“Guess so,” Jared said, shrugging. “I was just tucking myself back into my pants when Thera came rushing toward me, yelling at me to run. It didn’t seem like a good time to start asking questions. And after ...” Jared rubbed the back of his neck and looked away.
Brock snorted. “The whole damn Territory probably heardthat.‘” He paused, snorted again, then gave Randolf a friendly slap on the shoulder. “Come on. We’ll take point. No sense riling things up more than they are.”
Jared waited until the two guards were moving up the road before returning to Lia.
*Everything all right?* Blaed asked, handing the reins to Jared.
*For now,* Jared replied.
*I’ll stay behind the wagon and keep on eye on things.*
*Thera wants ... * Seeing the look in Blaed’s eyes, Jared let it go. Blaed the man might care a great deal about what Thera wanted, but Blaed the Warlord Prince would do whatever he felt was necessary—regardless of what Thera wanted.
Nodding to acknowledge Blaed’s choice, Jared mounted behind Lia and gave Thayne the signal to move on.
They were right, he thought as he wrapped one arm protectively around Lia’s waist. He’d never admit it to either of them, but, damn them, they were right. He wouldn’t have responded the same way if they’d told him the fight was an act. They shouldn’t haveneeded to tell him. If he hadn’t been so mentally scrambled, he should have realized it after the first shouted exchange.
And a Queendidn’t have to explain herself to any man, even the ones who served in her First Circle. Lia was right about that, too. A Queen might talk to all of her First Circle about the day-to-day concerns of the court, but there were also circumstances when only her Steward and Master of the Guard were toldwhy something was required. Sometimes she didn’t even tellthem .
Blind trust was part of the price of service, and the day a male couldn’t give that kind of trust to his Queen was the day when, in his heart, he no longer served.
Jared understood that, had been raised to accept it.
But he didn’t have to like it.
An hour later, Garth left the wagon, looking dazed.
Half an hour after that, there was still no sign of Thera.
Jared handed the gelding over to Tomas, then hurried to the back of the wagon to join Lia and Blaed.
They found Thera curled up on one of the benches, shaking.
“Cold,” she said as Blaed raised her to a sitting position and Lia wrapped her in spell-warmed blankets. “So cold.”
“Whiskey would help,” Jared said, settling on the other bench to get out of the way.
Blaed called in two bottles of whiskey. He handed one to Jared, opened the other, and helped Thera take a couple of swallows since she was shaking too hard to hold the bottle.
Jared offered the other bottle to Lia. After shuddering through a couple of sips, she handed the bottle back and settled next to him on the bench. He took a healthy swallow, hoping it would soothe nerves frayed from waiting.
Thera pressed her face against Blaed’s shoulder and continued to shake. Blaed held her tightly, murmuring reassurances while he coaxed more whiskey into her.
“I need to wash,” Thera said plaintively. “I need to wash.”
“Soon,” Blaed promised. “I’ll heat some water and help you.”
When Thera didn’t protest, Blaed raised worried eyes to Jared.
Jared shared the worry, and not just because he liked Thera and was concerned about her. She was a strong witch, and something that could shake her this badly was a danger to all of them.
Lia held out her hand. Thera grabbed it.
In the confined space, Jared felt power flow between them—not just the power of the Jewels and Craft, but the power of the feminine, strength anchoring strength.
Thera’s shallow breathing eased, became deeper. She took another sip of whiskey. “Garth knows.”
“Do you?” Lia asked quietly.
Thera started shaking again. Her hand clamped on Lia’s.
“Tell us what you can,” Lia urged. “We’ll deal with the rest.”
Thera took a deep breath. “Garth knows.” Pressing closer to Blaed, she stared at Jared as if each kind of contact was a thread that helped anchor her.
Slipping off the bench, Jared knelt beside her, keeping his eyes locked to hers.
“It’s not like the tangled web that almost trapped you,” Thera told him. “It’s less and more and worse.”
“It’s like someone rooted a psychic weed inside Garth’s inner barriers that produced runners that could cover an area with voracious speed. Some of the runners went down below his inner web and then turned upward outside his barriers, forming a tangled net to keep him locked in. Other runners spread out inside his barriers, so he’s doubly caught.”
“What did you do?” Lia asked, watching Thera intently.
Thera licked her lips. “I—Mother Night, Lia, the mind that created that is so vile, so obscene.” It took her a minute before she could continue. “There’s great anger inside him. He must have tried to rip the runners away from the root because I noticed that he could open his first inner barrier a little. So I cut away the tangle surrounding his inner barriers and then . . .”
“You squeezed through that little opening, not knowing how fast that ‘weed’ might reclaim its ground, to clear a path to wherever Garth had retreated within himself,” Lia said, her voice flattened by anger.
“You would have done the same thing,” Thera said defensively.
She would have, Jared thought, and couldn’t choke back the snarl.
“I don’t think what I cut will grow back. I think that’s why something was added to make his psychic scent so repulsive—so no one would push past it. It felt like . . . like . . .”
“Falling headfirst into a giant spittoon,” Jared said.
Blaed shuddered. Thera and Lia turned a little green.
“If I throw up on you, it’s your own fault,” Thera said. She took a quick sip of whiskey.
Lia pressed a hand to her stomach and swallowed. “Don’t talk about throwing up.” Releasing Thera’s hand, she sat back. “Is he broken?”
Thera’s eyes narrowed thoughtfully. “I’m not sure. I had the impression this was done hurriedly.”
Lia nodded. “Because it was meant to be temporary. He could have been broken back to his Birthright Jewel.”
“What’s the point of all this?” Blaed asked.