Disclaimer: JUST TRY SUING ME FOR WRITING STORIES USING PUBLIC DOMAIN CHARACTERS! MUAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA!
Author's Notes: Saw the movie and I liked the idea of the movie, but there was much potential that was squandered. This will be a darker telling of the story, and that darkness will be provided by the characters themselves. Will more or less follow major plot points of the movie, with a possible sequel...possibly.
Good love is hard to find
Good love is hard to find
You got lucky, babe
You got lucky, babe
When I found you
- You got Lucky, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
The sun rose and the day looked promising. With money burning holes in his pockets, he made his way to the bar of the tavern he had been staying at while in the village. With any luck, he'd be blindingly, obnoxiously drunk before the noon bells rang.
He must have had some measure of success because when he came to, he didn't remember hearing any church bells, and it was almost dark when he found himself in a large trough surrounded by soldiers. He wasn't an angry drunk, but he wasn't the kindest, either, and finding himself in a vat of water was almost as unwelcome as the realization that he was in the middle of the Black Queen's courtyard inside the castle walls. Still, if he had been a prisoner, he doubted they would have taken the time to sober him up before throwing him in irons and leaving him to rot in one of the castle's few empty cells.
He was "granted" an audience with the queen. It had been a strange affair from beginning to end. The queen wanted him to find a fugitive who was probably already dead at this point. She said she needed this escaped prisoner alive. When asked about remuneration, however, things took a decidedly strange turn. She suggested that she could somehow bring his wife back...from the dead. The thought of this both overjoyed and disgusted him for reasons he chose not to dwell on, but the small light of hope that this was actually a possibility fizzled when they threatened him with instant death should he refuse the proposition. His options were to either have all his dreams come true by being reunited with his wife in this life...or suffer a sudden, stab-filled death at the hands of the queen's guard. Sure, he was still stinking drunk, but he wasn't an idiot. And though he wouldn't deny that he was foolhardy at times, he wasn't particularly a gambling man.
He offered to do it for gold, instead. At least he could count on that kind of repayment.
He insisted that they load up the horses with three times the supplies they thought they'd need...and plenty of wine on top of that. This was The Dark Forest they were talking about, after all, and the place was known for laying excellent plans to waste. There was a reason why he commanded an astonishing price for his trade: he could bring back the biggest, most ferocious game from the forest because anyone else who tried ended up killed...or worse. The black spores of the forest floor were not forgiving, and people who made a habit of inhaling them without thought generally did not fare extremely well, whether inside the forest or out.
He had a secret advantage over all of them, though. The forest preyed on the weaknesses of those who entered, and only one who knew his true heart was black as the forest floor ever stood a chance of dealing with the troubling visions one saw while inside that terrible place.
They left early that morning and reached the swamps that surrounded the forest before noon. The ground began to give underneath the weight of the horse and he knew it was neither in his best interest nor the beast's to continue on horseback. He dismounted and took a rucksack full of supplies with him. He tried to tell the men who were with him to stay back and let him bring the prisoner to them. The queen's right-hand-man had even ventured with him to this place, though it might have been more about making sure he did not disappear than seeing the mission through. They waited for a few moments, but he could hear the horses moving through the forest after only a short period of time.
He cast his gaze around the scene in front of him and was surprised to find several branches broken in a way that suggested someone had recently pushed through the limbs. The fugitive obviously hadn't made it far into the forest, and it was probably lucky for her as well. The chances for survival diminished greatly the further in one traveled. The tracks accompanying this evidence were fresh as well. And the footprints he found were definitely human in nature, but they were alarmingly small...almost too small to be from a full-fledged adult. If he hadn't had misgivings about this before, he was certainly starting to develop them now.
He moved fast now, far more quickly than the men on horseback. He had a trail to follow and he was growing more and more curious as to who he would find at the end of it. Finally, after a little ways, he lost the trail at the base of a huge tree. He dropped the rucksack and circled the trunk, looking up at the branches to see if the fugitive had climbed up and taken refuge in higher limbs, but as he strained his eyes to see, his ears caught a sound. It was the sound of frightened, shallow breathing: the sound of cornered prey.
The fugitive was under the tree.
He dove down and found that there was a large chamber underneath the trunk where the roots had been washed out. He quickly grabbed the ankle of the small girl he found there. She screamed, alerting the men on horseback of their position. He would have rather avoided that, but it wasn't an option now. He pulled her roughly out from under the tree and forced her against the trunk to get a better look at her.
