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The King of the Fireflies and the Sainted Spirit of the Holy Well

Chapter Text

The King and the Spirit

In a time long, long ago, there lived a beautiful king who reigned over millions of subjects with grace, glamour, and great confidence in his own practicality. His subjects lived everywhere, in most kingdoms; he himself lived between kingdoms, on the borders where air and water and land met.

He was King of the Fireflies, and his reputation for knowledge and cleverness was rivaled only by the reports of his incandescent beauty. He had legions of bedmates and armies of lovers, but he grew tired of them all in short order, no matter their wit or provenance.

One day, the beautiful king tossed his flame-bright hair over his shoulder and set out to find someone worthy of his undivided attention. He walked near and far, over hills and fields, under bridges and bowers, through tall grass and thick fog, and he saw no soul within his kingdom or without that met his exacting criteria. Not pretty enough, he'd think to himself. Looks like a dullard. Moves too slowly. Moves too quickly. Doesn't laugh. Laughs too much. Has a false smile. Isn't clever enough.

Finally, he stopped and sat by a well on a hill to recover. A well, being as liminal as his kingdom, was a comfortable place for him to linger. He decided he would drink from it when less wearied by his fruitless search.

"Traveller," came a sweet voice, "are you here to pay respect, to make a wish, or to drink of the healing waters?"

A beautiful maiden with a dark translucent body sat on the edge of the well, one leg in and one leg out. She wore not a thread of clothing and her hair was cut short; it curled delicately up under her ears toward her elfin face. The trees around them moved in the breeze, shuffling the sunshine about in a chaotic dance of shadows and light. A bright ray pierced through her and lit up the stones of the well beneath her. Suddenly her appearance made sense: she looked like the water at the bottom of a well if one were to shine a lantern into its depths.

The corner of the spirit's mouth quirked up when the King of the Fireflies only stared at her, struck dumb by her grace and loveliness. "Are you here to visit the holy well and pay respect? Or to ask a boon of the holy well? Or are you or your kin injured or sick, and require a draught of the healing waters within?" She leaned forward, and her blue eyes sought the shape of the king's soul. "Or are you only thirsty, and here by chance?"

The King of the Fireflies did not think before he spoke. He'd relied on charm, beauty, and strangeness for so long that truth was never a concern of his: tell it, don't tell it, it'll all be the same in the end. "You are both beautiful and inhuman, you laugh but not too much, your face is clever, your motions quick, and your amusement real but not unkind. You fit my criteria for a perfect bride, worthy of my undivided attention, so you ought to marry me. And I am very thirsty."

All of a sudden, the beautiful king was drenched, head to toe. The spirit of the well gripped its edge and leaned toward him, smiling, and this time the smile was not kind. "Then fortunately, you will be able to suck on your hair and clothing to quench that thirst. You do not impress me, little king. You had not even the respect to answer my questions or admit you had no knowledge that this well was holy. Get away with you."

She lost her shape all at once, splashing down into the well like water from a bucket, and the king sprang to his feet and started forward, furiously indignant--

--but she had taken the bucket with her. He knew the rules. Anything he threw in there would belong to her thereafter, even words, and could be used against him. So he took his fury and swept away back to his usual haunts. As angry as he was, it was the first honest reaction anyone had prompted in him in his life, and he became determined to win her approval and her hand.

He walked back through thick fog and tall grass, under bowers and bridges, over fields and hills, and finally came from far into near. As dusk fell, his subjects gathered around him, trailing him through the dying light and shining their lanterns before and behind him. They were always silent, but this night, their silence held a different quality, breathless and waiting. He'd returned alone. Had he failed?

"I have not failed," he told them once he was no longer damp, and therefore in better spirits. "I have only been set back. I have found the perfect bride, in form and ability and wit and grace, and I need only to find that which impresses her, as my person is not enough. This is a reasonable thing: someone worthy of my attention should not be immediately won by my reputation or my beauty, and she knew of my kingship, and she saw me with her own eyes. Of all the people in all the countries, she alone is worth my time, so I shall embark on a quest to gain her approval and win her hand! This cannot go poorly."

The fireflies signaled myriad responses to this statement, and because there were so many, the king could not properly interpret their collective wisdom. He fell asleep unworried, assured that his plan held not even the smallest of flaws.

The Giant of the Earth

When the sun rose above the green hills and misty valleys, burning the morning dew off every verdant leaf one by one, the beautiful King of the Fireflies rose with it and busied himself with preparations for his trip. He packed his golden combs and his mirror, his kohl and his golden jewelry and perfumes, his gem-encrusted sword and his sparkling armor; he slung across his chest one flagon of water and one of beer; into his pack he piled dried meats and sweetmeats, apples and cheese and the softest bread and the richest butter.

As the day reached midmorning, the beautiful king finally decided he was ready, and set off to fulfill his self-imposed quest. He walked near and far, over hills and fields, under bridges and bowers, through tall grass and thick fog, and he spoke with no soul but those within his kingdom until he came upon a marvelously handsome giant, sitting in an enormous stone chair on the mountainside.

"Ho, Giant!" the tiny king cried in his loudest voice, "I have come to slay you and bring your head-- or perhaps an ear, or the smallest joint of your little finger-- to the Holy Well as proof I am interesting and accomplished to the spirit that dwells there, as she is impressed by neither beauty nor wit!"

