© Charles Vess 2019
A short time later, Janet stirred, then stiffly got to her feet before leaning quickly down to pick up the coat that was left under her head. Shivering from the cold she slipped gratefully into it, her arms clutching the leather coat close to her body before looking around.
In the pre-dawn darkness, Janet could just make out an almost treeless landscape that rolls away into upland glens and tumbling burns without a single soul moving across its surface.
Well, there’s absolutely no knight on any black bloody motorbike to be seen out there.
A few meters away was a small parking lot, now completely deserted, where this section of the old highway began its leap up and over the ancient stone bridge and the racing burn just below it in what was the first leg of an extensive walking path that stretched all the way to Cairngorns National Park.
Janet buried her hands deep into the coat’s pockets and began to stride briskly back and forth along the short span of the bridge trying to loosen her cramped muscles and jumpstart her circulation. After a few minutes, though, she called out again into the darkness.
“It’s way too cold to play games. Where the fuck are you?”
To her left, far out across the darkness she could just make out Inverness, the towers of its high rise bank buildings and ancient cathedrals now dimly lit by the nearing promise of dawn. To the south there was only a broad expanse of moor that rolls into the distance, disappearing into thick clouds and mist and far away, heavy rain.
“No bloody mobile to call for help and it’s too far to try to walk back to the city. And at this time of morning, the traffic out here is almost nil. So, I can’t even chance a bit of hitch hiking.”
Janet stood in the center of the bridge and let out a very un-lady like bellow.
“Tom! Thomas! Or whatever you want to call yourself, I’m right fucking here. Where the bloody hell are you!”
Some shining knight you turned out to be. Just another bloody wanker, like all the rest of them.
Seething with frustration, she suddenly grabbed a bit of loose granite and hurled it as hard as possible at the rushing stream below. The loud, mostly satisfying splash that followed momentarily soothed her nerves. Letting out a harsh laugh at herself, at the world in general, but most importantly at her current location in it, Janet propped both arms on the rough stonework and peered down into the deep shadows that still gathered under the arched bridge.
Hey Mum, what do I do now?
Janet had found herself asking that same question many times during her life and always imagined the look of warmth and love that would be on her mother’s face. Or at least, what Janet imagined her mother looked like.
Because good ol’ daddy won’t even allow a picture of her anywhere in the house, will he?
She looks down at her slender arms, wiggling her fingers in the darkness of the night as if she can actually see their rich brown color.
Sure about one thing though, Pops is as white as white can be, so Mum must have been dark skinned like me.
Anyway, it’s always felt good to talk to the ghost of what she could have been. Tell her how stupid my latest A level tutor was or how bloody hard my math homework is or even, what I should wear on whatever date I might have.
But if she’d really been there… in the same house, would I have been able to talk to her about this kind of stuff or would I have had as little to say to her as I do to father?
Sure do wish I’d had a chance to find out…
Her wistful musings abruptly came to an end when Janet sensed rather than saw an immense looming shadow climb out from under the stone bridge and vault onto the rough paving in front of her. In the darkness she couldn’t make out any of its features, but whatever the thing was, it blocked out every star above her.
Only a deep, guttural, rumbling voice answered her, “Say the password or pay the forfeit.”
The words spoken weren’t English but instead some strange language that Janet had never heard before that moment. When she immediately realized that she could understand every syllable that had been spoken, Janetwas dumbstruck. Though it’s only when she finds herself able to reply in that same language Janet began to truly panic.
“What? What password…”
“Say the password or pay the forfeit.”
“Please, I don’t know what you want!”
“The password or the forfeit.”
“Okay, okay then… swordfish?”
“The true password or the forfeit.”
“How about, ‘please’ then?”
Only an ominous silence followed her frantic guess, leaving Janet with a desperate desire to run away as fast as possible from whatever shadow-thing confronted her. Her fingers clutched for the reassuring can of mace but her shoulder bag was gone and with it her knife as well as the reassuring can of noxious spray.
