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04 June 2011 @ 01:36 pm
carterhaugh (untitled tam-lin project, part one; pg; 2,030 words)  

    “I am Janet,” she said, “and that’s all you’ll have from me — no true name by which to bind me. But I know you, so there’s no use in hiding — Young Tam-Lin, eater of souls, sorcerer-lord.” She set her stinging hands against her hips and added, “You’re not what I expected.”


o I forbid you maidens all that wear gold in your hair
to come or go by Carterhaugh, for young Tam-Lin is there!

    Carterhaugh was mostly a ruin, stones leaning against moss-covered stones, a crumbling, odd place open to sun and wind. Some said that it was the sort of place that would have been called grand a thousand years ago; if so, Janet thought, they couldn’t have known much about grand then. Really, it was little but an old house, hardly qualifying as a castle or even a manor. After a thousand strange stories Janet found herself more than a little disappointed. She had been expecting a little something to account for bravery.

    But she tilted open the gate anyway, drawn by curiosity, briefly afraid that the rusted hinges were going to collapse then and there and the whole towering mass of jumbled stone and steel would fall down and crush her. Instead of proper curse-warding, you died of an obvious accident. Well, that wouldn’t be half clever. Perhaps the young, canny, heart-swallowing sorcerer of the stories was true after all, though she doubted it. It was only an old strange place, but she liked old strange things: so, tugging her skirt and mantle clear of the muddy ground, she pushed past the old gate and into the courtyard.

    The air felt tight and chill around her; everything smelled heavy and mossy and old. She looked swiftly back, pulling her hood over her head, for the wind was suddenly sharp. Everything was so still that for a breathless moment she thought that time had stopped around her, but there was only a lack of wind, and she the only creature about, and she breathed properly again and laughed at herself.

    She was immediately captivated by the roses. They must have been planted carefully once, for they were rich and strong, but now they twined and tangled up crumbling stone, lining the walls that led to the castle itself. She was reaching for them before she knew what she was doing. Her head blurred with the scent of them, heavy and old and—

    “What are you after?, damn you!” A steely arm snaked suddenly around her waist, snatching her backwards. She tumbled, shoving out her rose-filled hands both to catch herself and to tear away at her attacker. Together they struck the mossy stones of the courtyard, and she hurled herself backwards and away on instinct before she half knew what she was doing. Her knees and elbows stung, seemingly all scraped at once. Half-blind, spitting hair from her mouth and shoving it from her stinging eyes, she blinked away confusion, breathing hard.

    For a moment, there he was, kneeling over her like a god of old: the strange, deathly lord of the old stories, coming close to snatch away her soul. Her ears roared. Her heart caught sickeningly in her throat and hung heavy.

   And then her vision cleared, and he was no shadow, only a strange, sharp boy, furious and cold. His hands had come around fast on her wrists, and she abruptly realised that the roses had cut her.

   He was only a boy, hard-featured, too thin, eyes too light in his odd, keen face, now twisted with anger. “This is my courtyard,” he half-hissed, “and these are my roses, and all that lies within these gates is mine — and who are you?” He was tugging at the roses in her hands, obstinately, like a child. The thorns scraped deep against her palms. Childish herself, and suddenly furious, Janet tugged back: hard. The stems shredded and snapped, and she tumbled back away from him again, hands full of roses and of blood.

   He pushed himself back up swiftly, a warrior’s move, lightning fast and light; a few stems, short and ragged, remained in his grip. The thought crossed her mind that she ought to push herself away from the ground herself, clamber back over the iron fence without a mind to her skirts, and run till her legs gave out, but still she remained.

   “Who are you?” The man — the boy — asked her again. His eyes were pale and cold as the ocean in winter. “And by whose leave have you come to my garden?”

   Her fear deflated and she was only stupidly angry. “I come and go as I will,” she spat, “and ask no man’s leave — especially yours, stranger-knight.” Her hands had begun to throb. “And if these are your lands than why is your castle but a mound of toppled stones?”

   “That’s none of your matter,” he said in a curiously flat tone, stranger still than the voice he seemed to favour. “Thrice now I ask, and now must you answer — who are you?”

    “I am Janet,” she said, “and that’s all you’ll have from me — no true name by which to bind me. But I know you, so there’s no use in hiding — Young Tam-Lin, eater of souls, sorcerer-lord.” She set her stinging hands against her hips and added, “You’re not what I expected.”