The giant bent his massive raven-haired head, frowning and squinting, and leaned forward to cup his hand around his ear and hear the tiny king better. As he moved, he dislodged trees and rocks, birds and beasts, and a small landslide of earth and pebbles from his shoulders and arms. "WHAT'S THAT YOU SAY, SMALL KING? I COULD NOT HEAR YOU," he boomed, and the earth shook with the sound of his voice.


The giant began to shake with thunderous laughter, which echoed from distant peaks and welled in distant valleys, made soft places hard and hard places soft, and revived the driest rushes in the driest of ponds in the far reaches of the land. The tiny king had to step quickly, so to avoid being swallowed by the earth as it split apart from the power of the giant's mirth.

Eventually, the giant's laughter subsided to a brilliant twinkle in his ocean-blue eyes, and he told the King of the Fireflies, "IT SOUNDS TO ME THAT THOUGH YOU LACK NOTHING IN BEAUTY, AND YOUR INTELLIGENCE IS PRAISED THROUGHOUT THE GOLDEN VALLEYS OF THIS LAND, YOUR WIT MAY LEAVE SOMETHING TO BE DESIRED."

"HOW DARE YOU!" shrieked the King of the Fireflies in furious indignation, his sword still in one hand, and the other in a fist shaking at the heavens.


"NO," shouted the little king, and then coughed and took a swig from his flagon of beer, because his throat had grown raw from the yelling. He clambered up onto the giant's knee, and then up onto his hand, because although he had stated his intent to kill the giant, he could not fathom that anyone could wish to destroy his beauty.

The giant raised his hand with the little king on it, so they could speak more or less face to face, and he tried his best to speak quietly. "No?" he asked.

"No," the King of the Fireflies said, irritated and faintly abashed. "I took on this task to impress her, because she was unimpressed. If she does not care for beauty, perhaps she cares for bravery."

"Did you not ask her what she would prefer?" the giant asked, bewildered.

"Of course not! She splashed me and dove into the well when I told her she fit all my criteria for the perfect bride and was worthy of being with me," said the king, his faint rue transforming into sullenness.

The giant was so taken aback that he had no response for the little king's statement. Finally, he chuffed out the tiniest laugh, which nearly blew the king off his hand, and he said, "It should be very unwise of you to slay me, for I am the earth upon which you stand, and should I die, this beautiful world would die with me. I daresay there isn't a thing in this land that could help your case now, but I shall allow you to cut off the tip of my little finger from the smallest joint, that you may bring it to the Sainted Spirit of the Holy Well."

"You shall? May I, then?" asked the King of the Fireflies, brightening. He held up his sword expectantly.

"I should not miss it," said the Giant of the Earth, his great countenance wry. "If she should consume it, it will grant her the ability to take on a fleshly aspect, as that of the people of the towns and fields. She knows my power's other uses, if she does not wish a human appearance. Take it with my blessing, and do you ask her what it is she actually desires." He held his other hand out, just above the one on which the king stood, within reach of the shining blade.

It was then that the King of the Fireflies hesitated, sword raised above the smallest knuckle of the giant's little finger. "She might approve of the gift of disguise, or these other uses of which you speak, and it might win me her favor, but I find that I do not wish to harm you off the field of battle. Are you certain you will not fight me?"

"I have no wish to kill you," said the giant, voice filled with amusement and affection in equal parts. "Your hesitation is wisdom shining through your desire, and your case may yet be salvaged." He set the little king upon his knee and moved carefully to put his hand into the purse on his belt, then took from it a gold-colored gem, which he pinched. A shard fell off into his free hand, and this he offered to the King of the Fireflies. "Do you take this instead, and give it to the Sainted Spirit of the Holy Well, as it shall do the same for her as a taste of my flesh. Then you must tell her of both your plan and your hesitation. She will look kindly upon you for it."

The King of the Fireflies took the shard that was as big as his own hand and placed it in his pack, and so left the Giant of the Earth to return to the Holy Well and offer the gift to the Sainted Spirit. He travelled day and night, walking near and far, over hills and fields, under bridges and bowers, through tall grass and thick fog, and he spoke with no soul but those within his kingdom, journeying for three days.

Chapter Text

The Queens in Tír na n-Óg

Presently, the King of the Fireflies came upon a staircase in an open meadow, crafted of crystal like diamond and finely wrought silver. It was beautiful, but at its summit was nothing but air and a very long fall. As it was near nightfall, he made camp in the setting sun and the rainbows that still shone through the diamond staircase, and he thought long and hard about what the Giant of the Earth had said and about the beauty of the staircase, as translucent as the Sainted Spirit herself but as bright as she was dark. The smallest part of the staircase could brighten the dimness of her well, and so he resolved to wait until the moon was high in the heavens and then determine how to take a piece of it to bring to her.

His subjects drifted throughout the field, congregating once he had laid his head upon the soft and springy turf, and they asked him with their lights what his progress was.

"I will take from the staircase one step of glowing crystal, and so add more light and beauty to the gift I have for the Sainted Spirit of the Holy Well," the king said, his head growing heavy with sleep. He did not realize that while he nodded and his subjects flashed their messages to him, the light of the messages traveled up the crystal staircase.

