“Snow.” Taylor shakes her head. “How?”
“Magic divided the lands in the ancient times. To maintain balance, it created the realms of summer and winter. There are other realms across Arin, night and day, spring and fall—but they’re far away beyond the Ocean of Storms. I have enough troubles on this continent to worry about others, though we do have infrequent trade with them.”
“That’s great and all, but there’s snow!” She points.
“I think you broke your changeling.” Beth grins, but I can sense she’s more than a little awed as well with the way she stares across the barrier.
I look beyond the shimmering wall. Shadows ease from the wooden structures of the small town on the winter side. They coalesce along the main road, members of the Phalanx armed to the teeth and ready to bleed for their king. Some of my tension releases. No threat can stand against them. I ignore the feral’s rejoinder of “we can.”
“Now I must wait here.” I throw a leg over Kyrin and drop to the dusty cobblestones. The soldiers are bored, most of them playing dice while others drink and carouse. Only a couple of them watch us, and they focus solely on me.
“You never said why I have to go without you.” She reaches out for me.
I take her hand. I always will. “Just in case my feral gets a little too strong when I cross. I don’t want to … hurt you. You see?”
“Oh.” She bites her lip, then says again more quietly, “Oh.”
“Yes. It’s for your safety.” I squeeze her hand. “But it won’t be for long.”
“Do you promise?”
I close my eyes, a promise between mates being an aphrodisiac all its own. “I promise I will follow you into the winter realm and wherever you go from now on.”
The zing of magic shocks between us, and her eyes open wide. “Wow.”
“That’s nothing.” I kiss the back of her hand but dare not do more. Not when I’m this close to the winter realm, the feral howling just beneath my skin.
“Gareth.” I turn to him. “She is in your care.”
“I will keep her close, my king. You have nothing to worry about.”
I’ll worry all the same. But I’ve put my life in Gareth’s hands more times than I can count. He won’t let me down.
“I’ll watch out for both of them.” Beth pats Gareth on the knee. “He could use some direct supervision.”
Gareth’s usual scowl reappears.
Para pulls her dress closer around her throat.
I meet her gaze. “Don’t worry. There will be furs aplenty once you cross. Hospitality is the way of the winter realm.”
She gives me a curt nod and looks away quickly.
I still hold Taylor’s hand. I have to let go. Looking up at her, my heart constricts when I see the wetness in her eyes. I can’t leave her like this.
One pull and she’s in my arms, my mouth pressed to hers. The feral be damned. She wraps her arms around my neck, her feet dangling off the ground as I kiss her with all the love I possess. Her tongue searches mine, both of us lost in each other. My worries fade as I taste her sweetness, and I want this moment to last forever. But, too soon, it must end. She has to go.
When I break the kiss, the feral rakes its claws down the inside of my chest.
“Go, now, before I change my mind.” I set her on Kyrin, her tears still salty on my tongue.
“Leander.” She wipes her eyes and straightens her spine. My queen. “I’ll see you on the other side.”
“It’s a deal.” I slap Kyrin’s flank, and he takes off through the barrier.
Gareth and the others follow, but I don’t take my eyes from Taylor, not until she vanishes in a swirl of snow while surrounded by my warriors.
The cold seeps through my clothes and plays along my skin with frigid fingers. A row of soldiers in silver armor line the road on either side of us. They’re stationed like the ones on the other side, but they are far more formal and verge on scary. They don’t look at me. Their eyes are forward, hands clasped behind their backs.
Snow coats everything, fat flakes falling all around as ice dangles like fancy earrings from nearby trees. “Narnia,” I whisper and rub my arms against the cold. Gareth doesn’t seem bothered by it as he rides slightly ahead then stops in front of a line of fae. Four of them, each looking at me with thinly veiled curiosity.
“Who’s the changeling riding Leander’s horse?” A female steps forward and throws her hood back revealing close-cropped curly black hair and piercing eyes.
“Ravella, this is Taylor.” Gareth dismounts, helps Beth down, then walks to me.
“Why is she on Leander’s mount?” She cocks her head at me, something like a predatory bird who’s noticed a tasty bug.
I take his hand, and he lowers me to the ground. Ravella keeps her gaze on me.
Trying not to let my teeth chatter, I say, “Hi, I’m—”
“There you are!” A familiar face appears as Thorn saunters up and hands me a thick black fur. “For you, my queen.” Then he takes a knee.
