For Alexis Scott Sexsmith, I hope you like it!
And purpose filled her…
…the only problem was, Neve wasn’t sure exactly what purpose it was. It felt something like walking into a room, and standing there trying to remember what it was you’d forgotten to do. Neve looked around. This part of the forest was unfamiliar to her. In fact, she was quite certain she’d never seen it before.
“How did I get here?” she wondered aloud.
She was distracted by the urgent feeling pulsing in her breast, compelling her to go somewhere and do something.
“But I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,” she lamented.
It didn’t matter; her feet were already moving. She tried to stop them, but they no longer obeyed her command.
They trundled over roots and logs, blundered through bushes and patches of soggy ground. Branches slapped at her face rudely. The light dimmed the farther she went into the forest. Glowing eyes followed her progress, and commented upon it in squeaks and growls and hisses. Then suddenly she was swept off her feet, though they still rolled under her, attempting to propel her forward though the ground was now out of reach and could not give her traction.
“Wha…!” she cried. “Who are you?”
“Friends and rescuers, missy,” a gruff voice answered.
Foes and captors, a thought whispered back then fled before Neve could question it further. Strong hands gripped her arms and held her aloft. She was moving again, in a different direction. The light changed again, now it was soft and silver. Overhead a giant moon smiled down at her, eyes half closed in sleep. An owl hooted nearby and an answer came from farther off. Lights in the trees, bright and iridescent, mesmerized her. She was so enraptured with how they moved and sparkled that she didn’t notice she had been set down until someone snapped their fingers under her nose.
Short, stocky men with great beards and large noses surrounded her, staring with small, dark eyes.
“Hello,” she greeted them, hoping she didn’t sound afraid.
She tried to take a step and discovered her feet were cemented to the floor. A ring of white-spotted ruby toadstools trapped her. Her captors were whispering to one another with frowns and gestures. Some looked worried and others looked angry. Neve started to become both.
“Where am I?” she demanded. “What have you done to me?”
One of the men stepped forward. “You’re in the Enchanted Forest,” he said. “And you tripped a forgetting spell.”
“I don’t remember doing that,” Neve mused.
The man rolled his eyes. He wore curious clothes, bright red pants and a yellow vest. A blue cap draped over his left ear, and small round spectacles sat on his nose.
One of the others, wearing blue pants and a green sweater, sneezed, then pulled something out of his pocket. “I think it’s time for this.”
“That is incredibly precious,” the first countered. “We must not waste it.”
“We won’t be wasting it,” a third put in, with a grumpy huff. “She can’t remember anything. How are we supposed to get information out of her if she can’t remember it?”
That ended the debate. The first one took the vial and held it out to Neve. She crossed her arms and glared at him. He sighed.
“Just drink it. It doesn’t even taste that bad.”
Neve just stared at him.
“Don’t you want your memories back?” the short man wheedled.
“Fine,” she said, and snatched the vial.
The first sip burned all the way down and made bubbles that tasted like burnt pine needles crawl up her nose. After she finished swallowing it, she glared at the one who had given it to her.
“You said it didn’t taste bad!” she said in an accusing tone.
“It doesn’t, once you get used to it,” the man shrugged.
Neve stared at him. He was beginning to come into focus in her memories. “I know you,” she muttered. “You’re Doc.”
“At your service,” the dwarf said, bowing his head.
“I very much doubt that.”
The dwarf shrugged. “What are you doing in our forest?”
“One, it’s not your forest, and two, I’m not going to tell you what I’m doing.”
The truth was she didn’t quite remember what she was doing. The memories were still a little fuzzy. Something about a man. Who had a heart. Her eyes widened. She needed to get free. Right now.
She looked down. The toadstools were holding her fast, but she remembered she had thought of that before, when she knew what she was doing. Rummaging in her tunic, her fingers found the little bottle of poison.
“It wouldn’t have anything to do with Prince Charming, would it?” Doc said with a little sneer. “You needn’t worry about him.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Neve slipped out the bottle and took out the stopper without the dwarves noticing. They were arguing again. She sprinkled the poison over the mushrooms and watched them wither. She stepped over them and inched towards the trees. The dwarves didn’t notice.
Then she was running, running for the center of the forest. Her feet took her there with surety. She had roamed here when she was younger. The center of the Enchanted Forest was peaceful. The fairy lights were pale and silver here. Large white flowers perfumed the air. On a cushion of moss, under a tree heavy with with bright red fruit, lay a crystal coffin. Within the coffin was a man. Prince Charming, if memory served.
He looked to be sleeping. With great effort, Neve shoved the lid off the coffin and bent down, trying to find the right angle. She grimaced, then placed a kiss on his lips. She felt no response, pulled a face, and deepened the kiss. Finally he stirred, and reach up to pull her closer.
Neve wriggled out of his grasp.
“Blanche?” he said.
