© Charles Vess 2019
When at last the companions emerged from the great forest to stand on a hill overlooking the vast rolling plain that swept toward The Queen’s city, Thomas’ heart leaped. Below, the blackened grass and withered trees were verdant once more. The gentle rolling hills spread for as far as his eyes could see, laced with sparkling streams and stands of towering oak in full leaf. Crowding the sky above, birds of every hue and color filled the freshening air with their sweet song.
Considering the vast distance there was yet to travel, the bottle witch shifted her burden uncomfortably from one shoulder to the other. For the first time, Mairi saw the raw red welts left from its straps and she asked her companion, “Surely now, you will allow me to help?”
Mother Hainter turned to the mortal woman, a fragile smile on her face, “Nae dear. This is my burden ta bear for as long as I may.” Then looking at the other companions, she grinned, “The sooner started, the sooner there.”
However, the Moon above waned from full to crescent as the small company crossed the seemingly endless plain as quickly as they were able. As they drew closer to the Queen’s City, they were surprised to discover that the grass around it was still withered, the trees blackened, and the walls rising before them cracked and broken.
Trying to push aside the despair he felt at seeing the now familiar destruction, Thomas’ quickened his pace and was the first to walk through the ruined gates of the city. Janet looked away from his tortured face, saddened in spite of herself by Thomas’ obvious torment. She turned to the bottle witch, “All that happened back there by that awful river of blood, didn’t it mean anything? Was our effort for nothing, escaping his blighted kingdom, crossing that damned river, The Queen’s death, everything! Was it for bloody nothing?”
The ancient witch chose to offer no answer to Janet’s plea. Instead, straining under her burden, she squinted her one good eye up at Janet and cackled, “Well, what did you expect, dearie? This city is but a reflection o’ its ruler. It canna thrive again until She lives once more.” And gently stroking the satchel with its precious contents that weighed at her body so, she continued, “That is our purpose here. And when it is done, then we will all be free ta go where we please.”
With a low muttered groan, Mother Hainter struggled to lower the satchel carefully onto the marble paving at her feet. She stood above it, swaying with relief and exhaled. All of them looked down at the weathered pouch that had hung from her shoulders for the length of their journey. And they saw for the first time that the suppleness of the leather had faded, leaving it dry and cracked, almost unable to support its awkward burden.
Strong purple canes burst through every seam to wreath the small leather satchel in curling stalks, lush with new leaves and sharp with hardened thorns. Above it the witch’s aching shoulders sagged from exhaustion. She slowly flexed her gnarled hands, caked with blood from a multitude of fresh wounds lacerating her flesh, trying to work through their numbness.
The silver foxes circled the growing plant warily. They sniffed at it and then filled the still air with their excited barks. Mother Hainter grinned ruefully. ‘I’m glad that someone is happy.” Then the witch’s unexpected request startled the Knight. “Thomas, this new Queen grows too heavy, even for me, and these old bones must have their rest. Will you no carry Her for me now?”
Mairi cried, “Why ask Thomas? When I’ve offered to help so many times?” The old witch smiled and cupped her hand under the woman’s chin. “Because my dear, he is The Knight o’ the Rose, and it is his duty ta serve The Queen, so it is fitting that he take up the task now.”
For his part, Thomas eagerly accepted, grateful for anything that would distract him from the awful spectacle of destruction that loomed around them. He knelt beside the small leather satchel and solemnly intoned, “I swear by all that I hold honorable to fulfill the task that you have set me.” Carefully Thomas slid the straps of the satchel over his broad shoulder and lifting it for the first time, winced at the unexpected weight that the small parcel brought.
Afterwards, they made their way through the labyrinth of alleys and avenues that led into the great city. On their way they saw many who must have been fellow captives in the dungeons of The Lord of Darkness and of Death. They had kept their promise and returned to The Queen’s city, but without Her glory to replenish its spirit, their feeble attempts to repair what had been broken was inadequate at best.
When the company finally reached the throne room at the heart of the city, the news of their coming had spread, yet the crowd that filled it to overflowing was ominously silent. The great hall had been swept clean and the shattered tile underfoot polished and shining. The throne room itself, with its towering vaulted ceilings, was choked with every manner of Lord and Lady of the Fae, all hoping to celebrate their Queen’s triumphant arrival.
But as Janet looked closer, she saw that their garments were shabby, their faces still haggard from their long confinement, and everyone within the great hall stared silently, uncomprehendingly, at the little witch, the silver foxes, and the two human women that stood beside their Knight of the Rose. Soon, though, a rising murmur of discontent began to echo through the hall. Thomas looked into many faces that he recognized from his long years spent in Her court and saw there only impatience and anger.
