Work Header

Down Among the Weeds

Work Text:

Janet grew up beside the woods of Carterhaugh, though woods was perhaps the wrong word. A wood was a homely place, a place where cows pastured beneath wide-spreading oaks, and where farmers took their firewood.

No, Carterhaugh was a forest, for all it shouldn't be large enough for that: wild and tangled and untrod by human feet. Nobody went there. Carterhaugh was her father's, but only in name.

"Why?" Janet would ask her nurse when she was little, even though she already knew the answer.

"Because the Fair Folk live there," her nurse would say, lowering her voice and putting drama into the story for her even though she was telling it for the hundredth time.

"What do the Fair Folk do to you?" Janet asked.

"If you go there without leave, one of the Fairy Queen's knights will take your maidenhead."

"What's a maidenhead?"

"Something you don't want to lose, not to just anyone."

Janet thought it might be something valuable, like the ring of keys that the housekeeper had. It was her most prized possession, and the time that Janet had managed to steal it, there had been an uproar like she had never seen before. Then again, it might just be your head? A maidenhead must be the head of a maiden, it only made sense.

But then, you'd never want to lose your head, and Nurse made it sound like a maidenhead was something you might possibly want to lose, to the right person.

"Well, I'm going in there someday, and he won't chop my head off," Janet announced.

"No, you're not, young lady." And that was that, because Nurse had eyes like an eagle, and Janet never managed to evade her for long.


Janet was much older when the dreams started. She couldn't remember the first one, but she knew it was well after she'd got her first monthly bleeding, and after she'd learned what a maidenhead really was.

Carterhaugh wood was just always there: the tall trees in the corner of her eyes, the mystery in the back of her mind. She dreamed that there was a castle in the midst of it. Sometimes it was crumbling and overgrown with weeds and rose bushes, and sometimes it stood tall and splendid, with tapestries on the walls and lit candles, and a feast laid out.

She asked her father about it once. "There's a castle in Carterhaugh wood, isn't there?"

"How did you know that?" he said. "You haven't gone in there, have you?"

"No," she said, and it was true. "I just heard it somewhere."

"Well, there is a castle, or there was, once. But Janet, please. You mustn't go there." He looked so worried that she said that she wouldn't.

She dreamed that she did, though. She dreamed that she went through the forest to the castle, and knocked on the door.

Then she woke, before the door could open.

She sat up in bed, shivers running through her. Who knocks on the door? The voice in her mind was only the wisp of a sound.

"Janet," she whispered defiantly into the dark. "Janet of Carterhaugh." It was her family's title, even though Carterhaugh itself had not been inhabited for generations.

But the voice was gone.

The next time she heard it (the castle was a ruin that time, and there was no door to knock on) she asked: "Who are you?"

The wind in the trees whispered, "You know who I am."

"You are the Fairy Queen's knight."

"Yes." The answer sounded if it were dragged from the air.

"But what's your name?"

"Tam Lin."

"Tam Lin," she repeated, as if to call on him.

But she could not see him--there were only the red roses clambering on the ruins, and the white hawthorn trees and the thistles running wild. She shivered, the back of her neck prickling. Something heavy settled in her belly, the knowledge of something coming. She shifted her stance to be ready for it, standing with her feet planted square on the ground.

"Will you chop my head off, then?" she challenged him.

Nothing happened. And of course, she was only there in dream: she'd never gone into the woods in waking life.

But on long summer afternoons, sewing until her fingers worked of themselves and left her thoughts free to roam, she wandered the woods of the waking mind, among the oaks and hazels and the lime trees with their heart-shaped leaves. She wore a gown of green silk, with gold embroidered in trailing vines. The castle likewise was finer than she had ever seen it, shimmering in the summer air.

She opened the door and did not ask his leave.

"Tam Lin!"

"Yes." The voice was close by. She still did not see him, and her neck prickled with goosebumps.

"Would you take my maidenhead, then?" she asked, wary.

"If you come here without leave, I must."


"It is laid on me."

"By whom?"

He said nothing, then, heavily, "I must serve the Queen of Fairies."

"You don't serve her willingly?"

"It doesn't matter. I am hers to command."

Janet licked her lips, which were dry. She caught a movement in a mirror, but it was only her own gown stirring.

"Why can't I see you?" she whispered.

"We are not in the same world," he said, his voice also low.

"But you can see me?"


"That doesn't seem fair."

"Life is seldom fair." She couldn't tell if it was a jest, or if that was bitterness beneath the surface.