Presently, the moon came up and saw the king fast asleep. It lit the staircase as if from within, and at the top of its ghostly light, an ethereal city blossomed like the reflections of white flowers in the night-time. A beautiful woman, compared to whom no other beauty could possibly shine, descended the staircase with silent grace and observed the sleeping king. Her hair was as silver as the joins of the staircase, and her kirtle and mantle woven from clouds. She began to lift the king, but his shining armor was too heavy, so she removed it carefully as he slept on.

Once more, the woman began to lift the king, but he remained heavy, if less so. She removed his sword belt and unbuckled his pack, heavy with his mirror and golden combs and jewelry, his perfumes and dwindling supply of food, and the precious shard of golden gem that the Giant of the Earth had so generously given him. His flagons, being empty, did not require removal, but she left them with his other belongings. With the king's defenses and worldly treasures removed, he was finally light enough for the beautiful moonlight woman to lift and carry into the night city above the meadow.

When the King of the Fireflies awoke, he felt curiously light and heard sweet voices near him. He made as if he were still asleep in order to hear the conversation without being noticed, and resolved not to worry about the possessions he realized he was missing, at least until he knew more. The wisdom the Giant of the Earth spoke of continued to shine through desire and impulse, and with a heart more open to others, he learned.

"He did no harm before he slept at the foot of my stair," one voice said, as chiming as the smallest crystal bells in a great cathedral's bellchoir and as firm as anyone's belief in sun and moon.

"His intent was purely mischief, o greatest of my sisters," corrected a second voice, as strong as a thunderbolt but as light as the touch of the warm south wind. "We should throw him into the sea from the northern balcony of the royal palace of Tír na n-Óg, and all his possessions with him, save one."

"And drown the sweet fire of his heart, even if his wit be raw and brittle? O, 't is cruel to do such a thing, and a misery to think on it," lamented the chiming voice of the Queen. "And how comely his countenance were his behavior judicious!"

"Nevertheless," said the strong voice of her advisor, "he is a thief who has stolen from the Giant of the Earth, and he has contrived to steal from you as well."

At this, the King of the Fireflies sprang up and took in his hand the pillow upon which the Queen had placed his head, and in his nakedness, he wielded it as if it were his jeweled sword. "I did not steal from the Giant of the Earth!" he cried. "The shard of the golden gem, as large as my hand, was given me by the giant in order to present it as an offering to the Sainted Spirit of the Holy Well!"

Both of the women looked on him in surprise.

Now that his eyes were open, they beheld a great Queen. Though he did not yet know it, she was that selfsame fair woman with hair of silver, and kirtle and mantle woven of cloud, who had carried his sleeping body up the diamond stairs in the night. Beside her, his eyes beheld her companion: clearly another Queen, tall and brown, with an air of strength as that of ten men, lightning in her eyes, and a battle crow resting on one broad shoulder.

The fairer of the queens hid a smile with her hand, glancing away from the naked king, and her fearsome sister laughed as she took brazen stock of his slender form. "Yet," said the woman once she had finished laughing, "it matters not what the lover of the Queen of Tír na n-Óg has given you if your intent was to steal one of her diamond stairs. What use have you for such a thing, that you would so boldly risk yourself in the taking of it?"

The King of the Fireflies was filled with discomfort and shame as he noticed his nakedness in front of the women, and he held the pillow to his waist to hide himself, thinking this to be a better use for it than as a weapon. He answered the fearsome queen's question, but while he did, his gaze was upon the Queen of Tír na n-Óg. "I sought to give the step to the Sainted Spirit of the Holy Well in addition to the gift from the Giant of the Earth, so as to brighten the depths of her dark home. I did not know of its status as your property, great Queen."

"A built thing made from bright diamond crystal and beautifully wrought silver must be owned," scolded the Queen, though her chiming voice was gentle. "So it matters not whether you knew it belonged to me, or whether it was meant as a well-intentioned gift to the Sainted Spirit: you still planned the theft of something precious. Do you understand that you intended wrongly?"

The king's shoulders sagged. "I do," he told her with heavy heart and voice. "What is to become of me now?"

"The Queen of Storms has determined that you be thrown from the northernmost balcony of my city into the sea below, with all your possessions save one," said the young queen, her chiming voice solemn and filled with sorrow. "Do you believe this to be a fitting end to your folly?"

The beautiful king hesitated, and the Queen of Tír na n-Óg and the Storm Queen looked to each other, and then to him.

The Queen of Storms said gruffly, "It is not necessary. Besides, my sister, the Sainted Spirit of the Holy Well, would be pleased by the gift from the Giant of the Earth." Then she scowled and said, "A gift from me, small king, you must buy with that which is most precious to you. She is my sister and may have anything of mine for the asking, so something of mine will mean nothing from you unless you suffer a loss for its gain."

"I, too, will provide a gift for the Sainted Spirit, the most wise and patient of my company," said the Queen of Tír na n-Óg, smiling once more, "but it does not require another price, since your dignity has already paid dearly." She stood and left the room, and then only the beautiful King of the Fireflies and the fearsome Queen of Storms remained within.

