Chapter no 68

A Court of Silver Flames

Nesta far preferred caves to trees. But as night fell and no caves revealed themselves, she found herself with no other option but to scale one behind Emerie and Gwyn, the latter revealing how she’d managed to rest while up one: a long stretch of rope. It must have been one of the items Queen Briallyn had the Illyrians leave, presumably for trussing captives or stringing them up or strangling them, and Gwyn had used it to bind herself to the trunk of a tree each night. It was long enough that the three of them, sitting side by side on a massive branch, were able to tie themselves together and to the tree itself.

“How’d you avoid the creatures climbing up to eat you?” Emerie asked Gwyn, who was wedged between her and Nesta. “They were pulling Illyrians off the branches like apples.”

“Maybe because I don’t smell like an Illyrian,” Gwyn said, frowning at her clothes. “Despite these.” She nodded to Nesta. “You don’t, either. If we’re lucky, our scents will mask Emerie’s.”

“Perhaps,” Nesta said, voice quieting as the night deepened. The snow had finally stopped hours ago, and even the whipping wind had eased. A small miracle.

Gwyn peered forward to look at Emerie. “How much do you know about the Rite?”

Emerie tucked her hands under her armpits for warmth. “A good amount. My father and brother—and my horrid cousins—talked about it endlessly. Any family gathering, all the males told and retold their oh-so-glorious tales from their own Rites. How many they killed, the beasts they escaped. None of them ever made it to Ramiel, though.” Emerie nodded to Nesta. “They always hated that about Cassian. And Rhysand and Azriel. They hated that the three of them made it to the very top and won the whole thing.”

“The mountain is that hard to climb?” Gwyn asked, voice hushed.

Emerie grunted. “Hard to reach; harder to climb. It’s covered in jagged rock that slices you up like a cheese grater.”

Nesta shuddered.

“And with our healing slowed to a human rate thanks to the rules of the Rite,” Emerie went on, “we’ll be lucky to make it to the Pass of Enalius in one piece.”

“What’s that?” Nesta asked.

Emerie’s eyes shone. “Long ago—so long ago they don’t even have a precise date for it—a great war was fought between the Fae and the ancient beings who oppressed them. One of its key battles was here, in these mountains. Our forces were battered and outnumbered, and for some reason, the enemy was desperate to reach the stone at the top of Ramiel. We were never taught the reason why; I think it’s been forgotten. But a young Illyrian warrior named Enalius held the line against the enemy soldiers for days. He found a natural archway of stone amongst the tangle of boulders and made that his bottleneck. He died in the end, but he held off the enemy long enough for our allies to reach us. This Rite is all to honor him. So much of the history has been lost, but the memory of his bravery remains.”

As Cassian’s name would last through history, Nesta thought. Would her own? Some small part of her wished for it.

“There are a few different paths to the top of Ramiel,” Emerie went on. “But the hardest one, the most infamous, is the one that takes you through the Pass of Enalius. Through the archway of stone. They call that path the Breaking.”

“Why am I not surprised that’s the one Cassian and his brothers took?” Nesta grumbled.

Emerie and Gwyn chuckled, but when a beast roared in the distance, they instantly fell quiet.

Nesta murmured, “We should take watches.”

They divvied them up, Nesta taking first watch, Emerie second, and Gwyn third, and when that was decided, they sat in silence for a long moment. They’d eaten a meager meal of some roast squirrel Gwyn had managed to pilfer from an unsuspecting Illyrian, but hunger remained a vocal knot in their bellies.

Nesta leaned into Gwyn’s warmth, let it seep through her bones. And prayed to whatever god might be listening that the rumbling of their stomachs wouldn’t reveal them to the beasts below.



The fourth day brought sun, bright enough to make the snow blinding, even in the shadows of the pines. Gwyn had climbed their tree to its summit, then estimated that Ramiel lay days away to the northeast. Leaving them, should they make it, a day to climb its barren face.

“I couldn’t see if anyone else was ahead,” Gwyn announced, “but there’s a massive ravine nearby with a small wooden bridge. We must be the first to find it—if anyone else had, they would have destroyed the bridge to prevent further use. We need to reach it before the others do.”

