© Charles Vess
Stretched beyond the limits of her strength, Janet collapsed unconscious into Tom’s arms. Gently laying her on the ground, he anxiously gazed down at her worn face.
Beside them, Mairi opened her eyes, and for the first time in too long, looked out at a world that should have been free from the taint of her madness. But what Mairi saw was the very world she’d looked at for the last eighteen years. With a moan she curled into a fetal ball, soft whimpering sobs wracked her body.
Her cries caused Janet to stir and then reach out for the older woman’s hand. Blinking away her exhaustion, the young girl smiled, “Mother. It’s me… your daughter… it’s Janet.”
Heart spoke to heart, and Mairi, looking at Janet knew her for her daughter no matter how many years had passed. The older woman reached out for her daughter until both, still overcome with weariness, curled their bodies protectively around each other and fell into a profound sleep.
Not far from them, Mother Hainter brushed aside a scattering of shriveled apple husks before she sat beside the two foxes, gently stroking their soft fur. The ancient witch’s stare was fixed on The Queen, who still stood on the river’s bank, seemingly lost in thought. Perhaps She contemplated all that had been lost to Her in the long years of madness.
The root witch mused shrewdly, “Such generous promises you make, my Lady.” Then, squinting at Janet, the bottle witch considered the mortal girl’s measure. “That was well done twixt you and The Queen, but words, even those spoken under oath, can be twisted, especially with tha practice o’ a thousand times a thousand years that this Queen has lived.”
Thomas, too, stared at The Queen. His long experience with both Her cruelty and Her anger filled him with foreboding. However, the guilt that still consumed Tom’s heart for abandoning his sworn duty to this Queen paled beside his growing love for the mortal girl. Concern filled his thoughts as he asked, “Witch woman, what must we do to restore my Janet?”
“Och, she’ll be fine you ken. She simply needs ta rest and then ta heal, sir knight. And nurturing, that is my job. It is why I endure this dreadful place and the ungrateful creatures that fill it.”
Kneeling beside Janet, the witch ran her gnarled hands over the girl’s limbs, carefully examining the stricken mortal. After a moment, she looked up at Thomas and smiled, “Her effort ta contain the Queen’s willful mind, even for so little a time, has taken its toll on her. But your lady has such strength as I have seldom seen in a mortal before. Still, she would be all the better for a few drops of healing tincture.”
Thomas looked hard at Mother Hainter, “Do you have such a potion, little mother?”
“Alas, my bottles are empty. Only the knowledge o’ filling them with what is proper can be found on me this day.”
Looking behind them at the dense forest beyond, she mused, “And for as far as my good eye can see, The Queen’s wood is bereft o’ any life within it.”
Pausing, she nodded toward the Queen and whispered, “But that may change soon enough…”
Around Her feet, a rush of life flowed steadily into the earth. Small tendrils twisted and turned and grew and crawled across the ground, unfolding in a multitude of minute, fresh new leaves amongst the scattered litter of brittle flowers and dead grass. And then, as if to seal whatever bargain The Queen had made with the land that She called Her own, the first bright notes of birdsong filled the air. Then, further off, deep in the withered forest it was followed by the bellowing of a great stag.
Soon, small waves of life began to pulse from where She stood, transforming the withered grass at all their feet, sending fresh green shoots up in a tangled profusion of new and abundant growth. Newly born flowers tipped toward The Queen, as if their unfolding petals honored Her with their vivid color. The bottle witch grinned at what she witnessed taking place all around them. “Och then, I will go now, Sir Knight an’ see what there is ta find.” Then, without so much as a backward glance, she disappeared into the great wood that had now begun to breathe with renewed life.
Thomas cradled Janet’s head in his lap. Beside them her mother stirred as if new life was awakening the senses of all it touched. Mairi’s eyes opened again as memories of everything that had happened to her began to flow through her thoughts. She turned, then, to smile gratefully at her daughter and began to sing.
“Then he took out his pipes to play,
But sore was his heart with weal and woe,
At first he played the notes of harm,
And then he played the notes of joy.
And then he played the good gay reel,
That might make a sick heart heal.”
In a blur of silver, the two foxes circle them, once, twice, three times, before dropping to the ground and alertly cocking their long soft ears.
Delian spoke first. “Your song…”
“It delights us so.”
“Yes, it does!”
Their sing-song voices offered no distraction for Thomas, who stared silently down at Janet’s sleeping face in his lap. Wishing that he could do more to help her recover, he ran his hands over her disheveled hair as she tossed uneasily. But when Janet’s eyes flickered open and she saw who was above, she struggled, however weakly, to get out of Thomas’ arms before collapsing once again into unconsciousness.
