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Page 91

Kingdom of Ash (Throne of Glass, 7)

“No taste for adventure, sister?” Kashin smiled faintly.

“Not when it’s in a frozen hell,” Hasar grumbled.

Nesryn huffed a soft laugh, and Sartaq slipped his arm around her shoulders. A casual, careless bit of contact.

“We keep going,” Sartaq said. “All the way to the walls of Orynth. We swore as much, and we do not renege on our promises.”

Nesryn would have fallen in love with him for that statement alone. She leaned into him, savoring his warmth, in silent thanks.

“Then let us pray,” Kashin said, “that this storm does not slow us so much that there’s nothing left of Orynth to defend.”

 

 

CHAPTER 102

They had cleared a small chamber near the Great Hall for his viewing.

The room lit by whatever candles could be spared, the ancient stones were cast in flickering relief around the table where they’d laid him.

Lysandra lingered in the doorway as she gazed toward the sheet-draped body at the back of the room.

Ren knelt before him, head bowed. As he had done for hours now. Ever since word had come at sundown that Murtaugh had fallen.

Hewn down by Valg foot soldiers as he sought to staunch their flow over the city walls courtesy of one of their siege towers.

They had carried Murtaugh back from the city wall, a throng of soldiers around him.

Even from the skies, flying in with the witches after Morath had given the order to halt once more, Lysandra had heard Ren’s scream. Had seen from high above as Ren ran down the battlements to the body borne through the city streets.

Aedion had been there within seconds. Had kept Ren upright as the young lord had sobbed, and had half carried him here, despite the fresh wounds on the prince.

And so Aedion had stayed. Standing vigil beside Ren all this time, a hand on his shoulder.

Lysandra had come with Evangeline. Had held the stunned girl while she cried, and lingered while Evangeline strode to Murtaugh’s body to press a kiss to his brow. As much as the sheet would allow them to see, after what the Valg had done.

She had escorted her ward from the chamber just as Darrow and the others arrived.

Lysandra hadn’t bothered to look at Darrow, at any of them who hadn’t dared to do what Murtaugh had done. His death, they’d learned, had rallied the men at the wall. Made them topple that siege tower. A lucky, costly victory.

Lysandra had helped Evangeline bathe, made sure she got a hot meal, and tucked her into bed before returning.

Finding Aedion still beside Ren, his hand still on the kneeling lord’s shoulder.

So she’d lingered here, at the doorway. Her own vigil, while the well of her power refilled, while the wounds she’d sustained healed over inch by inch.

Aedion murmured something to Ren, and withdrew his hand. She wondered if they were his first words in hours.

Aedion turned toward her then, blinking. Hollowed out. Gutted. Exhausted and grieving and bearing a weight she couldn’t stand to see.

Even Aedion’s usual stalking gait was barely more than a trudge.

She followed him out, glancing back only once to where Ren still knelt, head bowed.

Such terrible silence around him.

Lysandra kept pace beside Aedion as he turned toward the dining hall. At this hour, food would be scarce, but she’d find it. For both of them. Would go hunting if she needed to.

She opened her mouth to tell Aedion just that.

But tears slid down his face, cutting through blood and grime.

Lysandra stopped, tugging him into a halt.

He didn’t meet her eyes as she wiped his tears away from one cheek. Then the other.

“I should have been at the western wall,” he said, voice breaking.

She knew no words would comfort him. So she wiped Aedion’s tears again, tears he would only show in this shadowed hall, after all others had found their beds.

And when he still didn’t meet her stare, she cupped his face, lifting his head.

For a heartbeat, for eternity, they stared at each other.

She couldn’t stand it, the bleakness, the grief, in his face. Couldn’t endure it.

Lysandra rose onto her toes and brushed her mouth over his.

A whisper of a kiss, a promise of life when death hovered.

She pulled away, finding Aedion’s face as distraught as it had been before.

So she kissed him again. And lingered by his mouth as she whispered, “He was a good man. A brave and noble man. So are you.” She kissed him a third time. “And when this war is over, however it may end, I will still be here, with you. Whether in this life or the next, Aedion.”

He closed his eyes, as if breathing in her words. His chest indeed heaved, his broad shoulders shaking.

Then he opened his eyes, and they were pure turquoise flame, fueled by that grief and anger and defiance at the death around them.

He gripped her waist in one hand, the other plunging into her hair, and tipped her head back as his mouth met hers.

The kiss seared her down to her ever-changing bones, and she wrapped her arms around his neck as she held him tightly.

Alone in the dark, quiet hall, death squatting on the battlefield nearby, Lysandra gave herself to that searing kiss, to Aedion, unable to stop her moan as his tongue flicked against hers.

The sound was his unleashing, and Aedion twisted them, backing her against the wall. She arched, desperate to feel him against all of her. He growled into her mouth, and the hand at her hip slid to her thigh, hoisting it around his waist as he ground into her, exactly where she needed him.

Aedion tore his mouth from hers and began to explore her neck, her jaw, her ear. She breathed his name, running her hands down his powerful back as it flexed under her touch.

More. More. More.

More of this life, this fire to burn away all shadows.

More of him.

Lysandra slid her hands to his chest, fingers digging into the breast of his jacket, seeking the warm skin beneath. Aedion only nipped at her ear, dragged his teeth along her jaw, and seized her mouth in another plundering kiss that had her moaning again.

Footsteps scuffed down the hall, along with a pointed cough, and Aedion stilled.

Loud—they must have been so loud—

But Aedion didn’t budge, though Lysandra unwrapped her leg from around his waist. Just as the sentry walked past, eyes down.

Walked past quickly.

Aedion tracked the man the entire time, nothing human in Aedion’s eyes. An apex predator who had found his prey at last.

No, not prey. Never with him.

But his partner. His mate.

When the sentry had vanished around the corner, no doubt running to tell everyone what he’d interrupted, when Aedion leaned to kiss her again, Lysandra halted him with a gentle hand to his mouth. “Tomorrow,” she said softly.

Aedion let out a snarl—though one without any bite.

“Tomorrow,” she said, and kissed him on the cheek, stepping out of his arms. “Live through tomorrow, fight through tomorrow, and we’ll … continue.”

His breathing was ragged, eyes wary. “Was this from pity?” A broken, miserable question.

Lysandra slid her hand against his stubble-coated cheek and pressed her mouth against his. Let herself taste him again. “It is because I am sick of all this death. And I needed you.”

Aedion made a low, pained sound, so Lysandra kissed him a final time. Went so far as to run her tongue along the seam of his lips. He opened for her, and then they were tangled in each other again, teeth and tongues and hands roaming, touching, tasting

But Lysandra managed to extract herself again, her breathing as jagged as his own.

“Tomorrow, Aedion,” she breathed.

 

“We have enough left in our arsenal for our archers to use for another three days, maybe four if they conserve their stores,” Lord Darrow said, arms crossed as he read through the tally.

Manon didn’t dislike the old man—part of her even admired his iron-fisted control. But these war councils each evening were beginning to tire her.

Especially when they brought bleaker and bleaker news.

Yesterday, there had been one more standing in this chamber. Lord Murtaugh.

Today, only his grandson sat in a chair, his eyes red-rimmed. A living wraith.

“Food stores?” Aedion asked from the other side of the table. The general-prince had seen better days, too. They all had. Every face in this room had the same bleak, battered expression.

“We have food for a month at least,” Darrow said. “But none of that will matter without anyone to defend the walls.”

Captain Rolfe stepped up to the table. “The firelances are down to the dregs. We’ll be lucky if they last through tomorrow.”

“Then we conserve them, too,” Manon said. “Use them only for any higher-ranking Valg that make it over the city walls.”

Rolfe nodded. Another man she begrudgingly admired—though his swaggering could grate.

It was an effort not to look to the sealed doors to the chamber. Where Asterin and Sorrel should have been waiting. Defending.

Instead, Petrah and Bronwen stood there. Not as her new Second and Third, but just representatives from their own factions.

