Reinforcements from Wendlyn weren’t coming—not out of spite but because a legion of Adarlan’s men had attacked the northern border. Three thousand men in ships had launched a full-on assault. Wendlyn had sent every last soldier to the northern coast, and there they would remain. The demi-Fae were to face Narrok and his forces alone. Rowan calmly encouraged the nonfighters at the fortress to flee.
But no one fled. Even Emrys refused, and Malakai merely said that where his mate went, he went.
For hours, they adjusted their plans to accommodate the lack of reinforcements. In the end they didn’t have to change much, thankfully. Celaena contributed what she could to the planning, letting Rowan order everyone about and adjust the masterful strategy in that brilliant head of his. She tried not to think about Endovier and Calaculla, but the knowledge of it still simmered in her, brewing during the long hours that they debated.
They planned until Emrys hauled up a pot from the kitchen and began whacking it with a spoon, ordering them out because dawn would come too soon.
Within a minute of returning to their room, Celaena was undressed and flopping into bed. Rowan took his time, however, peeling off his shirt and striding to the washbasin. “You did well helping me plan tonight.”
She watched him wash his face, then his neck. “You sound surprised.”
He wiped his face with a towel, then leaned against the dresser, bracing his hands against either end. The wood groaned, but his face remained still.
Fireheart, he had called her. Did he know what that name meant to her? She wanted to ask, still had so many questions for him, but right now, after all the news of the day, she needed to sleep.
“I sent word,” Rowan said, letting go of the dresser and approaching the bed. She’d left the sword from the mountain cave on the bedpost, and its smoldering ruby now glinted in the dim light as he ran a finger down the golden hilt. “To my . . . cadre, as you like to call them.”
She braced herself on her elbows. “When?”
“A few days ago. I don’t know where they all are or whether they’ll arrive in time. Maeve might not let them come—or some of them might not even ask her. They can be . . . unpredictable. And it may be that I just get the order to return to Doranelle, and—”
“You actually called for aid?”
His eyes narrowed. I just said that I did.
She stood, and he retreated a step. What changed your mind?
Some things are worth the risk.
He didn’t back away again as she approached and said with every ember left in her shredded heart, “I claim you, Rowan Whitethorn. I don’t care what you say and how much you protest. I claim you as my friend.”
He just turned to the washbasin again, but she caught the unspoken words that he’d tried to keep her from reading on his face. It doesn’t matter. Even if we survive, when we go to Doranelle, you will walk out of Maeve’s realm alone.
Emrys joined them—along with all the demi-Fae at Mistward who had not been dispatched with messages—in traveling down to the healers’ compound the next morning to help cart the patients to safety. Anyone who could not fight remained to help the sick and wounded, and Emrys declared he would stay there until the very end. So they left him, along with a small contingent of sentries in case things went very, very wrong. When Celaena headed off into the trees with Rowan, she did not bother with good-byes. Many of the others did not say farewell, either—it seemed like an invitation for death, and Celaena was fairly certain she wasn’t on the good side of the gods.
She was awoken that night by a large, callused hand on her shoulder, shaking her awake. It seemed that death was already waiting for them.
“Get your sword and your weapons, and hurry,” Rowan said to Celaena as she instantly came to her feet, reaching for the dagger beside the bed.
He was already halfway across the room, slinging on his clothes and weapons with lethal efficiency. She didn’t bother with questions—he would tell her what was necessary. She hopped into her pants and boots.
“I think we’ve been betrayed,” Rowan said, and her fingers caught on a buckle of her sword-belt as she turned to the open window. Quiet. Absolute quiet in the forest.
And along the horizon, a growing smear of blackness. “They’re coming tonight,” she breathed.
“I did a sweep of the perimeter.” Rowan stuffed a knife into his boot. “It’s as if someone told them where every trap, every warning bell is located. They’ll be here within the hour.”
“Are the ward-stones still working?” She finished braiding her hair and strapped her sword across her back.
“Yes—they’re intact. I raised the alarm, and Malakai and the others are readying our defenses on the walls.” A small part of her smiled at the thought of what it must have been like for Malakai to find a half-naked Rowan shouting orders in his room.
She asked, “Who would have betrayed us?”
“I don’t know, and when I find them, I’ll splatter them on the walls. But for now, we have bigger problems to worry about.”
The darkness on the horizon had spread, devouring the stars, the trees, the light. “What is that?”
Rowan’s mouth tightened into a thin line. “Bigger problems.”
The ward-stones were the last line of defense before the fortress itself. If Narrok planned to lay siege to Mistward, they couldn’t outlast him forever—but hopefully the barrier would wear down the creatures and their power a bit. On the battlements, in the courtyard and atop the towers, stood the demi-Fae. Archers would take down as many men as possible once the barrier fell, and they would use the oak doors of the fortress as a bottleneck into the courtyard.
But there were still the creatures and Narrok, along with the darkness that they carried with them. Birds and animals streamed past the fortress as they fled—an exodus of flapping wings, padding feet, claws clicking on stone. Herding the animals to safety were the Little Folk, hardly more than a gleam of night-seeing eyes. Whatever darkness Narrok and the creatures brought . . . once you went in, you did not come out.