The green gleam of the king's eyes met the green thunder of the queen's, and he took a breath. "I cannot give you that which is most precious to me, nor that which is second, as those are my own life and that of the Sainted Spirit."

The eyes of the Queen of Storms narrowed. "That matters not. Neither of these things is yours to give. Go on."

"Although you moved to throw all my possessions into the sea save one, they are my most precious belongings," said the king, head bowed. "You hold them all at your whim, and may take them and welcome, but for the shard of the golden gem as big as my hand, as it also does not belong to me."

The wings of the crow on the Storm Queen's broad shoulder fluttered, and then with a rude noise, it took off and flew away. She watched it leave, then addressed the King of the Fireflies once more: "I have no want of your golden combs or mirror, your kohl or your golden jewelry and perfumes, your gem-encrusted sword or sparkling armor, your empty flagons, or your pack full of crumbs and apple cores. I do not desire your clothing, your shoes, or your service. There is one thing which you have forgotten, small king."

"And what is that?" the King of the Fireflies asked.

"The secret of the language of the fireflies. The Queen of Tír na n-Óg knows it, and I do not. If I had its secret, I could exchange words with her across the sky, even if my chariot has brought the great storms out to sea and I am leagues from her," said the Queen of Storms, and she held out her hand.

The King of the Fireflies was taken aback, and looked on her outstretched hand in confusion. "You wish me to teach you?" he asked her.

"No, I desire your knowledge. Give it to me, and I will give to you the worthiest of gifts for my wisest and sweetest sister, something that should she ask I would grant her-- only she will not ask, as she knows its loss would make my heart full sore." Again, the Queen of Storms held out her hand.

In an instant, now that he had the knowledge of what it was the Storm Queen wanted, the beautiful king felt a great pain in his head between his luminous green eyes. He bent double, and scratched and clawed at his forehead until it bled, and from it came a small lavender-blue stone which fell into his hands and took the pain with it.

He stared at the stone, and his heart beat thunder in his chest. Without the knowledge of the language of the fireflies, how could he be their king? Yet he held his hand over that of the Queen of Storms. He hesitated once more. "I give you my crown with this," he said, his spirits low. "What assurance have I that this gift for the Sainted Spirit will fill her heart with joy? If she knows that its loss would make your heart full sore, she will be saddened by its gain."

"Tell her what you have given me in exchange, and she will agree that it was a fair trade. She will surely find a way to ease the trouble of my heart that the gift causes," said the Queen of Storms. "And take heart, small king, for knowledge once gained is never truly lost."

So the King of the Fireflies placed the blue stone into her hand, whereupon it vanished, as did the wound in his forehead. He felt a deep sense of loss, and felt stripped down to the bone.

At that time, the Queen of Tír na n-Óg re-entered the chamber, and with her came the Storm Queen's crow. In her hands were his pack and a small crystal phial filled with a clear liquid.

The two women waited as the now-somber young king donned his fine clothing and his sparkling armor, and slung the refilled flagons of water and beer across his chest, and belted his sword about his waist. The moment he was finished, the fair Queen and the brown Queen both presented him with their gifts for the Sainted Spirit of the Holy Well.

The Queen of Tír na n-Óg removed the stopper on the crystal phial and bade the young king hold out his hand. Into it she poured one glimmering drop of the clear liquid, and it formed into a small gem that was as silver as the giant's gem was gold. "This is a tear from my heart's sorrow at the death of my mother," her chiming voice said solemnly. "As the gem of the Giant of the Earth grants a fleshly aspect to those who cannot form their own, the gem of the Queen of Tír na n-Óg grants purity of heart and mind to whomever the bearer wishes, breaking curses and freeing souls from the chains of unjust obligation."

The Queen of Storms held cupped in her hands a brilliant green gem, lit from within by dancing thunderbolts and twined about with shimmering strands of rain. "Do you give this to my sister," she said, her strong voice so firm that it shook the ground of the delicate city. "She is of water, and the light that my storms give is harmful to her, as the bolts are drawn to her person and do not stop until she boils away. The only way that she can visit me is if the thunderbolts do not harm her, and a fleshly aspect would not help. I give to her my immunity to my own storms, and I give it with a full heart, because I can stand the pain and she cannot."

So he parted from them, bearing the treasures he had packed at home and those he had gained from the giant and the two queens. By the time he left, dusk had fallen, and his former subjects clustered around him worriedly. The flashing of their lights was beautiful to behold but held no more meaning for their erstwhile king than the scintillation of sunlight on the surface of the sea.

As he began to walk, he told them with a heavy heart and a sorrowful countenance, "I cannot understand you. I am sorry. I can no longer be your king."

There was a brilliant storm of flashing lights around him, and they settled in the flame-bright hair of their beloved king and made of themselves a glittering crown. He wept, overjoyed by their loyalty and devotion to him, and thereafter his steps became lighter.

Chapter Text

The Queen of Dawn

The King of the Fireflies with his glowing crown walked near and far, over hills and fields, under bridges and bowers, through tall grass and thick fog, and he resolved to speak with no soul but those within his kingdom, though he could not understand them, until he reached his destination: the Holy Well over which the Sainted Spirit kept guard.