He was a mystery, and she always wanted to unravel mysteries. In any case, he was not the cruel elf knight of her nurse's story, that was clear. But that bitterness in him...


Janet blinked. The sun shone in through the windows of her father's house, and her embroidery was almost finished. "Yes?"

It was a maid, sent to call her down for supper, and she went, shaking off the remnants of the waking dream.

All through supper, she picked away at the questions in her mind: if Tam Lin did not serve willingly, why did he serve? What reason would an elf knight have to resent serving his Queen? How was he bound? He did not seem willing or able to answer, and so she must seek the answers elsewhere.

After the meal, she went to find her old nurse, who was darning a woolen sock by the fireside.

"Do you remember the story of the elf knight in the woods? The one I always wanted to hear as a child?"

"Oh, that one. Yes, you were awfully fond of it."

"Tell me, is there a castle in the woods?"

Her old nurse glanced sharply at her. "So I've heard, yes."

"Is it the castle of my ancestors?"

"Well, of course it is, child. It's not much talked of, though. Your father's proud of his lineage, after all, and he doesn't want to admit they were driven out."

"By whom?" she asked eagerly. "And why?"

The nurse lowered her voice. "They say it's the Fair Folk. That's all I know, and all anyone knows, I'd wager. It was a long time ago--I don't rightly know how long."

Well, that was at least some of her suspicions confirmed. But perhaps there would be something in the family records? Her father, when she asked to read them, let her into his library readily enough.

"I'm glad to see you taking an interest in the family lineage," he said, as he showed her to the leather-bound volumes. "Sewing's a proper occupation for a girl of your age, but you are my only child, after all."

Janet heard a silent even though you can't be my heir at the end of it. She knew she was the last of the family tree, and when she married, Carterhaugh and the lands around it would no longer belong to her family.

She pored over the volumes, going further and further back in time, until the writing grew difficult to read, from age and from the shifting of language. She read of births and deaths and marriages, of rich years and of lean ones when the harvest failed. And she found, at last, what she was looking for.

She found it in a curious lack in the usually so meticulous records: the state of their houses was usually mentioned each year, whether it be to say that additions were built to the north wing, or that repairs were made to the roofs. But for several years, the records were sparse, and written in a more modern hand. Had they been rewritten later, by someone who wanted to hide the family's bad fortune?

Janet dug into the records that came before those. And there, a few years further back, she found what she was looking for. The records did not say so outright, but she knew her father's lands like the back of her hand, and the references to the millpond, the Yarrow Water, the stony hill behind the woods, the road to Selkirk: it all told her that the family seat was not in the same place as it was today. And she did not think the house she lived in now had ever had a tower.

She drew her finger down the names mentioned, part of the generations flowing down to her own birth. And her finger stopped on one: Thomas Lyndale of Carterhaugh, the first-born son and heir of that time. Thomas Lyndale. Thom Lyn. Tam Lin.

Janet stared at it. She had thought Tam Lin to be one of the Fair Folk, but he had never said so. Only her nurse's tale had. This was not proof, but...

"Tam Lin?" she whispered. "Is that you?"

There was no reply.

Intent like a hound on the trail now, she went through the books to find further references to him. There were plenty, before the loss of the castle. But a year after his coming of age, and after the loss of the castle, there were none. She went almost a hundred years forward through the records, and did not even find his death.

Janet put the books down, and rubbed at her brow. She blinked at the window, and saw that the sun was going down--no wonder her eyes were tired. Well, she had learned all she could tonight.

She went to sleep thinking of him. Not of seeing him, for she did not know how he looked. No, she thought of the sound of his voice, and wondered if her other senses could perceive him. Would he be solid to the touch? She fell asleep to the smell of roses.

And in her dream, roses brushed her thighs and hips, and bent their heavy heads down above her. They clung to her and pricked her skin and clothing as she made her way through them to the broken wall of the castle.

"Janet?" he said, and she smiled to hear him say her name.

"Yes," she said. "Tam Lin. Thomas Lyndale of Carterhaugh. Is that you?"

She heard him draw in a breath. "I had almost forgotten that name," he whispered. "How long?"

"Almost three hundred years," she said, wondering. "What did you do, to deserve this?"

"Deserve? I didn't..." A wind blew up, and the roses bent before it.

"Not deserve, then," she said hastily.

"I offended Her," he said bitterly. "I was young, and thoughtless, and She thought me fair. So She took me to Her court, and took my family's home, and set me to guard it. She cursed me, to take the maidens of my own kin by force, and kill the men of my family if they should come back."

