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Kingdom of Ash, Page 2

Sarah J. Maas

  What dwelled out there, who dared make a living beyond any recognized border, Aedion didn’t know. Just as he didn’t know why these soldiers had ventured so far into the mountains.

  But he’d find out soon enough.

  The demon company passed beneath them, and Aedion and Ren shifted to reposition their bows.

  A straight shot down into the skull. He picked his mark.

  Aedion’s nod was the only signal before his arrow flew.

  Black blood was still steaming in the snow when the fighting stopped.

  It had lasted only a few minutes. Just a few, after Ren and Aedion’s arrows found their targets and Lysandra had leaped from her perch to shred three others. And rip the muscles from the calves of the sixth and sole surviving member of the company.

  The demon moaned as Aedion stalked toward him, the snow at the man’s feet now jet-black, his legs in ribbons. Like scraps of a banner in the wind.

  Lysandra sat near his head, her maw stained ebony and her green eyes fixed on the man’s pale face. Needle-sharp claws gleamed from her massive paws.

  Behind them, Ren checked the others for signs of life. His sword rose and fell, decapitating them before the frigid air could render them too stiff to hack through.

  “Traitorous filth,” the demon seethed at Aedion, narrow face curdling with hate. The reek of him stuffed itself up Aedion’s nostrils, coating his senses like oil.

  Aedion drew the knife at his side—the long, wicked dagger Rowan Whitethorn had gifted him—and smiled grimly. “This can go quickly, if you’re smart.”

  The Valg soldier spat on Aedion’s snow-crusted boots.

  Allsbrook Castle had stood with the Staghorns at its back and Oakwald at its feet for over five hundred years.

  Pacing before the roaring fire ablaze in one of its many oversized hearths, Aedion could count the marks of every brutal winter upon the gray stones. Could feel the weight of the castle’s storied history on those stones, too—the years of valor and service, when these halls had been full of singing and warriors, and the long years of sorrow that followed.

  Ren had claimed a worn, tufted armchair set to one side of the fire, his forearms braced on his thighs as he stared into the flame. They’d arrived late last night, and even Aedion had been too drained from the trek through snowbound Oakwald to take the grand tour. And after what they’d done this afternoon, he doubted he’d muster the energy to do so now.

  The once-great hall was hushed and dim beyond their fire, and above them, faded tapestries and crests from the Allsbrook family’s banner men swayed in the draft creeping through the high windows that lined one side of the chamber. An assortment of birds nested in the rafters, hunkered down against the lethal cold beyond the keep’s ancient walls.

  And amongst them, a green-eyed falcon listened to every word.

  “If Erawan’s searching for a way into Terrasen,” Ren said at last, “the mountains would be foolish.” He frowned toward the discarded trays of food they’d devoured minutes ago. Hearty mutton stew and roasted root vegetables. Most of it bland, but it had been hot. “The land does not forgive easily out here. He’d lose countless troops to the elements alone.”

  “Erawan does nothing without reason,” Aedion countered. “The easiest route to Terrasen would be up through the farmlands, on the northern roads. It’s where anyone would expect him to march. Either there, or to launch his forces from the coast.”

  “Or both—by land and sea.”

  Aedion nodded. Erawan had spread his net wide in his desire to stomp out what resistance had arisen on this continent. Gone was the guise of Adarlan’s empire: from Eyllwe to Adarlan’s northern border, from the shores of the Great Ocean to the towering wall of mountains that cleaved their continent in two, the Valg king’s shadow grew every day. Aedion doubted that Erawan would stop before he clamped black collars around all their necks.

  And if Erawan attained the two other Wyrdkeys, if he could open the Wyrdgate at will and unleash hordes of Valg from his own realm, perhaps even enslave armies from other worlds and wield them for conquest … There would be no chance of stopping him. In this world, or any other.

  All hope of preventing that horrible fate now lay with Dorian Havilliard and Manon Blackbeak. Where they’d gone these months, what had befallen them, Aedion hadn’t heard a whisper. Which he supposed was a good sign. Their survival lay in secrecy.

