The Assassin and the Healer

Meet the Assassin: beautiful, defiant, destined for greatness. Celaena Sardothien has challenged her master. Now she must pay the price. Her journey to the Red Desert will be an arduous one, but it may change the fate of her cursed world for ever...

A prequel to the international bestseller Throne of Glass, sold in 13 languages pre-publication.  

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4. Chapter Four

 

Yrene brought the girl to her room under the stairs, because she was half afraid that the mercenary who’d got away would be waiting for them upstairs. And Yrene didn’t want to see any more fighting or killing or bleeding, strong stomach or not.

 

Not to mention, she was also half afraid to be locked in the suite with the stranger.

 

She left the girl sitting on her sagging bed and went to fetch two bowls of water and some clean bandages – supplies that would be taken out of her pay when Nolan realised they were gone. It didn’t matter though. The stranger had saved her life. This was the least she could do.

 

When Yrene returned, she almost dropped the steaming bowls. The girl had removed her hood and cloak and tunic.

 

Yrene didn’t know what to remark on first:

 

That the girl was young – perhaps two or three years younger than Yrene – but felt old.

 

That the girl was beautiful, with golden hair and blue eyes that shone in the candlelight.

 

Or that the girl’s face would have been even more beautiful had it not been covered in a patchwork of bruises. Such horrible bruises, including a black eye that had undoubtedly been swollen shut at some point.

 

The girl was just staring at her, quiet and still as a cat.

 

It wasn’t Yrene’s place to ask questions. Especially not when this girl had just dispatched three mercenaries in a matter of moments . . . Even if the gods had abandoned her, Yrene still believed in them; they were still somewhere, still watching. She believed, because how else could she explain being saved just now? And the thought of being alone – truly alone – was almost too much to bear, even when so much of her life had gone astray.

 

The water sloshed in the bowls as Yrene set them down on the tiny table beside her bed, trying to keep her hands from trembling too much.

 

The girl said nothing while Yrene inspected the cut on her bicep – her arm slender but rock-hard with muscle. The girl had scars everywhere – small ones, big ones. She offered no explanation for them, and it seemed to Yrene that the girl wore her scars the way some women wore their finest jewellery.

 

The stranger couldn’t have been older than seventeen or eighteen but . . . But Adarlan had made them all grow up fast. Too fast.

 

Yrene set about washing the wound, and the girl hissed softly. ‘Sorry,’ Yrene said quickly. ‘I put some herbs in there as an antiseptic. I should have warned you.’ Yrene kept a stash of them with her at all times, along with other herbs whose use her mother had taught her. Just in case. Even now, Yrene couldn’t turn away from a sick beggar in the street and often walked towards the sound of coughing.

 

‘Believe me, I’ve been through worse.’

 

‘I do,’ Yrene said. ‘Believe you, I mean.’ Those scars and her mangled face spoke volumes. And explained the hood. But was it vanity or self-preservation that made her wear it? ‘What’s your name?’

 

‘It’s none of your concern, and it doesn’t matter.’

 

Yrene bit her tongue. Of course it was none of her business. The girl hadn’t given a name to Nolan either. So she was travelling on some secret business, then. ‘My name is Yrene,’ she offered. ‘Yrene Towers.’

 

A distant nod. Of course the girl didn’t care either.

 

Then the girl said, ‘What’s the daughter of a healer doing in this hole of a town?’

 

No kindness, no pity. Just blunt, if not almost bored, curiosity.

 

‘I was on my way to Antica to join their healers’ academy and ran out of money.’ She dipped the rag back into the water, wrung it out and resumed cleaning the shallow wound. ‘I got work here to pay for the passage over the ocean and . . . well, I never left. I guess staying here became . . . easier. Simpler.’

 

A snort. ‘This place? It’s certainly simple, but easy? I think I’d rather starve in the streets of Antica than live here.’

 

Yrene’s face warmed. ‘It – I . . .’ She didn’t have an excuse.

 

The girl’s eyes flashed to hers. They were ringed with gold – stunning. Even with the bruises, the girl was alluring. Like wildfire or a summer storm swept in off the Gulf of Oro.

 

‘Let me give you a bit of advice,’ the girl said bitterly, ‘from one working girl to another: life isn’t easy, no matter where you are. You’ll make choices you think are right and then suffer for them.’ Those remarkable eyes flickered. ‘So if you’re going to be miserable, you might as well go to Antica and be miserable in the shadow of the Torre Cesme.’

 

Educated and possibly extremely well travelled, then, if the girl knew the healers’ academy by name – and she pronounced it perfectly.

 

Yrene shrugged, not daring to ask her dozens of questions. Instead, she said, ‘I don’t have the money to go now, anyway.’

