He only debated for a second before he nodded. “Fine.” And he quickly pulled the arrow out, threw it on the floor, and the two of us took off running toward the scream.
We plunged further and further into the foliage, not paying any mind to how much noise we were making as branches snapped and leaves crunched. Carter edged ahead of me, his sword already in his grasp. I yanked my skirts higher and pushed my legs to go faster.
Carter stopped short and I pulled up next to him as another wail rocked the tops of the trees. We stared at Sierra. She looked like she had just collapsed in the middle of the trees, like her legs had just given out and she had landed with her knees bent awkwardly beneath her, her body tilted to the side like a palm tree being pummeled by the wind. Tears streamed down her cheeks and her face was blisteringly red.
Carter knelt beside her, his gaze alert and weapon ready. “What’s happened? Are you hurt? Where’s Nathaniel?”
I put my hand on his shoulder, silently telling him to relax as I crouched too, bringing myself eye level with the distraught young girl.
She was too hysterical to even comprehend what her brother was asking. I didn’t push her, just took her hand, letting her know we were here when she was ready to speak. She screeched again, craning her neck to the sky and letting loose a howl unlike any I’d ever heard.
Carter and I exchanged a look and I could see the pain his sister felt reflected in her brother’s bewildered eyes. He had no idea what could do this to his sister and he had no clue how to communicate with his new fragile sibling.
Leaves crushed under feet. Carter and I jumped to our feet, Carter with legs bent and blade poised, prepared for whatever attack was coming through the trees. But it was just the rest of the pirate crew, all of them drawn to the cries of the broken girl in the forest.
Carter relaxed, sheathing his sword and lowering himself into the grass, crossing his legs beneath him. “Sierra, please, talk to me.”
“Wait,” I said, leaning closer to her, “she is talking.”
She was mumbling something incoherently, over and over as she rocked back and forth, wrapping her arms around herself like she was suddenly frozen in the pleasant weather of the day.
I rubbed her back soothingly. “Shh, it’s okay, Sierra, you’re okay.”
She shook her head several times. “No, no, no, no, no, no—"
“Sister, please,” Carter begged. “Please, tell me what’s wrong. I can’t help you unless you tell me—"
She let loose another wail, the sound echoing so loudly I was sure everyone in the house would hear her.
The pirates seemed to have the same idea because William stepped forward and instructed his men, “Spread out. If anyone is curious enough to investigate the noise, see to it that they never get the chance.” The pirates disappeared back into the trees but I could hear them forming a protective circle around us, an impenetrable wall.
Sierra’s cry lasted longer than any other and at the tail end of it I could just catch what she had been mumbling: “My baby, my baby, my baby.”
I met Carter’s grief-filled eyes. She knew.
“No, no, no, no, my baby, my baby, my baby—"
Carter wrapped his arms around her, pulling her shuddering body into his warmth and whispering in her ear, “I’m here, sister, I’m here.”
Tears fell so quickly from her face and she sobbed so hard I was afraid she would make herself sick. Veins bulged in her neck and her nails dug into the flesh of her own arms so hard she bled. “My baby, my baby, my baby…” And then she just…stopped. She didn’t make a single other noise. I could hardly tell if she was breathing. She was a statue, a corpse. Still. Cold. Her eyes wide and unblinking.
“Sierra?” Carter held her at arms length, studying her face. “Sierra, can you hear me?”
The tears dripped off her face, landing on the frail material of her skirts. But she didn’t scream anymore. There was truly no other way to explain it. Everything she was, everything she felt, every part of her just stopped. She stared through her brother like the world around her didn’t exist.
“Sierra?” I tried. “Are you all right?”
She gave no indication of hearing me. The look on her face made a chill slither down my spine and goosebumps stood up all over my body.
Carter shook her, real, true fear written all over his face. “Sierra?” He cupped her face, searching her gaze like if he could just find her in there, he could drag her back out. Tenderly, he brushed her hair out of her still red face, turning her to the left then the right, searching for her desperately in that blank expression.
Carter and I both jumped slightly when she spoke. Her voice was hoarse from her screeching, and I saw her throat work as she swallowed.
“No, what?” Carter breathed.
“No, I am not all right.” Words were filtering past her lips, but they were eerily devoid of emotion, her face frozen like she wasn’t seeing us in the Springton’s garden, like she was staring up at the ceiling of her coffin.
Very softly, I ventured, “Sierra, where is Nathaniel?”
