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Chapter no 35

Heir of Fire

e next four words that came out of Celaena’s mouth were so vulgar that Luca choked. But Celaena didn’t move as a massive, jagged, white line gleamed unnervingly far from that red eye.

“Get o the ice now,” she breathed to Luca.

Because that jagged white line—those were teeth. Big, rip-your-arm-o -in-one-bite teeth. And they were oating up from the depths, toward the hole she’d made. at was why there were no skeletons—only the weapons that had failed the fools who’d wandered into this cave.

“Holy gods,” Luca said, peering from behind her. “What is that?”

“Shut up and go,” she hissed. On the shore, Rowan’s eyes were wide, his face strained beneath his tattoo. He hadn’t realized this lake wasn’t empty.

“Now, Luca,” Rowan growled, his sword out, the blade he’d swiped from the ground still sheathed in his other hand.

It was swimming toward them, lazily. Curious. As it neared, she could make out a snaking body as pale as the stones on the bottom of the lake. She’d never seen anything so huge, so ancient, and—-and there was only a thin layer of ice keeping her separated from it.

When Luca started trembling, his tan skin going pale, Celaena surged to her feet, the ice groaning. “Don’t look down,” she said, gripping his elbow. A patch of thicker ice hardened under their feet and spread—a path for the shore. “Go,” she told the boy, giving him a light shove. He started into a swift shu e-slide. She let him get ahead, giving him time so she could guard his back, and glanced down again.

She swallowed her shout as a scaled, massive head stared up at her. Not a dragon or a wyvern, not a serpent or a sh, but something in between. It was missing an eye, the esh scarred around the empty socket. What in hell had done that? Was there something worse down there, swimming at the belly of the mountain? Of course—of course she’d be left unarmed in the center of a lake lined with weapons.

Faster,” Rowan barked. Luca was already halfway to the shore.

Celaena broke into Luca’s same shu e-slide, not trusting herself to stay upright if she ran. Just as she took her third step, a ash of bone-white snapped up through the depths, twisting like a striking asp.

e long tail whipped against the ice and the world bounced.

She went up, legs buckling as the ice lifted from the blow, and then slammed onto her hands and knees. Celaena shoved down the magic that arose to protect and burn and maim. She scrambled and veered aside as the scaly, horned head hurtled toward the ice near her feet.

e surface jolted. Farther out, but getting closer, the ice was breaking. As if all of Rowan’s concentration was now spent on keeping a thin bridge of ice frozen between her and the shore. “Weapon,” she gasped out, not daring to take her attention o the creature.

Hurry,” Rowan barked, and Celaena lifted her head long enough to see him slide the blade he’d found across the ice, a brisk wind spinning it toward her. Luca abandoned the blanket, shu e–running, and Celaena scooped up the golden-hilted sword as she followed him. A ruby the size of a chicken egg was embedded in the hilt, and despite the age of the scabbard, the blade shone when she whipped it free, as if it had been freshly polished. Something clattered from the scabbard onto the ice—a plain golden ring. She grabbed it, shoving it into her pocket, and ran faster, as—

e ice lifted again, the boom of that mighty tail as horri c as the moving surface beneath her. Celaena stayed up this time, sinking onto her haunches as she clutched the sword, part of her marveling at the balance and beauty if it; but Luca, slipping and sliding, went down. She reached him in a few heartbeats, hauling him up by the back of his tunic and gripping him tight as the ice lifted again and again and again.

ey got past the drop-o , and she almost groaned with relief at the sight of the pale stone shelf beneath their feet. e ice behind them exploded up, freezing water showering them, and then—

She didn’t stop as those nostrils hu ed. Didn’t stop hauling Luca toward Rowan, whose brow gleamed with sweat as massive talons scraped over the ice, gouging four deep lines.

She dragged the boy the last ten yards, then ve, then they were on the shore and to Rowan, who let out a shuddering breath. Celaena turned in time to see something out of a nightmare trying to crawl onto the ice, its one red eye wild with hunger, its massive teeth promising a brutal and cold kind of death. As Rowan’s sigh nished sounding, the ice melted, and the creature plunged below.

