“So am I.” She plops a wooden spoon into my bowl. “Eat up. Long day’s ride ahead.”
“I’ve never even done that before, so there’s no way—”
“Never what?” She licks an errant drop of stew from her thumb and pours herself a bowl.
“Never, you know.” I wish I hadn’t said anything.
“Never been with a male?” She plops down next to me on the fallen leaves that blanket the forest floor.
“No.” I take a bite of the stew and singe my tongue. Damn.
“Hmm.” She shrugs. “Well, you’re about to learn, queenie. So don’t fret.”
“You aren’t listening.” The food is delicious, despite the fact my tongue is in need of a burn unit. “I’m going to the winter realm so I can get back home. Not so I can be some queen or get with Leander—” I glance at him. He’s hefting the saddle onto the other horse, and his broad back muscles stretch the fabric of his dark shirt. That little tingle between my legs begins anew, and I have to start again, “So, as I was saying, this is about me getting out of here.”
“Right.” She shrugs.
“And what about you?” I pull my gaze away from Leander before he catches me ogling him.
“Me?” She scratches her nose and examines her dirty fingernails. “What about me?”
“Don’t you want to go home?”
“Yeah, back to the human world.”
“That’s not my home.” She slurps her soup, apparently immune to the burn.
“But it’s where you’re from. Won’t your parents want to have you back? Siblings? Friends?”
“You don’t understand.” She sighs.
“What don’t I understand?”
“Changelings can’t go back.”
Gareth strides up and serves himself some stew. “Morning.”
“Morning.” I hand him a spoon.
Lenetia ignores him. “I can’t go back because someone’s taken my place.”
“When humans are exchanged, a fae takes their place in the human world. The parents don’t know the difference.” Gareth blows on the steaming stew. “So there’s nothing to go back to. As far as Lenetia’s parents are concerned, she’s still in the human world.”
“Beth,” she says quietly.
“What?” Gareth squints at her.
“My human name was—is—Beth. I think it was short for something, but I can’t remember—”
“Elizabeth?” I guess.
She smiles, and I realize she’s probably only a little older than I am. The dirt, bedraggled clothes, and tough personality all work together to hide her youth. Knowing that she was brought here against her will and forced to work as a slave while her parents believed she was safe and sound at home makes me hurt in ways I never have before. I reach over and squeeze her hand.
“Elizabeth. I think that was it. Yes.” She hides her sorrow by downing her soup, but I saw the wetness in her eyes.
“Why do you take human children?” I ask Gareth.
“I don’t take them.” He meets my eyes. “It’s an old tradition going back thousands of years. Sometimes, when a changeling babe becomes ill, its mother will choose to exchange it for a human. The human world is far more hospitable than many of the realms here in our world, and gives the fae child a chance at life. The fae child is given a permanent glamor to look like the human child and is sent to earth and exchanged. It’s forbidden to do an exchange past childhood, because it’s far too obvious that the switch has taken place. Children’s memories fade, and humans are more likely to accept the child when it’s young.”
“But the fae parents don’t treat the human child as their own.”
He takes a careful bite of stew. “No.”
“Definitely not,” Beth grumbles.
“They use them as slaves.” I can’t hide the indignation in my tone.
He sighs. “Yes, much of the time.”
“I don’t disagree.” He takes another spoonful. “And that’s why I’ve never had a changeling slave. Then again, I’ve never had children. If I had a babe that could survive in the human realm but not here, I don’t know what I’d do.” He holds up a hand. “But I’d never treat the changeling as less than my own.”
“Why can’t you just take your child to the human world without snatching someone else’s?”
“The less the humans know about the other worlds, the better.” His tone darkens. “Humans are both fragile and too clever for their own good. It’s for their safety and ours. Swapping the child keeps everything in balance, and the humans are none the wiser.”
“It may be wrong, but that doesn’t mean it will stop.” He stands. “We don’t allow changeling slaves in the winter realm, but we do allow the exchange if a babe begins to fade.”
