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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2. Chapter Two

 

Yrene didn’t know how or when it happened, but the atmosphere in the White Pig changed. It was as if all the gathered men were waiting for something. The girl at the back was still at her table, still brooding. But her gloved fingers were tapping on the scarred wood surface, and every now and then she shifted her hooded head to look around the room.

 

Yrene couldn’t have left even if she wanted to. Last call wasn’t for another forty minutes, and she’d have to stay an hour after that to clean up and usher intoxicated patrons out the door. She didn’t care where they went once they passed the threshold – didn’t care if they wound up face down in a watery ditch – just as long as they were gone from the taproom. And stayed gone.

 

Nolan had vanished moments ago, either to save his own hide or to do some dark dealings in the back alley, and Jessa was still in that sailor’s lap, flirting away, unaware of the shift in the air.

 

Yrene kept looking at the hooded girl. So did many of the tavern’s patrons. Were they waiting for her to get up? There were some thieves that she recognised – thieves who had been circling like vultures for the past two days, trying to figure out if the strange girl could use the weapons she carried. It was common knowledge that she was leaving tomorrow at dawn. If they wanted her money, jewellery, weapons or something far darker, tonight would be their last chance.

 

Yrene chewed on her lip as she poured a round of ales for the table of four mercenaries playing Kings. She should warn the girl – tell her that she might be better off sneaking to her ship right now, before she wound up with a slit throat.

 

But Nolan would throw Yrene in the streets if he knew she’d warned her. Especially when many of the cut-throats were beloved patrons who often shared their ill-gained profits with him. And she had no doubt that he’d send those very men after her if she betrayed him. How had she become so adjusted to these people? When had working and living at the White Pig become a position and a place she wanted so desperately to keep?

 

Yrene swallowed hard, pouring another mug of ale. Her mother wouldn’t have hesitated to warn the girl.

 

But her mother had been a good woman – a woman who never wavered, who never turned away a sick or wounded person, no matter how poor, from the door of their cottage in southern Fenharrow. Never.

 

As a prodigiously gifted healer blessed with no small amount of magic, her mother had always said it wasn’t right to charge people for what she’d been given for free by Silba, the Goddess of Healing. The only time she’d ever seen her mother waver was the day the soldiers from Adarlan surrounded their house, armed to the teeth and bearing torches and wood.

 

They hadn’t bothered to listen when her mother explained that her power, like Yrene’s, had already disappeared months before, along with the rest of the magic in the land. Abandoned by the gods, her mother had claimed.

 

No, the soldiers hadn’t listened at all. And neither had any of those vanished gods to whom her mother and Yrene had pleaded for salvation.

 

It was the first – and only – time her mother took a life.

 

Yrene could still see the glint of the hidden dagger in her mother’s hand, still feel the blood of those two soldiers on her bare feet, hear her mother scream at her to run, smell the smoke of the bonfire as they burned her gifted mother alive while Yrene wept from the nearby safety of Oakwald Forest.

 

It was from her mother that Yrene had inherited her iron stomach – but she’d never thought those solid nerves would wind up keeping her here, claiming this hovel as her home.

 

Yrene was so lost in thought and memory that she didn’t notice the man until a broad hand was wrapped around her waist.

 

‘We could use a pretty face at this table,’ he said, grinning up at her with a wolf’s smile. Yrene stepped back, but he held firm, trying to yank her into his lap.

 

‘I’ve work to do,’ she said as blandly as possible. She’d extricated herself from situations like this before – countless times now. It had stopped scaring her long ago.

 

‘You can go to work on me,’ said another of the mercenaries, a tall man with a worn-looking blade strapped to his back. Calmly she prised the first man’s fingers off her waist.

 

‘Last call is in forty minutes,’ she said pleasantly, stepping back – as far as she could without irritating the men grinning at her like wild dogs. ‘Can I get you anything else?’

 

‘What are you doing after?’ said another.

