A heartbeat later, a hard body enveloped hers, shielding and sheltering. And then five pairs of bare feet slithered along the road, after the scent that now darted and hurtled down, down to the creature running right at them.
She pressed her face into Rowan’s chest. His arms were solid as walls, his assortment of weapons just as reassuring.
At last, he tugged at her sleeve, nudging her upward—to climb. In a few deft movements, she hauled herself up the tree to a wide branch near its top. A moment later, Rowan was behind her, sitting against the trunk. He pulled her against him, her back to his chest as he folded his arms around her, hiding her scent from the monsters raging below.
A minute passed before the screaming began—bleating shrieks and shouts and roars of two different sets of monsters who knew death was upon them, and the face it bore was not kind.
For the better part of half an hour, the creatures fought in the rainy dark, until those wretched shrieks turned victorious, and the unearthly roars sounded no more.
Celaena and Rowan held tight to each other and did not dare close their eyes for the entirety of the night.
There was no uproar, no hysteria when they told the fortress what they’d discovered. Malakai immediately dispatched messengers to Wendlyn’s king to beg for help; to the other demi-Fae settlements to order those who could not fight to flee; and to the healers’ compound, to help every single patient who was not bed-bound evacuate.
Messengers returned from the king, promising as many men as could be spared. It was a relief, Celaena thought—but a bit of a terror, too. If Galan showed up, if any of her mother’s kin arrived here . . . She wouldn’t care, she told herself. There were bigger matters at hand. And so she prayed for their swift arrival, and prepared with the rest of the fortress’s residents. They would face the threat head-on, starting by taking out the two hundred mortal soldiers that accompanied Narrok and his three creatures as soon as they left their protected caves.
Rowan seized control of the fortress with no fuss—only gratitude from the others, actually. Even Malakai thanked the prince as Rowan set about organizing rotations, delegating tasks, and planning their survival. They had a few days until reinforcements arrived and they could launch their assault, but should their enemy march sooner, Rowan wanted them slowed down and incapacitated as much as possible until help arrived. The demi-Fae were not an army and did not have the resources of a fully stocked fortress, so Rowan declared they’d make do with what they did possess: their wits, determination, and knowledge of the terrain. From the sound of it, somehow the skinwalkers had brought down one of the creatures, so they weren’t truly invincible—but without a body the following morning, they hadn’t learned how it had been killed.
Rowan and Celaena went out with the small groups that were preparing the forest for the attack. If Narrok’s force was going to take the deer path to sack the fortress, then they’d find themselves taking it through pitfall-laden territory: through glens of venomous creatures, over concealed holes full of spikes, and into snares at every turn. It might not kill them, but it would slow them down enough to buy more time for aid to come. And should they wind up under siege, there was a secret tunnel leading out of the fortress itself, so ancient and neglected that most of the residents hadn’t even known it existed until Malakai mentioned it. It was better than nothing.
A few days later, Rowan assembled a small group of captains around a table in the dining hall. “Bas’s scouting team reported that the creatures look like they’re readying to move in a few days,” he said, pointing to a map. “Are the first and second miles of traps almost done?” The captains gave their confirmation. “Good. Tomorrow, I want your men preparing the next few miles, too.”
Standing beside Rowan, Celaena watched as he led them through the meeting, keeping track of all the various legs and arms of their plan—not to mention remembering all the names of the captains, their soldiers, and what they were responsible for. He remained calm and steady—fierce, even—despite the hell that might soon be upon them.
Glancing at the demi-Fae assembled, their attention wholly on Rowan, she could see that they clung to that steadiness, that cold determination and clever mind—and centuries of experience. She envied him for it. And beneath that, with a growing heaviness she could not control, she wished that when she left this continent . . . she wouldn’t go alone.
“Get some sleep. You’re no use to me completely dazed.”
She blinked. She’d been staring at him. The meeting was over, the captains already walking away to attend to their various tasks.
“Sorry.” She rubbed her eyes. They’d been up since before dawn, readying the last few miles of path, checking that all the traps were secure. Working with him was so effortless. There was no judgment, no need to explain herself. She knew no one would ever replace Nehemia, and she never wanted anyone to, but Rowan made her feel . . . better. As if she could finally breathe after months of suffocating. Yet now . . .
He was still watching her, frowning. “Just say it.”
She examined the map on the table between them. “We can handle the mortal soldiers, but those creatures and Narrok . . . if we had Fae warriors—like your companion who came to receive his tattoo”—she didn’t think calling him Rowan’s kitty-cat friend would help her case this time—“or all five of your cadre, even, it could turn the tide.” She traced the line of mountains that separated these lands from the immortal ones beyond. “But you have not sent for them. Why?”
“You know why.”
“Would Maeve order you home out of spite for the demi-Fae?”
His jaw tightened. “For a few reasons, I think.”
“And this is the person you chose to serve.”
“I knew what I was doing when I drank her blood to seal the oath.”
“Then let’s hope Wendlyn’s reinforcements get here quickly.” She pursed her lips and turned to go to their room. He gripped her wrist.
“Don’t do that.” A muscle feathered in his jaw. “Don’t look at me like that.”
“With that . . . disgust.”
