“Don’t ever tell me what that was,” Aelin murmured to him, watching the others quietly finish up their own food. Lysandra muttered her agreement.
Aedion grinned a bit wickedly, surveying the others as well. A few feet away, half in shadow, Manon monitored it all. But Aedion’s gaze lingered on Dorian, and Aelin braced herself. But her cousin’s smile turned softer. “He still eats like a fine lady.”
Dorian’s head snapped up—but Aelin bit back a laugh at the memory. Ten years ago, they’d sat around a table together and she’d told the Havilliard prince what she thought of his table manners. Dorian blinked as the memory no doubt resurfaced, even as the others glanced between them.
The king gave a magnanimous bow. “I’ll take that as a compliment.” Indeed, his hands were mostly clean, his now-dry clothes immaculate.
Her own hands … Aelin fished into a pocket for her handkerchief. The thing was as filthy as the rest of her, but … better than using her pants. She plucked out the Eye of Elena from where it was usually wrapped inside, setting it on her knee as she wiped the smear of spices and fat from her fingers, then offered the scrap of silk to Lysandra. Aelin casually ran her fingers over the bent metal of the Eye as the shifter cleaned her hands, the blue stone in its core flickering with cobalt fire.
“As far as I recall,” Dorian went on with a sly grin, “you two—”
The attack happened so fast that Aelin didn’t sense or see it until it was over.
One moment, Manon was seated at the edge of the fire, the marshes a dark sprawl behind her.
The next, scales and flashing white teeth were snapping for her, erupting from the brush on the bank. And then—stillness and silence as the enormous marsh beast froze in place.
Halted by invisible hands—strong ones.
Manon’s sword was half out, her breathing ragged as she stared down the milky-pink maw spread wide enough to snap off her head. The teeth were each as long as Aelin’s thumb.
Aedion swore. The others didn’t so much as move.
But Dorian’s magic held the beast still, frozen with no ice to be seen. The same power as the one he’d wielded against the Bloodhound. Aelin surveyed him for any tether, any gleaming thread of power, and found none. He hadn’t even lifted a hand to direct it. Interesting.
Dorian said to Manon, the witch still peering into the yawning death inches before her face, “Shall I kill it or set it free?”
Aelin most certainly had an opinion on the matter, but a warning look from Rowan had her shutting her mouth. And gaping a bit at her prince.
Oh, you crafty old bastard. His harsh, tattooed face revealed nothing.
Manon glanced toward Dorian. “Free it.”
The king’s face tightened—then the beast went careening off into the dark, as if a god had hurled it across the marshes. A distant splash sounded.
Lysandra sighed. “Aren’t they beautiful?”
Aelin cut her a look. The shifter grinned.
But Aelin looked back at Rowan, holding his stare. How convenient that your shield vanished right as that thing waddled up. What an excellent opportunity for a magic lesson. What if it had gone wrong?
Rowan’s eyes glittered. Why do you think the hole opened up by the witch?
Aelin swallowed her laugh of dismay. But Manon Blackbeak was taking in the king, her hand still on her sword. Aelin didn’t bother to pretend looking as if she wasn’t watching them as the witch shifted those gold eyes to her. To the Eye of Elena still balanced on Aelin’s knee.
Manon’s lip curled back from her teeth. “Where did you get that.”
The hair on Aelin’s arms rose. “The Eye of Elena? It was a gift.”
But the witch again glanced to Dorian—as if saving her from that thing … Oh, Rowan hadn’t lowered the shield just for a magic lesson, had he? Aelin didn’t dare glance at him this time, not as Manon dipped her fingers into the muddy earth to sketch a shape.
A large circle—and two overlapping circles, one atop the other, within its circumference. “That is the Three-Faced Goddess,” Manon said, her voice low. “We call this …” She drew a rough line in the centermost circle, in the eye-shaped space where they overlapped. “The Eye of the Goddess. Not Elena.” She circled the exterior again. “Crone,” she said of the outermost circumference. She circled the interior top circle: “Mother.” She circled the bottom: “Maiden.” She stabbed the eye inside: “And the heart of the Darkness within her.”
It was Aelin’s turn to shake her head. The others didn’t so much as blink.
Manon said again, “That is an Ironteeth symbol. Blueblood prophets have it tattooed over their hearts. And those who won valor in battle, when we lived in the Wastes … they were once given those. To mark our glory—our being Goddess-blessed.”
Aelin debated chucking the gods-damned amulet into the marsh, but said, “The day I first saw Baba Yellowlegs … the amulet turned heavy and warm in her presence. I thought it was in warning. Perhaps it was in … recognition.”
Manon studied the necklace of scars marring Aelin’s throat. “Its power worked even with magic contained?”
“I was told that certain objects were … exempt.” Aelin’s voice strained. “Baba Yellowlegs knew the entire history of the Wyrdkeys and gates. She was the one who told me about them. Is that a part of your history, too?”
“No. Not in those terms,” Manon said. “But Yellowlegs was an Ancient—she knew things now lost to us. She ripped down the walls of the Crochan city herself.”
“The legends claim the slaughter was … catastrophic,” Dorian said.
Shadows flickered in Manon’s eyes. “That killing field, the last I heard, is still barren. Not a blade of grass grows on it. They say it’s from Rhiannon Crochan’s curse. Or from the blood that soaked it for the final three weeks of that war.”
“What is the curse, exactly?” Lysandra asked, brows furrowing.
