by Kagamino Kage (鏡乃 影)
illustrated by Nanashi
Finally, she was alone.
Kat dragged her feet through the damp leaves as she plodded along the forest trail, huddling deeper into her coat. The temperature was dropping. She was tired and cranky, and there was a suspicious and disappointing lack of magic in Broceliande.
The famous forest of Arthurian legend. Kat had desperately wanted to see it, but her mother and sister were only interested in shopping. It figured. The whole trip to France for the Christmas holidays was their idea – “We can visit your great aunt!” her mother had said. “And it’ll be fun! You’ve never even been to Europe!”
Kat had tried to refuse. Her mother had pouted over the phone (her pouts were audible, Kat swore it,) and complained how Kat hadn’t been back to Virginia since she left for art school way back in the summer, and her family missed her, and didn’t she care about her family at all? But it was Tabitha, her older sister, who’d laid the bait with skill and finesse.
“We can visit all those art galleries you like, and the old churches and stuff,” she’d said.
Kat had swallowed it, hooked like a fish.
She should have known better. There had, of course, been very little of ‘all those art galleries and the old churches and stuff’ and a lot of tromping around in an endless series of department stores and shopping arcades day after day after day. They hadn’t even managed to visit the Louvre while they were in Paris! And though they’d made it to Notre Dame, her mother and sister had grown disinterested after thirty minutes or so and decided to leave – the rest of their time had been spent in the shopping districts. Now that they were in Rennes, they’d barely set foot outside of the rue d’Oréans.
By the end of the first week, Kat was sadly mourning the loss of her vacation. She was footsore, exhausted, and sick of trying to translate what store clerks were saying for Tabitha and her mother. More than anything, she just wanted to go home.
On Friday they finally took pity on her, and asked what she wanted to do next. “Broceliande,” she’d answered instantly, because she knew it wasn’t far from Rennes, and it would be hard for them to back out of the offer. Kat thought that in the famous forest of Morgan le Fey and the Lady of the Lake, maybe, just maybe she would see something magical, something to make this trip worthwhile.
So they went, but unsurprisingly, her mother and sister started making noises about going back almost right away.
“It’s only been an hour!” Kat complained.
“It’s been a whole hour, and it’s just a lot of trees,” Tabitha said, rolling her eyes. “You can see stuff like this in Virginia. Mom and I could go back to Rennes and leave you here if you like it so much.”
“Don’t be silly,” said her mother, “we’re not –”
But Kat had jumped at the chance for peace and quiet, if nothing else. “Sure, I’ll be fine! Go, enjoy yourselves. I’ll have more fun here, I can maybe do some sketches and stuff. We can meet back up around sunset, ‘kay?”
Her mother looked uncertain as Tabitha pulled at her arm, eager to leave. “Well, if you’re sure,” she muttered, and let herself be herded away back down the trail.
So now here she was, two hours later, without a single glimpse of anything remotely like a fairy. And now she was beginning to feel stupid and childish for looking.
But at least she was alone. The silence seemed very empty after a week of her mother’s and sister’s constant chatting and bickering, of the bustle of the many shopping districts they had visited. She ambled along aimlessly, not knowing what to do with herself.
Two trees caught her attention in the distance – they looked like they were twined together. Kat thought of Baucis and Philemon. She quickened her pace, puffing her way up the hill. When she reached them, she saw she was right; two slender, tall trees, trunks leaning toward each other, branches intertwined – an oak and a holly. Abruptly she giggled.
“Not Baucis and Philemon,” she said to herself out loud. “The Oak King and the Holly King!”
Now if that imagery didn’t make for a tragic love story. Not only were they brothers, two parts of a whole eternally battling to the death, but they were lovers, too? Another giggle escaped her, almost a cackle, she was so absurdly pleased with herself for thinking of it.
She sat down to rest in the little valley between the bases of the trees, finding it made for a comfortable enough seat, although the ground was awfully cold. Patting one of the oak’s roots like she might an old friend’s arm, she said, “Maybe I should draw you two. You’re the most magical thing I’ve seen so far.”
But she was loathe to take off her gloves – and now that she’d sat down she didn’t want to get up again. She was so tired. The past week was really catching up with her.
She leaned her head against the oak’s trunk and closed her eyes. I’ll rest, she thought. Just for a moment.
There is an ancient forest, old as the earth itself. This is a place between worlds, a place that resides in nowhere and no time. It is not in the realm of the living, nor in the realm of the dead. It simply is.