Her brows furrowed ever so slightly. “He said such horrible things. He said—" She cut herself off, her forehead smoothing out again. She opened her mouth to speak, pausing for a long time as if her mind was struggling to construct the words she wanted to say. “You took him from me.” Sierra blinked, her eyes still blank as they turned to Carter. “You. You did this to me. You took him from me.”
He shook his head. “No, I didn’t—"
“You did.” Her voice maintained that disturbing unemotional tone as she spoke. “You left me, and I was taken because you left. All of it. You did all of it. Every single thing that I have gone through, all I have suffered, all I have lost, every torture I have endured, is because of you. All of it…It’s all your fault.” Her eyes suddenly focused on Carter, and his eyes slowly filled with tears as he listened to his condemnation. Her voice was incredibly soft, the gentle tone somehow delivering a more crushing blow as she said, “You killed my baby.”
Carter looked like he had been punched in the gut, sitting back, staring at his sister. His eyes glistened with tears which he refused to shed, his chest moving rapidly. He didn’t argue with her or deny anything she said. He watched Sierra’s face go blank again and then he bowed his head, accepting her accusation.
My heart broke for him, my own eyes watery. But I knew if something happened to Nathaniel, Carter wouldn’t be able to live with himself, so I didn’t comment on what his sister said. Instead, I whispered, “Sierra, do you know where Nathaniel is?”
She gazed through the trees, her voice distant. “I ran.”
“I ran away from him. I ran away from him and his cruel words.”
“Where did you run from?”
“It was blasphemy.”
I frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“Nothing bad was supposed to happen there. Never there. But he said…”
I looked at Carter. He had straightened, the steel in his hazel eyes similar to the absent look in Sierra’s. His jaw was set and any tumultuous feelings were locked behind the door that closed over his face. He met my gaze and I saw that he somehow understood what she had said, that he somehow knew where she had been, where Nathaniel was.
He stood, holding his hand out to his sister. “You are not safe here. Allow me to take you back to—"
I could practically hear Carter grounding his teeth together. Anger, fury, was always a more comfortable emotion for him and I could see he had defaulted to it now. I had come to know his mannerisms well and I knew that he was two seconds away from exploding—not on his sister, but on possibly anyone else.
Taking her hand hesitantly, I whispered to her, “If you stay here, you will die.”
“I do not want to return to the ship.”
“Not too long ago, I lost someone I loved too—"
“Don’t,” she said sharply, yanking her hand out of mine. “Do not tell me you know how I feel. You have not lost a child. You cannot possibly know.”
I paused. “You are right. But do you know who will understand? James. And he is back on the ship.”
She turned her head to me, the tension diminishing in her shoulders. “You are right.”
Carter stepped forward. “I don’t—"
I held my hand up, stopping him, speaking to Sierra. “He will understand the pain you are going through. But you must return to the ship if you wish to see him.”
She let me take her hand again and help her to her feet, nodding the entire time. “Yes. Yes, I will go back.”
“Good.” When I looked back to Carter, his face was hard, not a glare exactly, but not a warm look either. “William!” I called into the trees.
The large man emerged, a question in his eyes.
“Will you take Sierra back to the ship? Make sure she’s safe.”
He looked to his captain who nodded. “All right.” He motioned for Sierra to walk ahead of him.
I grabbed his arm before he could follow. “She will ask to speak with the captive. Do not let her go alone.”
“I promise, milady.”
They began walking back toward the house where I was sure William would have a horse waiting. Looking back at Carter, I saw he was staring at his hand, turning it over like he didn’t recognize it.
“Carter?” I said softly. “Are you okay?”
He dropped his hand, ignoring my question, looking into the trees. “Men!”
The pirates filtered back in. There was about ten or so of them, all prepared to follow their captain’s orders. “Henry, Thomas, and Geoffrey, come with me. The rest may return with William to the ship.”
Three men stepped forward, all of them filthy, one of them missing teeth.
“Elizabeth, you will go with them.”
“You will not argue,” he yelled and my brows rose at the venom in his voice.
“What about Catherine? She is still in there. Wouldn’t you like my help—"
“If I wanted your help, I would’ve asked for it. Now, go.” His eyes shone dangerously. “Do not make me ask you again.”
I took several deep breaths. “Fine.”
He stared at me a beat longer before he spun on his heel and headed back toward the house, his mates behind him.
Perhaps I should have listened to him and gone marching off after William and Sierra. But something in me simply couldn’t allow myself to sit back while I knew Carter and the rest of them were out here, while I knew Nathaniel and Catherine were in that house, while I knew that house was a bomb Hugh was just waiting to detonate. And so, I hiked the skirts of my dress as high as I possibly could and tiptoed behind Carter.