I rise quietly and steal over to them.
Gareth stands and joins forearms with me. “Congratulations.”
I can’t keep the smile from my face, the pride impossible to hide. “She is everything I ever hoped for.”
“I’ll drink to that.” Ravella raises her cup, and the others follow suit. “To our queen.”
I grab a cup of wine and join them. “To Taylor.”
We drain our cups.
“You marked the ever-loving Spires out of her,” Thorn says appreciatively.
“No male will mistake that mark.” Valen nods.
“I can’t believe I missed it.” Beth drops her head into her hands.
Valen pats her on the back. “Maybe you’ll catch the next one?”
Gareth lets out a low, barely-audible growl.
“Whoa.” Ravella turns to him, her eyes narrow. “What was that for?”
Valen withdraws his hand and gives Gareth a knowing smile. “I have an idea.”
“What?” Beth looks around, baffled, as if expecting a wraith to come swooping out of the trees. “What is it?”
Gareth grumbles and pours himself another drink. I hide my smirk in my cup.
“Does this mean the curse is broken for all of the winter realm?” Branala ignores the tension.
“I don’t know.” I run a hand through my hair. “Do any of you feel the bond?”
“No.” Valen shrugs. “But maybe our mates are elsewhere.”
“Could be. Have you had any reports of mates in Cold Comfort?” I keep Taylor in my view as she slumbers.
Branala frowns and tosses the remains of her wine into the fire. “No.”
“Has anyone heard from Brannon?” I need a rundown of everything that happened while I was away, but I’ll settle for the highlights. Finding out what happened to Yvarra is paramount—because she deserves justice and because her death is linked to the king beyond the mountain.
“He’s gone quiet. Set out for Silksglade as soon as I gave him your orders. Haven’t heard anything, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t decimated the entire town by now.” Thorn stands and stretches.
“He wouldn’t do that.” Branala scowls. “You never give him a chance.”
“A chance to knife me in the back? No thanks.”
“That’s enough, Thorn.” I’m not having this argument again, especially not on the night of my mating. “The sun will be up soon. I intend to make good time to High Mountain. There is much to do.”
“You mean the mating ceremony?” Ravella asks.
“Yes.” My heart jumps at the thought of presenting Taylor to the winter realm. “But we have other troubles. Queen Aurentia sent Tavaran to stop me at the border. And he was looking for Taylor in particular. I had to fight my way out.”
“Why?” Gareth stands and crosses his arms. “She let us go, let Taylor leave Byrn Varyndr without objection.”
I shake my head. “I suppose she changed her mind. I don’t know the reason, but I intend to find out.”
“Raising arms against you could be considered an act of war.” Thorn peers into the fire. “One that would start conflict all over again.”
“We won’t let it. I can’t let the realms fall into ruin and infighting again. I just need time to figure out why she—” The winter wind whispers to me, telling secrets from the border.
“What?” Gareth tenses, and one hand goes to his sword hilt. “What is it?”
“The summer realm soldiers have crossed the barrier. They’re engaging our guards and pouring into our lands.” My hackles rise with each word the wind imparts. “There’s already been blood shed on both sides.”
“What is this madness? The queen can’t have sanctioned such a break.” Ravella rubs her temples.
“This has to be some mistake. But it doesn’t matter. I can’t let it stand. I have to get to the border, try and stop this skirmish before it goes any further.”
“I’m with you.” Gareth turns toward Sabre.
“No. Gareth, Para, and Beth, stay with Taylor. Thorn, Ravella, Grayhail, Valen, you’re with me. Branala, make haste to Cold Comfort and stop any rumors about this incursion before they begin. We have to solve this before the old hatreds reignite.”
“I can’t stay behind.” Gareth swears with a vehemence.
“You must. The rest of you, go.” The ring of command is back in my voice, the tones of war.
Thorn takes off at a run and changes into his owl form, Ravella fades, travelling through the vale to reach the crossing, while Branala, Grayhail, and Valen mount their horses and gallop into the night.
