Chapter no 5

Empire of Storms

Aelin stared and stared at that piece of paper, at the names that had been signed long before tonight, the men who had decided against her without meeting her, the men who had changed her future, her kingdom, with just their signatures.

Perhaps she should have waited to call this meeting until she was in Orynth—until her people saw her return and it would have been harder to kick her to the curb of the palace.

Aelin breathed, “Our doom gathers in the South of Adarlan—yet this is what you focus on?”

Darrow sneered, “When we have need of your … skill set, we will send word.”

No fire burned in her, not even an ember. As if Darrow had clenched it in his fist, snuffed it out.

“The Bane,” Aedion said with a hint of that legendary insolence, “will answer to none but Aelin Galathynius.”

“The Bane,” Darrow spat, “is now ours to command. In the event that there is no fit ruler on the throne, the lords control the armies of Terrasen.” He again surveyed Aelin, as if sensing the vague plan to publicly return to her city, to make it harder for him to shut her out, glimmering as it formed. “Set foot in Orynth, girl, and you will pay.”

“Is that a threat?” Aedion snarled, a hand darting to grip the hilt of the Sword of Orynth sheathed at his side.

“It is the law,” Darrow said simply. “One generations of Galathynius rulers have honored.”

There was such a roaring in her head, and such a still emptiness in the world beyond.

“The Valg march on us—a Valg king marches on us,” Aedion pushed, the general incarnate. “And your queen, Darrow, might be the only person capable of keeping them at bay.”

“War is a game of numbers, not magic. You know this, Aedion. You fought at Theralis.” The great plain before Orynth, host to the final, doomed battle as the empire had swept down upon them. Most of Terrasen’s forces and commanders had not walked away from the bloodbath, so thorough streams ran red for days afterward. If Aedion had fought in it … Gods, he must have been barely fourteen. Her stomach turned. Darrow concluded, “Magic failed us once before. We will not trust in it again.”

Aedion snapped, “We will need allies—”

“There are no allies,” Darrow said. “Unless Her Highness decides to be useful and gain us men and arms through marriage”—a sharp glance at Rowan—“we are alone.”

Aelin debated revealing what she knew, the money she’d schemed and killed to attain, but—

Something cold and oily clanged through her. Marriage to a foreign king or prince or emperor.

Would this be the cost? Not just in blood shed, but in dreams yielded? To be a princess eternal, but never a queen? To fight with not just magic, but the other power in her blood: royalty.

She could not look at Rowan, could not face those pine-green eyes without being sick.

She had laughed once at Dorian—laughed and scolded him for admitting that the thought of marriage to anyone but his soul-bonded was abhorrent. She’d chided him for choosing love over the peace of his kingdom.

Perhaps the gods did hate her. Perhaps this was her test. To escape one form of enslavement only to walk into another. Perhaps this was the punishment for those years in Rifthold’s riches.

Darrow gave her a small, satisfied smile. “Find me allies, Aelin Galathynius, and perhaps we shall consider your role in Terrasen’s future. Think on it. Thank you for asking us to meet.”

Silently, Aelin rose to her feet. The others did as well. Save for Darrow.

Aelin plucked up the piece of paper he had signed and examined the damning words, the scribbled signatures. The crackling fire was the only


Aelin silenced it.

And the candles. And the wrought-iron chandelier over the table.

Darkness fell, cleaved only by twin sharp inhales of breath—Murtaugh and Ren. The patter of rain filled the black room.

Aelin spoke into the dark, toward where Darrow was seated. “I suggest, Lord Darrow, that you become accustomed to this. For if we lose this war, darkness will reign forever.”

There was a scratch and a hiss—then a match sputtered as it lit a candle on the table. Darrow’s wrinkled, hateful face flickered into view. “Men can make their own light, Heir of Brannon.”

Aelin stared at the sole flame Darrow had sparked. The paper in her hands wilted into ashes.

Before she could speak, Darrow said, “That is our law—our right. You ignore that decree, Princess, and you defile all that your family stood and died for. The Lords of Terrasen have spoken.”

