© Charles Vess 2019
On the far western edge of the ruined plain that was the realm of The Lord of Darkness and of Death, there was once a great river.
A deep river and wide, one that once flowed swiftly past.
This river was and ever had been all that separated the Land of Summer’s Twilight from that of The Dark Lord’s kingdom. Between its two high banks flowed all the blood that was ever shed on Earth or beyond, in the Faerie Realms. Without The Queen to renew the life of her land, the once mighty river was no more. Now resting between its banks was only a deep layer of fine, pale red powder.
Turning her gaze wearily away from the lands on the far distant bank that were The Queen’s true domain, the root witch squinted up into the Janet’s face. “I kin what you would ask, girl. This river has served ta separate the two kingdoms since time itself was ever born.”
Her eyes wide with wonder, Janet asked, “Two kingdoms of Faerie? I…I don’t understand.”
Mother Hainter laughed, “And why would you, human? There would be nae need.”
Thomas, carefully choosing his words, tried to explain something that was certain knowledge to those who called the Summer Lands their home. “The blood… it ran here to serve as a reminder that all things must die, even an immortal. Between the two lands it has always flowed. And it always will, or… should…” Janet nodded her head, responding to his logic. “Until our bloody queen’s mind was gone.” Then looking behind them at the steadily advancing wave of pursuers, she added, “After the fucking Lord of Darkness and Death tried to claim both kingdoms for his own.”
Nodding agreement, Thomas continued, “Never was there a bridge built to span it. So, we are left with little choice but to walk through this hellish divide or to once again become captives of the creature who pursues us.” He held Janet’s hands, trying to provide a glimmer of hope. “In Her own lands, I believe The Queen may regain Her true self and perhaps be able to defend those that She has pledged to protect.”
Mother Hainter shrugged her shoulders. “Aye, a comforting thought, that. Now, step lively, children. We must be the first ta the other side if your hope be true.”
Glancing back across the plain at the army that approached, Thomas heard a whisper escape the bottle witch’s lips in a hiss, “It is an army o’ shadows I kin, born from his Court o’ Shadows.”
Turning back to Janet, his eyes locked with hers and she whispered, “I love you.”
“And I you, my lady.”
After that, not one of their company spared so much as a glance behind them at the vast army that drew nearer with every passing moment. Their only concern was where to put their next footstep as they scrambled down the bank, studded with jagged rocks as sharp as knife blades. At its bottom they plunged into what was once a raging river but was now only the silted blood of untold deaths.
Even in her lingering madness, Mairi acknowledged where they were when she began to sing.
“For forty days and forty nights,
He waded through red blood to his knee,
And he saw neither sun nor moon,
But heard the roaring of the sea.”
“It bloody better not!” Janet grumbled. “We haven’t got forty days or nights, either, by the look of it.”
Once their feet sank into the heavy red powder and they began to push their way through the accumulated silt, they found their progress more difficult than any of them could possibly have imagined. Janet gripped her mother’s hand tightly, never letting go. And Mairi, in her turn, led the still raving, moon-mad Queen.
Sometimes waist deep and sometimes up to their necks, they pushed their way through the thick sediment of red dust that clung to their clothes, their hair, their skin, and gathered in every pore and crevice on their bodies, making it almost impossible to see and even more difficult to breathe.
“Oh, they rode on, and further on,
Until they came to a garden green:
Light down. Light down you lad so fair,
Some fruit let me pick for thee.
Oh no, Oh no, True Thomas, she says,
That fruit may not be touched by thee,
For all the plagues that are in hell,
Blight the fruit of this country.”
Any hope that they may have had for a quick passage to the far side disappeared when each step became an uncertain effort to blindly feel their way across an unseen riverbed below the deep carpet of red dust. The loose rock, worn boulders, and sudden drops into what once were deep pools of viscous liquid made their path treacherous, their progress unbelievably slow.
