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Chapter no 20

Queen of Shadows (Throne of Glass, 4)

Several days after running into the Wing Leader, Elide Lochan’s ankle was sore, her lower back a tight knot, and her shoulders aching as she took the last step into the aerie. At least she’d made it without encountering any horrors in the halls—though the climb had nearly killed her.

She hadn’t grown accustomed to the steep, endless steps of Morath in the two months since she’d been dragged to this horrible place by Vernon. Just completing her daily tasks made her ruined ankle throb with pain she hadn’t experienced in years, and today was the worst yet. She would have to scrounge up some herbs from the kitchen tonight to soak her foot; maybe even some oils, if the ornery cook was feeling generous enough.

Compared with some of the other denizens of Morath, he was fairly mild. He tolerated her presence in the kitchen, and her requests for herbs

—especially when she oh-so-sweetly offered to clean a few dishes or prepare meals. And he never blinked twice when she inquired about when the next shipment of food and supplies would come in, because Oh, she’d loved his whatever-fruit pie, and it would be so nice to have it again. Easy to flatter, easy to trick. Making people see and hear what they wanted to: one of the many weapons in her arsenal.

A gift from Anneith, the Lady of Wise Things, Finnula had claimed— the only gift, Elide often thought, that she’d ever received, beyond her old nursemaid’s good heart and wits.

She’d never told Finnula that she often prayed to the Clever Goddess to bestow another gift on those who made the years in Perranth a living hell: death, and not the gentle sort. Not like Silba, who offered peaceful ends, or Hellas, who offered violent, burning ones. No, deaths at Anneith’s hands—at the hands of Hellas’s consort—were brutal, bloody, and slow.

The kind of death Elide expected to receive at any moment these days, from the witches who prowled the halls or from the dark-eyed duke, his lethal soldiers, or the white-haired Wing Leader who’d tasted her blood

like fine wine. She’d had nightmares about it ever since. That is, when she could sleep at all.

Elide had needed to rest twice on her way to the aerie, and her limp was deep by the time she reached the top of the tower, bracing herself for the beasts and the monsters who rode them.

An urgent message had come for the Wing Leader while Elide was cleaning her room—and when Elide explained that the Wing Leader was not there, the man heaved a sigh of relief, shoved the letter in Elide’s hand, and said to find her.

And then the man had run.

She should have suspected it. It had taken two heartbeats to note and catalog the man’s details, his tells and ticks. Sweaty, his face pale, pupils diluted—he’d sagged at the sight of Elide when she opened the door. Bastard. Most men, she’d decided, were bastards of varying degrees. Most of them were monsters. None worse than Vernon.

Elide scanned the aerie. Empty. Not even a handler to be seen.

The hay floor was fresh, the feeding troughs full of meat and grain. But the food was untouched by the wyverns whose massive, leathery bodies loomed beyond the archways, perched on wooden beams jutting over the plunge as they surveyed the Keep and the army below like thirteen mighty lords. Limping as close as she dared to one of the massive openings, Elide peered out at the view.

It was exactly as the Wing Leader’s map had depicted it in the spare moments when she could sneak a look.

They were surrounded by ashy mountains, and though she’d been in a prison wagon for the long journey here, she had taken note of the forest she spied in the distance and the rushing of the massive river they had passed days before they ascended the broad, rocky mountain road. In the middle of nowhere—that’s where Morath was, and the view before her confirmed it: no cities, no towns, and an entire army surrounding her. She shoved back the despair that crept into her veins.

She had never seen an army before coming here. Soldiers, yes, but she’d been eight when her father passed her up onto Vernon’s horse and kissed her good-bye, promising to see her soon. She hadn’t been in Orynth to witness the army that seized its riches, its people. And she’d been locked in a tower at Perranth Castle by the time the army reached her family’s lands and her uncle became the king’s ever-faithful servant and stole her father’s title.

Her title. Lady of Perranth—that’s what she should have been. Not that it mattered now. There wasn’t much of Terrasen’s court left to

belong to. None of them had come for her in those initial months of slaughter. And in the years since, none had remembered that she existed. Perhaps they assumed she was dead—like Aelin, that wild queen-who-might-have-been. Perhaps they were all dead themselves. And maybe, given the dark army now spread before her, that was a mercy.

Elide gazed across the flickering lights of the war camp, and a chill went down her spine. An army to crush whatever resistance Finnula had once whispered about during the long nights they were locked in that tower in Perranth. Perhaps the white-haired Wing Leader herself would lead that army, on the wyvern with shimmering wings.

