Also, I have started an account on Fiction Press and am now posting my stories there as well, so if you are on Fiction Press or would like to be, let me know :-)
Green Eyes and Black
By Hazel West
(Based on the song “Black Eyes” by Radical Face)
Ever since I first heard Radical Face’s song “Black Eyes” I knew I was going to have to base a story off of it. It just always sounded like a dark fairy tale to me, so that is what I wrote. This is admittedly very dark and strange, but I hope you enjoy it!
Sacrifice and pain are synonymous. One breeds the other, and though one is noble and the other is longsuffering there is something they have in common. Love is the mother of both, and yet when one sacrifices for love, one risks losing the very thing they sacrificed for.
There once was a man who sacrificed the only thing he had for love and because he loved so much, it was the ability to love that he lost.
Because to love enough to sacrifice, one must give the one thing that means most, and if the thing that means most is the thing at stake, then the sacrifice must be the love of that thing instead.
These are the rules of the Lady: to win what was lost, something must be given in kind. And those rules never changed until one man broke them.
The story begins like this:
Once upon a time, there were two brothers, hunters, who lived in a cabin in the woods and made their trade by hunting the creatures of the forest for furs and meat to sell in the nearby village. What they didn’t realize is that to take from the realm of the Forest Lady, one must pay a tithe. But the brothers didn’t know this, and the Forest Lady got angrier and angrier until she decided to take a tithe of her own.
One day, the younger brother went out hunting and never returned. The elder searched high and low for him, in the trees, in the village, in the river and at the bottom of the crags, but he could find him nowhere, alive or dead. Frantic, he asked the help of the Woodwife, a white witch, who taught him the ways of the forest and its Lady.
Knowing that his brother had been taken as a tithe, the hunter asked if there was a way to get him back. As the Woodwife explained, he went pale as the winter snow, but when she had finished, he took the summoning herbs she gave him, and he went to the crossroads in the middle of the forest, and under the oldest tree in the woods, he summoned the Forest Lady and begged her to release his brother.
And that was how the hunter lost his heart.
Nicholas came back to the cabin before the sun was up, a brace of pheasants slung over his shoulder, having already been out at the hunt. It had become a custom for him since sleep evaded him so often these days.
The house was cold and quiet, a hush of calm that came before the birds started singing their morning anthems, and he set the brace of birds down on the table before he went to stoke the coals in the fireplace, still warm from the previous evening, flaring as he coaxed them back to life with a few twigs and knots of paper. He shed his cloak and strode softly across the floor to one of the small bedrooms, opening the door silently and looking in.
Ben was sleeping soundly, the grey dawn light falling across his face and Nick knew he should have felt relief at seeing him there, alive, safe, but he felt nothing. He couldn’t hope to feel anything ever again. He knew he should feel things, but he no longer had the ability after he had bartered it for something far more important. He couldn’t even be bothered that he wasn’t bothered, though he probably should have been.
Ben stirred and Nick swiftly shut the door and went back to the table to start preparing the pheasants for the spit as he listened to his brother rise and prepare for the day.
The fire was crackling merrily in the hearth and the birds were singing outside by the time Ben emerged from his room, sleep in his eyes, but ready as always.
“Good morning,” Nick told him, half hoping he would reply.
Ben gave nothing but a noncommittal grunt. That was a vague improvement at least. But Nick knew his brother would never truly forgive him. After all, he may have saved him, but all Ben was left with now was an emotionless automaton where he used to have a brother that cared. Nick wanted to care about how his brother felt too, but even that was too much for him.
He sighed and got up to put the kettle onto the fire for the coffee. Ben took over plucking the pheasants, ripping the feathers out with that fury he carried with him now. Nick didn’t know whether it was directed at him or at himself, but was probably a mixture of both. Nick wished he could feel that much still.
“I’m going into town today,” he said as he measured out the coffee to percolate. “The furs are piling up.”
“Fine,” Ben said.
Nick clenched a fist, but it was only a reaction. “Are you coming?”
Ben was silent for a long time before he said. “No.”
This is what he had expected, but still, Nick thought it would be considerate to ask. He went to fry some eggs in a pan and popped some bread onto a grate in the hearth before serving it to him and his brother with the coffee.
It was a very silent meal, Ben bent over his plate so that his longish brown hair fell into his eyes and he wouldn’t have to look across and see his brother. Nick didn’t think Ben had really looked at him since he had found out what Nick had actually done.
Once they had finished he cleared the dishes and went to get the cart ready to load up. Before he left, he cast one last look at the mantle, seeing the small ornately carved wooded box there and reaching for the emotions he should feel but couldn’t. He remembered the nervous excitement he had felt after picking the contents of it up in town when the local jeweler had completed it; but he couldn’t feel them now. He didn’t realize Ben was watching him until he spoke.
“If you’re never going to give it to her, you should just get rid of it.”
The words were cruel, and angry, and should have hurt but they didn’t. Nick knew his brother was right. Knew that he shouldn’t hold out hope, because how could a man without a heart truly love anyone?
He placed his hand over the spot on his chest that no longer throbbed with life and thought back to that day when everything had come to an end.
