Celaena hoisted herself up onto her elbows. “Isn’t that two days from here?”
“Yes. Two days through the desert, with only yours truly to keep you company. Unless you’d rather stay here, running every day and waiting like a dog for the Master to notice you. In fact, coming with me might help get him to consider training you. He’d certainly see your dedication to keeping us safe.” Ansel wriggled her eyebrows at Celaena, who rolled her eyes.
It was actually sound reasoning. What better way to prove her dedication than to sacrifice four days of her precious time in order to help the Silent Assassins? It was risky, yes, but . . . it might be bold enough to catch his attention. “And what will we be doing in Xandria?”
“That’s for you to find out.”
From the mischief twinkling in Ansel’s red-brown eyes, Celaena could only wonder what might await them.
Celaena lay on her cloak, trying to imagine that the sand beneath her was her down mattress in Rifthold, and that she wasn’t completely exposed to the elements in the middle of the desert. The last thing she needed was to wake up with a scorpion in her hair. Or worse.
She flipped onto her side, cradling her head in the nook of her arm.
“Can’t sleep?” Ansel asked from a few feet away. Celaena tried not to growl. They’d spent the entire day trudging across the sand, stopping only at midday to sleep under their cloaks and avoid the mind-crisping glare of the sun.
And a dinner of dates and bread hadn’t been exactly filling, either. But Ansel had wanted to travel light, and said that they could pick up more food once they got to Xandria tomorrow afternoon. When Celaena complained about that, Ansel just told her that she should be grateful it wasn’t sandstorm season.
“I’ve got sand in every crevice of my body,” Celaena muttered, squirming as she felt it grind against her skin. How in hell had sand gotten inside her clothes? Her white tunic and pants were layered enough that she couldn’t even find her skin beneath.
“Are you sure you’re Celaena Sardothien? Because I don’t think she’d actually be this fussy. I bet she’s used to roughing it.”
“I’m plenty used to roughing it,” Celaena said into the darkness, her words sucked into the dunes rising around them. “That doesn’t mean I have to enjoy it. I suppose that someone from the Western Wastes would find this luxurious.”
Ansel chuckled. “You have no idea.”
Celaena quit her taunting as curiosity seized her. “Are your lands as cursed as they claim?”
“Well, the Flatlands used to be part of the Witch Kingdom. And yes, I suppose you could say they’re somewhat cursed.” Ansel sighed loudly. “When the Crochan Queens ruled five hundred years ago, it was very beautiful. At least, the ruins all over the place seem like they would have been beautiful. But then the three Ironteeth Clans destroyed it all when they overthrew the Crochan Dynasty.”
Ansel let out a low hiss. “Some witches, like the Crochans, were gifted with ethereal beauty. But the Ironteeth Clans have iron teeth, sharp as a fish’s. Actually, their iron fingernails are more dangerous; those can gut you in one swipe.”
A chill went down Celaena’s spine.
“But when the Ironteeth Clans destroyed the kingdom, they say the last Crochan Queen cast a spell that turned the land against any that flew under the banners of the Ironteeth—so that no crops would grow, the animals withered up and died, and the waters turned muddy. It’s not like that now, though. The land has been fertile ever since the Ironteeth Clans journeyed east . . . toward your lands.”
“So . . . so have you ever seen one of the witches?”
Ansel was quiet for a moment before she said, “Yes.”
Celaena turned toward her, propping a head on her hand. Ansel remained looking at the sky.
“When I was eight and my sister was eleven, she and I and Maddy, one of her friends, snuck out of Briarcliff Hall. A few miles away, there was a giant tor with a lone watchtower on top. The upper bits were all ruined because of the witch-wars, but the rest of it was still intact. See, there was this archway that went through the bottom of the watchtower—so you could see through it to the other side of the hill. And one of the stable boys told my sister that if you looked through the archway on the night of the summer solstice, then you might see into another world.”
The hair on Celaena’s neck stood. “So you went inside?”
“No,” Ansel said. “I got near the top of the tor and became so terrified that I wouldn’t set foot on it. I hid behind a rock, and my sister and Maddy left me there while they went the rest of the way. I can’t remember how long I waited, but then I heard screaming.
“My sister came running. She just grabbed my arm and we ran. It didn’t come out at first, but when we got to my father’s hall, she told them what had happened. They had gone under the archway of the tower and seen an open door leading to its interior. But an old woman with metal teeth was standing in the shadows, and she grabbed Maddy and dragged her into the stairwell.”
Celaena choked on a breath.
“Maddy began screaming, and my sister ran. And when she told my father and his men, they raced for the tor. They arrived at dawn, but there was no trace of Maddy, or the old woman.”
“Gone?” Celaena whispered.
“They found one thing,” Ansel said softly. “They climbed the tower, and on one of the landin
gs, they found the bones of a child. White as ivory and picked clean.”
“Gods above,” Celaena said.
“After that, my father walloped us within an inch of our lives, and we were on kitchen duty for six months, but he knew my sister’s guilt would be punishment enough. She never really lost that haunted gleam in her eyes.”
Celaena shuddered. “Well, now I certainly won’t be able to sleep tonight.”
Ansel laughed. “Don’t worry,” she said, nestling down on her cloak. “I’ll tell you a valuable secret: the only way to kill a witch is to cut off her head. Besides, I don’t think an Ironteeth witch stands much of a chance against us.”
“I hope you’re right,” Celaena muttered.
“I am right,” Ansel said. “They might be vicious, but they’re not invincible. And if I had an army of my own . . . if I had even twenty of the Silent Assassins at my command, I’d hunt down all the witches. They wouldn’t stand a chance.” Her hand thumped against the sand; she must have struck the ground. “You know, these assassins have been here for ages, but what do they do? The Flatlands would prosper if they had an army of assassins to defend them. But no, they just sit in their oasis, silent and thoughtful, and whore themselves out to foreign courts. If I were the Master, I’d use our numbers for greatness—for glory. We’d defend every unprotected realm out there.”
“So noble of you,” Celaena said. “Ansel of Briarcliff, Defender of the Realm.”
Ansel only laughed, and soon was asleep.
Celaena, though, stayed awake a while longer, unable to stop imagining what that witch had done when she dragged Maddy into the shadows of the tower.
It was Market Day in Xandria, and though the city had long suffered from Adarlan’s embargo, it still seemed that there were vendors from all the kingdoms on the continent—and beyond. They were crammed into every possible space in the small, walled port city. All around Celaena were spices and jewels and clothes and food, some sold right out of brightly painted wagons, others spread on blankets in shadowy alcoves. There was no sign that anyone knew anything about the ill-fated attack on the Silent Assassins the other night.