© Charles Vess 2019
Janet took Thomas’ hand and led him along the long, carpeted hallway that ran down the length of the west wing of the house. Part way, she pushed open what looked like a simple closet door leading into a small room filled with cleaning supplies and boxes stacked against every wall. For a moment, Janet fumbled with a catch set almost invisibly in the elaborate wood railing that followed the length of all four walls. From the floor beneath their feet came a sudden hum of an electric motor as a narrow entranceway slid back to reveal a metal stairway that descended into total darkness.
With one foot on the stairs, Janet turned back, and noticing the quizzical expression on Tom’s face, she grinned, “Never underestimate the stubborn curiosity of a young girl.” Moments later, they stood in midst of complete darkness, their feet on a solid stone floor. Before she flicked a switch to illuminate the windowless room, Janet whispered, “I was twelve years old when I discovered this room and immediately claimed it for my own.”
At one end of the long, narrow space was a plush chair that sat beside a small table with a reading lamp. A large, comfortable bed piled high with quilts and pillows, was pushed against the wall. Most of the rough, stone walls were covered in intricate tapestries. The stone flagging at their feet was made comfortable by layers of thick Turkish rugs. All along one wall was a single, floor-to-ceiling bookcase crammed with books, puzzles, and board games.
Tom looked down into her smiling face and spoke for the first time. “There was a bolt hole like this in my family’s home as well.” And answering the question in Janet’s eyes he continued, “We used it for the smuggling of whiskey and sometimes even to escape religious persecution. Though ours was certainly not as comfortable as this.”
Janet shrugged, “I spent so many days here—and nights too -reading and thinking and imagining what my future would be like…” Janet blushed shyly. “Those daydreams were never even close, though. I never saw anyone like you waiting for me in any of my possible futures.”
She cleared her throat before continuing, “Trust me, no one will find us here.”
Thomas smiled warmly at her. “Janet, I do trust you.” She sat down on the soft bed and carefully judging what she saw in his face, asked, “If you do… trust me that is, then tell me who you really are.”
Settled beside Janet, Thomas spoke, “Janet, accept now, that my heart is yours and with it my soul. Know, too, that I will use every talent I possess to protect and serve you as long as you may live.”
Once more Janet blushed, but stubbornly chose to continue her interrogation. “But who do I thank, whoare you?”
Gathering his thoughts, Tom was silent for a time before he began to speak again. “It was a day of days, long, long ago. I was hunting… a hunt that was not of my own choosing but insisted on by father. The day ran long and come the setting of the sun. We still had not flushed a single stag. Nor had weseen a fox or even a stray hare. Although by then, those poor wee creatures would not have settled my father’s blood lust.
“Our horses were on their last wind when we finally sighted an enormous stag and gave chase. My father’s face shone with a mad light, certain that he could see its great horned head mounting the wall of our family’s keep. I took the lead trying to slow my too-eager father from injury. Then I pushed my steed over one hard jump too many and exhausted, he stumbled. I fell from my saddle. My only thought was of the sharp stones that would greet me on the ground below.”
Janet murmered, “It must’ve hurt.”
The Knight paused for a moment before continuing, remembering his father and their last hunt together. “No, it did not, for I did not hit the ground. Two strong arms caught me, and when I looked to thank my unexpected savior, I beheld the most beautiful woman that I had ever seen – until short days ago – The Queen of the Lands of Summer’s Twilight.”
Preparing herself to hear the worst, Janet gripped the quilt with both hands, staring hard at Thomas as he continued. “She took me to Her palace fashioned from marble and stone. There, I was overcome by the beauty that surrounded me, but most of all by Herself.” He paused, carefully choosing his words. “Janet, you must forgive me this but I became her lover then. One in a long line of many, I think.”
Thomas’ voice hesitated at a question that Janet suspected he’d asked himself many times before. “I do not know why She chose me? I suspect that if you’ve lived the almost eternal life of the Fae, the quick, hot beating of a human heart is an irresistible attraction.” Janet leaned closer to the man who had become the center of her thoughts and whispered, “Perhaps it was because of who you are, a knight of old, whether you wear a suit of armor or not.”
He shrugged. “But as the years stretched before me ever longer, my heart grew restless. I began to take every excuse to stray from Her court. Hunting and adventuring. Tracking goblins in the mountains. Felling giants in the great forest that covered most of Her twilit lands.
“There came a day when I returned, and She no longer sat upon Her great throne. And for all my searching, neither She nor any of Her court were to be found. I was sent here then, into the mortal realms of my birth to look for Her. And, acting on sweet memories of my previous life, I sought out my father and my family, thinking that their arms would be open and their greetings warm.”
Janet shuddered then when she saw Tom’s face crumble with dismay. She reached out and took his two hands in hers as he continued. “When, at last I found our family home, Carter Hall was its name, it was in ruins and all my family long since dead and buried. Their gravestones were ancient, the names on them worn away by the wind and the rain.”
Letting out a small gasp Janet asked. “Thomas, just how old are you?”
Thomas lowered himself to sit close beside Janet. “I do not know. There are no passing days in Faerie. No months, or years. Only a single, eternal twilight, with only the slow waxing and waning of Her moon to gauge any passage of time. I was barely seventeen when I went hunting with my father that last time, but I am certain that I have now lived longer than any human is meant to.”
Seeing a smile warp itself across her lips, Tom asked, “You take this well, my lady?”
Janet smiled once more. “It’s funny, I’ve never much liked younger men, and here you are, just gone 17… a year younger than me, yet… that’s only in human years, isn’t it?”
He gripped her hands and continued, “It was on the very day that I first beheld the graves of my family that I later came upon a young woman who needed my aid. I gave it to her. Gladly. I know now that at first it was seeing the fleeting glimpse of my Queen in her eyes that sparked my interest. But it was the woman within that afterwards captured my heart and my every waking thought as well.”