    Her sorcerer-lord snorted — an absurd and disorienting gesture for so fey a face. “Eater of souls,” he mused. “I hadn’t yet heard that one. Young Tam-Lin.” He half laughed, half bristled as he said it. “Young Tam-Lin,” he said again. “Sweet Janet, lady rose-thief, I am older than you are.”
   She frowned at him, oddly stung. “Not by much,” she retorted. She looked down at her hands, sticky around the rose petals.

   He laughed, oddly, as though a laugh were something he had to practise from time to time. “I am perhaps not as young as I look, my lady rose-thief.”

    “Nor are you half so terrifying as the tales tell,” said Janet, wiping her bloody hands sharply against her dark skirt and getting to her feet. She slipped a crumpled handful of rose petals into her pocket. “It’s a shame I went to so much trouble to find out.”

    “What do they say about me?” She looked down, startled, for his voice had lost its mocking edge and was earnest and curious and a little sad.

   “Well,” said Janet awkwardly, quite fervently wanting to be away. Sneaking into a sorcerer’s fabled castle to bring back a talisman was one thing; exchanging prickly conversation with an incomprehensible young man was something else entirely. “It’s a lot of jumbled-up rumours, if you want the truth of it.” She twisted at her forefinger. “Nobody knows when you arrived at Carterhaugh or what for, or why here, when the castle’s lain crumbling for a hundred years, but here you are — and if you listen to the talk of the village maidens or the wives a-hanging of their washing you’re a sorcerer or a vampire-thing or a lord out of Faerie and what designs you might have are known and knowable only to yourself…” Her voice fluttered away from her uncertainly; she was beginning to wonder why she’d brought the conversation down this infinitely asinine route. Tam-Lin still sat by her feet, though his eyes had now roved far into the distance. What kind of a story are you?, she wanted to ask, a little bitter. A witch-lord of old, a charmed man, a dark village fable, and all he did was sit on the ground and ask absurd questions.

   “”And that is why you have trespassed into my garden, lady rose-thief?” he asked softly, looking up at her with a swift, weird tilt of his head. His eyes were very keen, despite the mildness in his tone. “I mustn’t be a particularly frightening sorcerer.”

   No you are not, Janet thought crossly, then shook herself. “You’re rather more frightening when you aren’t real,” she admitted, keeping her voice measured. “The minstrels must have exaggerated.”

   “Soul-eater you called me,” he said, and now he stood. She bit down a sudden irrational urge to step away. “No, I think I have the way of it — I too know stories, though it would have gone better for me if I remembered them from time to time. Now that you are in my gates you are subject to my rule, and I might ask a pledge of you, if I would, in return for safe passage away home — or any passage at all, sweet lady rose-thief.” He opened his hand, and the rose stems he had been stubbornly clutching were lost to the ground. “It seems we have gone about the way of things backwards, you and I.” He stepped closer as he spoke; she fancied she could hear him breathing. “I could ask of you anything that I willed, come through my gates unbidden as you are, leaving your own protections behind you — I could ask of you a year of your memories, were I truly your sorcerer-lord, a lock of your ruddy hair, your maidenhead —”

   “That is my own,” Janet snapped; suddenly cold, she snatched her cloak close around her.

    “And what would I do with your maidenhead, sweet Janet, keep it in a jar above the fireplace mantel?” His mouth bent into a strange amused line. “No, that I would not ask of you; it is no prize to be won so, and would suffer great loss of value through such a bargain.” He regarded her solemnly – as though he were appraising her, Janet decided, and was not sure if she approved. “But a pledge I must have,” he added at last with a fleeting smile. “As you have taken something of mine as well as set foot on my lands with no leave of mine. For truly, if the word slithers out that yon young monster lord merely ensnares folk and lets them go on their merry way again without so much as a by-the-road toll there shall be all manner of anyone trampling down my fine fields and peering into my windows and stealing of my garden.” A smile again, bright and a little mocking – almost real. He tilted his head at her like a cat then, and it was gone. “Yes,” he said, to himself but daring her to listen, “yes, I think that will do.”

   The fey young witch-lord, with his harvest-coloured hair and colourless eyes, caught up her hands and laced his fingers gently through them. She flinched, startled – her hands were still bloodied – but his face was keen with concentration, and it seemed to Janet that he was only half aware of her hands, or that she had a body at all, until his gaze switched intently to her face. “Will you make your pledge unto me, Lady Janet?” he asked softly, and his voice had an old, old echo of sadness deep at the back of it.

