© Charles Vess
In the profound silence that followed, Janet looked to the bottle witch, and feigning indifference asked, “Okay, are we done? Can my mother and I go home now?”
Mother Hainter cackled to herself, “Nae, no yet I fear.”
Janet’s eyebrows lifted impatiently, “Why not, little witch? What more can we do that hasn’t already been done? My mother and I are weary to our bones.” The mortal girl gestured at Mairi and continued, “And she has a husband that she’s not seen for far too many years.” Mairi head lifted at her daughter’s words, hope glimmering in her sad eyes.
The ancient bottle witch studied them both for a moment before replying, “My children, we must still make whole again what has been broken.”
Looking at the forest, burgeoning now with new life, echoing with bird and animal song, Janet replied, “But haven’t I…haven’t we already done just that?”
“It is a tangled tale that still holds us all within its web.” Mother Hainter smiled encouragingly, “Janet, you and Thomas and your mother—and yes, The Queen as well—are all but bitty pieces o’ a tortured puzzle that must be restored before its story runs true. Until that happens, it would be best for you ta remain together.”
Then the bottle witch called to her emphatically, “Janet Ravenscroft…look ta me. There are questions I must ask o’ you now.” Sighing, Janet turned her attention back to Mother Hainter, trying to calm her disordered thoughts.
“Now, then child, I would ken when were you born?”
Janet grimaced, “What’s my age got to do with any of this?” But when Mother Hainter continued to stare at her without speaking, she realized that there was, of course, something more than idle curiosity in her question. The foxes silently padded to her side and climbed into her lap. Gratefully, Janet stroked their soft fur and immediately grew calm.
The bottle witch continued, “I seek not the year, for they are nae counted and labeled here in this land. I would have you tell me the season only.”
Concentration knit the young girl’s brow. “Okay, fair enough. It was in the fall, at the end of October.”
Growing even more serious, the witch queried, “An’ th’ exact day o’ your birthing?”
Before she spoke, Janet had a sudden realization that all of the unfathomed mysteries that clung to her and her mother and the once moon-mad Queen rested on the answer to this one simple question. “It was Halloween night, just before the clock struck midnight.” The old witch danced excitedly on her bare feet before stopping to grin at Janet,” All Hallows Eve then. You’ll be sure o’ that girl?”
“Bloody hell, yes! My father used to make a stupid joke about me slipping out of the turnip he’d carved for the lantern…”
The witch’s face grew stark and troubled, “Only on that certain night is the border ‘tween our two worlds paper thin. And it was on that very day that the Dark Lord cast aside the last o’ The Queen’s glamour’s an’ stepped sae eagerly through Her sacred wood. She despaired then, knowing that at the last, Her strength was nae his equal. Certainly, She would have sought for and found some final refuge.”
Janet murmured, “Her madness?”
“Yes! She loosed her mind then and sent it spinning far, far away.”
Tears formed in Janet’s eyes, “And my mother…”
“Regardless of what it might do ta any possible host The Queen sent a great part of Herself out into the mortal realms thinking that the fell Lord o’ Darkness and o’ Death would surely nae find Her there.” Hearing the witch’s words Mairi stirred and whispered, “I loved the old songs of my adopted country. Their fancies and phantoms were always a delight to me. But most of all I loved the muckle ballads. The tales they told were almost like fairy stories…”
The first fox intoned, “And like will…
“call to like,” finished the second.
Mairi stared within herself, into a well of troubled memories, slowly reasoning the mystery through, “So, somehow the Queen entered my mind at the moment of my daughter’s birth… when I was weak… vulnerable.” Tears began to course down Mairi’s face, “And lodged there, within me… “ She cupped her hand on Janet’s trembling face before continuing, “And it seems, a smaller part lay dormant within you, daughter, waiting for the proper moment to break free.”
Overcome, Janet’s head sank into her arms, still listening to her mother’s soft voice tell their story, “It was She that drove me mad… and kept me, for so long, from my home and my family.” In the silence that follows Janet looked up, as with just the barest of whispers her mother continued, “I think that She deserved to die.”
For a moment of time both women stared hard into each other’s eyes before Janet finished her mother’s thought, “I’m glad that She did.”
Mother Hainter wisely sought to turn both mother and daughter’s thoughts away from that vast, empty road that led only to bitterness and useless satisfaction of revenge. “It would make anyone feel the same. Nae mortal can hope ta withstand the full glory o’ the eternal Queen o’ the Fae an walk away from it unscathed.
“Through perhaps nae planning o’ Her own, a small part o’ Herself was bound up within Mairi’s bairn as well. And that is what saved you. If She had given all ta you, that is the moment you would have surely died.
“That at least is true.” Mairi smiled, “I am alive and I have my daughter with me. And I’m most thankful for both.”
For the first time since Janet had so emphatically rejected him Thomas stirred. Without looking directly at the mortal woman, he asked, “So, we must remain bound together until…?” Janet looked across at Thomas and saw the misery that had settled on his face.
I almost feel sorry for him…almost!
With a grim smile, the bottle witch began to speak again, and what she said surprised all, save the two foxes. “The Queen is nae truly dead, She only waits for Her rebirth.”
Thomas’ haggard eyes suddenly filled with hope, but Janet clenched her mother’s arm hard as the witch continued, “Properly tended, Her story will begin anew as it hae many, many times a fore.” The two foxes jumped up from Janet’s lap and leaped around the four figures crying out together, “Many times. Many, many times. Many times beyond measure.”
The witch smiled at their frenzied antics a moment before continuing, “But that will only happen if we nurture Her carefully.” She gently patted the satchel at her side then, “We must take what I have preserved here ta Her city an’ plant it there, in the midst o’ Her garden. Born again, She will perhaps have a new story ta tell us.”