“Your land?” I look down my nose at her and the contingent of two dozen red-garbed warriors at her back. “These lands are within the summer realm and under the control of Queen Aurentia, to whom you owe your allegiance.”
The leader lifts her scarf and spits, a grave insult. “We answer to no supposed queen.”
“If you don’t let us pass, you will answer to the bite of the winter wind.” I don’t make threats lightly, and she seems to understand this, because the smile fades a little.
“Not without the toll.”
“Give us your price.” Gareth saunters up, Beth at his back.
The leader cuts her eyes to him, then re-focuses on me. “You might want to call off your dog, your majesty,” she sneers.
They know who we are. But, of course, word that the winter realm’s king had crossed the border would have spread rapidly.
“Your price,” Gareth presses.
She traces her fingers along the whip. “No small talk? Fine by me, my lord.” She steps toward Kyrin, who snorts his disapproval. “You know what the king beyond the mountain wants.”
“You won’t take my life.” My fangs lengthen as I eye her numbers. “Plenty before you have tried. I’ve killed each, sometimes with more relish than I should have.”
She arches a brow. “You? It seems your ego precedes you, my lord. I’m not here for your head. My price is simple. We require the changeling hiding behind you. She will stay with us, and the rest of you are free to go on your way. A reasonable price, truly, since it ends with all of you breathing even though you trespass in our lands.”
“Your price is death.” A sizzle of cold ripples through my skin. I’m barely keeping my magic at bay, everything inside me demanding I destroy the threat to my mate.
“Why do you want her?” Gareth dismounts and hands his reins to Beth, then positions himself between them and me.
The warriors tense, some of them drawing their curved blades, but the leader doesn’t move at all. Steady like a snake waiting for its prey.
“The bounty on her head.”
“What bounty?” I ask.
“The king beyond the mountain has promised enough coin to fund my people for generations. Anyone who can deliver this changeling alive to the Gray Mountains will receive the reward.” She flicks her whip free. “And I intend to claim it.”
“Maybe I’m the changeling you’re looking for. You ever think about that?” Beth calls.
The leader doesn’t even look at her. “The one I want is coveted by the king of the winter realm. I can assume, based on the way he’s fawning over her, it’s the one on his horse.”
Taylor fists the material at my sides. “Why would he want me?” she breathes.
I squeeze one of her hands. “They won’t take you.”
The leader shrugs. “That’s cute, but I’m not walking away from the reward. So, I will be taking her, even if it requires killing the rest of you.”
“Then you will be disappointed.” Gareth draws his sword. “And your warriors will be dead. Or you could let us pass. The choice is yours.”
“For this sum, I have no choice.” The whip lights with magical fire, orange flames licking along the leather. With a vicious crack, she launches it through the air, and Gareth ducks out of the way. All the warriors go into motion, their blades drawn.
I jump from Kyrin, hand the reins to Taylor and guide both of them to Beth. “Go back down the road. Keep to it, and ride hard. Flee to the Greenvelde and then to Queen Aurentia. She will keep you safe. I will come for you when I can.”
“Wait, Leander.” Taylor reaches for me, but I slap Kyrin’s flank, and both horses take off. The fear in her eyes tears me to pieces, but I can’t ease her. Not now. Instead, I turn and engage the warriors, each of them fast and cunning. But they are no match for my magic. Even in the summer realm, my powers are formidable. With a vicious push, I shove a wave of cold into the nearest soldiers, and a frost creeps along their red clothing, slowing their movements.
I jump into the fray, slashing with my sword as Gareth engages with the leader, the crack of her whip a constant threat. More of them emerge from the low brush along the side of the road, all of them coming straight for us with their curved blades held high. They fight well, not as a unit, but separately, each of them spinning and engaging with lethal efficiency. I cut them down, the ground absorbing their blood as they fall, crimson on crimson.
One lands a blow to my arm, the skin separating as the blade cuts to my bone. I yell and parry, attacking the fae soldier with an onslaught that leaves him badly wounded as another emerges from the brush and comes for me. I’m used to fighting wounded. It keeps the stakes fresh and fuels my magic.
The whip cracks against the side of my head, the fire scorching my temple. I send a wave of blistering cold into the mass of fighters. Two of them fall dead, their eyes frozen open, as the others slow but do not stop.
“Gareth.” I spin and roll out of the way of another crack of the whip. “It’s about time you dusted off your magic.”
The leader is grinning, her sword red with Gareth’s blood. “I’ve never killed a winter realm fae.” She drops and does a spinning kick, knocking Gareth off his feet. When she slashes at him with her blade, I block the blow as he scrambles to his feet. Her silver eyes narrow as I stare down at her, our blades locked, though she’s losing ground.
“And you won’t kill one today.” I shove her back, and she sprawls on the road.
With a hiss she summons a large ball of red flame and throws it at me. I blast it away with my ice. She’s already panting, her magic stores no match for mine.
Another blast of cold from me, and she curls in on herself, the freeze turning the tips of her fingers black with frostbite.
“Back up.” Gareth grabs my shirt and yanks me away as the remaining warriors rush us. “Shield!”
I throw up an ice barrier just as Gareth unleashes his magic. The air explodes as if it’s made of glass, and the red warriors scream as bits of their flesh are ripped away. Gareth’s magic is destructive and wild, so vicious that despite years of practice, he can barely control it. And in situations like this, he can only use it when assured his allies aren’t within range.
Several of the warriors fall to the road, their lives bleeding out onto the hungry ground. Others limp away and disappear into the red wastes. The leader struggles to her feet, whip still in hand. The scarf has fallen from her face, revealing a comely female with high fae features.
“You brought this end upon yourself.” I advance with my sword out beside me. “Joining with the king beyond the mountain was a foolish choice.”
She holds her blade out defensively. “My people are starving. I’d happily ally with anyone who could put food in their bellies.” Kicking her chin up, she cracks her whip, the flames flickering. “Come for me, king, and I will show you the sting of the Vundi.”
I raise my sword and swing. The blow cuts her blade in half and severs her whip. She staggers back, gasping as she pulls a dagger from the folds of her dress. I would spare her, but she made the mistake of threatening my mate. The feral fae will not stop until her blood runs cold on the dusty ground.
Reaching for her, I take her by the neck and lift her off the dirt. She slashes my arm with her dagger, but I barely feel it. All I have to do is close my fist, and she’s done. But a sound catches my ear. Hooves.
The female’s mouth spreads into a grin as I turn and see Kyrin galloping toward me. A Vundi sits astride him, in his hand the obsidian blade. Taylor is draped across the saddle, her body limp.
My battle cry erupts in an icy wave, and I taste blood.