“You are impeding the Queen’s justice!” he said, all offended-sounding.
“I am within my rights,” the Green Lady replied. “There is no requirement that my tolls be extracted only upon roads, and I choose to extract one here. Surely you do not begrudge the land its nourishment.”
There was some grumbling. Our pursuers most definitely did begrudge the land, but none of them was stupid enough to say so. Depending on how thoroughly tied the Green Lady was to the land, she probably could make the lives of anyone who annoyed her pretty damn difficult.
“The fugitives you are aiding plotted the assassination of the Queen’s granddaughter,” the lead pursuer tried again. “Every moment we spend arguing increases the chances that they will escape the punishment they deserve.”
It was only then that I realized the Green Lady was hiding us so thoroughly that our pursuers didn’t even know we were there.
“Then you’d best hurry back with your sacrifice, don’t you think?” the Green Lady said, and there was no missing the hint of annoyance in her voice. Her leaves rustled, and I imagined she was making an impressive display of her thorns.
The man cursed again, but soon afterward, we heard him stomp away. Then we heard the hoofbeats as the riders retreated, taking their chastened and whimpering hounds with them.
When we could no longer hear the echo of the horses’ hooves, the Green Lady’s vines receded, forming themselves into a tall woman in a flowing green gown.
“I will delay them until the sun goes down,” she said. “I would merely have waited until they brought me a sacrifice, but their arrogance and rudeness requires they be taught a lesson. Their hounds will be unable to scent you until I allow it.”
I swallowed my urge to say thank you. “Would it be rude for me to ask why you’re helping me?”
“You gifted my sister with the treasure of a willing sacrifice. As you have seen, the Sidhe are no longer as gracious about providing sacrifice as they were of old. It is time to remind them of the importance of good manners.”
“Is there any chance you could help us get to the standing stones without being caught?” Ethan blurted.
Kimber’s eyes widened, and she punched Ethan in the arm. “Shut up, Ethan!” she hissed.
The Green Lady didn’t have any features on her face, and yet even so I could feel the glare she turned on Ethan, who held his hands up and tried to look innocent.
“Sorry. I was just asking. I’m not a native of Faerie. I don’t know the rules, and I apologize if I just broke one.”
The Green Lady kept her disapproving gaze on Ethan. “If you don’t know the rules, then perhaps it’s best not to speak.” She swept her gaze over all of us, and we obediently kept our mouths shut. “The standing stones you used to travel here will be heavily guarded. I’d advise you to avoid them. However, there is another set you can try for, one they will not expect you to know about and will be less likely to guard. Depending on how fast you travel, you should find a small stream sometime tomorrow. It runs parallel to the road for several miles, and then turns west. Follow it when it turns, and it will lead you to the standing stones. They will take you to another set that is close to Avalon’s southern border.”
The Green Lady’s words kindled a spark of hope in my chest. Instead of traveling through these woods for days, or even weeks, dodging pursuit and hoping the elements didn’t finish us off, we could reach Avalon as soon as tomorrow. Our flight might not be as impossible as we’d thought. I refused to let myself think about how many problems I would still have once I reached the safety of home.
“Go now,” she said, her voice cold. “I will delay your pursuers as promised.”
She started to lose shape, apparently finished with our conversation. Her head melted into her body, and then the vines became just a tangle of greenery, creeping away into the forest, blending with the underbrush until all traces of the Green Lady vanished.
We walked until we were ready to drop, keeping ourselves relentlessly moving despite our exhaustion, determined to put as much distance behind us as possible before we lost the Green Lady’s protection. A couple of times, we heard hounds baying in the distance, but it was always far away.
Around midday, we found a little ground-fed spring and each drank about five gallons of water to ease our parched throats. A little later, we found a patch of what looked like blackberries, and we were hungry enough to eat them even though they didn’t taste like blackberries, and we all knew eating mysterious berries wasn’t the brightest idea. Lucky for us, there was no sign of them being poisonous—i.e., no one got sick or died—and I wondered if the Green Lady was giving us a little extra help, helping us find just enough food and water to keep going.
It wasn’t till the sun went down that we finally admitted we had to stop and get some rest. After last night’s rainstorm, the temperature never quite got back up to what it had been, and as the sun disappeared, the temperature took a nosedive. I’d never once been cold on the journey in, but tonight the breeze gave me goose bumps. And that was before the misty drizzle started.
We groaned in chorus. The drizzle was just enough to dampen our clothes and make us all clammy without being enough to provide us with any water. We ate the last of the blackberries—or whatever they were—as we searched for another place to hide for the night. The trees here didn’t have any convenient hollows, and the ground continued to be flat, not even providing any rocks we could use as shelter from the wind.