Landing on a soft pile of snow, I was grateful to see Sage striding toward me. My back still hurt from the impact; my head ached as if I had a hangover. His forest gaze raked over me and the territory all around us in the few seconds it took for him to reach me.
“Where’s Kishan?” he asked, helping me to my feet.
I twisted in a vain attempt to crack my lower back. None of my spine moved. “I’m not sure.” He still maintained the stoic expression I had come to associate with the Winter Princes, but I was sure I saw his worry deeply buried. “I think Puck was there, too. Lokesh was closing in… Puck gave us the boost we needed to get out of there.”
Sage shook his head. “Then he is also unaccounted for,” he grumbled, draping an arm around my shoulders.
Emanating a faint golden aura, Kishan appeared on the crest of a hill several yards away. He crossed the distance with liquid grace, his long strides just as catlike as ever. I narrowed my eyes. I remembered calling for the amulet to change the curse. Even if the crown had done it, or my own subconscious, I was sure the magic would go to Kishan before Puck. Goodfellow was tied too intricately into the curse to have it break so easily. The Indian princes were entirely different.
“Starr.” He grinned. “I will never be able to thank you enough.”
“Don’t tell me it worked.” I couldn’t bite back my own toothy smile. “Kishan!”
The eldest Unseelie prince coughed. “I hate to interrupt you both after the miracle of what just happened, but I think our dear Thornguards have found Goodfellow.” I sobered all too quickly. So did Kishan, although he held onto that inner light I never had, in this timeline or the past. “He’s fine, Starr. Only a little bruised. It just doesn’t help that he should have been resting for the past few days.” Sage began walking toward the border. Kishan and I fell into step with him, the weights once again crashing down on my shoulders.
I broke a third of the curse. Ren could be freed soon, and then my trickster…
My thoughts came to an abrupt halt when I saw a dozen Thornguards surrounding a heap of golden tabby fur. I inhaled sharply at the same instant he stretched and struggled to his feet. Kishan rested a hand on the hilt of his sword, attached familiarly to his hip. If Rowan hadn’t told his private army to defer to me, Sage would be no help here.
Luckily, one of the guards caught sight of the three of us and knelt, which sent the other soldiers to their knees. Puck sat up with his tail tucked around his paws. His emerald eyes gleamed with malice. Saving us this time would come at a price, I was sure of it.
Kishan brushed a finger over the small of my back. “I think there may have been some backlash after that,” he murmured. “I can still shift because of the faery ring, but a lot of the shattered pieces would’ve hit my brother and Goodfellow. If it happened now, it might be worse when Ren’s released.” His gold irises were alight with ancient strength.
All valid points, and ones that I had been forcing myself not to think of as I stared at the golden tabby, perfectly positioned to either walk away from or toward me. “We can get through this,” I replied, as much to them as to myself.
The trickster bowed his head. We had won this battle with a very small death toll, Kishan was free, and Puck was healed. Relatively. I sighed through my nose, turning away from the knight’s automatic posture. Goodfellow belonged somewhere away from me, once the curse was lifted. Whether or not he knew it yet, that was the fates’ gift to him after everything that had happened over the years. It hurt to think about, much less combining with it the fact that I knew the truth. Destiny was written in my genes, I guessed.
God, that day was going to hurt like nothing anyone had ever felt before, if it didn’t destroy my spirit completely.
From his bow, Puck continued to glare at all of us. I sensed the heavy look against my shoulder, as well as the discomfort in Kishan’s touch. He kept his hand on my back, anticipating an attack that would hopefully never come. I moved to face Puck again. He growled when my gaze met his, and Kishan stiffened.
“You’re not going to hurt either of us,” I replied softly to his challenge. Puck lifted his shoulders but made no other move to get up from his bow. The muscles coiled along his haunches. “Robin Goodfellow, if you even think of touching Kishan, I will incinerate you.”
That got his attention. The tiger pricked his ears intently, even though I could still see the bottom tip of his long fangs as he fought the urge to bare his teeth.
“Come home as soon as the backlash is gone,” I went on more gently. “None of us shall bother you until then.”
It didn’t take the Thornguards long to realize that meant leave. They dispersed at the same time I walked away. Sage and Kishan flanked me, keeping pace. As a team, we stopped in our tracks for the golden tabby that leapt out of nowhere. His sharp teeth were fully visible now, lips pulled back in a feral snarl, ears flat to his head. I felt my heart skip once, and then Ash was between his brother and me, fingers lacing through my own.
“He doesn’t know who we are, does he?” came his low voice. I shook my head ever so slightly, because there had to be some recognition for him to not like our presence this strongly. Puck growled low in his throat. “He certainly doesn’t like seeing us near you,” Ash commented, almost chuckling but not quite. “It’s a start.”
My thoughts were consumed with an idea that could result horribly for anyone else. I folded myself into Ash’s side, feigning exhaustion and comfort. I was drained, sure, but not nearly as tired as Kishan.
His arm snaked around me, eliciting a deeper growl going on a roar. Ash pulled free at the same time, and I waved my hand in dismissal to my trio. Sage and Kishan exchanged a confused glance that doubled as a silent cue to stay nearby. I knew Ash was going nowhere without first making sure his two best friends were safe, yet I also knew they were the best ones to send after the rest of our army. I had to make sure our balance stayed in place.
