© Charles Vess 2019
As the words of the song faded, Janet sat silently gazing at the distant figure below in elegant red armor that knelt now in supplication before his Queen. “Thomas, what do I have to do to bring you safely home?” She turned back to her mother. “Good for her but there’s more to the song isn’t there?”
“Yes. The Queen is left angered and vengeful, cursing the girl and the man she rescued.”
Janet couldn’t stop her bitter words. “Just like this bloody bitch of a Queen who is set on ruining her Knight’s life and his fucking honor.”
Mairi considered her long-absent daughter for a moment, wishing back the years lost to them both before almost whispering, “Janet, forgive me, but I don’t think such casual doggerel will ever get us the answers we need, or even, deserve.”
Quietly the older woman continued, “I didn’t at first, but don’t you think that perhaps even our Queen, unlike the Lady of the ballad, left with some small measure of happiness?”
Hands clenched, Janet cried out, “No. I. Don’t!”
Trying to sooth her daughter’s distress, Mairi asked, “Is there no forgiveness in your heart for Her then? For all She has done to my life I do look for it in mine.”
Gazing at her daughter’s face, set hard with anger, Mairi sighed, “After all, there is still some tiny part of The Queen lodged within us both. It always will be.” Mairi’s hand rose to gently stroke her daughter’s shocked face. “Our friend the bottle witch once explained that there was no reason for either one of us to fear that thought. After all, it gifts us with the sight to see this land and all the beauty that is here.”
Janet whispered hollowly, “And all the horrid creatures that live here as well.”
Her mother laughed softly, “Yes, that’s plain enough. I would be well content to live out all my years without ever seeing that tall horned creature ever again.”
Mairi continued, “But daughter, this land, any land really, is a reflection of those that govern it.
“Even in our world… ” and here the older woman paused for a moment of reflection before continuing, “If you consider any particular country, you can see the mind of its rulers at work. So, if ugliness, fear, and monsters stalk that land, then that is what I fear you will find within the heart of its Lord or Lady and the advisors who rule with them.”
Watching her daughter slowly nod her head in agreement encouraged Mairi, “Remember the dead and withered landscape we walked through on our way here?”
Janet’s shoulders tensed, “How could I blood… ah, forget?”
“Look around you. From this tower, all we see is a world that is green and growing, lush with life. Breathe the air. Doesn’t it set your blood racing? Doesn’t that at least speak to there being some element of kindness in its Queen?”
Janet failed to stop her brash reply. “But what about the casual cruelty that we’ve seen all around us? What about the utter darkness of that Dark Lord’s dungeon? Isn’t that a part of this world, too?”
Her mother smiled grimly, “Yes, of course, there is some part of that darkness in all of us as well. Yet here, if there were no simmering hatred between this Lord and Lady, then do you think that their two lands would run with so much useless spilled blood? I think not.”
A wistful smile spread across Janet’s face. “Mother, I’ve made so many mistakes in my life. If you’d been there to talk me out of some of them I’d be a different person today.”
Her mother’s hands reached out to hold the young woman’s. “Different yes, but perhaps no better. Your mistakes make you who you are just as your triumphs do.
“And Janet, you are a fine person. You truly are.”
A flash of sudden understanding warmed Janet’s heart as she remembered their long journey to The Queen’s city and watching then as the two older women spent hours and hours with each other, constantly talking and laughing together. “It seems so stupid now, but on our journey here, I think I was jealous of all the time you spent with the bottle witch.” Wistfully the young woman continued, “And all I ever did was sulk and feel sorry for myself. I wasn’t much fun, was I?”
Smiling faintly, Janet looked directly into Mairi’s eyes, “Forgive me.”
“Yes, of course. You’re my daughter, and I’ll always love you.”
At that moment, the foxes roused themselves, to leap playfully from lap to shoulder and back to lap before standing on the stone flooring in front of the two women. They stared quietly up at the two mortal women for a moment before looking slyly at each other and began to speak, their voices once more raised in perfect harmony. “This is a sad tale that speaks of a Lord and a Lady who always sit their separate thrones in every story that has ever been told of them.
“Never, never ever, could they remember what they had done to bring them to the same lonely end from one telling of it to the next.
“They both endless repeated every mistake that they had made but seldom any small kindness they had rendered each other again and again and again. Most times their story caused great harm to those that pledged themselves to their service and much too seldom good as well.
“But never did this Lord and this Lady ever win to a fitting and satisfying conclusion.
“So their story begins again and again, always different in its parts but always arriving at the same sad conclusion.”
