© Charles Vess 2019
In the long journey afterward, Janet became certain that when its long-forgotten architect had finally looked upon his bitter construction of darkness and endless twisting passages, he must have been pleased by the success of his cruel art.
Because it was their only hope to find safe passage through the labyrinth, Janet gave herself over and over again to The Queen. Each time, no matter how brief, left her weaker than the last. Only Tom’s arm, circled tightly around her waist, lent support to Janet’s weakened body, allowing her to stay on her feet.
Without The Queen’s advice, though, she was certain that they would have wandered endlessly through an infinite number of silent rooms and long passageways until, their strength depleted, they would have lain down where they stood and slept a long, final sleep.
Warily placing her trust in The Queen’s all-consuming desire to be whole once more, Janet eventually found herself standing outside a tall arched doorway that opened into the chamber where the monstrous Willow tree reared from its pool of black water. In a tangle of hoary roots, Janet saw her mother asleep, nestled in the dark, honey-colored arms of the moon-mad Queen.
Instinctively, Janet rushed forward. Her only desire was to gather her mother in her arms, but sensing another presence in that chamber, she stopped and looked cautiously around.
The wizened bottle witch, Mother Hainter was balanced on a long, low-lying limb of the great Willow just above the sleeping figures, staring inquisitively back at her. Scattered across the root-floor at her feet were a multitude of small bottles, some blue, some green and some a dusky amber color. She squinted her good eye, looking past Janet and spoke, “Ah, it’s you, is it, Thomas. You and the mortal girl have been lang in getting here.”
Before he could reply, Janet’s head began to swim with the now familiar sensation brought on by The Queen’s insistent presence. When she replied, it is with Her voice, “And what is that to you, little mother?”
Recognizing The Queen’s voice, the witch’s eye narrowed with calculation. But mindful of courtly protocol, the witch lifted her considerable bulk and leaped to an enormous, shaggy root whose surface just broke the black pool and bowed low in front of the slender figure of the mortal girl who spoke with The Queen’s voice.
My Queen, what is your wish?”
“What do I wish?”
Followed closely by Thomas, She stepped lightly across the surface of a long, twisting root toward the witch. And standing over Her true self, She gestured at it and cried, “I wish to sleep no more in this place of darkness. I wish to sit once more on the throne in my great golden hall. But most of all, I wish to see no more of that fool, The Lord of Darkness and of Death. Thatis my most fervent wish!”
Glancing askance at the recumbent body of The Queen, the root witch answered carefully, “Then I will do what I can to fulfill your wish.”
“Take Us from here, as soon as you may. Return Me to my court, and all that you desire will be yours.”
Inurned as the root witch was to the ways of the highborn Fae, Mother Hainter mumbled to herself, “Even with certain treachery, tis a fine offer.” Then her face twisted into a sly, calculating smile as she watched The Queen once more exhaust Her host’s body and collapse across the same willow roots that entangled Her true form.
Yet as Thomas knelt to comfort Janet, angry words crackled across the dim chamber behind them.
“What I have hunted and caught should never have been set free without my permission! And this night you have let loose the work of a lifetime.”
The Huntsman, his face a livid mask of hate, splashed through the shallow, oily pool that lay between Janet’s prone body and the Knight of the Rose. Standing over Janet, the leather-clad figure drew his sword, “I care not how you found your way to this chamber, but none of you will leave it again, unless it be by my will. Even you, root witch!”
At The Huntsman’s words, the mad Queen again filled the dim courtyard with Her anguished screams. Hearing those tortured cries, the Dark Lord’s minion froze just as Thomas launched himself through the air directly at him. Wrapping his arms tight around The Huntsman, he carried them both back into the black pool. Moments later, they staggered to their feet, still grappling each other, trying to keep their feet from slipping on the roots that twisted and turned just under the surface of the water. Soon their clothes were soaked and dripping.
The Huntsman, wrenching himself free of Thomas’ grip, brought his sword up, in a smooth glittering arc, straight for the knight’s neck. Twisting to the side, Thomas skillfully avoided the other’s desperate slash. Then kicking out his foot, he tangled their legs so they both fell again into the pool, sending a wave of black, oily water into the dim air of the chamber.
Horrified, Janet scrambled away. Still the cascade of viscous liquid soaked her, head and shoulders and momentarily blinded, she stumbled over a jagged root of the Willow. With a sharp cry, Janet fell across the bodies of both The Queen and her mother. Inches from Janet’s own, The Queen’s eyes snapped open, staring intently at the girl before She wailed, “Mortal, remember your promise!” But before Janet could reply, those eyes shuttered once more.
Above them, dancing along the length of a thick over hanging tree limb, the root witch screamed suggestions and abuse at the two men fighting desperately below. “That’s it, bite doon hard!”
