© Charles Vess 2019
Far away, down long silent corridors, Janet tossed in her sleep. Abruptly, her eyes blinked open as two soft tongues began to lick her face. In the total darkness of the cell, she was unable to see whatever impossible thing it was, but from either side of her head, she heard soft panting. Small paws pushed at her arms, and soft fur brushed her face. Janet whispered into the utter darkness, “Who…What…what are you?”
“Well, then….” The first voice intoned.
“you are awake…” Another voice emphatically added.
“Perhaps you were having…
“such lovely dreams…
“that you wished…
“to stay amongst them forever?
“But your story…”
“its proper ending…”
“if you do.”
“your eyes so that you may see.”
Hesitantly, Janet did as the voices asked, and suddenly she saw a vision of two sleek silver foxes staring up at her, their eyes lit with avid curiosity. Janet rubbed her eyes and muttered, “Are you just more damned nightmares come to haunt me in this horrible place?”
Ignoring the girl’s doubts, one fox creature spoke. “Janet…”
Followed quickly by the second, “why do you bide here…
And then both joined together in chorus, “still?”
Janet wrapped both her arms protectively over her chest, “Bloody hell, you think I want to stay here?”
As the two silver foxes turned to casually look at one another. The air around them seemed to shimmer, as if a second reality slipped softly over the first. Now there were two small, elegant women standing before her, one inches taller than the other with slanted eyes, both a matching green. Their hair was long and silvery, held back from their brows by simple circlets made of brightest gold. Both solemnly considered the walls of the barren cell with only the mildest of interest.
Janet stared incredulously at the two women as they linked arms with each other and chorused together. “Mortal, you interest us.”
Startled, the mortal girl whispered into the darkness, “Who the hell are you? Why are you here?”
Turning aside from each other to face Janet, the first woman answered, “You may call me Delian.”
By her side, the second spoke softly, “And I, Aellin.”
“Okay… Can either of you get me out of this damn pit of the crazy monsters?”
The first woman who was also sometimes a fox purred, “Yes.”
As did the second, ”Certainly.”
“The Dark Lord is mad.”
“Quite mad, indeed.”
“as The Queen.”
Janet can’t help herself, “Fucking crazy isn’t the half of that monster!”
“You would be too…”
“if you were living the same story over…”
“the same ending…
“Much, much too…
“tell it true,”
“or this Lord…”
“and this Queen…”
“and the very land itself…”
“will most certainly…”
Just what I need, bloody hallucination spouting complete nonsense…
I have to get out of here!
Then find Tom and my mother and somehow get all of us out of this damned place!
Janet struggled to her feet, pacing the small cell, still puzzled by whether her odd visitors could possibly be real. The two women, though, simply continued to stand calmly, patiently watching her as if they expected Janet to suddenly open the door and let them out.
Then she heard Tom’s strong voice echo again down the dark corridors of their prison, intoning another ballad. Listening, Janet began to relax for the first time.
“Was a knight in Scotland borne,
Follow, my love, come over the strand,
Was taken prisoner and left forlorn,
Even by the good Earle of Northumberland.”
Smiling at the words, she joined her vibrant voice to his.
“Then he was caste in prison strong,
Follow, my love, come over the strand,
Where he could not walk nor lie down,
Even by the good Earle of Northumberland.”
Eventually, when the last words of the long, gorgeous ballad faded away, Janet leaned back against the damp wall of her cell. Down at her feet the two women, now foxes once more, sat on their haunches, patiently waiting as if they have all the time in the world, which they do.
If those two got into this damned cell then they bloody well can get out again too.
Desperation gripped every word as Janet asked, “Can you help me? Please!”
A soft whisper answered her. “No.”
Followed by a second voice that was equally frustrating. “That is impossible.”
“become part of one.”
“But we do see where your story will go.”
“And you already know how to escape…”
“this dark place.”
And, once more they chorused together, “We are content. We will wait and watch. You and the Knight will know what to do when the time for doing it comes.”
Then wrapping their long arms around each other, they began to laugh with complete and utter delight, lifting the hearts of all that heard it.
Janet waited, then, for whatever these two strange creatures would say next. But as silence stretched into long frustrating minutes she realized that she no longer heard their soft panting, Janet was certain that they’d gone in the same mysterious way that they appeared.