Rowan’s hand was solid against her lower back. But Aelin looked to Ren, his face tight. And over the roaring in her head, she said, “Whether or not you vote in my favor, there is a spot for you in this court. For what you helped Aedion and the captain do. For Nehemia.” Nehemia, who had worked with Ren, fought with him. Something like pain rippled in Ren’s eyes, and he opened his mouth to speak, but Darrow cut him off.

“What a waste of a life that was,” Darrow spat. “A princess actually dedicated to her people, who fought until her last breath for—”

“One more word,” Rowan said softly, “and I don’t care how many lords support you or what your laws are. One more word about that, and I will gut you before you can get up from that chair. Understand?”

For the first time, Darrow looked into Rowan’s eyes and blanched at the death he found waiting there. But the lord’s words had found their mark, leaving a shuddering sort of numbness in their wake.

Aedion snatched Aelin’s dagger off the table. “We’ll take your thoughts into consideration.” He scooped up his shield and put a hand on Aelin’s shoulder to guide her from the room. It was only the sight of that dented and scarred shield, the ancient sword hanging at his side, that set her feet moving, slicing through that thick numbness.

Ren moved to open the door, stepping into the hall beyond to scan it, giving Lysandra a wide berth as she padded past, Evangeline and Fleetfoot on her fluffy tail, secrecy be damned.

Aelin met the young lord’s eyes and drew in breath to say something, when Lysandra snarled down the hall.

A dagger was instantly in Aelin’s hand, angled and ready. But it was Darrow’s messenger, hurtling for them.

“Rifthold,” he panted as he skidded to a stop, flinging rain on them. “One of the scouts from the Ferian Gap just raced past. The Ironteeth host flies for Rifthold. They mean to sack the city.”



Aelin stood in a clearing just past the inn’s glow, the cold rain plastering her hair and raising bumps on her skin. Soaking them all, because Rowan now buckled on the extra blades she handed him, conserving each drop of his magic for what he was about to do.

They’d let the messenger spill the information he’d received—not much at all.

The Ironteeth host lingering in the Ferian Gap were now flying for Rifthold. Dorian Havilliard would be their target. Dead or alive.

They’d be upon the city by nightfall tomorrow, and once Rifthold was taken … Erawan’s net across the middle of the continent would be complete. No forces from Melisande, Fenharrow, or Eyllwe could reach them—and none of Terrasen’s forces could get to them, either. Not without wasting months to trek around the mountains.

“There’s nothing to be done for the city,” Aedion said, his voice cutting through the rain. The three of them lingered under the cover of a large oak, all keeping an eye on Ren and Murtaugh, who were speaking with Evangeline and Lysandra, now back in her human form. Her cousin went on, rain pinging against the shield across his back, “If the witches fly on Rifthold, then Rifthold already is gone.”

Aelin wondered if Manon Blackbeak would be leading the attack—if it’d be a blessing. The Wing Leader had saved them once before, but only

as a payment for a life debt. She doubted the witch would feel obliged to throw them a bone anytime soon.

Aedion met Rowan’s gaze. “Dorian must be saved at all costs. I know Perrington’s—Erawan’s—style. Don’t believe any promises they make, and don’t let Dorian be taken again.” Aedion dragged a hand through his rain-soaked hair and added, “Or yourself, Rowan.”

They were the most hideous words she’d ever heard. Rowan’s confirming nod made her knees buckle. She tried not to think about the two glass vials Aedion had handed the prince moments before. What they contained. She didn’t even know when or where he’d acquired them.

Anything but that. Anything but—

Rowan’s hand brushed hers. “I will save him,” he murmured.

“I wouldn’t ask this of you unless it was … Dorian is vital. Lose him, and we lose any support in Adarlan.” And one of the few magic-wielders who could stand against Morath.

Rowan’s nod was grim. “I serve you, Aelin. Do not apologize for putting me to use.”

Because only Rowan, riding the winds with his magic, could reach Rifthold in time. Even now, he might be too late. Aelin swallowed hard, fighting the feeling that the world was being ripped from under her feet.

A glimmer of movement near the tree line caught her eye, and Aelin schooled her face into neutrality as she studied what had been left by little, spindly hands at the base of a gnarled oak. None of the others so much as blinked in its direction.

