I hate seeing her tears and wish I could take her fear away.
“She was coming after me. Vanara wanted to hand me over to the king beyond the mountain, but Delantis defended me. And now sh-she’s—” A sob catches her words and won’t let them free.
“She is with the Ancestors.” I kiss her forehead. “The Glowing Lands were made for a fae such as her. She defended you, gave her life for yours, and defeated Vanara.”
“No.” She pulls back and looks into my eyes, her gaze haunted. “She didn’t kill Vanara. I … I think I did. I felt something when she died. Like a surge. I don’t know how. I don’t understand.”
“What is going on?” Beth sprints toward us, a row of Vundi soldiers at her back, their weapons drawn.
“Behind me. Now.” I set Taylor down, then draw my sword. It’s close quarters, but I’ll use it to my advantage and cut a way out of this place. The feral clamors in agreement. “Gareth, watch our flank.”
He’s already there, a blade of winter, cold and deadly.
“You slew Vanara and Delantis.” The first soldier advances, his curved blade out to his side.
Ice creeps along the floor toward him. “Vanara betrayed our truce, and Delantis died trying to defend it. Now, you can let us leave, or you can die.” I keep my voice steady, the calm before the storm.
He doesn’t stop, the ire in his eyes showing he’s already made up his mind. “You will pay for your crimes.”
“You choose death.” I send a vicious blast of cold shooting down the corridor.
Charging ahead, I raise my blade to shatter the soldiers as I go.
“Halt!” Keret shouts.
I look up and find him on the ceiling, his lizard-like claws gripping the stone.
He drops down in front of me, his tail sticking out behind him.
“We are leaving.” I don’t back down. I’ll kill him if I have to. Getting Taylor out of here is paramount.
“Wait.” He holds out a hand. “Delantis sent her feral to me as it died. She told me what happened. Vanara turned traitor.”
I advance on him and press my blade to his throat. “Did she? Or was she acting on council orders?”
“No!” He blinks one eye and then the other. “The council is prepared to stand by the agreements we made. The Vundi word is good.” The sizzle of magic reinforces his promise and tells me he didn’t order Vanara to break the Vundi’s oath.
“And what of Delantis?” The feral rides me hard, telling me to kill them all to keep Taylor safe. “There will be no retribution for her life?”
“Not against you or your companions. And I believe Vanara has already paid the price for her mistake.” He yells to the soldiers, “The council demands you all stand down. The winter realm is an ally, and they have done no wrong. Vanara betrayed us. She served the king beyond the mountain, not the Vundi. The winter king’s mate, Taylor, has given us a way forward with the crops, and the king has agreed to help sustain us until such time as we produce enough food to support ourselves. They are not our enemies.”
I wait and allow the winter freeze to retreat inside me, but it’s right on the edge, ready to explode should anyone make a wrong move. “We’re still leaving.” I pull my blade from Keret’s neck.
“The treaty?” he asks.
Movement has me tensing for a fight again, but Cenet appears behind Keret, his hands out, weapons stowed. “I came to help.”
“Your soldiers could have used it,” Gareth says wryly. He hands Taylor the obsidian sword, the blade cleaned of Vanara’s blood.
“I meant that I came to help you.” Cenet glares. “But I see Keret has it handled.”
“The treaty?” Keret presses.
“It is still good as long as we are allowed to leave.” I can’t keep the ice from my tone. “The Vundi shouldn’t suffer because of Vanara’s treachery.”
“You may leave as soon as you wish, and I’m happy to send Cenet with you to make sure you reach the border safely.”
“No, thank you,” Gareth’s voice carries down the hall. “I can see to the king’s security.”
“May we at least send provisions with you?”
“We don’t want to take what you have.” I eye the nearest soldier as the ice falls from him, and he’s able to move.
He steps back. Wise choice.
I hold one hand out behind me, warmth infusing me as Taylor takes it without hesitation. Leading her through the soldiers, I glower at them as they part for us. We return to our rooms, and Gareth guards the door as Beth and Taylor throw clothes and food into bags. I don’t leave Taylor’s side, my instincts attuned to every move she makes.
“Leander.” She pauses as she’s stuffing her hat into the bag and turns to me, her eyes troubled. “When Vanara came for us, it wasn’t Delantis who killed her. That magic, the black veins on her skin—it came from me somehow.”