  Aedion said, “So for Erawan to waste a scouting party to find small mountain passes seems unwise.” He scratched at his stubble-coated cheek. They’d left before dawn yesterday, and he’d opted for sleep over a shave. “It doesn’t make sense, strategically. The witches can fly, so sending scouts to learn the pitfalls of the terrain is of little use. But if the information is for terrestrial armies … Squeezing forces through small passes like that would take months, not to mention risk the weather.”

  “Their scout just kept laughing,” said Ren, shaking his head. His shoulder-length black hair moved with him. “What are we missing here? What aren’t we seeing?” In the firelight, the slashing scar down his face was starker. A reminder of the horrors Ren had endured, and the ones his family hadn’t survived.

  “It could be to keep us guessing. To make us reposition our forces.” Aedion braced a hand on the mantel, the warm stone seeping into his still-chilled skin.

  Ren had indeed readied the Bane the months Aedion had been away, working closely with Kyllian to position them as far south from Orynth as Darrow’s leash would allow. Which, it turned out, was barely beyond the foothills lining the southernmost edge of the Plain of Theralis.

  Ren had since yielded control to Aedion, though the Lord of Allsbrook’s reunion with Aelin had been frosty. As cold as the snow whipping outside this keep, to be exact.

  Lysandra had played the role well, mastering Aelin’s guilt and impatience. And since then, wisely avoiding any situation where they might talk about the past. Not that Ren had demonstrated a desire to reminisce about the years before Terrasen’s fall. Or the events of last winter.

  Aedion could only hope that Erawan also remained unaware that they no longer had the Fire-Bringer in their midst. What Terrasen’s own troops would say or do when they realized Aelin’s flame would not shield them in battle, he didn’t want to consider.

  “It could also be a true maneuver that we were lucky enough to discover,” Ren mused. “So do we risk moving troops to the passes? There are some already in the Staghorns behind Orynth, and on the northern plains beyond it.”

  A clever move on Ren’s part—to convince Darrow to let him station part of the Bane behind Orynth, should Erawan sail north and attack from there. He’d put nothing past the bastard.

  “I don’t want the Bane spread too thin,” said Aedion, studying the fire. So different, this flame—so different from Aelin’s fire. As if the one before him were a ghost compared to the living thing that was his queen’s magic. “And we still don’t have enough troops to spare.”

  Even with Aelin’s desperate, bold maneuvering, the allies she’d won didn’t come close to the full might of Morath. And all that gold she’d amassed did little to buy them more—not when there were few left to even entice to join their cause.

  “Aelin didn’t seem too concerned when she flitted off to Eldrys,” Ren murmured.

  For a moment, Aedion was on a spit of blood-soaked sand.

  An iron box. Maeve had whipped her and put her in a veritable coffin. And sailed off to Mala-knew-where, an immortal sadist with them.

  “Aelin,” said Aedion, dredging up a drawl as best he could, even as the lie choked him, “has her own plans that she’ll only tell us about when the time is right.”

  Ren said nothing. And though the queen Ren believed had returned was an illusion, Aedion added, “Everything she does is for Terrasen.”

  He’d said such horrible things to her that day she’d taken down the ilken. Where are our allies? he’d demanded. He was still trying to forgive himself for it. For any of it. All that he had wa
s this one chance to make it right, to do as she’d asked and save their kingdom.

  Ren glanced to the twin swords he’d discarded on the ancient table behind them. “She still left.” Not for Eldrys, but ten years ago.

  “We’ve all made mistakes this past decade.” The gods knew Aedion had plenty to atone for.

  Ren tensed, as if the choices that haunted him had nipped at his back.

  “I never told her,” Aedion said quietly, so that the falcon sitting in the rafters might not hear. “About the opium den in Rifthold.”

  About the fact that Ren had known the owner, and had frequented the woman’s establishment plenty before the night Aedion and Chaol had hauled in a nearly unconscious Ren to hide from the king’s men.

  “You can be a real prick, you know that?” Ren’s voice turned hoarse.

  “I’d never use that against you.” Aedion held the young lord’s raging dark stare, let Ren feel the dominance simmering within his own. “What I meant to say, before you flew off the handle,” he added when Ren’s mouth opened again, “was that Aelin offered you a place in this court without knowing that part of your past.” A muscle flickered in Ren’s jaw. “But even if she had, Ren, she still would have made that offer.”