Rowan finished with his weapons, glancing between her and Aedion with a warrior’s frankness. “Where do I meet you once I’ve secured the prince?”

Aedion said, “Run north. Stay clear of the Ferian Gap—”

Darrow appeared at the other end of the clearing, barking an order for Murtaugh to come to him.

“No,” Aelin said. Both warriors turned.

She stared northward into the roiling rain and lightning.

She would not set foot in Orynth; she would not see her home.

Find me allies, Darrow had sneered.

She didn’t dare glance at what the Little Folk had left in the shadow of that rain-lashed tree mere feet away.

Aelin said to Aedion, “If Ren is to be trusted, you tell him to get to the Bane, and to be ready to march and press from the North. If we are not to lead them, then they will have to work around Darrow’s orders as best they can.”

Aedion’s brows rose. “What are you thinking?”

Aelin jerked her chin at Rowan. “Get a boat and travel south with Dorian. Land is too risky, but your winds on the seas can get you there in a few days. To Skull’s Bay.”

“Shit,” Aedion breathed.

But Aelin pointed with a thumb over a shoulder to Ren and Murtaugh as she said to her cousin, “You told me that they were in communication with Captain Rolfe. Get one of them to write a letter of recommendation for us. Right now.”

“I thought you knew Rolfe,” Aedion said.

Aelin gave him a grim smile. “He and I parted on … bad terms, to say the least. But if Rolfe can be turned to our side…”

Aedion finished for her, “Then we’d have a small fleet that could unite North and South—brave the blockades.”

And it was a good thing she’d taken all that gold from Arobynn to pay for it. “Skull’s Bay might be the only safe place for us to hide—to contact the other kingdoms.” She didn’t dare tell them that Rolfe might have far more than a fleet of blockade runners to offer them, if she played it right. She said to Rowan, “Wait for us there. We’ll strike out for the coast tonight, and sail to the Dead Islands. We’ll be two weeks behind you.”

Aedion clasped Rowan on the shoulder in farewell and headed for Ren and Murtaugh. A heartbeat later, the old man was hobbling into the inn, Darrow on his heels, demanding answers.

As long as Murtaugh wrote that letter to Rolfe, she didn’t care.

Alone with Rowan, Aelin said, “Darrow expects me to take this order lying down. But if we can rally a host in the South, we can push Erawan right onto the blades of the Bane.”

“It still might not convince Darrow and the others—”

“I’ll deal with that later,” she said, spraying water as she shook her head. “For now, I have no plans to lose this war because some old bastard has learned he likes playing king.”

Rowan’s grin was fierce, wicked. He leaned in, grazing his mouth against hers. “I have no plans to let him keep that throne, either, Aelin.”

She only breathed, “Come back to me.” The thought of what awaited him down in Rifthold struck her again. Gods—oh, gods. If anything happened to him…

He brushed a knuckle down her wet cheek, tracing her mouth with his thumb. She put a hand on his muscled chest, right where those two vials of poison were now hidden. For a heartbeat, she debated turning the deadly liquid within into steam.

But if Rowan was caught, if Dorian was caught … “I can’t—I can’t let you go—”

“You can,” he said with little room for argument. The voice of her prince-commander. “And you will.” Rowan again traced her mouth. “When you find me again, we will have that night. I don’t care where, or who is around.” He pressed a kiss to her neck and said onto her rain-slick skin, “You are my Fireheart.”

She grabbed his face in both hands, drawing him down to kiss her.

Rowan wrapped his arms around her, crushing her against him, his hands roaming as if he were branding the feel of her into his palms. His kiss was savage—ice and fire twining together. Even the rain seemed to pause as they at last drew away, panting.

And through the rain and fire and ice, through the dark and lightning and thunder, a word flickered into her head, an answer and a challenge and a truth she immediately denied, ignored. Not for herself, but for him—for him

Rowan shifted in a flash brighter than lightning.

When she finished blinking, a large hawk was flapping up through the trees and into the rain-tossed night. Rowan loosed a shriek as he banked right—toward the coast—the sound a farewell and a promise and a battle cry.

