Jules ran as fast as she could, arms pumping, legs reaching. Her whole being taunt and focused. She dodged branches, leapt fallen logs, and slipped around brambles. Her dress snagged, but Jules kept running. Her skirt ripped here and there. She accepted the ruin of her favorite dress. It was nothing compare to rescuing the kidnapped unicorn.
Fire and Earth darted haphazardly along behind her, exclaiming encouragement. Here and there, they passed a strand or two of the young unicorns rainbow hair caught in a bush or snagged on a branch. At the edge of a creek they saw tiny unicorn hoof prints in the mud. Behind them the forest awoke. Noises permeated the woods, and the butterflies, like flying flowers, filled the air with color. Ahead, the forest waited with held breath, and nothing, nothing moved. Even the wind didn’t play in the trees. Only Jules, Fire, and Earth raced through the stillness.
Soon, they skidded to a stop at the edge of a ravine.
Jules spied Toog and the woman on the other side.
“Stop!” Jules held up her hand, as if to stop them by will alone.
“Hey Mag,” Toog said. “It’s that little girl. How’d she get free?”
“Better question, where’s Knave?” Mag said.
“He’s dead,” Jules stated.
“And you will be too, dearies,” Fire yelled, “if you don’t let the unicorn go.”
“You tell ‘em, Fire.” Earth shook his fist at the villains.
Faster than Jules could follow, the woman palmed and shot her revolver.
Earth dashed forward. The side of the ravine rose in front of the bullet, which plowed through the dirt and stopped. Jules stepped back, blinking. As quick as the sound of the gun, the ground had moved. Fire touched the small piece of twisted metal and melted it.
“Thank you.” Earth returned the ravine to its normal position.
“Of course, love. I hate metal objects flying around.” Fire snapped his fingers.
Mag gasped. Her whole gun-belt burst into flames and her revolver melted. She danced around trying to put out the supernatural fire. Toog rushed to help her.
“Diversion,” Earth stage whispered to Jules.
Jules moved to start down the edge of the ravine, but Earth held her back, flattened out, and made a bridge. Jules charged across it. She scooped up a handful of dirt and leaves and pine needles, and tossed them in Toog’s face. The man bellowed and pawed at his eyes. He bumped into an oak. Several large acorns rained down on his head. He gave a sharp shriek. The tree cut him short with a quick swipe of a branch. Toog dropped like a pile of logs. Earth waved a hand, trickling with dirt, and the forest floor hid Toog away.
The young unicorn pranced towards Jules, chains clinking. Jules faced the revolver-free woman.
“Well, you’re a sprite-ly lass and no mistake.” Mag rubbed at her face and glanced to the place where the ground had covered Toog. “The woods seem to be on your side.”
“I’m not stealing unicorns.” Jules put her hands on her hips and Fire, flying at her shoulder, did the same.
“Right you are, Jules, right you are,” Earth said. “Isn’t she right, Fire?”
Jules hid her mouth with her hand and whispered loudly, “I don’t know what that means.”
Mag charged Jules.
The two tiny fey scattered. The young unicorn reared and neighed. Mag grabbed up Jules and scrambled back.
“Lookie ‘ere, lookie ‘ere forest. I get it. You ain’t wanting me here. Got it.” Mag turned in a circle, addressing the trees. Jules squirmed in her arms, kicking and flailing. “All I be wanting is to leave. You let me go, and I’ll not harm the girl.”
The trees stood silently. The wind didn’t blow their leaves. It didn’t stir up their branches.
Mag spun again.
“Are ya listening to me?”
“I don’t think the forest makes deals, love,” Fire said.
“He’s right.” Earth nodded. “And when he’s right, he’s right.”
Mag paused. She faced the tiny man with the fiery mane and the tiny man dribbling dirt. Jules chomped down on Mag’s arm, but only got a mouthful of dirty cotton. Mag grabbed Jules’ hair and wrenched her head to the side. “The forest needs to make a deal, or I’ll kill her!”
A tiny pebble, polished smooth by a creek, sailed out of the trees and clonked Mag in the head. Her hand jerked to her forehead. She swore, and her grip loosened. Jules ripped from Mag’s grasp. Mag leapt after Jules. The unicorn lowered her head and galloped forward. Mag jerked away from the sharp horn driving towards her face.