In this in-between place, there is a clearing where the sun shines down occasionally as it peeks through the clouds. The weak, watery rays trickle over the young man who sits there, resting on the seat made by an old, fallen tree.
A beautiful man, his complexion fair, almost golden – his feathery blond curls cascade around his face and over his shoulders, fluttering a little in the breeze. A wreath fashioned of oak leaves and white blossoms crowns his shining head. Though snow covers the ground in small patches, he is not wearing much, and does not seem cold – a brown doeskin cloth, tied around his hips, is all that covers his body, along with rope sandals to protect his feet. There is a short sword lying across his knees, and he stares at it moodily. The expression does not seem to suit his features; his eyes, blue as a spring sky, and his full, soft lips seem fashioned more for laughing than for brooding.
Suddenly a voice, husky and drawling, whispers: “Beware, dear brother, of villains who may cut your throat while you sit idly dreaming.”
A mouth, near the fair man’s ear, breath trickling over it and down his neck, making him shiver and his heart jolt in his chest – someone has crept up behind him without his notice. He leaps from his seat and spins around to face the intruder, lifting his sword in defense.
The newcomer hops up lightly onto the fallen tree where the golden man had just been sitting, looming imperiously with one hand on his hip. The two men closely resemble one another, their features, height and build not quite identical, but nearly so. However, where the first man is bright and sun-kissed, the newcomer is pale and darksome, his beauty a terrible one.
His hair flows straight, black and glossy as a raven’s feather, and his skin is a deathly white. He is clothed in a similar manner as the first man, though the leather wrapped around him has been dyed a deep, dark reddish-brown, and the wreath upon his head is made of holly, berries red and swollen amongst the leaves.
The man looks down from his perch with eyes the startling color of fresh blood. He lifts his sword – it is slimmer, sharper, crueler looking than that of the fair one before him, with an inward curving blade.
“How pleasant to see you again, brother,” the dark man says with a wicked smile. His voice has a rasping quality, dry as the sound of wind rustling in bare branches. “I pray you appreciate my restraint in not killing you just now – our battle might be done already, my kingdom saved from your grasp,” here he sweeps his arm to indicate all the world around them, “and all before you even realized I had arrived.”
The golden-haired man’s eyes slide to the side, avoiding his brother’s. “We both know how this fight must end,” he replies; his voice is as bright and full as his brother’s is hollow and dry.
One dark eyebrow arches in that pale face. “Aye, we do. So why then, fair Dair, do you not meet my eyes? Why like a melancholy poet do you sit musing when you should be preparing to wrest your kingdom back from my hands this day?”
Dair does not answer, only balls his hand into a fist at his side. His brother watches him, his expression changing, eyelids lowering, his gaze turning sharp and dangerous.
“I don’t suppose you think I wouldn’t kill you out of turn?” says the dark man.
Startled, Dair lifts his eyes, and as he does so his brother leaps from his perch, swinging his sword downward. The fair man lifts his own blade up to parry the blow, and staggers back from the force of it.
“Cuileann!” he gasps, “You know that you cannot –”
“I know no such thing,” says the dark man, swinging his sword again. “Who will stop me, if not you? Who will take my kingdom from my hands? Who will stop winter from ruling over this land forever, if I kill you?” Each question is punctuated by the clang of metal striking metal as Cuileann pushes his brother back. The golden man is either overwhelmed by the rain of blows, or he chooses not to answer them with an attack of his own, for it seems all he can do is defend himself from his brother’s sword; his feet slip dangerously in the snow each time he parries. “You don’t really fancy I wouldn’t do that, do you, my –” clang – “dear –” clang – “brother?”
And with one last resounding clang the sword is knocked from Dair’s hands, and, panicking, he staggers back, tripping on the root of a tree. His crown slips from his head as he falls to the ground near his sword. Before he can even think to reach for the weapon, however, Cuileann is atop him, the weight of his body pinning Dair to the ground, chill and damp against his back. Cold metal bites at the fair man’s throat, his brother’s blade pressing into his flesh, and he falls very still.
“That,” Cuileann rasps, breathless with the rush and exertion of battle, “would be a very dangerous belief for you to hold.”
The fear and building anger must show on Dair’s face, for his brother now says – “Ah, there’s the look. Where were you hiding it? And you only bring it out now, when all that’s left for you to do is lie there while I kill you.”
“You cannot do that.”
“Oh, but I can, my sweet, naïve little brother. Perhaps I wish to give up my reign no more than you wish to take it. Perhaps I’ll make this easier for the both of us, and send you straight back from whence you came.” He lifts one hand, and tenderly strokes a stray, shining curl out of his brother’s eyes.
