Chapter no 2

Empire of Storms

The patter of rain trickling through the leaves and low-lying mists of Oakwald Forest nearly drowned out the gurgle of the swollen stream cutting between the bumps and hollows.

Crouched beside the brook, empty skins forgotten on the mossy bank, Aelin Ashryver Galathynius extended a scarred hand over the rushing water and let the song of the early-morning storm wash over her.

The groaning of breaking thunderheads and the sear of answering lightning had been a violent, frenzied beat since the hour before dawn— now spreading farther apart, calming their fury, as Aelin soothed her own burning core of magic.

She breathed in the chill mists and fresh rain, dragging them deep into her lungs. Her magic guttered in answer, as if yawning good morning and tumbling back to sleep.

Indeed, around the camp just within view, her companions still slept, protected from the storm by an invisible shield of Rowan’s making, and warmed from the northern chill that persisted even in the height of summer by a merry ruby flame that she’d kept burning all night. It was the flame that had been the difficult thing to work around—how to keep it crackling while also summoning the small gift of water her mother had given her.

Aelin flexed her fingers over the stream.

Across the brook, atop a mossy boulder tucked into the arms of a gnarled oak, a pair of tiny bone-white fingers flexed and cracked, a mirror to her own movements.

Aelin smiled and said so quietly it was barely audible over the stream and rain, “If you have any pointers, friend, I’d love to hear them.”

The spindly fingers darted back over the crest of the rock—which, like so many in these woods, had been carved with symbols and whorls.

The Little Folk had been tracking them since they crossed the border into Terrasen. Escorting, Aedion had insisted whenever they spotted large, depthless eyes blinking from a tangle of brambles or peering through a cluster of leaves atop one of Oakwald’s famed trees. They hadn’t come close enough for Aelin to even get a solid look at them.

But they’d left small gifts just outside the border of Rowan’s nightly shields, somehow deposited without alerting whichever of them was on watch.

One morning, it had been a crown of forest violets. Aelin had given it to Evangeline, who had worn the crown on her red-gold head until it fell apart. The next morning, two crowns waited: one for Aelin, and a smaller one for the scarred girl. Another day, the Little Folk left a replica of Rowan’s hawk form, crafted from gathered sparrow feathers, acorns, and beetle husks. Her Fae Prince had smiled a bit when he’d found it—and carried it in his saddlebag since.

Aelin herself smiled at the memory. Though knowing the Little Folk were following their every step, listening and watching, had made things … difficult. Not in any real way that mattered, but slipping off into the trees with Rowan was certainly less romantic knowing they had an audience. Especially whenever Aedion and Lysandra got so sick of their silent, heated glances that the two made up flimsy excuses to get Aelin and Rowan out of sight and scent for a while: the lady had dropped her nonexistent handkerchief on the nonexistent path far behind; they needed more logs for a fire that did not require wood to burn.

And as for her current audience…

Aelin splayed her fingers over the stream, letting her heart become as still as a sun-warmed forest pool, letting her mind shake free of its normal boundaries.

A ribbon of water fluttered up from the stream, gray and clear, and she wended it through her spread fingers as if she were threading a loom.

She tilted her wrist, admiring the way she could see her skin through the water, letting it slip down her hand and curl about her wrist. She said to the faerie watching from the other side of the boulder, “Not much to report to your companions, is it?”

Soggy leaves crunched behind her, and Aelin knew it was only because Rowan wanted her to hear his approach. “Careful, or they’ll leave

something wet and cold in your bedroll next time.”

Aelin made herself release the water into the stream before she looked over a shoulder. “Do you think they take requests? Because I’d hand over my kingdom for a hot bath right about now.”

Rowan’s eyes danced as she eased to her feet. She lowered the shield she’d put around herself to keep dry—the steam off the invisible flame blending with the mist around them. The Fae Prince lifted a brow. “Should I be concerned that you’re so chatty this early in the morning?”

She rolled her eyes and turned toward the rock where the faerie had been monitoring her shoddy attempts to master water. But only rain-slick leaves and snaking mist remained.

Strong hands slid over her waist, tugging her into his warmth, as Rowan’s lips grazed her neck, right under her ear.

