Celaena stood before the caravans, watching as the tents were taken apart. Fortunate timing.
She ran a hand through her unbound hair and straightened her brown tunic. Finery would have attracted too much attention. And even if it was just for an hour, she couldn’t help but savor the feeling of anonymity, of blending in with the carnival workers, these people who had the dust of a hundred kingdoms on their clothes. To have that sort of freedom, to see the world bit by bit, to travel each and every road … Her chest tightened.
People streamed by, hardly glancing at her as she made her way to the black wagon. This could easily be folly, but what harm was there in asking? If Yellowlegs truly was a witch, then perhaps she had the gift of Sight. Perhaps she could make sense of the riddle in the tomb.
When Celaena reached the wagon, it was mercifully devoid of patrons. Baba Yellowlegs sat on the top stair, smoking a long bone pipe whose bowl was shaped like a screaming mouth. Pleasant.
“Come to look into the mirrors?” she said, smoke spilling from her withered lips. “Done running from fate at last?”
“I have some questions for you.”
The witch sniffed her, and Celaena fought the urge to step back. “You do indeed stink of questions—and the Staghorn Mountains. From Terrasen, are you? What’s your name?”
Celaena stuck her hands deep in her pockets. “Lillian Gordaina.”
The witch spat on the ground. “What’s your real name, Lillian?” Celaena stiffened. Yellowlegs crowed with laughter. “Come,” she cawed, “want to have your fortune told? I can tell you who you’ll marry, how many children you’ll have, when you’ll die …”
“If you’re indeed as good as you claim, you know I’m not interested in those things. I’d like to talk to you instead,” Celaena said, flashing the three gold coins in her palm.
“Cheap goat,” Yellowlegs said, taking another long drag from the pipe. “That’s all my gifts are worth to you?”
Perhaps this would be a waste of time. And money. And pride.
Celaena turned away with a scowl, shoving her hands into the pockets of her dark cloak.
“Wait,” Yellowlegs said.
Celaena kept walking.
“The prince gave me four coins.”
She paused and looked over her shoulder at the crone. A cold, clawed hand gripped her heart.
Yellowlegs smiled at her. “He had such interesting questions, too. He thought I didn’t recognize him, but I can smell Havilliard blood a mile off. Seven gold pieces, and I’ll answer your questions—and tell you his.”
She’d sell Dorian’s questions to her—to anyone? That familiar calm went through her. “How do I know you’re not lying?”
Yellowlegs’s iron teeth glinted in the light of the torches. “It would be bad for business if I were branded a liar. Would it make you more comfortable if I swore on one of your soft-hearted gods? Or perhaps on one of mine?”
Celaena studied the black wagon, swiftly braiding her hair back. One door, no back exit, no sign of trick panels. No way out, and plenty of warning in case someone came in. She checked her weapons—two long daggers, a knife in her boot, and three of Philippa’s deadly hairpins. More than enough.
“Make it six coins,” Celaena said softly, “and I won’t report you to the guard for trying to sell the prince’s secrets.”
“Who says the guard won’t be interested in them, too? You’d be surprised how many people want to know what truly interests the prince of the realm.”
Celaena slammed six gold coins onto the step beside the tiny crone. “Three pieces for my questions,” she said, bringing her face as close to Yellowlegs’s as she dared. The reek from the woman’s mouth was like carrion and stale smoke. “And three for your silence about the prince.”
Yellowlegs’s eyes gleamed, her iron nails clinking together as she stretched out a hand to grab the coins. “Get in the caravan.” The door behind her swung open soundlessly. A dark interior lay beyond, speckled with patches of glimmering light. Yellowlegs snuffed out her bone pipe.
She’d been hoping for this—to get inside the caravan, and thus avoid having anyone see her with Yellowlegs.
The old woman groaned as she stood, a hand braced on her knee. “Care to tell me your name now?”
A chill wind blew from within the caravan, sliding along Celaena’s neck. Carnival trick. “I’ll ask the questions,” Celaena said, and stalked up the steps into the caravan.
Inside, there were a few measly candles, whose light flickered along row after row, stack after stack, of mirrors. They were every shape, every size, some leaning against the walls, some propped against each other like old friends, some little more than shards clinging to their frames.
And everywhere else, wherever there was a bit of space, were papers and scrolls, jars full of herbs or liquids, brooms … junk.
In the gloom, the caravan stretched on much wider and longer than should have been possible. A winding path had been made between the mirrors, leading into the dark—a path that Yellowlegs was now treading, as if there were anywhere to go inside this strange place.
This can’t be real—it must be an illusion of the mirrors.
Celaena glanced back toward the wagon door in time to see it snick shut. Her dagger was out before the sound had finished echoing through the wagon. Ahead, Yellowlegs chuckled, lifting the candle in her hand. Its holder seemed to be shaped like a skull mounted on some sort of longer bone.
Tacky, cheap carnival tricks, Celaena told herself again and again, her breath clouding in the chill air inside the wagon. None of it was real. But Yellowlegs—and the knowledge she offered—truly was.
