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author: deathwailart ([personal profile] deathwailart)
e-mail: eyelinerkisses [at] hotmail [dot] com


There is a thrice-ringed kingdom, ringed in iron, ringed in salt, ringed in blood and they say that the king will not die. They say that Death cannot see into his lands but no one has ever said that Death cannot see out into the world beyond his borders.

There is a beautiful woman because there's always a beautiful woman and the man in the alley with her is wearing a long dark coat because men like him meeting women like her in alleys always wear them like a second skin. In the same way, there is an alley because there is always an alley, the ill-begotten child of every town and city that somehow remembers country lanes and crossroads, where highwaymen and worse would prowl and it creeps along, appearing with a wide maw so the streetlights can glitter off sharp teeth and broken fangs, all equally cruel but how many care when those lights beckon, entrancing and dazzling, luring the unwitting and unwary or even those so desperately broken that they no longer care deeper into the dark; the man and the woman know that no one makes it out of the alleys in this city if they go too far. The man exhales, thick as a cloud of smoke and twice as bitter and the woman shivers, wrapping her coat tighter about herself and when she swallows his eyes follow the long pale column of her throat. It's almost obscene, that bare expanse, it should be wrapped in fur, in his mind at least, or feathers, feathers that shine greens and blues, bright as the aftermath of an oil slick. His coat doesn't flatter like hers, no; his is ill-fitting, stretched tight over shoulders not so much broad as they are wide, lumpy and hulking. It lends him something of the ill-favoured she told him once, back before when she was younger, brighter around the eyes, lips red from worrying them, her skirts never so short, her heels less towering. He's hunchbacked in the coat, it makes him look untrustworthy – the litmus test when someone drops by the office, something he'd like to say if it were more than just him but the secretaries never stay and the owner of the building never meets his eye when he extends a shaking sweaty hand for the rent each month. He coughs, blasting her with hot stale breath that makes her wrinkle her delicate little nose, the sound a landslide, the grinding of ancient gears.

"You should see someone about that," she suggests, something not wholly kind in her voice but it's still soft, rich and rolling like green hills and fields that go on forever. She shouldn't be here but then none of them should. "I know someone who can recommend a good vet," she continues, watching him with liquid black eyes, awaiting any hint of a flinch.
He bristles, coughing like he's bringing up old bones and rusty metal fragments, half-burned and scorched with acid, spitting neatly by her shoe so dirty water splashes up over shiny leather. He thinks it might hiss but there's a car rumbling closer, a fan belt screaming in protest cutting through the night not like a night but a sword. "You're the one who came to me for help girl."
"And you're in no position to turn me down old man." She bristles and the sweetness is gone, the sweet bow of her lips pursing into a scowl, eyes narrowed to slits.
He'd like to gloat seeing as this is the least careful he's ever been, pushing her there with only a few words to remind her that the world won't always bend the knee to her but he doesn't have the pride for that, barely even remembers what that would feel like. "When should I expect you?"
"I'll send a courier," she murmurs with a smile, "someone I can trust, you'll know when you see." She begins to turn, then stops, remembering herself. "Need I remind you that you've agreed to my terms and I laid them out exactly, precisely. You made the offer, if you have doubts, I won't be the one in debt and no amount of words will balance the scales."
He heaves a great sigh and his back spasms, his ribs groaning beneath the weight before he clears his throat. "I won't insult you by pretending there isn't some catch," and all the while he mutters, he doesn't miss her sly little smile either, nor how bright those beady black eyes suddenly are. "I accepted the terms, I do not renege on a bargain, I keep my promises, like you."
"Honest men are so hard to come by, rarer than the gold they're worth their weight in - do you still keep an eye on the market?"

He does. She knows it when he looks away, clicking her way back to him, arms folded. "The payment for this part, is it gold?" Her hands dip into pockets and there it is, all bearing a stern profile with a crown upon the brow and something in him trembles, wants to roar but he looks away, forcing trembling hands into fists.
"A kiss. I'd settle for a kiss."

The car comes to a grumbling halt, the engine backfiring with a snort, both headlights out. She looks over her shoulder, nods at the driver and takes a quiet shuddering breath, wetting her lips. He takes a chance to look her over, the pale skin like marble, that tumble of black curls that must be smooth as silk to the touch, the red of the coat and the skirt peeking out, the lips and the shoes, all the same shade of fresh blood.

"Fine," is what she says after a moment of deliberation where he wants to take the words back, knowing that they're dancing around boundaries lined with explosives neither of them planted. It's a huff but that hard line of a mouth softens under his when he bends to meet her and she's cold and sweet until her lips bleed under his advance. Her fingers scrabble at his shoulders, stirring the kind of ache that reminds him of being young and it would only be someone like her to remind him of that rather than how old he is by now. "I never said you could have my blood too," she spits when they part, flushed and furious yet her eyes are only on his mouth as he licks his lips. "Haven't you supped enough on my kind?" She has her hands on his lapels and it won't be until later he'll see the golden pin, the way it's shaped like a grand knight's helm.
"I've never even come close," he replies, surprised at his own candour, perhaps more than her. "You never said I couldn't have your blood either."
The tentative smile falls and the life in him freezes, still and cold, her face so carefully empty that he knows she'd spit venom and hot fire if she could. "You sound like…"
"Like him?" He suggests, reproachful, more than faintly ashamed.
She smiles then, shaking her head before she rises on her toes to kiss his cheek and the silver in her eyes are tears she's held there for too long. "You sound like me," she tells him as she turns and walks away beneath the sickly orange guttering light that dims with each echoing click of her heels as she walks out of the mouth of the alley until only the moon shines alone, caught between two high rises, reminding him of spires of a bygone era and some savage pain courses through him, makes his hands curl tight enough to cut open his palms and the blunt nails, the square fingertips, the bunching of muscle over his shoulders are wrong, it isn't meant to be like this.

