heir of fire- Page 17

   “We leave now,” Mother Blackbeak said, walking north along the river. Behind them, the duke’s men closed ranks around the encampment. Smart for mortals to be so cautious when the Thirteen ­were present—­and bored.

   One jerk of the chin from Manon was all it took for the Thirteen to fall in line. The twelve other sentinels kept the required distance behind Manon and her grandmother, footsteps near silent in the winter grass. None of them had been able to find a single Crochan in the months they’d been infiltrating town after town. And Manon fully expected some form of punishment for it later. Flogging, perhaps a few broken fingers—­nothing too permanent, but it would be public. That was her grandmother’s preferred method of punishment: not the how, but the humiliation.

   Yet her grandmother’s gold-­flecked black eyes, the heirloom of the Blackbeak Clan’s purest bloodline, ­were bent on the northern horizon, toward Oakwald Forest and the towering White Fangs far beyond. The gold-­speckled eyes ­were the most cherished trait in their Clan for a reason Manon had never bothered to learn—­and when her grandmother had seen that Manon’s ­were wholly of pure, dark gold, the Matron had carried her away from her daughter’s still-­cooling corpse and proclaimed Manon her undisputed heir.

   Her grandmother kept walking, and Manon didn’t press her to speak. Not unless she wanted her tongue ripped clean from her mouth.

   “We’re to travel north,” her grandmother said when the encampment was swallowed up by the foothills. “I want you to send three of your Thirteen south, west, and east. They are to seek out our kith and kin and inform them that we will all assemble in the Ferian Gap. Every last Blackbeak—­no witch or sentinel left behind.”

   Nowadays there was no difference—­every witch belonged to a coven and was therefore a sentinel. Since the downfall of their western kingdom, since they had started clawing for their survival, every Blackbeak, Yellowlegs, and Blueblood had to be ready to fight—­ready at any time to reclaim their lands or die for their people. Manon herself had never set foot in the former Witch Kingdom, had never seen the ruins or the flat, green expanse that stretched to the western sea. None of her Thirteen had seen it, either, all of them wanderers and exiles thanks to a curse from the last Crochan Queen as she bled out on that legendary battlefield.

   The Matron went on, still staring at the mountains. “And if your sentinels see members of the other clans, they are to inform them to gather in the Gap, too. No fighting, no provoking—­just spread the word.” Her grandmother’s iron teeth flashed in the afternoon sun. Like most of the ancient witches—­the ones who had been born in the Witch Kingdom and fought in the Ironteeth Alliance to shatter the chains of the Crochan Queens—­Mother Blackbeak wore her iron teeth permanently on display. Manon had never seen them retracted.

   Manon bit back her questions. The Ferian Gap—­the deadly, blasted bit of land between the White Fang and Ruhnn Mountains, and one of the few passes between the fertile lands of the east and the Western Wastes.

   Manon had made the passage through the snow-­crusted labyrinth of caves and ravines on foot—­just once, with the Thirteen and two other covens, right after magic had vanished, when they ­were all nearly blind, deaf, and dumb with the agony of suddenly being grounded. Half of the other witches hadn’t made it through the Gap. The Thirteen had barely survived, and Manon had almost lost an arm to an ice cavern cave-­in. Almost lost it, but kept it thanks to the quick thinking of Asterin, her second in command, and the brute strength of Sorrel, her Third. The Ferian Gap; ­Manon hadn’t been back since. For months now there had been rumors of far darker things than witches dwelling there.

   “Baba Yellowlegs is dead.” Manon whipped her head to her grandmother, who was smiling faintly. “Killed in Rifthold. The duke received word. No one knows who, or why.”

   “Crochans?”

   “Perhaps.” Mother Blackbeak’s smile spread, revealing iron teeth spotted with rust. “The King of Adarlan has invited us to assemble in the Ferian Gap. He says he has a gift for us there.”

   Manon considered what she knew about the vicious, deadly king hell-­bent on conquering the world. Her responsibility as both Coven leader and heir was to keep her grandmother alive; ­it was instinct to anticipate every pitfall, every potential threat. “It could be a trap. To gather us in one place, and then destroy us. He could be working with the Crochans. Or perhaps the Bluebloods. They’ve always wanted to make themselves High Witches of every Ironteeth Clan.”

   “Oh, I think not,” Mother Blackbeak purred, her depthless ebony eyes crinkling. “For the king has made us an offer. Made all the Ironteeth Clans an offer.”

   Manon waited, even though she could have gutted someone just to ease the miserable impatience.

   “The king needs riders,” Mother Blackbeak said, still staring at the horizon. “Riders for his wyverns—­to be his aerial cavalry. He’s been breeding them in the Gap all these years.”

   It had been a while—­too damn long—­but Manon could feel the threads of fate twisting around them, tightening.

   “And when we are done, when we have served him, he will let us keep the wyverns. To take our host to reclaim the Wastes from the mortal pigs who now dwell there.” A fierce, wild thrill pierced Manon’s chest, sharp as a knife. Following the Matron’s gaze, Manon looked to the horizon, where the mountains ­were still blanketed with winter. To fly again, to soar through the mountain passes, to hunt down prey the way they’d been born to . . .

   They ­weren’t enchanted ironwood brooms.

   But wyverns would do just fine.

   10

   After a grueling day of training new recruits, avoiding Dorian, and keeping well away from the king’s watchful eye, Chaol was almost at his rooms, more than ready to sleep, when he noticed that two of his men ­were missing from their posts outside the Great Hall. The two remaining men winced as he stopped dead.

   It ­wasn’t unusual for guards to occasionally miss a shift. If someone was sick, if they had some family tragedy, Chaol always found a replacement. But two missing guards, with no replacement in sight . . . “Someone had better start talking,” he ground out.

   One of them cleared their throats—­a newer guard, who had just finished his training three months before. The other one was relatively new, too, which was why he’d assigned them to night duty outside the empty Great Hall. But he’d put them under the supposedly responsible and watchful eyes of the two other guards, both of whom had been ­there for years.

   The guard who’d cleared his throat went red. “It—­they said . . . Ah, Captain, they said that no one would really notice if they ­were gone, since it’s the Great Hall, and it’s empty and, ah—”

   “Use your words,” Chaol snapped. He was going to murder the two deserters.