Chapter no 41

Empire of Storms

After two weeks of inching across the muddy open plains, Elide was tired of using her mother’s name.

Tired of constantly being on alert to hear it barked by Molly to clean up after every meal (a mistake, no doubt, to have ever told the woman she had some experience washing dishes in busy kitchens), tired of hearing Ombriel

—the dark-haired beauty not a carnival act at all but Molly’s niece and their money-keeper—use it when questioning about how she’d hurt her leg, where her family came from, and how she’d learned to observe others so keenly that she could turn a coin as an oracle.

At least Lorcan barely used it, as they’d hardly spoken while the caravan trudged through the mud-laden fields. The ground was so saturated with the daily afternoon summer rain that the wagons often became stuck. They’d barely covered any distance at all, and when Ombriel would catch Elide gazing northward, she’d ask—yet another recurring question—what lay in the North to draw her attention so frequently. Elide always lied, always evaded. The sleeping situation between Elide and her husband, fortunately, was more easily avoided.

With the sodden earth, sleeping on it was nearly impossible. So the women laid out wherever they could in the two wagons, leaving the men to draw straws each night for who would get any remaining space and who would sleep on the ground atop a makeshift floor of reeds. Lorcan, somehow, always got the short straw, either by his own devices, sleight of hand from Nik, who ran security and the nightly straw-drawing, or simply from sheer bad luck.

But at least it kept Lorcan far, far away from her, and kept their interactions to a minimum.

Those few conversations they’d had—held when he escorted her to draw water from a swollen stream or gather whatever firewood could be found on the plain—weren’t much to bother her, either. He pressed her for more details regarding Morath, more information about the guards’ clothes, the armies camped around it, the servants and witches.

She’d started at the top of the Keep—with the aeries and wyverns and witches. Then she’d descended, floor by floor. It had taken them these two weeks to work their way down to the sublevels, and their companions had no idea that while the young, married couple snuck off for more “firewood,” whispering sweet nothings was the last thing on their minds.

When the caravan stopped that night, Elide aimed for a copse of trees in the heart of the field to see what could be used at their large campfire. Lorcan trailed at her side, as quiet as the hissing grasses around them. The nickering of the horses and clamor of their companions readying for the evening meal faded behind, and Elide frowned as her boot sank deep into a pocket of mud. She yanked on it, ankle barking at bearing her weight, and gritted her teeth until—

Lorcan’s magic pushed against her leg, an invisible hand freeing her boot, and she tumbled into him. His arm and side were as hard and unyielding as the magic he’d used, and she rebounded away, tall grass crunching beneath her. “Thank you,” she murmured.

Lorcan stalked ahead and said without looking back, “We finished at the three dungeons and their entrances yesterday night. Tell me about what’s inside them.”

Her mouth went a bit dry as she recalled the cell she’d squatted in, the darkness and tight air…

“I don’t know what’s inside,” she lied, following him. “Suffering people, no doubt.”

Lorcan stooped, his dark head disappearing beneath a wave of grass. When he emerged, two sticks were gripped in his massive hands. He snapped them with little effort. “You described everything else with no problem. Yet your scent changed just now. Why?”

She strode past him, bending over and over to collect whatever scattered wood she could find. “They did horrible things down there,” she said over a shoulder. “You could sometimes hear people screaming.” She prayed Terrasen would be better. It had to be.

“Who did they keep down there? Enemy soldiers?” Potential allies, no doubt, for whatever he planned to do.

“Whoever they wanted to torture.” The hands of those guards, their sneers— “I assume you’re going to leave as soon as I finish describing the last pit of Morath?” She plucked up stick after stick, ankle objecting with each shift in her balance.

“Is there a problem if I do? That was our bargain. I’ve stayed longer than I intended.”

She turned, finding him with an armful of larger sticks. He unceremoniously dumped them into the small pile in her arms and thumbed free the hatchet at his side before prowling to the curving, fallen branch behind him. “So, am I just to play the abandoned wife, then?”

“You’re already playing the oracle, so what difference does another role make?” Lorcan brought his hatchet down upon the branch with a solid thwack! The blade sank unnervingly deep; wood groaned. “Describe the dungeons.”

