“This looks like a setup for an ambush,” I said, looking nervously around, wondering if there were more Bogles about to descend on us. “Except no one seems the least bit worried.”
“I don’t think it’s an ambush, exactly,” Ethan said cryptically as he nudged his horse forward. Either he was taking us closer to the prince’s position, where it was supposedly safer, or he was taking us closer to the front line, which didn’t seem like such a good idea to me.
From our vantage point, we could see Henry slide from his horse, then talk to one of his Knights—having a conniption fit, if the way he was waving his arms around was any indication. Ethan continued to urge his horse closer, but by the time we got within earshot, the discussion/argument was over. The Knight got back on his horse and started weaving his way through the stopped caravan toward the rear, and Henry stomped up to the hedge. When he started talking to it, I wondered if he’d lost his mind.
“What is the meaning of this?” he demanded, his fists on his hips and his jaw jutting out. “Do you know who I am?”
The hedge … moved. Not like the trees and underbrush did when they got out of the way, more like some multi-limbed amoeba changing shape. The vines rustled and quivered, drawing in from the edges, and I could see now that although the leaves looked kind of like ivy, there were wicked-sharp thorns all along the branches. Whatever the hedge was, it definitely wasn’t ivy.
“Shite,” Ethan muttered under his breath. “It’s a Green Lady.”
“Do I even want to know what a Green Lady is?” I asked.
“That’s what I thought.”
The vines reshaped themselves until they formed the figure of a woman in a flowing green gown, looking very much like an animated topiary. The Green Lady bowed her head.
“I know who you are, my prince,” she said, although her head was just a featureless oval with no mouth that I could see. “It goes without saying that you may pass freely. These others, however, must pay the toll.”
“This is outrageous!” Henry shouted. “You dare to impede my progress?”
“Not at all, my prince,” the Green Lady said, and there was unconcealed amusement in her voice. “As I said, you may pass unhindered.”
“You will remove yourself from this road immediately,” Henry said, not a bit appeased. “My chattel are exempt from your toll.”
Even some of Henry’s most loyal Knights looked offended at being referred to as chattel. Even if being his chattel meant they didn’t have to pay whatever toll the Green Lady was demanding.
“Can’t they just hack their way through the hedge?” I asked Ethan, keeping my voice down, because the last thing I wanted to do was draw Henry’s or the Green Lady’s attention. There was enough firepower in our caravan to fight off what had seemed like an army of Bogles. It seemed like this one Green Lady should be no match for them.
“Yeah,” Ethan agreed, keeping his voice just as soft, “but that’s one of those things that’s ‘not done’ in Faerie. To kill a Green Lady is to poison the land, and they can demand their tolls whenever it suits them.”
“And what, exactly, is this toll she’s demanding?”
“Blood, of course,” said my dad, and I practically fell off the horse in surprise. I felt Ethan’s body jerk, too, so I guess I wasn’t the only one who hadn’t noticed my dad riding up beside us. “Virgin blood, more specifically,” Dad said, and I felt the prickle of his magic.
A chill passed down my spine. “You think Henry’s going to throw me under the bus.”
Dad gave me a quizzical look, but even if he wasn’t familiar with the saying, he took my meaning. “He can try,” my dad said grimly, and I realized we might be in more trouble now than we had been yesterday when the Bogles attacked. There was no way my dad would allow Henry to hand me over without violence, and Henry might be enough of an ass to try find a way around the safe passage agreement to do it.
It wasn’t a fight my dad could win, and we both knew it.
“These people are not all your chattel, my prince,” the Green Lady said. “I’m afraid I must insist they pay the toll. Or, of course, you can take the long way.” She gestured with one leafy arm at the road that led around the hill.
Henry sputtered a little more.
“Come, come,” the Green Lady said. “What is a little blood between friends? You do wish the land to prosper, do you not?”
At that moment, I noticed the Knight who’d been talking to Henry coming back. And I noticed, to my horror, that Elizabeth was sitting behind him on his horse, her face once more wet with tears.
“Oh, no,” I said. “He’s not going to…”
My dad’s shoulders slumped in relief. “Better her than you,” he said; then he turned to me and made a calming gesture before I could bite his head off about his callousness. “The blood toll isn’t fatal,” he assured me. “But it is unpleasant.”
I didn’t doubt that. What did Henry have against this poor girl? She was only a kid! Then again, the rest of the women in his caravan were all adults and could be thousands of years old for all I knew. Maybe Elizabeth and I were the only virgins in the bunch. Well, except for Kimber, but I doubted Henry would be allowed to offer up an Unseelie girl.
I got the impression that the Green Lady was eyeing Elizabeth hungrily, even though she didn’t technically have eyes.