And then I heard a voice that chilled my bones.
“If you don’t have money, we’ll take you anyway. The Red Saint can always do with more sacrifices, and the cults pay well.”
A ragged gasp, a soft sob. “Annemarie!” Brandon whispered, utterly frozen.
Three highwaymen had crept up on us while we’d watched the wagon go. One had grabbed Annemarie, a wicked-looking knife pressed into her throat. As I took in the situation, a bead of blood formed and dripped down her throat.
“That sucks,” Melissa said, voice quavering. “I’m not the greatest sacrifice option.”
One of the other men shrugged. “You do realize what a sacrifice is? You’re going to die. They aren’t picky about your supposed greatness, though I suppose it helps.”
“Well, see, the question would be whether I need to be alive to be useful.” She folded her arms, leaning against a tree in a sort of faked nonchalance. “ I don’t have too much time left at this point. You might as well kill me now, hurry it up.”
“Are you sick or something?” The man holding Annemarie loosened his grip on the knife almost imperceptibly, but I caught Brenna’s eye and she began to move- slowly, slowly-
She snorted. “Sick? Sort of. The others are too, probably, after so much time spent with me.”
“You didn’t tell me it was contagious!” I pitched my voice higher than it normally was, jumping away from her. They had to turn their heads to see me, now. “What is it? You have to at least tell us what to expect. You are… remarkably good at hiding your symptoms.” I wasn’t bluffing about the last bit.
Melissa snorted, fingers shaking as she spread her hands. “Lots of pain. Headaches. Anxiety and depression. Trouble sleeping. Eventual death. It’s called fibromyalgia. And thanks- I try.”
I shook my head in mock-disbelief, clamping my mouth shut an expression of what I hoped was mute horror but was actually just trying not to laugh. “And we have it too, now?”
And as the highwaymen shifted in unease, Annemarie caught the whisper of a chance Melissa had created. She collapsed like a rag doll, a thin line of blood appearing across her throat from the highwayman’s knife. My heart thudded, but- thanks to the Saints and everything they stood for- it was only a scratch. Annemarie whipped out her own knives, slashing the highwayman’s ankles before he could react. He howled.
Brenna and I rushed the other two, meeting their raised weapons and engaging them. The elf grinned a savage grin as she twisted and cut, stabbing into the man’s belly so that he had to hold his stomach in order to keep his insides inside. He was still screaming when she cut his throat. I could hear Melissa vomiting a few yards behind us. Satisfied that she had escaped, I skipped Brenna’s disemboweling bit for her throat bit and left my opponent’s body slumped atop Brenna’s attacker. Adrenaline pounded through my body and for a brief, ridiculous moment, I thought, this is what it feels to be alive.
Annemarie’s friend had fallen to his knees, feet bleeding and useless. He’d stopped yelling, but his breath came quick and his eyes were wild. Brandon hauled him up, though, and leaned him against a tree. He kept an elbow on his chest, the same knife that had nearly cut Annemarie’s throat pressed against his.
“This,” Brandon snarled, “is what it feels like. If you ever wondered.” The man didn’t- couldn’t- respond. I was almost certain he’d momentarily blacked out from the pain. “And if you have a significant other- who would love you, though, I can’t imagine- picture them in your place. That’s what you’ve done to us.”
The highwayman breathed a word so quietly I couldn’t hear it.
“I can’t hear you.” The knife began to cut into his throat, just as it had with Annemarie. None of us dared to move.
The man tried again. “Mercy.”
A few seconds passed. Blood stained the grass red. The only sounds were of the birds, further into the forest, and the shaky breaths of the highwayman at our feet.
Then Brandon stepped away, and the man collapsed again. “Since you asked.” But his voice had lost some of the surety it had had just a moment ago.
Brenna swallowed. “Brandon,” she murmured, voice softer than I’d ever heard it. “Brandon, if you leave him, he’ll be dead before tomorrow morning. The mercy he asks is not for his life.”
Brandon’s eyes were shut tight, his fists bone-white and shaking. Angry tears gathered at the ends of his eyelashes. He took a sharp breath, metal flashed, and blood sprayed.
The flies were beginning to gather on the bodies. I spared a last glance at the carnage before kneeling, wiping my dagger on the grass, and setting off down the path. They would follow me. If we didn’t move now, they would stay there forever.
Quick note: the featured images on my writing portfolio posts have little to nothing to do with the excerpt. The way that they formatted, however, was a bit nicer than they were without any pictures! I’m going to hopefully replace them with more pertinent images in the future, but this may take some time as I am using my own material.