☙  Notes from the Studio ❧

The Queen of Summer’s Twilight, Chapters Thirty-Three, Thirty-Four and Thirty-Five.

© Charles Vess 2019

Chapter Thirty-Three

      This time when The Lord of Darkness and of Death entered The Queen’s city, none there sought to impede his progress. He brought with him no army of shadows, but only a single companion, the last great hunting beast that stalked close by his side, fitted with an elaborate harness made of shining black leather.

Although the crowd filling Her throne room was relieved to have their Queen with them once more, as her presence granted them some measure of protection, they remembered well their time spent in the dungeon of the treacherous Lord and trembled. 

      As for the great dark creature with his twisting horns it was as if they were not even there. Ignoring the murmuring horde of Fae, he and his hunting beast strode the length of the great hall with all their purpose, intent on only one person: The Queen of Summer’s Twilight. 

      Clothed in resplendent samite, on Her brow a graceful crown of silver, inlaid with green emeralds and in Her slender hand an elegant scepter of gold, The Queen of All Summer’s Twilight sat upon Her great, high throne. One step below, in his acknowledged place of privilege, Thomas Lynn, Knight of the Rose stood, elegantly fitted in a freshly oiled suit of red leather armor, his unbound hair cascading back over the heavy red cloak that fell almost to the step at his feet. With a troubled heart, he watched the Lord of Shadows advance toward Her throne.

      Beside the knight, looking as if she would rather be anywhere else but there, even in her hovel leaning against the wall of The Dark Lord’s crumbling city, stood the bottle witch, Mother Hainter. She spared a concerned glance at Janet and her mother standing two steps beneath, before murmuring under her breath to the two silver foxes that sat patiently by her unshod feet. “Well dearie ones, I ken the outcome o’ the story that will be told this day an’ all will end as it was meant ta.” Aellin and Delian curled their warm silver bodies closer, perhaps seeking to lend some measure of comfort to the witch.

      Clothed now in long flowing robes more suited to the manner of the court of the Queen, the two mortal women’s hands were clasped tightly, as if they each needed to lend strength to the other in order to endure what might come. Rigid with anxiety, they watched the horned creature and his beast pause at the base of the steps. 

      The Dark Lord, bowed low, greeting the living jewel he so devoutly desired, “My Queen.” Into the profoundly awkward silence that followed, She impatiently replied, “Why then, are you here, and what would you speak of with me?”

      Lifting his head, and with it the two twisting horns that rose from his heavy brow, he smiled, “Why, my Lady, I bring a gift that I hope will be received with great gladness.”

      In Her private chambers Mother Hainter had described in great detail to the newborn Queen the like and quality of the gifts that The Dark Lord had given Her in the past. Remembering those descriptions. She could not help but suppress a shudder. “Again? You bring me more of your repellent gifts?”

      “Alas my Lady, this gift is not for your radiant self, but for your Knight of the Rose. For is not he but a reflection of you and of your court? And is he not without the blade that you yourself gave him to defend your honor from all the dangers that may come against you in this land you’ve ruled for an age and more?”

      In one long, sharply taloned hand The Dark Lord held out a slim sword of obvious elvish design.

Smiling slyly, he intoned, “This blade was taken sometime hence, perhaps maliciously, by my underling, and I would return it to your Knight of the Rose with all good will.” A faint flicker of impatience played across the Queen’s face then, but still she nodded towards Thomas, indicating that the knight should descend the stairs to accept the blade.

      As Thomas cautiously drew near the Dark Lord, he heard the low rumbling growl that came from the hunting beast pacing stiffly at the Lord’s feet. Close enough to smell the beast’s foul breath, Thomas saw what others could not. The rose pendant he had gifted Janet suspended from the beast’s collar.

      With a grimace, the Knight of the Rose bowed stiffly before holding out his gloved hand to accept the proffered sword. “It was indeed a cherished gift and losing it filled my heart with sadness.” 

      Still tightly grasping the blade, the Dark Lord looked up. “My Lady, I would though, beg but one small favor in return.”

      “Yes. Get on with it. I have little time to waste this day.”

      The great horned figure gestured to Janet, standing only a few steps above him, “This mortal girl has angered me.”

      “Angered you? Indeed, how so my lord?”

      “She has taken what was mine and defiled those that were in my charge.”

      A sudden, cruel smile of anticipation played across The Queen’s lips, “And you would that I…”

      “Give her to me so that I might bestow on her that which her actions so justly deserve.”