It was only fair, and it had been their bargain, after all: his protection and help to get her out of harm’s way, in exchange for what she knew. And he’d been complacent in all the lies she’d spun to their company—quiet, but he’d gone along with it.

“The dungeons are gone,” Elide managed to say. “Or most of them should be. Along with the catacombs.”

Thwack, thwack, thwack. Lorcan severed the branch, the wood yielding with a splintering cry. He set to cutting another section apart. “Taken out in that blast?” He lifted his axe, the muscles in his powerful back shifting beneath his dark shirt, but paused. “You said you were near the courtyard when the blast happened—how do you know the dungeons are gone?”

Fine. She had lied about it. But … “The explosion came from the catacombs and took out some of the towers. One would assume the dungeons would be in its path, too.”

“I don’t make plans based on assumptions.” He resumed hacking apart the branch, and Elide rolled her eyes at his back. “Tell me the layout of the northern dungeon.”

Elide turned toward the sinking sun staining the fields with orange and gold beyond them. “Figure it out yourself.”

The thud of metal on wood halted. Even the wind in the grasses died down.

But she had endured death and despair and terror, and she had told him enough—turned over every horrible stone, looked around every dark corner at Morath for him. His rudeness, his arrogance … He could go to hell.

She had barely set one foot into the swaying grasses when Lorcan was before her, no more than a lethal shadow himself. Even the sun seemed to avoid the broad planes of his tan face, though the wind dared ruffle the silken black strands of his hair across it.

“We have a bargain, girl.”

Elide met that depthless gaze. “You did not specify when I had to tell you. So I may take as much time as I wish to recall details, if you desire to wring every last one of them from me.”

His teeth flashed. “Do not toy with me.”

“Or what?” She stepped around him as if he were no more than a rock in a stream. Of course, walking with temper was a bit difficult when every other step was limping, but she kept her chin high. “Kill me, hurt me, and you’ll still be out of answers.”

Faster than she could see, his arm lashed out—gripping her by the elbow. “Marion,” he growled.

That name. She looked up at his harsh, wild face—a face born in a different age, a different world. “Take your hand off me.”

Lorcan, to her surprise, did so immediately.

But his face did not change—not a flicker—as he said, “You will tell me what I wish to know—”

The thing in her pocket began thrumming and beating, a phantom heartbeat in her bones.

Lorcan yielded a step, his nostrils flaring delicately. As if he could sense that stone awakening. “What are you,” he said quietly.

“I am nothing,” she said, voice hollow. Maybe once she found Aelin and Aedion, she’d find some purpose, some way to be of use to the world. For now, she was a messenger, a courier of this stone—to Celaena Sardothien. However Elide might find one person in such an endless, vast world. She had to get north—and quickly.

“Why do you go to Aelin Galathynius?”

The question was too tense to be casual. No, every inch of Lorcan’s body seemed restrained. Leashed rage and predatory instincts.

“You know the queen,” she breathed.

He blinked. Not in surprise, but to buy himself time.

He did know—and he was considering what to tell her, how to tell her

“Celaena Sardothien is in the queen’s service,” he said. “Your two paths

are one. Find one and you’ll find the other.” He paused, waiting.

Would this be her life, then? Wretched people, always looking out for themselves, every kindness coming at a cost? Would her own queen at least gaze at her with warmth in her eyes? Would Aelin even remember her?

“Marion,” he said again—the word laced with a growl.

Her mother’s name. Her mother—and her father. The last people who had looked at her with true affection. Even Finnula, all those years locked in that tower, had always watched her with some mixture of pity and fear.

She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been held. Or comforted. Or smiled at with any genuine love for who she was.

Words were suddenly hard, the energy to dredge up a lie or retort too much to bother with. So Elide ignored Lorcan’s command and headed back toward the cluster of painted wagons.

Manon had come for her, she reminded herself with each step. Manon, and Asterin, and Sorrel. But even they had left her alone in the woods.

Pity, she reminded herself—self-pity would do her no good. Not with so many miles between her and whatever shred of a future she stood a chance of finding. But even when she arrived, handed over her burden, and found Aelin … what could she offer? She couldn’t even read, gods above. The mere thought of explaining that to Aelin, to anyone—

She’d think on it later. She’d wash the queen’s clothes if she had to. At least she didn’t need to be literate for that.

