© Charles Vess
Exhausted, Janet brought the Vincent to a stop and cut the motor. Instantly, she was aware of the dreadful silence of the land that surrounded her, only the whistling of the wind past the red brick towers above her could be heard.
She reached up to wipe the sweat from her brow and looked again at the immense wall that stretched endlessly before her.“Bloody hell. How can I even try to rescue them if I can’t get inside this damned castle?”
Without warning a hand in a shining black leather glove clasped her shoulder and a sibilant voice spoke in her ear, “Perhaps my lady, I may escort you within?” Terrified, she jerked away, to see The Huntsman, his face split with a smile of awful satisfaction.
Janet desperately twisted the gas throttle to start the motorcycle. But before the engine could turn over, she and the machine were thrown to the ground, her right leg trapped under the weight of the cycle. Crouched above her, taloned paws putting its full weight on the machine and spitting down into Janet’s face was one of The Huntsman’s beasts. Its mouth was so close that she can smell the rotting meat that clung to its long, razor-sharp teeth.
Casually, the elegant leather-clad figure looked down at Janet. “It is a good day for hunting, for now all my birds are caught at last.”
Leaning close to her haggard face, The Huntsman whispered, “There is no need to struggle, for I will certainly gift you with your heart’s desire. Your lover… and your mother as well, await the pleasure of your company within my master’s house.
“Come, I will take you to them.”
Seated on his great throne of teeth and bone, The Dark Lord was more than pleased, his body taunt with expectation as he looked at the captive far below. “You gratify me, Huntsman, with your swift return. Is this then the other mortal you spoke of?”
Horrified by the creature on the throne above and his immense court of rippling shadows, it took Janet a moment to realize that she understood every word he spoke.
I suppose I have that bloody queen to thank for that?
“Lord, from this woman’s lips I have heard The Queen speak, even as your hunting beasts fawned at her feet. Surely she is no mere mortal.”
His master’s long face was a mask of satisfaction as he purred, “Indeed, I think not.”
Defiantly she cried out, “Where is he? Where is Thomas? And my mother! Take me to them. Now!”
“You would give mecommands? That amuses me, child.”
“Where is my Tom?”
“Your Tom? Now you claim ownership of a Knight of The Lady’s court, who has promised himself to Her, body and soul? For is not your Thomas the consort of The Queen of these Twilight Lands? What will She say, I wonder, to this new arrangement?”
The Dark Lord smiled then at Janet, and it was a hard, cruel smile. “Shall we ask Her?”
Janet struggled frantically, but The Huntsman’s grip was firm and never loosened. Holding Janet close, he hissed in her ear, “Cease! My master commands, and we both must obey.”
Stubbornly, Janet continued to struggle as he forcibly dragged her through a bewildering maze of endless hallways and small courtyards. Hung on every wall they passed were ornate carvings and tapestries brought from worlds beyond her imagining.
Each room was of a different height, the walls set at uncomfortable angles, one to the other. Some rooms were mere passageways between others, their interiors consumed by stone buttresses or enormous marble pillars. There was so much here that was strange or grotesque that Janet’s mind grew numb. Yet in that great building, she rarely saw any living creature and then only far off, performing some menial task, with bent back and dull eyes. And every one of those twisted creatures cowered close to the wet brick and stone at their feet as their Lord and his retinue passed them by.
At last, Janet was brought to the very center of that great and awful palace. An open space that sat at the bottom of a great well where dim light from far, far above filtered down onto blackened grasses studded here and there with stones like jagged teeth. Its massive circular wall, inlaid with intricate mosaic designs, was all but obscured by a thick carpet of mold, alive with spore. In the center of that perverse space, was a Willow, huge and ancient beyond years, it’s massive tangle of roots coiled in the shallow pool of black, oily water that lapped round about it.
At the base of the tree, woven into the embrace of a hundred coiling roots, laid The Queen of all the Lands of Summer’s Twilight. Close by Her side, Janet’s mother sat plaintively singing an ancient ballad. Her voice somehow easing the moon-mad mind of the Queen, holding at bay the violent screams that otherwise would have consumed the chamber. For Janet, the jarring contrast of her mother’s small dark-skinned figure and the golden queen makes the moment surreal beyond belief.
“For forty days and forty nights
He rode through red blood to the knee,
And he saw neither sun nor moon,
But heard the roaring of the sea.”
Frantically, Janet screamed, “What have you done! Why have you brought my mother to this damned place?”
Hearing Janet’s voice, The Queen’s eyes snapped open, and staring fixedly at the young girl with a gaze that for a split second had no hint of madness in it. Then just as suddenly, that keen intelligence shuttered, leaving only madness in its place.
“Oh no, Oh no, True Thomas, says she,
That fruit must not be touched by thee.
For all the plagues that are in hell
Bide in the fruit of this country.”
Carefully considering the three women, The Lord of Darkness and of Death deliberately reached out his long-fingered hand and placed it over Mairi’s mouth, ending her song in mid-verse. Instantly, the Queen’s mad shrieks began anew. With his great horned head sunk to his chest in thought, he turned away as Mairi took up her song once more.
”Don’t you see yon narrow, narrow road
So thick beset with thorns and briar’s?
That is the road to righteousness
Though after it but few enquire.
Don’t you see yon broad, broad road
That lies across the lily leaven?
