Henry had obviously decided to give Elizabeth to the Green Lady from the very beginning—otherwise why would he have sent his Knight to fetch her?—but he still pretended to be completely indignant about the sacrifice. He scowled fiercely at the Green Lady, making thinly veiled threats and reminding me of a three-year-old having a tantrum.
Elizabeth was clearly terrified, and my heart squeezed with pity for her as the Knight dismounted, dragging her down with him. Her face was so white I was surprised she didn’t faint dead away, and even from a distance, I could see how badly she was trembling. She was just a kid. And Henry was going to hand her over to the Green Lady like she was exactly what he’d called her and all the rest of his people: chattel. When she balked, Henry turned on her impatiently.
“Stop blubbering,” he said with a truly overwhelming level of compassion. “Just hold still and it will be over in a moment.”
His words weren’t exactly comforting, and Elizabeth flinched from the sharpness of his tone. An angry red flush was creeping up his neck, and I had no doubt he was on the verge of beating her into submission.
Without having consciously made a decision to act, I found myself slipping off the back of Ethan’s horse. My thighs and butt groaned in protest, and when my feet hit the ground I found my legs were all wobbly, but I managed not to fall on my face.
“What are you doing?” Ethan asked me, and my dad turned to me in obvious alarm.
I remembered the Erlking telling me once that I was very protective of the people who mattered to me, and that it took very little to make someone matter. I guess he had me pegged. Elizabeth had never spoken a single word to me, but I couldn’t just stand by and let Henry hand her over to the Green Lady.
I ignored Ethan’s question and avoided my dad’s eyes as I walked around their horses toward the road. Elizabeth was trying to pull away from the Knight’s grip, and Henry was yelling at her, ordering her to march straight into the Green Lady’s clutches.
“Leave her alone!” I shouted, and everyone in hearing range went silent. Except for my dad.
“Dana, no!” he barked, and I heard the sound of his horse as he came after me.
Henry turned to me, and there was an ugly gleam in his eye that gave me a chill. “We cannot pass without a sacrifice,” he said as his gaze bored into me. “Unless you’re volunteering to take her place, my servant will give her blood to the Green Lady.”
Dad’s horse came up beside me, and Dad reached down for me. I dodged out of his reach but kept most of my attention on Henry.
“I’ll take her place,” I said, wondering if I was completely crazy. I didn’t know exactly what would happen during this blood sacrifice, and here I was volunteering for it in the place of a girl I didn’t even know.
“Dana, no!” my dad said again, this time with even more heat. “I forbid it!”
I turned to look up at him as he glowered down at me from his horse. “You said the blood sacrifice is non-fatal, right?”
“That doesn’t matter,” he said through gritted teeth. “You are not doing it!”
“Dad, look at her,” I argued, indicating Elizabeth with a sweep of my arm. The poor girl was still crying, though she held one hand over her mouth as if trying to stifle the sobs. If she were a human girl, I’d be afraid she might die of terror if she was forced to act as a sacrifice. As it was, I doubted she would actually die, but she would no doubt be emotionally scarred. Maybe I was overestimating my own toughness, but I was pretty damn sure the sacrifice would damage me a lot less than it would her.
I don’t think my dad felt nearly as sorry for Elizabeth as I did, and I was sure he was about to put his foot down, but the Green Lady spoke before he got a chance.
“A willing sacrifice is of far more value than one that is forced,” she said, turning her featureless head toward me. “I will take the willing sacrifice.” She held out a thorny arm, beckoning to me.
“No!” my dad said, a hint of desperation in his voice.
“She has already offered herself,” Henry snapped. I didn’t think he was a bit unhappy at how things were turning out. “It is too late to renege.”
“I am her father, and I forbid it!”
“Then none of you shall pass,” the Green Lady said. She pointed at Elizabeth, who cowered at the gesture. “I do not want that one.”
I could practically see the calculation in Henry’s eyes as he looked back and forth between my father and me. Our guarantee of safe passage probably meant Henry couldn’t give me to the Green Lady by force, but I doubted it would be any kind of violation if I volunteered. Which meant Henry was currently within his rights, and my dad was within a heartbeat of getting himself in serious trouble.
I didn’t think letting my dad and Henry keep up a dialogue was a good thing, so instead of waiting to see who said what next, I broke into a run, surprising everyone around me.
“Dana!” my dad cried, and I was sure the next thing I’d hear was the thundering of his horse’s hooves.
I was wrong. The Green Lady was apparently eager to accept my sacrifice, and she quickly lost her humanoid shape and tendrils of thorny vines shot out toward me.
I was a willing sacrifice, but I am human (at least mostly), and I couldn’t help pulling up short at the sight of those vines reaching for me. The thorns were as long as my fingers, and a hell of a lot sharper.
My dad yelled out something else that I couldn’t hear over the thundering of my heart. In seconds, the vines had surrounded me, trapping me in a circle of greenery. A circle that grew darker and darker as the vines packed themselves together around me until I was completely buried within them. If I so much as twitched, I was going to get firsthand knowledge of just how sharp those thorns were.