Chaol’s eyes went vacant as Yrene’s question hung between them, the color again draining from his face. “Shit,” he murmured. “Shit.”
“You can’t remember what happened to the other two kings?”
“No—no, I’d assumed they were destroyed, but … why is there mention of them here, of all places?”
She shook her head. “We could see—look into it more.”
A muscle feathered in his jaw, and he blew out a long breath. “Then we will.”
He reached a hand toward her in silent demand. For the bit, she realized.
Yrene studied his jaw and cheek again, the brimming anger and fear. Not a good state to begin a healing session. So she tried, “Who gave you that scar?”
His back stiffened, his fingers digging into the throw pillow beneath his chin. “Someone who deserved to give it to me.”
Not an answer. “What happened?”
He just extended his hand again for the bit.
“I’m not giving it to you,” she said, her face an immovable mask as he turned baleful eyes on her. “And I’m not starting this session with you in a rage.”
“When I’m in a rage, Yrene, you’ll know.” She rolled her eyes. “Tell me what’s wrong.”
“What’s wrong is that I’m barely able to move my toes and I might not have one Valg king to face, but three. If we fail, if we can’t—” He caught himself before he could voice the rest. The plan that Yrene had no doubt was so secret he barely dared think about it.
“They destroy everything—everyone—they encounter,” Chaol finished, staring at the arm of the couch.
“Did they give you that scar?” She clenched her fingers into a fist to keep from touching it.
But she leaned forward, instead brushing a finger down a tiny scar just barely hidden by the hair at his temple. “And this? Who gave you that one?”
His face went hard and distant. But the rage, the impatient, frantic energy … it calmed. Went cold and aloof, but it centered him. Whatever that old anger was, it steadied him again.
“My father gave that scar to me,” Chaol said quietly. “When I was a boy.”
Horror sluiced through her, but it was an answer. It was an admission. She didn’t press further. Didn’t demand more. No, Yrene just said,
“When I go into the wound …” Her throat bobbed as she studied his back. “I will try to find you again. If it’s waiting for me, I might have to find some other way to reach you.” She considered. “And might have to find some other plan of attack than an ambush. But we shall see, I suppose.” And even though the corner of her mouth tugged up in what he knew was
meant to be a reassuring, healer’s smile, she knew he noted the quickening of her breathing.
“Be careful,” was all he said.
Yrene just offered him that bit at last, bringing it to his lips. His mouth brushed her fingers as she slid it between his teeth. For a few heartbeats, he scanned her face.
“Are you ready?” she breathed as the prospect of facing that insidious darkness again loomed.
He lifted his hand to squeeze her fingers in silent answer.
But Yrene removed her fingers from his, leaving his own to drop back to the cushions.
He was still studying her, the way she took a bracing breath, as she laid her hand over the mark on his back.
It had snowed the day he told his father he was to leave Anielle. That he was abdicating his title as heir and joining the castle guard in Rifthold.
His father had thrown him out.
Thrown him right down the front stairs of the keep.
He’d cracked his temple on the gray stone, his teeth going through his lip. His mother’s pleading screams had echoed off the rock as he slid along the ice at the landing. He didn’t feel the pain in his head. Only the razor-sharp slice of the ice against his bare palms, cutting through his pants and ripping his knees raw.
There was only her pleading with his father, and the shriek of the wind that never stopped, even in summer, around the mountaintop keep that overlooked the Silver Lake.
That wind now tore at him, tugging at his hair—longer than he had kept it since. It hurled stray snowflakes into his face from the gray sky above. Hurled them to the grim city below that flowed to the banks of the sprawling lake and curved around its shores. To the west, to the mighty falls. Or the ghost of them. The dam had long since silenced them, along with the river flowing right from the White Fangs, which ended at their doorstep.
It was always cold in Anielle. Even in summer.
Always cold in this keep built into the curving mountainside.
“Pathetic,” his father had spat, none of the stone-faced guards daring to help him rise.
His head spun and spun, throbbing. Warm blood leaked and froze down his face.
“Find your own way to Rifthold, then.”
“Please,” his mother whispered. “Please.”
The last Chaol saw of her was his father’s arm gripping her above the elbow and dragging her into the keep of painted wood and stone. Her face pale and anguished, her eyes—his eyes—lined with silver as bright as the lake far below.
His parents passed a small shadow lurking in the open doorway to the keep itself.
His younger brother braved a step toward him. To risk those dangerously icy stairs and help him.