  Ren studied the stone floor beneath their boots. “There is no court.”

  “Darrow can scream it all he wants, but I beg to differ.” Aedion slid into the armchair across from Ren’s. If Ren truly backed Aelin, with Elide Lochan now returned, and Sol and Ravi of Suria likely to support her, it gave his queen three votes in her favor. Against the four opposing her.

  There was little hope that Lysandra’s vote, as Lady of Caraverre, would be recognized.

  The shifter had not asked to see the land that was to be her home if they survived this war. Had only changed into a falcon on the trek here and flown off for a while. When she’d returned, she’d said nothing, though her green eyes had been bright.

  No, Caraverre would not be recognized as a territory, not until Aelin took up her throne.

  Until Lysandra instead was crowned queen, if his own did not return.

  She would return. She had to.

  A door opened at the far end of the hall, followed by rushing, light steps. He rose a heartbeat before a joyous “Aedion!” sang over the stones.

  Evangeline was beaming, clad head to toe in green woolen clothes bordered with white fur, her red-gold hair hanging in two plaits. Like the mountain girls of Terrasen.

  Her scars stretched wide as she grinned, and Aedion threw open his arms just before she launched herself on him. “They said you arrived late last night, but you left before first light, and I was worried I’d miss you again—”

  Aedion pressed a kiss to the top of her head. “You look like you’ve grown a full foot since I last saw you.”

  Evangeline’s citrine eyes glowed as she glanced between him and Ren. “Where’s—”

  A flash of light, and there she was.

  Shining. Lysandra seemed to be shining as she swept a cloak around her bare body, the garment left on a nearby chair for precisely this purpose. Evangeline hurled herself into the shifter’s arms, half sobbing with joy. Evangeline’s shoulders shook, and Lysandra smiled, deeply and warmly, stroking the girl’s head. “You’re well?”

  For all the world, the shifter would have seemed calm, serene. But Aedion knew her—knew her moods, her secret tells. Knew that the slight tremor in her words was proof of the raging torrent beneath the beautiful surface.

  “Oh, yes,” Evangeline said, pulling away to beam toward Ren. “He and Lord Murtaugh brought me here soon after. Fleetfoot’s with him, by the way. Murtaugh, I mean. She likes him better than me, because he sneaks her treats all day. She’s fatter than a lazy house cat now.”

  Lysandra laughed, and Aedion smiled. The girl had been well cared for.

  As if realizing it herself, Lysandra murmured to Ren, her voice a soft purr, “Thank you.”

  Red tinted Ren’s cheeks as he rose to his feet. “I thought she’d be safer here than in the war camp. More comfortable, at least.”

  “Oh, it’s the most wonderful place, Lysandra,” Evangeline chirped, gripping Lysandra’s hand between both of hers. “Murtaugh even took me to Caraverre one afternoon—before it started snowing, I mean. You must see it. The hills and rivers and pretty trees, all right up against the mountains. I thought I spied a ghost leopard hiding atop the rocks, but Murtaugh said it was a trick of my mind. But I swear it was one—even bigger than yours! And the house! It’s the loveliest house I ever saw, with a walled garden in the back that Murtaugh says will be full of vegetables and roses in the summer.”

  For a heartbeat, Aedion couldn’t endure the emotion on Lysandra’s face as Evangeline prattled off her grand plans for the estate. The pain of longing for a life that would likely be snatched away before she had a chance to claim it.

  Aedion turned to Ren, the lord’s gaze transfixed on Lysandra. As it had been whenever she’d taken her human form.

  Fighting the urge to clench his jaw, Aedion said, “You recognize Caraverre, then.”

  Evangeline continued her merry jabbering, but Lysandra’s eyes slid toward them.

  “Darrow is not Lord of Allsbrook,” was all Ren said.

  Indeed. And who wouldn’t want such a pretty neighbor?

  That is, when she wasn’t living in Orynth under another’s skin and crown, using Aedion to sire a fake royal bloodline. Little more than a stud to breed.