Jules hurried back over to the two fey. The unicorn trotted around to Jules’ side, chains still clinking. It hid behind Jules, pressing against her leg, but peeking out around them. Mag, her back to a tree, glared at the four of them.
“I grew up in here, did ya know?” Mag said. “The unicorns and fey never came to me.”
“You’re roots were always shallow,” the tree behind Jules spoke. “You never rested by the water. If the unicorns had come to you, you would have taken them just like you do now. You’d have used the fey’s magic for yourself.”
“My daddy cuts down trees. Is he shallow?” Jules asked, worried.
Mag laughed bitterly.
“Cutting down trees isn’t taking,” the tree explained. “It helps the forest and the forest is here to serve, as is the fey and the unicorns. It’s taking with no thought and only for selfish gain, that is the taking the forest won’t stand. Some things are best enjoyed by watching, not having. Some things serve best when they aren’t chained.”
“Unicorns, for example,” Fire said.
“And us. No chains for us.” Earth added, shaking his head and spraying dirt around.
Meg shuffled her feet. “What will you do with me?”
“That is up to you,” the tree said.
A faint breeze returned to the woods. A jay called his warning call and squirrels scampered through the branches. A large black and yellow butterfly stopped on the tip of the unicorn’s horn. The stillness caused by the unicorn’s capture faded away.
“How’s it up to me?”
“The forest has had enough bloodshed today, but your crimes demand your blood. The forest will take it unless one of these four is willing to vouch for you. If they do, you have to change. If you don’t, the forest will do what it must.”
Fire wrinkled his nose. “Vouch for her?”
“She kidnapped a unicorn, and shot at the girl.” Earth expanded. “She had already killed Jules in her heart.”
Jules studied Mag, filled with conflicting emotion and wondering what the right thing to do was. The woman had earned her death, but watching the forest end her seemed distasteful now that everything had paused.
“Could you change?” Jules asked. “Would you?”
Mag held out her hands and looked at them. She gave a wry laugh. “My only hope in the world is for one of y’all to stand for me? I’m as good as dead. But, like he said, it ain’t like I didn’t earn it.” She dropped her hands to her sides.
The young unicorn cocked its head, studying Mag. Sunlight glistened on her white horn. It glimmered in her rainbow hair and shone on her golden hooves. She moved out from behind Jules’ leg and stepped to the space between them all. The innocent and pure filly, still wearing her chains, examined Mag. Mag dropped to her knees and held out her empty hands.
“I ain’t ever gonna earn your mercy,” she hesitated. “But I’ll take it just the same.”
The unicorn thrust back her head and scratched her own shoulder with her horn. Jules’ gasped and covered her mouth. Silvery blood trickled from the wound. Mag looked from the small drop collected in the unicorn’s fur to Jules and then up at the tree.
“What do I do?”
“Catch the drop,” the tree said. “Blood must be willingly shed to cover the blood you took.”
Mag held out her hands and the drop fell. It collected in Mag’s palm, shimmered, and soaked into her skin. Mag blinked. Tears glimmered in her eyes. She brushed them away with the heels of her hands, and undid the unicorn’s chains.
A cloud rushed in to cover the sun. The unicorn stumbled.
Jules cried out and hurried to the filly’s side. She threw her arms around the unicorn’s long neck. Mag held out a hand to steady the young creature.
Thunder crashed. Lightning ripped the sky. A sharp wind whipped up the leaves. The fey darted to the shelter of the oak. The unicorn shrieked. She rose on her hind legs and pawed the air, knocking back Jules and Mag. A fork of lightning darted out. Mag grabbed Jules and covered her with her own body. The lightning streaked down at them. The unicorn bowed her head and raised her horn. The bolt cleaved the horn in two and shattered it.
The storm passed, as quickly as it had come.
Jules raised her head. Fear gripped her. Was the unicorn dead? Oh please, don’t be dead. Not after finally trusting her, not after getting kidnapped and rescued, not after vouching for Mag. Please don’t be dead.
