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Page 9

Kingdom of Ash (Throne of Glass, 7)

It didn’t stop the hammer from falling.

Or the scream that shattered from her throat.

 

 

CHAPTER 4

“This camp has been abandoned for months.”

Manon turned from the snow-crusted cliff where she’d been monitoring the western edge of the White Fang Mountains. Toward the Wastes.

Asterin remained crouched over the half-buried remnants of a fire pit, the shaggy goat pelt slung over her shoulders ruffling in the frigid wind. Her Second went on, “No one’s been here since early autumn.”

Manon had suspected as much. The Shadows had spotted the site an hour earlier on their patrol of the terrain ahead, somehow noticing the irregularities cleverly hidden in the leeward side of the rocky peak. The Mother knew Manon herself might have flown right over it.

Asterin stood, brushing snow from the knees of her leathers. Even the thick material wasn’t enough to ward against the brutal cold. Hence the mountain-goat pelts they’d resorted to wearing.

Good for blending into the snow, Edda had claimed, the Shadow even letting the dark hair dye she favored wash away these weeks to reveal the moon white of her natural shade. Manon’s shade. Briar had kept the dye. One of them was needed to scout at night, the other Shadow had claimed.

Manon surveyed the two Shadows carefully stalking through the camp. Perhaps no longer Shadows, but rather the two faces of the moon. One dark, one light.

One of many changes to the Thirteen.

Manon blew out a breath, the wind tearing away the hot puff.

“They’re out there,” Asterin murmured so the others might not hear from where they gathered by the overhanging boulder that shielded them from the wind.

“Three camps,” Manon said with equal quiet. “All long abandoned. We’re hunting ghosts.”

Asterin’s gold hair ripped free of its braid, blowing westward. Toward the homeland they might very well never see. “The camps are proof they’re flesh and blood. Ghislaine thinks they might be from the late-summer hunts.”

“They could also be from the wild men of these mountains.” Though Manon knew they weren’t. She’d hunted enough Crochans during the past hundred years to spot their style of making fires, their neat little camps. All the Thirteen had. And they’d all tracked and killed so many of the wild men of the White Fangs earlier this year on Erawan’s behalf that they knew their habits, too.

Asterin’s gold-flecked black eyes fell on that blurred horizon. “We’ll find them.”

Soon. They had to find at least some of the Crochans soon. Manon knew they had methods of communicating, scattered as they were. Ways to get out a call for help. A call for aid.

Time was not on their side. It had been nearly two months since that day on the beach in Eyllwe. Since she’d learned the terrible cost the Queen of Terrasen must pay to put an end to this madness. The cost that another with Mala’s bloodline might also pay, if need be.

Manon resisted the urge to glance over her shoulder to where the King of Adarlan stood amongst the rest of her Thirteen, entertaining Vesta by summoning flame, water, and ice to his cupped palm. A small display of a terrible, wondrous magic. He set three whorls of the elements lazily dancing around each other, and Vesta arched an impressed brow. Manon had seen the way the red-haired sentinel looked at him, had noted that Vesta wisely refrained from acting on that desire.

Manon had given her no such orders, though. Hadn’t said anything to the Thirteen about what, exactly, the human king was to her.

Nothing, she wanted to say. Someone as unmoored as she. As quietly angry. And as pressed for time. Finding the third and final Wyrdkey had proved futile. The two the king carried in his pocket offered no guidance, only their unearthly reek. Where Erawan kept it, they had not the faintest inkling. To search Morath or any of his other outposts would be suicide.

So they’d set aside their hunt, after weeks of fruitless searching, in favor of finding the Crochans. The king had protested initially, but yielded. His allies and friends in the North needed as many warriors as they could muster. Finding the Crochans … Manon wouldn’t break her promise.

She might be the disowned Heir of the Blackbeak Clan, might now command only a dozen witches, but she could still hold true to her word.

So she’d find the Crochans. Convince them to fly into battle with the Thirteen. With her. Their last living Crochan Queen.

Even if it led them all straight into the Darkness’s embrace.

The sun arched higher, its light off the snows near-blinding.

Lingering was unwise. They’d survived these months with strength and wits. For while they’d hunted for the Crochans, they’d been hunted themselves. Yellowlegs and Bluebloods, mostly. All scouting patrols.

Manon had given the order not to engage, not to kill. A missing Ironteeth patrol would only pinpoint their location. Though Dorian could have snapped their necks without lifting a finger.

It was a pity he hadn’t been born a witch. But she’d gladly accept such a lethal ally. So would the Thirteen.

“What will you say,” Asterin mused, “when we find the Crochans?”

Manon had considered it over and over. If the Crochans would know who Lothian Blackbeak was, that she had loved Manon’s father—a rare-born Crochan Prince. That her parents had dreamed, had believed they’d created a child to break the curse on the Ironteeth and unite their peoples.

A child not of war, but of peace.

But those were foreign words on her tongue. Love. Peace.

Manon ran a gloved finger over the scrap of red fabric binding the end of her braid. A shred from her half sister’s cloak. Rhiannon. Named for the last Witch-Queen. Whose face Manon somehow bore. Manon said, “I’ll ask the Crochans not to shoot, I suppose.”

Asterin’s mouth twitched toward a smile. “I meant about who you are.”

She’d rarely balked from anything. Rarely feared anything. But saying the words, those words … “I don’t know,” Manon admitted. “We’ll see if we get that far.”

The White Demon. That’s what the Crochans called her. She was at the top of their to-kill list. A witch every Crochan was to slay on sight. That fact alone said they didn’t know what she was to them.

Yet her half sister had figured it out. And then Manon had slit her throat.

Manon Kin Slayer, her grandmother had taunted. The Matron had likely relished every Crochan heart that Manon had brought to her at Blackbeak Keep over the past hundred years.

Manon closed her eyes, listening to the hollow song of the wind.

Behind them, Abraxos let out an impatient, hungry whine. Yes, they were all hungry these days.

“We will follow you, Manon,” Asterin said softly.

Manon turned to her cousin. “Do I deserve that honor?”

Asterin’s mouth pressed into a tight line. The slight bump on her nose—Manon had given her that. She’d broken it in the Omega’s mess hall for brawling with mouthy Yellowlegs. Asterin had never once complained about it. Had seemed to wear the reminder of the beating Manon bestowed like a badge of pride.

“Only you can decide if you deserve it, Manon.”

Manon let the words settle as she shifted her gaze to the western horizon. Perhaps she’d deserve that honor if she succeeded in bringing them back to a home they’d never set eyes on.

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