Tam Lin Balladry

A website of folklore and discovery.

Seven Things That Never Happened to Tam Lin

By: Tam Nonlinear

Seven Things That Never Happened to Tam Lin

ONE: When you know his true shape...

He twisted in her arms, nearly impossible to hold. He'd been a pig, a skunk, a weasel, a dog, a rat, and a leech so far. He'd said there would be seven transformations.

The last shape formed in her hands, a twisting, smooth snake, undulating muscular body and mouth full of pretty poison.

She held on tight, refusing to let go, closing her eyes. I'll win you, my love, she thought, determined.

She heard his voice then. "Janet, we've won, we've won."

She pulled back. The texture under her bare hands was the same as it had been a moment before. He was still a snake. The copper eyes with their vertical slits starred into hers. It did not struggle. It tilted its reptilian head at her.

"This is a trick. I won't fall for it." She held him as tears threatened behind her eyes.

The snake twisted for a moment. The tip of its tail flicked up and made a rubbing motion at the back of its skull. "Didn't I mention that I'm a snake?"

It was, indeed, Tam's voice, somehow coming from the snake's mouth.

She stared. "No."

The tail dropped down, long enough that the tip brushed the earth and started drawing nervous circles in the dust. "Well I am, so if you'd just put your mantle over me-" he moved his head toward the edge of her clothes.

"How could you?" There was a very sharp edge to her voice.

"You're gripping kinda tight there, dear-"

"You're a snake and you didn't think to mention this before?"

"Well, there really wasn't time. Hey, my skin is delicate and you're scratching a bit-"

"There was time for an awful lot else!" she put one hand over her belly, clutching. Wyrms, she thought, I have a belly full of wyrms. I don't need an abortifacient, I need an dewormer. Like a sheep. "You lying, rotten, deceitful-"

"No need to yell. Let's be reasonable here-" he tried twisting in her grip a little, long muscles flexing and contracting.

She stepped on the tip of his tail. The look she gave him stopped his thrashing. Snakes are masters at swallowing. He swallowed hard and a long way down.

"I think you should stop speaking. I don't think you have anything to say that I want to hear." She stared at him as if she might burn him, now that she saw clearly.

The Faerie Queen, who had been silent through all of this, spoke up. "I might have a solution to this impasse."

Janet turned to her and smiled.

Janet has kilted her green kirtle
around her form so svelte
little bairnies she has none
and she wears a snakeskin belt.

TWO: Ask No Leave or Mercy

Janet stepped out of the woods, a few small scratches on her face. They might have been from twigs. They might have been from rose thorns. Maybe.

She'd heard the warnings, and thought them old bits of folklore, more to keep the peasants away from the best trout streams than anything else. Until recently.

Last month she'd found Margaret crying behind the chapel, trying to hide the evidence of her morning sickness in the dirt, her kirtle still loose over her belly. She'd sobbed that the father of her unwanted child was not a creature of god, and thus the holy ground made the symptoms of her shame and defilement worse. She could never let her family know, because there was no man to take responsibility.

A week later Margaret was dead. One of the other pretty girls from the court had titched a bit and said it was a tricky business, telling one little grey plant in the woods from another, but Janet suspected that Margaret had known what she was doing. She said nothing, keeping as silent as the other women who had guessed, and who had spoken in private, trading ancient information and stories. Their friend should at least be able to sleep in the holy ground, with what she'd been through.

Either your rings, or your green mantles...

Strange, Janet thought, as she went looking for the places where the wild roses grew, Margaret said he hadn't asked for her ring or her mantle. He'd not done any asking at all.

She wasn't certain she believed the tales, but iron touched all men the same with the right edge. She'd gone into the woods, her woods.

She'd come out again.

She blinked, letting the last of the sunlight burn out the day's events. She brushed a little dirt off her skirt and made her way back to her father's hall, feeling to see that the scratches had stopped bleeding. She was otherwise unmarked. Untouched. The holy well she'd passed had held water enough to clean her hands.

It was a deep woods, and with the prohibition against entering it so well known these days, chances were that no one would ever find the remains.

If anyone did, let them say he was the sacrifice of an angry Queen. It was close enough to the truth.

THREE: Mistaken Impression

Ay at the end of seven years,
We pay a tiend to hell,
I am sae fair and fu o flesh,
I'm feard it be mysel.

