A Breath of Demons

but what came in
was a breath of demons
that froze love
swept the house bare
- Estranged, Edwin Morgan

These are the things he knows are real: the darkness and the pain and the memories of her.

Everything else is transitory. Everything else is a maybe, a mystery, a production of the powders and potions they force down his throat. How long he has been here, he cannot say.

He wears regret with the rags of his clothes, in the moments when he is closer to sanity than to madness and oblivion. She is the constant in his thoughts, though he doubts she is haunted by him in the same endless, patient way. He clings to her, turning her over and over in his mind as a child might finger some dusty treasure.

The green of her eyes, so human, is protection against the empty, eerie green of the wolves' eyes, flashing in the shadows. In the memory of her black hair slipping through his fingers, he forgets their coarse fur; her lips are far softer than their teeth, her heart harder than the stone he sleeps on. She is unbreakable, and so he shields himself behind her.

He builds himself walls from kisses and words, fortifies them with her wildness, close to savagery at times.

When the beatings come – and they do, always – he endures, the image of her livid on his eyelids. Later, while his breath rattles unheard against the cold stone, he lets himself shiver and shake, lets the pain own him. No one can see him then, limp, waiting for it all to end.

He is sure it will. All things pass – moons, tides, time. Why not this too?

But he has not reckoned with Ariel.

X - X - X - X - X

He is woken by a kick to his ribs. Pain snatches his voice; he is left gasping as indifferent hands haul him to his knees, displaying him like a horse at auction.

At first, the man before him is a stranger. Too clean for the squalid cells, he is pale and white as lily petals, and his beauty is startling in its intensity. Only when he meets the blue eyes is the cruelty there familiar. Suddenly, he can see the child hidden underneath the face of the man – lingering in the petulant curl of the smile, unchanged in the slimness and delicacy of his fingers.

"Rushton Seraphim," murmurs Ariel, soft with glee. "Did you miss me?"

Their enmity is old; it seems it is as rooted in him as bones and teeth, calcified and sharp.

His voice is rusty. "Yes, but give me a bow and I'll rectify the error."

Ariel chuckles, but the mirth has gone from his eyes. "They said they'd had trouble breaking you."

His smile widens. He is unearthly, glorious, a fallen angel touching earth.

"I won't," he says, and the threat is chilling.

X - X - X - X - X

He turns his head away from the powder the first time. It is the lurid red of poison berries, staining the greyed cloth it's held in.

"Are you going to resist?" Ariel says sweetly.

He glares back, eyes sore from the lack of sleep, ribs sore from another beating.

A smile, dazzling. "Good," Ariel whispers.

Hands grip his head – he is forced down to the powder, fighting not to breathe. His lungs are fire, his blood thunder in his veins, and he knows that he can take no more, that he can no more stop breathing than he can stop loving her. Both are folly. Both are vital.

His control breaks. He takes a breath.

The powder burns in his nose and throat. He coughs and splutters; they force him to take more. All the while, while his smile gleams white and secret as the moon, Ariel hums a lullaby.

The world disintegrates. He's used to that – he lets it slip and slide around him, and he reaches for her, as he always does. She is his anchor, the axis of the spinning world.

X - X - X - X - X

A pleasant memory. The day was a peaceful one, stolen between the bustle of Obernewtyn, the burgeoning rebellion, other people's needs. Outside, the rain battered on the roof, and inside, they sat in silence. She lay in the crook of his arm, hair loose, idle as Maruman.

Even in moments of rest, there was a tension to her, an air that said she might leave at any moment.

"He's a fool," she muttered, reading through the report one last time.

"He's young," he said, reading over her shoulder. "The two tend to go together."

Her glance was wry. "I don't recall you being foolish."

"I didn't have the time to be. Between carrying pigs and trying to stop other foolish young things ruining all my plans, I kept myself busy."

"Well, if you had been a little less secretive, I might not have gone exploring."

"Mmm." She was a solid weight. "I don't think the evidence is in your favour, Elspeth-love."

Something receded in her eyes, as it always did at the mention of the word. It pained him, the dull ache of a bruise. He was used to it, yet part of him could not help resent it. "Meaning what?"

"You chase adventure like other women chase love," he said, keeping his voice level. "You are like no one I have ever known, if only because I sometimes feel I don't know you at all. You wear secrets as if they are jewellery – you have as much passion for an argument as you do for..." me, he wanted to say, but knew it would only cause friction, "...Obernewtyn. You seem incapable of doing anything without adding to your legend-"

Her mouth twitched, perhaps a smile, perhaps annoyance. "I'm not a legend, and I don't want to be."

"I'm aware of that," he replied. "But there are several hundred people outside that door who would disagree."

"Several hundred gullible idiots," she said sourly. Her acrid tone made him smile; that was the woman he knew. Prickly, aloof, outspoken even when she thought she was being tactful. "They can stay out there."

"And we can stay in here," he said, and leaned down to kiss her. "I have you for a little while, at least."

He felt her smile against his mouth, but when she spoke, her voice was all wrong – a silky purr, threaded with malice. "Wrong."

"Elspeth?"

She twisted from his arms, sleek as a cat, and her expression was one of contempt. "You don't have me. You never will. You've been useful to me, Rushton, but that's all."

Shock swept him. She stood over him, tall and terrible and beautiful as a queen.

"What?"

"Master of Obernewtyn!" she drawled. "And so easy to master. You've been a useful tool, oh, very useful, but your time is done. Look at you! You are nothing. You can't even use your powers without us."

Past and present blur; suddenly, he is divided, the man in the memory and the man reliving it. He has the odd sensation that there is another there, a golden gleam at the corner of his vision that vanishes when he tries to focus on it.

"I am learning..." he says, bewildered, wounded as his memory unravels about him.

"Learning! Like a clumsy, stupid child," she mocks.

"I love you," he says, not knowing what else can recall her.

Her laughter rattles like old bones. "And your love is as worthless as your powers."

The words knife him. He cannot cling to the memory – he flees it, terrified, flees into nightmares full of monsters because even those are better than her. He loses himself, lets the walls crumble for the first time. In the crazy meld of pain and darkness and fear, he falls forever, unable to hear himself scream above the ghastly world he has given himself up to.

X - X - X - X - X

Ariel steps from his mind, and leaves him to the madness. All night long , he hears the screams, and well-pleased with his handiwork, hums his soft lullaby.

Rushton Seraphim has broken for the first time. He is a hard man, and tomorrow, when the drugs have faded, he will be defiant again. But Ariel has seen his weakness, read his heart like prophecy, and the future is clear.

He will shatter. And Ariel will reforge him, give him no will but this: Elspeth Gordie will die.

It will be beautiful.

X - X - X - X - X

Thanks for reading. Thoughts adored!