A rush of understanding came over Janet as she considered what the two foxes just said. “Okay. Okay, I get it! Your lady in the story is our Queen andthe Queen in that song and the Lord is the devil who’s owed his due andthat creepy dude with the horns, and maybe if they were happy together then everything here would be better. But what can I…we do, to sort out this stupid mess?”
A satisfied smile played across Mairi’s face before she replied, “Why, we must change the story that’s being told. Especially since this new Queen seems bent on making the same wretched choices as before. Allowing that to happen will only bring us to the very same tragic ending.”
Janet grinned, “Like the man said, same as it ever was.”
The foxes continued to stare up at the girl expectantly, until a look of understanding transformed Janet’s features and she continued, “Oh…If the story is changed, then Thomas will be free to do as he wishes and he could be mine again.”
Janet slipped her slim arm through her mother’s and looked down at the two silver foxes that were curled again in her lap. Then she made a quick decision, “So I…I’m an intruder here. And unlike the Queen or anyone else in this entire cuckoo land, my life in the mortal realms, will be over and finished in a heartbeat. Out, out brief candle and all that bloody crap.”
Right Janet… no bloodies, no damns and most certainly no fucks.
You can at least try can’t you?
“So maybe… I don’t have the luxury of letting my life tell its story as slowly as if it’s on some ancient dial-up connection.”
Mairi laughed and shook her head. “Never mind dear, I don’t always exactly understand your choice of words, but their meaning is clear enough. Go on.”
“Maybe… maybe my ‘human’ eyes can see what every creature here can’t or won’t? In a land made from a hundred zillion stories, maybe I can just simply tell a new tale with a better ending and then try to make it true?
Both foxes sat up straight and began to speak, their words spinning out in their usual sing-song manner.
“must help write…
“a new end…
“to this eternal tale.”
The girl laughed, “You mean like ‘and they lived happily ever after.’ That ending?”
The first fox laughed, “It can be happy…
“or sad.” The second fox continues.
Both foxes intoned together then, “It simply needs a new ending, satisfying to each person that lives it.”
When the moon was full once more, riding bright and strong over The Land of Summer’s Twilight, Janet and her mother were released without warning or ceremony from their long confinement in the Queen’s tower. A formal note delivered into Janet’s hand by the two fox-women informed them of their freedom, and once read, simply dissolved into crisp brown leaves that crumbled in her hands.
“You may go now.”
Having little to pack, they were quick to be ready to leave even if, the young woman delayed as much as possible, repacking the meager contents of her traveling satchel over and over again, hoping against hope for a chance to bid Thomas farewell. Still, Janet managed a small, enigmatic smile pledging her own particular vow.
I swear I’ll take you away from your bloody Queen… somehow.
Pausing just past the arched doorway of their prison, Janet gazed curiously at the elaborately carved leather satchel that her mother had slung over her shoulder. But when she offered to help the older woman carry it, Mairi only smiled secretly to herself and replied, “No. It’s just a gift from our friend the bottle witch that might be useful someday.”
“Okay. Let’s get out of this bloody…sorry, this place before that crazy queen changes her mind.”
Scampering at their feet but never needlessly entangling them, the foxes followed the two mortal women along a broad paved roadway that led them, straight and true, away from the walls of the great city until it reached a crossroad where it branched into three equally inviting paths.
Her mother smiled gently, humming a particular ballad to herself. “Perhaps we should just flip a coin?”
Janet laughed, “Do you have a three-sided one then?”
But with an assertive toss of both their sleek silver heads, the foxes kept to the left-hand path. Putting their faith in Aellin and Delian, they followed them along a path that could lead anywhere, their playful barking distracting Janet and Mairi’s thoughts from an uncertain future.
Throughout the journey that followed, one that eventually brought them to another doorway, one that allowed them to cross the border between Faerie and the mortal lands they called home, the older woman carried that carefully-wrapped satchel.
Eventually their journey was done, their destination reached.
The two foxes scampered about their feet in the thick heather that pushed up against the foot of one of the seven great stones that marked the boundary between the two worlds. Mairi’s voice was full of wonder when she spoke, “Can we really just walk through that stone?”
Janet grinned, “Yes. Anyway, I did it before, so why not again?”
Around them endless twilight covered the rolling landscape that enveloped the great standing stones. One great enormous slab of granite tilted toward the west, as if it had come to life once and taken a tentative step before becoming immutable stone once more. Its surface, pitted by the wind and rain and patterned with lichen, was a record of its lifetime and its age, old past imagining.
