Tamlane — Prisoner of the queen of the fairies

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The knight of dreams

White and red roses braided the frame of the mirror. The spiky stems were as if they were alive. They crawled upward like snakes. Janet thought she was dreaming. She was standing in her bedroom in her father’s castle in front of a huge mirror. The room was quiet and dark. And there was a battle going on inside the mirror. There was the scraping of metal against metal as the swords of the fighting men crossed. Horses roared beneath their riders and clubs and shields gleamed. Some knights wielded conventional weapons, while others deployed magic. Men fought against supernatural beings.

So this was a dream after all! Janet watched the battle in the mirror and tried to determine whom the crests belonged to? None of the families she knew had coats of arms with salamanders and roses. Some of the banners belonged to humans, some to supernatural creatures. The banners of men, meanwhile, had been trampled. Knights of flesh and blood were killed by warriors of fire. Flames invaded the battle as if spewed from a dragon’s mouth. Standing close to the mirror, Janet felt its heat. Is it possible to feel heat in a dream? What if this wasn’t a dream after all? The girl reached out to the mirror, hoping she wouldn’t run into the glass barrier. Then it would turn out that the ornate frame was just a window to another world.

Before Janet could touch the mirror, the rose thorns dug into her hand until it bled. The blood on her fingers was real, and the pain of the scratches was real, too. So this was no dream!

One knight suddenly stood close to the mirror on the other side. He was looking directly at Janet. The girl flinched. He had such eyes! Like green pools in which you were about to drown. The face was covered by a visor, and the helmet itself was made in the shape of a dragon’s horned head. Surely this knight was not human. But why was he fighting on the side of men?

Who are you?» she tried to ask the question out loud, but her voice was drowned out by the noise from across the mirror. The fire was devouring the bodies of the vanquished. And the knight, as if he had emerged from that fire, held out his hand to Janet. His gauntlet almost touched her, but the roses that braided the mirror clenched and hissed. They wouldn’t let him in. Janet’s blood was on their thorns. And behind the mirror there was already a wall of fire.

«You want to see me in reality, not in a dream?» The knight’s voice was muffled. It sounded from beneath his visor, and it seemed as if the dragon depicted on his helmet was speaking to her, not he himself.

Nevertheless, Janet looked into his eyes and knew that she wanted to see him always.

«Yes!» she answered. Her voice, as before, was drowned in the noise of the fire, but the knight heard her.

«Then set me free!» His hand, encased in a heavy gauntlet, caught her arm and squeezed it until it ached. Janet even cried out. How strong he was! Why couldn’t he free himself if he was so strong? He reeked of power and fire. He managed to tear the stems of the roses, step over the frame of the mirror, and embrace Janet. His embrace lasted even less than a moment. The girl realized she was not in the arms of a man, but of a pillar of fire. Her skin was burning. Now she was going to burn!

And that was the end of the dream. If only it had been a dream. Janet awoke at dawn. The larks were singing outside her father’s castle window. And the girl’s arms were blooming with burns and pricks from rose thorns.

So was it a dream after all, or not a dream?

Flaming legends

The girls played ball in the meadow. It had recently become a local pastime, except for tournaments. Some pedlar brought balls here and showed them how to play. Several years had passed since then, and the game had taken root here as if it had never been played before.

Janet remembered that boy. He was as red as autumn, with pointed tips of his ears sticking out from under his green beret. He carried a heavy box of merchandise behind him, sometimes showed tricks, and smiled sweetly at everyone, but he only winked at Janet.

«They say elves walk in a circle in those hills,» Nyssa tugged at Janet’s sleeve and pointed farther away, to where the sun was setting. «They walk in those hills over there! The wanderers saw them, and then they died. Elves are rumored to be dangerous to mingle with. They will charm you and then destroy you.»

Janet watched the flaming sunset, and it seemed to her that the silhouettes of flame dancers loomed on the hill, making a strange round dance with abrupt unnatural movements.

The girl shook her long braids. To her, it just seems. The flame dancers in the hills are nothing more than a play of light and shadow. The sunset is the same shade as these figures — it’s easy to see where anything comes from.

«People who fall under the spell of the elves,» Nyssa went on, «develop green skin, a poor appetite, insomnia, and nightmares. They even suspect that they see evil spirits everywhere. They do not live long. They wither and die quickly, as if someone had drained them of all their strength.»

«Has that ever happened to anyone you know?» Janet raised an eyebrow mockingly, glancing sideways at her talkative friend.

«Of course not, God forbid,» Nyssa said with a prayer that she didn’t think it would happen to anyone we knew. After all, the creatures of the forest and the hills can drink all the blood out of us…

«You speak of it so well, as if you had seen it with your own eyes.»

«I only heard with my own ears,» Nyssa protested without mocking. «And you, if you weren’t so proud and talked to the boys from the next town, you’d have heard things that would give you the creeps.»

«I don’t believe it!» Janet said dryly, not really wanting to admit that her father was trying to keep her out of the castle and limiting her communication with anyone he considered unworthy of his daughter’s company. Nyssa, for instance, if she said anything of the sort in the presence of the old earl, she would immediately be chased out of the castle. And she’ll never be Janet’s maid of honor again. Maid of Honor! Normally, only queens have maid of honor. But the local feudal lord was like a king to the surrounding peasantry, so it didn’t seem strange to anyone that his daughter had maids of honor. In fact, her father wanted to surround her with a lot of boisterous girlfriends so that she wouldn’t go anywhere, as her mother had once done. Chatty girls would be sure to denounce her if any stranger started seducing her and asking her to go away with him. Nyssa would call such a daredevil an elf from the woods. And more reasonable people called them either kidnappers of married ladies or desperate hunters for a bride with a dowry.

Janet wanted to believe that her mother had been kidnapped by some king and held by force in his court. It was easier to think that way than that her corpse, which had long ago been stripped of all its jewels, was resting in some wooded hollow.

Officially, Janet’s mother was considered dead, not a runaway. But that didn’t make her father feel any better. He grew older by the day. At forty-something, he already resembled an ancient old man, his hands ringed with signet rings. He was constantly afraid that something might happen to Janet. But the girl was in her eighteenth year, and nothing untoward had happened to her.

«Seventeen years of careless living is no guarantee that in your eighteenth year you won’t be tested?»

Who said that? The voice was thin and hoarse, like the cawing of a crow. Janet noticed that the girls were no longer playing ball, because the ball rolled right back to her feet. It looked as if a trail of blood stretched across the grass, but it was just a trail of sunset glow.

«At your eighteenth birthday you can even die!»

This time Janet looked up to the branches of the tree from which the voice had come. There sat a bird, all black. Only a few feathers in its tail and crest were as colorful as a rainbow.

What kind of bird was it? It was neither a crow, nor a peacock, though its tail was very long and lush. Its forehead burned with something that looked like a third eye or a jewel! Janet didn’t get a chance to look at it, as she was required to pick up the ball and continue the game. She had to defer to her friends. The girl stubbornly refused to call them maids of honor. She was not, after all, a queen. Even if illiterate peasants did not know the rules of the royal court, but she had read a lot and learned everything.

«Don’t get your train caught on the edge of the magic realm!» a bird cawed angrily as Janet’s train got stuck in the roots of a stump that didn’t seem to be there a second ago. The girl barely managed to free the brocade cloth, but a flap was left on the roots. The bird cawed defiantly, and either the eye or the stone in its forehead glowed red.

It was all sunset games! Janet raised her ball, and almost jerked her hands away. It seemed to her that from the ball the face of the pedlar who had once brought the game to the castle was smiling at her amiably. The illusion lasted only a moment.

Janet went to her girlfriends, but the sensation of holding someone else’s head in her hands only intensified. Nyssa made her play with everyone. Janet was quickly out of breath and tired. What kind of game is it to flip the ball from hand to hand? But the girls laughed merrily, catching it. They enjoyed the game as much as boys enjoy spears and swords.

Janet remembered the mirrored shields of the imps that she had seen in her dream fighting earthly knights. What a dream that had been! She was still terrified to remember. She must have dreamed it all because of Nyssa’s chatter, and also because of the stories of two travelers who had spent the night in the castle not so long ago. Over dinner, they told many tales of the strange creatures of the forest they had encountered along the way. They could, after all, make up stories to amuse their guests and thus work off their overnight stay. But how dark her father became when he listened to their stories! It was as if he knew something he had never spoken of.

Elves in the woods! Roundabouts in the hills! Janet looked away, to where the edge of the forest was black on the horizon. It was forbidden for anyone who lived in the castle to go there. Allegedly, there were a lot of wild animals there. But then why didn’t people go there to hunt anymore? Janet remembered that in her childhood, when her mother was still alive, they often went hunting in the woods and came back with game.

Only once, instead of the usual carcasses of fallow- deer and deer, the old knight brought an unusual creature to the house. It spoke even after it had been gutted. It complimented her mother and even sang. Not long after that, her mother disappeared. All Janet was left with was a locket of her portrait, which she wore around her neck. That was all!

It was sad that other girls of her age had living and caring mothers and she no longer did. Her father, too, seemed only half alive. He had become moody and taciturn and withdrawn ever since his wife had disappeared.

