She laughed up at him, a dead, wretched sound even to her own ears. “Nice try.” Gods, her head throbbed, a warm trickle of blood was leaking from the right side of her brow, and he was now sitting on her chest. She laughed again, strangled by his weight. “You think you can trick me into shifting by pissing me off ?”
He snarled, his face speckled with the stars floating in her vision. Every blink shot daggers of pain through her. It would probably be the worst black eye of her life.
“Here’s an idea: I’m rich as hell,” she said over the pounding in her head. “How about we pretend to do this training for a week or so, and then you tell Maeve I’m good and ready to enter her territory, and I’ll give you all the gods-damned gold you want.”
He brought his canines so close to her neck that one movement would have him ripping out her throat. “Here’s an idea,” he growled. “I don’t know what the hell you’ve been doing for ten years, other than flouncing around and calling yourself an assassin. But I think you’re used to getting your way. I think you have no control over yourself. No control, and no discipline—not the kind that counts, deep down. You are a child, and a spoiled one at that. And,” he said, those green eyes holding nothing but distaste, “you are a coward.”
Had her arms not been pinned, she would have clawed his face off right then. She struggled, trying every technique she’d ever learned to dislodge him, but he didn’t move an inch.
A low, nasty laugh. “Don’t like that word?” He leaned closer still, that tattoo of his swimming in her muddled vision. “Coward. You’re a coward who has run for ten years while innocent people were burned and butchered and—”
She stopped hearing him.
It was like being underwater again. Like charging into Nehemia’s room and finding that beautiful body mutilated on the bed. Like seeing Galan Ashryver, beloved and brave, riding off into the sunset to the cheers of his people.
She lay still, watching the churning clouds above. Waiting for him to finish the words she couldn’t hear, waiting for a blow she was fairly certain she wouldn’t feel.
“Get up,” he said suddenly, and the world was bright and wide as he stood. “Get up.”
Get up. Chaol had said that to her once, when pain and fear and grief had shoved her over an edge. But the edge she’d gone over the night Nehemia had died, the night she’d gutted Archer, the day she’d told Chaol the horrible truth . . . Chaol had helped shove her over that edge. She was still on the fall down. There was no getting up, because there was no bottom.
Powerful, rough hands under her shoulders, the world tilting and spinning, then that tattooed, snarling face in hers. Let him take her head between those massive hands and snap her neck.
“Pathetic,” he spat, releasing her. “Spineless and pathetic.”
For Nehemia, she had to try, had to try—
But when she reached in, toward the place in her chest where that monster dwelled, she found only cobwebs and ashes.
Celaena’s head was still reeling, and dried blood now itched down the side of her face. She didn’t bother to wipe it off, or to really care about the black eye that she was positive had blossomed during the miles they’d hiked from the temple ruins and into the forested foothills. But not back to Mistward.
She was swaying on her feet when Rowan drew a sword and a dagger and stopped at the edge of a grassy plateau, speckled with small hills. Not hills—barrows, the ancient tombs of lords and princes long dead, rolling to the other edge of trees. There were dozens, each marked with a stone threshold and sealed iron door. And through the murky vision, the pounding headache, the hair on the back of her neck rose.
The grassy mounds seemed to . . . breathe. To sleep. Iron doors—to keep the wights inside, locked with the treasure they’d stolen. They infiltrated the barrows and lurked there for eons, feeding on whatever unwitting fools dared seek the gold within.
Rowan inclined his head toward the barrows. “I had planned to wait until you had some handle on your power—planned to make you come at night, when the barrow-wights are really something to behold, but consider this a favor, as there are few that will dare come out in the day. Walk through the mounds—face the wights and make it to the other side of the field, Aelin, and we can go to Doranelle whenever you wish.”
It was a trap. She knew that well enough. He had the gift of endless time, and could play games that lasted centuries. Her impatience, her mortality, the fact that every heartbeat brought her closer to death, was being used against her. To face the wights . . .
Rowan’s weapons gleamed, close enough to grab. He shrugged those powerful shoulders as he said, “You can either wait to earn back your steel, or you can enter as you are now.”
The flash of temper snapped her out of it long enough to say, “My bare hands are weapon enough.” He just gave a taunting grin and sauntered into the maze of hills.
She trailed him closely, following him around each mound, knowing that if she fell too far behind, he’d leave her out of spite.
Steady breathing and the yawns of awakening things arose beyond those iron doors. They were unadorned, bolted into the stone lintels with spikes and nails that were so old they probably predated Wendlyn itself.
Her footsteps crunched in the grass. Even the birds and insects did not utter a too-loud sound here. The hills parted to reveal an inner circle of dead grass around the most crumbling barrow of all. Where the others were rounded, this one looked as if some ancient god had stepped on it. Its flattened top had been overrun with the gnarled roots of bushes; the three massive stones of the threshold were beaten, stained, and askew. The iron door was gone.
There was only blackness within. Ageless, breathing blackness.
Her heartbeat pounded in her ears as the darkness reached for her.
“I leave you here,” Rowan said. He hadn’t set one foot inside the circle, his boots just an inch shy of the dead grass. His smile turned feral. “I’ll meet you on the other side of the field.”
He expected her to bolt like a hare. And she wanted to. Gods, this place, that damned barrow only a hundred yards away, made her want to run and run and not stop until she found a place where the sun shone day and night. But if she did this, then she could go to Doranelle tomorrow. And those wights waiting in the other half of the field . . . they couldn’t be worse than what she’d already seen, and fought, and found dwelling in the world and inside of herself.
So she inclined her head to Rowan, and walked onto the dead field.
Each step toward the central mound had Celaena’s blood roaring. The darkness between the stained, ancient stones grew, swirling. It was colder, too. Cold and dry.