“Did you expect anything else?” she interrupted. Chaol’s hand darted to his sword as the soldiers turned to her, some of them sneering. “This isn’t just any forest.” She beckoned with her fork to the woods. “It’s Brannon’s forest.”
“My father used to tell me stories about it being full of faeries,” a soldier said. “They’re all gone now.” One took a bite from an apple, and said: “Along with those damned wretched Fae.” Another said: “We got rid of them, didn’t we?”
“I’d watch your tongues,” Celaena snapped. “King Brannon was Fae, and Oakwald is still his. I wouldn’t be surprised if some of the trees remember him.”
The soldiers laughed. “They’d have to be two thousand years old, them trees!” said one.
“Fae are immortal,” she said.
Bristling, Celaena shook her head and took another small forkful of food.
“What do you know about this forest?” Chaol quietly asked her. Was he mocking her? The soldiers sat forward, poised to laugh. But the captain’s golden-brown eyes held mere curiosity.
She swallowed her meat. “Before Adarlan began its conquest, this forest was cloaked in magic,” she said softly, but not meekly.
He waited for her to continue, but she had said enough. “And?” he prodded.
“And that’s all I know,” she said, meeting his gaze. Disappointed at the lack of anything to mock, the soldiers returned to their meals.
She had lied, and Chaol knew it. She knew plenty about this forest, knew that the denizens of this place had once been faeries: gnomes, sprites, nymphs, goblins, more names than anyone could count or remember. All ruled by their larger, human-like cousins, the immortal Fae—the original inhabitants and settlers of the continent, and the oldest beings in Erilea.
With the growing corruption of Adarlan and the king’s campaign to hunt them down and execute them, the faeries and Fae fled, seeking shelter in the wild, untouched places of the world. The King of Adarlan had outlawed it all—magic, Fae, faeries—and removed any trace so thoroughly that even those who had magic in their blood almost believed it had never really existed, Celaena herself being one of them. The king had claimed that magic was an affront to the Goddess and her gods—that to wield it was to impertinently imitate their power. But even though the king had banned magic, most knew the truth: within a month of his proclamation, magic had completely and utterly disappeared of its own accord. Perhaps it had realized what horrors were coming.
She could still smell the fires that had raged throughout her eighth and ninth years—the smoke of burning books chock-full of ancient, irreplaceable knowledge, the screams of gifted seers and healers as they’d been consumed by the flames, the storefronts and sacred places shattered and desecrated and erased from history. Many of the magic-users who hadn’t been burned wound up prisoners in Endovier—and most didn’t survive long there. It had been a while since she’d contemplated the gifts she’d lost, though the memory of her abilities haunted her dreams. Despite the carnage, perhaps it was good that magic had vanished. It was far too dangerous for any sane person to wield; her gifts might have destroyed her by this point.
The smoking fire burned her eyes as she took another bite. She’d never forget the stories about Oakwald Forest, legends of dark, terrible glens and deep, still pools, and caves full of light and heavenly singing. But they were now only stories and nothing more. To speak of them was to invite trouble.
She looked at the sunlight filtering through the canopy, how the trees swayed in the wind with their long, bony arms around each other. She suppressed a shiver.
Lunch, thankfully, was over quickly. Her chains were transferred to her wrists again, and the horses were refreshed and reloaded. Celaena’s legs had become so stiff that Chaol was forced to help her onto her horse. It was painful to ride, and her nose also suffered a blow as the continual stench of horse sweat and excrement floated to the back of the entourage.
They traveled for the remainder of the day, and the assassin sat in silence as she watched the forest pass, the tightness in her chest not easing until they’d left that shimmering glen far behind. Her body ached by the time they stopped for the night. She didn’t bother to speak at dinner, nor to care when her small tent was erected, guards posted outside, and she was allowed to sleep, still shackled to one of them. She didn’t dream, but when she awoke, she couldn’t believe her eyes.
Small white flowers lay at the foot of her cot, and many infant-sized footprints led in and out of the tent. Before someone could enter and notice, Celaena swept a foot over the tracks, destroying any trace, and stuffed the flowers into a nearby satchel.
Though no one mentioned another word about faeries, as they traveled onward, Celaena continually scanned the soldiers’ faces for any indication that they’d seen something strange. She spent a good portion of the following day with sweaty palms and a racing heartbeat, and kept one eye fixed on the passing woods.
For the next two weeks, they traveled down through the continent, the nights becoming colder, the days shorter. Icy rain kept them company for four days, during which time Celaena was so miserably cold that she contemplated throwing herself into a ravine, hopefully dragging Chaol with her.
Everything was wet and half-frozen, and while she could bear sodden hair, she couldn’t withstand the agony of wet shoes. She had little sensation in her toes. Each night, she wrapped them in whatever spare, dry clothing she could find. She felt as though she were in a state of partial decay, and with each gust of frigid, stinging wind, she wondered when her skin would rip from her bones. But, as it was autumn weather, the rain suddenly disappeared, and cloudless, brilliant skies once more stretched over them.