The creature, whatever it was, stood solidly between her and the vague promise of safety that the public motorway offered. Her only other option was to run out onto the dark moor, and indecision froze her in place. But after hearing another deep animal grunt, Janet frantically dodged forward, around the shadowy creature trying to run back across the bridge toward the road and the vague promise of safety in town.
Immediately there was a whoosh of air above her and the solid stone of the bridge quivered with the weight that landed on it. Again, the great beast blocked her escape.
“The password or the forfeit.”
Terrified Janet spat out,“I don’t know your bloody password.”
“Then you must pay the forfeit.”
For a moment the unseen creature’s words seemed to hang visibly in the cold air of the bridge until a slight breeze caught them up and stroked them across Janet’s skin, where they clung for a moment before fading away. She shivered. Then deep within her, complex memories of a place and a life that Janet had never known existed before this night, began to quicken and take on shape here in the mortal world.
Janet managed to gasp out a few words before her body shuddered uncontrollably as if from some kind of great physical impact.
“I will not pay your bloody forfeit!”
Her mind then, not her body reeled from the onslaught of some powerfully aggressive otherworldly intelligence that subsumed every human sense she possessed. An insidious primal force against which no mortal was able to offer an adequate defense flowed unabated into Janet and took insidious form.
The woman, who until moments before was a mere human, now looked through other eyes and saw the dark creature for what it had always been. Towering above Her was a giant pig like beast, clad in rough layers of leather and fur, with a wide black belt cinched around its waist above two short legs ending in cloven hooves. Below a pair of tiny bloodshot eyes, long, sharp tusks distorted curling lips that stretched from ear to ear.
“Beast, I need no such password. Do you not know your Queen? And why do you still stand before me? Kneel and show your fealty.”
Gazing below him at what still looked like a young mortal girl, the beast hesitated
Squinting its beady eyes, the beast somehow saw through the illusion that now cloaked Her and knelt, its snouted head bowed low, touching the stone pavers.
A cruel smile lit The Queen’s face when She looked past the groveling creature to the end of the stone bridge, where, suited in shining leather armor burnished a deep red, clutching a helmet under one arm and a great sword in the other, a familiar figure stood awaiting Her pleasure.
Words in that unknown language fell easily from what once were Janet’s lips, “Thomas, my Knight of the Rose, what do We do here in this dreary place? Where is My hall? My palace? Where are My gardens filled with roses blooming red, as red as your blood?”
Although her velvety, chocolate colored skin and the crude cut of the young mortal woman’s hair standing before him spoke to absolutely no aspect of his Queen, it was unmistakably Her voice, Her presence. Tom fell to his knees, arms spread wide in a gesture of abject humility. “My Lady, I am yours to command. What would you have of me?”
Before this strange queen could answer, the body that She inhabited shuddered and stumbled against the side of the bridge. She cried out, “Thomas, to my side!”
Janet had never stopped her wild struggle with the intelligence that had taken control of her will. And the Queen, surprised at the mortal woman’s fierce resistance, simply backed away from it, biding Her time, to watch and to study Her mortal host.
Suddenly, the mind that had trampled so easily over Janet’s true self was simply gone, leaving her bewildered and furious, but most of all frightened. She screamed her anguish into the night sky, “What was that? Who was that? Whoever she was, that bitch thought she owned me!”
Total exhaustion forced Janet to once again crumple into Tom’s waiting arms. She buried her head against his chest for a moment until remembering what happened earlier that evening her head jerked up. There were sparks in her eyes and little chance for her anger to cool.
“You wanker! You left me on this bloody fucking bridge. Why?”
In her fury Janet paid no attention to his white face or his somber eyes looking at her full of concern, and wonder as well. Instead she slapped him as hard as she could.
After a moment of stunned silence, he murmured softly, “Truly I cannot tell you.”