Janet looked up as a brief shower of briskly moving rain momentarily washed over them and left the surface of the stone glistening in the rays of a sun that never quite touched the true Lands of Faerie. She turned to her mother, “Come on, home is waiting for us.”
The older woman’s face lit with anticipation. “It will be good to see your father again.”
Janet crouched down in the heather and smiled at the two foxes. “Thank you so much. We couldn’t have done without your help. On the road home and…elsewhere, too.”
The soft tongues of the otherworldly creatures licked her hand as Janet continued, “Maybe we’ll see you again. Hope so anyway!”
Mairi awkwardly shifted her pack eagerly reaching for her daughter’s hand. “Okay, let’s go…”
And then, without so much as a single glance behind them, they stepped toward the great stone and disappeared into its unforgiving surface.
Behind them, the foxes ran in excited circles around the base of the great standing stone and yipped joyfully up at the full moon that hung heavily in the sky over all the land of Summer’s Twilight.
At the other side of that long, bewildering step through stone, Janet and Mairi stopped and looked around. The rolling hills looked much the same as before, but edging the top of the heather and bracken, the boulder strewn landscape all around was a sharp orange light that made the earth here and everything in it seem to glow. Breaking through a tumult of dark blue-gray clouds, the light from a red glowing sun washed the land where their fellow humans lived and breathed and went about their ordinary lives.
Seeing that simple beauty, they were relieved to know they were home and walked briskly down a lightly graveled walking trail somewhere in the highlands of Scotland. Janet linked her arm through her mother’s and smiled warmly at Mairi, trying to mask the worry that continued to tumble through her thoughts.
Okay, we’re back, but where the hell are we?
“Mum, can we walk a little faster and maybe find out where we’ve ended up?”
Over the next rise, Janet was relieved to see the familiar ancient stone bridge that arched over the River Nairn near the road to Aviemore. The familiar landmark lent energy to both their feet. And as they drew closer to the bridge, both mother and daughter saw a figure waiting on its far end, silhouetted against the skyline. Far behind that standing figure, the city of Inverness was vividly lit by the glow of the setting sun.
“Want to guess if the sun is setting or rising?” Janet smiled grimly to herself. “But it looks like we’ll be able to ask someone which it is pretty soon.”
Just don’t be that stupid troll creature. I’m too tired to play any guessing games with the likes of it.
Near the ancient bridge they paused, still wondering who the figure might be, when suddenly Janet’s mother broke away and ran eagerly across the arched stone paving. A single word escaped her lips, “John!” before she was enveloped in the arms of the tall, heavyset man who had been waiting on her return for the past 18 years.
Moments later, Mairi spared an instant to look back and wonder at her daughter’s reluctance to join them. Beyond excited, she called through the dimming air, “Janet, it’s your father, come to greet us back to our own world.” Turning again, Mairi looked up at her husband, and John Ravenscroft looking back, saw fine sparkling eyes, clear of any of the madness that had once possessed her. He embraced his wife again with gentle, bear-like arms.
Janet still hesitated. Genuinely relieved to hear the happiness in her mother’s voice, she became increasingly nervous as she wondered just how her father would greet his wayward daughter. Seeing his broad, reassuring smile, though, her pace quickened.
Suddenly, the stone of the ancient bridge shuddered under her feet, and once again, the enormous troll creature stood directly in front of Janet, blocking her path.
Fuck! Has to be sunset then…
This time, more impatient than terrified, Janet raised her voice to the huge beast before it made any demands of its own. “All right, relax, I’ve got your blessed password.”
On the other side of the bridge, John Ravenscroft only saw that his daughter was standing directly under an enormous shadow of some kind. He reacted, as any father should, ready to tear Janet away from whatever it was, at whatever the cost. But Mairi put her hand on his arm. “John, wait. I’m sure there’s nothing to fear. Our daughter is more capable than you’ll ever know. We should just wait.”
With an effort, he struggled to trust his wife’s judgment. And, with his hands held firmly in hers, John clearly saw the great hulking beast that towered over his daughter. He shuddered. What John Ravenscroft witnessed next made it clear that his daughter was no longer the spoiled, willful child she had been before she left.
Out on the bridge, Janet looked calmly up at the enormous troll as its deep rumbling breath escapes wetly from the creature’s craggy mouth. “My lady, you need no password ever again, your knight has pledged his word and his life for your safe passage on this night or any other.” For one brief moment, Janet’s heart leaped with hope. “Thomas! Is he here?”
“No, my lady. Upon The Queen’s word you will never see the Knight of the Rose again.”
