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Episode 5

Celaena brushed a stray wisp of hair from her face and allowed herself to be led into the clearing. If she wanted to break free, she’d have to go through Chaol first. Had they been alone, she might have attempted it, though the chains would make it difficult; but with an entourage of royal guards trained to kill without hesitation . . .

Chaol remained close beside her while a fire was kindled and food prepared from the boxes and sacks of supplies. The soldiers rolled logs to make small circles, where they sat while their companions stirred and fried. The Crown Prince’s dogs, who had dutifully trotted alongside their master, approached the assassin with wagging tails and lay at her feet. At least someone was glad for her company.

Hungry by the time a plate was finally laid in her lap, Celaena became a bit more than irritated when the captain did not immediately remove her irons. After giving her a long warning look, he unlocked her chains and clamped them onto her ankles. She only rolled her eyes as she raised a small portion of meat to her lips. She chewed slowly. The last thing she needed was to be sick in front of them. 

While the soldiers talked amongst themselves, Celaena took in their surroundings. She and Chaol sat with five soldiers. The Crown Prince, of course, sat with Perrington on their own two logs, far from her. While Dorian had been all arrogance and amusement the previous night, his features were grave as he spoke to the duke. His entire body seemed tensed, and she didn’t fail to notice the way he clenched his jaw when Perrington spoke. Whatever their relationship was, it wasn’t cordial.

Midbite, Celaena tore her focus from the prince to study the trees. The forest had gone silent. The ebony hounds’ ears were erect, though they didn’t seem to be bothered by the stillness. Even the soldiers quieted. Her heart skipped a beat. The forest was different here.

The leaves dangled like jewels—tiny droplets of ruby, pearl, topaz, amethyst, emerald, and garnet; and a carpet of such riches coated the forest floor around them. Despite the ravages of conquest, this part of Oakwald Forest remained untouched. It still echoed with the remnants of the power that had once given these trees such unnatural beauty.

She’d been only eight when Arobynn Hamel, her mentor and the King of the Assassins, found her half-submerged on the banks of a frozen river and brought her to his keep on the border between Adarlan and Terrasen. While training her to be his finest and most loyal assassin, Arobynn had never allowed her to return home to Terrasen. But she still remembered the beauty of the world before the King of Adarlan had ordered so much of it burned. Now there was nothing left for her there, nor would there ever be. Arobynn had never said it aloud, but if she’d refused his offer to train her, he would have handed her to those who would have killed her. Or worse. She’d been newly orphaned, and even at eight, she knew that a life with Arobynn, with a new name that no one would recognize but someday everyone would fear, was a chance to start over. To escape the fate that led her to leap into the icy river that night ten years ago.

“Damned forest,” said an olive-skinned soldier in their circle. A soldier beside him chuckled. “The sooner it’s burned, the better, I say.” The other soldiers nodded, and Celaena stiffened. “It’s full of hate,” said another.

“Did you expect anything else?” she interrupted. Chaol’s hand darted to his sword as the soldiers turned to her, some of them sneering. “This isn’t just any forest.” She beckoned with her fork to the woods. “It’s Brannon’s forest.”

“My father used to tell me stories about it being full of faeries,” a soldier said. “They’re all gone now.” One took a bite from an apple, and said: “Along with those damned wretched Fae.” Another said: “We got rid of them, didn’t we?”

“I’d watch your tongues,” Celaena snapped. “King Brannon was Fae, and Oakwald is still his. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the trees remember him.”

The soldiers laughed. “They’d have to be two thousand years old, them trees!” said one.

“Fae are immortal,” she said.

“Trees ain’t.”

Bristling, Celaena shook her head and took another small forkful of food.

“What do you know about this forest?” Chaol quietly asked her. Was he mocking her? The soldiers sat forward, poised to laugh. But the captain’s golden-brown eyes held mere curiosity.

She swallowed her meat. “Before Adarlan began its conquest, this forest was cloaked in magic,” she said softly, but not meekly.

He waited for her to continue, but she had said enough. “And?” he prodded.

“And that’s all I know,” she said, meeting his gaze. Disappointed at the lack of anything to mock, the soldiers returned to their meals.

She had lied, and Chaol knew it. She knew plenty about this forest, knew that the denizens of this place had once been faeries: gnomes, sprites, nymphs, goblins, more names than anyone could count or remember. All ruled by their larger, human-like cousins, the immortal Fae—the original inhabitants and settlers of the continent, and the oldest beings in Erilea.

With the growing corruption of Adarlan and the king’s campaign to hunt them down and execute them, the faeries and Fae fled, seeking shelter in the wild, untouched places of the world. The King of Adarlan had outlawed it all—magic, Fae, faeries—and removed any trace so thoroughly that even those who had magic in their blood almost believed it had never really existed, Celaena herself being one of them. The king had claimed that magic was an affront to the Goddess and her gods—that to wield it was to impertinently imitate their power. But even though the king had banned magic, most knew the truth: within a month of his proclamation, magic had completely and utterly disappeared of its own accord. Perhaps it had realized what horrors were coming.

She could still smell the fires that had raged throughout her eighth and ninth years—the smoke of burning books chock-full of ancient, irreplaceable knowledge, the screams of gifted seers and healers as they’d been consumed by the flames, the storefronts and sacred places shattered and desecrated and erased from history. Many of the magic-users who hadn’t been burned wound up prisoners in Endovier—and most didn’t survive long there. It had been a while since she’d contemplated the gifts she’d lost, though the memory of her abilities haunted her dreams. Despite the carnage, perhaps it was good that magic had vanished. It was far too dangerous for any sane person to wield; her gifts might have destroyed her by this point.

The smoking fire burned her eyes as she took another bite. She’d never forget the stories about Oakwald Forest, legends of dark, terrible glens and deep, still pools, and caves full of light and heavenly singing. But they were now only stories and nothing more. To speak of them was to invite trouble.

She looked at the sunlight filtering through the canopy, how the trees swayed in the wind with their long, bony arms around each other. She suppressed a shiver.

Lunch, thankfully, was over quickly. Her chains were transferred to her wrists again, and the horses were refreshed and reloaded. Celaena’s legs had become so stiff that Chaol was forced to help her onto her horse. It was painful to ride, and her nose also suffered a blow as the continual stench of horse sweat and excrement floated to the back of the entourage.

They traveled for the remainder of the day, and the assassin sat in silence as she watched the forest pass, the tightness in her chest not easing until they’d left that shimmering glen far behind. Her body ached by the time they stopped for the night. She didn’t bother to speak at dinner, nor to care when her small tent was erected, guards posted outside, and she was allowed to sleep, still shackled to one of them. She didn’t dream, but when she awoke, she couldn’t believe her eyes.

Small white flowers lay at the foot of her cot, and many infant-sized footprints led in and out of the tent. Before someone could enter and notice, Celaena swept a foot over the tracks, destroying any trace, and stuffed the flowers into a nearby satchel.

Though no one mentioned another word about faeries, as they traveled onward, Celaena continually scanned the soldiers’ faces for any indication that they’d seen something strange. She spent a good portion of the following day with sweaty palms and a racing heartbeat, and kept one eye fixed on the passing woods.



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