The Gardens of The Midnight Queen
Updated: Jan 16, 2022
A Fairy Tale
The hanging gardens of the Midnight Queen towered above the great city that lay at the heart of an ancient land over which the magnificent young queen had ruled longer than anyone could remember.
That may seem strange.
How could it be that no one recalled a time when their beautiful queen did not rule over them? Old men, drinking ale together at the end of a hard day’s labour, never harked back to good old days when a king rode out to hunt. Old women, cleaning old men’s clothes at the washhouse, never pulled themselves upright for a moment to ease their aching backs, to entertain one another with recollections of what some other queen had said or done when they themselves were young.
But then again, why would anyone ask what might have been, once upon a time?
The Midnight Queen ruled wisely -- people said -- from the Obsidian throne in the Dark Glass Palace in the royal park at the centre of the hanging gardens. And what gardens they were; splendid beyond the power of any citizen to describe (not that anyone could recall meeting anyone else who had actually seen them). But their perfection was beyond dispute.
The gardens were like the Midnight Queen herself: dazzling, majestic and beautiful beyond compare.
Ever had it been so.
And all was well.
As everybody knew.
Although, strictly speaking, that was not entirely true.
One young girl – Hanna of Carter’s Hall – grew up oblivious of the Midnight Queen. She lived each day by her wits alone in a ramshackle lane butting up against the outer wall of the hanging gardens on the wrong side of the city. Out of sight and out of mind, Hanna ducked and dived and weaved and dodged misfortune. She knew no life except that of a scavenger in a far from perfect, scruffy little corner of a spellbound city that long ago had forgotten how to be itself.
Not long after turning twelve, as Hanna poked her inquisitive nose into nooks and crannies no one else cared about, she discovered a broken grill shielding an old sewer in the wall of the hanging gardens. It had been obscured by the abandoned tanner’s shed of a goatskin merchant who had long ago gone out of business. But now there was an unexplored passageway beneath the garden walls. And as any seasoned scavenger will tell you -- if you ask -- unknown passageways exist to be explored.
Squeezing through the broken grill, Hanna followed a short passageway beneath the mighty walls of the Royal citadel. It might have been a sewer long ago but apart from the sight and smell of what might be rabbit droppings there was nothing here to keep away the inquisitive girl.
Hanna emerged into a wooded glade below the hanging gardens, towering above her. She had never seen a place of such tranquil, natural beauty; green, soft, overgrown with meadow flowers, ferns and haphazardly abundant shrubs and bushes. The hustle and bustle, the sounds and smells of the great city were entirely gone.
Wild berries, fruit and nuts hung within easy reach. She helped herself.
The sloping glade rose to meet the garden wall above. Hanna, always too curious for her own good, walked ahead. Before long she had climbed to the edge of the gardens themselves.
On the first tier of the royal park in front of her, Hanna hid behind a perfectly manicured topiary bush: a mighty lion rampant. Not far beyond she spied another carved bush. This time a bear. And then a wolf. And farther off, a giant, fearsome spider shaped with uncanny perfection from the self-same type of bush: a privet hedge, spruce or lilly pilly. Last (but by no means least) Hanna could see that a burning brand had been carved with impossible precision from a slender poplar. The lawn (each blade of grass precisely level) in front of Hanna was guarded by this topiary regiment of beasts and flame repeating itself endlessly in icy perfection beyond sight and onto the upper tier.
As Hanna gazed in amazement at the carved bushes, she saw a man approach from the far end of the tailored lawn. He inspected bushes, checked their heights with an expandable measuring stick, confirmed the width of the precisely planted herbaceous borders, ran his rule across the too-perfect lawn. Ranging back and forth across the garden, he advanced ever-closer to the hidden girl who chose her moment to escape when he bent low to rip out errant wild flowers from between some paving stones.
Hanna was not entirely sure he had not caught a glimpse of her departing. She did not pause, therefore, in the tranquil glade but sped through the passageway back to the old tanner’s shed and the slums beyond.
Weeks passed before Hanna returned to the gardens. Beggars, they say, can’t be choosers. And a scavenger’s life is much the same in a forgetful city with meagre scraps.
Hanna could not find time to linger in the wood beyond the palace wall. Autumn waned. The berries and nuts had long ago been taken by the birds and tiny beasts who called the glade their home.
But winter had not gripped the land just yet. And Hanna could not forget the lure of perpetual spring that lay above the topiary park. So, once, again, she took the hidden passage to the royal park. Her goal was the upper tier, to see the fabled Dark Glass Palace.
She might even catch a glimpse of the Midnight Queen, now she understood properly who lived behind the walls.
The climb was not hard. Steep but not hard. At the far wall of the topiary garden Hanna found a staircase; unguarded, she imagined, because no one in the royal parks ever imagined a homeless scavenger from the wrong end of town would stand within these walls at the epicentre of the realm.
At the summit, she stood awe-struck, mouth wide-open at the sight of the Dark Glass Palace. It sucked the very light out of the sun and sky, was impossible not to gaze upon yet dreadful to behold.
When she felt a hand upon her shoulder, Hannah leapt almost all the way out of her terrified skin. The ranger she had seen before stood next to her.
“And you are?” he said.
“No one, sir,” was all Hanna could manage.
“It seems unlikely, girl, that I would catch a glimpse of no one twice,” he said.
“You saw me then?” she asked. He nodded in reply.
