Home > A Court of Thorns and Roses (A Court of Thorns and Roses #1)(9)

A Court of Thorns and Roses (A Court of Thorns and Roses #1)(9)
Sarah J. Maas

Our territory was too small and poor to maintain a standing army to monitor the wall with Prythian, and we villagers could rely only on the strength of the Treaty forged five hundred years ago. But the upper class could afford hired swords, like this woman, to guard their lands bordering the immortal realm. It was an illusion of comfort, just as the markings on our threshold were. We all knew, deep down, that there was nothing to be done against the faeries. We’d all been told it, regardless of class or rank, from the moment we were born, the warnings sung to us while we rocked in cradles, the rhymes chanted in schoolyards. One of the High Fae could turn your bones to dust from a hundred yards away. Not that my sisters or I had ever seen it.

But we still tried to believe that something—anything—might work against them, if we ever were to encounter them. There were two stalls in the market catering to those fears, offering up charms and baubles and incantations and bits of iron. I couldn’t afford them—and if they did indeed work, they would buy us only a few minutes to prepare ourselves. Running was futile; so was fighting. But Nesta and Elain still wore their iron bracelets whenever they left the cottage. Even Isaac had an iron cuff around one wrist, always tucked under his sleeve. He’d once offered to buy me one, but I’d refused. It had felt too personal, too much like payment, too … permanent a reminder of whatever we were and weren’t to each other.

The mercenary transferred the coins to my waiting palm, and I tucked them into my pocket, their weight as heavy as a millstone. There was no possible chance that my sisters hadn’t spotted the money—no chance they weren’t already wondering how they might persuade me to give them some.

“Thank you,” I said to the mercenary, trying and failing to keep the bite from my voice as I felt my sisters sweep closer, like vultures circling a carcass.

The mercenary stroked the wolf pelt. “A word of advice, from one hunter to another.”

I lifted my brows.

“Don’t go far into the woods. I wouldn’t even get close to where you were yesterday. A wolf this size would be the least of your problems. More and more, I’ve been hearing stories about those things slipping through the wall.”

A chill spider-walked down my spine. “Are they—are they going to attack?” If it were true, I’d find a way to get my family off our miserable, damp territory and head south—head far from the invisible wall that bisected our world before they could cross it.

Once—long ago and for millennia before that—we had been slaves to High Fae overlords. Once, we had built them glorious, sprawling civilizations from our blood and sweat, built them temples to their feral gods. Once, we had rebelled, across every land and territory. The War had been so bloody, so destructive, that it took six mortal queens crafting the Treaty for the slaughter to cease on both sides and for the wall to be constructed: the North of our world conceded to the High Fae and faeries, who took their magic with them; the South to we cowering mortals, forever forced to scratch out a living from the earth.

“No one knows what the Fae are planning,” the mercenary said, her face like stone. “We don’t know if the High Lords’ leash on their beasts is slipping, or if these are targeted attacks. I guarded for an old nobleman who claimed it had been getting worse these past fifty years. He got on a boat south two weeks ago and told me I should leave if I was smart. Before he sailed off, he admitted that he’d had word from one of his friends that in the dead of night, a pack of martax crossed the wall and tore half his village apart.”

“Martax?” I breathed. I knew there were different types of faeries, that they varied as much as any other species of animal, but I knew only a few by name.

The mercenary’s night-dark eyes flickered. “Body big as a bear’s, head something like a lion’s—and three rows of teeth sharper than a shark’s. And mean—meaner than all three put together. They left the villagers in literal ribbons, the nobleman said.”

My stomach turned. Behind us, my sisters seemed so fragile—their pale skin so infinitely delicate and shredable. Against something like the martax, we’d never stand a chance. Those Children of the Blessed were fools—fanatic fools.

“So we don’t know what all these attacks mean,” the mercenary went on, “other than more hires for me, and you keeping well away from the wall. Especially if the High Fae start turning up—or worse, one of the High Lords. They would make the martax seem like dogs.”

I studied her scarred hands, chapped from the cold. “Have you ever faced another type of faerie?”

Her eyes shuttered. “You don’t want to know, girl—not unless you want to be hurling up your breakfast.”

I was indeed feeling ill—ill and jumpy. “Was it deadlier than the martax?” I dared ask.

The woman pulled back the sleeve of her heavy jacket, revealing a tanned, muscled forearm flecked with gruesome, twisted scars. The arc of them so similar to—“Didn’t have the brute force or size of a martax,” she said, “but its bite was full of poison. Two months—that’s how long I was down; four months until I had the strength to walk again.” She pulled up the leg of her trousers. Beautiful, I thought, even as the horror of it writhed in my gut. Against her tanned skin, the veins were black—solid black, spiderwebbed, and creeping like frost. “Healer said there was nothing to be done for it—that I’m lucky to be walking with the poison still in my legs. Maybe it’ll kill me one day, maybe it’ll cripple me. But at least I’ll go knowing I killed it first.”

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