“How far ahead?” Nesta asked, checking the knife at her side, the rope she’d coiled over a shoulder and the Illyrian bow there. Emerie had the sword she’d snatched from Bellius’s camp, and Gwyn bore a shield and a knife of her own.

“Several hours, if we can run it,” Gwyn said. “Running risks attention,” Emerie warned.

“Walking risks losing the bridge,” Nesta countered.

The three of them looked at each other. “Run, then,” Gwyn said, and they nodded.

They set a light pace, meant to keep their steps silent and easy even with the snow underfoot, but running after days of exhaustion, limbs stiff

with cold and belly mostly empty, made Nesta’s head pound.

“We’ve got company,” Emerie panted, and the three of them halted. Not five hundred yards away stood six males.

“Do you think they know about the bridge?” Gwyn breathed.

As soon as she said it, the males burst into a sprint. Not toward them, but toward the ravine.

Swearing, Nesta launched into movement with Gwyn and Emerie close behind, snow flying at their feet. “Hurry!” she shouted.

Through the trees ahead, the world lightened—as if the forest had stopped. It had, she realized. At the ravine’s edge, now equidistant between them and the males. Whoever made it first would cut the bridge behind them.

And if they both reached the bridge at the same time …

“We have to intercept them,” Nesta panted. “Well before they reach the bridge.” She altered her trajectory abruptly, and Emerie and Gwyn moved with her as one. The males aiming for the bridge seemed to realize their enemy was now coming right at them. They slowed, reaching for their weapons.

Nesta found her target, a male with a good foot on her, and swiped with her dagger as she careened into him. He’d been running fast enough that he lost his balance and went down as he dodged her blow. Precisely where she wanted him: right in front of Emerie. Nesta pivoted to the next male as her friend drove her sword into the first male’s chest.

The next male Nesta attacked was ready, swiping with a short sword. She ducked, twirling away—allowing him to land the blow on Gwyn’s shield. Just as Gwyn ducked, slashing across his shins with a dagger.

The four others—

Nesta weaved and bobbed against another male, dagger to dagger. Each movement sang in perfect harmony with her breath; each pivot of her body, her limbs, was part of a symphony.

The male swung broadly at Nesta, and she glimpsed her opening. She let his blow go wide before slamming her elbow into his nose. Bone met bone with a crunch that rang through her.

He went down with a grunt and Nesta’s blade slashed silver and red across his throat. She didn’t let herself feel the warm slickness of his blood. Another male already charged at her, and Gwyn shouted Nesta’s name

—grabbing her attention just before the priestess chucked a shield to her.

Nesta caught it, spinning in the snow on one knee as she absorbed the impact of its weight. Expelling her breath in a mighty exhale, she lifted the shield high as the male brought down a sword meant for her head. Nesta met the blow, thrusting the shield upward and knocking the male off balance. She slammed her knife into his boot.

He screamed, falling backward, and Nesta leaped to her feet, swinging the shield so hard it dented as it slammed into his head. The reverberations bit into her hand and forearm, but she kept her grip on the shield.

Nesta whirled to the next opponent, but her friends had halted. The males around them were down.

Utter silence filled the snowy forest. Even the birds in the pines had stopped chirping.

“Valkyries,” Emerie said, eyes blazing bright.

Nesta grinned through the blood she knew was splattered on her face. “Hell yes.”



“Four fucking days,” Cassian hissed from where he and Azriel monitored the castle. “We’ve been sitting on our asses for four fucking days.”

Azriel sharpened Truth-Teller. The black blade absorbed the dim sunlight trickling through the forest canopy above. “It seems you’ve forgotten how much of spying is waiting for the right moment. People don’t engage in their evil deeds when it’s convenient to you.”

Cassian rolled his eyes. “I stopped spying because it bored me to death.

I don’t know how you put up with this all the time.”

“It suits me.” Azriel didn’t halt his sharpening, though shadows gathered around his feet.

Cassian blew out a breath. “I know I’m being impatient. I know that. But you really think we shouldn’t go up to that damned castle and peek inside?”

