Chapter Twenty Eight
Mom’s face came slowly into focus as I desperately tried to get my bearings. For some unknown reason, that vision seemed to fade much quicker than the last one. Which I was thankful for as Mom ran to me, falling to her knees beside me and wrapping her arms around my shoulders as tears cascaded down her cheeks. Lawrence must’ve let her go when Carter gave himself up. “Oh, baby, are you all right?” she asked me. “Are you okay? My poor baby—"
“I’m fine,” I croaked through the searing in my throat, reaching up to rub the tender area.
“Before you even attempt it,” Lawrence said, using his knife to gesture at Carter, “I would ask that you rid yourself of any weapons you’ve got hidden in your clothes.”
Carter didn’t move, standing incredibly still as he studied his opponent.
“Perhaps I should mention that if anything happens to me,” Lawrence said, “my men have strict orders to exterminate each and every person here. Just in case you thought you might send a dagger sailing my way.”
I took in the scene around us in much the same way Carter was. Stone and Catherine—two of our best fighters—were lying unconscious on the ground, Nathaniel had a gun to his head, James was kneeling, hands tied together in front of him and feet bound, behind Lawrence, Robert was hardly alive, pinned to a tree. And spotted between each of us were soldiers to add to Lawrence’s intimidation.
The muscles in Carter’s jaw bulged as he reached behind him, slowly, dropping his weapons, one by one, to the ground, a rhythmic clanging that sounded more and more hopeless each time.
“Lizzie,” Mom whispered in my ear, her voice so quiet that I almost didn’t hear her over the wild beating of my heart. “There is something I have to tell you—"
“Not now, Mom,” I hissed back.
“But it’s import—"
“You can tell me when we get out of this.”
“Lizzie.” Her voice was sterner than I’d heard it in a long time and she pinched my chin, forcing my eyes to meet hers. “Look.” Slowly, her fingers unfurled to present me with a small dagger.
My eyes went wide. “How did you get that?” I asked hoarsely, my throat burning as I spoke.
“It was hidden in the band of that man’s pants,” she said, nodding to Lawrence.
Swallowing past the pain, I took the weapon from her hand. “No matter what happens,” I told her, “stay here. Do you understand?”
“Do you understand?” I repeated more firmly.
She pressed her lips together and reluctantly nodded.
Lawrence sauntered closer to Carter, a triumphant smile on his face as he said, “As unfortunate as this may seem, you shall die knowing that your sister and everyone else not related to you by blood that stands within this circle will not be harmed. Your sacrifice will not have been made in vain.”
“Brother,” Nathaniel said from the other side of the clearing, grimacing as the barrel was pushed harder against his skull. “Please,” he ground out. “Don’t do this. Don’t let him—"
“It’s a bit late for pleading, isn’t it?” Lawrence said, not even turning around. “But I am sure he appreciates your relentless support—"
Just then, a battle cry rang out and we all stared in shock as James ran at Lawrence, wrestling with him until he held a dagger to Lawrence's throat. His hands were still bound but his grip was sure.
Lawrence turned to glare at the soldier that was supposed to be guarding him. “You imbecile!”
“Sorry, sir,” the man replied. “He grabbed it too quickly—"
“Run!” James shouted at all of us. “Go, now!”
Lawrence let out a bored sigh. “This is touching, I’m sure, but perhaps you didn’t think this through—"
James spoke over him. “They won’t hurt you as long as I am standing here.” His incredibly sad blue eyes met mine and I could read the deep regret for what he had done clearly in his gaze. I could see him begging me to let this be a step toward retribution. “If you all run now,” he insisted, “you will be safe.”
I started to rise to my feet as my eyes turned to Carter, sure that he would have spun on his feet and bolted back into the cover of the trees. But, instead, he didn’t so much as flinch in their direction.
“Please,” James begged, his eyes locked with mine. “Please, run.”
“You are right,” Lawrence said. “As long as you are here, they will do nothing. Best to rectify that.”
Lightning fast, Lawrence jerked his hand up. There was the bright flash on metal in the moonlight a mere second before Lawrence’s hidden knife was thrust up through James’s jugular, blood immediately pouring out.
