© Charles Vess 2019
Janet never knew how long it took for their company to travel through the Queen’s great forest. Only the moon above them, slowly waxing greater and greater until it was full and strong spoke to any passage of time. Their steps, though, quickened as they saw, all around them, the once dead land of The Queen become lush with new life. Each blackened tree or withered bush and briar, sported small, fresh buds, shy with the first green breath of life after so long a season of death.
As if provoked by the burgeoning life all around Janet’s dreams became astonishingly vivid. Once she awakened, sitting bolt upright, her eyes still haunted by the cruel visions that had helplessly unreeled in her sleep. It was Mother Hainter who clutched the still shaking girl to her breast.
Uncomfortable as she was sharing such intimate knowledge with a mother she hardly knew, Janet whispered to the witch, “I… saw Thomas and The Queen again. They were together… in Her bed. Naked… their bodies entwined. I was in that bed, with them… for what seemed like forever…” The ancient crone wisely said nothing, just wrapped her arms around the young mortal woman, trying to ease the misery from her as best she could.
But in such close company nothing was ever truly a secret. Listening quietly to Janet’s whispered confession, Thomas felt guilt tear at his heart as if it were trying to stop it from beating.
Acutely aware of the icy wall that Janet had constructed between Thomas and herself, the two older women watched helplessly as the Knight tried wordlessly to seek her forgiveness with a hundred unasked for acts of kindness and generosity. After each, the older women looked at other, shaking their heads at the foolishness of youth and subtly contrived to bring the two together whenever they could. Occasionally, when there was no other recourse, the two did share words. But their conversations always spiraled into anger on Janet’s part as Thomas stumbled through yet another futile attempt to explain what his sworn duty to The Queen was.
“My heart, though, is yours. It will be with you always, wherever you go. But I will not abandon that which I have sworn my honor to protect, I would only be a lesser man if I did so.”
Unable to let go of her anger, Janet clinched her fists and hissed, “Your Queen! You mean the bitch that you still love well enough to throw your life away for?”
“Janet, full well do you know that that love ceased to be, long, long ago.”
The young woman simply ignored his declaration, “Thomas, why do you persist with this? She’s dead! Your Queen is dead. I was there. I watched Her loyal subjects gorging themselves on Her body until there was nothing left.”
Thomas’ face drained of color before he said, “They only did what it is in the nature of this Land to do… indeed, as do I.”
Looking in his eyes Janet saw only confusion and wrenching pain, but that didn’t prevent her from spitting, “Are you telling me now that you’ll owe your service to this new Queen, whoever She might be?
Thomas lowered his head, saying nothing.
“Well are you? Because then you might as well have joined the other creatures at their feast!”
His head jerked up, a look of horror in his eyes. But when he opened his mouth to reply Mother Hainter interrupted, “Janet, your Knight is right. A new Queen will be born. The death o’ the old ever gives way ta the birth o’ the new. Always! It is the way o’ this Land. Any land, even yours, mortal. Ponder on that, if you will.”
There were many questions that a mother and daughter should have been eager to ask one another after a lifetime of separation, yet they all remained unspoken. Consumed with anger at what seemed to her to be a senseless choice by Thomas, Janet remained silent, endlessly repeating their arguments in her head and heart.
Not long after, Mother Hainter called to Thomas and asked him to go and gather wood for their fire. When he hesitated she cackled, “Be quick about it, dearie one. For I must brew more o’ my herbs ta help keep the strength in us all.”
After he climbed to his feet and walked listlessly into the now dense woods around them, the bottle witch joined the two mortal women. “Forgive me, I canna’ but help ta overhear your angry words, Janet.” She smiled at the older human whose face was drawn and worried, then looked searchingly into Janet’s eyes. “That story o’ our lives is a tangled, messy web, difficult ta make sense o’ even at the best o’ times.” The old woman smiled broadly, “We would all do well ta remember that as best we ken.”
