Nothing else approached Celaena and Rowan after that rst night. He certainly didn’t say anything to her about it, or o er his cloak or any sort of protection against the chill. She slept curled on her side, turning every other minute from some root or pebble digging into her back or jolting awake at the screech of an owl—or something worse.
By the time the light had turned gray and mist drifted through the trees, Celaena felt more exhausted than she’d been the night before. After a silent breakfast of bread, cheese, and apples, she was nearly dozing atop her mare as they resumed their ride up the forested foothill road.
ey passed few people—mostly humans leading wagons down to some market, all of whom glanced at Rowan and gave them the right of way. Some even muttered prayers for mercy.
She’d long heard the Fae existed peacefully with the humans in Wendlyn, so perhaps the terror they encountered was due to Rowan himself. e tattoo didn’t help. She had debated asking him what the words meant, but that would involve talking. And talking meant building some sort of . . . relationship. She’d had enough of friends. Enough of them dying, too.
So she’d kept her mouth shut the entire day they rode through the woods up into the Cambrian Mountains. e forest turned lusher and denser, and the higher they rode, the mistier it became, great veils of fog drifting past to caress her face, her neck, her spine.
Another cold, miserable night camped o the road later and they were riding again before dawn. By then, the mist had seeped into her clothes and skin, and settled right along her bones.
On the third evening, she’d given up hoping for a re. She’d even embraced the chill and the insu erable roots and the hunger whose edge she couldn’t dull no matter how much bread and cheese she ate. e aches and pains were soothing somehow.
Not comforting, but . . . distracting. Welcome. Deserved.
She didn’t want to know what that meant about her. She couldn’t let herself look that far inward. She’d come close, that day she’d seen Prince Galan. And it had been enough.
ey veered from the path in the dwindling afternoon hours, cutting across mossy earth that cushioned each step. She hadn’t seen a town in days, and the granite boulders were now carved with whorls and patterns. She supposed they were markers—a warning to humans to stay the hell away.
ey had to be another week from Doranelle, but Rowan was heading along the mountains, not over them, climbing higher still, the ascent broken by occasional plateaus and elds of wild owers. She hadn’t seen a lookout, so she had no sense of where they were, or how high. Just the endless forest, and the endless climb, and the endless mist.
She smelled smoke before she saw the lights. Not camp res, but lights from a building rising up out of the trees, hugging the spine of the mountain slope. e stones were dark and ancient—hewn from something other than the abundant granite. Her eyes strained, but she didn’t fail to note the ring of towering rocks woven between the trees, surrounding the entirety of the fortress. It was hard not to notice them when they rode between two megaliths that curved toward each other like the horns of a great beast, and a zinging current snapped against her skin.
Wards—magic wards. Her stomach turned. If they didn’t keep out enemies, they certainly served as an alarm. Which meant the three gures patrolling each of the three towers, the six on the outer retaining wall, and the three at the wooden gates would now know they were approaching. Men and women in light leather armor and bearing swords, daggers, and bows monitored their approach.
“I think I’d rather stay in the woods,” she said, her rst words in days. Rowan ignored her.
He didn’t even lift an arm in greeting to the sentries. He must be familiar with this place if he didn’t stoop to hellos. As they drew closer to the ancient fortress—which was little more than a few watchtowers woven together by a large connecting building, splattered with lichen and moss—she did the calculations. It had to be some border outpost, a halfway point between the mortal realm and Doranelle. Perhaps she’d nally have a warm place to sleep, even if just for the night.
e guards saluted Rowan, who didn’t spare them a passing glance. ey all wore hoods, masking any signs of their heritage. Were they Fae? Rowan might not have spoken to her for most of their journey—he’d shown as much interest in her as he would in a pile of shit on the road—but if she-were staying with the Fae . . . others might have questions.
She took in every detail, every exit, every weakness as they entered the large courtyard beyond the wall, two rather mortal-looking stable hands rushing to help them dismount. It was so still. As if everything, even the stones, was holding its breath. As if it had been waiting. e sensation only worsened when Rowan wordlessly led her into the dim interior of the main building, up a narrow set of stone stairs, and into what looked to be a small o ce.
It wasn’t the carved oak furniture, or the faded green drapes, or the warmth of the re that made her stop dead. It was the dark-haired woman seated behind the desk. Maeve, Queen of the Fae.
And then came the words she had been dreading for ten years. “Hello, Aelin Galathynius.”