Soon enough, with her short, squat body, the bottle witch wasn’t able to keep her head above the surface. With an eloquent grunt, she climbed atop Thomas’ broad shoulders, and sat there, balancing precariously, offering a steady stream of advice peppered with choice invectives.
“His army is nearly on us, and we only able to pick our way through this as slow as can ever be!”
Janet spit out a mouth full of red powder and cried, “Is there no fucking way to make this crossing any quicker?”
From the perch on her champion’s back, Mother Hainter cackled, “Girl, you already kin the answer ta that. Let the Queen inside you and She will take care o’ us right enough.” Knowing the truth of Mother Hainter’s words Janet still shook her head an emphatic no.
She’d probably fly us across all this with a snap of her fingers though…
But not now.
I might just crawl back into myself and never come out…
Janet rubbed the fine red grit away from her eyes and saw, far over the dried river of blood, two silver foxes waiting expectantly for them on the still distant bank.
The bloody foxes… they are real.
But will they help us?
The two small animals sat silently amongst what was once a flourishing orchard of apple trees, now blighted and dead. Rising behind was a great withered forest stretching from horizon to horizon. The pestilence that had come hand-in-hand with The Queen’s madness had, in its turn, consumed every oak and thorn and beech and hawthorn within its boundaries. In that great wood, there was no stir of bird or beast or any living thing amongst the vast sea of its withered limbs and underbrush.
Janet’s concentration narrowed. Casting aside the danger behind and the unknown path before them, she made herself think only of where to safely place her next step.
That loony bitch is going to pay for this!
Suddenly, her thoughts were scattered by the screeching voice of Mother Hainter’s cutting through the dim air. The witch’s words brought a shiver of fear to them all. “I see our enemies! They gather now on the bank behind us. Faster, my beauties, faster!”
But the very real fear of falling beneath the surface of the immense river of fine red dust into one of its deep pools or of stumbling on a treacherous, unseen rock and breaking an ankle was never far from any of their thoughts. So, they forced themselves to continue their slow, deliberate pace even as the bottle witch’s strident cries ring in their ears, “Now they come! Oh yes, they come!”
When at last they reached the far bank, and climbed, exhausted onto its shore, they are greeted by the two exuberant foxes. With short, joyful barks they leap about the bedraggled figures, pausing for only moments at a time to lick their faces free of the fine red powder.
Triumphantly, Janet embraces her mother. But Mairi, still in the depths of her madness stares at the girl, confused, uncomprehendingly. Beside them, Mother Hainter spits her words out as if they were pieces of sour fruit, “Foolish girl, there be nae safety for us yet, not with the army that follows. Yet, it isThe Queen’s own land, perhaps it will hae a gift ta give us?”
Jumping from Tom’s back onto the shore, the bottle witch danced lightly on her feet shaking the red silt from her leggings and boots. The foxes paused at her booted feet and sniffed suspiciously, making the elderly witch grin. Her one good eye squinted at the two animals, and a delighted smile spread across her lined face. “For all o’ my considerable life I’ve heard tales whispered o’ yourselves, but nae once have I ever believed them.
Gesturing at the two sleek silver foxes, she turned to Janet, “Count yourself lucky dearie o, they are one o’ the great mysteries, come ta life.” Mother Hainter’s voice dropped low as she pleaded, “Can you nae help us, my lovely ones? We are in such need.”
The first fox shook her head slyly before springing away. “We are outside of any story.”
And the second leaped gracefully over the first and continued, “Always outside, never a part…
“of any tale.”
“No advice given.”
“No action taken.”
“And this story…”
“Let us hope…”
“that it may…”
The foxes then stopped their leaping dance and wound their silver bodies one round the other, tighter and tighter till they appeared as one animal.
“But be welcome anyway, little mother.”
The witch bowed as gracefully as her ancient body allowed. “Delian and Aellin, it is honored, I am indeed.” And kicking up her heels, the bottle witch laughed gleefully, “Oh, what fun we shall have!” Then with her hands on her hips, Mother Hainter cocked her head to one side. “If we survive this very day o’ days.”