Elide didn’t hear Lorcan this time as he approached, arms laden with massive logs.

“You will tell me what you know,” he said through his teeth. She almost sighed, but he added, “Once you are … better.”

She supposed that, to him, sorrow and despair would be some sort of sickness.


“Fine,” he said right back.

Their companions were smiling when she and Lorcan returned. They had found dry ground on the other side of the wagons—solid enough for tents.

Elide spied the one that had been raised for her and Lorcan and wished it would rain.



Lorcan had trained enough warriors to know when not to push. He’d tortured enough enemies to know when they were one slice or snap away from breaking in ways that would make them useless.

So Marion, when her scent had changed, when he’d felt even the strange, otherworldly power hidden in her blood shift to sorrow … worse, to hopelessness…

He’d wanted to tell her not to bother with hope anyway.

But she was barely into womanhood. Perhaps hope, foolish as it was, had gotten her out of Morath. At least her cleverness had, lies and all.

He’d dealt with enough people, killed and bedded and fought alongside enough people, to know Marion wasn’t wicked, or conniving, or wholly selfish. He wished she was, because it’d make it easier—make his task so much easier.

But if she didn’t tell him about Morath, if he broke her from pushing too much … He needed every advantage when he slipped into that Keep. And when he slipped out again.

She’d done it once. Perhaps Marion was the only person alive who had managed to escape.

He was about to explain that to her when he saw what she was staring at

—the tent.

Their tent.

Ombriel came forward, throwing her usual wary glance his way, and slyly informed Elide they’d finally have a night alone together.

Arms full of logs, Lorcan could only watch as that pale face of sorrow and despair transformed into youth and mischief, into blushing anticipation,

as easily as if Marion had held up a mask. She even gave him a flirting glance before beaming at Ombriel and rushing to dump her armful of sticks and twigs into the pit they’d cleared for the nightly fire.

He possessed the good sense to at least smile at the woman who was supposed to be his wife, but by the time he’d followed to drop his own burden into the fire pit, she’d stalked off for the tent set a good distance away from the others.

It was small, he realized with no tiny amount of horror. Probably meant for the sword-thrower who’d last used it. Marion’s slim figure slipped through the white canvas flaps with hardly a ripple. Lorcan just frowned a bit before ducking inside.

And remained ducking slightly. His head would go straight through the canvas if he stood to his full height. Woven mats atop gathered rushes covered the stuffy interior, and Marion stood on the other side of the tent, cringing at the sleeping roll on the makeshift floor.

The tent probably had enough room for a proper bed and table, if need be, but unless they were camping longer than a night, he doubted they’d get any of those things.

“I’ll sleep on the ground,” he offered blandly. “You take the roll.” “What if someone comes in?”

“Then you’ll say we got into a fight.”

“Every night?” Marion pivoted, her rich eyes meeting his. The cold, weary face was back.

Lorcan considered her words. “If someone walks into our tent without permission tonight, no one here will make the same mistake again.”

He’d punished men in his war camps for less.

But her eyes remained weary—wholly unimpressed and unmoved. “Fine,” she said again.

Too close—far too close to the edge of snapping entirely. “I could find some buckets, heat water, and you could bathe in here, if you want. I’ll stand watch outside.”

Creature comforts—to get her to trust him, be grateful to him, to want to help him. To ease that dangerous brittleness.

Indeed, Marion peered down at herself. The white shirt that was now dirt-flecked, the brown leather pants that were filthy, the boots…

“I’ll offer Ombriel a coin to wash it all for you tonight.”

“I have no other clothes to wear.” “You can sleep without them.”

Wariness faded in a flash of dismay. “With you in here?” He avoided the urge to roll his eyes.

She blurted, “What about your own clothes?” “What of them?”

“You … they’re filthy, too.”

“I can wait another night.” She’d likely beg to sleep in the wagon if he was naked in here—

“Why should I be the only one naked? Wouldn’t the ruse work better if you and I both took the opportunity at once?”

“You are very young,” he said carefully. “And I am very old.” “How old?”

She’d never asked. “Old.”

She shrugged. “A body is a body. You reek as badly as I do. Go sleep outside if you won’t wash.”

