The Sickbed of Cuchulain
In need of healing. Time is of the essence.
So ran the red-tagged e-mail that flashed on Holly's screen one April morning as she attempted to tackle a pile of paperwork that seemed destined to last her into the early hours of the afternoon. Thinking of that similar message last year and what it had preceded, Holly dropped the e-form she was holding. It took her approximately four and a half minutes to procure an emergency aboveground visa from Commander Trouble Kelp (a personal best) and a further two hours and thirty eight minutes to board a pod, hijack the next flare and fly to Fowl Manor, Ireland.
When she beheld Artemis Fowl sitting up in bed eating chicken soup, she very nearly introduced him to her new blaster ray.
"I have a temperature of 39 degrees Celsius, a debilitating headache and no voice to speak of," the boy croaked when Holly, dusty and bedraggled, snapped that he would be in need of healing by the time she was done with him.
"You have a cold," Holly retorted, "For Frond's sake, I thought you were dying!" She collapsed into his desk chair, massaging her eyes with her fingertips so that she missed the expression that crossed Artemis's face. It looked like something from the spaces between surprise and satisfaction.
"I can't focus well enough to write a simple thesis and I have a lecture to prepare for Edinburgh University in a week's time. Besides, it's irksome to suffer chills and headaches when one has a cure-all within easy reach," he smiled, evidently under the impression that he had paid her a compliment, and placed his empty bowl on the bedside cabinet. He was wearing a set of light blue woollen pyjamas and an indigo dressing gown with a monogrammed breast pocket. Irritation and affection mingled in Holly's breast. At least he wasn't dying.
"I'm only 'within easy reach' because I broke half a dozen protocols to get here. Why the melodrama, Artemis? And let's try some honesty, just for once."
A grimace tugged at his mouth, "I did fear that a more casual approach might impede the swiftness of your journey. I don't like being sick," he paused and she could see him weighing his next words; his cheeks, flushed from the fever, reddened a little further, "Besides, you haven't visited in a while."
Holly rolled her eyes, "Artemis, one day, just once, I would like to see you ask for something honestly, without lying or manipulating people into doing what you want. And on that day, I will do anything you ask," she got to her feet and walked to the bedside, reaching up to take his face between her hands, "Now let me see to your cold."
Her friend caught hold of her wrists, stopping her, "Ah, Holly, it is a full moon tonight, as I'm sure you are aware…"
"I am, Artemis," Holly said, giving him an enquiring look. He dropped her hands and self-consciously smoothed the coverlet over his knees.
"Were you planning on performing the ritual tonight, by any chance?"
"Not really, no," she looked at him suspiciously, "In two or three moons, perhaps—I've just been so busy lately. Why?"
"You don't feel your healing of me might be more efficient if your powers were freshly renewed? There is an oak by a riverbend not ten miles from here."
Now Holly got it, and she eyed him doubtfully, "Artemis, I make a terrible nursemaid. Reading in English gives me a headache, I can't make soup and I'm not going to murmur soothingly as I mop your fevered brow."
Artemis cleared his throat. It sounded painful, "I would not expect it of you, Captain. Just talking to me would suffice."
"You shouldn't be talking at all," Holly toyed briefly with the idea of healing Artemis now and spending the afternoon with him anyway. It had been a long time since her last visit. But she was running a tad low on magic and infections were more complicated to treat than straightforward tissue damage. Half-completed healings could take a toll on the body—Butler was testament to that. After a moment of deliberation, she settled herself on the end of his bed, "What do you want then? A story?"
She had meant it as a joke, in fact, but interest kindled in Artemis's mismatched eyes, "I haven't studied the folklore of the People in depth. Their fables could prove interesting. Please, go ahead."
"Oh," said Holly, surprised, "Well. Alright then," she thought back to her childhood and the lilting cadence of her mother's voice in the late hours of the morning. She had never been particularly interested in bedtime stories—but that was by the People's standards, and they were bards and tellers of tales by nature. So although it took her a moment to latch onto the thread of a story, her voice when she spoke was rhythmic and soft and the words rang with the weight of ages past.