      Thomas turned sharply, looking up to the woman that sat on the great throne above as Her icy words fell down through the still air toward him. “Indeed, I have no further use for the girl. Take her, if it is your wish… and the older mortal beside her as well.”

      The Knight of the Rose cried, “No!” and wrenching the elven blade from the Lord’s grasp, he leaped, desperately forward trying to put himself between the horned creature and the two mortal women. 

      A single bound, though, brought the Lord’s hunting beast clawing to a stop on a polished marble step, blocking his path. The huge beast opened it jaws, exposing teeth like jagged glass, spitting its defiance before leaping straight for the knight in red armor. Their bodies locked together as they tumbled to the throne room floor, scattering frightened onlookers but not The Dark Lord who calmly observed their bloody match as if it were of no possible consequence. Around them, all those in the packed court gasped with excitement, and anticipation, at the unexpected entertainment that was offered them now. 

      When the beast’s teeth ripped through his boiled leather armor, cutting deep into the arm that held his sword, Thomas screamed. The blade dropped from his lifeless hand and skittered across the tiled floor, stopping only when it met The Lord of Death and Darkness’ cloven foot. Smiling to himself, he placed one heavy cloven foot over the blade’s hilt making certain that it would not be used again.

      Janet, shaking off her frozen horror, pleaded with The Queen, “Your promise…what of your promise to me?”

      The bottle witch’s hand grasps the young girls arm as she hissed, “Janet, this is no’ the time ta waste a promise such as that. This is a right an’ proper challenge between these two champions!”

      She hesitated, “But that beast…”

      The witch swore, “Child, let this be! Your man is armored and would nae be named the Knight o’ the Rose if he did nae possess uncommon skill. Let your Thomas deal with this wretched beast, he will have help if needs be.”

      Below them, tumbling over and over again on the hard marble floor, the two champions gained no advantage over the other. Tom’s thick leather armor shielded his body from much of the frenzied creatures’ attack, but the beast’s talons and natural ferocity gave it an advantage like few others would have. 

      Back and forth along the length of the great chamber they fought with a primal violence that only escalated with each new injury. With an agonizing scream, Thomas tore his body away and struggled to his feet. The beast crouched low, circling the man, hissing its pent-up rage. 

      No one in that vast throne room could tear their gaze away from the brutal struggle, nor did most even desire to. All save one, who tossed a slim dagger, better suited for slitting throats than gutting an enormous hunting cat. Flung from Mother Hainter’s hand the small blade glittered and tumbled as it arced through the air. Bouncing once on the hard marble, it spun to a stop close by the two figures locked in mortal combat.

      Seeking the advantage that this unexpected gift gave him, Thomas dodged past the great beast’s enormous claws and leaped gracefully forward to catch up the blade. The Knight of the Rose hit the tiled floor hard and then rolled easily to his feet, where he deliberately paused, bracing his booted feet. And then, Thomas faced the monstrous beast, and calmly awaited the pleasure of its regard. 

      With a sharp hunting shriek that reverberated down the hall, the enormous cat-like beast sprang at the Queen’s Knight. Thomas danced lightly forward between the cat’s outstretched claws and then away, leaving the blade buried up to its hilt in the creature’s broad chest.

      Spitting blood, the hunting beast spun across the floor, its jaws snapping ineffectually at the blade. For a brief moment it paused, flashing a look of hatred and frustration at Thomas before leaping away, up the steps seeking new prey. With a final burst of strength, the beast raked its needle-sharp claws down the bottle witch’s chest and stomach. They both fell, tumbling awkwardly down the high marble steps, leaving a path of fresh blood in their wake. 

      At the base of the stairs, its claws sunk deep in the still body of Mother Hainter, the beast rose slowly to its feet before shrieking defiantly, once, twice. Then it collapsed over her near lifeless form and into the spreading pool of dark red blood.

      Thomas fell to his knees, and with enormous effort rolled the great beast away. As comforting hands caressed his shoulders, Tom realized that both Janet and her mother were close beside him, anguish written plain on their faces. He looked again at the crumpled body of the witch as she stared back at him, then her intense gaze found Janet. Small creases formed at the corners of the little mother’s eyes, followed by a brief, faint smile. Janet caught and held the witch’s cold hand as she wheezed a few quiet words, “Janet… even in death I will hold you ta our purpose. Here begins a new tale, try ta steer it true… ta a better… ending.” 