The car drives forward, turns in a space too tight for it with no protest. He can't see the driver's face.

It's probably for the best.

+++


In a thrice-ringed kingdom, ringed in iron, ringed in salt, ringed in blood sits the woman from the alley by a tall window bathed in reds and greens and blues by the stained glass, figures outlined in iron. The scene depicts a king, like so many here do, angels at either shoulder as two hands thrust forward, the rest of the figure unseen but implied, placing a crown upon his head. It's been replaced yet again, another bird bursting through, miraculously unharmed but angry, shaking glass shards from feathers, squawking; invariably it's a raven, a crow, a magpie, perhaps even a jackdaw or rook and the king will take umbrage with the 'damned troublesome vexations' destroying his property. She intervenes, she keeps them, gathers them up to her breast so they can hop up to her shoulder. Her rookery is alive and who would deny their wife and queen some small strange fancy? A queen who can stand by his side with a serene smile through thick and thin without the sheen of tears cameras always catch and turn to silver is worth her weight in gold and more. Marriage is about alliance after all and no monarchy has reigned so long, has seen such peace as the one they've built.

A murder of crows and stragglers is a small price to pay for that.

A raven croaks at her elbow and tips his beak up as a queen – Raghnailt, that is her name though it is always my queen these days, that or wife – strokes the scruff beneath his long dark beak; a magpie happens past swaggering only as a magpie can, bobbing his head and she gathers the gold embroidered red silk of her skirts to curtsy, inclining her head. As ever her neck aches, her shoulders protest and a scream lodges itself uneasily in her throat, never making it past her lips. She knows she screamed once but she is a whisper, a suggestion, lips to an ear as her eyes watch the halls and chambers even in the dark. Her counsel is hers to give, for his ears alone and she knows that it's everything else that has ears, not the walls. Not that she'd have it any other way but she can guess at his protests after all. It was her voice that entranced him so long ago (and it feels longer than it is, it feels like she's crunched decades and centuries between her tight clenched teeth, where everything and nothing has changed) but she hasn't sung in so long that all the court awaits it with bated breath. Her voice was so beautiful that everyone who heard it wept, so pure and clean that men died, even kings.

The raven hops up to wander along her arm and to the glass her fingertips almost touch, stained red as blood, even darker than her gown. It taps with a long sharp beak again and again. She smiles, scoops him up to her shoulder, unsurprised to find the magpie on the other only moments later.

"Getting out is always the hard part," she confides, heels echoing in the halls as courtiers scurry out of her way. No woman should talk to birds or at the very least only pretty bright ones kept in cages. No woman should stay as young as she has for so long, her skin still smooth and pale as unblemished marble, her black hair without a single streak of grey. The hands of the clock have jammed and caught them all in it and the key is out of reach. The magpie alights from her shoulder, flies off down the hall to steal a bauble, the raven chasing after him and the smile that threatens goes cold and hard when a man strides down the hall, the crowds parting as wheat in the fields before the scythe and sickle.

"Wife," he greets for he is Ruadhrí and he is king and as long married as they are, the niceties slip to be exchanged for the simply practical.
"Husband," she replies for she will remain his equal. He is king and lord, honour and grace, first and foremost to them but never her. His grimace could break stone, she thinks.
"I would ask you to keep your pets under control; affairs of state are taxing enough without the squawks of your crows."
"Of course, my lord husband, I merely extend to them the freedoms of our kingdom and indeed all our lands."
"A cage, my lady," he grinds his teeth, "I'm sure we know someone who makes them."
Her smile is a rictus and the raven returns, feathers ruffled up and claws poking holes in fine silk. "If even birds cannot go where they please the people will whisper."
"A king-"
She cuts him off fast enough that she has to run her tongue along her teeth, expecting to taste blood. "A king doesn't belong to himself, he belongs to the people and the kingdom and they each own a piece, hold a share. What will they think if a bird cannot fly? Imagine their fear, you know the damage panicked hands can cause – they will tear you apart if you let them, don't give them cause?"
"Is this advice or a threat?" The magpie returns, a hastily swallowed treasure bobbing in his throat. The birds have him halting in his tracks, unable to loom over her when it would be all too easy for them to go for his eyes, here in his halls.
"Only a suggestion." She's learned to demur, to soften her sharp edges; too many swords are involved already when you marry a king without letting your daggers get muddled in with them. She smiles, cups that broad stone slab of a face in her hands and hopes he won't notice her bitten lips when she kisses him. He stiffens then leans in, leans close. Rests the weight of a kingdom against her for the span of five heartbeats. The magpie coughs and there's a flash of silver and a ruby the size of her eye swallowed down again. "Such a weight," she says, setting the crown to rights.
Then he starts, "You are the only one who never lies, you promised me and your promises are always kept like mine to you. Forgive me if I speak harshly, this is a nest of snakes and wolves, they'd rip each other to pieces," and his hands clench into fists; is it any wonder he begrudges her the birds when it's his ruffled feathers her hands know how to smooth?
"That's the court and the rabble; it has to be this way. We let them turn on themselves because we must but birds have a funny way of killing snakes and if they are wolves then you are surely the noble hound or even the lion rampant." Flattery gets you far if you phrase it right and any wife should know her husband well enough to make him remember what side his bread is buttered on. "After all, this was my gift to you. I could give you no less than a kingdom drawn by my own two hands when you married me and put a crown upon my head."