He kept his counsel as he had resolved, but nevertheless, as he travelled he met many strangers along the road. This time, since he could not understand his subjects and had much to think on, he took much more notice of the strangers he met. They were not alike; they were as different from each other as his own subjects were, and as different from his former armies of bedmates and lovers as he himself was. He wondered greatly that he had never noticed this, and keeping his counsel allowed him to listen.

Because he was garbed in the finest clothes and the most sparkling armor, and wore a glowing crown of fireflies upon his fair head, the travellers he met assumed he was a great man, a king or prince of the folk they dared not gaze on. When they averted their eyes, he felt shame, and he was discomfited.

The first traveller he saw to look on him without fear or awe was a small child with her poor mother, and she was dirty, and her hair tangled enough that a small robin had made a nest in it, and roosted there calmly, and both mother and daughter were so thin that the light shone through them like fine china.

The young king was moved, and without speaking a word, he took off his pack and removed the fine foods with which the Queen of Tír na n-Óg had filled it, and gave them to the mother and daughter. Then he removed his golden combs, and his flagon of water, and gave these, too, to the two.

He left them and continued on the road to the Holy Well. Presently, he came upon a youth only slightly younger in appearance than himself, who bore his grandfather's rusty sword and cracked and rotting leather armor, and who walked with the grim determination of a boy who has never known battle but has been called from his village into the service of his sovereign.

Once again, the young king took pity on a stranger he had never met, and he traded arms and armor with the youth. He exchanged sparkling metal armor for dry and rotting leather; he changed his gem-encrusted sword for a rusty blade with poor weight; he traded his flagon of fine Tír na n-Óg beer for a skin of dirty water.

The youth properly attired, the King of the Fireflies travelled on. The day grew long and old, and the sun sank gracefully toward its bed high in the green hills to the west. He found himself hungry, but his food was gone; he consoled himself with the fact that he could not be as hungry as the woman and her daughter he had met on the road. He wanted dearly for beer, but reflected that he did not go to battle, and so did not need to be so sure of the cleanliness of his drink. Besides, soon he would be at the Holy Well, and if nothing else, perhaps the Sainted Spirit would allow him a sip.

Finally, the third person on the road to move the heart of bright-haired king was so close to the Holy Well that he could nearly see it. She was a beautiful woman with hair like spun gold and the voice of a broken heart, and her lovely dress was torn to shreds, and her arms and legs scratched, and her tears had burnt tracks of kohl down her perfect face as she wept bitterly.

The young king was aghast that such misfortune should come upon someone so fine, and with none to give her comfort or succor. In an instant his pack was on the ground, the rotting armor and useless sword thrown to the ditch, and the clothes off his back. These last he gave to the beautiful woman first, and fine things they were: the most delicate saffron leine, hose and braccae of variegated cloth the colors of the rainbow, a coat of brocaded silk the color of his flame-bright hair. They were a man's clothing, to be sure, but they were not torn, and this woman was certain to be able to wear them with the bearing of a great lady, not to be questioned.

In return, she gave him her torn kirtle and mantle, and he put them on to cover his nakedness once more, having turned his back as she changed her clothes. Then he gave her the rest of his belongings save three, and she used the cloth of his pack to wipe her face, and she used his mirror to put his kohl on, and she dabbed herself with his perfume and wore his golden jewelry with elegance and beauty.

He kept the three gifts for the Sainted Spirit, and no one could take his crown of fireflies.

The woman leaned up to kiss the young king's forehead where a small scar remained, then smiled at him. "'T is little I cared for you at the start of your journey, young king. I watched you at the well of my sister, and heard the things you said to her, and thought you an oaf. You have changed. I do not know what caused the loss of your language, but it was within my power to grant its return, so grant it I have."

He smiled, but did not speak. She laughed, and her laugh was of deeper bells than that of the Queen of Tír na n-Óg, but no less bright: it carried the shine of the morning. "Good for you; your resolve has been a strength from the beginning. Have a care and you will thrive. Go you to my sister and give to her my greetings and the knowledge of my health; I am the Queen of Dawn, and I go now to meet my lover, the Lord of the Veil."

They parted ways, and the King of the Fireflies wept once more, because as night fell, he could clearly see the messages his subjects blinked at him so steadily: love and support and news of home, admiration and gladness of heart.

He reached the top of the hill and saw again the Holy Well, and on its ledge, the beautiful and sainted Spirit who dwelt within.

The Sainted Spirit's Delight

In the ragged remains of the flame-bright kirtle and mantle of the Queen of Dawn, bearing his glowing, moving crown in his flame-bright hair, the King of the Fireflies approached the Sainted Spirit of the Holy Well bearing the three gifts in his hands. "I come in apology," he called to her, "and bring gifts in the hope of your forgiveness."

On the ledge of the well, the Sainted Spirit surveyed him and was filled with consternation. "'T is a strange idea of apology you bring, wearing the ragged remains of my sister's gown!"

She slipped off the edge of the well, and her footsteps were wet, leaving pools in the ground where she set her feet. The rosy hues of the end of the day lit her clear, dark person, and painted dancing light on the ground behind her. For the first time, she viewed him with a hint of the sort of interest to which he was accustomed, but her face resolved into fear and anger when she saw what he carried in his hands.

