Leander waves the two males over. “Let’s go inside. It’s not something we want to discuss out here.”
Gareth is still steaming when he walks into the barren inn, but he relaxes a hair when Phin releases Beth from her cuffs.
“Why are you on a first-name basis with the Catcher?” Taylor asks as I set a chair to rights for her.
“I’ve never met the Catcher.” I flip a table onto its legs and a few more chairs, then sit beside her.
“I’m lost.” She stares at Phinelas, but not as hard as Gareth glares at him.
“Phin is one of ours, a member of the Phalanx, but I was under the impression he was investigating the disappearances.” Gareth splits the glare evenly between Phinelas and me.
Phin pockets the cuffs, then hops over the bar at the back of the room and returns with a few bottles. “I am investigating … in my way.” He sets the bottles on the table along with some glasses.
“By parading around as the Catcher?” Gareth leads Beth to a chair and holds it for her. I don’t think he even knows he’s doing it.
She grins and takes her seat, then pretends to fluff a fancy skirt.
Gareth notices and grits his teeth, then takes his usual grumpy tone toward her. “And you! Going around and getting yourself caught, putting Taylor in danger. I ought to take you outside and—”
“Gareth, calm down.” I kick a seat out toward him.
Gareth catches it.
“Phin is here on my orders.” I await Gareth’s outburst, but he sits and crosses his arms over his chest.
Silence from him is never a good sign.
I hurry on with my explanation. “When the disappearances began increasing, especially among changelings, I decided the best way to question changelings from the summer realm would be for one of ours to take over the role of the Catcher. That would give us unfettered access to changelings, maybe even ones who intended to set off for the Gray Mountains.”
“That’s all well and good.” Gareth snatches a drink from the table. “But you didn’t think to tell me? I’m your second in command, and you hide this from me?” He takes a drink, then sputters, “And you’ve allowed Phin to catch these poor changeling slaves and return them to their horrible masters?”
“No.” I sniff Taylor’s drink before letting her taste it. “He doesn’t return any of the changelings to their masters. He takes them to the winter realm and sets them free.”
“Then how does he ever get any work? If he doesn’t deliver?”
Phin salutes me with his drink. “I never deliver, but there’s a very real Catcher out there who does. The trick is for me to get his assignments before he does. He knows about me, or at least he knows he has an impersonator. But, as we suspected, he isn’t divulging that information to clients. It would be a sure way to kill off business. Instead, he’s been chasing me whenever he’s in-between jobs, trying to take me down quietly.”
“Why not tell me about this?” Gareth is still a thundercloud.
“Because you would have said no.” Phin downs his drink and pours another.
“You’re damn right I would have said no!” Gareth is close to bellowing. “You put our truce with the summer realm in danger by freeing their changelings!”
“But it’s the right thing to do, old friend.” I put my hand on his shoulder. “You know it is.”
“Maybe it is, but strategically—”
“Don’t think about strategy. Think about how you felt when you saw Beth in irons.”
“Well, that’s—” He shakes his head. “That’s different.”
“Because you like me so much, right?” Beth grins and drinks her whiskey as if it were water.
Gareth’s bluster dies a bit as he sputters out a vague denial that ends with “damn females” and a chug from one of the bottles.
Under the table, Taylor takes my hand. “You’ve been freeing changelings?”
“Technically, Phin has.” I grab my drink and raise it. “To Phin.”
Gareth grumbles but lifts his bottle. “This isn’t over. We are going to discuss this, Leander.”
“Let’s do it on the road.” I can feel the townspeople scurrying around just outside of our presence. “We’ve attracted enough attention. Phin, keep the work going and save as many as you can. I’ll get word to you once it’s time to return to High Mountain.”
“One more thing before we part.” Phin levels his gaze at Taylor.
A sharp tingle spikes along the back of my neck, the feral fae taking issue with Phin’s direct stare.
“Why are you taking these changelings to High Mountain?”
“That’s not your concern.” Gareth rises.
I stand and offer Taylor my hand. She takes it and rises beside me.
Phin’s eyes open wide, his countenance puzzled as he tries to piece together why I would be so familiar with a changeling. “Is there a reason to hope? Is the curse finally…” He rises so fast his chair falls over. “Your mate. This changeling is—”
“Not another word, Phin.” Gareth peers around at the walls.
