“Thank you,” Charlotte mumbled, but she seemed reluctant to let the bag go. Her eyes were wide and terrified, and her frizzy brown hair stuck out from underneath her knit cap.
“These are my friends Tilda and Bryn,” Ember explained to her. “You can trust them. They’re good guys.”
“I’m sure you’ve both had a long couple of days. Why don’t we get going?” I suggested.
I gingerly took Ember’s good arm and led her down the steps. Even with salt and gravel on the ground, the ice still made it slick in a few places, and it would be awful for Ember to take a tumble and hurt herself worse.
“What about my Land Rover?” Ember asked as we walked past the one she’d driven in to where I’d parked mine rather crookedly in my haste.
“We’ll get it another day. Come on,” I said. “Let’s just get home.”
On the ride back to Doldastam, it was hard not to ask Ember a million questions about her fight with Konstantin, but I didn’t want to freak out Charlotte any more than she already appeared to be. Tilda sat with her in the backseat, speaking in soft comforting tones about the landscape and her family and how wonderful everything would be for her after she arrived.
Since Ember was injured, Tilda offered to take Charlotte to her parents and help her get settled in. Ember could return to her usual tracker duties once she was patched up, but for now, Tilda would work just fine.
“So what happened?” I asked Ember the instant Tilda and Charlotte had gotten out of the SUV.
“I was staking out Charlotte, like I’m supposed to, and then I had this sense of being watched,” Ember said, recalling a scene that sounded familiar.
“I wasn’t sure if it was just paranoia, but I decided that I’d better do something, just to be on the safe side,” she went on, as I drove through town toward Ember’s house. “I was on my way to Charlotte’s house, trying to figure out what I’d say to her to get her to leave with me, but I was still scoping everything out, watching every car that went by and scanning for any signs of trouble.
“Then out of nowhere—and I mean like nowhere—Bent Stum jumped me.”
“He jumped you?” I looked over at her, slumped down in the front seat, her eyes closed and her mouth turned down into an annoyed scowl.
“Yeah. That Bent is strong, but he’s pretty dumb. He snapped my arm”—Ember grimaced and touched her broken arm gently—“but I managed to slide out of his grasp. He chased after me, but I managed to lose him when I cut through a backyard and down an alley.”
“What happened? How’d you get Charlotte?”
“I got to her house, and Konstantin was already there.” Ember paused to let out a pained sigh. “I don’t know what his plan was, but when he saw me, he apparently decided that he needed to just go for it. He broke into her bedroom window and just snatched her.”
“You mean he kidnapped her?” I asked, a little dumbfounded.
With Linus, back in Chicago, they had been staking him out, like they were planning a careful, quiet extraction. But with Charlotte, it sounded like a clumsy snatch-and-grab. Konstantin and Bent were getting more reckless, which meant that they were probably getting more desperate. That was a dangerous combination.
“Yeah, she was kicking and screaming at first, but he put his hand over her mouth to muffle it,” Ember explained. “But it was enough to draw attention. Her parents weren’t home, but one of her neighbors came outside and yelled that they were calling the cops.”
“Wow.” My jaw dropped. Discretion was the number one name of the game. I couldn’t believe how risky Konstantin’s behavior had gotten.
“Dragging Charlotte around really slowed Konstantin down, and I caught up to them easily and kicked out his legs. He got back up like he meant to fight me, but then we heard the sirens of the approaching cops. And he…” She glanced over at me for a moment, then shifted in her seat. “He took off.”
“How’d you get Charlotte to come back with you?” I asked.
“She was in shock, so I used persuasion on her,” Ember said, referring to her ability.
Persuasion was a psychokinetic ability with which she could make people do what she wanted by using her mind. Trackers were trained to use persuasion only when they had absolutely no other choice, since mind control eventually wore off and wouldn’t make the changelings trust us more in the long run.
“I told her that she needed to trust me and come with me,” Ember explained. “And she did, so I hurried to steal a car before the cops got there.”
“You stole a car?” I asked, surprised, though not too much.
In our training to become trackers, we’d been taught how to steal cars, but I’d never actually done it in real life. Breaking human laws was discouraged, but we also knew that at times it was necessary. In order to get the changelings away from their family, we needed to avoid the police as much as possible, so we didn’t end up in jail or have humans snooping around our business as trolls.
That’s why we tried not to break laws, so we wouldn’t attract unwanted attention from authorities. But sometimes, like in Ember’s case, the only way to keep the changeling safe was to break the law.
“My options were pretty limited at that point,” Ember said. “I had to get Charlotte out of there. I drove for, like, eight hours, then I stopped to get my arm in a sling and clean myself up, and then Charlotte insisted that we buy luggage and new clothes, which I obliged because I did whatever I could to get her here. Then we caught the train two towns over. I don’t know if Konstantin followed us, but I doubt it.”
“If he didn’t go after you on the train, I’d say you got away safe. He has no reason to follow you here, because he knows where Doldastam is and that the Högdragen are waiting for him here,” I said, thinking about what I would do to Konstantin if he set foot behind these walls again.
“I hope so.” Ember sat in silence for a moment, then she turned to look at me. “I’m sorry I let Konstantin get away.”
“No, there’s no reason for you to be sorry.” I smiled at her. “You got Charlotte out of there safe and sound, and you kept yourself alive. That’s what really matters.”
As I pulled up in front of Ember’s cottage, she smiled wanly back at me. I got out of the Land Rover and then went around to help her. The goats were bleating loudly in the pasture next to the house, and I looked over to see Ember’s mother, Annali, coming out of the pen. The bottom of her long dress was dark from melting snow and mud, and a few pieces of straw were stuck to her dark hair.