This time, I agree with Beth. Taylor is my mate and queen. She shouldn’t feel the need to perform menial tasks. “Taylor, you aren’t expected to—”
She shoots me a hard look over her shoulder. “Don’t you start, too. I’m not helpless, and I’m definitely not royalty. It’s time I pull my weight on this little adventure.” With a hard stride, she stalks off through the forest.
Beth collects the rest of the dishes and grins. “Taylor,” she calls and hitches a thumb behind her. “The stream is that way.”
“Oh.” My mate’s cheeks color a sweet pink as she huffs past lugging the stew pot.
“Spirited.” Thorn nods.
“She’s certainly got a mind of her own.” I stretch out my legs and rise, my senses attuned to each of her steps.
“I’d expect nothing less of your mate.” Thorn clears his throat. “But, perhaps you haven’t noticed, she’s a changeling.”
“Of course he’s noticed, Thorn.” Gareth kicks dirt onto the low flames.
“I meant that in a charming fashion.”
“Charm somewhere else.” Gareth finishes snuffing the fire.
Thorn picks a piece of gristle from his teeth. “I’m only saying that it’s an interesting pairing and one that might cause some issues with a handful of the old guard nobles.”
“She’s a changeling.” I shrug. “But she’s my mate. If anyone has a problem with her, then they have a problem with me. And as you know, I’m a problem solver.” Aggression boils through my tone.
“And then there’s the little problem of longevity.” Thorn tucks his dark gray hair behind his ear. “She will die.”
“There has to be some way to change that.” I glance over my shoulder to make sure she’s not listening in. “There are magics that can reshape her fate.”
Thorn whistles. “Only the dark can do that. And the price you’d have to pay—”
“Would be too high.” Gareth stands and meets my eye. “You know how magic works, Leander. It takes and takes and takes. Something like this? I’ve never heard of it being possible, but if it is, you can be sure it will have a terrible price.”
“Then I’ll pay it,” I snap. “I will never allow her to suffer and die, not when I’ve finally found her.”
Gareth shares a warning look with Thorn.
I force myself to lower my tone. “One thing at a time. We need to get across the border. The winter winds will soothe my feral fae, and I’ll be able to think more clearly about her and deal with the trouble building along our borders. Thorn, fly back to High Mountain and send Brannon to investigate. Give word that we’re returning, but keep the information about Taylor to yourself. Have the rest of the Phalanx wait for us at the Timeroon border crossing. We’ll be there in a fortnight at the latest. Go.”
“Yes, sire.” Thorn gives me a brief lowering of his head before turning and running. In a flash, he turns into a silver hawk and pumps his mighty wings, shooting up through the trees and wheeling away into the sun.
“Why does he always have to do a dramatic exit?” Gareth peers after him. “Showboat.”
“He’s loyal.” I rub my temples. “But he’s an ass.”
“Same can be said for the entire Phalanx.” Gareth smiles. “I like to think I’m the most stubborn of all of us, though. Pride myself on it.”
“I tend to agree.” I clap him on the back, my dark mood lessening. “Let’s get ready to ride. The winter realm beckons.”
“I feel it, too.” He pounds his chest. “Ice calls to ice.”
I stride through the woods as Gareth packs up camp. Beth and Taylor are returning from the stream, Taylor complaining that Beth barely let her wash a dish. I can’t see them through the trees yet, but I can hear them arguing.
Beth lets out an exasperated sigh. “Look, girl, I’ve been doing cooking and laundry and scrubbing since I was a wee one.”
“So, your technique needs work.”
Taylor grumbles as they appear just up ahead. “I washed dishes some when I lived at home. But in college I didn’t have to do dishes or cook. I mean, I subsisted on Hot Pockets and ramen most of the time. Give me a microwave and some paper plates, and I can show you what I’m made of.”
“You speak fae, but nothing you just said made any sense.”
Taylor wrinkles her nose. “It’s technology. It makes life easier.”
“Sounds like nonsense to me. Give me a good pot and a fire, and I can make anything your heart desires.” Beth brushes past me.
I put out a hand to stop Taylor. “A word?”
Beth takes the bowls from Taylor and continues toward camp.
“What is it?” Her irritation with Beth bleeds over to me.
