© Charles Vess 2019
Janet clenched her teeth as the Vincent jolted across a vast plain of withered grass and dead, twisted trees, leaving a burning trail of smoke and ash in the bike’s wake.
There was nothing living to be seen. No creatures. No birds or beasts. Nothing. Above her was only an endless twilight strewn with glistening stars.
Damn, where are they?
Janet floored the powerful bike, hoping to catch up to The Huntsman and his captives. But, hours later, when dead black mountains rose up all around, Janet was still utterly alone in that vast landscape.
Time in The Land of Summer’s Twilight was always strangely mutable. And so, it could be just hours that passed, but it might also be long days lapsed before the last of those dark crags disappeared behind her. The air around her grew increasingly dense, until billowing clouds of thick black smoke blotted out the stars that tumbled through the sky above. And before her, sprawled across an endless, pitted plain, was a forbidding castle of brick and stone.
Fuck, I’m guessing that’s where The Huntsman was taking them…
Bringing the Vincent to a stop, Janet looked up at the decaying brick walls, misshapen and ill built, reared high above her. The castle was huge beyond anything she had ever imagined, and yet, just as the vast landscape she passed through, it seemed deserted of any life. The windows in every turret and parapet and madly-shaped tower stared back at her like empty black eyes.
After navigating alongside the wall for what again seemed like hours, Janet grew certain that there was no entrance, only an endless brick parapet that disappeared into the dim twilight that cloaked the far horizon. And her gas gage was running ominously low.
No bloody petrol stations out here.
Still bound in The Huntsman’s netting, Thomas was thrown roughly to the stone floor beneath the throne of The Lord of Darkness and of Death. On her knees beside him Janet’s mother, oblivious to the strange world that now surrounded them, continued to sing softly under her breath a tune that seemed to comfort her.
“There was a knight in Scotland born
Follow, my love, come o’er the strand-
Was taken a prisoner and left forlorn
By the great lord Earl of Northumberland.”
The Huntsman stood over his captives, expectantly gazing up at his lord and master, waiting patiently for some manner of thanks. He received none.
Instead, a shade of annoyance filled the Dark Lord’s voice when he chose to speak looking directly at Thomas. “You mortal…you were The Queen’s lover?” When the Rose Knight gave no reply, he continued, barely suppressed anger tinging every word. “That She would choose such as you to share Her bed, beggars belief. And for that, I may forgive Her, but not yourself, sir Knight.
“For a mortal to willingly consort with the Fae is at the very least unwise but always dangerous.
“Your Queen and I have a contract, sealed in our blood. Once every hundred years She must gift me with a tiend, a tithe of fealty to myself, in order that She and Her pretty kingdom remain, or She must pay the forfeit and diminish.
“Perhaps, Sir Knight, she was grooming you for that very purpose.”
Goaded beyong measure, Thomas shouted angrily, “Never!”
His eyes blazing with cold fury, the Dark Lord replied,“Why this reluctance, Knight of the Rose? I have much to offer those who enter my service and would delight so in bestowing those favors on one who richly deserves them.”
Thomas’ face paled. He was certain that the only favors he would ever receive from this creature would strip away his honor, layer by layer.
Hearing his master’s taunt, The Huntsman’s body grew rigid. His eyes narrowed as he calculated their meaning for his own future. In the heavy silence that followed, only Mairi’s sweet voice was heard echoing softly down the length of that great and awful hall.
“There he was cast into prison strong,
Follow, my love, come o’er the strand-
Where he could not walk nor lie doon,
Even by the great lord Earl of Northumberland.
And in his sorrow thus he lay,
Follow, my love, come o’er the strand-
The Earl’s sweet daughter walked that way,
And she the fair flower of Northumberland.”
Her words leavened the despair in Tom’s heart as he looked about at the gloomy hall that could become his new home. All around, black rivulets of moisture seeped slowly down dull brick walls gathering in standing pools of shallow, oily water that reflected, however dimly, the light of a thousand torches that ran haphazardly along the length of the Court of Shadows. The smell of death and decay filled his senses.
High above Thomas, the Dark Lord gestured out at his hall. “Do you not admire my court? Do you not appreciate what those that I call my own have made manifest besides mere beauty?”
The horror that filled Thomas’ eyes was evidence of his thoughts.
“No? A pity then, but your opinion is of little concern to me, Sir Knight. My only desire is to have my Queen sit beside me here, on this throne.
Through gritted teeth Thomas asked, “And was it not that same desire, my Lord, that brought The Queen’s madness upon Her?
“Silence!” The Lord of Darkness and of Death bellowed, and rearing to his cloven feet, his great twisting horns struck the ceiling above, sending a shower of sparks out into the gloom of that chamber.