      With her long, thin lips set in a defiant grimace, life drained swiftly from her. And Mother Hainter, the Bottle Witch of all the Lands of Summer’s Twilight, stared sightless at no one and nothing. 

Chapter Thirty-Four

      In the midst of that throne room, thronged with creatures of the Fae, Mairi sank to her knees beside Thomas and her daughter and gently placed her hands on either side of the witch’s weathered face. “My friend… my friend, have you truly left us… left me?”

      The two silver foxes came close as well and softly, patiently licked the fallen woman’s face clean of all the blood that streaked across her features.

      “One story ends.”

      “Another begins.”  

      Then, even in the midst of their grief, they began to notice exclamations of surprise ripple through the crowd around them. Close by their side the great cat’s bloody body shifted and rippled, slowly, painfully, transforming itself into the body of the Dark Lord’s own Huntsman. 

      Through rapidly dimming eyes he gazed at Thomas, and whispered past blood-spattered lips, “Know, Sir Knight, that once I, too, wore your armor. The Queen called me Her Knight of the Rose as well …and promised me that it… it would be forever. Be certain… that you choose well… be certain that it is…what…your…heart…desires…”

      And then he, too, died.

      Recoiling from the death of a creature, who like themselves was well-nigh immortal, the crowd that filled the great hall cried out in one voice and shrank away, leaving the tiled floor at the base of the steps empty of all, save the three mortals and The Lord of Darkness and of Death. 

      Thomas pulled the dagger from the beast’s chest and carefully cleaned the blade before unclasping the delicate silver pendant from the leather collar that still circled The Huntsman’s neck. Grasping it tightly in his gloved hand, he rose to his feet. 

      Beside him, Janet placed a tentative hand on the knight’s arm and whispered, “Bloody hell, I will miss her. We all will. But I’m glad you’re still alive at least.” Her warm words surprised Thomas, for they were the first she’d spoken to him since their argument beside the River of Blood.

      Smiling grimly, he held the pendant out to Janet, who clasped it in both her hands. Answering the quizzical look on his face she whispered, “Thomas, I’d never threw your gift away, the Huntsman took it from me before he dumped me in that bloody dungeon.”

      “Thank you, my lady.”

      “I… “

      Unconcerned with their conversation, the Dark Lord looked at Thomas for a brief considering moment before stalking past him. Carefully avoiding the spreading pool of blood, he looked up toward the woman who sat the great throne above and addressed Her. “Yet again, what is rightfully mine is taken from me and the favor of it not even asked of me first. This errant knight of yours, this mere human piece of meat has now killed a valued servant who had served me well, and, indeed, in his time, served you as well.”

      Although The Queen was more than pleased with the bloody death of The Huntsman, She was taken aback by the sudden loss of Mother Hainter. Her expression carefully trained, She gazed down at the tall, horned figure dressed in red and black velvet finery below Her. “What, have you no kind words for the little witch who ministered for so long to those that call your city home?”

      “No, my Queen. She played a part in thwarting my desires as well, so I find little concern for her wellbeing.”

Yet, in the short time they had been together, She had found the advice that the bottle witch gave of great use and was troubled by her passing.  Petulantly, She twisted the gold scepter in Her hands before speaking. “I trust that the transformation you fashioned upon your servant was for your own amusement?” 

      He sneered in reply, “What of it? He was mine, no matter the circumstance that proved his death, and I still claim my forfeit!”

      Her beautiful face barely acknowledged the cruel smile that twisted Her lips, “Here, in this court you have no right to claim any of my subjects for your own?”

      Before he replied, The Dark Lord returned Her smile in such a manner that brought a chill to Janet’s heart and a sense of certain doom to Thomas. “Yes, my Lady. I do. After all, in this particular matter it is my right to do so. Therefore, I now proclaim this mortal knight to be my rightful tiend.” 

      The Knight of the Rose cried out, “My Queen, I am pledged to you and no other. How may I continue to serve you if I live in his Court of Shadows?” 

      Looking at Thomas for a moment, The Queen finally replied, “Thomas, I weary of this game you play. I have clearly seen that your heart is no longer mine, and that of itself displeases me.” Implacably She turned Her attention to the Dark Lord and continued, “Perhaps you wish to accept your gift now, rather than on the eve of all hallows, even though that auspicious event comes upon us so swiftly?” 

