He carried her through the fog-wrapped town, to where their boat was tied. Already, onlookers had gathered, no doubt to scavenge their supplies when the ilken left. A snarl from Lorcan had them skittering into the mist.
As he stepped onto the barge, the boat rocking beneath him, Elide said, “He told me you’d left.”
Lorcan still didn’t set her down, holding her aloft with one arm as he untied the ropes. “You believed him.”
She wiped at the blood on her face, then winced at the tender wrist—and broken nose. He’d have to tend to that. Even then, it might very well be slightly crooked forever. He doubted she’d care.
Knew she’d perhaps see that crooked nose as a sign that she’d fought and survived.
Lorcan put her down at last, atop the crate of apples—right where he could see her. She sat silently as he took up the pole and pushed them away from the dock, from that hateful town, glad for the cover of mist as they drifted downstream. They could perhaps afford two more days on the river before they’d have to cut inland to shake any enemies trailing them. Good thing they were close enough to Eyllwe now to make it in a matter of days on foot.
When there was nothing but wafting mist and the lapping of the river against the boat, Lorcan spoke again. “You wouldn’t have stopped that dagger.”
She didn’t respond, and the silence went on long enough that he turned to where she perched on the crate.
Tears rolled down her face as she stared at the water.
He didn’t know how to comfort, how to soothe—not in the way she needed.
So he set down the pole and sat beside her on the crate, the wood groaning. “Who is Manon?”
He’d heard most of what Vernon had hissed inside that private dining room while he’d been setting his trap in the courtyard, but some details had evaded him.
“The Wing Leader of the Ironteeth legion,” Elide said, voice trembling, the words snagging on the blood clogging her nose.
Lorcan took a shot in the dark. “She was the one who got you out. That day—she was why you’re in witch leathers, why you wound up wandering in Oakwald.”
“And Kaltain—who was she?” The person who’d given her that thing she carried.
“Erawan’s mistress—his slave. She was my age. He put the stone inside her arm and made her into a living ghost. She bought me and Manon time to run; she incinerated most of Morath in the process, and herself.”
Elide reached into her jacket, her breathing thick with tears still sliding down her face. Lorcan’s breath caught as she pulled out a scrap of dark fabric.
The scent clinging to it was female, foreign—broken and sad and cold. But there was another scent beneath it, one he knew and hated …
“Kaltain said to give this to Celaena—not to Aelin,” Elide said, shaking with her tears. “Because Celaena … she gave her a warm cloak in a cold dungeon. And they wouldn’t let Kaltain take the cloak with her when they brought her to Morath, but she managed to save this scrap. To remember to repay Celaena for that kindness. But … what sort of gift is this thing? What is this?” She pulled back the fold of cloth, revealing a dark sliver of stone.
Every drop of blood in his body went cold and hot, awake and dead.
She was sobbing quietly. “Why is this payment? My very bones say to not touch it. My—a voice told me not to even think about it …”
It was wrong. The thing in her beautiful, filthy hand was wrong. It did not belong here, should not be here—
The god who had watched over him his whole life had recoiled.
Even death feared it.
“Put it away,” he said roughly. “Right now.”
Hand shaking, she did so. Only when it was hidden inside her jacket did he say, “Let’s clean you up first. Set that nose and wrist. I’ll tell you what I know while I do.”
She nodded, gaze on the river.
Lorcan reached out, grasping her chin and forcing her to look at him. Hopeless, bleak eyes met his. He brushed away a stray tear with his thumb. “I made a promise to protect you. I will not break it, Elide.”
She made to pull away, but he gripped her a little harder, keeping her eyes on him.
“I will always find you,” he swore to her.
Her throat bobbed.
Lorcan whispered, “I promise.”
Elide sifted through all Lorcan had told her while he cleaned her face, inspected her nose and wrist, bound the latter in soft cloth, and quickly, but not viciously, set her nose.
Aelin had one Wyrdkey. Was looking for the other two.
Soon to be only one more, once Elide gave her the key she carried.
Two keys—against one. Perhaps they would win this war.
Even if Elide didn’t know how Aelin could use them and not destroy herself. But … she’d leave it up to her. Erawan might have the armies, but if Aelin had two keys …
She tried not to think about Manon. Vernon had lied about Lorcan leaving—to break her spirit, to get her to come willingly. Perhaps Manon was not dead, either.
She wouldn’t believe it until she had proof. Until the whole world screamed at her that the Wing Leader was gone.
Lorcan was back at the prow by the time she’d changed into one of his own shirts while her leathers dried. Her wrist throbbed, a dull, insistent ache, her face was no better and Lorcan had promised she’d likely have a black eye from it, but … her head was clear.
She came up beside him, watching him push the pole against the mucky bottom of the river. “I killed those things.”
“You did a fine job of it,” he said.
“I don’t regret it.”
Dark, depthless eyes slid to her. “Good.”
She didn’t know why she said it, why she felt a need or like it was worth anything to him at all, but Elide stood on her toes, kissed his stubble-rough cheek, and said, “I will always find you, too, Lorcan.”
She felt him staring at her, even when she’d climbed into bed minutes later.
When she awoke, clean strips of linen for her cycle were next to the bed.
