Death is something everyone has to do at sometime or other, but the service to the Lords of the Otherworld need not be that terrible; it offers the chance of being undead, which is rather pleasant much of the time.
It is only the living who dislike the undead, because there were only so many names to go round back then; when a person died, a living relative took on their name, sons inheriting the names of their grandfathers as not to get confused with their fathers. The dead returning meant there were now two living Mìcheils in a given family, and as the concept of a junior and senior had not caught on yet with any regularity, this kind of goings-on simply would not do.
Name envy was a worse epidemic than the undead suddenly roaming about.
The Irish did not invent death; they only refurbished it a bit.
Almost every one was expert at dying in the Early Middle Ages, because dying was generally free of charge to those who were doing it. The mourners were the ones who had to handle all the paperwork and funeral rites, which is why most people ended up spending their afterlife in the snug corner of a ditch. Ditches and the cartmen who managed them had a natural allergy to keeping records, the allergy developing when there was no money involved. Bones and bodies were such a bother, as good burials came at such a pass, but souls were well cared for and curated on the isle of Eire, ushered to the underworld by Donn.
Donn had little command over the actual dying business—people generally got on with that by themselves—but he figured that a persona’s time would be up eventually, and that time might as well be now. Death was not an attractive business: there was all the decomposition to work through, and then it took an age to accept that it was no longer attached to its vessel, and it was a dashed hard time convincing the most obdurate of souls that it was time to go.
Donn had to work through a barricade of Oi down’t wannas. Some people did not get on with his deathly appearance and tattered brown robes, but the scythe often charmed the farmers, and the white draught horse did something for women with imaginations. Donn, however, had grown tired of chasing after the runners; his horse could outrun the wind, but ushering the dead was a taxing job, and he thought it best to appoint others for the office, to give wayward souls a something to do.
They had no means of refusal, but the promise of spine whips and flaming skulls did something to excite the morbidly inclined.
Death was made more attractive by the addition of the dullahan. The bean sídhe was always by, ready to herald a new addition to the family, but she was occupied with combing her hair much of the time and only followed certain families, and so it was decided by the Powers That Were to make the ceremony more inclusive. Unlike burials and funeral rites, the sending of the dullahan was free of charge, a delightful welcoming committee sent by Donn by way of a ‘congratulations! You’ve died!’ before introducing newly deceased to the otherworld. The long march westward to Teach Duinn, the great stone doorway to the underworld, rising out of the sea and swallowed by the tide, never opening again until Samhain, was a long journey even for the dead to make, but it was made faster by the dullahan, whose skull whip licked at the heels of those who dragged their feet, whose severed head laughed at those who cried over their mortality. A few souls who had merited the office were permitted to remain as ghosts, to haunt the deserving and the lonesome, but those who were restless and got on Donn’s on nerve were reforged for service.
It made Donn happy to furnish a soul with a new purpose. It made the restless souls less so.
A dullahan never needed to wait for Samhain to leave Teach Duinn; it could gallop over the downs countless times a day, ordered by Donn to fetch the unwilling and bring them home. And so it was that Donn decided to make a new dullahan, to fashion one from bits of armour and bone he had put aside. Last year’s models were grown a bit worn, and the souls currently dying off in the world of the living needed a firmer hand to gather them. Donn thought they might benefit from a new rider coming along, and from the well of restless of souls, the God of the Dead chose one from the pit, one calculated to embody a suit of armour, ride a horse, and carry a disembodied head under its arm.
The head had belonged someone else. Donn would have chosen the skull that fit with the spirit in the armour, but he was nothing if not sensible about recycling.
Donn waved his hand over the well, and spirit issued forth unable to resist. It was fitted to its new vessel, its essence beaten into a shell of armour, its vapor fused with steel. The armour clanked to life and moved about, looking as though it wondered where it was and how it could see with no eyes– the snap of Donn’s fingers called it to attention. The armour stiffened, and the second-hand skull was put into its hands.
“Go…” breathed a voice with smoke on it.
A wisp of blue light plumed from Donn’s lips and ribboned round the skull. The skull glowed from within, the blue light beaming through the caverns where its eyes should have been. The light dimmed, and a smoke frothed around the crown of the head. The skull’s teeth chattered to life.
“Oh, Gods!” the skull cried, its hollow voice echoing inside its own head, writhing in the horror of unlife. “Why? Why am I alive?!”
“To bring the dead to me,” Donn demanded, “that I may keep them.”
The skull turned and looked up at the empty armour carrying it. “With this abominable dunce?”
The armour clinked and looked offended.
Donn summoned a fresh steed with a wave of his hand. “Yes.”
“And how long must I do this?” the skull rattled.
“Until I decide otherwise.”
The horse stopped beside its master. Its eyes simmered, it stamped and snuffed, its breath a furious bloom of hellfire. The dullahan raised a gauntlet to pat the horse’s muzzle and almost lost its fingers to a set of fanged teeth.
“Go…” Donn’s voice boomed.
He thrust a coiled whip fashioned from several spines into the dullahan’s hand, lent the skull a terrific laugh, and bid the unified monster to mount the horse and get on with the job.
