Two days into the endless labyrinth of the Stone Marshes—two, not the day and a half that gods-damned Rolfe had suggested—Aelin was inclined to burn the whole place to the ground. With the water and humidity, she was never dry, always sweating and sticky. And worse: the insects.
She kept the little demons away with a shield of invisible flame, revealed only by the zinging as they slammed into it. She might have felt bad, had they not tried to eat her alive the first day here. Had she not scratched at the dozens of swollen red bites until her skin bled—and Rowan stepped in to heal them.
After the Bloodhound’s attack, her own healing abilities had remained depleted. So Rowan and Gavriel played healer for all of them, tending to the itching bites, the welts from stinging plants, the scratches from submerged, jagged chunks of the ruins that sliced into them if they weren’t careful while wading through the brackish water.
Only Manon seemed immune to the marshes’ drain, finding the feral, rotting beauty of the marshes to be pleasing. She indeed reminded Aelin of one of the horrid river beasts that ruled this place—with those golden eyes, those sharp, gleaming teeth … Aelin tried not to think on it too much. Tried to imagine getting out of this place and onto dry, crisp land.
But in the heart of this dead, wretched sprawl was Mala’s Lock.
Rowan was scouting ahead in hawk form as the sun inched toward the horizon, Lysandra surveying the waters between the small hills as some slimy, scaled marsh thing that Aelin had grimaced at, eliciting an indignant hiss of a forked tongue before the shifter splashed into the water.
Aelin grimaced again as she trudged up one of those little hills, crusted in thorny brambles and crowned with two fallen pillars. A maze designed to scratch and stub and tear.
So she sent a blast of fire across the hill, turning it to wilting ashes. It clung to her wet boots as she passed over it, a sodden gray mush.
Fenrys chuckled at her side as they descended the hill. “Well, that’s one way to get through it.” He held out a hand to lead her through the water, and part of her balked at the idea of being escorted, but … she’d be damned if she fell into a watery pit. She had a very, very good idea of what was deep beneath them. She had no interest in swimming among the rotted remnants of people.
Fenrys gripped her hand tightly as they waded through the chest-deep water. He hauled her onto the bank first, then climbed out himself. He could no doubt leap the gaps between the islands in wolf form, as could Gavriel. Why they bothered staying in Fae form was beyond her.
Aelin used her magic to dry off as best she could, then used a tendril to dry Fenrys’s and Gavriel’s clothes, too.
A harmless, casual expenditure of power. Even if using it for three days straight on Eyllwe’s burning coast had drained her. Not the flame, but just
… physically. Mentally. She still felt like she could sleep for a week. But the magic murmured. Incessantly, relentlessly. Even if she was tired … the power demanded more. Drying their clothes between dips into the marsh water, at least, kept the damn thing quiet. For now.
Lysandra popped her hideous head up from a tangle of brambles, and Aelin yelped, falling back a step. The shifter grinned, revealing two very, very sharp fangs. Fenrys loosed a low laugh, scanning the shifter as she slithered a few feet ahead. “So you can change skin and bone, but the brand remains?”
Lysandra paused a few inches from the water, and on the island ahead, Aedion seemed to go tense, even as he continued on. Good. At least she wasn’t the only one who’d rip out anyone’s throat if they so much as mocked Lysandra. But her friend shifted, glowing and expanding, until her form became humanoid—Fae.
Until Fenrys was looking at himself, albeit a smaller version to fit into the woman’s clothes. Gavriel, clearing the bank behind them, stumbled a step at the sight.
Lysandra said, her voice near-identical to Fenrys’s drawl, “I suppose it shall always be my tell.” She extended her wrist, pushing back the sleeve of her jacket to reveal his golden-brown skin, marred with that brand.
But she kept peering down at herself as they all continued wading and climbing, and finally remarked, “Your hearing is better.” Lysandra ran her tongue over the slightly elongated canines. Fenrys cringed a bit. “What’s the point of these?” she asked.
Gavriel edged closer and nudged the shape-shifter along, walking a few paces ahead with her. “Fenrys is the last person to ask. If you want an appropriate answer, that is.”