“Come along, girl. Come sit with me where we might talk.”
Celaena carefully stepped over a fallen mirror, keeping an eye on the bobbing skull-lantern—and on the door, any possible exits (none as far as she could see, but perhaps there was a trapdoor in the floor), and how the woman moved.
Surprisingly fast, she realized, and hurried to catch up to Yellowlegs. As she strode through the forest of mirrors, her reflection shifted everywhere. In one she appeared short and fat, in another tall and impossibly thin. In another she stood upside down, and in yet another she walked sideways. It was enough to give her a headache.
“Done gawking?” Yellowlegs said. Celaena ignored her, but sheathed her dagger as she followed the woman into a small sitting area before a dim, grated oven. No reason to have her weapon out—not when she still needed Yellowlegs to cooperate.
The sitting area lay in a rough circle cleared of junk and stacks of mirrors, with little more than a rug and a few chairs to make it hospitable. Yellowlegs hobbled over to the raised hearthstone, yanking a few logs from a tiny stack perched on the rim. Celaena remained on the edge of the worn red rug, watching as Yellowlegs threw open the iron grate of the oven, tossed in the wood, and slammed the grate shut again. Within seconds, light flared, made brighter still by the surrounding mirrors.
“The stones of this oven,” Yellowlegs said, patting the curved wall of dark bricks like an old pet, “came from the ruins of the Crochan capital city. The wood of this wagon was hewn from the walls of their sacred schools. That’s why my wagon is … unusual inside.”
Celaena said nothing. It would have been easy to dismiss it as a bit of carnival dramatics, except she was seeing it for herself.
“So,” Yellowlegs said, remaining standing as well, despite the aged wooden furniture scattered around them. “Questions.”
Even though the air in the wagon was chill, the burning oven somehow made it instantly warm—warm enough for Celaena’s layers of clothing to be uncomfortable. She’d been told a story once, on a hot summer night in the Red Desert; a story about what one of the long-lost Ironteeth witches had done to a young girl. What had been left of her.
Gleaming white bones. Nothing more.
Celaena glanced at the oven again and angled herself closer to the door. Across the small sitting area, more mirrors waited in the gloom—as if even the light of the fire couldn’t reach them.
Yellowlegs leaned closer to the grate, rubbing her gnarled fingers in front of it. The firelight danced along her iron nails. “Ask away, girl.”
What had Dorian wanted to know so badly? Had he come inside this strange, smothering place? At least he’d survived. If only because Yellowlegs wanted to use whatever information she’d gleaned from him. Foolish, foolish man.
Was she any different, though?
This might be her only chance to learn what she needed to know, despite the risk, despite how messy and complicated the aftermath might be.
“I found a riddle, and my friends have been debating its answer for weeks. We even have a bet going about it,” she said as vaguely as she could. “Answer it, if you’re so clever and all-knowing. I’ll toss in an extra gold coin if you get it right.”
“Impudent children. Wasting my time with this nonsense.” Yellowlegs watched the mirrors now, as if she could see something Celaena couldn’t.
Or as if she’s already bored.
Some of the tightness in her chest loosening, Celaena pulled the riddle from her pocket and read it aloud.
When she was done, Yellowlegs slowly turned her head to Celaena, her voice low and rough. “Where did you find that?”
Celaena shrugged. “Give me the answer and I might tell you. What sort of objects does this riddle describe?”
“Wyrdkeys,” Yellowlegs breathed, eyes glowing. “It describes the three Wyrdkeys to open the Wyrdgate.”
Cold slithered down Celaena’s spine, but she said, with more bravado than she felt, “Tell me what they are—the Wyrdkeys, the Wyrdgate. For all I know, you might be lying about the answer. I’d rather not be made a fool of.”
“This information is not for the idle games of mortals,” Yellowlegs snapped.
Gold gleamed in Celaena’s palm. “Name your price.”
The woman studied her from head to toe, sniffing once. “Nameless is my price,” Yellowlegs said. “But gold will do for now.”
Celaena set five extra gold coins down on the hearthstone, the heat from the flame singeing her face. Such a small fire, but she was already slick with sweat.
“Once you know this, there is no unknowing it,” the witch warned. And from the gleam in Yellowlegs’s eyes, Celaena knew that the old woman hadn’t bought her lie about the bet for one heartbeat.
Celaena took a step closer. “Tell me.”
Yellowlegs looked toward another mirror. “The Wyrd governs and forms the foundation of this world. Not just Erilea, but all life. There are worlds that exist beyond your knowledge, worlds that lie on top of each other and don’t know it. Right now, you could be standing on the bottom of someone else’s ocean. The Wyrd keeps these realms apart.”
Yellowlegs began to hobble around the sitting area, lost in her own words.
“There are gates—black areas in the Wyrd that allow for life to pass between the worlds. There are Wyrdgates that lead to Erilea. All sorts of beings have come through them over the eons. Benign things, but also the dead and foul things that creep in when the gods are looking elsewhere.”
