Chapter no 42

Empire of Storms

Within the interior chamber of the hall, Nesryn had no way of telling how long she’d slept or what hour of the morning it was. She’d dozed fitfully, awakening to comb through the sounds beyond her door, to detect if anyone was astir. She doubted Sartaq was the type to scold her for sleeping in, but if the rukhin indeed teased the prince about his courtly life, then lazing about all morning was perhaps not the best way to win them over.

So she’d tossed and turned, catching a few minutes of sleep here and there, and gave up entirely when she noticed shadows interrupting the light cracking beneath the door. Someone, at least, was awake in the Hall of Altun.

She’d dressed, pausing only to wash her face. The room was warm enough that the water in the ewer wasn’t icy, though she certainly could have used a freezing splash on her gritty eyes.

Thirty minutes later, seated in the saddle before Sartaq, she regretted that wish.

He’d indeed been awake and saddling Kadara when she’d emerged into the still-quiet great hall. The fire pit burned brightly, as if someone tended to it all night, but save for the prince and his ruk, the pillar-filled hall was empty. It was still empty when he hauled her up into the saddle and Kadara leaped from the cave mouth.

Freezing air slammed into her face, whipping at her cheeks as they dove. A few other ruks were aloft. Likely out for their breakfasts, Sartaq told her, his voice soft in the emerging dawn. And it was in pursuit of Kadara’s own meal that they went, sailing out of the three peaks of the Eridun’s aerie

and deep into the fir-crusted mountains beyond.

It was only after Kadara had snatched half a dozen fat silver salmon from a rushing turquoise river, hurling them each in the air before swallowing them in a slicing bite, that Sartaq steered them toward a cluster of smaller peaks.

“The training run,” he said, pointing. The rocks were smoother, the drops between peaks less sharp—more like smooth, rounded gullies. “Where the novices learn to ride.”

Though less brutal than the three brother-peaks of the Dorgos, it didn’t seem any safer. “You said you raised Kadara from a hatchling. Is that how it is done for all riders?”

“Not when we are first learning to ride. Children take out the seasoned, more docile ruks, ones too old to make long flights. We learn on them until we are thirteen, fourteen, and then find our hatchling to raise and train ourselves.”


“We take our first rides at four. Or the others do. I was, as you know, a few years late.”

Nesryn pointed to the training run. “You let four-year-olds ride alone through that?”

“Family members or hearth-kin usually go on the first several rides.”

Nesryn blinked at the little mountain range, trying and failing to imagine her various nieces and nephews, who were still prone to running naked and

shrieking through the house at the mere whisper of the word bath, responsible for not only commanding one of the beasts beneath her, but staying in the saddle.

“The horse-clans on the steppes have the same training,” Sartaq explained. “Most can stand atop the horses by six, and begin learning to wield bows and spears as soon as their feet can reach the stirrups. Aside from the standing”—a chuckle at the thought—“our children have an identical process.” The sun peeked out, warming the skin she’d left exposed to the biting wind. “It was how the first khagan conquered the continent. Our people were already well trained as a cavalry, disciplined and used to carrying their own supplies. The other armies they faced … Those kingdoms did not anticipate foes who knew how to ride across thick winter ice they believed would guard their cities during the cold months. And they did not anticipate an army that traveled light, engineers amongst them to craft weapons from any materials they found when they reached their destinations. To this day, the Academy of Engineers in Balruhn remains the most prestigious in the khaganate.”

Nesryn knew that—her father still mentioned the Academy every now and then. A distant cousin had attended and gone on to earn a small degree of fame for inventing some harvesting machine.

Sartaq steered Kadara southward, soaring high above the snowcapped peaks. “Those kingdoms also didn’t anticipate an army that conquered from behind, by taking routes that few would risk.” He pointed to the west, toward a pale band along the horizon. “The Kyzultum Desert lies that way. For centuries, it was a barrier between the steppes and the greener lands. To attempt to conquer the southern territories, everyone had always taken the long way around it, giving plenty of time for the defenders to rally a host.

So when those kingdoms heard the khagan and his hundred thousand warriors were on the move, they positioned their armies to intercept them.” Pride limned his every word. “Only to discover that the khagan and his armies had directly crossed the Kyzultum, befriending local nomads long sneered at by the southern kingdoms to guide them. Allowing the khagan to creep right behind them and sack their unguarded cities.”