    Janet swallowed the tugging urge to murmur something mesmerised and said, a little thickly, “Within reason.”

    He smiled at her again – a sudden, delighted smile, the realest of all of them. “You are very fond of reason, sweet Janet. I envy you that.” He made a tiny motion of his head, as though ridding himself of old thoughts. “The only tithe I ask of you is this,” he said. “You will tell no-one of what you have seen here – and you will return, by and by, and tell me stories.” His voice snagged a little over the last word. “It is very lonely here, you see,” he added, pulling a bit of self-mockery into his tone, but for a moment he had almost looked young, and had very much looked lost, and despite all of its sense and reason Janet’s heart went out to him.

   Still, she remained slightly taken aback as she mouthed, “Yes.” Wondering where her voice had got to, she tried again.”Yes. I will come back.”

   A new smile, long and deep, and relieved – as though he thought she could refuse him! “Go home to your dinner, then, sweet lady rose-thief,” he said, “and we shall see each other again before many days have passed.”

 “Yes,” she said, “all right,” and suddenly overwhelmed she took her leave and went away leaping through long pale grass and over the old gate without a look behind her.

   She had gone well beyond Carterhaugh before she realised: the cuts on her hands were gone.

notes: If you've spent any time around me at all you know that Tam-Lin is my very favourite piece of balladry or folklore and the core of nearly every story I love best. I've been playing around with the characters recently to get a feel for writing them the way I think of them, and it may or may not have become a proper something.
♫: "your wish is my wish", sarah slean
☆ Rini: music ♦ the machinea_lovesuicide on June 4th, 2011 06:22 pm (UTC)
I haven't read Tam Lin yet, but I've been meaning to.

This is a lovely piece and is beautiful written. ♥ I can't wait to read more!
tempestsarekind: queen of fairiestempestsarekind on June 4th, 2011 07:26 pm (UTC)
Dear Jo--

Why are you awesome and brilliant and lovely?

I remember when you posted fragments of this on your LJ; I loved those then and I love this now. I would like to be all coherent and tell you exactly what I loved and why, but perhaps it would need to sit for a while, for me to be able to do that. For now I'll just say that I fell into this and was very glad to stay. Oh--and that I love how Janet is so aware of how stories are supposed to go, and how they are supposed to contain Bravery and Daring and Frightening Things, and how disgruntled and disappointed she is that this one doesn't seem to.
fuck this, everybody is constellations now: w | time makes no saintsvega_ofthe_lyre on June 4th, 2011 10:43 pm (UTC)
Augh, Jo, this is gorgeous. The imagery and the sensory experience all tied up together, the beauty and the sharpness of it, like the roses and the thorns - absolutely stunning. And your Tam and your Janet are so vivid and alive, and, ack, more! I want to read more of this! Glorious work, love.
the business of benefiting hussiesmarketchippie on June 5th, 2011 06:00 pm (UTC)
Oh, Jo, this is wonderful—atmosphere and tension and imagery, all of it, and your characters are wonderfully alive. I'd love to see more.
Sarah: snail storyburningstarsxe on June 8th, 2011 02:53 pm (UTC)
::bounces:: I love it. I want more. The end. XD
Tori: A Child Dancing in the Wind: Lost in the Woodsaohdwyn on June 11th, 2011 03:33 pm (UTC)
I've had this tab open for DAYS trying to think of something brilliant enough but I've decided to just go for the fence and stick the landing, and I think I've just muddle metaphors for steeplechase and gymnastics all together... But -- beautiful, and so incredibly evocative; I felt like I could practically smell the coppery tang of blood mixed with the aroma of crushed rose petals. I love how real your worlds seem, and how human your characters are. You believe they really can bleed.
the windy tide in leafy seas: Merida on horse.tinaviel on December 30th, 2011 01:56 am (UTC)
We don't know each other -- I found my way here through mutual friends on your main journal -- but I just had to say something, because your prose is just that good :) Believe me, I know how hard it can sometimes be to finish a piece you've started, even one you feel so passionately about, but I really hope you do one day finish this (if you haven't already). I badly want to see what magic you spin from the rest of the ballad ;)