The two foxes looked up at the witch curiously before they both nodded their sleek silver heads back across the great river of blood. Janet turned her head to follow, and what she saw there took her breath away.
A vast army of shadow, wavering and insubstantial but commanded by The Lord of Darkness and of Death, flowed down the far bank that took Janet and her companions so much effort to negotiate, and in a great black surging wave, the enemy was already far out into the river of silted blood. On the bank behind, surrounded by his thirteen great hunting beasts, the Dark Lord stared fixedly across at his quarry and, even from this distance, Janet clearly saw the cruel smile that played across his face.
“Thomas, tell me the truth, can She really stop them?”
The Knight of the Rose was still on his knees, aching with the effort of the crossing and keeping the little witch balanced on his shoulders. “Janet, I know not. But it is our only hope.”
Helpless, Thomas studied her sallow sunken cheeks, her trembling hands, and the dullness of her eyes. They all spoke to her near complete exhaustion, and he despaired that there was nothing he could do to comfort his lover.
An arm’s length away, Janet stared hollowly at the ground at her feet, finding it impossible to make what could be a fatal decision.
But I must and I bloody will…
When she felt a hand grasp hers, she looked up, angry at being prodded, to see The Queen staring back into her eyes. There was an unexpected, pleading look on Her usually hard, emotionless face, and Her voice whispered inside Janet’s head.
It is the only way.
Yet, Janet shuddered with revulsion, remembering the mental chaos that came with every assault from The Queen. Then she felt another small, dry hand grip hers. It was her mother’s. The older woman was pressed close beside her, smiling. As one, they began to chorus an old song, a song of love and loss and redemption.
“Then he took out his pipes to play,
But sore was his heart with misfortune 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.”
The song ended, and their gazes locked for a brief moment before Janet came to a decision.
Okay, I will bloody do what I have to do.
Janet smiled grimly at her mother before she took both of Mairi’s hands in her own, softly whispering, “I love you, Mother.” Then she opened her mind, preparing for what was to come.
What that damned queen did to my mother… to us, is unforgivable.
She’s ruined every one of our lives with her desperate desire to escape her own responsibilities.
But… I should know something about that don’t I?
Determined, Janet lowered all the elaborate defenses that she’d desperately built over the last few weeks and instead welcomed, without condition, that part of The Queen that was lodged within her mother.
All at once, she was overwhelmed by other worldly images and speech and music that all but swept away any rational thoughts. Clutching her arms tightly across her chest, as if she could somehow contain the totality of a being who was simply too vast, too powerful for any one human to bear for long. Janet looked within herself and saw only The Queen of Summer’s Twilight, whole and complete.
Face twisting with torment, Janet shouted over the rising tumult within her mind, “Okay, queenie, you made me a promise. Remember?”
There was an instant of silence that terrified her, then a hollow voice answered her question. “A promise?”
“If I got you out of that damned prison, then you swore you wouldn’t harm me or any that I love!” Struggling to cling to her sanity for a moment longer, Janet’s eyes rolled back into her head and through clenched teeth she hissed, “No promise, no deal. I’ll let myself go as mad as my mother was, before I give you what you want without that promise!”
Smiling slyly, The Queen acknowledged Her pledge to the mortal girl. “All that you have said, I will do.”
Janet cried out, “Then go for it, you bloody bitch!” and slumping back into Tom, her body convulsed. At once, the Queen eagerly began to gather to Herself all the scattered pieces of the puzzle that had taken so long to be made whole once more.
In the stillness that followed the root witch cried out, “The army o’ shadows is well nigh upon us!”
With a single nod of acknowledgement of the witch’s words, The Queen of all Summer’s Twilight rose gracefully to Her feet and stood, triumphant and whole. She turned to face the distant Dark Lord and his oncoming army, calling out words of subtle elvish magic, words of such power that they reached deep into the ground at Her feet and pulled from it that which was, after all, Her right to command.
