I claim you, Aelin. To whatever end.
She might have continued to silently argue with him, but that strange, feminine warmth that she’d felt at the campsite that morning wrapped around her, as if assuring her it was all right to want this badly enough that it hurt, telling her that she could trust the prince, and more than that—more than anything, she could trust herself. So when Rowan reached for her wrist again, she did not fight him.
“Together, Fireheart,” he said, pushing back the sleeve of her tunic. “We’ll find a way together.” He looked up from her exposed wrist. “A court that will change the world,” he promised.
And then she was nodding—nodding and smiling, too, as he drew the dagger from his boot and offered it to her. “Say it, Aelin.”
Not daring to let her hands shake in front of Maeve or Rowan’s stunned friends, she took his dagger and held it over her exposed wrist. “Do you promise to serve in my court, Rowan Whitethorn, from now until the day you die?” She did not know the right words or the Old Language, but a blood oath wasn’t about pretty phrases.
“I do. Until my last breath, and the world beyond. To whatever end.”
She would have paused then, asked him again if he really wanted to do this, but Maeve was still there, a shadow lurking behind them. That was why he had done it now, here—so Celaena could not object, could not try to talk him out of it.
It was such a Rowan thing to do, so pigheaded, that she could only grin as she drew the dagger across her wrist, leaving a trail of blood in its wake. She offered her arm to him.
With surprising gentleness, he took her wrist in his hands and lowered his mouth to her skin.
For a heartbeat, something lightning-bright snapped through her and then settled—a thread binding them, tighter and tighter with each pull Rowan took of her blood. Three mouthfuls—his canines pricking against her skin—and then he lifted his head, his lips shining with her blood, his eyes glittering and alive and full of steel.
There were no words to do justice to what passed between them in that moment.
Maeve saved them from trying to remember how to speak as she hissed, “Now that you have insulted me further, get out. All of you.” His friends were gone in an instant, padding off for the shadows, taking those wretched whips with them.
Celaena helped Rowan to his feet, letting him heal the wound on her wrist as his back knitted together. Shoulder to shoulder, they looked at the Fae Queen one last time.
But there was only a white barn owl flapping off into the moonlit night.
They hurried out of Doranelle, not stopping until they found a quiet inn in a small, half-forgotten town miles away. Rowan didn’t even dare to swing by his quarters to collect his belongings, and claimed he had nothing worthwhile to take, anyway. His friends did not come after them, did not try to bid them good-bye as they slipped across the bridge and into the night-veiled lands beyond. After hours of running, Celaena tumbled into bed and slept like the dead. But at dawn, she begged Rowan to retrieve his needles and ink from his pack.
She bathed while he readied what he needed, and she scrubbed herself with coarse salt in the tiny inn bathroom until her skin gleamed. Rowan said nothing as she walked back into the bedroom, hardly gave her more than a passing glance as she removed her robe, bare to the waist, and laid on her stomach on the worktable he’d ordered brought in. His needles and ink were already on the table, his sleeves had been rolled up to the elbows, and his hair was tied back, making the elegant, brutal lines of his tattoo all the more visible.
“Deep breath,” he said. She obeyed, resting her hands under her chin as she played with the fire, weaving her own flames among the embers. “Have you had enough water and food?”
She nodded. She’d devoured a full breakfast before getting into the bath.
“Let me know when you need to get up,” he said. He gave her the honor of not second-guessing her decision or warning her of the oncoming pain. Instead, he brushed a steady hand down her scarred back, an artist assessing his canvas. He ran strong, callused fingers along each scar, testing, and her skin prickled.
Then he began the process of drawing the marks, the guide he would follow in the hours ahead. Over breakfast, he’d already sketched a few designs for her approval. They were so perfect it was as if he’d reached into her soul to find them. It hadn’t surprised her at all.
He let her use the bathing room when he’d finished with the outline, and soon she was again facedown on the table, hands under her chin. “Don’t move from now on. I’m starting.”
She gave a grunt of acknowledgment and kept her gaze on the fire, on the embers, as the heat of his body hovered over hers. She heard his slight intake of breath, and then—
The first prick stung—holy gods, with the salt and iron, it hurt. She clamped her teeth together, mastered it, welcomed it. That was what the salt was for with this manner of tattoo, Rowan had told her. To remind the bearer of the loss. Good—good, was all she could think as the pain spiderwebbed through her back. Good.
And when Rowan made the next mark, she opened her mouth and began her prayers.
They were prayers she should have said ten years ago: an even-keeled torrent of words in the Old Language, telling the gods of her parents’ death, her uncle’s death, Marion’s death—four lives wiped out in those two days. With each sting of Rowan’s needle, she beseeched the faceless immortals to take the souls of her loved ones into their paradise and keep them safe. She told them of their worth—told them of the good deeds and loving words and brave acts they’d performed. Never pausing for more than a breath, she chanted the prayers she owed them as daughter and friend and heir.