Ignoring her frenzied exhortations, Thomas brought his hand down on The Huntsman’s wrist and wrenched the sword away. Their chests heaving with exertion they began to circle each other, thigh-deep in water, only now Thomas held a blade in his hand.
Cackling with delight, Mother Hainter continued to offer advice, “Gut him, Thomas. Now!”
This time, heeding the bottle witch’s suggestion, Tom thrust the blade straight for The Huntsman’s chest. Before it sinks home, the other parried with a thick, fallen tree limb, causing the Knight’s blade to glance off its hard surface. With a sudden back swing, The Huntsman slammed the limb down across Tom’s wrist. He gasped in pain, dropping the blade into the pool, where it was lost under the black opaque surface to them both.
Without pausing, The Huntsman swung the substantial length of wood again, this time striking a hard blow to Tom’s right shoulder. Awkwardly, the Knight of the Rose stumbled back, scatteringMother Hainter’s precious glass bottles and shattering more than a few. In despair, the witch jumped down from her perch crying out, “Now you’re for it. What was in them bottles cost me dearly, they did.”
Paying no heed to the little witch’s wail, Janet struggled to her feet, helping Tom get to his as well. Behind them the Huntsman struggled out of the pool and balanced on the closely-packed network of roots, casually swung his improvised wooden weapon. With little warning he brought it whistling around in an arch straight for Thomas’ knees. Desperately, the Knight leaped away, but not with his usual graceful agility.
The two men circled each other again, each testing the other’s readiness, only Tom had to lead now with his uninjured shoulder.
Ignoring the frenzied cries of the bottle witch, The Huntsman feints, then feints again, before rushing madly at Tom. Janet, her face a mask of concentration, kicked out as the leather-clad figure lunged past. Her foot connected with his knee and The Huntsman’s left leg collapsed under him, sending him sprawling across the tangle of roots.
Thomas turned and leaped into the lower branches of the great willow, then struggled further up into the tree’s branches where he was safely out of reach of The Huntsman’s crude weapon. He stopped, calling out, “Huntsman! What will you now?” His adversary snarled and lunging forward clutched Janet’s arm. Holding the struggling girl, he looked up at his tenacious adversary in the tree above and hissed a challenge, “Come, Sir Knight of the Rose. Come you here, and let us finish what we have begun.”
In answer, Thomas leaped to the ground, rolled with the impact, and then scrambled to his feet, smiling grimly.
Eager to finish what he’d begun, the Huntsman shoved Janet aside, all his concentration bent on the cunning Knight before him. Off balance, she stumbled away, trying to catch at the twisting willow limbs all around. But her hands, still wet and slippery, were unable to grasp any before she fell, knee-deep in the viscous oily pool. Panting for breath and clutching at the roots beneath her to keep her balance she felt the hilt of the fallen sword. Desperately, Janet flung the blade toward Thomas. The Huntsman saw the blade flip through the air and made a frantic leap to intercept it. But his injured leg would not support him, and he fell roughly onto the thick mat of roots at his feet, laying still at last.
Thomas, the sword grasped firmly in hand, advanced grimly toward the fallen figure. And yet, standing over the leather-clad hunter that he had just overcome in fair combat, Thomas could not bring himself to strike a fatal blow. Instead, Thomas simply held the sharp blade hard against The Huntsman’s throat, causing a fresh flow of blood to slowly drip into the small pool below.
At that moment, Janet’s body jerked away from her knight’s side, and her pupils rolled back into her eyes. When she spoke again, it was with The Queen’s voice. Only this time, She sang. It was an ancient song, whose words served to uncoil the thick web of roots that held Her true body captive. And without pause, moving blindly like some ancient worm, old past imaging, those hoary willow roots, inched across the uneven ground and slowly, tightly, enclosed the body of the Huntsman, binding him securely in place. Finally, only his red eyes could be seen, filled with hatred, staring out from between two tightly woven roots. When the song and what the song had made was finished, Janet collapsed to the ground, her face gray, her eyes dull and listless.
Kneeling beside her, the Knight comforted her as best he could. Looking up at Tom, her eyes weary with the task still before them, she muttered, “Bloody, bloody hell, when She has eaten Her fill of me, Tom, She’ll spit me out to die. Will this never end?”
Lending what strength remained in him, Thomas helped Janet struggle to her feet. Immediately she stumbled toward Mairi, wrapping her arms around her mother. A smile transformed the girl’s haggard face, tears of joy and of relief ran down her cheeks. The older woman, though, merely suffered her daughter’s embrace uncomprehendingly, never releasing her tight grip on the hand of the mad Queen.
Beside them, the ancient bottle witch squatted atop a twisting root, her wizened face split wide with delight. “Did not I tell yon Huntsman? I promised to be there at his fall and here it tis.” Mother Hainter chortled happily to herself before she looked at the others and spoke again, “Now, we must leave this place in haste, before the great dark Lord comes ta destroy us all.” Looking shrewdly then at Janet and her knight, she continued, “His desire for vengeance will be very grand indeed!”
