© Charles Vess 2019
Both arms clinched around Tom’s waist, Janet welcomed the numbing exhaustion that almost smothered the chaos raging through her thoughts. The crowded streets flashed by offering a barrage of sight and sound that blesses her with needed distraction. But vivid images of first the dead man laying in a pool of his own blood and then Lottie’s father, kept relentlessly overpowering her thoughts. Fiercely she clutched at Tom’s arm and cried out, “The father of the only friend I’ve got might die because of me. And that other man, just who the fuck was he?”
But Tom’s concentration is elsewhere as they suddenly careened through a pedestrian-only thoroughfare. Doing his best to avoid the startled, angry people in front of the bike, he replied, “Who?”
Janet screamed into his ear, “That man back in the club! The one who died trying to protect me.
“Maybe he was one of your father’s men? A new one whose face you didn’t recognize?”
Janet cried out, her frustration and fear making her voice crack, “Whoever he is, he’s dead … and I don’t even know his name.
Against his back Thomas can feel Janet’s tense arms clutching at him as she spoke, “That fucking world you wanted me to see is absolutely bloody terrifying!
“Then there’s you…with the sword. Where did that come from?
“And there’s the weird fucking language we were both speaking… Who talks like that, and why do I understand it,now?”
Then she leaned in close to Tom’s ear and hissed, “Tom, are you listening to me? What the fuck is going on?”
His determined silence only made Janet’s desperation grow, so by the time Tom pulled the motorcycle up to the gate of her father’s estate, she was tight with anger. Tom turned to look back at his companion, “My lady, it is with my deepest regret that I must leave you now.”
Janet’s hands clinched even tighter on his arms, “Leave? No way! Not before I’ve got some fucking answers!”
Meeting her angry, disbelieving stare, Tom replied, “Where I will go this night you cannot follow.”
“And where the hell is that?”
Tom’s lips set hard, “You must trust me when I say that I cannot give you the answers that you deserve. You must understand, I am the Knight of the Rose and my life is pledged once and always to the Queen that I serve.”
Janet exploded, “Bollocks! Knight of the bloody fucking rose… what’s that supposed to mean? And this Queen of yours, she’s the fucking bitch that’s kicking her way through my head, isn’t she?”
Tom answered through clenched teeth, “There is still much that I must learn about the mystery that now holds your life in its grip.”
“So, you’re going to dump me off at my father’s home and ride away again, just like that!”
He softened his voice, “You will be safer here than with me.”
Exasperated, Janet clenched her fists and cried, “Bloody, bloody hell!” Then Janet’s hazel eyes narrowed as she pointed at the elegant gates to her father’s estate, “If you drive off now, I promise you, I will never walk through those gates ever again. Ever!”
After a brief struggle, Tom managed a grim smile, “Then, I will escort you to your front door.”
“Yes, you will indeed.”
Under the eyes of her father’s all-seeing security cameras, Janet turned and punched in her key code. Immediately the gate swung wide, and they drove through. A moment later Tom brought his motorcycle to a halt in front of the enormous garage that housed John Ravenscroft’s cars as well as any vehicles his private security force might need. Turning back to Janet, he waited silently for her to dismount. Janet, though, leaned in closer to Tom as if to whisper in his ear and then, like many before, completely surprised him by her next move.
In one smooth motion, Janet jerked the key out of the ignition switch, cutting the bike’s powerful engine, and jumped off the Vincent. Backing quickly away, she glared at him, her face a mask of steely determination. “Look, you’re not leaving here until I get some answers.” Without another word Janet slipped the keys into her purse and walked away.
Impatiently, Tom followed her through the door and then along a stone pathway that circled around the exterior of the house and emptied onto a terraced patio at the back, looking out over the sprawling grounds of the entire estate. Once they were standing on the patio, Janet began to pace back and forth across its carefully laid stonework.
Not wishing to force the keys from her, Thomas waited for Janet to speak and looked curiously around at the home that she had named a prison more than once. Close beside them was an ornamental pond. From its center rose a plinth of marble with an elegant bronze statue of a stag bounding from its top. Surrounding the pool and the patio, was an extensive formal garden that rolled away into the darkness of the night. In the near distance, the lights of Inverness silhouetted the extensive fence line that separated the Ravenscroft’s home from the outside world.
It was only then that Tom realized that the massive iron-wrought gates that guarded the entrance to the estate were only a small part of an imposing fence line that completely enclosed all the land the estate called its own. That fence looked like some kind of massive medieval defense system with its sharp spikes rising out of the dense hedge of trees that closely entwined it. Lining the patio was another row of those same trees, laden with large clusters of reddish berries hanging low from their boughs.
