Chapter Twenty Six
Carter’s voice was close behind me as I ran through the trees, but the longer Mom’s screech went on, the harder I pushed myself. There was something in the way that Mom had screamed that made my blood run cold, something that had caused an immediate trembling to spread through my every limb.
I found her standing in a clearing where the moon had just barely been able to break through the thick canopy of leaves, shining on her like a spotlight. Her face was turned up, staring in a mixture of shock and horror at something in the trees. Tears were flooding her eyes, falling over her cheeks as carelessly as a water rushes over the edge of a water fall. She pressed her hand over her mouth as another cry tore out of her.
“Mom!” I called as I ran toward her. “What’s wrong?”
“Elizabeth, no!” Carter yelled, catching up at the last moment and jerking me to a stop. “Don’t go in there.”
“If you don’t let go of me—"
“Beth, wait,” Lydia said as she came up behind Carter, her eyes tracking around the clearing. “He is right. Something isn’t right.”
“Carter, how nice of you to join us.” Lawrence emerged from the trees, stepping into the same circle of light as my mother, a smile on his face. He wasn’t looking directly at us, unable to spot us in the darkness of the trees. “Perhaps you could stop lurking in the shadows and join us for a proper chat.”
Carter held a finger to his lips, signaling the both of us to remain silent, his fingers wrapping tighter around my arm.
“No? Perhaps you didn’t hear me clearly.” The moon glinted off the metal of his knife as he grabbed my mother by her hair, wrenching her head back and placing the blade against her throat.
“No!” I shrieked and before Carter could do anything, I broke through his hold and stumbled into the clearing. “Don’t hurt her!”
“Ah, Lady Gallagher,” he greeted. “How good of you to show yourself. Might you be so kind as to urge your friend to do the same? I would hate for anything to happen to this poor woman simply because of his persistent stubbornness, wouldn’t you?”
Not taking my eyes away from Mom’s, I begged, “Please, don't. Don't kill her.”
“She is right, boy,” Lawrence called into the trees. “I will. And that would really be a shame, wouldn’t you agree?” There was nothing but silence in the trees. Lawrence frowned. “I don’t think what I am asking is very unreasonable. You will give yourself up and, in exchange, your friends will go free. You know very well that I just want what is owed to me. No one else need suffer because of you. Now, kindly reveal yourself and we can get this nasty business over with.”
Still, not even the animals stirred in the trees. Lawrence let out a sigh, nodding. “Very well, boy. So be it. Bring him forward!” he called behind him.
A man I didn't know emerged from the shadows, dragging an unconscious Stone behind him and dropping him to the ground by his feet. Stone's red bandana was used to gag his own mouth and his hands were bound to his feet with coarse rope. The unknown man held a long sword and pointed the tip of it at Stone’s throat.
Very quietly--it was nearly inaudible--I heard Lydia make a muffled sound of surprise behind me, but Carter must’ve been holding her much more securely than he’d been holding me because she didn’t burst into the clearing like I’d have expected.
“Okay, Lawrence,” I said with false courage, my gaze flicking between Stone and Mom. “You’ve made your point. Now let them go.”
“I think not, Elizabeth.” His eyes went back to searching the trees. “Let me see if I can recall his name correctly...Stone, right? Yes, that was it. One of your closest friends, isn’t he, boy? Stone and I had gotten rather well acquainted the last time we met. I’ve an enormous amount of respect for that man. First impressions are everything, are they not? I could tell from the moment I met Stone that he was a good man to have by your side. Strong countenance. Confident speech. Firm handshake. Or...he used to.”
“That’s enough,” I snapped. “Let both of them go, and I will give you whatever you want.”
“There is only one thing I want, Elizabeth, and you are not the person capable of handing it over to me.” He tilted his head to the side, studying me. “Or, perhaps you are.”
Before I knew what was happening, a coarse rope was wound around my neck and pulled tight, cutting off my scream. The vine squeezed tighter and tighter, dragging me back until I slammed against a tree, holding me there as I struggled for breath, pulling uselessly at the rope.
Mom’s gaze finally moved from whatever she had been looking at in the trees to where I was choking and her red, tear-filled eyes widened even further. “No, God, please, no. Let her go.”