«If I could only find their kingdom, I would blow them all away!» said he to someone on the night of his mother’s disappearance. Janet got out of bed then and eavesdropped under the opened door. Her father had a visitor who had a bad reputation in the nearest town. He was even nicknamed the foul trapper or inquisitor, but he returned all the gold he had paid to his father because he could not help him. He was stern, but honest. Because he returned from the woods without the countess, the purse of coins was also returned. The gold jingled on the table. A circle of tiny figures danced in the fireplace.

«Come to us!» They called to Janet. She stared only at them, hardly listening to what her father was saying to the trapper. Only one phrase stuck in her memory.

«I would destroy them all, if only I could find their kingdom among the forests. But no one can find them!» Some scrap of paper in a woman’s delicate handwriting fell from his fingers. The earl made a fist of his strong arm, which was gleaming with precious rings like armor. Since then, his hand had grown flabby and wrinkled like a dead man’s. The only thing that reminded him of his former strength were his rings. They bore the insignia and seal of his noble house. Her father never took them off. It was as if those rings were the only talisman against those voices that supposedly called to him from his window at night.

The grass lapped beneath Janet’s train. A black bird was flying behind her now in the height of the sunset sky. The other girls had spotted it, too.

«It was following us like a pesky cavalier,» one of the girls joked, and everyone else laughed in unison. Janet didn’t laugh.

«It followed me, not you,» the earl’s daughter wanted to say, but said nothing. Why spoil the mood for those who were having so much fun. She herself suddenly felt cold and was frightened. And it’s May, after all. Now was not the time to be shivering from the frost.

The cold spread from her fingertips to her whole body. Janet walked through the blooming meadow and froze. And a bird cawed overhead, as if laughing.

«Catch!» The ball would have hit her chest if she hadn’t put her arms forward. Janet caught it deftly, and again she thought the ball was the head with the smiling face of a redheaded boy she hadn’t seen in years.

The girls looked at her in amazement.

«Why don’t you throw the ball?» Nyssa asked.

It seemed strange to them. Janet had been looking at the patterns on the ball for a minute. The girls only noticed the golden patterns. She, on the other hand, saw a smirk and boyish features in them.

Twenty incomprehensible pairs of eyes were fixed on her, and Janet didn’t know what to say.

«Aren’t you sick?» Nyssa moved cautiously toward her to feel her forehead, but suddenly everyone was distracted by a sudden apparition. A scrawny young man with a box behind his back was striding down the path, flaming in the sunset rays.

«Quentin!» the girls exclaimed cheerfully, and rushed toward him. It seemed as if they were about to kiss him, but they only began pushing to look at his luggage.

«How do they know him?» Janet wondered.

«He’s a successful trader in town. You don’t go there,» Nyssa scolded her, «otherwise you’d meet a lot of interesting young men.»

Janet caught sight of the pedlar and was taken aback. This was the same redheaded boy who used to sell ribbons and fabrics. He’d grown surprisingly fit, but the pointy tips of his ears still stuck out ugly from under his red hat. Apparently he had already sold his green velvet beret to someone. So his name was Quentin! She couldn’t remember his name, though. But she well remembered his impertinent, mocking look.

When the other girls had sorted out the goods they needed, the guy beckoned Janet to him. She approached only to look at him, not to shop. She had enough of the dressy belts, signet rings, and ribbons in the castle. She didn’t need any more. And you can’t carry that around in a lifetime, even if that lifetime stretched for centuries.

«There are girdles, buckles, belts, buttons, beads!» Quentin offered his wares to the others, but he would not describe them to Janet. He merely took her hand and put it to his lips, as only a nobleman should do. It was fortunate that the others did not notice. They were too engrossed in picking out things. Quentin even had mirrors and boxes in his box. Nyssa bought a mirror with the gilded face of some goddess on the back. It was just gorgeous.

«Did you steal it?» Janet whispered softly. She watched Quentin’s face curiously. He was very nice, handsome even.

«I don’t steal anything. But sometimes they give me something. Not people! There were other, not greedy gentlemen!»

What nonsense he was talking! Janet would have walked away from him immediately if she hadn’t enjoyed looking at him. He had unusual clothes, and the freckles on his cheeks were folded into a whimsical pattern, as if they were gilding rather than freckles.

«This is for you!» He pulled a fancy bracelet out of his pocket, not from the box, and held it out to Janet.

«But I wasn’t going to buy anything,» she protested.

«And you don’t have to! I’m giving it to you. It is a token of friendship.»

You can’t be friends with commoners and strangers. And Quentin was both. The father would have objected to such friendship. But Janet was enchanted by the bracelet. It wasn’t made of gold or silver, some kind of orange metal that looked like the setting sun in color. And it was made in the shape of dancing orange figures. They joined together in a bracelet, as if in a circle. Janet didn’t even dare touch the bracelet.

«Who forged it?»

«It isn’t important! Take it!» Quentin insisted. «Wear it all the time.»

Where do they make such things? From what distant kingdom did Quentin bring it? Janet didn’t dare ask that, because the redheaded young man was already flirting with the other girls. It makes sense, after all, they are customers who pay coins for the goods, and the earl’s daughter was only bribed with a gift so that she would not interfere with others’ choice of goods.

The bracelet wrapped around Janet’s wrist like a fiery ring of whimsical, tiny figurines. Though it seemed fiery, it didn’t burn her skin. Even touching the burns and scratches left by the strange dream, the orange metal didn’t hurt. Janet contemplated the metal figures. They were dancing in different poses. Some were winged, some were horned, other had tails, other were reptilian-like. But as a whole they all formed a fairy-tale circle. And that circle was now wrapped around her hand. Quentin was to be thanked.

But he was long gone. Janet looked up from her bracelet and saw that the young boy was gone. He was gone when the last light of sunset faded, as if he’d vanished into thin air.

The magic bird

This bird had no black feathers, no jewel in its forehead, but it sang so sweetly that Janet did not hesitate to follow it to the creek in the morning, while everyone in the castle was still asleep. Dawn played in the bird’s feathers with iridescent reflections. Janet didn’t know what to call the bird either. It looked like a peacock, but peacocks don’t have seven-colored iridescent feathers and such a fluffy tuft on their heads. Janet had never seen such a bird before.

A bird flew onto her balcony in the dawn light and called after her.

«Call her Rainbow,» someone whispered in Janet’s ear. But who was it? Was it a mischievous page boy? Janet turned around and saw no one behind her. It was strange, because the voice sounded so close. She couldn’t have imagined it.

Just as it didn’t seem to her that the bird’s singing was sometimes human. The latter hardly surprised Janet. There were talking parrots in the castle’s birdhouse. True, their voices were hoarse and speech was poorly understood. But, perhaps, there is a breed of bird that can produce melodious phrases in the human language, only barely alternating with a chirp.

Janet listened as she followed the bird, and before she knew it, she had stepped her feet into the flowing water. It was a spring. It was almost at the border of the forest. All she had to do was cross the meadow to get to the edge.

There was no further to go. Janet remembered the horror stories about the forest. People disappeared there. Not just frail women, but well-armed knights would simply disappear on a hunting trip.

The bird sat on a branch of a willow tree and began to peer at Janet with her unusual orange, sparkling eyes. The girl looked closely and noticed that the bird’s eyes also changed color, as if repeating the color of her seven-colored feathers. There were as many tones in the rainbow as there were in her plumage.

Janet got as close to the willow tree as she could and reached up, but the bird was sitting too high. She barely managed to touch the tip of its fluffy tail.

«So who are you closer to, the peacocks or the birds of paradise?» Janet joked.

«It is closer to the rainbow ones!» A voice behind her answered. «There are a lot of rainbow birds in the forest kingdom of Medea Shai, but there are blackbirds in it too.

Who said that? Janet turned nervously over her shoulder. There was no one. She looked around. Meadows and fields and sparse trees with trunks so thin a child couldn’t hide behind them. The voice seemed to be that of a child. The children in the castle had long ago been taught not to be naughty. None of them would dare follow their mistress and tease her. Could there be another bird circling nearby that could talk coherently?

Janet looked up into the sky. No birds in sight either. The bright dawn rays hurt her eyes. But in the waters of the spring, they highlighted every pebble in the bottom. It seemed to Janet that the stones in the water had taken on a rainbow of colors, too, and were now a blaze of seven: blue, green, yellow, orange, red, pink, blue. She wish she could collect them all. Good if they don’t lose their bright coloring when she pulls them out of the water. After all, it might just be a game of light. Janet soaked her feet and the hem of her dress. And it was, after all, her best outfit — emerald green, woven with gold flowers and pearls. She wore it only because today important guests were to come to the castle. For the first time in years! The lace in the front helped her put it on without the help of the maids, who were still asleep. Usually they woke up before the sun had risen, but today seemed to be a special day.

Perhaps an unusual bird had been sent here from a delegation of guests, like a carrier pigeon. That would explain why Janet had never seen such a bird before. If it is not from these parts, there are no such birds here. True, there was no message attached to the bird’s leg, but at least the thought has common sense. It was better to think so than to think the bird was complete magic.