A test—not driven by any desire or logic, but … to see if he’d listen to her. Who was in control. Get her a bath, do as she asked … Let her get a sense of control over the situation. He gave her a thin smile. “Fine,” he echoed.

When Lorcan pushed through the tent again, laden with water, he discovered Marion seated on the bedroll, boots off, that ruined ankle and foot stretched out before her. Her small hands were braced on the mangled, discolored flesh, as if she’d been rubbing the ache from it.

“How badly does it hurt every day?” He sometimes used his magic to brace the ankle. When he remembered. Which wasn’t often.

Marion’s focus, however, went right to the steaming cauldron he’d set on the floor, then the bucket he’d hauled over a shoulder for her to use as well.

“I’ve had it since I was a child,” she said distantly, as if hypnotized by the clean water. She rose on uneven feet, wincing at her wrecked leg. “I learned to live with it.”

“That’s not an answer.”

“Why do you even care?” The words were barely more than a breath as she unbraided her long, thick hair, still fixated on the bath.

He was curious; he wanted to know how and when and why. Marion was beautiful—surely marring her like that had been done with some ill intent. Or to prevent something worse.

She at last cut him a glance. “You said you’d stand watch. I thought you meant outside.”

He snorted. Indeed he did. “Enjoy yourself,” he said, pushing out of the tent once more.

Lorcan stood in the grasses, monitoring the busy camp, the wide bowl of the darkening sky. He hated the plains. Too much open space; too much visibility.

Behind him, his ears picked up the sigh and hiss of leather sliding down skin, the rustle of rough-woven cloth being peeled off. Then fainter, softer sounds of more delicate fabric sliding away. Then silence—followed by a very, very quiet rustling. Like she didn’t want even the gods hearing what she was doing. Hay crunched. Then a thud of the mattress roll lifting and falling—

The little witch was hiding something. The hay snapped again as she returned to the cauldron.

Hiding something under the mattress—something she’d been carrying with her and didn’t want him knowing about. Water splashed, and Marion let out a moan of surprising depth and sincerity. He shut out the sound.

But even as he did, Lorcan’s thoughts drifted toward Rowan and his bitch-queen.

Marion and the queen were about the same age—one dark, one golden. Would the queen bother at all with Marion once she arrived? Likely, if her curiosity was piqued about why she wished to see Celaena Sardothien, but

… what about after?

It wasn’t his concern. He’d left his conscience on the cobblestones of the back streets of Doranelle five centuries ago. He’d killed men who had begged for their lives, wrecked entire cities and never once looked back at the smoldering rubble.

Rowan had, too. Gods-damned Whitethorn had been his most effective general, assassin, and executioner for centuries. They had laid waste to kingdoms and then drunk and bedded themselves into stupors in the following days-long celebrations on the ruins.

This winter, he’d had a damn fine commander at his disposal, brutal and vicious and willing to do just about anything Lorcan ordered.

The next time he’d seen Rowan, the prince had been roaring, desperate to fling himself into lethal darkness to save the life of a princess with no throne. Lorcan had known—in that moment.

Lorcan had known, as he’d pinned Rowan into the grass outside Mistward, the prince thrashing and screaming for Aelin Galathynius, that everything was about to change. Knew that the commander he’d valued was altered irrevocably. No longer would they glut themselves on wine and women; no longer would Rowan gaze toward a horizon without some glimmer of longing in his eyes.

Love had broken a perfect killing tool. Lorcan wondered if it would take him centuries more to stop being so pissed about it.

And the queen—princess, whatever Aelin called herself … She was a fool. She could have bartered Athril’s ring for Maeve’s armies, for an alliance to wipe Morath off the earth. Even not knowing what the ring was, she could have used it to her advantage.

But she’d chosen Rowan. A prince with no crown, no army, no allies. They deserved to perish together.

Marion’s soaked head popped out of the tent, and Lorcan twisted to see the heavy wool blanket wrapped around her like a gown. “Can you bring the clothes now?” She chucked her pile out. She’d bundled her underthings in her white shirt, and the leathers … They’d never be dry before morning

—and would likely shrink beyond use if washed improperly.

Lorcan stooped, picking up the bundle of clothes and trying not to peer into the tent to learn what she’d hidden beneath the bedroll. “What about standing guard?”