There is a moment, smaller than the eye of a needle where they are three and six; as they are now in this hall with a raven and magpie whispering in ears that are not his and they are young with her dress of white and flowers in her hair and his stubble soft as peach fuzz, then her as she is now but him as old bones with empty eyes, the weight of the crown threatening to separate his head from his shoulders.

In the blink of an eye, through the eye of a needle into the beat of heart that makes it skip and stop, the magpie takes flight and the raven follows and the door is blown off the rookery. The windows explode, feathers everywhere but not one drop of blood for a kingdom already ringed in it. But one window is missing more than glass, the iron lattice bent and broken. A solitary magpie sits as witness and unlike his brethren, he utters not one word but bobs his head twice to the queen.

+++


When you are young, you think the world will never forget your moments of foolishness but really it's only you who can keep them alive. Only you will repeat them again and again in an act of self-flagellation or searching for a way out.

Time is linear, like the needle.

Time is round, like the eye, like the pupil.

In a darkened corner of the kingdom, a car trundles down a street as the alley stretches out, the long lean line of a sated hound. A man in a long dark coat walks with a purpose he hasn't felt in far too long, the same man who stole breath from a grave flower bittersweet mouth and he walks as tall as his back allows, stopping when the car does. He doesn't hear a window roll down but then he can't hear much over the engine. Heat rolls off the somehow sleek black beast – incredible given the age of it – making him forget to look for a face.

The streetlight above them flickers, fire trapped in glass.

"Thought you had a horse," the man in the long dark coat says.
A laugh rumbles, rises, the sound of coins falling. "You have any idea how expensive horses are?"

The man laughs too, ignoring that the voice comes from below and to the left of the driver.

Within the palace, the king sits and watches shadows swell and grow. The windows are all boarded and his hand feels empty as he replays all that he said over and over. His skin is ashen and waxy, the pallor of those who worry themselves into an empty grave and the pale light of lamps cast shadows, pick out hollow cheeks and sunken eyes. He writes down every word, measures the weight of them, tests the inflections and the numbers never balance at the end.

And because wood once lived before it died, the queen removes the boards from the window that bathed her in red and green and blue and clambers up, dressed in silk the shade of shadows. Like always, she is braver at night as she slips from the window and disappears from sight.

+++


There is a woman knee deep in a river that runs the colour of rust, strained from the knees up, from the tips of her fingers to her elbows with something like old blood crusted beneath her nails and her skin is red raw. Silver salmon streak past her as she soaks the garment in her hands again, washed enough that the colour has bled out of them, that all the buttons and fastenings have fled, all the fine gold and silver embroidery has slipped between her numb frozen fingers. Only a hope and a prayer holds them together in a land that is starved for both. Overhead there is a sound like thunder and the shadow of an eel and a wolf and a cow as a crow swoops low enough that the flashing black claws almost snag in her gnarled tangle of curls. The sky remains the colour of an old bruise slow to heal and the coming dawn is a red slash, the blood trying to well, to spill.

The crow shrieks like having its throat cut when it lands and the woman in the river, a washer-woman from a time long past, laughs and the sound is boulders falling and stones being worn smooth and small until they're pebbles and shingle.

"Didn't think you'd lost all your sense," the washer-woman says and her laugh is a cough that threatens to rattle her bones apart.
"I haven't been here since before," the crow says, hopping back and out of dirt that gleams black as feathers and the voice changes, the bark settling to something smoother, softer, "I didn't realise how bad it was, out here."
"Iron and water and salt," the washer-woman continues as sets the garment down on a slab of stone. "You know how it goes and you're miles from good rich earth, it's made you forget." She doesn't add that she's far from it too, that they've both forgotten or that the memory is a knife scraped between their ribs, through the lung so the breath stops and through the heart so everything stops.
"I can't leave-" the crow that is no longer a crow and is now a queen who goes by Raghnailt replies and the washer-woman sloshes out of the river, staggering like the drunkard or a dying man and her feet are blue from cold beneath the red of burns and the brown of rust and mud, swollen and lumpy, wrinkles stretched across them. The stench hits the queen and has her staggering back, breath shuddering in her throat and her face as white as bone.
"What a hardship, your majesty." Another laugh and a cough followed by a groan and she holds out an old hand to a young one that takes it and flinches – from the cold, from the iron, from touching something that looks like a corpse pulled from a river after a battle before the bloat has set in – but pulls. They're the same age, they both know that but where the queen is young and full of life, the life has leached out of the washer-woman and to somewhere else; Slàine and the life has gone out of her, washed away and she'd laugh if she had it left in her.

The queen has the grace to blush and to look away, embarrassed and ashamed.

The washer-woman's bones creak as she sits and the queen hisses through her teeth the whole time because it must burn, especially to skin kept safer from hardship, that hasn't been scoured every day since time stopped but somehow ran and ran and ran, reset but didn't and the washer-woman can't remember how long it's been or if it's like before when a day could stretch out again and again. Nothing good has come of it; there is a maiden before her and the crone in herself but there is no mother, two not three and it's the two ends that cannot meet in the middle. Time has not treated them equally – the queen that once more to her is frozen and she has aged and aged without aging until only exhaustion and sickness put grey and white in her hair.