That was stupid crazy.
Well… am I?
You know, daughter like mother…
And just like that, Janet was certain that she knew how to escape.
That damned queen will get me out of here!
Grimly. Janet pushed aside the almost paralyzing terror that washed over her when she realized what she was about to do.
Okay, Queeny, come out, come out wherever you are!
And with that invitation, The Queen of Summer’s Twilight slipped smoothly into the mind and body that was Janet Ravenscroft. The young girl’s bones and muscles shifted uncomfortably as if there was suddenly too much packed into too small of a space. For a moment, Janet clung to her true self as frantic, last-minute thoughts echoed through her brain.
I feel like I’m going to explode…
Then the mortal girl was no more. The Queen opened her mouth and words fell past Her lips, elfish words of great power. Immediately, the rusted lock on her cell snapped open. What was now The Queen of Summer’s Twilight felt a brief flow of air as Her prison door swung wide. Stepping out into the corridor, She delighted in the soft light that pulsed from the diadem on Her brow, illuminating the darkness that had ever held dominion over the dungeons of the dark Lord.
Smiling at Her own cleverness, The Queen began to walk gracefully down the dimly lit hallway. But after only a few steps Her body collapsed against the rough brick wall. She slid to the flagging at Her feet and gasped in shock at the cold stone that greeted Her as Janet reclaimed her body once more. The young girl was startled, though, to hear an echo of The Queen’s voice still lingering within her head, bargaining with her.
Mortal, it seems your body cannot sustain my radiant spirit for any length of time. Therefore, I will help you if you ask it of Me, but only if you promise to free Me from this kingdom of death. And for that I will certainly be in your debt.
Janet grunted, “Charming…” Desperation, though, made her accept the offer. “Okay, you’ve got yourself a deal, Queenie.” The implications of their agreement though made her shiver.
I will probably die if she overstays her welcome … or go crazy, just like my mom…
Without the Queen’s light, the dungeon was once again complete darkness. So, Janet moved slowly forward, feeling her way, one foot at a time down long twisting corridors and seemingly endless flights of broken stairs. Above her and on all sides of her, Janet could not ignore the crushing weight of layer upon layer of stone and brick that fashioned the enormous dungeon through which she now blindly groped her way.
After what felt like an eternity spent in that darkness, where there was no distance, no time, only eternal despair, Janet raised her voice to sing once more.
“It was in a pleasant time,
Upon a summer’s day,
The noble Earl Mar’s daughter
Went forth to sport and play.”
At first there was no response, but Janet continued knowing that somewhere in the vast maze of tunnels stretching endlessly before her weary feet, were Thomas and her mother.
“And as she played and sported,
Among the lily flower,
There she spied a sprightly dove,
Set high upon a tower.”
When finally, she heard an answering voice, far, far away, trading her verse-for-verse, her heart leapt.
“I’ll put gold hinges round your cage,
And silver round your wall,
I’ll make you shine as fair as a bird,
As any of them all.”
Using Tom’s voice as guide, Janet’s pace quickened. But soon, in the brief pauses between each verse she began to hear furtive, rustling movements and muffled voices come from each unseen cell she passed. Soon she conjured all manner of strange and horrible beasts imprisoned within, and sudden sharp panic threatened to overwhelm Janet and still her voice. She stumbled, dreading to take even one more step. Leaning heavily against the cold, damp brick of the wall, she was able to distinguish the multitude of insistent voices that filled the air around her, all urging her to go on. Their encouragement gave her the will to keep walking through that vast and awful place.
Every cell in this stupid bloody prison must hold some other poor sod brought here by that damned Huntsman?
Janet started to sing again. Eagerly, those strange voices around her began to chorus with her until the walls seemed to vibrate with their song.
“Instead of dancers to dance a dance,
Or minstrels for to play,
Four-and-Twenty lusty men,
Turned to birds of feather’s grey.
This flock of birds took flight and flew
Beyond the raging sea;
And landed near earl Mar’s castle,
Took shelter in every tree.”