“My spell has muted our talk, but we can’t be too careful.” I put my arm around Taylor, and to my never-ending pleasure, she leans into me.
Phin smiles, and it takes such a weight from him. “This news is—I can’t begin to describe it.” He strides to us, pulls out his blade, and kneels before Taylor, his oath pouring out of him as he bows his head. My most trusted warriors never disappoint me, and their unerring loyalty is worth more to me than any riches the summer realm can boast of.
“Bladanon thronin.” She says the words without hesitation and with a quiet strength that runs through her from head to toe. Though she doesn’t know it yet, she will be a formidable queen, one I will always be honored to call my mate.
The sky is so huge, pounding down to the ground in shades of deep blue, and a crimson dust devil twirls off in the distance.
“Does anyone live out here?” I pull the brim of my hat down low.
Leander shades his eyes. “These lands are home to the Vundi, a nomadic band of lesser fae. I’ve heard tales of a vast network beneath the surface of the plains, roads of iron and halls of stone, a Vundi community, but I’ve never seen it.”
“Doesn’t exist.” Gareth leads his horse down the right side of the narrow, red road. “Someone would have seen it by now, come back and told us. Besides, the Vundi are violent and territorial. They don’t have what it takes to build some sort of vast underground cavern like that.”
“Sounds like the Mines of Moria.”
“The mines?” Gareth points to his left across the Red Plains. “Those are far away to the south.”
“No.” I smile at my tidbit of human knowledge—even if it’s fiction. “The Mines of Moria are in a book. Well, I didn’t read the books, but I saw the movies. It’s this huge underground place, up under a mountain, and they have enormous halls and rooms and an entire city. It’s fancy and has dwarves.”
“Hmm.” Leander blows on my neck again. “Sounds somewhat like the caves of the Wyvern Range. They’re a set of mountains along the winter realm’s northern border. I’ve been beneath Caron’s Cap, the tallest of the peaks, but I can assure you that dark, dank place is nothing like what you’ve described.”
“Sounds scary.” I turn back to look at him.
“We have no reason to venture there.” His grip tightens on me almost imperceptibly. “You will find safety at High Mountain and have no need of travelling farther.”
“What’s at High Mountain? A city? Or, like, a big castle?”
Leander laughs. “It’s like nothing you’ve ever seen. Stone walls that no spell can touch, high turrets flying the Gladion flag, and a keep that has never been breached. It was built eons ago and still stands as proud as it did then. A city, Cold Comfort, rests at the base of the mountain. It’s protected from the vicious winds and the harsh bite of the cold that dances along the peaks.”
“Are there many people there?” I don’t know why I’m so curious. I intend to leave as soon as I get there.
“Cold Comfort is the biggest city in the winter realm, but it still doesn’t have the numbers of the summer realm.”
“But didn’t you win a war against the southern realm?” She arches a brow. “How, if you have so fewer people to fight?”
“I won peace, yes. And I think you’ll find that the fae of my realm are a hardier people than those who inhabit the summer lands.”
“If they’re anything like you, then I’m not surprised you won.” I smile as his chest puffs with pride. He can be so cute sometimes, even though he’s a hulking warrior. “Hey, speaking of battles, I want you to teach me how to use this.” I pull the obsidian blade from the makeshift scabbard Beth crafted for me.
“You have no need of that.” Gareth shakes his head. “Your king and the Phalanx are your devoted protectors.”
“Sure, but you aren’t always with me. Remember Tyrios?” I suppress a shudder. His memory is one I fear I’ll never be rid of. “He caught me alone, and it’s been dangerous ever since. I need to be able to defend myself. I mean, at home I could use my car keys between my knuckles or aim a kick between the legs, but here, that’s not enough.”
“You’ve kicked a male between the legs?” Gareth pales a little beneath the road dust on his skin.
“No, but I will if I need to.”
“She’s right,” Leander says. “She needs to be able to defend herself.”
“By the end of this journey, you’ll be able to cook, clean, and flay a man alive,” Beth says brightly.
“Certain skill sets never go out of style.” I return her wry grin.