Back on solid ground, suddenly aware that the ice had also been a barrier, Celaena again grabbed Luca, who was looking ready to vomit, and bolted from the cave. ere was nothing keeping that creature from climbing out of the water, and the sword was about as useful as a toothpick against it. Who knew how fast it could move on land?

Luca was chanting a steady stream of prayers to various gods as Celaena yanked him down the rocky path and into the glaring afternoon sun, stumbling near-blind until they hit the murky woods, dodging trees mostly by luck, faster and faster downhill, and then—

A roar that shook the stones and sent the birds scattering into the air, the leaves rustling. But a roar of rage and hunger—not of triumph. As if the creature had reached the edge of the cave and, after millennia in the watery dark, could not withstand the sunshine. She didn’t want to consider, as they kept running from the echoing roar, what might have happened if it had been night. What still might happen at nightfall.

After a while, she sensed Rowan behind them. Yet she cared only for her young charge, who panted and cursed all the way back to the fortress.

When Mistward was in sight, she told Luca only one thing before she sent him ahead: keep his mouth shut about what had happened in the cave. e moment the sounds of him crashing through the brush had faded, she turned.

Rowan was standing there, panting as well, his sword now sheathed. She plunged her new blade into the earth, the ruby in the hilt glowing in a patch of sunlight.

“I will kill you,” she snarled. And launched herself at him.

Even in her Fae form, he still was faster than her, stronger, and dodged her with uid ease. Slamming face- rst into the tree was better than colliding with the stone walls of the fortress, though not by much. Her teeth sang, but she whirled and lunged for Rowan again, now standing so close, his teeth bared. He couldn’t dodge her as she grabbed him by the front of his jacket and connected.

Oh, hitting him in the face felt good, even as her knuckles split and throbbed.

He snarled and threw her to the ground. e air whooshed out of her chest, and the blood trickling out of her nose shot back down her throat. Before he could sit on her, she got her legs around him and shoved with every ounce of that immortal strength. And just like that, he was

pinned, his eyes wide with what could only be fury and surprise.

She hit him again, her knuckles barking in agony. “If you ever again bring someone else into this,” she panted, hitting him on his tattoo—on that gods-damned tattoo. “If you ever endanger anyone else the way you did today . . .” e blood on her nose splattered on his face, mingling, she noted with some satisfaction, with blood from the blows she’d given him. “I will kill you.” Another strike, a backhanded blow, and it vaguely occurred to her that he had gone still and was taking it. “I will rip out your rutting throat.” She bared her canines. “You understand?”

He turned his head to the side to spit blood.

Her blood was pounding, so wild that every little restraint she’d locked into place shattered. She shoved back against it, and the distraction cost her. Rowan moved, and then she was under him again. She’d mangled his face, but he didn’t seem to care as he growled, “I will do whatever I please.” “You will keep other people out of it!” she screamed, so loudly that the birds stopped chattering.

She thrashed against him, gripping his wrists. “No one else!” “Tell me why, Aelin.”

at gods-damned name . . . She dug her nails into his wrists. “Because I am sick of it!” She was gulping down air, each breath shuddering as the horri c realization she’d been holding at bay since Nehemia’s death came loose. “I told her I would not help, so she orchestrated her own death. Because she thought . . .” She laughed—a horrible, wild sound. “She thought that her death would spur me into action. She thought I could somehow do more than her—that she was worth more dead. And she lied—about everything. She lied to me because I was a coward, and I hate her for it. I hate her for leaving me.”

Rowan still pinned her, his warm blood dripping onto her face.

She had said it. Said the words she’d been choking on for weeks and weeks. e rage seeped from her like a wave pulling away from shore, and she let go of his wrists. “Please,” she panted, not caring that she was begging, “please don’t bring anyone else into it. I will do anything you ask of me. But that is my line. Anything else but that.”

His eyes were veiled as he nally let go of her arms. She gazed up at the canopy. She would not cry in front of him, not again.

He peeled back, the space between them now a tangible thing. “How did she die?”

She let the moisture against her back seep into her, cool her bones. “She manipulated a mutual acquaintance into thinking he needed to kill her in order to further his agenda. He hired an assassin, made sure I wasn’t around, and had her murdered.”

Oh, Nehemia. She had done it all out of a fool’s hope, not realizing what a waste it was. She could have allied with awless Galan Ashryver and saved the world—found a truly useful heir to the throne.