The ancient bottle witch wearily pushed aside the satchel that contained the fragile rose shoot that must, at all costs, continue to grow and prosper under her care. Its tender stalks, already colored with a deep reddish purple curled over the confines of the leather satchel. They were now studded with minute but very sharp thorns that had left long, bloody gouges on the older woman’s wrists and arms. Mother Hainter began to rub a healing salve into her lacerated, nut-brown skin, smiling in the relief.
Mairi’s eyes widened with concern before offering her assistance, “Can I help?”
“Nae, dear one. This is my task an’ I kin ask nae other ta share in it.”
Her eyes troubled, Mairi asked, “Oh, you mean this new Queen you spoke of? Is the little plant much trouble then?
“Yes, small as it is it weighs on these old bones.” The witch grunted then thinking of the task ahead “But I am equal ta it for I must be.”
When the witch finished ministering her salve, both she and Mairi looked carefully at Janet, who still sat deep in her own thoughts. The bottle witch spoke quiet, carefully chosen words that startled the young woman. “There be few among us who would keep their pledged word as honorably as Thomas. He has made a choice that is perhaps hard for you ta fathom, but nae for me.”
Janet laughed bitterly, “His promise seems absurd to me.”
Her mother added, “Dear, you really don’t give him credit for everything that he’s done for us.” Then she smiled sweetly as she continued, “Your Thomas seems like a good man… so much like John, at least as I once knew your father.”
Janet’s sharp laugh interrupted her mother’s nostalgic reflections, “Those two… alike?” Then remembering the John Ravenscroft of those last few days, “We’ll have to see, won’t we.” Looking at the bottle witch, she continued, “That is, if we ever get home.”
In answer, Mother Hainter gave them a promise with no closure, “In good time, my sweetlings. All in good time.”
Mairi looked downcast at the witch’s answer and longing filled her eyes, “I’d like to see my John again…feel his arms around me.”
An edge of anger gathered again in Janet’s words as she stared straight at the bottle witch, “Will we never be done with this Queen of yours?”
The witch chortled, “My Queen? I call nae one Queen. Or King for that matter.” Then laughing at their confusion, she continued, “I only try ta heal what needs healing. That is my duty, mortal. And never have I shirked it, though the years grow long and the stars grow dim and old. This land needs it’s Queen, and so I will do my part in restoring Her ta that purpose.”
Mother Hainter paused for a moment before continuing, her face looking haggard, “But I am the last o’ my kind. When I pass away into the west, who will remain ta help heal those that need it? Who will put back together what has been torn asunder?”
The older mortal woman tentatively suggested, “The foxes perhaps?”
“Nay, those twa are ootside any story that ever was…”
Abruptly she shook off her melancholy thoughts and chortled, “But I tire o’ talking about my own wee self… we have a tale before us ta untangle and set ta a proper ending, do we not?”
Mairi gestured around them at the forest that shimmered with strange flowing colors that weren’t suited for human eyes to comprehend, “Even so, I’d very much like to return to my world… my home, again.”
The witch grinned, “You will, dearie one, I think I can promise you that at least.
Rising to her feet she continued, “Now, our knight has been lang in the forest and I fear he may be lost. Rest your weary bones here until I return.” Then she looked straight at Janet, “We have need o’ all our company if we are ta survive our journey together.”
A short time later the ancient bottle witch came upon the Knight of the Rose kneeling despondent in the midst of a small clearing. Strewn about him, as if dropped there with no regard for picking them up again, was a scattered armload of dry branches gathered for their fire. His hands were buried deep in the drift of dead leaves as if seeking to grasp the vibrant new life that pulsed beneath. Mother Hainter’s nostrils filled with the fragrant aroma of tender green and growing things that still remained under the protective layers of rust-colored leaves.
Hearing the crack of a twig beneath her feet, Thomas looked up, his face twisted with misery. “Will Janet never understand that I cannot simply walk away from my pledge to The Queen?”