 

It came out sharper than she intended – sharper than was smart, considering how lethal this girl was. Yrene didn’t try to guess what manner of working girl she might be – mercenary was about as dark as she’d let herself imagine.

 

‘Then steal the money and go. Your boss deserves to have his purse lightened.’

 

Yrene pulled back. ‘I’m no thief.’

 

A roguish grin. ‘If you want something, then take it.’

 

This girl wasn’t like wildfire – she was wildfire. Deadly and uncontrollable. And slightly out of her wits.

 

‘More than enough people believe that these days,’ Yrene ventured to say. Like Adarlan. Like those mercenaries. ‘I don’t need to be one of them.’

 

The girl’s grin faded. ‘So you’d rather rot away here with a clean conscience?’

 

Yrene didn’t have a reply, so she didn’t say anything as she set down the rag and bowl and pulled out a small tin of salve. She kept it for herself, for the nicks and scrapes she got while working, but this cut was small enough that she could spare a bit. As gently as she could, she smeared it on to the wound. The girl didn’t flinch this time.

 

After a moment, the girl asked, ‘When did you lose your mother?’

 

‘Over eight years ago.’ Yrene kept her focus on the wound.

 

‘That was a hard time to be a gifted healer on this continent, especially in Fenharrow. The King of Adarlan didn’t leave many of its people – or royal family – alive.’

 

Yrene looked up. The wildfire in the girl’s eyes had turned into a scorching blue flame. Such rage, she thought with a shiver. Such simmering rage. What had she been through to make her look like that?

 

She didn’t ask, of course. And didn’t ask how the young woman was aware of where she was from. Yrene knew that her golden skin and brown hair were probably enough to mark her from Fenharrow, if her slight accent didn’t give her away.

 

‘If you managed to attend the Torre Cesme,’ the girl said, the anger shifting, as if she had shoved it down deep inside her, ‘what would you do afterwards?’

 

Yrene picked up one of the fresh bandages and began wrapping it around the girl’s arm. She’d dreamed about it for years, contemplated a thousand different futures while she washed dirty mugs and swept the floors. ‘I’d come back. Not to here, I mean, but to the continent. Go back to Fenharrow. There are a . . . a lot of people who need good healers these days.’

 

She said the last part quietly. For all she knew, the girl might support the King of Adarlan – might report her to the small town guard for just speaking ill of the king. Yrene had seen it happen before – far too many times.

 

But the girl looked towards the door with its makeshift bolt that Yrene had put together, at the closet that she called her bedroom, at the threadbare cloak draped over the half-rotted chair against the opposite wall, then finally back at her. It gave Yrene a chance to study her face. Seeing how easily she’d trounced those mercenaries, whoever had harmed her must be fearsome indeed.

 

‘You’d really come back to this continent – to the empire?’

 

There was such quiet surprise in her voice that Yrene met her eyes.

 

‘It’s the right thing to do,’ was all Yrene could think of to say.

 

The girl didn’t reply, and Yrene finished wrapping her arm. When she was finished, the girl shrugged her shirt and tunic back on, tested her arm and stood. In the cramped bedroom Yrene felt so much smaller, even though there were only a few inches between them.

 

The girl picked up her cloak but didn’t don it as she took a step towards the closed door.

 

‘I could find something for your face,’ Yrene blurted.

 

The girl paused with her hand on the doorknob and looked over her shoulder. ‘These are meant to be a reminder.’

 

‘For what? Or – to whom?’ She shouldn’t pry, shouldn’t have even asked.

 

She smiled bitterly. ‘For me.’

 

Yrene thought of the scars she’d seen on her body and wondered if those were all reminders too.

 

The young woman turned back to the door but stopped again. ‘Whether you stay, or go to Antica and attend the Torre Cesme and return to save the world,’ she mused, ‘you should probably learn a thing or two about defending yourself.’

 

Yrene eyed the daggers at the girl’s waist, the sword she hadn’t even needed to draw. Jewels embedded in the hilt – real jewels – glinted in the candlelight. The girl had to be fabulously wealthy, richer than Yrene could conceive of ever being. ‘I can’t afford weapons.’

 

The girl huffed a laugh. ‘If you learn these manoeuvres, you won’t need them.’

 

*

 

Celaena took the barmaid into the alley, if only because she didn’t want to risk waking the other inn guests and get into yet another fight. She didn’t know why she’d offered to teach her to defend herself. The last time she’d helped anybody, it had just turned around to beat the hell out of her. Literally.

 

But the barmaid – Yrene – had looked so earnest when she talked about helping people. About being a healer.

 

The Torre Cesme – any healer worth their salt knew about the academy in Antica, where the best and brightest, no matter their station, could study. Celaena herself had once dreamed of dwelling in the fabled cream-coloured towers of the Torre, of walking the narrow, sloping streets of Antica and seeing wonders brought in from lands she’d never heard of. But that was a lifetime ago. A different person ago.