“What happened to the two men?” A cold question.

“ e assassin I hunted down and left in pieces in an alleyway. And the man who hired him . . .” Blood on her hands, on her clothes, in her hair, Chaol’s horri ed stare. “I gutted him and dumped his body in a sewer.”

ey were two of the worst things she’d done, out of pure hatred and vengeance and rage. She waited for the lecture. But Rowan merely said, “Good.”

She was so surprised that she looked at him—and saw what she had done. Not his already bruised and bleeding face, or his ripped jacket and shirt, now muddy. But right where she’d gripped his

forearms, the clothes were burned through, the skin beneath covered in angry red welts.

Handprints. She’d burned right through the tattoo on his left arm. She was on her feet in an instant, wondering if she should be on her knees begging for forgiveness instead.

It must have hurt like hell. Yet he had taken it—the beating, the burning—while she let out those words that had clouded her senses for so many weeks now. “I am . . . so sorry,” she started, but he held up a hand.

“You do not apologize,” he said, “for defending the people you care about.”

She supposed it was as much of an apology as she would ever get from him. She nodded, and he took that as answer enough. “I’m keeping the sword,” she said, yanking it free of the earth. She’d be hard-pressed to nd a better one anywhere in the world.

“You haven’t earned it.” He fell silent, then added, “But consider this a favor. Leave it in your rooms when we’re training.”

She would have debated, but this was a compromise, too. She wondered if he’d made a compromise any time in the last century. “What if that thing tracks us to the fortress once darkness falls?”

“Even if it does, it can’t get past the wards.” When she raised her brows, he said, “ e stones around the fortress have a spell woven between them to keep out enemies. Even magic bounces o it.”

“Oh.” Well, that explained why they called it Mistward. A calm, if not pleasant, silence fell between them while they walked. “You know,” she said slyly, “that’s twice now you’ve made a mess of my training with your tasks. I’m fairly sure that makes you the worst instructor I’ve ever had.”

He gave her a sidelong look. “I’m surprised it took you this long to call attention to it.”

She snorted, and as they approached the fortress, the torches and candles ignited as if to welcome them home.

“I’ve never seen such a sorry sight,” Emrys hissed as Rowan and Celaena trudged into the kitchen. “Blood and dirt and leaves over every inch of you both.”

Indeed, they were something to behold, both of their faces swollen and lacerated, covered in each other’s blood, hair a mess, and Celaena limping slightly. e knuckles of two of her ngers were split, and her knee throbbed from an injury she did not recall getting.

“No better than alley cats, brawling at all hours of the day and night,” Emrys said, slamming two bowls of stew onto the worktable. “Eat, both of you. And then get cleaned up. Elentiya, you’re o kitchen duty tonight and tomorrow.” Celaena opened her mouth to object, but the old man held up a hand. “I don’t want you bleeding on everything. You’ll be more trouble than you’re worth.” Wincing, Celaena slumped next to Rowan on the bench, and swore viciously at the pain in her leg, her face, her arms. Swore at the pain in the ass sitting right next to her. “Clean out your mouth, too, while you’re at it,” Emrys snapped.

Luca was huddled by the re, wide-eyed and making a sharp, cutting gesture across his neck, as if to warn Celaena about something. Even Malakai, seated at the other end of the table with two weathered sentries, was watching her with raised brows.

Rowan was already hunched over the table, digging into his stew. She glanced again at Luca, who frantically tapped his ears.

She hadn’t shifted back. And—well, now they’d all noticed, even with the blood and dirt and

leaves. Malakai met her stare, and she dared him—just dared the old man to say anything. But he shrugged and went back to his meal. So it really wasn’t a surprise after all. She took a bite of her stew and had to bite back her moan. Was it her Fae senses, or was it even more delicious tonight?

Emrys was watching from the hearth, and Celaena gave him that challenging look, too. She punched back through the veil, aching as she shifted into her mortal form. But the old man brought her and Rowan a loaf of bread and said, “Makes no di erence to me whether your ears are pointy or round, or what your teeth look like. But,” he added, looking at Rowan, “I can’t deny I’m glad to see you got in a few punches this time.”