For the hours Rowan worked, his movements falling into the rhythm of her words, she chanted and sang. He did not speak, his mallet and needles the drum to her chanting, weaving their work together. He did not disgrace her by offering water when her voice turned hoarse, her throat so ravaged she had to whisper. In Terrasen she would sing from sunrise to sunset, on her knees in gravel without food or drink or rest. Here she would sing until the markings were done, the agony in her back her offering to the gods.
When it was done her back was raw and throbbing, and it took her a few attempts to rise from the table. Rowan followed her into the nearby night-dark field, kneeling with her in the grass as she tilted her face up to the moon and sang the final song, the sacred song of her household, the Fae lament she’d owed them for ten years.
Rowan did not utter a word while she sang, her voice broken and raw. He remained in the field with her until dawn, as permanent as the markings on her back. Three lines of text scrolled over her three largest scars, the story of her love and loss now written on her: one line for her parents and uncle; one line for Lady Marion; and one line for her court and her people.
On the smaller, shorter scars, were the stories of Nehemia and of Sam. Her beloved dead.
No longer would they be locked away in her heart. No longer would she be ashamed.
The War Games came.
All the Ironteeth Clans were granted time to rest the day before, but none took it, instead squeezing in last-minute drills or going over plans and strategies.
Officials and councilors from Adarlan had been arriving for days, come to monitor the Games from the top of the Northern Fang. They would report back to the King of Adarlan about what the witches and their mounts were like—and who the victor was.
Weeks ago, after Abraxos had made the Crossing, Manon had returned to the Omega to grins and applause. Her grandmother was nowhere to be seen, but that was expected. Manon had not accomplished anything; she had merely done what was expected of her.
She saw and heard nothing of the Crochan prisoner in the belly of the Omega, and no one else seemed to know anything about her. She was half tempted to ask her grandmother, but the Matron didn’t summon her, and Manon wasn’t in the mood to be beaten again.
These days her own temper was fraying as the Clans closed in tight, kept to their own halls, and hardly spoke to each other. Whatever unity they’d shown on the night of Abraxos’s crossing was long gone by the time the War Games arrived, replaced by centuries’ worth of competition and blood feuding.
The Games were to take place in, around, and between the two peaks, including the nearest canyon, visible from the Northern Fang. Each of the three Clans would have its own nest atop a nearby mountain peak—a literal nest of twigs and branches. In the center of each lay a glass egg.
The eggs were to be their source of victory and downfall. Each Clan was to capture the eggs of the two enemy teams, but also leave behind a host to protect their own egg. The winning Clan would be the one who gained possession of the two other eggs by stealing them from the nests, where they could not be touched by their guardians, or from whatever enemy forces carried them. If an egg shattered, it meant automatic disqualification for whoever carried it.
Manon donned her light armor and flying leathers. She wore metal on her shoulders, wrists, and thighs—any place that could be hit by an arrow or sliced at by wyverns or enemy blades. She was used to the weight and limited movement, and so was Abraxos, thanks to the training she’d forced the Blackbeaks to endure these past few weeks.
Though they were under strict orders not to maim or kill, they were allowed to carry two weapons each, so Manon took Wind-Cleaver and her best dagger. The Shadows, Asterin, Lin, and the demon-twins would wield the bows. They were capable of making kill shots from their wyverns now—had taken run after run at targets in the canyons and made bulls-eyes each time. Asterin had swaggered into the mess hall that morning, well aware that she was lethal as all hell.
Each Clan wore braided strips of dyed leather across their brows—black, blue, yellow—their wyverns painted with similar streaks on their tails, necks, and sides. When all the covens were airborne, they gathered in the skies, presenting the entirety of the host to the little mortal men in the mountains below. The Thirteen rode at the head of the Blackbeak covens, keeping perfect rank.
“Fools, for not knowing what they’ve unleashed,” Asterin murmured, the words carried to Manon on the wind. “Stupid, mortal fools.”
Manon hissed her agreement.
They flew in formation: Manon at the head, Asterin and Vesta flanking behind, then three rows of three: Imogen framed by the green-eyed demons, Ghislaine flanked by Kaya and Thea, the two Shadows and Lin, then Sorrel solo in the back. A battering ram, balanced and flawless, capable of punching through enemy lines.
If Manon didn’t bring them down, then the vicious swords of Asterin and Vesta got them. If that didn’t stop them, the six in the middle were a guaranteed death trap. Most wouldn’t even make it to the Shadows and Lin, who would be fixing their keen eyes on their surroundings. Or to Sorrel, guarding their rear.
They would take out the enemy forces one by one, with hands and feet and elbows where weapons would ordinarily do the job. The objective was to retrieve the eggs, not kill the others, she reminded herself and the Thirteen again. And again.
The Games began with the ringing of a mighty bell somewhere in the Omega. The skies erupted with wings and claws and shrieks a heartbeat later.
They went after the Blueblood egg first, because Manon knew the Yellowlegs would go for the Blackbeak nest, which they did immediately. Manon signaled to her witches and one third of her force doubled back, falling behind home lines, putting up a solid wall of teeth and wings for the Yellowlegs to break against.
The Bluebloods, who had probably done the least planning in favor of all their various rituals and prayers, sent their forces to the Blackbeaks as well, to see if extra wings could break that iron-clad wall. Another mistake.