She sat over the spring like a living rainbow, watching Janet’s every move. The girl bent down to fetch the stones from the water, but she could do nothing. The stones slid in her fingers like water. They could not be pulled to the surface. It was like catching the water itself. Only once did Janet manage to catch a sharp pebble with her fingers and pull it out of the water. Examining it, she wondered. It was not a pebble, but a key. It was very unusual. Its head was in the shape of a sun and its teeth were curved underneath, imitating tongues of flame. What a find! Surely this key can’t unlock anything. It looks purely decorative. Was it made by nature, like a nugget or a lump of gold? Or has some fairy lost it? Then one can explain why it is so unusual.

Clutching it in her hand, Janet looked into the water and noticed that there were many more such keys in the spring. Unlike the pebbles, they were easily fished out. They were all as unusual as the first, but slightly different. One had a crown-shaped head, another in the shape of a sickle of the month, a third in the shape of an apple, a fourth in the shape of a doe’s head, and a fifth in the shape of some fantastic flower. Janet collected more than a dozen of them. Who could have scattered them in the spring?

«Now I have a handful of keys that don’t unlock anything, apparently…» Janet stared at the findings. Indeed, where would there be such unusual doors to which all these wonderful-looking keys would fit.

As she collected them, she moved along the stream, and lo and behold, the woods were quite close. The clearing was black nearby, and danger was coming from there.

«Go into the woods!» Suddenly a rainbow bird sang. «There is someone waiting for you in the forest!»

Janet looked at it in amazement. Now the bird’s trill sounded so much like a human voice, as if it were a girl singing, not a bird.

«Go into the woods!» The bird flew down from the willow tree and soared over Janet’s head, covering the sun with its wings. «In the forest kingdom there will be doors to which all the keys will fit.»

But it’s the woods where you can’t go! It’s dangerous there! Everyone knows that! Janet had so often been frightened by stories of wild beasts bullying to death people who wandered into the thicket.

«Follow me!» The bird sang, circling over Janet. «Follow me! Come right after me! You won’t regret it!»

Janet clutched handfuls of keys in her palms and did not know what to do. The bird, seeing her indecision, descended quite low, catching the lush tail on the girl’s cheek. Before Janet could dodge, the bird nimbly pulled the satin ribbon from her hair with its claws. Even magpies aren’t that adept at stealing.

The bird must have assumed that Janet would surely follow her to retrieve what she had stolen. What an intelligent creature it is, however. Nightingales, white peacocks, and even the talking parrots in her father’s castle were not so intelligent.

Janet wanted to go into the woods, but she didn’t. It wasn’t wise. Besides, the guests would be arriving by noon. She wanted to talk to them, to ask them how life was going from here to there. As she left, she had the feeling that someone was waiting for her in the woods. It was not a bird at all. Some creature in a mask of leaves was peeking out of the thicket, or so she thought when she turned around.

A shadow lay across the meadow, as if some chariot was racing straight across the sky on winged horses. The shadow certainly looked like a chariot, but why would there be one in the sky? It was all just a dream. Janet knotted her golden-red braids, intertwined with pearl threads. They were heavy and long, and the ends were wet in the stream. Her hair grew faster than all the other women’s. Her braids almost reached to the hem of her dress, and if she braided them, they would be even longer. Her maid tired of inventing elaborate hairstyles for her to style the unruly mass of strands. It was said that Janet’s unusual hair color was a sign that she had been chosen by the fairies. Her father would fall into a rage upon hearing this phrase. Once he even pounded his fist on the table and shouted back loudly that Janet was his daughter, not someone else’s.

As if a fairy’s daughter could take root in the castle! Janet remembered that as a child her hair had been of the usual brown color, and only began to redden as she grew older. Now it looked like the color of the sun.

Involuntarily Janet wondered; what color was the hair under the helmet of that knight who had appeared to her in her dreams. The dragon-headed helmet he had never removed. Maybe the helmet was his head. After all, it was only a dream. And dreams can involve many reckless things.

Tonight she dreamt of the knight again. He was all fire and called her with him, into the flames! And then she was awakened by a bird. A moment before she almost stepped over the mirror frame into the fire.

The dream of the knight had been repeated ten times. And each time it featured all the same things: the frame of the mirror, the flames, the rattle of metal weapons, and the excited voices of the magical creatures. This time they seemed to say:

«She’s coming! She will destroy us all!»

Their frantic screams lingered in her ears even after she awoke.

There used to be a woman in the village who knew how to interpret dreams and prepare potions of herbs for any ailment. If she is still alive, Janet must go to her. The last time Janet had seen her was when she was a child herself. Janet’s mother had gone to her for some herbal potion, which the herbalist gave reluctantly and demanded a huge fee for it. Even then the old woman was ancient, gray and frail as a dry twig, but, how much anger was in her gaze. She was not ashamed to speak rudely even to noble lords, and no one punished her for it. Apparently, her skills really were irreplaceable.

When Janet returned to the castle, everyone was still asleep. Even the sentries were dozing at the gate. How strange! It is nearing noon, and the inner chambers resemble a sleepy realm. And this before the arrival of the long-awaited guests! Usually at this hour, the castle was buzzing with the work of the servants like a beehive.

Janet noticed that the wattles of roses on the castle wall had grown unusually large. Scarlet and white! It seems they had only been white before. Their mother had planted them back in the day. They symbolized something, but Janet couldn’t remember what. After last winter they had withered away, and now suddenly they were blooming again. The withered stems were full of life again. There seemed to be a quiet rustling coming from the flowers, like a whisper.

«Don’t go there!»

Where? Janet was used to the fact that birds could talk, so could flowers. Barely had she gone up to her chambers when the people in the castle began to gradually wake up. Apparently, they were quite surprised themselves that they had slept through the afternoon.

Nyssa was the first to arrive. On a whim, she liked to help Janet arrange the heavy braids into her hair and hold them in place with turtle combs. She was even better at it than the maid.

«There you go! You must go into the town looking like that,» she suggested. «When the guests are gone, we’ll take one of the carriages and go to Rhodolit. It’s the nearest town.

«It’s dangerous to leave a guarded castle for no better reason than to go there,» said Janet shyly.

«Come, we don’t have to go through the woods. The knights in our guard know a much shorter way to Rhodolit.»

«Is it true that the town has long been impoverished, and that the jewelers who once made fine jewelry there have left?» Janet wondered.

«No, they haven’t! The city is thriving. It lives up to its name, which it got from the semi-precious stones they use to make intricate jewelry. But, apart from jewelers, there are many other entertainments there now. For example, not long ago, the greatest fortune teller sailed to Rhodolit from across the sea.»

«Is she the greatest?» Janet grudgingly grimaced. It sounded like an exaggeration.

«Well, that’s what they say. Everything she’s ever told her visitors has come true, and they spread rumors about her. Would you like to visit her, too?»

Janet thought about it. It would be tempting, if her reputation as a soothsayer were true. After all, it might turn out to be nothing but empty bluster.

«Is the old Belladonna from the village still alive? They used to call her Mother Belladonna. She had a black cat named Thistle.»

Nyssa frowned for a long time before she remembered.

«Yes, I had heard of her. A common village witch doctor. What should we do with her? The girls gossiped that she knew how to exorcise unwanted love fetuses with potions. And that is all her skill.»

Janet blushed up to her ears.

«I swear to you, she could interpret dreams. My mother used to visit her…»

«Did your mother visit her! Well, then she couldn’t warn her about anything that might…» Nyssa paused. They kept quiet about the Earl’s wife, who had disappeared, so as not to anger her master.

«I’d still like to see her, if she’s still alive…»

«We’d better go to town. The fortune teller in Rhodolit might know all about dreams, if that’s what you want to ask.»

«I dream of a knight,» Janet turned to Nyssa, who was putting a turtle comb in her hair.

«Well, maybe it’s your fiancé-to-be,» Nyssa tried to wriggle her way delicately to turn her mistress with the back of her head toward her and work on her hair again. The maid was still asleep, and the girls could talk without fear of being overheard.

«You can see your betrothed in a dream,» said Nyssa, who had heard it from many people. «You remember his face well. Could it be one of your father’s vassals? There are many knights in the Earl’s service.»

«I did not see his face,» said Janet. «That’s what it’s all about. In the dream I wanted to know what he looked like, but he was wearing a helmet. It is an unusual helmet. It was as if a dragon’s head had been taken off his shoulders and made into a helmet for a knight.»

«They say they used to make impenetrable armor from dragons’ skins,» Nyssa reminded her, «but that’s all in the legends now.»

It was the knight’s armor that Janet did not remember. All she could see in the dream was his head, crowned with horns and spikes.

«There was fire, a sea of fire over the forest, and there were ugly creatures. They were all magical. They galloped around him. He didn’t kill them, and they didn’t kill him. And all his comrades-in-arms fell from their claws.»

Janet tried to remember everything exactly, and Nyssa listened and nodded, to draw one conclusion that she couldn’t avoid.

«You’ll have to tell the fortune teller in Rhodolite, and then everything will be clear.»

«What do you mean?» Janet didn’t understand.

«Well, she’ll take a crystal ball and throw in it some colored stones, I think they’re called runes, and look at the lines in your palm, and take a drop of blood from your index finger.»

«You’ve been through all this before?» Janet was amazed.

«Oh, no, I haven’t had a chance to get to her yet. There was a line, but the other girls told me something.»

«That’s interesting!» Janet admitted aloud, but thought to herself that she didn’t want to go through all that.