  Lysandra again nodded her thanks, and Ren’s blush deepened. As if they hadn’t spent all day trekking through snow and slaughtering Valg. As if the scent of gore didn’t still cling to them.

  Indeed, Evangeline sniffed at the cloak Lysandra kept wrapped around herself and scowled. “You smell terrible. All of you.”

  “Manners,” Lysandra admonished, but laughed.

  Evangeline put her hands on her hips in a gesture Aedion had seen Aelin make so many times that his heart hurt to behold it. “You asked me to tell you if you ever smelled. Especially your breath.”

  Lysandra smiled, and Aedion resisted the tug on his own mouth. “So I did.”

  Evangeline yanked on Lysandra’s hand, trying to haul the shifter down the hall. “You can share my room. There’s a bathing chamber in there.” Lysandra conceded a step.

  “A fine room for a guest,” Aedion muttered to Ren, his brows rising. It had to be one of the finest here, to have its own bathing chamber.

  Ren ducked his head. “It belonged to Rose.”

  His oldest sister. Who had been butchered along with Rallen, the middle Allsbrook sibling, at the magic academy they’d attended. Near the border with Adarlan, the school had been directly in the path of invading troops.

  Even before magic fell, they would have had few defenses against ten thousand soldiers. Aedion didn’t let himself often remember the slaughter of Devellin—that fabled school. How many children had been there. How none had escaped.

  Ren had been close to both his elder sisters, but to high-spirited Rose most of all.

  “She would have liked her,” Ren clarified, jerking his chin toward Evangeline. Scarred, Aedion realized, as Ren was. The slash down Ren’s face had been earned while escaping the butchering blocks, his parents’ lives the cost of the diversion that got him and Murtaugh out. Evangeline’s scars hailed from a different sort of escape, narrowly avoiding the hellish life her mistress endured.

  Aedion didn’t let himself often remember that fact, either.

  Evangeline continued pulling Lysandra away, oblivious to the conversation. “Why didn’t you wake me when you arrived?”

  Aedion didn’t hear Lysandra’s answer as she let herself be led from the hall. Not as the shifter’s gaze met his own.

  She had tried to speak with him these past two months. Many times. Dozens of times. He’d ignored her. And when they’d at last reached Terrasen’s shores, she’d given up.

  She had lied to him. Deceived him so thoroughly that any moment between them, any
conversation … he didn’t know what had been real. Didn’t want to know. Didn’t want to know if she’d meant any of it, when he’d so stupidly left everything laid out before her.

  He’d believed this was his last hunt. That he’d be able to take his time with her, show her everything Terrasen had to offer. Show her everything he had to offer, too.

  Lying bitch, he’d called her. Screamed the words at her.

  He’d mustered enough clarity to be ashamed of it. But the rage remained.

  Lysandra’s eyes were wary, as if asking him, Can we not, in this rare moment of happiness, speak as friends?

  Aedion only returned to the fire, blocking out her emerald eyes, her exquisite face.

  Ren could have her. Even if the thought made him want to shatter something.

  Lysandra and Evangeline vanished from the hall, the girl still chirping away.

  The weight of Lysandra’s disappointment lingered like a phantom touch.

  Ren cleared his throat. “You want to tell me what’s going on between you two?”

  Aedion cut him a flat stare that would have sent lesser men running. “Get a map. I want to go over the passes again.”

  Ren, to his credit, went in search of one.

  Aedion gazed at the fire, so pale without his queen’s spark of magic.

  How long would it be until the wind howling outside the castle was replaced by the baying of Erawan’s beasts?

  Aedion got his answer at dawn the next day.

  Seated at one end of the long table in the Great Hall, Lysandra and Evangeline having a quiet breakfast at the other, Aedion mastered the shake in his fingers as he opened the letter the messenger had delivered moments before. Ren and Murtaugh, seated around him, had refrained from demanding answers while he read. Once. Twice.

  Aedion at last set down the letter. Took a long breath as he frowned toward the watery gray light leaking through the bank of windows high on the wall.

  Down the table, the weight of Lysandra’s stare pressed on him. Yet she remained where she was.