He lit the bowl’s contents on fire, hoping the Woodwife hadn’t been lying to him about this, and waited for several minutes as the herb scented smoke was whipped around in the cool breeze that was blowing through the trees.
And then she was there.
She was beautiful, he couldn’t deny it, but terrible at the same time. Tall, willowy, and with long black hair that seemed to move with a life of its own. Her skin was ivory and her lips blood red, but the thing he remembered most about her was her eyes. They were like two spots of onyx, blacker than anything he had seen and so captivating that he was frozen to the spot, unable to run even if he had wanted to.
“Ah, so you have come to me at last, my green-eyed Hunter,” she spoke and her words were dripping with darkness, her voice sounding both timeless and ancient at the same time.
Nick stepped forward with determination, his hand wrapped around his hunting blade and a dark look on his face. “Where is my brother?”
“He is where he should be,” the Lady said with a flippant shrug. “You failed to offer me a tithe of your own, so I saw it fit to take what was rightfully mine. He will now serve in my court as payment.”
“Ben does not belong to you.”
“He does now,” the Lady told him and he was about to run the knife through her for what good that would likely do, when she continued, stopping him. “But that was not what I truly wanted. Not really. What I wanted was your suffering, a sacrifice. That makes a tithe all the more powerful, you know.”
“If you must have a tithe, then take me in his place,” Nick said firmly. “It was my fault for not learning the rules of this forest before I started to hunt here, do not make my brother pay for my mistakes.”
The Lady seemed to consider this, amusement shining in her black eyes before she cocked her head to one side. “I will make you a deal, my green-eyed Hunter. I will give your brother back, if I can have you, in full subjugation to me.”
Nick swallowed hard, and threw his knife to the ground, holding out his hands. “You have me. Now let Ben go.”
She laughed, a low, cruel sound that made shadows dance in the roots of the trees. “No, my darling Hunter, you don’t understand. Your sacrifice must be complete and absolute. You must not even think of what you are leaving behind. And I can see in you the defiance, I know that the love of those you care about most will always have you looking back. You understand that you must come to me completely willing because there is nothing left for you in your old life. And as long as you love, you will never be able to leave them. Not truly.”
Nick clenched his fists, desperate. “Then tell me; how can I get him back?”
She stepped closer to him, her hand reaching out to stroke his stubbled jaw in a gentle caress that sent a shiver of horror down his spine. “I can make it easier for you.” She began to untie his shirt at the throat and he pulled away.
“What are you—?”
He didn’t know what hit him when she plunged her hand into his chest as if he was made of butter and not flesh and bone. His breath caught in his throat at the pain as she yanked and ripped something red and pulsing free. Nick fell to his knees, clutching at his chest, but there was nothing there. No wound, no blood, just the lingering shock.
In fact, there was indeed nothing.
He looked up and saw the object that she held in her hand was his still beating heart. He gaped and she smiled and crouched down in front of him, her other hand once again on his cheek.
“When you come to me, and you will come to me, Hunter, it will be a mercy to you. Remember that. And also know that if you don’t come, I will take away everything you care about.” She kissed his lips and stood. “I will be seeing you soon, Nicholas.”
And then she was gone, and he was left wondering exactly what he had done.
And then he remembered he should be worried about Ben. Where was he? He should have been returned.
He staggered to his feet, stumbling the whole way home and throwing open the door to the cabin before rushing to Ben’s room, finding him sound asleep as if he had never left in the first place.
Nick’s body went forward and instinctively clasped the younger man in his arms, waking him with a confused grunt.
It wasn’t until he was holding his brother in his arms, knowing he should be feeling relief that would normally have brought him to tears, but instead felt nothing, that he knew the Lady had destroyed him.
And he couldn’t even weep because of that.
Nick drove the cart into town, the horse’s hooves clopping on the cobbles as he took in the familiar sights and sounds of the surroundings. Ever since he had learned the truth about the forest, he found it strange that such a place could reside so close to such darkness. He didn’t think anyone in the town really knew about the cruel Forest Lady and her rules—at least not unless they had taken from her and failed to pay the tithe as he had.
He drove through the streets, until he came to the general store, and then he just sat upon the cart, and stared through the window at the young woman standing behind the counter, talking to a lady customer and packaging up her purchases. It had been two weeks since Nick had lost his heart, and in that time he hadn’t been back to town for any reason, not even to see Clara. He had been afraid he would feel as little for her as he did for his brother, and it turned out he was right. Seeing her now brought no smile to his lips, nor did his heart flutter in his chest—how could it? The Forest Lady had it stowed somewhere now in her own keeping. No, all he could think of was Ben’s comment about the necklace earlier. If you’re not going to give it to her, you should just get rid of it.
He didn’t really understand Ben’s anger, unless it was perhaps because he thought that Nick was throwing his future away because of a mistake made for him. Ben had always been like that, after all. How dare anyone, especially his older brother, think he was more important than anyone else? But Nick always ignored him because Ben, and Clara, were more important than anyone else to him. Or at least they had been.
But the necklace he had bought for Clara, it was hers, and she should have it, even if he couldn’t give her the love that was supposed to accompany it.
