At dawn, her parents took her out of the castle, headed for their manor two days away. Their foreign visitors might have caused too much stress, the healer said. She suggested Lady Marion take her, but her parents insisted they go. Her uncle approved. The King of Adarlan, it seemed, would not stay in the castle with her magic running rampant, either.
Aedion remained in Orynth, her parents promising he would be sent for when she was settled again. But she knew it was for his safety. Lady Marion went with them, leaving her husband and Elide at the palace—for their safety, too.
A monster, that was what she was. A monster who had to be contained and monitored.
Her parents argued the first two nights at the manor, and Lady Marion kept her company, reading to her, brushing her hair, telling her stories of her home in Perranth. Marion had been a laundress in the palace from her childhood. But when Evalin arrived, they had become friends—mostly because the princess had stained her new husband’s favorite shirt with ink and wanted to get it cleaned before he noticed.
Evalin soon made Marion her lady-in-waiting, and then Lord Lochan had returned from a rotation on the southern border. Handsome Cal Lochan, who somehow became the dirtiest man in the castle and constantly needed Marion’s advice on how to remove various stains. Who one day asked a bastard-born servant to be his wife—and not just wife, but Lady of Perranth, the second-largest territory in Terrasen. Two years later, she had borne him Elide, heir of Perranth.
She loved Marion’s stories, and it was those stories she clung to in the quiet and tension of the next few days, when winter still gripped the world and made the manor groan.
The house was creaking in the brisk winds the night her mother walked into her bedroom—far less grand than the one in the palace, but still lovely. They only summered here, as the house was too drafty for winter, and the roads too perilous. The fact that they’d come . . .
“Still not asleep?” her mother asked. Lady Marion rose from beside the bed. After a few warm words, Marion left, smiling at them both.
Her mother curled up on the mattress, drawing her in close. “I’m sorry,” her mother whispered onto her head. For the nightmares had also been of drowning—of icy water closing over her head. “I am so sorry, Fireheart.”
She buried her face in her mother’s chest, savoring the warmth.
“Are you still frightened of sleeping?”
She nodded, clinging tighter.
“I have a gift, then.” When she didn’t move, her mother said, “Don’t you wish to see it?”
She shook her head. She didn’t want a gift.
“But this will protect you from harm—this will keep you safe always.”
She lifted her head to find her mother smiling as she removed the golden chain and heavy, round medallion from beneath her nightgown and held it out to her.
She looked at the amulet, then at her mother, eyes wide.
The Amulet of Orynth. The heirloom honored above all others of their house. Its round disk was the size of her palm, and on its cerulean front, a white stag had been carved of horn—horn gifted from the Lord of the Forest. Between his curling antlers was a burning crown of gold, the immortal star that watched over them and pointed the way home to Terrasen. She knew every inch of the amulet, had run her fingers over it countless times and memorized the shape of the symbols etched into the back—words in a strange language that no one could remember.
“Father gave this to you when you were in Wendlyn. To protect you.”
The smile remained. “And before that, his uncle gave it to him when he came of age. It is a gift meant to be given to people in our family—to those who need its guidance.”
She was too stunned to object as her mother slipped the chain over her head and arranged the amulet down her front. It hung almost to her navel, a warm, heavy weight. “Never take it off. Never lose it.” Her mother kissed her brow. “Wear it, and know that you are loved, Fireheart—that you are safe, and it is the strength of this”—she placed a hand on her heart—“that matters. Wherever you go, Aelin,” she whispered, “no matter how far, this will lead you home.”
She had lost the Amulet of Orynth. Lost it that very same night.
She could not bear it. She tried begging the Valg princes to put her out of her misery and drain her into nothing, but she had no voice here.
Hours after her mother had given her the Amulet of Orynth, a storm had struck.
It was a storm of unnatural darkness, and in it she felt that wriggling, horrific thing pushing against her mind again. Her parents remained unconscious along with everyone else in the manor, even though a strange smell coated the air.
She had clutched the amulet to her chest when she awoke to the pure dark and the thunder—clutched it and prayed to every god she knew. But the amulet had not given her strength or courage, and she had slunk to her parents’ room, as black as her own, save for the window flapping in the gusting wind and rain.
The rain had soaked everything, but—but they had to be exhausted from dealing with her, and from the anxiety they tried to hide. So she shut the window for them, and carefully crawled into their damp bed so that she did not wake them. They didn’t reach for her, didn’t ask what was wrong, and the bed was so cold—colder than her own, and reeking of copper and iron, and that scent that did not sit well with her.
It was to that scent that she awoke when the maid screamed.
Lady Marion rushed in, eyes wide but clear. She did not look at her dead friends, but went straight to the bed and leaned across Evalin’s corpse. The lady-in-waiting was small and delicately boned, but she somehow lifted her away from her parents, holding her tightly as she rushed from the room. The few servants at the manor were in a panic, some racing for help that was at least a day away—some fleeing.
Lady Marion stayed.