That is the road to wickedness
Though some call it the road to heaven.
Don’t you see yon bonnie, bonnie road
That lies across the ferny brae?
That is the road to fair Elf land
Where you and I this night must go.”
Looking up at The Huntsman, she pleaded, “Let me go! My mother needs me… I must help her!” But there was not the least flicker of compassion on the face of the Dark Lord’s minion.
What does this bloody madman want with us anyway?
And Thomas… where is he?
After a time, the horned Lord stirred and looked up again, his eyes cold and cruel. “I know not how, but I will find some manner in which to put the impossible pieces of this puzzle together once more. Only then will my Queen sit by my side.”
The Huntsman impatiently shifted his weight from one booted foot to another. ‘My Lord?”
Janet shivered as she watched the monstrous creature rise to his full height, his great twisting horns scraping against the overhanging branches of the willow above, sending a shower of thin leaves cascading over them all. “Huntsman, take this mortal girl and place her in a cell deep in my dungeon where she cannot escape, for there is within her some essential part of this damnable puzzle. As for the older mortal, let her stay here and continue to offer what comfort she may. Guard them both, keep them well, or your life will be forfeit.”
Held in his iron grip, Janet flinched when the Huntsman bowed low before his lord and master and prepared to take his leave. Then as they passed through the arched entranceway into the darkness beyond, she heard the Lord of Darkness and of Death mutter to himself, his obvious despair almost making Janet feel pity. “There must come a day when my Queen will willingly sit beside me. For each Lord has need of his Lady…”
Soon, though, the monumental walls of brick and stone that construct The Dark Lord’s unholy labyrinth swallowed whatever else he had to say.
Much later, when she stood in a cell so utterly black that she couldn’t see the arm that still throbbed from The Huntsman’s grip, Janet fought the rising panic that threatened to overwhelm her. Flexing that arm, she let the pain feed her anger as well as her determination.
Stumbling blindly to the rough wooden door, Janet listened intently for any sound that could tell her that there was another living soul anywhere near. But the only noise that broke the oppressive silence was the faint, far off rhythmic drip of seeping moisture hitting stone and brick. When the dank air of the cell began to make her body shiver, Janet paced the short length of the cell, hugging her arms tightly around herself, trying to regain some measure of warmth.
Bloody hell! How am I going to get out of this fucking cell?
Exhausted, she collapsed in a damp corner muttering to herself, trying to fill the silence that gathered around her. “Okay, Janet, back in the asylum, how exactly did you remember the words to those songs? You only heard them once… so really, how?
Maybe there’s a bit of good magic working inside me?
“Anyway, putting a face on the bitch Queen makes it so much easier to hate her, because beautiful doesn’t even come close to describing that… woman… no wonder Thomas fell for her.
“Thomas… Where the fuck are you? I need you… Mr. bloody Dark and Deadly and his pet huntsman are sure to do something awful to us pretty soon, so we need to get out of here before that happens. But, how exactly is that going to happen?”
Stop it, Janet!
“Don’t let this damned place get to you…”
Determined to listen to her own advice Janet crawled slowly across the floor, feeling with her outstretched hands, until she found the stout oak door of her cell. Her hands moved up its rough surface to find a small opening securely sealed with a lattice of rough iron bars.
You know, just in case anyone could squeeze through a space the size of a bloody mouse hole.
Pressing her mouth against its unseen bars, she began to shout as loud as she could, over and over again, a single name into the darkness.
“Tom. Tom. Tom. Tom. Tomm. Tommm…”
When only fading echoes answered her, Janet began to sing, hoping that it would at least lessen the oppressive silence of the dungeon.
Hope whatever bloody magic is remembering these songs won’t mind me using it again…
“The elf Knight sits on yonder hill.
Fine flowers in the valley,
He blows his horn both loud and shrill,
As the rose does bloom.”
Far down twisting corridors and steeply laid flights of steps too many to number, there was a small cell made of brick, each a different shape and color from the last, whose walls twisted upwards into a grotesquely shaped vaulted ceiling above. The chamber, built against the outer wall of the palace, offered a high window too small for even a small child to crawl through. That window, though, did allow a hint of light to fall dully onto the man below, who paced the short length of his cell, consumed by frustration and fear of what may happen to the woman he loved as well as the Queen he still served.
His heart leaped then when Janet’s faint voice echoed softly out of the darkness. Joyfully, he joined it with his own.
“He blows it East, he blows it west,
Fine flowers in the valley,
He blows it where he liketh best,
As the rose doth bloom.”
For more hours than either would ever know, they exchanged verse for verse, until, exhausted Janet’s voice began to falter and then fade. Devastated, Thomas slumped to the floor and then he, too, fell into a troubled sleep.
When at last the Rose Knight awakened, he exhaled a desperate groan. His dreams were a torment of anxiety. Time and again he had found himself bound with no escape. Before the vivid images began to slip away, he remembered a giant tree… a pool of water so black there was no bottom to be seen… and standing in that pool was his Queen, screaming out in her madness. Then all three women, The Queen, Janet, and her mother, stood waist-deep in the pool, holding each other’s hands. As one, they turned to stare hard at Thomas, looking at him through three sets of identical eyes.
Blinking away the remnants of that dream, Tom gazed up into the dim light that filtered into his cell from the window above and ran his fingers through his hair. “Even in sleep, my mind is thick with mysteries.”