Of course if she ever found out what he had done, then she would probably want nothing to do with him either and the necklace would only serve as a painful reminder. Who could love a man who had no understanding of love?
He was brought from his dark musings by the ringing of the bell on the door and when he looked up he saw the lady leaving the store and Clara had looked out the window and caught sight of him, a smile on her face. He forced a small one back and got out off the cart, knowing there was no avoiding it now.
“Nick!” Clara said happily as she came outside and stood on her tiptoes to kiss his cheek as he stood there awkwardly. He couldn’t help but notice how soft and warm her lips were compared to the Forest Lady’s. “It seems like it’s been forever since I saw you.”
“A couple weeks,” he said, realizing it felt like much longer. “I’m sorry, we’ve been…busy.” He turned swiftly back to the cart and leapt up into the back, uncovering the furs. “But I have a lot of furs that I needed to bring you. I’ll start getting these unloaded if you want to look through them.”
Clara stepped back into the store with a small frown between her eyes, seeming to see that something was off. Nick unloaded all of the furs and helped Clara sort through them and figure out the pricing.
“Do you need the money now?” Clara asked after they had finished.
Nick shook his head. “No, keep our share as you sell them. Ben or I will be back in another week or so.” He looked up at a clock on the wall. “I should probably be going.”
“You don’t want to stay for tea? I just put a pot on.”
“I’m afraid I can’t today,” he said, trying to be as kind as possible, knowing that truly he was just avoiding the inevitable.
Clara caught his hand as he straightened, looking up into his eyes. “Nick, I was wondering…I have the afternoon free tomorrow, since my aunt is coming in to run the store, and I thought maybe we could do something together? Have a picnic in the woods, I could come to the cabin.”
Nick froze, knowing he couldn’t let Clara set foot in the woods ever again. Not when the Forest Lady was watching him—and he knew she was watching him, had felt the shadows with their invisible eyes that morning while he was hunting. He had almost lost Ben and he couldn’t lose Clara, even if he knew the horrible truth was that he probably wouldn’t feel anything, he still couldn’t risk it.
Gently he pulled his hand from hers, knowing what he had to say even before he thought about it. “I don’t think that’s a good idea, Clara.”
She looked up at him in confusion. “Nick? Is something wrong?”
Everything is wrong he wanted to say, but instead he just shook his head. “Clara, it’s just…I have a lot going on right now, and I think it might be best if we don’t see too much of each other for a while.”
She gave a small sharp intake of breath at his words. “But Nick, I thought…”
“Please, Clara, just for a while,” he said softly, hoping she would understand. Just for as long as it took for him to give in to the Lady’s pull on him, and then it wouldn’t matter either way. He would be beyond anyone’s reach then.
She still stared at him, before she seemed to gather herself, and stiffen her spine. She swallowed hard. “So, you…can’t tell me why?”
“It’s best you don’t know,” Nick said truthfully. “I’m sorry, Clara.” He bent to kiss her cheek and then turned and left the store without looking back. It was better this way, he told himself. It was better that she didn’t get hurt because he couldn’t let her go, just like he couldn’t let Ben go. Nicholas didn’t have anything in life but Clara and his brother and he wasn’t going to let them be taken away from him like his parents had. If he had to pay the ultimate price for that to happen, then he would and gladly, but he couldn’t allow them to suffer.
For a moment, he almost thought he felt a twinge of regret, but he must have been mistaken.
He couldn’t feel anything.
He made it back to the cabin just after midday and saw Ben was out, his cloak and rifle gone, which was typical now, since he was trying to avoid Nick as much as possible. Nick started mixing up a seasoning rub for the pheasants, which now lay plucked and cleaned on the chopping block as he thought back to the conversation he’d had with Ben after he had come back from making his deal with the Lady.
Nick settled the hot cup of tea in front of his brother, watching anxiously as he took it in shaking hands. But Ben didn’t drink it; he was still just staring at Nick.
“I don’t understand,” he said. Ben remembered very little about what had happened, and nothing at all about how he had gotten back home. It had taken Nick long enough to explain to him what had really gone on.
“Ben, all you need to know is that everything is fine now,” he finally said. “I took care of it.”
“No,” Ben shook his head adamantly, glaring up at his older brother. “You’re not going to just give me some fairy story and leave it at that. What did you do? Nick?”
Nick looked down into his own cup of tea, knowing he couldn’t avoid the topic forever. Ben would keep pushing until he knew the truth. “I promised her myself in your place.”
Ben stared at him as if he were a madman, and Nick was beginning to think that he was. “But you’re here. Is it after you die or something?”
“I don’t know,” Nick told him truthfully, his hand unconsciously going to his chest, a frown wrinkling his brow. “I think she expects me to come to her of my own volition.”
Ben was watching him closely. “What did she do to you?” he asked in a low voice.
Nick shook his head. “It doesn’t matter.”
Ben’s chair scraped across the floor and he was suddenly standing in front of Nick, ripping his shirt open. Nick didn’t even protest, he just sat there as Ben’s fingers, cold with fear, pressed against his empty chest where his heart no longer beat. There were no scars, but the emptiness was almost worse.