Sick with fear and shaking, she grabbed at Tam Lin, dragging him from his horse, his fingers clutching at her green mantle as he fell. Even in the panicked confusion of the moonlit night woods and the haste of her rush, she saw gratitude and fear in his eyes. At they hit the ground together, she waited the transformation, to feel his shape shifting under her hands.

Around her, the Faerie troop came to a halt, filling the air with the ringing of silver bells on bridles and silver horse shoes clomping in the dirt.

She held Tam, her own dear Tam, tighter.

Nothing happened.

A voice like new leaves in the springtime spoke. "Excuse me, what do you think you are doing?"

Janet turned her head in the direction of the voice, to find herself staring at the Faerie Queen. The stately woman, so elegant on her horse, looked at her with a blank expression that had discarded even terribly polite confusion as unnecessary, though the emotion was clear enough, somehow, like the white-on-white outline of winter hills.

"I'm saving Tam Lin! I'll not let you have him." Janet shook her head in defiance.

The Queen looked to either side of her, and the barest suggestion of a question passed between her and those nearest to her. "Saving him from what?"

Janet's chest was heaving already, body ready for a fight, and so she stumbled on the words "From the sacrifice." She tightened her grip on her lover. He squeezed back, face hidden against her shoulder, trembling.

The Queen blinked once, slowly. Her rose-petal lips parted, gracefully, and she spoke. "We're not sacrificing Tam. We're sacrificing Mae-na'pysgodyn-lan'dy'pen'ol over there". She made an elegant, fluid gesture that ended with her pointing to another one of the troop, a spectacular elfin knight on a black charger. The indicated rider smiled, happily, and gave a friendly wave. He didn't seem distressed.

Janet stared at him for a moment, during which he tilted his head to one side and stuck out his tongue, mocking gagging. She could guess why someone might want to sacrifice him.

The Queen continued "Why would you think we're sacrificing Tam?" her full regard on Janet, like the polite patience of the forest.

Tam Lin had gone quite still in her grip. Janet moved her arm from around him and tried to get him to lift his head. He pushed it against her shoulder again, refusing.

"Tam, honey..." Janet began, in her most reasonable voice ever.

Slightly muffled by the fabric of her mantle, he answered. "Well technically I only said I feared it would be me." He still didn't raise his head.

Janet looked at the Faerie Queen, whose continued lack of expression still managed to suggest both the lifting of eyebrows and the rolling of eyes.

Janet shifted her footing a little. "So the part where you fear they captured you so they'd have a sacrifice for later?" she directed the question at the top of Tam's head, but the answer came from the woman on the horse.

This time the Queen did smile. It was soft and indulgent. "Oh no, it was never like that. I found him in the woods, falling off his horse every few paces, and thought for certain he'd been abandoned. He was so adorable and lost." The Queen's eyes took on a little moist glow. "I couldn't leave him out there, poor thing. He's been nice to have around, really, though he does often leave a mess around the place."

Janet scratched an itch on the back of her neck, which was suddenly hot and sweaty. "Okay. So is he your prisoner?"

"No, never. He's been free to go home at any time." There was a little trace of a laugh, this time, light as spring mist. "He just couldn't find the way."

A heartbeat. A second one. Tam was now awfully still against her. Janet ran her fingers through his hair, soothing, until she felt the muscles in his neck relax. Then she twisted her fingers a little, getting his hair in a grip, and pulled back, forcing his face upward. She was fairly sure he'd tried to grip her mantle with his teeth at the last second before his face was clear enough to see. He still refused to meet her eyes.

"Sweetie, I think we need to talk." Janet's smile was much less patient than the Queen's had been.

The faerie troop jangled a bit as they set off down the road. Behind them, Tam's small voice could be heard, "Wait, I can explain..."

FOUR: If I Had But Known

There was nowhere to kneel that did not have rocks that cut or mud that oozed. There was no patch of cover that was thick enough to both hide in and allow her to see. There was no darkness that did not have shadows that were darker, and no lights that were bright enough to see by. The sounds of the woods were all the sounds of the world; predators, creaking, the troop about to come, the damned and the lost.

She was alone and the woods were dark. They had been light and endless in September, when the last wild heat of summer had lead here beyond reason and caution.

It was not the same woods. Only a short run from that place, but an unmappable distance.