Her actions baffled Thomas. Mairi, though, continued to sing softly to Janet, her voice soothing her daughter’s agitation as it once did The Queen’s. Until, with the snapping of still brittle twigs and a shower of dead leaves, the bottle witch stumbled back into camp and interrupted the song. Mother Hainter grinned with anticipation, her short arms full of the potent herbs she’d gone looking for.
In passing, the witch ruffled the fur on the head of the first fox. Without a word, it simply paced a step away from the fragrant bottle witch to sit on its haunches again, wrinkling its snout at her scent.
Squatting on the thick carpet of new grass that now covered the ground around them, Mother Hainter paused and looked thoughtfully into Janet’s face. It was twisted in torment. “Well then, I have most o’ what I sought.” Her wrinkled hand stroked the tangled mass of medicinal plants in her lap. “My beauties may look withered o’ life, but there is new strength blooming deep within their roots.” She smiled, “Spring comes once again ta the forest o’ The Queen.”
Janet suddenly shuddered awake and angrily pushed Tom’s hands away from her. Turning her head, she cried, “Leave me alone. Just leave me alone!” The Rose Knight reached out to the woman he had given up so much for, but Janet frantically crawled away from him as quickly and as far as her strength would take her.
Thomas cried out, “Janet, what have I done?” Wiping her tears roughly away from her cheeks and choking back bitter laughter, she replied, her voice hollow, “Nothing…nothing more than a consort of The Queen should.”
The haunted look in the girl’s eyes sent chills through Thomas when she continued, “Even as The Queen saw through my eyes, I gazed through Hers.”
Not understanding the meaning of her words, Tom reached out for Janet once more. She violently slapped his hands away with her clenched fists. “Bloody fucking bitch! Thomas, when I let the part of Her that was lodged within my mother’s mind flow into mine, I saw so much more of Her than I ever had before… so much that I…I saw you and The Queen locked in each other’s arms…I saw you and She laughing and talking and…and… you… inside her, crying out with pleasure!”
Bitterly Janet spits her words at him, “Was it good for you then?”
The bewildered knight offered the only explanation he had. The truth. “I was a mortal in the land of an undying Queen who was beautiful beyond all women I had ever known. I could refuse her nothing, nothing …” Then he shook his head at those distant memories, “But Janet, that was so very long ago…”
“I…I know that it happened before we ever met, but… I was actually in the same room and I… I felt how you touched Her, and saw how you looked into Her eyes and said that you loved Her… I don’t know if I can ever forget that….
“I’m sure that bitch wanted me to see you in her bed, damn her! I don’t know if I can ever forgive you.
“Damn. Damn. DAMN!”
Then Janet was silent once more, her face a mask of torment, both arms clutching her knees, staring at nothing but the awful images that kept reeling through her brain over and over again.
Seemingly oblivious to this drama, the two foxes began to scamper around the girl in ever tightening circles until their soft fur brushed against the skin of her arms and her legs.
When they both paused, they looked at each other. And then the first fox placed her soft paws on Janet’s knees and hunched forward, looking the mortal girl in the eye before speaking. “It is ever the way.”
The second fox climbed onto Janet’s shoulder, nuzzling her face, “Ever, ever, ever the way…
“Our stories become…”
“We don’t know…”
“if we come…”
“or if we go.”
They joined each other in chorus then. “The best way, is to be together, that, always, always makes for a happy ending.”
Angrily, Janet shrugged them both off and got to her feet, striding unsteadily over to Mother Hainter before dropping to the ground again and muttering under her breath, “Pests!”
All this time the witch had been busy preparing her posset, which she now offered to Janet. “Drink this. It will help you regain your strength and… perhaps too, some peace of mind.”
But as the girl’s fingers closed around the brimming liquid nestled on the bone cup, she looked at Mother Hainter a moment, trying to deciding whether to trust the small witch or not. When she raised the cup to her lips, the bottle witch stopped her, and cackling with mirth at Janet’s evident distrust, said, “And save some for The Queen herself, She will be needing it too, I ken.”
Janet grimaced at the mention of Her name and continued to mutter between sips of the dark, foul-smelling brew.
“She doesn’t need any fucking help from me…”
Hearing what Janet said, they all suddenly became aware that The Queen had not moved from the bank or spoken for some time. She still stood there silently contemplating whatever strange impulses flowed through Her heart. But when she raised her graceful honey-colored arms toward the moon and the faint stars that hung in the sky above, Thomas was relieved. A soft breeze that only touched The Queen herself, drew Her dress tight against Her long legs and Her breasts. It threw Her shining black hair, twisting it about Her beautiful face.