His own shirt, washed and dried overnight—now cut up for her to use as she would.
Eyllwe’s coast was burning.
For three days, they sailed past village after village. Some still burning, some only cinders. And at each of them, Aelin and Rowan had labored to put out those flames.
Rowan, in his hawk form, could fly in, but … It killed her. Absolutely killed her that they could not afford to halt long enough to go to shore. So she did it from the ship, burrowing deep into her power, stretching it as far as it could go across sea and sky and sand, to wink out those fires one by one.
By the end of the third day, she was flagging, so thirsty that no amount of water was able to slake it, her lips chapped and peeling.
Rowan had gone to shore three times now to ask who had done it.
Each time the answer was the same: darkness had swept over them in the night, the kind that blotted out the stars, and then the villages were burning beneath flaming arrows not spotted until they had found their targets.
But where that darkness, where Erawan’s forces were … there was no sign of them.
No sign of Maeve, either.
Rowan and Lysandra had flown high and wide, searching for either force, but … nothing.
Ghosts, some villagers were now claiming, had attacked them. The ghosts of their unburied dead, raging home from distant lands.
Until they started whispering another rumor.
That Aelin Galathynius herself was burning Eyllwe, village by village. For vengeance that they had not aided her kingdom ten years ago.
No matter that she was putting out the flames. They did not believe Rowan when he tried to explain who soothed their fires from aboard the distant ship.
He told her not to listen, not to let it sink in. So she tried.
And it had been during one of those times that Rowan had run his thumb over the scar on her palm, leaning to kiss her neck. He’d breathed her in, and she knew he detected an answer to the question that had caused him to flee that morning on the ship. No, she was not carrying his child.
They had only discussed the matter once—last week. When she’d crawled off him, panting and coated in sweat, and he’d asked if she was taking a tonic. She merely told him no.
He’d gone still.
And then she had explained that if she’d inherited so much of Mab’s Fae blood, she might very well have inherited the Fae’s struggle to conceive. And even if the timing was horrible … if this was to be the one shot she had of providing Terrasen a bloodline, a future … she would not waste it. His green eyes turned distant, but he’d nodded, kissing her shoulder. And that had been that.
She hadn’t mustered the nerve to ask if he wanted to sire her children. If he wanted to have children, given what had happened to Lyria.
And during that brief moment before he’d flown back to shore to put out more flames, she hadn’t possessed the nerve to explain why she’d hurled her guts up that morning, either.
The past three days had been a blur. From the moment Fenrys had uttered those words, Nameless is my price, everything had been a blur of smoke and flame and waves and sun.
But as the sun set on the third day, Aelin again shoved those thoughts away as the escort ship began signaling ahead, the crew frantically working to drop anchor.
Sweat beaded on her brow, her tongue parchment-dry. But she forgot her thirst, her exhaustion, as she beheld what Rolfe’s men had spied moments ago.
A flat, waterlogged land under a cloudy sky spread inland as far as the eye could see. Moldy green and bone-white grasses crusted the bumps and hollows, little islands of life among the mirror-smooth gray water between them. And among them all, jutting up from brackish water and humped land like the limbs of an ill-buried corpse … ruins. Great, crumbling ruins, a once-lovely city drowned on the plain.
The Stone Marshes.
Manon let the humans and Fae meet with the captains of the other two ships.
She heard the news soon enough: what they sought lay about a day and a half inland. Precisely where, they didn’t know—or how long it’d take to find its exact location. Until they returned, the ships would remain anchored here.
And Manon, it seemed, would join them on their trip inland. As if the queen suspected that if she were left behind, their little fleet would not be intact when they returned.
But that was the other problem. The one facing Manon right now, already looking anxious and put-out.
Abraxos’s tail lashed a bit, the iron spikes scraping and scratching the pristine ship deck. As if he’d heard the queen’s order a minute ago: the wyvern has to go.
On the flat, open expanse of the marshes, he’d be too noticeable.
Manon placed a hand on his scarred snout, meeting those depthless black eyes. “You need to lie low somewhere.”
A warm, sorrowful huff into her palm.
“Don’t whine about it,” Manon said, even as something twisted and roiled in her belly. “Stay out of sight, keep alert, and come back in four days’ time.” She allowed herself to lean forward, resting her brow against his snout. His growl rumbled her bones. “We’ve been a pair, you and I. A few days is nothing, my friend.”
He nudged her head with his own.
Manon swallowed hard. “You saved my life. Many times. I never thanked you for it.”
Abraxos let out another low whine.
“You and me,” she promised him. “From now until the Darkness claims us.”
She made herself pull away. Made herself stroke his snout just once more. Then backed a step. Then another. “Go.”
He didn’t move. She bared her iron teeth. “Go.”
Abraxos gave her a look full of reproach, but his body tensed, wings lifting.
And Manon decided she had never hated anyone more than she hated the Queen of Terrasen and her friends. For making him leave. For causing this parting, when so many dangers had not been able to cleave them.
But Abraxos was airborne, the sails groaning in the wind of his wings, and Manon watched until he was a speck on the horizon, until the longboats were being readied to bring them to the high grasses and stagnant gray water of the marshes beyond.