“Oh. It’s you.”
“It’s me,” Neve said. “A thank you would be nice.”
“Rescuing you,” Neve shrugged.
“Waiting outside the forest,” Neve explained. “Did you find it?”
Prince nodded. He sat up, reached down, and pulled off his boot. “I didn’t think they would look for it here.”
He shook the boot, and out popped the shining red Heart of the Huntsman. Neve scooped it up. It glistened in the light.
“We have to get this to the Queen.”
“I know that,” Neve said. “Why do you think I’m here?”
She helped him out of the coffin.
“We’ll never make it out of here without them catching us,” Prince said.
“Don’t be such a pessimist,” Neve said.
“I’m not,” Prince said with a frown. “They’ve got the whole place under eyes. They probably just let you get away so that you could find the heart.”
“Damn,” Neve said. “You’re right.”
“What should we do?” Prince said.
“Perhaps I can help,” another voice said.
Neve spun around. A silver stag stepped from behind a tree, large, soft eyes blinking at her.
“Why would you help us?” Neve said suspiciously.
“Because I want the dwarves out of this forest as much as you do,” the stag said. “They’re always digging and singing. And they cannot hold a tune.”
Prince glared at the stag mistrustfully. “You’re a denizen of the Enchanted Forest. How do we know you’re not working for the dwarves?”
“We have to trust him,” Neve told Prince softly. “We don’t have a choice.”
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Prince said. “It is too powerful and dangerous to entrust to anyone…” he gave a sidelong glance at the stag, “or anything else.”
She wrapped up the Huntsman’s Heart in a her cloak and set it in the stag’s antlers.
“Take this to my sister Blanche. She waits at the northern edge of the forest.”
“How will I know her?” the stag asked.
“Easy,” Neve smiled. “She looks exactly like me.”
The stag nodded and bounded into the trees, leaving Neve and Prince alone in the center of the Enchanted Forest.
“We have to find our own way out,” Neve said.
“Wait,” Prince said.
He scraped some of the crystal off, placing the powder in his handkerchief.
“Just in case,” he told Neve.
Neve was impressed with his foresight, but didn’t want to inflate his ego. “Fine, fine, just hurry up.”
Prince finished up and tied the handkerchief up. He put it in his jacket.
“Which way?” he asked.
Neve nodded. Prince followed her. They slipped through the trees, towards the edge of the forest. Neve froze.
“What was that?”
“What was what?”
“That!” Neve whispered.
Gruff voices came through from somewhere, faintly but growing louder. Neve couldn’t pinpoint the exact direction they were coming from.
“What should we do?” Prince said, eyes panic.
The dwarves came upon them at that moment.
“You two!” Doc said, pointing a finger at them. “Don’t move!”
“You go that way,” Prince said at once. “I’ll go this way. One of us has to find the stag, make it out of the Enchanted Forest, and get to Blanche.”
Neve rolled her eyes. “It’s too late. They have us.”
“Why are you so calm?” Prince hissed.
“I have a plan,” Neve winked.
“Are you going to let me in on it?” Prince said. “Or do I have to guess?”
“You two! Stop conspiring at once!” Doc ordered.
“You don’t have a monopoly on conspiracy,” Neve said.
The dwarves walked forward, pickaxes at the ready.
“What do we do?” Prince muttered nervously.
“Give them what they want,” Neve said. She raised her voice to call to the dwarves. “Fine. We’ll give you the heart. But you have to promise you’ll let us go.”
“We don’t make deals with tyrants,” one of the dwarves said.
“And I don’t make deals with conniving midgets,” Neve said, tossing them something bright red.
It distracted the dwarves from her insult as it flew through the air; all the dwarves’ eyes fixed on it. They hovered under it as it arced down, hands out at the ready. It hit Doc squarely on the nose and bounced down onto the ground. It was an apple.
The dwarves blinked, then turned to Neve and Prince in shock.
“Now!” Neve shouted at Prince.
He took the powder from the crystal coffin and tossed it in the faces of the surprised dwarves. One by one, they sank down and began snoring. Neve and Prince stood there and watched them.
“They could wake up any moment,” Neve mentioned conversationally. “We should probably start running now.”
They made good time through the trees. At the edge of the Enchanted Forest, a silver blur joined them. Neve thanked it and relieved it of its burden. Then she and Prince continued. Where the trees ended, the spitting image of Neve waited with two horses. The second girl’s face lit up when she saw them, and she waved. Prince ran to her and embraced her. Neve rolled her eyes.
“The dwarves could still wake up any moment,” she said, brushing by her twin and her twin’s true love.
“Do you have it?” Blanche asked.
Neve held out the Huntsman’s Heart.
“Now we have a chance,” Blanche said, her eyes wide.
“We do indeed,” Neve said, her own heart filled with purpose and pride, and new hope of ridding the kingdom of the troublesome dwarves.