She drops her gaze.
I know what she’s thinking as surely as I know the snows are falling fast and thick on the High Mountain. She longs for her old life, for the land of the humans. It is up to me to show her that this is her home. That I am worthy of her, that she belongs atop the throne of the winter realm, ruling alongside me. I make a promise to myself that I will prove to her that she belongs with me. That’s one bargain I have no trouble making.
The witch rips her other leg free from the frost and rushes forward. I pull Taylor behind me and brandish my sword.
“Enough heroics, my lord.” The witch rolls her eyes at Leander. “I was only testing out my parts, making sure you didn’t frost them into oblivion.” She dusts herself off, icy flakes flying. “And you’re not necessary. Go, go, stalk away and be kingly elsewhere. I’d rather speak to the pretty one who is far more level-headed than your dark fae heart ever could be.”
“I’m not leaving.” Leander holds his blade to her throat.
“Your threats are wasted on Selene, winter king.” She winks. “Drained. Your magic only whispers to me now, and it dances away from you and back to the otherworld. And oh, how it pesters! The otherworld calls and calls and calls you.” She presses her hands to her ears. “Always pulling at me, too. Wanting to show me even more than I already know. But I know too much as it is.” She cackles, the sound painful. “So you can go. And I will grant my boon.”
Leander—still wounded and clearly exhausted—is ready to fight to keep me safe. Endearing? Yes. Unnecessary? Also, yes.
“I’m not leaving, black one,” he growls.
“Leander.” I put a hand on his forearm. “Please. We have an arrangement, right, Selene?”
“We do.” She picks at her nails and scrapes one clean on her teeth.
I refuse to think that she just ate a piece of the skin she scratched off Leander. Nope. Not thinking it.
“I’ll be fine.” I pat Leander’s arm again, though he doesn’t lower his sword.
“I am.” Selene grins and flicks another bit of carnage from her nails into her mouth. “But not to you, young one. And I gave my word.” She cuts her gaze to Leander. “You know what that means.”
“Give her a chance.” I don’t know what I’m doing, but I do know that if I don’t calm this situation, the battle will start all over again, and from the looks of Leander, he might not make it out alive.
He finally lowers his blade, and I let out a deep breath.
“Only because you wish it, little one, I’ll go. But I’ll be close. So close that one wrong move will be disastrous for you, witch.” He gives her a hard look, one that would probably make me pee myself if it were aimed at me. But it isn’t. I don’t fear him, and after that kiss—that kiss, my insides tremble—I feel so many things toward him that I can’t even decide on one.
He leans down and whispers in my ear. “I know what you are thinking about, little one. And I intend to discuss it more very, very soon.”
When he says “discuss,” I get a mental flash of the two of us beneath soft furs before a roaring fire as a winter wind howls outside. I clench my eyes shut for a second. Dear Horny Thoughts: Please go away. Xoxo, Taylor. I let out a huff of breath and force a smile. “All good here, Leander. Don’t worry.”
After giving Selene one more face-melting glare, he turns and strides back toward camp.
“Just us girls.” She twirls, her white hair flying out, and then we’re both back in the clearing—her leaning over her cauldron, me sitting on the log. At least this time I’m not bound by her magic.
She opens one hand and blows on it, as if she’s blowing a kiss, and the air shimmers faintly. My ears pop, and I get a slight sense of vertigo before everything returns to normal.
“That’ll keep your pesky mate from listening in.”
Darkness lingers, and the ground here has a faint layer of frost. I stare down at it. “Leander did all this?”
“He has the heart of the cold winter wind.” She produces a large wooden spoon from thin air and stirs her pot. “And to think, his power is dimmed here in the southern realm. He almost did Selene in. When he crosses the border into the winter realm.” She shivers. “He’ll be unstoppable. No wonder he took the throne. What a strong mate he will be.”
“He’s not my mate.”
She wrinkles her nose. “He is.”
“Fate, young one. Fate. Can’t change it.” She huffs. “Many a time I’ve tried to change mine, but everything comes to pass as it’s meant to. Your mating was written long ago.” She cuts her gaze to me. “You feel the bond already.”
“I don’t feel a bond.” I shrug.
She stares at me, her black eyes glinting in the moonlight.