“Let’s say we make the arrows last for four days,” Ansel of Briarcliff said, frowning deeply. “And make the firelances last for three, if used conservatively. Once they’re out, what remains?”

“The catapults still work,” provided one of the silver-haired Fae royals. The female one.

“They’re for inflicting damage far out on the field, though,” said Prince Galan, who, like Aedion, bore Aelin’s eyes. “Not close fighting.”

“Then we have our swords,” Aedion said hoarsely. “Our courage.”

The latter, Manon knew, was running low, too.

“We can keep the Ironteeth at bay,” Manon said, “but cannot also aid you at the walls.”

They were indeed fighting a relentless tide that did not diminish.

“So is this the end, then?” Ansel asked. “In four, five days, we offer our necks to Morath?”

“We fight to the last of us,” Aedion growled. “To the very last one.”

Even Lord Darrow did not object to that. So they departed, meeting over.

There wasn’t anything else to discuss. Within a few days, they’d all be a grand feast for the crows.

 

 

CHAPTER 103

The storm had halted their army entirely.

On the first morning, it raged so fiercely that Rowan hadn’t been able to see a few feet before him. Ruks had been grounded, and only the hardiest of scouts had been sent out—on land.

So the army sat there. Not fifty miles over Terrasen’s border. A week from Orynth.

Had Aelin possessed her full powers—

Not her full powers. Not anymore, Rowan reminded himself as he sat in their war tent, his mate and wife and queen on the low-lying sofa beside him.

Aelin’s full powers were now … he didn’t quite know. Where they’d been at Mistward, perhaps. When she still had that self-inflicted damper. Not as little as when she’d arrived, but not as much as when she’d encircled all of Doranelle with her flame.

Certainly not enough to face Erawan and walk away. And Maeve.

He didn’t care. Didn’t give a shit whether she had all the power of the sun, or not an ember.

It had never mattered to him anyway.

Outside, the wind howled, the tent shuddering.

“Is it always this bad?” Fenrys asked, frowning at the shaking tent walls.

“Yes,” Elide and Aelin said, then shared a rare smile.

A miracle, that smile on Aelin’s mouth.

But Elide’s faded as she said, “This storm could last days. It could dump three feet.”

Lorcan, lingering near the brazier, grunted. “Even once the snow stops, there will be that to contend with. Soldiers losing toes and fingers to the cold and wet.”

Aelin’s smile vanished entirely. “I’ll melt as much as I can.”

She would. She’d bring herself to the edge of burnout to do it. But together, if they linked their powers, the force of Rowan’s magic might be enough to melt a path. To keep the army warm.

“We’ll still have an army who arrives at Orynth exhausted,” Gavriel said, rubbing his jaw.

How many days had Rowan seen him gaze northward, toward the son who fought in Orynth? Wondering, no doubt, if Aedion still lived.

“They’re professionals,” Fenrys said drily. “They can handle it.”

“Going the long way around will only increase the exhaustion,” Lorcan said.

“The last we heard,” Rowan said, “Morath held Perranth.” A pained wince from Elide at that. “We won’t risk crossing too close to it. Not when it would mean potentially getting entangled in a conflict that would only delay our arrival in Orynth and thin our numbers.”

“I’ve looked at the maps a dozen times.” Gavriel frowned to where they were laid out on the worktable. “There’s no alternative way to Orynth—not without drawing too close to Perranth.”

“Perhaps we’ll be lucky,” Fenrys said, “and this storm will have hit the entire North. Maybe freeze some of Morath’s forces for us.”

Rowan doubted they’d be that lucky. He had a feeling that any luck they possessed had been spent with the woman sitting beside him.

Aelin looked at him, grave and tired. He could not imagine what it felt like. She had yielded all of herself. Had given up her humanity, her magic. He knew it was the former that left that haunted, bruised look in her eyes. That made her a stranger in her own body.

Rowan had taken the time last night to reacquaint her with certain parts of that body. And his own. Had spent a long while doing so, too. Until that haunted look had vanished, until she was writhing beneath him, burning while he moved in her. He hadn’t stopped his tears from falling, even when they’d turned to steam before they hit her body, and there had been tears on her own face, bright as silver in the flame, while she’d held him tight.

Yet this morning, when he’d nuzzled her awake with kisses to her jaw, her neck, that haunted look had returned. And lingered.

First her scars. Then her mortal, human body.

Enough. She had given enough. He knew she planned to give more.

A rukhin scout called for the queen from the tent flaps, and Aelin gave a quiet command to enter. But the scout only poked in her head, her eyes wide. Snow covered her hood, her eyebrows, her lashes. “Your Majesty. Majesties,” she corrected, glancing at him. Rowan didn’t bother to tell her he was simply and would forever be Your Highness. “You must come.” The scout panted hard enough for her breath to curl in the chilled air leaking through the tent flaps. “All of you.”

It took minutes to don their warmer layers and gear, to brace for the snow and wind.

But then they were all inching through the drifts, the scout guiding them past half-buried tents. Even under the trees, there was little shelter.

Yet then they were at the edge of the camp, the blinding snows roaring past. Veiling what the scout pointed to as she said, “Look.”

At his side, Aelin stumbled a step. Rowan reached for her to keep her from falling.

But she hadn’t been falling. She’d been lurching forward—as if to run ahead.

Rowan saw at last what she beheld. Who emerged between the trees.

Against the snow, he was nearly invisible with his white fur. Would have been invisible were it not for the golden flame flickering between his proud, towering antlers.

The Lord of the North.

And at his feet, all around him … The Little Folk.

Snow clinging to her lashes, a small sound came out of Aelin as the creature nearest curled its hand, beckoning. As if to say, Follow us.

The others gaped in silence at the magnificent, proud stag who had come to greet them.

To guide home the Queen of Terrasen.

But then the wind began to whisper, and it was not the song that Rowan usually heard.

No, it was a voice that they all heard as it streamed past them.

Doom is upon Orynth, Heir of Brannon. You must hurry.

A chill that had nothing to do with the cold skittered down Rowan’s skin.

“The storm,” Aelin blurted, the words swallowed by the snow.

You must hurry. We will show you the way, swift and unseen.

Aelin only stilled. Said to that voice, as ancient as the trees, as old as the rocks between them, “You have already helped me so many times.”

And you have given much yourself, Heir of Brannon. We who remember him know he would have made such a choice, had he been able to do so. Oakwald shall never forget Brannon, or his Heir.

Aelin straightened, scanned the trees, the snow-whipped wind.

Dryad. That was the word he sought. Dryad. A tree spirit.

“What is your cost?” Aelin asked, her voice louder now.

“Do you really want to ask?” Fenrys muttered. Rowan snarled at him.

But Aelin had gone still as she waited for the dryad to answer. The voice of Oakwald, of the Little Folk and creatures who had long cared for it.

A better world, the dryad replied at last. Even for us.

 

The army was a flurry of activity as it hauled itself into preparing to march—to race northward.

But Aelin dragged Rowan into their tent. To the pile of books Chaol and Yrene had brought from the southern continent.

She ran a finger over the titles, searching, scanning.

“What are you doing?” her mate asked.

Aelin ignored the question and hummed as she found the book she sought. She leafed through it, careful not to tear the ancient pages. “A stupid cow I might be,” she muttered, rotating the book to show Rowan the page she sought, “but not without options.”

Rowan’s eyes danced. You’re including me in this particular scheme, Princess?

Aelin smirked. I wouldn’t want you to feel left out.

He angled his head. “We need to hurry, then.”

Listening to the ruckus of the readying army beyond their tent, Aelin nodded. And began.

 

 

CHAPTER 104

The sweat and blood on him quickly freezing, Aedion panted as he leaned against the battered city walls and watched the encamped enemy pull back for the night.

A sick sort of joke, a cruel torment, for Morath to halt at each sundown. As if it were some sort of civility, as if the creatures who infested so many of the soldiers below required light.

He knew why Erawan had ordered it so. To wear them down day by day, to break their spirits rather than let them go out in raging glory.