Lysandra chuckled, smiling at the Lion as they ascended the hill. Odd— to see her smile on Fenrys’s face. Fenrys caught Aelin’s eye and grimaced again, no doubt finding it equally unnerving. She chuckled.
Wings flapped ahead, and Aelin took a moment to marvel as Rowan sailed hard and fast to them. Swift, strong—unfaltering.
Gavriel fell back a few paces as Lysandra stilled beside Aedion atop the hill and shifted into her own form. She swayed a bit, and Aelin lunged— only for Aedion to beat her to it, gripping Lysandra gently under her elbow as Rowan landed and shifted himself. They all needed a nice, long rest.
Her Fae Prince said, “Dead ahead—we’ll be there by tomorrow afternoon.”
Whenever she saw Rolfe again, they’d have a little chat about how, exactly, he calculated distances on that infernal map of his.
But Rowan’s face had paled beneath the tattoos. After a moment, he added, “I can feel it—my magic can feel it.”
“Tell me it’s not under twenty feet of water.”
A swift, cutting shake of the head. “I didn’t want to risk getting too close. But it reminds me of the Sin-Eater’s temple.”
“So, a really lovely, welcoming, and relaxing place to be, then,” she said.
Aedion laughed under his breath, eyes on the horizon. Dorian and Manon hauled themselves onto the bank below, dripping wet, the witch scanning the sea of islands ahead. If she noted anything, the witch said nothing.
Rowan surveyed the island they stood atop: high, shielded by a crumbling stone wall on one side, thorns on the other. “We’ll camp here tonight. It’s secure enough.”
Aelin nearly sagged in relief. Lysandra uttered a faint thank-you to the gods.
Within minutes, they’d cleared enough of a general area, through physical and magical toiling, to find seats among the huge blocks of stone, and Aedion set about cooking: a rather sad meal of hard bread and the swamp creatures Gavriel and Rowan had hunted, deeming them safe enough to eat. Aelin didn’t watch her cousin, preferring not to know what the hell she was about to shove down her throat.
The others seemed inclined to avert their attention as well, and though Aedion managed to wield their meager spices with surprising talent, some of the meat was … chewy. Slimy. Lysandra had politely, but thoroughly, gagged at one point.
Night set in, a sea of stars twinkling into existence. Aelin couldn’t recall the last time she had been so far from civilization—perhaps on the ocean crossing to and from Wendlyn.
Aedion, seated beside her, passed the too-light skin of wine. She swigged from it, glad for the sour slide that washed away any lingering taste of the meat.
“Don’t ever tell me what that was,” Aelin murmured to him, watching the others quietly finish up their own food. Lysandra muttered her agreement.
Aedion grinned a bit wickedly, surveying the others as well. A few feet away, half in shadow, Manon monitored it all. But Aedion’s gaze lingered on Dorian, and Aelin braced herself. But her cousin’s smile turned softer. “He still eats like a fine lady.”
Dorian’s head snapped up—but Aelin bit back a laugh at the memory. Ten years ago, they’d sat around a table together and she’d told the Havilliard prince what she thought of his table manners. Dorian blinked as the memory no doubt resurfaced, even as the others glanced between them.
The king gave a magnanimous bow. “I’ll take that as a compliment.” Indeed, his hands were mostly clean, his now-dry clothes immaculate.
Her own hands … Aelin fished into a pocket for her handkerchief. The thing was as filthy as the rest of her, but … better than using her pants. She plucked out the Eye of Elena from where it was usually wrapped inside, setting it on her knee as she wiped the smear of spices and fat from her fingers, then offered the scrap of silk to Lysandra. Aelin casually ran her fingers over the bent metal of the Eye as the shifter cleaned her hands, the blue stone in its core flickering with cobalt fire.
“As far as I recall,” Dorian went on with a sly grin, “you two—”
The attack happened so fast that Aelin didn’t sense or see it until it was over.
One moment, Manon was seated at the edge of the fire, the marshes a dark sprawl behind her.
The next, scales and flashing white teeth were snapping for her, erupting from the brush on the bank. And then—stillness and silence as the enormous marsh beast froze in place.