      Great and terrible was the smile of satisfaction that settled on the Lord’s face. Looking on it, any hope or mercy that the Knight of the Rose might have hoped for quickly faded. 

      Thomas cried out, “My Lady, I beg of you…”

      But his words were overridden by the insistence of The Queen. “For as long as there has been a Land of Summer’s Twilight the contract between this Lord and I has been paid in full at the agreed upon time. Indeed, my kingdom owes its very existence to this transaction. So, receive it he shall, and who better to pay this debt than my own Knight?”

      Words like silk scraping over rough homespun fell easily from the lips of the Dark Lord. “Yes. It hasever been so! And ever will be. It is not fitting for any to question a tradition that has seen a thousand times a thousand years name it their own!”

      At that moment such a look of uncertainty crossed Her face that The Lord of Darkness and of Death hurriedly added, “Then at this time and in this place, I will accept your gracious gift. That is, ifwe may speak together for but a little, someplace where unworthy ears cannot hear the words I would speak. Perhaps in your garden, amongst the roses that you so admire?”

      The Lady’s reply vibrated with bitterness. “Sir, do not presume to order my thoughts with your velvet words. I am the Queen eternal of this land, and I will do what I must do when I decide that it will be done.” 

      Ignoring the ranting of the two monarchs the foxes bounded up the cold marble steps. Reaching the throne, they did not rest at The Queen’s feet but without pause, leaped into Her lap, to curl there, in tight circles of warm silver fur soothing Her eager wrath. 

      Pleased as she was that even blessed creatures such as these showed Her their allegiance, The Queen still haddifficulty masking Her indecision. 

      “I wonder then, can this ancient tradition… this tiend be broken?”

      The foxes gazed up at The Queen’s face and saw lurking deep within Her pale green eyes a host of abiding fears: fear of another plunge into madness, fear of Her own downfall at the hands of this persistent Dark Lord, and even greater than those, Her abiding fear that someday She would truly pass away, never to be reborn. Unblinking, the two creatures stared up at the Lady and whispered to her so softly that only She heard.

      “Indeed…”

      “there are other stories…”

      “ones that tell…”

      “of such an ending…”

      “by one who…”

      “has the strength to do so.”

      Because She was newly re-born and still uncertain of Her authority, She whispered, “What stories? I have not heard them.”

      Below, at the base of marble steps, the Dark Lord, sensing Her uncertainty, determined to simply take the thing that he desires above all else. Leaping toward the throne he bellowed, “I tire of the games we play. You will be mine. Now!” Thus was ever his way and ever his greatest weakness.

      Horrified, the Knight of the Rose leaped toward the horned creature and flung the Dark Lord down the marble steps. Where, in a swirl of velvet cape and fine clothing, the Lord of Darkness and of Death hit the intricate marble tiles and slid across the polished floor, only stopping when he came up against the dead body of his former Huntsman. 

      For a brief measure, there was complete and utter silence in the great hall. Then he slowly climbed to his cloven feet and stood in the pool of rich, red blood that lapped at the body of his dead minion. His hands clinched into fists at his sides as he looked up at The Queen, his face contorted with frustration as well as calculation. 

      With his hunting beasts dead, his vast army destroyed, and his impulsive bid to physically take The Queen thwarted, he was certain that it wasn’t the moment to force his hand yet again. Accepting defeat, however temporary, though, was not an accustomed duty for him.  

      The Queen, consumed by anger, screamed so that the vast hall echoed with Her voice. “Leave! Leave my City. Now!”

      With a barely perceptible bow, he answered, “My Lady, it would seem that on this day, yours is indeed the winning hand in our game. My poor Huntsman murdered, and now, your Knight shows no love at all for his new master. I think it best to come another time and continue our discussion then.” 

      The Lord of Darkness and of Death looked at Thomas from under heavily lidded eyes and quietly issued his first command to him. “Go and fetch the two mortals. I would take them with me as The Queen desires.” Then, expecting to be followed, he turned and walked slowly through the crowd.

      His heart a heavy stone in his chest, knowing that his duty was to obey his Queen’s wish, no matter what it may be, Thomas quietly stepped toward the two women still crouched over the body of the fallen witch. 

      Janet, though, noted the look of cruel satisfaction sliding across the long, sharp face of the Dark Lord as he turned away and screamed, “NO! That’s not going to bloody happen!” 