Marion stayed and drew a bath, helping her peel away the cold, bloody nightgown. They did not talk, did not try. Lady Marion bathed her, and when she was clean and dry, she carried her down to the cold kitchen. Marion sat her at the long table, bundled in a blanket, and set about building the hearth fire.
She had not spoken today. There were no sounds or words left in her, anyway.
One of the few remaining servants burst in, shouting to the empty house that King Orlon was dead, too. Murdered in his bed just like—
Lady Marion was out of the kitchen with her teeth bared before the man could enter. She didn’t listen to gentle Marion slapping him, ordering him to get out and find help—find real help and not useless news.
Murdered. Her family was—dead. There was no coming back from death, and her parents . . . What had the servants done with their . . . their . . .
Shaking hit her so hard the blanket tumbled away. She couldn’t stop her teeth from clacking. It was a miracle she stayed in the chair.
It couldn’t be true. This was another nightmare, and she would awaken to her father stroking her hair, her mother smiling, awaken in Orynth, and—
The warm weight of the blanket wrapped around her again, and Lady Marion scooped her into her lap, rocking. “I know. I’m not going to leave—I’m going to stay with you until help comes. They’ll be here tomorrow. Lord Lochan, Captain Quinn, your Aedion—they’re all going to be here tomorrow. Maybe even by dawn.” But Lady Marion was shaking, too. “I know,” she kept saying, weeping quietly. “I know.”
The fire died down, along with Marion’s crying. They held on to each other, rooted to that kitchen chair. They waited for the dawn, and for the others who would help, somehow.
A clopping issued from outside—faint, but the world was so silent that they heard the lone horse. It was still dark. Lady Marion scanned the kitchen windows, listening to the horse slowly circling, until—
They were under the table in a flash, Marion pressing her into the freezing floor, covering her with her delicate body. The horse headed toward the darkened front of the house.
The front, because—because the kitchen light might suggest to whoever it was that someone was inside. The front was better for sneaking in . . . to finish what had begun the night before.
“Aelin,” Marion whispered, and small, strong hands found her face, forcing her to look at the white-as-snow features, the bloodred lips. “Aelin, listen to me.” Though Marion was breathing quickly, her voice was even. “You are going to run for the river. Do you remember the way to the footbridge?”
The narrow rope and wood bridge across the ravine and the rushing River Florine below. She nodded.
“Good girl. Make for the bridge, and cross it. Do you remember the empty farm down the road? Find a place to hide there—and do not come out, do not let yourself be seen by anyone except someone you recognize. Not even if they say they’re a friend. Wait for the court—they will find you.”
She was shaking again. But Marion gripped her shoulders. “I am going to buy you what time I can, Aelin. No matter what you hear, no matter what you see, don’t look back, and don’t stop until you find a place to hide.”
She shook her head, silent tears finding their way out at last. The front door groaned—a quick movement.
Lady Marion reached for the dagger in her boot. It glinted in the dim light. “When I say run, you run, Aelin. Do you understand?”
She didn’t want to, not at all, but she nodded.
Lady Marion brushed a kiss to her brow. “Tell my Elide . . .” Her voice broke. “Tell my Elide that I love her very much.”
A soft thud of approaching footsteps from the front of the house. Lady Marion dragged her from under the table and eased open the kitchen door only wide enough for her to squeeze through.
“Run now,” Lady Marion said, and shoved her into the night.
The door shut behind her, and then there was only the cold, dark air and the trees that led toward the path to the bridge. She staggered into a run. Her legs were leaden, her bare feet tearing on the ground. But she made it to the trees—just as there was a crash from the house.
She gripped a trunk, her knees buckling. Through the open window, she could see Lady Marion standing before a hooded, towering man, her daggers out but trembling. “You will not find her.”
The man said something that had Marion backing to the door—not to run, but to block it.
She was so small, her nursemaid. So small against him. “She is a child,” Marion bellowed. She had never heard her scream like that—with rage and disgust and despair. Marion raised her daggers, precisely how her husband had shown her again and again.
She should help, not cower in the trees. She had learned to hold a knife and a small sword. She should help.
The man lunged for Marion, but she darted out of the way—and then leapt on him, slicing and tearing and biting.
And then something broke—something broke so fundamentally she knew there was no coming back from it, either for her or Lady Marion—as the man grabbed the woman and threw her against the edge of the table. A crack of bone, then the arc of his blade going for her stunned form—for her head. Red sprayed.
She knew enough about death to understand that once a head was severed like that, it was over. Knew that Lady Marion, who had loved her husband and daughter so much, was gone. Knew that this—this was called sacrifice.
She ran. Ran through the barren trees, the brush ripping her clothes, her hair, shredding and biting. The man didn’t bother to be quiet as he flung open the kitchen door, mounted his horse, and galloped after her. The hoofbeats were so powerful they seemed to echo through the forest—the horse had to be a monster.
She tripped over a root and slammed into the earth. In the distance, the melting river was roaring. So close, but—her ankle gave a bolt of agony. Stuck—she was stuck in the mud and roots. She yanked at the roots that held her, wood ripping her nails, and when that did nothing, she clawed at the muddy ground. Her fingers burned.