Minutes, hours, days later, weariness rose over her and plummeted down like a great crashing wave. Janet’s voice faltered, as did her steps. She stumbled against a wooden door, sliding to the stones at her weary feet, unable to speak or sing another word. All around her, the other voices fell silent as well. Such a deep and lasting silence few would have ever heard, if not for Thomas’ muffled voice that Janet finally heard through the thick oak door against which her head rested. And a slow, grateful smile slid across her face.
“They flew out from every tree,
And lighted on the hall,
And from the roof with force did fly
Amongst the nobles all.”
As the last verse of the song drifted away, Janet whispered softly into the complete darkness that enveloped them both, “I love you, Thomas. I love you.”
Then she gave her body over once again to The Queen. Immediately, words of power spilled from Her lips, and the door to Thomas’ cell wrenched open, crashing against the brick wall just to the side. Which was followed by a cacophony of yet more wood hitting brick and stone as every bolt and every latch on every door in that great and terrible dungeon burst asunder.
Again, light as soft as the moon’s gently illuminated the hallway. Into that sweet radiance The Knight of the Rose strode out of his cell, an eager smile on his lips only to be greeted by The Queen’s cruel laughter. “What strange clothes are these you wear? My Rose Knight should not ever be seen in the drab garb of mere mortals.”
Thomas, reacting quickly, bowed low before the woman who should have been his Janet. “My Queen, forgive me, I…” But just as quickly as the light came, utter darkness once again swallowed them. She was gone, and with a cry, Janet fell forward into Tom’s arms. He pulled her close, grateful that it was truly the mortal woman he loved that he now held in his arms. He whispered, “Come, we must find our way out of this place of death, as soon as we may.”
All around them a steady rising murmur of voices filled the stifling air of every long twisting passage of that place. Those whispers grew louder and louder still, until their tumult began to shake the walls of what was once their prison. But who or what had been released, neither Janet nor Thomas was able to see in the intense and utter darkness.
Holding each other’s hand, Janet and her Knight of the Rose stepped carefully forward. All about them, from the unseen mouths of all manner of wild creatures of the Fae, rose anguished cries. Janet understood every one of them, and all asked for only one thing, freedom.
Deep within, the Queen’s voice began to whisper insistently, once again telling the mortal girl where to safely take each new step in order to escape the unholy prison that rose around them.
Determined to rid herself of her unwanted intruder as soon as possible, Janet confidently put one foot before the other, leading Thomas and the unseen host behind them toward the freedom they all so eagerly desired. “Quickly Tom, this way…”
All around them, unseen hands reached out and gratefully brushed her hair or her arm or her shoulder as Janet led the knight through the long, crowded passageways they had to walk. And as they passed, all turned and followed the one whose voice they recognized as their Lady’s.
“It is the Queen.”
“All thanks to Her.”
“My service will be yours, forever.”
“I lay my honor at your feet, do with it what you will.”
Janet shivered and gripped Thomas’ hand tighter, wondering what would happen when they saw it was not their Queen, but only a young and very mortal woman leading them away from this place of darkness.
A soft echo of the Queen’s voice followed her thought. Fear not child, I am with you.
Now, that’s a comfort, isn’t it?
Do you mock me, child?
Leaning closer into Thomas, Janet whispered, “Tom, every moment that I’m here in Her world, The Queen grows stronger. But my mind…my body… I don’t know how much longer I can sustain Her being inside me. She’s eating me alive, and I’m bloody terrified of what will be left when She finally gets her way.
“But… She did promise to help me…us, if I freed Her from this madhouse…
“Tom, can I trust Her?”
He held her hand, trying to think of some way to reassure Janet, but thought of nought. “I was Her Knight of the Rose… with my own eyes I have witnessed both Her great wisdom as well as Her great cruelty, and never have I known which to expect from Her or when. In truth, by giving my heart to you, I have dishonored my service to Her… but my heart will lead, and I must follow. So, I can only say to you, trust your instincts but remain most vigilant indeed.”
His carefully chosen words, though, were followed immediately by The Queen’s haunting, cynical laughter that threaded through Janet’s every thought, making her even more uneasy of what would come.
Gradually, so gradually that at first it wasn’t even noticeable, the darkness that pressed so closely around them gave way to a light that dimly illuminated the two fugitives. And at that moment, thousands of winged creatures, who were all once of The Queen’s own court, took flight and burst past them both, flying with furious, determined speed toward that growing light and freedom.
