“I thought they were rumors.” Gareth reaches out and touches the rough-hewn rock. “But it’s true. The Vundi have a city of stone.”
“Your horses can stay here. Deep enough to be safe, but close enough to the surface for them to feel somewhat at ease. Cenet.” Para motions to her companion, who takes Sabre and Kyrin’s reins and leads them into a hallway to our right.
Kyrin gives me a long look, but I nod to him. Hay thickens along the floor as he goes, and I can see the stables farther down. I make a mental note of where we part ways and endeavor to keep a map of where we tread.
“Come.” Para leads us down the slope.
Taylor slips her hand into mine, and I force my purr to stay locked inside. The Ancestors must be testing me, putting her right within my grasp but withholding our mating. I keep my other hand on my sword. The deal has been sealed, and my mate is safe, but that doesn’t stop me from being ever on the lookout. She must be protected.
“At least it’s cooler in here.” Beth sighs. “And no wind wights. Always a plus.”
We continue down until the walls begin to smooth out, their red hue darkening and the lights burning bright and high above.
“Did the Vundi build all this?” Taylor stares at the rock that curves away from us as we enter a large chamber with two ornate doors at the end.
“Long ago, after the war that left these lands barren.”
“But the Vundi are nomads. They don’t build, only trade.” Gareth shakes his head.
“You don’t define who we are,” her companion, Cenet, says gruffly.
Gareth glowers but falls silent as we reach the wide doors. I would gloat about how wrong he’d been, but it will have to wait until we are back in the winter realm. Here, I must be on my guard.
Para waves a hand, and the doors begin to open inward with a near-silent whir. What lies inside defies even my vast knowledge of Arin. It is a wonder, one that lies hidden beneath the inhospitable red wastes above.
“I knew it was Moria!” Taylor’s excited whisper almost draws a smile from me, but the line of warriors on either side of the wide walkway temper it.
An immense cavern lies beyond, and a crystalline waterfall pours from a great height, the water refracting and creating rainbows in the spray before it lands in a basin far below. Large white crystals line the sides of the waterfall and cover the ground below where the water splashes and flows away.
“Water.” Gareth lets his disbelief show. “But the plains have no water source, only the Misty River far to the east. This isn’t possible. None of it is.” His gaze lifts to the ceilings, its surface glittering with veins of gold and white. Opposite the waterfall, an enormous silver statue of a nude fae rises, her gaze fixed on the entryway and her mouth in a mischievous smile.
“Who’s that?” Taylor appears transfixed.
“Delantis. The Vundi matriarch.” Para motions one of the guards to her, and they engage in a quick back and forth before the guard takes off across the long bridge between the statue and the waterfall.
I keep my eyes on the line of soldiers ahead of us, their curved blades honed. Some of them are bloodied, likely the same fighters we encountered on the road, and they eye us with suspicion.
Para removes her scarf and head covering, revealing a cascade of white hair. Cenet watches her closely. Are they mated?
“So, when’s supper?” Beth rocks back and forth on her heels and rubs her arms. “And where’s the fire? I think this is the coldest air I’ve ever felt.”
Gareth snorts. “This is cold to you?”
Beth rolls her eyes at him. “Is this the part where you brag about how cold the winter realm is? Because I’d rather skip it and go straight to the Vundi food part.”
Para gives her a sideways glare, then turns and heads across the bridge. “This way.”
We follow, though I’m on edge, aware of every sound and movement even though the waterfall muffles much of what goes on deeper in the cavern.
“What’s that stone?” Taylor points at the statue’s necklace.
“Soulstone.” Para doesn’t even look at the egg-shaped stone that graces the statue’s ample chest.
Taylor’s hand strays to her throat. “Does it come from—”
“Para!” A fae emerges from the arched doorway at the end of the bridge.
“Vanara.” For the first time, Para picks up her pace. This must be her commander. The fae is tall and wiry, and her age is beginning to show in the wrinkles along her upper lip, as if she spends her spare time in a scowl.
“What have you done, Para?” The woman, her face severe, eyes all of us. “Your mission was quite clear.”
“I know, but there were—” She clears her throat. “Unforeseen complications.”
“You come back with dead and wounded warriors and call it ‘complications’?” Vanara swipes past her and stops in front of us. “The changeling, is she here?”
“Yes, we brought her.” Para, cowed, stands just behind her leader.