“Why?” whispers the golden man.
Cuileann laughs, a delightful ringing; it is a surprising sound, like birdsong in winter, at odds with his dry voice. “‘Why?’ Why ever not?”
“Why must we fight!” Dair clarifies, his voice rising. “Are we not brothers? Are we not truly one and the same? Why must we –”
His brother’s blade presses harder against him, cutting short his tirade, and he gasps as a thin red line blossoms upon his throat. Dair’s hand darts out toward his own sword, but it is just out of reach; Cuileann grabs hold of his wrist, pushes it above his head and pins it there.
The blade moves away from Dair’s throat, and soft dark hair brushes against his chin and shoulder as his brother’s head bends down, breath a caress across his neck. A strangely cool tongue flicks out, lapping at the trickle of blood upon Dair’s flesh. The fair man’s body jerks at the sensation. Then Cuileann brushes his mouth over Dair’s, briefly.
“Do you taste the warmth of spring on my lips?” the dark man murmurs. “I think I shall hold it hostage until you recall your purpose.”
“Wha – ” Dair begins to say, but his brother’s lips press back down against his own, stilling them. Not quite of his own volition, his body relaxes beneath Cuileann’s weight, molds against it – this is what he desires, after all. That cool tongue pries apart his lips, steals into the warmth of his mouth. Dair allows it, almost welcomes it, for all he knows that it is treachery.
And then he feels his brother’s hand on his shoulder, pressing down, the other still pinning his wrist, and Dair realizes – he has released his sword. But he does not move, doesn’t think that he could possibly move. Instead he opens himself wider, drawing Cuileann in, pressing back against the invasion with his own lips and tongue. The dark man growls softly, a rumbling Dair can feel in his bones.
The sound of their breath razes the silence of the clearing.
And suddenly they are writhing together, Dair’s free hand clutching his brother’s side, nails digging into flesh, Cuileann clutching his shoulder and wrist hard enough to bruise, the kiss itself turned into a struggle, each striving to dominate the other.
“Why,” says Dair again as their mouths finally break apart, and it sounds like a moan. “Why must we fight? Why can we never exist together?”
The dark man pauses, and then he laughs, low in his throat. “But my fool brother, we are together right now,” he answers simply, before capturing Dair’s mouth again. Their bodies twine, hands grasping, hips grinding together.
Cuileann’s hand slides off Dair’s wrist, down his arm and down his body, down and up between his legs, under his leathers. For a moment the touch is only a light, teasing caress; and then Cuileann grips him hard, making the blond man buck and cry out beneath him. “Perhaps,” suggests the dark man, “I’ll have my way with you before I destroy you?”
Now that his hand is freed, Dair reaches not for his sword, but for his brother’s shoulder. “Neither of us has to die. We could just stay,” his breath hitches, “stay here. Together.”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” says Cuileann. “Do you wish the world to fall into chaos? The land can’t be both alive and dead. No, one of us must die, and you know it well.” He draws his lips over Dair’s collarbone, scraping it with his teeth, and tightens his hand around the golden man’s shaft, milking him roughly.
Dair lets out strangled sound and grits his teeth, struggling to remain coherent. “Stop,” he says, and his brother ignores him. Planting his hands on Cuileann’s chest, he tries to push him away, but the effort is feeble, Dair’s willpower drained. “Please, brother, listen to me,” he pleads. “Stop this.”
Cuileann’s mouth is fluttering over his neck, tongue flicking behind his ear, making him shiver. Then it is traveling down over his chest, sucking at a nipple, biting down lightly. Dair lets out another cry, shakes his head in denial; his eyes squeeze shut, and he sucks in a sharp breath, summoning all his strength to push his brother off of him.
Cuileann simply leans into the assault, pins Dair down to the ground, unmovable as stone. “Did you forget, dear brother?” he says with a smirk. “I am at the height of my power. You can’t force me away.” He draws his fingers through the moisture he has milked from Dair’s shaft and spreads the fair man’s legs wide. “In fact,” he murmurs, nuzzling his brother’s pale golden cheek with his lips, a deceitful tenderness. “It seems almost unthinkable that you could hope to best me at all, doesn’t it?” Reaching down lower with his slicked fingers, he seeks out Dair’s entrance, shoving two digits inside.
Dair’s breath stops in his throat, his body jerking upward as if pulled by a string. Panic blooms in his chest, sharp and bright. “Stop, please – !”
“But why? This is what you wanted all along.”
