*From lisadidio's first sentence.*
I had no idea how far from the center of my world this path would take me, I only knew I had two choices: walk or die. The tip of the sword pressed against my neck, biting into the soft skin below my right ear, gave me little choice in the matter. I could either follow the terse directions of the sword-wielder, who was covered head to toe in black--and didn't that just smack of unoriginality?--or I could get an instant lobotomy.
Obedience isn't really my thing, but I discovered I liked the idea of keeping my brain safely inside my skull enough to make a token effort.
"Hurry up," the sword-wielder snapped out in guttural tones that sounded vaguely familiar.
I slowed down. "It's dark. I can't see where I'm going."
The sword tip pressed hard enough to slice skin, and a small trickle of warm blood wound a sinuous path toward my collar bone.
I lapsed into silence and picked up my pace. A little.
I was trained for this sort of thing, of course. Every D'Janu princess was. I knew to alter my habits, making it hard for my father's enemies to pinpoint any exact routine. I kept a retinue of bodyguards, burly men whose single mission in life was to kill anyone who threatened me. Should they fail, I knew how to react instantly--running if I could, attacking if I couldn't. I'd learned at an early age how to neutralize any foe long enough to get a solid head start.
Except I'd never seen this one coming. One moment, I'd been returning from an impulsive trip to the marketplace, pleased to have snatched up a few end of the day bargains. The next, my bodyguards had vanished. Literally vanished. And I'd felt the cold kiss of steel against my neck.
"If it's ransom you want, you'd better leave my head on my shoulders. My father will never pay for the return of my dead body." The tremor in my voice had more to do with the fact that I now recognized our destination than with fear of death by sword.
There are worse things to fear than death on the end of a blade and I was walking into one of them. An icy fist clenched in my stomach and the spit in my mouth dried into sawdust as the gray clouds scudding across the surface of the moon slid away to flood the landscape with silvery light.
"No ransom, Princess." The man spoke roughly and I caught the hint of mockery surrounding my title. "Now move. Clock's ticking."
The path before us twisted sharply into a tangle of black-barked trees covered in long strands of wet clinging moss. Bare branches stabbed the sky and damp tendrils of crimson-edged fog crawled along the ground.
"That's Briony's Woods. We can't go in there!"
The man laughed and despite the cruelty now wrapped around his amusement, I recognized the sound and stopped in my tracks.
"Kai! You stupid oaf. You scared me to death. When Father hears of this, he'll--"
"Father will never hear of it." My brother made no attempt to disguise his voice this time.
Fury burned through me, turning my fear to ash. "Oh, yes he will. You aren't negotiating your way out of this one."
"You have nothing to barter with, my dear sister. Now move." The sword bit deeper into my neck and I cried out.
"The joke's over, Kai. Finished. You got me, okay? Now stop it. We have to go back. We're already too close."
"Are we?" He asked, unpleasant cruelty still lacing the amusement in his voice.
I began to tremble as rage drained away in the wake of foreboding. "It's Briony's Woods. No human ever comes out alive!"
"Not a problem for me, Princess."
He was serious. I didn't bother trying to wrap my head around the cost of his foolishness. I needed all of my focus on keeping myself from going with him. Lunging forward, I dropped to the ground and rolled to my left, confident that Kai always took an extra second to react and I would have the head start I needed. Before I could flip onto my feet, he was on top of me, the sword pressed mercilessly against my throat.
I'd never seen him move so fast.
"Kai. Please." I was panting, breathless spurts of panic constricting my lungs.
Holding the sword steady with his right hand, Kai lifted his left to his face and stripped his black mask over his head.
I gazed into the ravaged face and blood red eyes of the thing that used to be my brother and screams ripped through my throat, coating my mouth with the raw bitterness of terror as he leaped to his feet, grasped my foot, and dragged me into the heart of Briony's Woods.