She started fighting against Lawrence, but he just laughed and pressed the knife harder to her throat.
The rope around my neck was just tight enough to make sure I couldn’t move but when I strained to stay on my tip toes, I was just barely able to get words out. “Mom, I’m okay,” I assured.
“For now.” Lawrence looked into the trees again, at Carter. “The woman you love,” he called, “strung up like a piece of meat. Have you ever witnessed a hanging, boy? I’m sure you have, given your current...occupation.” He turned his eyes to me, grinning as I struggled to stay on the tips of my toes. “I want you to take a good look at your girl, Carter. Really appreciate the brilliance of her brown eyes, the sweet perfection of her delicate face, because I assure you, that is not what she will look like when my men hoist her up.”
But even as I stood there, my calves starting to burn as I stretched higher against the noose, Carter didn’t make so much as a peep.
Lawrence clucked his tongue. “You would let your woman be hanged to save your own skin? I must say, I’m not surprised. Once a coward, always a coward, eh? More incentive, then.” He nodded at the unknown man.
He disappeared and reappeared with an unconscious Catherine and a struggling Nathaniel in his each hand. Each of them had their hands bound, a piece of cloth gagging them. Catherine was dropped beside Stone, and the man holding Nathaniel pressed a gun to his temple.
“Now, I know what you’re thinking,” Lawrence said, his hand slipping slightly and nicking Mom beneath the chin, a trickle of blood running down her throat as she whimpered. “But allow me to clarify. If you show yourself now, the death of you and your brother will be quick and painless. If you do not, I will ensure the lad suffers much like our friend in the tree that Gretchen told you about.”
I frowned at that, choking as my muscles gave out momentarily and the rope pushed into my throat, feeling like it was denting my esophagus before I pushed myself back up to my toes.
Lawrence laughed at my reaction. “Oh, you’ve not worked it out yet. You don’t know who is in the tree. John, give her some slack,” he said presumably to the man waiting to hang me. “Let her come round here so she can see your handiwork.”
There was barely a difference in pressure on my throat but I was still thrust forward by the anonymous John, shoved around the front of the tree.
“No, Lizzie,” Mom cried as her eyes flicked between me and whatever Lawrence wanted me to see. “Please, baby, don’t look. I’m begging you, don’t—” She cut off as Lawrence pushed the knife even deeper into her throat, turning the small trickle of blood into a persistent stream.
“Pay no mind to her,” Lawrence said. “And do not be afraid to show how you really feel for our elusive friend hiding in the shadows.”
I shut my eyes as John gave me another shove so I was on the other side of the tree. From where I was standing, I knew Carter would be able to see any reaction I made, and I mentally prepared myself. Whatever he had put up there, Lawrence was hoping I would have the same dramatic response as my mother and I did not want to give him the satisfaction.
“Look,” John growled in my ear, yanking on the rope.
The abrupt lack of oxygen forced my lids to spring open and I looked up at what Lawrence had been bragging about.
When I was much younger, maybe about seven or eight, I had gone to bed with the thought that it would be a lot of fun to sleep like a bat. So, I had piled pillows by the side of my bed so in case I fell I wouldn’t hurt myself, fashioned my covers correctly, and hung half my body over the edge of my bed. I slept like that the entire night. Mom was so upset when she found me like that in the morning, and, in order to try and appease her, I'd sprung up from the bed.
A strange static tingling had spread all over my body, buzzing in my ears, fizzing around the edges of my vision. The tips of my fingers and toes got very cold for just a second before I lost consciousness.
That same terrible static tingling crawled over my flesh at that moment, and my muscles went slack as my knees gave out and I dropped to the ground. A scream burst out of me, one mixed with agony and terror and horror and disgust and so many other emotions that my brain was simply unable to put names to. Immediate tears poured out of my eyes and I wanted nothing more than to look away, but it was as if my gaze had become glued to the image.