A fierce, cool wind blew into the aerie, and Elide leaned into it, gulping it down as if it were fresh water. There had been so many nights in Perranth when only the wailing wind had kept her company. When she could have sworn it sang ancient songs to lull her into sleep. Here … here the wind was a colder, sleeker thing—serpentine, almost. Entertaining such fanciful things will only distract you, Finnula would have chided. She wished her nurse were here.

But wishing had done her no good these past ten years, and Elide, Lady of Perranth, had no one coming for her.

Soon, she reassured herself—soon the next caravan of supplies would crawl up the mountain road, and when it went back down, Elide would be stowed away in one of the wagons, free at long last. And then she would run somewhere far, far away, where they’d never heard of Terrasen or Adarlan, and leave these people to their miserable continent. A few weeks—then she might stand a chance of escaping.

If she survived until then. If Vernon didn’t decide he truly did have some wicked purpose in dragging her here. If she didn’t wind up with those poor people, caged inside the surrounding mountains, screaming for salvation every night. She’d overheard the other servants whisper about the dark, fell things that went on under those mountains: people being splayed open on black stone altars and then forged into something new, something other. For what wretched purpose, Elide had not yet learned, and mercifully, beyond the screaming, she’d never encountered whatever was being broken and pieced together beneath the earth. The witches were bad enough.

Elide shuddered as she took another step into the vast chamber. The crunching of hay under her too-small shoes and the clank of her chains were the only sounds. “W-Wing Lea—”

A roar blasted through the air, the stones, the floor, so loud that her head swam and she cried out. Tumbling back, her chains tangled as she

slipped on the hay.

Hard, iron-tipped hands dug into her shoulders and kept her upright. “If you are not a spy,” a wicked voice purred in her ear, “then why are

you here, Elide Lochan?”

Elide wasn’t faking it when her hand shook as she held out the letter, not daring to move.

The Wing Leader stepped around her, circling Elide like prey, her long white braid stark against her leather flying gear.

The details hit Elide like stones: eyes like burnt gold; a face so impossibly beautiful that Elide was struck dumb by it; a lean, honed body; and a steady, fluid grace in every movement, every breath, that suggested the Wing Leader could easily use the assortment of blades on her. Human only in shape—immortal and predatory in every other sense.

Fortunately, the Wing Leader was alone. Unfortunately, those gold eyes held nothing but death.

Elide said, “Th-this came for you.” The stammer—that was faked. People usually couldn’t wait to get away when she stammered and stuttered. Though she doubted the people who ran this place would care about the stammer if they decided to have some fun with a daughter of Terrasen. If Vernon handed her over.

The Wing Leader held Elide’s gaze as she took the letter.

“I’m surprised the seal isn’t broken. Though if you were a good spy, you would know how to do it without breaking the wax.”

“If I were a good spy,” Elide breathed, “I could also read.” A bit of truth to temper the witch’s distrust.

The witch blinked, and then sniffed, as if trying to detect a lie. “You speak well for a mortal, and your uncle is a lord. Yet you cannot read?”

Elide nodded. More than the leg, more than the drudgery, it was that miserable shortcoming that hounded her. Her nurse, Finnula, couldn’t read—but Finnula had been the one to teach her how to take note of things, to listen, and to think. During the long days when they’d had nothing to do but needlepoint, her nurse had taught her to mark the little details—each stitch—while also never losing sight of the larger image. There will come a day when I am gone, Elide, and you will need to have every weapon in your arsenal sharp and ready to strike.

Neither of them had thought that Elide might be the one who left first. But she would not look back, not even for Finnula, once she ran. And when she found that new life, that new place … she would never gaze northward, to Terrasen, and wonder, either.

She kept her eyes on the ground. “I—I know basic letters, but my lessons stopped when I was eight.”

“At your uncle’s behest, I assume.” The witch paused, rotating the envelope and showing the jumble of letters to her, tapping on them with an iron nail. “This says ‘Manon Blackbeak.’ You see anything like this again, bring it to me.”

Elide bowed her head. Meek, submissive—just the way these witches liked their humans. “Of-of course.”

“And why don’t you stop pretending to be a stammering, cowering wretch while you’re at it.”

Elide kept her head bent low enough that her hair hopefully covered any glimmer of surprise. “I’ve tried to be pleasing—”

“I smelled your human fingers all over my map. It was careful, cunning work, not to put one thing out of order, not to touch anything but the map … Thinking of escaping after all?”