She was standing with Rowan just beyond the gates of the courtyard, the grassy expanse of earth between the fortress and the ward-stones feeling far too small. The animals and Little Folk had stopped appearing moments before, and even the wind had died.
“As soon as the barrier falls, I want you to put arrows through their eyes,” Rowan said to her, his bow slack in his hands. “Don’t give them a chance to enthrall you—or anyone. Leave the soldiers to the others.”
They hadn’t heard or seen any of the two hundred men, but she nodded, gripping her own bow. “What about magic?”
“Use it sparingly, but if you think you can destroy them with it, don’t hesitate. And don’t get fancy. Take them down by any means possible.” Such icy calculation. Purebred, undiluted warrior. She could almost feel the aggression pouring off him.
A reek was rising from beyond the barrier, and some of the sentries in the courtyard behind them began murmuring. A smell from another world, from whatever hellish creature lurked under mortal skin. Some straggling animals darted out of the trees, foaming at the mouth, the darkness behind them thickening. “Rowan,” she said as she felt rather than saw them. “They’re here.”
At the edge of the trees, hardly five yards from the ward-stones, the creatures emerged.
Celaena started. Three.
Three, not two. “But the skinwalkers—” She couldn’t finish the words as the three men surveyed the fortress. They were clad in deepest black, their tunics open to reveal the Wyrdstone torques at their throats. The skinwalkers hadn’t killed it—no, because there was that same perfect male, looking straight at her. Smiling at her. As if he could already taste her.
A rabbit bolted out of the bushes, racing for the ward-stones. Like the paw of a massive beast, the darkness behind the creatures lashed out, sweeping over the fleeing animal.
The rabbit fell midleap, its fur turning dull and matted, bones pushing through as the life was sucked out of it. The sentries on the walls and towers stirred, some swearing. She had stood a chance of escaping the clutches of just one of those creatures. But all three together became something else, something infinitely powerful.
“The barrier cannot be allowed to fall,” Rowan said to her. “That blackness will kill anything it touches.” Even as he spoke, the darkness stretched around the fortress. Trapping them. The barrier hummed, and the reverberations zinged against the soles of her boots.
She shifted into her Fae form, wincing against the pain. She needed the sharper hearing, the strength and healing. Still, the three creatures remained on the forest edge, the darkness spreading. No sign of the two hundred soldiers.
As one, the three half turned to the shadows behind them and stepped aside, heads bowed. Then, stalking out of the trees, Narrok appeared.
Unlike the others, Narrok was not beautiful. He was scarred and powerfully built, and armed to the teeth. But he, too, had skin carved with those glittering black veins, and wore that torque of obsidian. Even from this distance, she could see the devouring emptiness in his eyes. It seeped toward them like blood in a river.
She waited for him to say something, to parlay and offer a choice between yielding to the king’s power or death, to give some speech to break their morale. But Narrok looked upon Mistward with a slow, almost delighted sweep of the head, drew his iron blade, and pointed at the curving ward-stone gates.
There was nothing Celaena or Rowan could do as a whip of darkness snapped out and struck the invisible barrier. The air shuddered, and the stones whined.
Rowan was already moving toward the oak doors, shouting orders to the archers to ready themselves and use whatever magic they had to shield against the oncoming darkness. Celaena remained where she was. Another strike, and the barrier rippled.
“Aelin,” Rowan snapped, and she looked over her shoulder at him. “Get inside the gates.”
But she slung her bow across her back, and when she raised her hand, it was consumed with fire. “In the woods that night, it balked from the flame.”
“To use it, you’ll have to get outside the barrier, or it’ll just rebound against the walls.”
“I know,” she said quietly.
“The last time, you took one look at that thing and fell under its spell.”
The darkness lashed again.
“It won’t be like last time,” she said, eyes on Narrok, on his three creatures. Not when she had a score to settle. Her blood heated, but she said, “I don’t know what else to do.”
Because if that darkness reached them, then all the blades and arrows would be useless. They wouldn’t have a chance to strike.
A cry sounded behind them, followed by a few more, then the clash of metal on metal. Someone shouted, “The tunnel! They’ve been let in through the tunnel!”
For a moment, Celaena just stood there, blinking. The escape tunnel. They had been betrayed. And now they knew where the soldiers were: creeping through the underground network, let in perhaps because the ward-stones, with that strange sentience, were too focused on the threat above to be able to contain the one below.
The shouting and fighting grew louder. Rowan had stationed their weaker fighters inside to keep them safe—right in the path of the tunnel entrance. It would be a slaughterhouse. “Rowan—”
Another blow to the barrier from the darkness, and another. She began walking toward the stones, and Rowan growled. “Do not take one more step—”
She kept going. Inside the fortress, screaming had begun—pain and death and terror. Each step away from it tore at her, but she headed to the stones, toward the megalith gates. Rowan grabbed her elbow. “That was an order.”