Vanara looks down her nose at first Beth, then Taylor. “The changeling must not be harmed. That’s part of the deal with the king beyond the mountain. I must inspect her straightaway.”
Taylor straightens. “Standing right here. I can hear you, you know?”
“Then hear this.” Her silver eyes narrow. “Delivering you to the king beyond the mountain is what must be done—what will be done—no matter what you say to the council.”
Her threats must be answered. I begin to draw my sword, but Gareth reaches over and stays my hand.
“Vanara, is it?” His tone is laced with contempt. “You aren’t going to inspect anything, and if you don’t back off, I can guarantee that Leander will take your head. Taylor is his mate. And I don’t know what sort of ramshackle hole in the ground you’re running here, but no one has afforded my king the respect befitting his station.”
My grip tightens on my blade, and I step forward. “Perhaps the Vundi prefer battle and blood to tradition and hospitality. In that case, I am happy to oblige them.”
Gareth doesn’t release my wrist. “Even the high fae of Byrn Varyndr treated us better than we’ve fared at your hands.”
Nothing fazed Vanara. Not a word. Until Gareth’s final gripe. Once hostilities on the plains were ended and the pact was sealed with magic, we should have been afforded some semblance of a welcome. Instead, they offer threats.
“The pretenders at Byrn Varyndr cannot rival the warmth of a Vundi hearth.” Vanara backs off and even dips her head a little. “My apologies, King Gladion.”
“Never speak to my mate again. Don’t even look at her.” I sheathe my blade.
Para clears her throat. “Your rooms should be ready. Please follow me.” Even her tone has softened. “This way.”
I keep Taylor at my back, hemmed in between Gareth and me, as we leave the waterfall chamber and enter an even larger one. A city slumbers here under the dark stone ceiling that soars away high above us. Thousands of homes are carved into the walls and along the floors as far as I can see. Several of them seem abandoned, but the ones nearest the ground level are occupied, light and voices humming along the rock. More buildings line the cave floor, some of them large enough to hold hundreds of fae—gathering places and possibly businesses. Stone bridges criss-cross the cavern and foot paths wind up each side. An entire civilization lies hidden beneath the red wastes.
“How many people live here?” Taylor stops and stares down from our bridge high above the stone buildings below. A handful of children, lesser and high fae, play amongst the ruin of a dwelling beneath us, their laughter high and ringing as they chase each other. But their clothes are shoddy, their bodies thin, and one of them has a cough that would concern any parent.
“We used to boast great numbers. After the conflict that ruined these lands, we rebuilt and thrived underground.” Para follows her gaze to the children. “But when the war with winter ended, not enough of us came home. What little farming we were able to do along the banks of the Misty River was pillaged by the high fae at Byrn Varyndr. Now, we have very little. We’re able to trade with the gems we mine, but we can’t support ourselves without turning to …” She chews her lip. “Other avenues.”
“You mean brigandry.” Gareth crosses his arms over his chest. “Vundi bandits.”
“We must survive however we can,” Para snaps and turns on her heel.
“Has anyone ever told you you really have a way with females?” Beth cuts in front of Gareth and keeps pace with Para.
We turn sharply to the right and enter another, smaller room, this one lined with fine, if worn, tapestries.
“These are your rooms.” Para leads us down a corridor and into a round room with a fire pit in the center, the smoke escaping through a chimney hewn into the rock above. Divans, pillows, and a dining table fill the space, and doorways lead deeper into the stone maze. “There are two bathing rooms and two bedrooms. Will this be sufficient?”
I have no doubt these are the finest apartments the Vundi possess, but my approval is contingent on my queen’s. “Taylor, are these to your liking?”
“It’s lovely. Thank you, Para.” Taylor feels the nearest pillow, its silky crimson fabric highlighting her small, fair hand.
Gareth strides down the first hallway, doing a sweep.
“I’ll have food brought in and return when the council is ready to speak with you. Until then, please make yourselves comfortable. Cenet will stand watch outside your chambers should you need anything.”
Beth plops down on a deep emerald divan. “I’d say this arrangement is better than being eaten alive by wind wights, right?”
“We went from enemies to honored guests.” Taylor shakes her head. “I don’t understand this place.”
“We’re still enemies.” I follow Gareth, checking every shadow and hallway. “Be on your guard.”