The restless, nervous swaying of empty trees and the tumbling of water resolved into the sounds of bridle metal ringing, leather, and horses. They formed out of the sounds of the woods and the night.

The troop was coming.

First came by the black horses. Then came by the brown.

On the white horse a rigid rider had his hands, one gloved and one bare, lashed to the saddle. The rider in front held the bridle and lead the horse.

For a brief moment she thought there were tracks of tears on his face, but tears were never so dark.

The lids were closed over his eyes, the dark lashes on the pale skin making an arc like a cut from which the blood leaked down.

She made some small sound, no louder than the death of a mouse. He turned his head to her, and parted his useless lids from instinct as if to look. As if he still had eyes. As if he could still see from the things in the sockets.

They'd even painted irises into the wood, as unseeing as a ship's figurehead.

Even the mockery of eyes seemed to look past her, missing her, dismissing her.

There was a darkness seeping into the fabric at the front of his shirt. She remembered the other part of the litany of punishments for transgressing the will of the Queen.

When the rider leading his horse gave a tug at the reins, he faced forward and lowered his eyelids again. His face and body betrayed no emotion, no reaction, no recognition. He did not move in his bonds.

The white horse and its rider seemed to dissolve as they passed through a thin shaft of moonlight, and soon there was not even the fading vision of him to watch.

She remained silent, waiting for the last of the troop to pass while she remained, small and hidden in the bushes, alone under her green mantle, in a woods where everything else had already gone to brown with the coming winter.

FIVE: And Now, For My Next Trick...

There was a ring of tall riders in the road, surrounding a woman who knelt in the dirt, huddled at the feet of a Queen who dressed in spider silk and starlight, a circle nestled within the greater ring trees surrounding the clearing, a spot just large enough for a circle of light from the moon to fall upon them all, illuminating in cold clarity.

The woman before the Queen cradled something small in her hands, holding it as if it were fragile and infinitely precious. Her body bent around it, protecting.

The air crackled.

The thing in her hands changed.

The woman, little more than a girl really, gasped. "It's a bunny! I love bunnies. Oh, and it has the dearest little floppy ears!"

The Queen smiled. "And one black paw."

The girl sat back a little, revealing the puff of blinking fur in her hands. The startled shaped gave wide eyes to the audience, then started washing its ears. There was a chorus of "awwwww"s from the assembled troop. A few of the riders jostled a bit, vying for a better view.

The girl turned pleading eyes to the midnight queen. "Can you do a koala? I've always wanted to see one."

The Queen cracked her knuckles and stretched her hands to the air. "Let me see... marsupials, marsupials, how does that go again..."

SIX: Up Then Spoke...

Tam Lin waited in the woods, waited by where he'd last seen Janet, before she'd run off again to rejoin her human world. He'd waited here every day for her. Maybe they had a chance, if she'd only come back. If she'd just come back to him before Halloween.

There was movement in the woods, the rustling and bustling of speed over secrecy, headed toward the roses and the well he guarded. He faded into the greenery.

Lightly through the woods came his own Janet, his beloved. She glowed. With his faerie sight, from the ointments and salves with which he'd been anointed a faerie knight, he knew she was with child. His child. Their child, from their bonny sporting in the woods. Joy and hope leapt in his heart.

He burst from the greenery. "Janet, my dearest love!"

She smiled at him, rosy despite a slightly worn look to her eyes. "Tam, I'm so glad I found you." she smiled as she said it, a little breathless.

He moved to embrace her. "My dear, your timing couldn't be better. I've been hoping to see you. I need to talk to you about the Faerie Queen-"

She moved one tendril of hair behind her ear. "Yes, we really need to talk about a few things."

He interrupted her. "I'm in terrible trouble, you see-"

He had time to hear her mutter something like "truer than you know" before the archers stepped from the woods at every point around them. He had not heard them approach.

One of them was a big, burly man, and he had an arrow pointed straight for Tam's head. "Is this the bastard that got you in trouble, my Jenny?"

There was no longer any way to fade away. Every inch of his skin felt acres wide, with a bull's eye painted on it.

Janet nodded and reached for Tam's hand, which had suddenly grown very cold. "Yes Daddy, this is Tam."

The burly man- Janet's father- smiled, all teeth and bristling mustache. "Pleased to meet you, son. Well, you're as fine looking as she said, I can see what led her astray." He looked him up and down, assessing. "You'll be doing right by my daughter, or I'll have your hide."