A sharp, barked word from his father within the darkness of the hall halted Terrin.
Chaol wiped the blood from his mouth and silently shook his head at his brother.
And it was terror—undiluted terror—on Terrin’s face as Chaol eased to his feet. Whether he knew that the title had just passed to him …
He couldn’t bear it. That fear on Terrin’s round, young face.
So Chaol turned, clenching his jaw against the pain in his knee, already swollen and stiff. Blood and ice merged, leaking from his palms.
He managed to limp across the landing. Down the stairs.
One of the guards at the bottom gave him his gray wool cloak. A sword and knife.
Another gave him a horse and a bearing.
A third gave him a supply pack that included food and a tent, bandages and salves.
They did not say a word. Did not halt him more than necessary.
He did not know their names. And he learned, years and years later, that his father had watched from one of the keep’s three towers. Had seen them.
His father himself told Chaol all those years later what happened to those three men who had aided him.
They were let go. In the dead of winter. Banished into the Fangs with their families.
Three families sent into the wilds. Only two were still heard from in the summer.
Proof. It had been proof, he’d realized after he’d convinced himself not to murder his father. Proof that his kingdom was rife with corruption, with bad men punishing good people for common decency. Proof that he had been right to leave Anielle. To stick with Dorian—to keep Dorian safe.
To protect that promise of a better future.
He’d still sent out a messenger, his most discreet, to find those remaining families. He didn’t care how many years had passed. He sent the man with gold.
The messenger never found them, and had returned to Rifthold, gold intact, months later.
He had chosen, and it had cost him. He had picked and he had endured the consequences.
A body on a bed. A dagger poised above his heart. A head rolling on stone. A collar around a neck. A sword sinking to the bottom of the Avery.
The pain in his body was secondary.
Worthless. Useless. Anyone he had tried to help … it had made it worse. The body on the bed … Nehemia.
She had lost her life. And perhaps she had orchestrated it, but … He had not told Celaena—Aelin—to be alert. Had not warned Nehemia’s guards of the king’s attention. He had as good as killed her. Aelin might have forgiven him, accepted that he was not to blame, but he knew. He could have done more. Been better. Seen better.
And when Nehemia had died, those slaves had risen up in defiance. A rallying cry as the Light of Eyllwe was extinguished.
The king had extinguished them as well.
Calaculla. Endovier. Women and men and children.
And when he had acted, when he had chosen his side … Blood and black stone and screaming magic.
You knew you knew you knew
You will never be my friend my friend my friend
The darkness shoved itself down his throat, choking him, strangling him. He let it.
Felt himself open his jaws wide to let it in farther.
Take it, he told the darkness.
Yes, it purred to him. Yes.
It showed him Morath in its unparalleled horrors; showed him that dungeon beneath the glass castle, where faces he knew pleaded for mercy that would never come; showed him the young golden hands that had bestowed those agonies, as if they had stood side by side to do it—
He knew. Had guessed who had been forced to torture his men, to kill them. They both knew.
He felt the darkness swell, readying to pounce. To make him truly scream.
But then it was gone.
Rippling golden fields stretched away under a cloudless blue sky. Little sparkling streams wended through it, curling around the occasional oak tree. Strays from the tangled, looming green of Oakwald Forest to his right.
Behind him, a thatched roof cottage, its gray stones crusted in green and orange lichen. An ancient well sat a few feet away, its bucket balanced precariously on the stone lip.
Beyond it, attached to the house itself, a small pen with wandering chickens, fat and focused on the dirt before them.
And past them … A garden.
Not a formal, beautiful thing. But a garden behind a low stone wall, its wooden gate open.
Two figures were stooped amongst the carefully plotted rows of green.
He drifted toward them.
He knew her by the golden-brown hair, so much lighter in the summer sun. Her skin had turned a lovely deep brown, and her eyes …
It was a child’s face, lit with joy, that looked upon the woman kneeling in the dirt, pointing toward a pale green plant with slender purple cones of blossoms swaying in the warm breeze. The woman asked, “And that one?”
“Salvia,” the child—no more than nine—answered. “And what does it do?”
The girl beamed, chin rising as she recited, “Good for improving memory, alertness, mood. Also assists with fertility, digestion, and, in a salve, can help numb the skin.”
The girl’s broad smile revealed three missing teeth.
The woman—her mother—took the girl’s round face in her hands. Her skin was darker than her daughter’s, her hair a thicker, bouncier curl. But their builds … It was the woman’s build that the girl would grow into one day. The freckles that she’d inherit. The nose and mouth.