"How many years has it been?"
The silence that follows tells her too long and not long enough, that the woman beside her cannot tell either in her towers surrounded by fine silks. "It's ending."
"My river is always two salmon short and I have washed those clothes a hundred times, a thousand times, until my fingers are worn down to the bone." She sighs as though she might collapse in on herself, all the empty hollow spaces that howl like the wolves long dead echoing in the dark as she rubs her hands together and watches the queen that was a woman that was a sister-cousin by her side try not to scratch at the hand she offered. "Do you have gloves?"
"Hundreds. I used to grab the bars of the windows and shake them as if it'd do any good."
"Iron in the windows, iron in the doors – how did you get out?"
A smile like a knife glints in the dark, lips red as fresh blood and she leans close like the hungry wolf or the Cù-Sìth. "The hands are shaking, they remember and I have stretched myself thin to slip my throat free – I was bound to my word and so was he and it took time."
She makes no apology but that has never been the way of their kind. Too proud, too old, too knowing. So the washer-woman sighs, takes a breath and says, "I fail to see why you've come here when you've never come once before."
"I need your help."

The laugh makes the water leap from the river and there is black dirt clinging to the queen when she scrambles back and her eyes are wider than the washer-woman that was her sister-cousin has ever seen, the same horror she sees when she catches her reflection in the rare moments when the river goes still and calm.

"Why would I help you?"
"I cannot do it alone, not with him, not when I have to slip between the words and the court is full of snakes-"
"You made it that way and I'm not about to wash your hands when mine are full enough with him."

The queen rises and doesn't bother to wipe off the dirt and she is and is not the woman she was a girl with and she has four shadows that are far from her own.

"A friend found me, a friend who cannot be barred," is what she says as her legs snap and shrink. "He offered help freely because he is tired of waiting – horses are expensive these days don't you know - and he'll bring a man worth his weight in gold to you. You must listen; you must save the hate in your heart for someone else and remember for me."
She doesn't trust the look in those eyes, not when they are beady and black and the beak is clean and dry, not when she remembers them best when they were red and picking worms and entrails out of the garments and fighting the magpies for anything that caught the light. "Remember what?" She asks without meaning to ask, the words tumbling out.

"That we were children together."

The moon is a sickle when she watches the queen that is a crow take flight.

+++


The Name of the Story is Your Name and Mine.

Once there was a king and he was just a king, worthy of remembering because he was a king. Not a tyrant, not a stain, just a man as much as anyone or anything can be 'just' something. And because he was a king, there was a singer, a keener, for his house would sing her dreadful, beautiful wailing dirge each time someone was to die and because she had a cousin from across the water where their people had settled too so long ago they'd forgotten, much like he had a mother from the same land, she would bring this woman who would wash grave clothes. And in the hands of that washer-woman there would sit a rich garment of deepest red, like fresh blood, like heart meat before the grave makes a banquet of it. Now the king was a young man when he knew he would die after coming upon her cousin in possession of garments he knew too well and no man wishes to look over his shoulder half his life and more, stumbling blindly through the ever-shortening span of days as he tried to see how close Death was to clutching his shoulder. Now, there was a keener and she was a daughter of crows and crowns, of strife and battle, and if there were two things she knew well then they were death and kings and if there was one subject to which she might be weighed and measured and not be found wanting then it was the death of kings.

Now the king did not know, and she would not say, if she had always sung for his house or if it was passed down like his kingship, mother to daughter as father to son but there was friendship and respect in such an alliance. His family had taught the ways of their court and humanity and many of hers had whispered of their ways and lives in a time when the world was less civilised and wilder.

It was commonly understood that when she sang, men died.

It was not commonly known that their death had been written and the ink already dried and the book shut away when she opened her mouth and warned their loved ones to make themselves ready.

He had gone to the keener, or let us speak plainly and call her banshee (and her sister-cousin bean nighe) and she was within a ring in a green field, hand tight on his sword and a furrow at his brow and his mouth had opened without thought.

"You know how I die, where I am, what I do." For he had seen a glimpse of her sister-cousin's washing and he knew his own grave clothes when she sorted her great pile. "It is close if you sister-cousin carries it with her wherever she goes and I would know it."
"It is not for the living to know, only the dying," and she said it with a solemn finality as if she wished to change it, to lift up more of the burden.
"Am I not dying now?" He asked because he was known for his stratagems and she had frowned because no one had phrased it as such, certainly not a king. "If it is already written…"
"You are not dying."
"Only I am."
"No more than anyone else."
"Then I offer a deal."
"You must be a fool – what could you offer me?" It was a gesture of friendship after all for if it had been anyone else without centuries of honesty between them she would have pressed on, made him offer a price to be decided later and by her.

"Shall we talk terms?"

Dear girl I am sorry your heart was deceived.

Dearest crow I am sorry to have written your ending that had none.

This is how it happened because it had to, because I wrote it: his end that was not an end and how he let her place her throat in the spokes of time to stop them fast.

He said to her, to the banshee, to the crow, "let it not be your voice for the great love I bear you, my sons and their sons, howl for them not I."
She replied in turn, "then I must ever be your equal."
"My sons will be yours, will be ours," he agreed.
"You must tear out your ending then as it is being written and return to me with the page. You must not read it."

Dear daughter of blood and battle it was already written that I would pass it to him.

And because it was written because I wrote it, it appeared behind her eye and in her throat and she laid him down in a ring that held the ghost of a lost tree and the smaller folk laughed to see death's mouth breathing into life's. Laughter is better than tears, we knew there was too much salt to come. She kissed the stars to follow upon his brow and I drew the map her fingers traced across his chest in a green field, giddy at striking her bargain, heady with him pliant and adoring beneath her. She did not know what was to come and queenship had called her name since the first of her kind, all of them seeking to be more than just the shadow of their names.