"My sister was to meet me before her yearly tryst with her lover, the Lord of the Veil, which can only happen on this night -- St. John's Eve, when the bonfires dot the hills and the living and the dead are in reach of each other. Have you stolen her gold, her magic? Have you harmed her? And these gifts you bring! They do not belong to you! What have you done to the Giant of the Earth? What have you done to my sister, the Queen of Storms? What have you done to the Queen of Tír na n-Óg? Reckless king, foolish king! You bear their gems of power! Have you doomed us all and slain those I love?"

The King of the Fireflies was taken aback, and filled with shame as he thought of the things he had nearly done at the beginning of his journey. But though his face turned red, he answered her directly: "I have not harmed a soul!" he cried, then held the gems out to the Sainted Spirit. "Grant me a small amount of your time, and I shall tell you all I have seen and done since last I saw you. They are all safe, and they have granted these freely as gifts to bring to you."

The Sainted Spirit was dubious, but she granted him his request, and even gave him a sip from the Holy Well, as his voice was parched and dry, and there was an air of truth about him.

When the two were seated once more by the Holy Well, and she had in her hands the precious burden he had borne, the young king spoke:

"First, I sought to slay a giant and bring to you his head as proof of my bravery and accomplishment. It was fortune that brought me to the Giant of the Earth, for he did not slay me, he first offered to allow me to take the smallest knuckle of his little finger to bring to you. I found that I could not harm him outside the heat of battle, and he told me that this was wisdom shining through desire, and then he gave me that shard of his golden gem. It will grant you a fleshly aspect, if you wish it.

"Then, as I travelled back toward you, I made camp for a night at the foot of a diamond and wrought-silver staircase, leading to nothing. I thought to take a step from it as a gift to you, that its luminous nature might provide for you a light at the bottom of your well. In the night-time, the Queen of Tír na n-Óg removed my pack, my armor, and my sword, and carried me up to the city. She had heard my intent and seen my conversation with my subjects, discussing my plan to take it.

"When I woke, she and your sister the Queen of Storms were discussing my fate. They, too, were alarmed by my possession of a piece of the Giant's golden gem, and thought I had stolen it as I had intended to steal a step from the diamond staircase. At this I protested, as it had been given me freely. Nonetheless, I had indeed planned to steal from the Queen of Tír na n-Óg, and the wrongness of this act became clear to me.

"Because I could not defend my intent, and put myself at their mercy, I was forgiven. The Queen of Tír na n-Óg gave me a tear from her heart's great sorrow, which turned into the silver gem you now hold. The Queen of Storm bade me purchase from her a gift that you should truly love, though you would not have allowed to give it to her, as its loss should have made her heart full sore. For it, I traded my knowledge of the language of my subjects, and knew that with it I gave her my crown, for what sort of king could I be to them if I could not understand them?

"She said that it was a fair trade: an immunity to her thunderbolts should allow you to visit her, and she is strong enough to bear their strikes; the language of the fireflies should allow her to speak with the Queen of Tír na n-Óg across great distances. So the green gem with the anger of the heavens contained therein is for you also.

"With my own heart heavy with sorrow, I left the city in the sky and told my subjects I could no longer be their king, as I could not understand them, but they understood me, and I wept when they crowned me with themselves; they remained loyal and kept hope, and I took heart and started on the road to meet you again, resolved not to speak to a soul within my kingdom or without until I could speak to you.

"Along the road from Tír na n-Óg, I met travellers who needed my other possessions far more than I did. I had not noticed such need before, but I noticed now, since I myself lacked what I had taken for granted. I gave them away to a poor mother and daughter, and then a young soldier, and finally, I gave my clothes and my jewelry, my perfumes and kohl and mirror, to your sister. She was weeping bitterly on the side of the road; her kirtle and mantle were torn, her feet were bare, her kohl ran down her lovely cheeks, and she was scratched as if from nettles and briars. Once she was clothed, she gave me the ruin of her dress to cover my nakedness, granted me the return of my subjects' language, and bade me give you her greetings and news of her health."

The Sainted Spirit of the Holy Well listened to all of this, cradling the three bright gems in her arms, and was silent for a long moment. Her voice was soft, like the liquid sound of a brook winding through the woods at night, and on her face was a small smile. "And the health of the Giant of the Earth? Was he well? And the Queens of Storms and Tír na n-Óg?"

"Very well, my lady," the King of the Fireflies told her, offering another small smile in return. "The Giant's laugh is a thing you must have heard here, far and away though it was. And the Queens both had smiles when I left them, pleased that you would receive things you would cherish. The Queen of Dawn left to see her lover, the Lord of the Veil, and her step was light and her countenance radiant."

At this, the face of the Sainted Spirit was transfigured by delight into something more beautiful than the King of the Fireflies had ever seen. All he wanted from that moment was to make her that happy again and again. "My lady, please! Tell to me what it is that I have said or done that has brought to you such joy!" he cried, leaning forward.

"You have brought me news of my family and my friends, good king, and filled me with hope," said the Sainted Spirit of the Holy Well, bringing her hand to her face to wipe the strange salt tears from it. "I cannot leave the water that I guard and keep, so it has been many years since I have seen most of my sisters, my queen, and the dear Giant of the Earth. If you would do me a further kindness-- but no, I cannot ask, as you have already proven your friendship to me, and become a giving person instead of one who only takes."