It wasn’t just the victory or conquest that Erawan desired, but their complete surrender. Their begging for it to be over, for him to end them, rule them.

Aedion ground his teeth as he limped down the battlements, the light quickly fading, the temperature plummeting.

Five days.

The weapons they’d estimated running out in three or four days had lasted until today. Until now.

Down the wall, one of the Mycenians sent a plume of flame onto the Valg still trying to scale the siege ladder. Where it burned, demons fell away.

Rolfe stood by the woman wielding the firelance, his face as bloodied and sweaty as Aedion’s.

A black-armored hand clamped onto the battlement beside Aedion as he passed by, grappling for purchase.

Barely looking, Aedion slammed out his ancient shield. A yelp and fading cry was his only confirmation that the rogue soldier had gone tumbling to the ground.

Rolfe smiled grimly as Aedion halted, the weight of his armor like a thousand stones. Overhead, Crochans and Ironteeth flew slowly back across the city walls, red capes drooping over brooms, leathery wings beating irregularly. Aedion watched the sky until he saw the riderless wyvern he looked for every day, every night.

Spotting him, too, Lysandra banked and began a slow, pained descent toward the city wall.

So many dead. More and more each day. Those lost lives weighed his every step. Nothing he could do would ever make it right—not really.

“The archers are out,” Aedion said to Rolfe by way of greeting as Lysandra drew closer, blood both her own and from others on her wings, her chest. “No more arrows.”

Rolfe jerked his chin toward the Mycenian warrior still setting off her firelance in sputtering fits and bursts.

Lysandra landed, shifting in a flash, and was instantly at Aedion’s side, tucked under his shield arm. A soft, swift kiss was their only greeting. The only thing he looked forward to every night.

Sometimes, once they’d been bandaged and eaten something, he’d manage to get more than that. Often, they didn’t bother to wash up before finding a shadowed alcove. Then it was nothing but her, the sheer perfection of her, the small sounds she made when he licked up her throat, when his hands slowly, so slowly, explored each inch of her. Letting her set the pace, show him and tell him how far she wished to go. But not that final joining, not yet.

Something for them both to live for—that was their unspoken vow.

She reeked of Valg blood, but Aedion still pressed another kiss to Lysandra’s temple before he looked back at Rolfe. The Pirate Lord smiled grimly.

Well aware that these would likely be their final days. Hours.

The Mycenian warrior aimed her firelance again, and the lingering Valg tumbled away into the darkness, little more than melted bones and fluttering cloth.

“That’s the last of it,” Rolfe said quietly.

It took Aedion a heartbeat to realize he didn’t mean the final soldier of the evening.

The Mycenian warrior set down her firelance with a heavy, metallic thud.

“The firelances are done,” Rolfe said.

 

Darkness fell over Orynth, so thick even the flames of the castle shriveled.

On the castle battlements, Darrow silent at her side, Evangeline watched the trudging lines of soldiers come in from the walls, from the skies.

Bone drums began to beat.

A heartbeat, as if the enemy army on the plain were one massive, rising beast now readying to devour them.

Most days, they only beat from sunup to sundown, the noise blocked out by the din of battle. That they had started it anew as the sun vanished … Her stomach churned.

“Tomorrow,” Lord Sloane murmured from where he stood beside Darrow. “Or the day after. It will be done then.”

Not victory. Evangeline knew that now.

Darrow said nothing, and Lord Sloane clapped him on the shoulder before heading inside.

“What happens at the end?” Evangeline dared ask Darrow.

The old man gazed across the city, the battlefield full of such terrible darkness.

“Either we surrender,” he said, voice hoarse, “and Erawan makes slaves of us all, or we fight until we’re all carrion.”

Such stark, harsh words. Yet she liked that about him—that he did not soften anything for her. “Who shall decide what we do?”

His gray eyes scanned her face. “It would fall upon us, the Lords of Terrasen.”

Evangeline nodded. Enemy campfires flickered to life, their flames seeming to echo the beat of their bone drums.

“What would you decide?” Darrow’s question was quiet, tentative.

She considered it. No one had ever asked her such a thing.

“I should have very much liked to live at Caraverre,” Evangeline admitted. She knew he did not recognize it, but it didn’t matter now, did it? “Murtaugh showed me the land—the rivers and mountains right nearby, the forests and hills.” An ache throbbed in her chest. “I saw the gardens by the house, and I would have liked to have seen them in spring.” Her throat tightened. “I would have liked for that to have been my home. For this … for all of Terrasen to have been my home.”

Darrow said nothing, and Evangeline set a hand on the castle stones, gazing to the west now, as if she could see all the way to Allsbrook and the small territory in its shadow. To Caraverre.

“That’s what Terrasen has always meant to me, you know,” Evangeline went on, speaking more to herself. “As soon as Aelin freed Lysandra, and offered to let us join her court, Terrasen has always meant home. A place where … where the sort of people who hurt us don’t get to live. Where anyone, regardless of who they are and where they came from and what their rank is can dwell in peace. Where we can have a garden in the spring, and swim in the rivers in the summer. I’ve never had such a thing before. A home, I mean. And I would have liked for Caraverre, for Terrasen, to have been mine.” She chewed on her lip. “So I would choose to fight. Until the very end. For my home, new as it is. I choose to fight.”

Darrow was silent for so long that she peered up at him.

She’d never seen his eyes so sad, as if the weight of all his years truly settled upon them.

Then he only said, “Come with me.”

She followed him down the battlements and into the warmth of the castle, along the various winding hallways, all the way to the Great Hall, where a too-small evening meal was being laid out. One of their last.

No one bothered to look up from their plates as Evangeline and Darrow passed between the long tables crammed with drained and injured soldiers.

Darrow didn’t look at them, either, as he went right up to the line of people waiting for their food. Right up to Aedion and Lysandra, their arms looped around each other while they waited their turn. As it should have been from the start—the two of them together.

Aedion, sensing Darrow’s approach, turned. The general looked worn through.

He knew, then. That tomorrow or the day after would be their last. Lysandra gave Evangeline a small smile, and Evangeline knew that she was aware, too. Would try to find a way to get her out before the end.

Even if Evangeline would never allow it.

Darrow unbuckled the sword at his side and extended it to Aedion.

Silence began to ripple through the hall at the sight of the sword—Aedion’s sword. The Sword of Orynth.

Darrow held it between them, the ancient bone pommel gleaming. “Terrasen is your home.”

Aedion’s haggard face remained unmoved. “It has been since the day I arrived here.”

“I know,” Darrow said, gazing at the sword. “And you have defended it far more than any natural-born son would ever be expected to. Beyond what anyone might ever reasonably be asked to give. You have done so without complaint, without fear, and have served your kingdom nobly.” He extended the sword. “You will forgive a proud old man who sought to do so as well.”

Aedion slid his arm from Lysandra’s shoulder, and took the sword in his hands. “Serving this kingdom has been the great honor of my life.”

“I know,” Darrow repeated, and glanced down to Evangeline before he looked to Lysandra. “Someone very wise recently told me that Terrasen is not merely a place, but an ideal. A home for all those who wander, for those who need somewhere to welcome them with open arms.” He inclined his head to Lysandra. “I formally recognize Caraverre and its lands, and you as its lady.”

Lysandra’s fingers found Evangeline’s and squeezed tight.

“For your unwavering courage in the face of the enemy gathered at our doorstep, for all you have done to defend this city and kingdom, Caraverre shall be recognized, and yours forevermore.” A glance between her and Aedion. “Any heirs you bear shall inherit it, and their heirs after them.”

“Evangeline is my heir,” Lysandra said thickly, resting a warm hand on her shoulder.

Darrow smiled slightly. “I know that, too. But I should like to say one more thing, on this perhaps final night of ours.” He inclined his head to Evangeline. “I never fathered any offspring, nor did I adopt any. It would be an honor to name such a wise, brave young lady as my heir.”

Absolute silence. Evangeline blinked—and blinked again.

