© Charles Vess 2019
Forty-five minutes later, the caravan of black SUV’s turned off Culloden Road and onto the long private drive that bore the Ravenscroft estate’s name. Huddled in the back of the middle vehicle, Janet had pushed herself as far away from her father as possible. Her thoughts a tangle of half-truths and revelations, she hadn’t spoken for the entire length of the drive across downtown Inverness.
Finally, in an attempt to find the answer to at least one of the multitude of questions that all but consumed her, Janet asked, “So, how do you know them? The Parsons, I mean. You talked with his widow for a long time, and out of the fucking blue you offered my friend Lottie the money to rebuild her music club. But you’ve never said word one about any of them to me.”
John Ravenscroft surfaced from his own thoughts to briefly acknowledge his daughter with an ill-considered comment. “I can’t think of any reason that you need to know why?” Then he turned back to the long in-coming text that he was studying on his mobile. It concerned his wife and the secret that had for too long helped build a wall between father and daughter. Lately Janet’s ceaseless effort to tear down that wall had produced an abundance of absurd antics that only served to drive the elder Ravenscroft into frustrated anger.
Finished, John looked up and his gaze lingered on his young daughter, who too quickly was transforming into a woman as strong-willed as her mother.
“Forgive me. I…”
But Janet was staring intently out the window into the pitch-black Scottish night that obscured everything not in the car’s headlights. After a moment she quietly whispered, “My mother, what was she like? At least you can tell me that, can’t you?”
John was taken aback by his daughter’s question, so close to his own thoughts. But years of high-stress situations in boardrooms all over the world had prepared him for moments just like this. “You’re are very alike. And you only become more so with each passing year.”
“And that’s all you’re going to tell me, isn’t it?”
“Janet, now is simply not the moment for a lengthy discussion about your mother.”
“Then when is?”
Ignoring the strained silence that followed, Janet lost herself in childhood memories of hours spent playing in the Privet hedge that ran the length of both sides of the drive. Then it had been an enormous barrier surrounding the castle just inside, and she the heroic prince come to rescue a sleeping princess within.
A sharp metallic clang brought her back to a bleaker present, where she fought against waves of rising panic, watching the gate into the estate begin to slide open.
Now I’m going to be that sad sleeping princess, a prisoner in her own father’s castle.
Trying to push that panic aside, Janet asked her father another question as casually as she could. “If Tom had come tonight, what were you planning to do?”
Ravenscroft smiled, “As I’ve told you, I only want to ask the young man a few questions.”
“Really? That’s all…”
He looked up at Janet and quietly but firmly asked, “And why shouldn’t a father be concerned about any man that courts his daughter?”
Janet tried but didn’t succeed in suppressing her laughter. “Bloody hell! Now my mystery man is some kind of old-fashioned gentleman caller?” Then her face grew serious. “I don’t really know how I feel about Mr. Thomas bloody Lynn. I’ve only seen him twice, but I seem unable to get him out of my head for the last eight days. Believe me, I’ve tried.” Janet put her hand to the pendant at her breast. “So, he’s gotten completely under my skin. Maybe someday it could be love. I don’t know, I’ve never been in love before…”
Janet was even more surprised than her father by her impulsive words, but then she smiled to herself, suddenly knowing that they were true.
Incredulous, John Ravenscroft pushed aside any compassion he’d been feeling moments earlier. Instead he reacted as he always had to any outside force trying to derail an elaborate business plan, with no consideration for anyone’s well-being but his own. “Really? So, I’m to believe you this time when you say that your Thomas is more than just another random annoyance you want to throw under my feet?”
“Oh, yes. Much, much more.”
A strained smile struggled across her father’s face. “Well then, in that case, I really do need to know more about this Thomas Lynn of yours. Do you happen to know where he comes from or even who his family is? That would be a good place to begin, I should think. And then, I have to consider the possibility that your Tom isn’t just playing a canny game because he’s after our estate?”