«Let’s go to Rhodolit,» Nyssa urged. «Besides the fortune teller, there’s plenty of fun to be had there.»

To Nyssa, a fortune-telling was just a fun game. And for Janet, dreams were no joke. They left her feeling too dark. The same dream about the unknown knight repeated itself more and more often. Even if Nyssa was right, and she was dreaming of her fiance, he came from fire and a battle of supernatural beings. And with him came a danger.

The guests did not arrive until evening. By that hour, the castle’s inhabitants were all awake, as if they had cast a spell. Many of those who had served at the feast table were still yawning. Fortunately, the guests were too well-bred to disapprove.

Janet waited several hours in the observation tower for their arrival, and when the Duke’s escort was approaching, her eyes glittered with colorful banners and even more colorful garments.

«It looks a bit like the robes of a fairy court!» Sang the same bird with the rainbow plumage. From nowhere, it appeared again above Janet’s head in the sky. The height of the observation tower was not too high for it. And the sentries weren’t paying attention to it.

«Why didn’t you go into the woods?»

Janet looked discouraged at the rainbow bird. Where did it learn so many phrases and did she know what they meant. The parrots in the castle were only repeating what they heard from others. But Janet hadn’t said a word yet. Only the bird spoke. Or rather sang. The melodious phrases were unaccustomed to her ears.

«Who is it?» Janet noticed a gentleman in the duke’s entourage, dressed in rich crimson. What a dandy! He looks like a bright bird himself. It seems that the Duke had no son. And no one else in his retinue could have dressed so splendidly without making him jealous.

«He’s one of ours,» the bird chirped above Janet’s ear.

«Is he one of yours?» Janet asked again, but the bird was gone. It was gone faster than the wind. It must have flown into the woods.

The crimson-clad dapper suddenly looked up, directly at Janet, as if he’d heard her. Could he have seen from such a great distance, for the observation tower was the tallest in the castle. Janet noticed that his eyes sparkled like two jewels. When everyone had already entered the castle, he stayed in the courtyard and bowed slightly to her. So he saw her. He must have eyes like a falcon’s.

He was not, however, to be found in the banquet hall. All the guests were assembled there, making dull chats about royal taxes, the harvest years, and the dangers of the forest roads. At this last topic, Janet perked her ears and suddenly noticed on the other side of the table, the same crimson-clad dandy who’d been eyeing her in the tower. He smiled at her defiantly. His eyes really did sparkle, like two jewels. And he had a handsome face. His presence made Janet uneasy.

— «I am Honor,» he said. «From the woods…»

He must have been joking. Janet suddenly felt his palm on hers. How could he have touched her across a table? But she could clearly see his pale fingers on hers, as if his hand had detached itself from his body and reached out to her. Only it lasted only a moment.

Honor looked at the guests and servants as if nothing had happened, and his eyes danced with laughter. He kept on adjusting his blond hair, which had come loose from beneath his beret. He did not take off his beret or cloak. At the sight of the meat dishes on the table, especially the roast pigeons and partridges, he grimaced disapprovingly. He cursed through gritted teeth at the sight of a swan cooked with fruit, as if he could not understand how such noble animals could be served at the feast table. Janet shared his opinion, so she ate nothing either. Probably she and her guest had a lot in common.

In the plate in front of him there was a pile of rose petals instead of food. White and red! Does he think that’s a treat? Janet noticed the same thing on her plate. Rose petals! Is this a mockery?

But none of her ladies were laughing. They were all busy talking to their guests. Janet could hear that it was becoming more and more difficult to travel in the country. Robber skirmishes! Robbers! Rebellious peasants! Only the King’s court is quiet, but it is in mourning because of someone’s death, which is why the Duke and his retinue have come here.

The rainbow bird flew into the hall, flew high above the table, and sat on the chandelier. None of the guests seemed to notice it. The harpists were playing, and the bird’s trills were indistinguishable from their music. Janet left the table, though, and followed the bird as it flew out of the hall. She looked for the rainbow plumage in the garden, by the fountain, among the tapestries in the hall, even in the corridors, but the bird, as usual, suddenly disappeared easily from sight.

Finishing her fruitless search, Janet found that the feast-room was already empty. The guests had gone to bed. How the time had flown by so quickly. Someone was still sitting in the hall. Soft voices came to her ears. Janet peered through the half-opened doors. Two men were seated at the table: her father and the Duke. In the dim light of the fireplace, her father looked even older and more haggard than usual. The precious rings on his hands contrasted sharply with his wrinkled skin.

«I wear them as amulets of protection against them,» he explained dryly to the Duke, who wondered. «Not all protection comes from semi-precious stones, but from some.»

Her father’s voice sounded cryptic. Janet tensed at the door. She thought she was eavesdropping on something she couldn’t, but she couldn’t move away anymore. She began to wonder.

The guest leaned across the table to the earl and whispered confidentially to her father.

«They have kidnapped one of the king’s daughters.»

Kidnapped? Were there robbers in the forest? Janet listened attentively. So there are bandits nesting in the woods after all. Bandits are not demons, they can be dealt with. All you have to do is raise a militia. If she’d had a brother, he would have done it. But her father was in no hurry. He was too old and too exhausted. Janet even thought; what a pity she had turned down all the suitors. Had she had a groom, he would have protected the neighborhood.

But the guest went on, and her heart felt creepy.

«It wasn’t just my wife and yours that went missing. Some years ago they snatched an only son of duke Audrian. And there’s not even a rumor of him since. People disappear, no one demands ransom, their bodies are nowhere to be found, it is no news of what became of them.»

«Has the king’s daughter already been given a requiem, though no corpse has been found?»

«The corpse of your wife has not been found too!»

The duke clutched convulsively at the armrest of his throne.

«Don’t remind me of Amaranta. She is with them now!»

«Probably the king’s daughter is with them too. They do not know for certain at Court. No one has sent a spirit with a message to their castle.»

«Then she was treated as a victim. It happens more often.»

«Or not everyone loves their husbands or parents as much as Countess Amaranta, God rest her memory, because, her human shell has ceased to exist since she entered their circle,» the Duke saluted his half-empty glass and suddenly groaned bitterly. «They are strong, and the strong do what they please. There is no warrior yet born who could fight them. Though they say the Duke Audrian’s son killed a couple dozen of them before they dragged him away.»

«And what is of Duke Audrian himself now?»

«He has fallen ill. He had only one son, his only heir.»

«And did his illness bring him down in any unusual way?»

«That’s right!»

Janet understood less and less of the overheard conversation. When someone touched her shoulder, she almost shrieked. She was caught eavesdropping under the door like a maid. The girl turned around and noticed Honor standing quite far away from her and smiling slyly at her.

How could he touch her shoulder when they were separated by yards and yards of corridor? There was no one else around. He had magical arms that could extend to any length when he wanted to.

«Beautiful lady!» He bowed exquisitely, then approached. His steps were as inaudible as a cat’s. «It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such beauties as you. Among mortal women, I mean.»

Is it a joke? He said it as if he knew other women who weren’t mortal. Janet arched an eyebrow. He was either out of his mind or trying to impress her.

His crimson cloak, though satiny, resembled the plumage of a bird.

«Would you like to walk with me into the woods, fair Mistress?» He walked around Janet, as if he were evaluating her.

«But it would be dangerous, wouldn’t it?»

«Nonsense,» he didn’t even step on her train, stepping around behind her as if he hadn’t even touched the floor. «It can be dangerous for some people. But danger shouldn’t matter if you want to rescue the Fairies Queen’s prisoner.»

Janet fluttered her eyelashes incomprehensibly, and he grinned.

«There is a hostage of evil spirits waiting for you in the woods, my lady! Who else but you can help him?» Honor, without asking permission, took Janet’s left hand and pressed his lips to her palm.

«It’s a beautiful bracelet,» he said, «but it burns!»

It wasn’t the bracelet that burned, but the kiss. He was gone, as if he’d fallen to the ground. Janet wondered if he’d really been here, or if she’d been dreaming again. But the imprint of his lips burned on her left palm. Normally ladies were kissed on the right hand. But on her right hand was the bracelet Honor had been praising. He was a strange young man!

The sounds of quiet conversation reached Janet. Father and guest were still talking. And a black bird hovered under the window, as if eavesdropping, and the ruby in its forehead glittered like a stone of blood.

A pedlar with magic in box

The main amusement in Rhodolit was the same Quentin. Here he not only sold goods, but also showed tricks. Who would have guessed that his box contained so many miracles. The young man was able to blow out colored pollen that took different shapes like a skilled glassblower, handfuls of glitter fell from his hands like stars, the ribbons in his hands suddenly changed their color. Young girls and even older women looked at him with genuine admiration.

As she passed him, Janet involuntarily stared. Had she known he was such a hustler before, she would have asked him to show his tricks at her father’s castle feast. Instead, he showed them in the town square. And some nimble creatures, resembling large toads, deftly snatched the buckles and purses of anyone who glanced at Quentin.

He was a pedlar with magic in his box. Well, isn’t that amazing! He had time to both peddle and do tricks.

«He is a pretty boy!» Nyssa whispered, gazing up at him. «I should buy some ribbons from him. He’s so pretty, isn’t he?»

«Haven’t you noticed how pointy his ears are?» Janet frowned involuntarily. «It’s like two oysters hiding under a beret.»