      At her protest, The Queen turned and smiled beguilingly down at the mortal girl. “And what might you do to prevent it?” 

      To which Janet desperately pleaded, “You swore a promise to me! Or doesn’t that mean anything to you, Queenie?”

      The new-made Queen sighed and once more Her voice raised, “Halt!” At Her command, both the Dark Lord and Thomas paused.

      She laughed unpleasantly at them both, “Perhaps one day you will learn manners more fitting to this court, but you are right. We did indeed make such a promise. And that oath must have some meaning, even if I am not that same Queen, even if it were made with a mere mortal.”

      The subtle recasting of Her words chilled Janet’s heart.

      Then setting her face into a hard, unpleasant smile, The Queen continued, “You, and your mother willgo free, but only at such a time and place of my choosing.”

      “And Thomas?” Hoping against hope Janet waited impatiently for the answer that concerned her most.

      “Thomas? Why, I myself have done nothing to harm your Thomas, so indeed my word is not broken. However, what The Lord of Darkness and of Death may choose to do is not and never will be a concern of mine.” She was silent for a moment, considering, “But it wouldamuse me to look on the despair in my Knight’s eyes while he awaits the coming of All Hallows Eve… Be it so. He will stay close by my side until that time.” 

      Looking at the Dark Lord who now stood silently in the hall below, She assumed more certainty than She actually felt. “Now, I weary of this turmoil. So be gone. And quickly!”

      Without another word, the Dark Lord turned and stalked from the hall. But before he turned away, Janet witnessed something that she would have said impossible a moment before. Fleetingly, in the dark creature’s eyes, she had seen regret and longing and even love for The Queen that he desired above all else. 

      You stupid, stupid man, you’ll never capture Her heart this way. 

      Never!

      Janet opened her mouth to speak again, but The Queen emphatically ended their discussion, cruelly twisting Her sharp words deep into the mortal girl’s heart. “Now, I wish to be alone with my Knight. Will someone not take these women to my tower, for they are no longer needed.”

      Thomas, who was still for a short time at least, the Knight of the Rose, looked up at his Queen and bowed. “My Lady, I give my thanks to your mercy and your wisdom.” Then he continued, “With your leave, I will escort the mortals from your court?”

      Unconcerned with what any other might want there in Her court, She snapped, “Thomas, let me hear no more from you on this matter. What youwish does not concern me. It never has. It never will.” 

      He started to protest but was interrupted by The Queen’s emphatic words, “Silence! Have you not sworn your oath as a knight of this realm to do as I command?” Her beautiful face calmly considered his troubled future. “You will come with me now. Others will attend the human chattel.”

      The Lady of the Summer Lands paused then and looked into his eyes. “And know you this, when All Hallows Eve is truly upon us, I will surely commend you then into the service of that great Lord for so long as you shall live.”

Chapter Thirty-Five

      Although the Queen’s Tower was a place of confinement for the two mortal women, it was not for the others in their company. The two foxes, who were sometimes also women but never mortal, were able to come and go as they pleased. Sometimes, for days on end, they were absent, never saying goodbye or even hello upon their return.

      So, for the most part, mother and daughter were left to themselves, and in their long confinement many conversations came, both easy and hard between them as they tried to fill a lifetime of absence. 

      Mairi’s kind but shrewd advice made Janet realize just how different her life would have been if her mother had been there for her. Every conversation left Janet cursing the madness that made her absence necessary as well as the person that caused it. Though her eyes were often clouded with tears after speaking with Mairi, the young woman began to see more clearly who she was and what she could become. Until finally, she accepted that The Queen’s wanton desire to escape her responsibilities as well as her ever-present anger were kindred to her own.

      Giving into that anger feels so damn bloody good.

      Well, most of the time…

      But what does it really get me?

      Janet’s thoughts came back to the present when she heard her mother wonder, “I can only try to imagine how much has changed in our world after so many years… since… I was… was put in that… that asylum.” 

      Without thinking, bitter words tripped from Janet’s lips, “You do understand that it was your husband, my father, that put you there?” 

      Mairi cupped her daughter’s face in her hands, “I… we… shouldn’t blame him for that, my dear. My mind had flown far, far away, and I was a danger to anyone near me, most of all to you.” The older woman looked sadly at the younger. “It’s just that losing all those years that I could have spent watching you grow up torments me. Being there to help my daughter become the woman she is today is a privilege that I’ll never have.”

