© Charles Vess 2019
A full hour later John Ravenscroft walked into the great room of the house. His daughter Janet lay unconscious on the plush couch, her arms still tightly wrapped around the mysterious man who had helped save both their lives. Thomas looked up at John, cautiously following his every move as if he were ready to bolt like a wild animal caught in a trap.
The older man cleared his throat before speaking. “Well, I suppose you have no idea where the medical unit is located here, but I think it might be better for my daughter if we took her there now.”
Thomas’ face implacably hardened, “No. My Lady…Janet, before she succumbed made me promise that she would remain here, in this room, until she awakens. It seems that your daughter has little trust in her own father.”
“I see. Janet, you will find, can be quite stubborn.” A look of complete weariness fell over the elder Ravenscroft’s features. He rubbed his tired eyes before continuing. “Well then, I placed a call to Janet’s physician, Dr. Nehran, and without giving away too many incriminating details, asked his advice. There’s really not much we can’t do right here in this room. Just keep her quiet and warm and let her body heal itself. Assuming, of course, that there are no serious physical injuries?”
“I have checked. There are none.”
“Under these particular circumstances, I told the good doctor to remain at home. I really have no wish to cause yet another death this evening.”
Quietly then, John slid an over-stuffed chair across the room closer to the couch and fell tiredly into it. Calmly looking at the young man that meant so much to his daughter, he began to evaluate their uncertain future. He carefully noted Tom’s shredded leather jacket, the peculiar, old-fashioned shirt, and what he would call leggings that were all soaked with blood and stained with a long road, traveled quickly. Bloody welts mixed with deep bruises were just now beginning to show on what otherwise he might say was a handsome face. Ravenscroft cleared his throat. “I think you feel much better, though, if you cleaned yourself up.”
When Tom nodded agreement, Janet’s father pointed to the arched entrance into the room they sat in and continued, “The washroom is just down that hall on the left.”
Gently disentangling himself from Janet’s arms Tom left her, still unconscious, huddled on the coach and walked to the wide doorway that opened into the hallway beyond. Her father held out a neatly folded set of clothes that he’d brought with him. “Take these. I believe they will fit.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Ravenscroft chose to answer the obvious question that clouded Tom’s battered face. “They’re mine, or were.” Then with a rueful grimace, he continued, “I was much fitter in my youth. And you will feel better in clean clothes.”
Grateful, Tom took them but still hesitated before leaving the room. Facing the equally haggard figure of John Ravenscroft, he offered a courtly bow, wincing from his still fresh injuries. “My name, sir, is Thomas Lynn, and it is my pleasure to meet you, Mr. Ravenscroft.”
“It’s John… please just call me John. Janet’s father continued to look up at the odd young man, a hard smile twisting across his lips. “And the pleasure is most certainly all mine. My daughter and I, both owe you our lives, and for that I am in your debt.”
Thomas paused at the doorway into the hall a moment longer before replying, “A debt answered swiftly by your own service to me.”
John Ravenscroft looked at the young man quizzically, “Service? I only did what needed to be done.”
“Nevertheless, the Huntsman would have killed me if you had not stopped him. Also, you prevented the guardians of your law from holding me captive, even now, deep within their iron dungeons.”
John Ravenscroft left eyebrow arched in wry amusement, “Our guardians of the law, as you say, have a certain amount of respect for me and what is mine. It was not easy, but I think that they are going to accept my rather fantastic story. For the moment anyway…”
The older man settled gratefully back into the soft chair, “I offered them no mythic beasts or dueling swords, just a simple earth-bound terrorist attack, perhaps brought on by an extremely disgruntled international partner of one of my many business transactions. Of course, there have been more than a few of those, and it will take some time for the authorities to trace them all down.”
Then Ravenscroft’s expression grew more serious, “In a few hours, perhaps less, there will be a visit from any number of proper detectives, and they, I fear, will be much harder to misdirect.
“But, let’s say they do accept my somewhat implausible explanation and just go away, what are we going to do about that man and his creatures? And what of this person who is apparently hell bent on consuming my daughter’s mind?” He held up his broad hand when Tom began to protest. “You cannot tell me otherwise. I looked into her eyes and there was not a shred of Janet with in. And I heard her speak as well, with words that were certainly not of this earth.”
Nodding at Janet’s sleeping form, he continued, “There is a shadowy world whose existence I’ve spent my entire life denying was there. Long ago, creatures from that world took my wife or at least her mind from me, and now they’ve come back for my daughter.”
John Ravenscroft pressed his hands once more against his tired eyes and didn’t see Thomas’ entire body grow rigid at the older man’s bitter revelation. “They drove my wife mad, and now they’re trying to do the same to Janet. I will do anything… anything at all to prevent that. Do you understand me?”