«It is nonsense!» Nyssa didn’t seem to notice his ugliness. But Janet could see that his ears were disproportionately large and very pointed upward. He covered them with his beret as best he could, but sometimes the beret slid down and they stuck out. The charming girls who surrounded him didn’t seem to notice this flaw either.

«Show me something else,» they asked. Even the sullen matrons began to flirt with him.

«He won’t notice us now,» Janet commented. She had the impression he was watching her intently, though his eyes were fixed on her in another direction.

«Let’s take a walk after all!» Nyssa jumped out of the carriage. Janet followed her, but there was no getting close to Quentin. Too many young ladies were begging him vigorously for more tricks or to sell them cheaper rarities. This time he was even selling shells. And they were all unusually shaped and rainbow-colored. So she wasn’t imagining it when she saw the motley shells in the spring. Quentin had even managed to get them!

Janet looked at him with envy and delight. He seemed so free and uncontrollable as he demonstrated another trick. And she suddenly felt as if she were in a cage. She couldn’t do anything out of the ordinary, and some kid could do it all.

«Do you think he’s magic?» Janet asked Nyssa quietly.

«He is not a wizard.» Her friend almost laughed. He’s just a juggler.»

«You’ve seen jugglers in Rhodolit before?» Janet wondered, for her friend had been out on the town before, not cooped up in her castle. But she’d never said anything about tricksters in the square who could do such astounding things. Nor did the other girls who visited the city for fun bring such gossip to the county.

«Of course I’ve seen them,» Nyssa confirmed.

«And they could all do all the same things as Quentin did.»

«Well, not all of them.»

«It turns out he’s the only one.»

«He’s just a little more talented,» Nyssa commented after a moment’s thought. «He is a gifted kid and a pretty one. You could persuade your father to invite him to the castle to give us all a performance. I bet he’s the kind of man who’s willing to work for a mere dinner.»

Quentin’s clothes were bright. But was it expensive? Janet didn’t know the price of fabric. Nor did she know prices in general. As the daughter of an earl, she never bought anything herself. Nyssa, on the other hand, was more experienced.

«I think he’s a bit of a wizard,» Janet whispered to her as fireworks exploded in the square they’d just left. A couple of sparks flew right under Janet’s feet. They danced on the cobblestone sidewalk like flaming stars.

«Is it magic?» Nyssa cautiously lifted her hem, stepping over the sparks. «More like scattered beads and some kind of illusion created by a skilled magician. There was nothing magical about it. Yeah, and who needs magic nowadays, unless you’re talking about fortune-telling.»

«I’d like to be a magician,» Janet said out loud, not knowing why. The words rolled off her tongue and echoed through the empty alley. She felt as if someone had heard her words.

Janet turned around and saw someone wearing a mask of gold leaves, hastily hiding around the corner. She had seen such a mask somewhere before, looking like the face of a woodland elf.

On the way, the girl turned back a few more times. The feeling that someone in an elf mask was watching her did not go away, although she did not see anyone else behind her.

The fortuneteller had a lovely house with beautiful oval balconies and pictures of the moon on the curtains and carpets. The moon with a woman’s face was evidently the emblem of the mistress of the house, for its design was repeated everywhere. No wonder! Such a symbol created an atmosphere of mystery and witchcraft.

The queue in the hall for the fortune-telling was bigger than anyone had expected. Even the small bribe Nyssa had given to the fortuneteller’s acolyte did not get her through.

«We’ll have to wait,» Nyssa settled into a vacant chair, which also bore the symbol of a smiling moon. For some reason Janet didn’t want to sit down and went out onto the balcony. The wrought iron balustrade curled in the shape of iron roses. They reminded the girl of the white and scarlet roses in the castle. The moon was just rising in the sky above Rhodolit. It glowed, illuminating the road below. Janet noticed a strange carriage rushing through town. It looked as if it were in a hurry to merge with the path of moonlight on the sidewalk, and it was going incredibly fast. The people it passed suddenly fell asleep and fell right into the road.

Janet even wanted to pinch herself. Wasn’t she imagining it all? The magnificent carriage was gilded so heavily that it seemed to be made of pure gold, against which the purple curtains of the windows stood out sharply. The roof was surmounted by a peculiar ornament in the form of gold snakes that curled in a crown.

It was as if the carriage was spreading a sleepy spell around it. The city was silent as a tomb. Was everyone asleep? Janet caught sight of a strange, lanky creature in a coachman’s outfit on the bunk of an approaching carriage. It looked like a harpy. The groomsmen at the back of the carriage resembled two toads in coats.

Some couple in love, who had been rushing to knock at the fortune-teller’s house, fell asleep just under the threshold as the carriage approached them. Only Janet, standing on the balcony, felt no sleepy spells. And in the windows of the neighboring houses, people were falling asleep, falling right onto the carpet or floor. What was wrong with this carriage? Why did the coachman and groomsmen look more like fairy tale animals? And why do all the people fall asleep where the gilded carriage rushed past them? Could it all just be a dream?

Janet felt a sudden pain in her hand. She pricked her finger on the iron roses that made up the balustrade. No, not the iron ones anymore! Living stems with thorns twisted along the bars. Red and white roses bloomed right on the balustrade. The roses weren’t alive a minute ago, or she would have noticed. The buds were blooming quickly, as if in a dream. A drop of blood from Janet’s finger fell on the white rose, and the girl heard something like a whisper:

«Release him!»

Was that really what the roses were saying? They had no feminine faces, like the images of the moon in the fortuneteller’s house, but the whispers came from the petals. And there was a deathly coldness about them, as if the roses were covered with snow and ice. Janet hurried away from the balustrade and noticed how quickly the roses wilted and withered and suddenly turned into iron bars on the balustrade.

In the fortuneteller’s house, too, everyone was asleep. Janet tried to rouse Nyssa, who had dropped her head on the armrest of her chair. No one was roused. Even the fortuneteller’s servant had fallen asleep on the threshold of the room where she’d been receiving clients.

The whole town seemed to have fallen asleep. Would they sleep for all eternity now? Janet was frightened that she was the only person in the whole town who hadn’t fallen asleep and was now doomed to spend the rest of her life wandering alone. Soon, however, she noticed someone stunted moving down the hall. At first she mistook him for a child dressed in a groom’s outfit. The bottle-colored coat and triangle almost merged with the greenish skin of his puffy face and extra-large hands. Could it be that his fingers were webbed? Janet could hardly believe what she was seeing when the stunted creature suddenly clung to her. It barely reached her waist and looked like a fat toad in a coat.

«Don’t go, madam,» it warned her in a gruff voice, nodding toward the door behind which the fortuneteller had hidden. «They’ll fill your pretty head with nonsense.»

«I thank you for the advice!» Janet tried to snatch her hand from the toad, but couldn’t. The green creature’s grip was too tenacious. Apparently it was one of the groomsmen from the carriage that had just passed under the windows, dispelling the sleepy spell. But then the carriage itself must have stopped somewhere nearby. She wonder why the groom had gone into this particular house. Was it for fortune-telling?

«I’ll tell you a secret,» he beckoned Janet with a thin green finger so that the girl leaned toward him. «This fortune teller is a real swindler. She lies without blushing! All she wants is your money, and lying through her teeth is her only skill.»

He whispered it in Janet’s ear as she leaned toward him, overcome with disgust. His breath reeked of a swampy stench, as if a toad was really talking to her.

«That liar has lied so much to my lady!»

«And who is your mistress?»

The creature instantly covered the toad’s mouth, as if he’d realized he’d said too much.

«Well, I’ve got to go!» It hissed as it swept away with its thin green toad-legged feet.

Janet stared after it in bewilderment. What did it want with her? A shimmering light poured from behind the fortuneteller’s door, as if the moon had settled there. Janet decided to peek in and see if the landlady herself was asleep. If she was a sorceress, and not a rogue, she must have known how to resist sleep spells.

Janet had to step over the servant to get to the door. Her train slid over the sleeping body, but the servant didn’t wake up, didn’t even flinch in his sleep. Everyone was sleeping, straight asleep. Janet was even frightened that they were already dead and about to start decomposing right before her eyes, but from behind the door a melodious voice suddenly called to her.

«Come in, my dear! You should know your fate!»

The voice was pleasant, but somehow not particularly trusting. Still, Janet stepped into the half-darkened room. At first it seemed to her as large as a vast palace, but in reality it was no more than a small room filled with strange objects. Here was a gilded spinning wheel, the shining thread from which stretched itself, and gold moths flying over a candle, and a cage with a sleeping firebird, and, of course, a crystal ball on the table, covered with a tablecloth, woven with stars.

«Come in! Don’t be frightened!» The woman, whose face was concealed beneath a dark veil, invited her to the table. Her dress, also woven with stars, seemed like a slice of the night sky, and a black cap over the veil, as if to indicate belonging to fairies. Under the thin veil you could see that her hair was white and her features were strikingly beautiful. Only the face itself was somehow inhuman. Her features looked as if they had been painted on top of a shell that remained motionless. No sign of facial expression. The fortuneteller spoke, but her lips never moved.