As he eased the satchel from his aching, already blistered shoulder, its frayed strap ripped from his grasp, and the parcel fell to the floor as if its contents weighed many times their actual size. The brittle leather of the pouch split open, spilling its precious burden out onto the marble floor. Thomas’ body shuddered with desperate relief on the release of the great burden, but he stared down, horrified, at the plant’s tender shoots splayed out on the tile at his feet, their fragile roots exposed to the air. The Knight cried out, certain that he had failed to keep his oath once more. “No!”
Terrified by Tom’s expression of utter loss, Janet moved toward him as he fell to his knees, his breath coming in short, violent bursts. Ignoring the chorus of desperate voices around them, whose only concern was the return of their Queen, Janet crouched defensively beside Thomas as his own arms circled protectively around the fragile new growth.
No one there noticed when the foxes began to chase each other, flickering past Thomas, Janet, Mairi, and the bottle witch until they become a long, continuous blur of soft silver light. When they halted, instead of foxes, two elegant ageless women, their long silver hair bound at each brow by simple gold bands, stood before the assembled multitude of the Fae Court.
“It is time…”
“for our part…”
“in this story…”
“at long, long last.”
The two women knelt by each other’s side and reverently lifted the fragile plant from the remnants of the leather satchel that had protected it for so long. Standing again, their slim, ageless bodies began to grow taller and taller, till they towered above all in the court. Held in their gentle hands, the small rose shoots began to grow and flourish, sending out a cascade of curling purple stalks along with a multitude of glistening red blooms that trailed beneath them.
Aellin and Delian gazed into each other’s eyes and then down at the crowd, waiting for them to grow silent once more. When they spoke, their voices were soft and warm, lightly hovering in the air of the vast hall, yet all those assembled there heard the two women’s words as if they were whispered to them alone.
“You have spent…
“in a place…
“but once more…
“in the Queen’s own bright city.”
“and your city…
“for her coming.
“with gladness in your hearts…
“and songs of celebration on your lips.”
Silently heeding the two women’s declaration, the court slowly emptied of all save the companions that had, against all odds, brought The Queen back to Her rightful place so that She might once again sit Her high throne and restore Her Kingdom to its fullness. Squinting with her one good eye at Thomas and the others, Mother Hainter cackled, “Now that was interesting, you ken?”
Then looking up at the towering figures of Aellin and Delian the witch cried, “Come! It is time we were about our business, is it not?” She took Thomas’s arm, noting he was still staring in wonder at the two women who sometimes were foxes, too. The witch remarked, “You, Sir Knight, should be o’ gae cheer. For in the heart o’ Her kingdom She is too great a burden for any save such as they.”
Then the ancient witch shifted her own aching shoulders once more. “Ta Her garden then. There is much still ta do.”
Awestruck, Janet and her mother quietly followed the towering figures through the vast, empty hallways of the palace of The Queen. They passed elegant rooms beyond counting, all now standing empty, waiting for Her return. Although the broad hallways were cleared of rubble and each marble column and tiled floor was polished and shining, the decay that had set in during Her long madness still leached away at the enduring splendor that should have enveloped everything they passed.
Janet paused on the very highest of a series of broad terraces that stepped, layer after layer, down the steep hill below her and looked out at the sacred wood that has been a sanctuary to The Queen for time out of mind. From that high place, she saw what had once been an enormous wood of fragrant flowering rose and ancient apple trees was now devoid of any sign of life. “What a bloody dreary view this is.”
Then, noticing that her companions were already several terraces below, Janet followed, hurrying down the broad shallow steps that connected each level to the other.
She found them again, standing in a wide courtyard at the heart of the sprawling, unnaturally quiet garden. Four wide avenues bisected it, running north and south, east and west. In its center was what had been a fountain, now dry and choked with dead leaves and shriveled apples.
Beside her, Thomas stared hard at the fountain’s intricately carved surface, noticing the tier on tier of figures, both animal and Fae that danced across it. He tried, without success, to put aside vivid memories of languishing here with The Queen as he saw the stars wheel across the twilight sky above. The glistening water of that fountain had once delighted his ear, and indeed, it had brought joy to any blest to hear it.
Towering above the blackened, stunted trees close by on every side, Delian and Aellin knelt on either side of the fountain.
Reverently, the two women used their long, elegant fingers to dig a shallow hole in the dry, gray earth near its base. Devoid though it was of any life, they placed their precious charge there.