Darrow went on in the stunned quiet, “I should like to face my enemies knowing that the heart of my lands, of this kingdom, will beat on in the chest of Evangeline. That no matter the gathering shadow, Terrasen will always live in someone who understands its very essence without needing to be taught. Who embodies its very best qualities.” He gestured to Lysandra. “If that is agreeable to you.”

To make her his ward—and a lady … Evangeline clasped Darrow’s hand. He squeezed back.

“I …” Lysandra blinked, and turned to her, eyes bright. “It is not my call, is it?”

So Evangeline smiled up at Darrow. “I would very much like that.”

 

The bone drums beat all night long.

What new horrors would be unleashed with the dawn, Manon didn’t know.

Sitting beside Abraxos in the aerie tower, she stared with him at the endless sea of blackness.

It would be over soon. The desperate hope of Aelin Galathynius had flickered out.

Would any be able to escape once the city walls were breached? And where would they even go? Once Erawan’s shadow settled, would there be any stopping him?

Dorian—Dorian could. If he had gotten the keys. If he had survived.

He might be dead. Might be marching on them right now, a black collar around his throat.

Manon leaned her head against Abraxos’s warm, leathery side.

She would not be able to see her people home. To bring them to the Wastes.

Tomorrow—in her wicked, old bones she knew it would be tomorrow that the city walls fell at last. They had no weapons left beyond swords and their own defiance. That would only last so long against the endless force waiting for them.

Abraxos shifted his wing so that it shielded her from the wind.

“I would have liked to have seen it,” Manon said quietly. “The Wastes. Just once.”

Abraxos huffed, nudging her gently with his head. She stroked a hand over his snout.

And even with the darkness squatting on the battlefield, she could picture it—the rolling, vibrant green that flowed to a thrashing gray sea. A shining city along its shore, witches soaring on brooms or wyverns in the skies above it. She could hear the laughter of witchlings in the streets, the long-forgotten music of their people floating on the wind. A wide, open space, lush and evergreen.

“I would have liked to have seen it,” Manon whispered again.

 

 

CHAPTER 105

Blood rained over the battlefield.

Blood and arrows, so many that as they found marks in Lysandra’s flank, her wings, it barely registered.

Morath had been reserving its arsenal. Until today.

With the dawn, they had unleashed such a torrent of arrows that getting into the skies had been a lethal gauntlet. She had not wanted to know how many Crochans had fallen, despite the best efforts of the rebel Ironteeth to shield them with their wyverns’ bodies.

But most had made it into the air—and right into the onslaught of the Ironteeth legion.

Below, Morath swarmed with an urgency she had not yet witnessed. A black sea that crashed against the city walls, breaking over it every now and then.

Siege ladders went up faster than they could be taken down, and now, the sun barely cresting, siege towers inched forward.

Lysandra barreled into an Ironteeth witch—a Blackbeak, from the dyed leather band on her brow—and tore her from the saddle before ripping out the throat of her wyvern.

One. Only one out of the mass in the skies.

She dove, picking another target.

Then another. And another. It would not be enough.

And where the Ironteeth legion had been content to engage them in battle these past few weeks, today they pushed. Drove them back foot by foot toward Orynth.

And there was nothing Lysandra, nor any of the Crochans or rebel Ironteeth, could do to stop it.

So witches died.

And below them, on the city walls, soldiers from so many kingdoms died as well.

The final stand, the last few hours, of their desperate alliance.

 

Manon’s breath was a rasp in her throat, her sword arm aching.

Again and again, they rallied and drove against the Ironteeth legion.

Again and again, they were shoved back. Back toward Orynth. Toward the walls.

The Crochan lines were foundering. Even the Ironteeth rebels had begun to fly sloppily.

How had they fought and fought and still come to this? The Thirteen had given up their lives; her chest was hollowed out, the din of battle still a distant roar over the silence in her head. And yet it had come to this.

If they kept it up, they would be overrun by nightfall. If they did not reconfigure their plan of attack, they would have nothing left by dawn. Enough remained of her shredded spirit to find that unacceptable. To rage against that end.

They had to retreat to the city walls. To regroup and use Orynth, the mountains behind it, to their advantage. The longer they lingered in the open air, the deadlier it would become.

Manon freed the horn from her side and blew twice.

Crochan and Ironteeth whirled toward her, eyes wide in shock. Manon blew the horn again.

Fall back, the horn bleated. Fall back to the city.

 

The western gate to the city shuddered.

Where intricate, ancient carvings had once graced the towering iron plates, now only dents and splattered blood remained.

A thunderous boom echoed throughout the city, the mountains, and Aedion, panting as he fought atop the battlements above the gates, dared to look away from his latest opponent. Dared to survey the wake of the battering ram’s latest blow.

Soldiers filled the passageway to the gate, more lining the streets beyond it. As many as could be spared from the walls.

Soon now. Soon the western gate would yield. After thousands of years, it would finally sunder.

The Sword of Orynth was slick in his bloodied hand, his ancient shield coated with gore.

Already, people were fleeing to the castle. The brave souls who had lingered in the city all this time, hoping against hope that they might survive. Now they ran, children in their arms, for the castle that would be the final bastion against Morath’s hordes. For however long that would be.

Hours, perhaps.

Manon had given the order to pull back, and Crochans and Ironteeth landed upon the wall by the still-steady southern gate, some joining the battle, others holding the line against the enemy aerial legion on their tails.

The western gate shuddered again, rocking inward, the wood and metal and chains they’d reinforced it with buckling.

Aedion sensed the enemy rushing at his exposed left and lifted his shield, so infinitely heavy. But a riderless wyvern intercepted the soldier, ripping the man in two before hurling his remains off the battlements.

With a flash of light, Lysandra was there, snatching up clothes, sword, and shield from a fallen Silent Assassin. “Tell me where to order Manon and the others stationed in the city,” she said, panting hard. A gash ran down her arm, blood leaking everywhere, but she didn’t seem to notice it.

Aedion tried to sink into that cool, calculating place that had guided him through other battles, other near-defeats. But this was no near-defeat.

This would be a defeat, pure and brutal. A slaughter.

“Aedion.” His name was a frantic plea.

A Valg soldier rushed them, and Aedion split the man from navel to nose with a swipe of the Sword of Orynth. Lysandra barely blinked at the black blood that sprayed onto her face.

The western gate buckled, iron screaming as it began to peel apart.

He had to go—had to go down there to lead the fight at the gate.

Where he’d make his last stand. Where he’d meet his end, defending the place he’d loved most. It was the least he could do, with all the warriors who had fallen thanks to him, to his choices. To fall himself for Terrasen.

A death worthy of a song. An end worthy of being told around a fire.

If in Erawan’s new world of darkness, flames would be allowed to exist.

The Morath Ironteeth legion barreled into their rebel kin; the exhausted Crochans alit on the stones as they guzzled down water, checked injuries. A breath before their final push.

Along the wall, Valg soldiers surged and surged and surged over the battlements.

So Aedion leaned in, and kissed Lysandra, kissed the woman who should have been his wife, his mate, one last time. “I love you.”

Sorrow filled her beautiful face. “And I you.” She gestured to the western gate, to the soldiers waiting for its final cleaving. “Until the end?”

Aedion hefted his shield, flipping the Sword of Orynth in his hand, freeing the stiffness that had seized his fingers. “I will find you again,” he promised her. “In whatever life comes after this.”

Lysandra nodded. “In every lifetime.”

Together, they turned toward the stairs that would take them down to the gates. To death’s awaiting embrace.

A horn cleaved through the air, through the battle, through the world.

Aedion went still.

Whirled toward the direction of that horn, to the south. Beyond Morath’s teeming ranks. Beyond the sea of blackness, to the foothills that bordered the edge of Theralis’s sprawling plain.

Again, that horn blared, a roar of defiance.

“That’s no horn of Morath,” Lysandra breathed.

And then they appeared. Along the edge of the foothills. A line of golden-armored warriors, foot soldiers and cavalry alike. More and more and more, a great line spreading across the crest of the final hill.

Filling the skies, stretching into the horizon, flew mighty, armored birds with riders. Ruks.