"Oh," she breathed. "And I--"

"You are my kin, then?"

"I am. I must be. But very distantly, now. So many years have passed."

"Don't come to Carterhaugh castle, Janet. Please. I do not wish to hurt you." His voice was low, and full of regret.

She was silent. The wind brushed gently through the roses. "Are there many you have hurt?"

"I do not wish to speak of it," he said.

Janet shuddered, both for his sake and theirs. She wished she could see him, and instead of reaching for him, she reached a hand out to the roses. A sharp prick, and she drew her hand back. Even in dreams, roses had sharp thorns.

She woke in the morning with a tiny spot of blood on her thumb.

They met again, the next night. She asked him about the castle, and he told her what it had been like. He showed her the remains of the kitchen garden, now running wild with mint and thyme where the trees hadn't taken it over. Janet itched to weed it, dig up the thistles that were mixed in with the herbs.

"I still remember my mother going out there to sit on a bench against the wall in the evening," he said. "The sun would warm the stones of this wall, and the bees would hum in the lavender."

The apple trees in the orchard of his childhood were gone, with only rotted stumps remaining. New ones had come up, but no one had pruned them down, and they stretched up high, trying to compete with the forest trees.

"I can't believe it, that you've been here so long."

He didn't say anything for a while, and she wished she could reach out to hold his hand.

"The years run together, after a while," he said. "What does it look like, where you live now?"

She told him, and in the intent listening silence she tried to picture his face.

On another night, she asked him, "What do you look like?"

"Look like?" He sounded surprised.

"You can see me," she said, teasing. "It's only fair that you tell me."

"Oh--I hardly remember. Dark hair. Dark eyes."

Janet sighed. That didn't tell her much, but clearly she wasn't going to get much more out of him.

"Well, if I can't see you, can I touch you?"

"I don't know," he said slowly. A breeze curled around her, and she shivered. She held out a hand, searching. She met--something, a point of warmth in the air.

The warmth moved, grasped her hand, held it. It did not feel quite like a human hand--it was not quite solid enough. Boldly, she stepped closer, brought it to her cheek. It trailed down her neck, and goosebumps rose on her skin. She drew in a breath.

"You said I shouldn't come here," she said. "That you would have to take me by force."

"Yes. Janet, I do not want to hurt you."

"But if I came willing?" she whispered. "Would you wish for that?"

He didn't reply for a while, and she wondered if she had been too bold. Did she truly know him? No. She didn't, and yet, she wanted to take the risk. She wanted to see him, and touch him.

"I had not dared to think of it," he said at last.

"Think of it, then," Janet said.

Janet had no dreams of him for a week. No true dreams, that is, although she did have daydreams.

When they finally met again, he said only, "Yes."


Janet had circled round the wood, coming at it from the north so that no one would see her go there. She paused at the edge, where brambles and blackthorn made a nearly impenetrable hedge. But she'd come prepared with a knife, and she tied up her green kirtle above the knee and cut her way through where the thickets were least tangled.

There were a few tears in her clothing nevertheless, but when she'd penetrated into the woods, she could sheathe the knife--the canopy above was thick, but the forest floor was easier to walk. Beeches spread their flat-leaved layers above, blocking out the late summer sun, and the pale smooth trunks of ash trees stretched up and up. Great oak trees languished in the gloom, and their wide-spread lower branches were dying remnants of a time when the wood was open and cows pastured there.

Janet walked the soft earth carefully. A squirrel watched her without fear, and birds sang undisturbed: they had never learned to fear men. Up ahead, light filtered in, and she stopped at the edge of the clearing.

The castle was in ruins.

She should have expected it, of course, but in so many of her dreams, it had still been standing, with its towers and tapestries. But no, the tower was cast down and ruined, and the tapestries must long since have been picked apart for birds' nests. Nettles and dockweed grew high in the clearing.

But the rose bushes were there, climbing with thick woody stems up the remains of the castle walls and hanging down like great waterfalls of red roses.

"Tam Lin?" Janet whispered. But now that she was here in the flesh, no one replied.

Well, she would go up to the castle, then. She let down her green kirtle so that the nettles would not sting her, and waded down among the weeds. The scent of roses met her, heavy and sweet. Bees hummed in the flowers. She looked around: still nothing.

Janet reached out and plucked a rose, breaking the stem. As she did so, a thorn pricked her finger sharply. Blood welled up, and she sucked at it.

