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Invasion and Inscrutability

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When the Raven King was six or seven, he was left in a small dark house in Faerie for about a year. His caretaker, a fairy princess named Melusine, hadn't meant to leave him there; she had gone off looking for the crystal stream that runs on the near side of Acheron and is rumoured to be able to turn the purest love into the most bitter heartache. She was hoping to use this on her first husband, who had recently been seen squiring her young sister around the caverns of All's-Lost. (While Princess Melusine had no intention of taking her husband back, she did dream of making him feel an dull, grey sorrow that would haunt him for the rest of his days and never again allow him to savour the taste of food or the sound of music.)

But when she was distracted on the road by a small shard of glass that had fallen off a lady's gown on the way to some party or other, she began considering how this could be used to her ends - for it is well known among faeries that even the smallest and most trivial object belonging to a great lord or lady is imbued with some of their power, and petty theft is rampant among the upper classes; never leave one's handbag unattended at a fairy ball - and she forgot all about the child Raven King, who was left to fend for himself in the little house with no windows at the far end of Blackheart Wood.

What he did there, no one was certain, but when he emerged he spoke the three different languages of the Hell kingdoms, and when he walked, trees bent over him to give him shelter.

This was of great concern to the fairy lord with the thistle-down hair (who was then a much younger gentleman from when you best know him, when he was towards the end of his life). He had previously thought himself one of the most favoured young men in that part of the world - but the trees had never bent over for him, unless he explicitly asked them to - and, he considered, if trees had to be asked to bend over for one, what was the point of their bending at all?

He spent many years plotting his careful revenge against the human child, and returned with a particular plan: he would chop down all the trees in Blackheart Wood and fashion them into small wooden soldiers that could never be unmade, and send them to poke the boy with their wooden bayonets day and night and demand who was paying obeisance to whom then. Yet he found the boy had moved on from toying with trees to urging the moss to grow quickly in front of his feet and make his passage in the wood soft and easy, and since you cannot chop down moss on the ground, the gentleman was left entirely out of sorts and had to throw out this plan altogether.

They next met in King Auberon's library, when the boy had grown and filled out, like a young oak before it is about to sprout hair, if that oak were sitting in an armchair with his dirty feet propped up on a stack of paper books writing an essay titled By Might And Power: On The Justice Of Monarchy with a quill. The gentleman was briefly confused, for he thought the boy was a Christian and that they did not grow as quickly as that, but counting backwards on his fingers (oh, how many days had it been since his mother's last wedding?) he discovered it had been nearly five years since he had last encountered the boy, who was now, infuriatingly, verging on adulthood.

He stamped his foot, for it was really too much to bear that he should be so long-limbed and lean and threatening to be so darkly handsome when he was not even a fairy at all, and the boy looked up. "Who are you?"

"Never you mind," the gentleman snapped. "Who are you?"

The boy appeared to think for a moment, fingering the iron ring he wore around his neck - which he must do just to be contrary; it was giving the gentleman a dreadful headache - and shrugged, returning to his essay.

It was maddening, and the gentleman had to slaughter at least a dozen of his rivals' husbands and children before he could forget about the Christian boy.

When the boy was fourteen, Melusine held a feast to celebrate her younger sister's suicide for love, long held by the fairies to be the noblest and best way to kill a family member. Aside from all personal pleasure, the elimination of her rival heir had left her a Queen - the head of her family as well as several kingdoms and estates - as her father Jack-in-Irons had considerately died the week before in an accident with a perpetual mill. Queen Melusine had been delighted, and suspiciously near to the incident.

The gentlemen spent days in agony over how to rid himself of the boy before the feast, but all his traps failed (how the boy managed to walk across an invisible sharksteeth pit, he'd never know), his magic somehow misfired (he'd miss that tower; it was his favourite for watching eviscerations) and finally, after days without sleep or food, he was forced to develop a plan that involved nothing but words.

The feasting table was covered with rich dishes: peacocks stewed in wedding-night tears, crisp roasted selkie skins, pies of eels, salmons, trout and grindylows; puddings of white mare's cream and Carterhaugh rosewater. Queen Melusine smiled and accepted the compliments, good wishes and alliances offered to her that night, and led off the dancing with the Christian boy, much to the displeasure of several of the older, shabbier fairy lords.

He was not a good dancer, although he did not embarrass himself. When the first round was over and he could leave without offense, he pushed his hair out of his eyes and went to pick over the bones of the feast to see if there was any meat left.

The gentleman approached him from behind; he did not want to offend a boy - young man, now, really - under the protection of such a powerful lady; he was already engaged in three wars, one with a recalcitrant foster son who lived in Scotland, which were taking all the time and attention he cared to devote to military matters at that time. He launched his plan.

"Have you considered invading England?" he said casually, as if it were something he had only just thought of.

The young man looked up at him and smiled. There was a piece of gristle caught in front of his left incisor, and the gentleman ran his tongue over his own teeth involuntarily. "Yes," he said.

"Well then," the gentleman said, and settled back on his heels, content that he would never have to see this obnoxious young man again and could manage his own affairs and collect Christians (more docile ones, he hoped) to decorate his household in peace. Perhaps he would leave the males alone for a while and begin to focus on the women; they very rarely came with swords.

The night was long, and after the boy slipped off back to the dancing it seemed only a few minutes before Queen Melusine rushed up, clasping her hands and promising all her support to the handsome young Christian boy she had affectionately nicknamedā€¦something the gentleman couldn't remember. "I shall lend him my army," she said grandly, "for he has none of his own, poor thing, and I haven't found anything to do with them yet. And you, dear, shall be his lieutenant!"

The gentleman started, and began to protest, but Queen Melusine quietly cracked her knuckles and said she knew an oath of alliance when she made one, and she had certainly made one with him that night, hadn't she?

"I've been meaning to take a holiday anyway," the gentleman said loftily, and wondered how many Christian children would fit in a knapsack. He looked over and saw the boy raising a quizzical eyebrow and smiled. The gentleman felt a thrill. It had been centuries since he had been on the front lines of a war, and he decided that if nothing else, he would get an exsanguination or two in, for he was out of practice and the girls always lasted much longer in England than in Faerie.