Her voice was commanding. It was what made Janet obey. She obediently lowered herself into a chair on the other side of the table from the fortuneteller. The girl didn’t even know if she wanted to know her destiny from this striking woman, who herself somehow resembled a black-clad moon. Coming here was Nyssa’s initiative, but she was asleep now. Besides, for her, discovering her fate was just a curious game. And Janet felt that the woman on the other side of the table liked to give only meaningful predictions and only to those who really needed them.

«You must be warned against danger,» she said, with a mere glance into the crystal ball, «but not the kind of danger that awaits you in Rhodolit. A deadly danger awaits you in a faraway land, hidden in forbidden forests. There awaits a cunning woman of great power, and she has long possessed what is really yours alone.

«What do you say?» Janet became involuntarily interested.

«I say about this!» The fortuneteller touched the crystal ball, closed her black-gloved hand into a fist, and when she opened it, there was a living heart in her palm, wrapped in a white rose. Blood dripped, staining the rose petals scarlet. «It is his heart! It is so very different from the heart of your mother, Countess Amaranta. It does not want to be captured by fairies.»

The illusion lasted only a moment. The bloody heart disappeared somewhere, but Janet could still smell the scent of roses. The narrow black-gloved hand slid back onto the crystal ball, and it vibrated beneath it like a living thing.

«I see that, without going on a long journey, you will bypass the dangers and live a long carefree life, but your life will not be happy, because your fate awaits you in the forest.»

«Thank you, I’ll remember,» Janet was no longer sure how to end this unpleasant visit with some plausible excuse. She began to shiver, her skin freezing as if from a severe frost. Her head was spinning. The fortuneteller looked at her through her dark veil with eyes like two green crystals, and smiled as she bared a row of teeth like round pearls. The comparison was not at all poetic. It really felt like her mouth was filled with pearls, not teeth. And the lips themselves were bloodless, like the body of an oyster.

Would it be rude if she got up right now, said goodbye, and left here? The fortuneteller looked at her so intently, as if she didn’t want to let her go at all.

«There are people with uninteresting destinies,» she admitted. «I don’t like working with them, but you… If you hold fast to your purpose and set out on your perilous journey, then my crystal will have an interesting story to tell. And I and my sweet pet will probably get our revenge at someone else’s hands.»

«Where is your pet?» Janet didn’t know at first who she was talking about. Except for the pearl barrette shaped like a sea serpent, which she’d only now noticed in the fortune teller’s hair. It was so white that she couldn’t see it, though the color of the hairpin seemed faintly similar to her own. The pearl snake seemed to crawl up and down her strands.

But by pet she probably didn’t mean it. The crystal ball vibrated under her hands, taking the shape of a watery snake with blue scales and a large pearl in its forehead. It clung to her arms, but hissed angrily at Janet.

«Do not be afraid, on the road to the country of the elves you will meet much more dangerous creatures than a sea dragon!»

The fortune teller wanted to comfort the girl, but instead frightened her out of her wits. Janet jumped up and ran for the door. A long train tangled beneath her feet, which only increased her fear. Janet felt as if someone was grabbing at her feet, keeping her from a strange house full of strange creatures and charms.

Forgetting about Nyssa, who was asleep in the chair, Janet ran out of the house. The town was still asleep. None of the people who had fallen asleep on the road moved. Janet carefully avoided them. She looked around, trying to determine where her carriage and guards remained. She and Nyssa had left the carriage in the square, so that was where they should return.

Janet had to wander for a long time before she found her way back. She had only been to Rhodolit a few times and couldn’t remember which roads led where. The stars in the sky above the city reminded her of the fortune teller’s dress. They seemed to line the sky in a track, lighting the girl’s way. It was moments like that, when you thought you just needed to hold out your palms and the stars would fall into your lap.

«Why don’t you hold out your hand and see?» Someone suddenly whispered to her, hiding behind her. Janet looked around, hoping to see the stranger in the mask of golden leaves again. But he was gone. Only some thin silhouette was as a shadow on the sidewalk. Strange, the shadow was visible, but the master was not. The shadow was moving, in strange broken movements.

From somewhere came the sounds of a song, like a magical counting rhyme. It seemed as if the stars themselves were singing it.

«Put your palm down,

And we’ll fall

The queen must

Not to be with him alone

And let him go back

To his human house!»

Janet put up her palm and felt small golden sparks land on it, really like stars. They shone, but they were not warm. The starbursts seemed purely illusory, because the little stars immediately dissolved into the skin of her palm. The lines of fate on her palm left glittering traces.

«You have a golden fate, but a dangerous one,» someone whispered in her ear, leaning over her shoulder. Janet had already realized that if she turned back, she would see no one but a swirling shadow that no one had cast.

The guards in front of the square were asleep. One of them had managed to fall asleep in a standing position, leaning on his spear. Janet accidentally caught his cuirass, and he began to sink to the ground. His armor clanked longingly.

There was someone in the square. Not asleep! There were some silhouettes moving. Were there people? No. Janet saw a lady in a sumptuous scarlet dress, and around her were stunted, ugly creatures, dressed as groomsmen and footmen. The lady’s scarlet train was so long that it seemed to flow in a wave across the square. Her curly hair, too, grew so much that it flowed over the ground, as did the train. It seemed to Janet that they turned suddenly into living black snakes, one of which hissed wildly, pointing its head in her direction. The girl hurriedly hid behind a corner. There was a threat from the creatures in the square. She could feel it. It was better to stay out of their way.

A gilded carriage also stood in the square. Fire seemed to be shooting out of the horses’ nostrils, and the blankets on their backs were wings folded behind them. Janet blinked to drive away the illusion, but it didn’t go away. The horses still seemed fire-breathing and winged to her.

«That’s enough!» The lady handed some young man, Janet thought it was Quentin, a whole purse of gold. As soon as it passed from hand to hand, jingling coins rained down on the young man’s palms. Each one looked like a gold moon with a woman’s face, like the emblems in the fortune-teller’s house. The coins seemed to sing a mischievous song. They slipped from the boy’s hands and rolled across the sidewalk. He rushed to pick them up.

«They’re quick,» he complained.

«They are as nimble as you are,» said the lady indifferently. The lady’s voice was ice-cold, and her train of fire stretched across the square. Janet noticed one coin bouncing and rolling toward the edge of the square. It did indeed have a face the size of a tail of coin carved into it. The chiseled lips rounded as if they were about to sing.

«And now you give me my order!» The lady held out her hand, her fingers were unnaturally long and thin. It looked as if the membranes between them were laced together. Or was it just a fancy piece of jewelry? Janet did not know what to think.

«Here, ma’am,» the young man handed her not colored ribbons but some sort of jars. He did not appear to be a peddler, but a druggist. So she had mistaken the young man for Quentin.

«Will that be enough for one unruly mind?» The lady inquired, peering at what appeared to be living worms inside the vials.

«It is more than enough!» The young man bowed.

«You said it the last time too,» the lady scolded him.

«But this potion is stronger. And if it isn’t, you’ll have to work it out for yourself, and it’ll cost him his head.»

«I’ll trust you one last time! Off you go!»

The young man bowed again.

Janet bent down to pick up a coin that looked like a living disc of sunshine rolling right at her feet. The coin did not burn her fingers, though it seemed a real flame. The face on the tail winked at its new mistress. Or did it just seem that way?

Janet looked out at the square and saw no one else in it. No lady, no groomsmen, no footmen with monstrous bodies. The square was empty. On the stones of the sidewalk, where the train of fire stretched, there was no ashy trace of the recent burning, either.

Could it be that her visit to the fortuneteller had influenced Janet in such a way that she began to see strange things? The girl stepped into the empty square. Somewhere there should be a carriage waiting to take her back home, but there wasn’t. Janet walked through the empty square and turned nervously at every sound. Sometimes she thought she heard someone calling her name.

Suddenly she bumped right into Quentin. He was there all of a sudden, like an elf popping out of a snuffbox. A second ago the square was empty. And now he was standing right in front of her. There was a teasing grin on his face. And his box was gone.

Janet stared at him, not immediately startled when she heard a noise behind her. A carriage was hurtling across the square toward them.

«Look out!» Quentin covered her as the gilded carriage raced past.

«There are two great frogs instead of grooms,» said Janet, stammering. It seemed to her, somehow, that Quentin could confess everything she’d seen. «Tell me, did you see it, too?»

Quentin was strangely silent. The freckles on his face blazed with the fire of shame. He even shuffled unsteadily from foot to foot. Janet noticed how unusual his shoes were: they had upward-curved toes, buckles shaped like crescents of the month, and bright green leather inserts, as if they were frogs’! What an absurd suggestion!

«There are some things you’d better not talk about with your tongue, or you might end up with no tongue at all,» muttered the young man. «And no head, either.»

He drew a meaningful line down his throat with his finger. It reminded Janet of a ball that seemed like someone’s head had been lifted off his shoulders.

«Talking about inscrutable things is unnecessary,» he added with a touch of bravado. «You’d better not fill your head with silly thoughts. But I have something to give the beautiful lady.»

He plucked a sparkling necklace out of his sleeve. It had two pendants in the shape of a crescent moon and a sun. It’s doubtful that the necklace was made of real gold, most likely of cheap yellow copper, but Janet liked it. Quentin put it in her hand.

«Another rarity from the famous pedlar,» Janet smiled.

«To protect you from her!» uttered Quentin, suddenly becoming serious for a moment. The mischievous twinkle in his eyes faded, replaced by a pensive expression.