Shocked by her father’s words, Janet spat out her astonished reply. “We’ll only ever knowif I actually ever see him again, won’t we?”
A deep frown creased Ravenscroft’s brow. “Janet, I only want to protect you from any unpleasantness. Just as I always have your entire life.”
Her sudden anger swept aside any fear she had about whatever monsters might lurk in the night.
“Protect me? You’ve made me a prisoner in my own bloody home, that’s what you’ve done!”
Ravenscroft stared intently at her, before saying, “Whatever I’ve done has always been for your own good.” But when Janet continued to stare incredulously back at him, John Ravenscroft looked away, for the first time showing some discomfort. When he finally spoke again, it is in the soft, comforting voice that Janet dimly remembered from her childhood, a tone he almost never used anymore. “Daughter, how many times must I tell you that, no matter what you may think, I do love you.”
Janet opened her mouth to hiss another sharp retort when the vehicle in front suddenly lurched forward and twisted over on its side, as if it had been hit by something quite large and especially heavy.
“No! Not again.”
In the front seat, their driver slammed on the brakes, grinding to a halt just inches from the overturned SUV in front, before yelling, “Both of you, get down!” Pulling his gun from its shoulder holster, he prepared for whatever was going to happen next. Immediately, John Ravenscroft began to calmly issue a series of commands into his mobile to the security personnel in the vehicle behind them. “No, I did not see what’s caused this. Get out of your vehicle and find out. Do not, I repeat, DO NOT call the police until we know exactly what is happening here.
“Do I make myself clear?”
Both father and daughter peered intently out at the scene of destruction in front of the car. Neither saw anything that could have caused the massive impact that jammed the lead vehicle between the front gate and the stone pillar it was no longer attached to.
At that moment, Janet felt a sharp wave of nausea and pressed her face against the cool window looking for relief.
No! No! Not now. We were almost safe…
Suddenly, she was looking at the chaotic violence outside through the Queen’seyes. The darkness that had shrouded the road around the car moments earlier was no longer black but suffused with the soft glow of twilight. The hedge along the drive and the stately trees beyond, the overturned lead vehicle, and the men trying to escape from it, all seemed over-saturated with unnatural shimmering colors.
Janet shuddered once more before being completely overwhelmed, as once again that alien presence claimed dominion over her body. Disdainfully, She buried the useless remnants of the human girl deep within the recesses of her mind. Then, only The Queen remained, watching with cruel anticipation as a dozen giant cat-like hunting beasts circled the three SUVs.
She smiled as one of The Huntsman’s great beasts slashed a long gash through the side of the overturned vehicle in front. Not able to see their attackers, the men inside began to fire their guns wildly into the air. But one by one, each man was pulled through the gaping hole on the side, their bodies torn to bloody strips by the serrated edges of the ripped metal. For a split second, they hung suspended in the air flailing their arms, their legs, as if they were children’s hand puppets. Then they were literally ripped apart by the beasts. As the blood sprayed across the tarmac and the grass beyond, She began to laugh, as if tremendously entertained by the slaughter.
Horrified by that laughter, John Ravenscroft stared across the seat in stunned disbelief. What he saw there absolutely convinced him that someone or something sat inside his daughter’s body, because whatever it was that wore Janet’s features, it most certainly was not his daughter. The creature that stared back at him barely even acknowledged his existence. Its face, possessing none of Janet’s softness, was filled with more implacable cruelty than even John Ravenscroft had to offer.
Frantically, he hissed through clenched teeth at this impossible impersonator, “Who are you? What have you done with my daughter?”
His questions remained unanswered, as the vehicle behind was abruptly lifted from the ground and slammed back down again with enough force to shatter every window in it, scattering a shower of glass across the drive. Jerking around at this explosion of destruction, John stared in horror as those men, too, were yanked from the SUV by whatever invisible force attacked them.