Both fox-women bowed their heads, and clasping their hands together, they slowly leaned toward each other until their foreheads touched. Faces suspended just over the surface of the soil, their mouths opened, and as one, they exhaled a single soft, sweet breath. At once, the dead earth transformed, becoming rich, moist, fragrant compost.
Then, slowly, as if some impossible part of each were now gone, the two figures diminished, slipping back into their animal selves. Soon they were once more only two small silver foxes, their fur gleaming in the soft twilight, sitting on their haunches amongst the rest of that company.
Her eyes wide with wonder, Janet clasped her mother’s hand.
And a little apart from them all, Thomas carefully watched the bottle witch scurry about, preparing for her part in the ceremony.
A faint fragrance of new sprung roses caressed the air then, making Thomas smile with sudden, vivid memory. He remembered his first days at the Fae Court, his senses aflame with the warmth of The Queen’s embrace and the intense, swirling color that saturated everything he looked upon.
The Queen beguiled me then with all manner of sights and foods and gifts beyond imagining.
Though bestowing Her eternal body, wondrous beyond measure, was, I thought, the greatest gift of all.
How then did the wonder of that glorious body and Her court grow so stale?
Why did I long so to see the lands of my birth once more?
Indeed, why did I so readily fall in love with this mortal girl when I had all this to compare her to?
And looking about him, Thomas remembered The Queen’s palace and Her gardens as they were before Her madness, resplendent with roses and endless polished marble halls.
Everywhere I looked, there was beauty beyond measure.
But when all that beauty is restored, I will still gladly leave it for a life in the mortal realms with my Janet.
He studied the young girl standing next to him, as she waited anxiously, hand-in-hand with her mother for whatever may come next. Although he was certain that she paled in comparison to the eternal beauty of The Queen of All Summer’s Twilight, he knew he’d made the right choice.
Heart will speak to heart, and gladly I have given mine to hers.
Would, that she could forgive me…
Suddenly Thomas felt an almost tangible weight of some profound but unseen presence, and moments later the air seemed to tremble with it, as if it were anxiously awaiting the coming of something desired beyond all things.
Whatever promise lay hidden round about them it quickly began to rise to the surface, called there by the slow, keening tune that now trembled from Mother Hainter’s weathered lips. It was a soft, slow song in a language, which had rarely been heard since before there was ever a moon and stars in the sky above.
Knowing full well the potency of that song, the silver foxes began to dance intricate patterns that twisted in and out and around the companions, scattering the rotting husks of everything that once grew in the garden under their soft, padded paws.
Withered stalks of brittle grass and fern began to pulse with subtle color, lifting whole again from the renewed earth and swayed gracefully in the air as if dancing before a new Queen as yet unseen by any there. Astonished, Thomas watched as new flowers unfurled from each fresh stalk, then bloomed magnificently, in a profusion of white and orange and red petals.
The withered trees, so densely packed around them, begin to sway violently, in a wind that no one there could feel. Their blackened trunks returned to life; their twisting limbs pushed forth green and growing leaves that suddenly transformed the dead garden into a living space, vibrant with life.
Out of this new greenwood came bird song joyfully lifted once more into the air and the cry of an owl. The soft stirring of a family of mice was quickly followed by the low humming of bees, and from deep within the heart of that sacred wood, the quiet song of the green man, came to life once more.
Turning, Thomas watched with delight as from the ground, where the small rose was planted, a multitude of purple canes rose, then bent, twisted and curled again. Fiercely clinging to the nearby stone of the fountain, they snaked across its surface and burst forth in wild clusters of red, red roses and a profusion of rich purple leaves that covered the delicate carvings beneath. Continuing, they twined over and about and around the high fountain, creating a lush, fragrant bower. And then, stepping from the soft, dappled shadows cast by those new-sprung leaves, there came an infant with long hair trailing into the fresh green grass. Roses, trembling with dew, wreathed her brow.
With each new step the child took, She transformed as rapidly as the vegetation around her, maturing from infant to young girl and finally to a radiant golden-skinned woman who stood amongst them, cloaked in glory, unaware of Her own shining nakedness.
Barking their joy and delight, Aellin and Delian leaped through the thicket of twisting rose canes that now towered high above all that stood there in the garden.
The eyes of the newly born woman opened and slowly focused on the world round about Her. Then, on seeing Thomas, a delighted smile of recognition lit Her face. When She called out to him, though, Her voice was shaded with only a pale echo of Her usual authority, for now it was filled with a generous, beguiling tone that had never before come easily to The Queen of Summer’s Twilight.
“Sir knight… my heart rejoices to see you here… but why… why is my body so weak? My mind so confused?”