Tam looked around. The other archers had similarly sighted their arrows upon him. They did not look pleased. There was also a certain family resemblance among them. There were quite a few of them. He tried to move behind Janet, a little, though it was hard to choose where to hide with so many angry, pointy options available.

"I'm afraid my present good lady-" he tried, speaking reasonably, avoiding the direct term for the Queen.

The burly man looked ready to spit. "Can go hang. Else I'll burn the woods and nail iron into the earth and sow it with salt and then rinse it with holy water until the entire woods is another bloody loch!" All of this was in one angry breath, during which the man's face turned as red as his beard.

"But sir-" Tam tried to argue, though Janet's grip on his hand warned him against it. He looked at her.

Janet's grip became bone crushing. "Don't you want to marry me?" she asked sweetly, right at about the point that one of his fingers was threatening to dislocate from its joint.

"Yes dear, of course I do, but-" he offered, weakly, but the way she looked at him made him suspect, in a twitchy, frantic way, that standing next to her was not a terribly safe option either.

Janet's father gave a harrumph like a bull snorting. "I'll have no buts from you, young man. You're getting off light here, you are, with me and her brothers here to fetch you off to the chapel rather than just killing you outright." He moved his finger on the crossbow as if it itched.

"I'm supposed to be sacrificed to hell!" Tam protested. Surely these people had some of their priorities a bit off.

The man blinked after a moment, then lowered his weapon. He sighed. He walked forward and put his arm over Tam's shoulder in a friendly, affectionate manner that also ground the bones of the younger man's shoulders together.

"Well, son, I think I know a way around that. You're going to walk out of these woods with me. Then you're going to meet my wife. Your mistress can try arguing with her, if she wants to come after you, but I doubt it will avail her much. If you wonder where Jenny here gets her willful stubbornness, you're going to find out the hard way."

Tam looked at Janet, who gave him a sweet smile that nearly made him lose his footing.

Her father continued, dragging Tam past the ring of archers, who kept their arrows trained upon him. "I don't care if them's you've been living with have a direct connection to hell. We've got 'em outranked." the older man said, resigned and proud at once.

He gave a push and the bewildered young man took a few steps with him, leading out of the woods.

"Truly, sir?" Tam asked, Janet trailing behind him, meek for once, though he didn't trust her smile.

The man gave a weary nod. "Your mother in law is going to be the devil herself. And she says you're marrying her daughter tonight."

"I'm really safe from the Queen?" Tam asked, hesitantly, trying to see the better angle on this, the one that didn't involve the archer's line of fire or the devil and the darkness. At least, he hoped it was the better choice.

Janet's father gave a sigh that spoke of years and years of marriage. "She doesn't stand a chance. That's the good news. The bad news is that neither do you."

SEVEN: The Crossroads at Midnight

"I have you, Tam Lin!" she held him.

A laugh. "No, I think I have you."

He turned in her arms, and his embrace became a grip, pinning her.

The other horses had stopped, riders dropping lightly to the ground. The faeries were walking closer. They seemed to be in no hurry, and smiled.

Janet tried to twist, but her lover's embrace was like iron. "I don't understand. Tam, the enchantment-"

"A fool's errand. For a fool." The smile he gave as he spoke the words, close to her ear, did unpleasant things to his eyes.

She was still staring at him when the Queen strode forward, and Tam turned his attention away.

He released Janet and pushed her forward. She stumbled and was caught by the gripping hands of two knights dressed in dark green. They were as beautiful and as terrible as angels.

Behind her, Tam bowed a little, courteous. "There, your majesty, two for the price of one. As fair trade as you'll find."

The Queen smiled at her, but her words were for Tam Lin. "As far a trade as any you're involved in is like to be, Thomas."

Janet shivered, looking up at the dark eyes of the Queen. "I was to free him."

The Queen touched Janet's golden hair with her hands. "And you will. Why, he's free to go now, little one, and because of you." Her hand trailed down lazily to Janet's belly. "You and your babe."

The knight at her left side smirked. "Did you not know what sort of man you'd met in the woods, child? Why do you think you were warned against him?"

The other guard laughed. "She'd be different, of course."

As they turned Janet about and led her to the white horse, she looked to see Tam Lin, but could not find him. He was already gone from the path.


Added to site October 2014