 

‘Going home to my husband,’ she lied, and they looked at the ring on her finger – the ring that now passed for a wedding band. It had belonged to her mother and her mother’s mother and all the great women before her, all such brilliant healers, all wiped from living memory.

 

The men scowled, and taking that as a cue to leave, Yrene hurried back to the bar. She didn’t warn the girl – didn’t make the trek across the too-big taproom, with all those men waiting like wolves.

 

Forty minutes. Just another forty minutes until she could kick them all out.

 

And then she could clean up and tumble into bed, one more day finished in this living hell that had somehow become her future.

 

*

 

Honestly, Celaena was a little insulted when none of the men in the taproom made a grab for her, her money, her ruby brooch or her weapons as she stalked between the tables. The bell had just finished ringing for last call, and even though she wasn’t tired in the slightest, she’d had enough of waiting for a fight or a conversation or anything to occupy her time.

 

She supposed she could just go back to her room and reread one of the books she’d brought. As she prowled past the bar, flipping a silver coin to the dark-haired serving-girl, she debated the merits of instead going out on to the streets and seeing what adventure found her.

 

Reckless and stupid, Sam would say. But Sam wasn’t here, and she didn’t know if he was dead or alive or beaten senseless by Arobynn. It was a safe bet Sam had been punished for the role he’d played in liberating the slaves in Skull’s Bay.

 

She didn’t want to think about it. Sam had become her friend, she supposed. She’d never had the luxury of friends and never particularly wanted one. But Sam had been a good contender, even if he didn’t hesitate to say exactly what he thought about her, or her plans, or her abilities.

 

What would he think if she just sailed off into the unknown and never went to the Red Desert or never even returned to Rifthold? He might celebrate – especially if Arobynn appointed him as his heir. Or she could poach him, maybe. Once she was settled someplace new, once she had established a new life as a top assassin in whatever land she made her home. She could ask him to join her. And they’d never put up with beatings and humiliations again. Such an easy, inviting idea – such a temptation.

 

Celaena trudged up the narrow stairs, listening for any thieves or cut-throats that might be waiting. To her disappointment, the upstairs hall was dark and quiet – and empty.

 

Sighing, she slipped into her room and bolted the door. After a moment she shoved the ancient chest of drawers in front of it too. Not for her own safety. Oh, no. It was for the safety of whatever fool might try to break in – and would find himself split open from navel to nose just to satisfy a wandering assassin’s boredom.

 

But after pacing for fifteen minutes she pushed aside the furniture and left. Looking for a fight. For an adventure. For anything to take her mind off the bruises on her face and the punishment Arobynn had given her, and the temptation to shirk her obligations and instead sail to a land far, far away.

 

*

 

Yrene lugged the last of the rubbish pails into the misty alley behind the White Pig, back and arms aching. Today had been longer than most.

 

There hadn’t been a fight, thank the gods, but Yrene still couldn’t shake her nerves and that sense of something being off. But she was glad – so, so glad – there hadn’t been a brawl at the Pig. The last thing she wanted to do was spend the rest of the night mopping blood and vomit off the floor and hauling broken furniture into the alley. After she’d rung the last-call bell, the men had finished their drinks, grumbling and laughing, and dispersed with little to no harassment.

 

Unsurprisingly, Jessa had vanished with her sailor, and given that the alley was empty, Yrene could only assume the young woman had gone elsewhere with him. Leaving her, yet again, to clean up.

 

Yrene paused as she dumped the least disgusting rubbish into a neat pile along the far wall. It wasn’t much: stale bread and stew that would be gone by morning, snatched up by the half-feral urchins roaming the streets.

 

What would her mother say, if she knew what had become of her daughter?

 

Yrene had been only eleven when those soldiers burned her mother for her magic. For the first six and a half years after the horrors of that day, she’d lived with her mother’s cousin in another village in Fenharrow, disguised as an absolutely ungifted distant relative. It wasn’t a hard disguise to maintain: her powers had truly vanished. But in those days, fear had run rampant and neighbour had turned on neighbour, often selling out anyone once blessed with the gods’ powers to whatever army legion was closest. Thankfully, no one had questioned Yrene’s small presence; and in those long years no one looked her way as she helped the farm struggle to return to normal in the wake of Adarlan’s forces.