At this, the King of the Fireflies reached and caught up her hands in his, and the beautiful gems that he had brought her as gifts fell to her lap. "Tell to me your wish," he said, gentle and kind. "I will not press the suit I so foolishly levied upon you on our first meeting. If I can bring you such joy as your friend, then that is enough to cheer my life forevermore. Please, I wish to see you so happy again."

Now the beautiful spirit cried in earnest, as that was what she hoped to hear when he came back with gifts and in such a sorry state. Her tears were salt, and it would not to do let the salt turn the wellwater brackish, so the young king removed the remains of her sister's mantle and offered them. She dried them, then beheld him in only the tattered kirtle and could not help but laugh, and her laugh was as the bubbling of a spring in a mountain cleft.

"I shall tell you then," she said at last, and held the hands of the bright-haired king, and his fireflies glowed around him in a dance that echoed his hope. "A day and night's journey from here is an abbey, where another of my sisters has shut herself, for her true love lies cursed in the deep sea, and she cannot save him. Please, do you go there and tell to her that you are the champion who will free her love, so she need not take the vows. She will give you something to help you on your way, and the path you must take to get there."

The King of the Fireflies agreed, and then the Sainted Spirit of the Holy Well opened her mouth and removed a blue gem as light as the color of the sky reflected on a glass lake. "Before you begin your journey over the sea, give this to her as proof that I have sent you, and ask from her the cup that is never drained. Then-- come back here to me, and we shall see what we shall see."

With this strange request added, the king agreed again, and took himself on a day and night's journey over hills and fields, under bridges and bowers, through tall grass and thick fog, and he spoke with no soul but those in his kingdom until he reached his destination.

Chapter Text

The Living Fire of Devotion

As night fell, the King of the Fireflies arrived at the abbey still clad in the remnants of the Dawn Queen's kirtle. The Abbess had been watching his approach, and her heart grew heavy as he neared. She had seen the moving lights that crowned his fiery hair, even from afar; now she saw his strange dress, his grave countenance, and that his bearing was regal and confident. Setting the latter against the former, she rightly surmised that he was a hero of the land.

The Abbess met him at the gates. "Hero, be you lowly knight or King of the Fair Folk, you may not stay a night within this cloister's bounds. You are welcome to partake of what we eat and drink, and we will provide you with serviceable clothing before you continue your journey, but continue you must."

"I come not seeking lodging, Holy Mother, but to speak with the sister of the Sainted Spirit of the Holy Well," said the beautiful king, and did not identify himself. He held out the softly glowing blue gem the spirit had given him. "She has sent me hither as messenger and supplicant. I have no wish to interfere with this place or any others who dwell within it."

"Oh," said the Abbess in surprise, and did not ask his name, thereby avoiding any obligations it might carry. "Then you may enter."

Upon their arrival within the stone walls, some subtle cues the Abbess gave caused silent novices to approach, bringing serviceable clothing for the strange hero to wear, and bearing food and drink to slake his hunger and thirst. He thanked them solemnly, and was shown to a room in which he could change and refresh himself before meeting with the Sainted Spirit's sister.

Once he had done these things, the stranger was shown to a chamber meant for meetings with fine guests, as it was more richly appointed than everything but the chapel.

With two novices accompanying her as chaperones, the sister of the Sainted Spirit entered the room in the garb of a postulant, her hands folded beneath the front of her robe. She bowed, and to the surprise of the chaperones and the approval of the Spirit's sister, so did the strange hero.

Humbly but without hesitation, the stranger spoke. "I am the King of the Fireflies, and I am the champion who will free your love from his curse at the bottom of the sea. You need not take the Holy Orders if you do not wish to. Your sister has tasked me with giving to you this gem," the king told the her as he proffered the glowing blue jewel, "and asking from you three things: the path I must take to reach your beloved, whatever wisdom you would grant to me for this journey, and the cup that is never drained."

Pushing back her veil, the beautiful sister of the king's beloved spirit stared at the gem, eyes wide. With a sudden cry, she snatched it from his hand and quickly cradled it to her chest. Her eyes were violet and her hair black and shining as burnt glass, and under the bulky robe her shoulders straightened and her countenance began to grow haughty.

The king did not rise to the challenge in her gaze, merely bowed his head. "It is not for my benefit that I follow these instructions, Lady. If your wisdom tells me I should fail, then I shall not ask the cup of you again, and go without. I go to please your sister, for her happiness is precious to me."

He did not look up, only waited through the silence.

Finally she spoke, and her voice was softer, more gentle. "The other postulants have told me that you arrived wearing the tattered garb of another of my sisters, the Queen of Dawn. When I saw the gem in your hands, I thought perhaps you had killed them both. I am the Living Fire of Passion, and my wisdom hears the truth of your soul echoed in your words. I shall give to you the aid you seek. Bide here, and I shall return presently."

The two novices remained in silence, posting themselves to either side of the door, and the king waited for a quarter of an hour, resolved to patience. The fireflies crowning his bright hair dipped low, blinking messages to him of encouragement and praise: 'You do well, o King,' they said, 'take heart; have faith that the spirit does not task you wrongly.'

A small smile played at the corner of his mouth, but with respect for the young girls that could not understand the language of the fireflies, he did not answer his subjects, only turned to look out the window.