The massive figure that stood far above him was an impossible mixture of both animal and Fae. Its body was a hideous distortion of each, made somehow worse by the evident effort with which the creature had clothed its lumpen form, perhaps trying to affect the elegance of some noble lord of the Faerie. An attempt that was wholly unsuccessful.
His mouth, a ragged slash cut across a singularly despoiled face opened to reveal blunt, yellowed teeth before closing again as the creature tried to affect a thin, cruel smile. “So that you might know the humility of your once and future Lord, I will tell you, Sir Knight of the Rose, how I paid court to your Queen.” He continued his tale with evident and profound pleasure. “With every manner of courtly gesture and elegant gift, I made my devotion known to her.
“For our trysting feast I gave to Her a thousand times a thousand head of swine, their mouths stuffed with apples more red than blood itself.
“As my wedding gift I presented Her with a gown made from the silky pelts of a perfection of rats, more lustrous black than even the darkest of nights.
“And too, I sent Her other goodly gifts without number, equally fair and most pleasing, I hoped, to Her eyes and to Her heart.
Thomas was baffled by the note of bewilderment that began to shade the creature’s voice as it continued. “Yet, when I came near, She ran from me. Fleeing into the very heart of Her sacred garden where The Queen’s enchantments were strong indeed.
“It was only with the most profound patience that I was able to peel away each thin layer of that glamour, till there was left naught except for what I sought, Herself. Though when at last I held Her in my arms, She was shrieking mad and lost to me.
“I brought Her here, hoping that the blandishments of my home would offer Her at least some comfort.”
Shocked, Tom raised his voice, “Here! The Queen is here, in this place of filth and pestilence?”
The Dark Lord’s mouth twisted in a cruel semblance of a smile before speaking again. “Mortal, you are merely a piece of inept meat, some cast off gristle, so take care with your impertinent words or I will rend your body. And truly, I would delight to do so at this very moment, but I believe that you are a most valuable pawn in the game I play. One to be treasured and used when it benefits me most.”
His long, grizzled fingers gripped the arms of his throne as if they were instead wrapped eagerly around Thomas’ corded neck. “I think it most fitting that though She now lives within these walls, you human, will never look upon Her again.”
With great satisfaction, the Dark Lord watched the color drain from Thomas’ face. The great horned creature looked down at the figure clothed in red armor far below and noted with malicious pleasure the effect his words also had on his Huntsman. “Take this mortal away, but keep him well. As for the woman, I will give her in service to The Queen. For they are of a kind, moon mad and raving.”
Once more, the Huntsman slung Tom’s tightly bound body over his broad shoulder, and with a satisfied smile the creature clad in black leather turned to leave. Despair tore at Thomas when he saw the ungainly shadow creatures that called this court their home clutch at the wrists of Janet’s mother and led her away.
The Dark Lord’s final words echoed down the length of the court of shadows, “Huntsman, know this. The mortal girl, too, must be mine. I know not how or why, but they are all pieces of a single game, a single puzzle: the girl, this simpleton woman, and my Queen. And I would soon see this mystery end, and to my advantage as well.
“Now, bring me this young mortal girl or you will surely find yourself in a cell beside the knight. And there you will stay until your flesh falls from your bones and your bones become dust, and you will become but a forgotten actor on this stage we play.”
Close beside him, Tom saw The Huntsman’s dark face blanch, his step hesitating a split second before continuing across the floor of the great hall.
More than a thousand were the steps, cracked and uneven, that The Huntsman carried Thomas down and long and twisting were the narrow hallways beyond. He needed no torch, for the Dark Lord’s creature could see in the utter darkness of that terrible place. An eternity later, there was a sudden clatter of keys turning in a rusty lock, and then the rush of torpid air as an unseen door swung open.
Tom felt the net peel away from his body as he was swung easily through the air. A moment later, he sprawled across the stone floor of an unseen chamber that was to be his cell. After the door shut, through the small grating cut through it, Thomas heard, the soft, sibilant hiss of The Huntsman’s voice in the utter darkness that surrounded them both. “Knight, know this. Before you came to the Land of Summer’s Twilight, I was The Queen’s chosen consort. But with your arrival, She cast me aside as if I were a simple broken toy to be rid of at Her whim.
“None, then, in Her realm would even speak my name. Stricken, I wandered far from Her hall until I found this place of death and decay. A place certainly more suited to my own thoughts and whose Lord welcomed me with pleasure.
“He then gave me a new name and a new purpose.
“I have not rested since that day of days. Now, all that once lived within Her realm bide here in the dark of this dungeon until such time as my Lord chooses what he shall do with them.
“With those thoughts, sleep well, Sir Knight of the Rose. Sleep well.”