«Does it protect me from whom?» Janet didn’t understand.

The boy moved backward instead of answering. The moonlight flickered across his face, and suddenly Quentin’s figure multiplied, as in a mirror with many compartments. He seemed to be standing both right and left, front and back. His monotonous figures, created by the moonlight, danced around her.

Janet looked here and there, trying to distinguish the true young man from the multitude of doppelgangers. Suddenly they were all gone. The girl looked around in vain for the boy, who was no longer there. Again all she could see was the empty, dark square. And the jewel was still clutched in her palm. Quentin hadn’t even charged her for the necklace.

It would soon begin to dawn. In the distance, a bright streak appeared in the dark sky. That means, over the city, the sun is rising. Eternal night has not filled it forever. The spellbound people began to lazily wake up. Would they remember that they had been forcibly put to sleep, or was there a lapse in their memory?

Janet wondered why she hadn’t fallen asleep with them all. The guards were the first to regain consciousness, and they began to stand up, their armor rattling. Probably the guards that her father had sent to escort Janet had awakened somewhere. She must fetch Nyssa from the fortuneteller’s house. Perhaps they could both make it home by noon.

The forest elf

Janet had a dream. She was walking through the woods. A creature was beckoning her into the thicket. It wore a mask of golden leaves, and behind it moved transparent green wings. Was it not an elf? He turned around and then disappeared around the bend in the path. Janet had to run to keep up with him. The forest around her grew darker and darker. The trail broke off, and the girl had to hack her way through the thicket. The thorns clung to her train, but she moved on anyway. Somewhere ahead she could hear clatter of hooves, as if a cavalry party was galloping this way. So there was a road nearby. There was no way a cavalry could have ridden through the thicket.

The branches scratched Janet’s hands. The birdsong suddenly stopped. A gnome ran right under her feet. He was in a great hurry.

«Her knights are coming!» He turned around and shouted to Janet as if it meant something to her. «The time of sacrifice is coming, now that they are here.»

Janet didn’t understand him at all. What knights? What sacrifice? No sacrifices have been made in the woods since the days of the pagan gods. And they had been here so long it seemed legendary. Maybe he was confused about something.

She looked around, but saw no more of the elf in the golden mask. The dwarf had disappeared from view, too. And the clatter of hooves sounded quite close. Janet did see the galloping knights. But the road on which they rode, she could not see, as if the horses were treading on air, not on the driftwood. Suddenly the ground trembled beneath her feet. Thorns clung to her dress, and the knights rode past on their horses and paid no attention to her cries for help, as if she was in a looking glass from them. Or did they simply not care that another victim was dying in the woods? The ground began to suck her down like a viscous swamp, and one of the knights suddenly turned to look at her. His eyes were familiar to her: blue with golden speckles. She knew him and remembered the dragon-head helmet well.

Janet woke up in a cold sweat. Someone had just knocked on her window. The knock must have woken her up. It was quiet but insistent. At first she thought it was rain drumming on the glass, but the sky was clear. The moon shone with a measured pale light.

«Let me in, Janet,» it was Quentin’s voice. There he was, himself, outside the window, or rather, just his red head. «You don’t want the sentries to shoot me. They have very formidable crossbows. I can see it from here.»

How the hell did he get up that high? And what does he want? He may have remembered that he gave her the bracelet and the necklace for free, and now he comes to the castle to ask for money. Would it not have been wiser in this case to come in the afternoon and contact to her father. Another salesman who had contacted the Earl’s daughter would have done so, but Quentin was different. The guy was out of this world! Blessed! Janet felt sorry for him, and hurried to the window. She didn’t even have time to put on her negligee. Good thing her nightgown had a high neck and puffy sleeves. Quentin had nothing to stare at.

«How did you get in here?»

The answer came of its own accord. When she opened the window, Janet caught sight of him holding on to the wattles of scarlet and white roses, which had grown so overnight. Yesterday they had been stunted, but today they were all around the tower. She can’t believe Quentin didn’t bleed his hands clinging to them. Roses have sharp thorns.

«You’re out of your mind!» Janet watched as the young man sat down on the windowsill. He was very good at climbing to heights.

«I wish I had wings,» he admitted.

«Had you wings before?»

He looked at her with mild reproach, as if she’d hurt his pride.

«Forgive me for calling you by your first name, Madam.»

«You’d rather call me Janet than Mistress. Why did you risk your life to try to reach me by the wall? It’s dangerous. After all, the sentries could have seen you and shot you. Or you could have fallen down and crushed to death.»

«I don’t think so. I’m very handy,» he boasted, not unreasonably.

«If you think I’m going to let you sleep in my bedroom, you are very much mistaken. I like you, but not that much.»

«I understand that. Young maidens usually like my merchandise better than my advances. A poor man like me can only dream of gorgeous ladies of noble blood, but never go near them.»

«You’ve already been there,» she reminded him reasonably.

«It’s business,» he said, looking intently at Janet. The moonlight was reflected in his eyes, which made them slightly sinister. The sharp ears weren’t hidden beneath his beret this time. It must have slipped off as Quentin climbed the wall like a wildcat.

«Have you come to offer those special ribbons you told the girls in the square about? I heard it as I drove by.»

«I want to tell about the fairies’ kingdom,» he corrected her, businesslike.

«About what do you want to tell?» Janet thought it was some kind of joke. «Is it about the fairies’ kingdom! Are you serious?»

«You don’t believe in it!»

There was nothing to contradict that. Janet somehow even felt guilty and took a step away from the window. In the meantime, Quentin carefully tucked a lock of reddish hair behind his ear, as if he was trying to draw her attention to his pointed ears.»

«You may not believe in the realm of fairies, but there is a realm,» he suddenly shifted back to a respectful tone, as if her mistrust had put distance between them. A second ago he had acted like an old trusted friend, but now he was playing deference to his mistress again.

«Suppose I believe you. What’s in it for me? You’ve already given me two gifts for nothing, even though I didn’t believe in anything.»

«The third gift you will get on your own,» he promised. «You must go into the forest.»

Wasn’t that what the fortuneteller had warned her against? Janet frowned. The moon was suddenly too bright, hurting her eyes.

«Go beyond the line; there’s someone waiting for you,» Quentin asked in a low, hopeful tone.

For some reason she remembered the knight from her dreams. The line was a brook that gurgled near the edge of the forest. It was as if it separated the Earl’s lands from the dense woods. Perhaps Quentin was referring to some other magical line besides it. He speaks of a realm of fairies.

«He’s been waiting a long time, and he needs you,» the young man whispered quietly. «Because no one else can help him.»

A bird with a red spot on its forehead was circling the tower, croaking strangely, with a hoarse caw. Hearing it, Quentin beckoned Janet to be quiet, and began to descend slowly. This time the twigs of the roses hurt his palms, but it was as if he didn’t notice. There was blood on the thorns.

«It’s Blackness!» He whispered goodbye, evidently referring to the restless bird. «Beware of it!»

Beware of some bird? Janet couldn’t understand why. Birds can’t hurt people, unless they swoop down in a flock and strangle them to death.

Still, the girl decided to close the window tightly, and did the right thing. A bird’s beak immediately began pounding on the window frame. It was very insistently. The bird was clearly angry that it was not allowed in, but Janet, paying no attention to it, just tightly closed the curtains.

Already in the morning Janet remembered the night visit and the bird. Blackness! If that was the bird’s nickname, then the bird itself belonged to someone. Like a hunting falcon released after its prey and then lured back. Is her assumption correct? How she could to check.

Her friends were still playing ball in the garden, as if there was nothing else to do in the castle. Janet herself was sitting by the fountain in the courtyard of the castle. She did not even notice how someone sank down on the stone bench beside her.

«Are you pensive, young mistress?»

Janet looked up. It was the old knight Ambrose. Unlike her father, he had grown old with years, not from grief, and he still maintained a dignified, proud look. He must have been handsome in his youth. The gray hair and wrinkles seemed like a mask which, when scraped away, revealed a pleasant young face. It probably seems that way because of his young mischievous eyes.

«I’m thinking of the fairies kingdom,» Janet admitted.

«That’s a very serious thought!» He said with a chuckle in his elderly voice. «I knew a young lady who used to fill her head with thoughts of fairies.»

«And what became of her?»

«She withered and died in the prime of her life. Like a rose wilted.»

Janet looked at the wattles of scarlet and white roses growing ever larger around the castle wall. They crawled upward like magnificent snakes with thorns. One rose had indeed wilted.

«A drop of blood on it and it will bloom again!» The knight caught her gaze. «These flowers are like leeches.»

«What do you mean?» Janet looked astounded.

«I just want to warn you not to think too much about the realm of elves and fairies, or you’ll be lost, like so many before you, or you’ll wither away with black ennui.»

«Are thoughts of fairies really that dangerous?»

She did not have time to hear the old man’s answer because young knights, her father’s vassals, were already walking toward her. Many of them tried to woo the daughter of the earl they served. They often brought Janet some small gift. Now a handsome-looking knight, named Howard, brought her a fine mother-of-pearl comb. Janet accepted the gift, but her heart did not waver. A strange emptiness settled in her heart. She wanted neither to be friends with girls, nor to accept signs of attention from knights. Perhaps the rainbow bird had flown in from the realm of the fairies and bewitched her. It had not appeared over the castle for two days, and Janet longed.