Still the Knight of the Rose bowed low before the beautiful woman, acknowledging Her as his Queen out of respect and fear as well, but no longer with unconditional love.
“Lady, my heart celebrates that you walk once more amongst us.”
Suffused with the pleasure his acknowledgement brought, She gazed down upon Her consort. Then for a moment, She turned Her gaze on his companions and briefly considered each of them. But Her interest was more captivated by the garden round about them with its abundant rose blossoms. And just above them, the apple trees were crowned with thick, fresh green leaves, laced with wave after wave of white, sweet smelling blossoms that showered upon the ground to leave each supple limb heavy-laden with red, glistening fruit.
Looking again at Her knight, She spoke softly. “What strange visions I have, filled with so much pain and torment and darkness. All about me the earth was packed close, and above, no moon at all.” She passed one delicate hand across Her pale, green eyes as if to clear them and then leaned close into Thomas, kissing him full on the lips.
Quickly breaking the kiss, he stepped back, carefully studying this Queen’s features. Thomas tried but failed to recognize the woman he had once been so consumed by. Yet with each passing moment, She gathered to Herself more aspects of that once and future Queen. Her soft, innocent face hardened, and Her mouth curved in a cruel, satisfied smile before She spoke again, “What visions indeed… have you been unfaithful to me, Thomas?”
In supplication, Her knight bowed his head so that he didn’t see the sudden leap of hope in Janet’s face when he finally answered, “I have wrought only the duty owed a Queen by any knight in Her service. Much though, has happened since last we spoke. I would speak to you of it.”
Coolly She laid Her slender fingers over his lips and looked long and hard at Janet before cupping Thomas’ chin with one slim hand. Then, drawing a single razor sharp nail across his cheek, casually leaving behind a deep, bloody gash, She said, “Indeed my memories of recent days are as insubstantial as passing mist, so I would have you tell me all that has come to pass here, and in the mortal lands you’ve spent so much time in of late.”
Another and another and another deep furrow joined the first cut across his check and neck as the Queen continued to stare sidelong at Janet’s horrified face. Her keen enjoyment at making the mortal girl turn away left a deep smile of satisfaction etched across Her face.
Mairi stepped closer to her daughter just as Janet’s anger boiled over, “This? This is the thanks your knight receives from you for helping to restore your life? He and this witch have all but destroyed themselves bringing you here, and now you offer only this useless cruelty as a reward. Thomas has already bloody suffered more than enough in your damned service!”
With steadily rising anger to match Janet’s, The Queen studied the young woman, “Mortal, my rewards are earned. They are not for those who may have once done so but no more.”
Reaching out, Mother Hainter gripped, Janet’s hand in her own and with a subtle nod of her head, silenced the girl. Then preparing for the worst, the bottle witch turned back to The Queen. “My Lady, she is nae but a mortal, unused ta speaking in the manner o’ your court. Forgive her rashness, I beg you.”
Helpless in the grip of her anger, Janet wrenched her hand from the witch’s grasp and through gritted teeth, hissed, “This bloody bitch owes me, and I’m going to collect!”
Before The Queen was able to respond, Mother Hainter spoke again, quietly, reasonably, understanding that this new-formed queen was as yet unable to call upon all the considerable resources and wisdom that Her past lives would soon grant Her. “Lady, even now, as we tarry in this garden, the Dark Lord waits impatiently at your gates. It is the new moon, and with its coming, you promised him the freedom o’ your court. And he is most eager ta speak with you.”
With no wish to distract Herself from the pleasure this casual cruelty had brought Her, The Queen hissed, “But this mortal girl troubles me so…”
The bottle witch shrewdly positioned herself between The Lady and the mortal woman before speaking again. “Please, there is much for you ta do and learn and little time ta school you in it, if you are ta prepare for the Lord’s coming.”
The Queen of Summer’s Twilight stared icily at Janet until, with a wave of Her long, elegant hand, She dismisses the mortal from Her thoughts. Turning, She walked back into the palace, followed closely by the witch as well as the two silver foxes.
At the top of a short flight of stairs, She turned back. “Thomas, attend me. I will have need of my Knight of the Rose and soon, I suspect.”
As Thomas meekly followed, Janet found her own simmering anger hard to restrain. Her fists clinched and her mouth hardened. So she was startled by the gentle stroke of soft fingers along her cheek. Turning, she saw her mother standing close by, looking up at her with clear, loving eyes.
And, with a sharp cry, Janet pulled her mother into her arms and wept.
Two more chapters will be posted tomorrow.