 

Not now, certainly. And if Yrene stayed in this gods-forsaken town, other people were bound to try to attack her again. So here Celaena was, cursing her own conscience for a fool as they stood in the misty alley behind the inn.

 

The bodies of the three mercenaries were still out there – and Celaena caught Yrene cringing at the sounds of scurrying feet and soft squeaking. The rats hadn’t wasted any time.

 

Celaena gripped the girl’s wrist and held up her hand. ‘People – men usually – don’t hunt for the women who look like they’ll put up a fight. They’ll pick you because you look off guard or vulnerable or like you’d be sympathetic. They’ll usually try to move you to another location – somewhere they don’t need to worry about being interrupted.’

 

Yrene’s eyes were wide, her face pale in the light of the torch Celaena had dropped just outside the back door. Helpless. What was it like to be helpless to defend yourself? A shudder that had nothing to do with the rats gnawing on the dead mercenaries went through her.

 

Do not let them move you to another location,’ Celaena continued, reciting from the lessons that Ben, Arobynn’s second, had once taught her. She’d learned self-defence before she’d ever learned to attack anyone, and to first fight without weapons too.

 

‘Fight back enough to convince them that you’re not worth it. And make as much noise as you can. In a hole like this though, I bet no one would bother coming to help you. But you should definitely start screaming your head off about a fire – not rape, not theft, not something that cowards would rather hide from. And if shouting doesn’t discourage them, then there are a few tricks to outsmart them.

 

‘Some might make them drop like a stone, some might take them down temporarily, but as soon as they let go of you, your biggest priority is getting the hell away. You understand? They let you go, and you run.’

 

Yrene nodded, still wide-eyed. She remained that way as Celaena took the hand she’d lifted and walked her through the eye-gouge, showing her how to shove her thumbs into the corner of someone’s eyes, crook her thumbs back behind the eyeballs and – well, Celaena couldn’t actually finish the demonstration, since she liked her own eyeballs very much. But Yrene grasped it after a few times – and did it perfectly when Celaena grabbed her from behind again and again.

 

She then showed her the ear-clap, then how to pinch the inside of a man’s upper thigh hard enough to make him scream, where to stomp on the most delicate part of the foot, what soft spots were the best to hit with her elbow (Yrene actually hit her so hard in the throat that Celaena gagged for a good minute). And then told her to go for the groin – always try to go for a strike to the groin.

 

And when the moon was setting, when Celaena was convinced that Yrene might stand a chance against any assailant, they finally stopped. Yrene seemed to be standing a bit taller, her face flushed.

 

‘If they come after you for money,’ Celaena said, jerking her chin towards where the mercenaries lay in a heap, ‘throw whatever coins you have far away from you and run in the opposite direction. Usually they’ll be so occupied by chasing after your money that you’ll stand a good chance of escape.’

 

Yrene nodded. ‘I should – I should teach all this to Jessa.’

 

Celaena didn’t know or care who Jessa was, but she said, ‘If ever you get the chance, teach it to any female who will take the time to listen.’

 

Silence fell between them. There was so much more to learn, so much else to teach her. But dawn was about two hours away and she should probably go back to her room now, if only to pack and leave. Leave, not because she was ordered to or because she found her punishment acceptable but . . . because she needed to. She needed to go to the Red Desert.

 

Even if it was only to see where the Wyrd planned to lead her. Staying, running away to another land, avoiding her fate . . . She wouldn’t do that. She couldn’t be like Yrene, a living reminder of loss and shoved-aside dreams. No, she’d continue to the Red Desert and follow this path, wherever it led, however much it stung her pride.

 

Yrene cleared her throat. ‘Did you . . . did you ever have to use these manoeuvres? Not to pry. I mean, you don’t have to answer if –’

 

‘I’ve used them, yes – but not because I was in that kind of situation. I . . .’ She knew she shouldn’t say it but did. ‘I’m usually the one who does the hunting.’

 

Yrene, to her surprise, just nodded, if a bit sadly. There was such irony, she realised, in them working together – the assassin and the healer. Opposite sides of the same coin.

 

Yrene wrapped her arms around herself. ‘How can I ever repay you for . . . ?’

 

But Celaena held up a hand. The alley was empty, but she could feel them – hear the shift in the fog, in the scurrying of the rats. Pockets of quiet.

 

She met Yrene’s stare and flicked her eyes towards the back door, a silent command. Yrene had gone white and stiff. It was one thing to practise but to put lessons into action, to use them . . . the barmaid was more of a liability. Celaena jerked her chin at the door, an order now.

 

There were at least five men. Two at either end of the alley, converging upon them, and one more standing guard by the busier end of the street.

 

Yrene was through the back door by the time Celaena drew her sword.

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