“Nick,” was all he said, his voice pained as he stepped back and fisted his hair in his hands. Once again, Nick knew he should feel something for his brother’s distress, but he didn’t.
The first week, Ben frantically searched for something, anything, to reverse the deal. He read countless old stories and accounts, looking for alternative tithe options and visited the Woodwife, but no one had anything to offer, though the Woodwife promised to keep looking.
Throughout that time, Nick didn’t help at all, he didn’t feel the need to. He had known what he was doing, and did not regret it one bit so he didn’t feel the need to waste time in trying to reverse it.
That was what brought about one of the first arguments between him and Ben.
Ben had been talking about other leads he was going to follow over dinner one night when Nick had opened his mouth.
“Ben, just admit it, you’re not really going to find anything. This is my problem, not yours. I made my bed, and I’m good with lying in it.”
“Well, I’m not,” Ben said firmly. “You’re my brother, Nick, I’m not just going to let you throw your life away like this. I mean, look at you! You’re already an emotionless doppelganger or your old self. I know that if you had the capacity to care, you wouldn’t want to be like that.”
“Ben, if I go back on this, she will take you again, and probably Clara too, do you understand that?” Nick asked, wanting the anger behind his words that he knew would have been there in the past.
Ben shook his head, cheeks reddening with anger. “You don’t get it do you? This isn’t just about you, Nick, it’s about everyone who cares about you too. You think it’s fair to the rest of us that you are throwing your life away like this?” He stood up from the table. “If you at least remember what it feels like to feel, then don’t judge me for doing this, because you know bloody well that you would be doing the same thing in my place.”
“It’s not the same,” I told him firmly.
“Why not?” Ben shouted, slamming a hand onto the tabletop. “Because you’re the eldest? Because you promised mum and da to watch out for me? I’m not a child anymore, Nick! I can take care of myself, and I will bloody well take care of you too if you won’t lift a finger to do it yourself!” He stormed out of the cabin.
And Nicholas was left to ruminate on his words, which mostly just ended with him being envious that Ben was able to emote so much.
Nick’s gaze once again returned to the box on the mantle once he had finished getting the pheasants ready to roast. He stared at it for a long time before he crossed the room and grabbed it, popping it open. It was a silver locket etched with flowers of gold and sapphires—lighter blue ones that complimented Clara’s eyes perfectly. He’d had the back engraved For Clara with love, N but hadn’t yet put a picture inside of it, deciding that should be left up to her. Of course, now it was all irrelevant. He almost berated himself for giving her even a small hope earlier that day, because he knew he was going to have to break their relationship off totally. He had planned on being engaged by now, but of course now that could never happen.
Still…despite what Ben had angrily advised, Nick found himself unable to think about getting rid of the necklace. He could sell it back to the jeweler, but it had been made specifically for Clara. Perhaps…perhaps he would think on it.
Instead of putting it back into the box though, he made a decision and clasped it around his neck, tucking it safely under his shirt. He didn’t know why, but it just seemed right somehow.
The pheasants were perfectly roasted by the time Ben made his way back to the cabin that evening. Nick knew he hadn’t been hunting, as he hadn’t even brought a rabbit back, but he didn’t ask where he had been either. Probably out looking for more answers that couldn’t be found.
Nick served the pheasant meat and they sat down to another silent meal, so different from the old days that had been full of laughter and pointless conversation. Nick had no delusions that it would ever be like that again.
Halfway through the meal, he did finally start a conversation. “I told Clara one of us would be back next week to pick up our share of the money. She said the furs will fetch a good price.”
Ben didn’t say anything for a long time, taking a long drink from his mug of ale, which he then put deliberately back onto the table. “Did you talk to her?”
This almost rankled Nick a bit. He let his knife clank against the plate. “What do you want me to do, Ben?”
Ben’s silverware struck more violently. “I want you to do something! Don’t just leave her hoping if you have no intentions of asking for her hand, Nick. You may not be able to fathom this concept anymore, but that’s just cruel.”
Nick schooled his features, gnawing on the inside of his lip for a second. “I know. And I’m working on it.”
“Of course,” Ben replied bitingly as he turned to stare straight at his brother for the first time in days. “Clara is my friend too, and I’m not going to see her hurt because of your stupid mistakes. You already ruined enough, I’m not going to sit back and watch you ruin her life too, she deserves better than that, so tell her straight or I will.”
“Whatever I do, she’ll find out soon enough anyway,” Nick said blandly. “Eventually, I will have to go to the Forest Lady and pay my due, and when that happens neither of you can do anything—I forbid you to do anything.”
“So you’ll leave me to clean up your mess?” Ben snapped.
“It’s not like that,” Nick tried to protest.
“It’s exactly like that,” Ben stated, shoving his chair back. “You’re selfish, and you always have been. Sure, you do care, but sometimes I think you care so much it just makes you even more selfish because you can’t stand the thought of living without the people you care about. If you really cared, Nick, you would have learned to live without me instead of bringing me back just to lose you.” He turned toward his room just as his voice broke and slammed the door, leaving Nick alone at the table.
