celaena murmured to Rowan. “In the village. He said—he said he found weapons in his nets. They must be taking ships and then getting close enough to swim through the reef without attracting attention. We need to get a closer look.” She raised her brows at Rowan, who gave her a hunter’s smile. “I knew you’d be useful someday.”
Rowan just snorted and shifted, a flicker of light that she hoped was gobbled up by the storm. He flapped over the cliff edge and glided across the water, nothing more than a predator looking for a meal, then circled back until he rested on a rock just beyond the breaking waves. She watched him hunt, moving toward the cave itself, an animal looking for shelter from the rain. And then, keeping close to the towering ceiling of the cave, he swept inside.
She didn’t breathe the entire time he was out of her sight. She counted the gaps between the thunder and the lightning, her fingers itching to grab on to the hilt of her sword.
But at long last, Rowan swooped out of the cave in a leisurely flight. He made his way up to her, then flew past, heading into the woods. A message to follow. Carefully, she dragged herself through the dirt and mud and rocks until she was far enough away to slip between the trees. She followed Rowan for a ways, the forest growing denser, the rain masking all sounds.
She found him standing with crossed arms against a gnarled pine. “There are about two hundred mortal soldiers and three of those creatures in the caves. There’s a hidden network of them all along the shore.”
Her throat closed up. She made herself wait for him to go on.
“They are under the command of someone called General Narrok. The soldiers all look highly trained, but they keep well away from the three creatures.” Rowan wiped at his nose, and in the flash of lightning, she beheld the blood. “You were right. The three creatures look like men, but aren’t men. Whatever dwells inside their skin is . . . disgusting isn’t the right word. It was as if my magic, my blood—my very essence was repelled by them.” He examined the blood on his fingers. “All of them seem to be waiting.”
Three of those things. Just one had nearly killed her. “Waiting for what?”
Rowan’s animal eyes glowed as they fixed on her. “Why don’t you tell me?”
“The king never said anything about this. He—he . . .” Had something gone wrong in Adarlan? Had Chaol somehow told the king who and what she was, and the king sent these men here to . . . No, it had to have taken weeks, months, to get these creatures smuggled here. “Send word for Wendlyn’s forces—warn them right now.”
“Even if I reached Varese tomorrow, it would take over a week to get here on foot. Most of the units have been deployed in the north all spring.”
“We still need to warn them that they’re at risk.”
“Use your head. There are endless caves and places to hide along the western coastline. And yet they pick here, this access point.”
She visualized the map of the area. “The mountain road will take them past the fortress.” Her blood chilled, and even her magic, flickering in an attempt to soothe her, could not warm her as she said, “No—not past. To the fortress. They’re going after the demi-Fae.”
A slow, grave nod. “I think those bodies we found were experiments. To learn the weaknesses and strengths of the demi-Fae, to learn which ones were . . . compatible with whatever it is they do to warp beings. With these numbers, I’d suggest this unit was sent here to capture and retrieve the demi-Fae, or to wipe out a potential threat.”
Because if they could not be converted and enslaved to Adarlan, then the demi-Fae could be convinced to potentially fight for Wendlyn in a war. They could be the strongest warriors in Wendlyn’s forces—and cause more than a bit of trouble for Adarlan as a result.
She lifted her chin and said, “Then right now—right now, we’ll go down to that beach and unleash our magic on them all. While they’re sleeping.” She turned, even as part of her soul started bucking and thrashing at the thought of it.
Rowan grabbed her elbow. “If I had thought there was a way to do it, I would have suffocated them all. But we can’t—not without endangering our lives in the process.”
“Believe me, I can and I will.” They were Adarlan’s soldiers—they had butchered and pillaged and done more evil than she could stomach. She could do it. She would do it.
“No. You physically cannot harm them, Aelin. Not right now. They know enough about those Wyrdmarks to have protected their whole rutting camp from our kind of magic. Wards—like the stones around the fortress, but different. They wear iron everywhere they can, in their weapons, in their armor. They know their enemy well. We might be good, but we can’t take them on alone and walk out of those caves alive.”
Celaena paced, running her hands through her rain-wet hair, and then realized he hadn’t finished. “Say it,” she demanded.
“Narrok is in the very back of the caves, in a private chamber. He is like them, a creature wearing the skin of a man. He sends out his three monsters to retrieve the demi-Fae, and they bring them back to the cave—for him to experiment on.”
She knew, then, why Rowan had moved her into the trees, far from the beach. Not for safety, but because—because there was a demi-Fae in there right now.
“I tried to cut off her air—to make it easier for her,” Rowan said. “But they have her in too much iron, and . . . she won’t make it through the night, even if we go in there now. She is already a husk, barely able to breathe. There is no coming back from what they’ve done. They’ve fed on the very life of her, trapping her in her mind, making her relive whatever horrors and miseries she’s already encountered.”
Even the fire in her blood froze. “It truly fed on me that day in the barrows,” she whispered. “If I hadn’t managed to escape, it would have drained me like that.” A low, confirming growl rippled out of Rowan.
Nauseated, Celaena scrubbed at her face—tipped her head back to the rain trickling in from the canopy above, then finally took a long breath and faced Rowan. “We cannot kill them with our magic while they are encamped. Wendlyn’s forces are too far away, and Narrok is going after the demi-Fae with three of those monsters plus two hundred soldiers.” She was thinking aloud, but Rowan nodded anyway. “How many of the sentries at Mistward have actually seen battle?”
“Thirty or less. And some, like Malakai, are too old, but will fight anyway—and die.”
Rowan walked deeper into the woods. She followed him, if only because she knew if she took one step closer to the beach, she would go after that female. From the tension in Rowan’s shoulders, she knew he felt the same.
The rain ceased, and Celaena pulled back her hood to let the misty air soak into her too-hot face. This area was full of shepherds and farmers and fishermen. Aside from the demi-Fae, there was no one else to fight the creatures. They had no advantage, save for knowing their territory better than their enemy. They would send word to Wendlyn, of course, and maybe, maybe help would arrive in the next week.