Keane was right about the instinct to pull away, and if he hadn’t been holding me down we would never have been able to finish. As it was, I felt woozy and sick from the pain, but I couldn’t escape it.
It felt like it went on for five minutes, but I know it was only a few seconds. My stomach heaved as I caught a whiff of burning flesh, and I thought for sure I was going to pass out. When it was over, I was shaking and sweating at the same time. I’d have liked to escape into unconsciousness, but I stayed wide awake and clear-headed.
With Keane’s help, I sat up, trying to keep my shirt and bra away from the wound. I knew it was only a small spot on my shoulder, but the pain seemed to be radiating throughout my body. I wondered if that was normal, or if it had something to do with the magic of the mark. It seemed to me having a burned shoulder shouldn’t be making my feet hurt, for example. I told myself that it was some kind of positive sign, that we’d done real damage to the mark, but I couldn’t be sure.
“Are you all right?” Kimber asked, still looking like she was on the verge of tears.
“Yeah,” I lied hoarsely. I hoped that out here alone in the wilderness the wound wouldn’t get infected or something.
“I’m sorry,” Keane said, and I knew he meant it. He’d been acting all tough about this, but I noticed there was a slight tremor in his hand as he stuck the end of the branch back in the fire. I couldn’t help being sort of glad it bothered him.
Ethan didn’t look too good either, his face unnaturally pale in the firelight. I didn’t know if he was dreading his own ordeal, or whether he was freaking out about mine. Maybe it was some of both.
None of us could find anything to say as we watched the end of the branch, waiting for it to reheat. Keane poked around a bit, looking for another one that would do the trick, but he had no luck. I had a feeling that despite his dislike of Ethan, and despite his tough-guy facade, Keane was going to have a hard time with this. At least with me, he hadn’t had to look me in the face while he was hurting me.
“I should do it,” I whispered, because this was all my bright idea in the first place. And because I was the one the Erlking was after.
“No,” Ethan and Keane answered in unison. They shared a glance that had none of their usual animosity.
“You’ve been through enough,” Ethan said. “Let someone else do the hard thing just this once.”
It felt like cowardice, letting Keane take all of this on his shoulders. I could tell by the haunted look in his eyes that this was bothering him way more than he was willing to say. But the boys were nothing if not stubborn, and they had both made up their minds.
I think watching Keane burn Ethan’s face was worse even than having my own mark destroyed. Ethan barely made a sound, but I almost screamed for him. And then to see that horrible burn on his face where the stag tattoo had once been …
“I’d rather have the burn than the mark,” Ethan said, noticing my stare. “And if it makes you feel any better, I think it worked. I can’t feel my connection to the Erlking anymore.”
“We can’t untie you,” Keane said, and I thought he was aiming his words more at me than at Ethan. “If this didn’t work, the Erlking would make you tell us it did so we’ll let down our guard.”
Ethan nodded grimly. “That’s true. You shouldn’t untie me, and you should always have someone on guard, if for no other reason than that we aren’t sure the marks will stay inactive. The Erlking’s magic is like nothing else I’ve ever seen, and it’s possible they’ll start working again when we heal.”
* * *
Logic told us that even if we had successfully destroyed the Erlking’s marks, he would still be making his way toward our last known location. Which meant we had to move. The pain in my burned shoulder made me want to curl up in a little ball and moan in misery, but we didn’t have time for that.
We did the best we could to rub out all traces of our camp, but I didn’t think it would fool anyone. Certainly not an immortal hunter like the Erlking.
After a long argument that we couldn’t afford, we decided to head for the road. It was unlikely people would be searching for us on the road in the dead of night, and we’d be able to move a lot faster—and leave a much less obvious trail—on the road than in the woods. Plus dragging around a guy whose hands were tied in the deepest dark of the woods was slowing us down way too much, and every time Ethan stumbled or fell, he left another link in the trail the Erlking would follow. Keane glared every time, no doubt suspecting that Ethan was doing it on purpose. Maybe he was, but if so, it meant the Erlking was still controlling him through the mark, in which case the Erlking knew where we were anyway.
Kimber’s sense of direction didn’t fail us, and we found the road within about fifteen minutes of breaking camp. We watched from the bushes for a while, but there was no sign of activity in either direction, so we left cover.
The road wasn’t exactly smooth, its surface pitted by hoof marks and the ruts left by wagon wheels, but it was a whole lot smoother than the woods. Smooth enough that we were able to travel at a slow jog, at least for a while. My workout sessions with Keane had given me pretty decent stamina, but there was only so long I could keep up with full-blooded Fae. Even Kimber in her cute wedge heels ran better than I did, and we eventually had to slow to a fast walk.
We stayed on the road for several hours, tense and jumpy and sure we would hear the thunder of hooves chasing us down at any moment, but no one except us was out and about at this time of night. Well before dawn, we ducked back into the woods. There was no way of knowing how far off those standing stones were, but the Green Lady said we’d probably find them sometime today, so we didn’t dare take a chance that we’d run right past the stream that would lead us to them.