The dullahan rode out from Teach Duinn, the arched jagged rock reaching out of the heaving tides, the horse galloping over the barm on a bridge of blue flame. It was a splendid example of gruesome undeath, the skull under its arm, the spine whip flagging in the wind. It had no idea where it was going, but it supposed it would know when it got there, its horse racing toward an undeclared destination. It had two minds, the one which was fused with the empty suit of armour and the other married to the skull, the two halves equally bemused, the head cackling in delirious exhilaration for absolutely no reason, and the steel suit silent with checkered diffidence. The dullahan could only assume it was sent out to wrangle a wayward soul. How they would do this, neither the skull nor the suit knew, but who their first victim would be would soon be found out.
The dead going implies the possibility of their coming back again, and the dullahan’s job was to make sure the dead went, and stayed there.
They made landfall in Cork, and the moment the horse touched ground in Eire, it posted across the landscape, racing toward a soul whose time was almost up. Spirits have no notion of time, but bodies do, and while the soul might try to escape into the ether, the body might be reasoned with.
That was what the spine whip was for.
The horse titupped across the country, its burning hooves lighting the way, the flaming prints searing the gingham of collocated farms, the armour having little idea what was going on, the skull under its arm feeling the wind whistling through its cranial hollows. It seemed gleeful, the breeze tickling the inside of breastplate and the horse making horrific whinnies and delightful clop.
The flaming skull was also smiling, but having no skin or muscles to do otherwise, this was its default setting.
A mist draped over the stars. The full moon donned its fauld of plenilunary light, and a blanket of low clouds blotted out the sky, making the countryside darker than usual. The night felt old without the moon, the dullahan carving a frigid path westward, the horse moving magnetically toward Ulaid, but the sentient armour caught a glimpse of the sea to the south and paused. It tugged the horse’s mane, and it stopped along the road, taking immediately to grazing as a habit more than a necessity, and the dullahan gloried in the view, the deep horrible oblivion, the black sea swallocking against the sand.
In the realm of the undead and having nowhere to store its memory, the dullahan suddenly forgot what it was doing. It understood the sea, but then looked down at its horse as though it had no idea why it was there.
“We’re going to frighten someone into coming back with us,” the skull tutted.
The armour had a vague memory of this.
“We ride across the land, me laughing maniacally, because I cannot do otherwise, and you waving the whip threateningly about.”
The armour clinked and gaped down at the whip in its hand. It made a kind of exhale and tried to speak without having the proper equipment. “…Nurrr?”
“For the look of it,” the skull clattered, “till we find the soul we’re supposed to collect.”
The armour had the sudden feeling they should ask for directions. It looked at the skull as though asking which way they should go.
“I haven’t the foggiest,” said the skull, trying to shrug its shoulders without having shoulders to shrug. “The horse was the one leading the way. The master only gave me the ability to laugh and berate you for being a dunnard.”
The armour’s empty bevor wilted slightly, its hinges making metallic accordion noises.
A sudden gleam below caught the dullahan’s notice. It bent down and saw what looked like a large golden brooch in the grass, its centre pin open and stuck through the ground. It was prettily worked, its penannular frame done up with garnet, its terminals fashioned into wolf heads, each pair of eyes looking away from the other. The dullahan’s first instinct was to take it up and put it on, but when it reached down for it, a strange pain shot through its arm.
“I wouldn’t touch that, if I were you,” the skull clacked.
The skull realized that it was the dullahan and tried to roll its eyes. It realized this was impossible and sulked in silence.
The brooch was curious. It looked as though it might belong to royalty; gold that fine would only be worn by a lord, but the more the dullahan was drawn to it, the more an unsettling feeling began to surmount him.
They were being watched.
Two large amber eyes winked open from behind a nearby copse trees, blazing against the moonless canvas. They fixed on the dullahan and narrowed.
The dullahan whirled round, but there were only the trees behind it; there was an enormous gap and a lack of breeze where the eyes had been.
Something neared and growled low, a giant pressing weight moving in the darkness. The ground rumbled in terror.
There was something beside the dullahan, and it spoke in a horrible. “That belongs to me.”
The dullahan straightened, too anxious to turn. A shadow from behind swallowed the ground, the road ahead vanishing under an umbral pool. Something was standing up, was lurching over its horse, was reaching down—the dullahan clapped a gauntlet over the skull’s eyes.
“Don’t blind me, you idiot!” the skull clattered.
The skull tried to blow the gauntlet away, but caught a glimpse of a colossal hand with claws reaching beneath the horse. The skull gasped, its blue flame belching from its mouth, and sat still.
The clawed hand moved away, and the brooch was gone. The long shadow receded, the horrible voice said a “THANK YOU,” and with a gust that almost knocked the dullahan down, the presence was gone, leaping into the trees and away from the road with unnatural speed.
The skull looked up at its steel counterpart. “Perhaps we should be going?”
The armour made no reply; it only bid the horse to go on and never looked back.
When death comes, it never leaves wanting, unless there is something worse waiting in the trees nearby, that something worse being a nine-foot werewolf. Few were afraid of spectres in the dark, but even spectres feared the big bad wolf.