And before them all, sword raised to the sky as that horn blew one last time, the ruby in the blade’s pommel smoldering like a small sun …

Before them all, riding on the Lord of the North, was Aelin.

 

 

CHAPTER 106

Through the ancient, forgotten pathways of Oakwald, through the Perranth Mountains, the Lord of the North and Little Folk had led them. Swift and unfaltering, racing against doom, they had made their last push northward.

They had barely stopped to rest. Had left any unnecessary supplies behind.

The ruk scouts had not dared to fly ahead for fear of being discovered by Morath. For fear of ruining the advantage in surprise.

Six days of marching, that great army hurrying behind her.

Inhospitable terrain smoothed out. Little rivers froze over for their passing. The trees blocked out the falling snow.

They had traveled through the night yesterday. And when dawn had broken, the Lord of the North had knelt beside Aelin and offered himself as her mount.

There was no saddle for him; none would ever be permitted or needed. Any rider he allowed on his back, Aelin knew, would never fall.

Some had knelt when she rode by. Even Dorian and Chaol had inclined their heads.

Rowan, atop a fierce-eyed Darghan horse, had only nodded. As if he had always expected her to wind up here, at the head of the army that galloped the final hours to the edge of Orynth.

She had fitted her battle-crown to her head, along with the armor she’d gathered in Anielle, and outfitted herself with whatever spare weapons Fenrys and Lorcan handed to her.

Yrene, Elide, and the healers would remain in the rear—until ruks could carry them into Orynth. Dorian and Chaol would lead the wild men of the Fangs on the right flank, the khaganate royals on the left, Sartaq and Nesryn in the skies with the ruks. And Aelin and Rowan, with Fenrys, Lorcan, and Gavriel, would take the center.

The army had spread out as they’d neared the foothills beyond Orynth, the hills that would take them to the edge of Theralis’s plain, and offer their first view of the city beyond it.

Heart hammering, the Lord of the North unfaltering, Aelin had ascended the last of those hills, the highest and steepest of them, and looked upon Orynth for the first time in ten years.

A terrible, pulsing silence went through her.

Where a lovely white city had once glittered between river and plain and mountain …

Smoke and chaos and terror reigned. The turquoise Florine flowed black.

The sheer size, the booming of the massive army that thundered against its walls, in the skies above it …

She hadn’t realized. How large Morath’s army would be. How small and precious Orynth seemed before it.

“They’re almost through the western gate,” Fenrys murmured, his Fae sight gobbling down details.

The khagan’s army fanned out around them, across the hill. The crest of a wave soon to break. Yet even the Darghan soldiers hesitated, horses shifting, at the army between them and the city.

Rowan’s face was grave—grave, yet undaunted, as he took in the enemy.

So many. So many soldiers. And the Ironteeth legion above them.

“The Crochans fight at the city walls,” Gavriel observed.

Indeed, she could barely make out the red cloaks.

Manon Blackbeak had not broken her vow.

And neither would she.

Aelin glanced at her hand, hidden beneath the gauntlet. To where a scar should have been.

I promise you that no matter how far I go, no matter the cost, when you call for my aid, I will come.

There would be no time for speeches. No time to rally the soldiers behind her.

They were ready. And so was she.

“Sound the call,” Aelin ordered Lorcan, who lifted a horn to his lips and blew.

Down the line, heralds from the khaganate sent up their own horns in answer. Until they were all one great, bellowing note, racing toward Orynth.

They blew the horns again.

Aelin drew Goldryn from its sheath across her back and hefted her shield as she lifted the sword to the sky. As a thread of her magic pierced the ruby in the pommel and set it glowing.

The Darghan soldiers pointed their suldes forward, wood creaking, horsehair whipping in the wind.

Down the line, Princess Hasar and Prince Kashin trained their own spears at the enemy army. Dorian and Chaol drew their blades and aimed them ahead.

Rowan unsheathed his sword, a hatchet in his other hand, his face like stone. Unbreakable.

The horns blew a third and final time, the rallying cry singing out across the bloody plain.

The Lord of the North reared up, jutting Goldryn higher into the sky, and Aelin unleashed a flash of fire through the ruby—the signal the army behind her had awaited.

For Terrasen. All of it, for Terrasen.

The Lord of the North landed, the immortal flame within his antlers shining bright as he began the charge. The army around and behind her flowed down the hillside, gaining with each step, barreling toward Morath’s back ranks.

Barreling toward Orynth.

Toward home.

 

Onward into battle they charged, undaunted and raging.

The queen atop the white stag did not balk with each gained foot toward the awaiting legions. She only flipped her sword in her hand—once, twice, shield arm tucking in tight.

The immortal warriors at her side did not hesitate, either, their eyes fixed upon the enemy ahead.

Faster and faster, the khaganate’s cavalry galloping beside her, the front line forming, holding, as they neared the first of Morath’s back lines.

The enemy turned toward them now. Pointed spears; archers racing into position.

The first impact would hurt. Many would go down before they even reached it.

But the front line had to make it. They could not break.

From the enemy lines, an order arose. “Archers!”

Bowstrings groaned, targets were fixed.

“Volley!”

Great iron arrows blotted out the sun, aiming for the racing cavalry.

But ruks, golden and brown and black as night, dove, dove, dove from the skies, flying wing to wing. And as those arrows arced toward the earth, the ruks intercepted them, taking the brunt as they shielded the charging army beneath them.

Ruks went down.

And even the queen leading the charge wept in rage and grief as the birds and their riders crashed to the earth. Above her, taking arrow after arrow, shield raised to the skies, a young rider roared her battle cry.

The front lines could not break.

Ironteeth witches on wyverns banked toward them, toward the ruks soaring for their exposed back.

In the city, along Orynth’s walls, a white-haired queen bellowed, “Push! Push! Push!”

Exhausted witches took to the skies, on broom and beast, swords lifting. Racing for the front of the aerial legion turning to the ruks. To crush the Ironteeth legion between them.

On the bloody ground, Morath aimed spears, pikes, swords, anything they bore at the thundering cavalry.

It was not enough to stop them.

Not when shields of wind and flame and blackest death locked into place—and sliced into the front lines of Morath.

Felling the soldiers braced for battle. Exposing those behind still waiting to raise weapons.

Leaving Morath wide open for the golden army as it slammed into them with the force of a tidal wave.

 

 

CHAPTER 107

Rowan’s breath was a steady rasp in his throat as he charged through the lines of Valg soldiers, screaming ringing out around him. Nearby, cutting a swath through Morath’s masses, Aelin and the Lord of the North fought. Soldiers swarmed, but neither queen nor stag balked.

Not when Aelin’s flame, reduced as it was, kept any in her blind spots from landing a blow.

The Darghan cavalry shoved Morath back, and above them, ruks and wyverns clashed.

Beasts, feathered and scaled, crashed to the earth.

Still Borte fought above the queen, guarding her from the Ironteeth who spotted that white stag, as good as a banner amid the sea of darkness, and aimed for her. At Borte’s side, her betrothed guarded their flank, and Falkan Ennar, in ruk form, guarded her other.

His Darghan horse fearless, Rowan swept out his left arm, hatchet singing. A Valg head tumbled away, but Rowan was already slashing with his sword at his next opponent.

The odds were against them, even with the planning they’d done. Yet if they could liberate the city, regroup and restock, before Erawan and Maeve arrived, they might stand a chance.

For Erawan and Maeve would come. At some point, they would come, and Aelin would want to face them. Rowan had no intention of letting her do so alone.

Rowan glanced toward Aelin. She had plowed farther ahead, the front line spreading out, swarms of Morath soldiers between them. Stay close. He had to stay close.

A Crochan swept by, shooting past Rowan to rise up, up, up—right to the unprotected underbelly of an Ironteeth witch’s wyvern.

Sword raised, the witch raced along its underside, swift and brutal.

Where she passed, blood and gore rained.

The beast groaned, wings splaying, and Rowan threw out a gust of wind. The wyvern crashed onto Morath’s ranks with a boom that sent his own damned horse plowing away.