Her arms trembling with fatique, Janet rested her head against Thomas’ chest, “She’s right, but I just don’t have the strength to let The Queen trample through my mind again to get us out of this damned maze…”
The bottle witch held up her small, wrinkled hand. “There is nae need. I have come and gone in this crumbling palace fer more years than can ever be counted. I kin every passageway and bolt hole that’s in it, and I will lead us all ta whatever safety there is for us.”
Thomas looked curiously at Mother Hainter, “All? Do you come with us little mother?”
She cackled, “His wrath will fall on me as well as you, sir knight, as this Huntsman will only remain captive until his master frees his best hound. Then after us all, they will surely come.”
Squinting up at Thomas with her one good eye, she continued, “And it’s certain, I am, that I will be needed when th’ Queen is finally made whole once more.”
For a moment she gazed wistfully back at the multitude of small, shattered bottles that laid scattered across the surface roots of that chamber and loosed a sigh. “Many years o’ my trade now lay there drained and useless. Perhaps my time grows shorter than I kin…”
Many were the doorways out of that inner courtyard, but Mother Hainter did not hesitate to choose the one she led them through. Following her as quickly as they could, Janet clung to her mother’s hand, leaving Thomas to deal as best he could with the still raving Queen.
Soon Tom’s strong arms had to lend support to Mairi, for The Queen, deep in Her madness, proved biddable only if She was hand-in-hand with Janet.
And so, once more, Janet and Thomas stumbled through the utter darkness of the labyrinth, but this time they heard the witch’s voice beckoning them on, not close, but not far ahead, either. “Follow me, donae stray from my path or I kin you’ll be lost, an’ there will be none else ta help you from this palace of shadows.”
Several times Mother Hainter paused at a branching of the way, and they both heard the witch mumbling to herself, as if she were arguing over the path that they should take. Until, at the last, they stepped out and away, leaving the crumbling walls of that great and awful city behind them.
As fast as they were able, the five companions picked their way across the blasted earth of the Dark Lord’s kingdom, until exhaustion began to claim them. Janet stumbled and fell, taking her charge with her to the stony ground. Squatting by her side, the bottle witch offered Janet a draught of a curious liquid that she carried in her girdle. Whatever tincture was in the bottle, it restored Janet’s strength and she was able to get back to her feet. Then, hauling The Queen clumsily to a stand, she started forward once more.
When Mother Hainter offered that same bottle to Thomas, he shook his head and replied, “No, only when there is no other choice. As yet there is strength still in me.”
At intervals during their long scramble across that desolate landscape, the ravings of The Queen ceased abruptly. Curiously, Her brief moment of lucidity in no way affected the mortal girl. It was as if the land itself were trying to heal its Queen. During those moments, She looked around at Her companions with wonder and shuddered at the desolate landscape that surrounded them.
In those moments, too, Janet studied the Lady of the Fae, her eyes filled with dull resentment at having to protect the very creature that had tormented her body and her spirit for so long.
But no potion, no matter how strong, lasted forever. So, when exhaustion overwhelmed Janet again, Mother Hainter muttered cautiously that a second drought of the potion would only cause her harm.
Reluctantly, Thomas halted their desperate flight, hoping that some rest—no matter how brief—would restore at least some of Janet’s failing strength. The companions collapsed against a great stone that lay hard up against a crumbling tower that stood by itself in the midst of the endless desolation that calls that plain its final resting place.
Mother Hainter pulled Thomas aside and whispered to him, “You kin that the Dark Lord will be following close ta our heels, we canna afford ta rest for long…”
Looking at the witch’s face, strained as it was with exhaustion, he knew the truth of her words. As Thomas wiped the sweat and grit away from his own eyes he replied, “And yet there will be no hope of escape if each of us falls to the ground and cannot go on. Rest while you may. I will see what follows behind.”
Climbing the ruined tower that thrust itself like a lone finger out of the rotting mud of that plain, Thomas looked to the east, toward the great palace that they had gone to such effort to leave behind. Its walls still looked impossibly close for all their effort.
Suddenly, that palace with its looming walls was simply wiped away by an immense cloud of dust rising from the surface of the plain, raised by the feet of those who pursued them. In front of that cloud strode The Lord of Darkness and of Death, determined to reclaim what he named as his own. At his feet were his remaining thirteen great hunting beasts, and behind him, rank upon rank, was a great army whose tread shook the ground beneath their feet. Where in that vast crumbling city this multitude of creatures lived, Thomas did not even try to fathom.
But of the Huntsman, there was no sign at all.
Thomas leaped down the crumbling steps of the tower, and reaching his exhausted companions a single word escaped his dry, cracked lips. “Run!”