She was scared and covered with grime and her long dark hair was clumped with dirt and stuck to her cheeks, but her green eyes blazed with terror as she looked at him. Without thinking, he moved to brush her hair away from her face. Her stature matched his assumptions from the size of the footprints, but he couldn't tell if she was a girl or a very small young woman. There was something in her wild eyes that told him even if she was a child, she had already seen too much. She jumped and evaded his hand like a skittish stray kitten, never once dropping her gaze. She backed up further against the tree and found herself more or less trapped between two ridges in the great trunk. With nowhere to go, she closed her eyes and he grazed her temple as his fingers moved her hair away from her face.
She had the mean, hard look of someone who had survived for years hovering near starvation, and he realized that her size could have been a result of a lack of proper diet. So she wasn't as young as she looked, but she was still very young: possibly 14, with 17 being the oldest he would venture.
Who was this girl?
She held her arms protectively across her chest and as he continued to brush her hair back, he could see that her breath was calming a bit. She opened her down-turned eyes, however, and saw the axe at the huntsman's side. As soon as she saw the weapon, the terror returned to her eyes and her breath became ragged again. When she heard the horses growing near, her countenance took on a truly bewildering look of panic and despair.
She moved so quickly he only managed to grasp her wrist as she slipped past him. Just like a frightened kitten, she was able to move alarmingly fast when least expected. He held her firm and pinned her close with her back to his front, preventing another escape. Her body was shaking violently from fear and he suddenly wondered why he was even party to this. Everything about this seemed wrong on so many different levels, and by the time the blond man on horseback approached, he wanted some answers.
As soon as the girl saw the blond, though, she stopped struggling. If he thought she had been scared before, that was nothing compared to what she was feeling now. He felt her grasp at his hands, not trying to force them away, but instead trying to fasten them tighter around her body. He felt her back up into his embrace, just as she had with the tree. He was puzzled and looked down at her for some kind of answer, but she didn't spare him a glance. Her eyes were locked on the blond aristocrat's face, and when the huntsman looked up, he knew why she was so afraid.
The queen's right-hand-man had an expression that was a mix of fury, triumph, and most troubling, desire. It was a dark, foreboding look and promised pain to the recipient of the glare. The huntsman wasn't entirely sure when he had switched from captor to savior in this girl's eyes, but he felt like being neither at the moment. He was just hoping to get himself and the girl out of this situation more or less unscathed.
"Stay close," he whispered quietly into her ear and he felt her jump. He prised his hands away from her body. She looked wildly at him, and he tried to give her a calming look as he took hold of her wrist and pushed her behind him.
"What is the meaning of this, huntsman?" the blond sneered. "If you think I will have any qualms over killing you to get to the fugitive, you are terribly mistaken." The blond man kept his eyes trained on the girl.
"What do you want with her?" the huntsman asked, standing his ground. The girl had her free hand clutched to his vest and he doubted she would run away even if he let go of her at this point. He surveyed the area nearby, considering how he could use the environment to his advantage.
"The Queen has a need for the fugitive to be returned to her custody. It is of no concern to you."
"That's not what I asked," the huntsman retorted. "What do you want with her?"
The blond finally shifted his gaze to the huntsman and his expression was one that made the seasoned soldier's skin crawl. "That is most definitely of no concern to you. Hand her over or you shall regr-"
The huntsman took advantage of the low hanging branches and thick briars that kept the horses pinned in place as he attacked without warning. He pushed the girl back toward the tree. The blond and the other guard attempted to unsheathe their swords, but the fabric of their uniforms was caught by the branches and they were momentarily befuddled. The huntsman took a small knife and sliced through the bottom strap of the saddle on each horse, and a small bit of leverage was all it took to send the two men crumpled into a patch of the black spores.
The huntsman quickly covered his face with his shirt, returned the knife to the leather strap on his belt, and rushed over to grab the rucksack and the girl. The horses kicked and freed themselves from their burdens and galloped back toward the edge of the forest. The guards were left crawling through the black spore patch and puffs of black poison erupted with every move.
If he and the girl were lucky, the queen wouldn't even bother sending a search party for the two guards, but considering the station of the blond man and the fact that they wanted this girl so bad that they'd send him into the woods to find her, they probably weren't going to get that lucky. That meant they were probably about a day ahead of search party.
They walked for what felt like an hour before the sun started setting in earnest. The huntsman looked around for a place to set up camp. He watched the girl next to him with some level of concern as she seemed to fade after the ordeal. It suddenly occurred to him that she probably hadn't eaten anything in the last day or two and with the adrenaline wearing off from their initial encounter, he didn't know how long she would last. He found a large rock with a natural overhang that they could take cover under and led her to it. She sank to the ground and he wondered if she was even still conscious at all. He quickly pulled some hard cheese and half a loaf of bread out of the rucksack. He sliced off a thick slab of cheese and broke off a healthy portion of bread before turning to her and holding it out to her.