Rowan’s head snapped up from his bowl, and Emrys pointed a spoon at him. “Don’t you think you’ve had enough of beating each other into a pulp?” Malakai sti ened, but Emrys went on, “What good does it accomplish, other than providing me with a scullery maid whose face scares the wits out of our sentries? You think any of us like to hear you two cursing and screaming every afternoon? e language you use is enough to curdle all the milk in Wendlyn.”

Rowan lowered his head and mumbled something into his stew.

For the rst time in a long, long while, Celaena felt the corners of her lips tug up.

And that was when Celaena walked to the old man—and got onto her knees. She apologized, profusely. To Emrys, to Luca, to Malakai. Apologized because they deserved it. ey accepted, but Emrys still looked wary. Hurt, even. e shame of what she’d said to that man, to all of them, would cling to her for a while.

ough it made her stomach twist and palms sweat, though they didn’t mention names, she wasn’t all that surprised when Emrys told her that he and the other old Fae knew who she was, and that her mother had worked to help them. But she was surprised when Rowan took a spot at the sink and helped clean up after the evening meal.

ey worked in an easy silence. ere were still truths she hadn’t confessed to, stains on her soul she couldn’t yet explore or express. But maybe—maybe he wouldn’t walk away whenever she did nd the courage to tell him.

At the table, Luca was grinning with delight. Just seeing that smile—that bit of proof that today’s events hadn’t scarred him completely—made Celaena look at Emrys and say, “We had an adventure today.”

Malakai set down his spoon and said, “Let me guess: it had something to do with that roar that sent the livestock into pandemonium.”

ough Celaena didn’t smile, her eyes crinkled. “What do you know of a creature that dwells in the lake under . . .” She glanced at Rowan to nish.

“Bald Mountain. And he can’t know that story,” Rowan said. “No one does.”

“I am a Story Keeper,” Emrys said, staring down at him with all the wrath of one of the iron

gurines on the mantel. “And that means that the tales I collect might not come from Fae or human mouths, but I hear them anyway.” He sat down at the table, folding his hands in front of him. “I heard one story, years ago, from a fool who thought he could cross the Cambrian Mountains and enter Maeve’s realm without invitation. He was on his way back, barely clinging to life thanks to Maeve’s wild wolves in the passes, so we brought him here while we sent for the healers.”

Malakai murmured, “So that’s why you wouldn’t give him a moment’s peace.” A twinkle in those old eyes, and Emrys gave his mate a wry smile.

“He had a erce infection, so at the time I thought it might have been a fever dream, but he told

me he found a cave at the base of the Bald Mountain. He camped there, because it was raining and cold and he planned to be o at rst light. Still, he felt like something was watching him from the lake. He drifted o , and awoke only because the ripples were lapping against the shore—ripples from the center of the lake. And just beyond the light of his re, out in the deep, he spied something swimming. Bigger than a tree or any beast he’d ever seen.”

“Oh, it was horri c,” Luca cut in.

“You said you were out with Bas and the other scouts on border patrol today!” Emrys barked, then gave Rowan a look that suggested he’d better test his next meal for poison.

Emrys cleared his throat and was soon staring at the table again, lost in thought. “What the fool learned that night was this: the creature was almost as old as the mountain itself. It claimed to have been born in another world, but had slipped into this one when the gods were looking elsewhere. It had preyed upon Fae and humans until a mighty Fae warrior challenged it. And before the warrior was through, he carved one of the creature’s eyes out—for spite or sport—and cursed the beast, so that as long as that mountain stood, the creature would be forced to live beneath it.”

A monster from another realm. Had it been let in during the Valg wars, when demons had opened and closed portals to another world at will? How many of the horri c creatures that dwelled in this land were only here because of those long-ago battles over the Wyrdkeys?

“So it has dwelled in the labyrinth of underwater caves under the mountain. It has no name—for it forgot what it was called long ago, and those who meet it do not return home.”

Celaena rubbed her arms, wincing as the split skin of her knuckles stretched with the movement. Rowan was staring directly at Emrys, his head cocked ever so slightly to the side. Rowan glanced at her, as if to make sure she was listening, and asked, “Who was the warrior who carved out its eye?”