 

But she’d wanted to be a healer – like her mother and grandmother. She’d started shadowing her mother as soon as she could talk, learning slowly, as all the traditional healers did. And those years on that farm, however peaceful (if not downright tedious and dull), hadn’t been enough to make her forget eleven years of training, or the urge to follow in her mother’s footsteps. She hadn’t been close to her cousins, despite their charity, and neither party had really tried to bridge the gap caused by distance and fear and war. So no one really objected when she took whatever money she’d saved up and walked off the farm a few months before her eighteenth birthday.

 

She’d set out for Antica, a city of learning on the Southern Continent – a realm untouched by Adarlan and war, where rumour claimed magic still existed. She’d travelled on foot from Fenharrow, across the mountains into Melisande, through Oakwald and eventually wound up at Innish – where rumour also claimed one could find an elusive boat to the Southern Continent, to Antica. And it was precisely here that she’d run out of money.

 

It was why she’d taken the job at the Pig. First it had just been temporary, to earn enough to afford her passage to Antica. But then she’d worried she wouldn’t have any money when she arrived, and then worried she wouldn’t have any money to pay for her training at the Torre Cesme, the great academy of healers and physicians. So she’d stayed, and weeks had turned into months. Somehow the dream, of sailing away, of attending the Torre, had been set aside. Especially as Nolan increased the rent on her room and what he charged her for her food, and found ways to lower her salary. Especially as that healer’s stomach of hers allowed her to endure the indignities and darkness of this place.

 

Yrene sighed through her nose. So here she was. A barmaid in a backwater town with hardly two coppers to her name and no future in sight.

 

There was a crunch of boots on stone, and Yrene glared down the alley. If Nolan caught the urchins eating his food – however stale and disgusting – he’d blame her. He’d say he wasn’t a charity and take the cost out of her pay. He’d done it once before, and she’d had to hunt down the urchins and scold them – make them understand that they had to wait until the middle of the night to get the scraps she so carefully laid out.

 

‘I told you to wait until it’s past –’ she started, but paused as four figures stepped from the mist.

 

Men. The mercenaries from before.

 

Yrene was moving for the open doorway in a heartbeat, but they were fast – faster.

 

One blocked the door and the other came up behind her, grabbing her tight and pulling her against his massive body. ‘Scream and I’ll slit your throat,’ he whispered in her ear, breath hot and reeking of ale. ‘Saw you making some hefty tips tonight, girl. Where are they?’

 

Yrene didn’t know what she would have done next: fought or cried or begged or actually tried to scream. But she didn’t have to decide.

 

The man furthest away was yanked into the mist with a strangled cry.

 

The mercenary holding her whirled towards him, dragging Yrene along. There was a ruffle of clothing, then a thump. Then silence.

 

‘Ven?’ the man blocking the door called.

 

Nothing.

 

The third mercenary – between Yrene and the mist – drew his short sword. Yrene didn’t have time to cry out in surprise or warning as a dark figure slipped from the mist and grabbed him. Not in front but from the side, as if they’d just appeared out of thin air.

 

The man holding Yrene threw her to the floor and drew the sword from across his back, a broad, wicked-looking blade. But his companion didn’t even shout. More silence.

 

‘Come out, you bleedin’ coward,’ the ringleader growled. ‘Face us like a proper man.’

 

A low, soft laugh.

 

Yrene’s blood went cold. Silba protect her.

 

She knew that laugh – knew the cool, cultured voice that went with it.

 

‘Just like how you proper men surrounded a defenceless girl in an alley?’

 

With that, the stranger stepped from the mist. She had a long dagger in each hand.

 

And both blades were dark with dripping blood.

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