“What’s happening?” Taylor clutches my fur around her shoulders and runs to me. “Where is everyone going?”
“Something’s wrong. The summer realm is invading our border.” I pull her to me and kiss her forehead. “I must go and defend our realm. Stop this before it gets started.”
“No. Don’t go.” She clutches me to her.
“I must.” I stroke her soft cheek. “These are your lands now, just as much as they are mine. And we must defend them.”
Her bottom lip quivers. “Please be safe.”
My heart aches as her worry resonates down the bond. “I will come back for you, little one.”
“Promise?” The fear in her eyes is almost too much to bear.
“Always.” I kiss her hard and fierce, the promise sealed between us.
“Take care of her.” I pin Gareth with a hard look.
“On my life.” He draws his sword and directs Beth and Para to break camp. “We ride for High Mountain.”
“Be careful.” Taylor cups my cheeks and pulls me down to her. “I can’t lose you. Not now.” She kisses me again, and it takes every strand of willpower I have to pull myself away.
“I love you, little one.” I back away and call the winter wind to my aid. It swirls around me and lifts me off the ground, carrying me over the trees and toward the Timeroon crossing where fae blood already stains the snow.
I think my mouth hangs open for a good thirty seconds as Leander disappears into the sky that lightens with the coming sunrise. “So, he can fly?”
“He can command the cold winds, yes.” Gareth throws the rest of our supplies across Sabre’s back. “You’ll find there isn’t much Leander can’t do in the winter realm.”
“Did I say ‘wow’ yet? Because, wow.” My amazement is tempered by the fact that he’s headed straight for a bloody conflict. “Why is Aurentia doing this?” I help Beth gather her fur around her shoulders.
Gareth leads her to Sabre and helps her up. “No way to know. But we have to stop them before the rest of the winter realm finds out. Because if we haven’t beaten them back by then, it will be all out war.” He motions me to Kyrin. “Come, we must hurry.”
I take his hand and he helps me up. “Ready.” I cast a glance back the way we came, back to where Leander is fighting, and a shard of worry spears my heart. I can still feel him, the tether between us tightening and thinning the farther away he is. But he’s there, and I don’t feel fear, only strength. “He’s going to be okay,” I reassure myself. “He’ll straighten out this mess with Aurentia, and we are all going to be fine.”
Gareth lets out a pained cry and keels forward in front of Kyrin.
“I’m afraid not.” Para pulls her knife from Gareth’s back and grabs Kyrin’s reins.
“Gareth!” I scream, my insides twisting as his blood turns the snow crimson.
Beth scrambles off Sabre and runs toward Gareth as I climb from Kyrin.
“What are you doing?” I pull the obsidian blade from my fur and hold it out. “You swore allegiance to me!”
“I did.” She wipes at her nose as blood drips from it. “And I will pay for breaking my oath.”
Cenet creeps from the trees behind her, his face hard, his eyes on me, and his sword drawn.
“Why?” I keep my blade up even as Cenet advances. “Why?” I demand.
Beth screams and cradles Gareth’s head in her hands.
“I already made another deal. Before I met you. Before—” Para drops to her knees, blood spilling from her eyes, nose, and mouth as her oath breaks. Regret coats her words. “There was no going back. There never has been. Not for me.”
Cenet advances into camp, his steps sure, his demeanor triumphant.
Para gasps, her silver eyes darkening. She blinks as they go gray and then black. “I’m sorry, Taylor. I’m sor—”
Cenet strikes Para, taking off her head in one stroke, and then he stalks to me. “Your father would like a word.”
I swing the obsidian blade at him, but all I hear is his hissed command – “Sleep, princess.”
I drop to my knees in the cold snow, and darkness falls as the sun rises.
The final chapter of Leander and Taylor’s story, Beyond the Mountain: Fae’s Captive 4, is available for preorder. After that, the story will continue for Beth and Gareth, and then the rest of the Phalanx (including plenty of appearances from Taylor and Leander.)