Aelin arched back into him while his mouth roved across her throat, heating mist-chilled skin. “Good morning to you,” she breathed.

Rowan’s responding grumble set her toes curling.

They hadn’t dared stop at an inn, even after crossing into Terrasen three days ago, not when there were still so many enemy eyes fixed on the roads and taprooms. Not when there were still streaming lines of Adarlanian soldiers finally marching out of her gods-damned territory—thanks to Dorian’s decrees.

Especially when those soldiers might very well march right back here, might choose to ally themselves with the monster squatting down in Morath rather than their true king.

“If you want to take a bath so badly,” Rowan murmured against her neck, “I spotted a pool about a quarter mile back. You could heat it—for both of us.”

She ran her nails down the back of his hands, up his forearms. “I’d boil all the fish and frogs inside it. I doubt it’d be very pleasant then.”

“At least we’d have breakfast prepared.”

She laughed under her breath, and Rowan’s canines scratched the sensitive spot where her neck met her shoulder. Aelin dug her fingers into the powerful muscles of his forearms, savoring the strength there. “The lords won’t be here until sundown. We’ve got time.” Her words were breathless, barely more than a whisper.

Upon crossing the border, Aedion had sent messages to the few lords he trusted, coordinating the meeting that was to happen today—in this clearing, which Aedion himself had used for covert rebel meetings these long years.

They’d arrived early to scope out the land, the pitfalls and advantages. Not a trace of any humans lingered: Aedion and the Bane had always ensured any evidence was wiped away from unfriendly eyes. Her cousin and his legendary legion had already done so much to ensure the safety of Terrasen this past decade. But they were still taking no risks, even with lords who had once been her uncle’s banner men.

“Tempting as it might be,” Rowan said, nipping her ear in a way that made it hard to think, “I need to be on my way in an hour.” To scout the land ahead for any threats. Featherlight kisses brushed over her jaw, her cheek. “And what I said still holds. I’m not taking you against a tree the first time.”

“It wouldn’t be against a tree—it’d be in a pool.” A dark laugh against her now-burning skin. It was an effort to keep from taking one of his hands and guiding it up to her breasts, to beg him to touch, take, taste. “You know, I’m starting to think you’re a sadist.”

“Trust me, I don’t find it easy, either.” He tugged her a bit harder against him, letting her feel the evidence pushing with impressive demand against her backside. She nearly groaned at that, too.

Then Rowan pulled away, and she frowned at the loss of his warmth, at the loss of those hands and that body and that mouth. She turned, finding his pine-green eyes pinned on her, and a thrill sparked through her blood brighter than any magic.

But he said, “Why are you so coherent this early?”

She stuck out her tongue. “I took over the watch for Aedion, since Lysandra and Fleetfoot were snoring loud enough to wake the dead.” Rowan’s mouth twitched upward, but Aelin shrugged. “I couldn’t sleep anyway.”

His jaw tightened as he glanced to where the amulet was hidden beneath her shirt and the dark leather jacket atop it. “Is the Wyrdkey bothering you?”

“No, it’s not that.” She’d taken to wearing the amulet after Evangeline had looted through her saddlebags and donned the necklace.

They’d only discovered it because the child had returned from washing herself with the Amulet of Orynth proudly displayed over her traveling clothes. Thank the gods they’d been deep in Oakwald at the time, but— Aelin wasn’t taking any other chances.

Especially since Lorcan still believed he had the real thing.

They hadn’t heard from the immortal warrior since he’d left Rifthold, and Aelin often wondered how far south he’d gotten—if he’d yet realized he bore a fake Wyrdkey within an equally fake Amulet of Orynth. If he’d discovered where the other two had been hidden by the King of Adarlan and Duke Perrington.

Not Perrington—Erawan.

A chill snaked down her back, as if the shadow of Morath had taken form behind her and run a clawed finger along her spine.

“It’s just … this meeting,” Aelin said, waving a hand. “Should we have done it in Orynth? Out in the woods like this just seems so … cloak-and-dagger.”

Rowan’s eyes again drifted toward the northern horizon. At least another week lay between them and the city—the once-glorious heart of her kingdom. Of this continent. And when they got there, it would be an endless stream of councils and preparations and decisions that only she could make. This meeting Aedion had arranged would just be the start of it.