“I told you: their castle is too heavily warded, and full of magical traps that would trip up even Helion. Beyond that, Briallyn has the Crown. I have no interest in explaining to Rhys and Feyre why you died on my watch. And even less interest in explaining it to Nesta.”

Cassian stared toward the castle. “You think she’s alive?” The question haunted him with every breath these last few days.

“You’d know if she’d died,” Azriel said, pausing his work and looking up at Cassian. He tapped his brother’s chest with a scarred hand. “Right here—you’d know, Cass.”

“There are plenty of other unspeakable things that could be happening to her,” Cassian said, voice thickening. “To Emerie and Gwyn.”

The shadows deepened around Azriel, his Siphons gleaming like cobalt fire. “You—we—trained them well, Cassian. Trust in that. It’s all we can do.”

Cassian’s throat tightened, but a motion drew Azriel’s gaze away. Cassian shot to his feet. “Someone’s leaving the castle.” The two of them wordlessly launched into the skies, entering the cloud cover within moments. In the chill, thin air, Cassian glimpsed only what the gaps in the clouds offered.

But it was enough.

A small caravan had left the eastern city gates, departing down the bare road that led through the hills.

“I don’t see a prison wagon,” Cassian said over the wind.

Azriel’s gaze remained on the earth below. “They don’t need one,” he said with quiet venom.

Cassian had to wait until the next gap in the clouds to see.

No, they hadn’t needed a prison wagon. Because riding atop a white horse at the front of the party, side by side with a hunched, small figure, was Eris.

“Stupid asshole,” Cassian snarled. “She snared him with the Crown.”

“No,” Az said quietly. “Look at his left. He’s still got the dagger at his side. If he was in her thrall, he’d have already handed it over.”

“So possessing another Made object does protect him against the Crown.” Which meant … “Traitor.” Cassian spat. “I don’t know why I’m

surprised.” His hands curled into fists. “Let’s get him, drag his ass home, and tear him apart.” He’d been drawn away from Nesta for this? For Eris’s games?

Azriel’s voice cut through the howling wind. “We follow them. Capture Eris now and we might not get anything out of him. At least not quickly. We trail them and learn just how far this betrayal goes. See who they’re meeting with. It has to be important, for them to leave the safety of the castle.”

There was no arguing with the logic of it, even if Cassian’s heart screamed at him with every flap of his wings to fly back home.



Nesta, Emerie, and Gwyn hadn’t even reached the bridge when a new group of males closed in, armed with bows and arrows.

“We can make it,” Emerie panted, sprinting at the head of their pack toward the bridge, now visible through the snow-crusted trees. “We can outrun them.”

Arrows whizzed past.

Emerie hit the bridge first, the rickety contraption bouncing with her weight as she practically flew across it. Arrows thudded into the trees, the ground, the bridge posts, and Nesta didn’t hesitate as she raced over the slats, not daring to look at the plunge below to a barren riverbed, only at Emerie as she cleared the bridge—

A scream of pain blasted behind them, and Nesta whirled at the end of the bridge to find Gwyn still on the other side with an arrow through her thigh. Down. Too close to the males closing in—

CUT IT!” Gwyn roared.

“Get up,” Nesta ground out. “Get up.

The priestess tried. She made it to her feet, but she’d never cross the bridge in time.

So Nesta took the Illyrian bow off her shoulder. Took the coil of rope off, too, and handed it blindly to Emerie. “Tie one end to that tree, and then around yourself.” Nesta didn’t wait to see if she was obeyed before she knotted the other end to the arrow. Fitted the arrow into the bow.

“We didn’t learn archery,” Emerie breathed.

But Nesta nocked the arrow in place. Took aim. Right at Gwyn, who eyed the rope tied to the arrow, the other end around the tree and Emerie, and understood.

“My sister taught me.” Nesta’s arms trembled as she drew back the string. “A long time ago.”

Teeth gritted, grunting, Nesta strained for every inch. Aimed for Gwyn as her friend ran toward the bridge, hobbling, face white with pain, leaving a trail of blood in the snow behind her.

Nesta let the arrow soar as the first of the males broke through the trees. It flew true. Landed in the snow at Gwyn’s feet.