Celaena was half-asleep on her horse when the Crown Prince pulled out of line and came trotting toward them, his dark hair bouncing. His red cape rose and fell in a crimson wave. Above his unadorned white shirt was a fine cobalt-blue jerkin trimmed with gold. She would have snorted, but he did look rather good in his knee-high brown boots. And his leather belt did go nicely—even though the hunting knife seemed a bit too bejeweled. He pulled up alongside Chaol. “Come,” he said to the captain, and jerked his head at the steep, grassy hill that the company was starting to ascend.
“Where?” the captain asked, jangling Celaena’s chain for Dorian to notice. Wherever he went, she went.
“Come see the view,” Dorian clarified. “Bring that one, I suppose.” Celaena bristled. “That one”! As if she were a piece of baggage!
Chaol moved them out of line, giving her chain a fierce tug. She grasped the reins as they advanced into a gallop, the tangy smell of horsehair creeping into her nostrils. They rode quickly up the steep hill, the horse jerking and surging beneath her. Celaena tried not to wince as she slid backward in the saddle. If she fell, she’d die of humiliation. But the setting sun emerged from the trees behind them, and her breath caught in her throat as a spire, then three, then six more appeared, piercing the sky.
Atop the hill, Celaena stared at the crowning achievement of Adarlan. The glass castle of Rifthold.
It was gargantuan, a vertical city of shimmering, crystalline towers and bridges, chambers and turrets, domed ballrooms and long, endless hallways. It had been built above the original stone castle, and cost a kingdom’s wealth to construct.
She thought of the first time she’d seen it, eight years ago, cold and still, frozen like the earth beneath her fat pony. Even then, she found the castle tasteless, a waste of resources and talent, its towers reaching into the sky like clawed fingers. She remembered the powder-blue cloak that she kept touching, the weight of her fresh curls, the scratch of her stockings against the saddle, how she’d worried about the spot of mud on her red velvet shoes, and how she kept on thinking about that man—the man she’d killed three days earlier.
“One more tower and the whole thing will collapse,” the Crown Prince said from his spot on the other side of Chaol. The sounds of their approaching party filled the air. “We’ve still got a few miles left, and I’d rather navigate these foothills in the daylight. We’ll camp here tonight.”
“I wonder what your father will think of her,” Chaol said.
“Oh, he’ll be fine—until she opens her mouth. Then the bellowing and the blustering will begin, and I’ll regret wasting the past two months tracking her down. But—well, I think my father has more important matters to worry over.” With that, the prince moved off.
Celaena couldn’t keep her eyes from the castle. She felt so small, even from far away. She’d forgotten how dwarfing the building was.
The soldiers scurried about, lighting fires and raising tents. “You look as if you’re facing the gallows, not your freedom,” the captain said beside her.
She wound and unwound a strap of leather rein around a finger. “It’s odd to see it.”
“The city, the castle, the slums, the river.” The shadow of the castle grew across the city like a hulking beast. “I still don’t entirely know how it happened.”
“How you were captured?”
She nodded. “Despite your visions of a perfect world under an empire, your rulers and politicians are quick to destroy each other. So are assassins, I suppose.”
“You believe one of your kind betrayed you?”
“Everyone knew I received the best hires and could demand any payment.” She scanned the twisting city streets and the winding glimmer of the river. “Were I gone, a vacancy would arise from which they could profit. It might have been one; it might have been many.”
“You shouldn’t expect to find honor amongst such company.”
“I didn’t say that I did. I never trusted most of them, and I knew they hated me.” She had her suspicions, of course. And the one that seemed most likely was a truth she wasn’t yet ready to face—not now, not ever.
“Endovier must have been terrible,” Chaol said. Nothing malicious or mocking lay beneath his words. Did she dare call it sympathy?
“Yes,” she said slowly. “It was.” He gave her a look that asked for more. Well, what did she care if she told him? “When I arrived, they cut my hair, gave me rags, and put a pickax in my hand as if I knew what to do with it. They chained me to the others, and I endured my whippings with the rest of them. But the overseers had been instructed to treat me with extra care, and took the liberty of rubbing salt into my wounds—salt I mined—and whipped me often enough so that some of the gashes never really closed. It was through the kindness of a few prisoners from Eyllwe that my wounds didn’t become infected. Every night, one of them stayed up the hours it took to clean my back.”
Chaol didn’t reply, and only glanced at her before dismounting. Had she been a fool to tell him something so personal? He didn’t speak to her again that day, except to bark commands.
Celaena awoke with a gasp, a hand on her throat, cold sweat sliding down her back and pooling in the hollow between her mouth and chin. She’d had the nightmare before—that she was lying in one of those mass graves in Endovier. And when she tried to pull herself from the tangle of rotting limbs, she’d been dragged down into a pile twenty bodies deep. And then no one noticed that she was still screaming when they buried her alive.
Nauseated, Celaena wrapped her arms around her knees. She breathed—in and out, in and out—and tilted her head, her sharp kneecaps pushing against her cheekbone. Due to the unseasonably warm weather, they’d foregone sleeping in tents—which gave her an unparalleled view of the capital. The illuminated castle rose from the sleeping city like a mound of ice and steam. There was something greenish about it, and it seemed to pulse.