“I wanted to ask about…” About what you said about people changing, but not for the better. But the way she looks now—slightly dejected and frustrated—has me changing my mind. “About Hot Pockets. What are they?” When she said the phrase the first time, a certain image came to mind, but surely that’s not what she’s referring to. Couldn’t be.
“Oh.” She smiles, some of the tension leaving her. “They’re food. Like sort of bread wrapped around ham and cheese or pepperoni pizza—cheese and tomato sauce. They’re super easy to cook and best of all, cheap. Like ramen. Those are noodles that don’t cost a lot.”
“Did you go without in the human world?”
She shrugs as a bird sings overhead, its song bright and warm. “I didn’t always have food to eat, no.” Her gaze falls, as if she’s hiding her face from me. “My mom was gone a lot when I was a kid, so I had to take care of myself. And in college, I’m there on scholarship, but I didn’t have extra money. I worked, but what I made got spent on books and my dorm room.”
No easy life for my mate. I should have guessed. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s fine. Plenty of people had less than I did. And I was lucky enough to get into college.”
“Lucky? I don’t think so. You worked hard, even when it wasn’t easy for you.” I push a little further. “And your father?”
“He was never around. Left when I was little. But my mother always had boyfriends.” She tangles her fingers together and squeezes. “And I had a stepfather for a short while.”
Just the way she says the word ‘stepfather’ has me bristling. Something is wrong there. “Your stepfather, was he kind?” I keep my tone light despite the vengeance pulsing through me.
“He’s dead.” Her head tilts even lower. “What about you? I’m sure you’ve had hard times in all your years.”
A deflection, but one I have to let go for now. She’s opening up to me bit by bit. But her question takes me off guard. How can I answer? Should I describe the terrors of war, the fae I’ve killed, the many lives that have been lost under my command? Should I tell her of the weeks when my soldiers and I starved on the fields of battle after Shathinor’s forces destroyed our provisions and burned the surrounding farmlands to ash?
Like her, I choose to deflect. “Nothing worthwhile is ever easy.” I cup her face with one hand. “And that includes us. I know it’s a lot. When I step back and try to think about it from your point of view, it’s overwhelming. A new world full of strangers with one of them claiming to be your eternal mate. But you are strong. You’ve shown me that time and again since I met you.”
“I think you’ve got me wrong.” Her cheeks pink. “I’m just a student looking for a way back home.”
I don’t say that I’m her home. It’s in my heart, though, and one day she will know it’s true. “We should get going. The forest will start to clear from here on out, then we’ll pass over the Misty River and into the Red Plains.”
“Two more weeks until the border, right?” She wipes a stray strand of hair off her brow.
“Two more weeks,” I agree.
We make our way back to the camp in a comfortable silence, though my thoughts push ahead, imagining the day we enter my lands. Two more weeks before the winds of winter soothe me, fuel me, and give Taylor a taste of the power lying dormant inside her mate.
The Red Plains are aptly named. Stark and forbidding, the landscape stretches out before us, the ground bloodred and covered with twists of brambles and something akin to sage. This morning we emerged from the trees and rode until we found a narrow lane.
“We’ll stick to the road from here on out.” Gareth peers into the distance where I can almost see dark jagged peaks.
“I feel so … exposed.” Beth pulls her ratty shawl around her shoulders. “And the merchants gawk at us when they pass.”
“It’s safer on the road. More traffic here. If we wandered out into the plain, we’d be far too obvious, not to mention, the land is full of pitfalls, sinking red sands, and a number of other dangers.” Leander pulls my hair from my nape and blows cool air across my skin.
I almost moan with relief. How does he know what I need before I do? The sun has grown hotter, the sanctuary of the trees now a dense green wall at our backs. Here, there is no respite, no fairy lights flitting around, no lazy streams. Ahead, a dark river cuts a slash against the encroaching crimson, and a ramshackle town—almost like something out of the Old West—sits on the opposite bank.
“Blood Run,” Gareth offers. “The only town in the Red Plains. Full of schemers, travelers, and outlaws.”
“So it’s Mos Eisley from Star Wars.” I smile at my faint geek knowledge, well aware that no one else will get my reference to the spaceport where Luke and Obiwan meet Han Solo for the first time.
“Sounds like my kind of town,” Beth says after giving me a blank look. “Too bad it’s ugly.”