The priestess grabbed the arrow and wrapped the rope around her middle, over and over again as she ran for the bridge—

Nesta dropped the bow. Gwyn had reached the bridge’s far side and was yelling, “CUT IT CUT IT CUT IT!

The males cleared the trees. They raced toward the bridge and the limping Gwyn, gaining on her fast. Nesta had only to throw out a hand before Emerie tossed the sword to her.

Gwyn, limping halfway down the bridge, didn’t stop moving. The males were only a few feet behind, crowding onto the rickety structure.

Nesta brought the blade down upon the bridge’s ropes. Even as the wood fell out from beneath her, Gwyn still seemed to be running, then leaping into the open air, only that rope around her middle to keep her from death as she began to plunge—

But Nesta had grabbed on to the rope, dropping before the bridge post and wrapping her legs around it, holding on tightly as inch after inch of rough fiber ripped through her hands. Behind her, braced against the pine tree, Emerie held on just as tightly.

Gwyn fell toward the ravine floor, Illyrian males shrieking as they tumbled, untethered, with her.

Nesta screamed, her palms on fire. Red coated the rope, but she clamped her torn hands tighter and breathed through the ripping, tearing sensation.

Until Gwyn halted her plunge, yanked to a stop. The entire world seemed to suck in a breath as Nesta waited for the snap of the rope.

But Gwyn only careened toward the rock face, grunting in pain as she


The Illyrians who had fallen had carried the only bows, thankfully, and

the males on the other side cursed and spat.

But Nesta and Emerie paid them no heed as they hauled Gwyn upward, bloodied hands turning the rope redder still. Each pull had Nesta panting against the pain until Gwyn cleared the cliff edge, grimacing as the arrow through her thigh touched the ground. It had been a clean shot, but blood soaked her leg. Her face was already pale.

“Fucking bitches!” one of the males roared.

“Oh, shut up!” Emerie bellowed across the ravine, helping Nesta lead Gwyn into the snowy trees, their breaths puffing out before them. “Find something new to call us!”



They managed to slide the arrow out of Gwyn’s leg and bind it using an extra shirt they’d taken from a dead warrior, but the priestess still limped. Her face had grown ashen, and even propped up between Nesta and Emerie, she kept their pace glacial.

Yet they continued toward Ramiel, now visible ahead of them.

They encountered no one else. It began snowing again around midday, and Gwyn’s steps grew staggered. Her breathing too labored. Soon Nesta and Emerie were half-carrying her between them.

By the time evening fell, just getting Gwyn high into a tree took all their remaining strength. They secured themselves to its trunk with the bloodied rope, and Nesta and Emerie idly plucked tiny rope fibers from their torn hands. They had no more food, only water.

The next day was the same: slow walking, snow flurries, ears straining for any hint of other warriors, too many breaks, only water to fill their bellies, and, as night fell, a new tree.

But this tree was the very last before a barren slope rose above them like a black beast.

They’d made it to the foot of Ramiel.



Nesta awoke before dawn, checked that Gwyn breathed, that her leg hadn’t become infected, and stared at the black-and-gray slope ahead.

Far up, too far, lay its peak with the sacred black stone. Three stars glinted above the mountain: Arktos and Oristes to the left and right; Carynth crowning them. Their light flared and waned, as if in invitation and challenge.

“Cassian told me only twelve have made it this far,” Nesta murmured to her friends. “We’ve already earned the title of Oristian just by being here.”

Emerie stirred. “We could stay up here today, wait it out overnight, and be done at dawn. To hell with any titles.” It was the wise thing to do. The safe thing to do.

“That path,” Nesta said, pointing to a small one along Ramiel’s base, “could also take us down south. No one would go that way, because it takes you away from the mountain.”

“So we’d come all this way and just hide?” Gwyn said, voice hoarse.

“You’re hurt,” Nesta countered. “And that is a mountain in front of us.” “So rather than try and fail,” Gwyn demanded, “you would take the safe


“We would live,” Emerie said carefully. “I’d love nothing more than to wipe the smirks off the lips of the males in my village, but not at this cost. Not if it costs us you, Gwyn. We need you to live.”