Then, from The Queen’s feet, wave after wave of vibrant green life began to pulse into the earth as if in time to the beating of Her heart. A multitude of rainbow-colored butterflies lifted from Her hair past the falling profusion of lilies, lilacs, buttercups and hyssop, anemones and foxglove and primrose and daffodil and hollyhock. A heady mixture of their soft, abundant fragrances suddenly scented the twilight air on the river’s bank.
Mairi cried out. What she saw happening to The Queen tormented her still fragile mind, for it was too close to the mad visions that had filled her mind for so many years. Janet crouched close to her mother, covered Mairi’s eyes, and swore to herself that she would protect the older woman no matter what happened next.
Thomas was bewildered when The Queen of All Summer’s Twilight fell to Her knees and disgorged a single rose from Her mouth. It seems to drop, in slow motion, into Her cupped hands. She stared at it with blank, unseeing eyes as each rich red petal shivered and then become yet another rose and another and another until they cascaded to the ground in front of Her, instantly rooting there.
Her mouth gaped open, grotesquely wide, snapping the ligaments of Her jaw with an audible crack to admit a ceaseless flow of birds and snakes, frogs and bees and stag and fox, bear and deer, badger and dragon and sloth, cat and dog, mermaid and unicorn and every other manner of beast both on two legs or on four pour from her lips. And all followed the two silver foxes in a spiraling dance through the thick grass that now carpeted the entire bank.
Remembering their delicate, sensual strokes across his body, Thomas tried to turn away, but he was transfixed as Her outstretched fingers thrust deep into the still dry earth. Mounds of thick, succulent moss topped with small, delicate white flowers that gathered at the base of bright red mushrooms and somber toadstools flowed around and transformed the pale flesh of Her arms, Her shoulders, Her face, Her eyes. When finally, Her mouth choked with trailing vines, wreathed with ivy and sumac and honeysuckle leaves, Thomas fell to the ground, trying to cover his face, but he was powerless and could not tear his eyes away from the primal transformation that played out in front of him.
Her now brittle hair dropped from her head and rooted in the ground, becoming green and grey and rust-covered grasses alive with every manner of insect and spider, lady bug and dragonfly, wasp and ant, grasshopper and cricket, black and brown and yellow and no color at all.
From the hollow husk of Her withered body, a dozen saplings sprang: oak, willow, hawthorn and maple, alder and beach and apple, birch, ash and holly, and last of all, rowan. Feeding upon whatever life that still remained within Her, the saplings stood a dozen feet high in a matter of moments, their crowns thick with tender green leaves, swayed gently in the soft breeze.
And everything that had fallen or spewed or grown or transformed from The Queen’s body turned then and ate their fill from those tender, succulent trees, stripping the bark, and the leaves and the blossoms and the berries, eager to live and beget more of their own kind, until there was nothing left of them. Except only, a small, tender rose cane that delicately reared from the lush green bank that lay beside the eternal river of all the blood that had ever been shed on earth, a river that was previously dead but now flowed freely once more.
Overcome by what he had witnessed, Thomas screamed again and again in frustration and in shame. His Queen, a woman who had once claimed his heart, that he had pledged to protect with his life had just been utterly destroyed before his very eyes, and he could do absolutely nothing to prevent it.
Still clutching her mother, Janet stared at the wretched man who had once been her Knight of the Rose and tried to understand some little part of the emotions he felt.
Mother Hainter, though, whispered into the silence that was left behind those screams. “The wheel turns, birth, death and then… perhaps, resurrection.” The bottle witch left the others crouched in the now tall grass and pushed aside the teeming mass of creatures that clustered in a churning mass over what had been The Queen. At the witch’s gentle touch, they begin to bound or hop or fly or crawl away. All except the two silver foxes that stanced there, eagerly waiting for what was still to come.
Reverently, the witch knelt in front of the single trailing plant, which was all that remained of The Queen of the Land of Summer’s Twilight.
The first fox barked, “Carefully now.”
And the second continued, “The roots…”
And the first took up the tale again, “of every story told…
“To begin anew…
“they must not…
“so that what grows…
“from the old…
“will be strong…
Panting in their eagerness, their tongues hung from their open mouths. Together they chorused, “A new story sprouting from the old will gift those living that tale a more gracious manner in which to begin it anew.”
Mother Hainter testily replied, “You need not tell me my business. I ken it well enough.”
With her aged hands, she carefully dug into the restored soft, loamy soil around the newly sprung shoot. Lifting the pale green thing, the witch placed it in a curious leather satchel, slung from her belt, that she’d used for the same purpose many times throughout her long life. Finally, the bottle witch loosely packed the earth that brought it life over the plant’s fragile roots.
Before she closed the flap of the pouch, though, the bottle witch poured what remained of her broth of herbs over the young plant and whispered words that none but the two silver foxes could hear. And they, excited beyond imagining, filled the twilight air with their barking.