When the shuddering wings had stilled, when Rowan had steadied his horse and felled the soldiers rushing at him, he again searched for Aelin.

But his mate was no longer near him.

No, charging ahead, a vision of gold and silver, Aelin had gotten so far away that she was nearly beyond sight. There was no sign of Gavriel, either.

Yet Fenrys battled near Rowan’s other side, Lorcan on his left—a dark, deadly wind lashing out in time with his sword.

Once, they had been little more than slaves to a queen who had unleashed them across the world. Together, they had taken on armies and decimated cities.

He had not cared then whether he walked off those distant battlefields. Had not cared whether those kingdoms fell or survived. He had been given his orders, and had executed them.

But here, today … Aelin had given them no order, no command other than the very first they’d sworn to obey: to protect Terrasen.

So they would. And together, they would do so, cadre once more.

They would fight for this kingdom—their new court. Their new home.

He could see it in Fenrys’s eyes as he cut a soldier in two with a deep slice to the middle. Could see that vision of a future on Lorcan’s raging face as the warrior wielded magic and blade to rip through the enemy ranks.

Cadre, yet more than that. Brothers—the warriors fighting at his side were his brothers. Had stayed with him through all of it. And would continue to do so now.

It steeled him as much as the thought of his mate, still fighting ahead. He had to get to her, keep close. They all did. Orynth depended upon it.

No longer slaves. No longer raging and broken.

A home. This would be their home. Their future. Together.

Morath soldiers fell before them. Some outright ran as they beheld who battled closer.

Perhaps why Maeve had gathered them in the first place. Yet she had never been able to fully harness it—their potential, their true might. Had chosen shackles and pain to control them. Unable to comprehend, to even consider, that glory and riches only went so far.

But a true home, and a queen who saw them as males and not weapons … Something worth fighting for. No enemy could withstand it.

Lorcan and Fenrys battling at his side, Rowan gritted his teeth and urged his horse after Aelin, into the chaos and death that raged and raged and did not stop.

 

Aelin had come.

Had escaped Maeve, and had come.

Aedion couldn’t believe it. Even as he saw the army that fought with her. Even as he saw Chaol and Dorian leading the right flank, charging with the front lines and wild men of the Fangs, the king’s magic blasting in plumes of ice into the enemy.

Chaol Westfall had not failed them. And had somehow convinced the khagan to send what appeared to be the majority of his armies.

But that army was inching toward Orynth, still far across Theralis.

Morath did not halt its assault on Orynth’s two gates. The southern held strong. But the western gate—it was beginning to buckle.

Lysandra had shifted into a wyvern and soared with the desperate, final push of Manon Blackbeak and the Crochans toward the Ironteeth legion, hoping to crush it between them and the ruks. The shifter now fought there, lost amid the fray.

So Aedion charged down to the western gate, a battle cry on his lips as his men let him right up to the iron doors and the enemy army just visible through the sundering plates. The moment the gate opened, it would be over.

Aedion’s drained legs shook, his arms strained, but he held his ground. For whatever few breaths he had left.

Aelin had come. It was enough.

 

Dorian’s magic snapped out of him, felling the charging soldiers. Side by side with Chaol, the wild men of the Fangs around them, they cleared a path through Morath’s ranks, their swords plunging and lifting, their breath a burn in their throats.

He had never seen battle. Knew he never wished to again. The chaos, the noise, the blood, the horses screaming—

But he was not afraid. And Chaol, riding near him, breaking soldiers between them, did not hesitate. Only slaughtered onward, teeth gritted.

For Adarlan—for what had been done to it and what it might become.

The words echoed in his every panting breath. For Adarlan.

Morath’s army stretched ahead, still between them and the battered walls of Orynth.

Dorian didn’t let himself think of how many remained. He only thought of the sword and shield in his hands, Damaris already bathed in blood, of the magic he wielded to supplement his strikes. He wouldn’t shift—not yet. Not until his weapons and magic began to fail him. He’d never fought in another form, but he’d try. As a wyvern or a ruk, he’d try.

Somewhere above him, Manon Blackbeak flew. He didn’t dare look up long enough to hunt for a gleam of silver-white hair, or for the shimmer of Spidersilk-grafted wings.

He did not see any of the Thirteen. Or recognize any of the Crochans as they swept overhead.

So Dorian kept fighting, his brother in soul and in arms beside him.

He’d only let himself count at the end of the day. If they survived. If they made it to the city walls.

Only then would he tally the dead.

 

There was only Aelin’s besieged city, and the enemy before it, and the ancient sword in her hand.

Siege towers neared the walls, three clustering near the southern gate, each teeming with soldiers.

Still too far away to reach. And too distant for her magic.

Magic that was already draining, swift and fleeting, from her veins.

No more endless well of power. She had to conserve it, wield it to her best advantage.

And use the training that had been instilled in her for the past ten years. She had been an assassin long before she’d mastered her power.

It was no hardship to fall back on those skills. To let Goldryn draw blood, to engage multiple soldiers and leave them bleeding out behind her.

The Lord of the North was a storm beneath her, his white coat stained crimson and black.

That immortal flame between his antlers didn’t so much as flutter.

Overhead the skies rained blood, witch and wyvern and ruk alike dying and fighting.

Borte still covered her, engaging any Ironteeth who swooped from above.

Minutes were hours, or perhaps the opposite was true. The sun peaked and began its descent, shadows lengthening.

Rowan and the others had been scattered across the field, but an icy blast of wind every now and then told her that her mate still fought, still killed his way through the ranks. Still attempted to reach her side once more.

Slowly, Orynth began to loom closer. Slowly, the walls went from a distant marker to a towering presence.

The siege towers reached the walls, and soldiers poured unchecked over the battlements.

Yet the gates still held.

Aelin lifted her head to give the order to Borte and Yeran to bring the siege towers down.

Just in time to see the six Ironteeth wyverns and riders slam into the ruks.

Sending Borte, Falkan, and Yeran scattering, ruk and wyvern screaming as they hit the earth and rolled.

Clearing the path overhead for a gargantuan wyvern to come diving for Aelin.

She blasted a wall of flame skyward as the wyvern stretched out its claws for her, for the Lord of the North.

The wyvern banked, rising, and dove again.

The Lord of the North reared, holding his ground as the wyvern aimed for them.

But Aelin leaped from his back, and slapped his flank with the flat of her sword, throat so broken from roaring that she couldn’t form the words. Go.

The Lord of the North only lowered his head as the wyvern barreled toward them.

She did not have enough magic—not to turn the thing into ashes.

So Aelin threw her magic around the stag. And stepped from the orb of flame, shield up and sword angled.

She braced herself for the impact, took in every detail on the wyvern’s armor, where it was weakest, where she might strike if she could dodge the snapping jaws.

The carrion on its breath was a hot blast as its maw opened wide.

Its head went tumbling to the ground.

Not tumbling so much as smashing.

Beneath a spiked, massive tail. Belonging to an attacking wyvern with emerald eyes.

Aelin crouched as the riderless wyvern whirled on the gaping Ironteeth witch, still atop her beheaded mount.

With one slamming sweep of the tail, the green-eyed wyvern impaled the witch on its spikes—and sent her body hurling across the field.

Then the flash and shimmer. And a ghost leopard now hurtled toward her, and Aelin toward it.

She flung her arms around the leopard as it rose up, massive body almost knocking her to the ground. “Well met, my friend,” was all Aelin could manage to say as she embraced Lysandra.

A horn blared from the city—a frantic call for help.

Aelin and Lysandra whirled toward Orynth. Toward the three siege towers against the walls by the southern gate.

Emerald eyes met those of turquoise and gold. Lysandra’s tail bobbed.

Aelin grinned. “Shall we?”

 

He had to get to her side again.

A battlefield separating them, Rowan slaughtered his way toward Aelin, Fenrys and Lorcan keeping close.

Pain had become a dull roar in his ears. He’d long since lost track of his wounds. He remembered them only because of the iron shard an arrow to his shoulder had left when he wrenched it free.