"You cannot read the page nor the words," she cautioned because a fairy does not wish to be accused when men have swords. "Our bargain will not stand and death will come and it will have my voice."

This is what I will not tell you because we were proud and still are: you are smarter or perhaps hungrier than I.

The king sailed across the water, marched south through the country of his mother and looked for the sister-cousins of the banshee who had breathed knowledge into him in the fields of a green country. Into a cave did he stride and he found a dragon guarding a vast hoard and in the centre between great claws he held a book. The king did not pay any mind to the crows that attended the dragon, bringing him news and wisdom, nor the magpies who brought him treasures. I will not bore you with the speeches, they have been written and rewritten and the meaning and the dragon stuffed into the margins and cracked at the spines and all the birds have flown away. The king took his book and took his page and though the temptation was a great and terrible thing and he more than a little drunk on triumph over death and a dragon, and the knowledge of a beautiful bride, he did not read it.

Not with his eyes.

This is where you are clever, little death.

She had forbade him to read but she had not forbade others and he asked even me as the crows drank my blood and the ash of that place choked me. A crow tugged at the paper, a magpie swallowed the corner; he left the cave with my blood on his hands and sword and soul; he left the cave and walked north and it seemed the forests shrank from him and the waters hissed and boiled. It was in his mother's country that he found a willing soul, old and wise and grey, hands that had cradled those still wet with mother's labouring blood and those labouring their last breaths and so did she read the words upon the page and hear a silence in her that cut to the bone and deeper and the sound of it was a needle slotting between the gears of time.

I cannot tell you what she read for it was already unwritten in that moment. I can tell you that he rolled up the page and placed her in a ring of salt until she was no more and not even the flies would rest on her own bones. He did not pay mind to the great weeping from so many woman and how the crows screamed; he took it took it to mean he had triumphed. In a way, he wasn't wrong but he had never asked how many sister-cousins might stretch between two countries. He went home, back across the water and there he tarried a while for he was hungry as any man had a right to be after such undertakings. There was a place he had gone as a boy, as all boys who are to become good men or wise men or kings – rarely is it all three - go with their fathers. In this place hung a tree heavy with hazelnuts and never had fatter salmon swum beneath the clear waters and he speared two and roasted them upon a fire and then did he know what he had read in those bones, in her eyes, in her silence and he was pleased for had he not won again? Death he had cheated, a dragon he had cheated, a wise woman he had cheated and now his banshee queen. With the blood upon his sword and the meal in his belly did he summon the dragon, half-dying and white teeth and gold coins fell from his mouth when he spoke and the ravens who attended him dipped their beaks in blood. With the sword still red with that blood did he raise it aloft to make a choice: slay the beast or command as no other man had commanded.

It was already written though I do not remember by whose hand, you can forgive me in those ever-lasting moments of my dying, you know that pain better than the dead when you have felt it as many times.

The book was brought and the bones were ground up with the salt and the dragon commanded to smelt great vats of iron until the king was satisfied. A dragon is tempted by something of great value and there was nothing in that moment that he prized more than his life. Dragons and men must slay each other because they are greedy before they are anything else. The sister-cousin, Slàine, who had known the water of life better than anyone except the gods and goddesses who called it home and who created them first found the waters to be two salmon less and in the blink of an eye the only garment she held in her hand was for a king, all the rest washed away, gone. And so the sister-cousin came to him, cradling grave clothes like a child and she asked why her arms were so empty and that is when she saw the dragon with his scales sloughing away as he crunched rocks with broken teeth and melted the ore he found within.

She wept bitter tears that he bottled with those of the sister (for that one he had slain with his asking was a sister to her as the queen that would be and is and will be had sisters of her own) until they were only salt. The dragon made him great rings of iron that he was commanded to set down on the furthest margins of the kingdom, carving through the forests and rivers and farms and towns and villages with impunity and as she tried to keep up with them, to find a way through he bottled her tears again and again and inside that ring of iron did he plan for a ring of salt.

You wonder what happened in all the time it must have taken for the journeys and the iron and the salt but if the All-Father could hold the sun for nine months for the birthing of a babe, time could lose itself for a king who had unwritten his ending. This was already an age where kings seemed larger than their skins and of course that was why they died young, burning through one life and holding fast to the fraying ends until they unravelled and left this world for the next.

The bean nighe at his back, trapped by iron and the proof of her own grief, he marched forward with a dragon that was less and less a dragon, a pitiful thing stumbling along with rotting wings full of worms to feed only birds. He marched about the kingdom and the dragon bled from a book that wrapped around him and through him and because the book bled a dragon's blood and because the king had torn out his page and let his blade drink deep and because he had commanded the dragon, the dragon's blood bid the world to go no further than the barrier.

I tell you that it hurt, all of it, your sister-cousin will smile to know it.

At last he returned to his kingdom that seemed smaller and larger all at once and shadows seemed to rush out of his path as he returned and was a man not a boy, older than she with broad shoulders and a heavy brow, a dark beard upon his cheeks and chin and he knelt and she stood and let him rest his head in the cradle of her hips.

"I have torn out my ending," he said to her and he did not lie. "I did not read it," he said and he lied and did not lie: he had not read the words upon the page and he felt safe in it. "I did not read the words upon the page."
She had stared, lifted his face into her hands and had stared deep as his heart slowed to a stop but she could smell the blood and the salt, she could taste the iron in her throat bitter as bile; she had told him not to read the words or the page and he had but she was trapped, thrice-bound in iron, in salt, in blood and it sank in her like a stone. The page in her hands was blank but for a corner an attendant crow had brought her, coughed up by a magpie. "You did not read the words upon the page?"
"I did not read the words upon the page."