That was when the Living Fire returned, bearing in one hand a plain wooden cup, and in the other hand she carried two glowing gems: the blue one from her sister, and a deep red one with a warm and flickering light within.

First she handed him the fiery red jewel, which he examined briefly before she spoke. "This is the Ruby of Light," she said. "Go you to the sea and sail toward the dawn for seven days and seven nights with this ruby at your prow, and you will be followed by seals. Take note of the one that stays with you for all seven days and nights. Do you use the golden gem on him to give to him the use of his fleshly aspect, buried as it is now at the bottom of the sea. Then, do you use the silver gem to break his curse, so that he may go back and forth between shapes at will. He will give you the cloth of plenty. Go where he bids you, and follow his instructions, or it will be the worse for you."

Then she smiled and turned the wooden cup so that the king could see into it. He saw an indentation carved into the bottom, inlaid with silver clasps set into a ring. She righted the cup and placed the blue gem inside, locking the clasps. "This is the cup that never drains, and this gem you have brought to me is a piece of my sister's heart, the Holy Well itself. Provisioned so, my sister may leave the physical well, for she will never be far from its waters. So you see the cup is for her, not for you."

The Living Fire of Passion, bright flame dancing in the depths of her violet eyes, merrily handed the cup to the King of the Fireflies. "Now! Do you think on why she might have wished this now, and go back to the Holy Well to please her with whatever your answer might be."

Thanking the postulant Living Fire for her aid and the Abbess for her hospitality, the King of the Fireflies took himself on the journey of one night and one day over hills and fields, under bridges and bowers, and through tall grass and thick fog. He spoke with no soul but those in his kingdom, and as he went, he thought hard on why the Sainted Spirit might wish to leave her well, and on the words she had spoken to him at their parting.

The Sainted Spirit's Wish

Presently, the King of the Fireflies arrived once more at the Holy Well, wearing the serviceable clothing that the sisters at the abbey had given him. He carried with him the cup that never drains and the Sainted Spirit's glowing blue gem within it, and he was discontented, for his mind was beset by puzzles and unanswered questions.

"Ho, Sainted Spirit! I have returned with the cup and the knowledge needed to continue your task, but your most blessed sister riddled me with something I cannot fathom," he called as he approached the well. She was nowhere in sight, so he cautiously went to it and peered into its depths, bidding some of the fireflies that crowned him to descend thither and allow him to see.

As soon as several of the bright creatures had gone into the well, he could see a faint outline. All of a sudden, the outline opened its eyes and rushed at him, and he fell back in alarm only to find himself once again soaking wet and sitting on the ground, but this time he had a beautiful laughing spirit in his lap.

"O and away with you! You cannot fathom. Now tell to me, o King," she said, her lovely dark-water face radiantly pleased and filled with mirth, "what my sister has riddled you!"

Laughing himself, the King of the Fireflies wiped his wet hair from his face, and the briefly doused fireflies lay on the grass, drying in the warm grass and the setting sun. He presented the cup and its seated stone to the girl in his lap, and he admitted sheepishly, "She told me that with this cup, provisioned with your gem, would allow you to leave your well since you would never be far from its waters. Then she asked me to think on why you might wish this now, instead of at some earlier time, and please you with my answer."

"Oh?" the Spirit asked him, her grin showing her teeth like two rows of smooth freshwater pearls. "And what answer have you for me?"

Now the King looked away, red with embarrassment. "The first thing that came to my mind cannot be the answer, as it is something I wish for, and this is not for me. I thought, then, that perhaps you wished to visit your sister in the abbey, and your sisters in Tír na n-Óg, or maybe your sister the Queen of Dawn, or the Giant of the Earth." He then looked to her face, hopeful that he would see her pleased.

Instead, she was amused. "And what was the answer you thought untrue? Your wish?"

In a low voice, half-ashamed, the King of the Fireflies said to her, "That you might wish to join me on the voyage to save your sister's beloved, and obtain from him the cloth of plenty, and journey beside me through the instructions that we should receive from him."

The Sainted Spirit then leaned closer and kissed the King of the Fireflies on his drying cheek, leaving it damp once more, and her smile for him was like the sun. "I am well pleased, for that is the reason I wish to leave."

Truly her happiness was the one thing the King of the Fireflies had come to crave above all else, and he had come to realize that the opportunity to see it was a gift. Therefore, his smile in return was honest and open and filled with delight, and contained no selfishness, and the Sainted Spirit of the Holy Well was in turn overcome by joy, for he had grown interesting and begun to be worthy of her time.

So it was that the two set out to obtain provisions for their journey, and the Sainted Spirit used the Giant's gem to grant herself a fleshly aspect to use while they travelled, though her footsteps still filled with water after her passage, and her hair still a dark otherworldly blue.

As the Sainted Spirit had no clothing of her own, the King of the Fireflies gave to his blessed companion his serviceable tunic, long enough on her for a dress to preserve the modesty of her new flesh, and his serviceable cloak to keep her warm in the chilly dew.

They walked for four days and four nights to reach a small fishing town on the coast, over hills and fields, under bridges and bowers, through tall grass and thick fog, and spoke with each other and the king's subjects, and indeed all passers-by, who wished them well and gave them luck for their journey.