“Of course not, mistress.” Oh, gods. She was so, so dead. “Look at me.”

Elide obeyed. The witch hissed, and Elide flinched as she shoved Elide’s hair out of her eyes. A few strands fell to the ground, sliced off by the iron nails. “I don’t know what game you’re playing—if you’re a spy, if you’re a thief, if you’re just looking out for yourself. But do not pretend that you are some meek, pathetic little girl when I can see that vicious mind working behind your eyes.”

Elide didn’t dare drop the mask.

“Was it your mother or father who was related to Vernon?”

Strange question—but Elide had known for a while she would do anything, say anything, to stay alive and unharmed. “My father was Vernon’s elder brother,” she said.

“And where did your mother come from?”

She didn’t give that old grief an inch of room in her heart. “She was low-born. A laundress.”

Where did she come from?”

Why did it matter? The golden eyes were fixed on her, unyielding. “Her family was originally from Rosamel, in the northwest of Terrasen.” “I know where it is.” Elide kept her shoulders bowed, waiting. “Get

out.”

Hiding her relief, Elide opened her mouth to make her good-byes, when another roar set the stones vibrating. She couldn’t conceal her flinch.

“It’s just Abraxos,” Manon said, a hint of a smile forming on her cruel mouth, a bit of light gleaming in those golden eyes. Her mount must make her happy, then—if witches could be happy. “He’s hungry.”

Elide’s mouth went dry.

At the sound of his name, a massive triangular head, scarred badly around one eye, poked into the aerie.

Elide’s knees wobbled, but the witch went right up to the beast and placed her iron-tipped hands on his snout. “You swine,” the witch said. “You need the whole mountain to know you’re hungry?”

The wyvern huffed into her hands, his giant teeth—oh, gods, some of them were iron—so close to Manon’s arms. One bite, and the Wing Leader would be dead. One bite, and yet—

The wyvern’s eyes lifted and met Elide’s. Not looked at, but met, as if

Elide kept perfectly still, even though every instinct was roaring at her to run for the stairs. The wyvern nudged past Manon, the floor shuddering beneath him, and sniffed in Elide’s direction. Then those giant, depthless eyes moved down—to her legs. No, to the chain.

There were so many scars all over him—so many brutal lines. She did not think Manon had made them, not with the way she spoke to him. Abraxos was smaller than the others, she realized. Far smaller. And yet the Wing Leader had picked him. Elide tucked that information away, too. If Manon had a soft spot for broken things, perhaps she would spare her as well.

Abraxos lowered himself to the ground, stretching out his neck until his head rested on the hay not ten feet from Elide. Those giant black eyes stared up at her, almost doglike.

“Enough, Abraxos,” Manon hissed, grabbing a saddle from the rack by the wall.

“How do they—exist?” Elide breathed. She’d heard stories of wyverns and dragons, and she remembered glimpses of the Little Folk and the Fae, but …

Manon hauled the leather saddle over to her mount. “The king made them. I don’t know how, and it doesn’t matter.”

The King of Adarlan made them, like whatever was being made inside those mountains. The man who had shattered her life, murdered her parents, doomed her to this … Don’t be angry, Finnula had said, be smart. And soon the king and his miserable empire wouldn’t be her concern, anyway.

Elide said, “Your mount doesn’t seem evil.” Abraxos’s tail thumped on the ground, the iron spikes in it glinting. A giant, lethal dog. With wings.

Manon huffed a cold laugh, strapping the saddle into place. “No.

However he was made, something went wrong with that part.”

Elide didn’t think that constituted going wrong, but kept her mouth shut.

Abraxos was still staring up at her, and the Wing Leader said, “Let’s go hunt, Abraxos.”

The beast perked up, and Elide jumped back a step, wincing as she landed hard on her ankle. The wyvern’s eyes shot to her, as if aware of the pain. But the Wing Leader was already finishing with the saddle, and didn’t bother to look in her direction as Elide limped out.

 

 

“You soft-hearted worm,” Manon hissed at Abraxos once the cunning, many-faced girl was gone. The girl might be hiding secrets, but her lineage wasn’t one of them. She had no idea that witch-blood flowed strong in her mortal veins. “A crippled leg and a few chains, and you’re in love?”

Abraxos nudged her with his snout, and Manon gave him a firm but gentle slap before leaning against his warm hide and ripping open the letter addressed in her grandmother’s handwriting.

Just like the High Witch of the Blackbeak Clan, it was brutal, to the point, and unforgiving.