She handed back the page and kept the corner tucked beneath her thumb.

"You will be my queen," he told her as he rose to spin her high as the world shifted and she saw the red, the white, the grey, she saw the bars of her cage and felt them lodge in her throat, tighter than a collar.
"If you are gifting me a crown then allow me to gift you the kingdom you deserve."

You were crueller than I. I applaud you.


+++


A man in a long dark coat with a name forgotten by time and himself and anyone who matters steps out of a dark car that burns like a heart with broken headlights and a driver whose face he can't see and he has a sword in his hand. He has never held a sword before, he's never had need of one except to admire or to use to bargain with some young man who thinks he needs it when he needs something he won't understand until the moment of his dying.

He walks out into the night air with the dew beading on the grass beneath his feet and a low white mist that rolls in and all the world is still, even the car idling behind him.

He lifts the sword high, swings it down with both hands and the impact is a shockwave that travels through his hands to his teeth and he throws his head back and roars.

The second hand trembles, a fawn learning to stand. In a palace a queen breathes again and a king finds his chest too tight.

+++


In a rage as black as her hair, as black as her feathers, as black as the dirt she washed away and poured down the drain so the alley will have something wild to delight at again, the king stalks down the halls and the world stumbles to get out of his way. The courtiers drop their papers, stagger into one another, into the drapes; a suit of armour falls and clangs like bells announcing the dawn. He does not cut through them like the enemy line for he is absent the proper tool and there is only one who can carry the blame. The rage twists his face, turns him red as a drunkard, as the puffing fool and he grinds his teeth that he might as well be grinding stone to the sands of time.

Her chambers are barred to him when he arrives and his hands struggle with the weight of the door knockers, their lupine faces curled into snarls.

"Wife," he growls, bangs his hands flat until the wood shudders. "Open the door, I would have words!"

From behind the door comes the shriek of her damned birds and he'll let her keep them, he's already decided; a gown, all her crows and magpies when he's done wringing their throats, finery fit only for a queen, for his queen. She has betrayed and the wrongness of it courses through his veins, the most bitter of all poisons. When it opens at last he lifts his hands to choke her and finds he has no strength as she stands before him with the gall to smile almost as sweet as the knife between the ribs that sinks into the lungs as she addresses him the way she always does.

"Husband." Her voice rings strong and clear but she is a shadow, a silhouette and it must be this day because he would swear blind that she flickers and blurs around the edges. "Whatever is the matter, I thought you were about to lay siege to my chambers."
"I just might," another growl for his jaw is too tight to allow for anything else. Another woman would be alarmed, would twist a ring around her finger, would wear a flush upon her cheeks even as the rest of her blood ran cold and drained away. Another woman would bend. Of course she doesn't. But she stands tall as him, proud as him and the ravens flank her. It's then that he feels the chill and his heart stops for a long awful moment before it beats again.

"What happened to the windows?" The anger rushes out of him faster than blood from a fresh wound as she allows him inside and horror wells up in its wake for the windows lie bare but for the heavy drapes that billow in a cool wind. All the world wakes, the crows still busy greeting the sun and glass glitters in neat piles amidst darkened chunks of iron.
"I woke and thought a bird had flown in or perhaps out." She shrugs, skirt rustling as she closes the door and moves to sit at her dresser where she fastens a string of freshwater pearls gracing her throat. He can't recall ever giving her such a bauble and he glares at the magpies but he can't find a single one that looks guilty.
"You did this," he seethes, fire in his belly. "You and those damned rats."
Her reflections narrow their eyes at him and it's a colder harder woman, ice and bone and mysteries men aren't privy to that look back, one split into three and all are different but the same, a girl in a ring, a woman in three (two, he thinks, and the reflection in the leftmost mirror laughs and a crack spreads through his vision.) "How could they do that, the rookery is locked by night, on your order might I add."
"You allow these malcontents the run of the place as if it were your undenied right-"
"Malcontents?" He mistakes her laughter for the bark of one of the creatures for a moment. "They're only birds with more sense than most men are comfortable with and as your queen-"
"I made you queen!"

The rightmost reflection laughs and his hands tremble and won't stop until he balls them into fists, impotent in his rage as he flushes so red and feels such a fury within him that he might as well name himself Aillen and name their – no, his - kingdom Mag Mell.

She rises slowly, turns like the second that moves the minute that strikes the hour.

He made her, he thinks, because a king is arrogant enough to believe whatever truths he chooses even if it is only his belief and his word that makes them so. He made her and he can unmake her. It is his crown by blood and what is iron? A relic, men have made better, less brittle, less prone to rust, to time. There is always more iron too, enough for her but once she turns he remembers her in a ring of flowers and mushrooms and toadstools, the shadows of a ghost. Who else but him accomplished so much because a beautiful girl moon pale and raven dark and blood red with those striking gold-green eyes like summer glass and autumn wheat let her heart trump her good sense. He beat her and came out the victor in full. He put the crown upon her head because he was not fool enough to taste her wrath but not before she was well and truly routed. What choice did she have except smiling by his side, supporting him without question? What choice did she have but to give him herself and this kingdom? What choice was not already made in that field.

Her hands curl around his fists, folding them down and folding him into her when she closes the distance between them.