“But he has sent you a parting gift and a message as well.”
The giant beast fumbled at its belt and from it pulled two thick, enormous leather gloves from the wallet that hung there. Pushing his hands into those gloves he reached around for the pack hanging across his shoulders. Grunting once, the creature lifted the gift out and casually set it between them both on the bridge, smiling at Janet as he did so. She gasped, then laughed and then wept as she looked at Tom’s Vincent Black Lightning, polished and shining as if it were brand new, balanced on its kickstand, resting on the stone flagging in front of her.
Janet swung her legs over the cycle and sat its high seat, lost in memories. When she picked up his leather helmet, the fading fragrance of a dozen sweet herbs, picked in the far distant lands of Summer’s Twilight still clung to it. In despair, Janet looks out into the gathering darkness and whispered, “Thomas! I need you more than this damn bike!” Fresh tears ran down her cheeks as vivid memories of all that they’d done, both the bad and the good, washed over her.
Lost in that swirl of memories, Janet didn’t notice at first when the troll gently placed a small sealed scroll in her hands. Her fingers trembled as she unrolled it and began to read,
My Lady Janet,
It is gratifying to know that there can be such great wisdom in one so young as yourself. Never again will I pledge my unconditional oath to anyone, save that person be you.
Quietly, she stared at the words scrawled elegantly across the sheet of paper she held until the sharp scrape of a belt buckle on hard stone broke her concentration. When she looked up the great beast was clambering over the side of the bridge returning to its station beneath its span. After the deep shadows there swallowed it, she whispered, “Thank you for your kindness.”
Softly, hanging in the cool night air, she heard the great beast’s reply, “Lady, I am your servant now and always.”
Slowly walking the bike across the stone span, she studied her parents at the other end of the bridge, their arms wrapped around each other in a warm embrace. That shared intimacy made her heart break into a thousand pieces as she muttered, “I know our love is stronger than any stupid bloody vow!
“Somehow…I’ll get him away from that damned creature!”
Mairi looked at her daughter and crieded, “Janet, listen, we must go home now. We need rest. Then we have to tell your father everything…everything that’s happened to the both of us.” She looked up again at her husband. “From what our daughter’s told me, I’m sure there are resources at your disposal that will help us find her Thomas and rescue him from the desperately unpleasant fate that waits for him now.
“Am I right, John?”
He reassuringly squeezed his wife’s hand and then looked down at Janet. Layers of guilt from so many past conflicts simply fell away, leaving behind only deep, unconditional love for his daughter. Janet, remembering those very same fights, bit her tongue, keeping any sarcastic comments to herself. Both women, though, returned his smile when John replied at last, “Yes. Whatever is mine is yours.”
Janet gazed steadily at her father before asking, “So, how exactly did you manage to be right here, right now waiting for us?”
“Ah… I remembered your story of the troll and this bridge and thought that it was the best place to wait. As for my excellent timing… Well, I’ve been here, waiting for you, every evening, for the last six months.”
“Oh! Six months, has it been that long?”
“Yes, it has.”
His admission more than anything else told Janet that her father had changed from the impatient man she’d lived with for so many years.
Seeing the look of surprise on his daughter’s face, John whispered, “Call it penance or guilt or whatever you like, but I want to start over Janet. If that’s even possible?”
“I guess… I hope so.”
Pleased, Mairi took her daughter’s and her husband’s hands with her own and cried, “Then, let’s go, I want to see my home again.”
As they walked toward the small parking lot just beyond the stone bridge where John’s car was parked, he glanced at his wife and noticed the burden that she had carried for so long without complaint. “Your pack looks heavy, love. Let me carry it for you.” With a sigh, Mairi shifted the strap from one weary shoulder to the other. “I’m fine.”
Then as he opened the door to his car, John Ravenscroft looked back at his daughter as she supported the heavy bike with her body and asked, “It doesn’t look like you need a ride?”
Straddling the Vincent, Janet grinned back at her father, “No da. No, I don’t. I’ll see you two love birds at home, okay?” And kicking the bike into gear she pulled out of the parking lot and flew up the road toward Inverness.
Her mother looked at John and sighed, “Our daughter has grown into a fine young woman, hasn’t she? I only wish it would have been possible to have been there to see it happen…”
John’s words tried to lighten her dark mood, “Quick then, get in. Let’s see if we can get home before her!”
Under the stone bridge, curled comfortably in the troll’s wide lap, two silver foxes looked at each other and smiled, “Wasn’t that nice.”
“A family reunion…
“so very nice.”
Stay tuned for more chapters tomorrow.