“He’s my self-defense instructor, you asshole! He’s supposed to hit me.”
Does it make me a bad person that I couldn’t help feeling just a little pleased by what Ethan had done? Considering how many times Keane had hurt or humiliated me during our sparring, it was kind of poetic justice. Not that I liked seeing him in pain or anything. Well, maybe just a little.
Ethan shrugged, not at all bothered by my rebuke. “You don’t have a shield spell. Why should he?”
“Because,” Keane gasped out, sitting up although the look on his face said he was still in dire pain, “if I don’t have a shield spell up, Dana will hesitate to practice full out because she’s afraid she’ll hurt me. Good job reinforcing that fear so she might hesitate when someone attacks her for real.”
For the first time, the humor in Ethan’s eyes dimmed. Kimber, who’d been standing to the side as if trying to stay out of the middle, came over and knelt by Keane’s side.
“Are you all right?” she asked Keane, giving her brother a scathing look. She laid her hand on Keane’s shoulder, and I could see in her eyes that she really cared.
Keane nodded. “Will be, in a minute or two.” He fixed me with a stern look. “Don’t you dare let this make you hesitate.”
I didn’t like his commanding tone, and I honestly didn’t think this little episode had done any permanent damage to my psyche or anything. I might hesitate to hit Keane if I knew Ethan was watching, but if it was just our normal sparring session, or if I was being attacked by a bad guy, I was pretty sure I’d act normally. Still, I didn’t want to let Ethan off the hook—not when doing so might encourage the stupid feud between him and Keane—so I put a hint of uncertainty in my voice when I answered.
“I’ll try not to,” I said. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Ethan grimace. Then, he made a beeline back to the house without another word.
By the time my friends and I returned to the house, people were stirring. In fact, from the looks of the servants rushing around carrying luggage, our caravan was going to be heading out pretty soon. Not before I hit the shower, though. I was covered with mud and filth from my sparring session. Still trying to keep the Erlking’s mark hidden, I waited until the bathroom was completely empty before I took my turn, hurrying as best I could, though I had to wash out my clothes as well. The pants, being black, were salvageable despite my roll in the muck, but the mud stains on the T-shirt were never going to come out. I threw the sopping shirt into what I hoped was a wastebasket, then rushed back to the room to pack the few items I’d taken out.
Servants were already leaving the room when I arrived, one of them carrying my suitcase. I figured whatever I’d left out I could just stuff in my backpack, but when I entered the room, Kimber informed me that our bags had been packed when she’d arrived.
I made a face. “I don’t like the idea of someone pawing through my things,” I said, uncomfortable at the invasion of my privacy.
Kimber shrugged. “It was probably Brownies, and I’m sure they left your suitcase more neatly packed than ever. Now come on. We’ve apparently missed breakfast and we’re leaving in about fifteen minutes.”
Being reunited with Phaedra was not the highlight of my day. My butt started aching the moment I set eyes on the saddle, and when I patted her shoulder like I’d seen my dad do, hoping to make friends, she stomped her hoof, barely missing my toes. I narrowed my eyes at her.
“It’s not my fault I’m a city girl and don’t know how to ride,” I told her, like I thought she’d understand. She tossed her head in what looked suspiciously like disdain.
Ethan showed up at my side to help me into the saddle. I blushed when his help involved him giving my butt a boost. I guess he was over his chagrin about having potentially sabotaged my self-defense instincts. When I gave him a dirty look, he winked at me, showing me a glimpse of the playful side I thought he’d completely lost since his time with the Wild Hunt.
* * *
Once again, my friends, my father, and I were directed to travel near the very end of the caravan. My dad didn’t look any happier about it today than he had the day before, but I suppose he had to pick his battles. I was glad he’d chosen to put his foot down about my friends being housed in the servants’ quarters instead of about our place in the procession.
As we made our slow progress, the land around us changed. The road began to rise and fall over gentle hills, and the trees thinned out. I caught occasional glimpses of woodland creatures, some very like those I’d seen in the mortal world, some very much not.
By early afternoon, the trees had thinned out so much that there were only patches of them, the rest of the terrain brush-covered hills and rock outcroppings.
“Troll country,” my dad told me.
I knew a troll, though I sometimes had trouble thinking of him as one because he wore a human glamour. His name was Lachlan, and he was a really nice guy, even if his size made him seriously intimidating. Sometimes, he served as an extra bodyguard when my dad thought I needed more protection, so I felt safe around him. Still, I’d never seen Lachlan without his glamour, and if trolls were anywhere near as ugly as Brownies, I’d rather not know about it.
I must have looked alarmed. My dad smiled at me. “Don’t worry. I highly doubt we’ll meet any. They’re very clannish and tend to keep to themselves.”