“Puck.” I stepped closer to him as soon as the others were gone. “They’ll circle back in maybe a minute. Can I bring you somewhere we can talk?”
The trickster raised his hackles but had at least stopped snarling. It seemed he really didn’t like the thought of the guys that close to me. I led him to the waterfall I always sought refuge at, my blood thundering in my ears. He followed me with enough distance I worried about his not-quite-there humanity.
At the sound of the cascades, Puck bounded ahead of me, tail waving behind him like a flag. I shook my head in amusement and kept close. He plunged into the pool, a tiger’s love for water literally submerging my sense of his fiery aura. I sat on the log that had been my spot for years, watching him for several minutes. The golden tabby swam back not too long after, shaking out his soaked pelt. Water droplets spattered on me, icy needles against my skin.
“Really?” I exclaimed, and stared at him balefully. Puck glared back. “I know you won’t hurt me, mister. You can stop acting like you’re thinking it.” I leaned forward to rest my forearms against my knees. “Except you might just be thinking about Ash and Kishan.”
The snarl that tore through our haven was surprisingly loud. I was even more shocked when Puck’s eyes widened, as if he had never meant to sound that threatening.
I was about to smile when I thought about wild animals baring their teeth, as Puck had done multiple times. Unsure of how that would work out, I shifted backward into a semi-relaxed position. “It’s okay. I’m not afraid of you. You won’t let my friends touch me, so I sincerely doubt you’ll turn that sharply on a dime.”
There was jealousy written in the emerald depths. I could see through his expression exactly how possessive he had become after the trap we had laid for our enemies. Puck sat down, paws tucked under him in such a way I guessed he was trying not to approach me.
“You know they’re your friends, too, right?” I continued. “They can protect me just as well as you can.” His gaze turned to flint. I faked a sigh, strength burning in my veins. “This would be easier if you could talk to me again.”
Magic washed over me from a misty breeze. Puck shivered and morphed, although there was still no recognition on his face. “Who were they?”
“Two of my inner guard,” I answered, knowing it might not be the best idea to challenge his unpredictable thoughts.
“Oh.” He tilted his head appraisingly. “Is that why I couldn’t fathom why they were so close to you?” Apparently he did not recall ‘inner guard’ and ‘best friends’ meaning the same thing to us. Wary, I nodded. “How bad would it sound if I asked who you were?”
Crossing my legs at the ankle, I turned from him to the chutes and balanced my weight toward my hands, behind me. A thorn grazed my heart; I had to remind myself that this wasn’t actually him, that Ren was suffering somewhere, too. “Who do you think I am?”
“Someone I love very deeply. I would say mate except we aren’t that close, and your mentality is a lot different than mine.” He raised both eyebrows abruptly. “That hurt you to hear, didn’t it?” he asked quickly, before I could school my features into neutrality.
Yes. “Not exactly. It’s the truth… I just didn’t expect you to say it so bluntly.” I kept watching him from the corner of my eye, as though the waterfall was much more entertaining. “I love you, too, Puck. We hardly ever agree with each other nowadays, with the war looming over us, but at least we know someone has our backs and won’t break our hearts.” The words rolled too easily off my tongue. I faced him once more.
Green irises flickering in contemplation, the trickster frowned. “That doesn’t sound like me,” he began cautiously.
“Seelie jester or not, you belong to me.” I saw the change taking place as the backlash faded and couldn't contain my sigh of relief. “Are you okay, mister? You took some damage in the battle.”
Painstakingly slowly coming back into himself, Goodfellow shook his head and smirked. “I’m fine, little warrior. Already healed from those scrapes.” The perpetual mischief on his face did nothing to disguise his anguish. “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever really settled on one animal to be for the rest of my life. If I’m given a choice, I definitely want to be a huge brute who doesn’t remember his own allies.” His voice drowned in sarcasm.
I gave him a twice-over, just to be sure. “Well, that’s probably the thousandth time that phrase has saved us both,” I exaggerated.
“Not that I’m surprised,” Puck quipped. “It’s one of the more determined, passionate things I’ve heard you say in all the time I’ve known you. And I’ve also known you to exert more power the more emotion you feel.” A crooked grin spread across his lips. “Maybe it’s the equivalent of a spell for you now, some kind of magic universal key.”
My grin matched his in spite of everything. “You’re just loving the fact you caused this, huh?”
“Hey, after telling you not to do it, I have to crack jokes about saving the damsel in distress.”
“I was not!” I exclaimed indignantly, fully aware of Puck’s try at distracting himself. I had minor empathic abilities, which were luckily in play enough for me at the moment to pick up on it. The bond was still dead to me. “Kishan and I could have held our own if given a bit more time.” Perfectly, I might have added, if we had a death wish. …though I was fairly sure I could have gotten us out of there the instant my adrenaline got too high.
Puck rolled his eyes. “Guess we’ll find out next time,” he taunted.
Raising both eyebrows, I asked, “There’ll be a next time?”“Don’t push it.” He turned toward the trod that would take us back home.