© Charles Vess 2019
Rain thundered down from a dense, sullen sky so endless that it seemed to swallow the plain of heather and granite boulders spread out below it. A great black mare surged across that moorland, regardless of the sharp broken stones or treacherous mire under its hooves. The hot breath of both rider and mount plumed out behind, leaving a momentary trail of white mist in the frigid morning air. The rider was soaked to the bone and without saddle or bridle, but his knees clamped firmly into his mount’s heaving sides kept him astride the horse. And regardless of the danger, he urged the mare to go even faster.
Just before each narrow strip of tarmac the mare gathered itself and leapt, never touching the man-made asphalt that paved its surface. Then, far off in the rainswept darkness, a flash of lightning revealed the small ring of standing stones that was their destination.
Inside the tight ring of stones, the storm was no longer of any concern to either rider or mount. Still, the mare nervously reared and pawed the air in front of the largest of the seven stones, ears laid flat back against her head. Thomas slid off the mare’s back just before the horse turned her dripping head and looked directly at him before speaking, “Where have you brought us this foul night, my friend?”
“Only where I must go.”
Steam rose from the dripping coat of the horse as Tom stroked her heaving flanks. “I must step through the stone and find the witch woman, Mother Hainter. There are questions I would ask of her, for I fear that the quest she tasked me with will bring grievous harm to those that I sought and is cert to bring more if I continue.”
He looked back into the rainswept moor for a long moment. “In truth, my heart no longer longs to return to the Lands of Summer’s Twilight.”
The great horse shook its mane, scattering a torrent of water over the dry earth around them both. After considering the tall man standing beside her for a moment, she asked, “Thomas, that damned Queen of yours always falls too quickly into pettiness and anger. She would much rather shout commands than reason with her subjects.”
Tom smiled, grimly, “Yes. It was foolish of me to pledge my fealty to one such as Her. But I was young then and did not know what I do now. But what is done is done. I cannot simply forswear my given word.”
If a mare could be said to laugh ruefully, this one did just that before speaking again. “Rumor has it that She no longer sits her throne or even possesses her rightful mind?”
Tom reached up to wipe away a last rivulet of water that flowed down between the mare’s eyes. “Even so, I thank you for a morning well spent in your fine company. But now I must be about my business.”
The horse, as black as the storm-thick sky stamped her hooves, and only a flicker of her ears betrayed any unease at Thomas’ answer.
She watched intently as the man walked closer to the largest of the standing stones and slowly reached out to touch it.
Tom spared one quick glance toward the city he’d just expended so much effort escaping from. Through the lowering clouds, the dim glow of Inverness colored the far horizon. Turning back to the stone, he stepped through it, leaving behind heartfelt words trembling in the air, “Janet, please forgive me.”
The moment Thomas disappeared into the stone, the Pooka plunged away, back outside into a world that was still lashed by storm in search of mischief and yet more foolish mortals.
Only the great standing stone remained, resting there as it had for ages without number, blindly watching bird and beast, mortal and fairy, cross the swelling heather-covered land around it. And there it would stay, waiting patiently for the end of one story or the beginning of another, its rough granite surface, as ever, listening in utter silence.
Within that stone or on the other side of it, Thomas stepped into a world entirely different from the rainswept moor that he just passed through.
The untroubled sky above him was the same eternal twilight that had always gently illuminated the Land of Summer’s Twilight, but instead of falling on a lush verdant landscape, it cast its soft glow over a great, endless plain of dead grass. Deep in thought, Thomas paused for a moment.
I had hoped that what greeted me before was simply a passing illusion and that returning, I might see Her lands replenished… thriving.
His shoulders were rigid under the weight of the complex task that lay before him, one that he had gladly accepted, little realizing the consequences of that choice. As quickly as he could, The Knight of the Rose picked his way across the blighted landscape that surrounded him, knowing that he must find the witch woman as soon as possible.
All the way across that almost endless field, somber memories twisted through his thoughts.
Once I rode across this plain at the head of the Queen’s army, my armor shining brighter than the moon above.
On the kingdom’s farthest edge, we had met a vast horde of goblins come to lay waste to all that was rightfully Hers.
There was blood then and slaughter and at the last, we claimed a great victory.
Returning, Her city was bedecked in banners and filled with song for all of us who had served Her so well.
The smile She welcomed me with set my heart a flame.