“Not…” he gasps. The slow burn stretching within him sears up Dair’s spine, through his skull. He wants to pull away from the pain, wants to shove himself down on on it, force the burning deeper; his muscles are frozen, pulled taut, unable to do either. “Not… like this…”
“Such a puerile and selfish creature the radiant king of light shows himself to be,” Cuileann murmurs. “You must take,” and finally he reaches the place inside that throws the fair man’s head back, makes him sob out his brother’s name, “what you may have.”
All the strength flowing back out of him, Dair’s muscles go lax, his body pliant. His hips answer his brother’s coaxing of their own accord, his legs opening wider without his consent. Cuileann slips his fingers out, and Dair exhales sharply at the sudden, surprising emptiness, more painful than the burning of before. The dark man yanks off his own leathers, lifts a hand to his mouth and spits in his palm, and then groans softly as he spreads the moisture over his own hard length.
He lifts Dair up a little and presses himself against his entrance. Dair wants to speak, wants to argue, but even if he could have found his voice there is no time, for his brother is already pushing into him – a slow but inexorable, merciless thrust, until all is buried deep inside. The fair man’s mouth opens soundlessly, his eyes going wide and his body arching up, fingers clawing into the dirt and snow; it feels like he is being split in two.
“Bro… ther…” he chokes.
His brother is speaking, blood-red eyes fixed on Dair’s face with a ferocious intensity; Dair can see his lips moving but cannot hear him. There is a hissing in his ears, deafening, rising to a screeching, careening pitch. His body is boiling and freezing all at once, and he begins to shiver uncontrollably.
His brother’s rasping voice is still speaking, low and insistent in his ear – “Submit to me,” the words finally congeal. Dair could laugh at him, but for lack of breath to do so. It was much too late for that. Had he not already done so, a long time ago? Such a very long time ago that exactly when is forgotten to memory, no longer important. The summer can do none else but submit to the cold, white death, when it comes.
“Open,” Cuileann says, “Open yourself to me!” And he pulls himself back and plunges in again, deeper, until Dair is sure he has been filled completely, that there is nothing left but his brother within his body. It is this thought which blurs the line between the pain and pleasure of it, that makes him wrap his legs around Cuileann’s waist and grasp his shoulders as if to keep him there, keep him from falling away.
Each thrust jars small, clipped sounds from the fair man’s chest, not quite whimpers. His brother leans his head down, and Dair feels teeth closing around his throat. Firm, dangerous, but not quite hard enough to break the skin. Dair’s head falls back, almost an offering.
A hungry, bestial sound comes from the dark man above him. Abruptly Cuileann clutches Dair’s hips hard enough to bruise, thrusting into him furiously, setting a pounding rhythm. Dair arches into the assault, and they rut like animals there on the ground.
Those teeth begin to bear down harder, puncturing the flesh, restricting the blond man’s air. He thinks, with piercing clarity, He will crush my throat. Dair struggles to move his arms, to push his brother’s head away, but his limbs are uncoordinated and clumsy, as if they have forgotten their basic functions. With an extraordinary effort he forces his hand to grasp a handful of Cuileann’s hair, and yanks back with all his strength.
The dark man’s mouth tears away with a grunt of pain, his lips reddened by a streak of Dair’s blood. Then those lips stretch into a smile, and Cuileann laughs at him breathlessly. “You see, brother, you do want to live, after all.”
“Everything desires life!” Dair wheezes, recovering his breath. “Of course I want to live!”
Cuileann reaches back and pulls his brother’s hand out of his hair; Dair allows it warily. The dark man leans to the side, recovering Dair’s sword, and places the hilt into the fair man’s hand.
“Then I will allow you this one chance,” says Cuileann. He pulls himself from his brother, and sits upright on his knees; then, lifting Dair’s hips up to rest on his thighs, he thrusts back in, drawing a moan through Dair’s clenched teeth. “After I take my pleasure,” Cuileann’s mouth curls smugly, “I will kill you.” He picks up his own sword, resting the curved blade on his brother’s shoulder. “Whether you prevent this or not is your choice.”
“No,” says Dair, but his brother is moving inside him, and the angle is just so, sending sparks through Dair’s vision, and his refusal is turned into an incoherent groan. He is near to the precipice himself – he can feel it tingling at the base of his spine, in the soles of his feet, tensing low in his belly.
The metal is cold against his shoulder.
“No,” he says again, uselessly, his hand clenching around the hilt of his sword. The rhythm of Cuileann’s thrusts is growing erratic. Staccato exhalations fill the forest around them.
“Please,” Dair whispers, a last, futile effort, “Don’t do this.” Whether he is speaking to his brother or to himself, neither knows.