"In the old time, when the world was young and the People walked still on the surface, there lived an elfin Queen that the faires called Fand. She was kind and wise, and those that saw her said that she was more beautiful than the sunset over the western ocean. The chief of her armies was Manannan that men call the Sea God, though in truth he was Commander of the Fair Ships of Eiru. Now Queen Fand and her ladies were in the habit of flying over the coast of Eiru, now called Ireland, in the morning light before they took to bed. And lest they should be separated by storms or ill luck, each linked herself to a fellow by a girdle of silver, save Fand and her sister Li Ban, who were linked by one of gold.
So one early morning the Queen and her ladies were flying when they were surprised by a young Mud Man who stood on the rocks by the water's edge and began to hurl stones at the low-flying fairies. Perhaps he believed them to be birds, for the eyes of Mud Men are weak and foolish. Or perhaps he saw the golden girdle and coveted it, for their hearts are easily moved to greed and avarice."
"Are all your tales this unflattering to humans?" Artemis asked, managing to sound scathing even in his scratchy voice, "I'm not surprised you grew up hating us if this was the propaganda you were subjected to as a child."
"I think we're more concerned with you driving us underground and slowly poisoning the planet," Holly shot back, "Do you want me to tell the story or not?" He made a 'please continue' motion and she did.
"Most of his shots went wide, but one stuck Fand in the arm and put her shoulder out of joint. She would have fallen into the surf were it not for her sister, who caught and held her until her magic could heal the unjury. Now Fand was put in such a fury at the audacity of this Mud Crawler, who would dare attack a Queen of the faires, that she broke with tradition—for the People spoke rarely to humans even then—and alighted before him with all her retinue behind her.
"I have not met with many humans," she said, "And this, it seems, is fortunate, if all your race make a habit of throwing rocks at passing fairies who have done you no harm. Tell me, child, what is your name, and how have I or my ladies offended you that you seek to drown us in your sea?"
"I am Cuchulain, nephew of the King of Ulster," said the Mud Man, "You have my apologies, Lady, for I thought you were a flock of birds and I sought to bring you down for the gold you carried. You should be wary of flying past this point in future, for I often shoot here and I could well have killed you if my arrows were not spent."
As he spoke, he gestured to his side, where a pile of dead birds lay with feathered arrows in their breasts. This sight, and the arrogant tone of his words, did nothing to cool the anger of the Queen, who had flown with the sea birds on many a morning and did not think the death of any of them worth a golden girdle. Fand, who as I have said was the kindest and wisest of the elfin Queens, yet felt her blood go hot within her at the irreverence in his tone, and she removed the binding between her sister and herself and approached him with it cradled in her hands.
"A prize, then, for your marksmanship," she said, and she struck him with the jewelled end of the girdle, on the left shoulder in payment for the injury he had dealt her, "Have no fear, we shall not come near this place again." Then Fand and her ladies took flight once more, and if ever she thought of him it was only with anger or contempt, though she might have resented him a little more for the punishment he had driven her to, for the People are not violent in their hearts."
Artemis gave a slight cough which did not quite disguise a snigger.
"What?" Holly demanded, breaking off her tale once more.
"Nothing," Artemis rubbed his upper arm, "Only that I have enough bruises here to prove just how violent your species can be…and I believe you consider me a friend. Are emotional outbursts common among all fairies, or just elves?"
"Maybe it's just you humans that drive us to distraction," she retorted, "And stop acting so hard done by. I've never whipped you, have I?"
Artemis's eyes slid out of focus. He licked his lips, opened and closed his mouth a couple of times, then shook his head mutely. Holly had the not entirely unfamiliar feeling that she was skirting the boundaries of dangerous territory and hastened to go on with the story.
"A year passed, and one night as Fand presided over her court she was informed, not without surprise, that a Mud Man had come to beg audience with her. She received him—he was a large man with the look of a warrior—and he bowed low before her and said,
"O Queen of the Fair Folk, I am Laeg, friend and servant to the Lord Cuchulain. One year ago my Lord did you grievous insult and you punished him for it, as is your right. Lady, the wound you dealt him has not healed. These many months he has been sick, unable to leave his chambers. He drinks little and cannot eat, he dreams while waking and he burns with a fire that would bake him dry."