Remembering that night, Janet asked carefully, “But are you still in love with this Queen of yours, Thomas?” He smiled gently back. “Once I did, long ago. But no mortal can ever truly love a Fae creature that will live for a thousand times a thousand years. I pondered then why my heart grew restless. I wondered why it was that I spent longer and longer away from the delights of Her court. I’ve found my answer now. I was seeking someone to fill my heart with joy and gladness.” Tom’s gaze never left Janet’s. “Now I know why it was that I wished to leave Her court.”
With a catch in her throat Janet murmured, “Tom, no matter how bloody awful I think this Queen of yours is, I have looked through her eyes and seen her reflected in yours. She… she is very beautiful… her features so golden that they almost shine. How can you even look at me after knowing her as you do?
“Yes, She is beautiful but so very cold. I see in the depth of your eyes, and past your quick anger, such warmth is in your heart…
“So, it is you, Janet Ravenscroft. Only you that I love.”
Janet leaned against his neck, nuzzling his long, loosened hair. “Thomas, I’ve so much to tell you… so many more questions to ask, but right now I’m so damned exhausted that I can’t even think straight.”
“My lady, I am yours to command.”
“Then hold me Thomas. That’s all, just hold me, and don’t ever let me go.”
Janet turned her face up to his, her lips trembling, and with tender hands, she pulled him down to her. Their kiss seemed to last forever and was followed by many, many more.
Leaning hard, up against the inner wall of the rotting brick and stone keep of The Lord of Darkness and of Death, there was a curious hovel where a certain root witch named Mother Hainter sometimes lived and practiced her trade.
Inside it, she crouched close beside a small fire that burned continuously, night and day, in the center of the single room that the witch called home. The smoke from that fire twisted slowly upward past heavy wooden beams and eventually found escape through a hole in her blackened roof.
Lining the shelves that filled every inch of space on her walls was a bewildering multitude of small glass bottles. Some were green and some blue, but mostly, they were the dull brown of dead leaves in winter. Each bottle contained at least a few drops of a liquid that would, in the best of times, earn the witch a meager living and even, on occasion, help those who came asking for it.
Set in one wall, was a small recessed chamber. And in that, her bed of covered straw, where the witch spent most of each long day that she endured in that bleak kingdom of darkness. Waiting patiently, for what?
Mother Hainter was wiser and more cunning than all but a few who came to visit her, so when the door to her neatly kept room slammed open and The Huntsman sagged against its sill, she did not seem unduly surprised.
With her one good eye, she took in the leather-clad figure, his wound, his urgency, and the four great hunting beasts that prowled restlessly behind him.
Greeting him with a high reedy voice that cut emphatically through the still air, she asked, “Huntsman, whatever you want, I will do. Within reason, of course, always within reason. But do not, I beg you, bring yon beasts in my home.They’ll piss my rugs, and that is the very devil to wash out.”
The Huntsman slammed the door shut behind him and fell helplessly onto one of the rugs flung across her dirt floor. Only one word escaped through his tightly clenched teeth. “Iron.”
Smiling at her patient, the witch allowed herself a shallow display of sympathy, “Tisk, tisk, that is a bother, isn’t it?” When there was no answer from the man sprawled before her, she continued, “Well, then, let’s have a look, shall we?”
As wide as she was short, Mother Hainter looked down at the shaking figure at her feet. His agonized face was clenched in pain as she bent over him, carefully examining his still weeping wound. The root witch had seen the same injury before and knew just how quickly death could follow on its heels. And yet, there was no hurry in her movements. “First, sir Huntsman, there is my payment ta consider. A poor wee widow woman such as myself should nae be asked ta do such a thing as this for free. That would nay be right, now would it?”
His jaw set hard as he struggled to reach a small pouch that hung tucked under his belt. Impatiently, he threw six dull gold coins from it down at her bare feet. She snatched them up, first testing the coins in her teeth, and then she cackled with glee.
Under her long matted white hair, her good eye shone bright, and a pleased smile played across her broad, wrinkled face. She muttered to herself as she turned to consider the thousands of small bottles that perched on shelf after shelf after shelf of the room, waiting to be used.
“Boyo, just lie there, and I’ll do what needs ta be doing? Now, where did I put the wee silly drop o’ the creature…” The Huntsman gritted his teeth and continued to writhe in silent agony, his skin slowly turning gray as long black veins of poison crept from the raw and bloody wound.
After what needed being done was done, and this time at least, the root witch’s tinctures proved most effective, The Huntsman struggled to his feet. He looked down at her through blood red eyes that calmly calculated whether she should live or die for her service to him.
“Witch, I will remember what you have done this day, both good and ill.”
He leaned heavily against the rotting wood of her door and spoke through teeth still hard set against the pain, “Very well. But speak of this to anyone. Anyone at all, and my beasts will come looking for you to teach you such games as you’ve never played before!”
“Huntsman, do you threaten me? Mother Hainter has been about her business since lang before you began your service with that Dark Lord, and for certain I’ll be here after you are nae more.”
Capering with glee, the root witch ignored his threat, “What? You fear what your master will do if he finds that you have failed. Again.”
“Woman, what have you heard?”
“Nay a thing.” Then slyly cackling to herself she added, “And everything o’ course. So many beasties both large and small come ta speak with Mother Hainter. They tell me all the things that they have seen. And they see so very much.”
The Huntsman hissed, “Not a word. To anyone!”
Choosing her response to his threat carefully, the root witch bowed before the tall, thin figure of The Lord’s Huntsman. “If that is your wish, my lord, for we all have our parts ta play in this lang sad story.”