She felt his smile at her ear and found herself settling a little farther into him. “What happened then?” She’d only heard fragments of the stories— never such a sweeping account, and certainly not from the lips of one born to this glorious bloodline. “Was it open war?”

“No,” Sartaq said. “He avoided outright combat whenever he could, actually. Made a brutal example of a few key leaders, so that terror would spread, and by the time he reached many of those cities or armies, most laid down their arms and accepted his terms of surrender in exchange for protection. He used fear as a weapon, just as much as he wielded his sulde.”

“I heard he had two—sulde, I mean.”

“He did. And my father still does. The Ebony and the Ivory, we call them. A sulde with white horsehair to carry in times of peace and one with black horsehair to wield in war.”

“I assume he brought the Ebony with him on those campaigns.”

“Oh, he certainly did. And by the time he’d crossed the Kyzultum and sacked that first city, word of what awaited resistance, word that he was indeed carrying the Ebony sulde, spread so quick and so far that when he arrived at the next kingdom, they didn’t even bother to raise an army. They just surrendered. The khagan rewarded them handsomely for it—and made sure other territories heard of that, too.” He was quiet for a moment. “Adarlan’s king was not so clever or merciful, was he?”

“No,” Nesryn said, swallowing. “He was not.” The man had destroyed and pillaged and enslaved. Not the man—the demon within him.

She added, “The army that Erawan has rallied … He began amassing it long before Dorian and Aelin matured and claimed their birthrights. Chaol

—Lord Westfall told me of tunnels and chambers beneath the palace in Rifthold that had been there for years. Places where human and Valg had been experimented upon. Right under the feet of mindless courtiers.”

“Which raises the question of why,” Sartaq mused. “If he’d conquered most of the northern continent, why gather such a force? He thought Aelin Galathynius was dead—I assume he did not anticipate that Dorian Havilliard would turn rebel, too.”

She hadn’t told him of the Wyrdkeys—and still couldn’t bring herself to divulge them. “We’ve always believed that Erawan was hell-bent on conquering this world. It seemed motive enough.”

“But you sound doubtful now.”

Nesryn considered. “I just don’t understand why. Why all this effort, why want to conquer more when he’d secretly controlled the northern continent anyway. Erawan got away with plenty of horrors. Is it only that he wishes to plunge our world into further darkness? Does he wish to call himself master of the earth?”

“Perhaps things like motives and reason are foreign to demons. Perhaps he only has the drive to destroy.”

Nesryn shook her head, squinting against the sun as it rose higher, the light turning blinding.



Sartaq returned to the Eridun aerie, left Kadara in the great hall, and continued Nesryn’s tour. He spared her the embarrassment of begging not to

use the rope ladders along the cliff face and led her through the internal stairwells and passageways of the mountain. To get to the other two peaks, he claimed, they’d need to either fly across or take one of the two bridges strung between them. One glance at the rope and wood and Nesryn announced she could wait for another day to try.

Riding on Kadara was one thing. Nesryn trusted the bird, and trusted her rider. But the swaying bridge, however well built … She might need a drink or two before trying to cross.

But there was plenty to see within the mountain itself—Rokhal, the Whisperer, he was called. The other two brother-peaks that made up the Dorgos were Arik, the Lilter; and Torke, the Roarer—all three named for the way the wind itself sang as it passed over and around them.

Rokhal was the biggest of them, the most delved, his crown jewel being the Hall of Altun near the top. But even in the chambers below Altun, Nesryn hardly knew where to look as the prince showed her through the winding corridors and spaces.

The various kitchens and small gathering halls; the ruk riders’ houses and workshops; the nests of various ruks, who ranged in color from Kadara’s gold to dark brown; the smithies where armor was forged from ore mined within the mountain; the tanneries where the saddles were meticulously crafted; the trading posts where one might barter for household goods and small trinkets. And lastly, atop Rokhal himself, the training rings.

There was no wall or fence along the broad, flat-topped summit. Only the small, round building that provided a reprieve from the wind and cold, as well as access to the stairwell beneath.

Nesryn was out of breath by the time they opened the wooden door to the rasping wind—and the sight that stretched before her certainly snatched away any remaining air in her lungs.