“You have been studying, my wise child.”
The woman kissed her daughter on her sweaty brow.
He felt the kiss—the love in it—even as a ghost at the gate.
For it was love that shaded the entirety of the world here, gilded it. Love and joy.
The sort he had not known with his own family. Or anyone else. The girl had been loved. Deeply. Unconditionally.
This was a happy memory—one of a few.
“And what is that bush, there by the wall?” the woman asked the girl. Her brow scrunched in concentration. “Gooseberries?”
“Yes. And what do we do with gooseberries?”
The girl braced her hands on her hips, her simple dress blowing in the dry, warm breeze. “We …” She tapped her foot with impatience—at her own mind, for not recalling. The same irritation he’d seen outside that old man’s house in Antica.
Her mother crept up behind her, sweeping the girl into her arms and kissing her cheek. “We make gooseberry pie.”
The girl’s squeal of delight echoed across the amber grasses and clear streams, even into the tangled, ancient heart of Oakwald.
Perhaps even to the White Fangs themselves, and the cold city nestled at their edge.
He opened his eyes.
And found his entire foot pressing into the couch cushions.
Felt the silk and embroidery scratching against the bare arch of his foot.
He bolted upright, finding Yrene not at his side. Nowhere near.
He gaped at his feet. Below the ankle … He shifted and rotated his foot.
Felt the muscles.
Words stalled in his throat. His heart thundered. “Yrene,” he rasped, scanning for her.
She wasn’t in the suite, but—
Sunlight on brown-gold caught his eye. In the garden. She was sitting out there. Alone. Quietly.
He didn’t care that he was half dressed. Chaol heaved himself into the chair, marveling at the sensation of the smooth wood supports beneath his feet. He could have sworn even his legs … a phantom tingling.
He wheeled himself into the small, square garden, breathless and wide-eyed. She’d repaired another fraction, another—
She’d settled herself in an ornate little chair before the circular reflection pool, her head propped up by her fist.
At first, he thought she was sleeping in the sun.
But he inched closer and caught the gleam of light on her face. On the wetness there.
Not blood—but tears.
Streaming silently, unendingly, as she stared at that reflection pool, the pink lilies and emerald pads covering most of it.
She stared as if not seeing it. Not hearing him. “Yrene.”
Another tear rolled down her face, dripping onto her pale purple dress.
“Are you hurt,” Chaol said hoarsely, his chair crunching over the pale white gravel of the garden.
“I’d forgotten,” she whispered, lips wobbling as she stared and stared at the pool and did not move her head. “What she looked like. Smelled like. I’d forgotten—her voice.”
His chest strained as her face crumpled. He hauled his chair beside her own but did not touch her.
Yrene said quietly, “We make oaths—to never take a life. She broke that oath the day the soldiers came. She had hidden a dagger in her dress. She saw the soldier grab me, and she … she leaped on him.” She closed her
eyes. “She killed him. To buy me time to run. And I did. I left her. I ran, and I left her, and I watched … I watched from the forest as they built that fire. And I could hear her screaming and screaming—”
Her body shook.
“She was good,” Yrene whispered. “She was good and she was kind and she loved me.” She still did not wipe her tears. “And they took her away.”
The man he had served … he had taken her away. Chaol asked softly, “Where did you go after that?”
Her trembling lessened. She wiped at her nose. “My mother had a cousin in the north of Fenharrow. I ran there. It took me two weeks, but I made it.”
At eleven. Fenharrow had been in the middle of conquest, and she’d made it—at eleven.
“They had a farm, and I worked there for six years. Pretended to be normal. Kept my head down. Healed with herbs when it wouldn’t raise suspicions. But it wasn’t enough. It … There was a hole. In me. I was unfinished.”
“So you came here?”
“I left. I meant to come here. I walked through Fenharrow. Through Oakwald. Then over … over the mountains …” Her voice broke into a whisper. “It took me six months, but I made it—to the port of Innish.”
He’d never heard of Innish. Likely in Melisande, if she’d crossed— She’d crossed mountains.
This delicate woman beside him … She had crossed mountains to be here. Alone.
“I ran out of money for the crossing. So I stayed. I found work.”