“Showboat from the Spires,” Gareth gripes under his breath.
Ravella’s eyes round as I fasten the toasty cloak around me.
“So much better.” I rub my cheek on the soft fur. “I’m Taylor.” I hold out my hand to her.
She looks at it, then immediately drops to her knee. The three fae behind her do the same.
“Don’t.” I wince. “You don’t have to do that.” I reach out, but what am I going to do? Pat her on the head? Pulling my hand back, I change tactics. “I’ve been looking forward to meeting all of you. Leander speaks so highly of his Phalanx.”
They don’t rise. I look helplessly at Gareth.
“You can offer your oaths in the morning. For now, we must get moving.” He grabs the back of Thorn’s shirt and yanks him up. “What else did you bring for the journey?”
“Granite is loaded with all manner of weapons, furs, food—everything.” He whistles, and a dark gray horse trots out from beside one of the log cabins.
Glancing around, I assume this is what an old-school Aspen would look like—a street of cabins, wood smoke on the air, snow everywhere, unbelievable mountains in the background, and so many trees. After the flat expanse of the Red Plains, this place is a wonderland.
“A fated mate?” One of the males—this one with shiny black hair and dark, sparkling eyes—rises to his feet. “How? And why isn’t Leander here?”
“We’ll discuss it on the way, Valen. Mount up, everyone. Form a wall around Taylor. Nothing touches her.”
He smiles, and he looks boyish, like maybe he isn’t as old as Gareth and Leander. “I can’t believe Thorn managed to keep his blabbermouth shut about this.”
“I was saving up for the big gesture.” Thorn winks and pulls a small bouquet of slightly crushed lilies from inside his fur cloak. “For you, my queen.” He hands them to me with a flourish.
Gareth continues grumbling about showboats as he lifts me onto my horse, then takes the ailing flowers and tosses them over his shoulder with a harrumph. “Taylor, you already know Thorn, and that’s Ravella.” He points. “Valen is our healer.”
The fae waves as he mounts a midnight steed.
“Hi.” My voice is quiet, shyness overcoming me.
“This is Grayhail.” He points to a particularly surly warrior who wields a warhammer bigger than my head. “And this one here is Branala, our alchemist.” She gives me a small salute, her silver eyes marking her as a summer realm fae. How did she end up here?
“Very nice to meet all of you.” I fake some confidence.
It seems to work, because they all give me a deferential nod and mount their horses.
“We’re missing Brannon. He’s off to Silksglade. And you met Phinelas in Blood Run.”
The Catcher, right. I mentally tick him off the Phalanx list.
Gareth hands Para a fur from Thorn’s stash. “And everyone, this is Para. She’s a Vundi warrior who’s sworn allegiance to Taylor.”
Para’s back is straighter than an iron rod, and she takes the openly suspicious looks from each of the fae with nothing but strength.
“Forget about me?” Beth waggles her fingers at him from her spot astride Sabre.
He tosses her a fur. “This is a changeling with a profane mouth. You may call her Beth.”
“That’s it?” She frowns at him as he mounts Sabre behind her.
“Phalanx, form up,” he barks.
They position themselves around me as Kyrin takes off at a lazy pace.
“Faster, beast.” Gareth reaches over and smacks his flank. “We need to be well into the Kingswood before sunup.”
Kyrin snorts but increases his pace, carrying me into a new world—this one white, cold, and full of wonder.
I can’t sit still. The inn is too confining. The air outside too warm. She’s only been gone an hour, and I’m not sure how I’m going to make it till morning. But I must. For her, I must. So, I stalk around Timeroon, walking the narrow backstreets and counting the moments until I can cross into my lands. It doesn’t help that the feral howls inside me, demanding I go to her, claim her, take her.
A lesser fae with a scorpion tail eyes me as I pass his leather shop for the third time. “What’s winter realm garbage doing in Timeroon?”
“Only a summer realm fae would rise to your pitiful taunt.” I continue on my way even though pummeling the lesser fae into the red ground doesn’t seem like a particularly bad idea. Too easy, I remind myself.
I keep going for an hour more, each step adding another knot of tension to my body. When I hear rumbling along the main road, I alter my course and creep along the darkened stone buildings until I get a view of the border crossing garrison.
Captain Tavaran lines up his soldiers in front of the barrier’s opening until they’re four-fae deep. He’s brought every warrior in Timeroon to guard the way. Why? Is there a problem?