Even flying above and amongst the mountains felt somehow different from this.

Snowcapped, dominating peaks surrounded them, ancient as the earth, untouched and slumbering. Nearby, a long lake sparkled between twin ridges, ruks mere shadows over the teal surface.

She’d never seen anything so great and unforgiving, so vast and beautiful. And even though she was as insignificant as a mayfly compared with the size of the mountains around them, some piece of her felt keenly a part of it, born from it.

Sartaq stood at her side, following where her attention drifted, as if their gazes were bound together. And when Nesryn’s stare landed upon a lonely, broad mountain on the other end of the lake, he drew in a swift breath. No trees grew on its dark sides; only snow provided a cape over its uppermost crags and summit.

“That is Arundin,” Sartaq said softly, as if fearful of even the wind hearing. “The fourth Singer amid these peaks.” The wind indeed seemed to flow from the mountain, cold and swift. “The Silent One, we call him.”

Indeed, a heavy sort of quiet seemed to ripple around that peak. In the turquoise waters of the lake at his feet lay a perfect mirror image, so clear that Nesryn wondered if one might dive beneath the surface and find another world, a shadow-world, beneath. “Why?”

Sartaq turned, as if the sight of Arundin was not one to be endured for long. “It is upon his slopes that the rukhin bury our dead. If we fly closer, you’ll see sulde covering his sides—the only markers of the fallen.”

It was an entirely inappropriate and morbid question, but Nesryn asked, “Will you one day be laid there, or out in the sacred land of the steppes with the rest of your family?”

Sartaq toed the smooth rock beneath them. “That choice remains before me. The two parts of my heart shall likely have a long war over it.”

She certainly understood it—that tug between two places.

Shouts and clanging metal drew her attention from the beckoning, eternal silence of Arundin to the real purpose of the space atop Rokhal: the training rings.

Men and women in riding leathers stood at various circles and stations. Some fired arrows at targets with impressive accuracy, some hurled spears, some sparred sword to sword. Older riders barked orders or corrected aim and posture, stalking amongst the warriors.

A few turned in Sartaq’s direction as he and Nesryn approached the training ring at the far end of the space. The archery circuit.

With the wind, the cold … Nesryn found herself calculating those factors. Admiring the archers’ skill all the more. And she was somehow not surprised to find Borte among the three archers aiming at stuffed dummies, her long braids snapping in the wind.

“Here to have your ass handed to you again, brother?” Borte’s smirk was full of that wicked delight.

Sartaq let out his rich, pleasant laugh again, taking up a longbow and shouldering a quiver from the stand nearby. He nudged his hearth-sister aside with a bump of the hip, nocking an arrow with ease. He aimed, fired, and Nesryn smiled as the arrow found its mark, right in the neck of the dummy.

“Impressive, for a princeling,” Borte drawled. She turned to Nesryn, her dark brows high. “And you?”

Well, then. Swallowing her smile, Nesryn shrugged out of the heavier wool overcoat, gave Borte an incline of her head, and approached the rack of arrows and bows. The mountain wind was bracing with only her riding leathers for warmth, but she blocked out Rokhal’s whispering as she ran her fingers down the carved wood. Yew, ash … She plucked up one of the yew bows, testing its weight, its flexibility and resistance. A solid, deadly weapon.

Yet familiar. As familiar as an old friend. She had not picked up a bow until her mother’s death, and during those initial years of grief and numbness, the physical training, the concentration and strength required, had been a sanctuary, and a reprieve, and forge.

She wondered if any of her old tutors had survived the attack on Rifthold. If any of their arrows had brought down wyverns. Or slowed them enough to save lives.

Nesryn let the thought settle as she moved to the quivers, pulling out arrows. The metal tips were heavier than those she’d used in Adarlan, the shaft slightly thicker. Designed to cut through brutal winds at racing speeds. Perhaps, if they were lucky, take out a wyvern or two.

She selected arrows from various quivers, setting them into her own before she strapped it across her back and approached the line where Borte, Sartaq, and a few others were silently watching.

“Pick a mark,” Nesryn told Borte.

The woman smirked. “Neck, heart, head.” She pointed to each of the three dummies, a different mark for each one. Wind rattled them, the aim

and strength needed to hit each utterly different. Borte knew it—all the warriors here did.