He avoided the urge to look at the scar on her throat. To ask what manner of work—
“Most girls were on the streets. Innish was—is not a good place. But I found an inn by the docks and the owner hired me. I worked as a barmaid and a servant and … I stayed. I meant to only work for a month, but I stayed for a year. Let him take my money, my tips. Increase my rent. Put me in a room under the stairs. I had no money for the crossing, and I thought … I thought I would have to pay for my education here. I didn’t want to go without funds for tuition, so … I stayed.”
He studied her hands, now clutching each other tightly in her lap. Pictured them with a bucket and mop, with rags and dirty dishes. Pictured them raw and aching. Pictured the filthy inn and its inhabitants—what they must have seen and coveted when they beheld her.
“How did you make it here?”
Yrene’s mouth tightened, her tears fading. She loosed a breath. “It is a long story.”
“I have time to listen.”
But she shook her head again and at last looked at him. There was a … clarity to her face. Those eyes. And it did not falter as she said, “I know who gave you that wound.”
Chaol went wholly still.
The man who had taken away the mother she so deeply loved; the man who had sent her fleeing across the world.
He managed to nod.
“The old king,” Yrene breathed, studying the pool again. “He was—he was possessed, too?”
The words were hardly more than a whisper, barely audible even to him. “Yes,” he managed to say. “For decades. I—I’m sorry I did not tell you.
We’ve deemed that information … sensitive.”
“For what it might mean about the suitability of your new king.” “Yes, and open the door to questions that are best kept unasked.”
Yrene rubbed at her chest, her face haunted and bleak. “No wonder my magic recoils so.”
“I’m sorry,” he said again. It was all he could think to offer.
Those eyes slid to him, any lingering fog clouding them clearing away. “It gives me further reason to fight it. To wipe away that last stain of him— of it forever. Just now, it was waiting for me. Laughing at me again. I managed to get to you, but then the darkness around you was too thick. It had made a … shell. I could see it—everything it showed you. Your memories, and his.” She rubbed her face. “I knew then. What it was—who gave you the wound. And I saw what it was doing to you, and all I could think to stop it, to blast it away …” She pursed her lips, as if they might start trembling again.
“A bit of goodness,” he finished for her. “A memory of light and goodness.” He didn’t have the words to convey his gratitude for it, for what it must have been like to offer up that memory of her mother against the demon that had destroyed her.
Yrene seemed to read his thoughts, and said, “I am glad it was a memory of her that beat the darkness back a little further.”
His throat tightened, and he swallowed hard.
“I saw your memory,” Yrene said quietly. “The—man. Your father.” “He is a bastard of the finest caliber.”
“It was not your fault. None of it.”
He refrained from commenting otherwise.
“You were lucky that you did not fracture your skull,” she said, scanning his brow. The scar just barely visible, covered by his hair.
“I’m sure my father considers it otherwise.”
Darkness flashed in her eyes. Yrene only said, “You deserved better.”
The words hit something sore and festering—something he had locked up and not examined for a long, long time. “Thank you,” he managed to say.
They sat in silence for long minutes. “What time is it?” he asked after a while.
“Three,” she said. Chaol started.
But Yrene’s eyes went right to his legs. His feet. How they had moved with him.
Her mouth opened silently.
“Another bit of progress,” he said.
She smiled—subdued, but … it was real. Not like the one she’d plastered on her face hours and hours ago. When she’d walked into his bedroom and found him there with Nesryn, and he’d felt the world slipping out from under him at the expression on her face. And when she had refused to meet his stare, when she’d wrapped her arms around herself …
He wished he’d been able to walk. So she could see him crawl toward her.
He didn’t know why. Why he felt like the lowest sort of low. Why he’d barely been able to look at Nesryn. Though he knew Nesryn was too observant not to be aware. It had been the unspoken agreement between them last night—silence on the subject. And that reason alone …
Yrene poked at his bare foot. “Do you feel this?” Chaol curled his toes. “Yes.”
She frowned. “Am I pushing hard or soft?”
She ground her finger in. “Hard,” he grunted.
Her finger lightened. “And now?” “Soft.”
She repeated the test on the other foot. Touched each of his toes.
“I think,” she observed, “I’ve pushed it down—to somewhere in the middle of your back. The mark is still the same, but it feels like …” She shook her head. “I can’t explain it.”
“You don’t need to.”
It had been her joy—the undiluted joy of that memory—that had won him that bit of movement. What she’d opened up, given up, to push back the stain of that wound.
“I’m starving,” Chaol said, nudging her with an elbow. “Will you eat with me?”
And to his surprise, she said yes.