He had been stripped of his shirt, and his trousers were shredded from how heavily he’d been whipped. Deep, angry red lines covered the skin of his torso and legs, leaking dark crimson, the blood dripping to the ground. His arms were wrenched behind him, his hands bound together and stretched abnormally high above his head, dislocated. His hands were pressed flat against the wood of the tree, each pinned there with nails. And, almost as an afterthought, there was a thick wooden pole impaled in his stomach, holding his entire body forcefully against the tree.
But his face...Lawrence had left his face absolutely clear of any marks which somehow made the entire picture even more cruel. Save the sweat that dribbled down his cheeks and the blood that fell over his forehead from a blow to the head, his face looked as it always had. A clump of blood dropped out of his mouth.
I didn’t feel the noose around my throat, I didn’t feel my hands or my feet or my arms or my legs, I didn’t feel anything as I stared up at Robert Sharp—at my dad.
The tears fell so quickly, I wasn’t even conscious of their formation but I felt them, burning, as they rushed down my cheeks.
“There, now, see?” I heard Lawrence as if from far away. “I assume you cannot see what has caused Elizabeth such distress, but I assure you that you do not want that to happen to your brother. And as one more piece of encouragement...” There was a rustling in the leaves behind me as one last person was thrust into the circle.
“Lizzie...my dear Lizzie...” Mom murmured as her own tears fell down her face, mixing with the blood running down her throat. “Please, stop looking.”
But I couldn’t. It was Dad’s face that had blood streaming over it, it was Dad’s chest that was so covered in wounds that there wasn’t an ounce of his skin that wasn’t red, it was Dad’s arms that were bent abnormally behind his head, it was Dad’s stomach that had a pole protruding from it. That was all I could see. Dad.
“How’s that for a bargain?” Lawrence said. “I’ll spare all your friends and I’ll let you have him before I end you.” In a daze, I turned my head just enough to see that he had added James to the group of people’s lives that were at his mercy, his hands bound like all the others. “All you have to do,” he continued, “is take a step forward, and all this violence, all this unnecessary death, can be avoided.”
An awful wheezing noise strained out of Robert’s lips and I nearly fell flat on my back when I realized he was still alive, his chest rising and falling shallowly as his unconscious body was forced to endure the torture even longer.
There was anger in Lawrence’s voice when he spoke this time, frustration and impatience getting the better of him when Carter still didn’t make an appearance. “Do you think I am bluffing?” he shouted into the trees. “Look at me, boy, and know the words I speak are true. If you are not standing before me in the next thirty seconds, I will string dear little Elizabeth up beside that dirty old apothecary, then I will—one by one—cut down each person in this clearing until you and I are the only ones left to remember their screams. And, if you still do not show yourself, I will use every one of my resources to locate your sister and will make certain my men show her suffering in ways she has yet to imagine. And once I have killed everyone you hold dear, only then will I find you and I will end your life just as painfully as I have ended those of your kin. Look at my eyes,” he yelled, his gaze heated as he scanned the trees. “Look at my eyes and tell yourself that I am lying. It will be the greatest mistake you ever make.”
There was another beat of silence and I could see a vein bulge on Lawrence’s forehead as he looked to John. “Hang her.”
Immediately, the rope around my throat tightened completely, all air cut off, jerking my back until my spine slammed into the trunk of the tree again, my skull cracking back against it.
“No!” Mom screamed, uselessly struggling against Lawrence’s grip.
The noose squeezed so tightly that I could feel the muscles in my throat straining and stars popped across my vision as my feet left the ground. My face felt much too hot and my mouth opened and closed as I desperately tried to get even a sip of oxygen through the binds of the rope. White hot pain melted from the top of my skull downward and I could feel the pressure on the bones in my neck, stretching, on the verge of breaking—
His voice reached me faintly, distantly, like he had spoken under water. “I’m here.”
Suddenly, the pressure on my neck fell away and I collapsed to the ground in a heap, my legs too weak to even attempt to hold my weight. I drew in as deep a breath as I physically could, choking and coughing as I did so, ignoring the burning in my lungs and the stinging at my throat.
With watery eyes, I looked up to see Carter standing just at the edge of the clearing. He had discarded the jacket of his suit and the muscles of his body were tensed, prepared for an attack.
A grin stretched across Lawrence’s face. “Excellent. Now we can begin.”