Yapping filled the air, and three black dogs sprinted from the center of the caravan to greet them. They were each sleek as arrows—undoubtedly from the Crown Prince’s kennels. She knelt on one knee, her bound wounds protesting as she cupped their heads and stroked their smooth hair. They licked her fingers and face, their tails slashing the ground like whips.
A pair of ebony boots stopped before her, and the dogs immediately calmed and sat. Celaena lifted her gaze to find the sapphire eyes of the Crown Prince of Adarlan studying her face. He smiled slightly. “How unusual for them to notice you,” he said, scratching one of the dogs behind the ears. “Did you give them food?”
She shook her head as the captain stepped behind her, so close that his knees grazed the folds of her forest-green velvet cape. It would take all of two movements to disarm him.
“Are you fond of dogs?” asked the prince. She nodded. Why was it already so hot? “Am I going to be blessed with the pleasure of hearing your voice, or have you resolved to be silent for the duration of our journey?”
“I’m afraid your questions didn’t merit a verbal response.”
Dorian bowed low. “Then I apologize, my lady! How terrible it must be to condescend to answer! Next time, I’ll try to think of something more stimulating to say.” With that, he turned on his heel and strode away, his dogs trailing after him.
She scowled as she stood. Her frown deepened when she discovered the Captain of the Guard smirking as they walked into the fray of the readying company. However, the unbearable urge to splatter someone across a wall lessened when they brought her a piebald mare to ride.
She mounted. The sky came closer, and it stretched forever above her, away and away to distant lands she’d never heard of. Celaena gripped the saddle horn. She was truly leaving Endovier. All those hopeless months, those freezing nights . . . gone now. She breathed in deeply. She knew—she just knew—that if she tried hard enough, she could fly from her saddle. That is, until she felt iron clamp around her arms.
It was Chaol, fastening her bandaged wrists into shackles. A long chain led to his horse, where it disappeared beneath the saddlebags. He mounted his black stallion, and she considered leaping from her horse and using the chain to hang him from the nearest tree.
It was a rather large company, twenty all together. Behind two imperial flag-bearing guards rode the prince and Duke Perrington. Then came a band of six royal guards, dull and bland as porridge. But still trained to protect him—from her. She clanked her chains against her saddle and flicked her eyes to Chaol. He didn’t react.
The sun rose higher. After one last inspection of their supplies, they left. With most of the slaves working the mines, and only a few toiling inside the ramshackle refining sheds, the giant yard was almost deserted. The wall suddenly loomed, and her blood throbbed in her veins. The last time she’d been this close to the wall . . .
The crack of the whip sounded, followed by a scream. Celaena looked over her shoulder, past the guards and the supplies wagon, to the near-empty yard. None of these slaves would ever leave here—even when they died. Each week, they dug new mass graves behind the refining sheds. And each week, those graves filled up.
She became all too aware of the three long scars down her back. Even if she won her freedom . . . even if she lived in peace in the countryside . . . those scars would always remind her of what she’d endured. And that even if she was free, others were not.
Celaena faced forward, pushing those thoughts from her mind as they entered the passage through the wall. The interior was thick, almost smoky, and damp. The sounds of the horses echoed like rolling thunder. The iron gates opened, and she glimpsed the wicked name of the mine before it split in two and swung wide. Within a few heartbeats, the gates groaned shut behind them. She was out.
She shifted her hands in their shackles, watching the chains sway and clank between her and the Captain of the Guard. It was attached to his saddle, which was cinched around his horse, which, when they stopped, could be subtly unbridled, just enough so that with a fierce tug from her end, the chain would rip the saddle off the beast, he’d tumble to the ground, and she would—
She sensed Captain Westfall’s attention. He stared at her beneath lowered brows, his lips tightly pursed, and she shrugged as she dropped the chain.
As the morning wore on, the sky became a crisp blue with hardly a cloud. Taking the forest road, they swiftly passed from the mountainous wasteland of Endovier and into fairer country.
By midmorning they were within Oakwald Forest, the wood that surrounded Endovier and served as a continental divide between the “civilized” countries of the East and the uncharted lands of the West. Legends were still told of the strange and deadly people who dwelt there—the cruel and bloodthirsty descendents of the fallen Witch Kingdom. Celaena had once met a young woman from that cursed land, and though she’d turned out to be both cruel and bloodthirsty, she was still just a human. And had still bled like one.
After hours of silence, Celaena turned to Chaol. “Rumor has it that once the king is finished with his war against Wendlyn, he’ll begin colonizing the West.” She said it casually, but hoped he’d confirm or deny. The more she knew of the king’s current position and maneuverings, the better. The captain surveyed her up and down, frowned, and then looked away. “I agree,” she said, sighing loudly. “The fate of those empty, wide plains and those miserable mountain regions seems dull to me as well.”
His jaw tightened as he clamped his teeth.
“Do you intend to ignore me forever?”
Captain Westfall’s brows rose. “I didn’t know I was ignoring you.”
She pursed her lips, checking her irritation. She wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. “How old are you?”
“So young!” She batted her eyelashes, watching him for some kind of response. “It only took a few years to climb the ranks?”
He nodded. “And how old are you?”
“Eighteen.” But he said nothing. “I know,” she continued. “It is impressive that I accomplished so much at such an early age.”
“Crime isn’t an accomplishment, Sardothien.”
“Yes, but becoming the world’s most famous assassin is!” He didn’t respond. “You might ask me how I did it.”
“Did what?” he said tightly.
“Became so talented and famous so quickly.”
“I don’t want to hear about it.”
Those weren’t the words she’d wanted to hear.
“You’re not very kind,” she said through her teeth. If she were going to get under his skin, she’d have to push a lot harder.
“You’re a criminal. I’m Captain of the Royal Guard. I’m not obligated to bestow any kindness or conversation upon you. Be grateful we don’t keep you locked up in the wagon.”
“Yes, well, I’d wager that you’re rather unpleasant to talk to even when you’re bestowing kindness upon others.” When he failed to respond again, Celaena couldn’t help but feel a bit foolish. A few minutes passed. “Are you and the Crown Prince close friends?”
“My personal life is none of your concern.”
She clicked her tongue. “How wellborn are you?”
“Well enough.” His chin lifted almost imperceptibly higher.
“Lord?” He didn’t reply, and she smiled slowly. “Lord Chaol Westfall.” She fanned herself with a hand. “How the court ladies must fawn over you!”
“Don’t call me that. I’m not given the title of lord,” he said quietly.
“You have an older brother?”
“Then why don’t you bear the title?” Again, no response. She knew she should stop prying, but she couldn’t help it. “A scandal? A deprived birthright? In what sort of messy intrigue are you involved?”
His lips squeezed together so tightly they turned white.
She leaned toward him. “Do you find that—”
“Shall I gag you, or are you capable of being silent without my assistance?” He stared ahead at the Crown Prince, his face blank again.
She tried not to laugh when he grimaced as she began speaking again. “Are you married?”
She picked at her nails. “I’m not married, either.” His nostrils flared. “How old were you when you became Captain of the Guard?”
He gripped the reins of his horse. “Twenty.”
The party halted in a clearing and the soldiers dismounted. She faced Chaol, who swung a leg over his horse. “Why have we stopped?”
Chaol unhooked the chain from his saddle and gave it a firm yank, motioning for her to dismount. “Lunch,” he said.
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.