Much later, when Thomas finally stepped onto the broad, stone thoroughfare that lead into his Queen’s city, his thoughts were no less tangled, no less troubled. Before him the great marble arches from which elegant carved doors once swung wide to admit any who wished to share in that glory, now lay broken in the dust. All about him the soaring towers of the Queen’s city had fallen into ruin. Nowhere could he see life of any kind.
Hurrying down the long-deserted avenues, his footfalls echo back at him from a silence that held complete dominion over the once-blessed city.
Above the Knight, still clinging to the marble walls that lined every avenue, were the withered husks of a thousand times a thousand ancient flowering vines. Pausing, Thomas reached out to touch the trunk of one and watched in dismay as it crumbled into fine dust.
Her roses once made this city a vast bower cascading with color and filled the air with a fragrance like no other place.
Confidently threading the complex weave of avenues, the knight finally entered The Queen’s throne room. But, as before, only brittle leaves and scattered windfall greeted him. Forcing himself to look, he saw high above, the Queen’s throne sitting cracked and empty and was tormented by a cascade of memories.
It seems but yesterday that She brought me here to live in Her shining city.
Warm were Her arms and warmer still the bed that we shared in our passion.
I believed then that I was forever blest.
And for a time, I put away all thought of my true home and family.
Why, then, did I begin to long so for escape from Her dominion?
Thomas quickly left the hall and walked out into what was once a verdant garden forbidden to all save the Queen and Her consort, The Knight of the Rose. But there, too, only death and decay rose to meet him. Overcome, Thomas fell to his knees and cried out, “Mother Hainter, where are you? I would talk with you. Now!”
But the echo of his anguished cry was the only sound that broke the silence that cloaked the ruin of everything he once thought he loved. Until, after a moment, he heard the soft tread of booted heels on the marble walkway. Looking up, he saw a short, wizened figure with wrinkled skin the color of burnished mahogany standing before him—not a resplendent, and somehow, still hoped-for Queen.
“Witch woman, what must I do?”
The crone’s deep-set eyes peered long and hard at the knight. “Did you expect the quest I tasked you with ta be an easy one?”
Slowly then, Thomas began to unburden himself of what he had seen and done in the mortal lands and of his newly awakened desire.
“It was never my desire when you sent me into the mortal realms once more, but now my heart longs to stay in the land of my birth… with the mortal woman named Janet… the same who holds at least a part of The Queen within her.
“Last night, after my stubborn silence had provoked such richly deserved anger from her… after she had sent me away, telling me to never return, I realized that it was she, not the Queen, who was now at the center of all my thoughts and my heart.
“It was my certainty that I would cause great harm to Janet if I brought her here that caused me to flee.
“There will assuredly be no honor for me if that were to happen, yet neither will there be any honor if I do not do all that is in my power to restore the Queen to Her rightful mind and so make whole once more The Land of Summer’s Twilight.
“Janet, though, is made of soft mortal flesh, and I fear the creatures that call this place home will feast upon her, mind and body.
For some time, Thomas continued to unburden his heart to the withered crone before falling silent. The witch considered Thomas for a moment, a thin smile twisting across her lips.
“Surely a Knight o’ the Rose can protect a single mortal from any that might do her harm?
“And greater danger still awaits both her and yourself than all the formidable creatures of this land. The Queen’s anger will be great indeed when She learns o’ your wish ta leave Her court and o’ your presumption ta regard any other than Herself with affection.
“Perhaps though, your Janet is made o’ stronger mettle than you presume? Women so often are. So, tell her what you will, but fetch her here you must. For it is only in this garden, that th’ Queen can be fully restored.
“Now go. Return quickly ta the mortal lands and give your charge what service is yours ta offer, for the Huntsman will not hesitate long ta secure Janet for his master. And even though her father’s home offers great protection, how long will she bide within it?”
Thomas nodded grimly and turned to leave.
Still the witch stood a moment longer in the midst of that immense, wasted garden that was once filled with life and beauty, and wrapping her thin arms around herself, she smiled. Deep in her deep-set eyes hope bloomed where there had been none at all. And with that rekindled hope, a single rose bloomed in that garden where there had been no life until now.
Turning, she called out to the absent knight, “My blessings upon you, Thomas, for I fear you will need all I can bestow ta bring us to a proper ending.”