At the same moment, Janet became aware once more of the shadow-beast that until now had silently watched the strange drama playing out below it. The creature shook its broad, hairy shoulders, as if to say, it had seen stranger things than this before and on this very bridge as well. Only now, when Janet looked up at it, she could clearly distinguish its shape and form where before it had been merely a creature spun from shadow and darkness. Abruptly she realized that the alien presence within her had affected some kind of fundamental change in her perception of the world around her.
For a moment, before those strange visions began to fade away, she looked out on a world that was not cloaked in deep nighttime shadows but in soft twilight with a brilliant crescent moon riding high in the sky.
The creature continued to look down at Janet curiously for a moment, before turning and without haste, climbing back over the edge of the stone bridge, disappearing into the darkness below. For a moment Janet stood staring back across the now empty bridge, the sight of Thomas’s huge black bike leaning against its railing somehow reassuringly normal.
Then she cried, “Tom, what was that thing… what kind of world would make such a horrid creature?”
The Knight of the Rose looked inscrutably at Janet for a moment before offering a completely unsatisfactory explanation, “That, my lady, was a troll.”
“A troll? Really?”
Janet stared grimly at him until he sighed and offered her a more detailed answer. “That was The Troll under The Bridge. He has always bided here, under this particular bridge for the last age and more. He counts it as honor to challenge all who pass this way.”
Tom grinned at her, trying to charm away her anger. But nothing eased Janet’s primal fear that that otherworldly mind would find her again and imprison her inside a body that she had absolutely no control of. “Tom, I have to know who or what was just inside me? I looked through someone else’s eyes and what I saw was not this bloody earth… you, for one thing…” Remembering Thomas kneeling before her, clad in armor, Janet’s expression grew troubled. “Hey, where’s your armor? How’d you stash it away to so damn quick?”
With a casual shrug of his shoulders Thomas stood silent, offering no explanation for what had just happened. That profoundly awkward silence continued until it became an almost bottomless pit that needed to be filled somehow. Infuriated Janet filled it with her abundant anger. “You bloody well brought me here, so you must have wanted me to meet that god-awful beast. Why?”
“I had no wish to visit harm upon you and would have defended you against it if I had to, but on my honor, I can tell you no more than that.
“Why… why do you keep talking like that? There aren’t any knights anymore or ladies for that matter. After all that you’re still playing some stupid game?”
When Tom still offered no explanation, Janet turned away and stalked toward the road. Ignoring the tittering laughter of the small Fae creatures around him, Tom followed close behind the frustrated mortal girl.
Sensing him by her side once more, Janet turned. There were fresh tears streaking down her cheeks now. Her face twisted with rage, she shouted, “I’m absolutely not hanging around some asshole I can’t trust. So, do I stay out here where there’s a monster from my worst bloody nightmare or do I somehow find my way home and put up with the creature that lives there?”
Thomas stared back at her a moment before reluctantly nodding his head. When he finally did speak, there was a ring of bleak finality to his words, “Janet, you speak the truth, at least as far as you know it. There is but a thin curtain that cloaks your world from another where the beast you saw tonight is as common as the metal vehicles that fill your strange paved roads.”
The handsome knight smiled then, as they were both buffeted by a blast of rain and wind, and began to speak, “And lady…” but seeing the quick scowl on his companion’s face, he thought the better of his choice of words. “Janet, I will spend this night here on the moor and you are fit for far more comfort than I can offer you. Where would you have me take you?”
“Right! I guess it’s the monster I know because your troll buddy absolutely bloody terrifies me.”
Janet’s shoulders slumped wearily as all the anger and fear drained away, “I’m so tired of fighting… with you, with my father, with everyone. And that’s all that’s waiting for me if I go back home, more fighting. I’d made a promise to myself tonight that I was done with that life, but now…now, I don’t know what other choice I’m left with?”
Tom continued, “Perhaps you could just explain to your father what it is that you so earnestly desire?”