Her hair was plastered to her head, heightening the sharp lines in her cheekbones, her fine nose. But her eyes were bright again, her full lips once more like a rosebud, as she said, “Please get them washed. Quickly.”

Lorcan didn’t bother confirming as he carried her clothes away from the tent, leaving her to sit in partial nakedness inside. Ombriel was in the middle of cooking whatever was in the pot over the fire. Likely rabbit stew. Again. Lorcan examined the clothes in his hands.

Thirty minutes later, he returned to the tent, plate of food in hand. Marion was perched on the bedroll, foot stretched out before her, blanket

tucked under her shoulders.

Her skin was so pale. He’d never seen such white unmarred skin. As if she’d never been let outside.

Her dark brows furrowed at the plate—then at the bundle under his arm. “Ombriel was busy—so I washed your clothes myself.”

She flushed.

“A body is a body,” he repeated simply to her. “So are undergarments.”

She frowned, but her attention was again riveted on the plate. He set it down before her. “I got you dinner, since I assumed you didn’t want to sit among everyone in your blanket.” He dumped the pile of clothes on her bedroll. “And I got you clothes from Molly. She’s charging you, of course. But at least you won’t sleep naked.”

She dug into the stew without so much as thanking him.

Lorcan was about to leave when she said, “My uncle … He is a commander at Morath.”

Lorcan froze. And looked right to the bedroll.

But Marion continued between bites, “He … locked me in the dungeon once.”

The wind in the grasses died; the campfire far beyond their tent flickered, the people around it huddling closer together as the nighttime insects went silent and the small, furred creatures of the plains scampered into their burrows.

Marion either didn’t notice the surge of his dark power, the magic kissed by Death himself, or didn’t care. She said, “His name is Vernon, and he is clever and cruel, and he will likely try to keep you alive if you are caught. He wields people to gain power for himself. He has no mercy, no soul. There is no moral code that guides him.”

She went back to her food, done for the night.

Lorcan said quietly, “Would you like me to kill him for you?”

Her limpid, dark eyes rose to his face. And for a moment, he could see the woman she’d become—was already becoming. Someone who, regardless of where she’d been born, any queen would prize at her side. “Would there be a cost?”

Lorcan hid his smile. Smart, cunning little witch. “No,” he said, and meant it. “Why did he lock you in the dungeon?”

Marion’s white throat bobbed once. Twice. She seemed to hold his stare through effort of will, through a refusal not to back down from him, but from her own fears. “Because he wished to see if his bloodline could be crossed with the Valg. That was why I was brought to Morath. To be bred like a prize mare.”

Every thought emptied out of Lorcan’s head.

He had seen and dealt and endured many, many unspeakable things, but this…

“Did he succeed?” he managed to ask.

“Not with me. There were others before me who … Help came too late for them.”

“That explosion was not accidental, was it.” A small shake of the head.

“You did it?” He glanced to the bedroll—to whatever she hid beneath.

Again that shake of the head. “I will not say who, or how. Not without risking the lives of the people who saved me.”

“Are the ilken—”

“No. The ilken are not the creatures that were bred in the catacombs. Those … those came from the mountains around Morath. Through far darker methods.”

Maeve had to know. She had to know what they were doing in Morath. The horrors being bred there, the army of demons and beasts to rival any from legend. She would never ally with such evil—never be foolish enough to ally with the Valg. Not when she warred with them millennia ago. But if she did not fight … How long would it be before these beasts were howling around Doranelle? Before it was his own continent under siege?

Doranelle could hold out. But he would likely be dead, once he found some way to destroy the keys and Maeve punished him. And with him dead and Whitethorn likely carrion, too … how long would Doranelle last? Decades? Years?

A question snagged in Lorcan’s mind, drawing him to the present, to the stuffy little tent. “Your foot has been ruined for years, though. He locked you in the dungeon that long?”

“No,” she said, not even flinching at his rough description. “I was only in the dungeon for a week. The ankle, the chain … He did that to me long before.”

“What chain.”

She blinked. And he knew she’d meant to avoid telling him that one particular detail.

But now that he looked … he could make out, among the mass of scars, a white band. And there, around her perfect, lovely other ankle, was its twin.

A wind laced with the dust and coldness of a tomb gnawed through the field.

Marion merely said, “When you kill my uncle, ask him yourself.”

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