Thomas, looking every inch the knight he was, even clothed in torn, blood-splattered clothes, solemnly gave his pledge. “Sir, my life would be forfeit before I would allow any to harm your daughter.”
Taken aback by Thomas’ unequivocal answer John quietly asked, “You would do that? You’d give your life for Janet?”
Thomas drew himself up to his full height, “Sir, do you doubt my word or my honor?”
For all of his life John Ravenscroft had ruthlessly judged men and women, dismissing as useless any that he found lacking for his purpose. He looked at Thomas now with growing respect, and replied, “No. No sir, I do not. But Thomas, what can we do to prevent anything like what happened out there tonight from taking place again?”
When Thomas offered no answer, Ravenscroft sighed and gestured toward the washroom down the long hallway. “Hurry back. We still have a lot to discuss.”
After the improbable young man left, John Ravenscroft brought all of his considerable focus back onto his daughter. There were large, dark red stains splashed across her once-elegant dress, and Janet’s face and hands were scratched with deep welts that still oozed fresh blood. But he saw no serious injuries. “Right. I’ll need to take care of those cuts myself then.” Fighting against his own exhaustion, John got to his feet to fetch the disinfectants and bandages he needed for the task at hand. Pausing, he looked tenderly down at his daughter for a brief moment before turning to walk down the hall.
When Ravenscroft returned, he gently lowered himself onto the couch beside his daughter and began to apply the first aide that he’d brought with him. But at his touch, Janet groaned and sat up, instinctively sliding away from her father as far as she was able. Then, huddled at the far end of the coach she became lost in thought, staring silently around the room.
With the palm of her hand, she wiped away the salty tears that burned the cuts on her face and asked a question that, after everything that had happened that night, startled him. “Father, why do you try so hard to keep any remnant of my mother out of sight?”
John Ravenscroft remained stubbornly silent so she continued. “There’s not a single photograph of her in this entire house, and that’s just bloody weird because you’ve told me again and again how much you loved her!”
Remembering her friend Lottie’s advice, Janet moved closer and gathered both of his massive hands in hers and looked into his dark, troubled eyes, “We live in the same damn house, but we never, ever talk to each other. Practically the only conversations we’ve had since I turned thirteen were screaming matches.” Her father’s brow knitted together while she continued, “And a nod when we pass in the hall doesn’t count!”
The medication and bandages forgotten in his lap, Ravenscroft’s massive hands clung tightly to Janet’s, and yet he still offered her no explanation for his actions. Unexpectedly, Janet felt a surge of pity for her father. “It must be so damned hard keeping all those secrets bottled up inside. Doesn’t your tongue ever trip over them all? I know mine does, and I haven’t had half as long to collect my own.
“You’ll never know the half of who I’ve imagined my mother is. When I was younger, I expected her to just walk through the front door at any moment and rescue her kidnapped daughter from the dark castle that imprisoned her. She was my Fairy Queen. I was her long-lost daughter, the princess.
“That will never happen, will it father?” Janet’s voice grew suddenly hoarse as she cried, “Why won’t you tell me anything, anything at all about her…”
Lost in thought, John Ravenscroft wrestled with memories of his wife that for so many years he’d kept as far away as possible. Visions of love and happiness and pain… so much pain, cascaded through John’s tired mind. He looked at his daughter, “There’s no purpose in being angry with me. There’s nothing you could say now that I haven’t told myself over and over again your entire life.
“Anything… anything at all that reminded me of your mother made my anger explode all over again. I stubbornly refused to believe there was any truth to her ravings about another world that existed alongside our own, because fairy tales neverhad a place in my life.
“Until tonight, that is.
“Janet, every day you look more like her.” An involuntary shiver ran through his solid frame before he continued. “And in the last several years, you’d even begun to act like Mairi as well.
“At times, when you spoke in the same strange language that she had screamed at me so long ago, it seemed that her madness was consuming you as well. And that absolutely terrified me.”
He slowly shook his head, “But now, after what happened out there tonight, I know that your mother was frightened by a world that is as real as this one, only I couldn’t see it.”
A soft voice startled them both, “Indeed.”
Standing at the entrance to the room, Thomas’ somber gaze rested on each of them for a moment before he continued, “I have lived in that invisible world for most of my life and seen the beauty … and the terror that it has to offer. Any mortal who chooses to walk in The Queen’s court must be careful, indeed. For there will come a day when you must decide whether to stay there in that land of eternal summer or to return here and then eventually grow old and finally, pass away.”