A wave of foreboding cascades through me. “Are you certain?”
“Yes.” She stares at her pale hands. “I barely touched her. I was trying to get the obsidian sword from her, but when my hand grazed her arm, she sort of froze. Her eyes—” She shivers. “They turned black, and then she fell. I never meant to kill anyone. But I did, didn’t I? I took her life. It was as if there was something so dark inside me, almost like another person, and she wanted to kill Vanara. I could feel it under my skin somehow—that need to inflict death. Wh-what was that?” She stares at her hands again, as if they’re alien to her, as if they belong to another.
I’ve seen that sort of dark magic before, but only once. And I never thought I’d cross paths with it again—at least I hoped I wouldn’t. I don’t let my suspicions show, but I have some—ones that I dare not speak aloud. Pulling her to me, I wrap her in my arms where I know she’s safe. “Vanara wrote her own fate when she decided to turn on her own. You did nothing wrong.”
“You say that.” She presses her forehead against my chest. “But I can’t agree. I don’t know how to live with it. Can I?” Her eyes are brimming with tears when she looks up at me. “Can I accept that I took a life?”
“Put your burden on me, Taylor. Give me that worry and let me carry it for you. At least for now. When we’re safe in the winter realm, we can take it out of its box and examine it together. But for now, let me have it. All right?”
She sniffs and nods. “I can try.”
“And let’s keep this between us for now. At least until we return to High Mountain and speak with Ravella.”
“Who is she? You’ve mentioned her before.”
“A powerful fae with expertise in some peculiar areas. She’s a valuable member of the Phalanx. Now, we must hurry. We’ll discuss it all later, I promise.”
“Okay.” She takes a deep breath and lets it out. “I trust you.”
Has my heart ever beat this hard? “Good. That’s what—”
“Leander, we must go!” Gareth calls from the front entry.
I kiss her forehead, then grab a few more items and hurry her out the door.
Back out in the hall, Keret waits for us. Alone. His guards have dispersed, but I can still feel unease in the air. Some of the Vundi may have been in league or agreement with Vanara. We need to leave before the situation boils over even further.
“Para will lead you out. She has your provisions, and Cenet will bring your horses. You will be safe.” Keret gestures down the hall. “Para will show you the secret way that leads to an entrance near the walls of Timeroon.”
“Timeroon is at least a week’s ride from here.” I glance at Gareth.
“Week and a half, at best,” he adds.
Keret nods. “Our ways are underground, faster than the road, safer too, but it will still take you five days to get there.”
We can take our chances on the plains, risk another storm and the wind wights, or remain trapped in this stone world for a few more days.
I tense as Para appears down the corridor.
She kneels in front of me, her head low. “I swear on the soul of High Priestess Delantis that I will see you safely to the walls of Timeroon.”
“Why this allegiance?” I, like any fae, distrust an oath so freely given, though the sting of magic is just as potent.
“You tried to save her, didn’t you?” Her eyes meet Taylor’s, and I realize she isn’t kneeling for me, but for my mate.
Taylor steps to my side, and I let her stay there despite wanting to keep her safely back.
“I did. I tried to stop Vanara, but I wasn’t able to keep her from—” She chokes up and puts one hand to her mouth.
Para’s mournful voice reverberates from the walls. “Delantis is—was—our guiding light. That you fought to save her means more to me than I can give voice to.” She takes a deep, shuddering breath and bows her head again. “I offer you my sword for as long as you wish it. To the walls of Timeroon and beyond, I will serve you. Upon my life and honor, I make this vow.”
“You don’t have to do that.” Taylor steps forward and offers her hand. “Please.”
Gareth clears his throat. “My queen, her oath is as sacred as the one sworn to you by the members of the Phalanx. You can either accept and honor her by doing so or decline and leave her to her shame.”
Taylor looks at me, her gaze questioning. But this is a decision she must make on her own. I am her king, but she is strong in her own right and grows more so each day. She seems to realize that and returns to Para.
“Your pledge is honored. Bladanon thronin.” She holds her hand out again, and this time, Para takes it.
We travel for what feels like a day in the unending stone world. Over bridges and through tunnels, we find abandoned mining equipment and mushrooms that bloom wide and translucent along the walls. Water is plentiful—so different from the dry, dusty landscape above. It makes me wonder if there is some way to pull the water from underground and recreate a farming oasis on the plains, restore it to its former state.