"He must have been exaggerating," the Irish boy scoffed, all awkwardness forgotten, "It is highly unlikely that such an infection could persist for a year without resolving or ending in death. The wound must have reopened."
"Shut up or I'm leaving."
"I was under the impression I was to 'shut up'."
"Now Fand took pity on the young human and was ashamed that in her anger she had nearly brought his death upon him. So that very hour she flew to Ulster, where Cuchulain lay in his chamber with his family all about him, weeping and mourning for they thought he was close to death at last. Fand sent Laeg in before her to clear the room, for it was not done for humans to look upon the Queen of the fairies. And then she entered and came close to Cuchulain and he saw her. He was thin and wasted, but he would have risen from the bed and bowed, had Fand not stayed him.
"Lady," he said, "I lie before you humbled by my own conceit. Laeg would have you heal me, but I would ask your forgiveness instead, if you would grant it. I do not wish to die the fairies' enemy."
"You shall have forgiveness and healing both," said the Queen, and she kissed the wound upon his shoulder, which healed as though it had never been. The fever left his body and Cuchulain was well again, and a friend and champion of the People for years to come."
Holly stopped. Artemis waited, frowning. At length, he broke the silence, "Is that the end?"
"The end of that story," said Holly, "Cuchulain and the fairies had many adventures, but to tell them would take weeks. I thought this one would appeal to you," she grinned, "A Mud Man attacks a fairy and a few months later she's his personal physician."
Artemis did not smile at the joke. He looked distracted and dissatisfied and not particularly grateful for the story Holly had gone to the trouble of telling him. After an awkward silence he looked away from her, towards the window, and said, "They saw each other again then—Cuchulain and the elfin Queen?"
Something like a blush mottled the dark skin of Holly's cheeks, "So the story goes."
"Were they lovers?" Artemis asked the question as if it were of supreme unimportance, as if he couldn't care less about the answer. His eyes were still fixed on the reddening sky so he could not have seen the look of mingled surprise and embarrassment that crossed his companion's face, but he shrugged and said, as if in reply, "He was young, and she was beautiful, and she had saved his life. It's not an illogical conclusion to draw."
And not all healings are administered through a kiss, thought Holly. She discovered to her chagrin that she could not quite look at Artemis and spoke instead to his bedspread, "Maybe. I think so. Not for long."
Holly could feel the slight movement of the bed as Artemis shifted—it rocked up into her and for a moment she was unbalanced by him both physically and mentally and had to steady herself before she could speak. She licked her lips, which were dry, and endeavoured to make her voice casual, "Cuchulain had married young. His wife didn't approve of her husband dallying with another woman, especially one not even human. She came upon them one night and accused Fand of bewitching him, of making him waste his life caught between his own world and one of which he could never be a part. And Fand knew that Emer—that was his wife's name—was right, and that she and Cuchulain could not dwell together among the Mud Men or the People. So she left him, and they never met again beneath the skies of this world."
The boy was silent. Holly risked a glance at him and saw that he was biting his lower lip. She watched him release it, saw the colour return and the pale marks of his teeth vanish as the blood came. She saw him swallow, "What happened to Cuchulain?" he asked at last.
"He missed her, for a while. Then he forgot her. Human memories are short, but fairies…Fand mourned him for an age, long after he was dust and ashes and all who knew him were dead."
"Holly…" Artemis said, voice cracking on the word. His throat must have been sore. She waited, but the name was not a prequel to a statement or a question. He said it like an offer, like an answer. Holly wondered, not for the first time, if anything would be resolved by putting into words all the things that remained unsaid between them. Surely anything was better than these suffocating silences. But she did not know what you were supposed to say when you knew that the friendship someone had once offered you had changed into something deeper and sweeter and infinitely more complicated, and you did not want it. Could not want it. How did you take something so precious and cast it aside, knowing that you had to, because how could you accept love while knowing that you could not honourably return it, not without ruining yourself and the other. Fand must have felt like this, Holly thought, when she laid her palms on Cuchulain's chest and felt the beat of his heart, fragile against her palms.