Gwyn studied Ramiel’s craggy, unforgiving slope. Not much snow graced its sides. Like the wind had whipped it all away. Or the storms had avoided its peak entirely. “Is it living, though? To take the safe road?”

“You’re the one who’s been in a library for two years,” Emerie said.

Gwyn didn’t flinch. “I have. And I am tired of it.” She surveyed the blood-soaked leather along her thigh. “I don’t want to take the safe road.” She pointed to the mountain, to the slender path upward. “I want to take that road.” Her voice thickened. “I want to take the road that no one dares travel, and I want to travel it with you two. No matter what may befall us. Not as Illyrians, not for their titles, but as something new. To prove to them,

to everyone, that something new and different might triumph over their rules and restrictions.”

A cold wind blew off Ramiel’s sides. Whispering, murmuring.

“They call this climb the Breaking for a reason,” Emerie countered gravely.

Nesta added, “We haven’t eaten in days. We’re down to the last of our water. To climb that mountain—”

“I have been broken once before,” Gwyn said, her voice clear. “I survived it. And I will not be broken again—not even by this mountain.”

Nesta and Emerie kept silent as Gwyn released a sharp breath. “A commander from Hybern raped me two years ago. He had his soldiers hold me down on a table. He laughed the entire time.”

Tears gleamed in Gwyn’s eyes. “Hybern attacked in the dead of night. We were all asleep when they broke into the temple and began the slaughter. I shared a room with my twin, Catrin. We woke at the first of the screaming from the walls. She was … Catrin was always the strong one. The smart and charming one. After our mother died, she took care of me. Looked out for me. And that night, she ordered me to go protect Sangravah’s children while she ran right for the temple walls.”

Gwyn’s voice shook. “When I reached the children’s dorm, the slaughter was only a few halls away. I gathered the children, and we ran for one of the catacomb tunnels. They were accessible through a trapdoor in the kitchen, and I’d gotten the last child in when I heard the soldiers coming. I

… I knew they’d find us if I went and left the door uncovered, so I threw a rug over it and then moved the kitchen table atop it. I’d just finished moving the table when the soldiers found me.”

Nesta couldn’t breathe. Gwyn stared at the mountain rising high above.

Even the wind had seemed to quiet to hear her words.

“The screaming had stopped, and they had other priestesses with them. Including Catrin. But their commander walked in, and asked me where the rest of us were. They wanted the children, too. The girls.”

Nesta could hear Emerie’s thundering heart, its frantic beat echoing her own.

Gwyn swallowed. “I told him the children had taken the mountain road to get help. He didn’t believe me. So he grabbed Catrin, because our scents were nearly identical, you see, and told me that if I didn’t reveal where the children were, he’d kill her. And when I didn’t give the children up …” Her mouth shook. “He beheaded Catrin right there, along with two other priestesses. And then he told his soldiers to go to work on us. He claimed me. I spat in his face.” Tears slid down her cheeks. “And then he … went to work.”

Nesta’s heart cracked.

“I hadn’t yet participated in the Great Rite, and we were so remote up there that I never had the chance to lie with a male, and he took that from me, too. And then he called over three of his soldiers and told them to keep going until I revealed where the children had gone.”

Nausea roiled Nesta’s gut. She couldn’t have moved if she’d wanted to. “The first had just unbuckled his belt when Azriel arrived.” Silent,

unending tears streamed down Gwyn’s face.

“Azriel slaughtered all of them within moments. He didn’t hesitate. But I could barely move, and when I tried to get up … He gave me his cloak and wrapped me in it. Morrigan arrived a few minutes later, and then Rhysand appeared, and it became clear some of the soldiers had gotten away with the piece of the Cauldron, so Azriel headed after them. Mor healed me as best she could, then brought me to the library. I couldn’t … I couldn’t bear to be at the temple, with the others. To see Catrin’s grave and know I failed her, to see that kitchen every day for the rest of my life.

“The first five months I was at the library, I barely spoke. I didn’t sing. I went to the priestess who counsels all of us, and sometimes I just sat there and cried, or screamed, or said nothing. And then I began working with Merrill, upon Clotho’s request, and the work focused me. Motivated me to get out of bed each morning. I started singing during the evening service. And then you came along, Nesta.”