Neither close nor so very far away, the Huntsman walked silently toward a vast castle, made entirely of stone and brick that was the domain of his master, The Lord of Darkness and of Death. The enormous structure sprawled limply across the barren landscape as if it was patiently waiting for something or someone to bring it back to full, vibrant life. It had been waiting an age and more for such.
Twisting, piles of rubble, cast-offs from the hovels of every manner of creature that had ever pledged their service to the Dark Lord littered the ground at his feet.
Wide pools of reeking sewage gathered at the base of each broken building, which were themselves skewed at odd, disturbing angles, one from the other and set with windows that were all either too big or too small and placed at uncomfortable angles in the walls that they served. Towering above all this desolation were huge chimneys spewing thick streams of black smoke into the darkening air, making his Lord’s court seem more like a machine-age factory of the mortal realm than any castle out of Faerie.
Deep under the blackened earth, there was a chamber of dense, shifting shadows that wailed in hollow anguish. There, the Dark Lord sat astride a throne fashioned from the bones of a vast multitude of creatures, both two-legged and four as well as others, stranger still, from the far distant land where mortals dwell. All had only one element in common: they had once been his enemy and now their remains constructed a blasphemous throne that perched high above the floor of that awful chamber.
Barely seen in the deep shadows that clung round about his throne, two enormous horns rose from his wrinkled brow, spiraling into the darkness above. Astride that throne, The Lord of Darkness and of Death presided over his realm but wished for more power, always much more.
To come to that inner chamber, a supplicant must descend one thousand and one brick-laid steps, set so steeply one to another that many had fallen and died there. As a reminder to others, their bones remained scattered at its base, slowly being ground to dust under the feet of all those that were more blest in making that difficult passage.
The Huntsman, followed closely by his remaining hunting beast, passed into the inner chamber and crossed its vast floor carved from a single piece of rock. The room was alive with shadows and faintly echoed with their whispers. Standing directly below the figure that sat upon the great high throne, he bowed and did not rise until, after a long silence, he was spoken to.
Above him his lord and master whispered, “I see only one of my pets. Have the others remained behind to hunt yet more human prey?”
“No, my Lord. They perished in your service.”
The Huntsman’s hard face masked all emotion as he continued to speak, “As was charged me, I found the mortal that you sought, and it was he that killed your beasts.”
“Ah, then, why is he not here that I may punish him for so unwise an act?”
“He escaped me, my Lord.”
The Dark Lord’s voice thickened with barely suppressed rage, “So you tell me that this human killed four of my beasts and evaded you with apparent ease?”
“Indeed Lord, your Queen named this same man Her Knight of the Rose and has had him trained at Her court. He must possess many abilities to recommend him to that title.”
At The Huntsman’s casual mention of the Queen, the Dark Lord rose to his feet, and the writhing shadows in that vast chamber began to swirl excitedly in every corner of the hall, filling it with their urgent wails. When he finally spoke, it is in a whisper barely heard above their hollow cries. “Huntsman, I consider all your past service to me and am mindful of it, but if you speak of The Queen again, before you have completed your task, I will tear your tongue from your throat and feed it to my shadows here.”
Wisely, the figure in armor held his silence, continuing to supplicate himself before his lord and master.
“Even so, Huntsman, whether he be called Knight of the Rose or naught, he will be bound and at your side when next I see you. Will he not?”
The Huntsman whispered, “Indeed. And…there was another…”
“She looked to be a mortal girl, yet I heard her speak with the voice… of She whose name you would not have me say.”
The Lord of Darkness and of Death’s taloned hands clutched hard at the gilded arms of his high chair before he spoke again, “And Huntsman, you would know the sound of Her voice, would you not?” The Dark Lord contemplated his minion, “This human must be another piece of this strange puzzle, however small. Bring her to me as well. I would speak with her. Go now. Be about your work!”
“With pleasure, my Lord.”
After eight seemingly endless days of pacing down one long hallway after another, a reluctant prisoner in her own home, Janet was finally free of her cage. Standing at the top of a short flight of marble stairs that opened onto the vaulted doors of one of the city’s oldest cathedrals, she ignored the wind that pulled at her black dress.
We wouldn’t be in this place today if it weren’t for me…
Her gloved hand brushed nervously through her cropped hair, gelled back now and looking far more elegant than it had a right to after what she’d done to it. Janet’s gaze nervously swept across the façade of the building behind her and then out into the night beyond.