A foolish, hasty mistake. The iron shard was enough to keep him from shifting, from flying to her. He hadn’t dared to pause long enough to fish it from him, not with the teeming enemy. So he kept fighting, his cadre with him. Their horses charged bold and dauntless beneath them, gaining ground, but he could not see Aelin.

Only the Lord of the North, bounding across the battlefield, aiming for Oakwald.

As if he had been set free.

Fenrys, face splattered with black blood, shouted, “Where is she?”

Rowan scanned the field, heart thundering. But the bond in his chest glowed strong, fire-bright.

Lorcan only pointed ahead. To the city walls by the southern gate.

To the ghost leopard tearing through the droves of Morath soldiers, spurts of flame accompanying her as a golden-armored warrior raced at her side.

To the three siege towers wreaking havoc on the walls.

With the towers’ open sides, Rowan could see everything as it unfolded.

Could see Aelin and Lysandra charge up the ramp within, slicing and shredding soldiers between them, level after level after level. Where one missed a soldier, the other felled him. Where one struck, the other guarded.

All the way up, to the small catapult near its top.

Soldiers screamed, some leaping from the tower as Lysandra shredded into them.

While Aelin threw herself at the rungs lining the catapult’s wheeled base, and began pushing.

Turning it. Away from Orynth, from the castle. Precisely as Aelin had told him Sam Cortland had done in Skull’s Bay, the catapult’s mechanisms allowed her to rotate its base. Rowan wondered if the young assassin was smiling now—smiling to see her heaving the catapult into position.

All the way to the siege tower at its left.

On the second tower, a red-haired figure had fought her way onto the upper level. And was turning the catapult toward the third and final tower.

Ansel of Briarcliff.

A flash of Ansel’s sword, and the catapult snapped, hurling the boulder it contained. Just as Aelin brought down Goldryn upon the catapult before her.

Twin boulders soared.

And slammed into the siege towers beside them.

Iron groaned; wood shattered.

And the two towers began to topple. Where Ansel of Briarcliff had gone to escape the destruction, even Rowan could not follow.

Not as Aelin remained atop the first siege tower, and leaped upon the now-outstretched arm of the catapult, jutting over the battlefield below. Not as she shouted to Lysandra, who shifted again, a wyvern rising up from a ghost leopard’s leap.

Grabbing the catapult’s outstretched arm in one taloned foot while plucking up Aelin in another.

With a mighty flap, Lysandra ripped the catapult from its bolts atop the tower. And twisting, she swung it into the final siege tower.

Sending it crashing to the ground. Right onto a horde of Morath soldiers trying to batter their way through the southern gate.

Wide-eyed, the three Fae warriors blinked.

“That’s where Aelin is,” was all Fenrys said.

 

Salkhi remained airborne. So did Sartaq, Kadara with him.

That was all Nesryn knew, all she cared about, as they took on wyvern after wyvern after wyvern.

They were so much worse in battle than she’d anticipated. As swift and fearless as the ruks might be, the wyverns had the bulk. The poisoned barbs in their tails. And soulless riders who weren’t afraid to destroy their mounts if it meant bringing down a ruk with them.

Close now. The khaganate’s army had pushed closer and closer to besieged Orynth, flaming and shattered. If they could continue to hold their advantage, they might very well break them against the walls, as they had destroyed Morath’s legion in Anielle.

They had to act swiftly, though. The enemy swarmed both city gates, determined to break in. The southern gate held, the siege towers that had been attacking it moments ago now in ruins.

But the western gate—it would not remain sealed for long.

Salkhi rising up from the melee to catch his breath, Nesryn dared to gauge how many rukhin still flew. Despite the Crochans and rebel Ironteeth, they were outnumbered, but the rukhin were fresh. Ready and eager for battle.

It was not the number of remaining rukhin that snatched the breath from her chest.

But what came up behind them.

Nesryn dove. Dove for Sartaq, Kadara ripping the throat from a wyvern midflight.

The prince was panting, splattered with blue and black blood, as Nesryn fell into flight beside him. “Put out the call,” she shouted over the din, the roar of the wind. “Get to the city walls! To the southern gate!”

Sartaq’s eyes narrowed beneath his helmet, and Nesryn pointed behind them.

To the secondary dark host creeping at their backs. Right from Perranth, where they had no doubt been hidden.

The rest of Morath’s host. Ironteeth witches and wyverns with them.

This battle had been a trap. To lure them here, to expend their forces defeating this army.

While the rest snuck behind and trapped them against Orynth’s walls.

 

The western gate sundered at last.

Aedion was ready when it did. When the battering ram knocked through, iron screaming as it yielded. Then there were Morath soldiers everywhere.

Shield to shield, Aedion had arranged his men into a phalanx to greet them.

It was still not enough. The Bane could do nothing to stop the tide that poured from the battlefield, pushing them back, back, back up the passageway. And even Ren, leading the men atop the walls, could not halt the flow that surged over them.

They had to shut the gate again. Had to find a way to get it shut.

Aedion could barely draw breath, could barely keep his legs under him.

A warning horn rang out. Morath had sent a second army. Darkness shrouded the full extent of their ranks.

Valg princes—lots of them. Morath had been waiting.

Ren shouted down to him over the fray, “They cleared the southern gate! They’re getting as many of our forces as they can behind the walls!”

To regroup and rally before meeting the second army. But with the western gate still open, Morath teeming through, they’d never stand a chance.

He had to get the gate shut. Aedion and the Bane stabbed and slashed, a wall for Morath to break against. But it would not be enough.

A wyvern came crashing toward the gate, flipping across the ground as it rolled toward them. Aedion braced for the impact, for that huge body to shatter through the last of the gate.

Yet the felled beast halted, squashing soldiers beneath its bulk, right at the archway.

Blocking the way. A barricade before the western gate.

Intentionally so, Aedion realized as a golden-haired warrior leaped from the wyvern’s saddle, the dead Ironteeth witch still dangling there, throat gushing blue blood down the leathery sides.

The warrior ran toward them, a sword in one hand, the other drawing a dagger. Ran toward Aedion, his tawny eyes scanning him from head to toe.

His father.

 

 

CHAPTER 108

Morath’s soldiers clawed and crawled over the fallen wyvern blocking their path. They filled the archway, the passage.

A golden shield held them at bay. But not for long.

Yet the reprieve Gavriel bought them allowed the Bane to drain the last dregs of their waterskins, to pluck up fallen weapons.

Aedion panted, an arm braced against the gate passageway. Behind Gavriel’s shield, the enemy teemed and raged.

“Are you hurt?” his father asked. His first words to him.

Aedion managed to lift his head. “You found Aelin,” was all he said.

Gavriel’s face softened. “Yes. And she sealed the Wyrdgate.”

Aedion closed his eyes. At least there was that. “Erawan?”

“No.”

He didn’t need the specifics on why the bastard wasn’t dead. What had gone wrong.

Aedion pushed off the wall, swaying. His father steadied him with a hand to the elbow. “You need rest.”

Aedion yanked his arm out of Gavriel’s grip. “Tell that to the soldiers who have already fallen.”

“You will fall, too,” his father said, sharper than he’d ever heard, “if you don’t sit down for a minute.”

Aedion stared the male down. Gavriel stared right back.

No bullshit, no room for argument. The face of the Lion.

Aedion just shook his head.

Gavriel’s golden shield buckled under the onslaught of the Valg still teeming beyond it.

“We have to get the gate shut again,” Aedion said, pointing to the two cleaved but intact doors pushed against the walls. Access to them blocked by the Morath grunts still trying to break past Gavriel’s shield. “Or they’ll overrun the city before our forces can regroup.” Getting behind the walls would make no difference if the western gate was wide open.

His father followed his line of sight. Looked upon the soldiers trying to get past his defenses, their flow forced to a trickle by the wyvern he’d so carefully downed before them.

“Then we shall shut them,” Gavriel said, and smiled grimly. “Together.”

The word was more of a question, subtle and sorrowful.