I hand my half-full bowl to Lenetia, who gobbles it down. My appetite seems to have dried up with each explanation from Gareth, especially since I was exchanged and enslaved for no apparent reason. “Why was I swapped? The fae with my face didn’t seem ill, and I’m far older than the allowed exchange age.”
His brows furrow. “I don’t know. That’s something that we’ll have to suss out once we reach the safety of the winter realm.” He turns his head quickly, peering into the trees at our backs.
Lenetia tenses. “What? What is it?”
Gareth remains impossibly still, everything about him attuned to whatever he sensed in the woods. A tremor rolls up my spine, but I don’t move, barely breathe.
After a long moment, he relaxes and turns back to the fire.
“What’s out there?”
He rolls his shoulders. “Maybe nothing.”
“But maybe something?” Lenetia spits on the ground.
“I don’t know. For a moment, I thought I felt …” He glances at me. “Doesn’t matter. We’re riding out as soon as we break camp, and then we’re keeping a quick pace.”
Leander strides up and has a quick talk with Gareth before sitting next to me.
“Food good?” He takes the proffered bowl from Beth.
“Yes.” I’m still stewing over the changelings and apprehensive of whatever Gareth may have seen in the trees.
Leander must notice because he puts his arm around me gently. “Problem?”
“I could explain it, but you wouldn’t understand me.” I rub my eyes.
“Try me.” He squeezes me gently.
“I’m going to clean up.” Beth grabs the stew pot and heads toward the nearby stream.
“‘Try me?’” I eye him. “You learn English overnight?”
“I knew the changeling language long ago, but I—” he screws his lips up on one side “—become rusted?”
“Rusty.” I nod.
“Yes. I’m trying to renumber.”
God, he’s somehow cute when he says it wrong. This huge, brute of a man—male?—with the dark eyes and warrior’s body is making me want to giggle. “Remember. You meant ‘remember.’”
“Remember.” He smiles. “My dreams help.”
I don’t know what to make of that statement. Dreams help? I’d ask for an explanation, but everything in me almost buzzes, as if there’s some slight electrical current between us whenever we get too close. I try not to look at his mouth, the sinful curve of his lips, but I do, and I swear my heart trips and falls all over itself. To cover, I launch into an anti-exchange tirade that sums up my conversation with Gareth and my many objections to the practice.
He listens intently, then goes tense and still when I recount how I was exchanged.
“Two days here only?” His brow furrows.
“Right.” I shrug. “That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you. I don’t belong here. I’m in college. I have classes. And exams. And bills to pay. And Friends reruns to watch. And a roommate to strangle.”
“Roommate.” He scrunches his dark brows together and says something in fae that sounds like a curse “—fae?”
“No.” Then I shake my head. “Well, then again, I really don’t know. Maybe? She could have been a—”
A low, sharp whistle cuts through the air.
Leander is on his feet in an instant, pulling me up with him. Beth is rushing toward us from the stream, the pot left behind, as Leander throws me over his shoulder and runs to the horses.
Gareth’s warning whistle sets my teeth on edge, and I grab my mate and hurry to the horses. Once Taylor is secure, I climb up behind her and guide Kyrin deeper into the wood. The forest is still. Too still. No squirrels play amongst the leaves, and the fairies have all taken shelter in hollowed-out trees or drooping flower petals.
“What is it?” Taylor asks.
The answer to her question is ‘danger,’ but I don’t want to say it. Instead, I grip her tightly and urge Kyrin to move faster through the trees.
“Curse the summer realm.” Gareth and the changeling ride up behind us. “There’s a witch trailing us.”
“From the scent of brimstone I caught, she’s an Obsidian.”
I clench my eyes shut for only a moment. “Can we outrun her?”
“We can try.” He sighs.
The trees whisper around us, warning vibrating through the leaves and into the muggy air. A creature of pure evil, an Obsidian witch would be a foe that even Gareth and I might not be able to defeat. Who would have sent her after us?
“No nobles in the summer realm could command one such as this.” Gareth seems to read my mind.