Manon examined her iron nails, long enough that Aelin thought she wouldn’t answer. Aedion chucked the wineskin back into her lap, and Aelin swigged from it again as Manon at last replied. “Rhiannon Crochan held the gates to her city for three days and three nights against the three Ironteeth Matrons. Her sisters were dead around her, her children slaughtered, her consort spiked to one of the Ironteeth war caravans. The last Crochan Queen, the final hope of their thousand-year dynasty … She did not go gently. It was only when she fell at dawn on the fourth day that the city was truly lost. And as she lay dying on that killing field, as the Ironteeth ripped down the walls of the city around her and butchered her people … she cursed us. Cursed the three Matrons, and through them, all Ironteeth. She cursed Yellowlegs herself—who gave Rhiannon her finishing blow.”
None of them moved or spoke or breathed too loudly.
“Rhiannon swore on her last breath that we would win the war, but not the land. That for what we had done, we would inherit the land only to see it wilt and die in our hands. Our beasts would shrivel and keel over dead; our witchlings would be stillborn, poisoned by the streams and rivers. Fish would rot in lakes before we could catch them. Rabbits and deer would flee across the mountains. And the once-verdant Witch Kingdom would become a wasteland.
“The Ironteeth laughed at it, drunk on Crochan blood. Until the first Ironteeth witchling was born—dead. And then another and another. Until the cattle rotted in the fields, and the crops withered overnight. By the end of the month, there was no food. By the second, the three Ironteeth Clans were turning on one another, ripping themselves to pieces. So the Matrons ordered us all into exile. Separated the Clans to cross the mountains and wander as we would. Every few decades, they would send groups to try to work the land, to see if the curse still held. Those groups never returned. We have been wanderers for five hundred years—the wound made worse by the fact that humans eventually took it for themselves. And the land responded to them.”
“But you plan to return to it still?” Dorian asked.
Those golden eyes were not of this earth. “Rhiannon Crochan said there was one way—only one—to break the curse.” Manon swallowed and recited in a cold, tight voice, “Blood to blood and soul to soul, together this was done, and only together it can be undone. Be the bridge, be the light. When iron melts, when flowers spring from fields of blood—let the land be witness, and return home.” Manon toyed with the end of her braid, the scrap of red cloak she’d tied around it. “Every Ironteeth witch in the world has pondered that curse. For five centuries, we have tried to break it.”
“And your parents … their union was made in order to break this curse?” Aelin pushed—carefully.
A sharp nod. “I did not know—that Rhiannon’s bloodline survived.” And now ran through Manon’s blue veins.
Dorian mused, “Elena predates the witch wars by a millennium. The Eye had nothing to do with that.” He rubbed his neck. “Right?”
Manon didn’t reply, only extending a foot to wipe away the symbol she’d traced in the dirt.
Aelin drained the rest of the wine and shoved the Eye back into her pocket. “Maybe now you understand,” she said to Dorian, “why I’ve found Elena just a bit difficult to deal with.”
The island was wide enough that a conversation could be had without being overheard.
Rowan supposed that was precisely what his former cadre wanted as they found him on watch atop the vine-choked, crumbling spiral stairwell that overlooked the island and its surroundings. Leaning against a section that had once been the curving wall, Rowan demanded, “What?”
Gavriel said, “You should take Aelin a thousand miles from here. Tonight.”
A wave of his magic and honed instincts told him all was safe in the immediate vicinity, calming the killing rage he’d slipped into at the thought.
Fenrys said, “Whatever awaits us tomorrow, it has been waiting for a long time, Rowan.”
“And how do either of you know this?”
Gavriel’s tawny eyes gleamed animal-bright in the darkness. “Your beloved’s life and the witch’s are entwined. They have been led here, by forces even we cannot understand.”
“Think about it,” Fenrys pushed. “Two females whose paths crossed tonight in a way we’ve rarely witnessed. Two queens, who might control either half of this continent, two sides of one coin. Both half-breeds. Manon, an Ironteeth and a Crochan. Aelin …”
“Human and Fae,” Rowan finished for him.
“Between them, they cover the three main races of this earth. Between the two of them, they are mortal and immortal; one worships fire, the other Darkness. Do I need to go on? It feels as if we’re playing right into the hands of whoever has been running this game—for eons.”
Rowan gave Fenrys a stare that usually had men backing away. Even as he considered it.
Gavriel interrupted to say, “Maeve has been waiting, Rowan. Since Brannon. For someone who would lead her to the keys. For your Aelin.”
Maeve had not mentioned the Lock this spring. She hadn’t mentioned Mala’s ring, either. Rowan said slowly, his words a death promise, “Did Maeve send you because of this Lock, too?”
“No,” Fenrys said. “No—she never mentioned that.” He shifted on his feet, turning toward a distant, brutal roar. “If Maeve and Aelin go to war, Rowan, if they meet on a battlefield …”
He tried not to let himself imagine it. The cataclysmic carnage and destruction.
Perhaps they should have remained in the North, shoring up their defenses.
Fenrys breathed, “Maeve will not allow herself to lose. Already, she’s replaced you.”
Rowan whirled on Gavriel. “Who.”
Those lion’s eyes darkened. “Cairn.”
Rowan’s blood iced over, colder than his magic. “Is she insane?”
“She told us of his promotion a day before we left. He was grinning like a cat with a canary in its mouth as we walked out of the palace.”