Halted by invisible hands—strong ones.
Manon’s sword was half out, her breathing ragged as she stared down the milky-pink maw spread wide enough to snap off her head. The teeth were each as long as Aelin’s thumb.
Aedion swore. The others didn’t so much as move.
But Dorian’s magic held the beast still, frozen with no ice to be seen. The same power as the one he’d wielded against the Bloodhound. Aelin surveyed him for any tether, any gleaming thread of power, and found none. He hadn’t even lifted a hand to direct it. Interesting.
Dorian said to Manon, the witch still peering into the yawning death inches before her face, “Shall I kill it or set it free?”
Aelin most certainly had an opinion on the matter, but a warning look from Rowan had her shutting her mouth. And gaping a bit at her prince.
Oh, you crafty old bastard. His harsh, tattooed face revealed nothing. Manon glanced toward Dorian. “Free it.”
The king’s face tightened—then the beast went careening off into the dark, as if a god had hurled it across the marshes. A distant splash sounded.
Lysandra sighed. “Aren’t they beautiful?” Aelin cut her a look. The shifter grinned.
But Aelin looked back at Rowan, holding his stare. How convenient that your shield vanished right as that thing waddled up. What an excellent opportunity for a magic lesson. What if it had gone wrong?
Rowan’s eyes glittered. Why do you think the hole opened up by the witch?
Aelin swallowed her laugh of dismay. But Manon Blackbeak was taking in the king, her hand still on her sword. Aelin didn’t bother to pretend looking as if she wasn’t watching them as the witch shifted those gold eyes to her. To the Eye of Elena still balanced on Aelin’s knee.
Manon’s lip curled back from her teeth. “Where did you get that.” The hair on Aelin’s arms rose. “The Eye of Elena? It was a gift.”
But the witch again glanced to Dorian—as if saving her from that thing
… Oh, Rowan hadn’t lowered the shield just for a magic lesson, had he? Aelin didn’t dare glance at him this time, not as Manon dipped her fingers into the muddy earth to sketch a shape.
A large circle—and two overlapping circles, one atop the other, within its circumference. “That is the Three-Faced Goddess,” Manon said, her voice low. “We call this …” She drew a rough line in the centermost circle, in the eye-shaped space where they overlapped. “The Eye of the Goddess. Not Elena.” She circled the exterior again. “Crone,” she said of the outermost circumference. She circled the interior top circle: “Mother.” She circled the bottom: “Maiden.” She stabbed the eye inside: “And the heart of the Darkness within her.”
It was Aelin’s turn to shake her head. The others didn’t so much as blink.
Manon said again, “That is an Ironteeth symbol. Blueblood prophets have it tattooed over their hearts. And those who won valor in battle, when we lived in the Wastes … they were once given those. To mark our glory— our being Goddess-blessed.”
Aelin debated chucking the gods-damned amulet into the marsh, but said, “The day I first saw Baba Yellowlegs … the amulet turned heavy and warm in her presence. I thought it was in warning. Perhaps it was in … recognition.”
Manon studied the necklace of scars marring Aelin’s throat. “Its power worked even with magic contained?”
“I was told that certain objects were … exempt.” Aelin’s voice strained. “Baba Yellowlegs knew the entire history of the Wyrdkeys and gates. She was the one who told me about them. Is that a part of your history, too?”
“No. Not in those terms,” Manon said. “But Yellowlegs was an Ancient
—she knew things now lost to us. She ripped down the walls of the Crochan city herself.”
“The legends claim the slaughter was … catastrophic,” Dorian said. Shadows flickered in Manon’s eyes. “That killing field, the last I heard,
is still barren. Not a blade of grass grows on it. They say it’s from Rhiannon
Crochan’s curse. Or from the blood that soaked it for the final three weeks of that war.”
“What is the curse, exactly?” Lysandra asked, brows furrowing.