If you give me your heart, she thought, I will break it. And in doing so break my own.
But aloud, into the cool evening air that filled Artemis's room with the scent of cut grass, Holly said, "It's almost moonrise," and slid off the bed.
"Yes," he said softly. The light was going and it was difficult to see his face, but his eyes shone softly in the darkness. He hesitated. Then, as if the words were torn from him, he asked, "Won't you stay?"
"I'll come back to heal you, when you're sleeping."
"I'll wait up for you."
"Don't," she felt the hurt as if it were her own, paired with the dangerous impulse to wipe the disappointment from his face, to hold him tight and…dangerous ground, "You need sleep. The healing takes better if you're well rested." And it would be infinitely easier to resume their old roles of comrades-in-arms outside of this surreal environment, with his vulnerability and her story-telling and the twilight blurring outlines and boundaries in the not-time between night and day.
"As you wish," he said, and rolled away from her, shutting his eyes and pulling the covers up to his chin. It was as close to a farewell as they were going to get under the circumstances. Holly felt a wave of intense nostalgia for the days when things between them had been easier—for the simplicity of friendship or even of uncomplicated hatred. She reached out a hand, thought better of it and walked to the window.
"Goodnight, Arty," she said, and fired up her stealth-suit.
The boy waited until he was quite sure that she was gone before he stood and walked to the window. He was still there an hour later when Butler came to check on him, shivering uncontrollably as he stared out into the still night. His bodyguard, head full of the dangers of standing by an open window with no dressing gown on a chill spring night when you already had a fever, lead his unresisting employer back to bed. He resolved to stay the night, in case Artemis had any more suicide missions planned, such as sleeping in the deep freezer in his underwear. Old he might be, but the bodyguard was fairly confident he could last a night watch without falling asleep. Having said that, his pride was not so great that he could not pretend to have dozed off around half past three in the morning, when Holly Short suddenly materialised by Artemis's bedside. Butler knew her so well by now that his brain processed her as a non-threat before his muscled could give even an involuntary tensing. He remained slumped low in his chair, watching through slitted eyes as the elf rose a metre into the air, leaned forward to push aside the collar of Artemis's nightshirt and kissed him upon his bare left shoulder. When one person's safety becomes your whole life you grow used to witnessing intimate scenes, but still Butler felt like a voyeur in those few hushed moments before Holly vanished once more and the blue sparks around Artemis's head and chest flickered into darkness. He shook from himself the sense of having intruded on something private and holy, two dominant emotions instead playing in his mind. The first was a sense of relief that Artemis would be well come morning. The second was the odd, helpless sensation of knowing that he had at last encountered a threat against which all his training was useless, against which Artemis would not want protection even if it were possible, and which could break his boy more completely than anything a commonplace murderer could devise.
A/N: So the story behind this bit of madness is—I am going back to University in three weeks and it is unlikely that while desperately trying to remember which drug does what to the human body I am going to find time to write fiction of epic proportions. One-shots, however, I can do. So here we have a fic which will probably consist of a lot of standalones that will nevertheless tell a story of sorts, mainly tracking the progression of the conundrum that is Artemis and Holly over the years. It will be updated erratically if at all and will probably sway between silliness and somewhat poetic angst depending on my mood.
As to this particular piece, I'm undecided. The aim was to do a Holly/Artemis based at the very beginning of everything. Nothing has been said, nothing has been asked, but the emotions are there, following TTP, and there's the hint of future things to come. The story Holly tells Artemis is a modified version of an Irish saga to which this fic owes its name. In my original draft she told him the story to the very end, with Cuchulain and Fand's parting and all that entailed. But I couldn't honestly see Holly deciding to tell Artemis a story about a romance between an elf and a human, so I took it right back to their beginnings. I think it's more believable that she dredged up a tale that sprang to mind because of Artemis's current situation and didn't think at that precise moment what happened to the characters five stories later. Kind of like giving someone a copy of 'Artemis Fowl' because you think the first book is funny and not because you think they'll love the epic romance of Artemis and Holly, first barely hinted at five volumes later.
Anyway. I'm babbling. Cheerio!