Aelin swallowed the tightness in her throat as Aedion approached and gripped her shoulder. “Lysandra wants Murtaugh to take Evangeline. For ‘lady training.’ The girl refuses to go. You might need to … help.”

The girl was indeed clinging to her mistress, shoulders shaking with the force of her weeping. Murtaugh looked on helplessly, now back from the inn.

Aelin stalked through the mud, the ground squelching. How far away, how long ago, their merry morning now seemed.

She touched Evangeline’s soaked hair, and the girl pulled back long enough for Aelin to say to her, “You are a member of my court. And as such, you answer to me. You are wise, and brave, and a joy—but we are headed into dark, horrible places where even I fear to tread.”

Evangeline’s lip wobbled. Something in Aelin’s chest strained, but she let out a low whistle, and Fleetfoot, who had been cowering from the rain under their horses, slunk over.

“I need you to care for Fleetfoot,” Aelin said, stroking the hound’s damp head, her long ears. “Because in those dark, horrible places, a dog would be in peril. You are the only one I trust with her safety. Can you look after her for me?” She should have cherished them more—those happy, calm, boring moments on the road. Should have savored each second they were all together, all safe.

Above the girl, Lysandra’s face was tight—her eyes shone with more than just the rain. But the lady nodded at Aelin, even as she surveyed Murtaugh once more with a predator’s focus.

“Stay with Lord Murtaugh, learn about this court and its workings, and protect my friend,” Aelin said to Evangeline, squatting to kiss Fleetfoot’s sodden head. Once. Twice. The dog absently licked the rain off her face. “Can you do that?” Aelin repeated.

Evangeline stared at the dog, at her mistress. And nodded.

Aelin kissed the girl’s cheek and whispered into her ear, “Work your magic on these miserable old men while you’re at it.” She pulled away to wink at the girl. “Win me back my kingdom, Evangeline.”

But the girl was beyond smiles, and nodded again.

Aelin kissed Fleetfoot one last time and turned to her awaiting cousin as Lysandra knelt in the mud before the girl, brushing back her wet hair and speaking too low for her Fae ears to detect.

Aedion’s mouth was a hard line as he dragged his eyes away from Lysandra and the girl and inclined his head toward Ren and Murtaugh. Aelin fell into step beside him, pausing a few feet from the Allsbrook lords.

“Your letter, Majesty,” Murtaugh said, extending a wax-sealed tube. Aelin took it, bowing her head in thanks.

Aedion said to Ren, “Unless you want to swap one tyrant for another, I suggest you get the Bane and any others ready to push from the North.”

Murtaugh answered for his grandson, “Darrow means well—” “Darrow,” Aedion interrupted, “is now a man of limited days.”

They all looked to her. But Aelin watched the inn flickering through the trees—and the old man once again storming for them, a force of nature in his own right. She said, “We don’t touch Darrow.”

“What?” Aedion snapped.

Aelin said, “I’d bet all my money that he’s already taken the steps to ensure that if he meets an untimely death, we never set foot in Orynth again.” Murtaugh gave her a grim, confirming nod. Aelin shrugged. “So we don’t touch him. We play his game—play by rules and laws and oaths.”

Several feet away, Lysandra and Evangeline still spoke softly, the girl now crying in her mistress’s arms, Fleetfoot anxiously nuzzling her hip.

Aelin met Murtaugh’s stare. “I do not know you, Lord, but you were loyal to my uncle—to my family these long years.” She slid a dagger free of a hidden sheath along her thigh. They flinched as she sliced into her palm. Even Aedion started. Aelin clenched her bloodied palm into a fist, holding it in the air between them. “Because of that loyalty, you will understand what blood promises mean to me when I say if that girl comes to harm, physical or otherwise, I do not care what laws exist, what rules I will break.” Lysandra had now turned to them, her shifter senses detecting blood. “If Evangeline is hurt, you will burn. All of you.”

“Threatening your loyal court?” sneered a cold voice as Darrow halted a few feet away. Aelin ignored him. Murtaugh was wide-eyed—so was Ren.

Her blood seeped into the sacred earth. “Let this be your test.”