Manon examined her iron nails, long enough that Aelin thought she wouldn’t answer. Aedion chucked the wineskin back into her lap, and Aelin swigged from it again as Manon at last replied. “Rhiannon Crochan held the gates to her city for three days and three nights against the three Ironteeth Matrons. Her sisters were dead around her, her children slaughtered, her consort spiked to one of the Ironteeth war caravans. The last Crochan Queen, the final hope of their thousand-year dynasty … She did not go gently. It was only when she fell at dawn on the fourth day that the city was truly lost. And as she lay dying on that killing field, as the Ironteeth ripped down the walls of the city around her and butchered her people … she cursed us. Cursed the three Matrons, and through them, all Ironteeth. She cursed Yellowlegs herself—who gave Rhiannon her finishing blow.”
None of them moved or spoke or breathed too loudly.
“Rhiannon swore on her last breath that we would win the war, but not the land. That for what we had done, we would inherit the land only to see it wilt and die in our hands. Our beasts would shrivel and keel over dead; our witchlings would be stillborn, poisoned by the streams and rivers. Fish would rot in lakes before we could catch them. Rabbits and deer would flee across the mountains. And the once-verdant Witch Kingdom would become a wasteland.
“The Ironteeth laughed at it, drunk on Crochan blood. Until the first Ironteeth witchling was born—dead. And then another and another. Until the cattle rotted in the fields, and the crops withered overnight. By the end of the month, there was no food. By the second, the three Ironteeth Clans were turning on one another, ripping themselves to pieces. So the Matrons ordered us all into exile. Separated the Clans to cross the mountains and wander as we would. Every few decades, they would send groups to try to work the land, to see if the curse still held. Those groups never returned. We have been wanderers for five hundred years—the wound made worse by the fact that humans eventually took it for themselves. And the land responded to them.”
“But you plan to return to it still?” Dorian asked.
Those golden eyes were not of this earth. “Rhiannon Crochan said there was one way—only one—to break the curse.” Manon swallowed and recited in a cold, tight voice, “Blood to blood and soul to soul, together this was done, and only together it can be undone. Be the bridge, be the light. When iron melts, when flowers spring from fields of blood—let the land be witness, and return home.” Manon toyed with the end of her braid, the scrap of red cloak she’d tied around it. “Every Ironteeth witch in the world has pondered that curse. For five centuries, we have tried to break it.”
“And your parents … their union was made in order to break this curse?” Aelin pushed—carefully.
A sharp nod. “I did not know—that Rhiannon’s bloodline survived.” And now ran through Manon’s blue veins.
Dorian mused, “Elena predates the witch wars by a millennium. The Eye had nothing to do with that.” He rubbed his neck. “Right?”
Manon didn’t reply, only extending a foot to wipe away the symbol she’d traced in the dirt.
Aelin drained the rest of the wine and shoved the Eye back into her pocket. “Maybe now you understand,” she said to Dorian, “why I’ve found Elena just a bit difficult to deal with.”
The island was wide enough that a conversation could be had without being overheard.
Rowan supposed that was precisely what his former cadre wanted as they found him on watch atop the vine-choked, crumbling spiral stairwell that overlooked the island and its surroundings. Leaning against a section that had once been the curving wall, Rowan demanded, “What?”
Gavriel said, “You should take Aelin a thousand miles from here.
A wave of his magic and honed instincts told him all was safe in the immediate vicinity, calming the killing rage he’d slipped into at the thought.
Fenrys said, “Whatever awaits us tomorrow, it has been waiting for a long time, Rowan.”
“And how do either of you know this?”
Gavriel’s tawny eyes gleamed animal-bright in the darkness. “Your beloved’s life and the witch’s are entwined. They have been led here, by forces even we cannot understand.”
“Think about it,” Fenrys pushed. “Two females whose paths crossed tonight in a way we’ve rarely witnessed. Two queens, who might control either half of this continent, two sides of one coin. Both half-breeds. Manon, an Ironteeth and a Crochan. Aelin …”
“Human and Fae,” Rowan finished for him.
“Between them, they cover the three main races of this earth. Between the two of them, they are mortal and immortal; one worships fire, the other Darkness. Do I need to go on? It feels as if we’re playing right into the hands of whoever has been running this game—for eons.”
Rowan gave Fenrys a stare that usually had men backing away. Even as he considered it.