On the roof above him, Ravenscroft heard a hollow thump and frantically looked up, preparing for the worst. Seconds later, through blood-splattered windows, he saw a figure that he recognized from the surveillance footage as Thomas Lynn leaping toward the remnants of the third SUV. Confused, John cried out, “What is he doing here?”
Beside him, The Queen of Summer’s Twilight watched with delighted anticipation as Her Knight of the Rose stood calmly in the midst of the circling beasts, preparing for battle. A smile of cruel satisfaction lit Her face when She announced to the stunned human across from Her, “That is my Knight, my champion and my consort, come to perform his sworn duty and protect his Queen.”
To John Ravenscroft, who still saw nothing of the great beasts or the Huntsman that led their attack, Her words seemed like utter nonsense. His angry retort thundered back at Her above the mad screams of his dying men. “What? That madman must somehow be causing all this slaughter, and I’m going to stop him. Now!”
The woman who had once been his daughter Janet reached out to clutch Ravenscroft’s hand with Her own and whispered, “Do you see them now, mortal? My champion and the other? From this moment we will both be suitably entertained.”
At Her touch, Ravenscroft instantly saw the creatures that were tearing apart his well-trained force of men with so little effort.
“My god, it is real then!
“Mairi spoke true when she swore to me that there was a world other than our own, but I never for a moment believed her.
“And… Thomas, he’s trying to save us…”
Clinching the handle of the jammed door, he tried to wrench it open with all the considerable strength in his arms, to no effect.
Outside a dozen beasts, blood dripping from their enormous jaws, prowled through the grotesque tangle of bodies that littered the pavement around each vehicle. Then Ravenscroft saw a figure standing atop the overturned vehicle in the rear, a tall, thin man, dressed in black-tooled leather, holding a bright sword in each hand.
The Huntsman casually tossed one of those blades into the air, calling out as he did, “Here. I did not think it proper of me to fight you again without returning what you claim to be yours.” Thomas caught the twirling blade without pausing and leapt toward his opponent.
Still held in the Queen’s iron grip, John Ravenscroft lunged toward the front seat, desperately bellowing at his man, “The gun! Give me your gun!”
Oblivious to Ravenscroft’s command, the bewildered guard gripped his weapon firmly in both hands but couldn’t take his eyes off his dying friends.
When their heavily-built SUV shuddered and the roof and front door punched inward, shattering every windshield with the impact and covering them in a shower of glass, it was too late. The guard’s head was gripped by the jaws of a great ravening beast that only Ravenscroft could see and the whole body was flung from side to side, arms flailing uselessly.
Frantically, John Ravenscroft tore his wrist away from the Queen’s grip and lunged over the seat, both arms grabbing for the man’s gun as it fell uselessly into the pool of blood collecting in the seat below. After a mad scramble, Ravenscroft gripped the pistol in his hands and prepared to fire off as many rounds as it took to stop the impossible creature. But now he could no longer see the great beast that ravaged his driver. Only the mangled body dropped back onto the front seat, covered in fresh blood and the sharp, overwhelming scent given off by the beast, assured him that it was still there.
With a snarl, John turned back to the rear window, but the figure in dark leather was nowhere to be seen either. There were only the remnants of the SUV with dead, twisted bodies slumped on the pavement around it, and Tom swinging his sword gracefully through the empty air.
Ravenscroft bellowed, “Of course!” before lunging for the hand of what had once been his daughter. Grasping it, he saw everything again. Sweeping his cool gaze across the chaotic scene out on the driveway John brought up the gun with his free hand. Several of the beasts lay sprawled across the drive, dying, their throats sliced completely through. The remaining creatures formed a circle around both the leather-clad stranger and Tom, who continued to exchange skillful thrusts with their blades.
The Queen of Summer’s Twilight looked coldly back at John Ravenscroft. His touch, unasked for, set fire smoldering in Her eyes.
“Mortal, unhand me!”