Nesryn lifted an arm behind her head, dragging her fingers along the fletching, the feathers rippling against her skin as she scanned the three targets. Listened to the murmur of the winds racing past Rokhal, that wild summons she heard echoed in her own heart. Wind-seeker, her mother had called her.

One after another, Nesryn withdrew an arrow and fired. Again, and again, and again.

Again, and again, and again. Again, and again, and again.

And when she finished, only the howling wind answered—the wind of Torke, the Roarer. Every training ring had stopped. Staring at what she’d done.

Instead of three arrows distributed amongst the three dummies, she’d fired nine.

Three rows of perfectly aligned shots on each: heart, neck, and head.

Not an inch of difference. Even with the singing winds.

Sartaq was grinning when she turned to him, his long braid drifting behind him, as if it were a sulde itself.

But Borte elbowed past him, and breathed to Nesryn, “Show me.”



For hours, Nesryn stood atop the Rokhal training ring and explained how she’d done it, how she calculated wind and weight and air. And as much as she showed the various rotations that came through, they also demonstrated their own techniques. The way they twisted in their saddles to fire backward, which bows they wielded for hunting or warfare.

Nesryn’s cheeks were wind-chapped, her hands numb, but she was smiling—wide and unfailingly—when Sartaq was approached by a breathless messenger who had burst from the stairwell entrance.

His hearth-mother had returned to the aerie at last.

Sartaq’s face revealed nothing, though a nod from him had Borte ordering all the onlookers to go back to their various stations. They did so with a few grins of thanks and welcome to Nesryn, which she returned with an incline of her head.

Sartaq set his quiver and bow on the wooden rack, extending a hand for Nesryn’s. She passed him both, flexing her fingers after hours of gripping bow and string.

“She’ll be tired,” Borte warned him, a short sword in her hand. Her training, apparently, was not over for the day. “Don’t pester her too much.”

Sartaq threw an incredulous look at Borte. “You think I want to get smacked with a spoon again?”

Nesryn choked at that, but shrugged into the embroidered cobalt-and-gold wool coat, belting it tightly. She trailed the prince as he headed into the warm interior, straightening her wind-tossed hair as they descended the dim stairwell.

“Even though Borte is to one day lead the Eridun, she trains with the others?”

“Yes,” Sartaq said without glancing over his shoulder. “Hearth-mothers all know how to fight, how to attack and defend. But Borte’s training includes other things.”

“Like learning the different tongues of the world.” Her use of the northern language was as impeccable as Sartaq’s.

“Like that. And history, and … more. Things even I am not told of by either Borte or her grandmother.”

The words echoed off the stones around them. Nesryn dared ask, “Where’s Borte’s mother?”

Sartaq’s shoulders tensed. “Her sulde stands on Arundin’s slopes.” Just the way he spoke it, the cold cut of his voice …“I’m sorry.”

“So am I,” was all Sartaq said. “Her father?”

“A man her mother met in distant lands, and whom she did not care to hold on to for longer than a night.”

Nesryn considered the fierce, wicked young woman who’d fought with no small skill in the training rings. “I’m glad she has you, then. And her grandmother.”

Sartaq shrugged. Dangerous, strange territory—she’d somehow waded into a place where she had no right to pry.

But then Sartaq said, “You’re a good teacher.”

“Thank you.” It was all she could think to say. He’d kept close to her side while she walked the others through her various positions and techniques, but had said little. A leader who did not need to constantly be filling the air with talking and boasting.

He blew out a breath, shoulders loosening. “And I’m relieved to see that the reality lives up to the legend.”

Nesryn chuckled, grateful to be back on safer ground. “You had doubts?”

They reached the landing that would take them to the great hall. Sartaq let her fall into step beside him. “The reports left out some key information. It made me doubt their accuracy.”

It was the sly gleam in his eye that made Nesryn angle her head. “What, exactly, did they fail to mention?”

They reached the great hall, empty save for a cloaked figure just barely visible on the other side of the fire pit—and someone sitting beside her.

But Sartaq turned to her, examining her from head to toe and back again. There was little that he missed. “They didn’t mention that you’re beautiful.”

Nesryn opened and closed her mouth in what she was sure was an unflattering impression of a fish on dry land.