Mag pulled her up. Jules saw her own fears in Mag’s dark eyes. They turned to the filly. In the spot where the young unicorn had been stood an adult. Her coat was whiter than the snow. Her mane and tail and hooves had all lost their color. Her ears had grown to the side, and instead of a long horse’s face, her face was now shaped like a heart. From her head grew two short antlers with sharp, spiked points.
“She’s a white doe?” Mag whispered.
“What?” Jules asked. “What happened to her?”
“A white doe.” Mag reached out to the new creature and touched her nose. “A white doe be the mother of a white Stag, the most powerful animal in the forest.”
“And it’s protector,” the doe said, her voice soft and gentle. “In your acceptance of my covering and in my willingness to cover you, my horn was split. I will now become the mother of the forest paladin.”
Jules stepped closer, looking for the creature she had befriended. The doe met her gaze and smiling, bent down and nuzzled Jules’ pocket where one last apple lay tucked away. Jules laughed and hugged the new creature.
“Did any of ya know this would ‘appen?” Mag asked, looking from doe, to tree, to the fey tucked in the branches.
“Oh,” Fire waved his hand, “if we tried to hold onto every tiny piece of prophecy and legend, we go mad.”
“Mad,” Earth agreed.
“We leave that to the theologians, love.”
“I didn’t know.” The doe turned her head from side to side, feeling the weight of her new antlers. “But I trusted the King that good would come of my sacrifice.”
“Is this good?” Meg spread her arms, taking in her whole change. “You’re not even close to what ya were. Not close.”
“Neither are you,” the doe said.
Meg paused, then shrugged. “I’m guessing you’re right.” She rolled her shoulders as if feeling a new weight settle on them. “Come on Jules, let’s get ya home before supper. I don’t want your Dad coming after me with that ax of his iffen I can avoid it.”
Jules made her way slowly to each of her new friends. Fire and Earth she gifted with a kiss. The tree with a hug. It warmed under her touch and a faint voice whispered, “Root and water.” Last, Jules approached the new doe. Tears burned Jules’ eyes as she pressed her face into the new creature’s stiff fur. The doe wrapped her head around the brave girl, holding her close.
“You’re marked as a friend of the forest. If you’re ever in need, call us.”
“Will I see any of you again?”
The doe looked up. “Oak? Probably not. But, Fire and Earth have needed a new friend for a long time. They will visit you.”
“Huzzah!” Earth yelled, fist in the air.
“I will come with my son when the first snow falls.”
Jules gave the doe one last hug and turned to Mag. Hand in hand, Mag led her down the path they had so recently come up. Fire and Earth joined them for most of the way home. Jules caught Mag glancing back at the doe until the shining white creature disappeared from view. As they walked home, Jules pointed out the beauty of the forest. Mag exclaimed over things she’d never seen before, never taken the time to notice. Soon they reached a clearing. Jules’ sister came bounding out of the house to meet the tall woman with Jules. Jules introduced Mag to her family, but Earth and Fire had already faded back into the trees. They would wait in the forest until they next time Jules came to play.
Jules watched out her window. Fluffy, silent flakes fluttered down from the sky. The first snow fall. The whiteness hid the grass and edged the branches. It softened the forest and covered everything in a delicate blanket. There! Jules leaned forward, her nose pressed to the glass.
Just inside the trees, a white doe walked. She stepped into the cottage clearing and looked back at the trees. Jules squealed as a young fawn, white as the snow, stepped up beside her. It lifted its head to the sky and caught a flake on its tongue.
Mag, changed by the unicorn’s sacrifice, became a friend of the woods. She bought a new gun, and used her skill to find those lost inside it, to keep out those who would use it without thought, and to guide those who needed its help. The houses built from the trees Mag picked out stood longer and retained their warmth better than any other homes, as if the trees were happy to be used.
Jules grew up and married a man who loved the forest as much as she did. They lived in second cottage near her parents built with the help of Mag, Fire, and Earth. Every winter, when the first snowfall came, Jules would slip from their home and watch for the White Stag. Every year he came. He grew as big as a building, with a mighty antler spread. Jules brought him apples and stroked his white nose. Not many people get to see a White Stag, but each year, this Stag came to Jules.