Eventually, too tired to move another step, we made our halfhearted camp among the roots of an enormous tree. It blocked a bit of the wind, and the drizzle had subsided, but we were all shivering in our damp clothes. Well, I was shivering. The Fae weren’t much affected by the cold, but that didn’t mean they were comfortable. We huddled together, me with Ethan and Kimber with Keane, but there was no kissing or teasing or secret smiles. Even the shot of hope the Green Lady had given us, the hope that tomorrow night we might sleep in our own beds, wasn’t enough to lift us out of our misery.
After about a half hour, Ethan rose to his feet. “I’m going to collect some firewood,” he announced.
Keane snorted. “Oh, yeah, that’s a good way to hide. Light a fire that anyone can see. With wet wood, I might add.”
Ethan scowled at him. “I can create a localized illusion that will hide us and the fire. And I don’t care how wet the wood is, I can make it burn.”
Usually, Keane would have argued more, but I think he was too tired to bother. “Fine, do what you want,” he said, then laid the back of his head against the tree and closed his eyes.
“Stay close,” Kimber warned as Ethan moved away. He spared time for a “well, duh” look before he disappeared into the darkness.
* * *
Ethan was as good as his word, returning to our makeshift camp with an impressive pile of branches. It took a while to get them burning, since he didn’t have a handy “light wet wood on fire” spell ready. From what I understand of magic, most of the Fae would take hours or even days of practice before they could train the magic to do a new spell, but Ethan managed it in about fifteen minutes. I could tell even Keane was impressed, though he would never dream of admitting it. At least Ethan refrained from acting all smug.
I can’t say we were exactly comfortable after that, but the fire was a welcome relief, and our silence as we huddled around it was almost companionable.
It didn’t take long for us to start yawning, the warmth of the fire making us even sleepier than we already were. We set up a watch schedule, because even though we’d neither seen nor heard signs of pursuit in the last several hours, it was still out there. Ethan took the first watch, and the rest of us curled up on the damp ground.
Exhaustion pulled me into sleep with alarming speed. My dreams were filled with images of blood and death and a man in a hideous horned mask chasing me down darkened roads. The man in the mask chased me into a dead-end alley, and I came to a stop in front of a high brick wall I could never climb. Heart pounding in my throat, I turned to watch helplessly as the man in the mask—the Erlking, I remembered with a sudden start—stalked down the alley toward me.
“My magic can destroy you,” I reminded him, then started to hum under my breath.
“I don’t think so,” the Erlking responded, and though I couldn’t see his face behind the mask, I heard amusement in it.
I kept humming as he continued to approach, but the magic was coming only sluggishly to my call. Unlike the flood I was now used to, there was only a trickle, and terror almost stole my voice.
The Erlking was too close. I couldn’t wait any longer or he would have me, so even though I hadn’t gathered enough magic to do much of anything, I let loose my screaming high note.
He was on me before the sound rose from my throat, his hand clamped over my mouth, trapping my scream. I flailed.
And woke up to find a hand over my mouth and my wrists held together in a bruising grip. But it wasn’t the Erlking’s eyes burning into mine, it was Ethan’s.
My first thought was that I’d been thrashing around, having a nightmare, and Ethan was trying to keep me quiet so I wouldn’t draw any search parties. Still sweating from the terror of my dream, I forced myself to relax in his grip and signal to him that I was awake. But he didn’t let go of me.
Ethan dragged me to my feet, one hand still clamped over my mouth, his other arm wrapped around my waist, trapping my own arms at my sides. His grip was bruisingly tight, and he didn’t ease up when the pained whimper of protest rose from my throat. Then, he started to drag me off into the forest.
I didn’t know what the hell was going on, but I did know something was horribly wrong with this scenario. Ethan was hurting me, dragging me away from the campfire and my sleeping friends. But I hadn’t suffered through all my self-defense lessons with Keane for nothing.
I stopped struggling against Ethan’s hold, then stomped down hard on his instep. He cried out in pain, the sound jerking both Keane and Kimber out of sleep. They jumped to their feet while, wincing, I took advantage of Ethan’s distraction to give him an elbow to the gut.
I didn’t have the courage to do it very hard—this was Ethan!—but it was enough to make him let go. I whirled around to face him, opening my mouth to ask him what the hell he thought he was doing. But Ethan had already recovered from my admittedly wimpy blow, and before I could get a word out, his fist was swinging toward my face.
A few weeks ago, I’d have been helpless in this situation, and even now shock made me a little slow. But Keane’s training kicked in again, and I managed to block the punch with my arm. It hurt like hell, but better to take a punch on the arm than in the face. Ethan took another swing while I was still reeling, but that blow never landed because Keane jumped in between us.
The air filled with the prickle of magic, and the boys swung at each other furiously.
“What is going on?” Kimber wailed, coming to my side and reaching out helplessly toward her brother and Keane.