Thomas told me to stay inside my father’s estate, that those horrid beasts wouldn’t be able to reach me there.
So, I bloody did just that.
But now here I am, in public because I have to be.
A grim smile briefly curled her lips.
Hey, any fucking monsters lurking out there tonight?
Behind her the cathedral was packed with people she didn’t even know. Except for two. One lay in an elegant coffin and the other sat in the pew before it, racked with grief, her face streaming with tears.
The mourners inside were gathered for the funeral service of Daniel Parsons, father of her friend Lottie. They filled the cathedral almost to overflowing. When Mr. Parsons had somehow miraculously survived his injuries that night, his family had breathed a collective sigh of relief. Only to have their lives shattered when he had succumbed to a virus, caught in the same hospital that had made such heroic efforts to save his life. Afterward, Lottie had insisted over and over again that it wasn’t Janet’s fault, but her friend’s sincere forgiveness had brought her no relief, only more guilt.
Still, what perplexed Janet was that her father had insisted he attend the funeral as well and even pay for it, if needed. When the members of the Parsons family had quietly accepted his unlikely offer, she hadn’t known what to think.
He doesn’t even know these people… does he?
Just another bloody mystery to add to my list.
In what had quickly become an unconscious habit, her fingers reached up to stroke the pendant that hung around her delicate neck.
Where did you go to, Thomas?
A sudden rueful grin flickered across her lips.
Well Janet, you did scream at him to leave didn’t you?
She spared a quick, furtive glance down to the street where several black SUVs full of her father’s men were parked.
All armed and very bloody dangerous, I’m certain.
If Thomas came here tonight, someone would get hurt… because of me. And I already have too much to fucking forgive myself for.
Abruptly, Janet’s last moments with Tom burned their way once more through Janet’s memories.
Just let it go.
If you ever see him again, you can apologize for all the bitchy things you screamed at him.
Trying to shake off her nervous energy, Janet began to pace back and forth along the top step of the stairway. Which only made the four bodyguards looming close beside her even more on edge. None of them would be at all surprised if she bolted down the steps at any moment. In fact, they had a betting pool on exactly when that evening it was likely to happen.
Janet, however, had no intention of trying to escape. She knew that her father’s men offered her the protection she needed. Not from Thomas, of course, but from the monsters. More importantly, she wanted to speak with her friend Lottie again.
Better go in.
Walking through the great doors, she heard the soulful voices of the choir that had filled the atrium only moments ago, fade into silence. The minister’s solemn voice began to echo throughout the immense hall.
Janet threaded through the dense crowd, making her way to the empty seat beside her friend, marked reserved.
Bloody hell, look at this mob. Mr. Parsons must have touched a lot of people’s lives for this kind of a turn out.
Wish I could have gotten to know him.
Reaching her seat, she listened half-heartedly to the remainder of the minister’s eulogy, unconsciously scanning the throng of people standing in the church, making sure that there were no leather-clad swordsmen or unlikely beasts sliding through them. When she realized what she was doing Janet shivered.
Later, after the somber service was over, the voices of the choir again began to fill the lofty space. Their hymn should have soothed Janet’s jangled nerves, but only irritated her instead. One hand clutching Lottie’s, she watched suspiciously as her father spoke to the widow, Mrs. Parsons. With clenched teeth, she kept staring, wondering what someone like John Ravenscroft could possibly have to say to the very frail, elderly black woman.
Bloody hell, he looks like Moby Dick beside Lottie’s family?
It was then she realized, that despite the awful circumstances, how comforting it was to be surrounded by faces mostly like her own. The sea of faces, shaded from light brown all the way to a rich blue-black were compelling and vivid.
No bloody one here will be yelling slurs at me…
Caught in her thoughts, Janet almost missed what Lottie said when she leaned in and whispered, “They’re old friends…”
“Friends? He’s never once mentioned your family to me…”
“Well, from what you’ve told me you don’t exactly talk very much, do you?”
“No, I guess we don’t.”
Janet struggled to escape the tangle of her thoughts before she enveloped Lottie in a fierce hug.
“Hey, enough about me. Are you going to be okay?
“Yeah, yeah. It’ll be rough, but I’ll survive. The Parsons are a hardy lot.”