On the far bank, The Lord of Darkness and of Death heard those words, and knowing their import, clenched his fists in impotent fury.
Through exhausted, bloodshot eyes, Janet watched as inhuman shapes reared from the surface of the great river of dried blood. Huge, primordial figures, resembling no monsters that she had ever imagined. They towered above the dark Lord’s army before crashing down upon it, smashing, breaking, crushing, rendering it back into the shadowy nothing that it had been made from. The dry, dusty surface of what was once a true river heaved itself into blood red waves that crashed and broke against itself, slowly subsiding into the stillness that was there before their making. Made of blood, to blood The Queen’s champions returned, leaving only the Lord and his hunting beasts still standing on the far bank.
The Queen gestured out across the river where they had all just witnessed the complete destruction of the great army of the Shadow Court. She spoke, then, as if its ruler were but some simple fairy creature. “My lord, we meet again. And yet, I see anger written on your face. What is it that displeases you so?”
Sensing his great burning anger, the beasts that prowled restlessly about his cloven feet, fought against their leashes, eager to hunt and to kill.
Ignoring them, The Queen spoke again. “If you have naught to say to me, then leave us, or the doom that I brought down upon your army will be visited upon you as well.”
In answer, the Dark Lord whipped his pack of dark beasts to heel and finally found words to speak. “My Lady, I would only ask that you give me your promise that I may speak with you in the privacy of your chambers.”
A mask of frustration fell across his features as he growled but a single word, “Kill!” Then he released all his hunting dogs save one, the largest.
The other twelve great beasts leaped out far into the river of still dry blood, diving beneath its surface in a plume of powder. Horrified, Janet watched each creature run unhindered under that surface, leaving long runnels snaking behind it, closing the space between them terrifyingly fast.
She glanced up as a cruel smile passed fleetingly across The Queen’s face. A gasp from Mother Hainter, though, brought Janet’s attention back to the surface of the river below. There, the silted blood had begun to swirl faster and faster in a hideous mockery of a natural whirlpool, its violent currents trapping the unseen hunting beasts, never letting them go. Janet caught fleeting glimpses of a leg or a haunch as the creatures struggled futilely in the throes of the unnatural tidal pool. And she heard only a single sharp yelp before the sands calmed once more and left the surface
as flat and placid, as if nothing had ever happened there.
From the opposite bank, the Dark Lord thundered, “For these indignities you all will die. Perhaps not at this moment, but there are so many tomorrows to be considered, are there not?”
Furious that She must be mindful of her pledge to the mortal girl, The Queen answered his threat, Her voiceas treacherous as it was melodious. “Speak then. I wait the pleasure of your words.”
“Here? In this place? With those standing beside you that I fain would hear my most private thoughts?”
Silently, She waited for him to continue, as if he had not made any objection at all.
Even from this distance they could all see the visible effort it took to cast aside his consuming anger. When he finally replied, he had stripped his voice of every emotion save unconditional love. “My Queen, the madness of the moon has filled you for longer than either of us would have ever desired. For that length of time, I have cared for you as best I could. Unprovoked, you have fled from me and what is mine. Some would call that ungrateful, but not I, my Queen.
“We must give our blessings to those who have played their part in making your mind whole once more. I would call myself very wicked indeed if I did not gift them with suitable gifts and join in a chorus of rejoicing.”
She appeared to consider his words carefully before replying, “Come to my palace then, if you wish, and I will receive you there on the evening of the next new moon. We will speak again, at that time and at that place.”
“My Lady, I will come then and speak to you of more gentle things.”
Standing tall and straight, The Queen looked across the stillness between them and commanded, “Yes, of course. Now, leave us!”
The Lord of Darkness and of Death’s face contorted into a mask of frustration and desire, but still he turned away with his one remaining hunting beast straining at its leash, and simply walked away, leaving the company behind where they stood safely on the Queen’s bank of the Lands of Summer’s Twilight.
His last words, though, hung in the still air. “My Lady, that night cannot come too soon for us both.”