“Better to go into the city with established allies than to enter not knowing what you might find,” Rowan said at last. He gave her a wry smile and aimed a pointed look at Goldryn, sheathed across her back, and the various knives strapped to her. “And besides: I thought ‘cloak-and-dagger’ was your middle name.”

She offered him a vulgar gesture in return.

Aedion had been so careful with his messages while setting up the meeting—had selected this spot far from any possible casualties or spying eyes. And even though he trusted the lords, whom he’d familiarized her with these past weeks, Aedion still hadn’t informed them how many traveled in their party—what their talents were. Just in case.

No matter that Aelin was the bearer of a weapon capable of wiping out this entire valley, along with the gray Staghorn Mountains watching over it. And that was just her magic.

Rowan played with a strand of her hair—grown almost to her breasts again. “You’re worried because Erawan hasn’t made a move yet.”

She sucked on a tooth. “What is he waiting for? Are we fools for expecting an invitation to march on him? Or is he letting us gather our strength, letting me return with Aedion to get the Bane and raise a larger army around it, only so he can savor our utter despair when we fail?”

Rowan’s fingers stilled in her hair. “You heard Aedion’s messenger. That blast took out a good chunk of Morath. He might be rebuilding himself.”

“No one has claimed that blast as their doing. I don’t trust it.” “You trust nothing.”

She met his eyes. “I trust you.”

Rowan brushed a finger along her cheek. The rain turned heavy again, its soft patter the only sound for miles.

Aelin lifted onto her toes. She felt Rowan’s eyes on her the whole time, felt his body go still with predatory focus, as she kissed the corner of his mouth, the bow of his lips, the other corner.

Soft, taunting kisses. Designed to see which one of them yielded first. Rowan did.

With a sharp intake of breath, he gripped her hips, tugging her against him as he slanted his mouth over hers, deepening the kiss until her knees threatened to buckle. His tongue brushed hers—lazy, deft strokes that told her precisely what he was capable of doing elsewhere.

Embers sparked in her blood, and the moss beneath them hissed as rain turned to steam.

Aelin broke the kiss, breathing ragged, satisfied to find Rowan’s own chest rising and falling in an uneven rhythm. So new—this thing between them was still so new, so … raw. Utterly consuming. The desire was only the start of it.

Rowan made her magic sing. And maybe that was the carranam bond between them, but … her magic wanted to dance with his. And from the frost sparkling in his eyes, she knew his own demanded the same.

Rowan leaned forward until they were brow-to-brow. “Soon,” he promised, his voice rough and low. “Let’s get somewhere safe—somewhere defensible.”

Because her safety always would come first. For him, keeping her protected, keeping her alive, would always come first. He’d learned it the hard way.

Her heart strained, and she pulled back to lift a hand to his face. Rowan read the softness in her eyes, her body, and his own inherent fierceness slipped into a gentleness that so few would ever see. Her throat ached with the effort of keeping the words in.

She’d been in love with him for a while now. Longer than she wanted to admit.

She tried not to think about it, whether he felt the same. Those things— those wishes—were at the bottom of a very, very long and bloody priority list.

So Aelin kissed Rowan gently, his hands again locking around her hips. “Fireheart,” he said onto her mouth.

“Buzzard,” she murmured onto his.

Rowan laughed, the rumble echoing in her chest.

From the camp, Evangeline’s sweet voice chirped through the rain, “Is it time for breakfast?”

Aelin snorted. Sure enough, Fleetfoot and Evangeline were now nudging at poor Lysandra, sprawled out as a ghost leopard by the immortal-burning fire. Aedion, across the fire, lay as unmoving as a boulder. Fleetfoot would likely leap on him next.

“This cannot end well,” Rowan muttered.

Evangeline howled, “Fooooood!” Fleetfoot’s answering howl followed a heartbeat later.

Then Lysandra’s snarl rippled toward them, silencing girl and hound.

Rowan laughed again—and Aelin thought she might never get sick of it, that laugh. That smile.

“We should make breakfast,” he said, turning toward the camp, “before Evangeline and Fleetfoot ransack the whole site.”