Something pulled deep in his chest like the phantom pain of a lost limb and he stared at the rest of his supper with distaste, no longer hungry. He reached into his shirt and touched the locket, warmed by his skin, and wondered for the first time if he had indeed made the wrong choice.
The next morning, he left early, before Ben was up, to check the snares. There were a couple rabbits and he thought later he might go out to hunt some of the elk that lived deeper in the woods, which provided good meat and much sought after pelts and antlers.
He didn’t get far though before he felt eyes on him, and a dark presence that was more prominent than usual. A chill breeze stirred up and he knew she was behind him even before he turned and saw her, in all her dark beauty. The Forest Lady.
“Hunter,” she said in a voice made of dark things. “I thought I would have seen you sooner.”
Something twisted in his gut and he fought the feeling that was trying to compel him toward her. “You said I would find my own way to you.”
“I did.” She cocked her head to one side, eyes narrowing at him as if studying something interesting that she didn’t quite understand. “But most of my marked ones come to me within a se’night—sometimes less—already driven mad by their need. No one has lasted as long as you have.” She took a step closer to him, threatening. “Is someone protecting you?”
“No,” he replied firmly. “My brother keeps looking for a way to annul the deal, but he can’t find anything.”
She studied him some more. “I find I’m not inclined to believe you, Hunter. Something is even now tethering you here. You should be on your knees in my presence, utterly devoted, yet you are not.” He could tell this not only angered her but confused her as well and he wasn’t sure entirely why. But if that was the case, then why had he been able to resist her call? Had Ben done something after all?
“What more do I have to do?” the Lady asked, coming closer to him until they were toe to toe, her hand reaching up and touching the spot where his chest was empty. “Will I have to take more than your heart?” Her fingers brushed against the locket and she suddenly jerked back with a snarl, the tips of her fingers red and blistered. Nick stepped back with surprise.
“Ah, I see,” the Lady hissed and then chuckled darkly, her face contorting into a mad snarl. “Do think on your position, Hunter. It will not be long now before you are kneeling at my feet with adoration only for your Lady.”
He stood staring at her as she swept into the trees and seemed to dissipate among the shadows that always followed her. Nick wasn’t sure what she had meant, but deep inside of him he knew that something terrible was going to happen before this was all over.
If only he had been able to foresee it in time.
Several days later Nicholas returned from hunting around midday to find the door to the cabin ajar. Nick frowned and took his knife from his belt as he slowly pushed the door open, entering the cabin. Ben was not back yet, he knew that much, since he rarely showed up before supper these days and his cloak wasn’t hanging by the door, so who must the intruder be?
He spun around to look at the chair beside the fireplace and saw Clara sitting timidly there, a covered basket resting at her feet. His breath caught in his throat as he saw her, something akin to what fear used to feel like surging through him.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded, louder than he had meant to, but she couldn’t be here. Especially not now, not after the Lady had threatened harm to everyone he cared about. Clara had practically walked into her kingdom.
Hurt washed through Clara’s eyes for a second before she stood and pulled the basket up into her hands. “I had the afternoon free and I thought I would bring you a picnic lunch.” She smiled softly, almost encouragingly as she held the basket out. “Would you like me to set this up?”
“No,” Nick said firmly, causing her face to fall in an instant. “I want you to go back to town, now.”
She opened her mouth. “Nick, I don’t understand.”
“Clara,” he tried, then stopped, unable to find the words. He steeled his resolve and gripped her shoulders so tight that she winced and shook her slightly. “Please, just do as I ask. You can’t be here anymore.”
She jerked away from him, anger clouding her features now. “Why not? What is going on with you, Nick? You’re not yourself.”
“No, I’m not,” he said bitterly. “And that is why you must go. The woods are no longer safe for you. Now get out of here, Clara.”
She shook her head slowly, wetness shining in her eyes. “I know something is terribly wrong, Nick. Please just tell me what it is.”
“I thought you cared…about me,” she said quietly.
That ghost of a twinge pulled at his chest again. “I do. I did,” he amended, the words, all lies, tasting like poison on his tongue. “But I can’t anymore. I’m sorry, Clara.”
She stared at him for a long moment, then turned and strode out of the cabin. “I’m sorry I bothered you,” she said harshly as she yanked the door open and headed outside.
“Clara, wait,” Nick called after her, meaning to follow when she slammed the door in his face.
By the time he had opened it she was already striding off into the woods without a backward glance.
And even though he didn’t have a heart, that didn’t stop him from being a coward.
The next morning, Nick woke before the dawn and was planning on leaving before he had to see Ben for breakfast. He found he couldn’t really face him. He had spent all night thinking of what he had said, and then the scene with Clara the day before and everything was eating at him from the inside. It was almost unfair. He couldn’t feel anything he wanted to, but all these anxieties were easy enough to muster up.
He grabbed his cloak and headed out into the silvery mist of pre-dawn.
He didn’t get farther than the door however, because he tripped over something left on the doorstep.
