I’d been feeling really brave a couple of seconds ago, but right now I was so scared I could barely suck in a breath. I closed my eyes, hoping that would make me feel less claustrophobic, and forced myself to think of poor Elizabeth and her terror. Sure, I was scared. But I knew without a doubt that I wasn’t as scared as she would have been.
“Do not struggle,” the Green Lady’s voice said. Maybe I was crazy, but I could have sworn there was a touch of gentleness in that voice.
The vines pressed closer, until I could feel the prick of thorns against my skin. I couldn’t help the little half-gasp, half-whimper that escaped me.
“Shh,” came the Green Lady’s voice, coming from all around me. “Be still, and this will not hurt so badly.”
And suddenly, the vines contracted around me, driving the thorns into my flesh.
The thorns were everywhere, piercing me from head to toe, and it was all I could do not to scream. My most primitive instincts urged me to struggle, to pull away even though there was no escape, but I fought those instincts. I understood now why the Green Lady told me to be still. I felt like a human pincushion with all of those thorns sticking into me, but although they hurt plenty, the pain was … manageable. If I struggled, those thorns would tear me to shreds.
“Well done,” the Green Lady said, and just like that, the thorns withdrew from my body and the vines retracted, giving me room to breathe.
My knees were wobbly, and I would have fallen on my butt if several of the vines hadn’t wrapped themselves around me—without piercing me with their thorns—and held me up. Greenery still surrounded me, but it was less dense now, allowing light and air into the Green Lady’s center. I glanced down at my hands and saw lots of tiny pinpricks of blood. I suspected my whole body looked the same.
“You honor the land with your willing sacrifice,” the Green Lady said. “Such courage and generosity of spirit I have not seen for a long, long time.”
I almost said a reflexive thank you, then remembered at the last moment that there were certain creatures of Faerie you weren’t supposed to say that to. For all I knew, that was nothing but a legend—certainly the Sidhe seemed to have no problem with the words—but instinct told me that if the restriction applied to any creatures of Faerie, it would apply to the Green Lady.
My knees steadied, and the vines that held me snaked away. Then the circle around me receded, and the Green Lady reformed into her humanoid shape. People rushed in to help me, so I didn’t see the Green Lady disappear back into the forest.
Ethan was the first to reach me, wrapping me in his arms, practically smothering me. His magic tingled over me, and I knew he was healing the myriad pinprick wounds the Green Lady’s thorns had left. I put my arms around him and clung to him, burying my face against his chest, reveling in his warmth and comfort.
“That was one of the bravest, stupidest things you’ve ever done,” he said into my hair. “You just scared ten years off my life.”
I let out a little laugh, adrenaline still pumping through my system. “You’re immortal, dummy.”
“I was before I met you,” he quipped.
I would have loved to have stayed right where I was, oblivious to the outside world as I reveled in the glory of Ethan’s arms. Unfortunately, the outside world had other plans. Henry was barking out orders, trying to get us all mounted up and on the move again. I reluctantly let go of Ethan and found my dad practically on top of us, glowering.
“You’ll ride with me the rest of the way,” he informed me. The look on his face promised I would not have a fun ride.
“Um, maybe I should go back to the wagon,” I suggested. “I’m kind of sore…”
“Nice try,” he said with a strained smile as he gestured his horse over.
I sent Ethan a pleading look, but he held up his hands and backed away. “Not getting in the middle of this one.”
“Wise,” my dad agreed, giving Ethan a significant look that sent him scurrying.
I expected my dad’s lecture to start the moment I groaningly got on the horse behind him. The fact that it didn’t just heightened the anticipation—which I’m sure was exactly what my dad wanted.
With the Green Lady no longer blocking the way, our caravan mobilized once more, climbing the hill to the circle of standing stones. It was a tight fit to get all the horses and wagons within the circle, but we managed it, packing into the center, leaving about a foot or two between those of us on the outside of the circle—like my dad and me—and the stones.
Apparently, we were leaving that space so that Henry would have easy access to the stones. On foot, he walked from stone to stone, touching each one and whispering something under his breath. I felt the magic gathering, stronger with each stone Henry touched.
By the time Henry was halfway around the circle, there was enough magic in the air that I had trouble drawing in a full breath. I closed my eyes and concentrated on breathing, knowing it was only going to get worse.
“Dana?” my dad asked, concern in his voice. “Are you all right?”
“Yeah,” I said, hoping I sounded convincing. “Just a bit of delayed reaction. And a little freak-out about whatever’s about to happen.” I sucked in a breath of air, wishing Henry would just get on with it and let go of the magic before I passed out. I had to act as normal as possible, unless I wanted everyone in the entire caravan to know I could sense the magic.
“There’s no need to ‘freak out,’” Dad assured me, the words sounding kind of awkward coming from him. “Using the standing stones requires a lot of magic, but you won’t feel anything except for a moment of disorientation.”