Do not disobey the duke’s orders. Do not question him. If there is another letter from Morath about your disobedience, I will fly down there myself and hang you by your intestines, with your Thirteen and that runt of a beast beside you.

Three Yellowlegs and two Blueblood covens are arriving tomorrow. See to it there are no fights or trouble. I do not need the other Matrons breathing down my neck about their vermin.

Manon turned the paper over, but that was it. Crunching it in a fist, she sighed.

Abraxos nudged at her again, and she idly stroked his head.

Made, made, made.

That was what the Crochan had said before Manon slit her throat. You were made into monsters.

She tried to forget it—tried to tell herself that the Crochan had been a fanatic and a preachy twat, but … She ran a finger down the deep red

cloth of her cloak.

The thoughts opened up like a precipice before her, so many all at once that she stepped back. Turned away.

Made, made, made.

Manon climbed into the saddle and was glad to lose herself in the sky.

 

 

“Tell me about the Valg,” Manon said, shutting the door to the small chamber behind her.

Ghislaine didn’t look up from the book she was poring over. There was a stack of them on the desk before her, and another beside the narrow bed. Where the eldest and cleverest of her Thirteen had gotten them from, who she’d likely gutted to steal them, Manon didn’t care.

“Hello, and come right in, why don’t you” was the response.

Manon leaned against the door and crossed her arms. Only with books, only when reading, was Ghislaine so snappish. On the battlefield, in the air, the dark-skinned witch was quiet, easy to command. A solid soldier, made more valuable by her razor-sharp intelligence, which had earned her the spot among the Thirteen.

Ghislaine shut the book and twisted in her seat. Her black, curly hair was braided back, but even the plait couldn’t keep it entirely contained. She narrowed her sea-green eyes—the shame of her mother, as there wasn’t a trace of gold in them. “Why would you want to know about the Valg?”

“Do you know about them?”

Ghislaine pivoted on her chair until she was sitting backward in it, her legs straddling the sides. She was in her flying leathers, as if she couldn’t be bothered to remove them before falling into one of her books. “Of course I know about the Valg,” she said with a wave of her hand—an impatient, mortal gesture.

It had been an exception—an unprecedented exception—when Ghislaine’s mother had convinced the High Witch to send her daughter to a mortal school in Terrasen a hundred years ago. She had learned magic and book-things and whatever else mortals were taught, and when Ghislaine had returned twelve years later, the witch had been … different. Still a Blackbeak, still bloodthirsty, but somehow more human. Even now, a century later, even after walking on and off killing fields, that sense of impatience, of life clung to her. Manon had never known what to make of it.

“Tell me everything.”

“There’s too much to tell you in one sitting,” Ghislaine said. “But I’ll give you the basics, and if you want more, you can come back.”

An order, but this was Ghislaine’s space, and books and knowledge were her domain. Manon motioned with an iron-tipped hand for her sentinel to go on.

“Millennia ago, when the Valg broke into our world, witches did not exist. It was the Valg, and the Fae, and humans. But the Valg were … demons, I suppose. They wanted our world for their own, and they thought a good way to get it would be to ensure that their offspring could survive here. The humans weren’t compatible—too breakable. But the Fae … The Valg kidnapped and stole whatever Fae they could, and because your eyes are getting that glazed look, I’m just going to jump to the end and say the offspring became us. Witches. The Ironteeth took after our Valg ancestors more, while the Crochans got more of the Fae traits. The people of these lands didn’t want us here, not after the war, but the Fae King Brannon didn’t think it was right to hunt us all down. So he gave us the Western Wastes, and there we went, until the witch wars made us exiles again.”

Manon picked at her nails. “And the Valg are … wicked?”

We are wicked,” Ghislaine said. “The Valg? Legend has it that they’re the origin of evil. They are blackness and despair incarnate.”

“Sounds like our kind of people.” And maybe good ones indeed to ally with, to breed with.

But Ghislaine’s smile faded. “No,” she said softly. “No, I do not think they would be our kind of people at all. They have no laws, no codes. They would see the Thirteen as weak for our bonds and rules—as something to break for amusement.”

Manon stiffened slightly. “And if the Valg were ever to return here?” “Brannon and the Fae Queen Maeve found ways to defeat them—to

send them back. I would hope that someone would find a way to do so again.”

More to think about.

She turned, but Ghislaine said, “That’s the smell, isn’t it? The smell here, around some of the soldiers—like it’s wrong, from another world. The king found some way to bring them here and stuff them into human bodies.”

She hadn’t thought that far, but … “The duke described them as allies.”