“I’m not—” But he gave her a sharp look. She sighed. “This . . . all this, Rowan . . .” She waved a hand to the map, to the doors the demi-Fae had passed through, to the sounds of people readying their supplies and defenses in the courtyard. “For whatever it’s worth, all of this just proves that she doesn’t deserve you. I think you know that, too.”
He looked away. “That isn’t your concern.”
“I know. But I thought you should still hear it.”
He didn’t respond, wouldn’t even meet her eyes, so she walked away. She looked over her shoulder once, to find him still hunched over the table, hands braced on its surface, the powerful muscles of his back visible through his shirt. And she knew he wasn’t looking at the map, not really.
But saying that she wished he could return with her to Adarlan, to Terrasen, was pointless. He had no way to break his oath to Maeve, and she had nothing to entice him with even if he could. She was not a queen. She had no plans to be one, and even if she had a kingdom to give him if he were free . . . Telling him all that was useless.
So she left Rowan in the hall. But it did not stop her from wishing she could keep him.
The next afternoon, after washing her face and bandaging a burn on her forearm in Rowan’s room, Celaena was just coming down to help with the dinner preparations when she felt, rather than heard, the ripple of silence through the fortress, deeper and heavier than the nervous quiet that had hovered over the compound the last few days.
The fortress had not been this tense since that first night Maeve had been here.
It was too soon for her aunt to be checking on her. She had little to show so far other than a few somewhat useful tricks and her various shields.
She took the stairs two at a time until she reached the kitchen. If Maeve learned about the invasion and ordered Rowan to leave . . . Breathing, thinking—those were the key tools to enduring this encounter.
The heat and yeasty scent hit her as she bounded down the last steps, slowing her gait, lifting her chin, even though she doubted her aunt would condescend to meet in the kitchen. Unless she wanted her unbalanced. But—
But Maeve was not in the kitchen.
Rowan was, and his back was to her as he stood at the other end with Emrys, Malakai, and Luca, talking quietly. Celaena stopped dead as she beheld at Emrys’s too pale face, the hand gripping Malakai’s arm.
As Rowan turned to her, lips thin and eyes wide with—with shock and horror and grief—the world stopped dead, too.
Rowan’s arms hung slack at his sides, his fingers clenching and unclenching. For a heartbeat, she wondered if she went back upstairs, whatever he had to say would not be true.
Rowan took a step toward her—one step, and that was all it took before she began shaking her head, before she lifted her hands in front of her as if to push him away. “Please,” she said, and her voice broke. “Please.”
Rowan kept approaching, the bearer of some inescapable doom. And she knew that she could not outrun it, and could not fall on her knees and beg for it to be undone.
Rowan stopped within reach but did not touch her, his features hardening again—not from cruelty. Because he knew, she realized, that one of them would have to hold it together. He needed to be calm—needed to keep his wits about him for this.
Rowan swallowed once. Twice. “There was . . . there was an uprising at the Calaculla labor camp,” he said.
Her heart stumbled on a beat.
“After Princess Nehemia was assassinated, they say a slave girl killed her overseer and sparked an uprising. The slaves seized the camp.” He took a shallow breath. “The King of Adarlan sent two legions to get the slaves under control. And they killed them all.”
“The slaves killed his legions?” A push of breath. There were thousands of slaves in Calaculla—all of them together would be a mighty force, even for two of Adarlan’s legions.
With horrific gentleness, Rowan grasped her hand. “No. The soldiers killed every slave in Calaculla.”
A crack in the world, through which a keening wail pushed in like a wave. “There are thousands of people enslaved in Calaculla.”
The resolve in Rowan’s countenance splintered as he nodded. And when he opened and closed his mouth, she realized it was not over. The only word she could breathe was “Endovier?” It was a fool’s plea.
Slowly, so slowly, Rowan shook his head. “Once he got word of the uprising in Eyllwe, the King of Adarlan sent two other legions north. None were spared in Endovier.”
She did not see Rowan’s face when he gripped her arms as if he could keep her from falling into the abyss. No, all she could see were the slaves she’d left behind, the ashy mountains and those mass graves they dug every day, the faces of her people, who had worked beside her—her people whom she had left behind. Whom she had let herself forget, had let suffer; who had prayed for salvation, holding out hope that someone, anyone would remember them.
She had abandoned them—and she had been too late.
Nehemia’s people, the people of other kingdoms, and—and her people. The people of Terrasen. The people her father and mother and court had loved so fiercely. There had been rebels in Endovier—rebels who fought for her kingdom when she . . . when she had been . . .
There were children in Endovier. In Calaculla.
She had not protected them.
The kitchen walls and ceiling crushed her, the air too thin, too hot. Rowan’s face swam as she panted, panted, faster and faster—
He murmured her name too softly for the others to hear.
And the sound of it, that name that had once been a promise to the world, the name she had spat on and defiled, the name she did not deserve . . .
She tore off his grip, and then she was walking out the kitchen door, across the courtyard, through the ward-stones, and along the invisible barrier—until she found a spot just out of sight of the fortress.
The world was full of screaming and wailing, so loud she drowned in it.
Celaena did not utter a sound as she unleashed her magic on the barrier, a blast that shook the trees and set the earth rumbling. She fed her power into the invisible wall, begging the ancient stones to take it, to use it. The wards, as if sensing her intent, devoured her power whole, absorbing every last ember until it flickered, hungry for more.
So she burned and burned and burned.
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