With an easy twist of Her wrist, She freed Her hand from the human’s unwanted grasp. Then, once again, John saw nothing more significant than Thomas jumping wildly from one elegant stance to another across the top of the crumpled vehicle behind him. Only now, there were long slashes torn through his clothing that filled quickly with fresh blood.
Beside him, the Queen’s calm voice did nothing to ease Ravenscroft’s anxiety. “Foolish mortal. Do you thinkthere is anything that you can do to determine the outcome of a conflict you cannot possibly understand?”
John Ravenscroft scowled back at the alien creature sitting across from him and spat, “There’s far more that I understand about all this than you know. Now, please allow me to help your champion, if I can. Give me your hand!”
The Queen smiled coolly back at John before replying simply, “No.” Then in one smooth flowing motion, She turned away and seemed to slip easily through the car’s shattered window and walk toward her champion.
A few feet beyond, Tom rolled to his feet to see what he thought was the young mortal girl, who had won his heart standing close beside him. His eyes narrowed, though, when he saw the great hunting beasts fawning at Her feet. Her dress whipped around Her slim legs, driven by a powerful wind that touched no one else. When She spoke, Her voice was pitched soft and low, Her words not in any language heard in the mortal realm.
“It is I, Thomas. Do you not recognize me?”
Instantly, Thomas dutifully prostrated himself, “My Queen…”
Still in the car and without the Queen’s aid, John Ravenscroft only saw Thomas and the woman who had been his daughter standing in the midst of the wreckage of the two SUVs and the twisted bodies out on the drive. Certain that the carnage wasn’t finished yet he whispered to himself, “There are still more of those damned beasts and that bloody bastard who’s done his best to kill Thomas out there… somewhere close by.”
Forcing himself to be calm, John hoped for the best, as he fired off his entire clip of bullets in a tight pattern in the air, close beside where Thomas and The Queen stood.
At the sound of the gunshots, Tom turned away from The Queen to see the leather-clad figure close at his side, with his slim blade poised for a killing thrust. The Huntsman clutched his chest and stumbled back over several bodies on the tarmac. Sinking to his knees, his face twisting with agony he shrieked, fresh blood swelling from under his hand.
Although Ravenscroft couldn’t see what effect his gunshots had, he could tell by the expressions on the two that were visible, that he’d accomplished something.
Crouching low over their master and sniffing at the shoulder where the bullet was lodged, the remaining hunting creatures looked up and hissed angrily. Then, snarling, two of them lunged toward the remaining vehicle where Janet’s father was sitting. Thomas leapt to his feet, shouting, “Ravenscroft, defend yourself!” and sprinted toward the car.
Instinctively, John Ravenscroft raised the pistol again, but each rapid pull of the trigger only struck an empty chamber as the invisible creatures leapt toward him. He felt their huge bodies strike the door of the armored SUV and then could only imagine their great jaws open and ready to snatch the gun away, and with it, his arm. But a sharp, commanding voice rang in the air, “Enough. This game is over!”
Immediately, the beasts stopped their attack and slunk away, spitting out their impotent fury.
Stepping gracefully over the sprawled bodies of Ravenscroft’s men, The Queen stood, staring down at The Huntsman as he writhed in agony at her feet. For a moment, She gazed at him, knowing, as She did that for any creature of the Fae the touch of iron would quickly prove fatal. Her hand gently stroked the prickly spines of the hunting beast that brushed close by her side, calming it. “Take your master home. His death will not be long now, and it would not be seemly to leave him here in this dreary land where these wretched mortals dwell.”
The Huntsman, though, looked up at Tom and snarled viciously through clenched teeth, “Know this, Sir Knight, no matter Her words, I will survive. I must. This hunt is merely delayed by my wounds, not ended before its proper outcome.”
Opening his great jaws, the largest of the beasts carefully cradled The Huntsman’s limp body between his bloody teeth and backed away. The remaining beasts followed its lead, their heads still bowed, and disappeared into the night.
Tom turned, determined to give chase, but at that moment, Janet finally succeeded in beating away the mind of The Queen. Collapsing onto the tarmac she cried out, “Tom! Help me!”