“That word does not exist for the Valg. They find the alliance useful, but will honor it only as long as it remains that way.”

Manon debated the merits of ending the conversation there, but said, “The duke asked me to pick a Blackbeak coven for him to experiment on. To allow him to insert some sort of stone in their bellies that will create a Valg-Ironteeth child.”

Slowly, Ghislaine straightened, her ink-splattered hands hanging slack on either side of the chair. “And do you plan to obey, Lady?”

Not a question from a scholar to a curious student, but from a sentinel to her heir.

“The High Witch has given me orders to obey the duke’s every command.” But maybe … maybe she would write her grandmother another letter.

“Who will you pick?”

Manon opened the door. “I don’t know. My decision is due in two days.”

Ghislaine—whom Manon had seen glut herself on the blood of men— had paled by the time Manon shut the door.

 

 

Manon didn’t know how, didn’t know if the guards or the duke or Vernon or some eavesdropping human filth said something, but the next morning, the witches all knew. She knew better than to suspect Ghislaine. None of the Thirteen talked. Ever.

But everyone knew about the Valg, and about Manon’s choice.

She strode into the dining hall, its black arches glinting in the rare morning sun. Already, the pounding of the forges was ringing out in the valley below, made louder by the silence that fell as she strode between the tables, headed for her seat at the front of the room.

Coven after coven watched, and she met their gazes, teeth out and nails drawn, Sorrel a steady force of nature at her back. It wasn’t until Manon slid into her place beside Asterin—and realized it was now the wrong place, but didn’t move—that chatter resumed in the hall.

She pulled a hunk of bread toward her but didn’t touch it. None of them ate the food. Breakfast and dinner were always for show, to have a presence here.

The Thirteen didn’t say a word.

Manon stared each and every one of them down, until they dropped their eyes. But when her gaze met Asterin’s, the witch held it. “Do you have something you want to say,” Manon said to her, “or do you just want to start swinging?”

Asterin’s eyes flicked over Manon’s shoulder. “We have guests.”

Manon found the leader of one of the newly arrived Yellowlegs covens standing at the foot of the table, eyes downcast, posture unthreatening—complete submission.

“What?” Manon demanded.

The coven leader kept her head low. “We would request your consideration for the duke’s task, Wing Leader.”

Asterin stiffened, along with many of the Thirteen. The nearby tables had also gone silent. “And why,” Manon asked, “would you want to do that?”

“You will force us to do your drudgery work, to keep us from glory on the killing fields. That is the way of our Clans. But we might win a different sort of glory in this way.”

Manon held in her sigh, weighing, contemplating. “I will consider it.”

The coven leader bowed and backed away. Manon couldn’t decide whether she was a fool or cunning or brave.

None of the Thirteen spoke for the rest of breakfast.

 

 

“And what coven, Wing Leader, have you selected for me?”

Manon met the duke’s stare. “A coven of Yellowlegs under a witch named Ninya arrived earlier this week. Use them.”

“I wanted Blackbeaks.”

“You’re getting Yellowlegs,” Manon snapped. Down the table, Kaltain did not react. “They volunteered.”

Better than Blackbeaks, she told herself. Better that the Yellowlegs had offered themselves.

Even if Manon could have refused them.

She doubted Ghislaine was wrong about the nature of the Valg, but … Maybe this could work to their advantage, depending on how the Yellowlegs fared.

The duke flashed his yellowing teeth. “You toe a dangerous line, Wing Leader.”

“All witches have to, in order to fly wyverns.”

Vernon leaned forward. “These wild, immortal things are so diverting, Your Grace.”

Manon gave him a long, long look that told Vernon that one day, in a shadowy hallway, he would find himself with the claws of this wild, immortal thing in his belly.

Manon turned to go. Sorrel—not Asterin—stood stone-faced by the door. Another jarring sight.

Then Manon turned back to the duke, the question forming even as she willed herself not to say it. “To what end? Why do all of this—why ally with the Valg, why raise this army … Why?” She could not understand it. The continent already belonged to them. It made no sense.

“Because we can,” the duke said simply. “And because this world has too long dwelled in ignorance and archaic tradition. It is time to see what might be improved.”

Manon made a show of contemplating and then nodding as she strode out.

But she had not missed the words—this world. Not this land, not this continent.

This world.

She wondered whether her grandmother had considered the idea that they might one day have to fight to keep the Wastes—fight the very men who had helped them take back their home.

And wondered what would become of these Valg-Ironteeth witchlings in that world.

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