"What makes you break the rose? What makes you come to Carterhaugh without the leave of me?" The words were formal, like a ritual. But oh, she knew his voice.

Janet turned around, and there he was. Tam Lin was so young, was her first thought—he seemed her own age, or perhaps a year older. But of course, he had been lost soon after his coming of age. His hair was black and his skin pale and smooth, as if he had not seen the sun for many years in the realm of the Fair Folk. He was only a little taller than she was, and clad all in green.

"I'll come and go all as I please, and not ask leave of any," Janet said in reply, completing the ritual. But she had asked his leave. She had.

He took her by the hand. His strength was not his own, but that of his curse, and he laid her down on the green grass beside the castle walls. Janet went willingly.

Afterwards, she lay beside him. He laid his arm over his eyes to hide them. "Have I hurt you? Janet?"

"No," she said. "Or, only a very little. No more than the rose has." Her finger was hardly even bleeding any more.

"But--you were a maiden. The others--it hurt them. I hurt them."

She rolled closer to him, tugged his arm from his face, and looked at him. "We grow parsnips at our house, you know."

He frowned. "Parsnips?"

"If you peel it, a parsnip is not unlike a prick."

He gaped at her, and then he began to laugh. She had never heard him laugh before, and it made her smile in return. "So you--?"

"Yes," she said, laughing herself now. She looked at him, because she could. His fair skin was blushing, and she thought she must be, too. His black hair curled a little around his ears, which were not pointed, at all. His eyes were a deep brown.

"You've seen me before," she murmured, as he looked and looked at her.

"Yes, but--" and he leaned forward to kiss her. She pulled him down and twined her hands in his hair.


Janet stared at her breakfast and clenched her teeth and swallowed. She would not.

"Janet?" her father said. "Are you ill?"

His voice was so gentle, she almost felt guilty. Her father had never pressured her to marry. There would be time, he said, to find a worthy man.

The serving-maid lingered by the door, curious for any gossip she might overhear. Her father sent her out and closed the door behind her.

"Janet," he said, serious. "You are not with child?"

Janet almost snapped, because I am ill in the morning, that does not have to mean I am with child, but didn't. Because he was right. She didn't show it yet, but she knew it in her heart. A faery child. But no, Tam Lin was human.

"Yes," she said, looking up at her father.

He drew in a breath. "Who is the father? Were you--did someone--?"

She raised her chin. "He is a worthy man, father. And it was my own free will."

"Tell me, child, who he is. Is he a gentleman?"

"Yes," she said. But she did not say his name. "Soon, father. I'll tell you soon," she said. Nestled in her heart like the child in her womb was one spark of hope, burning bright. She would not give up that hope until she had tried, even against the might of all Faery.

He frowned in worry. "I will give you a little time, Janet. But you must tell me soon."

"I will, father."

Before the sun was high in the sky, Janet came again to the woods of Carterhaugh. She knew the way well, now, though it was summer no longer, and the autumn leaves were fallen on the ground, sodden and brown.

The roses, too, had withered, but their thorny stems still encircled the castle.

"Tam Lin?" she whispered, breaking the smallest twig of the rose bush.

"Janet," he said, and appeared beside her.

This time, they embraced with no curse to compel them. "I am with child," she whispered into his neck.

"Truly?" he said, letting her go to look into her eyes.

"Yes. And I would have a human father for my child."

"Janet, if I only could--" He put his hand on her belly. "I want to be human again. I want to be with you."

She held him close. "Is there nothing we can do? Please?"

"Tomorrow is All Hallow's Eve," he said, looking past her into the dark wood. "She must...offer a teind, and--this time I fear it be myself."

"No!" Janet cried. "No. Tell me how to stop it. I'll do anything!"

"Don't say that," he said urgently. "Never say that, Janet. But...there may be a way."

And he told her.


On the night of All Hallow's Eve, Janet saw all the might of the Faery Court pass, hidden down among the weeds. She saw the Queen in all her splendour and power, with her attendants gathered around her. She saw the Elf Knights pass, one by one, and she saw Tam Lin among them.

She held fast to him, however he changed: through wolf and bear, through teeth and claws and fur. To have and to hold, through all that might come. And at the end of it he lay in her arms a naked, human man.

She wrapped him in her coat, and brought him out of the wild woods.

The day after, they presented themselves to her father, and Janet said to him: "This is the father of my child, Thomas Lyndale of Carterhaugh."