Tom casually reached up and broke off a single berry, rolling it in his hand before inhaling its fragrance and then whispered to himself, “Interesting…a good defense, surely. But who planted it here and why?”
At that moment a burly security guard walked briskly down the same path that they had just taken. Reaching the patio, he looked suspiciously at Thomas, his fingers nervously tapping against the side of his holster and the pistol inside it, before speaking, “Evening, Ms. Ravenscroft. Everything okay here?”
“Yes! Yes, it is. Now just go away!”
Hesitating, the guard continued to eye them both. Until Janet somehow forced a smile to her lips, “It’s Reilly, correct?”
When the uniformed man nodded, she continued, “Look Reilly, this is my boyfriend, and right now we’re working out… some issues. We need our privacy, okay?”
A high-pitched, mechanical beeping from the mobile phone on the security guard’s utility belt interrupted them. Rolling his eyes, the guard offers an apology before answering it.
His face grew strained as he listened to what he was being told. Replacing the phone on his belt, the guard looked grimly at his employer’s daughter. “There’s been a bit of trouble in town with one of our men. I’ll have to go.” He paused, studying Tom for a long moment, considering what he should do with this man. Finally, shrugging his shoulders, he made a judgement call, accepting Miss Ravenscroft at her word.” You sure you’re going to be okay, miss?”
“Yes! Yes! YES!”
As the guard left, Janet heard yet more distant sirens in the night air. Crossing her arms over her chest, Janet looked hard at Tom. “I expect they’re dealing with the dead man back there at the bloody club, aren’t they? And Lottie’s father as well.”
He nodded, “I fear so.”
“Tom, you know exactly why all that horror happened back there, don’t you?”
After a prolonged silence, Thomas finally replied, but it was not what she had hoped to hear. “I am not permitted to answer your question. To do so would break my oath and render my word as worthless as disappearing smoke.”
“So, you’re saying that you won’t give me any reason, any reason at all for what happened tonight?”
Thomas, The Knight of the Rose, stood straight and tall and grim, offering no sign of the confusion in his heart. “I cannot.”
Janet clenched her fists again and whispered, “How can I trust you when you offer me nothing to base my trust on? Tom, I need to know why all this horrifying stuff is happening to me. I need to know who that guy in leather was and what his creepy creatures were? Why didn’t he care if any of the people in that club were hurt or maimed or… killed… It could have easily been me. I could be laying in my own pool of blood right now!”
Janet’s face twisted with doubt, “And yet you’re telling me to simply trust you.”
“My lady, I…”
“I. Am. Not. Your. Lady. Thomas Lynn or whoever you say you are, we’re done. Leave! I… I never want to see you again.”
Janet reached into her purse and threw the keys to the Vincent into the shallow fountain beside them. Then she turned away, stalking toward the house. Left standing in the darkness, Thomas watched her leave, pondering what he should do. His heart told him not to let Janet go, to offer her at least some explanation for what was happening to her. But Thomas knew that she deserved nothing short of a complete explanation to why he, the Knight of the Rose was here in the mortal world, but his absolute certainty that she would never forgive him, for it staid his impulse.
After a moment he whispered into the damp night air, “Janet, I too have questions. How came this fence of Rowan here? It will surely protect all those inside it, but only if they remain inside.” Ruefully he shook his head, “And, I fear that you will never be held a captive here for long.
“And I must find in whom the rest of my Queen’s mind resides… how will I do that if I stay by your side I wonder?”
He leaned over the lip of the fountain, one hand holding back the lace of his cuff as he fished for the set of keys. They were easy to find. With them clutched in his dripping hand, he paused, looking up at the dark pile of brick and stone and slate that was the Ravenscroft home crouched on the grounds of its estate like some great primordial beast that would protect hearth and home and all those that lived in it at any cost. Musing, he whispered into the silence of the night, “Janet, though you cannot hear me, I lay myself at your mercy, and when I return, I will tell you everything that I know. Even though that knowledge will surely divide us once more. All that you ask, I will give an answer to.”
Tom turned away, determined to return as quickly as possible, and walked back to the parked Vincent. Once there, however, he saw a strange device attached to its rear wheel. Tom crouched beside the cycle trying to puzzle out the mechanism, musing to himself. “It would seem that there is a wish by many that I not ride away from here this night?”
When he heard the scrape of a boot heel on the pavement near him, Tom looked up to see a tight circle of Ravenscroft’s security personnel surrounding him. Every one of them wore a hard, grim look. And each carried a weapon in his hand.