“Nae, Thomas, she will not!
“She was born into a much different world than your own. Raised ta understand different values entirely. Somehow you both must bridge the divide betwixt yourselves if you wish ta live together as one.”
Thomas gestured out past the gentle swaying of the trees that encircled the glade. “Out there, in the lands beyond this eternal twilight, I was raised to be the leader of my clan. For all of my short life there, I was taught and truly believed that my worth as a man would be judged on the certainty of my given word.
“That word when solemnly pledged, was never given lightly or in vain boast, serving only to flatter the one who spoke them.
“I saw the respect and loyalty that my own father’s words set in the eyes and hearts of all those that called him Laird. And, I wished the same for myself. Learning from his example, I knew that I must hold to any promise given, no matter the hardship that choice brought me.
“Life, though, in my highlands was hard with few simple pleasures to offer, even for the heir to its Laird. And as well, the Kirk held sway over all our lives with an iron hand, frowning especially on all things that spoke of earthly pleasures.
“But I was young, with a young man’s desires and so there was a girl –Anne, the blacksmith’s daughter. We were enamored. And I, foolish and innocent, pledged my life to hers without first seeking consent from my family or priest.
“When father heard of it, his wrath knew no bounds. Furious that his only son would throw his future away by pledging himself to a woman of such low social degree, he locked me in a tower room and hung the only key from his own neck.
“I spent long wearying days in that prison. So, at first I was relieved when they came for me, but they roughly bound my arms and dragged me into the church where I heard both Anne and my own name read at the top of a long list of others that our priest had found wanting of our Lord’s good grace. Any so named would no longer feel the welcome arms of the clan until they confessed to their proscribed sin. Father’s insistence that I break my vow then and there to the girl was crueler yet, and to my mind an even greater sin. When I would not, he turned her family out of their holdings, banishing them from his lands.
“I was consumed by righteous anger, refusing to speak to my father, my mother, any of my family, wretchedly whiling my days away in that tower.
“Until a day came when they fetched me once again, put me to horse and sounded the hunt to begin. My father and I rode out together then for the last time. Perhaps he thought that my time alone on that tower had softened my heart towards him. Or feeling the entire clan round about me, I might come to realize the scope of what I was losing, I know not.
“Over the course of that long day my fury did not wane. But even that anger did not blind me to my father’s folly. In his eagerness for the kill, again and again he took his exhausted mount over hedge and fence that were far too high. We approached another, one that I knew to have a steep bank on its blind side. So, even bound, I turned my mount, cutting him off, and made that difficult jump myself. I landed hard, slipping from the saddle. I expected nothing but the hard ground to greet me, but instead the Queen of Summer’s Twilight brought me safely to a different place.
“She and Her court utterly bespelled me by the freedom that it offered.
“Consumed by my lust for the beauty of its Queen and the promise her eternally youthful body held, I cast aside any thought of my lost love, my family, and my clan. Reveling in the sensual joys of the flesh, I sought forgetfulness in Her warm and open arms.
“Yet eventually, even there in Eternal Faerie, the un-numbered years grew long, and my heart began to ache. I knew not for what. Until you set me to walking between the worlds and I breathed again the sweet mortal air of my highlands.
“When I saw once more the raw fire that lit my fellow highlander’s eyes and the avid curiosity that filled their hearts, it called out to me.
“I knew then that I truly belonged in the land whence I was born.
“Even so, I had pledged my service to the recovery of the Queen. Having forsworn my word once, I was not eager to do so again, certain that I would be truly damned if I did.
“That is, until my quest led me to the mortal named Janet Ravenscroft, and then all my certainty was for naught.
“My first attraction to her deepened quickly into love, and it seemed that she felt the same for me as well. Yet now—only confusion and anger lie between us.
“How then, witch, am I to serve the Queen and the woman I love at the same time?”
“A hard question indeed ta answer, Sir Knight. Let us both think on it, shall we?”