"Husband," and her lips are at his ears as the ravens' beaks are to hers and it is right and it is wrong that they go to her when he stands before them, a reminder of what she was and what she is and might be. "I gave you a kingdom."
"Because I tore out my ending!" It's a spiteful whisper, smothered against her throat and this close the pearls look like a string of teeth.
"Would you have known otherwise?" It can't be easy, to be so soft yet full of quiet pity and he's sure he hears disdain too and he wants to be angry, to tear himself out of her grasp like the page of that book but his hands won't stop shaking beneath hers. "What would you be without me?"
A dangerous question; either he swallows his pride or wounds hers, neither a prospect to be relished. "I would be king," is his reply because dead or alive that much is true but that smile of hers is a terrible thing.
"You tore out your ending because I told you how to find it and I even told you that it was written in the first place."
"And I did as you asked – I tore it out and I did not look at the words upon the page." Because he is a king he holds her gaze because he didn't look at those words on the page so it's not a lie and even if it was, a king must lie, boldfaced or through his teeth. She stares back and as ever he dares her to spout accusations but again she remains silent and he strangely disappointed; his victories feel hollow when he can't proclaim them boldly. "I made you queen."
"And again I say I gave you a kingdom as was only fitting for you."

He can't dispute the truth and instead he sighs and his breath escapes him like a soldier dying alone who knows no rescue will come.

"Now, whatever caused you to come to my chambers in such a lather?"
"One of your damned birds stole my sword." He feels her laugh as she guides them both to lie back upon her bed, her weight supporting him and he's too weak to feel anger at being treated like a child or an old man or an invalid. He knows they took it, not another soul could, not even her.
"Don't be silly, how could a raven or a magpie steal a sword?"

The magpie bobs his head twice, the raven swallows a fat pink work whole.

+++


By a river that once flowed between two rings there is a woman scrubbing clothes and the water is cold and her river is two salmon less but each time she scrubs the colour rushes back into the garment and the stitches pull tight at the seams. A car with a driver and passenger trundles close and she can't see the face of the driver but she knows him and raises a pale arm. The back door opens and out into the night steps a man in a long dark coat with a golden pin in the lapel like a head on a pike.

The hour is too late for bad blood. The fact that there is an hour, will be another and another, that is enough.

He takes off the coat, pins the knight's head to his shirt over his heart and hands it to her, the car behind him steaming faintly.

When the tears come he takes the coat back, wraps himself tight in it and steps back as she closes her eyes though the tears still flow; she is a girl weeping as she walks until it all stops and there are two rings that make up her whole world. She cannot go back or forward, only between the boundaries, her arms as good as empty as time moves and doesn't. She is a girl mourning a loss her kind was never meant to feel, trying to make sense of it as he turned her grief against her as she tried to make sense of it.

Her eyes open. She walks back, looks the past and the future and the face and walks without turning, retracing the steps that she took and that he used against her. Against them both. Against all of them. Still weeping she walks back and the age flies from her hair and the garment in her hand multiplies into suits and gowns and things she's forgotten the name of. The water rises and floods up, over the bank and rushing over the salt like the tide until it's no more. She takes the offered hand of a man who wears a long dark coat and the driver opens the door without a word but in front and to their left someone whistles a jaunty tine as the wheels turn.

The second hand moves the minute, all that's left is the hour.

+++


In a dark corner of the city, something fleeting and silver creeps past the mouth of the alley from behind sharp teeth, cut into the world and one drop becomes two becomes a trickle becomes a flood. The alley yawns but has licked clean the marrow of the bone and rolled in the dirt and instead blinks and yawns again, huge enough to swallow the world but another flood escapes instead.

In the castle, in chambers made dark with thick curtains and only the light of a small desk lamp, a king feels a shudder creep down his spine and he eyes each corner with hostility, with suspicion, awaiting whatever will crawl out of them. In another part of the castle where a fire glows brightly and wood pops and hisses sits a queen as all but her two most loyal attendants sleep soundly as she delights in being able to take a deep breath without the catch in her throat.

In that same castle there are shadows rushing in and out and a young woman feels such a terrible chill pass through her that she trips over the hem of her skirt and knocks over the same suit of armour that another courtier sent flying before and it clangs like the minute that strikes the new hour and out in the dark the alley scents the air and bays three times. He lopes past a car with a driver with a face that can't be seen but the alley doesn't care for such matters nor the man and woman in the backseat. One ring stands and blood is not enough to compel those that have none nor a creature that longs for the hunt and can clear a ring with a single bound when the shadows remind him of his purpose, streaming ahead and around and behind him, thrice-braided tail lashing.

A queen appears in the king's chambers as the very walls seem to sag and threaten to collapse, as streaks of silver and white ripple about her to kiss her hands and cheeks and brow. Outside a slash runs through the sky, burning red against a star-speckled bruise of twilight.

Behold the king and how the weight of the crown forces him within himself. Behold the king who cannot raise his hands to remove it for such is the fate of kings, crowned and uncrowned by hands that they must hope are kind and loyal, benevolent and selfless. Something seizes him by the throat, something with strange crushing teeth that come to a torturous halt for long moments before pressing again, never tighter but enough to serve as a reminder: you are mine, there is no way out without a tear.