Gavriel interrupted to say, “Maeve has been waiting, Rowan. Since Brannon. For someone who would lead her to the keys. For your Aelin.”
Maeve had not mentioned the Lock this spring. She hadn’t mentioned Mala’s ring, either. Rowan said slowly, his words a death promise, “Did Maeve send you because of this Lock, too?”
“No,” Fenrys said. “No—she never mentioned that.” He shifted on his feet, turning toward a distant, brutal roar. “If Maeve and Aelin go to war, Rowan, if they meet on a battlefield …”
He tried not to let himself imagine it. The cataclysmic carnage and destruction.
Perhaps they should have remained in the North, shoring up their defenses.
Fenrys breathed, “Maeve will not allow herself to lose. Already, she’s replaced you.”
Rowan whirled on Gavriel. “Who.” Those lion’s eyes darkened. “Cairn.”
Rowan’s blood iced over, colder than his magic. “Is she insane?”
“She told us of his promotion a day before we left. He was grinning like a cat with a canary in its mouth as we walked out of the palace.”
“He’s a sadist.” Cairn … No amount of training, both off the battlefield and on it, had ever broken the Fae warrior of his penchant for cruelty. Rowan had locked him up, flogged him, disciplined him, wielded whatever
shred of compassion he could muster in himself … nothing. Cairn had been born savoring the suffering of others.
So Rowan had kicked him out of his own army—dumped him into Lorcan’s lap. Cairn had lasted about a month with Lorcan before he was packed off to an isolated legion, commanded by a general who was not cadre and had no interest in being one. The tales of what Cairn did to the soldiers and innocents he encountered …
There were few laws against murder with the Fae. And Rowan had considered sparing the world of Cairn’s vileness every time he’d seen him. For Maeve to appoint him to the cadre, to give him almost unchecked power and influence—
“I’d bet every bit of gold I have that she’s going to let Aelin nearly break herself destroying Erawan … then strike when she’s weakest,” Fenrys mused.
For Maeve not to have given either male a gag order through the blood oath … She wanted him—wanted Aelin—to have this knowledge. To worry and speculate.
Fenrys and Gavriel swapped wary glances. “We still serve her, Rowan,” Gavriel murmured. “And we still have to kill Lorcan when the time comes.” “Why bring this up at all? I won’t get in your way. Neither will Aelin,
“Because,” Fenrys said, “Maeve’s style isn’t to execute. It’s to punish— slowly. Over years. But she wants Lorcan dead. And not half dead, or throat slit, but irrevocably dead.”
“Beheaded and burned,” Gavriel said grimly. Rowan loosed a breath. “Why?”
Fenrys cast his glance over the edge of the stairs—to where Aelin slept, her golden hair shining in the moonlight. “Lorcan and you are the most powerful males in the world.”
“You forget Lorcan and Aelin can’t even stand to be in the same breathing space. I doubt there’s a chance of an alliance between them.”
“All we’re saying,” Fenrys explained, “is that Maeve does not make decisions without considerable motive. Be ready for anything. Sending her armada, wherever it is, is only the start.”
The marsh beasts roared, and Rowan wanted to roar right back. If Aelin and Cairn ever encountered each other, if Maeve had some plan beyond her
greed for the keys …
Aelin turned in her sleep, scowling at the ruckus, Lysandra dozing beside her in ghost leopard form, that fluffy tail twitching. Rowan pushed off the wall, more than ready to join his queen. But he found Fenrys staring at her as well, his face tight and drawn. Fenrys’s voice was a broken whisper as he said, “Kill me. If that order is given. Kill me, Rowan, before I have to do it.”
“You’ll be dead before you can get within a foot of her.”
Not a threat—a promise and a plain statement of fact. Fenrys’s shoulders slumped in thanks.
“I’m glad, you know,” Fenrys said with unusual graveness, “that I got this time. That Maeve unintentionally gave me that. That I got to know what it was like—to be here, as a part of this.”
Rowan didn’t have words, so he looked to Gavriel.
But the Lion was merely nodding as he stared down at the little camp below. At his sleeping son.