Aedion swore. He understood. If the Lords of Terrasen could not keep one child safe in their kingdom, could not find it in themselves to save Evangeline, to look after someone who could do them no good, gain them no wealth or rank … they would deserve to perish.

Murtaugh bowed again. “Your will is mine, Majesty.” He added quietly, “I lost my granddaughters. I will not lose another.” With that, the old man walked toward where Darrow waited, pulling the lord aside.

Her heart strained, but Aelin said to Ren, that scar hidden by the shadows of his rain-drenched hood, “I wish we had time to speak. Time for me to explain.”

“You’re good at walking away from this kingdom. I don’t see why now would be different.”

Aedion let out a snarl, but Aelin cut him off. “Judge me all you like, Ren Allsbrook. But do not fail this kingdom.”

She saw the unspoken retort flash in Ren’s eyes. Like you did for ten years.

The blow struck low and deep, but she turned away. As she did, she noted how Ren’s eyes fell on the little girl—on the brutal scars across Evangeline’s face. Near-twins to the ones on his own. Something in his gaze softened, just a bit.

But Darrow was now thundering toward Aelin, pushing past Murtaugh, his face white with anger. “You—” he started.

Aelin held up a hand, flame leaping at her fingertips, rain turning to steam above it. Blood snaked down her wrist from the deep cut, sibling to the other on her right hand, bright as Goldryn’s ruby, peeking over her shoulder. “I’ll make one more promise,” she said, folding her bloodied hand into a fist as she lowered it before them. Darrow tensed.

Her blood dripped onto the sacred soil of Terrasen, and her smile turned lethal. Even Aedion held his breath beside her.

Aelin said, “I promise you that no matter how far I go, no matter the cost, when you call for my aid, I will come. I promise you on my blood, on my family’s name, that I will not turn my back on Terrasen as you have turned your back on me. I promise you, Darrow, that when the day comes and you crawl for my help, I will put my kingdom before my pride and not kill you for this. I think the true punishment will be seeing me on the throne for the rest of your miserable life.”

His face had gone from white to purple. She just turned away.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Darrow demanded. So Murtaugh had not filled him in on her plan to go to the Dead Islands. Interesting.

She looked over her shoulder. “To call in old debts and promises. To raise an army of assassins and thieves and exiles and commoners. To finish what was started long, long ago.”

Silence was his answer.

So Aelin and Aedion strode to where Lysandra now monitored them, solemn-faced in the rain, Evangeline hugging herself as Fleetfoot leaned against the silently weeping girl.

Aelin said to the shape-shifter and the general, locking out the sorrow from her heart, locking out the pain and worry from her mind, “We travel now.”

And when they dispersed to gather the horses, Aedion brushing a kiss to Evangeline’s soaked head before Murtaugh and Ren led her back to the inn with considerable gentleness, Darrow striding ahead with no farewell whatsoever, when Aelin was alone, she finally approached that shadowed, gnarled tree.

The Little Folk had known about the wyvern attack this morning.

So she’d supposed that this little effigy, already falling apart under the torrent of rain, was another message of sorts. One just for her.

Brannon’s temple on the coast had been rendered carefully—a clever little contraption of twigs and rocks to form the pillars and altar … And on the sacred rock in its center, they’d created a white stag from raw sheep’s wool, his mighty antlers no more than curling thorns.

An order—where to go, what she needed to obtain. She was willing to listen, play along. Even if it had meant telling the others only half the truth.

Aelin broke apart the temple reconstruction but left the stag in her palm, the wool deflating in the rain.

Horses nickered as Aedion and Lysandra hauled them closer, but Aelin felt him a heartbeat before he emerged between the distant, night-veiled trees. Too far in the wood to be anything but a ghost, a figment of an ancient god’s dream.

Barely breathing, she watched him for as long as she dared, and when Aelin mounted her horse, she wondered if her companions could tell that it was not rain gleaming on her face as she tugged on her black hood.

Wondered if they, too, had spied the Lord of the North standing watch deep in the forest, the white stag’s immortal glow muted in the rain, come to bid Aelin Galathynius farewell.

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