“Lots of repair work to do down at the club should keep me busy for a bloody long time. The 320 is father’s legacy, after all”
“Okay, anything I can do to help?”
Lottie pulled away to look in Janet’s eyes, her own clear and fiercely determined now.
“Listen. I know you don’t want to hear this, but your father is putting some very needed cash into the club, and I for one, am grateful.
“He really doesn’t seem like the monster you
Make him out to be. Maybe you should go easy on him?”
“Yeah. Okay. I’ll think about it.”
Lottie’s brow wrinkled with concern. “And Janet, what about this Thomas of yours?”
“Gone. I told him to leave, so he bloody did.”
“I don’t blame you, he’s at least partially to blame for the mess down at my club… and… two men are dead because of it… one was my Da.”
Hastily wiping away the fresh tears that run down her cheeks, Lottie kept talking, “Could you even trust Thomas if you saw him again?”
Before Janet could answer, Charlotte was engulfed by a wave of close family and many more tears were shed. So, Lottie, didn’t hear her friend, standing to the side, looking lost, whisper, “I don’t know… I just don’t.”
After what seemed like an eternity full of unexpected bursts of noise that kept Janet constantly on edge, she saw her father begin to make his goodbyes. Grateful to be leaving, she linked her arm under his and smiled ruefully up at him, “Okay, can you take me home now? Please.”
Bloody hell, every single laugh or cry or even a hard pat on the back is making me jumpy as fuck.
Never thought I’d want to get back to my personal prison so soon.
Surprised, the elder Ravenscroft looked down at his daughter. When he replied, his usually stern face was suffused with a warm paternal glow, “With pleasure, my dear…with real pleasure.”
Across the street from the funeral, high in an ancient oak, Thomas had been carefully observing the events unfold below him that evening. He had seen the abundance of security guards and considered simply swooping Janet up as she stood on the steps of the building but had decided against giving in to the pleasure of rescuing her.
He was certain that John Ravenscroft’s security force would have been only a momentary nuisance; his real concern that evening had been The Huntsman. Thomas had expected him to appear at any moment, especially now that Janet was removed from the safety of the unusual wall around her father’s estate.
Biding his time, Tom’s brow wrinkled with concentration as he considered the enormous effort involved in planting and maintaining the hedge of rowan trees that completely circled the extensive grounds of Ravenscroft’s estate. Most of them were mature trees, planted long ago, perhaps by whoever had built the estate in the first place.
Who would have had the knowledge to do such work?
Then, seeing Janet and her father flanked by four security personnel emerge from the cathedral and start down the broad front steps toward their waiting SUV, Tom followed them carefully with his eyes. A vehicle just like it stood in front and another behind.
Packed with the father’s soldiers, I’m certain.
But as many as there may be, they will offer no protection at all from the servant of The Lord of Darkness and of Death.
As he carefully considered his next move, the rough bark under his hand suddenly began to twist and turn, forming itself into a wrinkled face that blinked up at Tom for a moment before speaking.
“No, don’t tell me. No! Wait! I’ve seen you before. Nonononono, don’t tell me, I know it well. Your name is Duncan. No? No… “Lacklan then? Or was it Dylan? Ah, there it is, right on the tip o’ my tongue. I’ve got it now. You’d be called Thomas.
“Am I right? No need to answer, of course I am, I’m always right.
“And how sir, are you this fine evening. Well, it might indeed be fine if I were somewhere else other than this miserable city, breathin’ its foul air. Stunts my limbs ya know?
“I should be leanin’ up against a wee house out on the moors or nestled in a bonnie glen beside a bright blue burn, chocked full with the salmon, it would be. Yes, that would suit me just fine, indeed it would.
“I’d no be breathin’ no o’ this black air then.
“Weel, I expect it’s a bit late for a’ that jist now.
“So then, if you please, Mr. Thomas Lynn, what’s going on doon there that has so caught your interest that you can no speak to me at all?”
Without a word, Tom winked at the ancient green man and then sprang across to the next tree that lined the long, stately street.
“Well then, it’s goodbye, is it? Here is my best good luck to you with whatever you may be up to this fine night. I expect you’ll be needin’ it before tha dawn’s light comes again.”
Moving quickly, Thomas dropped from the tree to a nearby rooftop and continued down the street, not hearing the old green man’s blessing.
In that same manner, Tom continued to shadow Janet and her father all the way back to their estate.