I screamed as James’s eyes went wide, his jaw gaping open, showing the second flash of the dagger as it made itself visible, slicing up into his mouth. My hand flew up to cover my mouth as Lawrence yanked the dagger out and James fell to the ground, dead, his eyes open and unseeing, blood flooding out of his head.
Mom’s nails dug into my arm as her own mouth hung open in silent hysteria, tears freely flowing down her face.
Lawrence wiped the blood on his knife on James’s shirt. “That is a shame,” he said as he stood upright again, tucking the weapon back in his boot. “He was a good lad. Pity.” He turned back to Carter. “Time to end this. No one else need die. Take him!” he yelled into the trees.
I had somewhat expected an entire coalition of soldiers to pour out of the shadows and kill the rest of us. But that wasn’t what happened. In fact, nothing happened. Nothing within the trees stirred, not a single person crept out of the shadows. All that greeted us was a tense silence.
Lawrence frowned. “I said, take him!”
Then, there was movement from behind Carter, but it wasn’t a soldier that emerged. It was Lydia, her gown torn, her hair mussed, and blood splattered all over her gorgeous gown. Clasped in her fist was a sword, more crimson liquid dripping from it. Her face was absolutely expressionless as she said, “Hello, husband.”
“Lydia?” His brows furrowed. “What are you doing here? You cannot possibly imagine you can scare me.”
“You’ve never been able to just come out with it,” she responded. “Whatever you’ve needed to say has always taken much longer than necessary. Perhaps this shall teach you otherwise. Look around you, husband. What do you see?”
All of us glanced around the clearing. I grinned as my gaze returned to Lydia, understanding. Slowly, I rose to my feet, lifting the noose over my head, relieved when it thumped to the ground behind me.
Mom stood shakily beside me. “I don’t get it. What’s happening?”
“Your men,” Stone croaked, pushing himself up into a sitting position, rubbing the back of his head in pain as he glared at Lawrence. “It seems you left someone very important off your list of hostages, mate.” When Stone looked at Lydia, his brown eyes gleamed with pride.
Lawrence turned to her. “You expect me to believe you killed all those men?” He laughed. “You’ve never fought a day in your life.”
“I suppose that is what happens when one spends too much time in the company of criminals.” She handed the sword to Carter. “You become one.”
The sound of a gun cocking echoed in the clearing and Lawrence spun around to face the barrel Nathaniel pointed at his face. Slowly, he began to bob his head up and down in a nod. “That’s it, then? You’re going to kill me.”
“You deserve it,” Lydia hissed. The one time she ever looked other than the gentle and strong girl I knew was when she came face-to-face with her husband. Only then did she turn into the woman out for blood that she was at that moment.
“Right, then.” He cleared his throat as he turned back to Carter, straightening his shoulders. “Get on with it, boy.”
Carter stalked closer to Lawrence. “You think your death will be that quick? After all the suffering you have inflicted?”
Lawrence met his gaze without even flinching. “I will not apologize for trying to take what rightfully belongs to me.”
Carter didn’t say anything for a long moment, his eyes flicking all over the other man’s face, studying him, the man that had raised him and loathed him. “You made my life a living hell,” Carter said softly. “For years it was simply one torturous day after another. But,” he took a step back, holding his sword out to his side, “your life is not mine to take. Lydia?”
She looked at him in surprise. “Me?”
He gave a sharp nod. “You have urged his death at every turn. It should be you that delivers the final blow.”
It was no secret that she had wished for his demise whenever she was able to voice such an opinion, but now that she was actually faced with it, she seemed hesitant. Not out of fear. It was the kind of hesitance you feel before stepping onto a roller coaster in anticipation of the exhilaration you know is sure to come.
Very tentatively, reached out, meeting Carter’s gaze as she wrapped her fingers around the hilt.
“No!” Stone screamed a moment before Lydia’s mouth dropped open in shock.
Carter caught her as she fell sideways, her eyes moving down to where a dagger—Lawrence’s dagger, the same one he had used to kill James—was buried deep in her stomach.