      Impatiently, Janet continued, “You can’t just ignore that father put you in that place and then wouldn’t tell me where you were until the day I came to visit you… bloody hell, that… that seems so long ago now, but how can you tell time in this damned twilight world with no days and nights?

      Then, after a moments reflection, “But in our last few days together he seemed different, caring even. He despaired at what he’d done to you…and to me. I could maybe love the man he was then.”

      Her mother’s voice was certain when she replied, “Janet, despite what you tell me, your father is a good man.”

      Looking at Janet, Mairi shook her head and shyly remembered her life before the madness. “When I met him, I worked in the city library. It was on the shelves there that I first discovered a book with the old ballads printed in its pages. I fell in love with the stories they had told. 

      “My own mother had sung to me all the time, they were the songs of her youth, old songs from our island, from Jamaica. I guess that I’d heard them so often that I’d grown too used to the stories they had to tell.

      “Then, when I found recordings of those songs…and the library had quite a collection of LPs … do, do they still make things like that… albums I mean?” Mairi waved her hand dismissing the detail. “Anyway, when I heard those beautiful voices making the old tales new again, I was certain that I wanted to be a part of their tradition.

      “After that I was always busking on the street or singing in whatever little club would let me get up on stage.”

      Then looking at Janet with a gentle, trembling smile lighting her face, Mairi continued, “It was in one of those cafes that I first met your father.”

      “The Club 320?”

      “Yes. How ever did you guess? Oh, never mind. We had such good times together and soon became good friends with its owner and his family…”

      “That was Daniel Parsons, wasn’t it?”

      “Oh yes, Dan was a delight to work for. Do you know him?”

      “Did…”

      “He’s passed away then.”

      “Yes.” Janet sighed, then shrugged her shoulders. “There’s still so much to tell you, Mother.”

      After a moment’s reflection, Mairi continued, and what she told her daughter surprised Janet, “It was so very easy to fall in love with John. Tall. Handsome. He was so full of life and didn’t care that we were from two completely different cultures. 

      “It was only later, after we had fallen in love, that I found out how very well off his family was. When he first showed me the Ravenscroft estate I was a bit overcome. Though I never met any of his family…they, just like my parents had passed years before.” Her mother’s glistening eyes studied Janet for a moment before continuing, “Did you know that he was an only child?

“Anyway, barely a year later I was pregnant with you, and by then your father’s new business was flourishing. Both of us were excited about our daughter to be and what she would bring to our lives…

      “My very last memory is of looking up into his eyes as I lay in the hospital bed, waiting to deliver you, Janet. There was so much love in those eyes…

      “We were so excited to have you…” Her voice trailed off as she suddenly realized just how many wasted years had been given over to The Queen’s madness. She reached out for Janet’s hand. “I will never forgive that Queen for making me loose those years. Never.”

      Afterwards, Janet began to tell Mairi something about growing up, alone, in the vast Ravenscroft estate and what kind of father John Ravenscroft had been to her. To Mairi, every story seemed to describe someone that she would never have wanted to know, much less loved. 

      Seeing the look of distress that quickly settled in her mother’s eyes, Janet began to worry. “But I’m not being fair to the man that I was just starting to know. I hope he’s still there when we get home.”

      Mairi wore a tired smile on her face. “Dear, after all these years I’ll have to get used to a new John Ravenscroft anyway. That is if…when, we get back home?

      “We will get home, won’t we?”

      Janet mutely nodded her head, bleakly hoping that it was true. Forcing a smile, her mother asked, “And your life? What are you interested in? What have you been doing with it?” 

      Janet looks away, embarrassed by how very little she has actually done with her life. 

      Why did I waste all those years playing stupid games with my father?

      There’s so much more I could have done…

      And, if I hadn’t met Thomas I’d be playing them still, wouldn’t I?

      When Janet answered her mother, she felt particularly self-conscious. “Ever since I was thirteen all I ever wanted to do was to break every rule that father threw in front of me. Making him as angry as possible was all that seemed to make me happy.” A wave of guilt washed over Janet. “And I was really good at it! 

      “But I didn’t know what else I was supposed to do. I just knew that I had to live my life as far away from him as possible.” She looked around them then at the great otherworldly forest. “I guess that would pretty much be here, wouldn’t it?”

      Her mother’s eyes crinkled in a gentle smile, “Life always reaches out and grabs you whether you’re ready for it or not.”