“ e fool didn’t know, and neither did the beast. But the language it spoke was Fae—an archaic form of the Old Language, almost indecipherable. It could remember the gold ring he bore, but not what he looked like.”

It took every ounce of e ort not to grab for her pocket and the ring she’d put in there, or to examine the sword she’d left by the door, and the ruby that might not be a ruby after all. But it was impossible—too much of a coincidence.

She might have given in to the urge to look had Rowan not reached for his glass of water. He hid it well, and she didn’t think anyone else noticed, but as the sleeve of his jacket shifted, he winced, ever so slightly. From the burns she’d given him. ey’d been blistering earlier—they must be screaming in agony now.

Emrys pinned the prince with a stare. “No more adventures.”

Rowan glanced at Luca, who seemed about to explode with indignation. “Agreed.” Emrys didn’t back down. “And no more brawling.”

Rowan met Celaena’s stare over the table. His expression yielded nothing. “We’ll try.” Even Emrys deemed that an acceptable answer.

Despite the exhaustion that slammed into her like a wall, Celaena couldn’t sleep. She kept thinking of the creature, of the sword and the ring she’d examined for an hour without learning anything, and the control, however shaky, she’d managed to have on the ice. Yet she kept circling back to what she’d done to Rowan—how badly she’d burned him.

His pain tolerance must be tremendous, she thought as she twisted on her cot, huddled against the

cold in the room. She eyed her tin of salve. He should have gone to a healer for those burns. She tossed and turned for another ve minutes before she yanked on her boots, grabbed the tin, and left. She’d probably get her head bitten o again, but she wouldn’t get a wink of sleep if she were too busy feeling guilty. Gods, she felt guilty.

She knocked softly on his door, half hoping he wasn’t there. But he snapped “What?” and she winced and went in.

His room was toasty and warm, if not a little old and shabby, especially the worn rugs thrown over much of the gray stone oor. A large four-poster bed occupied much of the space, a bed that was still made—and empty. Rowan was seated at the worktable in front of the carved replace, shirtless and examining what looked to be a map marked with the locations of those bodies.

His eyes ashed with annoyance, but she ignored him as she studied the massive tattoo that went from his face down his neck and shoulders and covered the entirety of his left arm, straight to his

ngertips. She hadn’t really looked that day in the woods, but now she marveled at its beautiful, unbroken lines—save for the manacle-like burn around his wrist. Both wrists.

“What do you want?”

She hadn’t inspected his body too closely before, either. His chest—tan enough to suggest he spent a good amount of time without a shirt—was sculpted with muscle and covered in thick scars. From

ghts or battles or the gods knew what. A warrior’s body that he’d had centuries to hone. She tossed the salve to him. “I thought you might want this.”

He caught it with one hand, but his eyes remained on her. “I deserved it.” “Doesn’t mean I can’t feel bad.”

He turned the tin over and over between his ngers. ere was a particularly long and nasty scar down his right pectoral—where had it come from? “Is this a bribe?”

“Give it back, if you’re going to be a pain in my ass.” She held out her hand.

But he closed his ngers around the tin, then set it on his worktable. He said, “You could heal yourself, you know. Heal me, too. Nothing major, but you have that gift.”

She knew—sort of. Her magic had sometimes healed her injuries without conscious thought. “It’s

—it’s the drop of water a nity I inherited from Mab’s line.” e re had been the gift of her father’s bloodline. “My mother”—the words made her sick, but she said them for some reason—“told me that the drop of water in my magic was my salvation—and sense of self-preservation.” A nod from him, and she admitted, “I wanted to learn to use it like the other healers—long ago, I mean. But never was allowed to. ey said . . . well, it wouldn’t be all that useful, since I didn’t have much of it, and Queens don’t become healers.” She should stop talking.

For some reason, her stomach dropped as he said, “Go to bed. Since you’re banned from the kitchen tomorrow, we’re training at dawn.” Well, she certainly deserved the dismissal after burning him like that. So she turned, and maybe she looked as pathetic as she felt, because he suddenly said, “Wait. Shut the door.”

She obeyed. He didn’t give her leave to sit, so she leaned against the wooden door and waited. He kept his back to her, and she watched the powerful muscles expand and contract as he took a deep breath. en another. en—

“When my mate died, it took me a very, very long time to come back.” It took her a moment to think of what to say. “How long ago?”