Gwyn’s eyes slid to hers, brimming with tears and pain and—hope. Precious, beautiful hope. “And I could tell something bad had happened to you, too. You were fighting it, though. Not letting it master you. I knew Catrin would have been the first to sign up for training, so … I did, too. But

even training these months hasn’t erased the fact that I let my sister die. You asked me once why I don’t wear the hood or the Invoking Stone. That stone is a sign of holiness. How can someone like me wear it?”

Gwyn stopped at last, as if waiting for them to damn her.

But tears were running down Emerie’s face. They didn’t halt as Emerie took Gwyn’s hand and said, “You are not alone, Gwyn. Do you hear me? You are not alone.

Nesta took Emerie’s other hand as her friend went on, “We have suffered differently, but … My father once beat me so badly he broke my back. He kept me in bed for weeks while I healed, telling people I was ill, but I wasn’t. It was … It was one of the lesser of his evils.” She paused. “He beat my mother before that. And she … I think she shielded me from him, because he never laid a hand on me until she was gone. Until he beat her so badly she couldn’t recover. He made me dig her grave on a night with a new moon, and told people she’d miscarried a babe and died from blood loss.”

She angrily wiped a tear away. “Everyone believed him. They always believed him—he was so charming to them, so smart. Whenever people told me how lucky I was to have such a good father, I wondered if I’d imagined all the bad parts. Only my scars, my wings reminded me of the truth. And when he died, I was so happy, yet they expected me to mourn him. I should have told them all what a monster he was, but I didn’t. They had turned a blind eye to my wing-clipping while he was alive; why should they bother to believe the truth now that he was among the honored dead?”

Emerie’s nose crinkled. “I still feel his fists on me. Still feel the impact of him slamming my head into a wall, or crunching my fingers in a door, or just railing on me until I blacked out.” She was shaking, and Nesta squeezed her hand tighter. “He never gave me any money or allowed me to earn my own, never let me eat more than he deemed appropriate, and wormed his way so far into my mind that I still hear him when I look in the mirror or make a mistake.”

She swallowed. “I came to training because I knew he’d have forbidden it. I came to training to get his voice out of my head. And to know how to stop a male if one ever puts another hand on me again. But none of it will

ever bring my mother back, or the fact that I hid while my father took out his rage upon her. Nothing will ever make that right. But this mountain …” Emerie pointed to the small dirt path at the base of the peak. “I’ll climb it for my mother. For her, I’ll face the Breaking and go as far as I can.”

The two of them looked to Nesta. But her gaze remained upon the mountain. Its peak. That path leading up to it. The hardest of all the routes.

Finally Nesta said, “I was sent to the House of Wind because I had become such a wretch, drinking and fucking everything in sight. My … family couldn’t stand it. For more than a year, I abused their kindness and generosity, and I did it because …” She exhaled a shuddering breath. “My father died during the war. Before my eyes, but I did nothing to stop it.” And then it all came out. She told the two of them every horrible thing she had done and thought and savored. Told them of the Cauldron and its terror and pain and power. Told them the worst of her, so that if they decided to risk climbing that mountain with her, they’d go into it with their eyes open. So that they could choose to pull back now.

And when Nesta finished, she braced herself for the disappointment in their faces, the disgust.

Gwyn’s hand slid into hers, though. Emerie tightened her grip on Nesta’s other hand, too.

“Neither of you is to blame for what happened,” Nesta whispered. “Neither of you failed anyone.”

“Neither did you,” Emerie said softly.

Nesta gazed at her friends. And saw pain and sorrow in their tear-streaked faces, but also the openness of letting each other see the broken places deep inside. The understanding that they would not turn away.

Nesta’s eyes stung as Gwyn said, “So we climb Ramiel. We take the Breaking. We win to prove to everyone that something new can be as powerful and unbreakable as the old rules. That something no one has ever seen before, not entirely Valkyrie nor entirely Illyrian, can win the Blood Rite.”

“No,” Nesta said at last. “We win to prove to ourselves that it can be done.” She bared her teeth in a feral grin at the mountain. “We win the whole damn thing.”

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