Aelin chuckled but glanced over her shoulder to the forest stretching toward the Staghorns. Toward the lords who were hopefully making their way southward—to decide how they would proceed with war … and rebuilding their broken kingdom.

When she looked back, Rowan was halfway to the camp, Evangeline’s red-gold hair flashing as she bounded through the dripping trees, begging

the prince for toast and eggs.

Her family—and her kingdom.

Two dreams long believed lost, she realized as the northern wind ruffled her hair. That she would do anything—ruin herself, sell herself—to protect.

Aelin was about to head for the camp to spare Evangeline from Rowan’s cooking when she noticed the object atop the boulder across the stream.

She cleared the stream in one bound and carefully studied what the faerie had left.

Fashioned with twigs, cobwebs, and fish scales, the tiny wyvern was unnervingly accurate, its wings spread wide and thorn-fanged mouth roaring.

Aelin left the wyvern where it was, but her eyes shifted southward, toward the ancient flow of Oakwald, and Morath looming far beyond it. To Erawan reborn, waiting for her with his host of Ironteeth witches and Valg foot soldiers.

And Aelin Galathynius, Queen of Terrasen, knew the time would soon come to prove just how much she’d bleed for Erilea.



It was useful, Aedion Ashryver thought, to travel with two gifted magic-wielders. Especially during piss-poor weather.

The rains lingered throughout the day as they prepared for the meeting. Rowan had flown northward twice now to track the progress of the lords, but he hadn’t seen or scented them.

No one braved the notoriously muddy Terrasen roads in this weather. But with Ren Allsbrook in their company, Aedion had little doubt they’d stay hidden until sunset anyway. Unless the weather had delayed them. Which was a good possibility.

Thunder boomed, so close that the trees shuddered. Lightning flashed with little pause for breath, limning the soaked leaves with silver, illuminating the world so brightly that his Fae senses were blinded. But at least he was dry. And warm.

They’d avoided civilization so much that Aedion had hardly witnessed or been able to track how many magic-wielders had crept out of hiding—or who was now enjoying the return of their gifts. He’d only seen one girl, no older than nine, weaving tendrils of water above her village’s lone fountain for the entertainment and delight of a gaggle of children.

Stone-faced, scarred adults had looked on from the shadows, but none had interfered for better or worse. Aedion’s messengers had already confirmed that most people now knew the King of Adarlan had wielded his dark powers to repress magic these last ten years. But even so, he doubted those who had suffered its loss, then the extermination of their kind, would comfortably reveal their powers anytime soon.

At least until people like his companions, and that girl in the square, showed the world it was safe to do so. That a girl with a gift of water could ensure her village and its farmlands thrived.

Aedion frowned at the darkening sky, idly twirling the Sword of Orynth between his palms. Even before magic had vanished, there had been one kind feared above all others, its bearers pariahs at best, dead at worst. Courts in every land had sought them as spies and assassins for centuries. But his court—

A delighted, throaty purr rumbled through their little camp, and Aedion shifted his stare to the subject of his thoughts. Evangeline was kneeling on her sleeping mat, humming to herself as she gently ran the horse’s brush through Lysandra’s fur.

It had taken him days to get used to the ghost leopard form. Years in the Staghorns had drilled the gut-level terror into him. But there was Lysandra, claws retracted, sprawled on her belly as her ward groomed her.

Spy and assassin indeed. A smile tugged on his lips at the pale green eyes heavy-lidded with pleasure. That’d be a fine sight for the lords to see when they arrived.

The shape-shifter had used these weeks of travel to try out new forms: birds, beasts, insects that had a tendency to buzz in his ear or bite him. Rarely—so rarely—had Lysandra taken the human form he’d met her in. Given all that had been done to her and all she’d been forced to do in that human body, Aedion didn’t blame her.

Though she’d have to take human form soon, when she was introduced as a lady in Aelin’s court. He wondered if she’d wear that exquisite face, or

find another human skin that suited her.

More than that, he often wondered what it felt like to be able to change bone and skin and color—though he hadn’t asked. Mostly because Lysandra hadn’t been in human form long enough to do so.