Her reaction surprised him. She looked at the food, then at him, and then at the food again. Her eyes were hopeful in a way that seemed to be wholly disproportionate to the meager meal he was offering her, still she hesitated like he didn't actually mean to give her the food at all. This made him feel very uneasy.
"Do you want it?" he snapped at her, pulling her back into the present.
She nodded fervently.
"Then take it already," he snapped again, foisting the food upon her.
Despite her obvious hunger, she ate the small meal slowly, savoring every last morsel he had given her. He, on the other hand, ate quickly. He was hungry, but more concerned with getting into one of the skins of wine. He pulled the stopper out with his teeth and took a long drink. He could immediately feel his nerves calming.
Now that they had eaten, the girl arranged her filthy gown around her and looked out into the darkness. There was something so peculiar about this girl. She was the last creature he ever imagined encountering in this forest.
"So what am I going to do with you, eh?" the huntsman asked suddenly, causing the girl to jump.
"I...I don't understand," she said.
The huntsman took another long drink from the skin. "Well, I don't think they'll be paying my fee now that I've gone and stolen you for myself." He watched as she became more and more apprehensive. She looked out into the darkness, but she did not run away.
"But...but...you saved me," she almost cried in disbelief. Despair and exhaustion were distorting her pretty features. "What can I pay you? I have nothing valuable to offer."
He laughed. "How could a girl as pretty as you think she did not have something valuable to trade in a situation like this?"
He chuckled to himself, but when he saw her face, he instantly regretted having said anything. "Oh, it was only a joke. You must have a father who would pay a fine ransom for you."
The girl didn't calm, though. She looked down at her hands and he thought he could see her trembling again. "I have no one...no one in this whole world."
This caught the huntsman off guard. The Black Queen was known for taking the youngest and prettiest maids in the countryside to her castle, but these girls were almost always taken from their families. "Not an uncle? Or a brother? Or a distant cousin?"
She shook her head. "No. No one."
"Hmm. Then there must be someone in the next town I can sell you to for a profit."
Without even knowing how she could move that fast, she was on her knees and she had his knife. She pointed it at him threateningly, but he couldn't take her seriously. "What are you planning to do with that, girl?" he asked in a patronizing voice.
"I can't go back." The look in her eyes scared him. "I have been held captive for so long. I'm not even sure how old I am anymore. I can't go back, and I can't be sold into some other kind of captivity." Suddenly, she pointed the knife at herself, and the look in her eyes seemed far more dangerous than it had before. She placed the knife along her own neck. "If I go back, they'll kill me. I want to live, but I refuse to be imprisoned any longer." He looked on in horror as blood began to slowly run down the length of the knife. "I have no one I can trust. I thought today I had finally been saved, but it seems that that wasn't the case after all." She sighed. "I am so tired. I am so very tired, and I long for a place where I could rest without fear of danger. But it seems obvious now that I'll only be able to rest in peace when I am dead."
She closed her eyes and took a deep breath, meaning to finish herself off, but he pulled her hand away before she could do it. "Christ, girl!" he shouted, trying to remain calm, but failing. He looked at her, then at the bloody knife, then at her again. "Christ!" he shouted once more. The fact that the girl's blood was still on his knife made him unsettled and he looked through his rucksack until he found a rag that he could clean it with. "Christ," he finally said, more calmly this time. He finally looked over at her and saw that her neck wound was still bleeding freely down into her gown and she was weeping. She looked absolutely exhausted.
He folded the rag and held it against her neck to stop the bleeding. He couldn't think of a damn thing to say to her. She sat there completely still for a few moments, then slowly she leaned her head to rest on his shoulder. "Please," she begged quietly. "Please, if just for tonight, promise you won't let anything happen to me. I can't pay you right now. I don't know if I ever will be able to." She tried to stifle a sob, but failed. "I...I really have nothing. I'm sorry." She continued to cry.
He sighed, leaned over, and grabbed the wine skin with his free hand. "Shhh," he ordered as he pushed her away from him. He uncorked the skin again and held it out to her. "Drink this. You'll calm down." She didn't move to take the wine from him. He sighed again. "I won't let anything happen to you tonight, alright? Now just drink some of this and you'll feel better, okay? It always works for me, anyway." She searched his eyes and finally took the skin. He pulled the rag away to see if the bleeding had stopped. It had slowed, but had not entirely stopped, so after she took a huge gulp, he put the rag back to the wound and continued to apply pressure.
Without a warning of any kind, she pulled his free arm away from his body and leaned into him, settling her head against his chest. Before he even figured out where to rest his hand or what to make of the situation, she was already fast asleep.