Yellowlegs disappeared behind a mirror, her uneven steps echoing along. “But long ago, before humans overran this miserable world, a different sort of evil broke through the gates: the Valg. Demons from another realm, bent on the conquest of Erilea, and with the force of an endless army behind them. In Wendlyn, they fought against the Fae. Try as the immortal children might, they could not defeat them.
“Then the Fae learned that the Valg had done something unforgivable. They had taken a piece of a Wyrdgate with their dark magic, and split it into three slivers—three keys. One key for each of their kings. Using all three at once, the Valg Kings were able to open that Wyrdgate at will, to manipulate its power to strengthen their forces, to allow an endless line of soldiers to pour into the world. The Fae knew that they must stop it.”
Celaena stared at the fire, at the mirrors, at the darkness of the wagon around her. The heat was smothering now.
“And so a small band of Fae set out to steal them from the Valg Kings,” Yellowlegs said, her voice coming nearer again. “It was an impossible task; most of those fools didn’t return.
“But the Wyrdkeys were indeed retrieved, and the Fae Queen Maeve banished the Valg to their realm. Yet for all her wisdom, Maeve couldn’t discover how to put the keys back in the gate—and no forge, no steel, no weight could destroy them. So Maeve, believing that no one should have their power, sent them across the sea with Brannon Galathynius, first King of Terrasen, to hide on this continent. And thus the Wyrdgate remained protected, its power unused.”
Silence fell. Even Yellowlegs’s hobbling steps had slowed.
“So the riddle is a … a map to where the keys are hidden?” Celaena asked, trembling now as she realized just what kind of power Nehemia and the others had been after. Worse, what the king might be after.
Celaena licked her lips. “What might one do with the Wyrdkeys?”
“The person who holds all three Wyrdkeys would have control over the broken Wyrdgate—and all Erilea. They would be able to open and close the gate at will. They could conquer new worlds or let in all sorts of life to bend to their cause. But even one key could make someone immensely dangerous. Not enough power to open the gate, but enough to be a threat. You see, the keys themselves are pure power—power to be shaped as the wielder wills it. Tempting, isn’t it?”
The words echoed through her, blending with Elena’s command to find and destroy the source of evil. Evil. Evil that had arisen ten years ago, when a whole continent had suddenly found itself at mercy of one man—a man who had somehow become unstoppable.
A source of power that existed outside of magic. “It can’t be.”
Yellowlegs only let out a confirming chuckle.
Celaena kept shaking her head, her heart beating so violently she could hardly breathe. “The king has some of the Wyrdkeys? That’s how he was able to conquer the continent so easily?” But if he’d already done that—then what further plans did he have?
“Perhaps,” Yellowlegs said. “If I were to wager my hard-earned gold, I’d say he has at least one.”
Celaena scanned the dark, the mirrors, but saw only versions of herself looking back. She heard nothing but the crackling of the fire in the oven and her own uneven breathing.
Yellowlegs had stopped moving.
“Is there anything else?” Celaena demanded.
No response from the old woman.
“So you’re going to take my money and run?” Celaena eased toward the winding path through the mirrors, and the door that now seemed impossibly far away. “What if I still have questions?” Her own movements in the mirrors sent her nerves jumping, but she kept alert and focused—reminded herself what she had to do. She drew both her daggers.
“You think steel can hurt me?” came a voice that slithered across each mirror until its origin was everywhere and nowhere.
“Here I was, thinking we were having a grand time,” Celaena said, taking another step.
“Bah. Who can have a grand time when your guest is planning to kill you?”
“Isn’t that why you’re moving toward the door?” Yellowlegs went on. “Not to escape, but to make sure I don’t get past your clever, wicked daggers?”
“Tell me who else you’ve sold the prince’s questions to and I’ll let you go.” Earlier, she’d been about to walk away—about to leave—when Yellowlegs’s mention of Dorian had stopped her cold. Now she had no choice about what she had to do. What she would do to protect Dorian. It was what she’d realized last night: she did have someone left—one friend. And there was nothing she wouldn’t do to keep him safe.
“And if I say that I’ve told no one?”
“I wouldn’t believe you.” Celaena spied the door at last. No sign of the witch. She paused, roughly in the center of the wagon. It would be easier to catch the woman here—easier to make it quick and clean.
“Pity,” Yellowlegs said, and Celaena angled herself toward the disembodied voice. There had to be some hidden exit—but where? If Yellowlegs got out, if she told anyone what Dorian had asked (whatever it might be), if she told anyone what Celaena had asked …
All around Celaena, her reflection shifted and glimmered. Quick, clean, then she’d be gone.
“What happens,” Yellowlegs hissed, “when the hunter becomes the hunted?”
From the corner of her eye, Celaena glimpsed the hunched form, chains sagging between the gnarled hands. She whirled toward the crone, dagger already flying—to disable, to get her down so she could—
The mirror shattered where Yellowlegs had been standing.
Behind her, there was a heavy clink, and a satisfied caw of laughter.
For all her training, Celaena wasn’t fast enough to duck before the heavy chain whipped across the side of her head, and she slammed face-first into the floor.