Aedion looked to Aelin, seated across the fire with Fleetfoot sprawled in her lap, playing with the hound’s long ears—waiting, as they all were. His cousin, however, was studying the ancient blade—her father’s blade— that Aedion so unceremoniously twirled and tossed from hand to hand, every inch of the metal hilt and cracked bone pommel as familiar to him as his own face. Sorrow flickered in her eyes, as fast as the lightning above, and then vanished.

She’d returned the sword to him upon their departure from Rifthold, choosing to bear Goldryn instead. He’d tried to convince her to keep Terrasen’s sacred blade, but she’d insisted it was better off in his hands, that he deserved the honor more than anyone else, including her.

She’d grown quieter the farther north they’d traveled. Perhaps weeks on the road had sapped her.

After tonight, depending on what the lords reported, he’d try to find her a quiet place to rest for a day or two before they made the last leg of the trek to Orynth.

Aedion uncoiled to his feet, sheathing the sword beside the knife Rowan had gifted him, and stalked to her. Fleetfoot’s feathery tail thumped in greeting as he sat beside his queen.

“You could use a haircut,” she said. Indeed, his hair had grown longer than he usually kept it. “It’s almost the same length as mine.” She frowned. “It makes us look like we coordinated it.”

Aedion snorted, stroking the dog’s head. “So what if we did?”

Aelin shrugged. “If you want to start wearing matching outfits as well, I’m in.”

He grinned. “The Bane would never let me live it down.”

His legion now camped just outside of Orynth, where he’d ordered them to shore up the city’s defenses and wait. Wait to kill and die for her.

And with the money Aelin had schemed and butchered to claim from her former master this spring, they could buy themselves an army to follow behind the Bane. Perhaps mercenaries, too.

The spark in Aelin’s eyes died a bit as if she, too, considered all that commanding his legion implied. The risks and costs—not of gold, but lives. Aedion could have sworn the campfire guttered as well.

She had slaughtered and fought and nearly died again and again for the past ten years. Yet he knew she would balk at sending soldiers—at sending him—to fight.

That, above all else, would be her first test as queen.

But before that … this meeting. “You remember everything I told you about them?”

Aelin gave him a flat look. “Yes, I remember everything, cousin.” She poked him hard in the ribs, right where the still-healing tattoo Rowan had inked on him three days ago now lay. All their names, entwined in a complex Terrasen knot right near his heart. Aedion winced as she jabbed the sore flesh, and he batted away her hand as she recited, “Murtaugh was a farmer’s son, but married Ren’s grandmother. Though he wasn’t born into the Allsbrook line, he still commands the seat, despite his insistence that Ren take up the title.” She looked skyward. “Darrow is the wealthiest landowner after yours truly, and more than that, he holds sway over the few surviving lords, mostly through his years of carefully handling Adarlan during the occupation.” She gave him a glare sharp enough to slice skin.

Aedion lifted his hands. “Can you blame me for wanting to make sure this goes smoothly?”

She shrugged but didn’t bite his head off.

“Darrow was your uncle’s lover,” he added, stretching his legs out before him. “For decades. He’s never spoken once to me about your uncle, but … they were very close, Aelin. Darrow didn’t publicly mourn Orlon beyond what was required after the passing of a king, but he became a different man afterward. He’s a hard bastard now, but still a fair one. Much of what he’s done has been out of his unfading love for Orlon—and for Terrasen. His own maneuvering kept us from becoming completely starved and destitute. Remember that.” Indeed, Darrow had long straddled a line between serving the King of Adarlan and undermining him.

“I. Know,” she said tightly. Pushing too far—that tone was likely her first and last warning that he was starting to piss her off. He’d spent many of the miles they’d traveled these past few days telling her about Ren, and Murtaugh, and Darrow. Aedion knew she could likely now recite their land

holdings, what crops and livestock and goods they yielded, their ancestors, and dead and surviving family members from this past decade. But pushing her about it one last time, making sure she knew … He couldn’t shut the instincts down to ensure it all went well. Not when so much was at stake.

From where he’d been perched on a high branch to monitor the forest, Rowan clicked his beak and flapped into the rain, sailing through his shield as if it parted for him.