      Her mother’s next question, though, caught her off guard. “So, have there been many young men in your life?”

      “Thomas, there’s only ever been Thomas.”

      “Surely there were others? You’re a pretty young woman, after all…” 

      “No… never even once. All the other men, boys really, were just bloody boring or… put off by the color of my skin or, even worse, excited by it.” 

      Janet clutched both arms around her shoulders, and staring into space, pondered the one question that always lurked on the edge of her thoughts. “I’ve asked myself so many times what Thomas sees in me.”

       Mairi quickly replied, “Don’t sell yourself so short, my dear.”  

      Laying a comforting hand on Janet’s arm, her mother added, “Perhaps you two were just meant for each other?”

      “Maybe…”

      Janet leaped to her feet, and buried in thought, began to pace across the roof of their comfortable sun lit prison. 

      Eventually she sat again on the low parapet overlooking the gardens below and ran a hand through her still short, cropped black hair. With the fingers of the other, Janet slowly traced the intricate stonework of the rooftop battlements. The air around her was fragrant with the now lush garden of rose and apple below. But Janet didn’t notice. Transfixed by the scene that played out far below, she watched The Lady and Her companion walk slowly along the wide garden pathways. Although Janet was unable to distinguish their conversation, she heard the soft murmur of their voices and the occasional burst of delighted laughter from The Queen. Both filled her with jealousy.

      In truth, it was the figure that stood beside The Queen that she watched so diligently. Even though she had not spoken to The Knight of the Rose since they were in the throne room together, Janet knew in her heart that she had forgiven him and longed to tell him. 

      When Mairi sat down beside her daughter, they both gazed silently down at the small marble marker, already swathed in rich red roses, that rested in the garden just to the side of the path where the two figures walked.

      Janet sighed, “I miss Mother Hainter.” Her face split into a grin before she added, “Right now we could use her sharp tongue and a cheeky boot in the back side as well.” 

      Mairi stroked her daughter’s face. “But at least she’s at rest now after all of her years of labor …”

      Laying her head on her daughter’s shoulders, Mairi asked a question that both women had done their best to ignore. A question that troubled her heart, “When do you think we will be able to leave this horrible place?”

      Janet scowled, “That’s entirely up to that creature walking in the garden below, and there is nothing we can bloody do to make her decide any faster.”

      At that moment the two silver foxes chose to leap into their laps, and as both women begin to stroke their hands through the soft, silky fur of the two extraordinary animals, they immediately grew calmer.  Janet stared down at the magical creatures before asking, “Yet you two always seem to go where you will. Is there no boundary that stops you?” 

      “Lady,…” said the first fox.

      “there are no barriers…” replied the second.

      “for such as us.” They chorused together.

      “We walk…

      “within the telling…

      “of every story…”

      “that has ever been told…

      “or…

      “will be told.

      ”New stories…”

      “always replenish…”

      “the old.” 

      “And the one…”

      “we live through…”

      “now…

      “may finally…

      “surprise…

      “us all.”

      Impatiently, Janet sprang to her feet again, not even aware that the fox in her lap slipped gracefully onto the stone flagging. Pacing back and forth between the low walls of the parapet, her eyes frustrated and anxious, Janet finally stopped in front of her mother, “New stories? Are there any brand new stories? How can we fashion a new tale that features us…myself and Thomas and you as well, Mother?”

      Looking at her daughter’s distraught face, Mairi grew serious. “I fear that your knight will never break his oath. To do that would make him a much lesser man than he would ever want to be. Especially in your eyes.” 

      Bitterly Janet spits out a retort, “Then, he’s just going to quietly follow that bitch’s every whim?” Again, her mother offered Janet advice that she hoped her daughter would accept, “Rash, ugly words will not bring us any nearer to a solution to our problem.”

      “Well fuck this, and fuck your damned solution!”

      Shocked as she was by her daughter’s choice of words, Mairi agreed with the emotion behind them, still she wondered, “Daughter, must you use such common language?”

      “I’m sorry, Mum… but sometimes it makes me feel better…”

      Just like my anger…

      Better, for a moment but that’s all!

      Janet, though, saw the impact her rough words had on her mother and resolved to at least try to sweeten her tongue.

      Mairi’s heart broke, though, when she heard her daughter cry out again. “Thomas swore to me that he had no love left for this Queen, yet he bloody will not break his vow and come with us back to the world where he belongs.