He looked down and saw it was the picnic basket that Clara had brought the day before. He stared at it for a long moment, thinking that perhaps she had come back to leave it here as some sort of peace offering—even though she wasn’t the one at fault—but if that was the case Ben would have seen it when he came back the night before…
Something pulled deep at Nick’s insides, telling him something was very wrong as he bent to retrieve the basket, unfolding the cloth from the top with shaking fingers to reveal the basket to be empty.
Well, almost empty.
The only items inside were a lock of golden blond hair he knew to be Clara’s and a note that said She’s mine now, Hunter.
“No,” Nick whispered, dropping the basket and falling to his knees, clutching the empty spot in his chest that was aching now. “No!”
“Nick,” Ben was suddenly there, weariness in his voice. “What is it?”
“She has her,” Nick whispered. “The Lady has Clara.”
“What?!” Ben demanded, grabbing the basket from his brother and looking at the contents. Nick was already pulling himself to his feet though, staring off into the forest. It was threatening rain, keeping the rising sun from showing its face; the low rumble of thunder sounding in the distance.
“Nick, what are we going to do?” Ben was asking and suddenly there was none of the anger in his face, he was just a scared child again, Nick’s younger brother, looking to him for the answers and Nick finally knew what he was going to do. There was only one thing that could be done.
Nick stared at his brother, his eyes darkening like the lowering clouds. “I’m going to kill her.”
Ben ran behind Nicholas all the way to the Woodwife’s dwelling.
“Nick, we haven’t found anything on how to kill her, we don’t even know if it’s possible,” he tried, sounding breathless and hopeless at the same time.
“It doesn’t matter,” Nick told him firmly. “I’ll make it work. This will end today.”
Ben suddenly grabbed him and spun him around as they reached the break in the trees where the Woodwife’s house sat. “Nick, this is suicide.”
“Ben, either way she’ll have me, I may as well try to take her out with me and free Clara.”
Ben’s face was stricken but he mustered some resolve and nodded firmly. “Fine.”
Nick turned again to knock on the door, but the Woodwife opened it before he could, ushering the two boys inside as the rain started to fall.
“Come, I can tell you are in need of assistance, my boy,” the old woman said.
Nick and Ben strode inside the warm dwelling.
“It’s the Lady, Woodwife,” Ben said quietly. “She’s taken Clara.”
The woman’s eyes fell on Nick and he swallowed hard; the ache in his chest hadn’t stopped, and he wondered if that was a good thing, if that meant he was beginning to feel again after all. “It’s my fault. I wouldn’t go to her, she was angry. I should have known…”
The Woodwife put a kindly hand on his shoulder. “It will do her no good now to say what should have been, Nicholas. We need to think of how to get her back.”
“I know how to get her back,” Nick said decisively. “And both of you do as well. I simply give myself up for her.” He raised a hand to stop Ben’s protest. “But…I will not stand to let the Lady win. This time, I will be ready, and I will take her out.” Something was hardening inside of him now. A resolve that felt real in ways he hadn’t felt anything in a long time.
“We don’t even know if that’s possible,” Ben said and turned to the Woodwife. “Is it?”
She was silent for a long moment, just staring at Nick. “It may be. But only by Nicholas’ hands.”
Nick was surprised. “Why me?”
“You are bound to her, and because of that, she is also bound to you,” the Woodwife told him. “That is how these things work. It makes her more vulnerable around you until she has you in her full thrall. That is why she feels threatened; the ones she collects very rarely last with their own will for as long as you have.”
“But why me?” Nick inquired, swallowing hard in discomfort.
The Woodwife placed a hand over his empty chest. “Because, despite what she took from you, even that couldn’t completely steal away the love that you have always had in your soul. The fact that even now you would give yourself up to her for the safety of those you care about most means that she has already lost.” She traced a finger over the silver locket with a small smile, turning to Ben who had frustrated tears in his eyes.
“But that still doesn’t help with how to kill her,” the younger man said. “Even if she is more vulnerable around Nick she is still an ancient entity, bound to these very woods—you’ve said as much before, Woodwife. What can defeat her?”
Nick’s hand suddenly went to the locket, and his eyes widened as he remembered his last meeting with the Lady, almost forgotten with this new development. “Silver. Silver burns her,” he said urgently.
The Woodwife looked up at him. “Ah, that does make sense. If she is one of the Dark Ones as I have suspected, then silver may possibly be the key.” She hurried to a chest resting on one side of the room and opened it up, rummaging around for a few seconds before pulling out a wicked looking dagger, slightly tarnished, but still obviously sharp. She handed it to Nick who felt the beautiful balance and heft, far superior to his hunting blade. This had been made for battle.
“This should do some damage, but I would advise you not to miss, Nicholas,” she told him. She then pulled a pouch from a shelf and pressed it into his other hand. “This is a mixture of herbs that will reveal the way to her realm. You will have to meet her on her own ground. Be careful not to lose your way.”
Nick nodded, that dark resolve that was seeping through him hardening further. “I will.”
He turned to the door but Ben caught his wrist.
“Wait,” he said. “I’m coming with you.”
“No,” Nick said firmly.
“Yes, I am,” Ben insisted, yanking out of his grip.