Aedion eased to his feet, scanning the forest, listening. Only the trickle of rain on leaves filled his ears. Lysandra stretched, baring her long teeth as she did so, her needlelike claws slipping free and glinting in the firelight.

Until Rowan gave the all clear—until it was just those lords and no one else—the safety protocols they’d established would hold.

Evangeline, as they had taught her, crept to the fire. The flames pulled apart like drawn curtains to allow her and Fleetfoot, sensing the child’s fear and pressing close, passage to an inner ring that would not burn her. But would melt the bones of their enemies.

Aelin merely glanced at Aedion in silent order, and he stepped toward the western side of the fire, Lysandra taking up a spot at the southern point. Aelin took the northern but gazed west—toward where Rowan had flapped away.

A dry, hot breeze flowed through their little bubble, and sparks danced like fireflies at Aelin’s fingers, her hand hanging casually at her side. The other gripped Goldryn, the ruby in its hilt bright as an ember.

Leaves rustled and branches snapped, and the Sword of Orynth gleamed gold and red in the light of Aelin’s flames as he drew it free. He angled the ancient dagger Rowan had gifted him in his other hand. Rowan had been teaching Aedion—teaching all of them, really—about the Old Ways these weeks. About the long-forgotten traditions and codes of the Fae, mostly abandoned even in Maeve’s court. But reborn here, and enacted now, as they fell into the roles and duties that they had sorted out and decided for themselves.

Rowan emerged from the rain in his Fae form, his silver hair plastered to his head, his tattoo stark on his tan face. No sign of the lords.

But Rowan held his hunting knife against the bared throat of a young, slender-nosed man and escorted him toward the fire—the stranger’s travel-stained, soaked clothes bearing Darrow’s crest of a striking badger.

“A messenger,” Rowan ground out.



Aelin decided right then and there she didn’t particularly enjoy surprises.

The messenger’s blue eyes were wide, but his rain-slick, freckled face was calm. Steady. Even as he took in Lysandra, her fangs gilded with firelight. Even as Rowan nudged him forward, that cruel knife still angled at his throat.

Aedion jerked his chin at Rowan. “He can’t very well deliver the message with a blade at his windpipe.”

Rowan lowered his weapon, but the Fae Prince didn’t sheathe his knife.

Didn’t move more than a foot from the man.

Aedion demanded, “Where are they?”

The man bowed swiftly to her cousin. “At a tavern, four miles from here, General—”

The words died as Aelin at last stepped around the curve of the fire. She kept it burning high, kept Evangeline and Fleetfoot ensconced within. The messenger let out a small noise.

He knew. With the way he kept glancing between her and Aedion, seeing the same eyes, the same hair color … he knew. And as if the thought had hit him, the messenger bowed.

Aelin watched the way the man lowered his eyes, watched the exposed back of his neck, his skin shining with rain. Her magic simmered in response. And that thing—that hideous power hanging between her breasts

—seemed to open an ancient eye at all the commotion.

The messenger stiffened, wide-eyed at Lysandra’s silent approach, her whiskers twitching as she sniffed at his wet clothes. He was smart enough to remain still.

“Is the meeting canceled?” Aedion said tightly, scanning the woods again.

The man winced. “No, General—but they want you to come to the tavern where they’re staying. Because of the rain.”

Aedion rolled his eyes. “Go tell Darrow to drag his carcass out here.

Water won’t kill him.”

“It’s not Lord Darrow,” the man said quickly. “With all due respect, Lord Murtaugh’s slowed down this summer. Lord Ren didn’t want him out in the dark and rain.”

The old man had ridden across the kingdoms like a demon from hell this spring, Aelin remembered. Perhaps it had taken its toll. Aedion sighed. “You know we’ll need to scout the tavern first. The meeting will be later than they want.”

“Of course, General. They’ll expect that.” The messenger cringed as he at last spotted Evangeline and Fleetfoot within the flame’s ring of safety. And despite the Fae Prince armed beside him, despite the ghost leopard with unsheathed claws sniffing at him, the sight of Aelin’s fire made his face go deathly pale. “But they are waiting—and Lord Darrow is impatient. Being outside Orynth’s walls makes him anxious. Makes us all anxious, these days.”

Aelin snorted softly. Indeed.

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