      “I just don’t get it!”

      Silently, Mairi rose to her feet and kissed Janet tenderly on her tear-stained cheek. But Janet wrenched away as angry words tumbled unheedingly past her lips, “That bloody bitch! She promised me She wouldn’t harm anyone that I held dear. And Shewon’t of course! It’s that damned Dark Lord who’ll grind Thomas under his giant splayed hoof andShewill have kept Her fucking word!”

      Ignoring her daughter’s outburst, Mairi sighed, “Our friend, the bottle witch told me more than once to never trust The Queen’s word. No matter how carefully chosen an oath may be, it can always be twisted to serve Her selfish wishes.”

      Despondent, Janet slumped beside Mairi and leaned into the comfort of her mother’s arms. She stared down at Thomas who continued to walk dutifully beside his Queen, so far below. “How can I possibly leave Tom here in this wretched place?”

      Mairi gathered her daughter into her arms and tried to comfort Janet in the only manner she had. “My child, listen to me now, it may help you endure your misery.”

      At their feet, the two strange fox-women looked up at mother and daughter and smiled their sly smiles. They whispered then, so quietly that none but each other canheard their words.

      “Excellent…

      “ a song.”

      “But which will she sing?”

      “Hush, sister…

      “and listen.”

      As the older mortal woman began to sing, her voice was as soft as a child’s lullaby that would calm her daughter’s heart. But the words that she sang were no cradle song.

“Janet tied her kirtle green

a bit above her knee,

And she’s gone to Carter Hall

as fast as go can she.” 

      Instantly recognizing the song Janet added her voice to her mother’s.

       “She’d not pulled a double rose,

a rose but only two, 

       When up there came young Tam Lin

saying ’Lady, pull no more.’ 

      ‘And why come you to Carter Hall

      without command from me?’ 

       ‘I’ll come and go’, young Janet said,

’and ask no leave of thee.’

He’s taken her by the milk-white hand,

  An stroked her silkin’ hair,

  And what they did then I cannot tell,

  Amongst those leaves so green.

Janet tied her kirtle green

a bit above her knee,

       And she’s gone to her father’s court

as fast as go can she.”

Well, up then spoke her father dear

and he spoke meek and mild,

‘Oh, and alas, Janet,’ he said,

’I think you go with child.’

’Well, if that be so,’ Janet said,

’myself shall bear the blame,

 There’s not a knight in all your hall

shall get the baby’s name.’

’For my love is an earthly knight

not of the elfin grey,

 And I’d not change my own true love

for any knight you have.’

      Janet clutched her mother’s hands and despite her sadness the girl’s eyes brightened as she softly repeated that last verse.

‘For my love is an earthly knight

not of the elfin grey,

  And I’d not change my own true love

for any knight you have.”

      Mairi stopped, and looking into her daughter’s face, she asked, “Daughter, you say you love your Tom-Lyn?”

      “Yes. Yes, I do.”

      “Then listen to the ballad to its end.” Mairi held Janet’s face in her two wrinkled hands and began to sing the final verses of the ancient ballad. 

”Janet tied her kirtle green

a bit above her knee,

       And she’s gone again to Carter Hall

as fast as go can she.

 

’Oh, tell to me, Tam Lin,’ she said,

’why came you here to dwell?’ 

      ‘The Queen of Faeries caught me

when from my horse I fell.

 

‘And at the end of seven years

she pays a tithe to hell. 

I so fair and full of flesh

and feared it be myself. 

‘But tonight is Hallowe’en

   and the faery folk do ride. 

      Those that would their true love win

at Miles Cross they must bide.

  ‘So first let past the horses black

 and then let past the brown, 

    Quickly run to the white steed

                                  and pull the rider down.

’For I’ll ride on the white steed,  

                                   the nearest to the town,

  For I was an earthly knight, 

                                        they give me that renown.

 

      ‘Oh, they will turn me in your arms                                                 

  to a newt or a snake, 

      But hold me tight and fear not, 

                                         I am your baby’s father.

 

      ‘And they will turn me in your arms                                           

  into a lion bold, 

      But hold me tight and fear not                                                    

and you will love your child. 

      ‘And they will turn me in your arms                                           

 into a naked knight, 

      But cloak me in your mantle

                                           and keep me out of sight.’

      In the middle of the night

                                      she heard the bridle ring 

      She heeded what he did say

                                      and young Tam Lin she did win.”

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