Waiting until she was alone, she quietly ran away from the castle and made her way to the creek, where she found the keys. There were no more keys at the bottom, apparently she had collected all of them last time, but the colored pebbles remained. As she bent down to retrieve them, someone’s sharp claws suddenly scratched the back of her head. Janet felt the mother-of-pearl comb she’d just given her slip out of her hair.

The rainbow bird flew up to her suddenly and visibly. Stealing the scallop, it clutched it in its beak and fluttered up on a branch.

«Wrong one!» She sang. In a human voice?! Janet was still amazed that there were birds that could speak human. She had heard from one of the merchants from across the sea that there were rare gifted people who could understand the language of animals and birds. Could she really understand it?

The bird managed to sing without letting the teeth of the comb out of her beak. Well, isn’t she magical? The sun played highlights in its iridescent plumage.

«Rainbow,» said Janet, the nickname given to it. Rainbow was too different from the black bird that had been pecking at her window at night. It flared its tail, and it mottled on the branches of the willow tree in all seven bright hues. The impression was as if a seven-colored rainbow, which appeared after the rain, descended from the sky and became feathered.

«Come with me, you coward!» The bird sang it as it flew down from the branch.

«Did you call me a coward?» Janet was used to referring to the talking bird as a girlfriend. «Well, wait!»

And she followed the bird, completely oblivious to the dangers and warnings that were regularly given to all the inhabitants of the castle not to go into the woods.

It might be dangerous to go there at night, but the sun was shining brightly now. The green of the trees gave rest to the eyes. The forest looked like a fairytale kingdom, not a dangerous place where something could threaten a human life.

Janet even enjoyed being all alone on the forest path. The bird flew a little ahead. Its bright tail was clearly visible among the green crowns of trees. Janet followed it, stepping over fallen trunks and moss, and eventually stepped off the path.

She had to hold on to her hem, walking through driftwood and thistles, jumping over streams. She noticed a rainbow stream in her path. The water in it shimmered with seven bands of different colors, like the plumage of a bird. How beautiful! Sunbeams danced on the water with golden highlights. It was probably just the play of light that made the creek seem like a water replica of a sky rainbow.

Janet would have thought so, but there was a blood-red stream ahead of her. It happens! It looked as if the water in it was soaked with red clay. How could that be? Janet had never seen thick red water before. It felt as if it was blood.

«Is it a blood stream?» Janet looked questioningly at the bird flying ahead, as if it could give her a satisfactory answer. But it only flew forward even faster.

«Wait for me!» Janet suddenly realized that she couldn’t find her own way back. She had gone too deep into the thicket. Should she call for help? But who would hear her here? Now the bird is her only hope of getting out of the forest, she just needs to talk to it and convince it to fly back. It knows the way, for it has flown to the castle so many times before.

«It is Dead Water!» The bird chirped as it descended over a spring. No, it was no longer a spring. As she came closer, Janet spotted a well. Was it a well in the woods? She’d never seen anything like it before. Who would think of digging a well in the woods? There was probably a woodsman’s or lumberjack’s hut nearby. But no matter how much she looked around, Janet saw no sign of habitation.

«Look inside!» The bird advised. Janet struggled to pull the wooden lid off the well hole and involuntarily squeezed her eyes shut. The water at the bottom of the well glistened too dazzling.

«Don’t look too closely, or you’ll go blind. The water is dead,» the bird chanted again, circling at a distance from the well.

So why look at it at all? Janet noticed a round object floating in the water. It looked like a head, cut off from a statue and gilded. The thing was quite beautiful. Janet even wondered if she should fish it out of the water, when suddenly the lips of the head moved. They were trying to say something.

«Turn back around!»

Did the head really say it? Janet recoiled from the well.

«It is the boundary! You will overstep the boundary if you go any further!» The head’s words became muffled.

«He’s supposed to warn anyone who came near here, but you didn’t listen. Then we can go on,» the bird exulted. Janet, grudgingly, followed her. It would probably be better to turn back.

What kind of place was this, where severed heads floated in wells and were able to speak.

The well was left behind. The girl passed a thicket of centuries-old pines that somehow reminded her of a troop of sleeping giants. Then she passed a thicket of shrubbery. And then a wall of white and scarlet roses rose before her. Right in the woods! What a miracle! The roses somehow surprised her even more than the bloody brook and the head in the well.

Janet walked over and touched one of them. It looked more like garden roses than wild roses. But who is here to tend them? Was there a castle in the woods that had been destroyed by enemies? The hulk of the wall she noticed to the left of the roses might have been preserved from it. Apparently, it had happened years ago. There had been some kind of war going on here. The kingdom might have been destroyed. All that was left of it were ruins. But the roses had not withered away.

She plucked one of them and hurt herself, her blood settling on the thorns and as if awakening someone. A dark whirlwind swept nearby. The roses whispered.

«Go away, or you will be caught like him!» A scarlet rose whispered.

«The nets are spread,» the white ones echoed.

Can roses whisper? She’s just imagining it. Janet turned and stumbled right into him. The knight from her dreams was standing in front of her.

She was dumbfounded. He didn’t move either, making him look like a statue in armor. Janet gazed avidly at the helmet with dragon horns and jaws, the cuirass with inlays of shiny scales, and the hilt of the sword made in the shape of a two-headed dragon. What marvelous craftsmen could make such armor and such a sword?! Janet stared enchanted at the hero of her dreams. Could it be that now she sees him in reality, and not in a dream. And all around are not those harmful creepy creatures that each time accompanied him in his dreams. And there is no wall of fire, either. Even the mirror frame through which they were seen is gone. It is worth reaching out and she will touch him. Nothing separates them.

But the knight intercepted her hand before she could do anything. Janet even cried out in pain. His hand felt as iron as his armor.

«You can’t tear those roses!» A whisper from beneath his visor gave off a steely hardness, too, a fiery fury.

«But I didn’t!» Janet tried to justify herself. «I only touched it.»

«Didn’t you?» He let go of her arm, but the scales set into his gauntlets marked her skin. The knight walked slowly around the wall of roses. For a moment she lost sight of him, and suddenly a young man without armor, dressed in a smart green camisole, fair-haired and unbelievably handsome, stepped toward her. Janet almost gasped in admiration. His hair! It reminded her of dawn! Only the morning sun shone like that. His eyes were blue. The green velvet of his camisole set off his very pale skin. Were his ears pointed, like Quentin’s? For some reason that was what bothered Janet the most right now.

«I love it when beautiful ladies come into my woods,» the stranger said in a playful tone. «And I love the beautiful ladies themselves. I love them as long as they are alive.»

«And how quickly they become dead in these forests?» Janet asked, and was struck by her own impertinence. Why was she so eager to defy him? Why did he hurt her so much? The fact that in a fraction of a minute, somehow free of his armor, he was so handsome it was painful to look at.

«It all depends on them,» the young man answered in a flimsy voice. «And it depends on whom they meet in the woods.»

«Are you implying that it’s extremely dangerous to run into you in the woods?»

«There are more dangerous creatures than me,» he said cryptically.

«Are you a knight?»

«You could say I was,» he shrugged.

Janet didn’t understand him. How could a knight be a former knight, unless he’d been so badly maimed in battle that he could no longer fight? Somehow she thought that beneath the armor was a battle-worn body. For in her dreams he had fought alone against an army of unearthly beings. All of his comrades-in-arms were dead. But in reality, these creatures were not around. There was only a handsome young man whose mere sight thrilled and teased her. Janet couldn’t feel her legs under her. All because of his mischievous gaze, because of his graceful flexible movements. He appeared and outshone the sun in an instant. She did not want to go anywhere from him, although one look at him was like a burn from the fire. Her heart beat like a bird in a cage.

How could he be free of his armor so quickly, and without a squire’s help? All the knights she knows take at least half an hour to do it.

«I’m not one of the knights you know. I am not one of your acquaintance at all, fair lady.»

«I saw you in my dreams,» Janet admitted, and immediately felt like a fool. He said nothing, and arched his eyebrows in surprise.

And yet he looked at her strangely, as if he were trying to recognize her.

«Who are you?»

«I am the protector of these borders and flowers.»

«Then why do the flowers warn against you?»

«Can you hear them?» He marveled.

«Yes! They whisper.»

«And what do they whisper?»

«They say I should run away from you!» She confessed honestly. The whispers of flowers echoed in her ears.

«That was unnecessary,» he suddenly put his arm around her waist and drew her toward him. She felt so good to be close to him.

«I tell you a secret, you can’t trust flowers that whisper things to you,» he leaned toward her ear. «Magic roses are a whole lying chorus.»

«Are they magic?» It wouldn’t have occurred to Janet herself to call them that.

«And you’re an enchanting lady. There weren’t any here before you. If I’d known you were coming here tonight, I wouldn’t have come myself. I don’t want to do to you what I do to the others, but I have to.» He ran his fingers over her breasts, which were marked above the tight corset, touched her throat as if playing, and suddenly his fingers were something green, like toads’ legs digging into the skin of her neck, looking for an artery. Janet wouldn’t have had time to cry out before he killed her, but the young man suddenly recoiled.

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