“Two hundred three years, twenty-seven days ago.” He gestured to the tattoo on his face, neck,

arms. “ is tells the story of how it happened. Of the shame I’ll carry until my last breath.”

e warrior who had come the other day had such hollow eyes . . . “Others come to you to have their own grief and shame tattooed on them.”

“Gavriel lost three of his soldiers in an ambush in the southern mountains. ey were slaughtered. He survived. For as long as he’s been a warrior, he’s tattooed himself with the names of those under his command who have fallen. But where the blame lies has little to do with the point of the markings.”

“Were you to blame?”

Slowly, he turned—not quite all the way, but enough to give her a sidelong glance. “Yes. When I was young, I was . . . ferocious in my e orts to win valor for myself and my bloodline. Wherever Maeve sent me on campaigns, I went. Along the way, I mated a female of our race. Lyria,” he said, almost reverently. “She sold owers in the market in Doranelle. Maeve disapproved, but . . . when you meet your mate, there is nothing you can do to alter it. She was mine, and no one could tell me otherwise. Mating her cost me Maeve’s favor, and I still yearned so badly to prove myself. So when war came calling and Maeve o ered me a chance to redeem myself, I took it. Lyria begged me not to go. But I was so arrogant, so misguided, that I left her at our mountain home and went o to war. I left her alone,” he said, and again looked at Celaena.

You left me, she had said to him. at was when he’d snapped—the wounds of centuries ago rising up to swallow him as viciously as her own past consumed her.

“I was gone for months, winning all that glory I so foolishly sought. And then we got word that our enemies had been secretly trying to gain entrance to Doranelle through the mountain passes.” Her stomach dropped to her feet. Rowan ran a hand through his hair, scratched at his face. “I ew home. As fast as I’d ever own. When I got there, I found that . . . found she had been with child. And they had slaughtered her anyway, and burnt our house to cinders.

“When you lose a mate, you don’t . . .” A shake of the head. “I lost all sense of self, of time and place. I hunted them down, all the males who hurt her. I took a long while killing them. She was pregnant—had been pregnant since I’d left her. But I’d been so enamored with my own foolish agenda that I hadn’t scented it on her. I left my pregnant mate alone.”

Her voice broke, but she managed to say, “What did you do after you killed them?”

His face was stark and his eyes focused on some far-o sight. “For ten years, I did nothing. I vanished. I went mad. Beyond mad. I felt nothing at all. I just . . . left. I wandered the world, in and out of my forms, hardly marking the seasons, eating only when my hawk told me it needed to feed or it would die. I would have let myself die—except I . . . couldn’t bring myself . . .” He trailed o and cleared his throat. “I might have stayed that way forever, but Maeve tracked me down. She said it was enough time spent in mourning, and that I was to serve her as prince and commander—to work with a handful of other warriors to protect the realm. It was the rst time I had spoken to anyone since that day I found Lyria. e rst time I’d heard my name—or remembered it.”

“So you went with her?”

“I had nothing. No one. At that point, I hoped serving her might get me killed, and then I could see Lyria again. So when I returned to Doranelle, I wrote the story of my shame on my esh. And then I bound myself to Maeve with the blood oath, and have served her since.”

“How—how did you come back from that kind of loss?”

“I didn’t. For a long while I couldn’t. I think I’m still . . . not back. I might never be.”

She nodded, lips pressed tight, and glanced toward the window.

“But maybe,” he said, quietly enough that she looked at him again. He didn’t smile, but his eyes-were inquisitive. “Maybe we could nd the way back together.”

He would not apologize for today, or yesterday, or for any of it. And she would not ask him to, not now that she understood that in the weeks she had been looking at him it had been like gazing at a re ection. No wonder she had loathed him.

“I think,” she said, barely more than a whisper, “I would like that very much.” He held out a hand. “Together, then.”

She studied the scarred, callused palm, then the tattooed face, full of a grim sort of hope. Someone who might—who did understand what it was like to be crippled at your very core, someone who was still climbing inch by inch out of that abyss.

Perhaps they would never get out of it, perhaps they would never be whole again, but . . . “Together,” she said, and took his outstretched hand.

And somewhere far and deep inside her, an ember began to glow.

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