Reaching the entrance to the Dark Lord’s endless black dungeon, Janet paused under a stone arch that opened onto a large formal courtyard filled with brilliant light. Exhausted, she leaned hard into Thomas, and knowing that she must, Janet turned to face the enormous crowd of Fae creatures that had followed close at their heels for so long. The narrow corridor was jammed, for as far as she can see, with thousands of creatures of every shape and size as they slowly faded into the darkness far, far behind.
Janet’s eyes grew wide with wonder and terror, too. For assembled before her was every lord and lady, every scullery maid and cook, every creature with one eye or two or however many they may needed, everyone that had ever tread The Queen’s court, both those she might have imagined and those that were forever unimaginable.
And, in all the vast panoply of faces, both grotesque and sublime, and every station in-between that stared back at Janet she was struck that only Thomas’ skin was white. Red and green, yellow, black, and brown and rose so pale that it was almost no color at all, the creatures of the Fae gazed silently, uncertainly back. Fearing rejection or far worse, Janet began to panic for, of course, they did not see their Queen, but instead, only a young human standing hand in hand with their Lady’s consort, The Knight of the Rose.
Janet leaned close in to Thomas and whispered, “There are so many… so fucking many! And I am not their bloody Queen. What do I do?”
“My lady, perhaps you should ask them to return home. Their escape will surely distract the Dark Lord and his Huntsman’s attention and serve to make our task that much easier?”
“But bloody hell, will they even listen to me?”
Deep in her mind, though, Janet heard the sibilant whisper of The Queen’s voice, and yet, they will answer to me.
With a grim smile, Janet relaxed her control and allowed The Queen’s mind to flood back over her, smothering any vestige of independent thought. Turning to Thomas, She asked, “Sir Knight, is your word then as false as your foolish human heart. You have sworn yourself to my service, yet now, you willingly follow another. At the very least, may I depend on you to perform your sworn duty?”
“Yes, my Lady I swear that I will do so.”
Thomas turned away, thinking hard about his future, knowing that soon he must make a choice between keeping his sworn oath or protecting Janet.
Indeed. To make The Lady whole again is my sworn duty.
But, by what means will that be possible?
I cannot help but wonder at the harm such a thing may render unto my Janet as well as her mother?
Can I allow even the possibility of that harm to threaten my beloved?
When The Queen reached out to softly stroke Thomas’ cheek before She spoke, he flinched away. “Alas, now that I am no longer your chosen one, what am I to do with you?” Although the young woman that stood so close to him now, cupping his face in both her slender hands, looked like Janet, he saw only The Queen’s cold gaze staring out of her eyes. Enduring a touch that now felt like betrayal to him, Thomas replied, “Perhaps my Queen, this is not the proper time to discuss such matters…”
“As you say.” Then, turning away from the Knight of the Rose, She looked imperiously at the creatures of the Fae and at that moment, somehow there was truly an aspect of The Queen that enveloped the girl’s slender mortal frame. Tall and stately, She stood and addressed them.
“Knowing full well that it was not your choice to leave my Court but The Huntsman’s art that brought all of you to this dark place, you have my forgiveness.”
As one, the assembled multitude bowed before their Queen.
“Therefore, now, I command you to return to that court and prepare its great hall for my arrival.
“Go, and be quick about your business.”
Eagerly, the vast horde of strange creatures heeded their Lady’s command, and soon the courtyard is empty of all, save Tom and the mortal who was once Janet.
At that moment, The Queen released Her mental hold over the girl, knowing that a moment longer might render Janet useless to Her purpose. Shuddering violently, she fell to her knees on the dusty marble tiles. Gasping for breath, her vision a riot of swirling shapes and color, yet she still heard the voice of The Queen whispering deep inside her.
You will fulfill your part of our bargain now or have no doubt that I will consume you and everyone you love.
I’ll bet you just bloody would…
Climbing to her feet she looked to Thomas.”That was the first I’d ever seen so many of the inhabitants of this land at one time. Their skin… there are so many tints here in this land, an infinity of color with no bloody chosen and presumptive hue.”
“I wish my world could say the same…”