With both arms wrapped tightly around her body, Janet replied, “He won’t listen to reason, especially not from me. He never does.” Understanding flickered through Thomas’ brown eyes before he replied, “I, too, have dealt with one whose will is unforgiving of what others may want or even need. It is ofttimes difficult to reason with such a person.”
Janet stared out at the impossibly huge landscape around them for a moment, then back at Tom’s implacable face as a tight smile slid across her lips, “I really didn’t plan my escape very well, did I? And, I sure shouldn’t have stopped for that drink to calm my nerves.” Resigned, she whispered “Okay, take me home. I’ll tell you how to get there.”
Moments later Janet climbed astride the Vincent and clasped her arms once more around Tom. As the bike picked up speed across the graveled lot and out onto the motorway, she couldn’t help but bury her face into the broad back before her and try desperately to push away the empty feeling that had been growing steadily inside her for too many years. That afternoon, Janet had almost been overwhelmed by the certainty that she was drowning in a world where John Ravenscroft’s every wish was absolute law.
How can I go back there and not go fucking crazy?
Janet opened her eyes and watched the dark moor quickly slip past them as the cold night air-dried the tears that she hadn’t even noticed were on her cheeks.Improbably, with all that had happened between them tonight, warm thoughts of the man she’s clutched so tightly to flutter along the edge of her mind.
“I must be crazy! For whatever stupid reason He helped make what happened here happen. I could have been hurt or even worse.
But without her habitual anger, Janet felt lighter, as if that anger had been simply weighing down her spirit.
Just who or what are you, Thomas?
Dawn’s full light colored a sky thick with rolling grey clouds as Tom brought the Vincent to a stop before the gate that opened onto the Ravenscroft estate, and Janet stepped away from the huge black motorcycle. Both she and Tom had been so deep in their own awkward thoughts that neither had spoken on the long drive there. Janet stood beside the bike for a moment before slowly shrugging her way out of the long leather coat that she was still wearing. Tom’s arm came to rest on hers. “Keep it, the morning is still cold.”
Her simmering anger momentarily resurfaced,” No, it’s bloody yours. I don’t want it. Just take the damn thing!”
Reluctantly, Thomas handled the coat, folding it over into his lap before reaching his hand under his shirt. Carefully unclasping the small pendant that hung there by a delicate silver chain around his neck. Still warm with the heat of his body, Tom placed it in Janet’s outstretched hand. “Then please accept this token as an apology for all that you have endured this night.”
Without waiting for an answer Tom revved the powerful engine of his cycle and flew down the long, tree-lined drive, never looking back.
“What a flat-out wanker.”
It was only after she no longer heard the roar of his bike that Janet thought to look down at what was cupped in her palm. A delicate silver pendant with a beautifully sculpted rose, entwined with thorns rested there. Janet gripped the pendant securely in her hand and grimaced.
Fuck him if he thinks a bit of bling is going to buy my forgiveness.
Turning back to the high iron gates that opened onto her father’s estate, Janet was about to punch in the key code when she paused. Through its massive bars she looked up the long drive and even with the heavy morning mist that still clung to the overly manicured lawn the dark hulking spread of the house she was raised in is visible. In the cold morning air beads of sweat formed on her brow.
“No. No. NO!
“I just bloody will not do it.”
Okay, Ms. Janet,let’s try this again. I have to escape this bloody prison, so… I need my car.
Janet resolutely turned her back on the gate, but not before producing a defiant hand gesture for the security camera that her father was sure to see long after she was gone.
“See ya later, Pops.”
Maybe if I drive fast enough and hard enough I can leave all the bloody monsters behind me.
At that moment, she stopped dead in her tracks as wave after wave of intense pain shot through her body. Desperately gasping for breath, Janet staggered back against the massive iron bars of the gate. Just before she passed out Janet clenched her eyes shut as the color of every single object around her intensified far beyond what any normal human could possibly focus on. Overwhelmed, she collapsed in an ungainly sprawl on the tarmac and lay there oblivious as the sun continued its slow crawl up over the horizon.