And then it is too late. The building tension in him explodes, and he cries out, clear and ringing in the cold air. His body pulls tight as a bowstring, his seed spilling hot over his stomach. He is still shuddering as he feels his arm moving on its own, as if it does not belong to him, stretching back high over his head, sword clutched tightly in his hand.
With one last, forceful thrust, Cuileann’s back arches, and he makes a guttural, animal sound. Dair can do nothing to stop himself as his other hand joins the first on the hilt of his blade.
His brother’s strangled scream seems very loud in the silence.
The dark man’s body shakes subtly in the last throes of his climax, heedless of the blade through his chest. His eyes are wide, surprised somehow, even though he was the one who placed the sword in Dair’s hand.
Cuileann screams again, thin and weak this time, as Dair yanks the sword out from his chest, releasing a scalding gush of blood over them both. Dair throws the blade aside, sliding down off his brother’s legs, catching him as he falls forward into his arms.
Cuileann’s sword has sliced into his shoulder, Dair notices belatedly; he isn’t sure whether his brother is responsible, or whether he caused it himself as he moved. The wound is shallow, but it bathes his shoulder in a wash of red. He cannot feel any pain. His vision blurs, and he wonders why, until he realizes that he is weeping.
“I see…” Cuileann rasps, fighting for breath. “You’ve found… your resolve, then.”
Dair shakes his head, choking back a sob. “Don’t,” he says, even though he knows quite well it is much too late. “Don’t. Don’t leave again.”
“Next time,” Cuileann says, and wheezes painfully. “I shan’t be so kind to you. Remember.” He lifts his head, straining with the effort, and presses his bloodied lips against Dair’s, coppery-sweet. “Go well, beloved brother.”
And he is gone. Nothing remains of him but blood and frost, sparkling in the air, and the leaves of his crown scattering on the breeze.
The golden king closes his eyes, lifts a hand and presses his fingertips against them until his vision is shot with yellow and green, and he holds his breath until the wail he feels swelling in his chest is safely staunched. Then he inhales sharply, wiping the tears from his face, smearing a streak of red across his cheek.
He picks up a fallen holly leaf from the ground beside him and lifts it to his mouth, kissing it. “Until we meet again, brother,” he murmurs, his voice now steady. Then, with a sudden, angry flick of his wrist, he tears his lip with the sharp edge of the leaf, letting the blood mingle with his brother’s on his tongue.
“Next time, I shan’t be so kind, either.”
There were clouds gathering overhead, she saw through the branches. She was confused. For a moment she wasn’t even sure where she was, until she remembered the forest, remembered the two trees twined together.
“I fell asleep?” she muttered to herself. The air felt especially sharp and cold against her cheeks. She slipped off one glove and felt them; they were wet.
She shook her head to clear it, rubbing the tears from her face. Had that really been a dream? It was so strange. She’d never had a dream quite like that before. It was as if it had been alive, an entity unto itself.
Just a dream.
She climbed unsteadily to her feet, wavering in place for a moment. Maybe it wasn’t a dream, she thought. Maybe it was a vision. Maybe the forest had magic after all, and it had wanted to tell her a story. But as the last bits sleep-fog cleared from her mind, she found that very hard to believe.
She turned and backed away from the trees so that she could look at them again – and then she gasped.
There were there. She could see them. Like a ghostly imprint, some sort of echo from another world.
She stared, afraid to take her eyes away as she fumbled to pull her sketchbook from her bag. Her heart started pattering excitedly. This would be perfect. It would be the most wonderful thing she’d ever drawn.
It wasn’t just a dream, she decided, with the firm conviction of a five-year-old. It was something real – maybe it was in symbols, personified concepts or something, she wasn’t sure. But it was definitely, definitely real.
She would have to hurry – today was the winter solstice, after all. She didn’t have long until sunset.
She sat down at the edge of the trail and began to sketch.
Author’s notes: Whether it is the Holly King or the Oak King who is slain at Yule seems to be a matter of some debate, since I’ve seen it stated both ways from different sources. Hell, I even had one person tell me that Graves and/or Frazer completely made up the myth, but I doubt that’s true. (And given that this is not only fiction but porn, I don’t really care, either. xP) But the general consensus seems to be that each King is slain at the height of his power, signifying that the end of the season is coming – thus the Holly King is slain at midwinter, heralding the return of spring. So, I went with that interpretation. (And considering that Mr. Holly was on top, I thought that made for a delightful little yin-yang dynamic, ahaha. :D)