I squirm under her gaze. “I mean, I do feel something.”
“Lust.” She nods and returns to her cauldron, her stringy white hair hiding her face. “You feel lust for him.”
I press a hand to my reddening cheek. “I don’t know.”
“Don’t you? A fine warrior from the winter realm like that? Big and strong, broadest shoulders I’ve ever seen, face so handsome it must be a trick of the Spires.” She smacks her hard lips. “Back in my fae days, I would have ridden him until I had blisters on my thighs.”
“Wow, that’s TMI.” I press both hands to my cheeks.
“Too much information.”
Her cackle rockets through the trees. “I used to think there was no such thing as too much information. But now, Selene knows too much. So much I wish I could get—out—of—here.” She punctuates each word with a smack to the side of her head, the sound of glass on glass. “But I can’t get rid of it, so I stay in my cave, hidden. No one tells me anything else. I sit in silence with my lovely bones.” She sighs, as if picturing her home. “It’s beautiful.”
I lace my fingers together as she stares off into the woods for a while, her hand slowly stirring whatever sizzles in the cauldron. It has a smell, but I can’t place it. One minute bitter, the next sweet, the scent keeps changing.
“A boon!” She claps her hands and the wooden spoon continues stirring even though she’s let it go. “I am to give you a boon, and then I can return to my bones.”
“A boon means something good, right?”
“Good. Yes.” She sits next to me on the log, her joints crackling. “What would you like?”
I open my mouth to respond.
She presses her finger to her lips. “Shh. You don’t get to pick.”
Utterly confused, I cock my head at her.
“Selene gets to pick. Those were the terms. I promised a boon, but didn’t say you could pick. I know what you want. Or at least it’s what you think you want.”
“To go home.”
“Yep, that’s the one.”
I grow breathless at the thought of returning to the human world. Home! Back to my books and my dorm and my exams. Sadness trickles through the thought as I realize it means leaving Leander behind. Maybe I don’t feel a bond, but I have warmed to him in the past few days. There’s something about him that draws me close. And the kiss we shared—I grip my fingers tighter—was the most exhilarating moment of my life. The way his lips moved over mine, the possession in his grip. I’ve never felt so desired, so needed.
“Mmhmm.” Selene clasps her hands around one knee.
I try to keep my tone light, despite the distinct lack of air in this part of the woods. “What?”
“I know the thoughts in your pretty head. The bond. That’s what it is. You just don’t realize it yet.”
I stand and cross my arms over my stomach. “Okay, so about going home. That’s the boon I want.”
“No.” She rises and waves a hand at me. “That would be a terrible boon indeed. Not worth the trouble. Besides, do you believe your mate wouldn’t come for you?” She laughs, a bit more agreeable than her usual cackle. “He would come on the winter wind and whisk you away in a storm of snow and ice the likes of which the human world has never seen. You’d wind up right back in Arin, probably in his bed, screaming his name.”
“So that’s a ‘no’ then?” I sigh.
“I choose the boon.”
“If it’s all the same to you, why not just give me what I want and send me home?” I puff my breath out, sending a lock of my hair floating up.
I sink back down beside her. “Because what?”
“You apologized.” She looks directly at me, and I swear I could sense something underneath the black skin and sharp teeth. Or maybe it’s someone, someone who isn’t quite as evil as billed. “And no one has ever done that to Selene. Not since I became…” She glances down at her black body and the shredded gray dress that barely covers her.
“What happened to you?” I can’t stop the pity that blooms in my breast.
“That’s an old story. One that I will tell you one day.” She presses her palm to her forehead. “Yes, I have seen it. Only forgotten. I go to my cave to forget, to silence the voices. To make it all stop.” She snaps her teeth. “Out here it all comes alive again—the knowledge, the T-M-I you spoke of.”
I snort at her TMI reference.
She stands and peers into her cauldron again. “And now I remember your boon. What is promised, what I must give.”
“So, not a way home?”
“A way to live.”
“I don’t understand.” I rub my face and realize how tired I am. This ordeal doesn’t seem to end, not since I first woke up in that cell, and it’s taking a toll on me.
“I followed you through these trees as if you were a dark orb, flickering purple and emerald. A shiny sparkle that drew me ever closer.” She blinks slowly. “That aura is part of what you are.”