Together. As father and son. As the two warriors they were.

Gavriel—his father. He had come.

And looking at those tawny eyes, Aedion knew it was not for Aelin, or for Terrasen, that his father had done it.

“Together,” Aedion rasped.

Not just this obstacle. Not just this battle. But whatever would come afterward, should they survive. Together.

Aedion could have sworn something like joy and pride filled Gavriel’s eyes. Joy and pride and sorrow, heavy and old.

Aedion strode back to the line of the Bane, motioning the soldier beside him to make room for Gavriel to join their formation. One great push now, and they’d secure the gate. Their army would enter through the southern one, and they’d find some way to rally before the new army reached the city. But the western one, they’d clear it and seal it. Permanently.

Father and son, they would do this. Defeat this.

But when his father did not join his side, Aedion turned.

Gavriel had gone directly to the gate. To the golden line of his shield, now pushing back, back, back. Shoving that wall of enemy soldiers with it, buckling with every heartbeat. Down the passage. Through the archway.

No.

Gavriel smiled at him. “Close the gate, Aedion,” was all his father said.

And then Gavriel stepped beyond the gates. That golden shield spreading thin.

No.

The word built, a rising scream in Aedion’s throat.

But Bane soldiers were rushing to the gate doors. Heaving them closed.

Aedion opened his mouth to roar at them to stop. To stop, stop, stop.

Gavriel lifted his sword and dagger, glowing golden in the dying light of the day. The gate shut behind him. Sealing him out.

Aedion couldn’t move.

He had never halted, never ceased moving. Yet he could not bring himself to help with the soldiers now piling wood and chains and metal against the western gate.

Gavriel could have stayed. Could have stayed and pushed his shield back long enough for them to shut the gates. He could have remained here—

Aedion ran then.

Too slow. His steps were too slow, his body too big and heavy, as he shoved through his men. As he aimed for the stairs up to the walls.

Golden light flashed on the battlefield.

Then went dark.

Aedion ran faster, a sob burning his throat, leaping and scrambling over fallen soldiers, both mortal and Valg.

Then he was atop the walls. Running for their edge.

No. The word was a beat alongside his heart.

Aedion slaughtered the Valg in his way, slaughtered any who came over the siege ladder.

The ladder. He could fight his way down it, get to the battlefield, to his father—

Aedion swung his sword so hard at the Valg soldier before him that the man’s head bounced off his shoulders.

And then he was at the wall. Peering toward that space by the gate.

The battering ram was in splinters.

Valg lay piled several deep around it. Before the gate. Around the wyvern.

So many that access to the western gate was cut off. So many that the gate was secure, a gaping wound now staunched.

How long had he stood there, unable to move? Stood there, unable to do anything while his father did this?

It was the golden hair he spotted first.

Before the mound of Valg he’d piled high. The gate he’d shut for them. The city he’d secured.

A terrible, rushing sort of stillness took over Aedion’s body.

He stopped hearing the battle. Stopped seeing the fighting around him, above him.

Stopped seeing everything but the fallen warrior, who gazed toward the darkening sky with sightless eyes.

His tattooed throat ripped out. His sword still gripped in his hand.

Gavriel.

His father.

 

Morath’s army pulled back from the secured western gate. Pulled back and retreated to the arms of the advancing army. To the rest of Morath’s host.

Limping from a deep gash in his leg, his shoulder numb from the arrow tip that remained lodged in it, Rowan drove his blade through the face of a fleeing soldier. Black blood sprayed, but Rowan was already moving, aiming for the western gate.

Where things had gone so, so still.

He’d only aimed for it when he’d spied Aelin battling her way toward the distant southern gate, Ansel with her, after they’d brought the siege towers down around it. It was through the secured gate that the bulk of their army now hurried, the khagan’s forces racing to get behind the city walls before they were sealed.

They had an hour at most before Morath was again upon them—before they were forced to shut the southern gate as well, locking out any left behind to be driven right against the walls.

The western gate would remain sealed. The downed wyvern and heaps of bodies around it would ensure that, along with any inner defenses.

Rowan had seen the golden light flaring minutes ago. Had battled his way here, cursing the iron shard in his arm that kept him from shifting. Fenrys and Lorcan had peeled away to pick off any Morath grunts trying to attack those fleeing for the southern gate, and overhead, ruks bearing the healers, Elide and Yrene with them, soared into the panicking city.

He had to find Aelin. Get their plans in motion before it was too late.

He knew who likely marched with that advancing host. He had no intention of letting her face it alone.

But this task—he knew what lay ahead. Knew, and still went.

Rowan found Gavriel before the western gate, dozens of the dead piled high around him.

A veritable wall between the gate and looming enemy host.

The light faded with each minute. Lingering Morath soldiers and Ironteeth fled toward their oncoming reinforcements.

The khagan’s army tried to kill as many as they could as they hurtled for the southern gate.

They had to get inside the city. By any means possible.

Hoisting up siege ladders that had been knocked to the earth only minutes or hours earlier, the khagan’s army climbed the walls, some bearing the injured on their backs.

His magic little more than a breeze, Rowan gritted his teeth against his throbbing leg and shoulder and hauled away the Morath grunt half-sprawled over Gavriel.

Centuries of existence, years spent waging war and journeying through the world—gone. Rendered into nothing but this still body, this discarded shell.

Rowan’s knees threatened to buckle. More and more of their forces scaled the city walls, an orderly but swift flight into a temporary haven.

Keep going. They had to keep going. Gavriel would wish him to. Had given his life for it.

Yet Rowan lowered his head. “I hope you found peace, my brother. And in the Afterworld, I hope you find her again.”

Rowan stooped, grunting at the pain in his thigh, and hauled Gavriel over his good shoulder. And then he climbed.

Up the siege ladder still anchored beside the western gate. Onto the walls. Each step heavier than the last. Each step a memory of his friend, an image of the kingdoms they had seen, the enemies they had fought, the quiet moments that no song would ever mention.

Yet the songs would mention this—that the Lion fell before the western gate of Orynth, defending the city and his son. If they survived today, if they somehow lived, the bards would sing of it.

Even with the chaos of the khaganate soldiers and Darghan cavalry streaming for the city, silence fell where Rowan strode down the battlement stairs, bearing Gavriel.

He barely managed a grateful, relieved nod to a battered and bloody Enda and Sellene, catching their breath with a cluster of their cousins by the remnants of their catapults. His blood and kin, yet the warrior over his shoulder—Gavriel had also been family. Even when he had not realized it.

The impossible, hideous weight at his shoulder grew worse with every step to where Aedion stood at the foot of the stairs, the Sword of Orynth dangling from his hand.

“He could have stayed,” was all Aedion said as Rowan gently set Gavriel down on the first of the steps. “He could have stayed.”

Rowan looked at his fallen friend. His closest friend. Who had gone with him into so many wars and dangers. Who had deserved this new home as much as any of them.

Rowan closed Gavriel’s unseeing eyes. “I will see you in the Afterworld.”

Aedion’s golden hair hung limp with blood and sweat, the ancient sword in his hands caked with black blood. Soldiers streamed past him, down the battlement stairs, yet Aedion only stared at his father. A bloodied rock in the stream of war.

Then Aedion walked into the streets. Tears and screaming would come later. Rowan followed him.

“We need to prepare for the second part of this battle,” Aedion said hoarsely. “Or we won’t last the night.” Already, Enda and Sellene were using their magic to haul fallen blocks of debris against the western gate. The stones wobbled, but moved. It was more power than Rowan could claim.

Rowan turned to climb back up the walls, and didn’t dare let himself look behind them—to where he knew soldiers were moving Gavriel deeper into the city. Somewhere safe.

Gone. His friend, his brother was gone.

“Your Highness.” A panting, blood-splattered ruk rider stood on the battlement wall. He pointed to the horizon. “Darkness veils much of it, but we have an estimate for the oncoming army.” Rowan braced himself. “Twenty thousand at a minimum.” The rider’s throat bobbed. “Their ranks are filled with Valg—and six kharankui.”

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