TERRIBLE BEAUTY

Robert Burns never had any difficulty falling in love.

 

Truth be told, it didn’t take much.

 

And there stood Desdemona, gun still smoking, beside her beautiful lieutenant, favouring Robert with a cocky grin as her eyes raked over him. He had never been looked at in that way by anyone, man or woman.

 

And it turned out that she was indeed a woman. But he had already decided that it didn’t matter.

 

“Can I join you?” was the first question out of Robert’s mouth.

 

Desdemona raised an eyebrow.

 

“You’re human,” she said, “Go back to your plough, little poet. Live a long and happy life. Have many children. Get rich and famous off your work. Travel. See the world.”

 

She and Iain holstered their pistols.

 

“And forget you ever saw us, Robert Burns,” she said. She turned to Iain.

 

“Ready to go, boss?” he asked, and she nodded curtly.

 

As they walked away down the path, Desdemona looked over her shoulder and winked.

 

Robert was rooted to the spot for the moment. He knew the dangers of the Fae, of following them into the darkness, of losing years of life to the passion they inspired in men. He knew how foolish it would be to follow her in secret and that only an idiot would blatantly ignore the advice of a clearly powerful Fae creature.

 

He followed her down the path, his heart beating with the first wash of love.

 

                                              ***

 

Robert peered around the bushes, eager to see what a Fae war looked like. His excited imagination provided him with a fantastical light show, incredible displays of power, and feats of bravery, with Desdemona in the centre of it all – whatever kind of creature she might be – powerful, with a terrible beauty.

 

He did not expect what greeted his eyes.

 

Rows upon rows of makeshift cots, creatures of all shapes and descriptions laying on them, groaning or sighing. Several of these – monsters? – were missing limbs, or were screaming as another monster stitched a wound back together. In one case, a creature appeared to be having an eye sewn back into his head by a grey-blue man with the most hideous face Robert had ever seen.

 

In the midst of it all, Desdemona knelt by the side of what Robert’s limited knowledge identified as an Elf. Beautiful, his eyes stared out, glassy, as she held him down. Her fingernails grew into long talons and she pierced his neck, leaning down to drink.

 

She’s baobhan sith,” he whispered to himself, “She’s a vampire.

 

He watched in wonder, however, as she did not drink the Elf’s blood, but collected it in a pan. She leaned over and put her hand to the Elf’s forehead, staring down through those bright green eyes, and even from this distance Robert could see the anguish on her face. Shaking her head slightly, she took the blood collected in the pan and brought it to another Elf, shaking and screaming in pain, and introduced it to the gaping wound in his stomach. Light bled out from it, but the body accepted it, and the wound began to heal itself as several monsters held the Elf down in order to allow the painful healing process to begin.

 

The Elf’s stomach began to pull itself together after the offering of blood, and Desdemona stood watch as the young man wept and shrieked in agony. Her eyes never left his, and Robert remembered drowning in that endless ocean green, the first night in the pub where he had seen her and fallen. The Elf slowly quieted, hypnotised by the green in her eyes, and while his body continued to work the wound closed, the screams abated into sighs, and then languid breathing.

 

The Elf looked down. He was whole again.

 

He sighed, collapsing against the other monsters holding him down.

 

“Desdemona,” said the Elf, weary, “Thank you.

 

She nodded to him, and turned away, toward where Robert was hiding.

 

“We’re killing each other,” she muttered, “over this.”

 

He was startled to see her angrily brush at her eyes, tears dimming the preternatural green radiating there, moonlight through a stained glass window.

 

She was almost close enough to touch…

 

A hideous grey-blue face appeared in front of his and he cried out.

 

“Desdemona,” said the monster, “look what I found.”

 

                                      ***

 

“I told you not to follow us,” said Desdemona.

 

“That was very unwise,” said the ugly grey-blue creature, whose name was Gregoire, “Your penchant for these handsome young men, Desdemona –”

 

“Yes, yes,” Desdemona said, waving this away, “So I got hungry. So I wasn’t being careful.”

 

Iain stared at Robert, as he polished his gun.

 

“You want I should kill him, boss?” asked Iain.

 

“No need for theatrics, Iain,” said Desdemona.

 

Robert knelt on the ground in front of her, his head bowed.

 

Desdemona looked down at the man kneeling in the mud, his face smudged with dirt.

 

“Look at me, Robert,” she said, and he looked up into her eyes with a love so sharp and honest she nearly took a step back.

 

“Oh,” she said softly, in a voice that almost sounded like it was not her own.

 

Iain glared at him, cocking his weapon.

 

“There’s been enough bloodshed,” she said, “put the gun away, Iain.”

 

Desdemona knelt down in front of Robert, who was about to protest. He would kneel there before her forever, he knew this in his heart; this imperious queen could not be brought so low as to look into his eyes as if they were equals.

 

“Do with me what you will,” he breathed, his heart pounding, less from fear than from her proximity.

 

“Gregoire, Iain,” she said, “Leave us.”

 

“Boss…” Iain started.

 

“Iain, go,” said Desdemona.

 

Iain reluctantly stood.

 

“I’ll be right next to the first row of cots if you need me,” Iain said.

 

“I won’t tell you again,” said Desdemona. Her green eyes never left Robert’s face, searching, searching.

 

“Come on,” said Gregoire, turning the young lieutenant’s shoulder toward the camp, “she’ll be safe.”

 

“But –” Iain began. Robert didn’t hear what his protest was, as he was led away into the general cacophony of the clearing that served as the medical bay for the Fae battalion.

 

Robert dropped his gaze, staring at the ground. He felt that he would be consumed from within, by that green and strange fire, by the way his world had contracted, expanded, and fallen in upon himself, by the treachery of his poet’s heart.

 

“Look at me, Robert,” she commanded, and all he could do was obey.

 

He lifted his eyes and was caught, snake-charmed and pinned, and he knew he would do anything she asked, and if it were impossible, kill himself in the trying.

 

The pain behind her eyes was more than he could bear. His own eyes filled with tears, ready to throw himself on whatever had given her that thousand-yard stare.

 

“Go home, Robert Burns,” she said, her voice cracking.

 

They knelt there together, the young, handsome, lovestruck idiot, only newly adult, only newly human, and the war-torn battle veteran, impossibly ancient, indescribably old, pale and powerful, reflecting each other, and for once in the godforsaken history of that war, it was that awkward, brash, and human love that won out, on that strange and sad night. Desdemona had seen thousands like it, and would see thousands more. Robert had only a handful of years, and it was the first time it was to be seen that the love of Robert Burns transcended darkness, immortality, destiny, as he stared back into her and surfaced in that ocean of green.

 

“No,” he whispered, and the sound of it was loud in the clearing, even though the sick bay was near, and the war itself only over the hill, it was as if the world was hushed to hear the voice of this foolish youth, who had walked bodily into the fire so it would consume him and somehow stood within it, withstanding it, unscathed.

 

Desdemona’s natural frown deepened. She could think of nothing to say. She knew this was different. This young man was different, and she knew then and there that he would cut a vein through history so deep the entire world would sing of it one day.

 

For the time being, though, she lifted him from where he had nearly prostrated himself before her, his hands, the hands of a farmer’s son, clinging to the dirt and earth for the last time. He was reluctant to let go.

 

She offered him her hand.

 

“Then join us,” she said simply, and like everything else, Robert could deny her nothing.

 

He put his hand in hers, and relinquished the earth.

 

And Robert has never stopped falling.