Neri hugs her cloak tighter to her. "That woman is deranged. I don't care if she is a queen. She's deranged." She huffs. "Making us stomp all the way out in the Wyldwood just for... some cherry berry tart thing." There was a time when Neri's life was incredibly normal. She would have even called it boring. Then she inherited a manor from a relative she never knew existed and discovered that distant cousins from the 1920s were alive and well. Not only were they living, but they were the queen and her brother over the Court of Madness.
"Oh, I thought you meant for trapping me here," Iki says, stuffing her hands in her pockets. It's been about a week now, but Iki still can't quite believe it. "It is odd that we have to go."
"That too. But I thought that went without saying." Neri looks around at the trees. "Are they moving? Because I swear, that's the tree that tried to hit me earlier."
Iki pauses mid-step. "I think it is..." she picks her way to the nearest tree and checks the moss at its roots. "Yep," she sighs. "We're going in circles."
Neri huffs. "I knew it. I knew that tree looked the same. And did you notice that as soon as we stepped into the woods, the trees suddenly looked normal? This is the land of the fae, all the weird everything, yet it looks like we're at home in the woods. I'm going to go with this being some elaborate trick on us." Neri glances at her friend. "I bet there aren't even berries out here."
"Maybe we should be looking for baked tarts," Iki agrees. She reaches for Neri, and they loop arms.
"You think she put baked tarts out here for us to find?" Neri thought finding out she still had cousins would be a good thing. And it was, at first, when she found out about the manor and Iki met her new boyfriend, Pascal. But then Neri's deranged cousin decided that Iki should stay in the fae court, and she still wouldn't budge on the subject. "With Alyvia... I really don't know."
"I wouldn't be surprised, honestly, but I actually thought maybe there are tart growing bushes here. Madness and all..."
"... That is a very disturbing but ... easily true thought." Neri kicks at a bush. "Not that one." She kicks another one and receives a yelp in return. She and Iki jolt backward. "That one talked."
"You made it yelp!" Iki cries, clinging to Neri. "I didn't know bushes yelp!"
"Maybe something is in the bush... Maybe we disturbed a home?" Neri carefully steps forward and gets sprayed with water. At least she hoped it was water. She sees a red-capped head bolt away. Laughter left in its wake. "Still in the Court."
"We're on a mission for your queen!" Iki yells after the retreating red-capped head.
Neri shudders. "Have I mentioned how much I hate it here?" She takes another step, and her foot catches in a root. "Ah!" Iki is the only reason she doesn't go spiraling forward.
Iki backpedals with Neri clutched to her. "That was close!" She lets out a shaky breath. "I don't want to be out here anymore."
"Help me with my boot?" They struggle to get her foot free. When they do, they hobble over to a tree where she sits against it. "It's all out of whack now." She has to slip it off before managing to get it straightened out and back on her foot. Just as she zips up the side, the roots opened, and Neri sunk in between them. Down into darkness.
"Bad tree!" Iki grabs a branch and pulls on it. "Let her go!"
"IKIIIIII!" Her voice came out as an echo as she hits bottom. Neri mutters, "I hate this place." She sits up and tilts her head to see gaps in the rooted ceiling. Iki was doing her best to free them. "So weird..." She gets to her knees, and just as she's about to stand, she catches sight of something. "I think I see something!" she calls up.
"What?" Iki calls back.
"I don't know yet," Neri calls. She crawls forward. "Please, don't eat me. Please, eat me," she begs as she nears what appeared to be a bundled-up blanket. She carefully nudges it forward, and when she feels a lump inside, she eases it closer. "Don't eat me, don't eat me." She pushes aside the blanket and sees two big eyes looking up at her. Tiny ears were on either side of its head with shapes that made her think of bat wings, its little nose was button-shaped, and aside from that and the shape of the pupils, it looked like a human baby. "It's a baby!... I think." She's about to pick up when a bush lunges out at her, making her scream. It swings branches at her that were dotted with multicolored flowers, and as she dodged its hits, she caught sight of daisies that it was walking on like feet. "I'm not hurting anything!" She swings at the bush thing and knocks it aside. "Stop that, you tree!"
"Leave!" The bush yells, whacking the intruder. "Not your baby!"
"What's happening?" Iki calls. She releases the tree to try and peer through a hole in the ground at Neri. The ground opens up beneath her feet, and she falls through where she then lands beside her friend.
"I'm not taking your baby!" Neri swats back at the bush. "Your baby shouldn't be down here anyway, and I hate to tell you this, but it looks nothing like you!"
"My baby!" The bush screeches.
"What is happening?" Iki scrambles to her hands and knees.
"It's a talking bush with a baby." Neri finds a stick and waves it at the bush. "Listen you. No more hitting!" She pokes at it. "Got it?"
"Don't touch my baby!" The bush cries, taking hold of the stick.
"Did I hit my head or something?" Iki asks, staring at the bush thing.
"Look bush, I am not doing anything to the baby. Just talk like a rational... plant." Neri shakes the stick with the bush thing on it. "Understood?"
"We don't want to hurt your baby," Iki adds for good measure.
The bush releases the stick. "Okay."
"Why don't you just tell us why you're both down here. This baby doesn't look like it has what it needs to eat," Neri says. "Can you be calm, now?"
"I saved it," the bush says, its flowers rustling with agitation. "It's my baby now."
"Where did you find it?" Iki asks.
"It was crying..." the bush inches closer to the baby.
"And you found it..? Was it left by his parents? Did something bad happen to them?" Neri asks. She scoots aside so the bush can get next to the baby.
"Parents dead," the bush says sadly. It brushes its leaves across the baby's cheek.
"Dead?" A chill courses down Iki's spine.
"This baby grows slow," the bush says, frustration in its voice. "I waited to go to queen and king, but too long."
"What happened to the parents? Did someone kill them?" Neri didn't trust Alyvia with such delicate matters, but Alyn seemed trustworthy enough.
The bush bristles. "Enemies," it spits.
"Who are the enemies?" Iki pries, crawling closer. "Please, tell us. We want to help."
Neri looks up at the rooted ceiling. "And if you could tell us how to get out of here. That'd be super."
"Don't touch," the bush warns, pointing at the two strangers. When they nod, it waddles over to the dirt wall and presses a foot daisy against it. There's a light tremble as roots unearth themselves.
"I don't like this," Iki gasps.
"Which part? The orphaned baby or the crazy bush or the tree that ate us?" Neri whispers. "Thank you. How about you and the baby come back with us? I have a manor that's part of the Court of Madness, and you'll be safe there."
"All of the above, actually," Iki says after a moment's pause.
The bush crosses its arms. "You taking baby?"
"And you," Neri assures. "Both of you. We can help you get the baby some food and shelter. You can protect it, and we can help. Sound good?"
"Vow," the bush says.
Iki and Neri exchange glances. "We vow we only want to help."
Neri puts up a hand. "We promise." She carefully picks up the baby. "Shall we?"
"How far does this tunnel lead?" Iki asks, getting to her feet.
"Out of Wyldwood," the bush says.
"I'm so glad for that." Neri hugs the quiet bundle against her chest. "Lead the way?"
"Stay close," the bush warns. It checks to make sure the baby is okay before waddling into the tunnel.
"Your cousin owes us big time," Iki says.