And there, in the midst of ravaged human bodies soaking the hard pavement with their life’s blood, Thomas knelt and wrapped his arms around the trembling girl, doing his best to comfort her.
When he felt a heavy hand fall on his shoulder, he looked up, startled. John Ravenscroft stared straight at them both. Through weary eyes, Janet tried to focus, “Hello, Father. You’re okay then?”
He held her gaze for a moment, confirming to himself that it really was his daughter Janet looking back at him now, then he breathed a long sigh of relief.
Clutching at Tom’s strong arms Janet began to cry, “You’re safe! All of you are safe.”
Concerned, Thomas gently stroked her shoulders before speaking. “You spoke again with my Queen’s voice, and in the language of Faerie…”
He was taken aback, though, by Janet’s violent reaction to his words. “Your Queen? Fuck your bloody Queen. Why the hell is she doing this to me?”
Her father looked down at her, concern and fear shifting across his face. “Janet, calm yourself. Without this Queen, whoever she may be, none of us would be alive now…”
Thomas held her tighter, and thinking only of the advantage that The Queen had given them, spoke hastily, “Was it so terrible?” Janet’s face twisted with fear and loathing when she answered, “Yes! Yes it was. No matter how hard I fought it, she controlled my body, my mind… my whole self. I feel like she…like she was violating me, Tom. It was horrible!”
Looking at the destruction around them, John added quietly, “We may be alive, but my men were not so lucky.”
There was a low moan then from the front of the car, still mostly intact, as a blood-spattered figure struggled to his feet, swaying unsteadily. Janet’s father moved quickly to keep his chief of staff from falling back to the tarmac. Holding the dazed man’s arm, John attempted to shake off the horror that surrounded them, “Ah, Mr. MacIntosh, good to have you with us still.”
Ravenscroft’s head of security struggled to wipe the blood away from a long gash on his forehead with the cuff of his shirt before answering. “Yes sir, I am.”
In the distance they all heard the steady scream of multiple sirens moving rapidly closer to the estate. John Ravenscroft asserted his usual command of any situation and quietly but firmly explained to each of them what they were to do next, in a voice that was very used to being obeyed.
“Mac, would you be so good as to go to the office and secure this evening’s surveillance tapes? It would not be wise to let prying eyes actually see the unfortunate events that I’m about to lie so well about.” The still dazed man nodded his assent and quickly picked his way through the scattered debris, stepping carefully over the bodies of his men, and walked briskly up to his office alongside the garage.
Turning back to Thomas and his daughter, he noticed that Janet’s body has begun to shake uncontrollably, and calmly explained to Thomas, “My daughter is going into shock. We need to get her into the house as soon as possible. I have a more than adequate medical facility there to deal with her injuries. I just wish that I hadn’t given my physician and his staff the evening off. Still, he is on call.”
Looking curiously at the man that stood beside him, holding his only daughter in his arms, he asked, “Will you take my daughter inside for me?
John Ravenscroft turned his head back toward the shrill sound of sirens that are now much closer than they’d been just moments before and added, “I’ll join you there as soon as possible.” Pausing for a brief moment, he considered his next words carefully. “We have so much to tell each other, don’t we?”
When Tom still didn’t move but simply continued to stare back at him, Ravenscroft offered a more compelling explanation. “I am staying here to wait for the police to arrive. I will offer them something logical, however far from the truth, to help explain this tragedy.
“But you,” and he looked Tom straight in the eye, emphasizing his words, “you should not be here when they arrive. First they will ask you questions that you can’t or won’t answer, and then they’ll run a background check on you. When they find, just as I did, that there’s nothing in any database to tell them who you are, they’ll throw you into a cell quicker than you think possible.
“So go. Now! I can take care of this. I’ve had plenty of practice.”
“If that is your wish.” With Janet gathered in his arms, Tom turned to walk through the ruined gates and on up to the great house.