“Ben, listen,” Nick turned to him, gripping his shoulders. “I have to do this alone. If you are there you can be used as leverage. She already has Clara, I can’t let her get to you too.”
“We’re stronger together,” Ben told him, obviously fighting the tears that threatened in his eyes. “You know that. I’m just sorry I wasn’t there for you through all of this. I was just angry.”
“It’s okay, Ben,” Nick said, a small smile touching his lips, natural, this time, in no way forced. “I just need you to stay here this once. But I promise I will be back and I’ll bring Clara too, okay?”
Ben glared and then clapped a hand roughly against Nick’s shoulder. “Okay.”
Nick then pulled him into a firm embrace, and finally turned to the door. “I will be back.”
He stepped outside just as the rain broke. Lightning flashed, making the shadows writhe in the trees—or more likely those were the harbingers of the Forest Lady.
Nick gripped the silver knife tightly in his hand and stepped down the path he needed to go. For once he liked the emptiness inside of him, because it gave him more clarity of thought, more room for the determination and less for any fear he might have felt normally.
Because he would win this fight. Of that he had no doubt.
Nicholas made his way to the huge, ancient tree in the center of the forest. This was where it had all started, and this was where it would all end if he had anything to do with it. He pulled out the pouch of herbs and opened it, throwing them against the trunk of the tree.
Only a second passed before a shimmer occurred in front of him and a doorway opened in the trunk. Nick passed through without another thought, his eyes were steely with resolve and he was not going to back down.
The way closed behind him, and he found himself in another world.
It looked like the forest on the Other Side, but it was a dark, twisted version. Shadows danced and slithered among the trees, and there was rustling among the underbrush. An eerie silence was otherwise deafening, but Nick didn’t care. He strode forward without fear, silver knife clutched in his hand and his emptiness filled with a new determination. His mission.
“I’m here,” he said coldly into the shadows. “Come get me.”
He heard a far off barking and snarling, demonic in nature, and saw red and white flickering shapes passing between the trees. He had heard tales of the Hunting Hounds of the Dark Folk and knew these were the Lady’s messengers. They would try to drag him to her, but he wouldn’t have need of that. He would go willingly enough.
He picked up his pace, moving deeper and deeper into the gnarled trees as the surrounding forest only grew darker and darker. By the time he was jogging forward, he could barely see three feet in front of him, but he kept on.
Birds cawed wickedly above, as the hounds herded him from behind. Barbed vines caught at his clothing, tearing his skin to bleeding, but he barely paid it any heed. He only ran faster.
The trees grew so close he had to squeeze his way between them, only resulting in tearing more of his clothes and skin on the thorny bark. Glowing red eyes flitted through the darkness around him, but he continued.
He came to a crossroads, pausing only briefly as he tried to decide which way to go. He closed his eyes, almost feeling the hot breath of the Hunting Hounds at his back, and then he felt her. The Lady. She was near.
He now knew where to go. He didn’t even need to see in the darkness, he simply ran, following instincts he didn’t know he had. He only knew he wasn’t going to give up now. Not while he was so close.
Nick finally came to a halt in a clearing. It was lit with flickering, unearthly, blue light, and in the light that danced in shadows over the clear area he took in the sight around him.
Figures, what had once been humans surrounded the clearing, among the trees. Caught in cages, some formed into the trees themselves, tormented, hollow, hopeless. Some primal fear tugged deep inside Nicholas as he knew this is what awaited him if he didn’t stop the Lady today. This is what awaited Clara, what he had saved Ben from. That only worked to strengthen his resolve.
But that horrific sight was only the beginning. In the center of the clearing stood a throne formed from the trunk of another great tree, and in it sat the Lady herself, dark and beautiful as always, even more so in her own realm. At her feet, Clara knelt, chained and gagged, her eyes wide and staring at Nick in horror. Anger flowed into Nick, almost a relief after all the nothingness. His eyes strayed further up the back of the throne, seeing it was riddled with holes that held countless jars, all of them containing human hearts. Most were black, all but one that beat so strongly he could almost feel it. Nick knew that was his.
“Ah, my green-eyed Hunter, you came at last,” the Lady said, standing up elegantly and striding toward him. There was anger in her eyes though, and poison on her tongue.
“I did,” Nick told her. “But not for you.”
She sneered, red lips peeling back in an unattractive snarl. “I see that. If I had known that you would be taken by a mortal woman, I would have taken your eyes too and put in ones of stone.”
Nick, fearless, looked over her shoulder at Clara before he turned back to the Lady. “Perhaps next time, my lady.”
More danger flashed through her. “You insolent wretch! I care not if you come willingly! I will bind you to my realm and you shall sit by my side for all eternity! I shall throw your lover to the dogs and let you watch as they tear her apart! And when I am done with that, I will find your brother and you shall eat his heart yourself.”
Nick just smiled. A cold, determined smile that was nearly a match for the Lady herself. “No, my lady. You see, you can never have me, because I never was yours. My heart did not belong to you, so I am taking it back. But first, I need the emptiness to do what I must.” And he lunged forward, grabbing her around the waist before driving the blade up under her ribs.