I ran to her, grabbing hold of her arm as she sunk to the ground. Stone was there too, falling to his knees beside her. Her mouth moved as she tried to say something, but she was choking.
“Mom!” I cried over my shoulder. “Mom!”
“I’m here,” she said, wiping tears from her eyes quickly as she knelt down and started pushing people out of her way.
Lydia grabbed Stone’s arm and pushed words out past the obvious agony she was feeling. There was blood on her hand from where she had pressed it against her stomach and Stone stared at it like he had never seen blood before, his eyes wide and terrified. “G-g-g—" she tried.
“What, love?” Stone urged.
“G-get…him…” she said hoarsely.
Stone spun around, but Lawrence was gone. Pressing a kiss to her hand, he took the sword from where she had dropped it and bolted into the trees, Nathaniel right behind him.
Still holding the knife Mom had stolen from him, I started after them too. Carter caught my arm before I could plunge into the shadows. “No,” I said, struggling against him. “We have to get him.”
“Stone and Nathaniel can do it,” he told me. “You cannot.”
I shook my head vehemently. “No, no, I have to—"
“Liz,” he said, his voice softer than it had been in a long time. “There is nothing you can do right now.”
I looked into his hazel eyes and saw that he was right. There wasn’t anything I could do. I couldn’t heal Lydia. I couldn’t kill Lawrence. I was utterly and completely useless.
“Li-Lizzie…” wheezed a voice from above and I gasped, craning my neck to look at him. Robert’s eyes were slitted open as he looked down at me.
“We have to get him down,” I said to Carter, looking back up at Robert. “We’re going to get you down.”
“My li-little Lizz-izzie…” he gasped.
I froze. There was something in his eyes that had never been there before, a certain clarity that made my hands tremble uncontrollably at my sides and my lungs work even harder in my chest. “Dad?” I barely dared to breathe.
“L-listen to m-me, Lizzie.” His throat worked as he tried to swallow.
I nearly fainted. That was my father. I could tell in that moment, it was him. My dad, who had been dead for four years. That was him. I knew it to be true more than I had ever known anything else in my life. I brushed away the tears and quickly said, “Don’t worry, Dad, we’re gonna get you down. Just, um, just hold on, and I’ll—"
“Lizzie,” he said hoarsely, “listen. There is a w-way out.”
“A way out? Out of where?”
He squeezed eyes shut in terrible agony as one of his arms slipped further out of place. “A way out,” he mumbled, his eyes slowly losing focus. “You h-have to f-find her, Li-Lizzie.”
“Find who?” Tears flowed down my cheeks in earnest.
“Sar-Sarah. Find Sarah.” His eyes met mine, my father’s eyes, and he forced a smile out past all the pain, just like he had done in the hospital all those years ago.
“Dad.” I was sobbing, hiccups hitching my words as I spoke. “Is it really you? Has it always been you?”
He blinked quickly, his smile dropping away. He locked his gaze with mine, pleading with me to understand him. “F-find…her…pr-promise me…”
“I promise, Dad, I promise.” I covered my mouth to stop myself from completely losing it.
“Find her…” It was as if he had held on just until he could deliver that message because as soon as the words were out of his mouth, his body sagged and I watched the life leave his brown eyes.
I murmured, “Though Magic sags like a tree with too many leaves…” I turned to Carter. “This is what Gretchen had meant, isn’t it? Magic, as in apothecary. She knew he was here.”
He didn’t answer me, but then again, he didn’t have to. I could see it in his eyes.
I turned back to my father, unable to stop myself from staring. The silence that followed was one of the worst things I had ever endured, and I cried so hard that my knees gave out and I collapsed to the ground, my shaking hands flitting uselessly around, not knowing what to do.
Carter dropped down beside me, not saying a word as he wrapped his arms around me. Instinctively, I clung to him, my tears soaking through his shirt as I gazed up at my father, blood still dripping from him. I squeezed my eyes shut and buried my face in Carter’s neck.
It had been him the entire time. The entire time.
And now he was gone.