Releasing Hanna, the ranger looked around noting no one else was visible. The chances were, he thought, no harm was done. There would be time. He grasped Hanna’s arm, turned and began to descend the staircase as he talked hurriedly.
“Listen to my every word,” he said, “You’re life depends on it.”
Hanna drew in breath. And nodded.
“This is All Hallows’ Eve. A dark contract will be renewed in blood before the midnight clocks have struck twelve times ...”
Hannah interrupted, “Whose blood?”
“That’s no concern of yours, girl,” the ranger answered. “Blood will be spilled. The Queen pays her dues to the Lord of the Underworld.”
“Whose blood?” insisted Hanna.
They had reached the bottom of the staircase. The ranger turned to face the scavenger and knelt before her. He wiped away a single tear from an eye.
“There is no time, girl!”
“My name’s not girl. It’s Hanna, not that you asked,” she said. “Just because you choose not to answer a perfectly reasonable question does not mean I am stupid. Now, who is this Lord …”
“We have no time for this …” he said.
“I shall scream,” she interrupted. Triumphantly.
A ranger of the royal park knows when he has met his match. He told his story to the scavenger girl from the city as he led her back to the breach in the garden’s wall.
The man was a carter by trade. Seven years before – to the very day -- he had delivered supplies to the previous ranger. When he arrived, however, the stores were shut, the palace still and silent, and a malevolent ceremony underway on the lawn. The sky was dark although it was not yet night-time. The poplar trees around the lawn lit the scene like burning brands.
Despite his foreboding the carter felt compelled to remain at the palace, spellbound, he now knew, like all the city’s people. He could neither remember why he’d come nor explain to himself why he could not leave. He was forced by powers he did not comprehend to wait and watch.
Before him, the lawn was cleaved in two by a lightning bolt and from the gaping chasm emerged the Lord of the Underworld and his foul entourage. The Midnight Queen – ancient and wizened – was carried by royal lackeys from the Dark Glass Palace on the Obsidian throne to meet her malevolent benefactor. At the head of her procession, six guards dragged the old ranger by chains around his limbs, his neck and waist. He was weeping.
Silence fell like death itself before the Lord of the Underworld spoke, “Your debt is paid my Midnight Queen. The bargain kept. I have the soul of this poor, honest man. And you have seven further years of youth, beauty and power over this place. The spellbound fools beyond those walls are yours, again.”
The ground closed over the daemons as they departed. The queen’s youth and beauty returned.
On waking the next morning, the man went on, he found himself to be the ranger of the royal park but he could remember nothing of his former life. Only in the weeks before All Hallows’ Eve, with the Queen’s powers waning as her debt fell due, had his memory slowly started to return.
His story done the ranger spoke hurriedly.
“Go girl! If you remain, you take my place.”
And with that he left.
Some hours later, as Midnight approached, Hanna peaked out from behind a topiary spider to survey the scene. It was much as the ranger had described.
A bolt of lightning split the air. The ground opened and from the chasm the horned head of the Lord of the Underworld appeared, leading his ghastly horde. A wizened, old woman sat in a jet-black chair.
“Well?” said the Lord of the Underworld.
The Midnight Queen twitched an ancient finger. Six guards dragged the ranger into view. He wept as they drew him to his fate.
A voice cried out in the dark.
It was only when she had silenced the hordes on the lawn that Hanna realised the voice was hers. She strode across the lawn before she even asked herself, ‘what am I doing?’
The ranger cried, “No!”
The Midnight Queen croaked, “No.’
The Lord of the Underworld hissed out across the world, “This will be entertaining.”
Hanna ran to the ranger to wrap her desperate arms around his waist. She whispered, “They shall not take you.”
“You cannot stop them, child.”
But Hannah replied, “I need only hold you here until the clocks have struck twelve times then she must leave with him!”
“No Hanna …” the ranger said, interrupted by the first strike of the clock.
The wizened queen wailed then whispered, “No.”
As the clock chimed on and on and on, the hapless ranger writhed and turned and twisted.
He bent and roared and hissed and spat as he changed and changed again from a bear to a lion rampant, then a wolf and even a giant spider all fighting to free themselves from the ranger’s human form. Hanna held on tight ‘though terrified, more afraid, perhaps, of what fate held in store if she let go.
When the clocks struck for the eleventh time, Hanna found herself clutching a huge, fiery brand. Startled beyond belief she leapt towards one of the ornamental fountains on either side of the Obsidian throne.
The last sounds Hanna heard before she and the burning brand hit the water were the resistant, terrified screams of an ancient crone and the hideous laughter of a dark spirit claiming his debt. Then everything fell silent.
Hanna remained underwater for as long as she could hold her breath. But even scavengers have limits. Sooner than she thought was wise, Hanna came up for air.
It was no longer night, which surprised Hanna as she stepped out of the fountain’s pond from which hissing steam still rose. She stood dripping wet, surveying the scene. The lawn was empty; people and daemons wholly vanished. The topiary beasts and burning brands had been replaced with saplings, tall firs and one craggy old oak tree where the entrance to the underworld had been. The unkempt grass, she noticed, was bursting with buttercups and clover in a sign that nature, once again, held sway.
Behind her the silence was broken by coughing and spluttering as the ranger stood up in the water. He was himself again, unharmed and he remembered.
Like all the city’s people the carter was finally free from the spell of the Midnight Queen.