The Lady gasped in shock, the silver burning through her body as Nick yanked it out and shoved her away. He ran for Clara and slashed her bonds with the knife, the silver making short work of the otherworldly rope that had held her. She gasped and drew her gag from her mouth.
“Nick,” she cried, tears streaming down her face.
“Everything will be fine now,” he told her, grabbing the jar with his heart from the throne as he heard a groan behind them and turned to see the Lady hauling herself to her feet. He handed the jar to Clara and grabbed her hand. “Come on, we have to go.”
“Get them! Stop them!” The Lady screamed. “They will never leave! Do you hear me, Nicholas! You will never leave this land!”
He wasn’t listening. He was just running, pulling Clara behind him with an urgency born of terror. The hounds howled and bayed after them like it was a fox hunt, but not once did Nick look back, only urging Clara along faster as they stumbled and tore through the forest, bumbling in the dark and feeling the thorns tear at them again. It felt as if the trees themselves were trying to reach out and stop them, but still they ran.
“There!” Finally Nicholas saw the opening between the worlds, and he urged Clara faster, feeling the hounds snap at their ankles, and the Forest Lady’s voice echoing through the trees, not far behind.
But they were already at the tree, Nick shoved Clara through first, then finally glanced behind. The Lady stood there, panting, wounded and bleeding, and ugly now in her fury. Nicholas glared at her coldly.
“You will never hurt my family or anyone else again,” he told her firmly and then slammed the silver dagger into the tree trunk right at the head of the fissure that held the two worlds apart.
He knew he had done the right thing when he heard a terribly enraged scream from the Lady. He hoped this would keep her locked in her own world for good, if she didn’t perish from his wound.
But the fissure was closing and Clara was screaming for him, and Nick only had a second to launch himself through.
The Lady’s final curse was the last thing he heard before he hit the ground and everything went dark.
Nicholas woke slowly, comfortably warm and feeling…complete somehow. He moaned softly and blinked his eyes open, staring at vaguely unfamiliar surroundings. He soon placed himself at the Woodwife’s cottage, however, as he saw the curios on the shelves and smelled the familiar herbal scent of her medicines. He was lying on a small cot, piled high with blankets, and swaddled in bandages for wounds he hadn’t realized he had gotten. He vaguely remembered his desperate flight from the Lady’s realm with Clara by his side. He reached up to his throat to see if the locket was still there and relaxed as he found it was.
But there was something else too. As his hand rested for a moment on his chest he felt a vital thumping under his skin, something he hadn’t felt in a long time.
Nick surged upright, slightly dizzy at the movement, his hand clutching his chest with a sharp inhalation. It had worked. He was whole again.
The door to the cottage opened and a familiar, lanky, shaggy-headed figure strode in with a pile of firewood.
“Benny,” Nick said softly.
Ben dropped the firewood with a clatter as he saw him and barreled over to him like a puppy. “Nick!” Nicholas suddenly had his arms full of his little brother, but didn’t mind at all. He squeezed back so hard he was probably making it hard for Ben to breathe, but the younger man didn’t seem to care, he only clutched his hands firmly into Nick’s shirt.
“We thought we’d lost you for a while,” he said, his voice muffled against Nick’s shoulder.
“Told you I would come back,” Nick told him, a hand tangling in Ben’s long hair as actual tears slipped down his cheeks. Normally he would be ashamed of that, but now he was just glad he was able to feel again.
The door opened a second time to admit the Woodwife and Clara. She too looked a little rough, but her smile was bright and relieved as she saw Nick awake.
“Nick! Thank heavens!” she cried with a sob and ran over to the cot. Ben reluctantly allowed her access to his brother and Nick pulled her against him tightly, burying his face in her hair and holding her as if he would never let go.
“You saved me,” she whispered. “I’m so sorry, Nick, I knew something was wrong, I just—”
He stopped her by pressing his lips to hers and she returned the kiss after her shock had worn off. It was a long time before he pulled away, and only then because Ben had cleared his throat pointedly.
“It’s me who needs to apologize,” Nick told her sincerely. “I should have told you what happened. I’ll never forgive myself for putting you in danger like that.”
“Oh, Nick,” Clara sighed, taking his face between her hands.
“And I should have given this to you a long time ago,” Nick added, pulling the necklace from under his collar and unclasping it to put around her delicate throat. She gasped as it settled on her breast.
“Oh, Nick, it’s lovely!”
“I love you,” he told her firmly. “And I’m glad I can now match my actions to my words.”
She smiled and kissed him again. Ben grinned despite himself.
“Well, I guess that’s the end of it then. When’s the wedding?”
And so the Hunter married his lady and they lived a good long life with their children and grandchildren. The brothers still hunted the forest, but now that it was no longer controlled by the Lady, there was no danger of her wrath, so they made a good living, and prospered much.
As for the Lady herself, no one truly knew what happened. It was only sure that because of one man and the love he found, even when he thought he had lost it all, she had been thwarted by a power even she couldn’t fight against and that seemed to be the conclusion of the thing.
Copyrigh©t 2016 by Hazel B. West