"Husband," the queen is quietly aghast, shutting the door with a heel. "Come, you must save your strength!"
"You did this," he whispers, eyes darting like flies upon bloated bodies on the battlefield.
"Husband, sat alone at this hour in this darkness without anything to eat is playing tricks on you."
"You did this," he repeats, he weeps.
"How could I have done this?" She advances carefully, slowly and the tray in her hands is a shield in his eyes and he without a sword and all around her are phantom lights and glittering standards, men and women dressed for war and the hunt.
"You had your birds steal my sword, you broke my rings, you broke your promise!"
Still she smiles and sets down her tray laden with food; a bowl of chicken broth and vegetables, a roll still hot from the oven, freshly churned golden butter, a hearty venison stew, oatcakes fresh from by the fire and whisky-soaked oats and thick cream and ripe red raspberries. "Husband all I have given you is a kingdom and at the moment, this meal. Eat. Take heart. Find your strength. I have only ever given you my word."

The spectres lean close, slipping from the walls, the floor, dropping from the ceiling, from under the door and the windows, behind the drapes and the paintings. The lean close and crowd him until he can hardly breathe and their gasps cool the broth she offers.

He has never tasted so fine a meal, no food has ever tasted so rich or stuck to his ribs so well to leave him full and sated and he savours every bite, letting her feed him with one hand and soothe with the other.

The backfiring car is a horn in the distance, growing ever closer and the thump of his heart is the war drum.

+++


Two rings have been broken, have been washed away and the minute hand is fast approaching the hour when the host rushes in and the ghosts rush out, as the driver open his door and strokes a hand over the sleek hot body of the car. The alley howls and snarls and up goes a great cheer as the host presses onward, flooding inward, tossing chunks of iron at retreating ghosts that have run out of their own skins, dried and desiccated ruins of skin stretched tight over jagged bones or nothing more than piles of ash. This kingdom cannot sustain them now the gears are shuddering, when the doors of the rookery are flung wide to let them dance and wheel, to carry riders high.

Unseen now, a king sits and he is grey and crumbling, his eyes only able to see a queen sat before him clad in red silk and black feathers bearing the weight of her own crown so easily as his threatens to have him crumbling beneath the weight of it. When he speaks, his teeth fall out and the same mournful accusations follow until his voice gives up entirely and flees with whatever madness to his mind has wrested his realm from him. The magpie hops about his desk, moving teeth and silverware to the side to steal the rings that have fallen from shrivelled fingers, avoiding the crumbs of dust, all that remains of the meal she made him, the meal every soul had had for so many years. The raven looks straight at him, black eyes fixed on rheum and if he had lips to lick he would do just that as he puffs up his feathers and flaps his wings, ready to do battle.

In the hand of the queen there is a scrap of paper and she waits because she has waited so long, what is a few seconds more? There is much to say but the time and the place and the way to say it must come together else nothing will come true and the last ring must be no more. So she waits, stroking a scrap of paper as dark as a man’s coat and allows a driver who knows no boundary to lead a man in a long dark coat and a washer-woman who is her sister-cousin to this chamber through a kingdom of death. She studies her scrap as she has for so long, the scrap she had written on so long ago, the words a blur but she knows them and so she is ready when the door open as last and her sister-cousin smiles at the driver who waits in the door and there is a whip in his hand made of a young man’s spine, a young king’s spine so cruelly denied. The man in the long dark coat hands her a sword and the washer-woman who is her sister-cousin lays out a tunic of darkest red decorated with silver and gold.

The queen stands, takes the sword and the scrap and nods at the man in the coat and the driver cracks his whip.

She strikes true and the bells ring out at midnight heralded by a great cry. The man in the long dark coat is no longer wearing a coat and is no longer a man but a dragon bursting out of his skin and the coat is no longer dark and no longer a coat but a book and the scrap of parchment joins the rest and the sword joins it to the rest.

The blood bleeds black because she wrote it that way and this is what she wrote:

Death will come and it will have my voice because I told you not to read the words or the page but you did because that is the way of arrogant young men who know nothing of death. Death will come and it will have my voice because you have betrayed me and seek dominion over that which is not yours. Death will come and it will have my voice because you read the words and I took the page because you thought a voice meant only the howl that you feared.

I said I would give you a kingdom you deserved and I have: I have kept my word the way you kept yours. This is the way of husbands and wives, kings and queens, life and death.

I built the kingdom you deserved, the only kingdom fitting for a man who thought he could break his word without me knowing when I was the one to set him on this path. I even picked the menu and the cooks and every crop we grew and every animal we slaughtered.

Death has always had my voice, even when I could not utter a sound.


+++


Notes:
Raghnailt, Irish form of Ragnhild from "advice, counsel" and "battle" [The Queen]
Ruadhrí, from ruadh "red" and rí "king" [The King]
Slàine, Scottish form of Sláine meaning "health", chosen for the toast; comes from the toast that (in my household) would traditionally go with a wee dram of whisky (water of life) at the bells on Hogmanay [The Bean Nighe/Sister-Cousin]
Hazelnuts and salmon both embody and represent wisdom in Irish mythology
Dragons are not as involved in Irish mythology (well, there's Aillen sort of but Aillen didn't work for this story) but i) what's a fairy tale without a dragon? 2) dragons can be called serpents and we all know what Ireland and snakes/eels/worms are like and 3) the dragons in Celtic myth often have their tails in their mouths and I really liked that with the time aspect of the story
Dullahan are headless riders and they ride along on a wagon with their ugly heads under an arm, hate being watched and throw buckets of blood. Oh and if they point at you then you die. But they're frightened of gold and cannot be stopped by a lock or a gate.
Aillen is "the burner", a member of the Tuatha Dé Danann residing in Mag Mell (the Underworld) who burns Tara at Samhain and he's slain by Finn mac Cumhaill
Lastly we've all read the tales about fairy food, right?
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