With a wink, Sartaq strode ahead, calling, “Ej.” The rukhin’s term for mother, he’d told her this morning. Nesryn hurried after him. They rounded the massive fire pit, the figure sitting atop the uppermost stair pulling back her hood.

She’d expected an ancient crone, bent with age and toothless.

Instead, a straight-backed woman with braided, silver-streaked onyx hair smiled grimly at Sartaq. And though age had indeed touched her features … it was Borte’s face. Or Borte’s face in forty years.

The hearth-mother wore a rider’s leathers, though her dark blue cloak— actually a jacket she’d left hanging over her shoulders—covered much of them.

But at her side … Falkan. His face equally grave, those dark sapphire eyes scanning them. Sartaq checked his pace at the sight of the merchant, either irritated that he hadn’t been first to claim her attention or simply that the merchant was present for this reunion.

Manners or self-preserving instincts kicked in, and Sartaq continued his approach, hopping down onto the first ledge of the pit to stride the rest of the way.

Houlun rose when he was near, enfolding him in a swift, hard embrace. She cupped his shoulders when she was done, the woman nearly as tall as him, shoulders strong and thighs well muscled, and surveyed Sartaq with a shrewd eye.

“Sorrow weighs heavily on you still,” she observed, running a scar-flecked hand over Sartaq’s high cheekbone. “And worry.”

Sartaq’s eyes shuttered before he ducked his head. “I have missed you,


“Sweet-talker,” Houlun chided, patting his cheek.

To Nesryn’s delight, she could have sworn the prince blushed.

The firelight cast the few strands of silver in Houlun’s hair with red and gold as she peered around Sartaq’s broad shoulders to where Nesryn stood atop the lip of the pit. “And the archer from the north arrives at last.” An incline of her head. “I am Houlun, daughter of Dochin, but you may call me Ej, as the others do.”

One glance into the woman’s brown eyes and Nesryn knew Houlun was not one who missed much. Nesryn bowed her head. “It is an honor.”

The hearth-mother stared at her for a long moment. Nesryn met her gaze, remaining as still as she could. Letting the woman see what she wanted.

At last, Houlun’s eyes slid toward Sartaq. “We have matters to discuss.”

Absent that fierce gaze, Nesryn loosed a breath but kept her spine ramrod straight.

Sartaq nodded, something like relief on his face. But he glanced toward Falkan, watching all from his seat. “They are things that should be told privately, Ej.”

Not rude, but certainly not warm. Nesryn refrained from echoing the prince’s sentiment.

Houlun waved a hand. “Then they may wait.” She pointed to the stone bench. “Sit.”


Falkan shifted, as if he’d do them all a favor and go.

But Houlun pointed to him in silent warning to remain. “I would have you all listen.”

Sartaq dropped onto the bench, the only sign of his discontent being the foot he tapped on the floor. Nesryn sat beside him, the stern woman reclaiming her perch between them and Falkan.

“An ancient malice is stirring deep in these mountains,” Houlun said. “It is why I have been gone these past few days—to seek it out.”

“Ej.” Warning and fear coated the prince’s voice.

“I am not so old that I cannot wield my sulde, boy.” She glowered at him. Indeed, nothing about this woman seemed old at all.

Sartaq asked, frowning, “What did you go in pursuit of?”

Houlun glanced around the hall for any stray ears. “Ruk nests have been pillaged. Eggs stolen in the night, hatchlings vanishing.”

Sartaq swore, filthy and low. Nesryn blinked at it, even as her stomach tightened. “Poachers have not dared tread in these mountains for decades,” the prince said. “But you should not have pursued them aloneEj.”

“It was not poachers I sought. But something worse.”

Shadows lined the woman’s face, and Nesryn swallowed. If the Valg had come here—

“My own ej called them the kharankui.

“It means shadow—darkness,” Sartaq murmured to Nesryn, dread tightening his face.

Her heart thundered. Should the Valg be here already—

“But in your lands,” Houlun went on, glancing between Nesryn and Falkan, “they call them something different, don’t they?”

Nesryn sized up Falkan as he swallowed, wondering herself how to lie or deflect revealing anything about the Valg—

But Falkan nodded. And he replied, voice barely audible above the flame, “We call them the stygian spiders.”

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